Category: Writing

How Does She Do It

Editor note: I found this post languishing, forgotten, in my Drafts folder from about a year ago. It’s a bit wordier than I like my posts here to be, but I figured that, at this time of year, at least some of you might feel like reading something other than year-end wrap-up posts. But, never fret! I have some of those coming up too! So, read on at your own discretion. Or come back next week to see my favourite outfits of the year. Merry Christmas!

Right off the bat, let’s talk about the word that isn’t in the title of this post: all. I purposefully left it out because it can be terribly misleading. While I certainly have plenty of things on my plate – and some readers have expressed an interest in reading about how I juggle all of those things – I most certainly don’t “do it all”. More importantly, I know a lot of incredibly accomplished and successful men and women, and none of them “do it all” either. So, before we go any further, let’s agree to toss “all” out of the window. Nobody is doing it all, and if they tell you otherwise, they are lying.

How do I handle family, work, and life? Usually, by hanging on for dear life and hoping for the best. Recently, I was lamenting to a friend that I was dropping more balls than I was juggling, and she replied that as long as we give the dropped balls a swift kick now and then, they’re still technically moving. I think I may need to embroider that on a pillow and carry it around with me everywhere, so that I remember it next time I feel like I’m failing at this whole adulting business.

Needless to say, I don’t have any sage advice for other working parents (or anyone else juggling a lot of different and competing responsibilities), but I do have some ideas about the kinds of things that keep me sane and (somewhat) productive.

Prioritize Ruthlessly

Think of life as an infinite buffet, each of your activities as dishes, and the corresponding caloric load as the time required to do each task. As much as you might be tempted to try, you cannot eat your way through the entire buffet. Time is, sadly, nothing like a stretchy pair of pants; there is only so much of it in a given day, and it can only accommodate so much. So you have to make choices and, in some cases, compromises. (Some things in life are like vegetables – not the first thing you’d reach for, but necessary to your overall well-being. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can pay someone else to eat your veggies for you. Take house cleaning, for example.)

The key, of course, is making choices that maximize the enjoyment you get out of your most precious commodity, time. Sometimes, doing that comes easy. Often, it doesn’t. For some people, doing all the necessary grown up things, which are about as enjoyable as eating kale, doesn’t leave much time for anything else. For others, narrowing down the choice of fun activities is worse than choosing between chips and chocolate. I have no words of wisdom to help with that, I’m afraid. The choices each of us makes are deeply personal and subjective, and much like I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you should eat every day, I’m not going to even try telling you how you should prioritize your time.

But here’s the more important thing: the most content people I know are those who are able to make their selection from the life buffet … and then completely ignore the other options. They don’t second-guess their choices, and most importantly, they don’t listen to others second-guessing their choices either. This is abso-freaking-lutely hard. We are constantly bombarded with unsolicited opinions about what we should, and shouldn’t, be doing – as parents, as spouses, as professionals, you name it. For some people, tuning out these voices comes easily. Me, I have to work at it. (Let’s just say that I’m glad that internet forums and mommy blogs weren’t around when I was of a more impressionable age.) I still second-guess my choices. All. The. Damn. Time. but I’m now aware not only of the habit itself, but of the negative impact it has on my enjoyment of life, and I try to cut that ish out whenever it starts eating away at me. I’ll say this: it does get easier as one gets older.

Let me return to my analogy for a minute. It’s not just the dishes you pick that invite scrutiny and unsolicited opinions. It’s also how much of each dish you put on your plate, and how you hold your fork while eating it, and how you deal with the leftovers. Put in those terms, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Let’s put it another way, with an example: people will judge you on your choice to have (or not have) kids, on the number of kids you have, on whether you stay home with them or go back to work, on how soon you go back to work, on how much or how little you work once you’re back at work … and on every single other aspect of your parenting, no matter how minute and insignificant. If I could sum up my two cents: don’t let someone else try to prioritize your life for you, and don’t waste a minute of your time and mental energy wondering if you should.

Embrace Routine

Bo-rrring! Amirite? I am a creature of routine, so I didn’t realize until recently how big a role it plays in my day-to-day productivity. It’s just how I’ve always operated. The realization came when I was sitting in a seminar on brain health, which focused on strategies to maximize the potential of our decision-making powerhouse, the frontal cortex. One of the things that the speaker mentioned was reducing the amount of decision-making in our lives. How do you do that? Bingo: routine.

To understand why routine is so useful, it’s important to remember that our frontal cortex is involved in all of our decision making, no matter how complex or simple. Your frontal cortex does not distinguish between the types of decisions that you might have to make in a given day – whether they involve, say, life or death calls on the operating table, or ordering coffee at Starbucks. Your frontal cortex also gets tired easily, and once it’s tired, it tends to shut down and require a certain amount of “downtime” to recharge. And this is why eliminating, as much as possible, extraneous or unimportant decisions comes in handy.

How much you can “routinize” your life is, of course, up to you. Here are a few examples of the kinds of things that I do:

Pick out what I’m going to wear to work ahead of time (Sometimes weeks in advance; if I have a chunk of free time, I’ll sit down and brainstorm ideas, and write them all down. I like to be creative (and have a blog to keep alive) and rarely wear the same exact outfit. If you’re less concerned with sartorial novelty, developing a master list of favourite or reliable outfits means that you don’t have to keep repeating this exercise unless/until you add new pieces to your wardrobe, and need new combinations to incorporate them into your rotation.)

Eat the same breakfast every day. In fact, I generally eat the same things most days. (Research seems to suggest that this can also be a strategy for weight management. People who eat the same things every day apparently tend to fluctuate less in weight over time.)

Have a make-up routine. Bonus: I can get ready for work in under 15 minutes (and that’s only because I’ve got the whole thing down pat after years of daily practice).

Have a well-established bedtime routine with the kids. This ensures that I have a guaranteed block of time in the evenings for other things (work, blogging, writing, etc.).

There are certain parts of my life that don’t lend themselves to reliable routines (ahem, work), and I try not to stress or over-think those too much – key word here being “try”. It helps to remember one of my husband’s favourite quotes, from Mike Tyson of all people: everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

It Takes a Village (but, especially, a supportive spouse)

Duh! Trite sayings do not become trite without a reason, after all. Problem is, we don’t always see other people’s villages, if you know what I mean. And many of us, having internalized the “must do it all” superwoman narrative, immediately assume that the people who appear to have everything together, do so without any help. Save yourself the heartache of the comparisons that flow from that (almost certainly) wrong assumption. One of the hardest things I learned as an adult was to ask for — and accept — help; had I not plunged into parenting like a non-swimmer diving headlong into the deep end of the pool, I might still be struggling with that lesson. (Nothing like the sheer panic of first-time parenting to motivate some quick learning.) There is a stigma around the admission that, at various times and for various reasons, we may need help — from family, friends, co-workers, professionals, public bodies, strangers. As I get older, this makes less and less sense to me. The asking for and giving of help (with grace and respect on both sides) is what brings us closer together as a society and as communities. I have never judged someone for asking me for help; it took me a long time to realize that I was judging myself for asking. I still do it, to be honest, but I’m working on it.

Of course, there is an implicit privilege in having a village upon whom to call. Some of it is luck, no question about it. For example, I have a close relationship with my parents, who are healthy and happily take an active part in my kids’ lives — pure luck on my part (thanks Mom & Dad!). Some of it takes planning and investment (financial or otherwise). I live ten minutes away from my parents (and my in-laws), by design; it’s not the neighbourhood I might have picked in different circumstances, but it makes life infinitely easier. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made was to choose my husband as my partner in life. Part of it was luck (some day I’ll share the story of how we met), and part of it was planning — looking into the future, at the life I hoped to have, and realizing that we could build that life, together. At the risk of sounding like I’m practicing my Oscar acceptance speech, I could not have accomplished all of the things I have without his support; my hope is that he can say the same about me.

Because, yeah, being part of a village is a two-way street. You have to give help, not only ask for it. Another difficult lesson is learning not to keep score — especially in close personal relationships. Life has its seasons, and that is true of everything. Some seasons, you will need more help and have little capacity to give it. Other seasons, you will be called upon to give and give. Nowadays, I try to simply remember to trust that help will all balance out in the end.

But this is just one perspective, and I know that while mine is certainly not unique, there are many others out there, rooted in different experiences and values. I would love to hear from you about the things that help you keep the balls in the air and chaos at bay, whether you are a working parent or not.

The Platonic Closet

The rise in popularity of capsule wardrobes and minimalism (as a lifestyle, rather than an aesthetic) has created a great deal of discussion I find fascinating, perhaps none more so than on the topic of whether these movements encourage a futile search for perfection in clothing form. It seems almost inevitable: if your closet is curated to the extreme and meant to last for years and years, it’s natural to expect that its contents should meet some pretty lofty standards — a Platonic ideal if you will. Indeed, capsule bloggers who “refresh” their selections every season are often criticized for betraying the ethos of capsuling (is it a word now?) and being nothing more than consumerism peddlers in a cunning guise. For what it’s worth, I think both of the above approaches to capsule/minimalist wardrobes (searching for “perfect” pieces versus “perfect for now” pieces) can have their advantages and drawbacks (or, worse yet, pitfalls), assuming the goal is to practice more mindful consumerism and reduce one’s environmental footprint.

Nonetheless, as far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as a Platonic dress, or skirt, or coat. Or, rather, the ideals are too numerous to count, influenced by any number of factors, and subject to the unpredictable whims of personal taste. The perfect dress for a sunny summer afternoon when I want to feel sexy on a date with my husband is not the same as the perfect dress for a cold winter weekday morning when I want to feel powerful in a client meeting. Nor is 26-year old Adina’s perfect summer afternoon date dress the same as 28-, or 32-, or 36-year old Adina’s perfect summer afternoon date dress. Maybe some people find it possible to hone in on their ideal wardrobe pieces with greater specificity than me; more power to them.

But I didn’t start writing this post because I wanted to talk about philosophy. Honest. What got me started was an idea I had on the train home one day: what if I HAD to pick one, and only one, piece from each category of clothing in my closet as the piece most representative of my personal style — which one would it be? Given what I wrote above, I expected this to be a difficult exercise; to my surprise, I began coming up with answers almost immediately, and with little hesitation. After I ran through the whole list in my head, I decided to write it up as a post, partially because I love making such lists (and thought that making this one might be enlightening), and partially because I wanted to hear your thoughts. So, after you read about my Platonic pieces, tell me yours in the comments!

Dress

3.1 Phillip Lim dress
3.1 Phillip Lim dress

This one was the first answer to come to mind: my dark blue 3.1 Phillip Lim dress. It’s the dress to which I turn whenever I need to look “my best” and feel confident. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s appropriate for all occasions in my life (it would look out of place at a backyard BBQ, where a maxi dress might be just the ticket), but it would cover a pretty wide gamut.

As I mentioned above, I thought it would be interesting to dig a little deeper and ask myself what it is, exactly, that I like about this dress, which makes more “perfect” in my eyes than others. Here’s a shortlist:

– it drapes beautifully, and skims the body without being clingy or body-conscious (I hate feeling uncomfortable and/or self-conscious)
– it accentuates my waist (when belted) and flares out without being too poofy (I like un-fussy, figure-flattering silhouettes)
– it has a high but interesting neckline — almost boatneck, without the bra strap limitations (I am cleavage-averse, by necessity, at least 80% of the time)
– it has no sleeves (I almost always wear layers and hate the “bunched up” feeling of sleeves within sleeves)
– I love the colour, and the abstract print/colour combo (it’s unexpected without being too “loud”)

Thinking about it, I realized that it’s an “Adina” version of this dress, which is basically as close to perfection as a dress can get.

Audrey in Sabrina
Audrey in Sabrina

Pants

the one and only, Audrey
the one and only, Audrey

Sticking with a theme, my ideal pants are basically a take on the ankle-cropped cigarette pants worn by Audrey Hepburn. Most of my pants, both dressy and casual, share this silhouette DNA. My closet favourites are the Adriano Goldschmied Stevie (in denim and corduroy) and the BR Sloan.

Some of the things I like about these pants:

– they are stretchy and comfortable (honestly, my #1 requirement for any article of clothing, but especially pants)
– they make me look taller regardless of what shoes I’m wearing (probably my #2 requirement because I have a lack-of-height complex)
– they make me look more slender (clearly, this is entirely subjective)

Blazer

J. Crew Factory Blazer
J. Crew Factory Blazer

My J. Crew Factory tweed blazer is one of the most worn blazers, and with good reason:

– it fits me perfectly in the shoulders and nips in at the waist (perfect tailoring is one of my wardrobe aspirations)
– the length works with dresses, skirts and pants (versatility is another aspiration)
– the material is a good weight for winter, fall, spring and, more often than not, Edmonton’s summer as well (see above)
– the blue-grey colour works with most things in my closet, and is less severe than black — indeed, it’s second in versatility only to my greige Theory blazer, which doesn’t have as flattering of a cut (more versatility!)
– the buttons, though not leather, have a convincingly similar look (I love an understated luxe detail)

Skirt

Moulinette Soeurs skirt
Moulinette Soeurs skirt

Although I do love a twirly skirt, if I had to pick one style as my ideal, it would be the pencil skirt. And there isn’t a more ideal pencil skirt than this Moulinette Soeurs number.

– it fits perfectly in the waist AND hips (figure-flattery AND tailoring win)
– it stays in place, all day, every day — no rotating, hiking up, etc. (comfort is key, remember!)
– it’s the perfect length to make my short legs look longer (see above)
– the colour palette (blue, red, white, black) is quintessentially “me”
– the floral pattern is quintessentially “me”
– the fabric is lightweight without being too wrinkle-prone

Top

J. Crew top
J. Crew top

This is one of the categories with which I struggled; perhaps it’s a sign of the fact that, most of the time, my tops are not the focus of my outfits. I ultimately landed on this J. Crew blouse for a number of reasons:

– it has a high but interesting neckline (no cleavage but still interesting!)
– it has sleeves that are the perfect length (for layering AND upper arm coverage) and sheer (no bunching!)
– it’s made out of silk, which feels nice against the skin all year round (I like a touch of luxe)
– it’s opaque where it counts (I’m not a fan of wearing camisoles — too fussy!)

Coat

MaxMara coat
MaxMara coat

This one was a no-brainer, based on what’s currently in my closet. I love this MaxMara coat because:

– camel goes with everything — no, really, it does! (versatility, yo!)
– the funnel neckline, when buttoned up, feels very classic and sophisticated (which is, basically, what I aspired to be)
– the arms are cut wide enough (in an intentional way) to allow for extra layering in the winter
– the weight is perfect for mild winters and spring/summer (versatility, yo!)
– it can be dressed up or down (did I mention versatility?)
– it works with pants and dresses (… you know the drill)

I would say that a classic camel trench (like my Burberry trench but in a solid colour) would be a tempting option for a purely aesthetic perspective, but it would not be as functional for my lifestyle. I need something I can wear over bulky layers (particularly blazers), and a trench would not accommodate that as elegantly as this cocoon coat.

Shoe

Stuart Weitzman shoes (go with everything, including gold brocade)
Stuart Weitzman shoes (go with everything, including gold brocade)

Pointy toe pumps for the win. And, as much as I love a bold coloured shoes, black pointy toe pumps by Stuart Weitzman all the way:

– the pointy toe elongates my leg line (height complex appeased)
– the 3 inch heel strikes the right balance between comfort and height
– the thin heel is classic rather than trendy (classy is as classic does … or something like that)
– no platform!
– it manages to be comfortable notwithstanding the lack of platform (comfort is still #1)
– in a pinch, black goes with everything (versatility, redux!)
– dark patent leather shows wear and imperfections less than non-patent leather (I’m also practical like that)
– they are crazy durable (I’m thrifty too)

Bag

Marc by Marc Jacobs bag
Marc by Marc Jacobs bag

This was, hands-down, the toughest category. I tend to love and buy bags for looks as much as function, which complicates things — the bags whose looks I love the most are not always the most functional. Still, since I had to finish the exercise, I ended up picking my MbMJ Mag bag and here’s why:

– burgundy goes with everything — or, in a pinch, the fool’s gold version is a good bet too (versa-say it with me- tility)
– it can be dressed up or down (versatili …yawn)
– it is a good size — neither too big nor too small (call me Goldilocks)
– it can be comfortably worn on the shoulder or cross-body (comfort AND versatility)
– it has a zipper (extra security but easy access)
– it has a front pocket for extra easy access (I’m lazy — really lazy)
– it has a turnlock closure on the front pocket (I’m a sucker for turnlocks of all kinds)
– the leather feels really nice but isn’t too delicate, and holds up to wear really well (remember, I’m practical!)
– it’s inconspicuously branded — the inner fabric lining is logo-ed but the bag is not otherwise instantly recognizable (I’m a bit of a snob. Or a big one, idk)

So that’s my list. Obviously, I could never get by with just these items in my closet, but they are things that will probably live in my closet for a very long time. The lists of “likes” for each item could easily turn into shopping guidelines, although I think I would benefit equally (or perhaps even more) from putting together a list of “dislikes” — methinks I smell a new project.

Your turn: tell me all about your Platonic closet!

A How of Success and Failure

Over the past year, I’ve had questions from time to time about my weight loss from people wanting to know – what else – how I did it. I never addressed it on the blog, because (a) that’s not really the focus of this blog, and (b) the answer is really boring. (I used MyFitnessPal to track my calorie intake, and cut out refined/processed carbs and sugar. That’s it. I told you it was boring.) But then, recently, I was talking to my husband, who is now working on losing weight and overhauling his diet to deal with his GERD symptoms, and I realized that there was a post about this that I wanted to write, after all. Indirectly, it’s about a “how” … not necessarily of losing weight, but rather a “how” of doing anything that is difficult and maybe a little scary. It’s a pretty simple “how” but, somehow, one that didn’t dawn on me until this past year and which seems, from talking to my husband, to be overlooked by others as well.

Before I go on, let me digress for a second. I emphasized that this is a “how” – only one. Maybe not even the most important one. (I think the most important one is deciding to commit to doing something difficult and scary, and deciding that it is so necessary to your personal fulfillment that not doing it is no longer an option.) There is no one, sole way of accomplishing any goal, and no magic secret that takes you all the way. Success, in my experience, is made up of little decisions – some so seemingly insignificant that you don’t even notice them – and the only thing they have in common is that, in some way, they propel you forward. Or sideways. Sometimes, the success you end up finding is not the success you thought you were searching for. I can’t tell you how you get there; I have no idea. But I do know that you won’t get there if you anticipate failure.

“Well, duh! Who starts any goal by anticipating failure, anyway?” you scoff. And I’ll tell you: most of us. I did it, for years. Let’s take my book, for example. I have been trying, in one form or another, to write that very same book for about a decade. I still have drafts on my oldest computer – of the first chapter, of the second or third attempt at an outline, of various character synopses – salvaged from hard drives of other computers long gone. For nine years, I failed to write that book. Some years, I wasn’t even actively trying to write, but the sense of failure stayed with me. And then, it happened. Last year, I did it – I wrote it. It took about 8 months, and it was painful, yes, but suddenly not an insurmountable challenge. I did it while being the busiest I’ve ever been. So, what changed? Only one thing.

I committed to doing it … and committed to not thinking about failing.

I didn’t give myself any “outs”. You know what I’m talking about. “I’m writing this for me, so it doesn’t matter if nobody reads it.” (Let me pause again here. If you’re a writer who writes solely for yourself, that’s awesome. I’m not denying that as a legitimate goal. I’m just not that kind of writer. I write because, fundamentally, I want people to read my words. If I wrote purely for my own amusement, I would probably never write. Because I can talk to myself any time I please.) The nature of “outs” is different – for everybody, for every activity. My husband, who is rocking his new diet & fitness regime, was talking about how it would be okay if he fell off the wagon for a day, here and there. For me, writing my book, it had always been: “even if I don’t finish, it’s okay.” And, really, the implicit message behind all of our “outs” is the same: it’s okay when I fail. The thing is, whether we realize it or not, our minds and hearts listen to the words coming out of our mouths. We don’t intend to anticipate failure. We don’t want to fail. But when s**t gets hard, our brains and our hearts remember the message we’ve been sending all along. It’s okay to fail.

This is not a post about tough love. Failure happens. Sometimes we have a hand in it, sometimes we don’t. I don’t want anyone to beat themselves up over it. It is okay if you fail. Sometimes, it’s the best thing that can happen, because you learn an invaluable lesson. Sometimes, it just plain sucks, and the only thing to do is move on. But if you want to succeed, don’t commit to a goal with the idea of failure firmly planted in your heart and mind. It might seem like a safety net but, trust me, that’s a lie. Strive, certain of success. Striving, certain of failure, is like trying to run a race with your shoelaces tied together. Your odds of getting to the finish line are better if you don’t do that.

[Let me pause – again, yikes – for just a teensy bit of tough love. Visualizing success, without doing any actual (usually hard) work, is nothing more than daydreaming, no matter what The Secret told your mom. Visualizing success, without doing the work, is like dreaming about winning the lottery without ever buying a ticket. The best advice I’ve read recently came from Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me: “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.” Feel entitled to success, and don’t tie your shoelaces together.]

“But,” you say, “I’m just being realistic. Success is hard, and assuming I’ll achieve it without any setbacks is setting up an impossible standard.” You have a point. And … I have a counterpoint. See, it’s a matter of perspective. Setbacks are almost inevitable, yes, but your attitude can make a huge difference in whether they turn out to be mere bumps in the road, or the end of the road. Let’s go back to my book example. If my attitude, starting out, is “it’s okay if I don’t finish”, guess what will happen the first time I run into writer’s block? (This usually happens every 10 pages or so.) I will do what I have done numerous times in the past; I’ll give up. The failure would seem inevitable – like it had been meant to be, all along. But if my perspective is “I will finish this book, and it’s going to be a good one, by golly!” then you know what happens? I get the same writer’s block, just as often. And I still think about quitting. Just as often. But I don’t – because I have somewhere to go, and this is just something that’s standing in my way. It’s not fate; it’s just an inconvenience. A bridge guarded by a troll demanding a toll of success before I can move forward.

Sorry, I may have gone a little overboard with the metaphors.

Back to the point at hand. It’s okay to recognize that, 99% of the time, success is hard. It’s especially good to remember that when you’re in the middle of dealing with one of its hardships. Experiencing hardship is not a sign of failure. It is not failure. Failure is how you react to the hardship. It’s one thing to say, “Adina, you will probably experience a lot of writer’s block, and that’s okay.” I mean, it’s not the most useful mantra to adopt when trying to write a book, but it’s inoffensive enough. It’s completely different from saying, “it’s okay if I don’t finish this book.” The truth is that most of us don’t anticipate hardship; we anticipate failure. My husband didn’t say, “it’s okay if I’m tempted to eat some chips & salsa now and then.” He said, “it’s okay if I fall off the wagon.” I’m telling you what I told him: don’t do that. You owe it to yourself to not do that. Assess your success or failure after you’ve reached the finish line, not before you’ve left the starting blocks.

For one thing, you may be surprised by what “success” and “failure” mean to you once the finish line is behind you. My book has sold a whopping, like, 20 copies. Had I told myself, 9 months ago, “it’s okay if my book only sells 20 copies” … well, there would be no book for me to talk about now. Whenever my conviction wavered during those long months of writing – and it did! Oh boy, did it ever – I was certain that I would feel like a failure if the book didn’t sell a lot of copies. So, by necessity, I told myself that it would. And you know what? I don’t feel like a failure now. Sure, I’m disappointed (a little or a lot, depending on the day), but that’s different. I’m proud of the book I wrote. I’m happy it has the chance to be read. And I’m freaking excited about writing the next one. Which will sell a million copies, naturally.

Changing your perspective is a funny thing. It might start in one area of your life, but it has a tendency to spread. All my life, I’ve been the kind of person who was overly cautious – realistic, I liked to say. Aim high-ish, but keep expectations in check. And, above all, don’t expect success – that’s presumptuous. I did okay for myself with that mindset. Yet, throughout most of my adult life, I felt haunted by the spectre of failure. I thought it was the fear of failure that was holding me back, but it was actually the opposite. I had grown used to keeping failure close at hand, like an illusory safety net. When I started to focus not on what I might not be able to do, but on what I wanted to do, I suddenly felt freer and, oddly, more courageous – in all areas of my life. Reaching for the moon is either gonna get you a chunk of lunar rock in your back pocket, or make you realize that, like, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is awesome. Or that you’re really good at astrophysics. Either way, you will have done something difficult and scary and, most likely, pretty amazing.