Home for the Holidays: A Survival Guide

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Family visits can be filled with cheer, if you plan ahead. Bring a project, schedule a little "me" time, and get up off that couch!

I love visiting my family in California at the holidays, but I usually get crabby. I was trying to figure out exactly why, not quite able to put my finger on it, when my friend Tonya Hinch explained it all to me. (Tonya is the most organized, most together person I've ever met.) "It's about a loss of control," she said. "You feel powerless, and you have to reclaim that sense of power." She then reeled off a list of four things she does when she visits her family, and I think it's brilliant.

1.Get your own space. You go from being lord of your own castle--or apartment--to being a subject at someone else's. And it hurts. One way to get your own sense of space is to stay in a hotel; naturally, this is not an option for everyone. "If forced to stay at a family home, beg for your own room, with a door that locks," says Tonya. "Not for wild sex, but for privacy. Make sure the room isn't used for a kid's playroom--if there's a PlayStation, run!"

2.Have your own car. "You need the ability to escape," says Tonya. "You can be subtle by offering to run to the grocery store, or just say that you need some air." This one really struck a chord with me--whenever I stay at my sister's house, I sit there and wait to be told what we're doing next. It reminds me of life before I got my driver's license, when I had to beg someone to drive me to the record store.

3.Take some personal projects. If you're like me, what keeps you going is a sense of accomplishment, whether it's from picking up the dry cleaning, reading a book, or completing a big work project. But when I visit my family, I'm like a bump on a log. I feel useless, and more often than not I end up watching TV. What I forget is that I can do something about it. "Updating your address book, addressing holiday cards, purging the sent file on your laptop, or programming your phone are wonderful projects," says Tonya. (I told you she's organized!) "It's also a good idea to bring an activity that can keep the kids occupied--board games, cookie-making kits, or a jigsaw puzzle."

Last year at Christmastime, I came up with a project that both got me out of the house and gave me a sense of accomplishment. My sister and her family live in a northern California town called Tracy, and it cracks me up: It's like a seven-year-old girl named every single business in town. There's Tracy Billiards, Tracy Alterations, Tracy Beauty Supply, Tracy Books, Tracy Color Center, and so many more. For years, I said that I should take a photo of every sign I could find and send them to my good friend Tracy, who lives in North Carolina. I finally did it--my sister drove me and my niece, Allison, around Tracy, and I took 37 pictures. We had a blast! And once a week for the next 37 weeks, I e-mailed Tracy a photo.

4.Don't sit near the TV. Those of us who don't watch much TV can quickly go crazy when it's on all the time. (Plus, the more TV I watch, the more likely I am to crave junk food, which then makes me feel even worse about my unproductive, powerless self.) "Find a nice quiet spot, in a corner of the living room or at the dining room table," says Tonya. "Family members can come visit you for a bit, then go torture someone else." She said it, not me.

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