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Ten Years Later

Ten years ago this week, I bought a house in a town I barely knew.

It was 2006, and home prices were climbing quickly. There was a lot of pressure to find and lock in a house quickly – before values rose even more – to maximize your investment through the American Dream™.

No one knew that the market was peaking, that things were about to burst. It didn’t seem possible. Mortgage officers asked, “How much house do you want?” and volunteered to “do what it takes” to make the numbers work. I stuck by my calculations of what I could reasonably afford at 24 years old and bought a 115-year-old house near downtown Elgin.

Ten years later, I’m living with my fiance in a townhouse in another town.

But in between, that house taught me a great deal about… everything.

About living in a “transitioning” neighborhood that slipped from ok to better to worse to better and back again.

About knowing what better and worse look like.

About getting to know my neighbors and the value of a neighborhood watch.

About budgeting for expensive home repairs, and then some extra for the uncertainties that come with an old house where nothing is “standard.” (See the three attempts to find a chimney liner narrow enough to fit my ancient chimney, or the extra-narrow doors.)

About becoming part of something, joining neighbors to help make things better, that it really does take a village. And no matter how hard you try, a handful of volunteers can’t rescue a whole neighborhood when the market has other ideas.

About how drug deals happen, and why sometimes it’s a good idea to let the police conduct a stakeout from your bedroom windows.

About the false promise of sweat equity, but the satisfaction it brings.

About how sidewalks can make a neighborhood – and how some people will never clear theirs.

About how the school schedule greatly affects the sound, pace, and feel of a neighborhood.

About scheduling time for mowing the lawn in rainy springs, and quickly rearranging plans to dig out the driveway after a heavy snowfall.

About staying up late, hearing the house creak in blizzard winds, hoping that those shingles in the yard aren’t yours.

About picking your battles, choosing when something has gotten bad enough to say something.

About how infinitely useful the internet – and particularly YouTube – can be with home repairs.

About the sheer joy of coming home from working and finding that the zinnia seeds you planted weeks ago have suddenly sprouted.

About when it’s best to suck it up and call in professionals.

About chasing bats from the house while protecting the cat.

About how plows don’t care that you just spent an hour digging out the foot of the driveway – and why such digging can “count” as a workout.

About property taxes, and how a two-year “clerical error” by the township doesn’t mean you get two years to repay the difference.

About the signs of neighborhood change.

About why picking up the trash from the vacant lot across the street can be satisfying and maddening.

About why it’s handy to know someone with a truck.

About why it’s important that gang graffiti gets cleaned up right away.

About carpenter ants and mice and groundhogs and robins.

About why “charm” and “character” in an old house are vastly overrated compared to a comfortable climate and reliable plumbing.

About how expensive – and delicate – old plumbing can be.

About the joy of a hammock after a tough day’s work.

About why it’s great being close to the commuter train, but there’s such a thing as too close.

About how you really do fill all that extra space over time.

About why good fences really do make good neighbors.

About when the person sleeping on your front lawn is high, drunk, or just napping.

About why you should never consider a house anything more than a home, as my “investment” lost 29% of its value over the decade. (Though my taxes went up over the same period.)

About how the idea of “home” changes with time and circumstance.

About how a neighborhood, a town, and a house can all break your heart – but lead you to something better.


A Summer in a Weekend

This has been the summer that wasn’t.

Beyond the unusually cold, wet weather, I started a new job in June, which has me running hard while adjusting to a long commute. Gone are the work-at-home days that allowed me to eat breakfast and sip coffee at my patio table, along with quick mid-day bike rides or early evening 15 milers. Most of my biking miles this summer have been 1.5 miles at a time, fighting traffic on a Divvy bike on my way to my new office. I never even made it to one of Elgin’s Wing Park concerts.

But I seemed to make up for it this weekend. While I’ve had days and bits and pieces of summer bliss – a perfect day walking the Chicago lakefront, an evening watching the Perseid Meteor Shower at Cantigny – this three-day stretch scratched my summer itch and left me rested, fulfilled, and happy.

A long hike, over the (Fox) river and through (Duerr) woods, walking hand-in-hand through fields of late-summer wildflowers and ragweed, swatting away mosquitos as dusk started to close in.

Hammock time, lots of glorious hammock time, swaying under the mulberry tree as I finished my book, the neighbors’ grilling aromas wafting by.

Minor league baseball with family and the Kane County Cougars, capped off by fireworks in the sticky night air.

A morning rain shower, just enough to gently soak and green the grass while replenishing the humid air.

Grilled food, lots of it: bratwurst at the new Plank Road Tap Room, a classic ballpark dog at the game, and chicken and farm-fresh zucchini and summer squash on my own driveway.

A very windy bike ride, 7 leisurely miles through prairie and cornfield, with fresh manure off in the distance and summer sweat down my back.

Sleeping in for three consecutive days, no alarm necessary, waking up refreshed yet lazy (“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow…“), with time for slow breakfast of coffee, eggs, bacon, and newspaper, with the radio gently droning in the background.

I may have “missed out” on summer in my traditional sense, but this weekend was simply glorious.


What’s Our Story?

storyTwo instances in the last week have me thinking about Elgin’s “story.”

1) I met this week with the Housing Authority of Elgin, who is preparing to build a new senior housing building nearby, and rehab an existing building. A fellow attendee argued that this conflicted with all the work the city has been doing to rehab the downtown. But I disagree. I see it as part of the same story –  having seniors living near downtown helps cultivate the vibrant downtown we want.

2) A “Marketplace” piece on how some towns are thriving in part because,  “[T]hey’re building a specific story.  A story about the kind of town they are and want to be which often turns out to be a story that changes their economic fortunes.” The conversation, between Kai Ryssdal of “Marketplace” and The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, notes that when people all buy into the same narrative, the town tends to succeed. Listen to the short podcast.

The Economic Narrative of America’s Future

Our downtown Elgin story revolves around the arts, both traditional (performing spaces, etc) and attracting types of businesses and people that support the arts. I think it’s a good story. But do enough of us buy into it? And if not, why not?

Sounds of Summer

Birds. Early this morning, I woke to the pre-dawn twittering of birds. I grumbled when I saw the clock read only 4:30, but then realized that I was only hearing such music because it’s finally spring enough to leave windows open overnight. And not just cracked for some borderline-cold air. Rather, several nights in the last week, I’ve drifted to sleep with my bedroom windows wide open, curtains swaying with the breeze off the Fox.

After a couple of false starts, it’s nice to finally have a taste of summer. And over the last few days, I’ve noticed the sounds of summer filtering back in, filling the white quiet hush of winter hibernation.

First and foremost, of course, are the trains. I’ve grown used to their rumble, and  tell time by when inbound vs outbound Metras lean on their horns to cross National Street. I typically sleep through the overnight freights, carrying shiny new cars from the Chrysler plant in Belvidere. Occasionally, I stir as they rattle pictures on the walls. But with the windows open, the roar of the trains is suddenly in technicolor. Even the cat blearily raises her head, rotating her ears towards the windows. When I’m on the phone, people notice them, too, and I find myself muting my line on conference calls.

The other sounds are more subtle, bits of background noise I didn’t realize I’d missed.

Kids playing soccer across the street, the thud of the ball against their feet contrasting with the thwack of the pavement. Laughter. Dogs barking, often at each other. Voices of passers by as they head down the hill, or the quieter shuffle of steps as they return, tired from the climb with their groceries. Motorcycles. Mariachi music, with the same oompah rhythm of a polka. Bikes gliding down the street. Car doors closing. The wobbling single training wheel on a neighbor’s bike, as the post for the missing wheel clatters on the sidewalk. The rustling of squirrels. A woodpecker.

And when I leave the house, there are fresh sounds, too, no longer muffled by scarves or hats or hoods. The birds are louder, the cars more audible. I’ve started to run again, and the familiar sound of my steps on the crushed limestone at Grolich Park is comforting as I try to rebuild some endurance. Construction crews have reappeared with jackhammers and bulldozers.

What sounds have you noticed? Which did you miss?


I’m on summer vacation! Well, I still have to work, but I have two weeks – two glorious weeks – before classes start again. (I’m very glad I pushed through and got my last final – which wasn’t due until tomorrow – done on Sunday.)

Every time I’ve had a break from school, I’ve felt the same elation, the same thrill.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore school. I love the program. I love what I’m learning. I love my classmates and the professors and the readings and even the assignments. They’ve completely shifted how I see my job, my career – and the world.

But there’s still a shiver of glee that runs up my spine when I face two weeks – two full weeks! – where my life is my own again. (Well, except for that pesky “work” thing.) I think I appreciate the break even more because it is so short. I want to soak up every last second of potential.

When I’m in the throes of school, I sometimes feel like I’m underwater, just treading water, trying to keep up and balance work, school, SWAN and other commitments, all while trying to still see my friends and have a life. But I remind myself that a life, however busy, is still a life, and far better than boredom and monotony.

Winter quarter was brutal – dark and cold and bitter, with a double whammy of Stats and Finance, plus a blizzard for good measure. This quarter – Stats 2 and “Strategic Process,” which is essentially applied statistics – was rough, too, with math coming at me from both sides.

But now I’m surfacing, inhaling the fresh air, waking up before the alarm to sneak in a run or – gasp – read for leisure. Monday night I went to an ill-fated Iron & Wine concert at Millennium Park (far too crowded – I couldn’t hear the music over the chatter of the crowds). Last night, I pedaled to Gail Borden for a bag full of books of my choosing, then biked farther down the Fox River Trail, towards South Elgin, disappearing into the quiet and peace where you forget you’re in a town of 108,000. Tonight, I had dinner and fantastic conversation with friends, and came home to devour a book.

And the cooking? Oh, the cooking. It’s fabulous. Dancing and singing in the kitchen, playing with eggplant, chard, papaya, fennel, cubanelle peppers… and I get my very first CSA share tomorrow.

Sure, there are real catch-up projects I need to tackle. I really need to do some heavy-duty cleaning, and I hope to get a good handle on the bathroom project before classes start again.

I’m really enjoying catching up on life, though.

My City in the Suburbs

Elgin recently announced a new slogan: we are now “The City in the Suburbs.” In a lot of ways, this meshes with my own perception of Elgin, if the slogan itself is a bit drab.

I have always loved Elgin because it is a very unique blend of urban (walkable, lots of amenities, plenty to see and do) and suburban (every kind of big box store you could want, good park district, dark enough for stars), with just a twist of rural (farmstands).

Over on BocaJump, Paul Challacombe writes about our Burbtown, noting, “if your kid grows up, illiterate, unhealthy and bereft of culture, it should not be blamed on the city we live in.”

I’ve lived in areas on both ends of the spectrum. I grew up in a cornfield subdivision halfway between Crystal Lake and McHenry, where we were marooned seven miles from civilization, which I often bemoaned, especially without a car. My freshman year of high school, my family lived in Budapest, Hungary, where most people didn’t have cars, so an extensive public transit system whisked you around town. (Returning to the cornfields at 15, and remaining through the rest of high school, was especially difficult after a year of relatively free movement.) Then I spent 7 years in Chicago without a car, where I rode the CTA and walked anywhere I needed to go.

I didn’t know all that much about Elgin when I moved here, but I knew it appeared to hit that balance. I could have my walkability – to the train, the library, the grocery, entertainment and restaurants – and at the same time, a car puts me in easy range of anything else I could possibly need, though a tank of gas typically lasts 3-4 weeks. Heck, I can walk to the Symphony or bike to concerts in Wing Park – I couldn’t do that in Chicago!

A city with 100,000+ people is large enough to support the symphony, a great library system and lots of events. Our sheer size – and historic homes – helps set us apart from all those other suburbs. I’d rather live in a place with a huge variety of houses than another cookie-cutter subdivision. In my neighborhood alone, we have homes dating all the way back to the 1860s, with most built between 1890 and 1940, ranging from Victorians, Queen Annes, 4-squares, bungalows, Sears Kit homes, and even a few 40s ranches.

So while I’m not thrilled that consultants were paid a lot of money to develop a relatively mundane slogan, I think they got it right. We really are the city amongst all the northwest suburbs. While Schaumburg and Naperville may be larger as far as populations, they’re really less cities and more loosely strung together subdivisions, connected by overly congested arterial roads lined with strip malls. Sure, Elgin has that on Randall Road, but the majority of our city is concentrated elsewhere, in areas where sidewalks link homes with schools, parks, small businesses and other amenities.

What’s your impression? If you’re a native (or recent) Elginite, do you agree with the “City in the Suburbs” moniker? If you don’t live here, does it fit your conception of what Elgin is (or isn’t)?

Ready, Set, Go! Second Half Goals

I’ve always looked at my late June birthday as a bit of a sanity check. It’s a chance to step back, take stock and make sure I’ll be happy with my year’s accomplishments. Matt Cheuvront over at Life Without Pants urges the same thing.

Last weekend, while cleaning off my desk at home, I found my hastily jotted New Year’s “to do” list. Some of the items are resolutions, others more household chores. But let’s see how I’ve done:

Drylock & Paint Basement – Um, not yet. Though every time it rains and I tiptoe downstairs, fingers crossed that everything’s dry, I remind myself I need to do this.

Apply for (and get into) Grad School – Well, the application’s done… now the waiting part.

Finish New Rules of Lifting for Women – Nearly there. I started NROLFW last fall and absolutely love the challenge. (Basically, it teaches that women should put down the pink Barbie weights and lift really heavy things.) I’ve finished six of the seven stages but took a break to focus on running while the weather turned nice. I plan to tackle Stage 7 in the coming weeks.

Paint or Stain the Fence – I put up a new fence late last fall and was told to let it weather for at least 4-5 months before painting, staining or otherwise weatherproofing it. It’s time.

Relaunch My Blog – Here it is!

Get More Sleep – Ha! But actually, I’m starting to do better with this. I function so much better on 7 hours of sleep than 5.5 hours. I’ve been trying to get upstairs by 11 on weeknights, with light out no later than 11:30.

Run a 5k – Done, and itching for another one! I ran the Elgin Fox Trot 5k on Memorial Day and notched a 30:32. Now I’m looking for a good race to break the 30 minute mark.

So I’m doing okay. But there are a couple to add:

Discover New Music – There’s nothing really WRONG with the fact that most of the music on my iPod is the same stuff I listened to in high school. But there’s so much more out there! I’ve started occasionally downloading Amazon’s daily free mp3, and I want to make this more of a habit.

Read More – I never thought this would have to be a stated goal, but I really am happiest when I’m in the middle of a good book. I need fiction in my life to balance out all the newspapers and work-related reading. (I just tore through all 371 delicious pages of The Kite Runner in two days and it felt awesome.) At the same time, I do want to mix in the occasional “business” book.

Talk to Strangers – Just saying “hello” to strangers and allowing myself to engage in conversation is a good thing. I need to do more of it.

Plan My Meals – Rather than randomly strolling through a grocery store and grabbing food willy-nilly, I occasionally have actually sat down and planned out the menu for a week. It’s been hugely successful. Let’s make it a habit to try to eliminate the Thursday night PBJ.

I think that’s a pretty good list. What are you trying in the second half of the year?

Sweden?!? Really?

Before sanding and staining the pine I bought for the new trim around the door, I peeled of the barcode stickers. I noticed something interesting. The pine was all imported from Sweden. Really? With the cost of energy, how much of the (relatively low) cost of the wood is absorbed by the cost of transporting the lumber across 4000+ miles of ocean and land?

Just asking.