Monday, April 3, 2023

2023 goals

Goals for 2023! I feel good about this list. It's a mix of project-based and more habit-based goals, and stuff that is more serious and stuff that's just for fun.

1. Plan a wedding. Get married. This is the big one. If this doesn't happen we are in trouble. But as long as we make it to the altar, I am going to trust that everything else will come together. In the meantime, this is the big project that I anticipate will continue to fill my nights and weekends.

2. Get into individual therapy and premarital counseling. I've been meaning to see a therapist for a while and getting married feels like a good commitment device to do soI'd like a mental and emotional tune-up as I enter this new life phase. And I'd also really value some kind of premarital counseling. After 15 years together, we've talked about everything under the sun, but I imagine there are some conversations that we haven't had explicitly. 

3. Handle other health stuff. A boring but important one. After a year of getting health care through MIT Medical, I am mainly looking for new Cleveland-based providers. I'm due for a new glasses prescription. I'd like to do a sleep study (I recently learned that some people wake up feeling refreshed, whereas I wake up feeling like I've been run over by a garbage truck, so I'd like to look into that) which I think means finding a PCP. I also want to find a dermatologist (driven by vanity with the October wedding) or a very good facialist.  

4. Advance on a few priority house projects. I am paring this down from the broad "declutter and decorate" goal that I set and only partly accomplished in 2022. With the wedding planning, I don't have the bandwidth to make this a focus in 2023, but I would love to finish up the walls (after painting my office in 2021). I have paint and wallpaper choices in mind, I just need to execute (or maybe find a contractor to execute). Austin has been leading on a couple bigger-ticket items, including installing solar panels on the roof and creating a parking pad, that I will benefit from too. 

Now for the fun ones!

5. Read 36 books, 25% of them from my shelves. I've set a Goodreads goal for the past few years, reading 36 books in 2020 and 40 books in 2021. I got a bit overambitious in 2022 and shot for 44 books (since it's a multiple of 22), and fell a bit short, so I'm going for a more realistic target this year. The "from my shelves" goal is just a nudge to read the books I buy. I am a huge fan of the libraryour neighborhood branch reopened recently after being closed for renovationand I love that I can learn about a book and have it waiting for me on the holds shelf, for free, a couple days later. But I also occasionally buy books that I know I will love, only for them to sit on my shelves while I'm filling my holds queue with the new hotness. I also want 2023 to be the year I finally finish Fistful of Shells, which I started reading in 2020. This might be my most ambitious goal of all.

6. Watch all new NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. I've had the idea in the past that it would be fun to set an "artist of the month" goal where I do a deep dive each month into the discography of an artist that I think I might like. This has always ended up feeling like homework so I've never done it. But when we drove to DC for Christmas, Austin put on Stromae's amazing Tiny Desk Concert and this idea popped into my head. They are short, just 15 or 20 minutes, so it's a low time commitment, I can put them on in the background, and I'll be exposed to a much wider range of artists than I would have otherwise. 

7. Stay up-to-date with 2023 Project Life and line-a-day journal. When I moved back from Liberia, I started scrapbooking using Project Life. As of this writing I have 2021 done (I just did the second half) and nada for 2022. I am hoping to keep up with my 2023 album and come back to 2022 after the wedding. I also keep a line-a-day journalI'm now on my second. It's one of my most valued possessions and my most treasured practices, but it's also easy to get lazy and fall behind and then it's hard to catch back up.

8. Earlier wake-ups, better work hours, healthier morning routine. This one is less measurable but I would like to fix my daily routine. Unless I have an early call, I tend to start work a little late (not noon, more like 9:30 or 10am), which means I end work a little late (typically after 7), which means I eat dinner late, which means I go to bed late, and then the cycle continues. On the one hand this is not a big dealthe benefit of remote work and flexible hours is that I can fit my schedule to my circadian rhythmbut I don't like that I end up feeling behind all day, and I don't like working late to compensate. I have a few ideas (and a new sunrise alarm), but I think I am eventually going to have to bite the bullet and start going to bed earlier.

And that's it! Three months in, I've made progress on most of these and am still finding them relevant and inspiringwhich already feels like a win.

Friday, March 24, 2023

2022 in review

A few years ago, I realized that I have really good years on years that end in 2 or 7. 2007 brought the very fun spring semester of my senior year of high school, a summer where I got to hang out nonstop with my friends, and the world-expanding start of my college career. In 2012, I moved to Palestine, WWOOFed through Turkey, and generally traveled the world, and then moved back to DC to land a dream job and move into my first apartment. In 2017, I left that dream job, backpacked through France and Morocco, moved to Cambridge, and enjoyed the very fun first semester of grad school. So I've expected for a while that 2022 would be a good year, and as I was loosely mapping my path out of grad school, I realized there was a decent chance that I would get married this year. 

As with all fairy tales, the prophecy came true, but with a twist. I had correctly foreseen that 2022 would be a wedding year, but rather than my own, it brought the weddings of so many people I love—almost everyone I’m close to who was in a serious relationship and intended to be married but wasn’t yet, the combination of a pandemic backlog and just being in our late 20s / early 30s. Getting to be there to celebrate their love, and our friendships, was such a joy.

The seven weddings I was lucky to attend were a high point of a wonderful year. (I calculated that nearly 20% of my weekends were spent at a wedding or bachelorette party.) It was a big milestone year overall, as my parents celebrated 50 years of marriage, my sister graduated from Chapman University, and (more trivially) I marked my 15-year high school reunion.

As the wedding count would imply, the year also brought so. much. travel. I took 80 flights in total and spent 46% of my time away from my Cleveland home. That was in large part because, for the first half of the year, I divided my time between Cleveland and Cambridge, where my organization is based and where technically I was based as well.

(The longer story is: I knew when I accepted this job in spring 2021 that the expectation was that I would work from Cambridge at least a few days a week. I was (and am!) very excited about the job. But after Austin and I lived on different continents during a global pandemic I was not willing to be truly long-distance. So I hatched a scheme that was both technically workable and quite harebrained—commuting back and forth from the Midwest to the East Coast on a weekly basis). 

From September 2021 through March 2022, with a break during omicron, we were required to be in the office one day a week, and I would often fly in and out the same day. At the end of March, the expectation ramped up to two-three days a week. This entailed bouncing between a series of sublets that friends, colleagues, and people on the Harvard grad student Facebook group were kind to open up to me, with a big suitcase full of bedding, toiletries, and hand weights that served as my "apartment-in-a-box." For an extra layer of complication, all the wedding and other travel meant that some weeks I'd go to Cambridge for two days, and others I'd leave Cleveland for two-three weeks at a time since I'd have weekend travel to other cities mixed in there.

By mid-summer I felt totally exhausted and worn down and vowed that I would learn to say no to myself in 2023. (Ha!) But I don't really have regrets: looking back, there's nothing I would have skipped to give myself more breathing space. (Maybe with the exception of my high school reunion. It was wonderful as always to see friends and classmates but that gluten-free parsley pasta was a travesty.) 

After I marked my one-year anniversary at the end of July, I was able to go fully remote, with about quarterly travel to Cambridge. With the transition, the pace of life felt way more sustainable. Still lots of travel—I was only home for a few weekends all fall, and when I calculated it, I was surprised to learn I was away from home as often in the second half in the year as I was in the first half—but no longer exhausting. On the first Monday of being fully remote, I sat in my home office and realized I would be there all week and let out a giant exhale. 

The upside of this travel is that I had a ton of fun. The downside is that I didn't invest as much as I would have liked in my home or community. One of my goals for 2022 was "declutter and decorate the house." When I moved here in July 2021, there were so many projects I was raring to take on—paint every room! wallpaper accent wall! put doors on the bathrooms! buy new furniture! hang curtains!—and very few of them got done. There was some progress—I painted my office over a long weekend, and scored a perfect midcentury dresser to use as a TV stand on Facebook marketplace—but a lot of those projects remain unfinished. (Including, regrettably, the bathroom doors.) With planning a wedding, I doubt this will be the main focus in 2023, but I'm hoping to make some progress.

I would love to cultivate more local friendships, which traveling so often made it hard to do. Mainly through Austin, I know some wonderful people in Cleveland and am looking forward to putting down more roots here. 

But I accomplished a few big goals and reached some exciting milestones. After setting the goal almost annually for nearly 10 years, I succeeded in running a total of 365 miles, including my first half-marathon. I trained for the marathon between mid-March and mid-May, during a peak travel season, so while it was challenging at points to fit in long runs, it was a nice touchstone during a chaotic time—something that was constant no matter what city I was in.

Going remote freed up the space in my schedule to take on a regular volunteer gig—tutoring a local Afghani family in English through the Refugee Response. They are lovely and funny, learning how to teach English has been a fun challenge, and it has made me feel more connected to my community.

Even better than working remotely is the fact that I really enjoy and feel increasingly confident in my job, and can see myself growing in my organization over the next few years. It's a challenging but very fun role—I get to read academic research and call it work—where I've gotten to build a portfolio that speaks to my diverse interests (democracy and governance! the Middle East! scaling evidence-based programs!) And learning to manage people has stretched me in the best ways.

And a big one: I got engaged and started planning a wedding! ("Get engaged" was one of my goals for 2022.) We spent the first part of the year working with an amazing local jeweler to turn diamonds from Austin's grandmother into a custom engagement ring, officially booked a venue on my 33rd birthday this summer, and have gotten deeper and deeper into the planning trenches ever since. After knowing for years that we wanted to get married, it’s exciting that the ball is rolling towards this big milestone. We're in a great place in our relationship and I’m thrilled to be working towards a marriage.

I realized recently that we're in the place we've been working towards for years—at least since we started grad school, and really even before that, when Austin started voicing his hope of moving back to Cleveland (and I started voicing my hesitation). (The short version of his year-in-review is, he successfully off-ramped from Big Law to a position working with Cleveland's new millennial mayor, where he's taking on all sorts of challenging but worthwhile policy issues.) I finagled a way to live in Cleveland while continuing to build a career in international development; we're both doing public-sector work that (most of the time) feels meaningful; we own a house and are planning a wedding and, better yet, a marriage. What a tremendous joy it is to be here.

Monday, March 13, 2023

My first half-marathon

Before my first 5k in 2014 and after my first half-marathon in 2022, both at the St. Michaels Running Festival.

Running has been part of my exercise routine for almost ten years and I have wanted to run a half-marathon for almost that long. I am thrilled to have finally accomplished that goal in 2022. Here is the story (in way too many words) of how I got there.

I always saw the half-marathon as something I would gradually work my way up to over a long period of time, running shorter distances along the way. Towards that goal, I did my first 5k at the St. Michaels Running Festival in May 2014, followed by a 10k with friends at the same event in May 2015, and then the Across the Bay 10k in November 2015. Emboldened by those experiences, I even registered for a couple half-marathons during this period, but always ended up cancelling for work travel and never seriously started training for them.

(I wouldn't say I seriously trained for anything during this period. I felt like I was running pretty often, but wasn't particularly disciplined about it. On weeknights I would jog around my neighborhood of Columbia Heights and on weekends I took long meandering runs through Rock Creek Park, where I would alternate between walking and jogging, but with no rhyme or reason. It was good times.) 

I took a hiatus from races, and ran less often in general, when I went to grad school, but still logged some miles. When I moved to Liberia after grad school, I decided I would take totally off from runningI don't love treadmills and running outside would have meant contending with heat and trafficand instead threw myself into barre3 and, later, swimming laps in the pool in my compound.  

I moved back to the US in July 2021 and by the time fall rolled around, was ready for a new challenge. My first step was downloading a couch to 5k app. I had never done the program before, due to never really identifying as "couch," but after nearly two years without running, my pride was finally ready to admit that I was effectively starting from scratch. 

Soon thereafter I decided to go for it and sign up for the St. Michaels half-marathon in May. "Working my way up to it" had never workeddespite logging plenty of miles, I never really felt half-marathon-ready. So why not set the goal, tie my own hands, and then get ready? Seven months felt like plenty of time to train and the paid-for race registration would serve as a commitment device.

I had not quite finished the C25K program when winter hit Cleveland. We got feet of snow on MLK weekend and for weeks it didn't melt. While I don't mind running in cold weather, I am a little too wimpy to run in snow and ice, and too cheap to pay for a gym membership to get access to a treadmill, so I effectively took a couple months offall while nervously watching the clock count down to May 14.

My friend got married in Kansas City on March 12. That Friday night, another of our friends turned in a bit early after the welcome party because she needed to wake up early the next morning to log some miles in preparation for the Cherry Blossom ten-miler in DC. Oh, I realized. If I'm doing this, I need to get serious and potentially rearrange my life to make it possiblenot just run when it's convenient. When I got to Cleveland I created a training plan and got started, with exactly two months to go.

I wanted to maintain my barre3 practice so I googled and found this very basic one. (PB refers to Pure Barre here). I had more like eight weeks so I modified a bit.

I decided I wasn't going to worry about any speedwork for this first half-marathonI took off any pressure to "run fast" (there is no way I was going to run fast) and just focused on racking up the miles. 

The two months I spent training were honestly kind of magic. Though of course it's not really magic at allthe beauty of a training plan is that if you work the plan, you become able to do the plan. But it was so cool to experience firsthand. At the beginning, I couldn't run two consecutive miles without walking (I was still finishing off Couch to 5K). Just a couple weeks later, I did my first 10k, running from my house to Edgewater Beach and back, and feeling so good that I practically bounded through Ohio City when "Jerusalema" came on over my headphones. It was so exciting to watch what was my "long run" one week turn into a medium and sometimes even short run in subsequent weeks. 

I loved that I got stronger and ran for longer as the weather got warmer and the world woke upit felt like I was shaking off the winter. I loved exploring the area more. I drove to Edgewater and to the Rocky River Reservation for a couple of longer runs and discovered the Red Line Greenway hiding in plain sight (behind a dive bar to be specific). After a long workday, I came to crave the feeling of freedom that came with running alongside the Cuyahoga River with the proverbial wind in my hair.

My half-marathon training coincided with a particularly busy time of the year, as my office summoned us back to work in-person 2-3 days a week, which meant travel to Cambridge during the workweek, with weekend trips up and down the East Coast sprinkled in. I kept up my training plan while popcorning between Cleveland and Boston and DC, running after early-morning flights, after getting home from a bachelorette weekend, when mildly hungover from my 15-year high school reunion. I ran along the Charles River, through Rock Creek Park, on the Somerville City Path. Running became a nice touchstonesomething that stayed the same regardless of where I was and something I could control when life felt chaotic. I am proud of myself for pulling it off during a crazy period.

I learned so much during this period. I found that the first mile is in some ways the hardest; I feel like I'm watching the clock and it felt like it took forever to get to Runkeeper's first five-minute audio stats. The first three or four steps are the worst of allI can hear my body yelling WHAT THE HELL as it processes the shock of being in motion. Somewhere during the first mile I get a pang of chest-tightening anxietythis feels hard and I am going to be doing it for a long time. And often something hurtsnot horribly but enough to be apprehensive about how long I can make it on my weird-feeling foot or knee.

But gradually, my body would get used to it. The anxiety would lift. The minor aches and pains would work themselves out. I would get absorbed in my music or podcast and be surprised when Runkeeper told me another five minutes had passed. The downside of this is that every run has a first mile. The upside is that adding miles doesn't feel as hard as it would if every subsequent mile felt harder or even equally hard. I just needed to remember not to freak out and not to give up.

I read Born to Run during this period and loved it. For one, it was fun to pretend that I was in the same league as ultra-marathoners. There were a bunch of gems but one of my favorite was: "For [other people], running was a miserable two miles motivated solely by size 6 jeans... But you can't muscle through a five-hour run that way; you have to relax into it, like easing your body into a hot bath, until it no longer resists the shock and begins to enjoy it."

Ahhh, yes. Relaxing into it. That is exactly what it felt like. The biggest improvement to my running life this year was to drop the walk/run habit and commit to running the whole time. This was probably good for my physical fitnessthough I know there are benefits to alternating walking and runningbut it was everything mentally. When my expectation is that I'll run until I'm tired and can then take a walking break, a run is a constant negotiation with myself: "can you make it to that lamp post before you walk? actually can you make it to the lamp post after that?" When my expectation is that I'll run until I hit my mileage goal, I can just relax into it, knowing that I'll be running for a whilethere are no more choices to make. Add in some nice long podcasts (I had Maintenance Phase and The Dropout on rotation during this period) and some decent scenery and it even became enjoyable. 

The other big attitude shift was internalizing that being a runner doesn't have to look a particular way. I had made my peace long ago with the idea that most runners are much faster than me. But more than that, in my mind a "real" runner was someone who wakes up early to log their miles before breakfast. I am just not a morning person and I feel way better running later in the afternoons. I went to a bachelorette party in Rhode Island where a friend of the bride was a real-deal runner who had done the Boston Marathon and woke at sunrise to run along the cliff walk. I, with a twinge of guilt, spent the morning in my pajamas catching up with girlfriends... and then logged my eight miles in the early evening, fueled by clam chowder, once we got back to Cambridge. (Ha!)

As the half-marathon approached, I felt great. I could run for 8+ miles at a time and feel goodnot like I had gone for a walk in the park, but not like I was about to collapse, either. Even in just the eight weeks of training, I'd gone from about a 12:30 pace to about 11:30 and sometimes even 11:00, even on long runs. 

A couple days before the race, my right leg started hurtinghumming in the background at first and then more noticeably. I am not sure what it was, but I remember telling my mom that it felt like my thigh was not attached properly to my hip. After picking up my packet, I tried jogging a few paces and my leg yelled at me. So while I felt good about my training, I was nervous that this mysterious minor ailment was going to eff things up. On race day, I loaded up on coffee, water, a banana, and Gu and then headed to the start line at the local high school. As I crossed the starting line, I was thrilled to find that I could run without pain.

The route wound through the town of St. Michaels and then through various neighborhoods and golf courses, with glimpses of the water throughout. It had been six+ years since I'd done an organized race and I remembered how cool they are. I love that there are all kinds of people, bedecked in the Maryland flag or in matching t-shirts declaring it a girls' weekend. I love the fact that there is very little correlation between what someone looks like and how fast they are. I particularly love seeing older women and kindling a hope that this hobby can last me a lifetime. The route doubled back on itself at some points and it was cool intersecting with the front of the pack and seeing up-close how fast humans can go.

I would say overall the race felt okay, but not fantastic. It was cool and grey and wet, so it felt a bit like running through a cold soup. Some miles felt harder and some felt easier, though nearly a year later, I couldn't tell you which ones. I do remember that when I hit mile 12 I got a little tearyrealizing that I had run further than I ever had before and that I'd brought myself to this moment.

I didn't feel the sense of bounding ease that I had gotten on some of my training runs. In theory you are supposed to run faster on race day than during your training runs, but I ran much slower than I had expected. This was made particularly apparent by the fact that I spent the whole race leapfrogging a gentleman who was doing a run/walk strategy. It's funny, I felt like I was running as fast as I possibly could, but I saw a video of myself and it looks like a shufflelike the gag in movies when someone is moving fast in their own mind but then the camera zooms out and they are actually moving in slo-mo. Maybe I was subconsciously holding back to hold off the pain? 

In the end I came in around 12:36, much closer to my status quo pace than to what I had worked up to while training. (In retrospect I think I probably got a little over-confident after just eight weeks of training.) I was both super proud to have accomplished this huge goal and a little sheepish to have done it at a snail's pace. But mostly I was relieved to have finished the training plan.

After the half-marathon was over, I turned my sights to my corollary running goal: run 365 miles in 2022. No joke, I had been setting this goal on and off since 2014 and had never accomplished it. It always felt like a good goal because, in addition to the satisfying cleanness of running the equivalent of one mile a day, it is totally achievable if you're running consistently. (And totally impossible if you're nothence my never accomplishing it beforeha!)

But half-marathon training put me over 180 miles before the halfway point of the year, so all of a sudden it seemed within reach. I ran inconsistently over the summer, maybe once or twice a week when the mood struck and the weather wasn't too hot. As fall rolled around, I realized it was once again Get Serious time so I signed up for the 10k Bay Bridge Run as motivation to keep my mileage up. (It worked well for my running life and my 365-mile goal this year to have spring and fall running "seasons," motivated by races, rather than trying to keep up a consistent habit all year. )

Particularly after the half-marathon, I wasn't inherently intimidated by the sheer distance of six miles, so I decided to experiment with seeing if I could run faster. I set up a training plan in Runkeeper that incorporated some surges and interval training. It made for a fun challenge.

It was so cool to see it pay off on race day. I had a slow start, in part because the start line was very congested (note to self, try to be at the front of the block when there are a lot of walkers), and probably in part because the first leg of a bridge run is obviously uphill. Once I was on top of the bridge and had snapped my photo and shed my top layer, a favorite song came on over my headphones and I realized I could pick up the pace. I think the speedwork both gave me the actual ability to run faster, but even more than that, showed me that speed is something I can control (at least to some extent), not something that just happens to me. I felt like I flew the rest of the race (in reality I came in right at 11-minute miles) and was excited to find myself passing people as the finish line approached.

To keep myself rolling towards the 365 goal, I signed up for the Cleveland Turkey Trot a couple weeks later, a fun and sunny morning where I was thrilled to come in around 10:40still not "fast" by any objective measure, but fast for me. I had a work trip to Morocco in early December and crammed my last few miles in before I left, in case cold weather made for less pleasant conditions upon my return. I was thrilled to hit the 365-mile mark on December 1.

As I write this, I am starting to train for my second half-marathon this May. (The very clever organizers gave you a big discount if you signed up at the post-race party when you were feeling the runner's high.) I am a little nervous. Everything about my first half-marathon experience feels a little bit rose-colored, but running is hard. I don't have the benefit of novelty on my side this year, and my expectations for myself are higher, now that I know I can make it 13.1 miles and stay standing. But there is still so much I have to learn about this hobby and I am excited to keep going.

PS: I am always impressed by people who manage to look cute in their running gear but as the photos in this post show, am totally unable to pull it off myself.