I'm off to Palau, a chain of islands in Micronesia, east of the Philippines and northeast of Indonesia. The time difference is 16 hours from California, and it will take me about a day to travel there. I leave on Saturday and will be gone fourteen days from my family. For weeks, I've felt tinges of, "What was I thinking?!" and pangs of homesickness, before I've even left, for the cozy comforts that I share with Franny and Jordan and the joy I feel when I hear their lovely voices chattering away. At this point in my life, I'm used to traveling with the girls and Dave. They are my home away from home, and they make being on the road just like bringing your nest along with you. When Dave and I used to travel together before the girls were born, we would think of ourselves as a snail, carrying our home on our backs. Marilyn, my mother-in-law, has a saying that, "No matter where you are, there you are." I think she means that there is always that one familiar thing—yourself—to rely on among all the unknown.

There is something about traveling to the opposite side of the Earth and the remoteness of Palau that makes this two week trip feel so much further and more daunting (and likely will make the experience so much richer once I'm there). Luckily, I will be with two friends, who I met on a trip years ago, as well as Ron, the group's trip leader, who is also a friend. When I arrive, Ron will be there to meet me, and I will stay a few nights with his family, and sleep in his son's room which I imagine to have the familiar feel of toys and more toys. All of these people will add to my enjoyment and keep my tendency to feel lonely at bay.

The flying portion of any of my trips combines a pleasant amount of anonymity that can be liberating but can also be a source for melancholy. When I was young, my parents and I hardly went anywhere, and so when I was older and began to travel more, I loved the feeling of airports. People were going places, there was adventure and romance, and I was one of many who were participating in this global arena. Now, the sheen has worn away and the plane ride is just tiresome, and I get a bit squirrelly and claustrophobic. Oh, how I long to have access to a portkey or some floo powder!

With a journey, there is more self-sufficiency, a simpler life where everything you need is in one perfectly packed bag. It's a design challenge to find and fit all the essentials, an opportunity for perfectionism overkill, for analyzing and predicting numerous possible scenarios. But what of the spontaneity and surrender to the unknown adventure? Maybe that heightened state can only be achieved once you have brought your luggage and all its contents into sublime balance prior to your trip. One would think that were true, given that I had nearly finished packing a week early, and have had a running list for about a month now! Seriously though, there is a liberation in not being weighed down by your possessions, the clutter of your daily life. Each time Dave and I return from a trip to Europe, we attempt to extend the Scandinavian design sensibility into our home, all clean lines and open space, or the carefree Mediterranean style of good food and long conversation. It's a way of life that we aspire to but can be difficult to maintain within the drudgery of daily America, with its longer work hours for less time off, and the emphasis on ownership and individualism rather than community and experience.

Traveling holds so much allure for me, and as my trip nears, I am getting excited. There are new adventures, new friends, new tastes and smells, tangible experiences that are multi-faceted and sear into your memory like nothing else. Travel holds the mystique of reinvention, an opportunity to be at your brightest, the chance to leave behind your mundane or neurotic routine and instead to be open and ready to savor. A foreign place can be tiring and taxing and can often push us nearly beyond our limits. But while we explore—while we embrace our wanderlust—we are more flexible, more able to squeeze and stretch. It's partially due to the newness of the situation, but mostly about attitude. While on a trip, there are
 instances when we are scared, exhausted, disappointed, ill, confused—all manner of emotional conditions that we normally try to avoid—and yet, when we are able to push through these hardships, to prevail, it is in those moments that we grow. It is here in this space where our minds and hearts expand. It is here where you realize that you are you, no matter where you are. It was not this better self that exists only while traveling, but it is you, your essence, and we can tap that source of energy even at home. So travel is practice; an opportunity to dip into that well of strength and hope and to rekindle within ourselves that breadth and depth that is within us.
 
 
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Fake food of my fake food, needle felted by Jordan
Today is my birthday. Coincidentally it is also my Free Friday so I'm enjoying a very lovely leisurely day. We began with candy in my shoes, fresh-baked muffins and presents. I received the most wonderful and thoughtful gifts—and so many! An artfully designed wiFi speaker from soundfreaq. The girls and I are listening to Yo-Yo Ma while I write. The new Cooks Illustrated compendium, The Science of Good Cooking, to further my culinary explorations; a gorgeous newly release boxed set of The Complete Sherlock Holmes—stunning cover art and wood block prints throughout—which Jordan has all ready dived into; and the most charming and delightful handcrafted gifts from the girls. 

I am so impressed with the girls ability to do things, to make things, to conceive and execute. Franny knitted a scarf—oh, how I love the colors and stripes!—using two new stitches that she learned while watching YouTube videos. She has a fantastic spatial sense and an ability to self-teach and tackle new concepts. Franny also made me a darling beanie, with a peaked top that resembles the stem of an acorn, that she knit using circular needles, alternating normal and vertical stitches, and all made without a pattern. 
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Fresh blueberry muffins baked by Franny
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Needle felted gnome that we named Toady. He's adorabubble which is beyond adorable.
Jordan ripened her needle felting skills by making a gnome (so tubby & cute!) and fake food fruit. She led me out to the dining room with eyes closed for a surprise reveal of handmade green apples, yellow pears, orange and twin cherries arranged to match the cover art of my blog. It amazes me that she can sit with a blob of wool, to then transform it into the very thing she imagined.

Franny and Jordan are an inspiration to me. They can be shy to talk to a sales clerk at a store, but they are fearless when it comes to devoting their energy to a project. Verbal acuity will happen as they mature; their curiosity and enthusiasm seem innate. The mission will be to foster that passion and creativity throughout their lives.
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With my Bear, and wearing the hand-knitted scarf she made me
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The celebrations started yesterday at work with a beautifully moist layer cake baked by Carole.
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Gorgeous bouquet!
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Tin Cup Serenade at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden's Redwood Grove Thursday Summer Concert Series, with the girls and Caryn
My past birthdays have been fun, melancholic, hectic, full of expectation, but always a time of contemplation. As the start of my new year begins, I find myself in an unusual (but getting more common) sweet spot of laid back reflection. It's been a tough year due to relationship problems that Dave and I face, but it is has also been a year filled with good growing pains. I've stretched these past months in ways that I've wanted to for the longest time. My blog currently offers a creative play space that is easier to attain than juggling schedules for rehearsals or expensive glass blowing classes. I've enjoyed my attempts to try new recipes. My blogging serves as a jumping off point for remembering the past, the preservation of new experiences, and therapeutic as I develop as a parent, partner and individual. 

What are my goals for the new year? Should I have specific objectives? Maybe the golden ticket would be to not set forth a series of intentions but to let each day unfold. But I think that's a bit far-reaching, after all, I called my sweet spot, "laid back reflection." I will always like to plan, I will always enjoy puzzling over meaning. Dave shared with me a beautiful essay,What's on Your Mind? by Joyce Dyer. Dyer speaks to her jumbled thinking patterns and how it feeds her imagination. 
For too long, I’ve mistrusted this mind of mine. I let conventional organization rush in too soon, and I chased away the reflection and associative chaos particular to the way I think — traits I’ve begun to honor now. 

-Joyce Dyer, What's on Your Mind?
I do believe that the act of self-acceptance, albeit difficult for some of us, does cultivate creativity. It's our individual approaches, our zebra stripes if you will, that make our voices unique. So why not acknowledge those quirks instead of trying to eradicate them. Possibly by embracing that my mind likes to mull things over, I might be able to continue my beneficial contemplativeness while letting go of the more debilitating aspects of scrutiny and rumination. Would that allow me to sense more intuitively, to be more in the moment? By accepting the way my mind works, could I lose the exhaustive commentary of self-judgement, and allow life to unfold with a balance of awareness and joy? Self-acceptance also fosters connection; a kindness towards yourself engenders a reciprocal loop of generosity and receptivity to the larger world. So let's start the year not with an agenda, but trust ourselves to know what we feel, to act upon those sensations and to allow our lives to be enriched with love.
 
 
Danny MacAskill is a professional street trials rider (think parkour on a bike), and his latest Imaginate creation finds him pedaling through an enormous play land filled with giant everyday toys where he rides, hops and tumbles on, over and across. I've always dreamed of playing in an environment like this where I could be tiny Alice among jumbo-sized objects. If only there were enormous red-capped and white-spotted toadstools, wooden spools of thread doubling as tables, and other huge, but still adorable, fake food; now that would be my ultimate play space!

Check it out. It's amazing! And be sure to view through the credits to watch the outtakes.
 
 
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Upside down sundae with Judy's homemade caramel and chocolate sauces and oven toasted almonds
We just returned from a long weekend at our friend's Tahoe cabin for our fourth year in a row. It's always a wonderful visit full of delicious food, swimming in the lake, kayaking, chatting, and one of my favorite activities, admiring the bats at dusk while they swoop through the pine trees—such a magical sight. Our friend, Judy, is an amazing cook, baker and executor of well-planned and plentiful meals. While I worked on the beginning of this post, the kitchen was filled with the savory aroma of Judy sautéing shallots!
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The view from our room!
Judy and I took advantage of our time together to practice making her favorite caramel sauce (the recipe that I attempted to make and failed at a month ago). We had some concerns about how the butter, (Strauss' European organic salted butter) which was different than her normal brand, and the high altitude might affect the results. It was a little touch and go with the sauce behaving a bit differently at first, but Judy tamed it into submission and made a gloriously smooth caramel sauce. 

I'm still not sure what I did wrong when I tried to make this recipe previously at home by myself. I ended up with an awful light brown liquid with solidified chunks! I thought the problem might have been that I used too big of a saucepan (4-1/2 quart size) and that caused the mixture to heat too quickly, but then up at Tahoe, Judy used a pot about the same size. I think it must just take practice, and I intend to try again on my own this weekend.
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The supplies: sugar, heavy cream, vanilla and an old penny, in this case, an old Euro cent. More on that later!
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Adding the sugar to the melted butter.
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Butter and sugar coming together
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It was at this point where we were a bit concerned because the butter was separating from the sugar. Judy kept stirring and stirring, and it eventually came together.
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Use the color of an old penny to help judge if the sugar has browned enough. Other indicators are the smell, and when it starts to slightly smoke, it's getting close.
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Even after all the stirring, the sauce was slick with separated fat/oil from the butter, but we pushed on. Notice the color becoming more reddish-brown.
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Remove from heat, and add the heavy cream; watch out the mixture can flare up!
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Bubbly and frothy! Keep stirring!
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The finished sauce incorporated just fine and continued to darken as we stirred out the lumps.
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Notice the lighter (tastes more sweet) color of the jar on the left compared to today's batch (the two right jars). That dark red-brown color is achieved by cooking the mixture longer before adding the cream and creates a more complex, intense, burnt caramel flavor.
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Judy reaps the benefits of her work and gets to lick the spoon!
Rich Caramel Sauce, from David Lebovitz's Room for Dessert
Yield:  about 1-1/2 cups

Equipment
heavy saucepan, large enough so that when you add the cream, it doesn't overflow
wooden spoon
measuring cup & measuring spoons
glass canning jar(s)

Ingredients
8T (1 stick) salted butter
1C sugar
1C heavy cream
1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Procedure
1. Melt the butter in a clean, dry saucepan. This is important because impurities will cause the sugar crystals to re-bond.
2. Add sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
3. Keep stirring as the mixture begins to carmelize and turn an amber color.
4. Use the old copper penny as a guide for the color of the caramel. It's important to let the mixture reach a deep reddish-brown color to achieve a more intense flavor. If it's too light, it will just taste sweet. 
5. As the mixture begins to smoke, it's getting really close. Watch it very carefully. David Lebovitz recommends using an All-Clad saucepan because the light stainless steel contrasts with the caramel and makes it easier to judge the color (Hint, hint. Birthday or Christmas gift, anyone?)
6. Instead of a candy thermometer, use your senses—visually, I think of Crayola crayon's burnt sienna, and the smell should be the moment right before it's just about to burn.
7. Remove from heat and add heavy cream. Stand back! It will foam up vigorously.
8. Stir continuously until smooth and creamy. This could take awhile.
9. Add vanilla.
10. Poor into glass jars (small canning jars or recycled jam jars are perfect) and cover. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
11. Rewarm before serving in the microwave at 15-second intervals, or over a double boiler

Notes: 
*Give this recipe your undivided attention. The mixture is hot and volatile. It can go from almost perfect to burnt in a matter of seconds.
*Judy adjusted the heat throughout, going from medium-low, to medium, to brief moments with no heat to control the rate of carmelization.