NYC anniversary: Four years

July42013_3IMG_5954photoDSC_0123AugustBlogDSC_0034IMG_1309Today is the fourth anniversary of my arrival in New York City. As Jeff pointed out, it’s like we’ve done a whole undergrad degree in NYC. Or a presidential term. So in that spirit, I’ve been asking myself, what have I learned? What have I accomplished? Is the world (or at least my world) a better place? An incomplete list, in no particular order:

  • I made some friends, and I found them in places as unexpected as my own building and a gingerbread building session in a bar.
  • I told three stories live at The Moth, one of them a StorySlam winner and one at a GrandSlam championship.
  • I’ve made decent progress studying to become a certified NYC tour guide. I could talk your ear off about the significance of DeWitt Clinton’s street grid and the Battle of Brooklyn (which, contrary to popular belief, has nothing to do with long brunch lines).
  • I’ve fallen in love with New York City’s randomness and it’s commissioned and “uncommissioned” public art. I’ve chronicled dozens of Street Finds, although many of them are still on my camera, waiting to be shared.
  • I got a new job advocating for young farmers on a national level.
  • I’ve written more than half a dozen stories for Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn, but my first story is probably still my favorite.
  • We’ve explored our new corner of the country: Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Bar Harbor, Maine; the Hudson Valley; Fire Island; Boston; the Berkshires; and New Jersey.
  • We’ve seen and even met a few celebrities, most thrillingly Sir. Patrick Stewart, but also Tina Fey, Steve Buscemi, and others.
  • I’ve been to Governor’s Island, Staten Island and Roosevelt Island. But thankfully not Rikers Island.
  • I rode a bike for the first time as an adult and rowed a boat in the Harlem River.
  • I carried a Christmas tree home on a bus.
  • I’ve been to every stop on the F.
  • We’ve been to the MoMA, the Met, the Museum of Natural History, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
  • We made room for overnight guests on at least a dozen occasions.
  • I’ve bought local fish and learned how to cook it. I know what a ramp is, how a sour cherry differs from a regular cherry (it’s sour) and who sells the best apples.
  • I’ve been to one Broadways show (and got to go behind stage after), but I’ve also seen Shakespeare performed on the street and enjoyed a fire breather, a burlesque performance and a brass band from the comfort of my own block.

I’m not sure what I expected from New York City. It was and remains both an unknowable place and the most infamous, legendary, iconic city of all time. I’ve never stopped feeling grateful. Okay, maybe there was that one time, when it was cold. But I still think it’s worth it.

Southern Road Trip

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More than a year ago, Jeff and I started talking about a Southern road trip. The idea had several inspirations. First of all, for years we’ve chatted about the fact that neither of us has spent any time in the real South. Oklahoma and Texas are very culturally southern, but they aren’t the South. Then there was the three-part Southern Living travel series last summer that outlined a state-hopping ramble laced with grits, cocktails and Spanish moss. Finally, there was A Chef’s Life, a PBS show that has been making us hungry and homesick ever since Jeff discovered it on our Apple TV last year. It’s a powerhouse of Southern cultural preservation, and it made us want to go South.

So that’s what we did. We flew into Savannah, rented a car, and embarked on a fast-paced, six-day tour of Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. The trip’s itinerary went through many different incarnations (at one point, we were going to drive all the way back to Brooklyn), and our final route was shaped in part by people we wanted to visit along the way. To pack it all in, we signed ourselves up for more than 18 hours of driving. Here’s my quick rundown of where we went and what we loved:

Savannah

Our arrival in Savannah was one of the single best travel experiences I’ve ever had. Every now and then, there are things in life that are way, way better than you imagined. That was our first day in Savannah. When a place has a reputation for being beautiful, I always assume it has a few amazing streets or that you have to stand in just the right place to get the full effect. Not Savannah. Every tree is dripping with Spanish moss and almost every street in the historic district has a park-like public square. The  squares were pleasantly quiet, almost sleepy. We mostly stayed away from the river, which was touristy; everything else was divine. We were even treated to a massive thunderstorm while walking thorough Forsyth Park, only a couple hours after arriving in town. If that sounds like a bad thing, you aren’t a storm-starved Oklahoman: New York gets rain, but not storms.

 

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Eliza Thompson House—Savannah, Georgia
Our whole impression of Savannah was probably swayed by how much we loved this B&B. I think Southern hospitality can be a bit of a cliche, but it was on full display here and very genuine. I got my money’s worth out of the wine reception, too, not by getting drunk by by consuming about four deviled eggs and fistfuls of those tortilla pinwheel things.

Upper Bull Street—Savannah, Georgia
I suspect this neighborhood has a name, but I don’t know what it is, so I’ll just call this block “Upper Bull Street.” We discovered it because Jeff wanted to explore Graveface Records, thanks to a tip from a friend. I have sub-zero interest in record stores, so I took a stroll and discovered several gems including the adorable Back in the Day Bakery (winner of my personal “best biscuit of the trip” award) and Starlandia, purveyor of reclaimed creative supplies (Isn’t that about the best idea you’ve ever heard?).

 

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Deeper into Georgia

Cornbread Cafe—Wrightsville, Georgia
I’m almost convinced that our Garmin can read minds. She always knows the right thing to do in every situation without any additional input from me (I don’t know how to use her interface well enough to give her any guidance aside from an address.) When we set out to drive from Savannah to Athens, I was really hoping to get off the main highway and drive through the countryside, and that’s exactly what Garmin told us to do. We ended up on two-lane country highways for hours (mostly Highway 15, I think). At  lunchtime, we stopped for gas in Wrightsville, and I asked the clerk if there was anywhere we should eat. She sent us across the street to the Cornbread Cafe, a very unassuming establishment in what looked a bit like a re-purposed Hardy’s with a sign out front that said “farm picked veggies.” It was one of the gems of the trip—easily the best fried chicken I’ve had in years. What really impressed me was the long list of side items (I live for sides) including field peas, rutabaga and a very legit mac and cheese.

Athens, Georgia
Jeff was conducting an interview in Athens for a  project he’s working on, so I had a couple hours to explore by myself. I wandered into just about every store on Clayton Street before stopping for a happy hour prosecco, oysters and a watermelon salad at the Branded Butcher. I was looking at their menu and debating going in when a sweet, older farmer in overalls shuffled past me carrying a delivery of grain for the kitchen. Talk about targeted advertising—they couldn’t have scheduled him any better.

 

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The Carolinas

Brothers Farm and Chef and the Farmer—eastern North Carolina
After swinging through Asheville, North Carolina for breakfast with old friends and Durham for lunch with even older friends, we arrived in eastern North Carolina. Despite the fact that Chef and the Farmer (and more specifically, A Chef’s Life, the TV show) helped inspire our trip, we almost cut it from the itinerary because it was just so far out of the way, a real outlier. But in the eleventh hour of planning, Jeff found a link to Brothers Farm on Air B&B, and with the prospect of staying in a farmhouse instead of a Quality Inn, it suddenly felt very much worth the drive. Brothers Farm and its star occupant, Warren Brothers, are featured regularly on A Chef’s Life, so there was definitely an appeal to sleeping in a house we had seen on PBS. But more than that, I was excited to spend a night in the country. I had been  concerned that our Southern road trip wouldn’t feel truly Southern to me unless I saw a yard heavy with fireflies and woke up to the sound of cicadas. While we loved getting to visit the restaurant, we really loved getting to stay at the farm. Warren and his wife Jane were warm and casual, and their home is a version of my dream house it has, like, four porches. Warren and his right-hand, fellow farmer, Lillie, showed us around the farm and broke out some pickled beets to share. We could have stayed all day, even if (especially if) that meant helping harvest collards.

 

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Charleston, South Carolina
We were both a bit “eh” about Charleston. It felt like a cheaper, more touristy Savannah, but I’m sure our experience would have improved significantly if we had made the time to explore outside of downtown. We met up with local friends at a beautiful oyster bar called The Ordinary. Afterwards they showed us the lovely streets around the College of Charleston and recommended the City Market (on aptly-named Market Street). They also recommended Hominy Grill,  the biggest food home-run of the trip, complete with boiled peanuts. I tried she-crab soup and got a veggie plate, which was basically my dream meal: all Southern side dishes.

 

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Middleton Place—Charleston, South Carolina
I came across Middleton Place randomly on Expedia, and it was one of the luckiest finds of the trip. This old plantation has been preserved as a resort with a modern inn (all wood paneling and windows—go look at the pictures), a restaurant, and 65 acres of landscaped gardens (the oldest in America). Despite the fact that it was July 3, it felt like we had the place to ourselves. Even the pool was empty, and we swam for an hour or more, watching the light move across the water and birds land on the nearby Ashley River. After cleaning up, we walked through the gardens to the restaurant. Some of their food is grown on-site, and when I asked about the name of a scallop-edged tomato on my place, the enthusiastic young waiter admitted that he didn’t know, but said he might be able to call their resident farmer and ask. He came back later declaring it a “Genovese.” A massive thunderstorm rolled in while we ate, and we had to beg a ride back to our room from a local who was drinking at the bar. The next day, while touring the gardens, we saw an alligator on the path we would have crossed had we attempted to reach our rooms by foot in the dark. I say this by way of recommendation—the whole experience was dreamy. But take a flashlight.

 

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This was one of those “come-home-and-google-real-estate” trips. We sucked up the sound of cicadas like divers coming up for air, and my only regret is that I should have eaten more tomatoes. But that’s okay, because I’ll go back.

 

 

 

 

 

The Moth, take two

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Remember when I told a story at The Moth last year? Well, I did it again last week, except this time I WON!

I know that a lot of people don’t like public speaking in general, and that the idea of telling a personal story without notes while people judge you is the stuff of nightmares. Except for me, it’s not. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but both times I told a story at The Moth, it was sort of the opposite of an out-of-body experience – I was fully present, grounded and in control.

The experience of doing it and doing it well was far better than the winning itself. Telling yourself “I’m going to do this thing that I’m not at all sure I can do,” and then you do the thing better than you had even hoped … I’ll just say it is a rare pleasure that I want another taste of.

July 4th on Top of the Rock

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I’m a solid nine months behind when it comes to recounting my  adventures, so I’m just going to start with a few of the more recent ones and work backwards as the spirit moves me. And I can’t believe it has already been a month since the 4th of July.

Last year my neighbor Tobia and I spent the evening of the 4th wondering around our neighborhood hoping someone would invite us onto their rooftop, and then hoping against reason that said rooftop would have a small view of the fireworks on the Hudson. The problem with this plan (aside from the need to gain access to a stranger’s home) was that an entire island and some of the world’s tallest buildings were between me and the show. It goes like this: Brooklyn >> East River >> Manhattan >> Hudson River* >> New Jersey. I’m making a point to tell you this because it took me about a year to get the rivers straight, and I want to show you that I’ve finally mastered my immediate geography.

Anyway, this year I had a better plan. My friend Tricia and her boyfriend Brian were in town, and after some extensive Googling, we decided to take a shot at trying to see the fireworks from the Top of the Rock. Having been to the top twice, I had a good feeling that the view of the fireworks would be decent, but I couldn’t find any website recommending it as a spot to watch the show, and the Rock’s own website had a disclaimer stating that fireworks views were not guaranteed.  Tricia and Brian were already planning to go to the Top of the Rock (it is probably the number one touristy thing I recommend to anyone who visits), so the only “extra” money we were spending was $30 for my ticket. Considering that rooftop bars across Manhattan sell tickets to to watch the show for $75 and up (way up), $30 was a steal.

We weren’t disappointed. The two great things about the Top of the Rock, and why I recommend it over the Empire State Building, are that 1) you can buy a ticket in advance for a specific time, meaning that you can ensure you are on top just before sunset; and 2) you can see the Empire State Building from the Top of the Rock, making the view that much better. Between the sunset, watching the lights come across the city, and the Empire State Building’s own 4th of July LED light show, the fireworks almost seemed like an afterthought, but we could see them really well, even though I didn’t get any decent pictures.

If you go, know that you can’t stand on the west side of the roof on the upper levels, so the view is a little obstructed (this is the only real flaw in the plan and probably what keeps them from charging an arm and a leg.) You can see the boats on the Hudson in my picture below, which gives you some idea of the line of site — a couple of those boats are the barges they use for fireworks. We were glad we got there more than an hour early as we had to stake out a spot and hold it or we would have been at the far back of the crowd. But the wait was nothing compared to what we would have had to put up with if we had made our way down to the riverfront, and the “pre-show” was worth the money on its own.

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July42013_5* The lower Hudson (from NYC to somewhere near Troy)  is actually a tidal estuary.

Back again

You go, She-Ra! You take those Fridays back! (At Big Gay Ice Cream Shop)

You know your blog has fallen by the wayside when your great-aunt comes up to you at a funeral and says, “You never blog anymore.”  So after a three-month, unintentional hiatus, I’m back.

Why I was gone isn’t half as interesting as how and why I am back, so let’s start there. For many years The Plan was for Jeff to finish grad school and get a full-time  job, at which point I would trade places with him and become the under-employed half of our partnership while working on my freelance writing career and various other flights of fancy. We pictured this as something like a five-year plan. We also pictured a fantasy land circa 1950 in which hard-working families could live comfortably on one professional salary.

It wasn’t as if I was just waiting around – generally speak, I was doing work I loved while also trying to find the time and nerve to write pitch letters, essays, etc. If you want something you’ll make it happen, right? Suffice it to say that somewhere in the middle of year eight, I decided that I could spend another five years lying to myself about how I would spend my nights and weekends or I could make something happen in a different way. I could buy my time back.

So that’s what I did. Thanks to my super-supportive bosses I was able to trade in 20 percent of my salary for 20 percent of my time – I bought  my Fridays back. It isn’t much time, but it is a little, and it is all mine. Let’s see what I can do with it.

 

 

We are all watching West Wing

Has anyone else noticed that suddenly we are all watching West Wing? Everyone. Right now. Coworkers, my father, friends in other cities. I assume most of us discovered (or re-discovered) the show when Netflix added it to their line-up, and that their promotion of their own political drama, House of Cards, gave the old series another small boost-by-association.

Since we are all on the same page, I would like to float a little theory: West Wing and Star Trek: The Next Generation are exactly the same show, separated by about 350 years of galactic history. They aren’t just similar, they are the same.

Picard-BartletA dream-team of elite, liberal optimists guided by an endlessly inspiring (but very human) leader seek to defend justice and leave the world a better place. As committed to each other as they are the cause, they face danger courageously but almost always wrap things up in about 46 minutes with a dose of humor and slightly saccharine speeches about the grave responsibility of power and the nature of humanity. And I don’t know if there’s a term for the way a show resonates after the credits roll, but if this were a wine tasting, I would say that West Wing and TNG have the same mouthfeel.

TNG-WWSwap the Iraqis for the Romulans, the Prime Directive for the Constitution, and the White House for a Galaxy Class Starship, and I think you will find the shows are interchangeable. And I’m hooked.