Friday Favorites: House Hunting

Friday, August 31, 2012

On the rare occasion I lived in a place that had cable television you can be certain I wasted several hours glued to HGTV's series about finding a home. The premise is, an agent shows three homes to a individual/couple, then said individual/couple decides which option best suits their budget and needs. Simple. Real estate on the domestic front is mostly suburb after suburb. But those international options...Wow! Why yes, I'll take a rustic cottage in the French countryside with exposed wooden beams, a gourmet kitchen, and lavender garden. 

Everything is more glamorous on the big screen.

Real home owners, of which camp I've yet to join, probably have a different story about the process of buying a home. I have had a fairly transient adult life, which means I've been a renter for the better part of 15 years. Depressing, I know. Tomorrow we leave for a brand new city hoping to find something that works for us for the time being. (Buying is still a little ways off.) We have one week to make our selection. (Okay, that's not 100% true. Fortunately, GH's work will provide temporary housing for up to 30 days if we don't find anything. Phew! At least we won't be slumming it under The Arch.)

With moving on the brain, here are some of my go-to house hunting tactics. 

1. Location. Duh. Where do you want to live? What's the neighborhood like? What will your commuting distance be? Is it a walkable community? Does it have the staples you enjoy (e.g., grocery story, library, post office, gym, hip restaurants, places to volunteer, etc.)? Generally, when I move to an area I'm unfamiliar with, I just drive around neighborhoods that I like, looking for those rare, but totally helpful, "For Rent" signs. It works. Of course I also look at Craigslist and other online real estate sites just to cover my bases.

2. Non-Negotiables. Make a list of things you simply cannot live without in a house. For me that means a washer and dryer or at least hook-ups; quarters are for casinos, not my delicates. Having a gas stove on the other hand, well, that may not be a deal breaker.

3. Take Pictures & Notes.This is especially important if you are looking at a lot of places.  We created a spreadsheet for our St. Louis house hunting expedition; it contains fancy columns with headings like rent cost, square footage, location, type of unit (condo, townhouse, apartment, single family home), contact person, and a notes section. 

4. Talk to People. Seriously. Tell people you are looking for a place to live and ask them if they know of good neighborhoods or where they live and if they like it. Talk to strangers at the grocery store, church, or next door to places you actually look at. If people like where they live they might talk for an hour. No big deal. Ask probing questions and think of it as investigative house hunting journalism.

5. Budget. Set your limit and stick with it. 

I think that about covers it. Anything you'd add to this list? 

We're off. Wish us loads of house hunting luck!

Good Eats: Julia's Empanadas

Thursday, August 30, 2012

In the spring of 2010 I suffered a severe health emergency while on a business trip to Texas. It was one of the most traumatic experience of my entire life. I'm not going to write about that today. Which means you are probably wondering what empanadas and chronic health issues have to do with one another. Right? Glad you asked.  

About a year ago I started seeing a specialist to help me with the ramifications of that ill-fated trip. While I am wildly grateful for such fine treatment, the doctor's office is a bit of a drive. Fortunately, whenever I come to work directly following an appointment it means I drive due south on Georgia Avenue, passing right by Julia's Empanadas on a fairly regular basis. 

Julia's Empanadas is a DC staple with three locations in the metro area. They are great for a couple reasons. First, they bake their empanadas, which means you don't have any greasy regrets. Second, the empanadas are huge! I got two once and didn't eat for another 24 hours. Finally, these little pockets of goodness are super affordable, which is always a win in my book. Usually I opt for the vegetarian option, with an outer shell made from a savory sweet potato dough. Today I indulged in the salteñas chicken with potato, green peas, hard boiled egg, raisins, green olives and onion. Now that's some good eating.

Words: Wisdom

Good fortune always seems to bring happiness, but deceives you with her smiles, whereas bad fortune is always truthful because by change she shows her true fickleness. Good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightens."

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts. 

The institution I work for put together a summer reading primer for incoming freshman, with the idea that new students would read short excerpts three days a week throughout the summer. This quote comes from that slender compilation. It sparked a great discussion and had me pondering opposition, meaning, and truthfulness.

Handwritten Notes

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I come from a long line of letter writers. Growing up, after every Christmas and birthday, my mom would sit us down at the kitchen table with a pile of pens and a stack of thank you cards. She'd address the envelopes and we would scrawl out a little note. (Bribes may have been involved, but it got the job done.) At times I didn't know what to say or felt inadequate or simply didn't want to do it. But my mom, the champion gratitude coach, helped us through the rough patches and simultaneously helped foster a lifelong skill. 

I still write cards. There is something extraordinarily special about receiving a personal note in the mail. They can come for a particular occasion (birthdays, babies, marriage, get-well soon, or loss of a loved one), or they can be for no particular reason. I can never decide which is best.

In an age of instant communication it might seem a waste of time to put pen to paper, scrounge up a stamp, and write out a little hello. But this is exactly why I'm championing the lost art of handwritten notes. Have you ever written a thank you to a local business you appreciate? What about sending a post card out of the blue? When you take the time to slow down and mentally process what you are going to say you'll notice a slight paradigm shift. You start to really think about the other person. The person you are writing to. Where they are at in their life and how they've made an impact on yours. 

Currently, I have babies on the brain. In the space of one month I have three family members and one close friend having a baby. That's a lot of onesies! In preparation I've been stocking up on letterpress cards. I know, letterpress cards are expensive. They're totally worth it. But if you can't splurge on letterpress go to Target or stock up during after-the-holiday sales. The point is, having a stash of pretty paper and occasion-specific cards in your supply makes it all that much easier to send one out when the need arises. (Just make certain you have correct mailing addresses on file.)  

Lastly, I have a confession to make. When we were newly engaged the very first wedding related item I purchased was a box of 200 thank you cards. Two hundred. Who does that? But you know what?, I've used almost all of them. My aunt, before she passed away, mentioned to my mom that she was so touched by my thoughtful wedding thank you and that she had put it away in her "special spot" and planned on keeping it forever. 

That's the power of the handwritten note. Never underestimate your words.  

Pretty cards purchased here and here.
For tips on writing the perfect thank you note check out this NPR article

Local Color: Dunbarton Oaks

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

When I was a teenager I was obsessed with three things. Lucille Ball was one of them. There's a famous I Love Lucy episode where the Ricardos and Mertzes are in Italy and Lucy is trying to get into an Italian movie. She ventures off to a grape vineyard in an effort to "soak up local color," but once she's in the grape vat, stomping away, an all out female brawl ensues. Sitcom gold.*

As our weeks in DC wind down, I have been motivated to cross off items from my bucket list. Fortunately, the list was relatively small, but ever since listening to this story about crystals, chicken wire, France, and leapers I have been dying to get to Dunbarton Oaks to see the imaginative cloud installation in person. We finally made it this past weekend. 

Dunbarton Oaks is the name of a 10-acre house and gardens happily situated off Wisconsin avenue in Georgetown. Originally purchased by Mildred and Robert Bliss in 1920, the property is now owned by Harvard and has a research library on the premises. The Blisses expanded and renovated the property, adding multiple terraces and fountains to the existing landscape. In collaboration with the landscape designer, Beatrix Farrand, they worked to design gardens that had color throughout the growing season and incorporated sculpture as art wherever possible. In essence, they sought to create a retreat for students and scholars alike, a place where they could focus and write their life's work. (I think we could all use a retreat like that.) Dunbarton Oaks has all the charm of a Jane Austen estate stuck in the middle of urban setting. I could easily have spent an entire day there, but since they are only open four hours a day I settled for what we could see before the rain set in.
There is something magical about water reflections.
While 10,000 crystals are breathtaking, I found the rose garden, Italian ellipse, cutting garden, and emerald pool equally as inspiring. I took about 150 additional photographs in a futile effort to capture its beauty.** Hopefully exploring Dunbarton Oaks is now on your DC bucket list.

*I must give credit to my smart friend who does a Local Travel section on her blog. I'm claiming a similar feature and calling it Local Color. Hopefully that won't incite a brawl.

**Additional images can be found on my Instagram feed.


Our Wedding Reading

Monday, August 27, 2012

This past May I got married. We got married! At times it still seems surreal and unbelievably lucky.  

While we were engaged, Ken and I decided to have a theme for our wedding reception. We're both readers so books was a fairly obvious choice. We also decided to have a program at our reception, which isn't really the way most Mormon receptions go, but oh well. As part of the program I wanted to read a quote or poem or something profound that accurately conveyed my feelings for Ken. For weeks I scanned and read poems hoping something would standout at the unquestionable winner. Nothing. 

Then, one afternoon, I stumbled on this news article that recommended three relationship building reads. Normally these type of books aren't my thing, but on a whim I picked one up at the library. This profound read spoke to me. I inhaled its somber story and let questions of life and love, beliefs and politics, cognitive dissonance and emotion swirl through my mind. I couldn't put down the hauntingly beautiful tale. Halfway through the book I found exactly what I had been searching for. It blazed off the page, begging to be shared on our special day. This is what I read:

“But now I know in my heart what before I understood only in my head: We don’t fall in love for reasons. This is the source of love’s meaning and of our obsession with it. In an age where every phenomenon is assumed to have an explanation, love keeps us human; love taps us into mystery, into that which we can’t control or explain: love, and grief. To love is to willingly lower our defenses, a terrifying prospect in any time and place but especially so at a time and in a place where we perceive ourselves as having so much to defend ourselves against. To love is to give oneself over to another, to entrust to someone else a power that all good sense would have us reserve to ourselves. So we give away some part of ourselves, to find that part returned to us tenfold, in ways we could never have predicted and cannot rationally understand. Loaves and fishes. Miracles happen.”
Geography of the Heart by Fenton Johnson (p. 143)


Sunday, August 26, 2012

When I was seven-years-old my dad got a new job. It meant our little family would leave the only home I had ever known, a split-level blue house with a garden and sprawling yard. It meant moving to a completely new neighborhood, with new friends, and a new school. I was devastated. What added to my heartache was my inability to do anything about the move. Oh, I made my feelings known, but my parents hadn’t consulted me about the decision. Which made me feel betrayed. Why hadn’t they thought about the impact this would have on me? Would my new home have a tire swing and a creek that ran through our backyard? Would my nearest neighbor friend be accessible through a hole in the fence and have crazy chickens and an abundance of raspberry bushes? Would I be able to ride my yellow bicycle down the dirt road behind our home, scouting for pheasants, as I experienced the pure freedom of childhood? I was at a loss for how to cope with such a transformative moment in my young life. I felt lonely and sad.

A decade ago I was at a similar crossroads. After having just graduated from college I was on the brink of starting my first “real job” and moving away. This time, however, I made the decision to leave my beloved Cache Valley. It would be the second time I felt my heart shatter for a place I adored. The very same place. A place imbedded in my soul. I knew if I left things would never be the same. I wouldn’t see my favorite people every day. Or frequent my favorite local haunts on a regular basis. I'd miss the landscape and all the familiarity of home. While people assured me that I could always come back and visit, I knew that leaving, leaving my home, and forming a new life meant I would actually have to develop a new life and engage in my new surroundings. Which meant acclimated to newness on so many levels. (You see while my adventurous heart delights in changing vistas and the excitement of adventure— unknown towns, foreign languages, unexplored markets and tastes— when it comes right down to it I think change, major change, permanent change, terrifies me.) As I left Logan the summer of 2002, my belonging packed into the first car I ever owned, I couldn’t help feel I was leaving one desert landscape for a desert of social isolation. Moving to a place where I knew no one. Knowing, in my heart, that I’d never live in that sacred place again.

Now, ten year later, it's fall of 2012, and once again I stand at the same mental crossroads. But this time we have made the decision to leave together. A familiar ache tugs my heart. With the full weight of knowing that once I leave this fair Capital City things will never be the same. Exciting prospects are on the horizon and certainly I’ll grow to love a new city, a place where I hear people are nice, but This Town (DC/Northern VA/MD) is where I grew up. Where I truly started to come into my own and experience who I was as an adult. Where I had my first crushing heartbreak and found my life companion. It's the city where I have meet lifelong friends and felt my heart expand to understand more about the person that I am. While I have taken advantage of numerous opportunities living here (visiting landmarks, museums, beaches, and countless restaurants), leaving means that I will no longer have these moments at my fingertips. Although I have mastered the art of finding a good parking spot and can parallel park like an olympic athlete, here I am, fully cognizant that when I return, I will be just another tourist. Which breaks my heart a fair bit.

In 2002, when I left Logan, my soundtrack was a Dixie Chicks cover. It became my moving anthem. It got me through a really rough patch. At the time I felt all the parts of me shifting, sliding into what could only appropriately be called a landslide.

* The paradox of loving two vastly different cities is not lost on me. Perhaps my old heart, the one that's getting older, just falls in love too easily. But that's a good thing, right?


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Look what arrived in the mail yesterday! Our second batch of Maryland artisan raw wildflower honey. It came with a little note saying: Please savor the delicate hints of blackberry and raspberry blossoms. Could you just die? Our thoughtful friend adopted us a hive as a wedding gift. It came with visiting rights and three pounds of honey. I adore gifts that keep on giving and we've certainly enjoyed this one. We'll get our last batch next month. Now if I could just convince GH to make his delectable baklava again.

Friday Favorites: Board Games

Friday, August 24, 2012

There was a time in my life when I use to tell people I liked things even if I didn't. It was my way of impressing them. Particularly guys. They'd ask, "Oh do you like doing X?" and I'd respond with an enthusiastic "Yeah, you bet I do!" Then, of course, they would invariably ask me to do X and find out I was terribly bad at it (e.g., bowling, billiards, and darts).

In graduate school I started dating a guy who asked me if I liked board games. In my head I was certain he wouldn't like me if I responded "Not really, board games are for old people," so I told a little fib, which seemed convincing enough, and he somehow got the impression that I liked playing board games. His next question, I kid you not, was "Great. Do you want to come play board games with me on Tuesday night? I play at the nursing home in Takoma Park." My mouth dropped but I quickly agreed. So we went and I played. At first I was horrible, confused by colorful pieces and complicated rules. I got distracted easily and just wanted to play the one game I already knew. Eventually though I got better and started to actually enjoy our Tuesday night outings. (In truth, I adore old people. Secretly I am one of them. I even minored in gerontology in college, so I kinda dig hanging out with the gray hairs.) Soon I was adding games to my own personal collection and giving them out as wedding gifts. Booya! Because the thing about games is, you are never too old to play them. Plus it sharpens your problem-solving abilities, fosters social interactions, and empowers you with a victory high. (Jane McGonigal wrote all about this in her smart book, which I also recommend.)

Fast forward a few years and I actually ended up marrying a gamer, which means those mad skills I learned have come in handy. Next time you are wondering what to do with a Sunday night, get a few friends together and break out that dusty board game sitting at the back of your closet.

Some of my favorite games include:

Lost Cities: This is the ultimate two player game for people age 10 and up. I like this game because it involves starting and forming expeditions, which appeals to my adventurous side. The goal of the game is to get the most points before your opponent. An entire game can be played in less than 30 minutes, which makes it a fun best two out of three match.

Sequence: "It's fun. It's challenging. It's exciting. It's Sequence!" With a tagline like that how can you NOT be hooked? This game is ideal for two to three players. (You can play up to six players if you have two on a team.) Chips are placed on face card pictures with the objective being to get two rows of five tiles (a sequence) before your opponent. Easy enough for children 7+, but variable enough for adults. Plus Sequence is a great gift-giving game.

Tsuro: Game of The Path is not only a beautiful board game it's kind of an allegory to life. Stay on the path. Whatever path you choose. This game is for two to eight players and can be played with anyone 8+. It is a quick game and takes very little explanation. Sometimes I like to get all new agey and tell stories about its mystical meaning to the people I'm playing with.They really dig that.

Dominion:  This is probably the most complex game for two to four players, age 13+. The general gist of this game is you are trying to purchase as much land as possible to build up your rockin' kingdom. Nerd alert. A turn consists of playing an action or buying money/new cards. This game moves fairly quickly and changes each time you play it. 

Of course there are a billion other games out there, but this is just a small sampling. Ever in doubt about what game to purchase? I'd encourage a pilgrimage to your local game shop. Game shop owners love to talk strategy and tell you all about their favorite games.

Early Birds

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Nearly a year ago, when my now husband and I became engaged and he moved around the corner from where I lived, we decided to incorporate an exercise routine into our weekly schedule. This meant every Monday and Thursday, his telecommute days, we walked. A three mile loop at 5:00am. I’m a morning person so this made perfect sense to me. I’ve never been one of those people that can work an entire day, deal with the hassle of commuting, then show up at the gym for an intense cardio session.  I mean when do these people eat dinner?  For me, if I don’t move my body in the morning, well, it just doesn’t happen. GH, who is not a morning person, has never once complained about our early routine.   

This morning, as we stepped into the cool moist blackness, splitting cobwebs apart crossing the street, I felt at ease. I reminded myself to stay present, to focus on my breath rather than rush ahead forecasting the unknown future. I consciously stayed on the task at hand. Putting one foot in front of the other. This is when I noticed the black shadows of trees and telephone poles. When my ears perked to the boisterous chorus of crickets and cicadas. When I inhaled deep whiffs of warm honeysuckle and fallen ripe fruit. When I glanced at all the sleeping houses, knowing they soon would be bustling of energy. Poised to greet the rising sun, my pace quickened and I took off, happy to be in that exact moment.

Ps. Should anyone ask, there were no birds. I suppose East Coast birds just like to sleep in.

Words: Wisdom

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

“I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they'll say something about it or not. I hate if they do, and if they don't.” ― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed  

Always err on the side of saying something. If you can't summon audible words, write a note.

Saying Goodbye - A Tribute to My Grandpa Flynn

In the past month two of my extended family members have passed away. It has been a season of reflection and sorrow. I wrote this tribute to honor my grandpa, Richard Joseph Flynn (1923-2012). 

I am grateful and humbled by the opportunity to pay tribute to my grandfather. As the first child of the fourth child, I am the seventh grandchild in a line rich with Flynn heritage. Like many of you, I remember countless stories about the man I called Pocky for the first few years of my life.

After the passing of my own father, nearly 20 years ago, our family was surrounded by the support of extended family. It is both bitter and poetic that the two individuals most dedicated and involved in our little lives have passed the veil within such a short space of each other.

My grandpa made an extra effort to be part of our young lives. It wasn’t unusual to see him once or twice a week. He would show up after school to see if we were busy with our chores. Rarely would he miss a chance to pull his golf cart across the tee and buy a cold drink from us mid-game. He was always fixing a broken sprinkler head or a stubborn garage door. He was the handyman that brought us produce from his garden. Grandpa and Grandma were the formative staples in our lives. Theirs was the first phone number I ever memorized. Grandpa made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. And you were. I remember grandpa golfing with my cousin Lance and showing up at my siblings, Caitlin and Curtis’s first birthday party dressed as two old men golfing buddies. Of course it is impossible to talk about my grandpa without also including grandma, his companion of 70 years. Together they attended Tyler and Lance’s football games, clipped articles about Dennis and Sarah’s clogging days, cheered along at Sarah and Molly’s beauty pageants, and were there at Nick’s theatrical debut. They attended more high school and college graduations than anyone should be allowed. Every wedding, baby blessing, or baptism meant grandpa would be there, donning his signature red fedora.

I’d like to share three lessons I learned from my grandpa.

  1. Honor your Heritage. Never a St. Patrick’s Day went by without traditional corned beef and cabbage, nor an Easter or Christmas without hangtown fry (those unfamiliar with the dish should know it contains eggs, mushrooms, oysters, and onions). While food has always been an essential element in passing along family heritage, creating a space of familial pride was part of the territory. In the late 90s my grandparents traveled to Ireland with my Uncle Cort, Aunt Jeannie, and cousin Deece to explore their Irish roots and visit counties relevant to our heritage. Grandpa knew that creating traditions for his posterity was a large part of honoring his heritage. This included boating trips to Lake Powell, where grandpa would steer the boat and croon to Ol' Blue Eyes, sounding like Sinatra himself. Easter in St. George has beginnings earlier than most of the grandchildren. I particularly remember the old trailer grandpa owned, sharing a bunk-bed and creating an outdoor kitchen with my sister made from the magical backyard brick pile. Family gatherings were not only a chance to break bread they came with a typical grandpa speech preceding each prayer. He’d stand, usually at the head of the table, while the food got cold, and expound on the importance of being together. While we might have chuckled or rolled our eyes we knew he was trying to teach us that honoring heritage and family meant more than a potluck dinner. Like Tevya, he reminded us that “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”                        
  2. Share your Stories. Grandpa was never without a story. If you happened to be in the same space with him for more than a minute, invariably, he had already launched into a yarn about Borrego Springs, vidalia onions, or real estate in southern Utah. If you caught him outside working on his truck, Eagle or Plymouth, you’d be certain to hear how he impulse purchased the abandoned cars on a road trip to Southern Utah; how he was restoring the engine and slicking them up with a fresh coat of paint. He talked about his time as a traveling salesman, selling water softeners house-to-house and how to successfully land a sale. Listening to his stories it seemed impossible to not fall into that bygone era. A time when hitching the railroads to California or sitting in a neighbor’s tomato patch with an appetite and salt shaker were all you needed to survive. A couple years ago, when I came home for a summer visit, Grandpa and I sat outside on the bench near the garden fountain he had built. Inspired by several trips to Pepperdine he created a front yard oasis for reflection and sitting, a shady spot for family and strangers alike. As the water splashed and played against the sunny rocks, the cobwebs had already started to cloud Grandpa’s gray matter. As we sat, there emerged an unfamiliar lull in the conversation. I waited, sitting next to this man nearly 60 years my senior. Finally I said, “Grandpa, tell me a story.” Startled, he looked at me and then came back. Launching into a tale of when he was a kid and they’d gone for a swim, but it soon began flooding. Washed away clothing and a boy’s misadventures became fresh as a pot of morning coffee. The week before his passing, my sister, Lauren, and I held Grandpa’s hands and told our stories of him back to him. I think Grandpa may have emulated Ray Bradbury’s admonition to “Live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories...”                                                                                                     
  3. Learning is Fundamental. Although grandpa’s formal education ended around 8th grade, he never stopped dedicating his life to the pursuit of knowledge. Anyone familiar with his morning routine knew that not only did it included coffee and grandma’s hearty breakfasts, but it was never without the familiar spread of the morning paper. Where he devoured each section of the daily news and then expounded on the state of the country. He made car and home repairs like any pro. He learned to fly and operate a small plane. And he could BBQ a rack of ribs like nobody’s business. I remember my grandparents visiting me in my tiny college apartment where they explored campus with me and encouraged me in my academic pursuits. Once, when I asked my mother, Wendy, why after eight years and one kid she decided to finish her bachelor's degree? She answered, Because my dad always told me education is the ticket! Grandpa championed hard work and learned in the school of life. One summer, when my father was on the traveling salesman circuit peddling motivational tapes to the people of Portland, grandpa encouraged him with an incentive that he’d match the top sales day of the entire summer. Grandpa traveled the world and learned of customs and cultures some of us only dream of. Characteristically engaged, he sought opportunities for learning wherever he could find them.    
These are just three of the many lessons that my grandpa taught me. Most of all he reaffirmed that life is an adventure and should be spent surrounded by those that mean the most to you. I love this man and hope that I can honor his life and memory throughout the remainder of my days.

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