Tag Archives: Big Picture

Celebratory Fireworks

I love fireworks. They inspire a certain little-kid sense of awe and wonder, as I look skyward and drink in the symmetry and precisely vivid colors and patterns.

As I write, I’m watching out my living room window as fireworks explode down the street and behind the Elgin Tower. Every year, people start celebrating with their large stash of (illegal) fireworks about a week before Independence Day, which means I often get a preview for my late-June birthday.

And indeed, a week ago, on my thirtieth birthday, I got home from work and school, discovered a cupcake on my doorstep, and watched some fireworks from across the river. Every night this week, there have been more and more, a crescendo of colors and lights and sounds popping above trees and buildings all around me. (Sadly, some of the best displays off to the east are now blocked by the thickening grove of trees across the street.)

Last winter, as part of the Reverb10 project, I had thought about advice for the year ahead, told from a vantage point of five years in the future. In the process, I had discovered the FutureMe site, which allows you to write an email to yourself to be delivered at a future date.

I received my FutureMe note on the morning of my birthday, and read it with a smile. Some of the advice has been heeded, dead-on. It was full of good reminders of what’s important, and also how fleeting and trivial some concerns can be. I even found myself rolling my eyes at one point. But it was really interesting, and reassuring, a sort of progress report on where I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. I highly, highly recommend it, and I’ll be sitting down and writing a letter for my next birthday in the next couple of days. (The site will let you select a date up to 50 years in the future, though I wonder if my Gmail address will still be active then.) I may write five and ten year iterations, too.

But back to the fireworks. I feel like we all need to take a moment for ourselves, and fireworks are such a great way to do that. I’m at the tail end of a divine four day weekend, full of friends old and new, miles of walking around my adopted hometown, ice cream, beer, late-night tacos and hot dogs, barbecues, staying up too late and sleeping long past sunrise.  I spent the evening in the backyard, reading for pleasure, sipping iced tea and ducking the mulberries the squirrels shook loose, watching the fireflies come out as the sun set.

My feet are blistered and I’m sunburned and mosquito-bitten, but happy.  So happy.  Even if twelve short hours from now I’ll likely be on my third conference call for the day.

That’s why we do what we do. We work to live, to make these moments possible. So here’s to celebrating our American way of working hard while carving out a balanced, full life. And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than smuggling fireworks across state lines and blowing them up in a cacophony of war-zone pyrotechnics that have the ability to make us pause and draw inspiration.

Happy Independence Day.


Squelching the Lizard Brain

A couple weeks ago (my, how time flies!) I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Seth Godin speak at the Harris Theatre.

I’ll admit I wasn’t all that familiar with Godin prior to this session. I knew who he was, and I’d bits of Tribes and Linchpin. I thought I knew some of his basic concepts. He’s the guy who talks about innovation and marketing, right?

I was blown away.

The timing was perfect, just days before I began my graduate program in integrated marketing communications. Godin does talk a lot about how marketing has evolved and how the rules have changed. But really, it’s so much more than that. It’s a complete shift in mindset.

Technology has completely revolutionized the very core of our society. We now own the means of publication and promotion, of ideas.

So why are we wasting it on following processes and procedures, policies and pabulum? True revolution and change doesn’t reward such compliance. Instead, we are at our best when we accept challenges and take risks.

Godin talked extensively about the “lizard brain,” the evolutionary holdover that controls our most primal emotions: fear, anger, revenge and reproduction. The lizard brain is that voice that tells you something’s too hard, or too out-of-the-ordinary, or too daring. Godin essentially advised using the lizard brain as a sort of compass – and then doing the opposite. When something seems scary, embrace it and do it.

So how do you trick your primal lizard brain? Godin advised to play by its rules and schedule time into your day – the lizard brain embraces such structure and scheduling – but use that time to start with a blank sheet of paper and work out ideas.

Of course, they won’t all be winners. For every good idea, there are dozens, scores, hundreds of bad ones! (We talked about this in class the other night – how about Maxwell House ready-to-drink coffee – just heat and serve – or Frito Lay Lemonade?)

But he’s right about the blank sheet of paper. For years – since high school, maybe longer – I’ve struggled to start writing anything. I’ve always found comfort in having something, anything on the page before I have to start adding to it, whether it’s copying and pasting the assignment or outline onto the virtual page or scribbling down notes. And really, it’s been a crutch that has limited my writing. Rather than coming up with something completely original, it grows based on what I planted on the page. While this is fine and dandy for mundane tasks, such as a summary or to-do, what happens when you start with blank paper?

Go on, try it. (But finish reading this first!) Open up a new Word doc (or Symphony – pick your poison) and maximize the window so it fills your entire screen. If you can full screen it so you can’t see the clock or taskbar, or email notifications, even better. Turn off your wifi, if you can.

Now write the first thing that comes to your mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad or half-baked. Just get the idea out there. Poke that little speck of an idea and see what happens.

I spend so much of my time flipping between multiple tasks that my brain never really settles on anything long enough to make a real impact. In between thoughts, I flip to Twitter or my email, as if concentrating on that will help tease out the idea on the tip of my brain. No matter how “focused” I am, the ding of a new email sends me rushing to my inbox, where I delete yet another newsletter.

The day after I saw Godin speak, I hopped a plane to New York for a friend’s wedding. 30,000 feet up, with no internet, no phone, no texts, no Twitter, no distractions, I wrote like I haven’t in a long time, and it felt magical.

I’ve toyed with the idea of having one “unplugged” day per week, with no internet time. No hours of browsing, no checking my friends’ Facebook statuses. I’ve been inconsistent with it, but now I think it’s an even better idea. It clears the head and shakes loose all the clutter so, in theory, the good stuff rises to the top. (I think I’ve embraced running for this reason – it’s time to process things without interruptions.)

So thank you, Jenn, for the ticket to see Godin. I can’t even imagine where I’ll go from here. Though maybe some blank paper time will reveal a direction…

Take Three. Or Four.

At long last, I’m re-re-launching my blog. Welcome (back).

I’ve still got a bit of work to do design-wise, but I’m getting close, so bear with me.

I used to run Cinderella Has a Mortgage, a blog focused on the care and feeding of my house, built in 1890, overlooking the Fox River in Elgin. The first couple years here, every day was really an adventure, from mowing the lawn with a reel mower to shrinkwrapping the windows in the fall. (I have ported that blog over here, so fear not, my difficult lessons are still public record.)

Now that’s mostly old hat, so the homeownership theme was too limiting. After four years, I’ve got the routine down. I spent the last few months debating what to do next.

And one day it hit me. I’ve become increasingly invested in my community and have grown to love my adopted hometown. I can blog about my many assorted adventures: running, lifting heavy things, cooking, gardening, social media, volunteering and just general learning. The great big world has so much to offer – I’d be crazy to limit my focus. (And yes, as I embark on a couple big home improvement projects, you’ll likely hear about those, too. Especially if I continue to discover evidence that previous owners took certain liberties with right angles.)

The Elginista name comes from my Twitter handle. Feel free to follow me there for more.

And away we go, for real this time.

A Change in Focus

I started Cinderella Has a Mortgage nearly two years ago to chronicle my adventures as the owner of an old house that needs lots of care and feeding. At that point, I was doing a lot of new things, and every bit of routine maintenance was fascinating.

But now, it’s just that – routine. Though the house still sucks up a lot of my free time – it’s not getting any younger – I don’t think twice about shrinkwrapping windows or raking leaves. It’s just part of what needs to be done.

At the same time, I’m doing so much MORE beyond the house. I’m in a completely different place than I was a year ago. I’m in a very different role at work (managing our fledgling social media presence), I now devote a good 5 hours a week to working out, I eat clean and I’m working towards grad school. I’m more involved in my neighborhood and city (hence the Elginista moniker), beyond my property lines. Oh, and I’m getting married in July.

I’ve felt limited by the Cinderella focus on the blog. So I’m branching out.

Sure, there will be a fair number of house-related posts, especially as I embark on some new projects to replace the entire main bathroom and – eventually – rebuild the garage.

But I also want to be more interactive. So share your comments and suggestions.

Away we go…

Happy Housiversary to Me!

I’ve been very negligent lately. I don’t really have an excuse, but let’s get back to it.

Today is my third housiversary! I bought this wonderful piece of property three years ago today. That morning, I did my final walkthrough with my realtor to make sure all the issues arising from the inspection had been fixed. We ran through the checklist – toilet properly bolted down, ceiling fan balanced and, most importantly, asbestos wrapped – and headed off to the title company for the closing.

Less than two hours later, I returned, keys in hand, and let myself in. I slowly paced from room to room, marveling in the moment. It had rained earlier that morning, but the sun was breaking out through the clouds. For the first time in all my visits at the house – two looks, writing the offer, the inspection and walkthrough – I could see how sunshine flowed through the windows.

The sunlight illuminated the mess of cobwebs filling every corner and closet. Most of the light fixtures were just naked bulbs. A lightswitch had stopped working sometime between inspection and closing. I noticed that the tiny downstairs bathroom was horribly misaligned – the light fixture, mirror and sink were completely out of sync. And what about the piece of missing trim between the kitchen and bathroom?

All these little things hit me as I realized that I was stepping beyond the stressful-yet-exhilarating homebuying process, into the much more mundane and unknown world of home ownership. Suddenly, it was all my problem. And unlike leases measured in months, there was no time limit on the problems, nor anyone else holding my security deposit dollars to motivate me into action.

I immediately tackled the cobwebs and dust that had accumulated during the year the house sat vacant. The baseball wallpaper in the bedroom was next on the list. But three years later, some of these problems persist.The downstairs bathroom still bugs me every time I’m in there, but not enough to act when other projects are more pressing. The lightswitch was replaced right away, and I’ve only got one bare bulb left. But new projects always spring up with their own costs – in both time and money – and precedence. Obviously I’m going to take care of the geyser in the basement wall before I worry about a crooked mirror.

But in the past three years, I’ve realized that if I take them as them come, I can stay on top of everything, or at least ensure everything’s still functioning and the house stays warm and dry. Rather than trying to do everything at once, slow and steady is indeed winning the race.

I hope the same can be true with this blog. Rather than trying to write for a book or The Great American Novel, if I stick to steady, shorter posts, maybe I’ll make some progress.

It’s worth a try.

Cinderella has a Roommate

I have a confession to make. Despite all my crowing about making it as a single girl homeowner (choose the appropriate hyphenation), I’m not so single anymore.

For the last 15+ months, I’ve been dating the wonderful Don (“The Don,” as friends call him), and two weeks ago, he moved in. It’s been fantastic sharing my home – our home – with such a caring, loving guy who constantly challenges me to be a better version of myself and do more. In fact, the Cinderella concept stems in part from him. One night several months ago, I was talking about all the things I’ve learned as a novice homeowner and the advice I give to friends. He encouraged me to keep at it, write it down and do something with the concept. That idea, coupled with Colete Dowling’s Cinderella Complex, gave rise to this blog and numerous other scattered writings.

The truth is, it’s great having a roommate who not only helps with the mortgage (thus freeing up funds to do more projects and – gasp – go back to school) but also serves as a sanity check on some of my more harebrained ideas. Climbing up on the roof alone? No way, not with Don around. He acknowledges that I certainly can do many things alone, he’s there, ready to help out while also injecting some reason and rationality into the process.

Heck, last fall he climbed the roof to help me clean gutters, despite his fear of heights! If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Though he hates – HATES – my rotary lawnmower, so that job happily remains mine.

Overall, I’m so lucky to have found such a great guy to share my life and home with. I just hope he realizes what he’s in for on the DIY front!

The best part…

What’s the best part of being a home owner?

Not the pride of ownership I feel every time I turn the key (cheesy, but true).

Not the ample space to spread out.

Not the postage-stamp backyard for sunning and stargazing.

Not the unpredictable snowshoveling or the fear of frozen pipes.

Not the costs of keeping up with repairs and improvements.

Not the frustration wrought by the crack-dealing neighbors or last summer’s drive-by shooting.

Not the joy of turning the corner and seeing my house, lights on, an inviting beacon on a cold, dark night.

No, the best part of homeownership is the tax break. After paying nearly a quarter of my annual income in mortgage interest(!), come March, I get a sizable tax refund. I use it to pay down debt. Sigh.

But today, at least, that tax refund makes it all worthwhile.

Saving Prince Charming?

Friday night, my Bunco group met. Yes, yes, very suburban yuppie of me. It’s an interesting group of women from the neighborhood. We meet monthly and spend the evening playing the game while gossiping and eating and drinking. All but one are homeowners, and all but one (a different one) are married with children. Naturally, the other single girl and I gravitate towards each other.

She’s older than me – 32 – with about four years of homeownership under her belt. She’s been with her guy for nearly twelve years and thinks she may be nearing an ultimatum. We started talking about our reasons for buying alone and discovered we shared the same philosophy. When she bought, she had been with her boyfriend for seven or eight years and thought it was silly to keep renting when she could be building equity. She also wanted to prove to herself that she could do it without needing help from anyone else – my sentiments and motivations exactly. She didn’t need to wait for her Prince Charming to rescue her and carry her off to adulthood and a mortgage. If her relationship works out and they do get married, she already has a leg up and has built some equity, regardless of where they end up living. If they break up – well, she’d still have her home and everything that’s gone into it. As she said, he hasn’t shown any impetus to make a permanent commitment to her and to their relationship, so she has to take care of herself, first and foremost.

Which brought us to Juno. My Bunco buddy said her boyfriend is like the Mark character – a man who doesn’t really want to grow up. Sure, he’s older than her with a teenage son from a previous marriage – but he doesn’t see a push to marry. I hadn’t yet seen the movie but keep hearing and reading about it. After our conversation, I went out to the movies last night. Among the crowd were several other women on their own, plus a couple couples snickering in the back rows. (It was strange to hear the grownups laughing at such bawdy, witty lines – until I realized that I’m one of the grownups now. Sheesh.)

But my friend is right, as is Kathryn Jean Lopez. In National Review, Lopez relates Juno to Leonard Sax’s book, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. Lopez notes:

Mark Loring reminds me of a letter in Sax’s book from a woman named Sarah. She says her husband is stuck on Xbox, and while she loves him and so will tolerate a certain amount of his lack of motivation to grow up, she is “constantly haunted” by something he said: “He said that I might need to lower my expectations in life because he didn’t know whether he could provide them for me. What I find funny now is that I’m the real provider. I don’t feel like I’m part of a team. It’s wearing on me.”

I hear the same thing from many, many, many women my age. Why should men grow up when no one really expects them to?

Which begs the question, Are we waiting for Prince Charming to save us? Or do we need to save Prince Charming?

Setting the Stage

Once upon a time, a single gal graduated from college and set off into the world. After landing the first appropriately sucky job and tiny, overpriced apartment, she set her sights on bigger and better things. But the nebulous “bigger and better” wasn’t enough to drive her to the better job and better life. She needed to qualify and quantify her ambitions.

“I know!” she thought to herself, daydreaming while answering phones for an association of specialty nurses. “I will own my own home by the time I turn 25.”

It was a tall order, given her debt and paltry income. However, she had set high bars before and hurdled them with the right mix of planning, strategy, sacrifice and a bit of luck.

With time, the gal got promoted, which lined her up for an even better job with slightly more money. She moved to a slightly less overpriced urban apartment and brought her lunch to work. She clipped coupons and logged her grocery savings, transferring the savings into her house fund every month.

After a false start at age 23, when her potential mortgage lender fought back a chortle when presented with her financial situation, the magic age began to loom larger. The dream had evolved, though, from a condo in the city to a suburban house with a yard. Pouring over hundreds of listings online, the dream evolved further as far as size and scope.

Finally, ten weeks before my 25th birthday, I closed on my slice of the American dream: a three bedroom house on a quarter acre of crabgrass, built in the 1920s, loaded with charm, character and a new kitchen. To make the financials work, trade-offs were made. I’m forty miles from my job in downtown Chicago, but within easy walking distance of the train that can whisk me there in an hour.

In the twenty months since I closed on my house, I’ve had my fair share of joys, triumphs, mini-disasters and frustrations. I’ve known the satisfaction of figuring out how to properly wield a caulk gun – and proudly noticed the ensuing disappearance of a draft. I’ve bawled at the fourteen inches of icy snow that took two days to shovel. I’ve almost killed myself, slipping on ice while hauling my very first Christmas tree from the car to the house. I’ve climbed up a ladder to clean my gutters, only to realize that maybe doing so while alone wasn’t such a good idea. I’ve shooed various species of insects from most rooms of the house, chased a bat out of my enclosed porch, and am in the midst of an on-going staring contest with the raccoon that poops on my garage.

At the same time, I’ve reflected about buying a house in general. It’s a big process and a big step. Several of my friends have taken the same plunge, some as married couples, some as singletons, and some in between. But in the course of our conversations, the singletons have all observed that this would not have been possible decades ago.

Back in the old days, girls typically went directly from their parents’ house to a household with their husbands. There was no in between. That gap has evolved from dorms to apartments to full-fledged home ownership. No longer do women feel the need to wait for Prince Charming to start building their own home equity. Indeed, with women marrying later and making enough to afford a home, especially in the recent buyers’ market, it’s more common than ever for single women to buy.

Home ownership is one of the largest declarations of independence a single woman can make. In my case, it affirmed that I wasn’t going to wait around for a boy to make up his mind about me and a future; rather, I was taking matters into my own hands. Though I had a lot of support, I did hear rumblings that making such a bold move might dampen my prospects for a future marriage, since a man might be intimidated. I haven’t found that to be the case, but it’s an interesting theory worth considering. How does a modern, working woman balance her need for independence with other, more traditional needs? Deep down, do women want and need to be protected and taken care of?

In 1982, Colette Dowling published The Cinderella Complex: Women’s Hidden Fear of Independence, theorizing that women inherently want men to take care of them, sometimes sabotage their own success to achieve a more traditional gender role balance.

So how does Cinderella having a mortgage affect this dynamic?

This blog will serve as my forum to further flesh out and explore these ideas, as well as recount the growing pains of home ownership. Comments and feedback are very, very welcome.