Sunday, October 23, 2016

Purposeful Project: Hobbies

One of the cruel tricks about being an adult is that having fun sometimes takes work.  (But you also get to eat cake for breakfast as an adult, so it kind of evens out.) I used to get annoyed by the question, “What do you do in your free time?” because I never felt like I had any.

The thing is, I have started to realize that I do have free time, I just don’t see it that way because I feel like the things I spend time on are obligations, even though I’m still making the choice to spend my time that way. For example, I would have a lot more “free time” if I stopped spending time with friends and family, exercising, purchased more pre-made foods, and quit my love/hate relationship with DIY projects. (Side note: I never realized people don’t DIY everything until we moved into this neighborhood. Pretty sure I’ve never seen anyone else holding a tool, and we are always cleaning paintbrushes, sanding, or sawing something in the driveway. We’ve started to get a bit of a reputation as “the project people”, but it’s actually a great way to meet neighbors.) However, if I didn’t choose to do those things with my time, I’d also probably be less healthy and wouldn’t enjoy the accomplishment of conquering a tasty dish or installing tile, so I really am spending my free time how I want - it’s mostly that I just want more free time so I can get to the things further down my priority list, things I deem as “hobbies.”

I just started my "Purposeful Project" in September, in which I pick a different area each month for the next year to be more intentional about. This month, I picked “Hobbies” because this is actually one of the hardest areas for me to be purposeful with. I’m not talking “hobbies” like what I described above - exercising, cooking, or cleaning, which even though I enjoy (mostly because I like the results), are is easy to justify spending time on. Rather, I mean the things that are purely for fun. I’ve let things I enjoy slide, thinking I’ll get back to it when things “slow down,” which I’ve come to realize may be decades away. It’s hard for me to make time for these things because I feel selfish spending time in ways in which I'm the only beneficiary. However, the more I learn about how our brains work, the more convinced I am of the need for rest, enjoyment, and time to let your mind wander. “Play” helps the “work” times be more productive, and maybe you could even make the argument that being happy makes those around you more happy, so it’s not totally hedonistic. Plus, if I’m on the go all the time, I eventually burnout and end up useless anyways, so I may as well balance out the fun stuff to begin with. Work hard, play hard, or something like that.

Your hobbies may look different, but for me I specifically wanted to focus on music, blogging, and painting. In order to implement the principles I made the following resolutions (relevant principle in parenthesis):

Take an art class (learning) – Reuben talks a lot about how learning new things and mastery of something contributes to happiness. While I will likely never master painting, I do agree that learning is really enjoyable to me. Plus, you enjoy things the more you gain a mastery of them. Chasing after a tennis ball all the time isn’t as fun as when you have the skill to have a steady back and forth volley. Learning really does make me feel like I am conquering two birds with one stone – entertaining myself and educating myself. I don’t think of it that way, but when I started to reflect on the fact that I often choose nonfiction books, podcasts instead of music, and documentaries over sitcoms, it became pretty evident that I should make learning a big part of my principles. (Don’t forget, a parallel principle is to be yourself, so if you aren’t a nerd like me, embrace whatever it is you do enjoy!) I’ve often talked about taking an art class, but always found a reason why I didn’t want to commit the time or money to it. The city I live in holds classes on all sorts of things, and they usually send the course catalog in the mail twice a year. On a whim I looked an art class up that only lasted 5 weeks and wasn’t all that expensive. Because I looked at the very beginning of September, I had just the right timing too since the class started the week after. It is a watercolor class, and although I normally paint with acrylics, I figured I could still learn a lot, and really, it was the perfect timing.

Results: This was fun, and I learned that watercolor is way harder than it looks. I skipped one out of the 5 classes since it was the night before we went out of town and work was busy. Overall, I am glad I did it, and now I have all these watercolor paints to practice with.

Spend 2 hours a week painting (organization) – especially when it comes to discretionary ways to spend time, I knew it wouldn’t happen unless I made a specific goal and carved out designated time. I never spend time on these hobbies because there’s usually something more pressing that has to get done, or weekend schedules aren’t always consistent. I decided the one time every week I kind of had free already is Sunday morning. We usually go to church at 10, so never schedule anything for Sunday morning. I love Sunday mornings sleeping in, drinking coffee while I putz around, usually on the internet, but the quietness of the time also made it the perfect time slot to schedule some creative time.

Result: I’d give myself a C on this task. I did paint for 2 hours one Sunday morning, but the other mornings in the month of September, I was either sick and slept in, or only spent 20 minutes prepping for my watercolor class.

Buy music every month (nagging task) – I used to carefully curate playlists, felt like I had the perfect song for every moment, and loved discovering new sounds. My sister and I could basically have a conversation using only song lyrics, and while part of my love for music was mixed with all the emotional zeitgeist that is high school and college, I still loved music. I came to the realization recently that all of my favorite songs were made before 2006. First, I now understand why my parents just kept listening to 80’s music growing up, because that is me now! Second, it’s kind of because I stopped really caring enough to buy music that I liked. You would think that in this digital age, where you can buy one song at a time, buying music would be easy – hear a song, like it, buy it. But I then either forget, or overthink it (i.e.: feel like I have to listen to the whole album to decide if I want to buy that, and then just give up). Hence, the fact that I actually need to make this a resolution. Yes, it cost money, but I kind of have a built in “allowance” for this. For better or worse, I have an Amazon Prime subscription and buy most of our non-grocery items that way. Amazon has a shipping option where if you choose the slower option, they sometimes give you digital “credit.” So I really have no excuse to at least buy a few songs a month.

Results: I did pretty good with this, even though I only bought music once, but one was my goal. I really liked a song we sang in church, so on the drive home, I added it to my Amazon wish list, and bought it next time I made a purchase.

Listen to more music at home (mindfulness) – So really, buying new music isn’t going to do me any good if I don’t listen to it! It’s become a bit of a ritual for me to play a song once I get into work as I’m booting up my computer and settling in. It’s just one song, but it’s been a fun way to start the day. Though it can be a little bit more of a challenge to find music Jason and I both like, I think it’d be an easy way to set a fun mood at home too.

Results: I did awful with this. I think I only played music twice the month of September at home. One thing I did realize is that I often assume Jason doesn’t like some of my go-to music genres (think women singers and 90’s punk), but that really isn’t the case. “I wouldn’t listen to this, but I don’t mind it,” Jason said when I made an excuse for playing Regina Spektor in the car one day. (He said he still does not like the Beastie Boys, so I guess they will stay confined to running music.)

Blog more (organization – and hey, now you have this blog post! Win win!) – Years before I even started this blog, I loved the idea, but never wanted to pull the trigger because I didn’t want to start something I’d give up on. Well, I started, and I kind of gave up over the past couple years – exactly what I was trying to avoid. But I always mean to blog more. I’ve always enjoyed journaling, writing, and feel like, at least for a while, I can start committing some brainwidth to blogging again. As with the painting, I just needed to make time for it. So, once a week on my commute, I bring my tablet on the train and just write. And I’m doing my best to stop taking so long with the rewrites, edits, and other time-sucks that have kept me from blogging, and just hit “publish.” So apologies in advance for the less-polished posts, but I am seriously always surprised and flattered to the point of embarrassment that anyone would bother reading anyways!

Results: I actually did stick to the writing once a week on the commute part. I just didn’t account for how long it would take me to write each post, and more importantly to post it to the internet. I would probably not make a good reporter.

So! That was my first month. Not great, but not the worst. I think one reason I did worse on the daily goals such as music is that 1) it has not yet become a habit, and 2) I still don’t have a great system for making it one. I made a spreadsheet, but unlike my to-do notebook which I look at daily, I put the check sheet in my closet and never once looked at it, much less checked anything off.

One final note, Jason has been amazing with all of this. He fully supported me signing up for the art class, making time for myself, and his practical help around the house truly is the main reason I can even attempt to spend a bit of time on "fun" stuff. He wouldn't do his own "project," but he also doesn't crave the goals and organization in the first place like I do. Hmm... I may need to reflect on this more when "Marriage" month rolls around!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Whole30 Part 3: Results

I had this post totally written a few months ago, it just took me so long to post it! See parts 1 and 2 of my Whole30 experience here: intro, recipes.

Whole30 has come and gone. It’s good it didn’t last much longer than 30 days because I was beginning to crack. The real stressor is that you think you are done after the thirty days but the reintroduction period can be about two weeks that you mostly still have to eat Whole30. It’s like you cross the finish line of the marathon, but have to run 4 more miles just to get back to your car. I kept fantasizing about the foods we were going to eat and it got harder and harder to resist. For example, the night before “dairy reintroduction” day, we had a little ice cream, since we were about to have dairy the next day anyways. 

I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to do the reintroduction, but it seems like you can isolate affects of the various food groups best if you add only one restricted food in on one day then go back to whole 30 for two days, then add in the next restricted food group. We did it as follows:

Day 1 – legumes: I added garbanzo beans to our lunch salad and we ate chicken chili with beans in it for dinner.

Result: at the risk of sharing too much information, legumes caused major gas, at least for me.

Day 2-3: whole 30

Day 4: Non-gluten grains: rice with lunch and dinner

Result: About 30 minutes after eating, I was so sluggish. It was like I had just taken a Benadryl, I was ready to take a nap. The funny thing is, while I definitely noticed the energy decrease after eating the rice, I don’t feel like I noticed an energy increase that everyone talked experiencing while on Whole30, but maybe it was just more of an absence the post-lunch food coma that often drives me to reach for coffee too often during the work day.

Day 5-6: whole 30

Day 7: Dairy: yogurt for breakfast, then Greek chicken salad, the chicken was marinated in yogurt, the salad had feta and tzatziki.

Results: We both got stomach aches. I had actually experienced these sharp stomach aches before, part of what prompted me to go on whole 30.

Day 8-9:whole 30

Day 10: Gluten – toast for breakfast, spaghetti and meatballs for dinner

Result: it could have been because this was a weekend, I didn’t feel the tired effects as strongly as I did with the nongluten grains. I definitely felt more bloated the next day though.

Day 11-12: whole 30

Afterwards –

A friend asked what I missed the most. I think it was different things at different times. I always say I crave butter more than sugar – hard candy I can go without, but I always baked goods like cupcakes or cookies. I also missed yogurt a lot. I had gotten into the habit of having a yogurt smoothie in the mornings (yogurt & milk or kefir with lime, a dash of cardamom and teaspoon of maple syrup – so satisfying!) so I missed that. Jason missed pasta at different times, though cravings came and went for him too. 

There wasn’t a “reintroduction day” for sugar, but I guess we did it on day 13. Adding sugars back in was really a shock to my system, and amazingly, it wasn’t as satisfying as I kept day-dreaming about. I ate a mini key lime tart one night and felt like my teeth were disintegrating from all the sugar. I then got a headache afterwards. This happened for probably the first couple weeks any time I had something with sugar. Don’t worry, I pushed through and can now consume copious amounts sugar without the headache! Really, I do try to tone the sugar way down in recipes, or have a smaller quantity, as I don’t need as much to satisfy my sweet craving anymore.

Alcohol also had a much stronger effect. (At least for the first few weeks) I truly felt satisfied with just one glass of wine, or splitting a beer with Jason, plus, my tolerance had taken quite the dip, so smaller quantities of alcohol were best.

Over the course of the 6 weeks, Jason, despite his best efforts lost 7 pounds, and I lost about 5. After we ended the diet, Jason used the word “lighter” to describe how he felt while on it, and I guess he literally was. Another difference that I’ve noticed now that I’m back to “regular” food is that my skin was great while on Whole30 – I don’t think I had one pimple (in real life my skin hasn’t gotten the memo that I’m past adolescence).

We’re glad we did it, though we’re mostly back to our regular diets with a few tweaks. One of the most rewarding parts of it was that I feel like I was really able to recognize my bad habits, especially dependence on sugar and caffeine. It was a huge struggle at times to try to content myself with dried fruit when I really wanted a brownie or cupcake, but it really revealed my somewhat emotional relationship with food, such as the feeling that I needed a food reward after a hard day. It also has helped me to pause before eating “junk” food to consider whether I really want it, or if I’m eating something just because it is there or out of habit. I try to cut back on carbs for lunch since we both feel better that way and am much less dependent on my afternoon sugar fix.

One of the biggest changes is that I no longer drink my coffee with cream. I cut it out since dairy isn’t allowed and at the same time Jason started roasting his own coffee. So I kind of got used to having good coffee and was really disappointed to find that milk just deadened the coffee flavor so much that I really preferred going without it. Plus, because we both had slight dairy reactions, it has been a good way to limit dairy. By the way, the no cream in my coffee is a huge deal for me as my preferred cream to coffee ratio was about 1:3, and when I really wanted to be high maintenance I’d put in a blend of milk & cream. So now I’m just high maintenance about the kind of coffee I drink and try to convince myself that I am not a yuppie even though Jason and I converse about coffee as if it were wine – “Hmm.. I’m getting hints of blueberry and a smoky aftertaste.”

So, that is the end of our Whole 30 experience. I think it’s worth trying, especially if you want to try to improve how you feel, and potentially improve your overall health. And if you are going to try it, I raise the glass of red wine I have been drinking to you!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Purposeful Project - Intro

I read something once about a study on anxiety. A group of student who had a test were measured for anxiety levels. The students who had actually studied, predictably, had lower stress levels than those who hadn’t. But the really interesting thing is, that student who had not yet studied, but made a study plan, also had lower stress levels. So, I came up with a “study plan” for the next year. I’ve mentioned it on Instagram so wanted to explain a little more.

I read Gretchen Reuben’s The Happiness Project while we were in Indonesia (I know, I know, I built up the suspense in my last blog post and then only posted on Instagram about our trip. I haven’t even begun to go through my “big” camera photos!) It was a nice mix of actual studies and her own experience trying to be happier. She had a different focus each month for which she would create “resolutions” to try to follow. The impetus came to her when she was riding the bus with her children and realized one day the kids would be grown and she feared she would look back and realize that amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, she never stopped to just enjoy the unique and precious years. While it can sound a bit selfish to focus on our own happiness so much, Reuben takes the perspective that it really isn’t. Much of happiness is tied to relationships, being generous, and other outward focused aspects of life.

While not everything she said or did resonated with me, I do so often have the experience of wondering where in the world the past few months or years have gone. I always feel busy but am never sure what I’m so busy doing when someone asks what I’ve been up to. Like Reuben, I'm grateful to have a life that is relatively free of major challenges. I am happy or at least have every reason to be, but whether it’s the competitor in me – "She did this project, so I can too." – or just the desire to be more deliberate about areas of my life, I decided to do my own “Happiness Project.” However, I don’t really like calling it a “Happiness” project, because I’m a little less focused on happiness, per se, than she is. It's more that I want to know I’m doing things purposefully and not just reacting to whatever life throws my way. I hate saying that “I want to get more into…whatever” for years on end and not doing anything about it. So I’m calling this my “Purposeful Project.”

(Side note: When I read about how someone else gets their life organized, it stresses me out, because I feel like I need to do it too. I don’t want anyone else to feel like they have to do any of this. One of Gretchen Reuben’s big themes is “Be Gretchen.” In other words, know yourself, and know that it’s OK to do what works for you. Things that make some people happy won’t necessarily make you happy. I think if I had little kids of worked multiple jobs or had some other major happening taking up a lot of my mind and time, I would hopefully have been able to feel the freedom to say, “This project is not something I want to spend my time or mental energy on. I need to cut everything out to focus on my kid/ job/ whatever without distractions.” So I hope you feel that freedom too.)

I know it’s not the beginning of the year, but September always feels full of fresh beginnings with the school and fiscal year just starting up, so I figured this is as good a month as any to start. I sat down over labor day weekend to make my plan for the next nine months (I figured I could take the summer “off”.) I tried to start out by thinking about some “principles” I want to keep in mind for each goal. In asking myself the questions Reuben recommends, what makes me happy and what makes me unhappy? I tried to start out by thinking about what makes me happy and what makes me stressed out.

After writing out the things I want to work on, I realized that what makes me happy is feeling organized in the sense that  I narrowed down a few positive things (organization, learning) and negative things (wasting time, nagging tasks) to use as a framework for determining my monthly goals. I really like lists, so found it insightful when Reuben said what helped her most was her resolutions list which she used by to measure her progress each day. Using the template one her blog, I made my own spreadsheet, though must confess, now that I’m partway through the first month, have been horrible at checking it.

So that is the background of my “purposeful project.” I feel a little self-conscious about focusing on myself so much, so quick, let me know about your goals or what you thought of the book or anything!

Friday, April 22, 2016

TIA take two - This is Asia

“Oh wow,” or “Interesting,” were probably the most common responses I got when I told people we were going to Indonesia. You know, in that way that people say when they think how much they would never want to do that.  It was usually followed by, “Why Indonesia?” Usually I responded by telling people that Jason just wants to go wherever he can get the biggest culture shock. This is true, but not the whole story. Ever since I’ve known him, Jason has been fascinated by the Indonesia. When he mentioned Southeast Asia, I initially had looked into countries like Thailand and Vietnam, but those were a little too on the beaten path for him.  I didn’t know much about Indonesia, but the more I learned about Indonesia, the more it seems like it’s got everything rolled into one country, or rather, over 1300 islands.  It’s got beaches, mountains, volcanoes, temples, coffee, diving, orangutans and komodo dragons.  I told Jason I just wanted to go somewhere “colorful,” and this definitely qualifies.  It had everything I wanted to do, so worked for me.  Honestly I’m a bit intimidated, but if I learned anything from driving a rental car across South Africa and leaving it behind during a flood, it is that going out of your comfort zone can really be rewarding, plus I kind of felt like if I don’t do it now, I never will. 

So here we are our foray to Indonesia, or more specifically, in Tokyo on a layover.  Before booking tickets, we had to figure out where exactly we wanted to go.  The problem is, there is so much to do that we felt like would either have to cut something out, be on a plane every other day or make it a three-week trip. I guess we failed, because we kind of chose all the options. We are cutting out a few things (such as climbing Mt. Bromo & Ijen), taking a lot of flights, and are still going to be gone for three weeks (yes, our bosses are amazing).  We’ve been saving our leave and our pennies for a while, but are still trying to do this on a budget.  The good news is that Asia is an amazingly cheap place to travel, so it’s kind of do-able.  (Also, if you follow me on Instagram, you are probably laughing, because somehow a year’s worth of travel got condensed into the month of April for me. I couldn’t really help the dates though as it was mostly travel with friends. Like I said, my boss is amazing.)

The first step was applying for credit cards that would make our flights free. Jason and I both applied for the Chase Ink, which is a business card.  We will be using it for our rental house expenses, but you could apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred as well if you don’t have a legitimate business. The bonuses weren’t quite enough to get us to Asia (80,000 miles) but I regularly use another Chase card, so in addition to some strategic purchases we made it. 

Because we were waiting for points to post, work and optimizing scuba diving weather, it ended up that we only had about 6 weeks between booking the tickets and leaving.  It was a really busy month, so combined with the short time frame means I’m not as prepared as I’d like. For real – we only booked the last hotel three days before we left.

So we’ll be gone for three weeks and we’ll be going to hike the jungles of Sumatra, see the temples of Java, dive through the waters of Komodo, and sit by the beach in Bali. We’ve got a few nights in Singapore and Tokyo on the way back and I DIDN’T EVEN BRING THE GUIDEBOOKS for those cities.

We were watching a movie the other night and the guy just bought a plane ticket to another country.  All he had was a suitcase, no plan, no return date.

“I would love to do that, just show up without a plan and go,” Jason said. 

“I feel like that’s what we are doing,” I told him. Because in my mind, having so few plans is almost the same as having no plan. But I’m trying to embrace it. I think with all the information out there on the websites, I can often suffer from fear of missing out (also known as “FOMO”). I prefer to research every possible option to make sure we are seeing all the top sites, eating at the recommended restaurants, and staying at the perfect location. And while I do think that some kind of plan is good to have, it can personally be a hindrance and keep me from enjoying where we actually are, if I spend the whole time worried about where we could be instead. 
I kind of feel like I’ve made a good start of embracing things as they come by paring my luggage down to a quantity that could fit in a carry on.  Mind you, I put it I a big suitcase, even though it could have all fit in a carry on.  I would have made a good boy scout as I prefer to be prepared – I still asked Jason if I should bring duct tape, but this is progress for the girl who once packed 30 shirts for a week.  In fact, before the tickets were even booked, I told Jason that this trip I was going to say “yes.” As in yes, to an invitation to join new friends for dinner. Yes, to spontaneous adventure. Yes, you can pray for us – I’m not good at spontaneous yet!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Napa in Three Days

My name is Sarah. I am not an alcoholic. I felt like I needed to state that since I'm about to tell you that we spent a week centered around beer and wine. It actually is a trip we took last year, but I just never finished writing it up.  However, we were at another winery in Maryland this weekend, in the drizzling rain, standing in a cellar full of oak barrels and wine that smelled of roses, and it made me nostalgic for Napa, what I think was the best smelling trip I've ever taken.  Naturally, then I asked Jason if we could retire to Napa, and he said, of course not, we can't afford it. So while my plan of retiring to wine country may be on hold, I'm just going to take a moment to relive the time that we were there.  It all started two years before the trip when I was chatting with my friend Rose about our upcoming 30th birthdays, and we decided we should take a trip to celebrate. I can't totally remember how we landed on Napa, but it probably had to do with fact that we were drinking wine when we decided. Do you know what we did for Jason's 30th? Nothing. I think he was out of town for work. Worst wife ever.

So after ten years of flying Delta every once in a while, we had enough points to cash in for tickets. Not enough points for a direct flight or a flight at an ideal time, but still the right price. 

Here on the East Coast there is a growing wine region in Virginia, where tastings are $10, weekends are crowded, and there are maybe a few dozen wineries in a half hour radius.  But on the coast that actually uses the words "gnarley, stoked, and tight," wine, not just the vocab, was totally different. It was quite overwhelming to narrow our top choices down when there are over 400 wineries in Napa. Tastings often require appointments weeks in advance and fees averaged $30, with some more like $70 if it included a tour of beautiful grounds and snacks.  And just like most things in California compared to the East Coast, wine out in Napa was in a totally different league than cheap bottles we get from Trader Joe's (God love 'em!). To be fair, we've loved the wines, views, and options in Virginia, but Napa was definitely more of an experience - cave tours, food pairings, and carefully curated art collections just to name a few of the attractions.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't have a chance to narrow down top picks until the flight out, much less two weeks. Also unfortunately for me, money *is* an object, so we only visited wineries that were lower priced (many of which I found a coupon for!) and took same-day reservation or walk-ins. Thankfully because we were there in early April, mid-week, it was easy to get into tasting rooms and restaurants. It really was a great time to go because it was warm without being hot. I also heard winter is a good time to go to avoid crowds. Summer and fall are the busiest seasons in wine country. 

When considering where to stay, I learned about the various towns within the Napa area. I wanted an area that we could walk to dinner, and even though we went with Downtown Napa, Yountville and St. Helena would have qualified as well. I think Calistoga would have too, but we never stopped in. 

Napa (the town) was the biggest and cheapest of the towns in the greater Napa region. They had the most hotel and dining options, but it was also the furthest (really only 20 minutes or so) from most of the vineyards. We stayed here at the Blackbird Inn, though the Westin Versa and Andaz hotels were highly recommended.

Yountville was beautiful. The sidewalks bordered pristine gardens, charming homes, and world class restaurants - all with the price tags to match.  We did stay here the first night at the Maison Flourie, and I'm glad we did. Our bodies hadn't adjusted to West Coast time so we went for a jog at 6 am, just as the previous night's rain was tapering off.  I never knew a scent could be so strong as to permeate the entire block without being a bad smell.  The two main streets were full of blooming roses, which, mixed with the fresh rain and warm baking bread, created the most wonderful smell. I've been sitting here for ten minutes trying to think of a way to describe the smell and can't think of any way to describe it that wouldn't be redundant, but it made me want to live there, it was that good. We were also surprised at how clean it was, and because it's me and Jason, this led to a discussion about the correlation to income. (The economist in me wonders why trashy streets appear more as average income decreases. Does it have more to do with the resources available or with characteristics of the residents? Does owning vs renting matter? And then the part of me that loved Captain Planet as a kid wonders why anyone would leave their trash outside at all. Also, "heart" was definitely the least exciting super power of the show, Captain Planet. What does that even mean?)

Maison Flourie Dining Room - because traveling West is the only time I will naturally get up early enough to catch such beautiful light.

I think if we go back I'd like to stay in St. Helena. The downtown was a little bigger and had more casual dining option (read: cheaper) than Yountville.

I also wish we could have experienced the hot springs of Calistoga, where I heard there's more of a Western vibe, but oh well.

We stayed at a local B&B chain, while we were out there.  It was actually our first time doing the B&B. I always thought staying there involved a curfew and an awkward family style breakfast with strangers trying to make small talk. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the homey feeling, lots of personal space, and delicious food (breakfast *and* happy hour!). Turns out, we were the ones making awkward conversation. I'm still not really sure if you are supposed to say good morning to the other guests, so I would usually alternate between feeling so rude for ignoring someone's entrance and feeling like a busybody when my attempts at conversation resulted in guests furtively looking into their laps and quickly resuming their original conversations. Of course, this might have just been me. Other guests responded way better to things Jason and our friend Jesse had to say. The conclusion is, I'm usually doing the opposite of whatever is socially appropriate.

So now that I've explained my impressions of the area and how we got there, I'll get onto the important thing: where we ate and drank.

Have you ever heard of the French Laundry? Ok, maybe I actually hadn't either. But it's been named the best restaurant in the world amongst all sorts of other awards.  We also didn't go there. It was vacation, but we couldn't spend the week's budget in one spot. :) Lucky for us, Thomas Keller also has two other places in Yountville, where we stayed the first night: Bouchon and Bouchon Bakery. We ate at both. While it wasn't the $225 per plate of the French Landry, Bouchon was certainly still a treat for us. I was impressed by the impeccable service and it was definitely a place you'd want to book reservations a couple weeks out. Since Jason has been making more pasta, we were curious to try it from a reputable source. We shared the gnocchi, even though it was an appetizer, and the pasta bolognese. The gnocchi was amazing - really the best either of us ever had. I think it was ricotta gnocchi with a light butter sauce and root vegetables. The pasta bolognese on the other had, while it wasn't bad,  I honestly thought my bolognese and Jason's pasta were better. They had favors from the bakery on the way out the door, which was a nice touch. I am also very proud of the self-restraint I showed to only grab one.
Day 1:

Our experience during dinner that first night was good enough to go to the neighboring Bouchon Bakery to pick up lunch sandwiches and pastries before heading out. (Also it helped that our B&B was in walking distance.) At the bakery I had what they named a "TKO" for Thomas Keller Oreo. Oh man. They are really very different from an Oreo - not as sweet and much more chocolately. But they are so good I've tried to make my own twice in the two months we got back. Jason, aka "the dough man," could have stayed there all day to watch the bread makers behind the window.

The wineries, while not exactly walking distance, were mostly close together. Armed with carbs and my spreadsheet, we ventured off for some wine!

Hall was first on the list. A giant rabbit sculpture signaled the beginning of the driveway, and fragrant flower beds led the way to a modern glass and concrete building on one side and a sculpture garden on the other.  My aunt had recommended it, but I hadn't realized there were two tasting rooms until later. It turned out fine, since the one we went to in St. Helena didn't need reservations, and the one in Rutherford required reservations.. I mean re$ervation$. Honestly, everything we tasted was amazing. We spent well over an hour savoring the tastings as we strolled through the art and took in the mountains from the patio. Can you tell it was my favorite? (Wine, art, and flowers!) While the wines weren't cheap, they also were right in line with the prices elsewhere in Napa.

Our next spot, Round Pond Estate was recommended by a few books. We heard they had a patio for picnics, but unfortunately it was only if you bought their food. The view out the food side was much more scenic than what we could see out the tasting room windows. So we ate our sandwiches that we packed from Buchon Bakery in the parking lot, which made me feel even more like an imposter in wine country, pretending to be a wine aficionado. 

Let me tell you what I did like about this place: the winemaker. They had just opened a couple bottles of their rose for the season - so new they weren't even available for tasting - and the winemaker was pacing around in his boots and marmot jacket providing samples to the staff. 
"Do you want to try some?" Young and bearded is not how I pictured winemakers to look.
"Sure!" I hesitated, "We're not members." 
"Great! I'd love to hear your thoughts." He was so enthusiastic, I was relieved to be able to pick out one of the unique additions to the wine, which actually was my favorite there - and also only available to members. 

So... this spot was good, but not really a "must-see."

Another recommendation from my Aunt and Uncle was up next: Orin Swift Cellars.  Have you ever heard of "The Prisoner"? It's originally was this guy's wine. Just a tasting room in downtown St. Helena, I think I liked the designs of the brand better than the wine itself. The labels themselves are works of art, Chinese book pages served as the floor covering and one wall was made from a ship hull. I didn't love all of the wines, but there were some true gems to be had in a wide range of prices. (Actually, I think some bottles were the cheapest I saw the whole trip.)

This picture also serves as the label for their "Palillon" wine. "I've seen other people try to take the same picture," our buddy, Jonathan, said, "but their hands aren't worn - in a beautiful way - from year of work and winemaking."

Unpretentious, no reservations required, and also the cheapest tasting fees of the trip ($10) - I loved it. Our pourer, Jonathan, a former chef, was easy to chat with and gave us my favorite eating recommendation of the trip.

Our good fortune and our monetary fortune (aka the day's travel money) ran out though at the next spot. A few guidebooks recommended Clos du Val. While the patio was somewhat nice, a rainstorm drove us into the generic tasting room. We didn't like any of the wines, the pourer was somewhat crass, and to add insult to injury, it was our most expensive stop of the day. We kicked ourselves for not leaving at the first signs of terrible, and called it a day.

Clos du Val.. at least it was pretty

Our base for the next few nights was the Blackbird Inn in downtown Napa. A sister B&B to where we stayed in Yountville, the grounds weren't quite as pretty, but it still proved to be a great spot. On the edge of the main strip, it was a 10 minute walk to both the main dining streets, and an amazing taco joint where real residents eat. Plus, if you pay for it using gift cards from Costco, these B&Bs really were the best value for something in a moderately priced accommodations in walking distance to eats.

Our friends Rose and Jesse arrived just before dinner at Norman Rose Tavern, recommend by our chef friend at Orin Swift. He said they often have Pliny the Elder on tap, which for the uninformed is a beer by Russian River Brewing and (one of) the best IPA(s) in the country. Part of me cringes that I care to note it.  Why did we care? It would have been like letting my dad down if we didn't get it. Really, after living with my dad, I could totally win Jeopardy if the categories were: American craft beer, 70's Rock, and "Physics is phun!" 

Remember I said our luck ran out? Pliny the Elder was in fact not on tap and the remaining beer options were average. The food was good, though the appetizers and desserts shined brighter than the entrees.

Jet lag made us pretty tired most nights, and our since idea of "nightlife" is going out for ice cream and being home by 10, that was about all the excitement we could handle for the day.

Day 2:
I'll start with the food. We ate at the Oakville Grocery for lunch. It was more of a cafe that sold tons of amazing specialty grocery items plus wines. I do have to say, my Reuben sandwich and Jason's chicken salad sandwiches were more flavorful than Thomas Keller's sandwiches from the day before. I wouldn't call it my favorite meal, but if I could transplant one eating spot to my neighborhood, this would have been it. 

My favorite meal of the trip was that night's dinner spot, at a Spanish tapas joint, la Taberna. Some of the best ordering advice I've heard is to order something that scares you or is unfamiliar, as those tend to be the dishes that best showcase a chef's talent. La Taberna is exactly the kind of place to follow that advice! Octopus doesn't scare me, but my mid-western boy rarely goes for it. He was glad he did here. A lively atmosphere and wonderful local beers on tap made us glad we snagged seats while we could.

Wineries that day included Cakebread Cellars, Miner family and Paraduxx, all of which had buy one get one free tastings in the app. (Read the fine print though, we couldn't use the coupon at Paraduxx since it was after 12 noon.)

Cakebread was nice so I'm really not sure why I didn't like it more. We were big fans of Alejandro, our pourer, who gave the four of us a private tasting in the courtyard while teaching us the history of the winery and Napa itself. The wines were all good, and the atmosphere was nice, but it was kind of a production, and I hate when the pourer is waiting on me to finish my taste. Makes me feel too rushed. I guess I answered my own question about why it wasn't a favorite.

Miner Family Vineyard was Rose's favorite of the trip. We went before it got crowded, took a seat on the patio overlooking the valley during the tasting, and just sent the guys in for the next wine. I remember their Syrah being outstanding, but only because we bought a bottle.

Paraduxx was a beautiful setting. The views weren't spectacular, but it was more of a cozy setting with couches set up under the trees. I loved that they poured all the tastings at once so you could go at your own pace. I've heard similar reviews about their sister winery, Duckhorn.

We went mostly to places that were red wine focused. There were a few places whose specialty was sparking wine that I kind of wish we went to, but ran out of time. Mumm and Domaine Carneros were all recommended.
Day 3:

Maybe the one place we went to for their whites instead of reds was Grgich Hills. I can't even count the number of guidebooks or people who referenced the movie "Bottle Shock." (Seriously, is that main association everyone has about Napa? I finally saw the movie maybe 5 years after it came out.) Anyway, the movie focused on the Chardonnay from Chateau Montelena that won the judgement of Paris. So now that winery is a bit of a tourist destination. I'm still a sucker for historical experiences, but instead of fighting the crowds there, I thought the better strategy was to go to follow the winemaker of the winning Chardonnay, Mike Grgich, to his winery, Grgich Hills. And let me say, yes, the Chardonnay was wonderful, and we were only slightly disenchanted to learn you can buy it all over the country. (Sidenote: the Cabernet at Stag's Leap also beat out the French wines during that event, the "Judgement of Paris." I would have liked to go there too, but ran out of time.)

Because we had gone to Hall the first day without Rose and Jesse- and honestly because we loved it so much but hadn't bought anything the first day- we went back to Hall. Yup, still loved it.

We hit Gott's Roadside in St. Helena for lunch that day. There was definitely a fun drive through diner vibe and the food was fresh and tasty. I was kind of tired of heavier food so enjoyed my salad, but I think the fried and grilled foods is where they really shined. I was tempted by the craft brews on tap, but was attempting this thing called "moderation." I ordered a salad for crying out loud. I regret it.

We spent the next couple hours bopping around downtown St. Helena mostly checking into antique stores or furniture boutiques for "inspiration." I was hoping to score some fun vintagey find like designers do on blogs/ Instagram/ tv/ what have you. I didn't but I also don't look effortlessly photogenic like those home designers do, so no biggie.

Our last winery was Merryvale based on the fact that no appointments were required and it was super close to downtown St. Helena.  I didn't think it was possible, but I think I'd kind of hit my limit for tastings. (Not that I drank too much, but more that it just wasn't as enjoyable as it should have been. Like seeing too many cathedrals while traveling; I think I heard it called "cathedral fatigue" once.) It was pretty, but nothing really stood out about it as memorable.

And somehow I wasn't as amazed as I should have been.

Maybe because we didn't want to end on a mediocre note, we drove the 15ish minutes to Auberge du Soleil, a posh hotel/spa/restaurant with famed views of the valley. Munching on happy hour snacks as the sun sunk was the perfect way to wind down the day.

Our friend Jesse takes some great pictures, so they went off to "chase the light" with plans to meet for a later dinner. We ended up taking a different route home and drove through the neighborhood where non-tourists live I noticed an ugly looking taco lean-to on the side of the road. And if there's anything I know about tacos, the worse the shop looks, the better (seriously, gas stations, unmarked trucks, and run down convenience stores have my favorite tacos). Jason loves me, so we turned the car around, knowing if we didn't I wouldn't mourn this missed opportunity forever (some or all of the logic in that sentence may be faulty). Guys, I love tacos.  Tanya's Taqueria did not disappoint.  They were everything a good taco should be: corn shell, fresh salsa, full of flavor.  I was a little sad to discover them on the last day since they were so close to our hotel.

Real dinner, not my pre-dinner tacos, that night was at Azzurro Pizzeria. Maybe like our experience at Merryvale, I had hit restaurant fatigue, because I while it wasn't bad, it wasn't something I'd go back to. Pro was that they served Pliny the Elder on tap. Con was that they charged extra for extra sauce someone requested.

So that concluded the Napa part of our trip. Then it was off to meet my parents in San Fransisco. This is where the beer portion of the week came in, but I'll have to save that for another post.  Suffice it to say, Pliny the Elder was involved.