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Going to Japan!!!

I just found out that I am going to Japan for a friend’s wedding!  It’s not for over a year, but I am already excited!  Who has been to Japan?  Where should I go?  I’m finding that in spite of my forays into anime, I know surprisingly little about Japanese tourism.  What should I not miss?  I will chiefly be in Tokyo, but I have every intention of getting out of the city for a few days.

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Paradise Lost

Today I have been plagued by the subject of loss.  I talked to an old friend who made me realize how much I have brooded over losses of late.  Lost homes, lost friends, lost funds, lost family, lost dreams, the losses of others.  There is much in life to lose, and I have been lost in its midst this year.

It is easy to become petty over lost travel opportunities, at least for me.  I am often frustrated by nights and weekends at home, wishing to be somewhere else, somewhere better.  I am apparently one who wishes to run away from her problems.  Talks like the one I had today remind me how trivial such thoughts are when there is so much more to lose.

But having much to lose is good, they say, because it means that you have much.  Those words ring ever more hollow each time I hear them.  However, more comforting perhaps is hearing the woes of others so that you can put yours in perspective.

I have had a rough year.  My family has lost much.  My husband losing his job has been particularly concerning.  Hearing about the plight of the poor half a world away has never been near enough to give me the proper perspective of how much worse my situation could be.  Hearing about my friend’s loss was.

My family could certainly be doing better, but at least we are all relatively OK for now.  Not all of us can be so lucky.

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The Post I Will Never Write

Everybody has a special place, a secret place, a place that’s all their own.  A place where you can go to be alone with your thoughts or a place where you can let go and feel at peace.

This place could never be shared with others, except perhaps a select few.  It is a place that is  completely your own.

I have a special place.  It is the only place in the world where I have been able to truly relax.  It is the only place that has ever really felt like home.

I spent the last week in this place, and while it is a place of many wonders that I could expound upon for hours, I know I never will.  The secrets of this place remain ever hidden in my heart.

Do you have a secret place?

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Bridal Shops, the One Thing San Jose Does Best

One would think that the best place to shop in the Bay Area is the city around which everything spins:  San Francisco.  It is after all one of the most prominent cities in the country, perhaps even the world.  How could it not be the best place to shop?

Unfortunately, unlike Chicago or New York, San Francisco just sucks when it comes to clothes.  They have all the big names, but in this fashion-deprived city, well, let’s just say you’re better off finding somewhere else.

In fact, I am amazed that all of the Bay Area does not descend upon San Jose for their shopping needs.  With so many malls to choose from, you’re bound to find what you need.  They have everything from second hand stores and outlet malls to the hip, classy name brands of Santana Row.

And if you are a girl looking for that perfect dress for the Biggest Day of Your Life, you will not find better bridal stores than in the South Bay.

I lived in Berkeley when I got engaged, failed to find any decent bridal shops in the East Bay or San Francisco, and eventually made my way to San Jose where I did in fact find that perfect dress.

And I am no amateur when it comes to bridal gown hunting.  You know those crazy people on Say Yes to the Dress who have tried on 100+ dresses?  I can sweep the floor with any of them.  I have tried on well over 200 bridal gowns and loved every minute of it.  For me, wedding dress shopping was a hobby, so you can trust me when I say that you want to visit San Jose before making a decision.

One nice thing about the suburbs is having a lot of people in a concentrated area where rent is still significantly cheaper than the city.  Especially in the sky-high real estate Hell that is the Bay Area.  Stores in San Jose can afford to have more space than those nearer the city which means more dresses, more variety, and lower prices than you’re likely to find in pricier neighborhoods.

It’s awesome.

Of the stores I’ve visited, I have three to recommend in the San Jose area.

I cannot say much about Trudy’s because I have never shopped for a wedding dress there.  However, I have been there, I have seen how extensive their collection is, and I feel I must include it in this list for that reason alone.  I also have heard that it is more expensive than the other stores I am recommending, so just make sure they know what your budget is.

Bay Area Bridal was the first wedding dress shop I visited in the South Bay, and it was a breath of fresh air after the tiny, cramped salons farther north.  The sales ladies were nice and helpful, and I found a large number of dresses that I would have been happy with were I not so focused on perfection.  The variety was endless.

But it was at Elegant Lace Bridal that I found The One as well as the most pleasant dress shopping experience of my career.  My sales lady, Synthia, was exceptionally helpful and very focused on helping me find my perfect dress.  Though the other sales ladies I have encountered were not nearly as good, Synthia left me with a very positive feeling about Elegant Lace.

But of course the dresses themselves were the most important part of the experience, and while the selection at Elegant Lace is the not the widest I have seen, it does seem to be the best.  Somehow, they manage to order the dresses most likely to please because I along with two of my friends found my perfect dress here.  The selection is still varied, but mostly I think they have good taste.  This shop is the one I most recommend in the Bay Area.

And for me, this was the result:

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My Dress

So if you’re a bride looking for that perfect dress in the Bay Area, I highly recommend making the drive to the South Bay. For this at least, you’re unlikely to find better.

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J. Lohr Is the Best Free Winery in San Jose (Because It’s the Only One)!

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Caveat:  this review is for the San Jose tasting room only.

The absolute best part about the J. Lohr tasting room is that it is free!  Yay free!  I love free.  Things are always better when they’re free.  Wine tastings in particular really ought to be free because the entire point of the tasting is to get you to buy something, so trying it for free is the best way to guilt you into a purchase.  Alas, a free wine tasting is a rare treat around these parts.

Stepping into the tasting room is like taking a trip to Tuscany (albeit the touristy bit).  This old winery-style building is covered in grape vines, and you enter through a wooden door that feels like it leads to another world.  It doesn’t, but it does transport you away from the stark reality that is not-so-downtown San Jose.  Upon entering, you are met with a long, wooden tasting bar, pleasant winey decor, and tchotkes (or for those of you not married to Jews, trinkets) which I always enjoy perusing.

The majority of their wines are pretty basic.  They are relatively inexpensive with good reason, and with so many other local wineries to choose from, well, there is a reason this place is free.

However, if you are looking to buy, you will probably find something you like.  My recommendation would absolutely be the Bay Mist Riesling which is genuinely a great find.  Subtly sweet and slightly sparkling, this light, fresh wine speaks of summer and quality absent in the majority of their wines.  At a mere $10 a bottle, this is the only wine that I consider underpriced at J. Lohr.

One of the things that makes J. Lohr unique among Silicon Valley wineries is that this is a big company, meaning you can find their wines in grocery stores and the like.  If you can remember what you liked, a visit to J. Lohr can save you from staring blankly at your grocery store wine section, clueless as to what you’ll actually enjoy.  Though the wine options are much more plentiful at the tasting room itself, it’s still nice to pick up a bottle at a store and know what you’re going to get.

J. Lohr is far from the best tasting room I’ve been to in San Jose, but it’s still fun to visit, it’s conveniently located for those of us who actually live in San Jose, and the fact that it’s free really does make the experience so much more enjoyable.  What can I say?  I’m poor.  Free is awesome!

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The Pros and Cons of Signing a Book in Person

I am a big fan of novels.  Specifically, reading fantasy novels.  Ever since I was twelve years old, reading has been a huge part of my life.  Naturally, the authors of these books have made a pretty big impact on me.  While others may revere movie stars or singers, I go wobbly-kneed for J.K. Rowling.

Friday night, I got the chance to meet one of my favorites.  If you have not heard of Neil Gaiman, stop reading and go pick up Sandman, Neverwhere, or American Gods right now.

 

 

 

Oh good, you’re done.  Now let’s continue.  Neil Gaiman is probably the most creative, inventive, unique, and well-read author I have ever had the pleasure to encounter.  He works in a wide variety of mediums and literally caters to all ages.  For me, meeting him is like meeting Morgan Freeman or President Obama.  In the world of fantasy celebrities, there are few who rank higher.

Which is why my experience on Friday is so frustrating.

I have a hard time separating artists from their art, particularly when it comes to books.  Books are so very personal.  It’s so easy to see the author coming out of the page.  A bad experience with the author, I feel, makes it hard to get lost in the books in the same way.

I wouldn’t say I had a bad experience with this author, but I wasn’t particularly happy with my encounter either.

The evening began with an introductory reading and Q&A with Neil Gaiman.  And he was fabulous.  Witty, endearing, and quite the spokesman, I loved him even more while he was alone on stage with a book and a mic.

Then there was the signing.

The tour I hitched onto is supposedly Gaiman’s last U.S. book signing tour.  As I read on his blog, he is not a fan of signings.  You can’t blame him.  He’s very popular, so he signs thousands of book every night of the tour.  My hand sure couldn’t take that.

We waited four hours to get his signature.

Granted, we were toward the end, and it was organized about as well as it could be.  We got to stay in our seats right up until it was our turn, so there was no standing or sitting on the floor for hours.  However, I can’t say the experience was fun.

By the time we got up to him of course he had been signing for four hours too.  It was past midnight, and, well, you wouldn’t be in a good mood either if your hand was killing you, and all you really wanted was to go to sleep, but you had to keep going for your fans or die trying.

Obviously, the point was to get on as quickly as possible, so we didn’t really get a chance to talk to him.  At all.  And even if he had, we could tell he was exhausted and didn’t want to be there anymore.  And while none of us could possibly blame him for it, that’s really just not the way you want to meet your favorite author.

Now, I must inject that I am incredibly spoiled when it comes to meeting authors.  Another of my favorites not only met with me while I was teaching a class on his books, but we’ve kept in touch since.  I showed him around San Francisco (and did a horrible job of it, and he was kind enough not to let me know), and then he flew me out to Wyoming to be in a video he was making about young readers.  He has been nothing but gracious and kind to me and given me far more attention than I deserve, and I love him for it.  So you should go read The Lost Years of Merlin by T.A. Barron too.

The circumstances are totally different, but I almost wish I hadn’t gone to Gaiman’s signing because it was such an unsatisfactory experience, especially after my encounters with T.A. Barron.  Hearing Gaiman talk and picking up a signed copy on the way out would have been a much more pleasant night for all of us.

So I think it’s good that this is his last U.S. book signing tour.  If everyone is unhappy with the experience, it’s really not worth it to put the author through all that stress and pain just to see his face up close and watch him sign his name.

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The Fruits of Our Labors

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California Has Two Faces

California has two faces.  Well, actually, technically it has three, but no one cares about the third one.

The first and most well-known is warm, sunny Southern California, land of beaches, movie stars, ridiculously priced housing, and theme parks.  The ultimate summer getaway that you don’t have to getaway to and that is summery even when it’s not summer.

Then there is Northern California, filled with hippies, tree huggers, redwoods (for hugging), even more ridiculously priced housing, and people who really like wine and organic food.  The opposite of a summer getaway since no one wants to be here during the summer due to excessive amounts of fog.

The third is Bakersfield.

I have lived in Northern and Southern California long enough to appreciate their respective appeals, and while I cannot claim to be an unbiased observer (my heart will always belong to the Southern California shore), I think I can represent them both fairly.

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Laguna Beach

The first thing you should know about Southern California is that no one in their right mind wants to live in L.A.  “But what about all of those millionaire movie stars and their mansions?” you ask.  Yeah, they either don’t want to live in L.A., or they’re not in their right minds.  Seriously.  All of the stories that describe L.A. as a stinking, dirty Hell pit are not exaggerating as much as one might expect.  Still, nearly everyone from Southern California claims to be from L.A. when talking to outsiders which is probably why most people do not differentiate between them.

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Laguna Beach

In many ways, Southern California is exactly what it advertises:  sun, beach, glamour; a better life.  The giltz and glimmer of Hollywood is long dead (walk alone in Hollywood at night.  Go on, I dare you.  Just don’t blame me when you get shot).  However, most of Southern California really is an amazing place to live.  While the sun does not shine year-round, rain is minimal.  While it does get “cold” there, it rarely drops below the fifties in the flatlands and often hovers in the sixties even in winter.  There is always something to do, and there are just so many different kinds of activities available—from spending the day at Disneyland to watching local bands in a dive bar to getting up at 6am to catch the best waves.  And best of all, they’re available year-round.

Of course, there are drawbacks.  Price of living, housing in particular, is unanimously considered the downside of living in Southern California, and when you visit other places, it really is shocking to compare prices of even simple things like groceries and gas.  The higher minimum wage does not come close to making up for it.  But in my mind, the sheer number of people that inhabit this land of excellent weather is equally troublesome.  Apart from the ocean, there is very little natural area left, and if you’re trying to get away from it all, you’re in for a long drive.  It can be depressingly oppressive to look out and see nothing but houses for hundreds of miles in every direction.

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The One and Only Golden Gate Bridge on a Not-so-foggy Day

Northern California is undeniably a different environment despite sharing certain features.  Though one couldn’t really call it cold in the inhabited portions, it does not share its southern counterpart’s warmth.  I like to think that Southern California is mild on the warm side while Northern California is mildly cool.  Of course, that depends greatly on where you are, but in the Bay Area (and let’s face it, how many people really live elsewhere in Northern California?), it holds true enough.

Unlike the south, people in Northern California do not all say they’re from San Francisco.  It’s much more localized than that.  People in the San Francisco Bay Area are broken up into factions:  San Francisco (if you actually live there or close to it), the East Bay (or Oakland if that’s where you actually live…not that anyone wants to admit it), the South Bay (more commonly known as San Jose if that’s where you live, Silicon Valley if you live anywhere else, or Palo Alto if you’re that lucky), the Peninsula (if you can’t quite claim to be from San Francisco or Silicon Valley), and Marin (where everyone secretly wants to live whether they admit it or not).  People are fiercely proud of where they reside for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  Considering how close they all are, however, each section really does have a different feel to it, something noticeably missing from the Southern California sprawl.

While the Southland has tourists’ images of Hollywood to contend with, its northern cousin faces two brutal tourist stereotypes.  The more robust is that Northern California is basically the same as Southern California.  That is, that it’s warm there.  While San Franciscans love to laugh at tourists who brought nothing but shorts and t-shirts for their summer vacation and are now huddled in overpriced sweatshirts, it really stings NorCal residents that everyone lops them in with Southern California.  It truly is a completely different atmosphere up north, and Northern California natives crave recognition for it.

As such, Northern Californians kind of hate Southern California.  People in NorCal are proud of their home and all that it offers and look with disdain on vain, unnatural SoCal.  They say that they like the—(insert one) food, wine, culture, politics, environment—in Northern California, but I still think they’re jealous that Southern California gets all the attention.  One of the most interesting aspects of this relationship is that it is completely one-sided.  People in SoCal do not care about Northern California other than as a vacation spot.  They feel no jealousy, no disdain.  They don’t even really talk about the difference (even the words NorCal and SoCal are a largely Northern California based phenomenon).  They’re too oblivious to care.  This, above all else, makes me think that the difference in perception really does lie in NorCal’s jealousy of SoCal; they don’t want to be lumped in with the egotistical people there and think they should get credit for having a genuine culture.

The other not-exactly-true stereotype is that Northern California is peopled by tree-hugging hippies.  This is only half true.  Honestly, there are a lot of hippies that stuck around after the sixties and seventies, and there are a lot more radically left-wing inhabitants.  However, I would not call them the majority.  Texas might, but I wouldn’t.  Yes, Northern California is very liberal, probably the most liberal area of the country, but like anywhere, most of the inhabitants are moderate.  Left-leaning moderates, but still.  It’s not impossible to find a conservative, and while they are a lot less eager to share their beliefs than they would be in many places in this country, they are not entirely written off.  Not entirely.

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Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park

Once you get past the stereotypes, Northern California has a number of great things to offer.  The cuisine is unparalleled; I defy you to find another place in the world with such varied cuisine where everything tastes delicious.  San Francisco gets most of the credit for having fantastic food, but you can find it all over the Bay Area.  The East Bay in particular has fantastically cheap good food of all sorts.

Likewise, good wine is easy to find in the Greater Bay Area.  With Napa a short drive north, it’s easy to get world class wines without a ton of effort, and Sonoma, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, and Mendocino County all provide excellent, less-touristy options.  Personally, wine tasting is my favorite Northern California activity, and getting to try wines at the actual winery is quite the pleasant experience, producing good conversation with the pourers and sometimes owners, offering a chance to try extra and special wines, and often presenting a lovely setting or picnic area as well.

But to me, the biggest draw of Northern California is the natural scenery.  The coastline provides some of the most breath-taking views in the world, and nothing in Southern California comes close to equaling it.  Because the water never really warms, people do not flock to it as they do down south, so much of the coast is essentially untouched, and seeing the beauty of the trees, cliffs, and sea combined in perfect, idyllic harmony is truly an unparalleled experience.

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The Lone Cypress Tree on the 17 Mile Drive near Monterey–One of California’s Most Stunning and Most Photographed Views

Of course, there is much more to see in California.  The redwoods are quite as majestic as the coast, and hiking through them is just as awe-inspiring.  The mountains and desert are a vision as well, and while it lacks the beauty of other parts of the state, Central Valley is something to behold.  After all, because of the valley, California produces more food than any other state.  People live in these parts of the state, but few Californians considered them inhabited.  Mostly, these are places people visit but do not stay.  That may be unfair to say, but compared to the number of people near the cities, the populations of the more rural areas are practically negligible.  Thus, we discuss the areas most Californians call home.

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California Redwoods

Northern and Southern California both have much to offer, and they are very different.  However, it is that difference that really makes California as incredible as it is.  California is all about diversity—of terrain, of people, of food, of culture.  Ask someone in California where they’re from or about their ancestry or where they like to visit, and you’ll get a whole list of answers.  The amazing thing about California is that it has everything.  And while there may be two main places to live in California (and countless smaller ones), what truly makes California unique is that it encompasses all of these things, creating a place in the world that can be home to anyone.

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So, What Exactly Are We Doing Here?

Why?  Why would anyone want to explore, or for that matter read about, the worst places on Earth (Earth obviously being synonymous with California)?  I mean really, what do you think you’re doing here?

Here’s the thing.  Nothing in California sucks all that bad.

That’s not true at all.  The Mojave Desert is the lowest circle of Hell.

Next to Kansas.

But that’s not the point.

I have always found California to be a truly amazing place.  There’s the whole “you can go skiing in the morning and surfing in the afternoon” thing (which by the way is extremely difficult to do if not impossible).  More fascinating in my opinion, you can also go shopping in Downtown San Francisco then half-an-hour later find yourself completely surrounded by nature, taking in majestic views without a soul in sight.

You can find one of the widest ranges of people on the planet, each equipped with its own tasty cuisine and fascinating traditions.  And there is truly something for everyone.  Whether you love the nightlife, crave fabulous local wines, spend your days at the beach, dream of working on a farm, hum to the beat of the metropolis, search for the finest cuisine, wish to sit quietly in a snowy mountain town, want your own cabin in the woods, or can’t get enough of Disneyland, California has what you dream of and a thousand other things besides.

Which brings me back to what wouldn’t you want to know about California?

Yes, not everywhere in this golden state is somewhere you’re dying to hear about.  I don’t think anyone is itching to see the sights of East L.A.  Central Valley ain’t exactly hoppin’.  And most of us who live in California consider everything north of Napa part of Oregon.

Still, there are a lot of hidden treasures in this most unique of states, and I intend to uncover them, wherever they may be.

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Bridget McNeill’s Has the Best of Both Worlds

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No feeling can quite compare to walking out of the cold and into a warm, cozy pub in Ireland. Unfortunately, finding such an atmosphere in the U.S. can be difficult, but Bridget McNeill’s has one of the best.

This isn’t because it has great Irish food or the widest selection of Irish beers or even people speaking in unintelligible accents. In fact, it’s awfully Americanized when it comes right down to it.

But the thing that really MAKES Irish pubs for me is the atmosphere, and Bridget McNeill’s is perfect. With comfy arm chairs, small tables, and a sound level at which you can actually have an intelligible conversation, this pub exudes a cozy atmosphere that is perfect for just hanging out with friends. It also includes the requisite Irish beer list and to my personal delight Magner’s cider.

That’s where the Irish part stops, but the pub’s American aspects actually add to the experience (gasp!). Their unique array of homemade pizzas provides a delectable meal as do the large selection of burgers, and the menu itself is quite sizable. Honestly, it has more and better options than many pubs in Ireland (let’s face it, they were under British rule for a long time, and it did nothing good to their cuisine). Likewise, their drink menu is considerable and includes much more than beer and wine, leaving room for people with all sorts of tastes to get a good drink. To top it off, they have specials on food and/or alcohol everyday as well as trivia on Wednesdays. On the whole, this is a great bar, a fantastic pub, and a really nice place to sit down with friends for dinner, a few drinks, and some nice conversation.
Bridget McNeill’s Irish Pub
420 W. Belmont Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 248-6654

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