Monday, October 31, 2011

Time flies...just like a witch on her broom...

BOO!!!  Did I scare you?
Another month in 2011 to check off.  Again, I’ll repeat, time flies…just like a witch on her broom…
I haven’t spent too much time thinking about Halloween…or how I would participate or if I even would.  It is my least favorite holiday, gasp, this may come as a shock to hear; especially considering ‘sweet tooth’ is my middle name. 
Honestly, the pressure for a costume idea is overwhelming to me.  I also can’t stand spending money on stuff like this, in fact, so much so, that I have almost always borrowed a friend’s.  This costume usually turns out to be so-last-year and not even relevant, yet I’ll wear it anyway.  That’s how little I care. 
Scary things creep me out.  In fact, I refuse to put myself in these types of situations…haunted house, haunted hayride, walking through a cemetery or anything of the like that will make my heart race.  Why would I put myself through that knowing I’m two steps away from a heart attack?  I find myself sleuthing along just waiting for someone to jump out at me and yell BOO!!!  Or fire up a chainsaw and act as if they just might cut me to pieces!!  I can hear myself screaming right now. 
But, I’ve played along and I hate it every time and I always say to myself…I am so not doing this next year!
A cool factoid, in case you forgot, Halloween is a contraction of All-Hallows-Even.
Here are some activities I am in favor of…lighting bonfires (bring on the s’mores – not so Halloweenish), bobbing for apples (I will not participate because this grosses me out but I love watching people try to do this), playing pranks or ‘tricks’(perhaps these ‘tricks’ are threats in order to get the ‘treats’ which I sometimes find funny if not done on me), throwing a costume party (I like to throw parties…and I love themes…but again...I find I dread a goolish Halloween costume party), telling scary stories (I need to be the story teller in this situation – that way I know what is happening). 
Activities I am not in favor of include… carving jack-o-lanterns (sharp knives are dangerous and pumpkins are slippery and awkward…the mess is everywhere…someone decides it’s a great idea to roast the seeds…forgets about them…they burn and the stink forever lingers…and a rotted pumpkin usually gets left for me to remove…I guess painting them is the way to go but overall it really just doesn’t sound fun to me).  Btw, another factoid, carving pumpkins into lanterns was done as a way of remembering the souls held in purgatory. A ‘souling’ custom apparently…interesting and KEWL. I am also not into watching scary movies (this is an absolute no no in my book – I will be under the covers and uncomfortable the ENTIRE movie), trick-or-treating or really begging for free people still do this?  I am too old now but if I was who knows what these people are really putting in my sack…tainted candy, razor-blades in my apples, pedophiles hiding in the trees…not to mention it’s either really cold and you are wearing a jacket covering your well thought out expensive costume or it’s raining.  Here is another factoid, trick-or-treating resembles the late medieval practice of souling…this also means when poor folks would go door to door on Halloween, receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Souls’ Day.  AND, in my case growing up, I had to promptly turn over all the candy to get placed on top of the bureau in the dining room to be rationed out and then beg for a piece! Torture! Finally, I believe I've already mentioned my dislike of touring a haunted house (no thank you), going on a haunted hay-ride (you may recall I will do this apple picking but not to get to a scary haunted house) and walking cemetaries for thrills at night. 
Lastly, one of the biggest turn offs of Halloween for me is that it is final…summer has come to an end. 
Perhaps, just to challenge myself…and I’ll put this out here right now…I may throw a costume/souling party…in, say May…near my birthday…as a pre-cursor to the Halloween celebration!  A big affair…like I imagine Heidi Klum and Seal throwing…elaborate costumes…we’ll make s’mores over the bonfire and we will set off lanterns like they do in China.  In lieu of trick or treating, we will go from room to room and sip on different wines and eat candy from around the world…maybe…it might be fun…and one good thing…I’d have a grand costume for Halloween 2012!
This picture is of my good friend Chris Vankula and I headed to a Phish concert on Halloween in Las Vegas.  I was a Greek roommate's old costume.  It was and has been my all time favorite Halloween celebration, ever. 

Rule one gets up until the sun gets up...

Sunday’s are for sleeping in…especially after a full day of traveling, exploring and big eating.  Apparently, this is not the case for Vee...even while on vacation.  It was still dark out and she was tapping me on the shoulder asking me if I was going to get up anytime soon.  I was ignoring her so she moved onto waking Katie up.  Neither of us responded and finally after much pestering, Katie told her we will get up when the sun gets up.   We tried to enforce this rule the rest of the trip. 
I swear the sun peeped through the window about 5 minutes later…we packed our bags, grabbed coffee and checked out of the hotel so we could embark on the big day ahead. 
I had massages scheduled for Katie and I and a facial for Vee.  Perfect way, in my opinion, to start the day!  Afterwards, we cruised around the Sonoma square and decided to head to St. Helena.    
I chose St. Helena as a stopping point for a couple of reasons.  Megan held her wedding there this past March and it was amazing.   It’s a quaint town that boasts great vineyards, boutiques and a ¼ of the tourists.  Also, Vee’s favorite interior designer, Erin Martin, has a store front there and it was important for her to check it out. 
On our way up, we stopped in Yountville for lunch.  Another quaint wine town typically off the radar for most tourists, although I highly recommend a visit. We pulled over at Turnbull to sample some wines.  This was my least favorite wine tasting experience and the wines seemed more full bodied to my taste than I usually go for.  Beaulieu (BV) winery was a lot of fun where the sommelier Julie was a riot. 
We checked into the Vineyard Country Inn (such a great place to stay) and then we made our way to main street in St. Helena. 
Most places were closed for shopping so we grabbed a drink at La Condesa.  I fell in love with the art on the walls and the colorful atmosphere. 
I suggested we go to Tra Vigne for dinner.  Megan held her rehearsal dinner here and it is literally like you have been transported to Italy…Christmas lights strung on every tree creating a cozy courtyard.  It really was a quintessential wine country experience. 
We started with this amazing mozzarella cheese “Al Minuto.”  They literally make it the moment it is ordered.  The cheese pulls apart and you lay it on top of grilled bruschetta brushed with olive oil. YUM!
My favorite was the wood oven baked fig pizza.  Mission figs, gorgonzola (yuck – so my portion covered in more mozzarella), arugula and aged balsamic.  I am going to try to recreate my version of this awesomeness in the next few weeks.
We continued to stuff ourselves with smoked and braised beef short ribs served with a three cheese polenta, natural jus and a horseradish gremolata.  I LOVE short ribs and if I see them on a menu…that is what I most likely will order.  They fell off the bone and thinking about them right now is making my mouth water. 
The crispy duck leg risotto was worth a mention as well.  Green apple slices, carnaroli rice, fresh thyme, mascarpone and saba got rave reviews from us also!
I just remembered that we abandoned the left-over’s in the fridge to get tossed by the maid.  Tragic.
You may be relieved to know with all of this indulgence we skipped dessert.  As much as I wanted to try something, I simply did not have room.
Another early night to bed all fat and happy.    
Lunch at the Pacific Blues Cafe and a quick tour of Yountville, CA.
Wine tasting at beaulieu (BV) winery.  Another tragic story, Katie left the bottle of wine she bought in the fridge! 

The Zinfandel was my favorite.

Country like cottages with slate tiled roofs at The Vineyard Country Inn...I loved it.

St. Helena...where's Waldo?

Tra Vigne.  Beautiful!

This is a real pumpkin placed in the courtyard... it screamed sit on me for a picture!

The mozzarella "Al Minuto" -- seriously wow, right?  And then I forgot to photograph the rest of the meal because I was so caught up in the will just have to imagine the rest of the feast.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sonoma and some fig

I mentioned I spent ten years living everywhere between San Francisco and Marin County.  While driving  Vee and Katie around the city and while we were headed north on the 101, I found myself saying...I lived here…and here and over there.  Katie asking questioningly…so did you move every year you lived here?  Pretty much.  I guess it’s my style, although I am gravitating towards trying to plant some roots…well, maybe someday.
Nonetheless, having guests meant you were usually taking a trip to the wine country.  I am not typically someone who goes where everyone else does…and Napa is where everyone goes. Sonoma is a close second, however, one night is well worth it, especially since I was late calling for lodging and unable to find a room for Saturday night.  Thankfully, the kind man who took my call, so graciously made an exception on the two-night  minimum. 
The town was full and rightfully so…this time of year is harvest season.  Really, the best time to go and Sonoma is located in the heart of one of the world’s premier wine producing regions.  The scenery is amazing and the central Plaza compliments the area and creates a visual beauty that certainly made me feel like I made the right decision having us stay for one night.  There are a lot of unique boutiques, wine tasting, spas and five-star restaurants. 
I had heard of The Girl and The Fig and knew a reservation would be tough to get.  Luckily, coming from the Midwest and asking for a table at 5:30pst we may have seemed more like blue hairs than the regular diners.  We got lucky.  I can’t say enough about this fabulous place and the memorable meal we had. 
First of all, they seemed so excited we were there and anxious to fit us in.  They happily guided us through the bar area to the outdoor courtyard and seated us right in front of the brick fireplace. 
Personally, I am all about where I am sitting in a restaurant.  It can make or break the entire experience for me.
Do not sit me near the kitchen…I can hear the staff complaining about their tables, the clanking of the pots and pans and the mad rush back there until you hear them collect themselves as they walk through the door bringing out the food.
Do not sit me near the bathroom…you can imagine why.
Do not sit me next to the waiting area…it could be the worst place to sit, actually.  People listening to your conversation…hawking your food or giving you stink eye because they have been waiting too long for a table.
Wasn’t the case Saturday night…it was perfect!  I loved every minute of it!
We decided to share everything since it all sounded amazing.  They started us with olives soaking in oil and we ordered a cheese platter with some sort of apricot, cherry jam on the side.  WOW!  We moved on to a half pound of steamed mussels and an arugula fig salad.  We were speechless. I can easily say it somehow got better.   Tender steak with garlic potatoes and a flounder so flakey it melted in your mouth. 
THEN!!!!  This…this…chocolate torte with caramel baked inside that oozed out when you dug in…and…it was served with cinnamon ice cream!  You know I’m a connoisseur of desserts with a sweet tooth that does not steer me wrong and well….this was over the top! 
YOU SIMPLY MUST GO!  You can safely interpret that as me screaming that advice to you.  I CAN NOT wait to go back.   
I had suggested we return to the hotel and get in the hot tub…or light the log and listen to music while sitting on our cute deck overlooking the pool while sipping some wine and catching up some more…
What really happened was we were all so fat and happy we basically crawled in bed from exhaustion… traveling is hard work.  Maybe we really are more like blue hairs than I thought!   
You can be sure of a couple of dad would have loved it...I had an amazing time celebrating...I will definitely go back and I won't be wearing that dress! (Note to self: dress not flattering while sitting for a picture)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

We took our hearts to San Francisco

Off the Cuff has been off the grid.  I apologize.   I knew October would be a tough month to get through and I let a lot of things go that I wished I would have had the motivation or strength to get through but I didn’t.   Although, I had no idea how difficult the entire year would really be, I finally feel myself emerging and celebrating...slowly letting the underlying sadness that seemed to envelope me drift away.
Vee and I discussed earlier this year that we would go to wine country to honor our dad and dedicate that weekend to one of his passions in life – wine making, eating and being with friends.  Since I spent ten years in the Bay Area and Marin County I took the lead on planning.  Over the next several days, I will break down how we lifted our wine glasses in remembrance of our wonderful dad and how we will never forget his spirit. 
In a nutshell, Katie, Vee and I started in Sonoma, cruised through Yountville, St. Helena, Healdsburg and enjoyed the final day in San Francisco spending time with some dear friends of mine. 
What a special adventure and one I will never forget.  I am looking forward to sharing it all with you. 
Our dad's name is Doyle...we met up with Katie's cousin for coffee before we headed to the airport yesterday.  How serendipitous that he worked on Doyle street and we sat at the Doyle Street Cafe?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Twice within the past week I have been asked that very question.  Twice I’ve replied, “I’d like to go places…take pictures and write about it.” 
The reality is…I go a lot of places.  I take a lot of pictures.  I write about the experience…right here on Off the Cuff.  Am I grown up?  I hope not.  Do I get paid to do it?  No.  Does that question mean…what do I want to do when I get paid to do what I love?  I hope I just do what I love because I love to do it. 
It’s an interesting question isn’t it?  I know you’ve been asked and I wonder…how did you reply? 
We’ve all also wondered...who am I?  Am I doing what I want?  Am I living my best life (that is so Oprah)?  And I guess the easiest way to ask it is to find out what someone wants to be…when they grow up.  I want to be me…whoever that is at the time.  I hope I’m always trying to find out.  I hope I’m always changing.  Learning.  Exploring.  Sharing.  Loving.  Etc. Etc.  I hope for you too. 
If you haven’t figured out something about me…I like change.  Once I get one place my mind is already thinking about what is next.  What haven’t I done? What else can I do? 
I may not currently travel to exotic, far off countries or take award winning photographs or write profound articles or get paid to do any of it….but I am doing something I love. 
What do you want to be when you grow up?  I’m curious.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Catch my yawn?

Warning, you may yawn after reading this! 

On my recent trip to Vermont my boss caught me yawning a few hundred times at our conference.  He was like, ‘geesh, Mel, is your brain over-heating?’  I said, ‘what are you talking about, Richard, is my brain overheating?’  His theory on why you yawn is that it means your body needs to regulate the heat in your brain.  I had never heard that…have you?  So, I decided to research it.  Here is what I now know.

Today we know that a yawn is a reflex of inhalation and exhalation that draws more oxygen into the bloodstream.  A reflex is a built-in physical reaction that people often do not have control over. I have tried to stifle my yawns but it looks awkward and people know what you are doing.

A yawn is also often associated with a person being tired, but this is not always the cause for a yawn. People yawn for many reasons including stress, boredom, emotion and over-work.

Conference in Vermont = stress (check), boredom (check), emotion (check?) and over-worked (check).  I will let Richard believe my brain was over-heating though in lieu of the aforementioned real reasons.

Haven’t we all wondered why yawning is contagious? I found out that there have been studies on if people really catch a yawn. Kewl study.  You start catching yawns when you are approximately four years old. Please note I said, catch a yawn...not just yawn.  There is a difference.  Friends with children less than four…please just yawn at your kid as many times as you can and see if they yawn back.  Apparently, they won’t.  Let me know what you find out so we are able to confirm this.

Also, autistic children won’t catch a yawn until even later because of developmental processes.  Btw, these are theories and I am only telling you what I have read so take this for what you want.
I also found interesting that in ancient times, they say that it is a form of bonding and a sign of empathy. What? A sign of empathy?  I don’t understand that one.  You tell me you are sick and I yawn?  Weird.  That is more like rude!

Some of the more scientific explanations of why we yawn are caused by physical needs. The deep breath helps replenish the levels of oxygen in our blood. Now I am wondering why the level of oxygen is low in my blood?  (Make a note to self to do more research-I'll add an addendum).

Another common theory is that the yawn helps to regulate our body temperature. (I think this is what Richard meant…not that it regulated my brain temperature) Other hypotheses suggest that the same chemicals in our brain that affect our moods and emotions cause us to yawn. (hmmm…I think he just lumped these theories all together and made up his own)…I better just forward this paragraph to him to help clear this up. 

I cover my mouth when I yawn…if I’m around others.  This is a courtesy, right?  Who wants to see the inside of my mouth?  However, I found out that a common superstition says that a person must cover his or her mouth when yawning so that the soul does not escape through the mouth.
And, other superstitions say that yawning is a sign danger is near. I like this.  I may have to tell my friends that from now on…if I yawn…it means there is danger near!  It may make life, on an otherwise dull day, a little more exciting!
Even animals yawn!  How cute is Oliver?
Wow...this conference looks about as exciting as mine was...

This doesn't look like the place to be either...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fruit Safari

Hand-picked apples…wagon ride…pony trot…all on a beautiful, sunny afternoon in southwest Michigan. 
Back country roads full of changing leaves and the smell of burning piles guided us on our day trip adventure to hand pick apples. 
Tree-Mendus Farms in southwest Michigan was such a cool place.  Apparently, they grow over 250 varieties of apples and harvest September through October.  Who knew there were even that many to choose from? To name a few they offered; Golden and Red Delicious, Cortland, Jonathon, Empire, Mutsu (I wanted this one just because I liked the name), Gala, McIntosh, Fuji, etc.  The only apple they didn’t have was Honey Crisp; my all time favorite.
 I couldn’t remember the last time I went apple picking, so when Katie asked me to go along I was excited!  At first I thought to myself, will they let me just pick…I don’t know…say 5 apples?  What am I going to do with a bucket full? 
Let’s face it…there are a million things to do with apples.  I will undoubtedly eat a couple, my Dr. Oz shake requires one…I could make caramel apples…I could throw some at my neighbor when he leaves for playing his music too loud...I could make a home-made PIE…I could have a party and we could bob for apples…I could make applesauce!  It’s really endless, right…just be creative.
The wagon ride was really fun and the guy driving had us flying through the orchard.  I am surprised my Tree-Mendus picture of the sign wasn’t a complete blur.  The girls each took a pony ride and we ended the adventure in the country market.  It boasted a variety of fruitful products including, cider, honey, apple butter, maple syrup, etc.  I picked up some home-made jellies for my brother-in-law.  He said they were to die for and I believe it. 
The four of us on the wagon ride headed to pick apples!
Cheeeeseeee....CUTE!  LOVE this pic and love Josie's smile!

Evie picking some Red Delicous!

Our buckets are full!

Look at that tail!  Gorgeous! 

Applesauce?  Carmel apples?  Pie?

Great day with my friends!  Thanks for including me!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

All work and no play

Vermont has always been on my list of must see states.  In fact, it is my plan to land in Maine and drive my way down…over…basically, weave and zig zag my way through that side of the country.    One day.   So you can only imagine when I heard I was going to Vermont for work this time of year, I was ecstatic.  I had thought about trying to coordinate and stay for the weekend to maximize the sight-seeing but didn’t pull it all together in time. 
Nonetheless, I was so thrilled about going, I created a laundry list of things I wanted to do. 
Brew tours, Lake Champlain boat cruise, tour Ben and Jerry’s ice cream plant, hang around Church Street Marketplace, visit The University of Vermont, stop by a winery and see Stowe Mountain name a few. 
I guess I forgot the reason I was there.  I had no idea when I arrived at the conference and had the agenda put in front of me; these people were here to work.  Here is an idea of what the agenda said.
7:30 Continental Breakfast (this was more like fill your plate, find your seat and eat while we start)
8:00 – 9:00 – New member introduction – 15 minutes each
To spare you all of the interesting details – 9:00 – 5:30 all about window coverings and eat through lunch and then they forgot the breaks! 
6:30 – Dinner with group
Uh…excuse me…when is the boat cruise?  Can we go on the infamous ice cream tour for dinner instead? 
Good grief…when do I see the state?  These people had no interest.  So, I fit it in.  I got up early and walked to Lake Champlain, an amazing 121-mile fresh water lake enveloped by the Adirondack High Peaks to the west and the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east…breathtaking and worth the early morning rise.
Then, as fast as my feet would take me in my heels, I walked to Church Street Marketplace and soaked up the 19-century, art deco red bricked area.  If you can imagine…it was lined with shops, bars, restaurants, street vendors, live music and great people watching.  The University of Vermont is nestled in there and it was fun to see the college students decked in Vermont sweatshirts with backpacks riding their bikes to class.  I managed to knock a few things off my list all before 7:30 am each morning.  It was the perfect way to start off my day.
I also convinced Richard to blow off the group dinner the first night and go to an Irish Brew Pub and sample some beers. 
Friday after the conference was over boss man wanted to catch an earlier flight back.  (Thankfully, the airline had oversold the flight and there was no chance we were getting on)  He was planning to stay in the airport and work.  What?  Are you kidding me?  Richard…PUH-LEASE!!!!  Can we go to Stowe Mountain Resort and have lunch or something?  I’ve just logged 40 hours in 3 days!  So we did!  The trees hadn’t quite changed but there were pockets of golden yellows, oranges and reds that were stunning.  I was so grateful to see it and the weather was amazing.
We drove by Ben and Jerry’s but didn’t have time for the tour.  Boo. 
I won’t be checking Vermont off of the list.  There is still too much I missed.  In fact, you should add it to yours if it’s not already on there.  It is a beautiful part of the country.  All kidding aside, I am grateful for my job and that my boss is a cool dude.  It makes traveling for work a little more fun than you can only imagine it could be.
Lake Champlain
Stowe Mountain Resort

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Way I See It

I love these little quips on Starbucks hot coffee cups.  Perhaps, eventually they can put them on the cold ones; it's all I drink.  I especially liked this one.  Stop saying, "I wish" and start saying "I will."  Kind of applies to so many things, doesn't it?  Today, do something you wished you could.  Because you can.  And you should. 

This is morning I'm headed to Checagou...this afternoon I'll be in New York and this evening I'll be in Vermont.  I don't land back in Checagou until Friday night.  I hope I'll get the chance to post but I may not.  I am so excited to see Vermont, I've never been!  Although it's work, I'm definitely planning to cruise around the area on my down time.  Have a great week everyone! 

Btw, eight days to vote!  Thank you for supporting me!