Traditions & Staycations (You Pick Up The Tab)

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[August 20, 2018]

Our family hasn’t ever gone all-in on Christmas. Up until recently, we haven’t had specific traditions that we look forward to each year. We never told our kids about Santa or entertained the mythologies that many parents do, and gifts — though we still gave them — were never the crux of our holiday season.

I guess I’m not sure why December 25th always came and went without the luster that the rest of our world ascribes to it — at least, in the accumulation-of-stuff sense of the word “luster” (which doesn’t hold much shine for our family). My wife grew up in a home that was crazy about Christmas, but none of them celebrated Jesus, so they missed the point. It was all gifts and niceties, and I think it burnt Jeanette out.

That said, we don’t have a ton of annual go-to set in stone — whatever holiday we happen to be talking about. We try to spend Thanksgiving considering someone in need, and how we might be able to help them, but that’s about it. (And before I get slammed as a humble-braggart — I’m more than happy to be an arrogant bastard on my own, without any pretense, thank you very much. It’s just that this does so happen to be something that we try to do consistently.)

A few years ago, though, Jeanette and I decided to give our best shot at a new Christmas tradition.

We wanted to figure out how we could turn a holiday that had somehow become all about getting and things into giving and experiences.

I experimented with this idea a couple of times before when Nolan and Elise were young. They weren’t as excited about it as I was. Not at first. I remember staying up on Christmas Eve with the idea that they could take a trip with me the following year. I was traveling a lot at the time. I wrote a note that said, “One free trip with dad…,” and dropped it in each of their stockings.

When they woke up the following morning, they were about as enthusiastic at the “fun with dad” ahead of them as they were about the lack of dolls and robots in their hands.

But then, the following year, after having joined me on the trip of their choosing, both said that they wanted more trips with dad. We bumped it up to two the following year. I, of course, loved their company, and Christmas ended up providing our family with a series of “gifts” to look forward to throughout the months ahead.

A couple of years ago, Jeanette and I decided to follow suit. The kids — now eleven and fourteen years old — could still buy presents if they wanted to, but we had to gift them and one another with something experiential.

That year, Jeanette got me a night at the Beverly Hills Hotel. People always give me shit for preferring a beautiful room over a hiking trail, but my wife knows me, and her gift came complete with a great atmosphere, great music, great food, great s-

Well, anyway.

She took Nolan to the Rose Bowl and — knowing how much he loves shopping — some of his favorite stores in Downtown LA, where he was allowed to pick out something for himself (on her dime).

She took Elise to see an Aladdin play in downtown LA, they stayed at the W Hotel, they spent the whole day together (and, Elise got a massage) and then ended it with dinner together that evening.

I took Jeanette to Waco so that she could visit Magnolia Farms. She loves following Chip and Joanna, and always tuned into their show Fixer Upper when it was still playing on HGTV. We all went as a family together and took a tour of their beautiful, mid-Texas world.

I bought four tickets to Coachella Music Festival for Nolan — one for the both of us, and two for our friends. Nolan is so artistic and creative. He loves music and fashion –, especially streetwear. What better place to experience both?

Elise and I drove up the coast of California headed to a dance convention in Monterey. We ended up at the aquarium beforehand. We spent that day and weekend together doing the things that she cares about.

Throughout our planning, we began to joke about how funny it would be to create the worst experience for one another.

I could make Elise have a Fast & Furious movie marathon with me, or make Jeanette a keynote speaker at a last-minute conference event. We could force Nolan to shop at Gap. They could make me watch a Travis Scott performance on repeat for seven hours.

We’d all hate one another.

It was all fun and games, but insightful in its own right.

These gifts provided us not only with an opportunity to create fun memories together but challenged us on how well we know one another in the first place. After all, if the point is to gift an experience, well it had better be an experience that feels like a gift. It would have been quite a different thing if I took Jeanette to the hotel I love for her present. That’d have been a gift for me on her behalf.

Gift giving — whether in the traditional sense or in our creating an experience for one another — requires self-forgetfulness, and genuine thought invested into what the other members of our family enjoy.

A gift becomes special when someone moves beyond “last-minute-lazy-ass” and puts time, effort and self-sacrifice into giving specifically — lovingly — to another.

And so, our family finally created a Christmas tradition of our own.

Fast forward a bit and — you’ll never believe it — I woke up with a new idea.

What if we were to reframe our concept of “family vacation” in a similar way? After all, we could stand in solidarity with our southern species celebrating Christmas in July!

So, as one (often) does, I called for a family meeting and announced that starting tomorrow (yes, tomorrow — I’m a fast mover, remember?), the Gross’s are going to begin a family staycation.

Here are the rules:

1. Each person must pick another member of the family, and then we’re going to spend the next couple of hours planning out their special day, which we will all participate in, together.

2. You have to pay for the experience you want to provide.

  • Spend whatever amount you want, or spend nothing at all.
  • If you need help with flights, hotel point, etc., ask Dad to spot you.
  • Someone figure out what the hell to do with the dog.

3. We don’t tell one another what we have planned until the night before our turn, when we sit down and share it with the family.

Here’s what our week turned into:

Nolan picked me. He began the morning by gifting the family with Acai Banzai Bowls and Nitro-Brew Starbucks Coffee from the market down the street — both of which I love and buy way too often. Then he bought me a massage at the spa around the corner from our place — three to four hours of “me-time” to relax — before taking the family to an Ed Sheeran concert at the Rose Bowl that night. Even though Ed Sheeran isn’t my favorite artist in the world, Nolan knows how much I love live music, and we’ve always been able to bond over it. It was the perfect day.

Jeanette picked Nolan. She took the family to Sidecar Donuts (Nolan’s favorite and, for your information, the best in the world), all the cool shopping spots (where, similarly as before, he was able to choose an item that she covered), lunch, an afternoon at the beach, and then a “guy movie” that night that Elise absolutely hated.

Elise picked Jeanette. Because this mom and daughter are also best friends, this was the perfect pick for Elise. She purchased a manicure and pedicure for the family, dropping over one-hundred bucks at Happy Nails. Later that day, she gave us nap time, took us out to dinner, and treated everyone to a Broadway play that was in town — The Waitress — which Jeanette had been looking forward to seeing.

I picked Elise. Even though I swore I’d never step foot inside of Disneyland until I became a grandfather, Elise loves the place, and I learned — like Justin Bieber — never to say “never.” After our family piled into the van, I picked up Elise’s friends and drove us all to The Happiest Place On Earth (still skeptical, but…). We checked into Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel, and I spent all day in the Magic Kingdom, which completely freaked her out, and — I think — meant a lot, mainly because of my past stubbornness about the whole ordeal.

The Gross Staycation was one of the best weeks we’ve ever experienced, not just because of what we did, but because we did it together, and we were challenged to serve one another, albeit in ways that proved fun for the whole family.

The experiment also gave us, as parents, a way to challenge our children’s notions about value, and generosity, and what is truly important.

For example, Elise, at first, had a difficult time deliberating over whether or not she should spend any money on the family for the day that was her responsibility to plan for Jeanette. In the end, she decided to, thereby valuing people over dollars, and it was reciprocated to her when it was my turn to gift her with our day at Disney. The point is not that every gift or experience requires spending an excessive amount of money, but I do think my daughter would have had an internal problem that prevented her from truly enjoying her day had she not gone the extra mile beforehand on behalf of her mom.

How can you thoughtfully seek to deepen relationships between yourself and the ones you love the most?

If you are reading this as a parent, how can you develop these strengths — this others-centeredness — in your kids, and give them memories that they can look back on as beautiful when they’re your age?

Ours is an example of an experiment that proved worthwhile. It might not be your cup of tea, but the point is to pay an idea forward. To get the wheels spinning.

Neither Jeanette nor myself had these kinds of experiences growing up, but neither did we have families that invested the nature of thought they require. That’s not a demonization of our parents, it is merely to say that we want to cultivate a selfless and others-centric mentality in our Gross family, and because of it: love one another — and others beyond this unit — well.

The questions that I’d like to pay forward are these:

If you have a family, or — in their absence — if you’ve created an honorary one of your own, what can you do to bring everyone together in meaningful ways?

What kinds of traditions will you spearhead for your loved ones to cultivate a life-story defined by depth, generosity, selflessness, and genuine love for one another, which snowballs and extends into the world beyond your walls?

Good luck!


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