Juicy Olive

The quest for “the good life” should never be complete but it should definitely begin now.

33 and Grateful (and full!) September 2, 2009

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Birthdays have never really been my thing. I mean, sure, I think, much like many women my age, I held on to the “Sixteen Candles” fantasy of finding my own Jake Ryan to sweep me into my next year…well into my 20s. But for the most part, my birthday has always been a private event. I’m not a huge attention hound. I’ve never needed a big shindig to make me feel important. In fact, the thought of a bunch of people singing in my honor sort of makes me sweat.

The birthday of my dreams as a young woman

The birthday of my dreams as a young woman

Monday was my birthday. I honestly cannot believe I’m officially in my mid-30s. This isn’t a statement about feeling old. Rather, it’s just that I’m shocked that time has passed so quickly. I know I sound like my Great Aunt Merle when I say that it feels like only yesterday that I was 15.

This year I celebrated with some of my favorite people:

On Friday, I went out with my friend and neighbor Tommy, his girlfriend Tracey and his sister (and a close friend) Annie. My new squeeze Alex joined us too. It was a fun night. We had a yummy dinner at a local pub, then raced to Urban Outfitters to buy long-sleeved shirts because it’s apparently already autumn in Chicago. Properly bundled, we walked to the Lincoln Park Zoo to catch Five for Fighting at an outdoor concert. It was such a pleasant evening. We plopped down on blankets, gerbiled up to stay warm and sipped a refreshing beer while listening to live tunes.

Saturday morning I arose early for a long run. Throughout the 9 miles, my thoughts were on one person: my dear friend Amy. The week before she had given birth to a beautiful, healthy boy. The day before she had endured an 8-hour surgery and double mastectomy to remove cancer from her breast and lymph nodes. Just as I was lacing my sneakers for the exhausting run, I got word from her husband that the surgery went well. Each time my feet pounded the pavement, I thought of Amy. If she could endure childbirth, the heartwrenching decision to have a double-mastectomy, the surgery itself and the anxiety of upcoming chemotherapy, then I could endure yet another mile.

My gal Amy - dressing the part to kick some Big C butt!

My gal Amy - dressing the part to kick some Big C butt!

Clean and rested from my exercise, I zipped down to Crust to meet Courtney. We are kindred spirits who met at a dinner party where everyone was required to bring someone who didn’t know everyone else. The person we knew in common has long since disolved in our social circle, but the bond between Courtney and I keeps getting stronger. Over an incredible salad, two pizzas and some wine, we caught up, laughed, gave advice and figured out the time when we’d meet next. I couldn’t have felt more lucky to have spent quality time with her – whenever we are together, I leave the encounter feeling stronger and more fulfilled!

peas and carrots - circa 2007

peas and carrots - circa 2007

With moments to spare, I raced back to my house, as my parents were about to arrive. They walked in the door, arms full of presents. We played with the dog and I opened the gifts — favorites include a new Boo’s Chopping Block and the add-on to your iPod so you can track your running and your music! I took Mom and Dad to The Violet Hour — at first I think my dad thought it was too “floofy” for his taste. But sitting at the bar, he developed a near-instant man-crush on the mixologist. Before you know it, we were all warm and fuzzy from concoctions like the Juliet & Romeo, a Tequila Old Fashioned and a Dark & Stormy. Following cocktail hour, we put our names on the long list at Avec. My brother joined us, and we shared a bottle of Bordeaux while we awaited our table. Two hours later, we were seated at last. The wait was worth it. Our palates were teased with dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in bacon and topped with pequillo pepper sauce; chicken thighs roasted with fennel and favas; a whole roasted dorade; house-made pappardelle with blood sausage ragu – the list goes on, and so we kept eating. Full and happy, we all retired that evening confident that the foodie thread running through the family DNA had been amply satisfied.

Look no further for incredible cocktails - The Violet Hour

Look no further for incredible cocktails - The Violet Hour

Sunday morning, I revived myself with a cup of coffee from Intelligentsia. Quickly thereafter, Carrie and I met and shimmied down to to the Gold Coast, where our other girlfriends had congregated. We were lucky enough to snag a table that day at Fred’s – the ultra chic 7th floor restaurant at Barney’s. I felt so privileged sitting at that table. There I was with five beautiful, talented, intelligent women – it’s staggering to know that in my life I have the pleasure of naming these ladies as my friends. Over eggs and strong coffee, I opened up to them about my new romance with Alex and felt so empowered by the enthusiasm they shared with me and for me. I talked with Robin about the upcoming birth of her second daughter and we all got to giggle as we rubbed her growing belly. We talked about work, travel, finances, family — much like the moment when you’re on a perfect date and you feel that the rest of the universe has grown quiet, it seemed that we were the axis around which our very happy worlds were spinning. How fortunate I am – how fortunate we all are – to have each other for celebrating life’s excitement.

I spent that afternoon with Alex and a couple of his friends at the Slow Food Chicago event at the Goose Island Brewery. Featuring several “green” chefs, the party was a pig roast with scrumptious takes on swine. We sipped delicious beer and noshed heartily. Afterward, Mark and Sandra invited us back to their loft. Very graciously, they opened their wine cellar to us, and we finished the night sipping gorgeous reds and an exquisite dessert wine.

I couldn’t believe it when the alarm rang on Monday morning. This was my big 33, and yet I had already been celebrating for 72 hours! That day at the office my colleagues wished me a happy birthday and friends from near and far called, sent emails and texted me with good tidings. I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Alex that he had been able to sneak out of work early so he could pick me up at the office. He greeted me with a beautiful bouquet of flowers and a CD compilation of love songs with a rock’n’roll twist (sigh). After taking Stella the Wonder Dog for a long walk, we changed into our fancies and hopped in a cab down to River North. At the restaurant Graham Elliott, we enjoyed the 10-course chef’s tasting menu, complete with unique wine, beer and spirit pairings. The two gluttons that we are, Alex and I couldn’t have been happier. We enjoyed escolar, halibut, scallops, corn bisque, duck, bison, fruit, chocolate…it was a lovely evening. Stuffed and buzzed, we headed home.

As the week has progressed, I’ve had further opportunity to celebrate. Last night my brother and I went to a Cubs game with some fellow Vanderbilt alumni. Tonight I’m meeting Allison and some other friends for a special Wandering Goat dinner from famous chef Stephanie Izard.

Eventually the volume on “Happy Birthday, dear Charlotte!”  will fade to mute. I’ll probably have a few extra pounds to work off from this week of indulgence. I certainly have some lovely gifts from loved ones. But the thing I find to be the most rewarding part of ringing in my 33rd year is the people whom I celebrated with. I am immensely grateful to have built a world for myself that features such remarkable, sharp, funny, talented people who sincerely care about me as much as I care about them. When I blew out the candles on my cake this year, I wished for my life to continue to be enriched with wonderful people and experiences. But, fortunately for me, much as Sam told Jake, there is really no need to make a wish – it already came true.

Thank you

Thank you

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Bad Day / Good Day July 31, 2009

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Last Christmas season, a commercial kept running on television with that ridiculous Daniel Powter song as the soundtrack. The lyrics go a little something like this:

Because you had a bad day
You’re taking one down
You sing a sad song just to turn it around
You say you don’t know
You tell me don’t lie
You work at a smile and you go for a ride
You had a bad day
The camera don’t lie
You’re coming back down and you really don’t mind
You had a bad day
You had a bad day

I mean, seriously, what on Earth is he trying to say? He had a bad day? Or did I? Or did you? And are you okay? Or are you still having a bad day? Whaaaat?

My sister and brother and I got the giggles every single time that commercial came on during Christmas break and couldn’t help wondering what made this THE song for the holiday season.

Recently, my sister Caroline sent me a text that read, “the had a bad day song just came on the radio…I may have just barely vomited.” Of course, I laughed.

I honestly can’t imagine ever giving the song much credit, but I’ll tell you something: when you have a bad day (cue the melody in the background), it does impact your life. And it doesn’t have to be that a cab drives through a puddle and splashes your white dress or your inkpen leaks all over your freshly pressed shirt. Recently, I’ve had some bad days that have honestly amounted to me not feeling very useful at work and feeling a little lost personally. A friend of mine recently died, I’ve had a moderately slow workload at the office, I’ve been toying with vacation destinations but can’t decide where to go, etc.

In fact, every day this week, I’ve been a little “off” at the moment I wake up until the moment I go to bed. But TODAY, things felt back on track. And you know what? It boiled down to me feeling more fulfilled at work and at home. I gave myself a million projects to do, and I actually completed them all. I signed up for another half marathon and set the training schedule for it. I brought my lunch to work for the fourth day in a row.

Honestly? I haven’t had a bad day recently, but I HAVE felt a little uninspired. But days like today, when I’m cranking out the goodness at work, focusing on a ship-shape household and identifying healthy opportunities for myself…these kinds of days make me able to weather the sluggish ones.

I’ll probably never get to a full understanding of “Bad Day” and its lyrics, but I’m hopeful that I can rebuild good days like today again soon. It feels good. I feel good!

If you’re in Bad-Day-Mode any time soon, I have two suggestions:

1) avoid that awful song (unless you’re truly able to get a good laugh out of it)

2) get focused and get busy – it’s a great recipe for good

 

Words to Love By June 25, 2009

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As many of you know, I’m a huge music fan. On my playlist at any given time is R&B, acoustic jazz, rockabilly, 60s Brit-pop and piano solos. I love a wide variety of songs, artists and groups. I just finished listening to a great Caribbean roots band – very tribal and upbeat. Before that, I was rocking out to a groovy Lollapalooza mix a friend of mine burned for me.

And while I’m always on the lookout for stellar new music, there are certain artists or songs I return to time and again. When I’m feeling nostalgic, The Beatles – White Album. When I’ve got a crush on someone “1963” by Rachel Yamagata. And when I’m feeling introspective – like today – I find myself putting “On the Radio” in my playlist. Regina Spektor, in my opinion, nails it when it comes to the cycle of putting yourself out there to be loved:

 This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t

You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh
And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took

And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood

And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

 Whenever the elements of being single in the city start to get under my skin, this song pulls me back to center. It reminds me that there is something important and exciting about meeting someone new and giving it the appropriate energy to explore the connection. And you hope you don’t get harmed – surely, but as Regina puts it, “even if it does you’ll just do it all again.”

And that’s okay. I’m okay with doing it all again and again and again. It’s exhausting. And it can be disappointing. But it can also be illuminating about the kinds of people you need and want on your team. It teaches you more about who you are than you ever imagined possible. And it defines for you the meaning of hope.

 

Moroccan Musings April 16, 2009

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Two months ago, I was in North Africa. Two months. I can’t believe that so much time has passed so quickly since that glorious adventure.

A typical hammam in Morocco - pay a surprisingly low fee to soak in the healing vapors in these gloriously appointed steam chambers.

A typical hammam in Morocco - pay a surprisingly low fee to soak in the healing vapors in these gloriously appointed steam chambers.

Two months ago, I was finishing up a hammam at Les Bains de Marrakech – feeling high from the rose oil and steam and orange flowers and sweet mint tea. Upon everyone’s suggestion, I booked the full afternoon of relaxation. For a mere $70, I received the works, including:

* A hammam scrub – wearing just my skivvies, I was soaped up with black soap, then scrubbed me down aggressively with a stiff mitt. This experienced “scrubbing lady” worked wonders: rubbing layer after layer of dead skin away – leaving me pink and clean.

* A 90-minute massage. Heavenly.

* A 30-minute rosepetal bath. Dreamy.

* A 30-minute nap. Indulgent.

* A plate of sticky pastries stuffed with almonds and drizzled with honey. Gluttony.

The way to find yourself in Morocco? Among other things, settle in at a rooftop terrace with a cold lager and a few blank pages.

The way to find yourself in Morocco? Among other things, settle in at a rooftop terrace with a cold lager and a few blank pages.

Two months ago, I was writing in a journal every day – recording thoughts, experiences, ideas and dreams. Within the pages of the journal, I decided to give the Juicy Olive a whirl – resolving that sharing my philosphy of life with others may just make a difference. I wrote about how shocked I was at the drastic misunderstandings we Americans have of the muslim world. I sketched pictures: little boys hammering metal into lanterns, women offering to paint my hands with henna and the old man with pliers and a jar of teeth offering to cure my dental dramas. I tallied the prices of my purchases: $1 for a pair of earrings; $10 for a silk and cashmere scarf; $100 for an antique wedding blanket; $90 for a camel hide pouf. I recorded the way the clear, dry sun felt on my skin and the way the preserved lemon smarted on my tongue. I jotted down words in arabic and wished that I could learn the ancient caligraphy of such a gorgeous language. I rushed to write down the little history lessons I acquired throughout the day. I spent a whole day writing in french and was pleased to realize how quickly it came back to me. I transcribed lyrics from songs that were programmed into my iPod that week – knowing that it was partly music, but mostly their association with that trip that made me so desperate to remember them. I pasted ticket stubs, receipts and business cards; leaves, petals and fabric into the pages – knowing that one day they’d make memories come a little faster, emotions return to me with very little effort.

Two months ago, I left a little bit of myself behind in Morocco – the unsure woman who feels burdened by some of life’s meanness. I came back with a new piece – the woman who is interested in showing the world who is boss and who knows in her heart that the good life is something everyone can have. It may not come in the same form for everyone, but it’s something that everyone deserves if they want it and are open to it.

Two months may have passed already, but I plan never to forget the times I had in Morocco. I want to keep finding new adventures to add to these memories. That’s what Juicy Olive is: a quest to share our pursuit of the good life and encourage each other to go the hell after it.

 

Foodgasm

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Remember when you’re a little kid and you hear someone talking about their recent crush, and they talk about going weak in the knees? And then in your early romantic years you THINK you’ve gone weak in the knees for that person you’re dating at the time. But THEN you actually meet someone who truly gives you that stomach-churning, joint-reducing, heart-palpitating, mind-blowing sensation that lets you know AT LAST what knee weakness is really all about?

Well, that’s what happened to me tonight. I thought for ages I knew what inventive cooking was. I thought forever that I was aware of the limits of the human palate. I thought I had weak in the knees on my kitchen speed dial.

How wrong I was.

Tonight, I went to Alinea. It saddens me that I barely know how to put into words the emotions I have about this unique culinary and dining and sensual experience. Everything from the flavors (who knew wax could be so important as a serving utinsil?) to the textures (frozen white pepper sorbet anyone?) to the scents (goat cheese, onion and rhubarb dessert on lavender pillow, please) – they wowed me.

I’m thinking of what a genius Grant Achatz is and how mesmerized I was by his well-oiled machine. I’m wondering if I’ll ever know anything as tasty as his food again.

More than anything, I’m hoping all of you Juicy Olives put pennies in your jar for whatever splurge makes you happy. Maybe it’s a meal at a dining mecca. Maybe it’s a brand new bike. Maybe you want a new keyboard to fine-tune your piano skills. Maybe you just want to take lessons to learn piano skills!

No matter what, please know that the greatest lesson I can take home with me tonight and the one I want to impart to you is that the splurge is worth it. It is worth every ounce of anticipation, excitement, planning, discussion, dialogue and stress. Take the plunge. Go for the thing that felt out of your grasp yesterday.

Reaching beyond what you thought was yours is so rewarding. It gives you that feeling of knowing what being weak in the knees is. It teaches you that you never really have had a foodgasm, and that the real ones are worth it – and faking it never is. It empowers you and makes you feel full. It gives you a sense of purpose and makes goals exciting, not dreadful.

You may not be interested in giving the poached pear with olive oil and eucalyptus vapors a whirl…and that’s okay. But I urge you to figure out the adventure you’re ready to take, and then stop thinking about it – just jump off the high dive. If you need a push, just ask. I’d be happy to give you the nudge you need to give yourself over to the ecstasy of self-indulgence.

 

Excuse me…probably not. April 5, 2009

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Tonight I had dinner with Lindsay at Adesso – a neighborhood BYOB joint with homemade pastas and a funky local vibe. I grabbed a bottle of Kokomo wine, which paired perfectly with our short rib arrancini, rosemary frites, butternut squash risotto and pasta arrabiata. As the bottle of wine whittled, we ventured back to Chez Anderson where we relieved Ryan (fab husband of Lindsay) of Daddy Duties and cracked another bottle of rouge.

After a couple of glasses of wine, girls can talk. After a couple more, we can really get into it. Tonight’s main topics: relationships.

Recently I met a guy who seems to have it all…EXCEPT the ability to properly date a gal. A few dates in, I’m realizing I need to hire him a coach in order to get him to call me back, make a move, pay a compliment or – in general – make it worthwhile. I told Lindsay that I took a while to reach this conclusion. At first, I wondered if it was me. Am I too busy? Too fat? Too forward? Too silly? Is my hair too curly? My smile too toothy?

At least I was able to pay her back during my musings; Lindsay was wrestling with her own struggles – a friend who recently made a comment that felt less offhand and more slap-you-in-the-face. Was she feeling too sensitive? Too annoyed? Too avoidant?

It doesn’t matter if my feelings or Lindsay’s were too anything. At the end of the day, they were ours. I needed to remember an adage my mother once shared with me: whatever someone is feeling at that time – at that moment, it’s the biggest thing they know.

At the end of the day, our feelings were legitimate. In your eyes, I may be strange for being annoyed with Mister Lame, and Lindsay may be silly for being sensitive about Miss Insensitive’s comments, but it doesn’t matter. We feel what we feel. And by not making excuses for those sentiments, we’re stronger for knowing ourselves and being honest about the repercussions of relating with us.

I’m proud to know that for all I ask of this world – health, human kindness, flexibility, love, friendship – it’s rare I need to make excuses for myself. I’m proud to have chosen friends who equally don’t need to make excuses. We are smart and interesting and unique – and I’ll not stand for anyone to require an explanation for that.

THAT would be inexcusable.

 

California Dreamin’ March 26, 2009

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This time tomorrow I’ll be in northern California – enjoying a glass of wine with great friends and plotting our antics for the coming days.

I’ve got a small love affair in my mind with that area of the country. Everyone appears to be healthy. They love Mother Earth. They appreciate great food. They know their wine. Farming is a way of life that coexists with mountain bikers, gourmet chefs, options traders and hybrid cars. They don’t fight the weather and, in return, they’re rewarded with a mild climate that’s tough to hate.

Whenever I’m returning to a place I love, I get nervous. What if I love it so much that I don’t want to leave? What if I will forever compare my life in Chicago to the fairy tale life I’ve created for myself as a goat farmer in Sonoma? (It should be noted that in the latter I have a gorgeous husband who is quite handy and loves to give me killer scalp massages. My fake life also features an on-call spa and a personal cook to grease the wheels of my oh-so-strenuous work.)

Eventually I assuage my anxieties by remembering that IF the goat farm was mine, it’s true I’d have access to killer chevre all year round. But I’d also be tethered to my life there, and I’d be unable to take all of my grand adventures. I also have to admit that I love the four seasons we get here in the midwest. I could do without the severity of January and February, but I’m also so glad for variety.

Could it be that my California Dream is unattainable and unrealistic? Is it possible that I concoct these fantasies as a means to escape from the reality of the daily grind? Yes and Yes. But here’s the thing – isn’t that why we scrimp and save and plan for a getaway? To do just that – get away and escape?

Realizing this, I’m less nervous that I’ll channel my inner Little Bo Peep while I’m driving through the Russian River Valley. I’m now more excited that I’ll get to entertain myself by playing make believe for just a little while.

And you have to admit that giving into your dreams is a lot less messy than cleaning up after a herd of goats!