Alaska Cruise | Cruise Day 3: Juneau, Alaska

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. On our Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

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Day 3 began with brilliant weather so I decided to check out the jogging track on the upper deck of the cruise ship.

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I walked laps around the track for an hour, listening to tunes, people watching, and taking in the gorgeous scenery.

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We hung out for the rest of the morning and I spent some time on our balcony, watching the morning fog roll over the mountains nearby.

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Around 2PM we arrived in Juneau. Juneau is the capital of Alaska and is actually the second largest city in the US by area (3,250 square miles). Despite its size in land, the population is only about 32,000.

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Juneau is technically not an island but, because there are no roads connecting the city to the rest of Alaska or the rest of North America, it acts as one with all incoming and outgoing travel done either by plane or boat. Juneau is nestled at the base of Mount Juneau, right off Gastineau Channel. Juneau was the original home of the Native American Tlingit tribe. In 1880, gold rushers settled a town site that would later become Juneau. Alaska was granted statehood in 1959.

The economy of Juneau is supported mainly by government, the fishing industry, and the tourism industry. It was estimated that in 2005, 1 million visitors came to Juneau on cruise ships between May and September. During our entire trip I marveled at how remote Alaska is and really grasped how much tourism supports this part of the country.

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Downtown Juneau was pretty small, mostly touristy shops and restaurants. I really wished John had bought this eagle shirt! (you know he loves him some eagles)

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At 2PM we got off the ship to go on our first port excursion. The excursion was called Mendenhall Glacier and Whale Quest and all told was about six hours.

We loaded into buses alongside 200 other people from the ship and headed toward Mendenhall Glacier (a 20 minute drive from downtown Juneau). I had never seen a glacier before so I was pretty pumped. Mendenhall Glacier is a mountain/alpine glacier and was named in 1891 after Thomas Corwin Mendenhall.

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The flora of surrounding Tongass National Forest is so beautiful. Lush, green, abundant; quintessential Pacific Northwest.

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We stopped first at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. It was pretty small but they feature a video on the evolution of the glacier which was super interesting and excellently produced. They had interactive models, a lookout area, and a gift shop.

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Then we headed down the Photo Point Trail to get a closer look at Mendenhall Glacier. Sidenote: there are a few trails around the area to get different vantage points of the glacier but since we were short on time, we opted for the scenic overlook trail not too far from the Visitor Center.

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Even at a distance, Mendenhall Glacier was one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen.

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One of the most fascinating things we learned about Mendenhall Glacier, and all of the glaciers we saw on this trip (more coming!), was why they appear to look blue. Basically it’s because the snow falling on the glacier is compressed, the majority of the air bubbles are squeezed out, the ice crystal size increases, and the light wavelengths absorbed are red, orange, yellow, and green so that the remaining color we see is this rich blue color.

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Unfortunately, because of climate change, Mendenhall Glacier has been in retreat since the end of the Little Ice Age in the 1700’s and has receded over 2.5 miles since 1500, with 1.75 miles of that being since 1958. As you may know, the EPA recently released a report outlining the scientific and economic impact of unchecked global climate change (spoiler alert: bad things). Climate action and preservation now can impact the future – I can’t stand the thought of Mendenhall Glacier having a finite lifespan.

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When our hour was up we got back on the bus and were driven to Auke Bay to go on our whale watch with Allen Marine Tours. There were about 30-40 people on this tour with us, much more intimate than the hordes at Mendenhall Glacier.

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I was really excited for this tour. The description guaranteed whale sightings (and other wildlife) and the weather was incredible (sunny and 70 degrees). I was also really eager to just see Alaska. Of course we’d already gotten magnificent views from the cruise ship but this felt different – this felt like a more up close and personal glimpse at Alaska’s true character.

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The boat ride began in Auke Bay/Stephen’s Passage, went up north through Saginaw Channel, and out to the Lynn Canal. The scenery was simply breathtaking – snowy mountains in the distance, big fluffy cumulus clouds overhead, pristine blue water around us outlined by a lush green shoreline.

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Two bald eagles:

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After sailing for about 45 minutes we got to the Point Retreat Lighthouse, off the coast of Admiralty Island. It was about this time that the captain slowed the boat down – this was a popular whale viewing area.

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Almost immediately we began to see spouts and sprays of water. The captain let us know there were indeed killer whales nearby and to keep our eyes peeled. He and his staff began deftly and helpfully alerting us to where they were.

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It wasn’t long before the orca pods were all around us. Mothers with babies, family units, adults. All kinds of group sizes. It was thrilling. John and I were awestruck.

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Fun fact: Orcas are extremely social and live in matriarchal societies (orca children never leave their mothers). Because female orca can reach 90 years old, it’s possible that as many as four generations can travel together. The intricate social bonds between orca are fascinating: each pod has a unique dialect, distinct food preferences, and cultural complexities.

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As the frequency increased, everyone grew more excited. Even the crew remarked at how unique these sighting were; they hadn’t ever seen such abundant orca groupings before, nd they run the tour! The captain was obviously overjoyed, you can hear him whooping and laughing in almost all of my videos (I recommend ‘full screen’ mode on these):

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We observed these orca, engines off, for probably an hour. They were exquisite and so close, it felt like you could reach out and touch them.

It’s worth mentioning that there are strict federal and environmental regulations around whale watching (how long you can be near the animals, how fast you can go, how much noise you can make, what position the boat should be in in relation to the whales, etc), and our tour observed them vigilantly.

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I also have to acknowledge the staff on our whale watch because they were incredibly knowledgeable about these animals. It made such a difference to have them posted around the boat, encouraging questions from us, and expertly answering them. This wasn’t just an fun excursion, it was educational as well and so much more meaningful as a result.

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After that spectacular show, the captain took us back down the channel in search of other wildlife (oh yeah, there are more than just orca here!). John got a snack and I continued to snap pictures of our surroundings with my amazing telephoto lens.

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As we went back through the channel we got a completely new view of Mendenhall Glacier.

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Also on the cliffs of the channel we saw a deer. Not the wildlife we were expecting but really cool nonetheless.

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On the last leg of the whale watch we slowed through Favorite Channel because there was some buzz that a humpback whale was nearby. To our amazement, there totally was!

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Not just a humpback whale – but a mother and baby humpback whale! This was so special to see. The humpback whale is less social than the orca and these two will only stay together for up to a year.

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The calf was extremely playful, rolling around and waving its fins.

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Fun fact: Humpback whales are migratory – spending their summers in Alaska, swimming roughly 3,000 miles from Hawaii where they spent their winters. Alaska is rich in krill, plankton, etc. in the summer and they can eat up to one ton per day. Humpbacks feast all summer to fatten up for the winter, as they don’t eat much during that time, if at all. When they migrate to Hawaii for the winter they spend that time mating and giving birth. Then swim 3,000 miles back to Alaska for the summer.

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While the calf entertained us with its frolicking, the mother was busy deep diving for food. The deep dive is usually when you see the beautiful tail fin of the humpback whale. If it weren’t for the incredible staff on the boat pointing out the telltale pre-deep dive signs, I probably would not have captured these pictures.

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We stayed with the humpback whales for about 30 minutes and then had to head back to shore. The final bit of wildlife we saw on the whale watch were these sea lions on this buoy, picturesquely in front of the Mendenhall Glacier.

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These Steller sea lions are extremely territorial so it was really funny to watch them defend their spots on the buoy, aggressively barking at each other and even pushing each other off the buoy.

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As we proceeded to the shore John and I went down into the enclosed area of the boat to hear a recap of the trip from the staff on board. They treated us to some fine Alaskan salmon and told us even more about all of the wildlife we had seen that day.

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Sentinel Island Lighthouse and another bald eagle:

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Just before we returned to shore I went up to the back of the boat to enjoy the scenery of Auke Bay one last time. This place felt so magical to me. Not only because of the natural beauty and the stunning weather, but because of the amazing wildlife we were privileged to see that day.

It dawned on me that I’ve probably only ever seen these types of animals in captivity, if at all, but definitely not in the wild. Their transient behaviors made me think about how much of this world they need in order to live, breed, and be free. As humans we often think that nature belongs to us, for our consumption or entertainment. But it’s not. These animals do not belong to us – in aquariums, in zoos, at Seaworld. We need to respect what is wild and only enjoy it morally and humbly.

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Observing nature, untouched and pristine, is our obligation. This idea quickly became the theme of our trip to Alaska and has stayed with me since.

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Stay tuned for Cruise Day 4 in Skagway, Alaska!

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Alaska Cruise | Seattle Visit and Cruise Days 1 & 2

Hold on to your hats, our latest vacation recap begins today! I am going to post by either port or cruise day with some extras as well (9 in all). Enjoy!

In June 2015 we took our first cruise on the Norwegian Pearl to Alaska. As you know, we are road trippers at heart but this year we decided to do something completely different – cruising! Incidentally, you can’t exactly get to Alaska by any other means than by boat so it was perfect. We also wanted to try a vacation that was relaxing; road tripping is thrilling and adventurous, but not exactly restful what with the strict schedule and daily demands of getting from point A to point B. Cruising was a very welcome change – everything is organized and pre-planned, all activities are optional, casual, and stress-free. There’s so much more to say about the nature and vibe of the cruise, but we’ll get to that soon enough!

On this Alaska cruise we sailed 1,760 nautical miles over seven days from Seattle, Washington to Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan in Alaska, through Glacier Bay National Park, to Victoria, British Columbia, and back to Seattle. Check out our route:

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One quick thing before I start the recap. One of my favorite things about vacation is photographing and documenting all of the amazing things we encounter on our travels. I knew that since we’d primarily be observing our surroundings from a boat, I would need a more powerful lens for my camera with zooming/telephoto capabilities. A coworker, and excellent photog, recommended checking out Borrow Lenses, a photography equipment rental company headquartered in San Francisco and here in Boston. Borrow Lenses has a huge inventory of rentals, most notably lenses. I did months of research and ended up selecting the Canon EF 70-300mm L series lens. Overall I was very happy with the lens and my resulting pictures. I hope you notice the long range shots and enjoy them!

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Let’s get this trip recap started! We were up at 4 AM on Saturday to get to the airport for our flight to Seattle.

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After a 2 hour delay and much boredom, we were in the air with free movies and free wifi. I watched The Hobbit 3 and caught up on my much-neglected Feedly backlog.

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When we arrived in Seattle we were picked up by our dear friends Matt and Danielle, and went right to Salty’s on Alki Beach for lunch. Afterwards we took a drive downtown and made a stop at Fran’s Chocolates to stock up on our favorite chocolate ever.

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Also, in what must have been foreshadowing, we saw an eagle flying up over the Puget Sound. Apparently this is semi-rare for Seattle and I’m glad I was able to capture these crappy pictures with my new lens (more awesome, clear, up close and personal pictures of eagles to come in later entries).

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I love Seattle, and the entire Pacific Northwest, and could totally see us living there if it wasn’t so dang far from the East Coast. It’s a beautiful place that I’m completely in love with.

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We chatted the afternoon and night away with Matt & Danielle and crashed that night deliriously tired. Spending time with them was awesome; they are such quality folks and I loved our time together, even though it was too short.

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On Sunday we all got breakfast together and they were kind enough to drop us at the cruise terminal. One of the things I had read online was that you should board the cruise ship as soon as you can because technically it’s Day 1 of your cruise and you’ve paid for it! So we did just that. After several lines of baggage check in, security, and registration we were finally on the cruise ship. We quickly checked out our room, got a snack, and went out to the deck to take in the views as we set sail from Seattle.

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After about an hour of being on our way, John hit the gym and I spent some alone time on our balcony…

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The balcony was truly my Happy Place throughout the entire cruise. The views were unreal and the atmosphere was so serene.

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A gorgeous view of Mount Rainier and a wee Seattle skyline:

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I actively let everything from real life just fall away as we cruised out into the Pacific Ocean. I knew then that this vacation would be different – relaxing, restorative, without distraction, and with gratitude.

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Day 1 ended with the excitement of a new adventure and all of the possibilities of vacation ahead of us.

Day 2 is easy to recap and is included here at the end for brevity. It was our first and only full day at sea. We spent it as we wished – laying around, napping, watching movies, eating, playing card games, exploring the ship, and doing nothing but totally relaxing. It was perfect and I took zero pictures.

Stay tuned for Cruise Day 3 in Juneau, Alaska!

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How To Live A Meaningful Life: Where To Begin

Life transitions are funny, you know they are coming but you have no idea what to expect. I definitely went through emo teen years, a quarter life crisis, a 30 before 30 phase. But now, in my early 30’s, with my solid career, loving marriage, home ownership, healthy diet/exercise routine, and all of the other stable things that make me boring and bored, I find myself wanting something more meaningful from life.

As I am prone to do, the second I realized this I started doing mental gymnastics over what could fill the void. A new pet, a vacation home, a kid, a second job, writing a book, going back to school, etc. All valid things. None of which I really want. But thinking them all up felt so productive! So indomitable! So important!

We, the collective we, are so busy planning The Next Thing that we barely sit long enough with Right Now. Something felt so wrong to me about not knowing what to do next. I couldn’t sit with Nothing as the answer. Not even for like 10 seconds.

Why can’t we just feel uncomfortable?! Why is it so hard? Why can’t I embrace this feeling instead of automatically trying to fix it?

I’ve decided that, for me, for now, there are no decisions to make. Life is good. I am happy. I’d like to fill my life with more meaning but for now I’m going to be ok with the fact that what’s next is unknown to me. Maybe I’ll start a new endeavor, pick up a new hobby, find my passion, or a new calling. I hope I do. But that’s where I’m choosing to begin. With the unknown, the unplanned, the uncommitted, without guilt or dread, without solutions or deadlines. I’m no longer sacrificing the present for the future. I’m beginning with nothing and that sounds great.

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Things I Love: Spring Things

After having the snowiest ever winter on record in Boston, it finally feels like Spring has sprung. It was a looooong wait, let me tell you. Aside from simply getting out of my house and being outside (which truly feels like a gift to me after this winter), there are a few other things that are getting me in the Spring spirit. Here are my must-have cheerful, pretty, fun Spring essentials:

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1. Saucony Hurricane ISO Sneakers // 2. Timex Weekender Watch // 3. Essie Madison Ave-Hue nail polish // 4. Fresh’s Sugar lip balm in Nude // 5. Standard Wax White Tea & Thyme handmade candle // 6. Fun, bright, Spring camis (Diamond Camila tank from Avenue) // 7. Green Kate Spade Square Stud Earrings

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Recipe: Beets with Lemon, Almonds, and Goat Cheese

One of my favorite Portlandia sketches is the ‘911 Beet Emergency’ sketch. You’ll have to watch it, and be a fan of beets, to know why. Even though beets always temporarily scare the crap out of me when I eat them, I keep coming back. I love their earthy sweetness, their lightness, their delicateness. Beets are somehow both super elegant and totally down to earth. Superb in summer and winter. Basically, they are perfection – especially in this dish.

Beets with Lemon, Almonds, and Goat Cheese (makes 4 servings, adapted from America’s Test Kitchen)
1.5 lbs beets (roughly 4 medium sized beets)
1.25 cups water
3 tbsp. white vinegar
1 tbsp. packed light brown sugar
1 shallot, minced
1 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 cup almond slivers
2 tbsp. goat cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper

Trim the ends off the beets, peel the skin, and slice horizontally down the equator. You should have about eight 1-inch beet slices. In a large saute pan or skillet with a lid, place the beets in a single layer, cover with water, and bring to a simmer over high heat. Once the water begins to bubble, sprinkle in a pinch of salt, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 45 minutes. Test with a fork to ensure doneness.

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When the beets are cooked through, remove them from the pan. Up the heat to medium-high and reduce the cooking liquid for 1-2 minutes. When the pan is almost dry, add the vinegar, sugar, shallot, lemon zest, and pepper. Simmer until the glaze is thick and syrupy. If it gets too thick/dry, stir in a tablespoon or two of water.

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Just before serving, cube the warm beets, place in a dish, spoon the glaze over the top, and garnish with almonds, goat cheese, and little pinch of lemon zest.

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This dish is perfectly balanced – sweet, savory, tart, crunchy, and creamy – with the perfect depth of flavor in every bite. I haven’t enjoyed a vegetable dish this much in a long time!

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Recipe: Peanut Butter Cream Pie

Happy Pi Day! I’m always down for cookies, ice cream is my jam, cake only on special occasions, and pie very seldomly. I’m not sure why that is since pie is amazing. Sometimes crusty pies seem really heavy I think. I prefer ice box, or no bake, pies like lemon chiffon, pudding pie, or this one I came up with today. Either way, pie deserves to be celebrated!!

Domestocrat’s Peanut Butter Cream Pie (adapted from The Candid Appetite/Joy The Baker)
For the crust:
24 chocolate and vanilla cream cookies/Oreos/Joe-Joe’s
1/4 cup butter, melted
For the filling:
16 oz. heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp. brown sugar
8 oz. cream cheese (I used the brick kind, light, at room temperature)
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla
Pinch of salt
2 tbsp. water
1/4 cup powdered sugar
Chocolate sprinkles for a fun garnish

I’m obsessed with Trader Joe’s Joe-Joe’s cookies. Obviously they are an Oreo knock-off but I actually prefer these. They are sweet and have the perfect ratio of cookie to cream filling. They also have delicious vanilla bean flecks in the cream. And during the holidays they have a peppermint version that is insanely good. So, that said, I decided to make my pie crust with these instead of a traditional graham crust. I think the chocolate compliments the peanut butter much better!

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Pulse the cookies in a food processor until they are ground up into a sand-like consistency. Pour in the melted butter and pulse again until fully combined. The crust should be damp to the touch with no crumbs left behind.

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Press the crust mixture into a pie plate, making sure the bottom and sides are an even layer. If the crust varies in thickness, it won’t be able to support the filling (true of any pie). Use your fingers to meticulously pack down the crust and even out any too-thick or too-thin spots. Put the pie crust in the fridge to chill while you make the rest of the pie (minimum 20 minutes).

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Next, get the whipped cream and 2 tbsp. brown sugar going in a stand mixer or bowl with a hand mixer. You’re looking for very stiff peaks here since the cream needs to hold up in two applications with this pie. When this beats up, you’ll have about 2.5-3 cups of whipped cream. When it’s done, set it aside.

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On to the peanut butter filling! Basically this is peanut butter cheesecake. In a stand mixer or large bowl, beat together the cream cheese, peanut butter, 1/2 cup brown sugar, salt, and vanilla. The mixture should be tight but not crumbly and not creamy. If you’re having a hard time getting it to come together, add a little water like I did.

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Take 2 cups of the whipped cream and beat it into the peanut butter filling. You’re looking for the mixture to smooth out, fluff up in volume, and go from dense to light/airy. Taste the mixture and adjust the sugar, adding one tsp. at a time, if you prefer more.

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This is also a good time to add the powdered sugar to the whipped cream and whip until combined. Taste that as well before putting on the pie, and increase the sugar if you prefer the whipped cream to be sweeter.

Take the pie crust out of the fridge and pour in the peanut butter filling. Smooth out on the top to create an even layer.

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Next, add the finished whipped cream and any toppings you like. I prefer these simple, but delicious, chocolate sprinkles but you could add peanuts, pretzels, chopped up peanut butter cups, peanut butter chips – the possibilities are endless!

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Put the pie back in the fridge and chill for 2 hours prior to serving.

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When it’s set up, cut into wedges and serve! This pie is creamy, dense, sweet and savory, and perfect for any peanut butter lover. It’s easy start to finish and no bake to boot. Definitely a new staple in our house and the perfect way to celebrate Pi Day!

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Book Review: You’re Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black

IMG_0436-2In my impressionable teen years of the 90’s I discovered The State on MTV. A show I shouldn’t have been watching on a channel forbidden in my house (my mom would later block MTV but all that did in 1996 was scramble the channel, with the audio totally clear, so I would sit in front of our fuzzed up TV just listening). When The State ended I transitioned over to Viva Variety on Comedy Central, a show I liked vastly more because it had killer musical guests that made a long lasting impact on my musical tastes (Fishbone (their performance blew my head right off my body), Reel Big Fish, Royal Crown Revue, Toots & The Maytals, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, etc). I became completely obsessed with Michael Ian Black’s Johnny Blue Jeans character, with his huge pompadour, terrible fake European accent, vinyl denim outfits, sexual ambiguity, and overall goofiness. There was just something about him I loved, and have made it a point to follow his career ever since.

Over the last 20 years (!) I’ve followed Black through Stella, Wet Hot American Summer, Ed, Run Fat Boy Run, Michael & Michael Have Issues, VH1’s I Love The… series and most recently by way of he and Tom Cavanagh’s podcast, Mike and Tom Eat Snacks (which is insanely funny, fantastical, and only semi-focused on snacks). Black is also prolific on Twitter, you should absolutely follow him if you aren’t already (I got a tweet back from him about the podcast in 2012 and am still elated about it). And if this preamble wasn’t long enough, I also just want to mention two current/upcoming things Michael is doing that I’m thrilled about! #1) The How To Be Amazing podcast – Simply, Michael interviews interesting people about how they got where they are in life. The first four episodes are free right now on Audible and feature Elizabeth Gilbert, Bob Odenkirk, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Tavi Gevinson (I know right!!). #2) The Wet Hot American Summer reboot debuting on Netflix in July. ‘Nuff said!

And finally, the book review! (sorry, I love MIB and I can get carried away)…John got me You’re Not Doing It Right: Tales of Marriage, Sex, Death, and Other Humiliations for Christmas this year. I started it immediately but soon realized it was one of those books that I wanted to read slowly, and savor, even though I could have blazed through it in one afternoon.

The book starts with Black, in the present day, ruminating about how his life got to its current state. I love that he grabs the reader right away with this thesis: “I wonder if, like me, there are people who occasionally experience the curious, disembodying sensation of not recognizing their present life as their own.” Yes, all the time.

Black then trips on his nostalgia, spending the next several chapters recounting how he met his wife, their interesting courtship, remembering all their firsts, and their early newlywed years. These chapters are sweet, sentimental, personal. They also foreshadow what is to come and what we already know about Black – that he is a guy who can be selfish, dickish, and childish. I’ve always thought he came across as someone like this, so it doesn’t surprise me or turn me off of him. I actually quite like the candor. I did find it interesting though that he finds himself, then, scratching his head a few chapters later about why, after years of marriage and two kids, he and his wife fight so much and decide to go to therapy. I can tell from reading the book: he doesn’t listen to her and he puts himself first, always. This is relatable and frustrating to me but adds to the marriage-is-hard theme of the book. So true.

Ultimately I can see that he loves his life, wife, and children. The thing is – life is hard and stupid and boring and confusing and random. Black just has the decency to be honest about it. The whole book is such a refreshing breath of frankness. It made me laugh, cry, and wince but because I can relate, not because I was offended or couldn’t handle the truth. I truly enjoyed how loud and clear Michael Ian Black’s voice comes through in this book. It’s his trademark suffering sarcasm and sharp wit about how shitty it is to be an adult. If you can’t laugh about it, you will surely drown in it, you know?

Lately I’ve been trying to find inspiration in the world that comes from authenticity. I’ve started looking more toward role models that are real people, however unsexy, uncelebrity, or offbeat. While this book was brutally straightforward at times (and awkward and cringeworthy, as those often go hand in hand with honesty), it’s that realness that made me enjoy it so much. As I get older, those are the best kinds of role models. The ones that normalize what it is to be an adult, a simple human, someone with purpose, but doing it imperfectly. It’s hard and it’s easy to screw up. To argue that Black, or anyone of us, are doing it wrong would be to dismiss and invalidate the experiences we’re having along the way as we try to do it right. Even the title of the book is a subtle mockery of the doubts we have when we feel like impostors in a world where, if we’re not perfectly sticking the landing, we’ve failed outright.

I’m not sure if this book is for everyone, since there is a lot of mocking his wife, resentment towards his kids, and general loathing of any person or animal who demands his attention, but I really enjoyed it. If you’re already a fan of Michael Ian Black, this is a must read. I think if you’re a 30 something person, like me, trying to (still) figure life and work and marriage and money out, it’s worth the time. If anything I wrote above offends you, skip this one! (also, we can no longer be friends) Happy reading!

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