How to Buy Your First House

Step 1: Convince yourself that you do not need a house. Your 2-bed, 2-bath condo has plenty of space. You and your husband never even go into the spare room. You only have guests a few times a year, you hardly cook, and you have no kids. (Unless you count your dog…) The condo is fine. You do not need a house.

Step 2: Start browsing real estate websites anyway.

Step 3: Develop a crush on a gorgeous old Victorian in a quirky, up-and-coming neighborhood. Convince your husband to go take a look. No formal appointment, just a quick poke around the front yard. When his eyes light up with excitement, you know: The house-hunt is on.

Step 4: With a twinge of regret, rule out the Victorian because of its location. Realize that each neighborhood in your city has a very distinct personality, and finding the right fit is crucial. Visit a few homes in the areas you might like to live. You’re auditioning both the neighborhoods and the realtors you meet.

Step 5: After much consideration, decide on a neighborhood and an agent. Get pre-approved for a loan. (Warning: Houses are expensive, so it’s going to be a big number. Try not to panic. You can just eat ramen for the rest of your life.) Now settle in for a long ride. This is a competitive market, and the perfect house is not going to fall into your lap right away.

Step 6: Spot the perfect house for sale two weeks later.

OK, it’s not perfect. But it has so much potential. Deep burgundy brick. Original hardwood floors. A stained glass window in the stairwell. Updated kitchen and bathrooms. A fenced yard for the dog. Even a two-car garage!

When you look through the listing, a funny feeling fills your chest. There’s a hiccup in your heartbeat. A sense of possibility. And maybe even of belonging.

Step 7: Arrange a walk-through of the house with your realtor. Take note of all its flaws, and remind yourself not to fall in love. A million things could come between you and this house. Getting too attached would just be a liability.

Step 8: Fall in love anyway. Think about the house non-stop. Flip through the online photos a dozen times a day. Send a link to your family and friends and pester everyone for their opinions. (Tip: Cut ties with anyone who doesn’t think it’s the best house ever.) Imagine living there, working there, hosting parties there, raising kids there.

Step 9: Make an offer. Negotiate with the sellers a little. Agree to terms. Compile all sorts of financial paperwork for the mortgage company. More documents than you ever imagined. And then a few more on top of that. Schedule an inspection and spend over three hours with the inspector, going over every inch of the house and taking notes. Negotiate with the sellers again. Sign a thousand papers. And then a few more on top of that. When it’s all done, several weeks will have gone by, and the fact that you’re buying a house still won’t feel real. But it is. When the realtor gives you the keys, hold them in your hand and smile. Appreciate this moment. This milestone.

Step 10: Celebrate by buying a ladder, several buckets of paint, brushes and rollers, and a nice bottle of wine. Drive to the new house and unlock the front door. Step inside and take a deep breath. Soak it all in.

Then roll up your sleeves and get to work. It’s time to make this house your home.

The Big Three Oh

In 2015, Angie and Kristan turned 30. The milestone was both more and less momentous than they expected…

ANGIE

Last year, Kristan, Mengfei and I went on a wonderful girls trip to Europe to commemorate the big 3-0. Traveling from different cities, I landed in Berlin first, too early for anyone to be awake and functioning. Though I arrived well prepared with maps and directions to our rented apartment, the subway line I needed to transfer at was unexpectedly closed for construction. Jetlagged, with no idea where I was, I started to panic. Thankfully I spied two men walking to a bus stop nearby and ran towards them.

Together we navigated the bus route to a different subway. My new companions sleepily chatted with me and shared recommendations of their beloved city. The older man rode with me the entire way, even escorting me to a local bakery where I could eat and wait for my friends.

As he dropped me off at the bakery door, I offered to buy him coffee and breakfast. He politely declined, clasped his hands together and said, “I’m happy to help. Just pay it forward.”

My friends and I had an amazing trip afterward, but when I returned home, I didn’t practice the kind man’s words. Instead I spent the first half of my 30th year doing the opposite. Experiencing a period of deep vulnerability, I sought and took any support I could get.

The man in Berlin turned out to be a precursor for the abundance of time, love, wisdom and generosity that my friends and family would bestow upon me through a difficult time. So I began repairing myself — and in a symbolic parallel, finished putting together the apartment that I had moved into over a year earlier. My new home. My better me.

Now, I have finally begun to reciprocate, when I can and as much as I can. In the second half of my 30th year, I am trying to pay it forward.

When I was still in school, I thought women in their 30s had their lives together. It seemed like they all had a strong sense of self, and knew what they wanted and how to get it. Now that I am one of them, I know the truth: we definitely don’t have everything figured out. But we have learned a lot about ourselves and about the world, and we’re just trying to hold true to the one while navigating the other.

I’m still trying to figure out that balance, amidst career politics and heartache. I’m learning that some things just aren’t important. You can skip the gossip and the negativity, you can ignore misconceptions about yourself. You should take responsibility for your actions and be wary of those who don’t. Practice empathy, and sometimes help a complete stranger, just because.

While I miss some of the free spiritedness of my 20s, I’m embracing the maturity of my 30s. There are still so many adventures to take, now complemented with full nights sleep. It’s worth figuring out how to navigate work, the world, and your own heart. At 30, you are stronger than you know.

KRISTAN

On a recent flight back to Houston to visit my parents for the holidays, I sat next to a very chatty man. Normally I tend to keep to myself on airplanes, sleeping or reading or working, but this guy clearly needed to discuss his troubled relationship and stuttering career. I didn’t have the heart to shut him down.

So we talked, and at some point I realized that I was offering advice and encouragement to a man 10-15 years older than myself. It’s not that I had all the answers for him — nor have I accomplished all of the goals in my own life. But somehow, over the years, I’ve turned into one of those worldly and insightful adults that I used to look up to.

And it’s not just me. Over the holidays, I caught up with several high school friends (including Angie), and it was such a delight to see how everyone has matured. Our 20s were sometimes turbulent, both personally and professionally, but that’s what taught us how to fly smoothly.

For me, I think the biggest lesson has been letting go of what I imagined “success” should be. I’m not rich or famous, and I don’t look like a supermodel, but that doesn’t make me a failure. My life is delightfully boring, with a husband, a dog, and a house in the Midwest. My writing career is still in its early stages. But rather than money, beauty, or fame, I’ve decided that what matters most to me is fulfillment and impact. As long as I remain a positive, nurturing influence to others, then I am successful. Whether I affect 10 people or 10 million.

We are smarter and stronger than we know. And maybe part of turning 30 is just taking the time to reflect on that. To realize it. To embrace it. And as we move through the next decade of our lives, to build on it.

Sisterhood of Summer

3 years old. Shallow waters, and big orange floaties encircling each arm. Our mothers sit pool-side while we splash and play. You’re a mermaid queen and I’m your daughter, your best friend, your handmaiden, your loyal subject. The sun burns bright above our dark-haired heads, and we squint as the sunscreen melts into our eyes.

12 years old. Dive-bombing into the deep end, and shrieking with laughter when the lifeguards whistle at us. Our mothers sit at home across the street, but they check in on us through the windows, as if their watchful gazes can save us from drowning. You’re Marco, and I’m Polo. We hunt for each other, eyes closed against the sting of chlorine.

29 years old. Seeking quiet and relaxation, but instead encountering neighbors I’ve never met before and don’t really care to know. The mothers complain loudly about kids who aren’t present. The red-faced men are drunk and showing off. You’re hundreds of miles away, probably sound asleep, while here I’m remembering the silky slither of aqua water around our young legs. My eyes gloss over, and the memories settle around me like the vast evening sky.

Someday, I imagine, we will go swimming together again.

My Neighborhood, My Oasis

Every morning, I leash up my dog Riley and head out the back door for a walk around our suburban Cincinnati neighborhood. We go early enough that the woods are still quiet, the skies a soft blue-gray. I usually bring a book and flip to the page where I left off the day before, while Riley sniffs the grass. Together we meander our way down the street.

We’re kind of famous among our neighbors. They get a kick out of Riley’s unique markings – big black patches around both eyes – as well as my ability to read and walk at the same time. There are a few regulars who Riley and I run into frequently. Sometimes we walk in a group, chatting about books or the weather. Meanwhile the dogs take turns marking the trees and gobbling up every naughty thing they can find.

Dogs aren’t the only mischievous creatures running about. Our neighborhood is a popular thruway for deer. I often see them through our big back window, frolicking over the hillside or nibbling on the greenery. My favorites are the little spotted fawns, all long-limbed and uncoordinated. The young bucks are handsome too, standing tall to show off their regal antlers.

At night, teams of raccoons peep out of the drainage system to explore. Their favorite spot is the community dumpster, where they forage for discarded treasures like chicken bones and fruit peels. They’re shy guys, though. I might catch one flash of those bandit-masked eyes, or one swish of those black and gray bulls-eye tails, then they’re gone, disappearing back into the safety of darkness.

My neighborhood is full of small charms like this. We also have a community clubhouse, where the neighborhood association hosts monthly gatherings like Chocolate Fondue Night or Book Swap. There’s an exercise room available year-round, and a swimming pool that’s open during the warm months between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Street lamps line the long driveway that separates our complex from the busier streets nearby. And behind us is an elite Catholic high school for boys, who we often see running through the neighborhood during track and field season.

A lot of my friends – young, hip professionals without kids – have moved downtown and keep trying to convince me and my husband to join them. I have to admit, there’s a certain appeal. My husband could walk to and from work every day. At night we would be right down the street from most of our favorite restaurants. We could meet up with other couples on a whim, maybe even enjoy a drink and some music at one of the city’s rooftop bars.

But how can we give up our little oasis?

As I sit here writing this, it’s hard for me to imagine living anywhere else. But I also know that we can’t stay here forever. Someday my husband and I will have kids, and our family will outgrow this space. Maybe his job will take us to another part of the country, or even another part of the world. For one reason or another, we will eventually have to leave this beloved neighborhood behind.

And that’s okay. Home is where the heart is – and fortunately, hearts are mobile. For now, mine is here, in this neighborhood, with the sunshine streaming through my window, the joyful shouting of boys playing football in our shared backyard, and Riley curled up with me on the sofa, his furry head on my lap, just happily taking it all in.

Reflecting on Our 10-Year Reunion

Ten years later, there we were. Somewhere between 100 and 200 members of the Bellaire High School class of 2003 had gathered in a dive bar near the Southwest Freeway, overtaking the regular customers. Red and white banners staked our claim and announced our continued school spirit. Camera flashes kept going off. The entire night was dedicated to mingling and catching up, drinking and sharing stories, shouting to be heard over the other voices and music.

Like true best friends, the two of us stuck together for much of the night, trying to spend time with each other, while also wandering around and reacquainting with our old peers. Despite people’s newly acquired beards, changes in fashion, or extra pounds gained here and there, everyone still felt vaguely familiar. It made us wonder: Were we mostly the same too?

A sense of curiosity had us talking to everyone we passed, whether we recognized them or not. Former boyfriends, dance team buddies, tag-along spouses, and even one lovely girl who remembered us far better than we remembered her. Like a choreographed dance, the crowd kept splitting into pairs and small groups, then swirling around and dividing again. In each new configuration, we laughed over fond memories, reminisced about old teachers, and marveled at all the things that had fallen between the cracks, waiting until that night to be unearthed again.

Once or twice we were ignored by people who we approached or waved to, which was puzzling more than offensive. It seemed to go against the whole spirit of a class reunion. But it didn’t matter — such petty matters were left behind in high school — and only showed us who our friends really were, both then and now.

Overall, the reunion was enjoyable in an inessential way, like eating a slice of cake. It tastes good in the moment, but you don’t need it. It doesn’t nurture or fulfill you in any way. On the one hand, it didn’t really matter how our classmates had turned out. They had been absent from our lives for a long time, and as soon as we walked out the door, they would disappear again, with no impact on us one way or another. But on the other hand, it was nice to look around the room and think, “Hey, we did all right.” As a group, we’ve experienced such interesting things over the past decade — like working on Wall Street, studying volcanoes for NASA, becoming parents, chasing and living our dreams.

At the end of the night, we felt a sort of collective pride — and honestly, a sense of reassurance. We had all survived, and maybe even thrived, in these first ten years after high school. That meant we were probably in good shape to do the same or better in the decades to come.

Ten Years After High School

Kristan

I can’t believe it’s been a decade since Angie and I graduated from high school. It seems like just yesterday that we were learning how to drive, editing the school newspaper, and studying for the SATs. But time flies, and now the infamous 10-year reunion is upon us.

Our class president has scheduled the reunion for Thanksgiving weekend, when out-of-town alumni are more likely to return. As one of those out-of-towners, I appreciate her consideration, but I’m still not sure I want to attend.

The thing is, I don’t feel the need for a reunion. The people I care about, I already keep in touch with. We email, chat, and post on each other’s Facebook walls. We tweet, text, and occasionally even call. Of course it would be nice to see them in person, but we could arrange to do that in a different, more intimate way — without name tags, cocktails, and a room full of other people that we barely remember.

All of this leads me to wonder: Am I just not the reunion type? Or is technology eliminating the need for reunions?

Angie

There’s nothing like a 10-year reunion to make you feel old. It’s a big tradition, idealized by media and society, and that’s on my mind as I plan to fly home for Thanksgiving and possibly attend.

Part of me feels indifferent because, like Kristan, I will see my friends when I go home regardless. Also, we went to a large school with hundreds of students I never knew — and still may never know. But part of me is curious to see those I lost touch with, the ones I remember as being good people in high school.

I can’t help wondering: How have we transformed? Do we all look the same as we remembered? Will we try to show off our jobs? Spouses? Other status symbols? Or will we just reminisce about old teachers? First kisses? Senior prom?

As my peers and I have grown from teenagers to adults — breaking past high school archetypes — there are so many stories to share, pains to learn from, and achievements to celebrate. For me, as with most events in life, I will never regret going, but I will always wonder if I don’t.

Your Turn

Do you think we should attend our 10-year high school reunion? Did you attend yours? Share your thoughts and experiences with us at JBUcolumn@gmail.com or www.jbucolumn.com.

Swinging High

My family used to have a swing set in our backyard. I remember the metal beams, the red seats of the seesaw and “love seat,” and the rubbery swings with blue plastic over the chains to protect your hands from getting pinched. I remember helping my dad place stickers on the swing set to make it look cool. I remember the metal slide that I would happily climb, trying to reach for the sky before I slid back down to the world.

I played on the swing set almost daily, sometimes alone, sometimes with my sister or friends. When I was older, my long legs had to be crammed onto the steps of the seesaw, but I still eagerly pushed back and forth to see how high I could go. I could feel the swing set shift out of its setting in the ground from my force. It never failed to make me happy.

Eventually my dad had to remove the swing set because the braces started to crack and the metal rusted, making it unsafe. I was lucky that my schools and neighborhood had other playgrounds to play on. But I was also growing older, and by high school I had moved on to more mature afterschool activities.

Nowadays I sometimes wonder why only children are allowed to play and run around. They’re encouraged to imagine all sorts of adventures. As adults, we instead have structured alternatives such as team sports or choreographed dance. They’re still enjoyable, but each move is calculated and constructed. It’s about control instead of freedom.

Recently, I visited my friend in Queens and suggested we take a walk around the neighborhood. She informed us that there was a park nearby with a playground. One of our friends immediately lit up and asked, “Are there swings?”

When we got to the park, a group of middle-schoolers was already there, so we hovered awkwardly, waiting and hoping for our chance. Once they left and no other young children were around, we pounced on half of the swings. The four of us took turns swinging, and the feeling was instantaneous bliss.

There we were, a group of grown women who couldn’t control our laughter over a pair of swings. It didn’t matter whether we were the ones swinging or the ones watching, the laughter continued to roll out of us. The sheer joy of movement, and the brief return to childhood, affected us all.

When it was my turn, I walked backwards as far as I could go, all the way onto my tiptoes. Then I heaved up and gave myself a large first push. With each back-and-forth, I swung with more force. My legs kicked higher and higher, until I could see my feet flying towards the clouds. So high that I wanted to touch the sky, before I came back down to reality.

New Ways of Getting the News

A few months ago I was coming back to Texas to visit my parents, and my dad asked me to bring a copy of my local newspaper for him. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently switched to the smaller “tabloid” format, and as a fellow publisher, my dad wanted to see how things had worked out.

Then he and I started talking about where people get their news nowadays. Each format — print, broadcast, online – has benefits and drawbacks. The key factors are accuracy of information, speed of distribution, and cost. Which reminds me of a saying: “Fast, cheap, or good. You can only get 2 out of 3, so choose wisely.”

When it comes to staying informed, I am definitely part of the Millennial generation, meaning that I mostly depend on Google or social media. For example, I learned about Osama bin Laden’s death via Twitter, and about the Boston Marathon bombing via Facebook.

I do catch snippets of the 10 o’clock news sometimes, usually after one of my favorite shows is over. However, while all formats contain a mix of stories, I find that TV focuses the most on “sensational” topics like robberies and shootings. Or they reel you in with teasers: What popular new toy might kill your child? We’ll tell you right after this commercial break, so don’t change that channel!

Print news, on the other hand, seems to be the most community-focused. Because of their built-in delay and their smaller coverage areas, newspapers aren’t trying to capture an audience with speed or general interest, but instead with quality and relevance. They try to keep us informed about what’s happening in our city, our neighborhood. Changes with the school district, what the congressmen are doing, new roads being built. The stuff that truly impacts our daily lives.

Talking about all of this with my dad gave us both a lot of good food for thought. His newspapers already have websites and Facebook pages, but he’s looking into other ways to make subscriptions convenient and timely for his readers. Maybe an email list so people can download a PDF copy. Maybe a Twitter feed.

Another innovation that social media has brought to news coverage is “common man reporting.” Through Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and other online tools, people can instantly broadcast their mobile photos and eyewitness accounts, sometimes before journalists even arrive on the scene. More valuable than any one individual’s testimony is the conglomeration of them all.

But just as easily as information is spread this way, so is misinformation. People jump to conclusions, often without the background knowledge needed to make them in the first place. And like a bad game of Telephone, things usually become more distorted with each transmission.

So the internet is fast but bad with details. Newspapers are specific but slower. Television is somewhere in between. Because there are pros and cons to each format, we consumers have to be aware of them when we choose where to get our stories.

Most importantly, technology may be changing a lot about the way news is reported, but hopefully all journalists will stay focused on and driven by the heart of why news is reported. It’s not about subscriptions, advertisers, or “getting the scoop.” It’s about empowering people through the delivery of relevant and accurate information.

Lessons on Humanity From a Cheetah

With the spots of a Dalmatian, the build of a Greyhound, and the paws of a Great Dane, Savanna is clumsily put together but unbelievably cute. She’s also entirely feline — a cheetah cub, about 7 months old and 38 pounds. (Full grown, she could weigh double that.) I met her at the zoo, but not with bars or glass or a moat between us. No, she stood less than an arm’s length away at times, restrained by a simple leash.

This happened at an event for Andy’s work, hosted at the Cincinnati Zoo. As part of their “Ambassador” program, Savanna has been acclimated to a variety of human sights and sounds so that she can attend functions such as our party that night, or more importantly classrooms, to help teach people about wildlife studies and conservation efforts. Savanna stayed with us for nearly an hour, during which time she calmly sat for pictures, climbed on a table to monitor the room, and even nuzzled her 3 handlers like a house cat. With such affectionate gestures, and some of her baby fuzz still visible, it was easy to forget Savanna’s true nature.

Despite her training, Savanna is still a wild animal, ruled mostly by instinct. She was one of two cubs born to the zoo, but her brother didn’t survive. Apparently cheetah mothers won’t raise just one cub, because after 18 months cubs are left to fend for themselves, which would be hard to do on their own without siblings. Thus Savanna’s mother abandoned her, and Savanna became an orphan.

That’s when the zoo stepped in. They hand-raised her, secured her a spot in the Ambassador program, and even partnered her with a puppy of similar age and size to be an adoptive playmate and brother. The two will be best friends until she matures, at which point instinct will kick in again, because female cheetahs live alone. Fortunately one of the handlers is already eager to adopt the black lab, Max, when Savanna outgrows him.

The push and pull between the laws of nature and the intervention of mankind has defined Savanna’s life, and in some ways it defines ours too. Do we let things occur as they may, or should we step in and control when we can? That’s what I kept thinking about later that night, long after Savanna had left our party. It’s a pretty philosophical takeaway from a mere hour with a cheetah cub, but then, hanging out with Savanna was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that I both enjoyed and was affected by.

And that, to me, is the mark of a great ambassador.

Our Holiday Break

Kristan

While there was no snow or sleigh bells, my holiday was otherwise fairly traditional. I flew home to Houston and was greeted with lots of hugs from my parents — as well as lots of kisses from mosquitoes.

That first weekend, we battled the crowds to do our last-minute shopping. Funny enough, nowadays my parents and I tend to buy our own presents and then wrap them as a surprise to everyone else. It may sound weird, but we enjoy it. Makes Santa’s life easier too.

After Christmas, my half-sister came to visit with her granddaughter, and we showed them a few of Houston’s highlights: Moody Gardens, Kemah Boardwalk, NASA’s Space Center, the Galleria and the Waterwall. We also drove around nice neighborhoods to look at their sparkling holiday lights. Though I had done it all before, it was fun to see my hometown through a newcomer’s eyes.

For me, the new experience was babysitting my cousin’s daughter for 3 nights. She’s now 5 years old, which is a fun but exhausting age. We colored Hello Kitty activity books, read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, and watched My Little Pony. I gave her a bath and brushed her teeth. She ate the ham and eggs out of my kolache. I felt like I was playing Mom for a few days, and it was… illuminating.

Now it’s 2013, and I’m back home, back to my regularly scheduled life, back to work. I don’t have any specific resolutions, but I would like to continue applying a few themes across all areas of my life: (1) Don’t try to do/have it all; (2) Don’t worry about what people think; (3) Keep It Simple, Stupid; (4) Push yourself; (5) Be more assertive/decisive; and (6) Don’t aim for perfection, just keep getting better.

Angie

My parents and I always celebrate Thanksgiving in a big way — lots of friends and a massive feast — but for whatever reason, we don’t do any of the December holidays. So after a wonderful extended stay at home in November, I decided to do something different this winter: Freeze my butt off in Canada. At –10°F to be precise!

Why give up the balmy Texas climate for arctic Canadian weather? I wanted to learn how to ski. Also, as a child I had visited Banff National Park, a World Heritage Site notorious for its scenic beauty, in the summer. Now I wanted to witness firsthand its breathtaking views in the winter.

I was not disappointed. I spent a couple days touring the towns and then three full days skiing the popular sites: Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Mount Norquay. Each day as I arrived on the slopes, with an instructor leading the way, I ooo-ed and ahh-ed – even falling once because I was so captivated by the view.

Needless to say, I fell quite a few more times trying to complete a green (“easy”) run on the second day. Although I picked up the basic skiing techniques quickly, gravity sometimes won. Nevertheless, I slowly but surely conquered the mountain, turning and braking my way down the steep inclines. By the third day, I felt confident on the slopes, and eager to return for more someday.

After my skiing adventures, I spent New Year’s Eve in Seattle with one of my best friends, eating and exploring the city. We even toured the old city underground and then watched the fireworks shoot off around the Space Needle.

On January 1st, I flew back to New York City, with sore legs and a clearer mind, ready for change in 2013.