Lovely London Sunday

One of the most prevalent questions I get here in London is along the lines of "What are you doing here?!" It seems that most people don't understand why an American would choose to live in London despite the fact that it really is the best city in the world. (Maybe I'm just a little biased.) Sometimes, when it is raining sideways, dark at 3pm and I've had to deal with the lack of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, New Belgium and customer service, I wonder what I'm doing here, too. However, then there are days like today, which will go down as one of my best London memories EVER, and I'm reminded why I love this city. So. Darn. Much.
The lovely PR maven HH secured two VIP tickets to the London Marathon and invited me as her +1, so I awoke very early for a Sunday (although not as early as the runners, I suppose) to join her.

We spent a good 45 minutes navigating our way to the grandstand from St James' Park. The crowds were enormous; you not only have all the people watching the marathon, but clueless tourists who wander into the thick of the event completely unaware that something is even happening. Despite what would usually be a 10-minute walk taking so long, being a VIP had its perks, including free food, drinks, accessible toilets and, of course, the opportunity to see all the action up close.
 I watched Wilson Kipsang smash the London Marathon record, finishing 26.3 miles in just 2 hours and 4 minutes, and Mo Farah come in a few minutes afterward.

As the pros finished and "real" people started coming in, I got more and more inspired. Looking in from the outside, I was so impressed by all the people competing. Old, young, fat, thin; 37,000 people ran in total, and very few looked like typical marathoners. There were a lot of people who looked like they had just woken up for a morning jog, crossing the finish line as one might a lope around Regent's Park. There were people who ran the whole thing in the most hilarious get-ups, including a man in a London Pride bottle, and still managed to finish with an impressive time despite the obvious issues such attire would cause. Then there were people who puked coming down the home stretch, or were carried by fellow runners. Most people ran for a charity, and my favorites were those who dressed up, or carried a sign or wore a jersey for someone they cared about. I teared up quite a few times seeing the proud faces of so many people as the crossed the finish line. Yes, I know. I'm a "sensie."
All in all, an amazing, inspiring and really emotionally cathartic way to spend a lovely Sunday in the city. Watching so many people join together to do something so amazing- and challenging- really made me proud to be a Londoner!

HH and I made a pact to run the marathon next year...I fear I'll be one of the many being carried across the finish line, but I've already started to plan training for the next year. Now I just need to find the charity I want to run for! I'm thinking of Mind. Any other suggestions?


Weekend Away in Ireland

When I got back from the States after Christmas, I committed to myself that I'd spend some time "settling" into London life. When the travel bug bites you, it is quite easy to get carried away. I mean this quite literally; from July to December last year I was in a different country each month (Canada in April, too; then Brazil in July and August, Iceland in September, Spain in October, Germany and France in November and home to the States in December).

While I'm the first, middle and last proponent of going where the wind blows you, it can get a) addictive and b) disruptive if, for instance, you have rent to pay, deadlines to meet and money to make, like I do. Therefore, I made a "resolution," if it can be called that, to stick around London for a bit and get things in order.

Obviously, it was only a few days before I started getting itchy feet. But I made it through to mid-March, at which time the best reason to travel came up: my best friend's wedding.

From the minute I met LuZell in 7th grade, we were inseparable. That isn't an overstatement. From ridiculous obsessions with different bands to watching 10 Things I Hate About You 100 times (I can still quote the entire movie), we were a unique brand of teenager that understood each other- and no one else. So what better reason to celebrate than her finding someone amazing who loves her so much!?

Weddings can be big, glam productions worthy of Page Six ads, or they can be small, intimate affairs with the few people who matter most (and who you feel 100% comfortable crying throughout the entire ceremony in front of). This one was the latter, so I'll keep all the wedding pictures and tales to myself and focus on Ireland itself!

The day before the wedding ColZell and LuZell (I nickname everyone amazing in my life, if you can't tell) took me to Blarney. The castle is the main event, but the grounds were just as amazing.

 The sun was shining, so we took our time walking around before turning our attention to the castle.

 Once we got to the castle, I (hopefully) got a bump of good luck by pulling myself up 1 million stairs (or so it seemed) to kiss the stone.
I'll suspend belief about superstition and wishes, but at least I got a super good back stretch. The view from the top was pretty excellent, too, and well worth the hike up the stairs.

...and how else to follow up kissing the Blarney Stone for general good luck than by walking up and down (backwards) the darkest, dingiest and most dangerous Wishing Steps with your eyes closed?! Let's hope my wish comes true, I earned it! 
 Fast foward to the day after the wedding, during which I was regrettably confined to bed. Luckily, my last day I rallied enough to explore Cork City a bit.
Ironically those explorations led me to an English Market.

Overall, a good reason to break my "settling" streak...but it has made me even more keen to get away again! Where should my next mini break be?!


Chocolate Banana Bread

These past couple of weeks have brought glorious, sunshine-y weather to London, which has made me feel like spring has sprung! To celebrate, I've been getting all domestic, cleaning out winter clutter from my closets, hoovering the floors and clearing away piles of coats and scarves that have taken over every possible surface in my room. While I may live to regret my actions (you know, March coming in like a lamb and out like a lion and all that), one thing about my recent bout of nesting that I will not regret is my newly found chocolate banana bread recipe.

Being unable to convert from standard to imperial, I eyeballed a lot of the proportions from several different recipes and just kind of winged it. I was a little nervous about experimenting in the kitchen and kept my fingers crossed the whole time (which makes baking quite hard, it turns out), hoping the good luck that's driving this weather would hold out for me. Fabulously, luck was on my side! 
Chocolate Banana Bread

You'll need:

3 extra ripe bananas
1 c. granulated sugar (some recipes call for caster sugar, but this worked just fine)
8 tbsp. butter
2 large eggs
1 tbsp. milk
1 tbsp. ground cinnamon
2 c. all purpose flour (some recipes call for other kinds, but this worked just fine)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup chocolate chips (optional but soooooo darn good)

1) Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
2) Apply about 2 tsp. of your butter to a loaf pan. I used a 9x5x3 pan.
3) Cream the sugar and the butter in a large mixing bowl with a fork or whisk until fluffy.
4) Add eggs one at a time. Beat well.
5) In another, smaller bowl, mash the bananas with a fork.
6) Mix the milk and cinnamon with the bananas.
7) In yet a third bowl (get ready for lotsa dishes), mix together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and the salt.
8) Add the banana mixture to the sugar/butter mixture and stir until well combined.
9) Add the flour mixture to the banana and mix until flour disappears.
10) Add the chocolate chips.
11) Pour batter into buttered pan.
12) Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick or fork inserted in the center comes out clean.
13) Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack for 15 minutes- then you're in for a treat!

Afterward, my newly cleaned flat smelled delicious for days and days AND I had amazing breakfasts and snacks for about a week. I think I'll have to experiment with more recipes from now on, at least as long as this lucky weather holds out!


6 Productivity Hacks from a "Normal" Person

I'm no Bill Gates or Richard Branson, but I still manage to get everything I need to do done (usually within a reasonable amount of time, too) and still have a little time to play hard, too. That being said, between organizing Boutique de Noel (mark your calendars now, 12-13 November, 2014), managing clients, doing work, editing the book and completing my research, sometimes I consider all the things I have to do and feel a little... overwhelmed.

I'm probably not the only one who feels like this when there's a lot on.

Instead of freaking out, which is usually my first inclination, I do the following to keep my day on track and my mind ready for what's next:

1. Weekly to do lists: there's something so gratifying about crossing things out when they're done. The great feeling of striking through an item with a big pen is often incentive enough to get something finished. But let's rewind. Making a list may seem tedious and, if it is too long, just looking at everything you have to do can make your head swim. That's why I make a list of everything I need to do during the week and then break it down into...
2. Daily intentions: this may sound a little new age-y and yogic. Sorry. I started out separating my weekly "to do's" from my internal daily intentions, which were much more about personality traits I'd like to change (talk less, listen more, be genuine, act more sane, etc.). However, there's something cathartic about writing things down, and I've already gone on and on about how nice it is to cross things out. Therefore, I changed things up a bit and began to combine my weekly to do list and daily intentions. My intentions are now not only tasks from my weekly list that I want to finish in the next 24 hours, but a few more personal objectives such as running five miles, calling my mother or being less emotional at sad movies. I always add a little too much to my daily intentions list, but that's okay, because I can always carry over an item or three to the next day.
3. Keep my email inboxes clean: it sounds insane, but when my email inbox is out of control, my mental state follows suit. This is probably psychosomatic, but I get so stressed out that I should probably coin a new phrase: a well-kept inbox is a sane mind. My email accounts are divided between incoming client, volunteer, research and personal matters, and I leave emails that include outstanding items or "to do's" in my inboxes. Therefore, I set a goal to never let more than 50 emails accumulate in each inbox. This keeps me current on most projects and keeps my inboxes in check simultaneously. (Be grateful I've come up with this system because if I didn't, I'd be a wreck all the time.) 
4. Don't stick to a pattern: this is probably where I differ most from all those productivity gurus out there. Whenever I read those lists about the top characteristics of successful and productive people, I feel like keeping a schedule or sticking to a pattern are always on the top of the list. Personally, however, routine breeds laxity. If I know where I'm going to be tomorrow and the next day and the next, I get lazy. The sun will rise, I'll go where I need to be, and then it'll set. Repeat. To me, with such a routine there's no point in doing anything to innovate or expedite. The future will be the same, regardless of what I do. Maybe this isn't an overly healthy way of looking at things, nor is it always true, but whatever. This outlook motivates me. I could fail and be homeless tomorrow, or my company could strike it big. Or I could be in the same place. Who knows. It's a tightrope, and I'm balancing alright at the moment, but one slip and I could end up at the bottom of the canyon. So I work hard, and change things up to see what works and what doesn't. This leads to a very busy, very versatile schedule and lifestyle. I like that. It keeps me efficient, effective and very organized. Most of the time. 
5. Exercise is critical: not sure about you, but when I'm busy with work and social events, the first thing I axe is exercise. My daily fitness regime goes out the window the minute I decide to sleep in an extra 30 minutes or work through my lunch break so I can grab drinks with friends at 7. However, just like list making, exercise keeps me sane. It is a great way to take a break and still stay "in the flow," meaning I'm being productive and not entirely stopping my momentum, as would happen if I stopped to watch a TV show or chat on the phone. Since exercise has become so critical to keeping me balanced and calm even in the most stressful of situations, I've started to make time for it even if that means working late, losing sleep, skipping out on social events, etc. 
6. Everything is a learning experience: blame it on the years of ballet. Blame it on parenting (the easy outlet). Blame it on being raised in NoVA. For whatever the reason(s), I'm a perfectionist, which can lead to very rigid ways of thinking. I hate being challenged almost as much as I hate being proven wrong or not being in control of a situation. Find something about my work product or idea you don't like? Put me in a situation I know I won't be able to control? It used to be that I'd get extremely defensive and angry. After years of pure rage at the idea of being proven wrong or stupid, I got used to the idea. (Of not being omnipotent, that is.) And you know what? It is so cool to know so little and control basically nothing. I learn something new every day because I'm open to the opportunity. If you keep your mind open, some of the stuff you'll pick up is really amazing. And some of it is rubbish. It is up for you to distinguish between the two.

Now I'm interested...what keeps you productive?


My Lost Weekend Watching House of Cards

It is a blessed relief that Slate.com recently defended freaks like me who binge on TV series that are a bit more complex than Made in Chelsea or Gossip Girl. (Although, full disclaimer, I have been known to watch several hours of each of these shows back to back when I'm hungover.) While I think calling my Lost Weekend Watching House of Cards a "restorative experience," akin to a yoga class or other mentally soothing yet engaging activity, is a little too generous, I'm gonna take it. My mind is literally spinning with thoughts after finishing the series. You may take issue with this assertion, but I definitely feel that all 13 hours of the show kept me intellectually engaged and raised some key questions about America, politics and the nature of power. Below I entertain a few.

If you haven't finished Season 2, I wouldn't recommend reading any further. I'm notorious for spoilers although I haven't put anything too revealing in the sentences below (I think).

It seems to me that when it comes to American politics, morality is a huge part of the equation. Morality in politics is something that I haven't witnessed in most other places I've been to, especially Europe. However, House of Cards shows how epically morally bankrupt most American politicians (in the cast, of course) are. Not only is this distressingly hypocritical, it is completely unnecessary when juxtaposed to the way our friends across the big drink do things. Why bring morality into politics at all? Act in accordance with what's legal and ethical, make laws that fit into the fabric of society and leave your personal stuff at the door. Instead, with every episode we're reminded that God must be invoked publically even while the most nefarious, illegal and immoral activities are being done by the same people behind closed doors. Besides public opinion, why even put up with the farce? And in reality, if the public knows more or less what's really going on in Washington, why do we expect our politicians to talk some ridiculous talk when they're clearly not walking the walk?

Speaking of morals. House of Cards portrays the American Dream, but extremely and supremely perverted. Francis came from "nothing," a poor Southern boy who worked his way through the ranks to become President of the United States. That's the anesthetized PR version, anyway. In reality, he's stepped on any and everyone he has to in order to meet his final goal. Regardless of the reputations damaged, people killed and lives left in ruin because of his actions, intentional or not, it doesn't matter: the ends justify the means. I think that, to a lesser extent, many Americans take this individualistic, narcasstic approach, and hide behind the "American Dream" as a justification of their "To the Victor Go the Spoils" attitude.

On that note: what if the victor is difficult to determine? As Varys says in GoT (another binge-worthy show), power is an illusion. Is it really? In House of Cards, it is difficult to tell, just as it is difficult to tell who really comes out ahead. Throughout the entire second season we see a war unravel the relationship between Francis and Raymond Tusk. Raymond's vast wealth helped him gain influence in political circles- and even influence the makeup of these circles. The things Raymond wants, he buys. There's no disputing that money can buy you an awful lot of what you want, but sometimes money isn't the price that needs to be paid. That's why Francis plays Raymond's foil so well. What he wants, money can't buy. Accumulating the kind of power he needs requires that he use his old Whip skills of intimidation, manipulation, etc.: he needs people to believe he's powerful, and no amount of money will buy that. Regardless, neither seem to come out totally ahead. Raymond Tusk may have lost the war, but his money helped him wriggle out of what seemed the catastrophic consequences of loss. Francis may have gotten to the Oval Office, but Garret's resignation highlights just how tenuous that power can be. Overall, it seems that money can't buy happiness or the Presidency, but it can buy you a stacked Congress and get you out of handcuffs. Power, on the other hand, is a currency with questionable liquidity. If you're lucky, like Francis, the trade off when you go to cash out is ultimately minimal. It all depends on how good you are at making people think what you've got is valuable.

One thing is for sure: watching Francis' slow march to the Oval Office was like listening to a Thelonius Monk piece. It was mesmerizing. It was beautiful. It was a bit dangerous. And although it had a foundation, a goal, the long march there was full of improvisation as well as syncopation. And if anything got in the way, it was incorporated into this beautiful, dangerous disorder. However, as JJ Johnson once said, "Jazz is restless. It won't stay put and never will." Likewise, House of Cards shows that money and power are restless and ephemeral, and if there's one lesson 13 hours on the couch has taught me, it is that you have to fight to keep it.