If it’s good enough for Kate and the future king . . .

I was sound asleep when Kenley woke me up a couple of weeks ago to let me know that Kate Middleton had gone into labor. I quickly fell back asleep (I hear I’m not going to get much of it in about four months), but the next day I checked my Twitter feed obsessively, awaiting the news that she had delivered.

I’m not an avid royal watcher, but I am still a media hound who’s fascinated by the latest breaking story.

And this was personal.

There had been several reports that Kate — or the Duchess of Cambridge, if we must be formal — had chosen to use a method called Hypnobirthing for the arrival of her first-born child. And Kenley and I just so happened to be attending our third Hypnobirthing class the very day the future king was born.

I wanted to know how long Kate had been in labor. I was looking for evidence that Hypnobirthing actually worked.

If you’re a loyal Shellevation follower, you’ll remember that I left a recent pre-pregnancy OB-GYN visit with three fliers: one for a fertility specialist, one for an acupuncturist and one for a hypnotherapist.

We loved the fertility specialist, and I still look forward to my weekly acupuncture appointments, but I had put off calling the hypnotherapist — perhaps because I wanted to delay for as long as possible the thought of giving birth to the growing boy now making himself known daily in my belly.

Then, Kenley found an article on Yahoo about Kate Middleton and Hypnobirthing. Kate reportedly had used the relaxation techniques to help her overcome her morning sickness and planned to use it to give birth. (A follow-up article — “If Kate Middleton uses Hypnobirthing, Should You?” — also was posted on Yahoo).

The first article quotes Alisha Tamburri — “a Los Angeles Hypnobirthing practitioner whose clients have included Jessica Alba, Bridget Fonda, Melissa Joan Hart, Alanis Morisette and Emily Deschanel.”

The same woman whose flier was still sitting on my kitchen table!

I called her the following Monday and signed up for her next class.

In the video below Jessica Alba tells Ellen about her experience with Hypnobirthing:

Ellen Show Jessica Alba Guest from TWC Post on Vimeo.

The theory of Hypnobirthing is that women have been conditioned since, well, the story of Adam and Eve to believe that giving birth is painful — is even supposed to be painful. This can lead moms to feel scared, stressed and tense, which leads to long and painful births. The theory is that if you are able to release your fear and to deeply relax, trusting that your body knows what to do, you can experience an easier, faster and more comfortable birth — without medication.

Hypnobirthing uses neutral words like “waves” and “surges” in place of painful-sounding “contractions.” “Birthing” is substituted for “delivery” (Alisha says pizzas, not babies, are delivered).

And there’s no “pushing.” Instead, Hypnobirthing moms “breathe the baby down.”

You learn different slow-breathing techniques — none of which requires you to pant — as well as visualization exercises. You’re encouraged to walk, sit on a birthing ball, and get in the shower or bathtub during labor. Alisha even told the dads to pack swim trunks and a beer or two in a cooler.

“Sounds like a beach party,” Kenley told me.

OK, it’s not going to be that easy.

Alisha often reminds us that what we expect tends to become realized. So we’re taught exercises to help us release negative thoughts and fears about giving birth. She also asks us to visualize the calm, comfortable, joyful, healthy birth that we want.

We were convinced of the power of suggestion during an exercise in the first class, when Alisha had us close our eyes and stretch our arms out in front of us. She told us to “picture, visualize, imagine” that someone was stacking one book after another onto our left hands, and that someone was giving us helium balloons to hold with our right hands.

When we opened our eyes at the end of the exercise, our left hands were by our sides, weighed down by the “books,” and our right hands had risen up next to our ears, without any conscious effort.

The best part about the Hypnobirthing classes is that the dads learn how to hypnotize the moms! Now, some of you might be worried about what your husband could do with this power, but you’re not unconscious when you’re hypnotized, and no one can make you do something you don’t want to do. Instead, you remain aware of your surroundings but learn to deeply relax your body and your mind.

One of my favorite hypnosis scripts asks you to close your eyes and relax as “all the little worry lines around your eyes and across your forehead begin to fade and disappear.” During another, you visualize being on your favorite beach  and are told that “you look good and feel good.” And in another, you’re told that the more you let go, the more you relax; and the more you relax, the more you’re in control.

Dads also learn light-touch massage, which releases feel-good endorphins that act as your body’s own natural pain medication.

So when the birth of the future king was announced, I was happy to learn that Kate had been in labor for a little more than 10 hours, short of the 16-hour average — and especially impressive for a first-born who weighed almost 9 pounds!

There have been few reports about how the birth actually went, but at this point it really isn’t that important to me anymore. I feel much more prepared and confident about the birth of my own first-born.

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A sweet reveal: Boy or girl?

When we first discovered we were pregnant, I didn’t think I wanted to find out the sex of the baby. It would be one of the biggest surprises of our lives.

And I was concerned about the expectations that people (including ourselves) might place on the baby as soon as they found out whether it was a boy or a girl.

But who was I kidding? I’m a planner! Plus, I didn’t want a closet full of only yellow and green clothes, which for some reason seem to be the only acceptable neutral colors for babies.

None of that seemed important, though, after our first-trimester screening came back with some potentially alarming results. We had to do a follow-up DNA test — and wait several days for results — to make sure the baby was OK.

That test also would reveal the sex of the baby, about six weeks earlier than soon-to-be parents generally find out.

So — 11 very long days later, when I finally got the phone call with the test results — all I cared about was whether the baby was healthy. I was overjoyed when the doctor told me everything was OK, and I didn’t object when she asked whether I was sure I wanted to know the sex.

I immediately called Kenley (I was on the way to a girls beach trip in Charleston, S.C., while he was in the recording studio in Columbia) and told him the baby was OK. I asked him whether he wanted to know — son or daughter? — and I was a bit surprised when he asked me to hold off.

When he joined me in Charleston a couple of days later, Kenley still wasn’t sure he wanted to know the sex. I started to get worried. I knew I couldn’t keep that big of a secret for six months!

For the next several weeks, I had to be careful of my pronouns. I slipped a few times, but I also threw in purposeful decoys to throw him off the trail.

I finally convinced Kenley that he wanted — needed — to know, and I planned to reveal the gender to him on Father’s Day. I took pictures of the moment so we could relive the surprise. Scroll down and read the captions below:

First, I picked up a special order of cupcakes from Sprinkles.

These sweet baby-themed treats had a surprise inside.

Kenley took a bite of a cupcake to reveal the color of the filling: pink for a girl, blue for a boy.

Blue!

Our little cupcake is a boy!

Turns out, I didn’t have to worry about spoiling the surprise; Kenley says he thought it was a girl the whole time.

Kenley is the first of three boys and thought the odds were aligned for a daughter.

Apparently, the Y chromosome is pretty strong in the Young family.

cupcake405web

Crafting our parental advisory

Less than two weeks after Kenley and I found out we were expecting, my dad emailed me to ask about booking a flight to L.A. for an October visit.

I wasn’t even eight weeks pregnant, and we weren’t ready to share our news just yet.

But I was pretty sure he and my mom would rather be here in November instead, when their first grandchild is due. So I tried to stall him.

Soon, though, I ran out of excuses, and we decided we had to let Dad in on our secret — as long as he swore not to tell Mom until we were ready.

He assured me that he was good at keeping secrets. After all, he was a lawyer. Plus, he’d already proved he could be trusted. When Kenley asked him three years ago for his blessing to marry me, Dad somehow managed to keep it a surprise for Mom until after the question had been popped.

A little more than two weeks after letting Dad know, I got a pleading email from him: “I’m about to bust, but I’m keeping quiet.”

So after our 10-week doctor’s appointment, Kenley and I finally shared the news with my mom, Kenley’s parents and all of our brothers. (We were most concerned about Kenley’s middle brother, Logan, who has done surprisingly well in keeping this secret for so long.)

It’s the first grandchild for both sets of our parents, so they, of course, were thrilled (and my dad was relieved). The first comment from my mom was similar to my dad’s remark weeks earlier:

“Well, we weren’t sure whether this was ever going to happen!”

(I actually think the news is what prompted Mom to finally join Facebook — so she wouldn’t miss any photos of her grandchild.)

We told Kenley’s parents via video-chat, and we should have recorded his mom’s reaction. It rivaled that of a viral video we’d seen, in which a daughter delivers the news to her parents and her mother completely loses it.

On our video-chat, there was shrieking, maybe a few tears, and I’m quite sure Mrs. Young still has a big grin on her face.

My brother, Patrick, sent me an urgent text after finding out the news: “Very important: Will your unborn child be a Clemson or Carolina fan?!”

My answer? “Neither!” For the sake of our marriage, the baby must remain neutral — or ignore college football — until it is 18. So please, no orange or garnet baby clothes!

Kenley and I had planned a trip back to South Carolina in May; I had a girls beach trip in Charleston, and Kenley and I also were invited to a friend’s wedding in the city. We were looking forward to sharing the news with our friends when we arrived — until we got some potentially alarming results from a first-trimester screening. We decided to take a non-invasive follow-up test before we left.

And then, all we could do was wait for the results. That meant that Kenley and I boarded the plane to S.C. on a Wednesday, not knowing whether the baby was OK.

It seemed like the longest 11 days of my life. I initially delayed going to the beach while waiting on the results, but ultimately I decided to drive there Friday morning, since I’d flown across the country to hang out with my girlfriends. I got the phone call from the doctor en route to the beach.

The only word I heard her say was “OK,” and then I burst into tears of joy on the sidewalks of downtown Charleston.

I called Kenley — who was at The Jam Room studio in Columbia, recording his soon-to-be-released record — and told him the good news. (Check out Kenley’s music.)

Later that afternoon on the beach, I got to share the news with my friends, some of whom I’ve known since preschool. They got suspicious as soon as they realized my Solo cup was filled with ice water, and not a cold beer. (My friend Kendall noted that no matter how hard I gripped the cup, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking.)

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And later that weekend, back home in Columbia, I revealed the news to some of my friends from college. We sent this photo to those who couldn’t join us.

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Once we got back to Los Angeles, Kenley announced our news to our friends here during a gig at an Irish pub, after dedicating a cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” to me.

kenley-brennans

Photo by Maureen Roth

Perhaps the best advice I’ve received so far is from my friend Valerie (a former reporter for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., and now a Wall Street Journal reporter and mother of two). She said the funny thing about being a parent is that all the cliches are true:

It’s hard work, it changes your life, etc., etc. … So let me echo what you’ve already heard: Go out to eat. Go out to the movies. Go anywhere you want to go (as you’ve spent the past several years doing, wisely)!

Now that’s advice I can follow. So in the next few months, we plan to catch a few more summer blockbusters in the theater; sample more L.A. dining establishments; see The Postal Service, The Avett Brothers and Atoms for Peace in concert; and make at least one more trip back to S.C. to relax on the beach and help my dad celebrate his retirement.

Because we have a new life-changing adventure that begins in late November!

Stay tuned for an official reveal of the sex of Baby Young.

Coming soon to the Young family

Announcemenborderweb

Photos by Justin Shady


OUR LIVES CHANGED FOREVER
March 15. It was a Friday, and Kenley and I had invited some friends to an Irish bar for a pre-St. Patrick’s Day pint or two.

Little did I know, but I’d already had my last adult beverage for at least nine months.

I’d stopped by the drugstore that evening on the way home from work, and now I was standing in my bathroom staring at a digital message on a plastic stick (and making sure I was reading it correctly.)

I wasn’t nervous. There had been other plastic sticks in the past several months, but I had never seen this message before: “PREGNANT.”

It occurred to me at that moment how some wives plan elaborate celebrations to surprise their husbands with this news — but I didn’t have a lot of time. A few minutes after finding out the news myself, I heard our front door swing open and the familiar sound of our dog Malia’s paws pattering through the apartment.

She and Kenley were back from their walk, and we needed to leave to meet our friends at the bar in 10 minutes.

I guess some things just can’t be planned. I greeted Kenley and unceremoniously handed him the plastic stick I’d been waving around in the air. I told him I wouldn’t be able to participate in a Guinness toast, but that he definitely should raise a celebratory pint. (I might have promised that we could give the baby an Irish name, and I think Kenley just might hold me to it.)

Kenley admits he was pretty bewildered at first; normally the only excitement he and Malia encounter on their walks is when she spots a squirrel.

But after he was able to focus on the word on the stick, he broke into a grin, and gave me a big hug and kiss. And it’s been hard to wipe that proud grin off his face (except when he thinks about how expensive raising a child is going to be.)

clear-blue-one

Malia had no idea what was going on, but she’ll have to get used to sharing the spotlight soon.

That night at the bar, I ordered a ginger ale. But when people asked, I told them I was drinking a Jameson’s and ginger. I’m not sure anyone was fooled.

It all started back in December when I went to my regular OB-GYN appointment. As she had done the year before, my doctor looked at my chart, noticed my birth date, and asked whether I wanted to have a family. I gulped and said I thought so. Her response: “Let’s make it happen.”

I thought that was kinda funny at the time — I was pretty sure I knew how to make it happen — but it turns out that her directness was just the motivation I needed.

I left her office with the cards and brochures for a fertility doctor, an acupuncturist and a hypnotherapist.

Couldn’t hurt, right?

About a month later, Kenley and I were sitting across from Dr. Kari Sproul at Pacific Fertility Center as she explained the birds and the bees to us in very scientific terms — pictures and diagrams included. She detailed the options available to us if we needed assistance.

Dr. Sproul was very matter-of-fact, and some of the statistics regarding 39-year-olds trying to get pregnant for the first time were pretty disheartening. But she also was very personable and seemed genuinely supportive. We walked away knowing two things: Timing would be everything, but we also potentially were facing a long, stressful and expensive process.

In the following weeks, we did some tests and found no medical reason that we shouldn’t be able to get pregnant, other than my age — which, despite the statistics, I refused to believe was a huge problem. So we put off treatments and committed to “trying” on our own.

As those of you who have found yourselves in this situation know, “scheduling” this kind of thing can prove difficult and exhausting. But Kenley, who suffers from OCD, made sure we stuck to the plan.

I also scheduled my first acupuncture appointment, with Dr. Mindy Boxer. Going to Dr. Boxer’s office is much like going to a spa: There’s a massage table and soothing music. But you’re also getting tiny needles stuck in strategic locations all over your body. It’s surprisingly relaxing.

Acupuncture has been shown to reduce stress, which is a leading cause of problems with fertility. It also has been reported to boost fertility by restoring balance and encouraging flow of blood and energy through the body.

And all that before we attend our first hypno-birthing class later this month.

Dr. Boxer also urged me to develop better eating habits. I kept a food journal for several weeks, and she circled the foods she didn’t like with a red pen. There was a lot of red. I did make some improvements — cutting back on meat and eating more beans and fruit.

But limiting dairy, carbs and sugar while increasing my intake of green veggies has been more challenging.

Whatever we did, it worked! We were able to get pregnant surprisingly quickly on our own. After we took “the test” at home, Dr. Sproul saw us quickly to confirm the news with blood work — and then several weeks later with photographic evidence. One good thing about getting pregnant when you’re “old” is that doctors are willing to see you quickly, and you get a lot of ultrasounds.

March 27 (six weeks)

baby-one-crop

April 11 (eight weeks)

baby-two-crop

May 13 (12 weeks)

baby-four-crop

How excited are our parents? Do we know the gender? Stay tuned! Answers to those questions and more coming soon!

Many thanks to Justin Shady for taking the portraits of Kenley, Malia, Machete, Buster and me.

Cleaning our plates at The French Laundry

All it took was one phone call. So of course we had to go.

Securing a reservation at The French Laundry – considered one of the world’s best restaurants – is supposed to be difficult. You have to call two months to the day in advance. If you’re lucky enough to get through, you likely will have to put your name on the waiting list – and then hope and wait. And you’ll likely have to try again. And again.

You should know that making that call was Kenley’s idea.

Kenley and I don’t self-identify as foodies. I don’t like to cook. Kenley doesn’t like to eat vegetables. But if you read this blog, you know that we have enjoyed exploring our still-new city of Los Angeles by dining at its incredibly diverse eating establishments (including The French Laundry’s sister restaurant, Bouchon, in Beverly Hills).

And in Kenley’s past life as a copy editor for SmartBrief, he edited the Culinary Institute of America’s newsletter. So he’s very familiar with chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry and its impeccable reputation.

So on Nov. 23, two months to the day from our wedding anniversary, Kenley was working from home. I was shopping online rather than battling the crowds at the malls. Kenley casually suggested that I should call The French Laundry, just for the fun of it.

It happened to be the day after Thanksgiving, when most people are recovering from a turkey-induced haze and not making plans to eat a nine-course meal.

I dialed. A voice answered. I asked whether it was possible for our party to be put on the waiting list. The voice said our party could be seated at 5:45 p.m. or 9:15 p.m.

Gulp! We were giddy – and a little scared!

I started planning a trip to Napa Valley.

*****

The French Laundry topped Restaurant magazine’s list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2003 and 2004. It’s the only U.S. restaurant to have reached No. 1, and it reigned as the magazine’s Best Restaurant in the Americas from 2005 to 2008. Chef Keller was honored with the magazine’s lifetime achievement award in 2012:

“His iconic restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, effectively revolutionized American cooking, combining classical French techniques with distinctive, locally sourced quality ingredients years before such an approach became de rigueur.”

The French Laundry also is one of two restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area to have earned three stars from the Michelin Guide (The Restaurant at Meadowood is the other), and Thomas Keller is the only chef to have earned three stars for two different restaurants at the same time (Per Se in New York is the other).

The notoriously hard-to-please celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain declared The French Laundry “the best restaurant in the world, period” on one of the first episodes of his TV show “No Reservations” in 2005.

Oh, yeah. This was going to be good.

*****

The French Laundry is a small stone building along a quaint country road in Yountville, Calif., about 15 minutes north of Napa. (It actually was once used as a French steam laundry.)

The French Laundry

If not for the small bronze sign on a stone wall at knee level, you might drive right past it. There’s no valet. You just park on the side of the road next to the restaurant’s garden.

sign

garden

When we arrived, it was dim and hushed inside. We were seated at a table in a cozy nook next to a stone wall, which I believe was hiding the wine cellar on the other side.

tflcandlelight

The attention to detail was almost flawless. We were presented with the chef’s tasting menu, and it had “Happy Anniversary Shelly and Kenley” written at the top. They had asked how to spell Kenley’s name when he called to tell them we were celebrating our anniversary. But they didn’t ask how to spell mine. Like I said … almost flawless.

tflmenu

The wine menu was displayed on an iPad; the printed version is more than 120 pages. We felt totally overwhelmed for a split second, but the waiter (there were several) read us perfectly and suggested two half-bottles of red from the Napa Valley area.

The wine offerings sell for up to $8,000 for a bottle of 1997 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. Fortunately, the waiter’s recommendations fell precisely into the much, much more moderate beverage budget that Kenley and I had agreed to earlier. Another waiter even joked with the men at the other table that the big news of the day in the wine world was that the price of Trader Joe’s “Two-buck Chuck” was going up to $2.49 from $1.99 because of bad crops in 2010 and 2011.

Because we were celebrating our anniversary, the waiter asked us whether it would be “appropriate” if he brought us a glass of sparkling wine, on the house. Um … totally, dude.

The glass of bubbly was specially crafted for The French Laundry by nearby Schramsberg Vineyards, which we had plans to visit the next day.

Then, the food began arriving.

First were light gougeres of Gruyere — essentially small, delicate cheese puffs. They were followed by salmon tartare cornets.  (Kenley called them fish ice cream cones, and we had a similar dish at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, in Beverly Hills.)

Then the first course of the tasting menu arrived: Keller’s famous oysters and pearls, which is tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar.

oystersandpearls

(We at first didn’t feel comfortable taking photos, especially after I had read a piece in The New York Times a day earlier about restaurants being camera-shy. But then we saw others snapping pics, and we figured since we likely weren’t ever going to do this again, we might as well document it.)

Next we received another off-the-menu surprise dish: egg custard with white truffle and homemade potato chip served in an egg shell.

custard

The custard was followed by the first of three bread offerings — sourdough, pretzel, multigrain, brioche, pain au lait and more. The bread was so good it was hard not to try all of the selections, but we remembered the wise words of our friend Tug Baker, who writes a column called Tug Eats Everything — don’t fill up on starches. We each chose a different type of bread and then carefully broke the rolls in half so that we could have a taste of both. A waiter caught us and laughed good-naturedly at our rationing, offering Kenley a job in the kitchen for his precision with the knife.

One of the best things about this experience was that Kenley, an extremely picky eater, had to eat everything on his plate. No way were we letting even a tiny morsel go to waste. So when it came to the salad course — winter chicories, including Cara Cara orange, Marcona almonds and rose hip — Kenley looked skeptical. Then, he took a bite … and proceeded to clean his plate. Days later, he’s still talking about how fresh and flavorful the salad was.

salad

Our first entree was the sauteed fillet of Atlantic black bass with Arrowleaf spinach, parsnip puree and saffron-vanilla emulsion. It was an unexpected flavor combination, and it turned out to be my favorite dish of the evening.

bass

Before each dish, we were presented with silverware specific to each course. The server quickly and quietly whisked away the dirty sets and replaced them with shiny new ones, taking care to ensure the pieces were arranged perfectly on the table. I think that job must be among the most stressful at the restaurant.

I had never seen the large spoon that was served with the bass. It looked a little like a large spork. I thought to myself, “I’m out of my league here.” (Internet research later determined the utensil in question was likely a sauce spoon. The Los Angeles Times even wrote an article headlined “Sauce Spoon sighting.”)

The second entree was a New Bedford sea scallop “poulee.” Our waiter explained that it was the chef’s take on a deconstructed clam chowder. The scallop was served with small but thick chunks of Hobb’s bacon, celery and petite onions.

scallop

Our third entree was a “Liberty Farm Pekin duck,” served with Tokyo turnips, sprouting kale, mint and Cumberland sauce. I admit I don’t eat duck very often, but this was the best I have ever had.

duck

After the second or third entree, I started to feel pretty full. In true French style, the dishes were all very rich. My mouth was puckering because of all the salt. I guzzled lots of water. Then I worried that the water was filling up my stomach. I again thought back to Tug’s recent food challenge.

And then the final entree was delivered to the table: Snake River Farms “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee.” Snake River Farms is known for its American Waygu beef, which sometimes is called American Kobe beef. It’s possible that I won’t ever have a better steak again.

beef

A waiter then asked: “Are the two of you ready to move on to cheese?” Kenley’s answer to that question will never be “no.” We were offered a final bread selection and served Andante Dairy “Acapella,” which is made from goat milk and served with dried persimmon, young fennel, pine nuts and black truffle.

cheese

The cheese was followed by a sorbet course: a Star Ruby grapefruit “float” served with “pain d’epices” — a French spice bread — and marshmallows.

Then came the desserts! It was almost like we were just getting started. First to arrive was a passion fruit “swiss roll,” with Valrhona chocolate cremeux, caramel mousse and banana ice cream.

swissroll

Then we enjoyed a Bakewell tart, with Fuji apples compote, “pain de gene” and toasted oat glace.

tart

But the best was the cappuccino semifreddo and the cinnamon-sugar doughnuts, with a helping of caramelized macadamia nuts and chocolate truffles!

doughnuts

I simply couldn’t eat any more, so I asked for a to-go bag. And it was the most elegant to-go bag ever! It included the remaining macadamia nuts, chocolate truffles and an additional favor — shortbread cookies in a tin with The French Laundry pin logo on the top. We also were given folders with copies of our menu and our receipt, which was on an old-fashioned laundry tag.

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To help us transition back to the real world after our three-hour-plus dinner, Kenley and I went down the street to a dive bar called Panchas and ordered beer from plastic cups. Definitely more our speed.

I don’t want to know how many calories we consumed in those three hours. Likely enough for several days. And indeed it would be several days before my body felt like it had regained its balance, though some of that probably had to do with the wine tastings we participated in later.

Our main takeaway from The French Laundry experience: The food is indeed extraordinary and commands respect, the service is unparalleled, and yet there is very little pretension. We walked in worrying that we’d be intimidated, but instead we were immediately set at ease. The waitstaff seemed genuinely happy to share in our experience, which nicely illustrates chef Thomas Keller’s philosophy:

“When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food — only the idea of it — then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad motto for anniversaries either. On the downside, Kenley’s gonna have a tough time topping this next year.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For — But I’m Close

EDITOR’S NOTE: Please welcome Shellevation’s first guest blogger! I gave my husband, Kenley, the reins to the site temporarily so he could write about his visit last month to Joshua Tree National Park.

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am not the outdoor type. I crave my creature comforts, and I bruise and burn far too easily. God knows what would become of me were I left unattended in the wilderness.

But Joshua Tree National Park has always held a certain sway in my mind. Part of its charm is no doubt entwined with a 1987 album release by U2. For whatever that band’s latter-day sins, “The Joshua Tree” remains a powerful, utterly non-ironic landmark record, and I learned a lot from it.

Yet the area is more than just an album title. The landscape is so striking — particularly the western half of the park, which is Mojave Desert habitat — that it seems almost like an alien moon. In fact, I’m reminded of the place now every time I see pictures from the Curiosity rover on Mars. The park is so gorgeously solemn and bare … well, except for the Joshua trees themselves, of course, which dot the park in every direction.

So when Shelley and I moved to L.A., Joshua Tree National Park immediately landed on our list of “Things We Have to See or Do While Out West.” And at a mere two hours and change from our apartment, it made a perfect day trip for Malia the husky and me:

malia-car

Shelley had to work that day, so I wanted company on my journey. Technically, pets are restricted, as they are in many national parks. They must remain on a leash at all times, and they have to be kept off main trails, staying within 100 feet of the highway. But I was passing through for a relatively short period of time, so Malia never posed much of a threat to the environment.

I stopped at the park’s first public entrance, walked into the ranger station and explained my situation: I was going to be spending only about four hours at most in Joshua Tree before heading back to L.A., so I needed advice on hitting just the big “must-sees” nearby. The ranger was friendly and happy to oblige, highlighting my trail map with several possible stops, including:

  • Hidden Valley
  • Cap Rock
  • Keys View
  • Skull Rock
  • Oasis of Mara

It was then that I realized just how vast Joshua Tree is. According to the map, my brief drive was going to cover barely one-tenth or so of the full park.

joshua-tree-map

When I drove through the park gate, a few hours before sunset, it was almost as if I’d entered another country. The temperature dropped dramatically, the ground on either side of the highway became rocky and burnt-orange, and the park’s signature trees started filling in my side-view mirrors like an army:

orange-dirt

These weren’t the first Joshua trees I’d spotted; you start glimpsing them as you enter the aptly named city of Twentynine Palms — a tree or two sprouting up near a road sign, or a gnarled and derelict specimen arching over a roadway.

But their sheer numbers are overwhelming once you enter the park. I must have pulled the car off the road 10 times in those first 10 minutes, trying to capture with my pitiful iPhone the bizarre beauty surrounding me on all sides:

joshua-tree-main

The Joshua tree isn’t actually a “tree” at all, but a species of the yucca desert plant. As the park brochure notes, they can grow to more than 40 feet tall, and from February to April they bloom with cream-colored flowers. American Indians used the plant to make baskets and sandals, as well as the occasional meal. Here’s how the park says the plant got its name:

“By the mid-19th century, Mormon immigrants had made their way across the Colorado River. Legend has it that these pioneers named the tree after the biblical figure Joshua, seeing the limbs of the tree as outstretched in supplication, guiding the travelers westward.”

By this point in the trip, Malia the husky was also “outstretched in supplication” in the back seat, so I pulled off at a picnic/camping area and let her roam around with me a little bit. I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the park, but I was struck by how odd this setup seemed here. It didn’t at all resemble campsites from the movies. There were no tents or sleeping bags or open fires or roasting marshmallows or hippies with guitars.

Instead, it appeared to me that RVs and campers here apparently just pull off the main drag, park by the roadside and hang out. Some folks were gathered on the roofs of their vehicles, and others had set up folding chairs right outside. But it didn’t particularly seem like anyone around me was “preparing to camp out” anytime soon.

Maybe that’s how it is in the winter. Too cold to sleep outside in those months?

Still, there was plenty of natural beauty to drink in.

cactus

rocks

flower

rest-stop

My main goal was to get to Keys Point, a lookout spot that the ranger had recommended, at an elevation of some 5,185 feet. I anticipated some dramatic views there, and I wasn’t disappointed. I went from an alien moon, it seemed, to Middle Earth.

From this point in the park, you can see all the way to the mysterious Salton Sea, that faint, shimmering body of water in the background:

keys-point

The Salton Sea is a shallow, extraordinarily salty “rift lake” that was created quite accidentally around the turn of the last century. The California Development Co. was attempting to construct irrigation canals in the region, but clearly things didn’t go exactly as planned. Basically, thanks to major flooding mishaps, the town of Salton was eventually submerged, and the continued intermittent flooding actually led to the construction of the Hoover Dam.

Like Joshua Tree, The Salton Sea is by turns bizarre and fascinating. There’s no outflow, so the ecosystem is in a constant state of flux. Its salinity is higher than you’ll find in seawater, which causes massive “kills,” in which dead fish are left awash on its shore. What’s more, it’s a known geothermal hot spot, with mud volcanoes belching gas and steam into the air.

Oh, and it sits over the notorious San Andreas Fault. It’s almost mythic, this place. Like Mount Doom.

Naturally, The Salton Sea is also on my list of places to visit out West.

More views from Keys Point:

downed-tree

sunset

Disaster nearly befell me after Keys Point. Not the “127 Hours” kind of disaster, granted, but still bad news for any blogger. The battery in my iPhone (which I’d used to navigate myself to the park) died, taking my camera with it.

Fortunately, I had a backup. Shelley had left her “Bloggie” camera in the glove box. It, too, had only a little juice left, but it was enough for me to snap some photos of my intrepid partner as we explored the formations near Skull Rock on our way out of the park.

malia-hiking

malia-rocks-two

malia-rocks-three

Joshua Tree — what little I saw of it, anyway — made an impression on me, and it was a nice adventure to share with Malia. It was the first time I’d spent an entire day with my best girl in … well … far too long.

Next time, I hope Shelley can join us — though she may not be up for a dip in The Salton Sea just yet.

Quite the Endeavour

Forget the Lakers or Clippers. One of the hottest tickets to get in Los Angeles in recent months has been for the space shuttle Endeavour, housed at the California Science Center at USC.

But being the planner that I am, I scored tickets to the exhibit just nine days after it opened.

Kenley and I, along with many other Los Angelenos, have been fascinated by the Endeavour ever since it flew over the city while perched atop a 747 in September.

I was working a copy-editing shift at The Hollywood Reporter on Wilshire that Friday, but there wasn’t much editing going on as most of us tuned into online updates about the location of the shuttle. We finally abandoned all pretenses of work and took to the office terrace to try to spot the Endeavour. Below us, people were gathering along the sidewalks looking toward the sky. Above us, others gathered on rooftops, pointing and shouting as the shuttle came into view. It flew along the Hollywood Hills, headed downtown and circled back toward LAX on its final flight.

shuttleflyover

Kenley spotted it near our apartment on the west side, closer to LAX, where the shuttle landed to stay for a few days before beginning the journey to its destination at the Science Center.

spaceshuttlebentley

In this case, iPhone cameras clearly didn’t do the shuttle justice. But strategically positioned Los Angeles Times photographers using much bigger lenses captured great shots of the shuttle over the Hollywood sign, Griffith Park, the Santa Monica Pier and other city landmarks.

People in L.A. tend to play it cool and rarely get excited about celebrity sightings. And because the city is so sprawling and so diverse, there are few legitimate communal experiences. But on that really hot Friday afternoon, everyone in the city — even the celebrities — seemed to be starstruck.

The LA Times reported that Tom Hanks, who played Cmdr. Jim Lovell in the movie “Apollo 13,” tweeted:

“Just flew over my head!!! Don’t see this everyday. Never will again. The Spaceman in me just went berserk.”

About a month later, the Endeavour began a very slow, two-day trek along a 12-mile path from LAX to the Science Center. Kenley and I regret not joining the millions of people lining its path as it made the trek. I think we were among the few who heeded the warnings by officials to steer clear. But luckily, the LA Times put together a time lapse video that makes you feel as if you were there.

Kenley and I got our closeup of the shuttle about a week after it went on display at the California Science Center on the campus of the other USC. I had ordered tickets online just before the exhibit opened. Kenley’s middle brother, Logan, was in town for the USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship, and we headed to see the Endeavour after our tour of Paramount Studios.

loganatusc

Logan in front of the other USC football stadium

We walked right through the maze of ropes put in place for anticipated large weekend crowds. There’s a small exhibit before you get to the space shuttle that illustrates the shuttle’s history — and the role that California played in the construction of the Endeavour, which was built to replace the Challenger. Much of the shuttle was built by Rockwell International Corp. in Palmdale, Calif.

The first thing you see? The space toilet, part of a display about how astronauts relieve themselves in space. Yikes.

There’s also a shuttle simulator, which was a little lame, and a short video. The exhibit obviously needs to be better organized, but the main attraction, of course, is the shuttle itself. You have to wind through the space center a bit more before you get to a large hangar-like structure, where the shuttle is on display — and where it will remain until the Science Center raises enough funds for a new air and space center. The plan is for the shuttle to be displayed upright, as if it’s about to launch.

You might expect Endeavour to be sleek and shiny, like something made by Apple. But the space shuttle is weathered, and its black tip kinda makes it look like it has a big, wet dog nose. It already feels sort of dated, maybe because it’s basically housed in a museum.

Still, the sheer size of the Endeavour is impressive, and it’s just mind-blowing when you think about where it’s been.

Kenley says it reminded him of being on the hangar deck in “Battlestar Galactica” — surrounded by rusted, obsolete, beaten-up equipment that’s clearly seen better days. And yet it’s bursting with so much character and history that it almost feels alive, and infinitely more inspiring than a brand-new vessel hot off the Cylon assembly line.

Nerd alert, huh?

I’m glad we visited on a day when it wasn’t too crowded because we were able to get photos of the Endeavour from every angle:

Shuttlenose

patrioticshuttle

shuttleandkenley

shuttleright

thrusters

engines

loganandengine

After geeking out over the space shuttle, we attempted to re-establish our cool cred at a hot restaurant in town — Ink, by “Top Chef” winner Michael Voltaggio.

Voltaggio was the chef at Jose Andres’ The Bazaar (our favorite restaurant in L.A.), before he defeated his brother in the Season 6 finale of “Top Chef.”

Ink opened in the fall of 2011 and was named the best new restaurant of 2012 by GQ.

Our favorite things we ordered:

–Poutine with chickpea fries, yogurt curds and lamb neck gravy

–Ham and manchego biscuits with almond butter (pictured below)

–Brussels sprouts with pig ears and lardo (pictured below and resembling a “Clash of the Titans” monster, as one of Kenley’s Facebook friends commented)

The food was good, but not quite as experimental as The Bazaar and not quite as memorable as Animal, where we ate earlier this year.

hamandbiscuits

sproutsandlard