Sunday, December 27, 2009

Looking for a House is Like Dating

My landlady informed me three days before Christmas that she intends to sell the house I've been living in for more than three years.  It was a bit of a surprise--I had assumed the place was a steady source of income for her and so she wouldn't sell it out from under me--and the timing, needless to say, left something to be desired.  She is giving me first dibs, so there is an option for me to own the space I've inhabited.

This house is a lot like a guy I dated on and off for a year.  There was a lot to like--I found him pretty attractive, we looked good together, and it was nice to have someone in my life when I felt like going to the movies or needed a date for a party.  He was, in short (actually he was kind of short, come to think about it), appropriate.  But when we finally called it quits for real, I was bummed because I had yet another relationship behind me that hadn't worked out, but I certainly wasn't heartbroken. 

This pretty little brick house is across the street from the elementary school where my youngest child has only one more full year to attend.  I left my old neighborhood when I got divorced, and it was a safe place to fall, with lots of supportive friends and the undeniable advantage over my ex that when the kids were at my place  they could go for a bike ride and visit their classmates.  I love seeing people from school when I am out walking, and I adore the old houses and even the old, unsteady sidewalks.  I socialize with my neighbors, and they are kind enough to treat me like a homeowner already.  The house is charming and comfortable enough, because, well, I am just dating it.  But what if I commit?  Will all of the little things that just kind of bug me suddenly make me decide to pick a fight with it when friends are coming over for dinner?  

If I buy this place, all the things that I've been able to live with--the handyman special bathroom, the deck that is well past its best years, the unpaved driveway (yes, you read that right), the teeny tiny living room--will not just be things in a place I'm renting.  I will be married to this pile of bricks.  Every newlywed couple has a pivotal fight where they both experience a degree of panic.  In the immediate aftermath, thoughts run along the following lines: I married this person?  I hate the way he chews, for God's sake! I've made a terrible, terrible mistake!  Sometimes it really does mean that a major error has been made.  But most often it just means that the gravity of the commitment has finally dawned upon the people who signed the contract.

So right now I'm feeling the itch to see other houses and am sinking my desperately-needed time off into on-line searches and drive by looks through neighborhoods in the right school district at a price I can handle. I'm basically at the phase.  I've texted a realtor friend and asked if she'll show me two or three I think I'd like.  So I'll be going out for a drink with a few 3/2's this week.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Question Four: Do I Have the Energy to Do the Things I Wish I Could Do?

I'm frequently described as energetic, although there are plenty of mornings where I am, as The Happiness Project's Gretchen Rubin would say, acting the way I want to feel

Over the years, I've figured out a few ways to maximize energy:

Know your temperment.  When I do my best to put out energy, I get back lots from the people who interact with me, which then gives me more, since I am an extrovert. A few years ago, I learned a distinction that rings true: extroverts get energy from being around others, whereas introverts build up energy reserves by spending time by themselves. (If you're unsure about your own temperment, try this quiz.)  Because I am an only child I can retreat when I am feeling overwhelmed, but I've learned that once I overcome this and call a friend or two and see them things are a lot better.  From the other perspective, if you find being around others exhausts you after a while, don't feel badly about turning down a social invitation.

Figure out what gives you energy. Blogging properly takes lots of time, and I didn't start because I don't have anything else to do.  My life, like most people's, generally feels a little too full.  But much of my day involves scheduling, lists, making sure things get done.  The time I spend doing creative things (and writing is my favorite among them) gives me more energy because I get "flow" and let go of my daily worries while I am engaged in the activity.  Determine which activities give you that feeling, and make time to do them.

Understand what drains your energy reserves.  Work is called work for a reason, so of course it's going to use up energy, but if you hate what you're doing all day, every day, it's much worse.  Are there things that wipe you out that you can control?  A long commute is not so bad for some people (I actually love to drive and don't mind traffic, so mine isn't as bad as it might be for others) but for others it's torture.  I get overwhelmed by a to-do list that's too long, even if the things on it are small.  So I've realized that taking care of a bunch of little things gives me the same sense of straightening up my house.  I don't have to dust the baseboards (literally or metaphorically) but staying mentally tidy gives me a sense of calm. 

Know who drains your energy.  We all have them--friends, co-workers, family members--who bring us down.  Energy is contagious, but so is pessimism.  Sometimes the glass is just half-empty for these folks, but other times we let them drag us into their personal dramas.  This is good for them--that way, we own at least part of their mental baggage, which maybe makes their load lighter--but we have our own bags to carry.  So be supportive, but make sure you're not the caddy.  As for the truly toxic folks, unless they gave you life, tell the truth and run. 

Schedule rest.  Don't wait until you bottom out to take time to rest, or your health will inevitably suffer.  Block off time to do nothing, and apologize to no one.  If you've got children and a spouse, make sure they know that when the bathroom door is locked, you're in the bath.  When you take off to play a sport, make sure your phone is off.  If you've got dear friends who live in other cities, get on a plane and go and see them. And don't feel guilty.  That's the biggest energy drain of all.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Five Questions, Continued: Are There Rituals in My Life That Consistently Bring Me Fulfillment?

When my kids were little our weekly pre-weekend routine involved a trip to a wine and fine foods store called Ronnie's.  For a couple of toddlers, going to a wine store might not strike you as an appropriate outing.  But there was something special for them about this place:  the best ciabatta ever, with samples aplenty.  Or at least that's how the children remember it.  When Central Market moved in up the street and crowds flocked there, Ronnie's soldiered on but eventually was out of business.  CM has good bread with samples, too, and I can often coax one or both of the kids to tag along on my weekly trip.  But though my daughter and son are into their second decade, they have a wistful recollection of our Friday morning ritual.

I know this because they always mention it when we are enjoying another ritual, a weekend breakfast at Yogi's, which is across the street from where Ronnie's was almost a decade ago.  As enjoy our food  (always the same: they have "everything" bagels and chocolate milk, I have migas or a Greek omelet) we talk about the week, say hello to the friends we inevitably run into, and then one of them sighs and says, "remember how good that bread was?" 

Since my teenage years I've learned that to stay grounded I need to do a few things every day.  Exercise, even if it's a half-hour walk with the dog, is critical because I blow off nervous energy. If I don't do this, I get irritable and brood more than usual.  I also need to read, not just the news but also something with language that satisfies me, usually a book but sometimes a blog or a magazine, because it helps me remember the beauty in the world. And nearly every night I take a hot bath, which tells me it's nearly time for bed and rest.  Most important, I need to make time to see friends in person, not just electronically.  As a busy person with an inclination to put ticking off my to-do list ahead of human interaction (I confess I just don't understand people who make friends at the gym--how can they waste all that time?) I need to book appointments to see my friends.  It doesn't just happen as part of my day, but if I don't schedule it I spend way too much time in my own head, which gets pretty stuffy and rather bitchy after a time. 

Rituals are touchstones that help us remember who we were and understand who we are now.  They keep us grounded when life changes rapidly.  My kids have those breakfasts and reading time with me, and Saturday night is always movie night at their dad's house.  These things have helped sustain them through a huge and irreparable change in their young lives.  

Eating a meal with them at a place we've gone for years is sort of like the pencil marks on the wall in the kitchen in the house where they've grown up.  I lived there with them for eight years, but don't anymore (their Dad is the keeper of the pencil marks) and sometimes feel as though I've lost part of their childhood because many of the familiar places in their lives are no longer where I belong.  But when we go into Yogi's and I see parents there with their teenagers and college-aged kids, talking with friends and enjoying each other, I know we're sharing something that feeds us all in lots of ways.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Word From Your Fifty Year-Old Self

"Open your mouth a lot.  This means you will eat a lot of foods, kiss a lot of men, take deep breaths and say what you want to say.  And it will mean by 50 you will be spared the closed lip look of a woman who doesn't like what she sees.  Avoid pursed lips."

--From the post "Fierce at 50.  When you are 20. Or 30." on Privilege: A High WASP Stops to Consider, a blog by "A 53 year-old executive and mother, brought up in a life of privilege."  (She finds great shoes for $24.99, too.  A woman after my own heart.)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cards With Character

As many of you are undoubtedly working furiously to get your holiday shopping done (and, for the organized and old-fashioned among you, are perhaps sending out proper cards to friends--my hat is off to you) I'm sending a useful link your way.  In the era of Tweets, everyone still loves to get a card in the mail, especially if it's on stationary that is also art. 

My friend and neighbor Susan is a gifted artist and illustrator.  Among her projects is BowWow Cards, where you can find whimisical and unique designs for your own correspondence or to give as a gift.  My kids' teachers have been happy recipients of packages of these in the past couple of years--the blank ones are perfect to use as thank you notes for all those other presents from students--and they are great to have around to use as birthday cards to children and (fun) grownups. 

Susan and her husband, Jay, have a wonderful house that they restored from what was evidently horrible condition, so they are sort of neighborhood celebrities.  Susan especially is an animal lover, and it comes through in her playful renderings of various creatures, especially those of horses in the Rodeo grouping of cards.  Check out the website, where you see all that is available and shop, too, or contact her at

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is There One Thing I Look Forward to Every Day?

It's not when I try to back out of my driveway at 7:40, when the school across the street is in full arrival force. I rented this house so my kids would be across the street from their school, which means I not only have to deal with the people who park in front of my driveway because it's just easier for them but also the fact that as fellow parent I can't berate them. Well, not really.  But that's another post.

And when I leave the office at the end of a workday?  Well, that's a commute of at least an hour, with more people of a certain ilk on the highway.  When I pick the kids up from my nanny's house, that's pretty good.  They get in the car for the two-block drive, and I love hearing them talk at the same time about the exciting moments in their respective days. Then we get home and arguments ensue over who took the dog for a walk yesterday, whose turn it is to use the Mac, and so on.  It's fleeting. 

My favorite time is a rather selfish one. But it makes me do something that keeps me healthy, which I suppose is not selfish since it's in the best interests of the kids that I stay alive.  It's the few minutes after I get back from a run or the gym.  If my field marshall self has won the argument with the stay in the warm bed self,  I get to carry my endorphin rush back into my quiet house.  I turn on the coffeemaker, which I've stocked with freshly-ground beans and filtered water the night before.  Then I turn to my laptop and have a quick look at the day's news on Twitter (okay, the NY Times and, for you locals, the Star-Telegram, too) and take a breath.  Then I wake the children and get into a very hot shower. 

It's short but sweet, with the smell of coffee and the feeling of hot water after a good sweat.  As the days grow colder it is sometimes a little tougher to remind myself the reward is worth heaving myself out of comfort and into exertion.  But when I do, I find it easier to back out of my driveway.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Five Questions, Part I: First Thought of the Morning

When you wake up, what's your first thought about the day?  Some people wake up happy always. I don't understand them, but they do exist. After I get past it can't possibly be time to get out of bed, is there a way I can exercise later in the day so I can skip the gym and go back to sleep and is it raining, (which may be yet another excuse to skip the gym) what pops into my head is the most important thing I have to do that day.  Which can inspire nervousness, excitement, happy anticipation or, on occasion, dread.

The latter is an unpleasant emotion.  At certain points in my life--following a huge move, in the aftermath of a miscarriage, during the process of a divorce--it dominated my first moments of consciousness for what seemed like a long time.  Getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other took all I had, and yet through those times I gained a brief understanding of the strength of those who engage in a daily struggle against long-term depression.  It felt like dragging around a wet, heavy coat on a March day by the lake, and I am grateful that darkness eventually passed for me.

But dread is also useful, if we listen to it.  If it persists over a long time and you know in your gut you aren't in the grips of clinical depression, then something in you is telling you it's time to go. Time to leave a job that is soul-deadening because of what it entails or because of a boss who is mean, crazy or both.  Out of a relationship that is dead or abusive, a living space that is too expensive or too big or too cramped, a city that lacks opportunity or the weather you want.

Life has taught me to listen to that nagging feeling.  Once I recognize it, I am almost subconsciously propelled towards change.  It doesn't mean quitting my job that very day.  It does, however, recalibrate my thinking, almost subconsciously, into resourcefulness. What job do I want next?  How do can learn some of the skills I need for it in my current spot?  Where might I find such a job?  Once I start formulating a plan, the dread becomes bearable, because I know it's transient.

But some changes are much easier than others.  Breaking up with someone you've dated for a few months is different than upending a marriage of a few decades; leaving a dead-end job when you're in your twenties is easier than jettisoning a career in which you've invested a lifetime; moving out of an apartment you've outgrown after a couple of years doesn't compare with leaving a house that once held cherished hopes for a family history.  Dread is the canary in the mine, warning us of the inevitable.  Contentment can often show up after we've come out the other side and haven't yet looked up.

About two years after my husband of sixteen years moved out, I had an odd moment, just about mid-way on my hour commute to work.  It was early spring and the sun was out, which it usually is in North Texas.  I was listening to music and motoring along in my 2001 Honda Civic, dents and all.  An unfamiliar feeling came over me, and I wondered, what is that? I think I feel...happy? Happy!

Now, not every day.  But once I manage to get up and put on my running shoes (or my work clothes, if resolve has lost out to a warm bed)  it's usually not bad at all.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Your Life Replete? Five Questions to Ask.

Life is noisy and invasive.  (See this month's Wired for an account of how one reporter tried to disappear.  For real.  Fascinating.)  It's hard to manage when so many things are coming at us--I often feel like I spend my days trying, generally in vain, to mark things off my list.  A week can hurtle by and I wonder what exactly I've done. 

In an effort to wring some meaning out of my days before I spend my mornings grunting at the newspaper (not the print version, but I fear, after a week with my parents, the senior citizen impulse will persist) about how the world has gone to hell in a handbasket, I've devised a few questions I ask myself on Friday evenings as I pour myself a glass of grape and ponder my activities, if I can recall them, from the past seven days.  I'll share my perspective on each in the posts to follow.

  • When I wake up in the morning, what is my first thought about the day before me?
  • Is there at least one thing I look forward to doing every day?
  • Are there rituals in my life that consistently bring me fulfillment?
  • Do I have the energy to do the things I wish I could do?
  • When I think about my goals, are they something I can reach within two years, or are they "someday" ideas?
I hope you'll share your ideas with me, even before mine are posted.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Saving the Words

"Broadly speaking, the short words are best, and old words best of all." --Winston Churchill

The Oxford English Dictionary has been around since 1857 and is updated annually. In the past decade, however, its sales have been declining as those of us in search of definitions have headed to sites such as rather than get up and pick the hard copy up from its place as a doorstop. The team dedicated to reviving the OED brand wasn't just trying to compete with these sites, but rather had the mandate to "..make people fall in love with the English language."  Lofty that, but for those of us, like Churchill, who adore language, we may be grateful for a treasure.

Save the Words is an interactive patchwork quilt of what the team calls "archaic but mysterious" words.  Among those I ran across today were:

Rhodologist: one who studies and classifies roses.  The rhodologist introduced a species of roses that smells like leftover sardines, thus disproving Shakespeare's quote.

Jobler:  one who does small jobs.  To celebrate my pathetic pay raise, I'm going out to drink with some joblers. 

No English stuffiness here, but lots of delicious irreverence.  Readers even have the option to "adopt" a favorite. Should those of you who don't spend your days immersed in Victorian novels know the meaning of any without a double-click, my hat is off to you.  For those who love words, prepare to entire the opium den.