How to Nail the Off-Registry Wedding Gift? A Very Special Experience for Two

Going off-registry for a friend or family member’s wedding can be risky — best reserved for only daring friends who know the couple well. But for those who are up for the challenge, a thoughtful off-registry gift that truly complements the couple can the most meaningful. We got married this past December, and one of the more unexpected but happy surprises have been some of the off-registry wedding gifts from friends and family. Knowing my French husband Olivier and I love cheese and wine, one friend gave us gift cards to boutique shops we hadn’t yet tried in our neighborhood, Moore Brothers wine and Beechers cheese. Other friends gifted memberships to MoMA, so we can get our culture on a bit more (while there’s so much to do in New York you’re a boring person if you find yourself bored, it’s also easy to be lazy and miss some of the city’s many arts and culture offerings). But the coolest gift so far showed up at our door last night at 7pm: Dante Giannini, a personal chef to make a romantic dinner for two in our tiny Chelsea kitchen, making “farm to table with seasonal ingredients” in a “classic French/American” style. We had a moment: Olivier joked that now Dante’s cooked a three-course gourmet meal in our kitchen, I can’t complain anymore about not having enough space. Ha. But seriously, the meal he managed to cook on a counter space of less than two feet square was quite incredible. A few photos of our night:

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Creative use of space! All this fit in our kitchen.

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Braised pork chops…

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…plus a mint-yogurt sauce for the appetizer.

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The finishing touches…apple salad and truffle oil!

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Prepping the table: Decanting a Durigutti Malbec from Back Label wines + lots of candles = roooomaannncceeee.

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We finished every bite!

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Buttery sauteed mushrooms to top a lamb chop entree.

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Lamb chops with lentils, sauteed mushrooms, basalmic reduction. Delicious!

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3 Days in Austin: BBQ, Antiques, Sun and Run

Last weekend my fiance and I made a trip to visit friends in Austin; it was my first time, and though I’ve been to Texas before (Dallas) and grew up in a similar small-but-big, liberal artsy town (Tucson) I fell in love. We stayed at Hotel San Jose off of South Congress — a young area just off of downtown Austin where you can’t walk a block without hearing another blues, country or rock band tunes drifting from one of the many restaurants and shops. It was effortlessly chic (fat champagne cocktails by a pint-sized pool), minimalist and modern hotel (black and white color theme), with an indie feel (decorated only with posters of many, many local music shows that have gone down in the area over the past 10 years). We were happy to pass a few good hours at the pool, book in one hand and cocktail in the other (insert cliche cowboy hat):

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It being Austin — where everyone is fit (how else could they eat so well and stay so thin?!) and it’s 70F+ pretty much year-round — each of the three mornings we were there we took a run around the Ann and Roy Barton Hike & Bike Trail — a 10-mile path along the Colorado River. When we got back we grabbed a coffee at Jo Coffee, a spot adjoining our hotel where the line always seems to be around the block, also the home of this famous Austin wall art:

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(Don’t ask, it’s a French thing.)

The first day we grabbed brunch at Juan in a Million — a hole-in-the-wall spot that reminded me of the best Mexican restaurants in Tucson, where the salsa is hot and the entrees are cheap. They’re known for their breakfast tacos — an Austin specialty — we ordered migas (eggs scrambled with tortilla chips, onions and tomatoes) and nopalitos (prickly pear) — smothered in cheese and SO GOOD.

 

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Afterwards we dropped the boys off downtown and went shopping on South Congress. We didn’t have a ton of luck with clothes, but we DID get lots of sugary treats at Big Top Candy Shop — like these gummy mustaches:

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And bacon bits (OK so we weren’t quite brave enough to buy):

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We also dropped into Allen’s Boots Store — where the only thing bigger than the price tags (the most simple pair of boots STARTED at $200 — and went up to $2000 if they were blinged out with crystals) were the rings the women wore (my there were some BIG-A$$ diamonds on some of those ladies!):

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We also made a quick stop at Uncommon Objects — a kitsch antiques store where I heard a native guy about my age twang “I can see his ding-a-ling!” to his girlfriend about a Greek-style plaster statue, where taxidermy is king and gems like these are abundantly for sale:

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The next day after a late brunch we spent the afternoon lazing on the grass, once tempting to jump into the 60F-water at Barton Springs — a pool filled with natural spring water from the Edwards Aquifer. All in preparation for the main event of our trip: Dinner at Salt Lick BBQ. Our friend’s boyfriend drove us half an hour through the picturesque hill country just outside of Austin, a vast green rolling space dotted with ranches. When we arrived, we sat down at a table outside to open a bottle of wine and listen to some live music:

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As we were sipping, I noticed — no, felt — a camera pointed at me, and it wasn’t a friend’s. It was our table mate’s — what we soon found out were a group of businessmen and women who were making a tour of several business sites throughout the U.S. Now normally I would be totally creeped out by someone sneaking a shot of me. But the man who was snapping them turned out to be a sweet guy who apparently had never seen an in-the-flesh blonde girl before (my parents told me this same thing used to happen when I was a toe-headed girl living with them in Hawaii at age 4). I’m not going to think too much about what happens to these pictures now, but I did snap my own shot with the dude:

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We were soon beeped in to eat our dinners — and it was well worth the wait. Gleaming stacks of fatty ribs, sausages and brisket smoking over an open pit:

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We ate our faces off. And, our trip was complete:

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The 1% of the One Percent: Snow, Lobster, and McMansions in Newport, RI

Last weekend Olivier and I celebrated our fifth anniversary (and my birthday, and his birthday, and Valentines Day…they’re ALL within a week of each other!) with a trip to Newport, Rhode Island — as I found out, it was founded in 1639 as a haven for Baptists fleeing religious prosecution. There we stayed at the Vanderbilt Grace:

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A Gilded Age hotel built by and once the home of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the residence was later transformed into a YMCA, then renovated into one of many historical Newport hotels for New England tourists who come to see the area’s beautifully preserved landmark buildings.

After nearly four hours first of train, then crawling 30mph on the highway through a snowstorm (with me, the Arizonan, as the driver, never having driven through snow in my life and nearly skidding out once on black ice) we were met at the hotel with two glasses of champagne and some sweet treats:

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We trekked through the snow (much more beautiful than the black ice and slush that quickly results from snow storms in New York):

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To get beer and lobster rolls at Brick Alley, a bar & restaurant right around the corner from our hotel. I have literally never eaten a roll with so much lobster…a generous cup full of meaty chunks, it must have been at least two lobsters’ worth…for less than $20 (in New York a roll half this size would cost $30):

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Completely stuffed, we called it a night. The next morning we woke and had a champagne brunch and headed out to the Vanderbilt Breakers mansion, now converted into a museum by the Preservation Society of Newport, who makes it their mission to care for the Gilded Age mansions:

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No photos alas were allowed inside the Breakers. But after we left, Olivier and I talked about what we saw. I make fun of Olivier for being a snobby Frenchman, so I was expecting him to be the one laughing at the silly Americans’ version of a “historical” site. But I was actually way less impressed than he was. For one, the architecture and design was a total ripoff: all of it was a mixture of Renaissance- style Italian palazzos mixed with 19th century French chateaux. Created by the son of the “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, who literally invented the American railroad, the house was intended to be a work of art. No doubt, it was beautiful…but it definitely wasn’t original, which to me is the opposite of art. The most original touches was in a sculpture fresco on the wall, where two cherubs had a railroad car running in the back in a nod to the family business).

70 rooms and 138,300 square feet, with walls covered in 18 to 24-carat gold leaf and…get this…platinum leaf (which was apparently just as expensive back in the day as it is today), it’s definitely an early McMansion. The one percent of the one percent. This was what really got me. When we reached the room of Gertrude Vanderbilt (who eventually became an artist and founded the Whitney Museum of Art in New York), we heard how she was devastated she was the day she realized she was a heiress (“no one would love me for who I am!”). Then later heard of how one Vanderbilt, who inherited $100 million in the mid-20th century and turned it into $200 million — an unheard-of fortune at the time — lamented what a “burden” it was for his kids to have so much money (“how could they possibly manage it all?!”). Then we learned how their fortunes quickly disappeared when the income tax was created in 1913, bringing the Gilded Age to an end and making families like the Vanderbilts much less wealthy.

While I know the family at some point gave to charity and created hospitals and art museums, clearly their giving was only a small portion of what they were earning given that simply creating a tax was enough to end their wealth. The hypocrisy was what really got me: we heard of “how religious” the family was, how they went to church every week and relied on their religion to get them through rough family tragedies — yet they clearly were keeping a whole lot of their wealth to themselves to build expensive Renaissance replicas. This is the problem with religion to me: it’s so easy to pick and choose what works for you and ignore what doesn’t.

Anyway, after a quick rant about the Vanderbilts, we took a walk outside, which Olivier and I agreed was our favorite part of the trip:

 

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That night, more delicious lobster and scallops at The Black Pearl (some of the best seafood I’ve ever had) and billiards at our hotel:

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Net-net: Definitely worth a long weekend. And maybe a re-visit for more fresh lobster and beach in the summer.

My Favorite 30th Birthday Gift Didn’t Come in a Box

My 30th birthday has come and gone…and I am happy to report that I did not come out on the dark side with grey hair and a matching pantsuit from Talbots (while my mostly H&M-comprised wardrobe is nothing to brag about, seriously someone needs to slap me the day I buy my first geriatric sweater seat). In fact, my 30th birthday was like I took a time capsule off to a very near yet so distant time and place, where I was spoiled beyond my craziest teenage girl dreams.

The day started off normal (snow in the morning, gym, 9 hours in front of a screen)…but when I came home from work I was greeted with a scavenger hunt in the apartment created by my fiance Olivier…who was conspicuously missing from our home:

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Using little numbered posts he hand wrote himself (I think this is the second time in my life I’ve seen something he’s written that’s not in typeface) and with pictures he printed out himself at Duane Reade (forgive me but I wasn’t sure he could even find the toilet bowl cleaner there, much less the photo department…bravo!), he led me through every inch of our 500-square-foot apartment. (Got to give him major props alone for that…finding 30 hiding spots in an apartment our size takes some major creativity). From the kitchen, with a glass of champagne (YES, the beer was already there…no comment):

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To my favorite author:

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To our closet (including, sigh…roses?!):

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To our (now deceased) wall clock:

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To the bedroom:

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Featuring photos of friends:

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And lots of photos of the two of us, from when we met:

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To when we moved in together:

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To when we got engaged:

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At the end he told me to meet him at the Dream Hotel:

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Where he had reserved a room (YES, that’s the Empire State! doesn’t get old even when you’ve been here six years):

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He made reservations at Bouley (excuse me!) for dinner…a nine-course party in my mouth, starting with this sea urchin (that’s some random dried FRUIT skin it’s served in):

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If this is 30, I’ll take it!

Disclaimer: I know life is never always champagne and chocolates. But as I told Olivier when we met at the Dream Hotel, moments like these are a rare time capsule that spontaneously arrives in the most random instant, in an appearance so vivid I can feel it —  maybe the next time I taste sea urchin (OK…not so often, but it happens) or the next time I’m feeling down (yep, that happens). And, because there is no way to say it without sounding cheesy: Unlike Cartier earrings or a Louis Vuitton bag, these memories are what makes it easier to slug through long days at the office, and afternoons at the DMV, and all those other times we’d rather be just about anywhere else.

Everyone’s Missing the Point of Lena Dunham’s Vogue Cover

Back in October 2013 Hollywood Life reported that Vogue editor-in-chief wanted to “violate a lot of Vogue traditions” by featuring Lena Dunham “even though she doesn’t really conform to the [magazine’s] body type” to appeal to their “next-generation audience.” Then, for the February 2014, Wintour did as she promised…and more. She put Dunham on Vogue’s cover:

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Credit: Vogue

Grab the attention of the next generation? Vogue did: S**t hit the fan.

Jezebel — assuming the dolled-up images of a usually clean-faced Dunham had been seriously retouched — paid $10,000 to get the (supposedly) original versions. In their article they showed the before and after side-by-side, claiming that that “while Dunham’s images were not drastically altered, it’s important to remember how unforgiving the media is when it comes to images of women.” OK, I’m totally with you. But I think there’s more to this retouched image than first meets the eye.

While it’s easy and even justified to be a little miffed at the choice to retouch Dunham’s photos, it’s a bit par for the course. According to the Wall Street Journal, every magazine does it. And a little bit of fixing some images doesn’t change their content but just makes them more aesthetically professional. Even in photojournalism contests, slight retouching occurs, former director of photography for Men’s Journal Rob Haggart told the WSJ. “This level of photographer and publication, it’s really about adjusting every little thing.”

What’s more, Vogue isn’t even the first magazine to feature Dunham in sexed-up makeup and clothes (and, judging by the below, in retouched images). Marie Claire did a spread that no one was talking about back in April 2013, with a photo that looks — shocker — pretty similar to the images in Vogue:

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Credit: Marie Claire

The bashing continued. Slate editor Katy Waldman wrote that “while Vogue’s modifications were admittedly light, understanding Dunham’s ‘persona,’ her ‘creativity,’ and who she is (among other things, a spokeswoman for more realistic forms of loveliness) would seem to preclude altering her body at all.”

OK Waldman, I’m with you. Dunham’s show Girls is all about being proud of all bodies, imperfections and all, and that’s why so many people love it. But I think the “shame Vogue retouched Dunham!” and “she’s a hypocrite for showing her face in a fashion magazine” critics are obscuring a more important point. And that is just being featured in Vogue is doing exactly what Dunham set out to do all along…and it’s right on point. 

A friend of mine who works in fashion (who shall remain nameless) said she tried watching Girls but couldn’t because, in short, Dunham is ugly and gauche and she didn’t like seeing her fat body naked. But that awkwardness is exactly what Dunham is trying to capture and normalize with her show, applying a contrast to the perfectly made-up women with tight bodies and gorgeous (if unaffordable on their salary) apartments and, if not a perfect husband, lots of attention from men (think: Sex & the City, Friends, Gossip Girl, Modern Family…I love most of these but they serve a different purpose). And my friend isn’t the only one who feels that way, judging by the comments on the Vogue article. Like this gem (of verbal vomit):

“She is an ugly, fat dolt that finds humor in her own existence. I tried watching Girls and quit half-way through the first season. As a successful 30-year old who dwells in NYC…my friends and I are smart and successful…Lena Dunham makes a mockery of all the pretty New Yorkers that pride themselves in being healthy and fit, not to mention mentally stable.”

And this:

“Anna Wintour must be in the beginning stages of fashion dementia…I realize not everyone has been blessed with great genes..but it is just her whiney, indulgent, condescending personality.”

And this:

“I also realise that the age of the Supermodel is over, but surely there are a few models out there that would still sell your magazine?”

Indeed, lots of people love to criticize Dunham for being just an average girl on screen. Like Tim Molloy of The Wrap, who asked Dunham at a press conference earlier this week:

“I don’t get the purpose of all the nudity on the show. By you particularly. I feel like I’m walking into a trap where you say no one complains about the nudity on ‘Game of Thrones,’ but I get why they’re doing it. They’re doing it to be salacious. To titillate people. And your character is often naked at random times for no reason.”

To which Dunham responded, “if you are not into me, that’s your problem,” (as director Judd Apatow called Molloy’s question sexist and misogynistic).

Aha. Seems like it’s all adding up. (Besides just a really good PR ploy) maybe Dunham’s intention was not to bow to the stereotypes she’s fighting against but rather to broadcast her point of view in a place where people who otherwise trivialize her for being a “fat doll” couldn’t avoid her. As Dunham told Slate France:

“I don’t understand why, photoshop or no, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl, could be a bad thing…If they want to see what I really look like go watch the show that I make every single week.”

Amen, sister. Keep doing your thing.

Snopocalypse 2014: NYC’s First Winter Storm of the Year, in Photos

What a way to ring in the New Year for an Arizonan native: No sooner had I come back to NYC from 70-degree weather from my trip to visit my parents in Tucson, Arizona that we had freezing temps and our first snow storm of the year. And not just any snow storm, we were warned. This beast, which forecasters named Hercules — that one, the adrenaline-junkie Greek god known for his giant…um… biceps? – was predicted to unleash fury on the northeast. Well below-freezing temps (we’re talking in the 20s for the high…and 3 for the low), high winds, six to eight inches of snow; Olivier and I just called it The “snowpocalypse”:

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When Hurricane Sandy hit the previous October, we went for a week without power (definitely minor compared to what happened to some on the east coast). But for someone used to weather mostly actually helping (the sun serving as power for air conditioning and hair driers) and not harming (rain and snow cutting power lines), it was challenging. Since my office on Houston was closed for the week, I edited my baby and sex content from my fiance Olivier’s hedge fund office in midtown (going to say I got more than one muffled laugh as his coworkers peeked at me editing content about cervical mucus over my shoulder), showering at the gym nearby (where there was a line just to get into the bathroom and people huddled near the electrical outlets to power their laptops and cellphones). In any case, we weren’t very prepared that time around, so we decided it wouldn’t hurt to stockpile some goods just in case this storm was as Herculean as we heard it might be:

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OK, we’re still figuring out this stockpiling thing.

Then we huddled up in bed under two layers of down comforters as the steam heaters hissed and waited for morning.

And what a morning it was! I have to say, I can definitely do without the nose-numbing temperatures and mucky brown snow slush the days following a snow storm. But the city sure is all the more beautiful the day after a big snow storm. I took my camera with me on my way to work, only a few short subway stops away from our apartment. It was great! Apparently most of New York decided to take a snow day, so the platforms and trains were empty (and including my office, where only about 50 of 500 people showed up):

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Shoveling out snow from the subway steps

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My work station!

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The view of Jersey and the Hudson River from my office

There you have it! Snopocalypse #1 of 2014, in photos.

Taking My New DSLR on a Desert Walk

For Christmas I got a new a Nikon D3200to upgrade from my blurry iPhone pics. So excited! I was at my parent’s home in Tucson — a backdrop of dusty green saguaros with effervescent spines, rusty red mountains, crisp blue skies, and brilliant navel-orange sunsets. It’s a naturally dramatic backdrop for photos, so I decided to give my new baby a test on a walk I took with my parents in the desert. We trekked through a wash (that’s Tucson-speak for a dry riverbed) to a nearby elementary school playground, where we fetched with their Golden Lab, Lilas. The pics are, well…getting there…but I thought my amateur test-run would be fun to share:

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I’m just beginning to learn all the functions on my little camera but can’t wait to take lots more photos to come!