Sunday, January 29, 2012

Let's get practical, practical.

So, guys, I have some news: we found a house that we sort of love.

< cue squeeing >

During the viewing yesterday, I sent The Irishman a text that read "It's perfect". We left the property, walked down the street and just looked at each other knowing we'd seen exactly what we were looking for.

< cue squeeing >

But these are just the beginning, fragile stages of this love affair. It's very very new, and there are so many things to consider, steps to undertake, and at any moment the whole thing could collapse (not the house of course!). So I need to get practical with all of you readers.

I'm learning that buying a house is a really sensitive process. I am experiencing untold financial transparency with The Irishman, both of our families, a mortgage broker, and a mortgage company. So many possibilities need to be considered, so many conversations need to be had, so many pros and cons to be weighed, and we're being as open as possible with everyone we know. But at the end of the day it is a Big Decision that The Irishman and I will be making together – and alone.

So I need to put up some boundaries on this here blog, to protect our relationship and sanity at this very exciting yet stressful time. I promise to give you a few exposé-type posts when (if!) we ever do actually complete a purchase and buy our house. But until then, I'll continue to update you on our search, let you know how things are going, but I can't give you the gory details. I'm pretty open on this blog, both about my identity and life, but the Internet is wide and purchasing property is risky and I just can't take too many risks with this type of decision. I hope you'll understand and respect this, and continue to follow our progress on the blog and Twitter. I'll try to give you as much as I can, stay as positive as I can, and still make the posts interesting and exciting. Please don't hate me when you see a few "Goddammit-I-really-wanted-that-house-and-we-just-got-gazumped-and-I-can't-stand-this-city!!!!" posts.

Phew, that's over with. Sorry for the formality, peeps.

Now, about this house. In short: 3 beds, in need of DIY, lovely old woman living there and needs to downsize, nice garden, and close to Stoke Newington Church Street. In short, perfect. I am on pins and needles waiting for tomorrow 9am to call the estate agent to schedule another viewing, as we want to check on a few details before considering making an offer. We're not sure it's "The One" but it's as close as I think we'll come to it. So one more look, and then we have to – literally – put our money where our mouths are.

< cue terror! >

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Post-marathon running

Editor's note: this post was brought to you by the gentle Twitter insistence of Jumped the Pond and A Hop, Skip and A Jump Over the Pond. Thanks for the idea, ladies!

So it's been exactly 105 days since I ran 26.2 miles. When you think about it like that, it actually wasn't very long ago. But it does feel like it was a lifetime ago, so I'm actually really glad that Anne and Ashley wanted to know what it's like to continue running after running a marathon.

To be honest, it's not much different. It's still the mental battle of getting out of a warm bed, into wick-away clothes that are never 100% comfortable nor smell 100% fresh, and forcing yourself to get out there and put one foot infront of the other. And breathing is still hard, and you still get cramps, and you still get blisters. But the one thing that has changed is my knowledge of what I can do, how far I can push myself. Crossing the 26.2 mile threshold makes you realize that the 3 mile lap "maintenance run" (what I like to call my daily distance) is NOTHING. It's a warm up. And there is NO EXCUSE for not doing it – even if it's hard.

Sometimes when I run, and I'm cranky and don't want to be doing it, I think about the marathon. I think about mile 20 when I really started to feel the distance. I visualize this one turn in the road where I simultaneously started to get sore but felt better because I actually knew where I was in Dublin, and therefore knew I could get to the end if for no other reason than I knew the route. And I think about how tired I was and how I pushed through and how I just need to PUSH THROUGH to FINISH 3 G-D'D MILES ALREADY. And I do. Basically, finishing a marathon has given me mental strength and given my brain a very accurate whip with which to smack my whining self when I err on the side of sloth.

Which I have, because since the marathon I haven't really run much at all. Post-marathon, I had a week off in Prague to recuperate. When I got back to London, I had to jump straight back into work for a few intense weeks and averaged only 2 runs per week throughout November/December. I also haven't really run farther than 4 miles. I need to break it open and do a 10k and then a 10 miler, but something is holding me back (besides my sloth); it's almost as if I achieved this wonderful accomplishment and I don't want to ruin it by trying to replicate it. But that is ridiculous, because every run is different; as a runner, every day you show up with whatever is going on in your body, your brain, and it's up to you to run it out on the track, make the run what you want it to be. So really, I just need to do it. There is no point in putting it off.

Beyond all of this zen thinking about running, though, I did pick up a few practical running pointers that worked for me. Hopefully they will be useful for all of you runners out there.

1. Arms at 90°
This is an interesting one because it is a subtle change that makes all the difference. I run like a boxer, arms up, pumping, but held close to the chest. I read an article about running form, which is basically minimizing extraneous movement that causes fatigue while maximizing essential movement. One of the easiest fixes is to maintain arms at 90° angles (rather than my 45° chicken angles) – it makes your arm pumping more efficient and therefore aids in your speed and cuts down on fatigue. It also helps you hold your back up straight and encourages you to drop your shoulders. It really works, and I think gives a side benefit of toning your triceps.

2. Shoulders down
Linked to above, but really important on its own. I have a tendency to hunch – while I'm knitting, while I'm typing, while I'm running when I get tired. And when I hunch, I get bad upper back/neck pains. But remembering to just lower the shoulders helps reset my whole upper body (I usually reset shoulders and take a deep breath, it's a yoga thing) and sort of center myself for continuing. It's a useful tactic for when you get out of breath (top of a hill) or lose your rhythm.

3. Breathe into cramps
Again, another yoga thing. But really, if you get a cramp, it helps to focus on where the pain is, and for a few breaths aim at breathing in and sending the air to the cramp. Cramps are just muscles that somehow have a little kink in them, and breathing into them is like gently working a knot out of thread. Also, I think this visualisation technique takes your mind off of the pain and surprise surprise 2 minutes later it's gone.

4. Continue yoga/aerobics/stretching
All of this talk of yoga brings me to the point that if you do any other sports (swimming, cycling, yoga, aerobics, whatever), you should continue it while running. I used Hal Higdon's training schedule, and he builds in cross-training days which a really key for strengthening your body beyond running. You don't realize how much strength your body needs in its core, its arms, and overall for successful running beyond just leg power. The more of a routine you maintain that you enjoy, the better your running will be. It will also prevent injury.

5. Cut your toenails
Seriously, I don't know how the second toenail on each foot fell off, but it did, and I can only imagine it was compression from my big toe and the nails being too long. But now I have little stubblies and I want them to grow back so I can get a pedicure. First world problems, I know, but seriously if you don't want to have your toenails turn purple and then fall off, keep them trimmed low.

6. You will gain weight
Marathon training keeps you running, and running keeps you eating, and even if you eat like a machine and never indulge in anything fattening, you will still gain weight. A friend of mine went up a trouser size; I felt like I was just a bit bigger overall. It's just a fact that you will build up muscle and muscle weighs more than fat. You'll also drink more water, eat more salt to replace minerals and fluids, and it all makes you bigger. I lost weight after the marathon, and got a lot of compliments on looking skinny about a month after the race - go figure.

7. Learn to use your butt
Hands down, your butt is the most important muscle when running. It powers you up hills, keeps you stable, and I like to think of it as your engine. So don't try to make it smaller – maximise its value! Seriously, when I go up a hill, I visualise my butt driving me up the hill rather than my legs pulling me. It's a subtle change but it means that I beat The Irishman up every hill no matter what. I actually speed up when I go up hills, rather than slow down, and it makes a big difference.

8. Stick to the training plan – all of it
One of the things I really regret about my marathon training was that I was a bit cocky in the beginning and skipped a few 2 and 3 mile runs. I figured, hey, I already run those distances, it won't matter. But it does, because the point is to gradually build up distance each week from a baseline running ability. So if you skip 2 miles here, 3 miles there and then your weekend long run distances increase, you will get injured like I did. In my next race, I will NOT be skipping ANY little distance runs. No sirree!

9. It's quantity not quality
Probably the only time someone will tell you this. But it's true. It's all about logging the distance. Even if it's the hardest run ever and you're going at a snail's pace. Even if you're lethargic and walk after every mile. EVEN IF YOU HAVE A HANGOVER. You have to log the miles, so you know what 8 miles versus 18 feels like, and you build up the confidence in your own ability.

10. Have fun
Seriously, I loved running the marathon. I loved the old ladies shouting my name, the kids giving me jelly babies, all of the drunk people in Halloween costumes cheering for me. I felt like I was running for all of them, because all of them were supporting me. It made every early Saturday training run worth it. Crossing the finish line was the anticlimax because it was the 4.5 hours of running to cheers of encouragement that really mattered the most.

Anyway, that's just my feelings on running. Everyone who runs a marathon experiences something uniquely different, so I can only encourage you to try it. I've had so many people tell me "OMG I could NEVER do that" but really, you can. Seriously. It's the ultimate battle of mind over matter, and if you're focused and confident enough, your mind will totally win and the matter will follow – for 26.2 miles.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Volunteering with The Ministry of Stories

Behind this unassuming storefront on Hoxton Street Market lies a very exciting creative space for young writers. Run by a group of passionate volunteers, the Ministry of Stories was founded in 2010 by Nick Hornby, Lucy Macnab and Ben Payne with the simple mission of helping kids become better writers and learn more about writing and reading.

I first heard about Ministry of Stories through a graphic design blog as a case study by a local small creative studio; they had done all of the graphics for the Ministry of Stories and its Monster Supplies (the storefront, which allows it to be in a commercial property), and I fell in love with what MoS is trying to do in a still underserved community.

So last year I went for a mentor training session, a full day affair that ended with a CRB form I had to take away and fill out to ensure I wasn't a child molester, reference forms for current and past jobs, and a lot of excitement about working with kids and helping them learn to love writing.

And then, I didn't do anything with it. A friend of mine pointed out to me on Saturday night that I did go and leave my job and start a new one and then train for and run a marathon, so you know, I was busy. But I always felt bad about not following through, so earlier this year I logged on to the MoS and found an open Saturday drop in session (most of their activities are during the work week, in the middle of the day, which is really unfortunate for me) and just signed up.

This past Saturday was the day and it was fantastic. 1.5 hours with 30 8-13 year olds is quite challenging, but also really rewarding. About half way through, I found myself with a difficult student and was really proud that I could get her to concentrate on a task and help her get some meaning from the session. It was also really amazing to see the dedication and ambition of some of the older kids, who come weekly with stories they have been working on for a while – one girl is writing a detective novel about a private eye, while another boy is writing a novel about a child who works in a factory and grows up to be Prime Minister. I was really impressed by them and their enthusiasm and optimism.

I fairly sailed out of the Monster Shop that afternoon, and directly to a computer to sign up for another mentoring spot. My next session is in March and I can't wait – it really is one of the most enjoyable ways I've found to spend a Saturday morning.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The initial foray into house hunting in London

This past weekend, The Irishman and I went for our first house viewing. !!!!

It came about like this:

Once we met with the mortgage broker who told us we could easily obtain (and afford) a mortgage loan in the area of £XXX,XXX (!!!!), we started scouring the internet for listings in our neighborhood and surrounding areas. We were pretty bummed, but not surprised, to learn that N1 is essentially out of our price bracket, especially the lovely Barnsbury Conservation area that I lust after so much (my walk to work is like a stroll through property porn, it really shouldn't be legal). So we started widening our search area and found that Stoke Newington, Islington's edgier, hippier, gayer, crunchier northern cousin, was actually much more affordable while still offering a lot of the amenities we desire – shops, cafes, restaurants, proximity to other cool neighborhoods, parks, and a good vibe. We found an intriguing listing after not much searching and decided, well, hell - no time like the present - and called to arrange a viewing.

Too bad that property was actually taken off the market, scheduled to possibly reappear in March, but the estate agents registered us and immediately started sending us emails of properties that suited our requirements. Those requirements are roughly:
- ideally a house, or a maisonette
- 2.5 or 3 bedrooms (The Irishman works from home most days now, so he needs an office in addition to us needing a spare room)
- 1.5 or 2 bathrooms
- outdoor space mandatory, garden preferred over terrace
- eat-in kitchen or open-plan kitchen/lounge
- ample storage (cupboards, cabinets, closets, etc)
- good light sources (windows)

And low and behold, an interesting property popped up in my inbox mid-way through last week and we got a viewing in the diary. We used it as an excuse to reacquaint ourselves with Stoke Newington overall, and decide whether it was a place we wanted to actually live.

The property itself was lovely, but not for us; we didn't like the layout of the interior and felt that it just wasn't workable for what we wanted. But the road was really pretty, the condition was excellent, and the garden was amazing. Also, the property was definitely owned by one of the former members of the one-hit wonders Cornershop – random! 

So we left the viewing feeling like what we want is definitely achievable in our price range – whee!!! – and in that neighborhood. 

Buoyed by what we saw, we strolled back in the direction of our current home, along Church Street; if you haven't ever been to Stokey, Church Street is the heart of the village full of cafés, shops, restaurants, and street life. It was buzzing on Saturday and full of people and dogs and with the sun shining it really convinced us that this would be a step up in terms of location rather than a compromise to leave Angel.

Next steps for us are to keep seeing properties: an estate agent told us that the national average is viewing 7 properties before putting in a offer. Simultaneously, we need to get back in touch with our mortgage broker to get what's called an AIP (agreement in principle). That basically means we have the confidence, and legal back up, to walk into an estate agent and make an offer on a house and know that we can get a mortgage to pay for it. It doesn't mean we're locked into using that bank or taking that mortgage, but it does give us a piece of paper that backs up our position.

And, I guess, we wait – with fingers crossed – for the right property to come available and the stars to align for us to see it, make an offer, and have it accepted. It sounds so straightforward, but I know it won't be; I know I will see a lot of houses before I find the "right" one and then it will be taken, or my offer won't be accepted, or it will all fall through... Sounds a bit like dating, no? Here's hoping that it doesn't take me as long to find the right house as it did for me to find the right (Irish) man!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The surge of inspiration in Kings Cross

Image from Flickr courtesy of roeyahram
Many of you will know Kings Cross as most people do: a grubby train station with an overcrowded tube station attached next to the Eurostar terminal where trains take you to Paris. But Kings Cross is changing, fast. My office is in Kings Cross and while I still see a few of the prostitutes and drug addicts that once made the neighborhood infamous, the regeneration of the area is bringing so much more color and life to the area. Before working here, I lived around the corner (flat number 2 of 3 since living in London) and I've witnessed such a change in attitude, inhabitants, and atmosphere.

I had about a gazillion errands to run yesterday and skipped eating in my building's restaurant to use my lunch hour to hit a post office, Boots, and Tescos. On my way back to the office, I made a quick detour to grab a sandwich on the go in the St Pancras International terminal. This is actually a guilty pleasure of mine because nothing is more thrilling and inspiring than to stroll through that building pretending to be off on a glorious European weekend – I especially love the ceiling inside the terminal, so lofting and geometric! And there is a Le Pain Quotidien, which I associate much more with New York than Paris, and I was a little big homesick for New York yesterday so a baguette sandwich was more comforting than just lunch.

I took the canal route back to my office, which lead me up King's Boulevard – a brand new street with a brand new postcode of N1C. The Kings Cross development is so big that the city had to create a new postal code for it! I strolled up past Eat Street (sort of sad that I had a baguette in my hand and couldn't get any tacos), taking in the sight of the new Central St Martins art school building in a converted warehouse (so cool), and crossed over to The Guardian building to access the canal towpath back towards Caledonian Road. 

And for my whole journey, my heart swelled with pride and love for all of the art students exploring and examining the world. They were all there, alone and in pairs or in small groups, with their cameras and their sketchbooks, their overpriced coffee cups and ridiculous quiffs, talking loudly and earnestly about their hopes, dreams, projects, loves, and everything in between. It took me back to my own formative years at Syracuse, floating around in my own gritty urban bubble of art and design, scheming, creating, exploring, and learning. It was such a precious and wonderful time in my life that to see it being played out again along the Regents Canal in London lifted my spirits and reminded me just why I have the job I have now, and how I got to be here.

They should name one of the new streets in the Kings Cross development Memory Lane, N1C.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The unknown expat dilemma

I've written about this before, about how hard it is to be far away from your friends and miss out on their lives. This becomes especially important when they get married and start having kids – unless they live in a country adjacent to yours to where you can get decently cheap Ryanair flights.

The sad truth of it is that I have now tiered my friends. I'm not worried about writing this and posting it in the ether because I've told them all before. Basically, I have had to be coldly rational and mentally sub-divide my friends as follows:
- People who, if they get engaged and invite me to their wedding, receive a card
- People who, if they get engaged and invite me to their wedding, receive a card and gift
- People who, if they get engaged and invite me to their wedding receive me in person at their wedding
The number of people in each category diminishes the farther you go down the list.

I haven't done this out of cruelness, but out of necessity. I'm at the age where every day brings another Facebook relationship status change to "engaged" and a subsequent "if I invite you will you come" email. And I can't go, most of the time. Airfare has gotten so expensive, and hotels are so expensive, and it's not fair to The Irishman to have to use all of his money and all of his holiday days to jet over to America for my friends' weddings.

This is coming up because one of my friends is getting married in Florida in April. She is in the bottom tier, someone whose wedding I will not miss despite only having gotten engaged 6 weeks ago thus giving me 5 weeks notice (it's okay, she's ALWAYS late). But now my challenge is to decide whether to go to the wedding for the weekend, or morph it into a week's vacation in Florida. This is definitely a "first world problem" but one that is important - to me - as I'm trying to make it to see my friends get married on the beach without breaking the bank, and get the most value out of a 10 hour flight.

This is the sad reality of expat life: weighing the pros and cons of jetlag, hotels, and baggage fees just to share your friends' big moments. It's another sad reality that I desperately wish, at moments like this, that I traveled more for work so that I had more frequent flyer miles in the bank – even though business travel, especially the up-and-down- in-and-out-in-a-day type, is absolutely exhausting. But at least I could redeem some miles for an upgrade or something.

This part of expat life is not glamorous, nor is it exciting; it is exhausting and tedious and often heartbreaking. Yet had someone actually given me this heads up before I moved abroad, I'm not sure I would have taken it seriously. It's just one of the things you have to accept with the visa, like being called love all of the time and standing in long immigration lines. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Rolling in the (borrowed) deep


Yesterday, The Irishman and I met with a mortgage broker.

< cue terrified expression >

I was simultaneously terrified and excited, and mostly curious about what the process would be like
and what we would end up with at the end.

Surprisingly, it wasn't so bad. The broker was recommended by a friend, and he was open and engaging and helpful in ways I hadn't expected – he not only told us what we could afford, but gave us tips on buying a house, how to deal with estate agents, and ways to maximize our investment. I left our session feeling more hopeful than not that we can buy a house this year if we find what we want.

And yes – we can afford a house. That was the best part of the session: finding out we can, with our available joint savings, afford a decent mortgage with manageable monthly payments.

I feel really adult about it all and the concept of actually owning property is now somewhat daunting. But The Irishman is gleeful and has created a very complicated spreadsheet of ingoings, outgoings, and plausible purchase situations. This weekend we are going to sit down and do the joint budget and discuss, in frank and open terms, what we each need/want in a house - our must-have, non-negotiables vs dream-house qualities. I expect tears, foot-stamps, and strong coffee.

Through this process, I've come to realize that THIS is what love is: not romantic gestures, not engagement rings or weddings, not fancy dates or snazzy holidays. Planning a joint life and property purchase is the ultimate relationship commitment. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Musing on resolving

Happy 2012 everyone! I'm glad my first full day back in the UK dawned with torrential downpours and gale force winds. I'm trying to be positive here!

Last year, I made a big deal about my resolutions, even assessing my progress one month into the year. And you know what? I still sorta failed. I didn't keep up with my sketchbook (though I am loving Pinterest more and more), I'm still falling back on my overdraft, and guess what – today's weigh in pronounced me the exact same weight as I was this time last year. Blurgh.

When I was in the US, radio and TV shows kept spouting the same advice on how to stick to your resolutions. Hilariously, one of the tips was to start in March! But seriously, since I fail miserably every year, this year I've decided to rethink my approach to self improvement.

I spent a few days around New Years with one of my closest friends who has the enviable plan to quit her job and travel in Asia for 6 months. She's estimating that she and her hubs will be ready, financially and emotionally and practically, by Christmas time this year. I am putting it out there in the universe that I am jealous of her. Not in a "man I hate her" way but in more of a "God I wish I had that sort of goal/plan" way.

So my New Years resolution is to have my own plan.

It may, or may not, have been evident but 2011 wasn't exactly a great year. I accomplished a few things, like run a marathon and successfully transition to a new job, and spent another great year with The Irishman. But I'm still feeling unfulfilled. I'm dragging. I'm not achieving. And I hate that. So I need a plan to give me focus, give me ambition, help me find the inspiration I used to have on a daily basis. I'm not sure how it's going to happen but I need to do something.

One of the things I hope will help me create my plan is a Life List. Above-mentioned friend shared hers with me, and it is a delightful list of both aspirational things to aim for and achievable goals. I had started my life list earlier this year and only got to 7 things; hers is the full 100 and it made me think that yes, yes there are 100 things i want to do in my life and dammit I can do them!

So I'm going to write my life list. And I'm going to think really hard about what it is I want out of life: personally, professionally, lifestyle, location, attitude. This blog will come under review, my wardrobe will come under review, my savings will come under review, my spending, my eating – everything I spend time doing, thinking, feeling, I'm going to try to be more conscious about so that I don't feel like I'm frittering my life away.

This is going to be a slow burn, but hopefully this time next year will find me more sane, centred, and positive.