Archive for the 'Good Things' Category

Cookies, and working from home.

Three Girls Bakery in the Pike Place Market has delicious cookies. They taste like they are 50 percent butter, and the texture is a perfect combination of softness, firmness, and chewiness. This is the third day in a row I’ve stopped there for an afternoon snack.

This is one of the reasons I love working at home so much: when I was ready for an afternoon break today I decided to walk through the market to pick up what I needed for dinner and look for stocking stuffers. I also found a good new source of Sichuan peppercorn for my Chinese cooking experiments, Market Spice. All in all, it was so much nicer than taking the elevator down to a Starbucks and back up to my office without going outside or seeing anything different on the way.

I also took a break this morning to try to make my cat ride the Roomba, which obviously is very important and would never happen in an office.

Now I’m just wasting time, and I should either go for a run or go back to work. I suppose this is the peril of working from home, along with never taking a shower or wearing anything but yoga clothes.


Seven reasons to go backpacking.

I go backpacking a lot, but sometimes I wonder why. It involves a number of things that aren’t fun or pleasant, including boredom, discomfort, dirt, exhaustion, and fear.

On a typical weekend trip, we wake up early Saturday morning. We start by walking up a hill for hours with heavy backpacks on. Even the most comfortable pack is uncomfortable compared to no pack. My back is sweaty, my collarbones hurt where the shoulder straps rest, and the waist strap pushes my pants down and makes my shirt bunch up.

Walking uphill with a pack sometimes just sucks, especially at the beginning of the season. A mile and a half or two in I demand that we go home, because I’m not having fun. My husband pretends to agree, and I keep going.

I’m often worried (because worrying is my specialty) that all of the good campsites will be taken due to our late start when we reach our destination. Don’t even get me started on the one time this was kind of true, resulting with a mild altercation with some other campers in which we were most definitely in the right. That’s a story for another post.

There’s snow and mud. There are also bugs, though in Washington bugs are less of an issue than in warmer climes. I can only recall one time when the bugs were stay-in-the-tent-and-cover-every-inch-of-bare-skin unbearable. By the time we reach our destination, I’m sweaty and dirty.

The food is awful. At home, we eat like the most decadent of Roman patricians, aside from the vomiting. We live within 10 blocks of every type of food you could imagine, and I’m an excellent cook, if I do say so myself. But when we are backpacking, we eat freeze-dried food, trail mix, dried fruit, and energy bars—all decidedly boring and unsatisfying.

It’s cold. Year round. Even in August, when I’m camping in the mountains I end up wearing long underwear, a wool hat, and a down jacket.

Sleeping is really just taking a series of unsatisfying naps. I’m unduly scared of bears, so I tend to spend a lot of time listening for them. I find myself getting annoyed that my husband is sleeping and I have to be the one listening for danger all night long. This is ridiculous because a) there is no danger; b) he is probably awake too; and c) I’m not very good at it—the last time we went backpacking, he informed me in the morning that a mountain goat had spent much of the night licking up the urine I had deposited earlier just outside the tent. I had no idea, and he didn’t tell me, knowing it would make me nervous. After years of sleepless vigilance, all I have saved us from is one mouse that was burrowing into our food bag, and some waves on the shore of a lake that sounded a little like a bear.

Even without listening for camp intruders, it’s difficult to sleep. The ground is hard, and if it is below 35 degrees out I’m too cold to sleep well even in my warmest sleeping bag. I have to put my whole head inside the bag to stay warm, which makes me suffocate, at which point I take my face back out and get cold. It’s an annoying cycle that lasts all night long.

So we wake up with gritty eyes and aching heads, down some instant coffee, pack up our camp, put on our packs, and walk some more. Now it’s downhill, which is easier on the lungs but rougher on the knees and feet.

So, why do I go back again and again? Why do I spend March daydreaming about walking along snow-free ridges, and anxiously watch the weather in October to see if I’ll be able to squeeze in a last weekend before snow starts to fall?

 1. It makes small pleasures shine. Like a shower, or a cup of bitter but hot instant coffee, or the faint lightening of the air that signals dawn. One summer, I lived in a tent in Alaska. It was a fancy tent, but I had to walk a few hundred yards to get to the bathroom. When I was nearing the time when I would go back to living in a house, I was deeply excited about the fact that there would soon be a bathroom just across the hall from where I slept. I’m pretty lucky: comfort, pleasure, and entertainment are easy to come by in my life. It’s somehow reassuring to know that even simple things can still, at times, make me really happy. Or maybe it’s the other way around, and I’m so jaded that I need to purposely deprive myself to really enjoy anything.

 2. Even backpacking food tastes amazing when you’ve been hiking all day. Maybe not energy bars. But cheese? A tortilla and peanut butter? Dried cherries? Jelly beans? As delicious as a Don Juan breakfast taco in Austin, Texas after a night of drinking. Nothing in my life has ever tasted so good as the Gatorade and bag of potato chips I consumed at the end of a five-day backpacking trip, standing in a creek, underneath a bridge, in my underwear.

3. It’s good exercise. And exercise is healthy, and makes you live longer, and all of that. I also like to get plenty of exercise so that I can continue to eat all of the food I like to eat without having to invest in a new wardrobe. And, I want to stay fit so that if I get dragged into an Indiana Jones-style adventure, I will be prepared.

 4. It’s cheap. Once you have the gear you need, all backpacking costs is gas to take you to the trailhead and a forest or park permit. It’s much cheaper than going to visit a different city for the weekend, or even staying home. There are no $12 cocktails, fancy restaurants, or spa treatments available in the mountains.

5. It’s beautiful. The mountains, the water, the sunsets, the snow: seeing all that beauty just suffuses me with joy. I literally get choked up sometimes when I’m hiking. I can’t explain why this is a good thing, I just believe it is. There is this idea of flow: the state of being absorbed in and wholly focused on an activity, so that you lose track of time and yourself. Many people believe that spending more time in a state of flow makes you happier. I think experiencing the natural beauty of the world can be a shortcut to the same state, even if only briefly. It’s a way to let go of yourself and, for a moment, be immersed in something big and amazing.

 6. It’s fun to make a home in the wilderness. My favorite part of backpacking is finding a campsite. It’s fun to assess the options and thrilling to find a real gem: a comfortable spot with shelter from the wind, a convenient water source, good places to sit, and a view. Then, with just the pack on your back, you make a temporary home. You are a pioneer or a character in a fantasy novel. It’s greatly satisfying, and, as I’ve written about before, I think it speaks to some kind of primal instinct, developed when our ancestors were hunters and gatherers.

 7. The thrill of discovery. This is the best of all. You’ve been walking for hours, you’re tired and muddy, your pack is uncomfortable, and you were ready for dinner two hours ago. But it’s time to climb the final ridge on your journey, and you scramble to the top in a last burst of energy. Then, like

Stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

 —you get to see what is on the other side. Maybe it’s a lake, or a pass with mountains ranged before you. Maybe it is awesome, maybe disappointing, but it is worth all the discomfort just to find out. Even if thousands of other people have been there before you, it feels like your own discovery.

A tip for packing light while looking good.

As a recreational traveler, hiker, and backpacker, I don’t know how I lived without Icebreaker until I discovered it in late 2008 during a trip to New Zealand.

If you’re not familiar with it, Icebreaker is a New Zealand-based line of merino wool clothing for outdoor and athletic activities and travel. Two and a half years since my discovery, I’ve accumulated four shirts, pants, long underwear, and a dress.

My first buy was a long-sleeved baselayer. I’ve worn it, on average, once a week for more than two years—pretty much every time I go skiing, snowshoeing, or hiking. The only flaw I’ve noticed is a slight tendency to develop small holes from wear. This has happened in the places I’m most likely to tug at it (the bottom of one sleeve and the right bottom side of the shirt). I also noticed a small hole in my Icebreaker pants where I caught them on a thorn while cutting brush on the side of the mountain. Not bad considering the heavy use I’ve put these items of clothing to.

The most striking thing about Icebreaker gear (unlike capilene and polypro) is that it really doesn’t hold smells. At the end of a sweaty day there might be a faint wet-dog aroma, but it goes away upon drying. I’ve tested this many, many times. I’ve worn the same baselayer skiing for two or three days in a row. I wore my sleeveless Icebreaker top on a five-day backpacking trip through 90-plus degree temperatures. It was repeatedly soaked, SOAKED, in sweat, but I could have worn it out on the town the night I finished the trip and no one would have been the wiser. Other fabrics just don’t work like this. (I should say that I’ve never owned any Smartwool, a competing brand of merino wool clothing. It probably works just as well, but I’ve always opted for Icebreaker because I prefer the design.)

As great as Icebreaker clothing is for outdoor activities, it’s even better for traveling. On a backpacking trip, a certain amount of stink is to be expected. You can live with it. But travel is different. I want to fit in and look at least minimally stylish when I’m in a city like Istanbul.

I also want to pack light. I’m more of a budget traveler than a backpacker–I go to restaurants and take cabs, and if I stay in a hostel it will usually be in a private room–but I hate lugging around a bag filled with dirty clothes. And there are obvious advantages to carrying luggage on a plane instead of checking it.

So I want to pack clothes I can wear over and over again, and Icebreaker is perfect. It doesn’t smell, it holds its shape, and it stays looking clean. Even better, it does all those things with great design. For me, Icebreaker is a magical combination of utility and style. It’s a bit more expensive than comparable non-wool products (and it’s hard to find sales of any note), but I think it is worth every penny.

The best way I discovered last year to spend $30.

I love massages. When I was a student, I’d go to massage schools for the great deals they offer but only as a rare treat. When I got a real job I began sampling Seattle’s spas in earnest.

I eventually settled on Gene Juarez as my favorite place to go for a massage. It’s expensive and corporate, but I consistently had the best experience there. All of the massage therapists I’ve seen there have been great, but beyond that, I think they do the best job of creating a consistent and relaxing overall spa experience. The spa area is always warm and quiet, and I love that they give you a foot soak before the massage. I used to really appreciate this because I would often realize I had really dirty feet in the middle of a massage and feel bad. Problem solved! (My feet are much cleaner these days. I don’t know if it is the result of maturity or that five years in Seattle has drastically cut down on the flip-flop habit I cultivated while living in Austin.)

Gene Juarez also usually has last-minute openings, which is great for me because I hate to commit to a schedule. And, many of their massage treatments include the use of their fabulous steam showers, which is the best way I’ve discovered to  adjust back to the world after a really relaxing massage.

But about a year ago I discovered Chinese foot massage, and I may be done with expensive spa massages.

I tried Beijing Herbal Foot Massage in Kirkland first, at the recommendation of a friend with reliable taste. Not many things get me in my car, much less driving all the way to the Eastside, but the prospect of an hourlong $30 massage worked. I even went back once before I discovered that Two Smiling Feet had opened in Fremont.

Two Smiling Feet has the same deal: $30 for an hour. It’s open late and I’ve never yet had to wait when walking in. I’ve been three or four times and every time has been pretty blissful.

At both places, you sit in a reclining lounge chair during your massage, remaining fully clothed. All of the patrons are in the same room. It’s not just a foot massage, though that is the focus. They start with your head and arms, move on to your feet, and finish with a back massage.

Thank goodness Two Smiling Feet is still a drive away, or I might not be able to keep myself from going once a week. I just learned there is a similar place in the International District called Imperial Foot Massage (or maybe now Sunset Foot Spa?). It’s got lots of good reviews on Yelp, and it is dangerously close to my neighborhood. I’m definitely going to check it out soon.

Five things I love in the Pike Place Market (and they are either free or cheap).

I live a block away from the Pike Place Market. I don’t spend as much time there as people sometimes expect, because it’s only open from 9-6 and therefore difficult to get to when I’m working full time. But on the weekends or when I’m not working as much (like lately), I like to shop there. I often stop at the market on the way home from a run, weaving my way through the crowds of visitors to pick up dinner supplies.

Here are some of my favorite things in the market:

1. Merguez from Uli’s Famous Sausage. This spicy lamb and beef sausage is addictive. Everything I’ve tried from Uli’s has been great (although I recommend heeding the warnings on the garlic chicken sausage and skipping it if there is a date in your future), but the merguez is my favorite. Just eat it. Seriously.

2. The scent of Piroshky-Piroshky. Piroshky sells traditional Russian pastries with different fillings. I’m on the fence about the pastries themselves. I’ve tried two or three different kinds, both savory and sweet, and while they are fine, they don’t live up to the heavenly smell wafting from the place. Plus, there is usually a long line and I’m impatient. But the smell is amazing–warm, rich, sweet, and savory. I have literally gone out of my way to walk by and get a noseful, and I have made visiting family members do the same.

3. Tulips. The market always has a wide selection of colorful, affordable flowers throughout the spring and summer. But my favorite is tulip season in the spring. Then, I try to pick up a bunch for my apartment every few days.  I waste time picking them out, walking up and down the rows of seller’s tables just to enjoy the rainbow of purples, scarlets, pinks, oranges, yellows, mauves, and golds.

4. Cheesecakes from The Confectional. Like Piroshky, I discovered The Confectional because of the scent. Walking by, I was stopped in my tracks by a smell so delicious that I had to find the source. Happily, I found the Confectional, which sells individual mini-cheesecakes in flavors like Mexican Chocolate (with cayenne!), Triple Berry, and Lemon White Chocolate. The best part is the buttery-sweet biscuit crust. Yum!

5. The Crumpet Shop. This is a tourist favorite so I’m not sharing any secrets, but I honestly think that crumpets from The Crumpet Shop are the perfect bread-type food–just the right combination of doughy, light, and chewy. I usually go for cream cheese and raspberry jam on top, but I also love plain butter and honey, and I’ve enjoyed the more savory offerings such as tomato and cheese. The family-owned shop is small and can be crowded at peak tourist/breakfast times, but it has a charming, relaxed feel and warm, welcoming staff. I fantasize about living, or at least working, there.

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