Archives for category: Both Good and Bitter

Trip: Caltrain home from Menlo Park, Friday evening at 10 PM

At work, we talk about how mobile is the new cigarette, how we as a modern Western society are as addicted to an instantaneous connection as one used to crave nicotine in one’s blood when one woke up in the morning. Fun fact I’m not proud of: at the end of high school and on and off throughout College, I smoked. Never a lot, and never in front of my family (hi, Mom!), but I smoked. Brisk walk towards a history seminar? Cigarette. Just punched out a 10-pager a week early and feeling good about myself? Cigarette. Awkwardly exploring a party I was only stort-of-kind-of-not-really invited to? You bet your ass that’s a cigarette.

I landed at Princeton an inexperienced 18 year old from Canada, with a shaved head, a guitar and huge fucking chip on my shoulder. Smoking was my self-proclaimed solace, the thing that differentiated me from all of the other A-Types around me, people smarter and more charming and more focused than I was. Smoking made me a rebel at the first time in my life I had ever desired to be one, and connected me with fellow textbook-dwelling revolutionaries who harmed their bodies in order to feel different, together. Note: if you ever want to get anything done in a theater company, you’d better have lungs of steel.

For some reason I thought about this while waiting for the train in Menlo Park. I’d just come from a networking event with hundreds of people, copious wine, and more pitches than a no-hitter (ed note: I’ll never try a baseball joke again, I promise). I actually had a good time: despite how PR-y this sounds, I get a high out of meeting new people and hearing their stories. Where other people see an impermeable wall of strangers, I see massive story potential (see The Simpsons, Streetcar The Musical: A stranger’s just a friend you haven’t met). Ben doesn’t like it when I’m in what he calls “Marketing Mode” because it reminds him of a light switch: on, and off, and on, and off. While I understand how a huge grin, a loud greeting and a burst of undimmable light can be frightening, I love it. I honest to God love people, and I adore networking and meeting new friends.

But after the smiles, the greetings, the cocktails, after the sun sets over the Northern California hills and an unfamiliar-to-Silicon-Valley chill sets in, making you wonder whether you should don your bag-wrinkled sweater, the desire to head north and head home sets in. After saying your gracious good-byes, dodging a few drunk intros and lingering shop talk, you bum a ride from a kindly new friend, and end up at an empty Menlo Park Caltrain station, counting the minutes until your train arrives and you can be one step closer to home.

It’s here I grab my phone, as I used to grab my pack of Menthol Ultra Lights (I know, I know). I feebily flip through twitter, looking for a mention, or a meme, or a scandal or something. I check messages, I call home. I find myself on the map, I check the train schedule. Head at my hands, I read work emails at 9 PM on a Friday, to hear voices and get that rush of adrenaline that comes with a problem to solve, a crisis to avert. I make a few calls, check in with my folks, or with Ben, or with my voicemail.

I was tense in college, a recovered [insert eating disorder], a full blown anxiety addict. Princeton was overwhelming, knowing that I knew what I didn’t know was crippling. I missed home and I was afraid I’d blow the chance of a lifetime. To calm myself, to get away, I smoked. I walked right into the middle of the quad and smoked like a Pariah. TAKE THAT, I thought, ALL YOU WITH YOU FIGURED-OUT LIVES AND FRIENDS YOU’VE ALREADY MADE CAN KISS MY ASS. I smoked to get away, while using it as an excuse to justify why I wanted to be alone.

Tonight, the train approached the station in that rather timeless literary train-like fashion. Lights steadily encroached, the whistles sang in perfect harmonic dissonance (serious question: do they mean to do that? because it’s awesome) and the steady thump of engines slowed and stopped in front of me. Not that I would have enjoyed any of this a few minutes prior, as my face was buried in my phone.

Now I’m on the train, and I instinctively got out my computer to check my email, but there was no wireless to be had. Instead, I write, for whomever and no one who reads these words, returning to the habit I had before smartphones and cigarettes and irony and anxiety. I write to connect with something, if only for a minute.

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I like food, a statement which should come as no surprise to the 20 people who read this blog. Having dealt with body issues and insecurities when I was younger, moving to San Francisco made me abandon my obsessions and restrictions; food, and the various industries orbiting around it, is king in this town.

One dining aspect I most respect about San Francisco is the lack of pretension. Only in SF can you get a stellar, well-prepared meal made from locally sourced ingredients for under ten bucks on your lunchbreak. Good food is a default in the city by the Bay, and I’ve come to take for granted just how creative, ambitious, and downright freaking crazy food professionals are in the town.

That being said, it isn’t always gastric nirvana in jeans: the money that trails the tech industry in this town, not unlike a whiff of My First Cologne after you pass a teenager on the street, brings with it the very worst (to me) in dining. I’m talking puffed up menus, $20 “bar nibbles”, drinks that cost more than parking, assholes who insist on telling you why a shiraz with the wild rainbow trout JUST WON’T DO. Specifically, I’m thinking of the vast experience chasm I experienced between Dixie in the Presidio and Mission Chinese Food in, well, the Mission.

Let me start by saying that YES, I know I’m late to the praising Mission Chinese bandwagon. I know it’s old hat, and the hipsters have new chefs to gastronomically idol-worship, but I don’t give a shit. It was damn freaking good, every moment. We endured a thirty minute wait (super short, so I’ve been told) and from the moment we walked in the door and our nostrils were assaulted by the capsaicin hanging foggily in the air, I knew I was home. No need for a faux-foodie review on this one: it was spicy, inventive, had a point of view, was delicious, and was seriously well priced. Ben and I left with enough leftovers for 2 dinners, all for $50 or so. With beer. That’s a good deal.

Part of the reason we fell so heartily for MCF and have proceeded to order delivery from them numerous times since is how it’s all about the food and not so much about how the restaurant wants you to perceive the food. Yes, the Kung Pow Pastrami was a bit of a mind fuck, but who cares? It rocked! While I didn’t adore all of the dishes, I knew what the the chef wanted to say, and I appreciated that: I like when I can tell that a real live human has crafted a menu.

So rewind back two weeks beforehand. It was a foggy, misty San Francisco Saturday, and Ben and I were struggling to find a place to eat. Having no reservations, I consulted my go-to source that makes me look more “with it” than I am and found Dixie in the Presidio. Hmmm, I thought, I like soul food, the pedigree of the chef is impressive, hey there, they just opened and we should support local businesses! Having scored a seating in an hour, we got ready, called an UberX (BEST THING SINCE CREATION, if you ask me), and made our way out into the mist.

My business is schmoozing and I went to a pretty fancy school, so normally I don’t get uncomfortable in fancy situations (you should see me rock a dinner party) but I tightened up the second I walked in the lobby area. There was something, something I couldn’t describe or point out, something that made me think “shit, they’re going to find out we’re frauds”. What I mean to say is that I felt like the other-side-of-the-tracks significant other meeting the country club parents for the first time: out of place but trying really hard to pick the right fork. The lighting was low, the decoration was modern lodge chic-ish (or was it? I really felt I couldn’t stare for too long), and the clientele was… how do I put this…. not of my social status?

I guess what bothered me the most is not the fanciness (I’ve had the pleasure of being treated to insanely fancy meals that were comfortable and laughter filled), what bothered me was the insistence on making comfort food seem fancy, that there was some inside joke I didn’t know about.

Thing is, when we were laboring over our choices on the menu, the couple sitting next to us, an impeccably dressed older gentleman from Brussels and his much younger (and gorgeous) companion, ordered the tasting menu. I must reiterate, I’m not hating on the structure here, I’ve dropped at least a third of a month’s rent on a tasting menu and ate Kraft Dinner to make up for it. The elements didn’t irk me: it didn’t bug me when they waiter overheard the man’s french accent and did his best to converse in his native tongue. I thought nothing of it when they brought out a bottle of St. Emilion that sat firmly in the two hundred dollar range, and the gentleman remarked on what a bargain it was. It wasn’t an issue that the service seemed eager but uneven.

I was flabbergasted, however, when they brought out the first course for the couple next to us: a hush puppy covered in caviar. There, the delectable hush puppy, the very same hush puppy that a moment before we’d enjoyed as an appetizer, sat forlornly on a plate, adorned with a pile of inky eggs, not unlike a British bearskin hat. The couple raved over the dish and proceeded to dig in.

What bothered me, what made me absolutely wish we’d stuck to our favorite pizza joint, or taco place, or Indian Curry Pub, was that there wasn’t anything inventive on that plate that I could see, only wealth heaped upon a humble dish. Now, I didn’t try the dish mind you, and I’m no caviar aficionado, but I cannot imagine that the little fish eggs on top of that puppy actually elevated it to fine dining.

And maybe that was my problem: I don’t eat at “fine” establishments often. Maybe I’m not the target audience for such a dish, or an establishment like this – after all, I’m not a startup billionaire, descended from the Rockefellers or a member of MI6 (OR AM I?) Maybe my palate doesn’t understand the intricate flavors the caviar brings out in the hush puppy. Maybe I’m not meant to “get it”.

But then I remember back to wonderful meals/experiences I’ve had at stunning places – marveling at the details of a foot stool for your purse and perfect plating at Del Posto, saving up for three months for an eight course tasting menu that lasted until 2 AM at Babbo, insisting we try pounded beef heart and lamb tartare, and realizing I’d been pushed out of my comfort zone and loved it at Incanto, catching a rare non-busy day and experiencing the epicness that is the pasta at Flour and Water, washing down the peanut butter bacon burger and thai chile hotwings with a Rio Grande at 15 Romolo, the absolutely epic meal I ate after watching its creation at my hometown’s own Petite… restaurants that were welcoming and warm, no matter how expensive or not, chi-chi or not, for other people than me or not.

and let us not forget fish eggs used well, for all I could think about at Mission Chinese when we plunged our spoons into uni custard topped with roe, a perfect little cup of salt and brine and sweet and depth and acid and oh my god how is it possible that I love this dish as much as I do… how each deliberate component on that plate served a purpose and made every bite a weirdly wonderful trip down a memory lane that wasn’t mine. How nothing was wasted, nothing was showy, there was no “wink wink” or sleight of hands. So maybe I get it: all I could think of was THAT is how you fucking rock a fish egg.

And it was under $10, which is 1/7 the cost of the aforementioned Caviar Hush Puppy tasting menu.

Have I ever told you that I once went to a summer camp for gardening? Oh yes. That. In addition to the badminton league I was in and the curling lessons I participated in, it sums me up in a nerdy little nutshell: I went to gardening camp.

Sure, it was a day camp at the local Golden Acres Garden Sentres (oh yes, they spelled it like that, and it fricking infuriated 8 year old Amy. I loved – and still love – rules, like spelling and refusing to talk down to children for cute’s sake). There, I learned all about annuals and perennials and fertilizer and how my hometown had a 2 month growing season and how all we could do is grow plants indoors if we ever wanted anything resembling kitchen herbs.

After said gardening camp, I promptly forgot this information, and went back to plotting how I was going to win a Tony AND a Nobel Prize at thirty (ed note: she’s still got 1.5 years!).

Anyways, fast forward a couple of decades, and Ben and I are standing in the succulents aisle at Home Depot in San Rafael, determined to turn our shared, neglected roof deck into a leisurly paradise worthy of coverage in Gardenista. Unfortunately, we had no clue what we were doing.

Ben grew up here, in the land where everything grows despite the fog, and if you let it go it will take over your home and assume your apartment lease and possibly steal your SSN, or something like that. A land where palm trees are a nuisance more than anything, and where a plant left unchecked will actually AFIX ITSELF TO YOUR CEILING. Like, for reals, plants will do that in Northern California. Where I’m from, roses need to be “bedded” (cue saucy whistle) in August to avoid the frost. Here, they mutate and multiply and have their own reality shows. There was no way I was going to win this war.

Back to home depot. In California, where things grow, I wander aimlessly, touching leaves, smelling lavender, generally resembling a frat boy encountering his unplanned offspring for the first time: curious, but not quite ready to take charge. I resort to my best habit, namely wondering a bit-too-outloud about what to do. Within seconds, a fellow shopper proceeds to take a full 20 minutes to explain exactly what to expect. When I mention something about “the lavender’ll be ok, right?” she eyes me up and down. Obviously, this product of the Great White North doesn’t quite understand what to do with greenery. With unsolicited-but-much-appreciated advice in hand, we part with a couple of hundred bucks and fill the Mini with plants.

Now, move forward a couple of weeks, and I’m sitting on my roof glaring at the lavender. It seems Mr. Lavender is having nothing of this unseasonably warm San Francisco weather and laughs at me, as he goes in and out of green health and borders on brown, or wilts, or stands tall, or gets blown over by the wind. Ben suggests we should toss ’em and start over again, but the competitive A-type eight year old is rearing her overzealous head. I shall beat you lavender, oh yes, you shall live and thrive and attract bees from hives that bear their name on top of Tony’s Pizza.

Tune in next time when I talk to the Cacti. That post’ll be a scream.

Don’t ya just feel like a dog in a cone?

I feel like I go through these periods of self-motivation and self-doubt, ups and downs that inspire me to ambitiously attempt to train for a marathon (didn’t complete), sign up for a stats class at Berkeley (got an A), or decide to give up gluten for tummy comfort reasons (it’s a daily struggle, given my love of bread). I remember the time when ambition didn’t come from willpower, but instead from lack of choices – there was no option other than to complete a pre-determined path. Now, not so easy to see the trail in the woods, and I often stray, lured by grand adventure or Game of Thrones.

The idea of “tricking” yourself into being awesome appeals to me, because, hey, that’s all I used to do in my previous  life. So why not now? Why can’t I get back into the younger mentality of speaking without fear of judgement, singing at coffee shops despite my lack of instrumental talent, or writing because dammit, it’s something I like to do?

Here we attempt a daily writing update a day, once again. Tried before, failed before, but willing to dust off and try again, because who cares? Really? Just me and my self-censoring late-20s ego. So to my Mum, and the three other people that read this thing: dust off your RSS feeds, because you’re about to get a daily dose of awesome.

See?!? I MADE BREAD!

Look, let’s get one thing straight. I am a tried and true, born and blue Calgary carnivore, raised on Prime Rib and dreams. I had a vegetarian phase in high school that lasted six weeks, and then I abandoned it. The one thing I loved about going veggie, however? BREAD.

Hi, I’m Amy, and I’m a breadaholic.

Back in October, I learned how to bake the Sullivan Street Bakery recipe for No Knead Bread, and it changed me. All of a sudden, I wasn’t Amy who can’t make a cupcake with a gun to her head – I was a BAKER. For a holiday party in December, I made a batch, and delighted in every guest who exclaimed “oh my God, you made this?”.

That was, however, before my doctor suggested I may have a “gluten sensitivity“. I’m 27 and my body was rebelling –  my allergies had gone haywire, my weight was fluctuating despite regular trips to spin class, and frankly I was feeling pretty icky. She suggested I go a month without gluten to see if my body responded – well, that and a new ultra badass and sexy allergy medication (oh yea!). 

So there we have it – nearly halfway through my gluten-free experiment and so far, so good. I’ve been using 21habit to forces myself to commit to sticking with it – yes, I’m so cheap that a dollar a day motivates me. I also have great, healthy coworkers, and lots of places near me where I can grab a salad, and now I have to be very aware of what I mindlessly snack on (I’m hoping this focaccia-free foray proves fortuitous for my fanny – awkward alliteration FTW).

Which brings me to my final thought: Paxti’s Gluten Free Vegan Pizza is actually really freaking good. This, of course, comes from a bread loving meat eater who might (no judgements) be addicted to carb consumption and is current cold turkey. Still, I’m pressed I would even consider it a pie I maaaaaay nearly crave after too many manhattans.

Onwards!

Walking around near our apartment the day after New Year’s Eve, I noticed more than just the occasional crusty upchuck on Stockton and bleary-eyed revelers catching cabs at 10 AM (sartorial note: the light of day does not forgive sequins). Most pressing, nay shocking to me was the shuttering of our go-to dim sum restaurant, Gold Mountain.

I’m no dim sum expert, but Gold Mountain had everything we looked for in a local place to eat in the morning. Often, Saturday or Sunday morning presented a challenge, namely that I crave food at that time and my better half does not. Despite my hankering for poached eggs and toast, the block and a half long line at Mama’s in North Beach seemed crazy to me (IT’S JUST BRUNCH I want to yell IT’S NOT WORTH WAITING  FOR THREE HOURS) and besides, he dislikes breakfast food anyways, so two and a half years ago we ventured forth to Chinatown for a solution.

Dim sum solved our breakfast/brunch problem: it’s not typical eggs-and-starch, it satisfies salt cravings, and it can be inexpensive (fun fact: my favorite dim sum dish growing up, according to my mother, was duck’s feet). This is how we happened upon Gold Mountain – although I love occasional trips to Yank Sing when family is in town, I’d much rather partake in cheap and cheerful bites off carts in Chinatown. Gold Mountain, on Broadway, was less busy than other large establishments but a  better environment than some of the hole-in-the-walls on Stockton. No matter what we ordered, we’d get out of there for $20ish for two, stuffed to the gills with Shiu Mai and Bao.

I guess you know you’ve lived in one area for long enough when you encounter a shuttered favorite with a sad sign in the window stating that their lease is up and you are genuinely surprised. There’s a twinge of sadness, an exclaimed expletive, and then a chuckle. It wasn’t because it was the best meal you’ve ever had, it wasn’t because they treated you well or recognized you when you came it: it’s because that’s where you went regularly, it was familiar and dependable and it’s where you went.

Walking around today, I see more papered storefronts and “closed effective immediately” signs. I guess this happens on the first of the month more often than I notice, but I’m seeing it more today. Out with the old…

Weather over the Grandstand #stampede

It’s been a steady pace to keep my steps between these cracks on Broadway
And my stride in rhythm to the beat of home, sweet home
-Alison Krauss and Union Station

I sang that song at my high school graduation – looking back, it was a rather macabre and melancholy choice, but one with more foresight than I could have imagined. The photo above is rather ominous, but I had to include it – it captured the Stampede Grandstand before it got a summer deluge. I’ve been home for the last week for my dear friend’s wedding, and the happy storm that is the life I left in the Bay Area is being usurped by dry, crisp air and the occasional prairie thundershower.

Coming home used to be a scary thing. I left Calgary to go on new adventures and start anew, and coming home meant a break in pace, and the fear of running into folks I’m afraid I’ve let down. It’s a funny feeling, to be in your hometown and worry about seeing faces of people long forgotten, or at least relegated to the back corner of your brain that holds awkward adolescent memories and painful breakups.

I told this story to someone at the wedding over the weekend: When I was in Junior High, I thought it was silly that the boys had to ask the girls to dance, as it was inefficient. As a result, I was often the sole seventh grade girl asking the boys to dance. One dance mid-way through the year, however, all I got were nos. A no from every boy I asked. As it later turned out, those boys had made a pact to say no.

I don’t know why I just wrote about that. This post seems to be coming off the rails.

Slowly, this city is becoming mine again, with every visit I am more comfortable in my own skin and better equipped to run into those faces that scare junior high me. It keeps getting easier to come home, even when things are uncertain. For good measure, here’s that song I was referencing:

Here comes the rain again
Where I come from, weather connects everyone. Discussing the latest blizzard was an instant icebreaker – did you have to dig your car out today? How’s that burst pipe treating you? Can you believe we’ll be in the -30 deep freeze through the weekend? The slightest chinook brings about city-wide glee, and the summer thaw elicits ecstatic exclamations about patio season and finally being able to throw out your pantyhose.

Moving to SF, I assumed this sort of weather-centric conversation wouldn’t happen – what does one talk about in a mild climate? Oh no, another day of 60 degrees and partly cloudy skies? After a few months, however, I swiftly realized that talking about the weather is a sport here in Northern California, and every degree change or afternoon of fog can fuel many the post-work happy hour. To some, it’s always cold. To me, it’s always lovely, though the threat of precipitation and chill during June and July puts a damper on my over-enthusiasm.

Walking in to work today, I could smell the rain rolling in. The air smelled fresh and cold (growing up in Canada, one recognizes the scent of COLD), and the wind whipped down Lombard from over Russian Hill. Heavy and dark clouds hung above me, and my new purple rainboots waited to do their job.

Rain is falling now, but I had to capture that moment before the deluge, before the  heavens open up and the streets are washed clean, the anticipation of change and cold and wet and cleansing.

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Had an awesome conversation over tapas and beer at Thirsty Bear with an in-from-out-of-town work associate who asked an interesting question – what is that one thing about San Francisco that makes it, well, San Francisco? Other cities have defining characteristics- Boston has red brick buildings, higher learning, and history. New York has multiculturalism, Times Square, and a pace that overwhelms outsiders (including this little Wayfarer who only made it a year in 2007). Calgary has cowboys and the Rockies. London has style, sexy accents, and cobbled streets. Berlin has grit and dichotomies. Toronto has New York envy (I kid, I kid). San Francisco, he argued, has too much of everything.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been relatively blessed in my life in terms of on-time flights, and have rarely found myself with a delay of over 30 minutes to an hour. This, combined with my nearly obsessive insistence on being 2 hours early to the airport, everytime, means that I have become comfortable with leisurely going through security, taking a gander at the tabloids in the bookstore, and seeing how many kleen kanteens I can pound in order to stay hydrated on the plane.

Today, I had to be even earlier than I normally am, and went to check in to my flight 3 hours before. As I checked in, I discovered that the flight was delayed… by three hours.

The name of today’s game is “how much work I can do while sitting on the floor of YYC”. It’s a good one.

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