Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Ballet Tips

I've been nursing a couple of bruised knees and a sprain toe over the last week (dance).  D said if he had known what this sport would turn me into (don't worry, I'm not going all Black Swan or anything...though I would trade places with Natalie Portman for a day or two, just for fun...), he "would have never allowed it..." (as if!).

Last fall, when I was getting set to start all my classes, I struggled with putting my hair up into a ballet bun.  You need fairly long one length hair to create a bun that is half way up the back of your head.  My hair is currently halfway down my back (enough to donate again), in longish layers still, so I can only achieve a low bun right now. 

The weekend before my first class coincided with D throwing his back out and us watching all those documentaries (remember?).  What I didn't say about that weekend was that each documentary we watched involved about 50 exasperated trials of trying to put my hair up. 

Now that I can accomplish said task in less than 5 minutes, here are a few tips:

  • Starting with damp hair really does make a difference!  I had my doubts and stubbornness prevented me from achieving success much earlier.  The day of my first class, I started working on my hair 2 hour earlier because I was in such a panic.  Almost gave myself carpal tunnel!
  • Remember I said I didn't own hair spray?  Well I do now!  I not only own hairspray but styling cream stuff (Osis Thrill fibre gum).  Use the fibre gum in the damp hair, don't blow dry and hairspray at the end.  Your hair needs to not fall out when you are doing jumps or turns.  That's the test.  And if your hair comes undone during an exam, you lose marks.
  • Even though I use a "Whirl-a-style" (don't laugh), I still need about a dozen bobby pins.  Their claim (as well as the gal who helped me out at the store) is that you would only need about 2.  Not even close for me.  Apparently the whirl gadget is much easier than using a hair net.  Not sure if I'll ever graduate to a hair net. 
  • Turns out the moisturisers I started using (completely unrelated to dance) works excellent over the course of an hour of working out -- Dermalogica's "Active Moist" and Eminence's "Rosehip Whip".  There are many different types within both lines so talk to a professional who will be able to make the appropriate recommendations.
  • After using all that artificial stuff in your hair, it gets dry.  I've been relying on my "Moroccanoil" (argan oil), even more.  It smells wonderful and works.  Apparently we can only naturally moisturise 5 - 7 inches of hair. 
  • This last recommendation is totally unrelated.  Just a line of products I first stumbled upon in Taormina -- Kiko.  I went into the store for some reprieve from the heat.  Well priced and lots of quality.  I particularly like their lipsticks.  When I found another branch in Venice last summer, I stocked up.   
D accompanied me to the dance store and it was his first time in one.  It was funny to see his reaction.  Me, I subconsciously "snapped" into character -- stood really straight, started eyeing everything fairly hard, walked deliberately etc (come to think of it, not much different from how I am at work).  It's amazing how ingrained something can be, even after decades of absence.  D quickly moved to the sides, trying not to get in any one's way. 

The young lady who helped me out was obviously a dancer.  Long, long hair, very slim, very intense.  It was the intense part that caught D off guard.  He said "you should have seen the 2 of you interact.  So serious.  No humour." 

Humour?!  In a dance shop?  I was getting fitted and a proper fit is serious business.  Thought we got along great.  She was very helpful.  Gaged my size pretty much spot on just from looking at me.  What's there to laugh at?  You should hope no one is laughing at you when you are standing there half naked!

What really caught me was the level of physical scrutiny.  I had forgotten all about that.  It can be unnerving, to put it mildly.  And I am just a recreational dancer. 

My classes are at a school that teaches the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) syllabus.  Very different approach than what I remember.  There is a strong emphasis on presentation and arms and poise and beauty right off the bat with piano music (quite nice actually).  Whereas I just remembered doing a lot of barre work, drill after drill, jump after jump, turn after turn, most of the time without music (National Ballet School Protocol). 

If you don't want to take a class but are looking for a really comprehensive core ballet workout, check out the "New York Ballet: Workout Vol 1"  DVD.  I did it for many years when I didn't have time for classes.  Back then my copy was VHS.  There is a Vol 2 but I prefer the first one.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Capital Expenditures 2013

We have a couple of housing related costs set for 2013.  The big one will be our home roof replacement.  D got a couple of quotes last year and has since firmed up with the one.  It is with a different company than the one who did the sun room roof last year. 

We didn't like how they weren't meticulous with their clean up and post job follow up.  Whereas the company we are going with did our neighbour's house last summer and D was impressed with their demeanor and work ethic.  With any luck, this ought to be our last roof as the shingles have a lifetime warranty.

The second cost will be to repair the foundation of the cottage.  The raccoon was never captured, so a one way opening was installed in the fall (came to around $750, including clean up) and this spring, is to be replaced with concrete.  I haven't called around for a contractor yet nor have we looked into learning to do it ourselves.

The cost of the roof will be paid by stock proceeds.  One of my non registered holdings (Viterra) got bought out in Dec (finally!  It took way longer than expected) at $16.25 a share.  I bought at $11.26.  So the amount I'm left with, $8775 pretty much covers the cost of our new roof.  The cottage concrete job will be paid out of our "cottage working account".  In my mind, I'm allocating $500.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Dealing With The Cold

We've been in a deep freeze with last few days feeling like -22 C (warming up today!) to -28 C overnights at home and -34 C at the cottage.

D just called and said he thinks for the first time in his driving life, the entire windshield washer system, tank and all, had frozen over and had a hairy drive to work because of it.  It hadn't started working yet when he got to work.  Normally if it was just the nozzle by the wipers, it kicks in after 10 min of driving.  And we have de-icing spray for that. 

We will be adding winter windshield fluid to our shopping list.  And should it look like it is happening again, he will be turning around home and taking my car (garage) instead. 

Since we are on the topic of cold weather, I'll use this opportunity to write about dressing for warmth, something most of us Canadians know a thing or two about.

It never fails to surprise me what people wear in the winter.  We like to layer so that heat can be trapped and held while letting moisture dissipate.  To achieve that, you need to layer with breathable fabrics -- Not Cotton, which will hold moisture and take away heat. 

The best base layers (my opinion) use wool, usually merino, which isn't itchy and is lightweight.  They come tight or snug to the body.  The higher the % of wool, the warmer.  Some systems like Icebreaker  (current favourite) use a number weight system.  The higher the number, the heavier the weight of wool, the warmer.  Some brands like Helly Hansen  makes things simple by naming their baselayer system "cool, warm, dry".  Big names like Under Armour use synthetics as their material of choice. 

A good base or mid layer won't come cheap.  You will be able to find lessor priced alternative at a hardware store, a camping store, a department store.  The main difference I've found is the breathability. 

If you try on a jacket that is a waterproof shell for example and pretty much start feeling like you are going to sweat, it isn't very breathable, no matter what the label says.  Don't think that it will be fine because you are using it in the cold.  It will trap moisture and you'll get cold.  If you are just looking for something to cover you up while working around the yard, it will probably be fine. 

But if you are thinking of hiking or skiing or anything extended, then I would encourage you to invest in something better -- Try getting a deal on last year's model of a better brand.  And if you are not picky about colour, you might just get lucky.  My first set of Helly Hansen baselayer is a bright salmon colour! 

I agree that some brands aren't worth the money but many are well known because of the research they've put into developing their products for real world use.  So don't discount them because you don't wish to be known as someone who is just label flashing.  When you read the histories of how some of the best gear companies in the world came to be, you'll often find that the company was developed to fill a very real need -- To survive in some of the harshest conditions on earth. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Michigan Housing

A friend of D's who resides in Michigan visited us over the the weekend.  He (Canadian) told us how frustrated they were with the housing market over there.  His girlfriend bought her house at the height of the market and now is "underwater".  So she is short selling her house and they have been trying hard to find a new house together. 

It is difficult for her to go that route as she has never missed a payment, has a good job, is educated but realized she will never get her money back for the house.  Because of the various government programs available, the bank would get mostly compensated for the shortfall in sale price.  She has gotten and accepted an offer and is just waiting for the bank to do their thing.

For the last 6 months they have been searching for a suitable house.  First thing is that they cannot find a smaller (2000 sq ft) house to buy in an area they would consider nice and safe.  Apparently you can buy houses in Detroit for 25K!  But you and your stuff wouldn't last 24 hrs there...  So the going rate is minimum 450K for something decent. 

The other issue in their search has to do with quality of construction and building codes.  Shockingly what we consider "proper insulation" and "R values" isn't done there, just felt paper?!  Northern Michigan gets pretty cold so I immediately asked how much must heating cost?  The answer was high.  And we are talking about homes in a reasonable area, minimum 3000 sq ft, 500+K. 

To top it off, he was shocked at how many new subdivisions were still built with well and septic but because of location (desirable school districts), property taxes were 9+K/yr.  What is the government doing with all those tax dollars when they aren't providing many services?  Houses in those areas don't come up for sale often.  And when they do, they sell within a day. 

Building lots in a good area are selling for 175+K with water and sewer at the street.  So if you were to go and build yourself a custom house, with proper insulation etc, even a small house would end up in the 500K range easily, assuming you can find a good builder. 

They have recently put a cash offer on a home (foreclosure) and am playing the waiting game.  No guarantees and it could and does take months.  Plus any house they get, they will eventually be spending a lot of money to upgrade stuff like insulation, windows etc (lucky our friend has construction knowledge).  They are prepared to rent should the timing of the buy and sell not match (not likely). 

Monday, January 21, 2013

2013 Travel

We are one step away from firming up our travel for the year.  Crazy I know, as it is only Jan.  This year's theme is "more relaxed".  No running around to 3 different countries in 2 weeks doing recon work.  I'm ready to settle down and enjoy more.

Last year I over did it (using turning 40 as an excuse) and got pretty tired out.  Happy but weary.  This year will almost (one small exception) be the exact opposite.  We will be renting apartments and staying put.

First up will be the Czech Republic (solo trip).  My last international flight seat mate (older lady I had to help get up and down) I wrote about last year left such an indelible impression on me, I had to follow through to visit her home country. 

One point.  Don't get caught like me.  Flight sales in Jan tend to be cheaper than in Dec, no matter how convincing their advertising may be.  I could have paid $65 less for my flight had I waited a few weeks.  Not a huge amount but when optional upgrades to economy comfort class cost $268, it could have gone towards that. 

I know nothing about the Czech language so will do some very basic work before I depart.   D really wanted to come on this trip because of the beer...But he will not give up his last 10 days worth of skiing and the next trip for beer...

Until I started my research on Prague, I had no idea how much culture there was there.  I've already bought a ticket to see a ballet and am tempted to go to the opera as well. 

If I get really lucky, I may just be able to avoid a major European snow storm during my transit days.  CDG, LHR and AMS are having a "fun" time right now. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Food Update 2

In my haste yesterday I forgot to mention some important observations with respect to our food:
  • I find I cannot eat roast beef anymore.  The taste is too strong for me (D loves it).  It tastes a lot like venison (which I don't prefer).  So I lean to ground beef or stewing beef (the colour of them is deep deep red, like a burgundy wine) as cooking it with vegetables, herbs, spices, wine, makes for a more balanced taste for me. 
  • Love the pork roasts.  The taste is so full, quite amazing and the smell while it's cooking is exceedingly yummy.  Minimal spices needed for either type of roast, just sea salt and pepper.  And the fluid that does come out of the roast is clear and strong. 
  • Each batch of meat (any kind) tastes different (texture too).  Made us realize how accustomed we were to uniform food. 
  • Roasts come out better with the slow cooker than oven.  The meat is leaner and stronger so slow cooking works well and helps prevent premature dryness.  As D tends to like his beef rare, he had to get used to using lower temperatures and longer cooking times. 
  • The fat content of grass fed animals is higher in omega 3 & 6.  When we have cooled leftover fat from cooking bacon for example, it can be rinsed off the pan because it is more soluble vs needing to scrape it off with a paper towel or needing hot water to "melt" it.  Same with when you get it on your hands, less detergent needed.  Neat! 
  • Despite it being organic, I cannot eat ham roasts whereas I can eat bacon (can go through a pound without breathing hard.  D says one day he'd like to try some too...).  There is something in the roast that keeps me up at night.  It is as if I ate MSG which it doesn't have but there must be some other additive in it that is affecting me.  Mind you I get a lot done when I cannot sleep as I'm super alert but it's the next working day that kills me.
  • I can't seem to find a middle ground with respect to fish.  I love sashimi and deep fried halibut.  The in between pan fried fish (any kind) just doesn't do it for me, wild or not. 
  • There are cuts of meat and kinds of fruit and veggies I cannot get from our delivery service so I'll either go local if organic is not an option or I'll just go for it. 
  • Our pure food costs are in the $400 - $500/month range.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Food Update

We've had a month's worth of our new organic grocery service.  Long enough to be able to comment on the experience.  Overall it has made our lives easier.  Much time has been saved and when we do find ourselves at a supermarket, it is only for a small list of things. 

Choosing to buy organic pastured meat means we don't need to go back to where the meat is at the grocery store.  There is a minimum order so we have extra food in the fridge.  The quality and taste speaks for itself.  It would be very difficult to go back.  Not wishing to eat processed foods means we can bypass most of the middle of the store as well.

With veggies and fruit, we are using the "dirty dozen" and "clean 15" lists as a starting point.  We found with our particular service, it was cheaper to buy most organic veggies and fruit at the organic section of the supermarket than through them.  And we have also found more choice at the store vs online.  So we stopped getting their weekly produce boxes.

Our eating has become simpler and better.  Portions have shrunk because we are feeling full faster.  Makes paying the extra for better food less pricey.  We have also found we don't need to snack much at all -- Higher nutritional quality we believe.  We now time our big cooking days around delivery weeks.  It has meant better and more consistent lunches for D and I.

When we were out west, it was easier to find good food.  British Columbia is known for healthy living so organic supermarkets etc are a dime a dozen.  Prices were slightly higher but they always seem to be.  Since we've committed to this course, I don't blink at the cost because the taste and how it makes us feel makes it worth it. 

This summer, we are looking forward to visiting more farms.  I've been compiling a list.  It will make for some great weekend drives.  I want to buy some pastured poultry.  Because of my soy allergy, even organic chickens and turkeys are out because they get fed soy in their feed. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Xmas Travel

It's looking like we will be staying put next Christmas.  Travelling during the holiday season is wearing.  Is this only the 2nd week we've been back? 

I've written before about how I didn't really enjoying the transit part of summer European travel (though being in Amalfi and Cinque Terre made up for it).  Christmas time is right up there as well. 

Too much chaos (there are boarding protocols...), too many people who are not accustomed to travelling (please let the people in the rows ahead of you exit first...), too much time spent waiting for people to empty their pockets of all their metal etc.  Don't get me started on how priority boarding kinda goes out the window then gate agents are overwhelmed.  I'm sounding like George Clooney in "Up In The Air". 

When families travel say once or twice a year at the busiest times and pack everything they own into their suitcases, you are basically putting your faith into a system that is bursting at its seams.  We saw many panicked people trying to figure out what to do when their luggage (all those Christmas presents!) or sports equipment did not emerge.  A lot of life is a "numbers game" and it is occasionally our turn. 

Most of the time I do my best not to check in anything I cannot afford or wish to lose.  As we only check in luggage when going west to ski (last time, we are finally organized out there!), it was necessary to remind ourselves of this.  Especially having seen commercials for a show about airlines auctioning off lost luggage and what big money it can be.

I brought home enough clothes to fit into a carry on.  May not sound like much volume but total retail cost of a ski jacket, ski pants, base layers, 3 new pairs of pants, 1 top and a pair of ski goggles are a couple thousand.  None of which I'd care to replace anytime soon. 

So we'll travel before and after Christmas.  Flights are usually cheaper.  Volume is dramatically lower.  When you are in it for the long haul, adjusting yearly things a few weeks either way is worth it. 

However I reserve the right to suck it up when a really really cool opportunity arises.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Old Switcheroo

The shifting around of furniture in the upstairs of our house has begun.  Back in the fall our goal was to change the layout of things so I could have a better work out area and to maximize use of half of the downstairs for us rather than our occasional guests.  There would still be plenty of room for friends in the other half. 

Despite living in an old house, we have fairly open spaces.  Ceilings are 10 - 11 ft high and the upstairs landing complete with a double door hall closet is the size of a small bedroom.  Some time ago, there were 4 bedrooms but the 4th (maid's quarters) was renovated into what is now my walk in closet and ensuite, giving us a 3 bed and bath house. 

Our windows are fairly substantial, 8 ft high, so light is ample, contrary to a lot of older homes.  We are doing our best to keep those original windows in tip top shape because to replace them would cost a significant percentage of the cost of the house.  The moldings around them (wood) are a foot wide.  Window coverings cost us a small fortune -- 27.

There are also 2 stair cases.  A main curved one and the simple "servant's" one leading to the kitchen.  There used to be 3 fireplaces as well.  Only one original has survived.  The other two were taken out to create a wall for floor to ceiling kitchen cupboards. 

By switching our 2nd bedroom with our office, I am able to space out my exercise equipment and desk and create a better sleeping area at the same time.  Why did it take 5+ years of living here for us to figure that out???  Even our bedroom feels better with a different reading chair and ottoman. 

We are considering not bothering with a new bulb when our projector times out.  Instead, going with an LED TV for our movies instead.  Smaller footprint and better use of a downstairs space.   D has a number of interested buyers for the projector right now but I'm not convinced of spending money on a TV right now.  Somewhere down the line we will likely need to buy a new couch to replace one I've own since my single days. 

It is so easy to be tempted to move to a modern house that has a more "currently accepted" layout because of how easy it is to visualize placement of furniture.  By finding a great solution upstairs, we save ourselves the 100+K it would cost to buy said modern house and helps us realize the potential of our current house. 

I guess at the right price, there can exist a "perfect" house.  When you are like me, and do not wish to pay for it, then you need to get creative.  The upstairs was the easy floor.  The downstairs layout will be far more challenging. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Humbling Craziness

Don't know if I'm fighting something but I've been feeling a bit out of sorts.  Enough to drive into a mini snow bank today when I knew it was there.  That's after I managed to fall over a stool at work!  It was a slow motion one where I had some time to figure out how to fall "appropriately" and ended up feeling looser afterwards.  To top it off, I left a burner on our range on.  Luckily D was home. 

It's times like these that keep me from ever feeling like I've got the upper hand in anything.   How could I not be humbled when I can only stall a standard car going in reverse?  D didn't think it was possible.  Or how I spent this ski season getting used to new skis and boots and if you could have seen my first couple of runs, you'd think I'd never skied before.  We're talking crab arms and pizza legs!

To help balance out the craziness, my ballet class today went well and I didn't limp home.  The violin lessons are going pretty good despite the skin on the tips of my fingers peeling off.  My sight reading has been a saving grace in many an occasion.  No art this semester.  We are taking a break from additional driving this winter.  The Architect and I tied for the highest mark in the class.  D got a very respectable B. 

It's a good thing I'm not much of a drinker.  And I have some travel to look forward to. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Walking & Talking

D and I walk together often -- After dinner, afternoons, weekends.  It gives us a chance to catch up with each other as well as work out some stuff that may be occupying our minds.  It is something I look forward to.  Recent events (before Christmas) had us walking and talking about a few things more serious than usual. 

D fluctuates from hitting the ceiling with the amount of agony (crap) he is willing to take on a daily basis from his current department to appreciation of his job.  Recently he has acknowledged the type of person he would need to change into in order to continue his current role.  Despite receiving numerous accolades for projects done under very difficult circumstances (people), he is not convinced he wants to stay and play in such a toxic environment.

When he told me, my immediate thought was OK, what type of planning do we have to do as I assumed it meant a change of job.  I asked him if he felt strong enough about it to choose a job that paid less?  He isn't leaving the company but will again be looking to move out of this division even if it means a pay decrease.  For what he does, he is at the top of his pay grade which actually overlaps with the next level. 

I've said this before -- What we potentially give up are the lifestyle "perks" that comes with his current boss who believes in the work-life balance thing.  Previous to this D had decided he was OK with tolerating those particular negative aspects of his work because of it.  Even now he still questions his motives.   

Recent events have made him reconsider and accept that things are not likely to change there.  So adapt or get out.  Some people thrive in consistently antagonistic frameworks.  Not us -- What a waste of good energy.  Much harder to be straightforward and honest but better for everyone involved in the long run.  However, I'm not the best judge of what's possible in a corporate environment -- Too idealistic.

D is finding it harder to harder to decompress and I can see what it is doing to my otherwise easy going happy man.  From my end, what matters most is his peace of mind.  If he is not in a good place, then we aren't in a good place.  And for us to move along/forward we both need to least moving in that direction deliberately.

What can be done right now is calculate what it would mean should he accept a job offer that pays at the low end of his pay scale.  There is a 30K variance within his pay grade so not a small number.  It made sense to see how that would affect our bottom line should it end up as our reality even though D thinks it wouldn't be likely. 

In order for us to keep living the way we are, save the amount we do, a 30K drop would mean I would not be getting my "annuity" payment from D until he completes his portion of house mortgage/ski condo mortgage/car loan which currently sits at about 59K with the end being Dec 2015. 

In reality, it wouldn't be that big a deal to me.  I can accept it.  The other differences include annual bonus amount -- Overall percentage would be the same but if based on a lower salary, the net amount will obviously decrease.  Ditto with pension calculations and life insurance as D's coverage is based on multiples of his salary.   

Part of D's apprehension with bringing this up I think was his worry of my reaction.  When he realized I wasn't phased by it, he relaxed.  I am more concerned for his (our) mental health than a drop in income.  And once we worked through what the numbers would mean, we moved on. 

We are far from having to sell anything or drastically change the way we do things because of an income drop.  It's a freeing feeling.  And even if we did, so what?  Our lives would still hardly qualify as suffering by any measure. 

He gave notice of his intent to pursue difference opportunities at his year end review.  And has his eyes on a couple of other departments.  I know he will be strongly competitive when it's interview time.  And I believe he won't know what he'll really do until he is actually faced with options. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Final Thoughts: Munich Christmas Markets

Remember in May, the big vegetable for sale at all the independent stalls was spargel or white asparagus?  Well this time, it was fruit -- Fresh dates, persimmons, lychees from exotic locales.  I forgot that you are not supposed to touch anything and got appropriately warned.  So it can be hit and miss with the fruit you buy.  My second batch of persimmons didn't ripen enough to eat before our trip was over. 

I read that there are more than 24 Christmas markets in Munich alone.  Many neighbourhoods have their own and some are known for such things as homemade toys, art etc.  So you can spend many hours each day walking around to them and discovering new places to return to.  Can you believe we managed to not find the one that was located on an island (Praterinsel)! 

There were specialty Christmas markets too -- Medieval, Manger, Pink Christmas and Tollwood.  The Tollwood Festival was a very special one.  When you read the link, you'll understand why.  The world can learn from them.  We are planning to spend more time there when the opportunity arises again.

In the past we've always looked forward to our Dec trip to the ski condo.  We felt that with the snow, the lights, the spirit, it gave us a real sense of Christmas.  After spending a week in Munich touring the seemingly endless Christmas markets (and eating many roasted chestnuts), we now have a completely different definition of Christmas spirit whereas being out west gives us the best of winter. 

In Munich we didn't see people all loaded up with purchases.  Nor did we witness long line ups of people waiting to pay.  On our last day we walked along one of the streets that housed very fancy stores (Maxmilianstrasse***) and even they weren't busy.  I've been in Rome at Christmas time and cannot say that was the case along Via Del Corso. 

Instead we saw people outside enjoying hot food and drinks with friends and family.  We saw them strolling through the streets full of joy and being so very present to simple pleasures.  In our opinion, a great reminder of what is really important.

(***Incidentally, we saw the single most expensive (non car) item for purchase at the Chopard window.  A solitaire for 581K Euro!  That window housed 6 rings for sale, all in the six figure range.  Almost even more impressive, there were no security guards that we could see.)