Pack Your Bags!

While we're on the topic of holidays, I recently received a reader question about something vacation-related.

How do you manage the stress of getting ready to go on vacation so that you're not totally at wit's end by the time you get on the plane? I find it very difficult to get everything tied up, packed, all travel and directions under control - it's exhausting.

And this reader has a small child and a husband who travels a lot and can't always help out.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret of adulthood that I've learned recently: people who make things look effortless are usually working pretty hard at it.

I'm always surprised to learn that some people who I thought were 'cool' or 'relaxed' are actually just more organized that I am. Like the friend who always looks put together for work. I thought my inadequacy in this area was just my lack of talent. But then I found out that she actually plans her whole work wardrobe for the week on Sundays (sneaky).

So if you feel like you always have too much to do before going on holiday, leave yourself more time. And be honest about it. If you need to start getting ready a month before, no one needs to know (unless you write a blog about it).

My one caveat is that there are some people for whom getting ready to go away on holiday isn't a problem. You know the type: the carefree, happy-go-lucky ones, who can throw some items into a rucksack (backpack) the night before leaving, usually after pounding some shots at work drinks. I envy these people.

But if you're not one of them – how to get ready for a holiday without losing your mind?

The first step is to start packing early. And by early I don't mean a few days before. I mean at least a week. I discovered how amazing this was when packing for our honeymoon. I knew there was no way I would be able to pack after the wedding, so two weeks before (don't judge – the weekend beforehand I was turned out of my own house for the 'stag' party) I spent an afternoon trying stuff on and deciding what to bring. Thing is, without the last minute pressure, you can actually enjoy it. It cleverly adds to the anticipation and reminds you why you are going away, as you pack your sun block and wide-brimmed hat and imagine how nice it will actually be. Don't get ridiculous or anything, you can pack your toiletries and carry-on the night before. This strategy, however, leaves you time to edit, time to wash things you want to bring and make a list of the stuff you still need to buy at Boots (or your neighbourhood drug store). And you will have a whole week to do it.

But what about all the other stuff? Finishing up at work before the holiday and all the other unexpected things that happen last-minute, before you go away? My reader explains what happened before her last holiday:

I had to scramble to find workmen to sort out a window with broken locks, wasps, another window letting all the rain leak in and finally a leaky toilet.

Again, what you need is time. So clear the decks. Don't plan social events in the week to the run up to a holiday. Leave time for disasters. Aim to have your packing done the week before and use the same tactic for other things that have to get done. For example, I try to make sure I've got all the 'urgent' work that needs to be completed before I go away done by 5 p.m. Thursday, instead of Friday, for example. Sometimes these tricks don't work, but it's worth a try.

If you're a list maker, make a list and a schedule – and as geeky as it sounds, set yourself deadlines. I do a lot of project management at work and I'm learning that setting small achievable deadlines is really the only way to get monumental tasks done.

To some, getting ready to go on a big holiday may not seem stressful, but who cares – if it's stressful for you, it's got to be tackled. Because not going away on vacation is not the better option.

If you have a question you'd like Mind Body & Scroll to try to tackle, don't hesitate to email me. Or use the comments section.  

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Balance: Not A 'Nice To Have'

Balance is essential. When I began thinking about this month's word – balance – as part of the Self-Discovery Word by Word series, I couldn't think of a metaphor. Until I realized it was staring me right in the face – it's one of the reasons that I actually started this blog.

When I was suffering with extreme pain in my arms and neck (what is typically called RSI), what I was really suffering from was a muscle imbalance. So even the name told me that it was a lack of balance causing me pain.

My problem was caused by poor posture – some muscles being too strong and others not enough. My entire body was out of whack (if you're interested in all the gory details, read The Whole Story).

So balance is necessary for the body, but it's also key for the mind. And that's because, to me, balance is all about sustainability. When I think about making any change in my life, I always ask myself if it is sustainable. The Hub was laughing at me the other night as I told him I needed to start getting up at 6.30 a.m. again when we were back from our vacation (I have been pretty relaxed about mornings lately and for various reasons need to shape up a bit). He said that I'm always saying that, but when he leaves for work in the morning I'm still snoring away.

Fair point. But 6.30 a.m., I know I can do, 6 a.m. – not so much. Any earlier than 6.30 a.m. and I crash and burn later in the week. It's not really sustainable.

It's like with exercise. In January, my Bikram yoga studio was so packed – even on a Sunday afternoon – that it was hard to move. Such was the crush of people wanting to get in shape and excise the demons of the Christmas period.

The New Year's resolution pack doesn't really get it. Since October, I've been going to yoga once per week without fail (except for once or twice). And I'm pretty sure I've clocked up more hours than those people who attend class three times per week for the first few weeks of the year, only to get burned out and lose interest.

Once a week doesn't seem like much, but over time it can make a difference to your life. And you can build up from there – I've now started practicing twice a week. And it seemed like a natural progression, not something I was forcing myself to do.

Balance is the middle ground. It's not the ideal and it's not total chaos. For me, there can be a lot of unhappiness in stretching for the ideal. I try every day to remember that it's better to get something done, instead of doing it perfectly.

There are, however, times when your life isn't balanced. Sometimes you don't have a choice. There are people who need to give up whole food groups due to a food allergy. Or when you have a newborn, there's not a lot of time for anything else. There are people who find themselves in a work situation where there isn't an immediate way out and they have to devote a lot more time and energy to that than they'd like. And when I had so much pain in my arms and hands that I could barely type or pick things up, I couldn't really opt out of doing physio exercises for nearly an hour a day.

But realizing that there are times when balance will be impossible should make it all the more imperative to try to practice it now. And it's not a 'nice to have' – it's a necessity. Because otherwise how can you manage everything in life (your house, your body, your food, your schedule, your relationships) without going berserk? You can try to live in the middle ground – where life is sustainable. Because ironically, with sustainability, usually comes change and growth.

This post was part of this month’s Self-Discovery Word by Word Series. To find out more, or to participate, click here to read Myrite at Tasty Life's kick-off post.

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Holiday Honesty

With a holiday, comes expectation. Living in the UK, which is (sort of) part of Europe, the holiday is regarded with the utmost of respect. People here actually insist on taking them, no matter what. There are no mutterings about how they don't actually have time to take all their vacation days or tales of working all the way through holiday time (although this may not apply to all professions, particularly investment bankers). But generally, holidays in this country are put on a pedestal. And whenever there is a lull in the conversation, you can bet that talk will turn to upcoming holidays or the glory of ones just past. "Have you taken your summer holiday yet?" is the question that invariably comes up at some point during a business lunch. Usually while eating the little chocolates that come with the cappuccino.

Coming back into the office after a holiday, you must be glowing. And not necessarily in skin color (although I must say, one of things I love about this country is people actually think I look tan sometimes – this never happens in America). It is not the done thing to speak ill of one's holiday, like it is a revered dead person. You can't say, "Actually, the holiday was horrible – we argued the whole time, the food was gross and I had a nervous breakdown about the direction of my life while standing in a church trying to look interested in a triptych."

This is not what just happened on my holiday. I promise you. It was a good holiday, in fact. We pretended to do some serious tanning and then spent an unusually large amount of time discussing if we had turned a darker shade. We learned that all's fair in love and war and also when it comes to sun loungers. We didn't realize that you had to 'reserve' one at about 7 a.m. with your towel and actually had to steal one on our first day (we did not get caught).

There was a nice mix of sitting by the pool reading and also driving around seeing interesting hillside towns and old churches. We even saw some really creepy relics and two whole mummies. It's still not clear why they – plus the torso of Saint Sebastian – are kept in a small Croatian village, but visiting them was interesting nonetheless.

We ate really good food (perhaps a little too much) and sat outside most evenings looking at the sea and drinking cocktails. Occasionally we played cards. And sometimes there was live music.

It was a great holiday. But it was not perfect. Whenever you go on holiday, you take your life with you – which unfortunately includes your anxieties, idiosyncrasies and problems. We were not happy every second and there were moments during the week when I felt quite sad, or even just average, and then annoyed with myself for feeling something but sheer joy (!) at all on an expensive holiday. But a holiday isn't an escape from yourself and often when you strip away your daily routines and coping mechanisms, issues can often be magnified. I am actually more likely to feel anxious on a holiday. And I am certain to have a grand sense of humor failure because there will definitely be a moment when I can't get anything to eat and I am actually very hungry.

I think the best way of approaching a holiday is seeing it for what it is – it's a break, a chance to change up the scenery. I may see some new amazing things and experience another culture. I'll eat some good food, enjoy The Hub's (or friends') company and maybe do some good reading. I know the types of things I enjoy (like getting extra sleep), so the more I infuse those things into my vacations, the better they become. But a holiday is not a panacea for all that ills you. And sometimes I feel like that's the perception, so I become worried that my holiday was not the most amazing week ever – while surely everyone else's must have been just perfect.

I feel as though I've made a confession, a little bit like the ungrateful turncoat. But like so many things, appreciating life as it is instead of yearning for perfection makes it much more enjoyable, in my opinion. And I read an Edith Wharton quote just today which sums it up all so well:

"If only we'd stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time."

Do you agree with me? Or do you want to have me condemned for holiday treason?
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Holiday Styles

I've had a request to write about surviving married life. I'm not sure I qualify as I've only been married five months tomorrow. But Saturday, The Hub and I set off on our 'summer holiday' as they say here (as if everyone is entitled to one), and it reminded me that one of the secrets to a happy relationship is figuring out how to mesh your two holiday styles. I suppose it's also a possibility to avoid going on holiday together, but it doesn't sound that romantic (even if it is only a couple of weeks a year).

So if you prefer the latter, best to hone in on your holiday style and that of your other half. In our case, the Hub likes to go places to see things, preferably in a car, and he likes to cover as much ground as possible. I like to stay mainly in one place. Also, I am the only one of the two of us who has a driver's license. So you can imagine the trouble.

After a few knock-down blow-out fights, one of which consisted of me literally pulling over to the side of the road and refusing to drive any further (after three days of non-stop driving), I think we've got it figured out. A holiday where we can stay in one place and take little day trips in the area with the car (preferably every other day, to allow some time sitting by the pool reading or something similar) works pretty well.

This is exactly what we are doing this week. We've both got our books picked out and a list of things to see including churches that contain weird relics, a set of caves and a little island, all in the Istria region of Croatia.

Everyone always thinks that holidays are stress-free and just a barrel of laughs, but the truth is that if you don't plan a vacation that is enjoyable to both of you, it can actually create tension and strife, which can be a really unpleasant surprise. Like the ear ache The Hub developed in Corfu back in 2007, which he still blames on me for taking him to a water park called Aqua Land (he loved it – the water park, not the ear infection).

Enjoy the dog days of summer and see you on the other side!


If you're interested, to finish up the story, there seems to be no disc problem with my spine. In fact, the spinal surgeon said my spine looked very good for a 35-year-old! However, he is being careful to check that there's nothing else wrong, so sentenced me to some blood tests and yet another MRI. I had it done yesterday and this time they kept my head out of the machine (thank God) and let me listen to music. All-in-all it was a much better experience than last time.

He was pretty sure nothing would turn up in the tests, however, so I suppose the pain is actually muscular (confirming what my physio thought -- getting the scans done was always erring on the side of caution), meaning that it's back to physio exercises – particularly those pesky hip stretches – to finally sort out this one lingering bit of pain. It's a relief though.

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I'm glad that I didn't know I was going to have an MRI scan yesterday until about an hour before I did. There was no time to discuss it with friends or look it up on the Internet – in other words, no time to fret. Because I'll tell you this, I had enough to worry about when I was actually having the MRI. Extra time to create dreaded scenarios would not have been a good thing.

My first thought? Being put into this type of contraption is definitely what would happen to me if I was ever abducted. This is an amazing way to torture someone – it's just like being buried alive in a space capsule. And I wonder why I was breathing so heavy during my first five minutes in there.

I was also sure there must be some shrapnel in my body that I didn't know about. Before the scan they ask you about all the foreign objects that could be in your body. Dental work, IUDs, metal shavings in your eyes (say what?), and of course, shrapnel. What if I have some shrapnel that I'm not aware of? Secret shrapnel. At one point my knee hurt and I was sure it was because some sort of metal was going to work its way out, like in Alien.

The MRI was loud and long – even though technically, it was only 20 minutes. I did lots of slow breathing and pretending I was in Bikram yoga, comforting myself that at least I wasn't also sweating my brains out. But I swear I could feel the liquid in my body sloshing around due to the magnets moving around my body. And I really have never thought I was claustrophobic, but apparently I am and maybe have some other phobias I also wasn't aware of, like shrapnelphobia.

Of course I was cool as a cucumber on the outside, joking with the radiologists about Grey's Anatomy. This is typical of me. No one believes I'm as anxious as I am. "But you are so calm," they always comment. Honestly, I don't know why this is. Perhaps it is one of my superpowers, the other one being my ability to eat more cheese in one sitting than should be legal (all without an ounce of tummyache).

The day started out nice enough. I went to my spinal surgeon appointment (for the background to this story, click here). And even though he actually made me wait for an hour to see him, he was so nice that I felt guilty and easily forgave him.

After listening to my story about the back pain that has persisted on and off since a year ago and examining me (in addition to reading the detailed letter from Super Physio), he said that my symptoms – where the pain comes and goes, often getting better only to get worse again – was consistent with a disc problem. My heart sank. I was hoping he would say the opposite, such as: "No need to get a scan, you sound fine!"

But no, he said we would get an MRI done and take a look at my spine. He added that typically we'd see a bit of damage to my spine anyway, considering I was born in 1976 and it was now 2011 (his exact words – I like the way he phrased it). Over the years it sees quite a bit of wear and tear, he explained, which is kind of amazing as I'm only 35 – what would an 80-year-old spine look like? Or do you see most of the damage in the first 30 years? (Something to investigate, perhaps)

I am kept quite calm by the fact that my physio sent me to a surgeon who she considers is not "knife happy" (her words). Also, that she thinks the most likely scenario would be a shot of cortisone to calm down the inflammation and then continue with the physio I've already been doing. And what the surgeon said, finally, was that we would look at the MRI scan to see how to make my physio work "most effective". That didn't sound like someone prepared to cut into me.

Luckily, I am seeing him on Monday, so will know quite soon what the scan shows. In the meantime I've been going to yoga and trying not to think about it (not really working). But I have to say, if there is a disc problem, I might actually feel happy, as this past year has been quite frustrating. Now that my neck/shoulders are behaving so beautifully and there's no more pain there, I could really do with having my back sorted out too. And the Hub – he'd really like to play tennis with me. It's a small thing, but it kind of represents the difficulty with the situation. There are tennis courts near our flat and it would be really nice to meet after work, hit the ball around a bit and then go get some dinner. It's the kind of thing that most people in their 30s can do without hesitation. It would be nice.

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I'm a little stuck. I know I only post twice per week, but nothing is gelling in my head right now. I debated over the weekend what to write about but nothing really hit me. It's not that I don't have ideas – just take a look at my blog notes list and you'll find all sorts of confusing ideas jotted down. The current list includes such things as 'muscle inhibition', 'why James Herriot would make a good blogger' and 'celebrities getting in shape for movies'.

Typically I have lots of ideas on the go, either written down in my little green notebook that I keep in my bag or on the spreadsheet that controls my life (it is ominously titled 'TO DO' and contains an imposing nine tabs, one of which is called 'Wish List'). My ideas float around inside my head but I'm never sure exactly how they'll turn into posts. It is usually when I am on one of my daily walks to and from the train station that I think, "Aha! That's how I'll write a post about pizza!"

Here's the thing. I think that if I had waited to start blogging until I felt ready – or at least confident that I'd have enough to write about – I never would have started. And if I only posted to this blog when I felt like I had something amazing to say, well, it would be a pretty sparsely populated blog.

Working in publishing has taught me a lot about writing. If journalists waited until they felt they had a great story to write, not much would get done. No, it is precisely the pressure to fill the newspaper on a daily basis that generates so much news. Even when you are phoning around and all your contacts tell you that nothing is going on, there is always something to write about.

It is the discipline of the deadline that generates good work. Not every story is award-winning, but if you aren't out there everyday talking to people, pounding the pavement and writing up the goings on, you certainly will never get the great stories.

It is by committing to publish posts a few times a week that allows me to get posts written, and not the other way around. If you want to make progress in any area of your life, just commit to show up. If you want to start swimming, get in the pool twice a week – even if it's only for 20 minutes each time. And if you want to start meditating, sit for 10 minutes a day. After all, you can have all the talent and intention in the world, but it's impossible to do good work until you're actually doing the work.

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