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Tweaking married life for everyday happiness

One of the things that works really well for W- and me in marriage is that we invest time and effort into making everyday life enjoyable. It’s not about big vacations or escaping from life; it’s about making regular life awesome. Let’s take a closer look at that.

Sleep takes up a third of our life. We make sure we get enough sleep, as sleep deprivation leads to general tetchiness and negative productivity. There’s no sense in doing more if you end up being unhappy, so we keep our schedule light and flexible.

Work takes up another third of our life, so we also make sure work is good. I love learning, working on open source, and helping clients and coworkers make things happen, so I work with my manager to make sure I’ve got plenty of opportunities to do so. W- also puts the time into improving his processes and getting better at what he does.

We invest in making chores enjoyable. A lot of this is mindset. For example, memories of the great washing machine adventure turn laundry into something that makes me smile. It helps that our washer and dryer sound so cheerful. (Really! Listen to someone else’s recording.)

“Right, Sacha, but that took a lot of work.” you might be thinking. But it’s surprising how a story can add more enjoyment to a routine task. For example: doing the dishes. I feel warm and fuzzy about the yummy food we just made, and I enjoy remembering W-‘s story about this Fisher&Paykel dishwasher. You see, when I moved in, W- had a regular dishwasher. He explained that he’d replaced his preferred dishwasher with a standard one because he had been thinking about selling the house. He kept telling me about how awesome this dishwasher was, and we joked that it was the kind of dishwasher that was accompanied by choirs. When we decided we were going to stay, we took a trip up to his parents to retrieve the dishwasher. After I saw how it was cleverly divided into two independent drawers and it had time-delay features, I became a convert. (It seems it really does go “Aaaah!”)

I’ve shown W- some clever ways to use the dishwasher, too, like using the top rack as a temporary holding space when the handwashed items need more space than the dish drying rack. Tiny improvements make life more awesome.

Sharing a task makes it fun, too. W- and I both enjoy cooking, and the L-shaped kitchen layout means that we don’t get in each other’s way. Cleaning up together makes that more enjoyable, too. Turn chores into social events to make the time fly.

What about other routines, like eating or getting ready for work? Again, this is something that can benefit from continuous improvement. For example, we switched to batch-cooking lunches and freezing individual portions. This not only simplifies mornings and saves us money, it also makes me smile whenever I have lunch. We tweaked our entrance workflow, and now it’s easier to take off our coats and put down our bags. Little things.

So that takes care of sleep, work, chores, and routines. What’s left? Mostly discretionary time – time that we can spend developing interests, enjoying hobbies, learning, relaxing, and so on. We spend a fair bit of this time together: hosting study groups, learning Latin, playing games. Sometimes we spend it on individual pursuits, like my tea parties or his calculator. We use this time not just to rest and recharge, but also to grow, and we deliberately invest in capabilities that can make future everyday life even better.

Is this kind of happiness a finite honeymoon-ish sort of period? Maybe. Who knows? But it makes perfect sense to invest that energy into strengthening the foundation and building good routines, and to enjoy the compounding benefits. It isn’t about big changes, just small and simple everyday happinesses

2011-04-23 Sat 11:32

Thoughts from marriage: Learning together

Learning can be so much more fun when you learn with someone. Learning something with your spouse can be even better.

W- and I enjoy learning things together. Last summer, we taught ourselves woodworking. We checked books out from the library, spent hours at Home Depot looking at tools and picking out lumber, figured out how to get 16′ planks home without renting a truck or becoming a traffic hazard, and built deck chairs that actually fit us. Having a second pair of hands to hold something in place, having a second pair of eyes to check before you work – that saves a lot of time. W- also helped motivate me past the necessary-but-slightly-annoying parts, such as remeasuring the chair slats so that they fit properly. I probably would never have tried it without him, and now the chairs sit on our deck and provide an ongoing trigger for happy memories.

We’ve been teaching ourselves Dutch in preparation for our trip to the Netherlands for my sister’s wedding. W- made flashcards and has been helping me learn. Even with our limited vocabulary, we’ve quickly developed in-jokes, like the delight with which we encounter the flashcard for “spek” (bacon) or “gebakken ei” (fried egg), and how I mock-shudder at “krentenbrood” (I’m not fond of currants or anything raisin-like).

We’ve also been working our way through a Latin textbook as part of an Internet-based study group. We’re learning Latin together because we’re curious about a proper classical education. If kids of bygone eras could be well-versed in Latin, Greek, and French, why couldn’t we get the hang of it too? I’m inspired by books like The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. While the rest of the world wrings their hands over the state of education, W- and I want to do something. This is not a bad place to start.

Cooking provides many opportunities for learning. We’ve been moving further down the supermarket food chain:

How do we make time for this? Avoiding financial pressure helps. A frugal lifestyle means that neither of us needs to work a second job, or gets stressed out about work. We spend most of our discretionary time at home because we enjoy doing so. A nearby library provides almost all the books we want, and Internet booksellers fulfill the rest of our learning needs. Internet videos, audio recordings, and websites also give us plenty of resources.

Learning pays off in many ways. If we model this kind of curiosity and life-long learning for J-, she might be inspired to explore her own interests. It’s like the way I learned a lot from watching my mom teach herself about business and education and watching my dad learn about planes and photography. Who knows what J- and other kids will be able to do if they learn that learning is fun?

2011-04-24 Sun 09:07

Keeping my name

Sacha Chua. It’s hard to pronounce, hard to spell, and frequently changed into Sacha Chau, Sacha Chu, or Sasha, or Sascha, or even the occasional Sachua.

But it’s my name, and I’m keeping it when I get married in two months.

I’ve published a lot as Sacha Chua: articles, papers, blog posts, open source code… If I change my name, it will be harder for people to make that connection. It helps that I’m the only Sacha Chua on the Net (at least, according to Google). There’s already a Sacha Y-.

It’s a lot of paperwork to change my name and update all my records. I don’t see why the woman should be the only one who traditionally goes through all that fuss. ;) I don’t want to always carry marriage documents to justify my name change. For example, the entry form for Singapore asks if you’ve ever entered the country under a different name, and to provide supporting documents if you have. It’s easier if I keep my name.

I like my name. It’s a small reminder of the diversity of this world. If anything, it would be cooler if it was even more Filipino. (For example, Kidlat Tahimik has a really cool name.)

Keeping my name means taking one small step towards greater equity. =) Isn’t it fantastic that I can consider this choice? Likewise, I’ll probably keep Ms. instead of Mrs. if people insist on courtesy titles. (Why isn’t there a male equivalent of that?)

There are worst-case scenarios to think about, too. If we split up, I’d rather not have to go through the fuss of changing my name again.

Will people be confused? Maybe. But my friends Joey de Villa and Wendy Koslow are doing fine, as are Michael McGuffin and Alice Servera.

Will I get addressed as Mrs. Y-? Maybe. But it’s a good opportunity to say, “It’s Sacha Chua, actually. Ms., if you insist.”

Will W- get addressed as Mr. Chua? Maybe. That’ll probably be amusing. <laugh>

Many people change their name, and it works out for them. That’s great. =) Me, I’m keeping mine.

On role models

Mel Chua’s comment about relationships and role models made me think. She’s right, you know. It was something that had felt very alien before, and I’m gradually coming to terms with it.

Growing up, I remember feeling anxious about relationships.  I knew my mom and dad had managed to raise us and do well in entrepreneurship at the same time. I was surrounded by godparents whose loving relationships also served as good examples. But as a bookworm, I’d also read lots of scary statistics.

All of the happily-married couples I knew were of previous generations, of course. Towards the end of my university degree, as I heard of high school batchmates starting to marry and have kids, these early matches were spoken of in hushed, gossipy tones.

The thought of relationships really only started becoming more “normal” for me over the past couple of years. In graduate school, I met people who pursued their degrees while raising kids. Thanks to W-, I got a sneak preview of parenting (turns out to be pretty good), and I saw that separation and divorce could stabilize into amicability. At work, I saw people with different kinds of family situations do well. I looked for stories of executives who valued work-life balance and other people who’d left and rejoined the corporate world. I listened as people told stories about their families. I listened as people who chose not to have families talked about their relationship and their other priorities. I learned that people have figured this out before, and things will be okay.

It’s pretty interesting to think about this in terms of the diffusion of ideas, too. In this, it turns out that I’m a mainstream adopter, opening up to a idea once I see that lots of people around me are exploring it with good results. W- makes it easier, too. We’ve probably got the best starting point for this kind of an adventure.

So, yes, role models. Very important. More common than people would think, and more mutual than people might expect. A great benefit of having a diverse workforce, too. I’m looking forward to exploring, to sharing what I’m learning with others, and to learning from others along the way.

Getting ready for a new adventure

image

I didn’t think about weddings when I was growing up. I didn’t clip pictures of pretty dresses or fantasize about flowers. I thought I had to choose between making a big difference and living a “normal” life—with a great relationship, perhaps, but still constrained by the obligations of joint decision-making. I didn’t dream of white gowns and lace. I dreamt of living in an apartment, perhaps near a university or a library, and perhaps with two or three cats.

I was surprised to learn that a great relationship can help you grow in unexpected ways.

For example: I was beginning to feel the tic of stress building up around the typical tensions of planning a wedding. We had wanted to keep the guest list small in order to avoid overwhelming ourselves and our guests. Limiting the guests to just our families seemed to be the easiest and least stressful way to do it. A clear boundary. No difficult decisions about who to include and who not to. And perhaps W-, I, and our two families would get to know each other better without the distraction of other friends. I still wanted to host a get-together thanking my friends for helping make Toronto a second home, but a second party could do for that. Limiting the wedding and the reception to family seemed like the least stressful way to plan that day.

Then my mom asked if we could invite four close family friends, people she hadn’t seen in a while but whom she has kept in touch with and who have been wonderfully supportive throughout the years.

I wavered. Should we offer to host another party? Should we include them, even if they might feel a little left out? Should I then go ahead and invite some of my closest friends as well?

I explained the situation to W-.

He said: “It’s their wedding, too.”

In that moment, all that stress went away. All it took was the right perspective.

As much as all those wedding planning websites and blogs would have us believe that it’s our day—or worse, that it’s the bride’s day—our families are the reason why we’re celebrating a wedding instead of heading down to City Hall with two witnesses.

It’s our wedding. By that, I mean it’s not just W- and my wedding, but it’s our families’ too. And friends. And worlds.

(Friends are wonderful and I’d love to include as many as possible, too, but once I start including friends, I get tempted to throw a party for 150+ people, and then my introverted side hides under the imaginary table and eats chocolate. So we’ll plan one party at a time, and maybe have lots of small parties instead of one big one. =) And there are even more friends I’d like to include as a way of thanks for helping me get here as well as for future insights and advice. Challenge: I don’t know everyone. It’s said that it takes a village to raise a child, and y’all are an amazing village.)

English is quite limited when it comes to this idea of “ours”. A tangential story: My mom once told my sister, “We’re going to Hong Kong.” My sister was excited about the idea of going there. My mom clarified: “No, we—your dad and I—are going to Hong Kong.” In Filipino, it’s the difference between kami and tayo. We-exclusive versus we-inclusive. Namin versus natin. Our-exclusive versus our-inclusive.

And I love that W-, for  whom English, Cantonese, and French do not capture that distinction between our-exclusive and our-inclusive,  reminded me of that and helped me get an even better perspective on things.

See, this is one of the wonderful things that gives me a lot of hope about the scary thing called commitment. Making decisions with another person, having another person’s perspective, sharing experiences with another person, and being inspired by another person—by golly, that really can make life even more amazing.

On vintage portaits and wedding photography

With my dad and my sister both professional photographers, I have a deep appreciation for the way pictures can bring a story to life.

W- and I are getting married on August 21. We’ve been thinking about whether we want to do the full-blown wedding photography package or go with something simpler.

I don’t particularly feel the urge to have every little detail of our small ceremony memorialized. Pictures would be a nice way to share the spirit of the celebrations with friends who couldn’t make it, but then again, we’ll probably have plenty of snapshots from both our camera-happy families. Given a choice between budgeting for fancy photographs (which can go well into thousands of dollars) or, say, helping my family come and experience Toronto, I’d pick snapshots + experiences.

I do want to have some formal pictures, though. I’ve always liked the look—no, more than that, the story—of vintage photographs in family albums. Pictures of parents and grandparents when they were young and just starting out.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Photo uploaded in 2007 by dlisbonaCreative Commons Attribution Licence 2.0

Photo uploaded in 2008 by Spiterman – Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Licence

And just imagine, now, people can actually smile instead of holding a stiff expression for minutes!

I’m happy to skip all the other typical wedding pictures – the rings casting heart-shaped shadows on a book, the bridal party getting their hair done, the bouquet, and so on. I just want a few good portraits of us and of our combined families. Given that people managed to take these great photos back when they didn’t have speedlights or Photoshop, it should be so much easier now.

But I’m having a hard time looking for a photographer who’s okay with large groups and simple set-ups, who knows a lot about working with light, and who’ll do just a few set-ups instead of a full wedding package.

It would be nice to have a picture with everyone. If we have to, we’ll fiddle with the self-timer or remote. There’s gotta be some way to do this. We’d be happy to pay someone a reasonable amount to get great pictures with less stress. So, know anyone who can make ~25 people in Toronto look timelessly good?