A New Year’s resolution…in one word

With the new year comes the inevitable and universal encouragement to set resolutions. Magazines and blogs are rife with advice on defining and keeping resolutions.

I’m continually in self-betterment mode. There are countless ways I want to be a stronger, healthier, more organized person. I’m easily seduced by exercise programs and cleanse diet plans and lists and lists.

My husband scorns New Year’s resolutions, so every year I enjoy asking him if he plans to make any, just to get the predictable response of derision. When I asked my ten year olds if they planned to make any New Year’s resolutions, they were puzzled.  “What does that mean?”  I explained about setting goals at the start of a new year to become the person you want to be in mind and/or body. “So,” I asked again, “are you making any?” “No!” they replied in unison, looking at me the same way they would, I imagine, if I’d asked if they’d ridden a unicorn to school.

At what age, I wondered, do we transition from complete self-acceptance to wanting to improve in so many ways that we have an entire list of resolutions?

image source: thedoghousediaries.com

I asked my 18 year old daughter the same question, and she also had no plans to make resolutions. Why should she?  I’ve observed her living the change she wants to be (to rephrase a popular expression). She makes exercise a priority, she eats consciously, she stays focused on her academic goals.

In recent years, I’ve noticed a trend, at least among bloggers, toward identifying a word for the year. The idea is that a single word can encapsulate what you hope most for yourself in the new year. I’ve not paid too much attention to this practice, dismissing it as trendy or something more relevant for people far more creative than me to use as a focal point for their craft.

But this year, while contemplating whether I would make any New Year’s resolutions at all, a single word came to me – LISTEN. I realized that in my multiple personality life of mother, wife, employee, manager, friend, daughter, sister, etc. I do not listen as often as I could. My younger daughters have surrounded their beds with Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books, but I’ve not asked them exactly which one they’re reading and what they think of it. When one of them talks to me I continually interrupt them to dispense instructions to the other – “go brush your teeth”, “finish your milk”. When I ask my oldest daughter about her life she so often says “You already asked me that.” I did? What was the answer?

LISTEN as a practice for 2014 conveys so much. It means stop multi-tasking. Stop making dinner and look my child in the eye when she’s relaying a story about an incident at school. Stop scanning Pinterest while I’m talking with someone on the phone. Do not answer email when I’m on a conference call at work. When I ask someone a question, really listen to the answer.

I think I’m going to like this new approach.  For one thing, by focusing on a single word I really can’t screw up. My old-style resolutions were so black and white. Succeed or fail. Lose 10 pounds or you’re a loser. Exercise 5 days a week or you don’t have the will to make one simple change.

An aspirational word is encouragement; there’s no measurement.  It’s a gentle reminder.  It’s a whisper in the back of my mind before I respond “Tell me about it.” when my child says “We had an assembly at school today.”  I can only get better.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

- Ernest Hemingway

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Angels, we have heard on high

When I was a kid, my parents had several Simon and Garfunkel albums that my sisters and I would listen to endlessly. So many of the songs felt melancholy, and one, in particular, haunted me even though I was only 8 or 9 years old.

“7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” is a beautiful version of the Christmas carol Silent Night, overlaid with a news broadcast from a single day in 1966. As the song progresses, the news begins to overtake the carol, and I remember being horrified hearing that several nurses were stabbed and strangled in their apartment, and that the U.S. would be at war for several more years.

The juxtaposition of the magical beauty of Christmas, to my 8 year old self, with the horrors of the outside world made a deep impression on me.  This might be one of the reasons why, even now, I can’t listen to Silent Night without crying.

Today was the children’s Christmas pageant at our church.  The children had several rehearsals this week – each the noisy jumble any event with two dozen children is. I’ve sat through enough play/pageant/talent show rehearsals to know that as chaotic as even the dress rehearsal can be, it all comes together beautifully for the performance.

The church was abuzz this morning with excitement, not only that of the children, but of their parents, friends, and extended family as we filed in and took our seats.  The minister began the service by announcing that we would have a moment of silent reflection in remembrance of last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, with a ringing of bells, one for each soul that was lost one year ago.

I sat in the pew with my angel Gabriel on my right and my lead shepherd on my left, tears streaming down my face.  Twenty six is a lot of bells.  I cried for the parents who were about to go through a second Christmas without their beloved children. I cried for the family of the beautiful girl in Denver who was shot this week by a classmate and remains in critical condition. And I thought about the birthday party my daughters would be attending in the afternoon.  A laser tag party.

Now, in our family the use of toy guns is non-negotiable.  My husband served for several years as a police officer, and he is adamant that our children never, ever think of guns as toys. Our daughters have never had water pistols.  We don’t allow them to play violent video games. We are less concerned about their watching a movie with suggestions of sexuality than one with gratuitous violence. When we lived in the Pacific Northwest over two decades  ago, one of my husband’s fellow officers almost drew his weapon on a teen boy who had a toy gun.  This year in Northern California, sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a teen with a toy gun.

So when our ten year olds received an invitation to a friend’s laser tag party, I felt very conflicted. I wanted them to be able to help their friend celebrate her special day.  I didn’t want them to miss out on a social activity that all of their other friends were attending.  I didn’t want to imply judgement on other people’s parenting by my disapproval of their party venue. But I felt uncomfortable with the idea of laser tag.  The laser tag facility is very clever in their marketing, describing the activity as “combining the classic games of hide-and-seek and tag with a high tech twist.”  But the reality is that my girls would be running around “armed” with some sort of device by which they would “shoot” their friends. I sought the advice of my sister and of my oldest daughter who said, “mom, you’re over-thinking it.” My husband, too, was surprisingly ambivalent.

This parenting business is challenging. And we certainly don’t claim to be perfect at it. It was so easy when they were little. As they get older, we just do the best we can, knowing we’re making mistakes along the way.  Sometimes the answer is crystal clear, and other times it is not. As we told our oldest daughter when she was in middle school and introducing us to all kinds of new parenting decisions, “sometimes we’ll say yes when we should have said no, and sometimes we’ll say no when we should have said yes, we’re just trying to figure this out as we go along.”  The younger kids are at a laser tag birthday party today, and I still don’t know if we said yes when we should have said no.

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Harry Potter party time

Hedwig the owl

Last Thanksgiving I started reading the Harry Potter series to my younger girls.  They immediately fell in love with the characters and stories, and we soon began to collect an assortment of Harry Potter paraphernalia – robes, wands, LEGOs, chess sets, stuffed owls….

So it was no surprise to me that they wanted a Harry Potter theme for their 10th birthday party.

The girls immediately started making lists of Potter-themed food and games.  They started making House banners.

I, of course, went to Pinterest for inspiration. Naturally, we were not the first family to plan a Harry Potter party, and I shamelessly borrowed some fantastic ideas. A stroll down every aisle at Michaels, and finding a few items on sale, further stimulated our imaginations.

The week before the party, the girls and I made a dozen golden snitches.  Inspired by SpicyPinecone, we wrapped ping pong ball-shaped styrofoam balls with gold foil (meant to wrap candies), poked holes in the sides with a toothpick, and inserted white feathers dipped in Elmer’s glue.

It worked beautifully!

golden snitch

I decided that their party agenda would follow a first day at Hogwarts Academy.  Using colored game pieces and a baseball cap, we started with Sorting.  The Houses would then collaborate and compete in classes later.

Next up, school photos. The girls were inviting friends from different parts of their lives – school, after-care, swim team, Girl Scout camp – and sometimes children who don’t know each other need a little help to feel comfortable at a party.  Fun-Filled Flicks had a great idea for a Harry Potter photo booth, so we kicked the party off with a photo shoot. The children had a lot of fun passing around props and giggling at each other!

I took it one step further and made a sign on both sides.  The kids loved making expressions to match their character!

Because the party started in the evening, we went right to the feast in the Great Hall.

My daughters decided on the kid-friendly menu items, named each food, and hand-wrote the identifying cards. Droobles (chicken nuggets), Pixie Flats (quesadillas), Grindyroots (carrot sticks), and Moon Crescents (apple slices) were on the menu along with Elixir of Life (water), Pumpkin Juice (mango smoothie), and Felix Felicis (sparkling apple cider) to drink.

party food

At the dinner table, each child found a copy of the Hogwarts Lesson Book.  I got this fantastic idea from My Harry Potter Party who threw the Harry Potter party to end all Harry Potter parties and documented every step of it.  I had so much fun putting together this book, and although it was a bit of a time-consuming project, during a week in which I had a major product launch at work, I was completely rewarded by the kids’ enthusiasm when they found the books.

hogwarts lesson book

After the feast, the children attended History of Magic class, where I gave them a short test based on Harry Potter trivia.  Because the party-goers had not all read the entire set of Harry Potter books, I had to be careful that the quiz didn’t contain any spoilers. The Harry Potter Wiki was a great source of information for the Lesson Books as well as the trivia quiz.

The next class was Care of Magical Creatures.  One of my daughters came up with the idea of Pin the Tail Feather on Buckbeak. She drew the bird on a piece of newsprint and cut and colored tail feathers.  I wrapped a Gryffindor scarf around each child’s eyes, spun them around a few times, and pointed them to the wall.

buckbeak

My husband was a champion!  Not only did he gamely heat up the hot glue gun to create personalized wands (pieces of bamboo reed with glow sticks glued inside) but he led an impromptu game of Quidditch in our front yard in the dark!

quidditch

The piece de resistance was Potions class.  I placed ingredients in various bottles and jars, labeled them, and instructed the children that while any of the individual ingredients were edible, I wasn’t quite sure that combinations they concocted wouldn’t be poisonous or have other deleterious effects.  Our potions ingredients were swamp water (neon green Gatorade), Boomslang skin (tea leaves soaking in water), daisy root (masa flour), Gillyweed (cilantro in water), Pufferfish eyes (cocktail onions), Floo powder (colored sugar), beetle eyes (black peppercorns), and Ashwinder eggs (dried lentils).

potions

The children were totally engaged mixing potions and tasting theirs and each others.  Every once in a while a child would come running into the kitchen to rinse his or her mouth out with cold water! Amazingly, every child sampled potions. And the mortar and pestle that I dug out of our spice cabinet was a huge hit!

We capped off the evening with cupcakes and Butterbeer (they loved the idea but not so much the taste).

One of the wonderful things about children is that you don’t have to be perfect. They’re not critical, they just want to have fun.  I couldn’t completely transform my house into Hogwarts, but with some simple decorations and props, and some fun games, and their enthusiasm and imagination, the party was a success!

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My work is done here

This morning I got up early to make my daughters’ lunches, as usual.  Except that it wasn’t as usual.  When my oldest came downstairs I said to her “This is the last school lunch I’m ever going to make you.” She shrugged and packed up her bag.

Tomorrow she graduates from high school, and her dad and I have spent the entire year trying to get our heads around that fact.  I may forget many things, but I remember so clearly the sunny October day in 1995 when she was born – that was when I became a believer in love at first sight.  I remember sitting proudly on a preschool chair on the last day of her kindergarten year as she walked over the Playskool bridge and received her certificate of completion – ready to start elementary school in the fall, my big girl. I remember our trying to teach her to ride a bike – one walking on each side of her, issuing constant encouragement as she wobbled around the block screaming like Lucy Ricardo the entire way.

And then there was the tumble of adolescence and so many firsts toward independence – walking to school, sleeping away from home, flying alone, getting her driver’s license, spending a week or more across the country without phone or email communication, getting a job, applying to college. We learned to trust and to relinquish control. She proved herself trustworthy and responsible.

In exactly 80 days she will move out of our house to attend college in another state.

We encouraged this.  Trying something new and fully exerting her independence is exactly what we’d hoped for her, and she’s given us every indication she’s ready. I’m so excited for all that’s ahead of her.

But then I’m driving to work and a song like this one comes on the radio and I can’t contain my tears, because this exhilarating new beginning for her is an ending for us. It’s the end of parenting as we know it.

It seems that as parents we are under the illusion that as long as our children go to bed under our roof they’re safe because we’re taking care of them. We know where they are at just about every moment of the day and that they’ll be returning to the nest at night. We know without their saying a word when they’re angry with their friends or worried about a test or excited for an upcoming dance or under pressure to deliver a physics project. And although our parenting role has evolved over the past years, we are still needed as coach and advocate.  We still have so much wisdom to impart! (Or so we believe.)

In addition to the sense of impending loss, I’m feeling a bit of panic. She’s leaving in 80 days and I haven’t taught her everything she needs to know to survive the big bad world! What if I forgot something important? Does she know how to keep herself safe? How to handle a professional failure? How to choose a good man? The mother of that kindergarten child wants to keep her with me a little bit longer.  The mother of this 17 year old woman says “those now are the lessons she has to learn on her own.”

I’m also finally fully aware, at 51 years old, of how I abandoned my own parents.  I too moved out of state to attend college, never to live at home again, not even during summer break.  My phone calls home have become even less frequent over the years and what I’m willing to share more meager, not due to malicious intent but solely as a result of my inability to fully comprehend a parent’s love and interest. If my daughter abandons me in this same way my heart will break.

Such complex feelings having a child on the verge of adulthood and independence inspires.  But above all my fear and sadness and regret is unmitigated enthusiasm for her.  I know, because I was there once, that the very best of life is ahead of her.  She’ll learn and laugh and love.  She’ll have her heart broken. She’ll discover how strong and capable and resilient she is.

Tomorrow I’ll sit proudly on a football field in a folding chair, next to my mother and father, my hand tightly clasped in my husband’s, watching our daughter walk across the stage in a red cap and gown.  I may shed some tears for myself, but I’ll be smiling hugely for her.

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Business travel: the perks with no kids?

For the last several weeks my job has been particularly demanding.  I took on two very high profile projects in preparation for my company’s biggest customer event and, as a result, have been working long, long hours. I’ve been getting up before 6am to attend conference calls and staying on the computer until midnight. My family has, without complaint, paid the price. The laundry piled up, we ate more take-out, I was snappish with my husband and children, I didn’t read a bedtime chapter of Harry Potter to my girls for a month.

So naturally, I was a little defensive when, just a couple of days before my trip, I ran into a mom I know.  As we stood on the sidewalk making small talk she said “you’ve been traveling a lot for work.” “Yes,” I replied, “and I’m leaving again on Sunday.” “At least you get to be without kids,” she said brightly. Not really seeing this as a plus, I said “we work very hard when we’re there.” “Yes, but no kids!”

I’ll admit that business travel is a vacation from the day-to-day home chores that are so tedious and always must be done at the end of a very long day. But being away from my children is really not a welcome treat. Yes, I get to do some grown-up things like eat in nice restaurants and go to parties, but these are work functions, not dates.

This is what a week with no kids looks like…

SUNDAY: My family dropped me off at the airport in the early afternoon.  My flight was delayed so I had a snack from a terminal restaurant and did some window shopping at Hudson News. Upon landing I checked into my beautiful hotel room, but since I arrived later than planned, I barely had time to take a very quick shower and change clothes to meet my colleagues for a departmental dinner. While walking over to the restaurant I checked email and saw that my husband had sent pictures of his afternoon spent bike riding and climbing trees with our daughters.

MONDAY: I set my alarm to get up early to work out in the hotel’s fitness center.  I can never find time to exercise at home, nor do I have access to such nice facilities, so this was a treat.  While I was getting dressed, my husband texted me a short video.  One of our younger daughters had been selected to read a short essay on the lifeskill of courage over the PA system.  Through the wonder of technology, I was able to watch her speech just moments after she delivered it, but I wasn’t there to hug her and tell her “great job!”

TUESDAY: My husband texted me first thing in the morning, “child throwing up.” He didn’t have the ability to stay home with her and I obviously wasn’t there to share the responsibility, so he brought her to work with him. I got to put in a good 10 hour work day without any parental responsibilities.

WEDNESDAY: In the afternoon while working the noisy show floor, I received a phone call from my teenage daughter who was in tears because she’d done poorly on an important test.  I stood behind a pillar, seeking quiet, with my finger in my other ear while calmly trying to reassure her that her college acceptance wasn’t in jeopardy.  My arms ached to hold her but I reluctantly hung up, telling her I’d call again later that evening.  I never did, of course, because I had three evening functions including a private Bruno Mars concert.  Of course I texted photos and videos from the concert to my children.

THURSDAY: After several hours of dead time – that’s the time spent traveling: standing in security and boarding lines, waiting for a delayed flight, waiting on the tarmac for a gate to open up, waiting for luggage – I arrived home. I reveled in their happy faces and tight hugs, promising “mommy is not going to do any work tonight, we’re going to read Harry Potter!”

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Luck o’ the Irish

I don’t know where it comes from, but my two younger daughters have imaginations and creativity that astound me.

They’ve been chattering all week about St. Patrick’s Day. “I don’t know why people aren’t excited about St. Patrick’s Day,” one told me early in the week.  “Honey, it’s really not that big a holiday,” I responded, and she looked at me with exasperation. Clearly I just didn’t get it.

On Saturday, the girls decided to make leprechaun traps.  We were having an easy weekend free of our usual obligations, so I helped them find green paper and fabric and gold stars and glue.  I donated a couple of shoe boxes to the cause.

The girls worked diligently for over two hours, creating what can only be described as cozy leprechaun homes.

One contained a pillow-topped bed and tiny pictures on the wall. A personal note said “I put a lot of work into this house.” The other provided a leprechaun snack (a small piece of bread, cheese, and a sliver of chocolate) as well as a pencil point and paper with instructions for the leprechaun to write his name and draw a picture of himself.

A friend of mine stopped by in the midst of construction and asked the girls why they were making leprechaun traps.  “To see if we can catch one,” they replied.  There was a lot of conversation about what leprechauns were like – they’re apparently tiny, always men, and not very nice.  “Little devils,” is how one described them.

Both girls went to bed dressed in green, so they wouldn’t get pinched by naughty leprechauns during the night.

Now what? Leprechaun traps were not a part of my childhood, so I’m not sure of their purpose.  Were the leprechauns supposed to leave surprises? Or play naughty tricks?  Was I obligated to create tiny green leprechaun footprints?

(I’d already bought the requisite box of Lucky Charms, stashed in my car under a towel for the past two days, that would appear at the breakfast table.  A few years ago, we’d bought a box of Lucky Charms for a treat for the girls on St. Patrick’s Day.  When they spotted the box, they were firmly convinced leprechauns had delivered it – their parents had never bought them breakfast cereal with 10 grams of sugar per serving!  And every year since they’ve made it clear they expected a box of Lucky Charms would magically appear on St. Patrick’s Day morning.)

Then I remembered the bag of gold-wrapped chocolate coins I’d bought in December.  I’d planned to drop the coins into their stockings, but then forgot about them as I did several of the Christmas gifts I purchased too early.  It took me a few minutes of digging through dresser drawers before I found the stash – I’d definitely hidden them well!

We heard the girls run downstairs this morning and discover the gold coins and Lucky Charms.  They burst into our bedroom to tell us the leprechaun’s name was Patrick (clearly the mother is not as imaginative as the children) and show us the a funny picture he’d drawn of himself.  One child was disappointed that Patrick hadn’t eaten the snack she’d left for him, the other surprised that he took her note but didn’t leave one in return. They wondered why he had not taken the gold bells they’d left for him.

My husband and I laid in bed, smiling and holding hands, while we listened to them eat several bowls of cereal and discuss the leprechaun visit. This is how new family traditions are born.

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Why I embrace a blended work environment

Not much makes me angrier than hearing that remote workers are not as productive or effective as those who go to the office every day.

I’ve been a part-time remote worker since 2000 when my then employer, in the midst of the dot com bubble, realized they could not continue buying expensive Silicon Valley office space to house their growing employee population and their ability to attract talent was hampered by commuting time in the congested Bay Area.

My company rolled out a carefully planned “flex worker” program and enticed early adopters with a company-paid cell phone, free wheeled briefcase, and reserveable “drop-in” offices located in prime location – along the windows. Curious about this new way of working, I was one of the first to sign up. Acceptance into the program was contingent upon completion of a short course in how to work – and most important how to collaborate – from home.

In the ensuing 12 years, and at two companies, I’ve worked remotely anywhere from 20-100% of the time. I’ve always been recognized as a top performer and, as I wrote a couple of years ago, I make a concerted effort to stay visible. Currently, I work 3,000 miles from company headquarters and from most of the people I interact with – both on my peer team and cross-functionally. Some days I work at my kitchen table and other days I drive for over an hour in heavy traffic to sit in a cubicle at the local office, but either way my location is transparent to my manager and colleagues. Several times a year I visit the corporate offices and sit among my team.

Working remotely, just as working in the office, has advantages and disadvantages. Putting the issues of work/life balance and flexibility aside, it’s my experience that a blend of remote and office work is ideal for “knowledge workers” like me and the folks at Yahoo!. For large technology companies like ours, it’s simply inevitable as our workforce is globally distributed. A sub-team that I’m a part of right now consists of me in California, a colleague in North Carolina, and another in New Zealand. There is no way we will be having hallway conversations!

When I’m working remotely, I have more control over my time. My colleagues and I use conference calls, online meeting tools, instant messaging, and email to collaborate. But I also have long periods of uninterrupted time to make progress on my projects. I’m not slowed down by the drop-in visitor who won’t leave or the cube neighbor who listens to his conference calls on speakerphone. No, I don’t have productive impromptu hallway conversations, but I also don’t get waylaid on a trip to refill my coffee mug.

Working in the office is productive in a different sort of way. It can be very energizing to sit among my colleagues, and when we eat lunch together it’s convenient to seek their advice on situations where I might not bother them otherwise. I acknowledge that having a face-to-face connection goes a long way toward building a relationship, and my presence confirms that I’m as committed to our team’s success as they are. But at the same time the day quickly slips away with lots of personal interaction and little time for quiet work.

Apparently a significant number of Yahoo! employees who work remotely are unproductive, maybe even hiding. By requiring every employee to work in an office, Yahoo! intends to enforce accountability. Perhaps even lazy remote workers will quit rather than report at the office. Honestly, I consider this a management fail on all accounts.

Putting aside the fact that Marissa Mayer is a woman and a mom, or that I’m a woman and a mom, it appears that not only did she make a confounding business decision but she didn’t market it well to already demoralized employees.

Is this, as some speculate, a way to reduce headcount without doing a layoff? I think we all know that employees who leave of their own accord are usually the A players, the ones who are being actively recruited and will quickly find new employment. The very unproductive, those who are hiding, will suck it up and continue to do mediocre work, all while poisoning the environment with their unhappiness. I’ve worked in this environment before. They need to be actively managed out.

Just three things are required to allow remote workers to be successful:

  1. The right technology/tools
  2. Commitment to the company’s success
  3. Accountability

I would expect that as a technology company, Yahoo!’s employees have leading edge collaboration tools. I think the crux of Yahoo!’s problems start at the top. Has the leadership created a compelling vision and strategy and communicated this effectively so that the employees believe they can contribute to success? Are middle managers managing effectively and holding their teams, in corporate offices and remote, accountable?

I truly want to see Yahoo! succeed. I want to see a young, high profile female CEO turn around an ailing company, and I dearly hope Yahoo!’s 11,000 employees will stay employed. Marissa Mayer made a big, bold move last week in the face of great criticism and I applaud that. I just think it was the wrong move.

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