04 September 2018

Solo Traveler Orlando Vacation Redux

A few weeks ago, in a midnight bout of work-related-anxiety insomnia, I booked myself a a last-minute trip to Orlando for Labor Day weekend—I'd always wanted to go to Universal Studios (it opened in 1990, and the last time I went to Orlando was as a kid in the late-80s) and also wanted to revisit the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I wound up staying at a Universal Orlando resort (the Aventura Hotel, which just opened August 16) and splitting my theme park days half-half—Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Epcot, Universal's Islands of Adventure. I also made some vlogs about two of those days (embedded here), so instead of rehashing them in any sort of detailed way, here are some key learnings / strong opinions I have about visiting these theme parks, especially if you're a solo traveler.

— The Magic Kingdom is a massive undertaking—and where I noticed the most child meltdowns during the day. The lines are long, there's a lot of walking involved, and the rides are hit-or-miss in terms of ROI (return on investment, in this case time spent waiting on line). Be prepared to space out your day and take plenty of breaks. Having a breakfast and/or lunch reservation helps structure your loop around the park. I grabbed a last-minute lunch spot at the Be Our Guest restaurant, which lets you inside the Beast's Castle. The food was fine—not good, not bad, fine. And prices throughout the park are on par with prices you'd see on a NYC diner menu, so not expensive, but also not cheap.

— Fast Pass: I booked my vacation too late to score any of the harder-to-get fast passes, but my priority in visiting Disney properties wasn't to go on rides—I was more interested in just walking around, eating cute snacks, shopping, and checking out any newly-developed themed corners of the parks. If you're traveling with young children, I'm pretty sure you'll need to employ some serious Fast Pass strategy, in order to avoid killing each other.

— Wear socks. I read so many blog posts and articles about the best shoes to wear while walking the 10+ miles you'll be covering each day at any Orlando theme parks, and so many of them recommend Tevas and flip flops and sports sandals. Fine, OK, sure I guess I could see how that would work, because of the handful of water rides here and there that might get your feet wet—but I weighed the options and I'd rather bring a pair of sandals / Tevas in my backpack to change into just in case I went on a water ride instead of getting painful blisters from wearing shoes without socks all day long. My recommendation is to choose a pair of soft sneakers without any abrasive seams—ideal: any of the sneakers from Nike's Flyknit range—and wear them with socks (I prefer Bombas).

— Wherever you stay, take advantage of early park entry. I went to parks on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday over a holiday long weekend. It doesn't matter which day of the week you go—these parks are packed (I'm from NYC, I know packed). You'll get so much done during the pre-admission hour—at Universal Studios it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter—I rode the Gringott's ride twice in a row because the lines were so short in the morning! At Disney World, I didn't have early park entry (because I was staying at a Universal property), but even just making sure to get there as the park was opening made a huge difference in getting to popular rides early.

— Don't worry about backtracking. I'm a huge fan of workflow and efficiency, but threw all that out the window when I was in Orlando, especially at the Disney properties. At Epcot, for example, I got there just as the park was opening and triaged Frozen Ever After, Soarin' Around the World, and Test Track all within the first 90 minutes of arriving. It was a lot of dashing back and forth to different corners of the theme park, but once I got to ride those, I felt like I had the rest of the day free to explore whatever I wanted at Epcot with zero pressure.

— Get all your souvenirs delivered. Every park offers the free option to have the souvenirs you buy throughout the day delivered to the front gate for pickup on your way out—and if you stay at a Disney resort or a Universal resort, you can have theme park deliver your shopping directly to your hotel.

— Cool down spots. It was a sweltering (but typical, I guess) 90 degrees and humid all four days I was out and about at theme parks in Orlando—even in the mornings!—so I figured out pretty quickly that there are some important cool-down spots that are easy-ish to access when you need time to just decompress, sit down, soak in the air conditioning, and not have to buy a meal or a drink (or wait on line). My favorite spot that combines limitless cool-downing and people watching: Knockturn Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter—that dark side street where Borgin and Burkes is. It's ultra-air-conditioned, pretty dark (no sun!), and has benches where you can sit with a bottle of water for as long as you like.

— Opinion: Epcot needs a revamp. I found Epcot to be the most challenging theme park I visited over the long weekend—it was blistering hot, there wasn't a lot of shade or air conditioning to duck into while I was making my way around to visit the different countries, and the rides were just... OK. Frozen Ever After might be fun for super-fans of Frozen, but there wasn't anything about it that felt high-touch or surprising / delightful. It felt like they needed a Frozen ride, so they made a Frozen ride. At Epcot I was also surprised at how outdated some of the points of view were on representing different cultures in this setting—I found the "Africa" corner of the park to be especially problematic (1. Africa is not a country and 2. Presenting an entire continent as a monolithic grab-bag of kitsch "tribal"-themed souvenirs is... a really old cop-out of an idea that needs to be overhauled ASAP.).

Last takeaway thoughts on solo travel to Orlando:

— Theme parks are a great solo trip option because you get to do whatever you want and you get to cut down on your line time by choosing Single Rider lines.
— Staying at a Disney property or a Universal property will make your daily logistics much easier.
— Drink at least twice as much water as you usually drink—you'll dehydrate faster than you think.
— A larger-than-average belt bag can hold most of what you need—not carrying a backpack will keep you way less sweaty and make it easier to go on some rides.
— After going on a bunch of Hogwarts rides, I feel like being a student there would be really stressful. There are a lot of scary creatures and bad guys constantly trying to kill you—how do these kids ever get any studying done!

14 August 2018

The YouTube channels I watch nearly every day

Always: These are the YouTube channels I'll watch every single time a new video pops up. I prioritize these videos in my subscription feed over all the others, usually because I find the content either super-inspirational or informative. In some cases, it's because I've been watching these YouTubers for a while and I think they're cool and interesting people doing cool and interesting things.

Casey Neistat

Colleen Ballinger + Colleen Vlogs + Miranda Sings

Koro DeSoto

Also Gus Gus, their cat.

Jenna Marbles

David Dobrik:

Ryan Higa

Nikki Blackketter


Sometimes: I also really like videos by Anna Akana, PewDiePie, Zoella, Alfie Deyes, Taylor R., Bradley Martyn, Caspar, Laura Lee, Manny Mua, and Alex Wassabi.

12 August 2018

New week's resolutions

I think a lot about what it would be like if I were my vacation self at home—curious, un-jaded, high-energy, in an exploratory mood. I think it's hard when you live in the place where you grew up—even if it is New York City, things just feel... familiar, easy, and comfortable. The other day I was explaining to a friend that one of the reasons I love/need to travel is because, at home, my identity is so completely wrapped up in my career and New York so intrinsically part of my DNA that I don't feel like I have a boundary, that my lines are blurred. It takes going away and putting myself in an unfamiliar context for me to find my borders, to define where my sense of self begins and ends.

Over the past few weeks I've been making an effort to do different things while home in New York—not just going through the motions of routine and fulfilling obligations on my daily to-do checklists. I've been trying to schedule in weekly shows—so far I've been to the Erasure show at the Beacon a few weeks ago, then I went to see My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center, and the week after I went to see my 'lil sib' from high school in Aladdin on Broadway—and movies (I went to see Christopher Robin two weeks ago; last week I scored a last-minute ticket to a screening of Crazy Rich Asians, which was amazing). I've also been trying out some new-to-me self-care spa treatments—I've been going for a monthly Korean body scrub, the one where the entire outside layer of your body peels off in clumpy grey rolls of dead skin (it's a slow, superficial form of catharsis), and have been scheduling in time for a weekly-ish infrared sweat session at Shape House, which is my favorite no-effort-feel-like-a-million-bucks way to spend money right now.

But it's not just about doing activities, I think. I feel, like a lot of women I know, especially around the same age, the essential difference between vacation me and home me is that home me beats myself up a lot—for not getting enough done, for not meeting expectations, for not losing weight, for wasting time, for eating this and not eating that, for not reading enough and spending too much time watching YouTube. Vacation me is kinder to myself. Have you ever noticed that it's really hard to relax on vacation? I have to spend a solid three or four days conscientiously talking myself into vacation mode, like giving a child permission: Don't check your email. You don't have to make a schedule for tomorrow. You can play it by ear. Yes, you have time to take a walk along the beach. You don't have to eat in a specific half-hour window because you will have free time later on. Wear what you want. Don't set an alarm.

I think I need to try to do this in my real non-vacation life too: Conscientiously be gentler with myself. So that's my new week's resolution—to work hard, but for a reasonable number of hours each week; read books if I want or watch YouTube videos if I want; take that 15 minutes to make a cup of tea and sitting down at my desk to write something for myself, instead of grabbing coffee on the go; wear that brighter shade of lipstick; take time out to bake a cake.

11 August 2018

Newish coffee ritual

From 2008 to 2013, I quit coffee. Actually I quit three specific things during those five years: drinking, coffee, and Diet Coke. I think I'd started as a new year's resolution in 2008, did it for a month, and was like: Oh wait, this is pretty easy, I'll just keep going. To be honest, I don't think it did me any good; I gained a ton of weight during those years (drinking calories and eating calories are not the same thing) and my social life suffered (it's really not un-awkward to have a social life in New York if you don't drink alcohol, coffee, or Diet Coke; also I got bored of explaining abstention to people when there wasn't a reason). Anyway, I started drinking alcohol and coffee again in 2013, just out of the blue—and I think, in retrospect, the best thing about taking all those years off caffeine and booze is that I now have much lower tolerance for both, so I have sort of successfully achieved moderation in these two consumption categories in middle age.

For a few years, I've been drinking Illy coffee made in a Bialetti, but in the past six months, I've been experimenting with different instant coffees that have stuff  (mushrooms, mostly) in it. It's apparently good for the brain and good for stress levels and health. See above reference to middle age.

Here's what I've been liking a lot:

1. Four Sigmatic "Create" with Lion's Mane and Chaga: This used to be called something different, I think "Think," because the balance of Lion's Mane and Chaga helped to both stave off caffeine jitters and helped focus throughout the day. I first read about this on Tim Ferriss' blog—he's right, it's powerful stuff. I try to drink this most work mornings—especially when I know I have a big meetings or brainstorming day ahead—and I try to not drink this on weekends, to give my brain a rest.

2. Four Sigmatic "Achieve" with Cordyceps and Chaga: This used to be called "Awake" and I drink this on days when I know I have to be alert, but maybe don't need the added focus boost of "Think." Cordyceps is a pretty popular ingredient in Chinese cooking, and apparently is also helpful in managing energy levels. I find that when I drink this in the morning, I don't get the 3 p.m. sleepies as much. I prefer the taste of the "Create" coffee packets, though, so I tend to stick with those.

3. Four Sigmatic "Hack Stress" Adaptogen Coffee with Tulsi and Astragalus: If you know me irl you know that sometimes work can really stress me out. Recently I ordered a box of this anti-stress coffee—my initial impressions are that 1. It totally works. The result is palpable and I feel physically more relaxed and unstressed, yet am still alert. 2. It has a very strong taste—very herbal, so if you don't like things that taste almost-medicinal-herbal, you may not be able to drink this. I'm going to keep this around and use it when I feel like I'm having an especially tough week, but I'm not sure yet whether this is going to be a regular thing for me.

4. On weekends I try not to drink coffee unless I have something I need to do, people to see, or need to stay up past 10 p.m. for some reason. To combat and prevent caffeine headaches, I'll have a cup or two of Yorkshire Tea in the mornings (with organic milk from grass fed cows—this is the only American milk I've found that even vaguely comes close to British milk). If I skip tea, I'll have a brutal headache by 11 a.m. and nothing besides two Advil and a nap will make it go away.

05 August 2018

The story of Chinese Food Fight Club

March 23, 2011: I'd spent seven years at the New York Post before leaving in 2010 to launch Racked National (now just default Racked.com) at the Curbed Network (now a part of Vox) but I was still close with Posties Andy Wang real estate editor and David Landsel travel editor, so we were making plans to meet up. Andy's friend Phiderika had told him about these epic-stealth flash mob dinners that had been happening every Friday night in the basement of a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, Legend on 15th and 7th, and I think we'd been meaning to check it out.

Then this happened:

And this:

I think, to be honest, Sichuan food wasn't as much of a thing in New York at the time, so we were compelled to go immediately mostly because of Dave Chang's tweet and FOMO. That, and I'd just been to a good Sichuan restaurant in Flushing with my parents the weekend before and, you know how it is, once you get a whiff of mala nothing else hits the spot in the quite the same way, especially in the tail-end of a New York City winter.

Seven years on, this first dinner at Legend feels like forever ago. Look at that Foursquare checkin! First of all, Foursquare. Second: I was using an Android! I think it was a Verizon Motorola something with a sliding screen. I think I'd gotten it for free.

A few weeks later, after an email debrief from Andy's friend Phiderika on the unspoken rules of Legend's Friday night dinner, we braved the Friday night dinner. I can't find the email in my Gmail, but it was in listicle format and went something like this: Don't say anything to anybody, walk straight downstairs, sit at any table, don't come with more than four people, there's a section reserved for hotpot, at 7 p.m. sharp the chef or staff will come out to take orders, if you don't know what's going on just let the people at your table order, they'll bring out lots of dishes to share, bring cash to split the bill, it'll be about $25 a head.

Sometime that spring, we started calling it Chinese Food Fight Club. Mostly because of all the rules. I also liked that people would come on their own—white collar first-generation Chinese drifters in search of a great, super-spicy meal shared with strangers, everyone after the same thing. It felt very pure.

By June, David had decamped to Detroit and Andy and I had launched full-on Legend evangelism by organizing informal group dinners where he'd invite a gang of real estate people and I'd invite a gang of fashion people and we'd all cram in around one round table downstairs. We called it Chinese Food Fight Club to entice our jaded media friends and colleagues and it was an easy way to one, hang out with people we liked, and two, maximize our meals, so we could order and try as many dishes as possible in one weeknight sitting. In retrospect, with the social media boom just over the horizon and our mid-to-late-30s creeping up on us, it was also the last irl social networking moment I can remember—before the late-Gen X westward migration and the all the babies everyone wound up having just a couple of years down the line. These days we all still talk, but mostly just through screens, tapping on handheld devices with our thumbs.

I just now searched my Gmail inbox and it looks like between June 2011 and December 2016, I used the phrase "Chinese Food Fight Club" 127 times. That's a lot of people and a lot of dinners—and it's not even counting "Legend" emails, text messages, or work emails.

Then in July, this happened.

"To the mystification of the city’s Sichuan food cultists, they continued serving summer rolls and shu mai, all the while putting out word in the Chinese community about the Sichuan cuisine being cooked by the chef Ding Gen Wang, a master who cooked most recently at Grand Sichuan Eastern in Midtown," wrote the Times' Julia Moskin. "Despite the confusion and a vast menu still larded with distractions, the aromatic, spicy Sichuan food actually cooked by Chef Wang here is often unbelievably good."

For the next few months, getting into Legend was pretty difficult, so Chinese Food Fight Club went on hiatus and we all just did our own thing. Big group dinners became fewer and farther between, but Andy, David, Alex, and I would still make it to Legend regularly—for friends-only pre-dinners, post-event debriefs, life catch-ups, or when someone we knew and respected had never been. We were always trying to take peoples' Legend virginity, and we always told them about Chinese Food Fight Club—as if it had been a long-running dinner series and not just one great season of Sichuan.

Legend closed in July 2018. Despite reports to the contrary, the closure is permanent, and there's another restaurant slated to open in its place. The OG chef left in 2015 (he opened a new restaurant in New Hyde Park), and "New Legend" opened a couple of branches further uptown (the one on the UWS appears to still be open). Andy, David, Alex, and I have been group-texting about the closing all day—I'm the only one of us four who still lives in New York, but I think we all feel this deeply. Over the years, Andy and I brought some big deal people (before they were big deals) to eat fish soup with us in the basement of Legend, but we also brought people we loved who were visiting from out-of-town, because Legend was our spot. Andy would pre-game and post-game much fancier dinners at Legend; for me, it was my go-to order on Seamless, sometimes twice a week. Every time any of these guys come back to New York, we meet at Legend. The last time we were there was June 29—Andy was in from LA and we took Maria, the restaurant editor from my digital team at Food & Wine, for lunch, and it was better than it's ever been.

"I was just telling a food writer pal that I've learned one thing over the years," David texted us this morning. "And that is to not wait to celebrate and spend time with restaurants that you love, while they are here or while they are good, because they mostly go away and leave you behind."

It's funny how much things can change in seven years. But at the end of the day, Legend was a great neighborhood Chinese restaurant that had an epic run, better than most.

10 June 2018

Self Care

I went to a Korean spa this morning to get steamed, scrubbed, and kneaded to within an inch of jello—it was the only thing I could think of to do today that might help shed some of last week's skin.

I usually get my best (OK, 'best' is debatable—favorite, maybe) ideas when I'm in a taxi either going to or coming from the airport, I don't know why, I think it has something to do with the subtext of potential (leaving NY) or a renewed sense of hope (coming back to NY), but today at some point when the therapist was hurling buckets of hot water at me, I had this sudden thought from under all the horribleness of this past week/month/season/year/presidential administration and I heard these words in my head: It doesn't have to be this way.

It can get better. I don't know if it will, but it can.

29 May 2018

Life coaching

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went on the vacation-iest vacation I've been on in years—to Turks & Caicos, on a trip organized by my friend Georgia. Georgia and I worked together, years ago, at a startup that had just launched in New York. It was short-lived (like many startups), but we stayed in touch and a couple of months ago, she got in touch and told me she'd started a travel company, planning small group trips for women who love to vacation. Well. I *love* to vacation, so this weekend I traveled with Georgia's new company MunSun Retreats to Providenciales, where we had run of a private beachfront villa for four days. It was divine. Check out what we got up to in the video below.

Not mentioned: On MunSun Retreats, you can sign up for a life coaching session. I did, and it really opened my eyes. It's one thing to turn your problems over and over in your mind, looking for a solution day in and day out, but presenting your issues and laying out all the opportunities and possibilities for solutions in front of a neutral party who's not emotionally embroiled in what you go through every single day... it was really mind-opening. In fact, for the past two days, I haven't been able to stop thinking about the visioning exercise we went through during the session, how light and unstressed I felt and how the vision I had for my professional and work life was so clear. I feel like I know the exact next steps I need to take.

20 May 2018

New backpack who dis

Four days in Montreal at the Travel Classics conference—I never knew anything like this existed, a program that twice a year brings vetted freelancers and editors together in one place for a long weekend of ideation and collaboration. While I was in town, I didn't have much time to get out of conference mode, but I did catch a light show with the group at the Basilica downtown.

And, last minute, I got to try some of Montreal's poutine (topped with Lester's Deli smoked meat!) at the airport on my way home. Breakfast poutine:

Also made a short video about my *new Prada backpack* (throwback to the '90s!) that I'm super-excited about because I mostly bought it to carry all my work stuff to and from work—I'm walking more now, which I think is good for me since I pretty much don't move at all for the 10-12 hours a day I'm at work. I was especially impressed with the backpack today when I flew back from Montreal and managed to comfortably fit a hardcover (Edward Lee's Buttermilk Graffifi—it's great), a Macbook Air, AND six Montreal bagels in it. Magic.

17 April 2018

Quick Trip: Chengdu and Chongqing

Three nights in Chengdu and one night in Chongqing: Glorious but not nearly enough time.

— Flew Hainan Airlines' new direct flight from JFK to Chengdu, then back from Chongqing
— Stayed at the Temple House in Chengdu (spectacular, centrally located, walk everywhere)
— Stayed at the JW Marriott in Chongqing (spectacular, centrally located, take a cab everywhere—seriously, that city is massive)

You could probably make a four-day weekend of it, tbh, if you commit to embracing jet lag and sleeping in shifts. More than worth it.

Day 1: NYC to Chengdu

Day 2: Pandas!

I skipped vlogging on Day 3, but here's Day 4: Chengdu to Chongqing

Day 5: Last day in Chongqing

07 January 2018

Bad at cheat days

I don't really know what was happening in the East Village at 7:30 this morning, but I was up early because today was my first cheat day of 2018. My weight has gotten a little out of control over the past couple of years so this week I started the Slow Carb Diet (from Tim Ferriss' The 4 Hour Body) and, ergo, have not had any sugar over the past five days. Ferriss recommends one full-on cheat day each week—one of the biggest reasons this diet appeals to me—so today was it.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, I am not super-good at cheat days.

Since I was really excited about finally eating refined carbs, gluten, and sugar again, at least for one wake cycle, I woke up super-early and got to Whole Foods just before 8 a.m. By 8:45 a.m. I'd already inhaled the following and felt high.

— 1 grapefruit juice
— 1 cherry apple juice
— 1 cheese danish
— 2 slices of sourdough bread, buttered
— 2 packets of Indomie Mi Goreng noodles
— 2 Tunnocks caramel wafers
— 1 mug of tea with half-and-half

I think I overdid it way too early. Bad strategy. And by lunch I still wasn't hungry. So while my family had pizza, I ate a beef patty and felt stuffed. Went home, ate a pint of grapes (fruit!), and have been so full all afternoon I couldn't eat again until now (spaghetti).

Key learnings: Need to rethink cheat day strategy for next week; blew through too much sugar and flour way too early in the morning. Could be worth focusing on one particular craving on cheat day, instead—baked goods? fruit? pasta? burgers?

Work in progress.

It's weird, I kind of can't wait to go back to eating poached eggs and lentils tomorrow morning.