Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Wedding Planning as Project Management Experience

I mentioned in an earlier post that one of the reasons I blog is because it’s a good way to hone my writing skills, because I want to write and I’m not getting trained to do it better at work. I think it’s easy to forget that your job isn’t the only place you can do professional development.  In fact, the experiences you have outside of work are probably much more valuable because they give you more responsibility and are more tailored to your interests.

Oh, you like to backpack? All signs point to organized, resourceful and low maintenance.

A wedding is probably the biggest and most personal project that many of us has ever managed, and it would be foolish to pretend that it’s not a huge learning experience. However, there are very few wedding resources out there that actually admit that you should approach your wedding like a work project (APW and Lowe House Events, thanks for the spreadsheets!). Think about it: when you are planning a project for work and something pushes you over budget, you take a step back and trim the fat until you are within budget again. You don’t cry over the lack of glossy handouts, and nobody ever notices their absence. This is true for your wedding as well.

When I think about “wedding planning” (and when I mention it to people who have not been through it), the general idea seems to be that I’m spending time thinking about creative, pretty things, arguing about the guest list and shopping for dresses. My Mom laughed at me when I sent her my meticulously timed schedule of events which included when everyone would need to be dressed and what time cars would depart from which locations. She will not be laughing on our wedding day. She will be thanking me.
We didn't just pick those bouquets on our way to the ceremony....
Nobody talks about logistical coordination, scheduling, creating databases to track all the different showers, rehearsals, parties, gifts, guests and vendors. All the pretty wedding blogs fail to mention that you will need to be able to manage and motivate an unpaid workforce of people who love you in addition to a paid workforce of vendors who aren’t used to working together. You will manage a budget and you will make hard decisions. You’ll have to plan an entire day in 10 minute intervals, arrange for cues for musicians and speakers, and make sure that potentially hundreds of people all receive the information they need to attend on time.  Oh, and by the way, you have to communicate and delegate every part of your plan effectively because you won’t be able to do ANY of it, because everyone will be staring at you in your pretty white dress with which you cannot wear a watch.
What shocks me is that this fact hasn’t yet translated into a widespread belief that women who have successfully planned weddings have great management and coordination skills paired with strong attention to detail. Why are we not talking about the amazing job we did planning, managing and executing our weddings in interviews? Why are we not bringing those spreadsheets and idea boards to work and saying “this is the kind of effort I’m capable of if you only give me a chance with this project”?  Why does it seem so awkward when I think about walking into my boss’ office and saying “why don’t you let me try balancing the budget this month. I just planned a wedding for 200 people on X amount of dollars and I think I gained the skills I need”.
Sailing, like other team sports, requires good delegation skills. Example: "Hey you! Hold my boat!"
I know, I'm stretching with the pictures here....
It’s a problem that women (and men) aren’t able to take their valuable experiences outside the office (like wedding planning, child-rearing, budgeting for student loans etc..) and turn them into promotions and pay raises. We need to talk about our blogs when employers ask about our writing experience and we need to talk about wedding planning when employers ask about our management skills. We especially need to talk about time management and child-rearing, because moms who have been at home managing their families for a few years while their children are young are having way too hard of a time getting credit for those skills when they re-enter the workforce.
Paying attention to these skills is important for businesses and firms that are hiring as well. My biggest strengths are communication (written and oral), organization, and managing information. The best way to find that out is to look at the things I enjoy (and do well) outside of work. Employers will miss out on great employees, especially diverse employees, if they only measure experience by things you did to earn a paycheck.
Musical performance experience = good public composure and comfortable in front of a crowd.
So I put it to you – what would you say if someone walked into your office and told you they were a great candidate for a job and cited the fantastic job they did planning and managing their wedding?

Double E

Monday, February 27, 2012

Gimme Shelter

So last week in Business Week, I read a depressing article. Let me be clear, the news that student debt is getting in the way of many of my highly educated peers ability to buy their own homes is not surprising to me. In fact, I’m a little confused as to where anyone got the idea that $100,000 in debt wouldn’t stand in the way of another giant loan. This is simple economics – you got a loan to invest in your education. You got your education and you were lucky enough to use it to get a high paying job. Your first priority should be paying off that loan with the additional income you are gaining from you investment, not making another huge (and probably worthless) investment.

Photo: Chad Fisk
We could live here...
I would equate this to my mother’s simple rules about playtime when I was growing up. If I finished my chores and homework, I could have the rest of my time to play or read or do whatever I wanted. It was a simple rule, and it’s stuck with me into adulthood, right along with “eat your vegetables before you can have dessert”. However, it’s becoming clear that I might be more alone in this thinking than I thought…
The Grige is constantly amazed at my imperative that we must get all of our cleaning and laundry done on Saturday morning before we can enjoy the rest of the weekend. I am militant about this rule, and it’s nearly impossible for me to enjoy a fun activity if I know that chores are at home waiting for me. Sometimes I try to disguise my obsession with the excuse that “well, people might come over unexpectedly and I want the house to look nice”, but the Grige is not buying it. I will completely lose my s*** if we have plans for breakfast on a Saturday morning and don’t get all the chores done on Friday night and he just has to deal with that as gallantly as he can.
Cleaning is waaaay more important than sleep.
His ability to push important tasks to the back burner and focus on the present has made me wonder if I might be missing something. Like maybe, if I keep playing by the rules like this, I will miss out on important opportunities. This weekend, I might miss out on a bike ride with friends. But down the road, we might miss out on owning a home or having kids because I’m obsessed with paying off our student debt first. It’s kind of a scary thought when we live in a society where debt is a necessity for “normal” life.
Photo: Me
Looking over this cliff is essentially how I feel about debt.
The counter-argument to my “finish your chores” rule is that if you make enough money to make your student loan payments (whatever they may be) and also your projected home payments, there is no reason that you should not be eligible for a home loan. It doesn’t sound totally crazy, but you can see why it makes banks nervous. Student loans are essentially impossible to default on. They will follow you through bankruptcy all the way to your grave and probably beyond. Home loans are much easier to get rid of by comparison, so if a financially strapped person is in the unfortunate position of choosing which bill to pay, the student loan is probably going to win. The bank just ends up with a home that has probably lost value since it was purchased instead of the cold, hard cash they love so dearly.
It will be interesting to see where we land on this, because young people are going to continue furthering their education to try to get ahead, successfully or not. It’s interesting to think that this very endeavor may be hindering us from having the same things our newfound educationand accompanying affluence were supposed to get us. For now, I’m going to keep eating my vegetables, dream about dessert and play it safe. But stay tuned, because I just bought some GRE books of my own…

Double E

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Vow to Our Wedding

At this moment, I am staring at a stack of the first wave of save-the-dates and fighting the urge to call the Grige and ask if he’s sure I should send them today.

They’re all neatly addressed in my handwriting, with directions to our wedding website and covered in beautiful hand-drawings by the Grige. I think I want his permission because putting those suckers in the mail is a big flipping deal. Perhaps I’ve watched too many sitcoms where the groom stands paralyzed before the mailbox pondering how his life is about to change. Commitment issues are not strangers in our relationship, but it’s never to each other that we struggle to commit. I’m paralyzed over committing to the wedding we are going to have.
I would like to be this happy on our wedding day
I’m only planning to have one wedding, and if there is one unifying factor between the literature on budget weddings and the wedding industrial complex is the obsession with individuality. No matter where I look, I’m being bombarded with quirky, sweet and crafty touches that utterly represent who the couple is. A lot of that is good marketing paired with the advantage of the rear-view mirror as couples leave their weddings behind. But from this end, looking down the tunnel at a very vague idea of what the day will be, it’s very hard to see it all coming together. I’m feeling the pressure big-time to make everything more personalized, more handmade, more “us”.
The Grige being artsy with a camera, Me jumping around like an idiot.
When I run back through the decisions we’ve made so far and really break down our reasoning, I don’t think I’d change anything. We made the best choices we could, based on the resources and circumstances that we’re working with. But I still end up looking at the wedding “product” (so far) and thinking “huh. How the hell did we get here?” The answer is simple: a compromise here, a little bending of my formerly strict boundaries there… add about 100 more people than we planned on and a discovery of my inability to coordinate too many moving pieces from afar and voila! All those little changes turned into something I barely recognize.
Photo: Jeanine Finch
I will put those save-the-date cards in the mail today, and when I do, the focus is going to have to shift from questioning my decisions all the time to actually making things happen.  Because that is what commitment is: acknowledging differences and imperfections, making a monumental and firm decision to accept them anyway, and plowing ahead with determination unparalleled to make it the best damn decision you’ve ever made. That, my friends, is how planning a wedding helps prepare you for marriage. Dropping those save-the-dates in the mail will be my vow to our wedding. I don’t like you right now, but I will love you always, because yours is the day I will marry the Grige.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Dark Side of the Diet

While the Grige and I had great success with the Clean diet, and have incorporated a number of Dr. Junger’s suggestions into our routine, it has some enormous draw-backs. Keep in mind that I’m giving my harshest critique, and that none of these drawbacks mean you can’t adapt the diet to be a little less… how shall I say… crazy. One of my favorite things about the book was how Dr. Junger encouraged his readers to “do your best” and not guilt trip yourself if you slipped up. It was a great prevention method for the “well, I already had one Dorito, I may as well finish the bag....” dieting back-slide.

Oh look! A diet back-slide in action!
 In order to get the best results on any diet, you have to kiss the booze bye-bye, and that strategy is just not working for me. While we certainly noticed the negative impacts of essentially drinking poison, our social and personal frameworks just don’t allow for leaving it out. I would appreciate a clean diet (or any diet, really) that looked this problem in the face and started giving serious advice on “if you must drink, here is what you should have and why” paired with a mitigation strategy for helping your system reset after a few glasses of wine. The Grige and I were able to significantly cut back on our drinking, but it would have been really helpful to have some guidance on whether I should be choosing beer, wine, or vodka on the rocks.
Photo: Chad Fisk
That's right... It's wine in a box. And I carried it all the way up that mountain, I love it that much.
One of Clean’s central arguments is that Americans are sick, tired and fat because of all the pollution we are exposed to through our food and environment. Dr. Junger references having a “sick planet”, and I couldn’t agree with this sentiment more. If you do too, you should stop what you are doing and go read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver right this minute. The problem is that Dr. Junger turns around and tells you to make a bunch of recipes filled with foods that are grown in very small, specific areas.  Pineapples, avocados and mangos are just not found in most of this country for most of the year. So unless you live in Hawaii or California, you’re going to have to purchase those foods after they have traveled thousands of miles, have been picked before they are ripe leading to enzyme depletion and have probably been sprayed with any number of chemicals to keep them bug-free and ripe for your picking in a grocery store. If the point is to clear our bodies and our environment of these practices, than almost every recipe provided with Clean has completely missed the point.
Go read it now! It's amazing!
Another large issue with Clean that didn’t emerge for me until I visited the website is that Dr. Junger attempts to sell you his supplement package for a ridiculous amount of money. It just felt dirty to think of buying a plastic wrapped box full of supplements and powders that were produced and packaged who-knows-where using who-knows-what. It’s also such a clear “easy way out”. If the book is supposed to teach you how to eat and cook healthy foods more consciously, what good is eating “two scoops of ‘Nourish powder’” going to for you? Nothing. It’s completely thoughtless, and dieting should NEVER be thoughtless. If you really want powders to put some more UMPH in your two liquid meals, go to a body building website, learn what is in them, and pick the best combination for what you are trying to achieve. Also, it’s much cheaper. I purchased a green powder (vegetable supplements) and whey protein from a body building website and have used them to balance my daily intake when necessary.
Photo: Me
Food research in action, it's no fun if you don't know how bad it is for you!
So that’s the dark side. All diets have them, and on the whole I think that Clean is pretty good. I learned a lot and I lost some weight, which are two great things to walk away from a diet with. What do you think? Have you tried any particularly good or interesting diets?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Clean: How We Did

So I promised details on our success with Clean. As a research enthusiast, I’ll do my best to quantify our experience in measurable ways.

Photo: Jeanine Finch
Hopefully by wedding time, we'll both be looking our "Best" :-)
The Grige and I did Clean for 3 weeks. We drank smoothies for breakfast and dinner every day and had combinations of salad, cold water fish, quinoa and roasted veggies for lunch each day. We broke the diet about 5 times. Once for a trip to Michigan for wedding planning (wine was absolutely necessary over that weekend). We broke it twice because I had a wedding meltdown and needed some cheese, and one big one (which I am counting as two) for the Superbowl. We had guac and chips and beer and chili and I don’t regret one bite.
Photo: Me!
This is what I ate the ENTIRE time I lived in Italy.
We didn’t alter our exercise patterns during those three weeks. The Grige goes to the gym for about 90 minutes 6 days a week. I don’t know what he does there, but it makes his arms look very nice. So nice, in fact, that I wonder if I should be tagging along to the gym to mark my territory… I take a 90 minute yoga class 5 days a week and run about 4 miles once a week.
Photo: Alicia Fairfield
Most of this is not allowed on the Clean diet, but the veggies would be good to go!
After 3 weeks, the Grige lost 5 pounds and I lost 8 pounds and one full pant size. To the extent that energy level is quantifiable, I would say that we had more. I measured this in a few ways:

1.       The speed at which we were able to get out of bed in the morning. (Roughly 50% fewer snoozes and we weren’t late to work once).

2.       The amount and speed of household tasks we completed each day. (Never had I ever vacuumed on a weekday before… We also hung new shelving, cleaned under the bed and got a new rug)

3.       The number of times we gave up on cooking and just ate out instead. (Zero times. We cooked healthy meals every day. We ate out twice, and both times were planned ahead with friends.)

4.       Our performance during our workouts of choice. (The Grige got some personal best sprinting times and broke his personal bench press record. It’s hard to measure improvement in yoga practice, every day is different, but I would say that I was able to hold challenging poses longer and was able to improve my focus drastically).

Other noticeable improvements for us were our lack of bloating and previously endemic stomach issues, persistent acne magically cleared up, and stuffy noses and sore throats were vanquished within a day by extra water and a good night’s sleep.
The most shocking (and obvious) benefit of the diet was clearest when we broke it. There was an immediate and unpleasant impact from each and every one of our discretions. A cookie gave the Grige a headache, bread made me queasy, beer gave us gas and I don’t even want to talk about the chili.
Photo: me
This is a good looking meal, especially if you know where the beef came from, which I do.
So here’s the best part… Dollars saved. The Grige and I spent about $100 more on groceries this month than we normally do. (Thanks www.mint.com!). We spent about $70 less on “alcohol and bars” than we normally do, $30 less on “fast food” (this is how I categorize buying lunch at work and all those times where poor planning leaves us starving at ikea), and $120 less on “restaurants”. Wowzers! So we saved about $120, most of which I spent on new pants. But you don’t have to make my bad decisions; you can open a savings account instead.
Photo: Chad Fisk
If you are what you eat, I'm likely to turn into a tuna fish any day now...
I won’t pretend that the diet has changed who we are. I still crave and love cheese, and the Grige still has a sweet tooth, and neither of us even remotely considered leaving booze behind us. However, I will say that I get as excited about salad as I once did about French fries. The key for us was figuring out how to make good food fast. We’re busy people, and when I come home from yoga at 8:30 pm, I want food NOW. Clean taught me how to replace my “easy” foods (pizza, cheese and bread, cereal) with healthy alternatives (kale chips, raw carrots and celery dipped in guacamole, smoothies). Most of us already know that eating well makes us feel better, it’s a matter of incorporating those habits into busy and stressful lives.
I’ll be back later with a post on local eating, and my criticisms of programs like Clean.
Double E

Friday, February 17, 2012

Healthy Food is NEVER "Too Expensive"

The beginning of 2012 was a giant kick in the pants for me to actually make some healthy changes in my life. My motives were not very good. Last December, I got engaged, ate a ton of cheese, shared multiple ill-advised celebratory drinks with essentially everyone I’ve ever known and made a conscious decision that serious running is not for me. And then I was having trouble buttoning my pants and was looking for someone to blame. With the impending white dress shopping (and subsequent fittings and wedding) I decided that something must be done.

Photo: Alicia Fairfield
I want this on my table now...
A year ago, Outside magazine ran a “new years resolutions” series where a number of their writers and editors tried out some health trends and reviewed them. One of the programs that really caught my attention (and held it for a year before I actually got up the nerve to try it) was Clean by Dr. Alejandro Junger. Dr. Junger’s program suggests a re-set for your body. What caught my attention was his assertion that at the end of a three week (which is a reasonable period of time) cleanse, my cravings would be different, and geared towards food that was actually healthy for me. If I’m being honest, I was also attracted to the idea that I could drop significant weight in only 3 weeks.

Photo: Me
Delicious and healthy Moroccan salads
So I went for it. I bought the book, I hit the health-food store. I got the Grige on board. I had smoothies filled with fruits and vegetables for two meals a day. I eliminated most meat, grains, dairy (including cheese! Horror of horrors!) from my one solid meal each day. I swallowed olive oil right before bed, started taking dietary supplements (fun fact  - did you know that birth control depletes your vitamin B? You know, the vitamin that helps you convert energy? So that’s where that depression and lethargy started…) and generally upended my normal existence.
Photo: Alicia Fairfield
Eating "Clean" meant replacing coffee with green tea. No funzies, but I'm loving it now.
Surprisingly, it worked! Even more surprisingly, I spend less on food now. A lot less. Certainly we spent a bit more on groceries than we used to, but none of them rotted in the back of the fridge. And since we were making delicious, healthy meals at home, we ate out far less and brought our lunches to work. The impact this made has been amazing.

Photo: Marissa Weeks
This was taken on a foodie trip to Morocco... YUM!
I’ve also learned that healthy foods are not that expensive. Apples, kale, carrots, sunflower seeds, garlic, avacados (this time of year, at least), are some of the cheapest items out there. Seriously, find me the person who says they can only afford McDonalds and I will show you that for less than the price of a big mac you can literally buy a pack of kale the size of a two-year-old. Then you can sauté it, roast it, make it into a salad, stir-fry whatever… it’s the most magical vegetable of them all.

Here I am eating the food pictured above... NOM NOM NOM
I’ll share more later on our results from living “clean”. For now, check out Dr. Junger’s website (skip the crazy expensive powdered supplements part and read the recipes!) and see if you’re as intrigued as I was!

Monday, February 13, 2012

On Weddings, Spending and Self-Definition

After my 2 month hiatus, I am pleased to return with fantastic news… The Grige and I are engaged! He did it with style, whipping out a gorgeous ring on top of a mountain on our ski vacation to Vermont. I will write more about our affordable and amazing ski-cation later, but for now I will just say that I was blissed out on micro-brews, cheese and proposals for an entire week, and it was ahhhhhmazing.

Photo: Jeanine Finch
My amazing and talented cousin took some photos for us, I'll share more later!
So now, we are planning a wedding. And boy is that just the mother of all financial topics. I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t moderately prepared for it. I’ve been an avid reader of Meg over at A Practical Wedding for a while now and I couldn’t have been more excited that her book was released the same month as our engagement. I was prepared to be flexible with the industry standards, I wanted a brunch wedding in the off season at an outdoor venue. I wanted all of my vendors to be pro-marriage equality, green, and sane. I was going to be surrounded by an intimate circle of my closest friends and relations while we said our vows in a field somewhere and I was going to float on a cloud of crafty bliss right up to the wedding day.

Photo: Chad Fisk
Newly Engaged and totally blissed out!
That lasted about the duration of our wonderfully secluded Vermont vacation. 2 months, many deposits, and only 2 major tearful breakdowns later I can report that we are getting married in the evening by my parent’s minister (and college friend) during the absolute busiest time of the year at a country club. Over 150 people will be invited and a fair number of them will be meeting the Grige and me for the first time. There will be chicken for dinner and a soul band and my dress will be long and white and twirl-y. This whole day practically arrived on my doorstep in a box with a bow on it and a card that said “For Emily, with love, from the wedding industrial complex”.

Here we are adventuring - I though our wedding would look rather like this!
And do you know what? It’s okay. I think many hetero weddings wind up reflecting the bride’s taste for herself and her husband. Our wedding unequivocally represents the Grige’s taste for us.  By letting him drive these decisions, I’ve learned so much about him, which is the whole point of planning a wedding, in my opinion. He likes it when we dress up, and he doesn’t want to see me barefoot and wearing a basic cotton sheath on our wedding day. He loves a great party and wants our friends to dance all night with us. He’s excited to sit at a head table facing a room full of people who are there to celebrate us. Not surprisingly, this is my parent’s taste as well, and seeing the three of them so excited and happy and comfortable with this wedding that we are planning is definitely my bliss.

This was such a fun wedding!!

What I wasn’t prepared for was how challenged I would feel to spend every single dollar in a way that represents both the Grige and I as people and our values. To me, a wedding was this big chance to define ourselves and our relationship with carefully thought-out details, and to support our values by spending this huge chunk of money only on vendors who share those values. I have a long-standing rule that I would like to die having never touched a gun or a golf club, and here I am planning my wedding at a country club with an extensive golf course. Needless to say, it’s taken some time to get used to. But I’m winning on other fronts, and on the whole, our vendors are good people in small businesses who are trying to give us their best for our money.
Luckily, a ski patrol was able to capture this priceless moment for us - I remember the whole day being exactly this blurry.
The reality is that this wedding isn’t really about me at all. It’s so much bigger than that. It’s about the beginning of our new family, and the joining of our old families. Those families, those witnesses, need the big white dress and the minister and the reception hall and cake, even if I don’t. And it’s just stuff anyway. Stuff can’t define you. The Grige and I made our personal and unique  promise to each other on top of that mountain in Vermont, and with local cheese and craft beer and pizza afterwards. Nothing could be more “us” than that week was. This wonderful party that we’re planning is just society’s way of helping us share it with everyone else.