Friday, August 31, 2012

And now for something different.

Earlier this week I was sitting in Starbucks, waiting for an afternoon appointment to show up. I settled onto one of the stools near the window, took out my phone and my iPad and began to read the last pages of my book (I picked Gone Girl, by the way—thank you for your suggestions!—and I liked it enough to speed through it, but wasn’t a fan of the ending). But as usual, I got distracted by people-watching: school kids ordering sugary Frappucinos, besuited lawyers from the firm across the street jonesing for their 3 p.m. espressos, pretty young women in high heels ordering skinny vanilla lattes, the smattering of people hunkered down with their laptops and tablets, pecking away at the keyboards while clutching their paper cups.

In one of the leather seats closest to me sat a middle-aged man doing just that. He was wearing a button-down shirt, shorts and sneakers, and his round glasses took turns living on the bridge of his noise and the top of his head. He had a gentle air about him; he looked like he could easily be the doting father of one of the aforementioned Frappucino-ordering children, and his voice—he was talking on his cell phone—was deep, almost booming, but kind.

I’m a bit of an eavesdropper—I just really like to know what’s happening around me—and since I was still waiting for my appointment, and the buzz of conversation and the espresso machines were making it hard to concentrate on my book, I kept my eyes on my iPad but my ears tuned into what the man was saying. The word “headhunter” came up a few times, so I figured he was recruiting someone for his business, whatever it may have been.

But then he said, his voice lower but still loud enough for me to hear, “If they call me in for a second interview, I just want to let you know that I’m not going to be able to dress up for it.” Beat. “Well, I’m living at a homeless shelter right now.”

And it was one of those moments where you just have to pause for a second. Sarasota is known for having a bit of a homeless problem; the city is kind of notorious for not being particularly kind to vagrants, and groups of them often gather to sit in the park across the street from Starbucks (the people with their pets make me the saddest). And you know, and I don’t think I’m wrong in saying this, there are certain stigmas associated with the homeless: dirty, lazy, crazy, drug-addicted. They're sad, they can be a gross generalization and often very misinformed, but they exist.

But this man—this clean, well-dressed man in the sneakers with the kind voice—was, as far as I could tell, just down on his luck. As a young woman who’d recently graduated from college settled in to one of the chairs next to him and started chatting brightly about how she was looking for a job in “sustainability,” he took her through a litany of past careers—a list that began at entry-level and then moved up through the ranks. And I found myself hoping that whoever was potentially calling him in for a second interview would follow through, and that pretty soon he’d be one of the people dashing into Starbucks at 3 p.m. for a quick coffee—to go, of course, because he had to get back to the office.

My appointment showed up not long after, and I couldn’t eavesdrop anymore. But for the rest of the day, I was reminded of one of my favorite things to say—one that I think is so true: Everyone has a story. And you never know what it is.

I really hope he got that second interview.

Photo: Olivia Rae James

Monday, August 27, 2012

Awesome thing: French press coffee.

Last year, sometime in March, I got really sick with what turned out to be a bad UTI (I'm sorry) but that I originally thought was some sort of gastrointestinal issue—I would be sick to my stomach for two days and then recover, only to have the whole process start up again a week or so later. Needless to say, it was not fun.

Wow, if that opening paragraph doesn’t make you want to keep reading this blog post, I don’t know what will. Urinary tracts! Vomit! Yay! (Again, I’m sorry.)

Anyway, one of the days I was particularly sick was after I’d tossed back a huge cup of really, really strong coffee. Here’s a fun fact about me: I like caffeine. I probably like it a little too much. After a cup-and-a-half of coffee, I start to sound like I’m on speed. “How much caffeine have you had today?” is a question I get asked pretty frequently, and it’s usually because I’ve started talking a mile a minute, thanks to the caffeine.

(Side note: Did I ever tell you my nickname in high school was “Speedy”? I gave a presentation in my freshman English class and was so nervous that I plowed through what was supposed to be five minutes of stuff in less than three, earning myself that nickname, which stuck with me for four years. Good times. Also: Oh my God, I need to JUST FOCUS on writing this blog post. Back to the story at hand.)

After I got so sick (again, from what I assumed was the huge cup of coffee I drank right before all the sick), the doctor I went to—even after he determined that the problem was not a gastro thing—suggested I cut back on caffeine for awhile, just in case. So I did: I switched my morning cup of coffee to chai tea and I was really good about avoiding most caffeine at all cost, save for the occasional iced tea every now and then.

But, you know, things change. People change. And more than a year later, I found myself craving something stronger than tea every afternoon at 3 p.m. So I started drinking the occasional latte. Then I started making cold-brew (see: here). And then recently I decided that it would probably be better for my body if I imbibed the majority of my caffeine in the morning instead of in the middle of the afternoon, right on the precipice of that point where the caffeine might cause you to not be able to sleep at night. So I did. Specifically, I did so with a French press. And it was a game-changer.

For years, I cycled through $10 coffeemakers from Target—you know the kind: plastic, white, breakable—and when I started drinking cold-brew, all I really needed was a wooden spoon and a jar. But when I started making hot coffee in the morning again, I decided to get a French press (specifically this jaunty little green one, also available at your friendly neighborhood Target). And it’s so simple and the coffee is SO GOOD. Seriously, I now look forward to the taste of the coffee and not the cream and sugar. You have to pay a little more attention to brewing time with the French press, but seriously: all you do is pour water over coarse coffee grinds, stir and press. Easy-peasy. Coffee, I love you.

Are you guys coffee drinkers? And if so, do you French press?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Blue jean baby.

Question: Do you tailor your clothes?

I am notoriously guilty of not doing this, and as a result have spent my life wearing slightly-too-long pants that tend to fray at the hems and drag on the ground. I have short legs and a short torso, but the petites version of clothes tend to not fit as well as regular, so that—coupled with laziness—is basically the reason for my tailor avoidance.

But then this past weekend I found a really great pair of designer jeans for an amazing price while out shopping. As per usual, they're too long—like, so long that even my highest heels can't help them. But here's the thing: They fit like a glove and are so comfortable. I tend not to buy designer jeans—my go-tos have been Ann Taylor Loft's modern straight-leg or modern skinny styles, which are generally also a touch too long for me—so I could never tell the difference, but you guys: There kind of is one.

So I've decided to take my jeans to the tailor—there's one right up the street from me, next to the dry-cleaner that I occasionally (but not as often as I should) use—and I'm kind of excited to have customized, perfect-fit pants. Is this silly? Yes, probably. But I'm still looking forward to it.

Are you BFFs with a tailor? Or do you make off-the-rack work for you? I am genuinely curious, so please share.

Photo: My current favorite jeansmore Ann Taylor Loft skinniesand my newest shoes, which I've been wanting forever: tropical, bright (!), a tiny bit obnoxious. I love them, and they're on sale here if you do, too.  Also, yes, I am aware of how badly I need a pedicure.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Books! (And: help me decide what to read next!)

I just finished Walter Isaacson's 600-plus-page biography of Steve Jobs—appropriately titled, um, Steve Jobs—and hoo boy, what a read that was. I'd been wanting to read the book for awhile but hadn't gotten around to purchasing it—and then A Certain Someone got it for me for my birthday and I dove right into reading it and barely came up for air.

When Steve Jobs passed away last year, I was surprised by how hard his death hit me—I think it's because I've been a loyal Apple fan since childhood and because every single Apple product I've owned has had an element of surprise and delight for me, from my family's green iMac to my first-generation iPod to my MacBook, iPhone and iPad. Materialistic? Maybe. True? Absolutely. (And by the way, if you haven't watched Jobs' 2005 Stanford University commencement speech, you'll want to do that. Like, right now. I've even made it easy for you: Here's the link.)

Anyway, Isaacson's biography was really good—straightforward in tone, easy to read if a little slow at first, and a true testament to Jobs' incredible, unique genius. It didn't shy away from shining a light on Jobs' notoriously difficult personality, either, which I appreciated and which gave the book its “spice,” so to speak. I also loved reading about Jobs' involvement with Pixar, which I knew sadly little about, and the chapters leading up to the end of the book—and the end of Jobs' life—are genuinely poignant. Jon Stewart was right when he said in a tribute that it felt like Jobs had so much more left to give; there is not a doubt in my mind that he would have continued to amaze and revolutionize the world for years to come. If you're an Apple fan—or even if you're not—you should read this book. I came away so inspired and am trying to figure out how to channel that into something productive.

So now I'm in that interesting predicament of wanting to start a new book but also wanting to read something equally good. I downloaded a couple of samples the other night and can't choose, so I need you to help me (pretty please?). Here's what I'm considering (feel free to add suggestions!):
  • Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. It seems like everyone has been reading this lately, and I have to admit that even the 30-something sample pages I read sucked me in. If you've read it, is it as good as everyone says?  
  • Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Again, have heard lots of good things about this from both coworkers and the Internet, and I'm a sucker for a good "I went to the woods to live deliberately"-esque tale. 
  • The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach. Like a man-goes-into-nature story, I am also a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, and this seems to have that wrapped up. A coworker read this and raved about it, as did my blog-friend Mary, but I've heard it's helpful to have some knowledge about baseball going in or you'll miss some of the story's nuances/references—true or no? (As we are aware, I know very little about baseball, but I still enjoy it.) 
What would you pick? And what great books have you read lately?

Photo of Jobs via Door Sixteen

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Baked! Chocolate-chip toffee blondies.

I've mentioned this before, but one of my favorite things about my job is that I get to meet all kinds of people that I likely wouldn't otherwise. In fact, when I wasn't working there, I felt kind of out of touch with the Sarasota community; I've discovered that I'm pretty invested in this town and I like knowing what's going on in it. Also, I'm nosy.

One of the lovely people I've met through work is Susan of Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy. Susan is delightful: Not only is her blog full of delicious, drool-worthy recipes (most of them sweet, at that—she's a woman after my own heart!), but we went to the same university and we share a love of the written word. I've only had the opportunity to spend a couple hours with Susan, but those few hours included an ice-cream-tasting excursion, if that tells you anything.

Anyway, the other day Susan posted a recipe for toffee blondie bites on her blog, and I immediately took note. I really like bar cookies and I really like toffee, so there was that. There was also the fact that the recipe is ridiculously simple: two cups dark brown sugar, two cups flour, two sticks butter, two eggs, two teaspoons vanilla, a little baking powder, some toffee bits and some salt. Mix together and boom: Blondies. (Did I just say "boom"? I think I just said "boom.") Here's the full recipe if you'd like to make them yourself, and really, you should.

A couple notes: I added a cup of semisweet chocolate chips to this recipe, because why not?, although next time I might go with my trusty Ghirarelli 60 percent chips since they're a little less sweet. Which brings me to my next point: These blondies? They are very sweet. Like, so sweet that if you taste the batter—and you should—you might wonder if you've added too much sugar (you haven't, although I bet you could knock off half a cup, which I might do next time). But they're also a perfect cross between cakey and gooey, they have an intense caramel flavor thanks to all the brown sugar and butter, and they are a crowd pleaser. I took them to work yesterday and not one was left on the plate at the end of the day.

And finally, Susan recommends baking these blondies in mini muffin tins, but I made them in a 9x13 pan lined with parchment paper and everything turned out just fine. I just kept them in the oven for about 30 minutes, instead of the 18-20 she suggests.

Again, here's the recipe if you'd like to make these yourself—if you do, let me know how they turn out. 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Twenty-nine! (Or: What I did on my birthday.)

Before I shut up about it once and for all, I'd like to tell you a little about what I did for my birthday. 

First of all, here's a tip: If you can swing it, take the day of your birthday off work. Hell, take the two days before your birthday off, like I did. There is nothing better—really, nothing—than hearing your awful alarm go off at 7:30 and being able to switch it off, all the while internally cackling that there will be no morning meeting for YOU! (Unless that meeting is with your bed. In which case: Yay.) 

Related: A wise and lovely colleague told recently told me that you should celebrate your birthday in the spirit of how you want your year to go. “Be kind to yourself,” my colleague said, “whether that means spending time with loved ones or just going to get a manicure and pedicure.” I like that, don't you?

Anyway, I was lucky enough to have several birthday celebrations before the actual day itself, which were fabulous. My mom came to town Friday and Saturday, and we had a delicious lunch at downtown's State Street Eating House, an even better dinner at Shore Diner on St. Armands Circle, which has a retractable roof—a RETRACTABLE ROOF, you guys, as well as delightful California-cool decor with a touch of mid-century modern to it—and then a glorious coffee-fueled brunch at Station 400, where I ate a smoked salmon scramble with avocado and dill sauce that blew my mind. Yay, food.

My mom left soon after brunch, and I missed her for about five minutes before it was time to get ready for a gathering at my friend Kate's mom's home on Sarasota Bay. It was a perfect Sarasota summer night—warm, but with a breeze coming off the water that made sitting outside balancing food-laden paper plates on our laps comfortable instead of sweaty—and the company was the best. We grilled hamburgers, made a big green salad, ate homemade ice cream sandwiches made from these cookies, drank tons of wine and laughed and laughed.

On Tuesday, my actual birthday, I  made the executive decision to sleep in, which I'm preeeetty sure is mandatory birthday behavior.  After I finally rolled out of bed and took a long, hot shower, I decided that what I wanted to do that day was eat lunch somewhere on the water and then take one of my favorite drives in the whole wide world: Longboat Key to the tip of Anna Maria Island, a ride that's dotted with colorful beach bungalows and tiny mom-and-pop shops, and features a gorgeous view of the glittering Gulf of Mexico the entire way. 

So we did.

We ate lunch at the Old Salty Dog—grouper sandwich and French fries for me, thank you—and then hopped in the car and ended up, half an hour later, at the Anna Maria City Pier, built in 1911, which boasts an amazing view of the Gulf and a sweet bait shop and restaurant. We walked out to the end of the pier, taking in the view of the aqua water, and then on the way back to the car I stopped to dip my toes in the water—another item on my birthday to-do list that I wanted to cross off. It was warm—at this time of year the water is almost like bathwater—and the overcast sky and calm water made everything feel so peaceful. 

Later that night, after an equally pretty drive back to Sarasota, we went out for Italian, then the rest of the night was spent quietly at home. And I couldn't stop thinking that I had indeed taken my colleague's advice: If my birthday, and the days leading up to it, are any indication of how this year is going to go, I have a feeling it's going to be a good one.

P.S. These shoes and a sweet J.Crew top are also on their way to me, in case you wondering. It's not a birthday without treats, after all. Also, for your viewing pleasure—have I mentioned that I'm now twenty-ni-ee-ne?!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Awesome things: Lush bath bombs and bubble bars.

A few years ago—and oh, God, at this point it was probably six or seven years; HelloI'—I went through a major obsession with Lush Cosmetics. I blame it on my friend Hayley. You see, Hayley is the person who introduced me to Lush and who fanned the flame of a soap phase so intense that I actually, on numerous occasions, drove 30 minutes to Orlando International Airport—the only place within 50 miles, at the time, where it was possible to buy Lush products—to pick up pounds of bath items. I am not kidding. It was bad for my wallet—I was a few months post-graduation and working part-time at Office Depot back in early 2006—but good for my soul (especially because it meant I got to see Hayley). And my skin. I smelled delightful, you guys.

After I moved to Sarasota in September of that year, my Lush obsession quickly faded—it was nearly impossible to get my hands on the stuff; I would have had to drive to Orlando or pay exorbitant shipping fees if I bought online. But I still loved the producs and what the company stands for—they're passionately anti-animal testing and all of their products are vegetarian, if not vegan—and whenever I was near a store, I'd pick up a bar of soap or some other yummy-smelling bath item. I'm not a big bath-taker—I'm much more a shower girl—so using a bubble bar or bath bomb felt incredibly luxurious. I liked that.

Fast forward to a few days ago: I was at the International Mall in Tampa and while ACS attended a business meeting, I (ahem) went shopping. I got a polka dot shirt (of course) on sale at Zara; I browsed the racks at J.Crew...and then I smelled that unmistakable floral scent. Lush was nearby.

Of course, I couldn't help myself, especially since my birthday was the next day: I walked in and headed straight for the bath bombs, wishing Hayley was with me, too. And one huge, round pink bath bomb and a floral-scented bubble bar later, I walked out of the store with a giant grin on my face. It's the simple things, sometimes, isn't it?

I haven't used either of the products yet; they're still nestled in their little bag. I'm saving them for a special occasion. Maybe I'll use one this weekend, and drink a glass of wine and read my new book. Who knows?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A decent wine for under 10 bucks.

I am not a huge wine drinker.

OK, that’s a lie. I like wine. I really like wine. And I love drinking it with my friends—in fact, my best friend Kate and I have a name for our wine-drinking sessions: Vino Sisters. (As in: One of us will fire off a text to the other that says something like “Vino Sisters tonight?”, which on occasion is shortened to a simple “Sisters?”)

What I mean to say is that I’m not a huge wine drinker in my own home. Which is weird. It’s weird, right? I guess I just like the social aspect of drinking—it’s more fun having a glass (or two) (or sometimes three) with someone else, in my opinion.

Anyway, because I tend to drink what people offer me and then buy bottles for wine-bringing occasions based on that, I’m not the best vino recommender. I like sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, and my go-to bottle for both has long been the Cupcake brand. (You better believe it’s because I like the name and packaging just as much as I like the taste of the wine itself.)

But then, a few months ago, my friend Ross—fiance of the aforementioned Vino Sister Kate—introduced me to Anakena sauvignon blanc. I immediately liked it; it was light and flavorful and it went down super smoothly. Plus, there was no yucky aftertaste. Always good.

The thing is, I’ve only been able to find this particular wine at Total Wine in Lakewood Ranch, which is a bit of a trek from my house (keeping in mind that “a bit of a trek” in Sarasota equals 15 minutes) and the reason why I tend to buy the widely available Cupcake pinot when I need a bottle on the fly. But some friends and I decided to have a little birthday get-together last Saturday night—more on my birthday later this week—and I wanted to make sure I brought a good wine. So off to Total Wine I went, and back I came with the last three bottles of Anakena sauvignon blanc in the store (two for the party, one for my actual birthday, which was Tuesday). Each one was only $7.49, and I was excited to see that the Anakena was a Total Wine wine buyer’s pick. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it made me feel happy and kind of like a legit oenophile, if only in my head.

So, yes: If you’re looking for a nice white wine that’s under $10, I highly recommend this one. I have a little left from the bottle we cracked open earlier this week, and you better believe that I’m expanding my horizons and enjoying a glass on the couch tonight.

What are your favorite wines? Red or white, I'd love to know.

P.S. How many times can I type the word "wine" in this post? Winewinewinewinewinewine WINE.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Catching up.

Oh, hey. Seems like for a few days there I forgot I had a blog, doesn't it? 

Anyway, here's a quick update. I'll be back soon with something more.

Reading: I'm about to start The Unbearable Lightness of Being for the first time ever, which is a book I feel like I should have read long ago. (Isn't that the plight of the English major, though—feeling perpetually under-read?). What makes this particularly awesome is that I got my copy at the best bookstore in the entire world: Chamblin's Book Mine in Jacksonville. You could spend an entire afternoon going through the stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks of books. An amazing place, and somehow the fact that my copy of Kundera's novel is from there makes it even more special.

Thinking: About my upcoming birthday. I turn 29 years old next Tuesday and it's a little weird. I'm not freaking out about my actual age or anything, but 29 kind of sounds fake, doesn't it? It's the age that people tend to say they are, even if they're joking and even if they're actually 35. I'm sure I have more thoughts about this, and I'm sure that they'll come out sometime very soon, but for now: 29. Hmm.

Eating: Confession: When I wrote this post, I actually typed it with greasy grilled-cheese fingers. I discovered Ruth Reichl's “How to Make a Better...” series on Gilt Taste a few months ago, and her grilled cheese tips have stuck with me for awhile. So I finally made the Reichl version of a grilled cheese sandwich last night, and it was delicious—cheesy and buttery and comforting. (You should use her tip to add a swipe of mayonnaise to your bread, by the way. That is, if you're into mayonnaise, which I totally am. Also, I've discovered that serving a big spinach salad alongside your grilled cheese completely alleviates Butter Guilt. That's a real thing, you know.)

Feeling: A little shocked that it's August already (!), but otherwise content. Totally content. It's nice, you know?

How are you guys doing?

Photo: My own.