Saturday, October 29, 2011

Skipping Out of Town

Country Road

I can hardly believe it, but today I get to pack my bag for a vacation.  Tomorrow I am skipping out of town.  Matt and I are headed for San Antonio.  I haven’t seen him since June, and that’s when we made up our minds about this trip.  Five months is a long time to go without seeing someone you really like, and I am ready to see that man.  Honestly, five months is really too long for us, but my schedule gave the illusion that late October was the best time for this trip.  It’s okay—I’m a pro at this relationship now.  I’m just patient enough to make it work, though I really hope we don’t have another five-month gap between visits!

Today I’m relaxing, packing my bag, and baking cookies.  Tonight a few friends and I may be indulging in some autumn fun by visiting a corn maze after dark.  I’m excited—I’ve never been to a corn maze!  But I’m even more excited for Matt and San Antonio tomorrow.  I hope to take some photos so that I can share a few tidbits about our trip, but I plan to relax, really relax, over the next few days.  I’m actually going off-line when we hit the road, something that scares me a little bit because my on-line habits are so deeply ingrained in my daily life.  But I think it will be good to immerse myself in the otherness of a new place and to reconnect with Matt in real time.

I hope this doesn’t sound too cheesy, but I’ll miss all of you while I’m gone!  I will look forward to catching up with you and your lovely blogs when I return.

One last thing before I go: I finally wrote an “About Me” page!  I figured that after four years of blogging, I should probably introduce myself more properly.  It reads a bit like a CV, and I’m sorry about that, but I am so deep in the trenches of science and the nerdy life that it feels right to me.  If there’s something you are dying to ask me, ask away!  I’ll add it to the About Me page, perhaps as an inFAQ (inFrequently Asked Questions).  Why inFAQ?  Because this is a small blog, therefore all questions are infrequently asked.

Later, gators!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dinnertime Frugality, Performed with Style and Ease


Allow me to assure you that I have a selfish interest in the recipe list I posted last time.  My spending this month has been a little wonky, between adjusting to a new grocery shopping routine, taking my bike to the bike doctor (in theory—it hasn’t happened yet!), and visiting San Antonio at the end of the month.  I’m especially excited about that last item, a trip that Matt and I have been anticipating for a good five months.  I’m planning to spend a boatload of money on the trip, so I’m pinching pennies before and after to make myself feel better.

But it’s not just about saving money.  To me, there is a certain virtue in kitchen frugality that goes beyond the wallet.  It’s about making the most of what you’ve got and being grateful for the time and skill that cooking requires.  I have a love/hate relationship with discussions about how to save money.  Growing up in a frugal household, saving money wasn’t about being trendy or practicing environmental sustainability; it was about keeping us out of poverty.  And that’s a scary thought for me—the idea that if we don’t pinch every penny so hard it squeals, we may slide out of the middle class and into the position where money determines our quality of life in painfully tangible ways.

Don’t get me wrong: I think fiscal responsibility is a requirement for a grown-up life.  But I like to temper my frugality with generosity, creativity, and a deeper sense of how our spending reflects our values.  Food and cooking perfectly capture the intersection of those qualities: I believe you can eat well, really well, on a budget.  But you gotta know what you’re doing to make it happen!

Tuesday night’s dinner was a good example of fiscal responsibility in the kitchen.  I decided to make mujadara, or something similar to it, but I thought I was out of white rice.  I immediately thought of going to the store to buy rice, when I remembered that I still had brown rice at home.  Even better, I remembered I had cooked brown rice at home, leftovers from last week.  So I took a deep breath, scratched the shopping trip from my list of things to do, and decided that I’d make dinner happen with the supplies I already had at home.

Caramelized onions are essential for the rich flavor in mujadara, but I was short on yellow onions.  I decided to make up the difference with other aromatics: a shallot, some carrots, a few stalks of celery.  And since I was already tinkering with the dish, I decided to substitute a splash of pomegranate-balsamic vinegar for the lemon.  This fancy vinegar (which was only about five bucks for a bottle) is so delicious that whenever I smell it, I want to take a sip straight from the bottle. 

The dish came together most deliciously: leftover brown rice, a rummage through the produce drawer for aromatics, a little fancy vinegar to add sparkle to the meal.  And the pleasure of spending half an hour putzing in the kitchen, making dinner?  That was my favorite part.  Money might make you a wealthy person, but I’m pretty sure it’s hearth and home that make my life rich.

Mujadara Sort Of

Poor mujadara, likely to be voted “World’s Ugliest Vegan Dinner.”  It tastes so much better than it looks, I promise.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Cozy Recipe List to Keep Your Wallet Happy

Autumn Coffee Table

Bowl of Pears

After our discussions about budgets and food shopping, I thought it might be nice to write a little recipe list for us.

As a nod both to my vegan readers and to thrifty cooking, all the recipes in this list are vegan.  These recipes are among my all-time favorites of all the recipes I’ve shared on this blog through four years of blogging.  Though I don’t follow a vegan diet, there’s a lot of crosstalk between vegetarian and vegan cookery; obviously the latter is a subset of the former.  I tend to gravitate toward vegan recipes that are heavy on the beans and vegetables—with some rice or bread on the side, a vegan meal can make me very happy.

To keep the ingredients for these recipes very affordable, I stayed away from the pricier items in the vegan pantry, such as canned artichokes or maple syrup.  And of course, since the recipes are vegan, there’s no concern about buying organic, local, free-range eggs or milk from grass-fed cows, both of which are expensive (as they should be, in my opinion).  These recipes build layers of flavor with not-too-pricy ingredients and a well-stocked spice cabinet.

Happy cooking! 

An Appetizer

* Roasted Chickpeas with Smoked Paprika (and I must add that this post is one of my all-time favorites.  This time of year makes me very nostalgic for my old life in Evanston.)

Soups and Stews to Keep You Warm

* Black Bean Soup with Rice

* Moroccan Carrot and Tomato Soup

* The Lazy Cook’s Tomatillo, Hominy, and Pumpkin Stew

A Lentil Dish

* Mujadara

A Tofu Dish

* Roasted Broccoli and Tofu

Some Side Dishes to Eat with Your Legumes

* Oil-and-Vinegar Oven Fries

* Nicole’s Mexican Coleslaw

And a Few Sweet Endings

* Vegan Peanut Butter Cookies

* Walnut Wafers (yes, walnuts are an expensive ingredient, but this recipe only calls for 1 cup of walnuts and it makes a few dozen cookies)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Playing Hooky

Saturday Morning Table

I haven’t been feeling well this week.  I’ll spare you the bodily details, but suffice to say, it hit me hard on Thursday afternoon, when I wanted nothing more than to take a nap at work, and it followed me around on Friday.  Last night I bagged my plans to go for a run, and instead, I curled up on the couch and ate pasta with pesto, chickpeas, and grape tomatoes.  Then, for dessert, I made fudge sauce and ate that with chocolate cake.  All in all, a nutritious dinner, right?  Right.  Don’t argue with me here.

On most Saturdays, I head into work in the morning for a few hours, but not today.  It’s very rare for me to take a sick day during the Monday-Friday work week; it’s far more common for me to take a day here or there to spend with Matt if he’s in town or if we’ve made other plans.  Vacation days, yes.  Sick days, no.  But in my mind, I’ve taken today as a sick day, so I’m spending a lazy Saturday morning at home.  I slept until 9 AM, then dozed in bed for another half an hour.  Then I got up and puttered around the kitchen, making my oatmeal and coffee, emptying the dishwasher, and cleaning up the kitchen, which needs more TLC than I’ve been giving it.  In a few minutes, I’ll call a friend, make a grocery list, and get myself ready to face the outside world.  But it’s been really nice to be at home all morning, with no pressing concerns.  I love being at home, but I’m afraid my life for the past few months has been altogether too full, and I’m due for some slowing down, even if it’s just a morning or two.

The thing about working on the weekend regularly is that it can make you lazy.  You don’t push yourself as hard during the week if you know that you’ll be working “extra” on Saturdays or Sundays.  At least that’s true for me.  I certainly don’t regret all the weekend time I’ve put into my job lately; it helped propel my project and it gave me something to do other than worry.  I was too busy working to worry!

But this weekend, I think I’ll be staying away from the lab.  My hope is that come Monday morning, I’ll feel refreshed and ready to hit the ground running, as opposed to the mediocre shuffling that I performed this week.  This weekend, I’m going to make soup and continue updating my recipe index.  I’m going to write posts and go for runs and watch the birds and visit the library.  Maybe I’ll bake a cake.  Maybe I’ll go for a long walk with a friend.  Maybe, maybe, maybe…

It’s a weekend filled with possibilities.  I hope your weekend is lovely, too, dear reader.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shop Talk

I had an unexpected loss this year: my neighborhood grocery store.  RIP, Albertson’s on University.  We had a good run of it together.


The store’s closing hit me fast and hard: I found out in September that their last day was October 8.  Apparently, that particular Albertson’s location was bought out by HEB, which kind of makes me hate HEB, even though they do have an outstanding produce section.  I loved having a decent grocery store that was quite literally within walking distance: it was three blocks away from me.  It seemed serendipitous that even in Texas, land of a thousand trucks, I, the carless freak, had a grocery store I could visit virtually any time because it was so close.  Now I have nothing.

Oh, I exaggerate.  I still have options.  There’s the hippie food store a bit further down the road from the old Albertson’s, which can be reached easily on foot or on bike.  There’s the HEB down the road from the hippie store, too far for foot travel but easy to reach on bike.  And then there’s my favorite newly “discovered” option, Village Foods, which can be reached quickly by bus.  I’ve known about Village Foods since my early days in Texas, but because of its location and the difficulty of riding my bike to it, I hadn’t shopped there in a long time until this month.  I like Village Foods.  It’s like a cross between Whole Foods and Albertson’s: they have a small but respectable selection of organic produce as well as lots of other organic products, but they also carry a lot of items one expects to find at a typical chain grocery store.  They have what looks like a promising selection of alcoholic beverages, too—I spotted cans of Strongbow Cider, which is seriously delicious cider (and very strong too!  I was quite tipsy after a pint at the bar over the summer).  The best thing about Village Foods and the hippie store (whose proper name is Brazos Natural Foods) is that they are independent grocery stores, not chains.  Indie grocery stores!  How terrific is that?  I may not be so good at supporting indie bookstores, but dammit, I can do it for food.

The biggest loss I am feeling after Albertson’s closing is that I no longer have the option of popping into the store after work for a few basics whenever I’m in need.  No more shopping trips for a bunch of bananas, milk, a can of tomatoes, and a package of toilet paper.  Without Albertson’s, I’m being forced to reconsider my shopping habits, to adapt to a new model.  It’s now inconvenient for me to go shopping with short lists—I need longer, more comprehensive shopping lists, lists that take into account my ingredient needs for several meals, not just the next thing I want to cook.  I suppose I’ve been lucky in that I could shop more or less if and when I wanted—today, tomorrow, next week, whatever.  It didn’t matter because the store was so close.  But now, to go grocery shopping is a bigger deal because the stores are further away and of the two big grocery stores, only one of them is accessible by bike.

Twice this month I’ve sucked it up: I made long lists, took the bus to the grocery store, filled my cart (a cart! not just a basket!) with goodies, spent a week’s worth of grocery money in one transaction, then called a cab to haul me and my loot home.  It was nice, being able to buy as much as I wanted because I wasn’t turning my bike into a mule and loading my groceries onto it.  And it was only a little hard parting with some of my dollars for the cab ride.

So I’m adapting.  I’m figuring out how to be a more organized shopper.  I am still planning to shop twice a week, once at the hippie food store on Saturdays and once at either HEB or Village Foods.  Twice a week is a good rhythm for me because I like fresh produce, and with HEB, I can either bike it or cab it, depending on what else is on the list.  And on the nights I’m cabbing it, I’m enjoying the option to buy a four-pack of hard cider without worrying about all that glass wobbling with me on my bike.

My kitchen is enjoying it too, this feeling of being well-stocked.  Over the weekend, I made a surprisingly good onion quiche (recipe coming soon, I hope!), vegan chocolate cake, and last night I made kale and chickpea burritos.  I’m eating well, which is good because it’s only Tuesday and I’m already over budget for the week!  Oof.  But I think it will all balance out: the pantry is well-provisioned, and I think I’ll only want a few things when I ride my bike to HEB later this week.  No cab ride, just some fresh fruit, carrots, coconut milk, and maybe some almonds.

Friends, what are your approaches to grocery shopping?  Are you a “shop once, buy everything” type or do you make smaller but more frequent trips?  How important is fresh produce to you?  How do you integrate grocery shopping into the rest of your busy life?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Steady Rotation, or How I Like to Spend My Saturday Afternoons

If rice pudding isn’t your thing, how about the easiest peanut butter cookies I’ve ever made?

Cookie Closeup

Yes, indeed, these cookies are my current favorites, in part because the recipe makes a tiny batch, just nine cookies, which makes them very low-key, as far as cookies go.  They have a lovely texture too, delicate and a little crumbly.  They’re soft cookies, slightly cakey cookies, not snappy or crispy cookies.

I’ve been making them all summer long, ever since I had a hankering to make a peanut butter version of this recipe.  I liked that original recipe a lot, but I found that neither the cookies nor the cookie dough keeps very well—they’re best eaten within a day or two.  Don’t let that warning deter you too much because really, with such a small batch of cookies, isn’t it easy to make sure they all get eaten quickly?  Perhaps a little too easy, yes?

Anyway, the latest incarnation of this small-batch recipe is a peanut butter version which borrows the famous flax-egg trick from vegan baking circles.  I like the flax-egg trick!  Water, ground flax seed, some light stirring, a few minutes, and boom: gooey egg replacement, ready to be added to your cookie dough.  I make up the flax egg before mixing the other ingredients, and by the time I’m ready for the flax egg, it’s nice and gooey and perfect for its task of holding everything together.

I got into the habit of making these on Saturday afternoons.  I would finish lunch at home and crave something small and sweet.  Baking a few cookies seemed like the perfect small-time kitchen project to officially launch my weekend (which never feels like it starts until after I’ve done my Saturday morning chores).  Then I’d make myself a mug of iced tea, curl up with my plate of cookies, and read a book on the couch.  Happiness!

Peanut Butter Cookies

Small-Batch Peanut Butter Cookies

Adapted from this recipe

Makes 9 cookies

I have a few variations on these cookies too, which I’ll list below.  A good cookie lends itself well to tinkering!  If you have any suggestions for more variations, feel free to share them in the comments.

1/2 tbsp. ground flax seed

1 1/2 tbsp. water

1/2 cup + 2 tbsp. flour (I typically use all-purpose flour, whole-wheat pastry flour, or a combination of both.  The all-pastry flour cookie is more delicate than the other options.)

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1/8 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/4 cup sugar

2 tbsp. peanut butter

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 cup chocolate chips

Nonstick spray

1)  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2)  To make the flax egg, mix the flax seed and water together in a small measuring cup.  Set aside.

3)  Combine the flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a small bowl.  Set aside.

4)  Cream together the butter and sugar in a medium mixing bowl.  Add the peanut butter and vanilla extract, and mix together.  Add the flax egg and mix.

5)  Mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture until a dough forms.  Stir in the chocolate chips.

6)  Spray a baking sheet with nonstick spray.  Form the dough into tablespoon-sized balls and place on the sheet with about two inches between balls.  Use your palm to flatten the ball to about 1/2-inch thickness.  If you like, you can use a fork to make those cute criss-cross patterns on the cookies.

7)  Bake for 12-13 minutes.  Allow them to cool on their baking sheet for about 10 minutes, then remove and eat or allow them to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.


* This is really obvious, but sometimes I like a pure peanut butter cookie, so I leave out the chocolate chips.

* For an oatmeal-peanut butter-chocolate chip cookie, I add 2 tbsp. rolled oats along with the chocolate chips.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Rewards and Rice Pudding

This is my theory on running and life: you must be your own best cheerleader.

I’m really lucky that I have a lot of kind people in my life.  These people are happy for me when things are going well, and they’re bummed with me when things are crappy.  Still, I think we owe it to ourselves to treat ourselves the way we want other people to treat us.  And that means hushing that inner voice telling you that you can’t, it’s not possible, you’re going to fail, you’re too tired, you aren’t smart enough, you’re lazy, you’re fat, you’re ugly, and on and on and on…as a woman, I often fear that we’ve taken society’s misogynistic messages and internalized them.  Why else would women’s magazines feature pictures of impossibly beautiful women wearing bikinis?  I think it’s because collectively, we’ve signed off on the idea that it is part of a woman’s duty to be thin and pretty.  And I resent this message.

I think we owe it to ourselves to take care of our bodies, to strive for healthiness above beauty.  I think about this message a lot, mostly when I have my own tiny moments of body insecurity.  Yes, I’m happy with my weight, but I have moments when I ignore the whole so I can dissect the parts: is my belly a little more padded than it used to be?  Are my thighs looking heavier?  I do this little routine for a few minutes, then I remember: these parts are the same ones that pedaled me to work today, that accompanied me on my run yesterday.  This is the body that will carry me to the end of my life, and if it doesn’t mind a little extra padding, then neither do I.

For most of us, our worries about a little extra padding are the fastest way to drain the joy and pleasure out of our days.  Life is short.  Carpe diem, I say, not carpe diet.

I digress.  Let’s get back to this business of the inner cheerleader.  My point in talking about bodies and our feelings toward them is that we seem to find it much easier to internalize negativity.  I think a critical secret to success is to internalize a positive voice, a kind of optimism that only gets louder as things get harder.  It’s a way to stay focused on the prize, to not let yourself be distracted by anything but the immediate goal.  Believe me, there is plenty of negativity out there to drag you down, if that’s what you want.  But what will lift you up?  What makes you feel strong and capable?  For me, my inner cheerleader is that source of focused positive energy.

I work in a field where positive feedback is often scant, and it’s something I’ve wrestled with for a long time.  In graduate school, I don’t think my advisor ever said a congratulatory word to me when I was awarded a grant or when my paper was finally accepted for publication.  I took his lack of praise pretty hard.  It made me angry and depressed not to get accolades for achieving things that he and I had been working toward for so long.  I felt like he owed me some praise.  But now, looking back, I don’t think he did.  He owed me his best efforts as a mentor, and I do think he did the best he could.  But he didn’t owe me any praise.

Fast forward to this week.  On Tuesday, I presented my research during lab meeting.  It was an important talk, the first one I’ve given in a long time.  I felt like it was a milestone of sorts, an evaluative moment after a long summer of intense focus.  And the talk went really well!  I put a lot of time and thought into it, and even though I didn’t have much of a chance to practice the talk, I feel like the presentation went smoothly.  Afterward, I was quite pleased with it.

But the most important point is this: I did not receive any praise from my advisor.  I still don’t know what my future prospects are with this lab—will I be working here next month?  In three months?  In six months?  During the talk, my advisor did offer constructive critical feedback on my work, which I take as a positive sign.  But I walked away from that meeting with little more than my own sense of self congratulations.

On a practical level, I do need to know what my options are, career-wise, in this lab.  If I no longer have a position here, then I need to hit the job market to find a new one.  I will have that conversation with my advisor before the month is over.  But for now, I feel satisfied that I did the best job I could, and no one can take that away from me, no matter what happens next.

Sometimes the pat on the back we give ourselves is the one that matters most.

In addition to your inner cheerleader, the other thing you need is carrots.  Rewards.  A real pat on the back.  Or, in my case this week, rice pudding made with Arborio rice and finished with a rum custard sauce. 


I’m all about stealing borrowing inspiration, and this recipe collects its cues from three sources: the Moosewood folks; my blogging friend, the lovely Raquelita; and Nigella Lawson.  I must be in a rather academic mood for all this citing of sources, but here’s how it worked: last weekend, I made the Rum Custard Sauce from the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts.  It’s very tasty on its own, but it really is a sauce, not something you pour into a bowl and eat by the spoonful on its own.  (Not that I would do that…at least not without adding some bananas first!  Bananas make Rum Custard Sauce healthy, right?)  I needed something to go with my sauce, and Raquelita suggested rice pudding, which sounded perfect.  I swear, sometimes I think she and I share a brain because I’ve had a recipe for pumpkin rice pudding on my mind.  But for a pudding that was going to make good use of the Rum Custard Sauce, I wanted something simpler and more straightforward, and here is where I turned to Nigella Lawson.  She’s got a recipe for rice pudding for one in How to Eat, which sounded homey and delicious.  I took her basic recipe and tweaked it a bit to fit what I had on hand.  The end result was a creamy, delicious, perfect rice pudding—simple and straightforward, just rice luxuriating in a sauce spiked with rum custard.  There are no fruits and no spices, so it’s the kind of rice pudding a purist could love. 

Rice Pudding for a Purist 

Risotto Rice Pudding with Rum Custard Sauce

Serves 2, perhaps with a little left over

For the Rum Custard Sauce (from Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts)

This eggless custard sauce could not be easier to make: a little light whisking and you’re done.

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 tbsp. flour

2 tbsp. rum

1)  In a saucepan, combine the milk, cream, and brown sugar.  Whisk them together.  Heat the mixture over low heat, and whisk in the flour.  Stir constantly until the sauce thickens slightly and has no lumps.

2)  Remove from the heat and stir in the rum.  If you’re making this ahead of time, allow the sauce to cool then store it in the fridge.

For the Rice Pudding (adapted from How to Eat by Nigella Lawson):

3 cups water

2 tbsp. butter

2 tbsp. granulated sugar

1/4 cup Arborio rice

1/4 cup Rum Custard Sauce (see above for recipe)

1)  In a saucepan, heat the water until hot but not boiling.  Turn off the heat.

2)  Melt the butter over medium heat in a large sauce pan or even a Dutch oven (the high sides make for pleasant and mess-free stirring).  Add the sugar and stir to combine.  Cook for a minute or two, then add the rice and stir to coat it in the buttery-sugary mixture.  Using a ladle, begin adding the water, a ladle or two at a time, stirring almost constantly.  (I stir frequently, but I find risotto doesn’t absolutely require constant stirring.  It’s sort of like baby-sitting—keep an eye and a hand on the risotto [or child], but if you want to wash a few dishes in between stirs, that’s quite all right.)  Allow the rice to absorb the liquid before adding the next ladle or two.  As you get close to the bottom of the water pan, begin checking the texture of the rice by tasting it.  If it’s too al dente for your taste, then keep adding water.  I used almost all the water, but I like soft rice.  You may prefer yours a little chewier.

3)  When the rice is done to your liking, stir in the Rum Custard Sauce.  It might look like a lot of liquid, but give it a few stirs and you’ll find that the rice pudding will have a nice, thick-but-not-too-thick saucy texture.

4)  Serve the rice pudding warm or at room temperature.  Leftovers are tasty tucked into the lunchbox and might be reason enough to double the recipe.  Yum!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Secretly and Hopelessly Optimistic

Worn Bench in Garden


Favorite Clothes Drying

I sometimes worry that if I go too long without writing a post, my writing muscles will seize up and atrophy.  The idea of it frightens me, so I thought I’d better scoot on over here to say hello!

I’m having a good week—a big talk, lunch with friends, listening to raindrops splash against the windows.  I do want to tell you more about the big talk, which I have concluded was a success, but more importantly, I want to tell you about the celebratory rice pudding I made the night after the talk.  It was good.  Next time I’m making a double batch!

The thought that keeps running through my head this week is this: we must learn to be our own advocates.  We have to believe in ourselves.  But we also have to ask ourselves the hard questions such as: Am I on the right path?  Am I making my decisions with intention?  Or am I just reacting to external circumstances?  I know the recession makes it harder for us not to react to circumstances, and believe me, I am waiting for the economy to shrug itself back to consciousness and start chugging along again.

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the last four months, it’s that we cannot let ourselves be afraid to ask the hard questions.  And if we decide that we know what we want, we can’t be afraid to go for it, leaping into the air and trusting that we will land on two feet.

For me, this week marks the end of a long hard summer.  It was an important summer that tested my endurance and my optimism.  It demonstrated to me that I’ve actually got plenty of endurance and optimism.  It also demonstrated to me that a Saturday afternoon nap can fix what ails you, that baking peanut butter cookies is sometimes the answer, and that I am bigger than my fears.

You are bigger than your fears too.  I just know it.

Call me a hopeless optimist.  It’s hard, in these grim days of shrinking budgets and job insecurities, to be an optimist.  But I am.  I look around at the growing momentum of farmers’ markets and local business, of people declaring that communities matter more than fat paychecks, of people asking hard questions about values, finances, and happiness, and I just know that we’re only at the beginning of something great.  Of something huge.  And I want to be there for it and to be a part of it.

Let’s be great together, shall we?

About today’s photos:

* The first two were taken in the Holistic Garden on campus, one of my favorite places to visit.

* The third is a photo of a few of my favorite shirts, drying.  I bought the pink one in Michigan a few weeks ago, at a really great thrift store.  I just love it.  And I’m wearing it today!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Survival Strategies, Part Two: On Wallet

It’s another multi-part series here on Life, Love, and Food!  You can find Part One of this series, On Weight and Worry, right here.

One of my best and worst qualities is that I’m a sponge for other people’s emotions.  It’s a great quality because it makes me very empathetic, and quite often I find myself as the unpaid therapist for needy friends.  (Matt tells me I should raise my rates, which I think is very sound advice.)  It’s a terrible quality because I absorb other people’s anxieties lickety-split, and it can make me kinda miserable.  That’s why I have such an affinity for people who are calm and happy—it’s utterly soothing for me to around them.  Interestingly, some of my closest friends have also professed to having a lot of anxiety, but I don’t feel their anxiety when we are together, as though the pleasure of being together makes us both feel better.

Growing up, my father had a lot of anxiety about money.  Honestly, with five kids, he had good reason to be anxious about money.  Somehow, my parents made it work, and we were neither homeless nor malnourished.  I did, however, enter adulthood with mountains of fear about money, both making it and spending it.  Having spent six years in graduate school, perhaps my anxiety was also well-placed, much like my father’s.  But my anxiety is more squirrely than good intentions to save more and spend less.  I can get anxious about other people’s money too, to the point where I feel almost panicked by their finances.  It’s absurd, really, because how much do we really know about someone else’s finances?  Not much, unless we are their accountant or the federal government.  Still, my anxiety about money has loomed large for most of my life, and it exhausts me.

As a graduate student, I received a very reasonable stipend.  It was more than enough to live on, and I made it my goal to save what I could.  I kept careful track of my expenditures, and I was able to save about $200-300 a month, which is not too shabby at all for a student.  Of course I wish I’d been able to save more, but I loved what I chose to spend my money on: a spacious apartment; really great food, cookbooks; tickets to Michigan, Arizona, California; birthday and Christmas presents.  I had enough money to eat out once or twice a month, enough money to enjoy the city where I was living.  I certainly didn’t have enough money to purchase a home when I was in graduate school, but I set up retirement accounts and planned for a good future while living within my means during the present.  I wasn’t particularly anxious about money during graduate school because I was too anxious about graduate school itself and what my career prospects would look like.

As I’ve been out of grad school and working, my attitude about money has shifted.  I make more money now, and I spend more money too.  Some of that spending doesn’t feel optional, such as plane tickets north to see my family.  It’s expensive to travel out of College Station.  But for the most part, I have adhered to the same budget I followed in graduate school, which looks a little like this for any given month:

* Rent, utilities, and phone: ~$1100-1200

* Food (groceries and eating out): ~$300

* Travel and monthly extras: ~$300

Monthly extras” can be anything from presents to Target trips to new clothing to bike repair bills.  It’s really my catch-all category for the expenditures that appear sporadically.  For travel, I usually budget $100 per month for the 2-3 trips I take each year, and if I get a tax return, it goes into my travel budget.

If you do the math, my budget adds up to $1700-1800 spent each month.  But during most months, I’m able to keep my spending around $1600.  I also have what I call my “Rainy Day Money,” which is basically money that’s been given to me as gifts.  Because it was gifted, I tend to use it for treats like a fancy meal at Veritas with my favorite gentleman or a new dress.  So I suppose it’s fair to say that I probably spend between $1600 and $1700 a month—the Rainy Day Money gives my budget some flexibility, and it allows me to put gift money to good use by not spending it on boring things like rent and groceries.

A budget, money-tracking, gifts—this is all very rational when it comes to money.  It’s rational behavior.  But I don’t always feel rational about money—my anxiety lies in wait like a snake in the grass, hissing to itself and ready to rear up when the opportunity arrives.  This summer, when I was presented with the possibility of no longer having a job in a few months, my anxieties about money loomed large.  What would I do if I lost my job?  What should I do right now, in case I lose my job?  Should I clamp down on my budget, pinching pennies so hard they howl in pain?  Should I start baking my own bread and eating lentil soup at every meal?  Should I start calculating the cost-per-meal value of my recipes?

Or…should I take a deep breath and try to consider what’s really important here?

Of course I could have launched a Save Every Penny campaign, preparing for joblessness in the near future.  When I tried to think about what really mattered to me, I realized that I needed to do my best to keep this job.  Financially, staying in my current job is the right thing for right now.  I wasn’t ready to give up on this job or on the projects that I’d been nurturing in said job.  I also realized that clamping down on my spending would actually make it harder to stay focused on the job, because I’d be worried and distracted by money at a time when I really wanted to focus on my work.

So I let go, at least a little bit.  I bought bottles of wine when I was in the mood for wine with dinner, and I bought bars of chocolate to keep in the pantry for emergencies.  On Saturday afternoons, after spending the morning in the lab, I sometimes took myself out to lunch, a little treat for all my hard work.  And indeed it was a treat to have someone else make my lunch for me—it made my life a little easier, a little more light-hearted.  I thought about this piece by Lauren Slater, in which she writes,  

“I've always been a tightfisted misanthrope, someone whose fears—of going broke, of ending up sleeping on the street—made it difficult to buy things for my family and for myself. So for a year, as an experiment, I became a casual consumer, zooming through Target and my other favorite stores, piling my cart high. I bought what I wanted, only to find at year's end that even at my most extreme, I am not all that extreme. I have limits.”

(Scroll down to the second essay in that collection to find Lauren Slater’s piece.  It’s worth reading!)

That piece, which I first read years ago, resonated with me.  Aha! I thought.  Now here is a woman after my own heart.  We shared the same fears, the same anxieties about money.  And it turned out that the solution for both of us may have been to let go and see what happened when we hit the ground.  Looking at my spending journal now, I see that for June, July, and August combined, I spent about $80 more than my usual numbers.  When I check my Rainy Day Log, I see that I didn’t spend any of that money, which means all my extras—shoes and new clothes and a dinner at Veritas and on and on—all of these things were noted and accounted for in my monthly spending.

The cost of my letting go was eighty dollars.  Eighty dollars!  That’s a ludicrously small amount of money considering the chokehold that money often has over my psyche.  I am stunned and awed.

I’m also grateful.  I don’t like that I inherited my dad’s anxiety about money, but I am grateful that because of that anxiety, I can sit here right now and account for almost every penny I spent.  And I know now that buying a few bottles of wine won’t break my budget.  Buying new shoes, even a pair that is, arguably, a bit frivolous—that won’t break my budget.  Saying “yes” to pleasure more often will not break my budget because I know now that I too have limits.  I love an evening at Veritas or even just a glass of wine and a cheese plate as a treat, but I don’t want to go there every day or even every week.  Part of what makes spending fun is that I don’t indulge in these bigger treats every day or even every week.

But the peace of mind I feel from this little experiment of mine—I can enjoy that every day.  There’s nothing quite as satisfying or humbling as facing your fears and realizing that they weren’t nearly as bad as you thought they were.

* * *

I feel like before I go, I should issue a little disclaimer about this post.  By no means am I trying to complain about my money situation, argue that I don’t make enough money, or even claim that I live frugally.  I live in a way that works for me.  I save money where it makes sense for me (which is why I don’t have a car, even in Texas!), and I spend money the same way.  It’s my hope that by sharing specific numbers with you, I can give you an idea of how I budget and what a month looks like in my financial life.  But the real obstacle for me, when it comes to money, is my own attitude toward it, and that’s what I’ve tried to explore in this post.  I hope that this post will resonate with a few of you, even just a little.

Thanks for reading, as always.  I really do have the best readers!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Survival Strategies, Part One: On Weight and Worry

When you’re facing a lot of stress in life, I think it’s a good idea to develop some survival strategies so that you come out alive on the other side.  Over the summer, when I was really in the thick of things at work, I decided to cut myself some slack in two areas where I’m normally very careful about my spending: food and money.  In this post, I’m going to talk about how food fits into my life.  In my next post, I’ll talk about my wallet.

I love to eat.  I love to cook.  I love to feed other people.  On the whole, I think I have a very healthy relationship with food.  I don’t have a dramatic story about overcoming bad habits and establishing healthier routines.  As a child, I ate too much candy and cereal, disliked many foods, and my parents worried that I wasn’t getting enough protein because I was never very fond of meat.  It turns out that I don’t have a meat-and-potatoes palate like my father’s.  I prefer more exotic cuisine: Tex-Mex, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Indian.  I like spice and heat and beans.  Once I started cooking for myself, I was able to develop healthier habits: more vegetables, less candy.

When it comes to weight, food is half of the equation.  The other half is exercise or physical activity.  As a kid, I didn’t like team sports, but I was reasonably active.  For years, my brothers and I had newspaper routes, so every day, we walked around the neighborhood, delivering our papers.  Looking back now, I don’t know what our mileage was for those routes, but it was everyday exercise.  Despite my junk-food diet, I never had a problem with weight as a kid; I was always rather small and shrimpy.

When I went away to college, I began developing healthier habits.  I had more choice in the matter; when you’re living at home with your parents, your choices may be curtailed by their preferences.  But in the college cafeteria, I had dozens of choices every day.  By the time I started college, I had become more interested in healthy eating: more vegetables, less candy.  In my final two years of college, my roommates and I were able to cook for ourselves, and we started to enjoy the freedom of being able to try new recipes and host dinner parties together.  It was a lovely time in my life—I think back on those years fondly, remembering all the good food and friends I had.

When I started graduate school in the fall of 2003, suddenly I had total control over my eating and exercise.  I was living in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago, within walking distance of three different grocery stores.  And walk I did: lots and lots of walking, all over town.  In college I had run cross-country, but in graduate school, I adjusted to city life by walking everywhere.  I continued to cook healthy meals, becoming very interested in soup.  I packed myself lunches to take to school every day, and I learned the importance of the mid-afternoon snack, a habit I still maintain to this day.

Somewhere between 2003 and 2007, I lost 20 pounds.  I wasn’t overweight when I started graduate school, but my habits did change: I was walking more and running less.  I also started doing yoga and Pilates several times a week.  Looking back now, it’s hard for me to say how much my diet changed and whether that was a factor in my weight loss.  My weight loss was unintentional and gradual, and it scared some family and friends.  It scared me a little bit too: after my family commented on my weight, I noticed that my face looked gaunt, as though its roundness had disappeared along with my 20 pounds.  But when I converted my new weight into a value for Body Mass Index, I was still in the healthy range for my height.  There were other indicators that my health was good, too, so I didn’t worry too much about the weight loss.  Actually, what I did do was loosen up a bit in my cooking.  I became more liberal with the olive oil, and I worried less about using fats of all kind in my cooking.  I figured that using more fat would certainly make my food tastier, and if it happened to let me gain a few pounds back, awesome!

I tell you this long-winded story because it sets the scene for today.  I’m now 29, about to turn 30 next month.  I’m well aware of the fact that people’s metabolisms tend to slow down as they age, so I wonder whether I’ll begin gaining weight simply as a function of age.  And yet this summer, when I thought about coping strategies, food seemed like a great candidate for dealing with the stress.

When it comes to eating habits, I think people tend to fall into three camps: there are those who restrict their eating (through food choices, calories, or both), those who binge, and those who binge and restrict (usually as part of a cycle).  I don’t consider my eating disordered, though if I tend toward anything, it’s restriction.  I have a ridiculous love for sugar (see above re:candy), so one of my long-term eating goals has been to eat less sugar.  This summer, I eased up on that goal.  I decided to enjoy dessert if and when I wanted, and if I was feeling really indulgent, I would drink a glass of wine with dinner and eat dessert.  Crazy!  I know.  But in my mind, I’d always felt like if I was going to eat “empty” calories, I should pick either wine or dessert.  That’s advice I picked up a long time ago, and it made sense to me.  But for a few months, I had my cake and my wine, and I was happier for it.

I think it’s important to emphasize that I wasn’t giving myself permission to binge or to consume all my calories in the form of dessert and booze.  I was still cooking and eating in a way that packed lots of nutrients into my diet: vegetables, fruit, protein, fats from a variety of sources.  I still liked my soups and my salads; I was just ending more meals with a little sweet something.  It gave me something to savor every day, something to enjoy, no matter how stressed I was feeling.  The sweets were a little reminder to try to enjoy my life, right here, right now.  They literally added sweetness to my day, and I needed that.

I had moments, of course, in which I wondered if my pants would fit once the summer ended.  So far, so good: my favorite pair of jeans still fits!  And at my annual appointment with the lady doctor, I found out that my weight is the exact same number as it was last year, which is shocking.  But considering the number of Saturday mornings I’ve spent biking to the lab and then doing experiments, maybe it’s not shocking.  Maybe I needed the calories to fuel all those Saturdays.  Or maybe my body just tweaked its metabolism a bit to burn a few more calories.  Who knows?  All I can say is that for me, giving myself permission to sip more wine and bake more cookies helped me get through a particularly lonely and hard time in my life.  And if that permission results in an extra five or ten pounds on my body, then so be it.