August 4th, 2015

weekend getaway // new orleans.

School starts soon. I’m already making lesson plans, studying my teacher’s edition lit book and spending all of my money on classroom supplies. I decided we needed one more weekend adventure before I start drowning in stacks of essays.

I have visited New Orleans a few times, but not since Hurricane Katrina — so with approximately 48 hours to spend in the city, I chose to situate myself in the French Quarter. New Orleans is one of those authentic cities that embraces its grit. The French Quarter style is a mix of ornate iron, exposed brick, wild balcony greenery spilling over onto gas-lit alleyways; everything is accompanied by an abundance of music, a different sound around every corner. We were completely comfortable getting totally lost. New Orleans also has this magical ability to make you feel as though you’ve found an 1800′s Parisian alleyway; few American cities transport you so wholly.

After putting my bags in the room, I commenced wandering down the street, and accidentally inserted myself directly into an already rolicking street festival: Satchmo Summerfest, a celebration of Louis Armstrong! There was no shortage of jazz music, authentic Snowballs (coconut & cream, forever), and sampled both jambalaya and fried chicken.

The first stop, post street festival, was Cafe du Monde for beignets, chicory coffee and hot chocolate — the hot chocolate is a spiritual experience, I swear. For dinner, I made advance reservations at Cafe Amelie, a courtyard cafe. The lamb meatball pasta was quite good, but a little too heavy in the oppressive Gulf coast heat; and, while the restaurant was lush and lovely, the vibe was fairly overwrought with a loud bachelorette party in attendance. In search of a more subdued atmosphere, and some air conditioning, I ended up at another classic, Arnaud’s where I had a French 75, properly made with cognac and champagne.

The next day started with a quick breakfast at Cafe Beignet followed by a trip to Faulkner House Books, a former home of William Faulkner, and where he wrote his first novel. The boarding house now operates as a specialty bookstore. Of course, I came away with a few souvenirs.

Lunch was Royal House Oyster Bar for chargrilled oysters, fried alligator and a Pimm’s Cup. After a quick nap at the hotel (vacation!) and some diligent relaxing, I got ready for Kingfish – fried pimiento cheese fritters, a boudin tamale and “nachos” with pulled pork and cracklin’s substituted for the more common tortilla chips. Heaven! This place is a must stop, and I am already planning a trip back with an empty stomach. I wish I had tried some cocktails, but made up for that by stopping off at Carousel Bar & Lounge in the Monteleone Hotel to conclude the evening.

I drove back early the next morning — feeling all the echoes of big bands and streets lined with Spanish moss. I thought about the all the people who gave this vibrant city life and the diverse culture that has manifested itself in the intervening years. New Orleans, I like you.

July 21st, 2015

book talk // swamplandia.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is a book about the alligator-wrestling Bigtree clan living, essentially alone, in the Florida swamps. Chief Bigtree, who is not a native-American at all, runs a fairly successful tourist attraction called Swamplandia! where his wife, Hilola Bigtree, is the star — each night she dives into a pit of alligators (whom they lovingly call “Seth”, or “the Seths”) and emerging, unscathed, at the other end of the pit. However, when Hilola dies of cancer, she leaves behind her legacy: three children, Ossie, Ava and Kiwi, along with a slightly delusional husband who thinks he can somehow resurrect the now defunct Swamplandia! in a way that he could not save his wife.

Separated from any children their own age, the story delves into the imaginary world the Bigtree kids create for themselves — a survival tactic that holds the tenuous threads of their understanding together. Ossie begins to retreat further and further from reality and begins “dating” ghosts that she calls up from her homemade Ouija board and a creepy old book. Kiwi considers himself a genius and, with a letter composed of Thesaurus-laden adjectives, he departs Swamplandia!, defecting to their competition, World of Darkness, to save money for his family. When the Chief leaves and Ossie runs off, Ava is left in charge of trying to hold the family dreams together. With a Bird Man as her guide, she departs on a haunting and harrowing journey. The narrative switches between Kiwi’s (third-person) story of real-world problems with lousy paychecks, not having a high school diploma, and constant teasing from his co-workers and Ava’s (first-person) supernatural one. In many ways, his story is the more accessible. Ossie’s story, however, isn’t developed wholly after her disappearance (and I found myself irrationally angry at her selfishness, even though Ava never was), the reader can make logical inferences regarding the missing pieces, but Russell doesn’t fill in the gaps; instead, it’s Ava who truly acts as the book’s guiding compass, and her story diverges dramatically from her brother’s “mainland” experiences in night school, eating at fast food restaurants and learning curse words — Ava’s journey is a bit of Through the Looking Glass meets The Inferno, only swampier.

I think this book can be read in a variety of ways — a coming-of-age novel, magical realism or a parable using the Florida swamp as a mythical archetype. There are far too many references to hell (the World of Darkness is a hell-themed amusement park, the visitors referred to as “lost souls,” constant references to Ossie’s “underworld,” and the Bird Man who acts as Dante’s, I mean Ava’s, guide to hell) to not consider the archetypal implications. It’s a coming-of-age / loss-of-innocence novel for Ava especially, but also for all of the Bigtree children. Ava’s realization is the most drastic, and her enigmatic red Seth acts an important talisman for her experience.

It took me a while to read this book, not because it isn’t unique and enthralling — it is — but because I only wanted to read it in small pieces, to savor the setting and consider the characters. Russell’s use of time in her book paralleled my own reading of it in a way. Kiwi’s life on the mainland lasted for “weeks and weeks,” while Ava’s journey took mere days. At first I thought this disjointed timeline may have been due to bad copyediting, but the more I thought about it I realized that real life, when one is struggling to survive, feels like an endless journey with no true destination. On the other hand, Ava had a place in mind, a purpose, and her childlike (and perhaps naive) belief kept her cocooned in a dis-reality. Ava had no school, no friends, very few hobbies — her world was an endless twilight. Whereas Kiwi, with his myriad “adult” responsibilities, had a stricter schedule. I suppose childhood seems to many of us like a lost twilight and I believe Russell captured that in her novel. Additionally, prior to reading this book, I doubt I would have described the Florida swamps as “magical,” but I might do so now.

Essentially, Swamplandia! is based around an improbable ghost story, but really it shows a family struggling to cope with changes in their lives and how they manage to stay together and survive. Also, this is the second novel I’ve reviewed (Night Circus was the first) that centered around an amusement park / magical realism theme, I guess that niche genre speaks to me for some reason?

Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: fans of magical realism, gothicism or teen angst, lovers of mosquitos, questioners of time

July 14th, 2015

a nerd in harry potter world.

I’ve been absent from the Internet for a week whilst exploring Orlando based theme parks with the unwashed masses, and my family. Of course we went to Disney World, however, pre-Disney I had the rarified opportunity to obtain a VIP experience at Universal Studios. I just happen to know a guy who knows a guy, and it was his birthday, so he took his friends and family to Universal. The innocuous VIP pass appears, at first, to be simply an inoffensive piece of monogrammed plastic, but its implications are both magnified and multifaceted. First, we were allowed to skip ahead in all the lines — I felt moderate guilt as I jumped ahead of a multitude of wide-eyed children, thankfully it wasn’t a lingering guilt as I literally did not wait in one line. Our group could re-ride rides, explore the backlots, eat free food, and we had a tour guide (Kendra) who ushered us around, peppering us with interesting park facts all day. Finally, and most importantly, this line skippage also applied to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — coincidentally, the only place in the park where you can’t use your (overpriced) expedited tickets — and this experience came with a complimentary Butterbeer tasting. I acknowledge that this was a once in a lifetime experience, unlikely to every be replicated, and it was awesome.

We visited Hogmeade first. The snow-capped rooftops looked particularly out of place in the sweltering Florida heat, but a storm rolled in mid-afternoon which provided an adequately moody backdrop. Once oriented, I hopped straight into Ollivanders with a single purpose — to find my wand. The rest of the group was not as enthusiastic at the prospect of wand shopping and I went solo through the stacks. While browsing, I discovered that some of the wands are interactive! How did I not know this before? The interactive wands come with a map of spell casting locations and the proper wrist-flicking combination to cast each spell. I chose a 15″ reed wand because the description spoke to me: “Reed wood is associated with scholarship and knowledge. Reed people are good with words, and steadfast in their beliefs. They are deeply rooted and extremely flexible. Reed people should trust in their ability to adapt to new situations without ever losing sense of who they are.”

Wand in hand, I set off to ride the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley. I only though Hogsmeade was impressive, Diagon Alley actually blew my mind. I tripped because I was blatantly gaping at the carefully created setting, every minute detail intended to spark both memory and imagination in the mind of any HP fan. Predictably, Escape from Gringotts was my favorite ride — because, dragons. I get motion sick fairly easily, so I didn’t enjoy the virtual broom flying ride inside Hogwarts (sorry Harry). In the inevitably awkward ride picture, I was leaning against the side of the cart looking particularly green — and it wasn’t from Gillyweed. Eventually, the rain started up in earnest and I retreated back to the Hogshead tavern where I procured another frozen Butterbeer (although they do have Firewhiskey as well), and then de-camped to Honeydukes for some chocolate frogs. I don’t want to spoil all the surprises, but if you like Harry Potter (the books or the movies) even a little bit, then this is a must-visit destination. Now, if I could only make it to Mordor…

May 20th, 2015

book talk // hausfrau.

Hausfrau by Jill Essbaum is a book about Anna Benz, a deeply unhappy expatriate housewife with three children living in Zurich. She is alienated by the language, her husband is cold, her mother-in-law distant and her friends few and far between. In an attempt to regain some control over her life, she reaches out to a Jungian psychoanalyst, takes German classes and engages in extramarital affairs as her life begins to spiral.

I was first drawn to Hausfrau‘s beautiful cover, some of my favorite books were initially picked up due to interesting cover art. Then, a Goodreads review likened Hausfrau to Madame Bovary, one of my favorite classics which I’ve read twice since first encountering in it a college lit class. And, while I can see the comparison, in retrospect, I believe Hausfrau to perhaps be the more poetic — which makes sense as Jill Essbaum is a poet and this is her debut novel. There are definite echoes of The Bell Jar.

Hausfrau drew me in with the first line: “Anna was a good wife, mostly.” Boom. I immediately wanted to read more. I am strongly drawn to unlikeable protagonists, especially of the female variety. I noticed other readers claiming Anna’s character was too difficult to like, but I perhaps enjoyed her more because of my own resistance and hesitance toward finding her endearing. I mean, for all intents and purposes, Anna is a narcissist and generally what society would deem a bad person. “Some women collect spoons. Anna collected lovers.” [Also, fair warning, the extramarital sex is often and rather graphic.]

The book is not humorous, fast-paced or light — it’s a heavy read, laden with tragedy and Jungian anecdotes. At various points in the novel, conversations with Anna’s doctor are intermixed with the ongoing narrative of the story. This gives the reader a deeper insight into what’s really going on in her mind. And, although I found myself reading past, present and future on the same page, the asides never felt out of place — it simply made for a more enlightening character study.

Additionally, Essbaum succeeds in playing with language in beautiful ways that had me highlighting line after line. I believe Hausfrau veers sharply away from Madame Bovary by accessing the precision of words. Throughout the book Anna queries various people about their opinions on spiritual and psychological matters, but also on the meanings of words (labyrinth vs maze, for example). Essbaum also draws continuous metaphors between Anna and language, her German classes being one of the tenuous threads holding her to the real world. “With Anna it was all verbs. She was sloppy in her conjugations, reckless in her positioning. She confused tense with mood and relied too often on the passive voice.”

Overall, I found this to be one of the smarter books I’ve read in a while. The language bordered on lyrical and there were many passages which I found psychologically astute. As I mentioned previously, the first line of the book grabbed me immediately — the last line did the same thing, but on a different scale. I won’t spoil it, but really, the whole book is beautiful.

Rating: 5/5
Recommended For: people who like their drama with a side of psychoanalysis, lovers of language and poetry

May 18th, 2015

ootd // thrifted frock.

This thrifted Free People dress is still one of my favorite finds of all time. It’s a style I wouldn’t normally choose for myself: buttons, drop waist, straight silhouette — but I love the fabric and the pockets, so I wear it quite frequently. In this instance, I wore it to a champagne brunch at the Cliff House (and checked that off the bucket list). The brunch itself was heavenly; my champ glass was diligently refilled any time it even threatened to near half-full. The food was decadent — I ate everything from mussels and smoked shrimp with wasabi noodles and roe to butterscotch pudding, piped carefully into an eggshell and topped with candied citrus rind. A harpist set the mood with live background music while we watched the blue-grey Pacific lap hungrily against the rocky coast below; it added an extra layer to an already enjoyable sensory experience. Highly recommend!

Dress: FreePeople (thrifted) // Sweater Tights: H&M // Shoes: Ross

May 12th, 2015

bay area bucket list.

It’s my one-year San Franniversary! In order to continue  documenting my adventures in the Bay Area, I made a bucket list to check off what I’ve accomplished and what is still left to explore.

San Francisco
Walk across the Golden Gate Bridge ✓
Walk around Sausalito ✓
Take the ferry to Alcatraz ✓
Watch the sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf ✓
DeYoung museum ✓
See the Boudin Sourdough Factory ✓
Ghirardelli square ✓
Japanese Tea Garden ✓
Botanical Garden ✓
California Academy of Sciences ✓
Ferry Building Farmer’s Market ✓
Visit Ocean Beach ✓
Climb “Turtle Hill” ✓
Try Fernet ✓
Visit the mosaic steps ✓
Palace of Fine Arts ✓
Golden State Warriors Game ✓
Eat clam chowder & sourdough bread on the wharf ✓
Hike in the Presidio ✓
Roller skating at the Church of 8 Wheels ✓
Bowling in Yerba Buena ✓
Green Apple Bookstore ✓
Eat Chinese food in Chinatown ✓
Vesuvio Café ✓
City Lights Bookstore ✓
Picnic in Golden Gate Park ✓
Champagne Brunch at Cliff House ✓
Take a boat through the Bay ✓
See the “Painted Ladies” ✓
Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown ✓
Off the Grid Food Truck Market ✓
Watch New Year’s Fireworks at Embarcadero ✓
Tacos / burritos in the Mission ✓
San Francisco ballet ✓
San Francisco Broadway show ✓
Legion of Honor ✓
Lands End hike ✓

[still to do]
Rowboats on Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park
Bike across the Golden Gate Bridge
Sutro Baths
Tour Anchor Steam factory
Baker Beach
Giants Game
Conservatory of Flowers
SF Mead Co.

Bay Area & Beyond
Visit Sonoma / Napa ✓
Join a wine club ✓
Take a limo to wine country for the day ✓
Muir Woods ✓
Rodeo Beach ✓
Hike in the Marin Headlands ✓
Pescadero ✓
Monterey ✓
Carmel-by-the-sea ✓
Drive down the Pacific Coast Hwy ✓
Berkeley ✓
Oakland ✓
Jack London SP ✓
Yosemite NP ✓
Kayaking in Point Reyes NS ✓
Big Sur / Los Padres NP ✓
China Camp SP ✓
Lake Tahoe in the winter ✓
McWay Falls, Big Sur ✓
See the Tule Elk in Point Reyes ✓
Heidrun Meadery ✓
Angel Island SP ✓
Stinson Beach ✓
Russian River ✓

[still to do]
Dipsea Trail
Gold rush towns
Sequoia NP
Hike Mt. Diablo
Stay at Deetjan’s in Big Sur
Lake Tahoe in the summer
Drink Pliny the Younger

April 15th, 2015

i left my heart in mexico.

I can’t quit Mexico. Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, I inevitably end up in Mexico or Belize. I suppose I am drawn to the authenticity and vivacity of the Mexican people — in my mind, they exist in stark contrast to the inauthentic people I tend to encounter in SF. Also, I speak a little Spanish and eliminating a language barrier always makes travel more pleasant. I mentioned previously that I scheduled this solo-adventure as a bit of respite and reward for nearing the conclusion of several life chapters all at once. I have never solo-adventured before. I always travel with a friend, a significant other or with the intention to rendezvous with another travel-buddy. This time, there was no such rendezvous on the horizon and, as soon as I boarded the airplane, I knew this would be an unforgettable adventure.

Dress: UO // Swimsuit: Victoria’s Secret // Hat: Korea // Shoes: Birkenstocks // Sunglasses: Ambiance in SF

I landed in Mexico, disembarked, took a land taxi to the pier, then boarded a water taxi and rode 45 minutes into the ocean, finally arriving at a small fishing village I would call home for a week. When we arrived at the beach I was expected to find my own way off the boat and, without the assistance of a ladder or pier, I simply tossed myself overboard, landing with a splash in the lazy bay. That initial jump also set the stage for the rest of my time there. My host met me on the beach and escorted me to his B&B in the jungle. “Is this all you brought?” he asked, indicating my luggage. I nodded. “Good, we won’t have to use the wheelbarrow.” I agreed, that was good. I followed his lead by discarding my shoes, but the gravelly sand left my city-sensitive feet seeking mercy. We followed the single cobblestone road to his property, sidestepping manure, chickens and donkeys as we went. There are no cars in the village — only donkeys, horses, a few ATVs, and feet. Barefoot still, I waded through a river, scattering minnows and tadpoles with my invasive toes — bridges are overrated. Every field we passed was so alive and vibrant with the growing season — corn grew alongside Hibiscus and plantains and oversized hummingbirds buzzed eagerly around every new bloom.

My casita itself was beyond perfection. I had a stone terrace with a view of the mountains, a gauzy white mosquito net, and the sound of birds woke me every morning while the insects’ music lulled me to sleep every night. The natural spring pool was a dream and made me realize how desperately I miss swimming. I settled in that first night and watched the sun set with a cup of lemongrass tea. The following days blur together in a perfect union of hiking to waterfalls, reading some fantastic literature and lazing on the beach. I find it hard to read on the beach, I am far more interested in people-watching and glass-bottle-Pepsi-drinking. One day I watched a free-flying paragliding lesson. The instructor sat behind me giving instructions in a walkie talkie while the students in the air attempted to comply — bank right, bank left, pull up. It was my own private show and I watched them circle the mountains like bats, whipping the fog into decorative swirls with their multi-colored nylon wings.

During my three-day beachfront observation, I saw donkeys carrying cement bricks, men haggling over a wheelbarrow full of fish, two boys hacking open coconuts for the soft, meaty centers, a woman selling homemade pie from a container she balanced on her head and, of course, a few tourists who came for the day to do the waterfall hike, have a Corona Light on the beach, then leave. I liked getting there in the early morning, before the boats had started to populate the cerulean waters, watching the beach wake up and greet the day. I’d get a fresh-squeezed juice in town at a stand labeled “jugos naturales” and bring it in the to-go plastic bag down to the water. In the afternoons I’d eat pie and guacamole and swim, then hole up in my room to read. I also cooked my own dinners at the casita, making full use of their chef’s kitchen. I didn’t talk to anyone, but I did write 22 pages in my journal and read four books (Dancing for Degas, The Lover, Suspended Sentences, Chocolates for Breakfast) and developed admirable calluses on my feet.

Now that I’ve catapulted back to reality, Mexico seems like an unfamiliar and foggy dream I woke abruptly from and am not quite able to perfectly recapture outside the confines of my own imagination. I suppose that’s the price I must pay for managing to fully inhabit another life for just a little while.

April 13th, 2015

ootd // native.

I stepped away from my blog for a couple of weeks to really relish reality without any distractions. I deleted Twitter and Facebook from my phone before I left for Mexico and only recently re-installed them. It was a nice break from all the unessential noise. Today, I took an unanticipated last minute trip to Oakland, which was also my first time riding Bart. I spent the afternoon in Temescal window shopping and eating doughnuts. As with many Bay Area gems I’ve discovered, I was previously unaware of how cute that area of Oakland is. I decided to represent my native Texan pride, dug out my old bomber jacket and paired them both with another oldie but goodie — my stretchy UO skirt that just happens to go perfectly with maintaining some semblance of comfort while sitting for 2 hours on public transit.

Jacket: Target (old) // Shirt: The Home T // Tights, Skirt & Socks: UO // Boots: Old Navy

March 30th, 2015

ootd // that birk life.

I bought a pair of Birkenstocks after hemming and hawing over them for years. I’ve always liked how they looked but was hesitant to take the monetary plunge. Recently, I decided to treat myself upon receipt of this years tax refund. So far, I’ve been told I look like a Berkley theology professor and, when I paired them with the slouchy socks featured, that I look like I am going to Jazzercise class. I maintain there are worse things to be associated with and my feet feel like they are pillowed inside shoe-clouds, so I can hardly be bothered by the perceptions of others. I wore this outfit to collect sand dollars on Ocean Beach with a friend.

Shirt: Gap (thrifted) // Jeans: Gap // Sandals: Birkenstock // Sunglasses: RayBan

March 2nd, 2015

hiking // snapshots on mt tam.

Spring has arrived in California. Golden Gate Park is peppered with crushed, pink Magnolia blossoms, escapees that have drifted over the botanical garden’s walls and whose ultimate fate was decided under the foot of a passing pedestrian. The cherry blossoms around Stowe Lake have already bloomed and faded, so quickly and quietly passersby might not have noticed it was happening at all.

The fleeting nature of spring brings forth flora I can’t spot at any other time of the year and, as I hiked around Mt. Tam State Park and pieces of the Muir Woods this weekend, I hungrily snapped photos of the flowers peeking through reddish dirt.

I spent Saturday morning winding myself through redwoods, arriving at last above the tree line where I perched on a rock to watch the sun climb higher in an expansive cerulean sky. To my left, I could see the Pacific Ocean stretching out into eternity, to my right trees upon trees repeated themselves in an endless pattern that only nature can perfect. My hiking boots dangled toward the earth while I peeled my mandarin, carefully excising the outer skin to expose the bright, fleshy center, and thought a single word, “Perfection.”