Monday, June 29, 2009

Family is messy


It's the stuff of countless TV shows, just as many movies, and fodder for some of the funniest stand-up comedy acts I've heard. It's the other "f" word.

After recently spending a day with my own, and then collapsing in a pile on the couch after their departure -- and this was for a kid's birthday party -- I wondered how it is that these people I call my family can take so much out of me.

"I don't feel this exhausted after spending the day with friends," I thought to myself, kind of horrified at my feelings, and totally perplexed.

"Why was that so hard?" I kept trying to figure out.

After having friends over my house, I usually feel just fine, having had lots of laughs most times, lots of merriment, etc.

So why, then, after hosting my family, is the feeling I'm left with so different? After all, wasn't my family my first real group of friends, so to speak? Shouldn't things be easiest, most comfortable with them?

"Is something wrong with me that I just found it so tiring to be with my family? Is my family that dysfunctional? Is it just me? Do we just not spend enough time together ...?"

But no. I don't spend a ton of time with my friends, either, but whenever we have a planned or even impromptu get-together, it's just so much easier.

And then, as usual, it hit me. The classic perfectionist issue: For perfection-seekers, family is a constant, losing battle. It'll never be perfect. Not in the clean, tidy sense of the word, anyway.

Family is totally imperfect, because as much as it defines who we are, it also defines exactly who we're not. We may be related and have so much that makes us alike, but that doesn't mean we're the same. And that can equal wrinkled and messy.

Despite our best individual attempts to be who we want to be, sometimes family can fly in the face of that, and we'll look at them and wonder, "What the *&%#?"

The very fact that no matter what, they're a part of us, can be endlessly frustrating when you can't for the life of you figure out where they're coming from.

While we can accept the imperfections of our friends because we're probably thinking, if we even notice, "What's it got to do with me?" the imperfections of our family are just too close to home to ignore, aren't they?

For some of us, maybe it's because their imperfections remind of us our own, and that annoys us on a level we're probably not even aware of.

Or maybe it's because were so closely entwined just by the blood running through our veins -- or our shared history, or even our lack of shared history, as the case may be -- that what our family does just cuts deep, holding some kind of meaning for or reflection on ourselves, whether we like it or care to admit it or not.

Sometimes with the fam, the little things don’t just roll off our backs the way they could with a friend. Families are tied together whether we like it or not, whether one of us is being awesome or horrible, funny or annoying, kind or mean. And unless we plan to ditch the family, we just have to deal with it.

Of course, we can address the things that bother us with the offending family members, perhaps even with greater ease than we could with a friend. But this -- for the reasons it bothers us in the first place -- can be even more exhausting, and begs the question, "Is it even worth it?"

Friends can be pains, too, don't get me wrong. But family is supposed to be our place of safety, of security. At least, in a perfect world it would be that way.

But as long as perfect to the perfectionist -- or the over-achiever or the Type A personality, whatever you want to call it -- means neat and orderly and tidy, family will inevitably be exhausting.

If we take a step back, though, and realize that all the years of love, arguments, joys and sorrows could never be orderly, this new perspective might make the imperfect thing we call family just a little bit easier to deal with.

So the next time I find myself wondering, "Where did these people come from?" I'll try to remember this:

"My family is a wrinkled, imperfect mess. They may exhaust me -- and I them -- but they're my family, and they make me, me. The good parts and the bad."

Monday, June 22, 2009

What I learned from Liv Tyler

People who know me will probably roll their eyes when they read this, but I'm going to say it anyway: I may not have a perfect stomach, but thank God I have skinny ankles!

I stole that from actress/model/Steven Tyler's daughter Liv Tyler, actually. It's a quote of hers I read recently, and it hit home in a way that made me realize, "Wow, what a good way to think."

It may seem obvious that it's always better to look at the positive. For a person with perfectionist tendencies, though, it's not really part of the deal. For a perfectionist, there's always something that can be improved, something that could be better.

The actual quote, from Britain's "The Sunday Times Style" magazine, is, "All you can do really is try your best and accept yourself. I'll always have a more round stomach, but thank God I have thin ankles."

Reading this quote somehow, for the first time, really made me realize, "Hmm. I guess some things just really can't be controlled."

If a superstar with endless resources realizes she can't have a perfect stomach -- or whatever else it may be -- maybe it's time I accept this, too, I thought.

I'm pretty sure all of us are unhappy with at least one thing -- and in most cases, for women at least, a few different things -- about our appearances. Mine has always been the stomach area. It's just the one thing I've always focused on, staring at it, prodding at it, checking it out from different angles, different positions, both seated and lying down. It's the first and, well, last, measure of how good I'm keeping up with myself. And with my genes -- where six-pack abs are just not in the cards -- checking it out more often results in a, "Ugh," as opposed to a, "Wow, way to go!"

Now the eyes are really rolling, I know. I know this because I realize I'm in pretty good shape. I exercise most days and eat a pretty healthy diet. I'm petite and by no means am unhappy with my figure. But, that's kinda the point.

No matter who we are or what we look like, many of us still focus on the things we think are crappy -- or imperfect -- about ourselves, and use that as a measure of the whole package. (For perfectionists, unfortunately, this female tendency is magnified even more.)

But Liv Tyler doesn't measure herself by the imperfect (or at least she didn't the day she gave that quote). Instead, she said something pretty profound for all of us body-part haters out there: Focus on the good stuff, damn it!

This idea of focusing on the good is an age-old motto, but somehow, I've never really heard it applied to body image stuff. Or maybe I just never listened.

I found myself stopping after reading that quote and thinking, "Wow, I don't have a perfect stomach either, but darn it, I do have nice ankles!"

Some people don't like their ankles. Some people don't like their knees, or their legs in general. But maybe those people get boatloads of compliments on their beautiful skin, gorgeous hair, stunning face. Do they focus on those nice things, though? If they're perfectionists -- and in most cases, if they're women -- probably not.

So, I just want to say, "Thank you, Liv Tyler. I think you're gorgeous. And I'm appreciating my ankles now, thanks to you."

Of course, the belly checks still take place ... I don't know if those will ever end. But I do have another little voice in my head now, running after the less-forgiving one, and it's saying, "Hey, stop being so mean to yourself. Maybe you don't have perfect abs, but check out those ankles!"

Monday, June 15, 2009

I never thought past 28

I've been freaking out lately about my life.

It seems that ever since my 25th birthday, I never really fully embraced my new number -- or age, to be more specific. Not that 26 or now, 28, is old. Of course I know that. But, for some reason, I think I've failed to really know my age since my mid-20's. 

Let's see, how can I explain this?

For my whole life, my age was something I could just announce without thinking. I just knew it. I couldn't imagine not knowing it. Then, when I was buying some very girly malt beverages recently and the store owner looked at my ID and then asked me how old I was -- I couldn't answer. I literally hesitated, said 27, quickly thought of what year it was, and then said, "Oops! I mean 28. I'm 28. I can't believe I didn't remember that!" Followed by some nervous laughter and avoidance of eye contact. 

Um, who's nervous buying liquor at the age of 28? Someone who suddenly realizes she doesn't even know her own age so who knows what else could happen, that's who.

I left the store unscathed -- other than the disapproving look I got from the store owner who was probably hoping he wouldn't get busted for selling liquor to a girl who didn't even know the age on the "ID" she was using -- and I went on with my life. A little weirded out, but I didn't give it much more thought.

A month later, on a summer-like spring day, I started thinking about my age again. More specifically, I found myself thinking, "Oh my god. I'm only a year-and-a-half away from turning 30!"

This threw me into a different kind of age-related tizzy. This one was more focused on the question, "What the hell have I been doing for these last few years and how am I going to make up for all this lost time before I turn 30?!"

For days and weeks after, I found my brain landing on this topic a lot, wondering how I was going to accomplish all of these goals I'd thought I'd accomplish by the time I was 30. (Other than the fact that 30 is just a milestone age, it's also the number I always used to avoid thinking too much about when I'll have kids.)

"Oh, I'll start thinking about that when I'm 30," was what I'd been telling myself and most others who'd asked.

And now -- awesome! -- it's practically here!

With a year-and-a-half to go, you'd think I'd have jumped right on that big to-do list of "accomplishments" I had running, right? But instead, I just kept freaking out. Looking back, I was like a dog chasing it's tail. I'd think about this looming milestone, have a brain freak-out, forget about it a little, then think of it again and freak out again. This cycle continued for weeks.

And then something hit me one day. 

I never thought past 28.

At first, this realization seemed absurd. I'd think, "Of course I've thought past 28, and I imagined myself ... " Blank. It was blank. I really hadn't thought past 28. This is not to say I'm one of those people who never thought I'd make it to a certain age -- I've actually always imagined I'd live well into my 90's, for some reason. But what I'm saying is that I never really pictured myself in my life past this age.

There were things I'd pictured I would have done by now -- age 28 -- like meet my future husband (check), have a job I could be proud of (check), visit lots of cool places (check-ish ... don't want that one to be "done" per se). But there are other things I definitely want to do and accomplish, but I guess I just never really pictured myself doing those things the way I'd always pictured myself at this age.

I think it always just seemed so far off, like a version of me I couldn't really relate to. At least for me, when I was younger and in school or in my first job, the world just sort of seemed like it was at my fingertips, so full of possibility, so open to take me in so many different directions.

Hitting 30 has always represented a time when grown-up life starts, when things get more serious and more, well, boring. But I'm only a year-and-a-half away from that now and that's nothing like how I feel. So, I've been freaking out.

But not anymore.

I certainly don't feel like a "grown up" today, despite owning a home and being married with a dog and a yard and having a tax bill to pay (ew, that one sounds so grown up). But I'm starting to realize, maybe there is no scary, crappy day when you suddenly turn "grown up" you and become lame.

So if that's the case, then there's no reason why now can't be the future, right? What I mean is, I'm already doing the things I pictured that "Renee at 28" would be doing. I'm not, however, doing the things that I want "Renee at 30" to be doing -- the fun career and personal-life things, that is (Not the yucky tax bill kind of things ... I'm already doing that!).

So why not start right now?

Here I've been pretending that my age hasn't increased past my mid-20's (see liquor store incident, above) -- just sticking my head in the sand anytime my mind started to wander to the next big age -- when what I should have been doing was being happy about where I am today and working to do even more to keep it that way. Did I really think the 20's version of me would just disappear the minute the birthday clock strikes 30? I kind of think I did. And it could, if I let it.

But all this freaking out has lead me to realize what people are really saying when they repeat the old cliche, "This life is not a dress rehearsal."

It means that this is my life today, right now. It's running along this very minute. So I better stop wasting time wondering about what will happen when 30 comes and get back to living all the moments leading up to it.

How will I find the time to squeeze in all the fun I want to have and accomplishments I hope to achieve by then? Maybe I should start by quitting the wondering -- and, let's be real, the worrying -- and just do it. Today.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I don't work for the 'Today' show

Wow. I really fell off the face of the blogosphere lately -- I can't believe my last post was almost three months ago ...

But at least I've got a good foreshadowing thing going with that last post's title -- "Pressure, pushing down on me ..." I'm good. 

(I had no idea that would be my last post for months, of course. But what a telling, telling title.)

So anyway, I'm back. Today's topic is "Today," that popular morning news program featuring stories on everything from the crap state of our economy to videos of Jon and Kate "before they were stars" of "Jon & Kate Plus 8."

I restart my blog with this topic because I ended my workday with this topic. And then kept thinking about this topic for my entire 30-minute drive home, mulling it over and over in my mind. 

The issue is this: I'm a journalist. I went to school for journalism and I work in journalism. But I don't work for the "Today" show. Today, though, I was on the phone with the "Today" show for work. More specifically, I was on the phone with a publicist for the show. 

I was interviewing her to get some basic details for a story I posted on my paper's site,, on a North Andover couple who have been chosen to compete to have the "Today" show throw them a wedding. If they win, "America," as this publicist put it, will be choosing everything about this couple's wedding, from the bride's dress to the couple's cake to their honeymoon destination, and many things in between.

So, naturally, I had to cover this story. It's fun. It's exciting. It's just the kind of thing my "wicked local," weekly paper's Web site needs to drive traffic. At least I hope it will drive traffic. And the reason I figure it will drive traffic is that everyone loves the glitz and glamour and magic of television and/or movies to touch, or even just faintly graze, their hometowns. Or at least that's how I feel.

So back to "Today." As I was speaking to this very nice publicist and asking her all the hard-hitting questions about "Today Throws a Wedding" that I know my readers want to know, I was also somehow having a separate dialogue with myself in my head. It went something like this:

"This is kind of cool to be talking to someone in New York from the 'Today' show."


"I could do this woman's fancy NBC job with my eyes closed."


"Her job is so less stressful than mine, and I bet she makes twice as much money as I do ... Plus she's in New York City with all the important 'Today' show people."


"I wonder if she gets to talk to Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira."

This is the conversation I was having with myself while interviewing this publicist, then while writing the story, then as I packed my stuff up to go for the day, and especially as I walked to my car.

I was thinking, "I'm here in the suburbs of Massachusetts, nowhere near where all the glossy magazines and important news networks and big publishing houses are. What am I doing?"

But then I caught myself flashing back to the time right after my college graduation when I had to decide what I was doing. Was I going to try to make it in NYC, somehow finding a job and then finding a place to live? I went to NYC with a friend that summer, and checked out the "really nice place" another friend of ours was being put up in by his company while he worked in the city for a month. 

It was horrifying. Let me rephrase that. If you like to open your windows and get fresh air, and have a bedroom with a separate wall and door from your living room, and be able to store a hairdryer and maybe some towels in your bathroom, it was horrifying.

It was just so small. And so expensive for being so small. This -- and not hearing back from anyone regarding my many, many job applications addressed to New York, NY -- led me to reassess my wants and needs. I assessed that I wanted to be able to drive around without having anxiety about where I would park, and I wanted to be able to afford to eat and also pay rent. So, I opted to stay closer to home.

As I was walking to my car around 7:30 p.m. EST on this very nice June day, I began appreciating (Yea! I love when I do that!) the fact that yes, my job is not glamorous like the "Today" show publicist's, and I make what I'm sure is way less money. But I can see trees all around me the minute I step out of my office, I can have a dog who can roam around in our yard anywhere she wants, I can grow herbs and flowers and sit outside in the sun where I live, and I can have as many friends and family members over for an impromptu cookout anytime I want and we will definitely have the space.

The good news is, all of these things I am appreciating thanks to my encounter with the "Today" show publicist are not just things I'm telling myself to make myself feel better. I really do love these things.

And as for my unglamorous job, at least sometimes I get to talk to someone who might get to talk to someone famous. And in the meantime, when I take time to think about it, I actually do take comfort in knowing every time I print or post an elementary school student's photo, or a profile an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, I make that person feel a little more famous.

Making others feel good by doing my job? Today, that works for me.