pre-birthday thoughts on 2011 + novel lessons


It’s the day before my birthday, and the house is quiet right now. It is quiet, because the nighttime was busy–a sick wiener dog had us waking up every hour to tend to him/take him outside, which here means walking down a flight of stairs, bundling up in a jacket (it is in the 40s Fahrenheit at night) and watching the wiener dog circle and circle and circle, while you alternate between two thoughts: Poor little thing…and Little bastard!

You’d think the setting was perfect for some introspection: sick dog, tired humans, quiet Sierra morning, birds tweeting, the beautiful environs, and you’re the only one awake in the house. But no.

Maybe it’s because the year’s been so busy, but I don’t have a lot of introspection going into my birthday this year. Maybe that’s for the best, because introspection for me usually involves lying in my bed with the covers over my head bemoaning my incompetence/so many things left to do/the road ahead/a rush of feelings I’ve suppressed for months until that moment.

Or maybe I should do a little bit of looking back, so I can look a little bit forward.

So I’ve pondered my 2011 To Do List; I conjured up the list as a framework of experiences I desired in 2011. I didn’t expect to achieve so many things on the list, but I have–and the funny thing about “to do lists” is that in the process of doing those things, you end up having enriching experiences that have nothing to do with the list, but at the same time would not have happened if not for the list. I hope that makes sense. But it’s really these unexpected, spontaneous happenings between the anticipated happenings that give me delight.

I go to Margot Restaurant for Dominican food. It’s the best. It’s the thing I crave when I’m away from NYC. So when I’m in NYC, I go. But the surprises were the company I kept during dinner. And the realization that of all the restaurants in Manhattan, Margot is the only restaurant that recognizes me as a regular; I always get a glimmer of recognition out of the staff, a heartier-than-usual hello, and a warm smile. Yah, so I’m probably easily recognizable as the only Korean chick there, but I’ll take it. I’ll take it!

the Spread

Then there’s another item on the list: a desire to see Central Park in wintertime. So beautiful. So treacherous. I love it so much. But there’s also no substitue for a crisp wintry day that has you holding your hunny’s hand as you step across black ice. Or listening to a musician braving the cold in the park. And then walking to Zabar’s for a knish.

Central Park

And yet, just a few months later, the Park looks like this in Spring! And that’s when you realize–you don’t have allergies in NYC!  And you take off your jacket for the first time in months and wonder when the last time was that you, the sun-avoider, welcomed the sun so much. And then you go shopping for Passover so you can sit down for your first Pesach Seder in NYC. You miss home, you miss all your old cooking implements, you miss your old Seder plate, but you cobble together a simple Seder anyway.

Spring in Central Park!

I love the MoMA. My hunny and I went and saw the kitchen exhibit. And then my parents came to town, insisting on the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So you take them there. They walk through it at warp speed, just like you do. Only they’re examining the picture frames. Seriously. They have decided to get some picture frames for some artwork in their house, and they have decided to gain some inspiration from the Met for this purpose.

My dad appreciates the Greek Art, loves it, even. But when we go to the MoMA, he scowls. “This isn’t very good,” he says. I try very hard not to roll my eyes as he says the thing that so many people say about modern art, “I could do this.”

So I reply as I always do to that comment, “Then why didn’t you?”

Usually, that comment makes people think. My dad ignores me and says, with all the authority he can muster (and it’s a lot), “I don’t like it.”

I can’t argue with that.


We drove to Montauk in early Spring, before the crowds, and after the snow melted. My parents needed to get out of the City, and my husband and I wanted to see Montauk (after all, it was on my LIST)!

Beautiful, isn’t it? We saw the carcasses of many sea creatures–crabs, and several gulf of Maine sting rays. There’s something about a wild beach that makes me fall in love.

Montauk lighthouse

My hunny and I visited our beloved London. We decided to rent a car one day and just drive and see what was out there. At the last minute, we decided to check out the Cotswolds, without agenda or schedule (and barely a map).

This day of spontaneity turned out to be one of the best days of our lives. We drove through several towns that involved the world “Chipping” (Chipping Norton, Chipping Campden…) and stopped at Chastleton House (as you see below) and Blenheim Palace, and savored the English countryside with its rolling green hills accessorized with fluffy white sheep.

Chastleton House

And if that wasn’t enough, and since we had some time left at the end of the day, we decided to head over to Bray…where we ate at Heston Blumenthal’s pub, Hind’s Head. Where I ate my first scotch egg! And an awesome oxtail and kidney pudding! And quaking pudding! The end!

Scotch egg

My hunny and I (yes, he and I spend a lot of time together) also headed over to Paris via the Eurostar this year. Again, with no plans but to get to Paris, which seemed a lot less clean than I remembered it to be. And perhaps it’s because smoking is banned in nearly every public place in the U.S. and London, but there sure seems to be a lot of cigarette smoking (and littering thereof) going on.

Parisians love to smoke

Okay, that’s not fair. Paris is more than cigarettes. It’s L’as Dus Fallafel in the Marais, and the best buckwheat galette/Breton crepes I’ve ever eaten. L’as Dus Fallafel was on our list of to-dos…and Breizh Cafe was not. Oh, these Breton crepes are tremendous! And it later turns out that there is usually quite the line at this restaurant. Only we were seated immediately. Kizmet. (Of course, now I want a Breton crepe, and alas, Ti Couz in San Francisco has closed. Where can one get a very good buckwheat crepe in the SF Bay Area now)?

We also had salted caramel ice cream from Berthillon, and that was just amazing–Berthillon was on our list of things to do, and the search for it was our only argument of the day! The funny thing, which dissolved our tension immediately was that it was under our noses the entire time. Like, straight in front of us. But anyway–the salted caramel ice cream is second to none, not even Bi-Rite in San Francisco.

buckwheat crepes!

And along the way, we also gathered quite a few questions.

Like, what is this? It’s this flippy metal thing on the Eurostar train trays. WHAT.IS.IT?

what is this thing?

The thing is–that life is the magic that happens between planned events. The detours and the questions and the emotions and the kizmet and the surprises and delights that occur on your way to or from pre-planned destinations.

It’s like that with novel-writing, too. I have an outline, and milestones–but then there is this magic that happens on the page on the way to/from these milestones. Those happy, magical detours (the ones that make for the best days of our lives) are what I pray for as I write.

Now I’ve got to get back to my novel. Because the best birthday present I can give myself is a few pages of which I can be proud.


Filed under Life, Novel, The Personal, Travel, Writing

10 responses to “pre-birthday thoughts on 2011 + novel lessons

  1. michelle

    wow!!! great words and great life! your YEAR sounds like my dream bucket list!!!! isn’t it funny how the spontaneous day in the cotswalds were the best day…..and on my list (it is in my top 3) and I bet, I overplan it and become disheartened when it does not live up to my expectations!

    • ha! and guess what–you know what the Best Meal of the year has been, despite reservations at great restaurants, and impromptu meals at some fantastically delicious places like Hind’s Head, Breizh Cafe, and Momomfuku Ssam Bar? The Best Meal of the Year was: Waffle House, somewhere in Virginia on our cross country drive. I think you can still plan, and find that you will find immensely surprising delight, so long as you allow them to occur!

  2. Gemma Sidney

    Happy birthday for tomorrow! I made a mental to-do list for 2011… and I’ve been to scared to go and review it, but your article has inspired me to try. And I’ll be in NY in a week’s time – going to try and go to Margot Restaurant, it looks amazing!

  3. Regarding the sick l’il Wiener, did you try squeezing him? When Gatsby got sick, we just slid two rolling pins down her, from front to back. Gets everything out real fast.

    About art, Linds and I went to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art last Friday and, as worldy as we consider ourselves, kinda had the same reaction as your dad. Now, the ICA is very different from MoMA, but the thought that kept going through my head was “I want to see art, not a conversation about art.” Or maybe my rationale should be Mr. Burns’: “You know, I’m no art critic, but I know what I hate. And… I don’t hate this.”

    Lastly, when are you going to let my in-laws welcome you to the house in East Hampton? It comes pre-stocked with Italian food!

    • @Gemma: I hope you enjoy Margot’s and had/have a wonderful time in NYC! (and if you make a list, may you achieve all of it). 😉

      @Andrew: after many days of avoiding “squeezing her,” I tried. omg, it works! Scarlet is so old now it’s gotten to the point where she needs “help” on everything. and i hope we get to meet irl soon! let’s make it happen. 🙂

  4. Happy birthday! What a wonderful series of photos and memories from 2011. I hope next year is as full of amazing sights and tastes as this one.

  5. It’s a flippy metal thing, of course! No Eurostar train complete without them.

    (Wandered over from Fog City Writer – glad you liked our city 🙂

  6. “the funny thing about “to do lists” is that in the process of doing those things, you end up having enriching experiences that have nothing to do with the list, but at the same time would not have happened if not for the list”

    Yes, that makes perfect sense, and I totally agree. As for your travels – how fun to drive around the English countryside! I want a Scotch egg and one of those crepes – and some of that Dominican food! I’ve never had Dominican food. Can we find it here in the Bay Area? It looks amazing. Sounds like, overall, you are having a fantastic year. I noticed, btw, that some of your “every day” things on your 2011 To Do list aren’t marked off. I guess if you miss just one day, you can never cross it off. I think you should give yourself more flexibility in 2012 🙂

    Hope you had a great birthday!

  7. Happy Birthday!

    “I could do this.” “Then why didn’t you?”

    Wow, I really wish I’d had this line when I was married, because my f-i-l was exactly this type of guy. He liked art that had obviously required enormous effort to produce. He didn’t understand that art either, but he appreciated that it had value because of the physical effort

    He evaluated art by standards which are really more appropriate to Olympic sports.

    • @laurastanfill: thank you!
      @Dad Who Writes: I love eurostar. I still wonder what it is! I am clearly someone who demands that every item in life serve a function. 😉 (thank you for stopping by).
      @Meghan: alas, no Dominican food in the Bay Area! Which is why I indulge in NYC. And good point: in 2012, I will give myself more flexibility.
      @Anthony Lee Collins: 😉

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