Top five places in the US?

An acquaintance recently asked me for my list of the top five places that a foreigner should visit in the United States. You’d think we’d be good at this since we drove 12,000 miles around the country last summer, but it’s a lot harder than it sounds! Hus-friend and I tried to come up with our list(s) and decided that it was too difficult to narrow it down to just five.

What would be your top five list? Does it include “quintessential” American sights? Is it mostly architecture and historic monuments? What about food and experiences?

I’d like to give this friend a comprehensive list, so help me out in the comments, please. I don’t think it’ll be possible to give only five, though….

The 2014 SF half marathon

SF Half Marathon medal

Half Marathon #7 is in the books! For this one, the first half associated with the San Francisco Marathon, I made the decision to run without starting my Garmin so that I wouldn’t become overly concerned with my time. At the See Jane Run half last month, I really fell apart at the end, and constantly checking my watch caused me a lot of stress. Having completed that one a few weeks ago, I just wanted to slow down and enjoy the opportunity to run in this city that I like so much.

The first half crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, which was, for the most part, a great experience. I had never run across it because getting there from our apartment is too far for anything less than a late-stage marathon training run.  With an early start time, the runners crossed the bridge in the cool morning air, just making out Alcatraz through the fog to our right. The downsides were (1) that there was only one lane for each direction, so things got crowded and (2) people were stopping to take so many selfies. Judgement all around.

While I struggled with the last two and a half miles, I achieved my goals of running up the Fort Mason hill (a mere blip on the elevation chart) and the long ascent from the Bay up onto the Bridge without stopping to walk. On these inclines, I leaned forward and focused on maintaining a constant level of exertion while dropping my speed. Charging up hills isn’t my thing, but I think I’m getting better at my not-dying strategy.

I’ve decided that I prefer smaller, less commercial races. There was just too much masturbatory race behavior in this one. I don’t have time for that shit and hate (HATE!) having to weave around people who wear headphones and stop midcourse or pull up short in front of me to take a selfie. There is a special circle in hell reserved for these assholes. I like more low-key races with less rampant commercialism and self-congratulatory behavior.

Ryan and Joe (Ryan’s grad school roommate) stayed with us last night, and the three of us ran the first half this morning. It was great to see both of them; maybe we can make running races slowly a thing. (What do you say, Ryan?) Hus-friend ran the full marathon–his second–and PR’d by four minutes! On hills! He said he was near bonking at the end and really struggled through the last seven miles…except he didn’t have to stop and walk or puke or weep openly, which is what I associate with bonking.

I had a fun time this morning and though my time was not my fastest, by far (2:17:28), I didn’t want to die at any point. In fact, a few times, I thought to myself, “Man, if I could run this easily and unconcerned with time, I’d do another marathon.” This remains to be seen…

Bodger, though he did nothing but sleep this morning, pretended that he had also traversed the city on foot and lay down all afternoon. What a bum.

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Ahoy! A brunch cruise!

In one of the more hilarious-yet-awesome events of my adult life, I joined most of the engineering department for a brunch cruise around the bay in the middle of the work day. This was as a “thank you” and celebration of the four-week sprint we recently completed during which the entire engineering team rallied to make some major changes on the site.

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The mimosas were bottomless.

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And the brunch, including a huge dessert spread, was out in abundance. (As you can see, I dressed for the occasion in some nautical stripes.)

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There were sa-hooo many desserts to ponder.

cruise-14(Above photo taken by the inimitable Nam-Chi Van.)

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We did a tour around the Bay, cruising right under both the Golden Gate and the Bay bridges. (Did you know there were two separate bridges in San Francisco? I did not.) The views were stunning, and the breeze was very sharp and refreshing/chilly. (I stayed out for about five minutes before returning below deck to chat.)

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It was such a fun afternoon, hanging out with co-workers/friends. I feel incredibly lucky to work at such a cool place! 

(I’m pretty sure today was made such that the engineering team was maximally unproductive today. When someone asked if we were supposed to get things done after lunch, our VP of engineering retorted, “What? You’ve never had a beer at lunch before?” The answer in my case is, well, no.)

I sewed a pillow!

No sooner had I waved good-bye to Hus-friend on his way to the airport than I hopped on my bike and rode to the Fabric Outlet to take advantage of their 40% off sale and a gift certificate from Jessica. Not to mention that every day that I waited brought me one day closer to shopping amongst people getting ready for Burning Man. As it was, I waited in line on Saturday afternoon while a “burner” deliberated as to how much gold chain and faux polar bear fur–at$29.99/yard, no less–he needed for his costume, all the while extolling the virtues of the festival to the mostly interested salesperson. I left with some “notions” (tailor’s chalk, disappearing ink marker) as well as a pillow form and just over a yard of cute red “novelty print” cotton.

Having washed and dried my fabric at home, I started watching the “Sewing Studio” videos on Craftsy (an online platform for learning various crafty skills) and got ready to cut out my fabric. Somehow, despite the fact that I was sewing a SQUARE pillow, cutting the fabric took me two hours. Yes, 120 minutes to cut three pieces of fabric. I kept drawing lines that weren’t quite straight or somehow weren’t the same length, and don’t even get me started on how many times I tried to “use” the selvedge as my straight-line guide. Maybe I was being unnecessarily meticulous, but I am truly baffled as to how anyone cuts fabric in an expedient fashion. I kid you not, when I was going to bed that evening, my lower back and legs ACHED from standing on the hardwood floor, measuring and re-measuring. The struggle is real, you guys.

Anyway, fabric cut and pressed, I started the process of making an envelope pillow cover with French seams, AKA “fancy seams.”

There was more measuring:

Making a hemAnd then some hemming: hemmingAll the while, I was watching the instructional Craftsy video, trying to keep up with the instructor who made everything look so infuriatingly easy.  There was a lot of laying things out, sewing, and pressing.

laying out fabric

The main take-away from this project–besides, of course, the pillow–is that you should always, always, ALWAYS press your seams. This evens out the stitches and sets the fabric into place, making the finished product look professional. Pressing seams

It was very satisfying to see the pillow, all three pieces of it, come together, bit by bit. Every time I thought, “This looks really nice!,” the next step made it look even nicer!

Envelope pillow - hem

I was actually supposed to have two back-to-back phone calls on Saturday, but both of them were canceled last minute. It was a fortuitous change of plans because I was in the zone, sewing and pressing and swearing that I was GOING to finish this pillow before sundown. After all, I needed the natural light to get good-looking photos of it!
envelope pillowAfter stuffing the pillow form into the envelope case, I fluffed it up and threw it on the couch. Then I threw my weary, achey body on top of it and congratulated myself heartily.

Completed envelope pillow - front
Front of pillow!
Envelope pillow
Back of pillow!

I’m actually looking forward to trying something more complicated, like a garment or something that has a pattern that you trace onto the fabric. Trying to cut out variations of squares without a pattern is just too much. Stay tuned for Mica’s hilarious adventures in dress-making.

Confession: I was so proud of my handiwork that I actually took the pillow upstairs so I could fall asleep next to it. Completed projects make good bedfellows, after all.

Making madeleines

I’m enjoying the alone time while Hus-friend attends a tech conference in Portland this week. Yes! I can sleep spread eagle on the bed when it gets hot and devote every waking [weekend] hour to hobbies.

First order of business? Madeleines.

Naively, I figured that madeleines weren’t that hard: a seashell-shaped cookie-cake with a hump on the back.  However, every step is some variation of “Do this thing really thoroughly but not too thoroughly or you’ll fuck everything up.” I’m not actually sure it’s that complicated, but the perception of difficulty is there. And, of course, what else would you expect from a teacake made famous by the world’s least interesting book? (Do you actually like this book? I mean, really? Are you just lying???)

I mostly used this recipe from The Kitchn as my base. Lemon-flavored desserts remind me of cough syrup (and maybe also the lemon chicken I had when I got stomach flu in elementary school), so I left out the zest in favor of “plain” vanilla. Ambitious as always, I tried browning butter for the first time to add a “depth of flavor” (saying this as if I know what that means).

So browning butter–that’s a good example of “do this thing, but NOT TOO MUCH!” It sounds deceptively simple until you realize that the window between “deliciously toasty” and “unpalatably burnt” is slim, at best. I stirred and swirled, trying to figure out if my brain was correctly calibrated to recognize “nutty brown.”

No, that’s not dehydrated urine in the bottom right. That’s a successful first attempt at browed butter. Put it here! Here! High fives here!

madeleine mise en place

The batter comes together all sticky, and, of course, you’re told to mix it well but DO NOT OVERMIX.

madeleine batter

Before my run this morning, I brushed the molds with a mixture of melted butter and flour and then froze that shit for two hours. Can someone explain the logistics of this step to me? My pan makes twelve madeleines, and the recipe yields 24. Unless I want to take a two-hour freezing intermission mid-baking, there is no way that the second batch is going to have a frozen pan. Also, why does it take a thin metal pan two hours to freeze? Physics? madeleine pan

The more complicated of the two recipes I used told me to use a piping bag to fill the molds, but no thanks. I used a dough scoop and flattened out the cold batter with my fingers, and it was great.

madeleine batter in pan

The more complicated recipe said to put the pan in the oven then turn the temperature down from 450º to 360ºF. For the twelve minutes of the first batch, and I Asian-squatted in front of oven as the little humps formed before my very eyes. This is apparently why you freeze the pan: for humps.

HUMPS ARE HAPPENING!

madeleines in the oven

Even though I added on, like, four extra minutes, the first batch were very, very blonde. (Frozen pan??) I was afraid of browning them too much, so I took them out anyway. madeleines

I whacked the tray on the counter, and they popped right out of the molds. Then I washed, dried, and re-lubricated the pan and froze it while I re-heated the over to 450.

I forgot to turn the heat down to 360º for the second batch, so they are much browner. They’re still tasty though and actually look more like the right color…who knows.
madeleinesI did not dip these in tea and remember things. I stuffed some in my mouth and congratulated myself on not being a failure. madeleines

Mic drop. Mica out.

(Actually, I don’t think I did a great job on these because the humps are not big enough. I’m going to try the more complicated recipe next time in the hope of getting the humps to puff up more. I WANT ALL THE HUMPS! Oh wait, no. That sounds wrong.)

Yard macaroni

Today at work, my teammate and I decided who should undertake the tedious task of testing several pieces of code through rock-paper-scissors. This reminded me of a funny story that, I think, illustrates the kind of child I was and, probably, the kind of adult I am, too.

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Like most all children, I lacked the mental acuity to realize that rock-paper-scissors is not actually a real game. It’s a means to settling disputes (such as who should increment all the hooks you put into the front-end producers in the code) and not something you play on its own. Not knowing this, I played a fair amount of rock-paper-scissors in my childhood. I also played a lot of the card game War, not realizing that it requires absolutely no skill whatsoever. True genius right here, folks.

My dad had a rare, fenced-in patch of grass in the alley behind his house. He made this into a child’s dream yard–there was a playhouse, a hammock, a climbing tree, even a grapevine that sometimes yielded Muscadine grapes. I spent every day after school playing in the yard, usually “cooking” some kind of clothes-staining, malodorous concoction of water, red clay, and wild onions that I’d dug up with a kitchen spoon.

With this broad expanse of grass, and ever the practical person, Dad would sometimes dispose of leftovers in the yard as a way of composting. (Composting, before it was hipster-cool!) At least once, he threw out old macaroni and cheese, a perennial favorite of bachelors and first-graders alike.

I invite you to imagine me as a six-year-old: barefoot and fancy-free (but not really. I’ve always been a stressball.), bounding through the grass in my dad’s backyard and stepping right into a glob of discarded macaroni and cheese. No, seriously: imagine the horrifying reality of cold, congealed orange noodles squelching through your toes. [shudder]

This was such a traumatizing event that to my usual games of rock-paper-scissors, I added a fourth item: yard macaroni. The representative hand symbol involved interlacing ones fingers because, to my young, unsophisticated mind, this resembled a nightmarish glob of squelch-y noodles. Yard macaroni was the absolute trump-card that you could play, defeating all other objects (remember: lacking mental acuity). Who knows why I didn’t always use yard macaroni.

I relayed this story to my teammate, who reacted appropriately: frowning, cocking an eyebrow, and making a “What the…?” gesture. Then I beat him in our game, best of three, and didn’t have to test the code…EVEN WITHOUT YARD MACARONI.

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(Except then he nicely asked me to test the code because he got a heap of work dumped on him. If you need me, I’ll be over here, incrementing counts….)

[P.S. Love ya', Dad! Stepping in macaroni and cheese was character-building!]

Preparing the day’s mise en place

We finally set up my desk at home, so now I have a clean space for hobbies and blogging.
(We finally set up my desk at home, so now I have a clean space for hobbies and blogging. Note the card catalog!)

I recently read this post on the Harvard Business Review about applying the concept of mise en place–laying out everything in its proper place to get ready–to one’s morning routine. I find preparing my mise en place makes my cooking much smoother, and it’s pretty much essential for my baking unless I want to stress-bake (and we all know how that turns out….).

I thought the cooking analogy fell a little flat for work productivity. My daily tasks cannot be as easily thrown together as pre-chopped carrots and onions. However, I did like the point about not starting the day by checking work email:

What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at your desk? For many of us, checking email or listening to voice mail is practically automatic. In many ways, these are among the worst ways to start a day. Both activities hijack our focus and put us in a reactive mode, where other people’s priorities take center stage. They are the equivalent of entering a kitchen and looking for a spill to clean or a pot to scrub.

Okay, cool, I’ll buy that.

Today, I got to work at an hour early and enjoyed the quiet in the office before many of the other engineers had arrived. I made myself breakfast and instead of opening my computer, I wrote down the three things I wanted to achieve and the smaller steps it would take to complete the large task:

  1. Finish large ticket that I’d been working on for weeks (WEEKS!): This included a) update branch to reflect last four weeks of work b) ensure that counters were still incrementing as needed c) get code reviewed d) push to proposed branch e) resolve ticket
  2. Read article about how web frameworks work
  3. [If time:] Read a chapter in Idiomatic Python

Only after I wrote down my little list and finished my breakfast did I open my work email to start attacking all the error messages. (Inbox Zero is real!)

Even though I didn’t get to #3 by the end of the day, I still left the office feeling loads more productive than usual. Breaking up the first task, which had been looming over my head for weeks, helped a lot. Plus, knowing that if I got stuck, I had items 2 and 3 “in reserve” as things I could complete on my own, without needing to ask anyone questions.

I love leaving work feeling productive! I’m going to try to keep up this morning routine so that it becomes habit, so I guess I should get off the computer and hit the sack!

Throwing a French dinner party

Happy Bastille Day/Joyeux Fête Nationale (de la France)!roses

In honor of this very Gallic holiday, Sarah and I realized our separate-but-identical dreams of throwing an elaborate French dinner party. Instead of a Parisian evening, we turned south for a Provence-themed soirée.

Preparation began Friday night when I infused a custard base with culinary lavender flavor. I love lavender (enough so that it’s the motif of my wedding ring!), so getting to cook with it was THRILLING. Making lavender ice cream

Sarah, Miles, and their friend Laura came over early to cook. While I made ratatouille, they chopped, juiced, and marinated, all while playing French music in the background.

(The salad recipe involved rubbing the bowl with garlic cloves.)

making salade niçoise

 

I was pleasantly surprised by how well all three of us were able to cook simultaneously in the kitchen, which is pretty lacking in counter space.  I’ve accumulated an expansive collection of essential kitchen tools over the years, and a lot of it came in handy with three cooks milling about.

Note that Sarah brought her own adorable apron.

making chicken

As an apéritif, we drank Sarah’s Lillet (My condensed wine notes: “Looked yellow,  tasted sweet, good served with ice cubes, would drink again.”) while munching on a variety of olives and cornichons. This party was the real deal.

Lillet

The evening started with a salade niçoise, which is not quite à la française, but I don’t like to eat salad after the main course anyway.

salade niçoise

The main course was a lavender and lemon roasted chicken and ratatouille.

Lavender-lemon roasted chicken

ratatouille

The cheese course included baguette and two cheeses: Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery and half of a pont l’Evêque. The latter is a traditional “stinky French cheese” that smells like dirty feet but has a surprisingly mild flavor. Hus-friend was quite put off by it.

Cheese course

Also served: Côtes du Provence rosé (“Light, looked pink, tasted sweet-ish.”) and a very dark Merlot that Chris picked up from a French wine store (“Too dark to see through, spicy and a little sweet.”).

baguette and wine

And dessert was the lavender-infused ice cream that I had churned and frozen earlier in the day. The first time I had lavender ice cream was when my mom and I took a trip to Provence in high school. That version was tinted purple, but lacking food coloring, I left my version cream-colored. It was still strongly lavender-flavored, though fortunately, not so much that it tasted like soap.

lavender ice cream

I was pleased with how well the soirée came together, especially since this was our first time hosting an event in our apartment. I felt very grown-up indeed, sipping wine (and only making a few faces) and reminiscing about our time in grad school around the table.

After our charming guests departed (close to midnight–Hold the presses!), Hus-friend and I cleaned up the dishes together and discussed what a pleasant evening we had. (Maybe this was just me incredulously saying, ‘THAT WAS SO FUN!’.) The whole event was a lot of fun: planning the menu, cooking together, and sitting around the table with delicious food that we made ourselves. Entertaining is a lot more, well, entertaining than I anticipated. I guess this is what being an adult is….

A grand merci to Sarah, Miles, Laura, and Chris for being part of our first dinner party! thank you note

I attempt to like wine.

Oy! Despite my persona as the modern face of temperance, I’ve made what will almost certainly be an ill-fated decision to try wine.

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Though–or perhaps because–I grew up around wine, I’ve never been very excited about developing a taste for it. I try everyone else’s in hesitant sips, but mostly, it tastes like weird, bitter, sometimes sour, poison.  And as I whined to Jessica once, “it’s not thirst-quenching…AT ALL!”

This pretty much sums up how I feel about champagne. (I hope that many anniversaries from now, my old, wrinkly self will be amused that I self-timed our complimentary wedding champagne consumption.)

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A few weeks ago, I decided that it was time to give wine a good faith effort because of all the alcohols, it’s probably the one I’m most likely to warm up to.  I mean, I like grapes okay….

Of course, the best way for me to do this is to approach wine like a new hobby (HOBBIES!!!!!), with all the Internet research and one-track-minded zeal that such a designation entails. I took a bunch of Internet quizzes about what kind of wines I should try, but these were mostly unhelpful.

Instead, I’m just trying wines at different opportunities and taking notes. Har-har, notes! That’s hilarious.

Côtes du Rhône - Hus-friend and I split the rest of the bottle that I used for coq au vin, and it took us two separate nights to finish the remainder. I’m not sure how a normal couple splits a bottle of wine on a romantic evening.

My notes for this bottle look something like this:

“Looks red and too dark to see through. Smells fruity and like alcohol. Tastes initially fruity and then mostly like alcohol. With aeration: tastes bad.”

Côtes du Rhône
(Yes, I know I served this in a champagne flute, but whatever. It was a $6 bottle of wine from TJs.)

Sauvignon Blanc – Jordan and Maria served this on the Fourth of July with dinner. It was very sweet, I’m told because it’s a “late harvest” wine. This was by far the easiest for me to drink because it tasted like juice.

“Looked yellow. Smelled sweet. Tasted sweet with a bitter end. With aeration, tasted more bitter.”

Sauvignon Blanc

Chardonnay – Every month, work hosts a “Wine Down Wednesday” event in the afternoon. Today, there was chardonnay from some local vineyard whose name I forgot. I thought I’d like chardonnay since it often gets described as “buttery.” I like butter on bread, popcorn, and artichoke hearts, so I mean, I should like it in wine, right??

I’m pretty sure whoever popularized that description doesn’t actually know what butter tastes like. What a sad existence.

“Looked yellow and thin. Smelled sweet, initial taste was sweetish/fruity but with an unpleasant (bitter?) flavor afterwards.

Improved marginally while eating strawberries and grapes.”

Chardonnay & cheese plate at work

 

I think I have great potential to become a sommelier, you guys. I think this could really happen.

More wine adventures to come…I should probably set a bound on this project so that I know when to give up.

 

Aggressive bike riding oops

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On Friday, Stella asked if I wanted to go for a leisurely Independence Day bike ride to Golden Gate Park. I had visions of me and Stella, riding our hipster bikes around GG Park, with Foux de Fa Fa playing as the soundtrack to our delightful, Instagram-filtered lives.

I met Stella and 14th and Valencia and off we headed in the general direction of The Wiggle, though admittedly, I don’t think we really knew where we were going. We turned onto Dolores from 15th Street and faced a moderate hill.

“Great! Hills to practice shifting gears on!” I said to myself. My 1.2-mile ride to work is pancake flat, so I normally don’t have any opportunity to play with the twelve speeds on my bike.

“Cool, I’ll shift to the smaller chain ring in the front because that’s the gear for climbing,” I proudly announced in inner monologue.

“Now, self, don’t get your chain crossed from front to back, so let’s shift in the back to the largest cog for climbing!” Because I actually talk to myself in a weird, patronizing tones when engaging in fitness pursuits.

“Snap! Clunk!” retorted my bike.

(This entire conversation took place within the span of 30 seconds, FYI.)

I realized that my pedals were no longer moving forward and that I had dropped my chain. This happens relatively frequently, and I’ve gotten decent at putting it back into place with minimal smearing of bike grease onto my face. I told Stella I was pulling over to fix my chain.

…except my chain totally did not go back into place. I tried, gently prodding the front derailleur with my finger, shifting gears, putting each link in place on the cog teeth. Nothing was working. The front derailleur seemed to be blocking the front chain ring from moving at all.

“Okay, Stella!” I announced, “We are presumably engineers. Why can’t I fix this? WHAT ARE BIKES?!?”

Then I saw a funny little lever in my front derailleur* that I had never noticed before. I pushed and pulled on it, and the derailleur seemed to shift in and out from the bike.

“ISN’T THIS THE MISSION?? WHERE ARE THE GOOD SAMARITAN HIPSTERS?!??” I wailed to Stella/everyone within earshot. Tragically, no bearded, flannel-clad hipster came to my rescue, though a woman kindly asked me to move aside as I was blocking the entrance to her building with my bike crisis.

Stella took a look on the other side and informed me that the little “lever” I had just found was actually a piece of the derailleur that had snapped in two. Her diagnosis? “That’s legit broken.”

Yes, that’s right. I managed to snap a thick piece of chrome in TWO with my unintentionally violent bike maneuvering. What in the actual hell?

Stella and I walked my bike home, which gave us a nice time to chat, though we did manage to scratch up our ankles from running into our pedals repeatedly.

Once home, I emailed the two nice ladies from whom I purchased the bike and sheepishly explained my egregious error. I felt like I was calling in the social workers for a home visit with only a bruised, battered bicycle child to show. Though it was a holiday, they said they’d come by in an hour and replace the derailleur for me. Saints, I tell you.

And that is exactly what they did. On the way to Trader Joe’s, Kristal and Zoe pulled up in their van outside my apartment and set up a mobile bike workshop: a rack for mounting my bike, various replacements for parts that might have been broken, even latex gloves for avoiding greasy fingers. And within ten minutes, they had the broken derailleur replaced and answered all my questions about what may have happened. (For the record, it was probably user error, though they did say that the only time they had seen this before was with the same type of Japanese derailleur.) Not to mention they refused my money! They are really the nicest people on earth and restore my faith in humanity.

Long story short: I guess I have a lot to learn about bike maintenance, ownership, and gearing.  Also, I’m apparently an aggressive bike rider, even when I’m just aiming for a pleasure ride with my BFF Stella. Sigh… “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS!!!!”

*Until two weeks ago, I went around calling the front derailleur “the bracket” because I know almost nothing about bikes.

 

À  la mode.