Friday, August 30, 2013

The Greatest Guests

Over the years at Casa SerandEz (I, II, III, and now IV!) we have been fortunate enough to have hosted hundreds upon hundreds of guests, many of them having stayed over - from the couches in our one-bedroom apartment to the beds in the girls' room or couches in our two-bedroom; to their own room or the basement in our New York "house" to having their own floor (and bathroom!) in our house in Cleveland.

In just the 8 weeks* since we've arrived in Cleveland, we've had over a dozen sleepover guests (including a few family members and a lot of visiting friends), and while our friends are always awesome guests, I think I have noticed it a lot more here because they have their own floor that we theoretically have to prepare and clean up after... and it's theoretically, because we've basically done nothing at all.

While talking to one of those guests recently after they had gone home we discussed what makes guests great, and really, it's about not being a guest at all - the greatest guests are the ones whom you never need to actually host. They come, and they feel right at home (within reason), not making the hosts constantly feel like they need to cater to their needs or feel horrible afterward upon realizing that they forgot to give them some essential items.

With that, here are some basic tips for being a great guest - and if someone could tell us how to better hosts, we'd really appreciate it!
  • Be a friend. If you're coming over to someone's house, odds are they are your friends (or family). And they want to treat you like friends, not like guests - they want to feel like they're having a great time with you, not worry about you. So just be what you are: Friends! Even if you are just staying at a random person's house, be friendly, not a hideaway they're wondering about.
    • A great example of this was a couple that we're close with who stayed here the Shabbos we moved in (for an aufruf). Some people were surprised we'd host that soon, but we didn't have to do anything. When we were up we schmoozed; when we wanted to sleep we did. We didn't have to "host" them. 
  • Ask if you need something. No host deliberately didn't give you towels or doesn't want you to have toilet paper. If something is out, ask where you can get from. They won't be embarrassed (for more than a second, anyway) - they'll be appreciative. Better to get someone a roll of toilet paper now than to realize after they left that the bathroom was bare.
  • If you're crashing somewhere for an extended time, chip in and be somewhat scarce. Every family needs some private time, and when you're all at work doesn't count, so stay out a bit some evenings. And if you see something you can do to help out, go for it.
    • We had a friend who unfortunately had to crash by us for a long period of time... and yet somehow we didn't hate her afterward. She did a great job of not being in the way, and often offered to do things like make dinner (even if we decided to go with simpler fare usually) and she babysat a couple times when we had to go out. I don't think it's ever perfect when someone stays over for a long time, but our impression is that it's often a disaster - and this was not.
  • Don't arrive or stay out too late, unless you've already worked it out with them. Nobody wants to be the person whose house is locked even though they're *sure* they checked to make sure it wasn't. And nobody wants to worry about a guest being stuck out in the cold. If you're saying somewhere, show up at a reasonable hour unless the specific plans were to come in late. 
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help, but don't over ask. Asking for a ride to a nearby bus on the way to work or when someone's available is generally reasonable; asking for a 45-minute airport run when they have other errands, far less so. Again, they are your friends, not your hosts; but that means you ask them to do stuff you'd ask a friend to do, not a hotel worker.
    • Especially when I worked in Manhattan, I'd often offer rides back to Stern to guests who slept over. They were usually really good about not assuming that I could give them a ride, and were generally very thankful when I did. I believe I once made a girl take the subway when I thought she was asking a bit much - I'm mean like that. 
    • A friend once mentioned that by doing favors many wouldn't do, we set a standard for hosting that was a) too hard to live up to and b) caused some guests to become spoiled or expectant of them to the point that they ask other friends for favors they really shouldn't be. Perhaps this is true, though we tried to never do too much simply because a) that would be too much, as defined, and b) we didn't ever want to regret hosting. Also, we'd hope that people realize what is and isn't fair to ask of someone. (To our guests' credit, we generally offered and they rarely asked, and when they did they were generally clear that they knew it was a big favor to ask.)
  • Help out. It doesn't - and shouldn't! - be over the top, but try to help out in some way. It's like being a friend - you'd help your friend if you saw you could, so help your hosts. Our guests have been incredible with this over the years, which is probably another reason we love having them.
  • Be honest. If your hosts ask you if you were comfortable, tell them if you weren't (nicely). They actually want to know, so they can host better. They might not realize the room gets freezing cold and needs more blankets, or that an old mattress is... well, really old and not worth sleeping on, because they don't sleep in the guest room. 
    • This is one people are so hesitant on, but we felt horrible to find out after months that the pull out bed we had for guests was really, really bad. (After all, we had never lied down on it.) My mother came and we found her sleeping on the other couch and she told us. We still sometimes had to put people on it, but at least we could warn them (and fixed some springs underneath so it wouldn't be too bad). 
I'm sure there are more; these are just a few that came to mind in the middle of the night. And to all our friends, thank you! The reason we have always had so many of you so easily is because you made it easy. Y'all are the greatest 'guests'.

* It's amazing that it has been so short; it feels as if we've been here and known all our new friends here for so much longer. Also, really flattering that so many friends have already come to visit...!

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

In Praise of Free Time

...and Facebook doesn't count as free time.

Out of less than sixty e-mails in my inbox*, there are still a few articles at the bottom of my inbox from years ago that I saved for some future thought, blog post, or whatever. Two years ago today, my mother sent my sister-in-law and myself a great piece by Dilbert creator Scott Adams on "The Benefits of Boredom". In the piece, Adams argues that boredom is a necessary precursor for creativity, and that modern technology's constant interactivity negatively impacts our creative minds by not allowing us the time to enjoy true boredom. It's interesting, funny, and also a little sad.

Our kids, thank God, are extremely creative. That said, they're also kids. They get bored. When they're bored, they get annoyed. They want to watch TV (ugh) or want us to think of ideas for them. But when we refuse and tell them to use their imagination, they (often, not always) do - and it's incredible to see what they come up with. The past month or so, for the first time since we were first married (??), both Serach and I were home for extended hours every day - and it wasn't because we were unemployed when we didn't want to be. Serach wasn't working this summer as we adjust to Cleveland, and I was unassigned. While we were still quite busy for the most part between the move, unpacking, settling in, and getting all the little things done that go into living in a new state, we also got to take the kids out and have some fun - and we got to stay home, let the kids get bored, and watch them be creative.

Earlier today, Serach suggested that since I begin work at a client tomorrow, perhaps we should take the kids out to go do something. It didn't work out for other reasons, but part of me couldn't help but feel that it was more desirable to do absolutely nothing. For weeks, I had been able to on occasion do absolutely nothing - and it was liberating. My mind was able to be somewhat at ease, a feeling not felt in years. One Shabbos afternoon recently I took Kayla (5) to the playground, and at one point since the playground was nearly empty, I took the swing next to her and started to swing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. It was exhilarating. Not because of the swinging, though that was great; but because when you're swinging fast enough, the world around you is really moving too quickly for your senses to take in fully without getting dizzy, so either you can try and concentrate on something - or you can just zone out and let your mind go. I chose the latter.

A few people asked me recently if I was 'itching' to get back to work, and I answered that I was - while it was great to have the time to unpack and settle in, at some point most people wish to contribute and not simply be on the sidelines. At the same time, I also couldn't help but appreciate the need for more free time; time to sit back, relax, and let my mind wander.

Hopefully now we will be able to have both.

* I am a "zero inbox" person who also never really deletes emails, but instead archives them. On Gmail, this means that every email or conversation is stored should there ever be a desire or need to find it. This also means that I use my inbox as a storage place for items that need to be returned to - if it's still non archived, an email is likely either a bill, an email that needs a reply, a task that needs to be completed, or an article I'm saving for some reason.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Focus on the Merits (Yair Lapid interviewing R' Yitzchak Dovid Grossman)

Hat tip: Yankie

One of the most fantastic interviews you will see in a long time. If more of us would try more often to focus our view of the world and people on their merits and not their negative aspects, perhaps we really could impact the world positively.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

No School Is Perfect

We recently moved to Cleveland from New York, and while at first we took it as a given where we would send our kids to school, after talking to a few people we gave the decision a second, much longer look - going through a similar process as we'd done two years previously in Queens. Ultimately, in both instances, we ended up sticking with our first choice; but in both processes, we were forced to think about what deficiencies the school we'd ultimately send our daughters to would have.

A friend recently pointed out an interesting article from the Jewish Week that touches on this point, albeit in a different context, that of special needs:
In short, there is a tension between our demands that our Jewish day schools be able to compete with Sidwell Friends and Choate, while deeply covering Jewish subjects, as well as comprehensively addressing special needs. There is no way around it. [...] 
When I was a kid, and went to Jewish day school, my parents made a major financial sacrifice, and accepted that they were not going to get 100 percent of what they wanted from one school. I got a decent Jewish education if not the best secular education (I did supplemental work with my parents and a tutor out of school) but on balance am grateful for the experience. It was compromise, and a lot of my education -- Jewish and otherwise -- but the goal was to imbibe the mesorah and to participate in the construction of the next generation of the Jewish community.

No school will ever be perfect. As parents, we need to determine which school is best for our children; for some, that is the school that is the most like them. For some, it is the school that provides the most specific approach, for others the most open approach; for some, it is the school with the strong Judaic or secular education; for others, it's the school with the best middos, or some combination of the above. And for many, it's "Which school can give me the best tuition break!?" All of these are valid approaches when applied correctly.

For us, though, it was less about a specific trait than about an approach: What aspects of our children's education are we least and most equipped to supplement? I bumped into an older supporter of one of the schools whose children had gone to both, and who had grandchildren in both as well. The first words out of his mouth were that I was making a mistake, and should definitely send the girls to the school that we had not chosen. (He is nothing if not open about his opinions.) We ended up having a fantastic, if quick, conversation on the subject, and he noted at one point: "I will acknowledge, [the school we picked] does a fantastic job of ingraining X." For us, it is easier to supplement our child's (say) math education than supplement X - and therefore, we chose to put ourselves in a situation where we can supplement any potential problems.

By placing children in schools which match the parents, while it helps with consistency, it also can create a redundancy - both positively and negatively. While the school's strengths may be further enhanced by equally strong parents in a given area, any lacking the school may have would only be compounded by the parents lacking the same. But by viewing the school more as a teammate in a child's upbringing, where the strengths of the school and the strengths of the parents help overcome one another's deficiencies, it can help a child become a more complete person.