7 things I learned in November

Taking Emily Freeman’s lead to share a handful of things I learned this month, from the (occasionally) significant to the (mostly) shallow.

1. George Vanderbilt read 80 books a year.

In November I learned a ton, in no small part because I got to visit Asheville for the first time. (I was there because of the fabulous Malaprop’s Bookstore—we’re sharing live audio from our Reading People event in next week’s What Should I Read Next episode!) I could talk about the food, or the forests, or when peak leaf weekend actually is (November, not October, usually), or how much Asheville residents love their dogs.

We toured Biltmore while we were there, and you know I was swooning over its multi-story library, pictured above. One of the most surprising things I learned was that the house’s owner read a whopping eighty books a year, and tracked all his reading in a compact navy reading journal, which the room’s host graciously opened for me. So cool, right?

2. Spend out for the main attraction.

Speaking of Biltmore: we took multiple deep breaths before ponying up for tickets, because they are pricey. (And I was sick, and all six of us were there and we weren’t sure if the kids would like it…) But Will read something recently that put our vague feelings about travel and experiences into words: big area attractions are often expensive—annoyingly so. But often, in hindsight, it’s worth it, and to keep that in mind when sticker shock hits.

That helped us click “buy” on our tour tickets—and we’re so glad we went. We all thoroughly enjoyed it, and wish we’d had more time. (Everyone who said you need a full day there wasn’t kidding. I’m glad we went, but we need to go back one day.)

After more deep breaths, we paid an extra $11 a person for the audio tour, which helped us get so much more out of the experience. (Thanks so much to those of you at Malaprop’s Saturday night who encouraged us to first of all go, and to definitely take the audio tour when we did.)

3. Plug in the Christmas tree lights on November 15.

And use those phone and calendar reminders wisely! In recent years, we’ve decorated our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. This year we pulled out our artificial tree at 9 a.m., and soon discovered—just like last year, and the year before that, and the year before that—that the lights didn’t work.

My kids love decorating the tree, but stringing the lights doesn’t count in their eyes. It took two trips to Target and one to Home Depot (on Black Friday—and we hate to shop!) to cobble together all the plain white lights we needed, and we didn’t get the lights strung until late afternoon, a record of the negative variety.

True confession: we do this every year. So we’ve already marked the calendar and set reminders to plug everything in before Thanksgiving so we can skip the frustration next year. For once.

(Bright side: I impulse-bought these tiny twinkle lights so I could make my own little Christmas tree out of green books.)

4. Why that knife has holes in it.

That’s a cheese knife, and the purpose of those little holes is to let you cut semi-soft cheeses (think: fontina, gouda, chilled brie) without the cheese sticking to the knife.

My mother-in-law clued me in, and gave me her freshly-sharpened cheese knife to use to put together my Thanksgiving appetizer platter. It worked great. I’m a convert. And then I accidentally knocked it off the counter and it landed on my flats-wearing foot and then I had to learn …

5. How stitches work.

Like, the kind you get after you cut yourself pretty badly. Also that sometimes you can get them at urgent care, instead of the ER, with a shorter wait and much less horrifying co-pay. I’ll spare you the photos, but they seem to be healing nicely.

6. How to apply foundation. 

New knowledge of the decidedly prosaic variety: after meaning to do so for literally years, I took myself to Sephora and got the first foundation of my life, specifically asking for a low-coverage, room-for-user-error product. (Until not that long ago, my only products were mascara and lip gloss, just so you know where I fall on the makeup-savvy spectrum.)

I ended up with Nars All Day Luminous Weightless Foundation, in Fiji, and I even learned how to put it on with Sephora’s version of the beauty blender. Thank you, YouTube.

7. They make my favorite tea in decaf!

Remember when I told you I was newly hooked on Harney & Sons hot cinnamon spice? They don’t make a strictly decaf version, but thanks so much for your comments, because now I know there’s an herbal version. (Also available here: regular and herbal.) This is making me ridiculously happy this week.

What have YOU been learning lately?


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  1. We LOVE Biltmore so much we have passes. But of course we also only live 2 hours away and go 3-4 times a year. Totally worth it because kids are free with two adult passes. But I hear you on sticker shock. That’s us with staring down the Disney request. Um, Mama needs to sell more books first kiddos 🙂

    I emailed your assistant about M. Judson in Greenville. It’s a MMD bookstore for sure! and closer to me so I we can meet in real life.

  2. Michelle says:

    My kids enjoyed the book Seraphina and The Black Cloak which is set in the Biltmore home and surrounding forests when the Vanderbilts lived there!

  3. Laura J says:

    I confess I would probably be telling everyone, “I got knifed on Thanksgiving!” Sounds so dramatic! Hope you are healing quickly!

  4. Janean says:

    Ok, how hard did you have to wordsmith so as not to write “cut the cheese?” ? I apologize in advance, but I just couldn’t help myself.

  5. Suzy Bennett says:

    The Biltmore is wonderful, so like the lifestyle of Downton Abbey. George Vanderbilt didn’t have tv, Facebook, or chores to distract him. With that lifestyle I could do eighty books!

  6. Jen M. says:

    Biltmore is simply lovely. I went eons ago with my French class during summer. The gardens were just beautiful. I hope to be able to go back sometime soon. So glad you enjoyed it. Yes to the hot cinnamon spice tea! A favorite for winter. Thinking about it makes me want to cur up with a cozy blanket and good book while sipping. Hope your foot heals soon!

  7. T says:

    I have also injured myself this month (boiling water over my left hand) and I am very thankful for work accidents insurance (it was at work).

    I have been having to learn to take care of myself, to rest, and to accept that I cannot reach every problem I wished to help solve… Not an easy month, this one.

  8. Tara says:

    Anne, now that you’ve been to Asheville, you’re going to *have* to read The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan; I’ve just finished it and I was fascinated! I haven’t visited Asheville or the Biltmore Estate in many years, so now I really want to go back. What fun!

  9. Amy says:

    Have you tried Harney & Sons Holiday Herbal? It’s wonderful.– Have your kids read the Serafina books? My daughters bought the first one at Malaprop’s. (We vacation in Asheville. My kids call the goat farm where we stay “our vacation home”.) The following summer, we took them to see Biltmore. It was magical!

  10. Amy says:

    Put a visit to Harneys Tea Shop on your next NYC itinerary. The original shop is north of NYC and there is a tea tasting room where you can try out any variety brewed perfectly by a knowledgeable employee. The room is lined with hundreds of flavors….. then you can relax in the cafe for a pot of your tea of choice and fabulous scones. I’ve never been to the NYC shop, but I think it’s similar.

  11. I’m glad you went to the Biltmore. It is pricey but so worth it. I lived in Charlotte for a year and got an annual pass. I went 3 times so got my money’s worth. One time I only toured the grounds and spent about half of a day there! It’s such a massive property!
    Thanks for sharing the herbal version of that tea. I love cinnamon tea but can never find a decaf version. I’m pregnant and have stopped drinking caffeine as coffee was such a turn off. It’s really nice to not be ‘hooked’ on caffeine after many years of being hooked. But I struggle to find decaf teas I like. I just bought some – can’t wait for it to arrive!

  12. Susan in TX says:

    Anne, did you happen to get a picture of the inside of George Vanderbilt’s journal, or note what kinds of things he recorded? (I feel like I have just segregated myself a little further into the nerd corner, but inquiring minds want to know…)

  13. NCJill says:

    FYI, I always purchase my beauty blender at TJMaxx for about $3-4. Much nicer than the Sephora $20 (?) price for exactly the same thing. ?❤️

  14. Deborah says:

    We are with you 100% on paying for the big ticket item. We figure, if you’re actually taking the time and spending the money to travel someplace, you need to budget in the cost of the big attractions AND book in advance. We often pony up for the audio tour or a tour guide as well. We’ve never regretted it. In fact, we’ve been able to skip the line with a tour guide at the Vatican, and prebooking means that you can skip the line at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and the Colosseum in Rome and The Tower of London and the London Eye in London and so on. A much nicer experience for everyone, especially when young kids are involved.

  15. Karen says:

    We have also been exceptionally pleased when we have opted to purchase tour tickets whether it’s a pedicab tour in New Orleans or an audio tour at a museum. I enjoyed reading the things you learned in November and it is prompting me to think about what I’ve learned this month.

  16. Debbie Williams Foster says:

    You can get a nice discount on Biltmore tickets by buying them in advance at your AAA office. Always check for discounts ahead of time. I do hope you decide to visit again in the spring. The flowers are simply gorgeous. Did you visit the Thomas Wolf home while there? Thomas Wolf and O. Henry are buried in Asheville. Carl Sandburg’s home is not too far away. Perhaps you’d even like to stop by my hometown (Knoxville, TN) to visit some literary sites. Nikki Giovanni summered in Knoxville with her grandparents. She has written a lovely poem “Knoxville” which describes summers here perfectly. (She now teaches at VA Tech in Blacksburg—just a few hours away!) Alex Haley owned a farm right outside of town, but Knoxville has a wonderful statue of him in one of our parks. Cormac McCarthy also claims Knoxville. James Agee is a Knoxvillian. The wreck scene of “A Death in the Family” is less than a mile from my home. Best wishes!

  17. Amen about the Christmas tree lights! That happened to me last year for a little table top tree we use as a dining room centerpiece. Needless to say, I never made it to Home Depot and it sat lightless and depressing the entire Christmas season. But, we’re back in business for this year!

  18. Kelly says:

    I also adore that cinnamon tea and have a tin of the decaf version of it in the cabinet. After I read your post I went searching and realized the decaf was listed as “unavailable” everywhere I’ve ever purchased it. So weird! I hope H&S will bring it back.

  19. I lived in Asheville for 6 years and only went to the Biltmore house once (we were able to go to the grounds a couple of times with friends who had passes). It’s hard to stomach the cost! Next time you’re in Asheville, check out the Grove Park Inn, especially when they have their gingerbread houses out. It’s free and almost as spectacular. I just moved with my family to Minnesota for my husband’s job and I miss Asheville so much. Glad you had a good time!
    PS – kids are free all summer long at Biltmore and Dads get in free on Father’s Day, so you’d only have to pay for yourself if you made a trip back on Father’s Day!

  20. 1) So true about spending out for the main attraction. My family’s first really big overseas trip (my parents are teachers who took an entire class!) was to Italy. We were told not to bother with Gondalas because they were pricey for tourists and touristy. Well…. that may be true on both counts, but, you know, it is the one thing all four of us regret not doing. Because there weren’t a ton of other ways to be on the water and where else could you ever do something like that? We learned since and now also consider “spending out” on the main attraction. Not that everything needs to have all the bling to it, but, considering that, well, if you may never be there again, what would you regret not doing.

    2) SO glad I’m not the only grown woman who is a make-up novice. We don’t have Sephora’s around here, but that sounds so fun and low pressure to go and ask a salesperson there about some basics and getting product that works for you.

    3) If you love tea, you really should try some from this place some time: http://www.phoenixpearltea.com/ I’m not a fan of cinnamon, but their most popular blend sounds right up your alley. It is called “Missoula Evening.”

    4) Hope things heal up fine. Feel better!

  21. Amy Arvin says:

    Okay, now that you’ve been to the Biltmore house, the next time you go you should prepare yourself to pay for the behind the scenes tour. We finally broke down and took this tour a few summers back and it was SO worth the extra money! You get to see unfinished rooms, see parts of the house that are roped off, and you have a tour guide. It was great fun!

  22. jeanne says:

    fyi the fairy lights are also available in a plug in version, look on Amazon….they have a transformer that reduces the voltage; BUT no replacing batteries!!!

  23. Cheryl Powers says:

    Years ago I kept a log of my reads and authors, and in a cleaning fit got rid of it – sure wish I still had it! It was just a simple small notebook, not like it took up a lotta room or anything. But remembering that prompted me to begin again.

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