Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Humbling Ten Years

We are about to hit a new marker here. The beginning of February will mark ten years that HusbandX and I have been a couple. This is especially remarkable as 2016 seems to have been the year for long-term relationships to fall apart. I don't have any facts or national statistics to back me up, just anecdotes, but I suspect that a number of factors have made 2016 especially hard, and many people have manifested that in either stress on their relationship or a realization that now is the time to end a relationship that doesn't make them happy.
Over this past year, we've seen over a dozen relationships (of 3+ years) fall apart among our friends and family. If I had to guess, I might even say it's more than 20 couples. In one year! Several more marriages and relationships are on the verge of falling apart, or going through a rocky patch. It's rough to witness. No matter if it ends up being a good thing in the end, it's always painful during the process.
When we saw the most recent public announcement of imminent divorce, I turned to HusbandX and said, "I wonder how many people are surprised that we're still going?" He laughed, mostly because we're quite certain that there are people out there who are surprised that we're still happily married. Two awkward misfits like us, how do we manage to make it work when so many (objectively) better people can't make their relationships work? (Don't worry, we're baffled by it too.)
I'm clearly not an expert in relationships. I don't want to tell anyone else to do with theirs, (well, except for the people sending in Postsecrets talking about knowingly, willfully marrying the wrong person--those are just sad; don't do it!) but I've had quite a bit of time to think about why our relationship is so long-lasting. Since I've been writing romance, I've also made a little study of what makes a relationship good. After all, I can't write effective romance if I don't know what makes a romance worth reading about!
I know that part of what has enabled our relationship is luck. We were just plain lucky to meet each other when and how we did, that we were each receptive to the other's feelings, that neither of us was in a different relationship when we met, and that we had the support of our families. (Don't discount that, ever. If your families aren't supportive because they don't like the other person's skin tone or gender or personality, you have a much harder road ahead of you than we did. I salute you for persevering.) But, not all of it is luck either. So here are the ways we've tested and strengthened our relationship.

We subjected ourselves to hardship

When I was younger, my best friend and I went on a road trip. The car broke down and we were stuck for two nights in this crappy little town in Oregon. Then we spent the next week (two weeks?) no more than two feet away from each other for almost every waking moment. Yet, we were still friends at the end of it! When we decided to move in together, that experience really helped. For one, we knew that we could go through less than ideal circumstances and still remain content with each other. We also knew each other and ourselves better after that experience, and we knew from it that we would be a good fit as roommates.
Years later, when HusbandX and I moved in together, I thought about that. We'd already traveled to and with each other, just short trips, so I was somewhat confident that we'd be able to live together. However, our first living situations were challenges in and of themselves. The first place we moved into was huge, but we had eight other roommates. There were personality conflicts and far too little privacy. That didn't last for more than a summer, but that was all right. HusbandX and I hadn't had any real conflicts with each other so we counted it a success.
Ice fog at about -55F.
I actually used an outhouse in weather like this.
After that, however, came an even bigger challenge. We didn't have much money, so we moved into a cabin without running water. It was the right price, but we were both a little nervous. We'd have to use an outhouse in the cold Alaskan winter, and we'd have to haul our own water. We'd have to do every single dish by hand. Even worse, we had to pay for heating oil and it was hideously expensive that year. $1200, and we weren't sure it would last a full six months! We made a pact not to turn on the heat until after it snowed and we did it without too much grumbling. (Turns out, in that respect I'm hardier than he is!) We even managed to figure out a system of getting the dishes washed without killing each other. (Seriously impressive.) We let the cold and the inefficient cabin bring us closer together, literally and figuratively. We even used trips to the outhouse in the cold as a source of jokes and banter that drew us closer together.
This was not the type of hardship we'd endure for the rest of our lives, and we knew that. But facing these challenges without falling apart was important. We still refer to those days, usually with a laugh. It was a hardship, but it's also a time we remember fondly. I knew then that if we could survive six months in that cabin and come out the other side still friends, still in love, we'd make it through anything. And we have! The early lessons on how to treat each other well despite tough circumstances has served us well.

We show our appreciation

We really don't do dates. Every once in a while, sure. But most of the time if we're going to get out (and away from the kiddo) we're going to do stuff with friends, like our weekly bike ride. Instead of having a dedicated date night, we show our love and appreciation for each other in much smaller but more frequent ways. We make each other tea or coffee and almost always put it in cheesy, flirty mugs my parents have. (One says 'I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles'. I mean really cheesy.) When HusbandX gets up with the kiddo on weekends (it happens occasionally) he makes pancakes with her and they bring some up so I can have breakfast in bed.
How could I not marry this?
We make sure to thank each other frequently. These small acts of kindness toward one's spouse or partner frequently, in my observations, fall by the wayside as people get more comfortable with each other, so it's been a conscious effort to continue doing so. We also make our thanks more genuine by making them specific. "Thank you for taking care of X chore earlier." "Thank you for making dinner tonight."
We're not perfect, there have been plenty of times when we get snippy with each other or just flat out ignore the nice things we do for each other. We can even be downright mean and cruel to one another. These nice things fall by the wayside, especially when we get busy. Then we have a conversation, generally with one side expressing feelings of under-appreciation and the other pointing out the ways that appreciation has been shown but ignored. Then we both redouble our efforts to both show appreciation and to acknowledge it. Because acknowledging it is just as important. It's nice to know that when you've done something the other person knows what you did for them. It's not selfishness, it's human nature.

We purposely do stuff together, even the things we don't do together

We're not super compatible in that we do everything together. We have many of the same interests, such as cooking and biking, but we have plenty of things we do separately too. HusbandX got into weight lifting when I was pregnant and discovered that he loves it, so he's kept it up. Me, I don't like doing any particular exercise regimen because I get bored with it. But HusbandX's gym has occasional "bring a friend for free" days and sometimes I'll even go with him.
We have our hobby agreement, where we trade hobbies. He reads a book from a list I gave him, so that we can talk about it, and I play a video game from a list he gave me. (I still need to finish playing Portal....) Most of the time, though, we do our own hobbies. We just do them in the same room. When I laugh at something in my current book I can tell him, and he'll tell me about silly things that happen in his games or with the friends he talks to while he plays them. It's togetherness for introverts.

We prioritize sex

Eww, TMI! I know! But this one is so crucial. When I was in Russia my brother said, "I don't want any details, but it occurred to me that it must be kind of tough for you guys to have, uh, alone time at Mom and Dad's. I mean, you have a kid so that already makes it tougher." Yeah, it does. But this is an aspect of our relationship that's critical to our happiness with each other. I've had a few friends mention that things get rough between them and their partners when they don't have sex often enough.
The hotel room we booked for the first stop on our
honeymoon was less conducive to honeymooning
than one would expect.
A while I ago I found an app to track my period (since I am NOT one of those lucky women who's super stable and can name the day it's going to start every single month) and realized that it can track other things as well, like migraines So I started tracking how often we have sex. I can now say with certainty about what our monthly average is, and that if we drop below a certain number we're almost certain to have a huge fight. If we drop below a certain average across a couple of weeks, we'll be grumpy and snappish with each other. I've told HusbandX about my informal research and he, too, has started noticing some of the same things. It's become something we now think of first when we're getting irritated with the other person. Have we made enough time for this recently, and could that be the cause of the irritation?
Every couple's numbers are going to be different, which is why personal tracking of such a thing (if you're interested in that) can be beneficial. You never know what you'll discover about your relationship with a little data.

We're frugal

This seems like kind of a weird one to put on the list, and originally I was going to say that we're on the same page about money. After all, finances are one of the biggest things that people fight about, so if you're on the same page with your partner then you should be fine. But, if you're both spendthrifts and constantly in debt because of it then you're not going to be really happy either, as you'll have that hanging over your heads. So, being good with money is one way that we've fostered our relationship.
As with anything else we're not always on the same page. But we are often enough, and we check in with each other frequently enough, that it's okay. It might seem silly to others that I text him, "Hey, can I buy a book?" (The answer is pretty much always yes, because he doesn't get texts from me like that very often. Go libraries!) We check in with each other for almost every purchase (aside from groceries) and warn each other if we're going to be spending out of our norm. We're not really asking permission, but a heads-up is really nice. The last time I texted about buying a book, I didn't get a response so I bought the book anyway. He got the text when I reached home and said, "Yes, you can buy the book," knowing perfectly well that I already had.
Some couples don't want to check in with each other that much and set up monthly spending allowances for each party. However you want to do it is fine, the important part is that it's a system decided on together and that it's one both people can agree to. The point is to avoid future arguments about money, not to cause recurring ones.
This also helps because we both know that we have our long-term goals in mind. Neither of us buys that much because we have some really big goals for this coming year. Being on the same page for the large financial goals is absolutely critical for any couple. We know where we stand, so the few minor purchases we make aren't going to throw us off our big plans. The fact that we both know that helps prevent us from getting annoyed when either of us spends a little bit.

We agreed on the big things before ever getting married

The fact that we got married wasn't done in the heat of the moment, at the height of our love. And the very fact that we're married is because we carefully vetted each other beforehand. In fact, I considered dating to be more like a job interview than anything else. 
The big issues are going to be different for everyone, but for the most part you want to agree on things like having kids. I've seen a few posts on places such as Reddit like, "My wife wants kids and I don't. We never really had this convo before we got married, so this is a bit of a surprise to me." WHY WOULDN'T YOU TALK ABOUT THAT BEFORE GETTING MARRIED? I don't mean that everyone needs to agree on every aspect of parenting--or any other big topic--before getting married, but it seems like much more of a big deal if one party wants kids and the other doesn't, as opposed to wanting two kids vs. three. It's kind of a big deal and something you should talk about with a prospective partner. No matter how much in love with them you are, you need to figure out what your deal breakers are and stick to them.
Our party animal.
I've told HusbandX several times that if he hadn't wanted kids at all then I wouldn't have married him. He was surprised, but that was one of my deal breakers. Another one was pets, which seems funny but it's actually a big deal for a lot of people. If you have three cats you adore and a potential partner who hates cats, are you really compatible for the long term? I was so nervous for HusbandX to meet my dog because he "doesn't like small dogs". He loves her, though, so no worries there. If he'd hated my dog, we'd have had some serious problems. I suspect that if I'd hated cats, it would also have caused problems.
There are others, but I won't get into every single one of them. They'll be different for every person and couple, but it's important to recognize what they are. Some things can be negotiated as life goes on, but the big things should be agreed on from the start.

We recognize the cycles of a relationship

We're not going to constantly be doe-eyed with little cartoon hearts popping up all around us. There will be times when we have to work harder at being attractive for or attracted to our partner. Conversely, there will be times when it feels like being married is the easiest thing in the world. We take advantage of those times and work hard at consciously choosing each other when we're in a low point. This is the nature of the beast, to have ups and downs. It's easy to compare us after ten years to the way we were in the first year and think that things are just not as good as they were. But, we're more comfortable with each other than we were, and in many ways our relationship is better. It's easy to lose sight of that, though, when we're not getting the same hormonal highs from each other that we did in the beginning.

Of course, all of this is predicated on trust and honesty. None of this is going to salvage a toxic or downright abusive relationship, and if you can't trust your partner then you need to get away from them immediately. But with one glaring exception, pretty much all of the relationships I've seen or heard of crumbling this year are between two good people who really like each other and just, for whatever reason, can't make it work.
I don't know why or how I was so lucky to meet HusbandX. Not that I always feel lucky. Sometimes I think that my life would have been so much easier if I'd married someone who isn't as strong-willed as I am, someone I could manipulate or dominate, someone who would let me have my way. It's clearly the best way! I suspect HusbandX has had similar thoughts about me too, and for some people that probably is the right choice. But for me, if I hadn't married someone with as much personality as I have then I wouldn't have been able to respect him. Being equals isn't always easy because there are plenty of times when we clash, but that's okay because trust and respect underlie everything else. It helps us to keep functioning as a team even when things are tough.
I look forward to the next ten years with HusbandX, and trust that they'll be even better than the last ten have been. That's saying something, because he still brings joy to my life every single day and I wouldn't be the person I am without him.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The books of 2016

It's time once again to talk about my favorite books of the past year. Books are one of my favorite frugal hobbies. I get most of mine as ebooks through the library, or by borrowing them from friends and family. However, I have quite a large collection of books I own (pared down regularly, but still huge) and I pull from them regularly to reread. I'm one of those weird people who loves everything about books, from the tactile pleasure of turning pages to the smell to the beautiful covers. I love staring at my collection of books and remembering fondly the stories, characters, and hours I've spent with them.

HusbandX, on the other hand, looks at my books with a hint of resignation and a wordless reminder that we're not going to get a larger house just to have space to stash books. He enjoys books, but not in the same way.

This past year, my total books read was just over 80. I write this with humility, because while it seems like a lot it's because this is what I devote a large amount of time to. I don't watch much TV or many movies, I haven't knitted much at all, I'm not a gamer, and there are times when I've used it as an anti-social crutch. (No I don't want to go out, I'd rather finish my book!) Paring this many books down to a few favorites might seem tough, but every year has its stand-outs.

1. I started my year with Urban Cycling, by Madi Carlson. The author happens to be a friend of mine, and a complete badass when it comes to biking. After reading her book I can say that she's as warm and personable on the page as she is in person.
This book is on my list not because I'm friends with the author, but because I learned a lot from it. Madi makes cycling for transportation in the city seem realistic and doable, even for families. She knows what she's talking about, having two kids and no car herself.
In addition to philosophy about biking and discussions about the pros and cons of various bikes and bike components, she also has advice about basic bike maintenance. I don't know much, but I have become a pro at greasing my chain since reading the book. Even HusbandX asked for some advice after I read it!
Highly recommended for beginners in particular, but all cyclists or anyone thinking of starting to bike can get something from it. I did, and I've been a cyclist for most of my life.

2. Curtsies and Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger, is the hilarious start to a young adult Steampunk series. She's got books in the same world written for adults which I have yet to read but they're on my list. If they're anything as witty as this series--and I'm told they are--then I'll spend many more delightful hours reading about Victorian morals clashing ridiculously with espionage work.

3. Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin, is a book about research into and the author's attempts at creating good habits. The premise is that by figuring out how one responds to influence (are you someone who must keep a promise when it's made, or someone who chafes at promises, or someone who only responds to outside pressure?) then you can figure out ways to motivate yourself to create better habits and, thus, a better you. She also documents various things that throw a wrench in all of this, such as sudden sparks of inspiration, or whatever you want to call it, that lead to a big change. As I was reading the book I talked with a friend about it and she said, "Oh! I had that, and now I floss every day. I can't even tell you why, I just woke up one morning and decided to floss. I haven't missed a morning since then."
I found it very fascinating to think about how and why we form habits, and have definitely been using this knowledge in my life. I find that it can be rather freeing, as knowing what I want my habits to be shows me what matters the most to me. Then it's easy enough to cut the rest free from my life and focus on the things I value.
The books I didn't borrow from the library or
from friends and family.

4. The Dark Days Club, by Alison Goodman, is another young adult page-turner. It might seem similar to the Gail Carriger series, as it's another Victorian fantasy, but while the Carriger books are light-hearted and funny this was definitely a bit darker. Not sad and not scary, but definitely not one I settled down with to laugh.
I'm excited for the second book to come out. I think the author can do a lot more with it, now that the fantasy world has been set up, and the plot will move forward faster.

5. The "Legend" series by Marie Lu started rather slow. The first book was good but nothing special. Still, it was a series and people have raved about it so I figured I'd read the others. Oh boy. The second book was really good and the third was amazing. I really wasn't sure what direction it was going to go in and that's a very exciting thing. So many books are predictable and rote that finding one where I see many possibilities for resolution but don't know which one is coming is genuinely thrilling. I don't want to say any more because I don't want to spoil anything.
If you enjoyed the Hunger Games series at all, you'll love these too.

6. The Hands-On Home" by Erica Strauss, is seriously the best book I've read about housekeeping and gardening. I've loved her blog for many years and was super excited when she published her book. She's such an approachable author that sometimes it feels like I'm having tea with a friend rather than reading a book. She's got everything from cleaning recipes to cocktail recipes in this book, and it's all neatly categorized. Even though I read it through the library I plan to buy a copy because it will be very handy to use as a reference.

7. The YA book The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh, and its sequel are a duology retelling of Scheherezade. When I saw the books I was intrigued, because how on earth was she going to make the prince any sort of notaterribleperson? She made it work and kept me reading until the last page of the second book was done. Even then, the next book I read suffered by comparison. This was another one where I rushed out to buy the book in a fever of impatience to read it. Then I had to order it and wait two whole days. Injustice!

8. The Pride of Lions and its sequel, The Blood of Roses, by Marsha Canham are two of my favorite romances. Don't let the genre throw you off, they're actually great novels. I've read these books probably half a dozen times over the years and they're still great. Set during the Scottish uprising in 1745, it's a clash between two people of different temperaments and warring nationalities. What I love the most about them is how much the characters change over the course of the two books. Honestly, they have more genuine character development than most books of any genre do. Added to that, it's clear the author actually did research about the time period. I won't say it's completely historically accurate (romance is, in the end, fantasy--readers don't want to hear much about scabies and syphilis) but it's close enough.

9. The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan, showed me just how much of the Great Depression was left out in my high school US history class. It was very sobering, and it made me really grateful for the times we live in.

10. Me Before You was made into a movie, which I watched on one of my flights to Russia. It was a really good adaptation, but as usual the book is better. It has so much more nuance, which is a good thing when it's about such a complex issue. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, read the book. Then watch the movie. The actors did a wonderful job, and I read the book with their voices and faces in my head because of that. But definitely, read the book.

11. Ender's Shadow, by Orson Scott Card, was as good as my brother promised it would be. I read Ender's Game a couple of years ago and it is, of course, a great book. Ender's Shadow adds so much to it, though. It's the same story but from Bean's perspective. If you haven't read either of them, read both. They're well worth your time.

12. Sustained, by Emma Chase, was a romance novel that actually had me laughing out loud. When I was going over my reading list to determine which books I'd put on this list, this one made me grin with remembrance. I loved this one, and for as much as I love the genre I'm pretty particular about my romance novels. I've read enough bad ones to adore the keepers, and this is among the latter.

We'll be reading these books for years to come.
As a bonus, I'm going to put in our favorite children's books of the year. The Munchkin has gotten so many, but our new favorites are definitely Rosie Revere, Engineer, and Ada Twist, Scientist. I've gotten choked up reading those (remembering what it's like to have a grownup laugh at you, for instance) and I can't say for sure, but I think HusbandX might have gotten a little teary the first time he read them to our girl too. They have wonderful messages about perseverance and failure, but also about curiosity and the joys of discovering, questioning, and creating. I've noticed a huge uptick in the question, "Why?" since we got these for Christmas.

In addition to both of the protagonists being female, I also love that Ada is not white. We need more good books with diversity in them and we need to read them to all kids, not just minority kids. These books are a win on all counts.

As always, feel free to let me know some of your favorite books of the past year. I'm always on the lookout for more to add to my (massively, insanely huge) to-read list.

Happy reading!