Lessons Of Adulthood: The Art Of Non-Conformity

November 1, 2010

Re-entry is always difficult.

This is true whether you’re going back to school after a long summer vacation, going through your mail when you’ve been gone for a while or – as in my own case this morning – sitting back down to work after taking a week off to travel with my family.

Imagine my delight, then, when I opened up the International Herald Tribune and happened upon this gem. It’s an article by Alice Rawsthorn, the New York Times‘ design columnist, in which she sings the praises of grinding and brewing your own espresso over and above resorting to the dreaded pod espresso machines of Nespresso et al. (The indisputable allure of George Clooney notwithstanding, natch.)

I loved this article for so many reasons. For starters – as erstwhile readers of this blog will know – our own hand-brewed espresso machine holds a hallowed place within our home. As I said to my husband – who taught me to know and love what it is to brew your own coffee – this was an article that was – quite literally – written for him.

Rawsthorn has many reasons for taking a principled stance against automated espresso machines. They’re boring. They’re ugly. They’re environmentally questionable. (Turns out it’s really hard to recycle all those tiny sealed containers.)

But the main reason she rails against them is that they suppress variety, experimentation and – yes – inconsistency. Part of the joy of grinding your own espresso, she argues, is precisely that you never quite manage to brew the same cup of coffee twice. And therein lies the fun – and true beauty – of doing it yourself. It’s the ultimate act of personalizing your consumption.

Which brings me back to my week away from this blog. We spent the week in Berlin, one of those über – (no pun intended) – European cities. While we were there, one of the many museums we visited was the Bauhaus Archive, a museum devoted to the Bauhaus school of design.

For those of you who missed that chapter in 20th century intellectual history (I did) – the Bauhaus movement was a school of modern art and architecture that sought to fuse the gap between art and industry by sublimating “art” in the romantic sense to the exigencies of 20th century technological progress. This school of thought was urban, minimalist, and sought, above all, to privilege functionality in design (so well captured in its motto, “Form follows function.”) In many ways, it was the aesthetic movement that paved the way for mass consumption.

With its hyper-utilitarian streak, the Bauhaus movement sought to hide the messiness of artistic creation – its flourishes, its sentimentality, its “coffee grinds” if you will. And while that yielded some really cool buildings and furniture (click here for some iconic Bauhaus chairs), the overall feel was one of clear lines and uniformity of purpose, if not form. (Read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House for a particularly trenchant treatise on this point.)

Which is a long way of saying that as with architecture, so too with espresso machines:  sometimes the beauty of adulthood lies in that which is unpredictable and highly personal.

Which is also why – as I stood there grinding my highly messy-yet-original espresso this morning – I decided that today’s re-entry wouldn’t be so bad after all.

Image: Bauhaus Dessau by Mark Wathieu via Flickr under a creative commons license.

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Five Reasons Standing In Line Can Be Fun

September 6, 2010

Well, I’m back from my staycation. I wasn’t sure how I’d get on running around London with both kids for seven days straight while my husband was out-of-town on a business trip. But we had a great time.

We visited Buckingham Palace (or as my daughter calls it “Bucklingham Palace.”) We took a tour of the Houses of Parliament.  We made a special trip up to the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire to see the place where this great author did his magic. And we spent a day at the seaside out in East Anglia.

Each of those trips was a lot of fun. But in some ways, the most fun of all was the day we spent…standing in line. Yes, you heard that correctly. We spent the better part of one day just waiting in a long queue with nothing to do but wait.

The occasion was the opening of a new art store in my neighborhood. As a promotional offer, the store was giving out 50 pounds worth of free art supplies to the first 1,000 people who visited last Saturday. And all you had to do was spend 10 pounds at the store to collect the prize.

The doors opened at 10 am and we arrived at 9:50, fresh on the heels of a full English breakfast at our favorite cafe. By that time, the line to get into the store was already snaking around two full city blocks but I figured – meh – the kids don’t have a haircut until 11:00 a.m…what have we got to lose by just hanging out here for an hour and killing some time?

Four hours later, I had good reason to rethink that logic. But the truth is, we *did* have a good time. Here’s what I learned about why standing in lines – even long ones – can be fun:

1. You feel part of a community. One of the nicest parts of standing in a queue all day long in the middle of Hampstead Village was realizing just how many people I know in my neighborhood. I saw friends…neighbors…teachers…merchants. Those of us who formed part of the line saluted one another in solidarity. Those who were just passing by came up to say “hi.” It was such a lovely – an unexpected – reminder of the many different ways we all connect to our respective communities and how broad and diverse those communities are. (Hidden bonus? I have now confirmed my long-held suspicion that should I ever decide to run for mayor of this village, I’ve got it in the bag…)

2. You meet new people. Even more fun than running into old friends and acquaintances was the chance to meet new people. I stood next to a mother from an adjoining neighborhood and an administrator from her daughter’s school and chatted to them for the better part of four hours. By the end, we were already fast friends and had moved on from chit-chat about schools to lengthy discussions about our respective blogs (confirming my suspicion that everyone’s a blogger) and the perils of cell phones for your brain. When I had to say good-bye to them, I actually felt sad!

3. You rethink your surroundings. I’ve long been of the opinion that Brits just don’t get customer service. You have to chase down your waiter when you want your bill. Phone calls to customer service teams go unanswered. Brits also don’t get the whole concept of promotions – a sale here means something like 10% off on a rack of last year’s clothing. So to witness a store actually doing a proper giveaway – where you get something valuable (and four hours or not, the art supplies in that bag were truly something!) – is unheard of. And I’d never seen a line that long anywhere in London – even on the day the iPhone 4 was released! Friends tell me that there were still people there after 6 pm when the store closed. All of which made me realize that things really are changing around here.

4. You grasp group psychology. By the time we were well into the third hour of our wait, I’d forgotten what we were even waiting for. I’m sure I’m not alone. If you stand in front of a door long enough, after a while all you focus on is getting through that door. They could have handed me a toothpick by the time I made it to the front of the queue and I would have been delighted. I’m sure there’s some handy theorem in behavioral economics that can explain the psychology behind this. But there’s no question that the longer I waited, the less I cared about the loot that awaited us. I just wanted to get in.

5. You let go of schedules. This was perhaps the most valuable lesson of all. As a parent, I often have an irrational fear of down-time. I think that I need to schedule in every moment of the day lest…well, I don’t know what “lest.” I’m just driven to fill up their days, especially when my husband is out of town. But my stint standing in line that day taught me that sometimes just hanging out and doing nothing is just as much fun as tackling some major cultural outing. Which is another way of saying that sometimes you just need to throw away the outline.

Everyone who saw me in line that day keeps asking me: Was it worth it?

To which I’d have to say: yes.

Image: The line went around the block! by scary cow via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You Think Like A Man

August 18, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

A few weeks ago, I posted a link to a quiz on the BBC website called Sex ID that purported to let you know whether you think like a man or a woman. (Warning to those who have yet to take it: the quiz lasts about 20 minutes.)

If you managed to make it through this quiz, you’ll know that a lot of the tasks that they have you do boil down to whether you’re good at reading maps and judging the angle of parallel lines (more typically male traits) vs. whether you can read people’s expressions and identify with them (more typically female traits.)

I’ve since been informed via The Guardian that a new study is out showing that behavioral differences between the sexes are not, in fact the result of fundamentally different wiring in the brain, but rather the result of societal expectations.

Be that as it may (and I’m sure that this is one of those debates that will rage into eternity and beyond), I’ve been giving the whole male vs. female thing some more thought since taking that quiz, where I scored (huge sigh of relief?) as a prototypical-thinking woman. Here are some further indicators I’ve come up with that shed light on whether or not you think like a man:

1. You like reading instruction manuals. While I’m quite sympathetic to Gretchen Rubin’s admonition over on The Happiness Project to read the instruction manual, there is a distinction between doing something because you *ought* to do it and doing something because you enjoy it. I hereby submit that I absolutely hate reading instruction manuals and – as a result – have spent many a frustrated moment by either failing to consult them ex ante or failing to save them somewhere useful ex post. My husband, in contrast, has an entire file full of instruction manuals for virtually every single appliance in our house. Not only does he consult them regularly, he actually seems to enjoys it! And instruction manuals in video form are even better, as with this video on how to take apart and re-assemble my new Brompton folding bicycle. Hey, it’s your funeral, as they say…

b. You like to talk about gadgets. I’ve posted many times on this blog about my husband’s penchant for gadgetry. I don’t think that’s an inherently male trait – many of the things he’s bought for us have been hugely useful and I like them as much as he does. But there’s using them and then there’s talking about using them. And I’ve noticed lately that guys like to spend an inordinate amount of time cataloging, describing and comparing gadgets in a way that women don’t.

c. You read David Pogue’s column in the NYT religiously. Which brings us to a corollary of (b) – David Pogue’s technology column in the New York Times, Pogue’s Posts. Don’t get me wrong. If I’m in the market for a new cell phone or a digital camera, I turn to Pogue first. The guy is unbelievably knowledgable about technology and a terrific writer to boot. But as generic reading material on the order of “Here’s how I’m going to spend my breakfast?” Not so much. Whereas my husband is glued for hours.

d. You like playing strategy games. This may have actually been one of the questions on the BBC quiz; I can no longer remember. But since taking that quiz, my son and I happened to open up Othello, a game that one of his friends gave him for his birthday last year. It’s one of those deceptively simple games that actually requires an enormous amount of strategy on the part of the players. If you’re like me, you take the easy route on this game, maximize your winnings as you go, and ultimately lose. If you’re like my son or my husband, you look like you’re losing all the way along but at the very last minute you win because you’ve been thinking like 6 moves ahead the whole time. (Ditto Settlers of Catan, the greatest game of all time.)

e. You (still) like assembling Legos. Someone recently gave my husband one of those adult Lego kits. It was a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Falling Water home (see above), a painting of which is hung in our living room. I think Legos are really cool, especially this new architectural series. But, much like gadgetry, it’s something I’d rather admire than actually build. So if this had been given to me as a present, it probably would have languished somewhere in a closet, taking up space on my never-ending “should” list. Whereas my husband spent weeks with the kids building this house, which now adorns the mantle in our living room right in front of our picture. (He’s in good company, btw. Apparently, to kill time during a recent trip abroad, English football legend David Beckham confessed that he spent a night in a hotel constructing The Taj Majal.)

As I read this over, I realize that it may provide more of an insight into my marriage than it does into generic male/female brain differences. Then again, I do think that having a division of labor is key to a happy marriage, so maybe that’s a good thing!

Image: falling water lego side by happy via flickr under a Creative Commons license

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Money And Happiness in Adulthood: The Value of Experience

August 10, 2010

“It’s amazing how many things in life would be better if you just had more money,” a friend of mine once observed. She wasn’t particularly sad when she said it, or even particularly wistful. In her view, it was just another of those life lessons you pick up along the way.

I’ve given her comment a lot of thought over the years because – let’s face it – we all give in to the temptation from time to time to imagine what we’d do if a boatload of money suddenly rained down upon us. In my current life stage, I’m quite certain that I’d purchase some additional childcare to help me with the daily schlep around North London between 3 and 5 p.m. Then there’s always that second home in Southern France I’ve coveted (and maybe another one in Hawaii…hey, why not? Live large.) And as a newly card-carrying member of the biking brigade, I’d sure love some of that fancy schwag that goes with the whole cycling thing.

Despite the apparent perspicacity of my friend’s casual remark – the relationship between money and happiness isn’t quite so straightforward after all. According to an article in The New York Times over the weekend, just getting more stuff doesn’t actually make you any happier. What counts is how you spend your money.

It turns out that spending money on experience-related purchases – the article cites things like concert tickets, French lessons, and sushi-rolling classes — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff. As a scholar interviewed in the article sums it up: “It’s better to go on a vacation than to buy a new couch.”

The article goes on to say that over the past few years, consumers have been gravitating more and more towards experience-rich expenditures. Indeed, one study by Thomas DeLeire of The University of Wisconsin and Ariel Kalil of The University of Chicago showed that the only category of consumption to be positively related to happiness was leisure: vacations, entertainment, sports and equipment like golf clubs and fishing poles. (Full disclosure: DeLeire and Kalil are both former colleagues.)

While much of that shift has been driven by the global economic downturn, many analysts are predicting that these changes are likely to last. Simply put, people have discovered – albeit by circumstance – that they actually prefer their pared down, leisure-oriented purchases to the more lavish consumption patterns of yore.

Which brings us to the staycation. I wrote last week about the rise of the staycation as a lifestyle choice in advanced, industrial countries like the U.S. and the U.K. But what the Times article is suggesting is that part of the staycation’s appeal is precisely that it gibes so well with leisure- (read happiness) oriented purchases like barbeques and movies and board games that enhance the value of experience over mere acquisition. Particularly over at The Huffington Post – where I also blog – commenters noted that their choice to “staycate” (is that a verb?) was driven less by financial squeeze than it was by the fact that were actually happier just staying home and hanging out doing simple things with their families.

I once wrote a post where I asked readers where they drew the line between what counts as a luxury vs. what counts as a necessity in their daily lives. (The post was occasioned by the acquisition of a new rice cooker in our household.) I confessed that for me, at least, a New Yorker subscription constituted a necessity, even though many would probably term it a luxury. But now that I’ve read this article, I’m thinking that the reason that I continue to value The New Yorker so highly is actually that it brings me so much happiness.

So I’m curious. As you narrow your spending to focus on what counts – (if you are, in fact, doing that) – what sorts of things do you find bring you the most happiness?

Image: I.T barbeque by alliance1911 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License

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How The Target Boycott Made Me Rethink My Patriotism

August 5, 2010

When you live abroad for a long time, you tend to identify certain cultural objects that can readily anchor you with a sense of home. They are the things which – for better or for worse – come to signify “America.”

It might be a diner that serves all-day brunch. Or the blissful simplicity of a tumble dryer. Or – depending on your politics – the meteoric rise of a Mama Grizzly politician or a musician for whom the public is Gaga.

For me, that cultural touchstone has always been Target, that iconic superstore of highways and strip malls across America where you can buy everything from toothpaste to DVD players. Whenever we go back to the States, my husband and I devote an entire day to shopping at Target. We even have a running “Target list” on our computer to which we add items regularly throughout the year.

Read the rest of this article at www.PoliticsDaily.com


Image: Target Cart by joannabethpdot via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Things To Do On A Staycation

August 4, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

My family is doing a staycation this year. We’re taking a few local trips here and there. But mostly – due to assorted work deadlines and exhaustion from our recent move – we’ll be at home in London.

Apparently, we’re not alone. Here in the U.K., a combination of airline strikes and the Eurozone debt crisis have prompted many more British people to holiday at home this year. In the United States, the whole concept of staycation (a word now enshrined in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) has shifted from being a temporary outgrowth of the financial crisis to a social phenomenon that’s here to stay.

I love London, so I don’t really mind being here in the summer. Still, the longer days, warmer weather, and changes to the kids’ schedules do inspire me to do things a bit differently, if for no other reason than to shake up my own routine.

So if, like me, this is a summer when you’re going to give traveling a pass, here are some ways to mark the occasion:

1. Discover a new place. One way to make a staycation feel special is to travel somewhere new near your home. This might be a new museum, a restaurant you’ve been meaning to try or that park that’s just a bit too far to visit during the school year. At the top of my list is to take a backstage tour of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London’s oldest theatre. On their tours, a group of actors perform key events from this theatre’s rich history while you look around. I may even (gasp) do this on my own, since I don’t think any of my friends or family members quite shares my thespian enthusiasm. (Adulthood fantasy #6 is where I manage a community theatre troupe in which I also make the occasional cameo. Hey, we all need to dream…)

2. Get a new toy. Usually, we associate the novelty of a new toy with children. But it’s equally valid for adults, who also need to play. This year, my summer treat to myself is a bicycle. Because our new house is located considerably further from the kids’ schools and assorted other activities, I find that I’m often in motion between the hours of three and five on any given afternoon. And so we finally broke down and bought a bike for me on Ebay. It’s one of those funky collapsible things – (a Brompton, for those in the know) – because I’ll need to take it on the Tube and the bus with the kids. Bonus? I feel terribly hip and urban. Bonus-by-association? Guess who’s got a handy new gadget to play with?

3. Learn a new skill. “It’s like riding a bike.” The only problem with that old chestnut is that it only means something if you actually *know* how to ride a bike. In light of our staycation, my husband and I took the command decision that this was an opportune time to teach my nine year-old how to ride a bike. (I know, I know. Ridiculously late to be teaching him this life skill, especially since his six year-old sis has been bike riding for more than a year. What can I say? We’re bad parents.) But we’re on it now, and – in light of #2 – it also means that we can now go for family bike rides.

4. Tackle something on your “dreaded” to-do list. I once wrote a post entitled “Five Ways To Get On Top Of Your To Do List.” One of the strategies I recommended was to divide your to-do list in half into long-term and short-term items. The idea was to tick something off of the short list every day, and to take a step towards removing something on the long list every week. I think this strategy works very well. But it does pre-suppose that every so often, you really do take that crucial step on the dreaded (long) to-do list. In my case, I’ve had “clean rugs” on there for – oh, you really don’t want to know how long. But darn it if I didn’t pluck up my courage yesterday and call around for some estimates. (Needless to say – and like most of the “dreaded” tasks – contemplation was much worse than execution.) And now I feel so much better as a result. Up next? Wash duvet cover…

5. Read some really long books. Let’s face it. We all have a list of books on our bedside table which – tempting as they might seem – we never get around to reading because they’re just too long. And I don’t mean the medicinal ones that you feel you *ought* to read so that you’re up to speed on such and such a topic. (Eternal Message of Muhammed anyone? Oh, is that just me?) No, I mean the really good ones that entail a level of commitment that’s just beyond your comfort level during a busy week. I just finished the third volume in the highly addictive Dragon Tattoo series – The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest. Now I’m on to Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. Up next? Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. If time, there’s always Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, seriously. Don’t laugh.

What are you doing this summer around home?

*****

For those who are interested, I’m over on Politics Daily today talking about a lawsuit against the British government on the grounds of gender discrimination in its new austerity budget.

Image: Very early Brompton (number 333) by marcus_jb1973 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Grown Up Beers To Drink

July 28, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I’ve always been a beer drinker. In my youth, when quantity tended to weigh more heavily on my mind than quality, I wasn’t terribly discerning about what I drank. Budweiser…National Bohemian…Coors Light – it was all the same to me.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve come to be much pickier about what I drink. This is partly a function of my growing awareness that hangovers in adulthood aren’t nearly as much fun as they used to be. I also suffer from  migraines, and – for better or for worse – I can no longer drink anything but beer (and only one at that), unless I want to bring on a bad headache. And, let’s face it. I didn’t want to be another one of those middle-aged women drinking to excess.

But here’s the good news. Now that I’m confined to only one type of alcohol – and very limited quantities therein – I am far choosier when it comes to what kind beer I’m willing to drink.

Here are five “grown up” beers that I can recommend:

1. Kasteel Cru. This is actually a champagne beer – (not to be confused with Miller High Life, the so-called “Champagne of Beers.”) It’s made of champagne yeast that comes from malted barley. I sampled it the other night when my husband and I went out to celebrate our anniversary and we wanted to try something different. It’s got a clean, elegant taste and if you love normal champagne but it doesn’t love you, this is the beer for you. It’s also the ideal alcoholic drink for those of us who can’t decide if we’re really high-brow or low-brow in our tastes.

2. Badger Golden Glory – Admittedly, this sounds like some kind of moonshine you might get from your distant uncle’s farm in Appalachia. But it’s actually a quite refreshing premium ale subtly flavored with a hint of peach. And amazingly enough – despite the peach extract – it doesn’t come off as at all fru-fru. One of my more “manly” guy friends recommended it and I’ve been sold ever since.

3. Corona – Here’s a beer that never goes out of style. When I first began drinking it as an adult, I used to feel horribly guilty – like I’d never quite outgrown that Spring Break in Cancun during my junior year in college. (Yup, been there; done that; got the tee-shirt.) But when it’s like 100 degrees outside and you need a cool pick-me-up, there’s nothing better than a Corona with lime. Click here for easy instructions on how to put the lime into a Corona. If nothing else, you’ll score lots of “cool points” with those who’ve never seen this done before (speaking of not growing out of Spring Break…).

4. Daas Blonde – I love Belgian beer. But this one – which I was recently introduced to via my organic grocer – is a real gem. It’s a premium organic Belgian beer that uses fresh Wallonian spring water, organic wheat and barley and is certified organic by the Belgian and UK Soil associations. Because, really. If you’re going to consume all those calories, you need to know that it’s also good for the planet. But, seriously folks. Delicious.

5. Beer Ice Cream. OK, I haven’t actually tried this one yet. I only learned about it last week when my colleague Joann Weiner talked about it on her post about the unusually relaxing week she spent in Washington, DC and beer ice cream made a cameo. I’ve subsequently learned that beer ice cream has been around the U.K. for seven years now. I’m terribly excited to try it. As someone who loves ice cream *and* beer, I don’t think I’ve been this excited about a twofer since they invented the Fluffernutter sandwich!

Image: Hefe Weizen (Wheat Beer) from DOS82 via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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