Monday, September 28, 2009

Among the Boxes

Dear readers, the big move has begun.

This move, from Chicago to Texas, is terrifying.  Here I am, gutting my life so that I can start over in a new place, for a job that I hope is better than my old one.  I’m about to put 900 miles between me and my life in Chicago.  Right now, sitting among the boxes, that seems really dumb.

I know, I know: I could have tried to stay in Chicago.  I even thought about it when the Chicago Teaching Fellows program looked awfully good to me, but last winter devastated me.  I need a few years away from Midwestern winters.  Right this moment, with a September wind blowing through my window and a tree rustling behind me, casting leafy shadows on the wooden floor, it’s hard for me to remember last winter as more than a vaguely unpleasant time.  But I know it happened.  I was there.  Still, I can’t seem to conjure up the visceral memory that would help chase away the awful sadness that follows me around now.  People keep asking if I’m excited about moving, about Texas, about my new job, and the truth is that I’m too sad about leaving to be excited about anything.  Even thinking about Matt, whom I will see in about two weeks, is not lifting me out of my funk.

Saying good-bye is hard.  That’s just the way it is.

But moving is probably easier than saying good-bye.  Moving isn’t all bad.  In its own way, it’s kind of liberating, an excuse to shed some of the old stuff.  A move such as mine is an exercise in minimalism.  Consider this: the movers will arrive on Tuesday to pack most of my belongings into a truck.  Then they will drive away, leaving only what I can carry with me.  I will be living out of suitcases for up to ten days, six of which will be spent in Texas in my unfurnished apartment.  During that time, I’ll be cooking with a chef’s knife, a cutting mat, a mixing bowl, a wooden spoon, measuring cups and spoons, a tiny pot, a skillet, and my favorite roasting pan.  That’s it.  I’m bringing with me a bowl, a plate, a cup, a mug, and some flatware.  It seems totally wrong, but I’m excited about this stripped-down approach to cooking.  The meals will be easy and simple.  The meals, in fact, may look a lot like the meals I’ve eaten in the last three days.  That’s not a bad thing at all!

I have, for example, rediscovered the goodness that is ants on a log.  Why else would celery exist other than to serve as an edible vehicle for raisins and peanut butter?  On Saturday, I made a big pot of red lentil soup, adapted from a recipe in the new issue of Vegetarian Times, to fuel my belly through multiple days of packing.  But the best moving food I ate was with someone whom I wish I could pack into a box and take with me to Texas.  It was with Ammie.

It takes a brave woman to volunteer to help pack a kitchen, but Ammie is brave and kind and very entertaining while she rolls drinking glasses in bubble wrap.  She came over on Saturday night and gave me an excuse to abandon the boxes for a bit while we walked over to Whole Foods to pick up some lettuce.  After catching a glimpse of the sunset, we made a simple dinner of salad and roasted chickpeas followed by squares of chocolate for dessert.  I’ve already told you about the salad—my very favorite salad ever—and you hardly need a recipe for eating a chocolate bar straight out of the package.  But those chickpeas are something special, and they taste best when shared.

I was a skeptic about roasted chickpeas, as they sound odd to me.  Why would I want to eat hard chickpeas?  But roasting crisps a chickpea into a delectable little morsel with a crunchy outside coat hiding a soft, creamy nugget.  I like to season my roasted chickpeas with smoked paprika and cumin, which infuses them with a rich smoky flavor.  They are addictively good and very, very simple—something that every recipe should strive to be.  Ammie loved them too—maybe they’ll be a candidate recipe for her next cookbook?  A cowgirl can only dream of such glory.

I’ll see you in Texas, friends.  

Roasted Chickpeas with Smoked Paprika

Adapted from this recipe on Sweet Amandine

Serves 2 (or 1 very, very generously…)

The only downside to these roasted chickpeas is that they are at their best when hot out of the oven.  Once they cool, they lose that awesome crunchy texture and become mushy.  They still taste good, but the texture is what makes these chickpeas most memorable.  I’ve made them a bunch of times just for me because I love them, but I think the best solution is to share them while they’re fragrant with spice and oven heat.  Either way, this recipe is a good reason to always keep a can of chickpeas in the cupboard.

1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, divided

2 tsp. smoked paprika

1 tsp. ground cumin

Several shakes of salt

A few grinds of pepper

1)  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Spray a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray.

2)  Dump the chickpeas into a mixing bowl and toss them with 1 tbsp. olive oil.  Add the spices, salt, and pepper, and mix well.

3)  Pour the chickpeas onto the baking sheet and roast for 30-35 minutes or until the chickpeas are crunchy and fragrant.  Stir the chickpeas once or twice while they roast.  Save the oily mixing bowl for the next step.

4)  Remove the chickpeas from the oven and pour into the oily mixing bowl.  Add the remaining 1 tbsp. of oil, toss well, and serve.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A September Solitude

As this season of light began to fade, I finally saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Now I am standing at the end of the tunnel and the view is spectacular—better than I could have ever imagined.

This metaphorical tunnel is graduate school, and I am so happy to be a hop away from the end of this part of my life. When I was deep inside the tunnel, it felt like it would never end, that I would be stuck in science purgatory for eternity. But this summer, it’s been nothing but milestone accomplishments: I found a new job and finished my PhD. Later this month I will pack all my belongings into a moving truck, wave good-bye to them, and board a plane bound for Houston, Texas. From there, in exchange for a fistful of dollars, someone will drive me across the Texas landscape to College Station, where, at midnight or so on October 3, I will open the door to my new home, an empty apartment, and I will finally realize that the next story has begun.

It’s funny how it seems like everything happens all at once. John Lennon was right when he sang that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. The living and the planning and the dreaming and the scheming—they occur side by side, like inspiration and expiration. It’s all a big beautiful cycle of beginning and ending and beginning again.

I feel like September is a good month for a fresh start. The fall equinox, that day of perfect balance between light and dark, is just a few weeks away. After a summer devoted to seeking the light at the end of the tunnel, I think it is time to rest before I make a fresh start in Texas. I would like to bask in the light of these last few days of summer, with nothing more strenuous to do than making myself a glass of iced tea or holding a book in front of my nose. I want to play with my niece and cook with her parents. I need to walk around the nature preserve we visited two years ago so that I can see the flocks of birds as they prepare for autumn and the turning of the leaves.

I have decided to give myself the gift of silence this month. While I was in the thick of interviews and thesis-writing, it was important to me to keep writing my weekly blog posts, if for no other reason than to have a record of what it felt like to emerge, triumphant, from the long tunnel leading to my PhD. But this month, the need for rest is weighing on me heavily, like the suitcase I must pack tonight for a two-week stay in Michigan. By the time I return to Chicago, I’ll be itching to write again, ready to breathe new words into this little site. I hope you’ll meet me back here around September 28th or so when the conversation resumes.

For now, I wish you all a beautiful September and enough time to enjoy the season’s colors. I leave you with a view of the autumn canopy in my neighborhood. Be well, friends.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Texas, Betwixt and Between

Texas may be situated at the southern end of these United States, but for me, it was first found sandwiched between the end of one story and the beginning of another.

It’s a funny destination, Texas.  Specifically, my destination is College Station, home of the fiercely proud Aggies and a sea of football fans clad in maroon and white.  I say my destination is College Station because it still is.  I’m not there yet—the ink from my signature on a lease is barely dry—but I was there last week, a Northerner in a strange and interesting Southern town.

I arrived in Texas still dazed and dazzled by the idea that I am done with graduate school, minus a few odds and ends.  The big stuff—namely, the thesis defending in private and public forums—is complete, and that’s really about 95% of the task I set out to accomplish.  The remaining 5% I will finish this month before taking a one-way trip to College Station.  Squished between my thesis defense and cleaning out my desk was last week’s trip to Texas.  After all the chaos of my public thesis defense, visiting Texas seemed like a vacation, a trip during which I had but one serious task: finding a new home.  An agenda like that left plenty of time for eating and drinking, gossiping and soaking in a hot tub, and pondering what life with a PhD will be like.

When I tell people that I am moving to Texas, there is a certain fraction that feels compelled to warn me that Texas is a land that will shock me with its heat, its culture (or lack thereof, depending on how snooty one feels about these things), its politics, its lack of vegetarians, and its isolation.  I am amused by these doomsayers, in part because they do not understand how much Texas has to offer me.  They do not know that I experienced the worst depression of my life last winter and spent most evenings curled up in a ball on my couch, desperately sad about the bitter cold, the abyss of dark nights, and the answerless questions about my future that swirled around me like an arctic wind.  Texas feels like a warm tropical breeze upon which answers floated like so many seeds from a dandelion.  Life will be different in Texas.  Of this I am sure.

But different does not translate as bad.  It just means not the same.  The things about Texas that worry me are never the issues that other people bring up.  For example, I am kept awake by the fact that there’s no Whole Foods in College Station.  No Whole Foods!  The thought makes me shudder in fear.  I may get a car just so I can drive to Whole Foods in Houston or Austin.  In general, I am ambivalent about getting a car, but I belong at Whole Foods and I cannot imagine life without it.  My new boss thinks we should start a movement to convince Whole Foods to build a store in College Station.  Apparently I’m not the only one with a fierce devotion to my grocery store!

Speaking of my new boss, I cannot tell you how kind he has been to me since I began the interview process with him and his lab.  Hubi (short for Hubert) paid for my trip last week and did everything he could to make me comfortable.  In two days’ time, we shared three meals and a menu’s worth of tasty information.  I now know that if I’m looking for a great cappuccino and an even better chocolate truffle served in a pool of raspberry sauce, I need to visit It’s a Grind!, a coffeeshop just blocks from my new home.  Hubi now knows that I am a vegetarian, but I’m fond of a carnivore for whom I purchased two pounds of gourmet bacon.  Very few people know that last part, which I was trying to keep between the carnivore and me.  This story indicates just how much information I shared with the person who will be paying my salary starting in October.  Like I said, things are different in Texas.  I know that Hubi’s wife, Raquel, who is starting her first faculty position(!), shares my feelings about making an enormous and exciting transition in her career: a need to focus on the big picture and the essential tasks so as not to panic about all the other stuff. 

As I was looking at apartments to rent in College Station, I was torn between a gorgeous and comparatively expensive two-bedroom apartment and another two-bedroom option that wasn’t quite as pretty but was about two hundred dollars cheaper a month.  Oh, such wrenching decisions!  I defied my frugal upbringing and signed a lease to rent the gorgeous apartment, which is still cheaper than the place I rent now in Evanston!  That last part just kills me.  How guilty can I feel about choosing the more expensive apartment when it will cost less than I pay right now on a graduate student’s income?

But oh, my new home.  It is so beautiful.  Right before I signed my lease, I went back to look at it one more time and I was filled with absolute delight.  That’s how a new home should make you feel, right?  Thrilled and anxious to move in this very second.  My glee over this apartment, with its open floor plan, kitchen with barside seats for keeping the cook company, ceiling fans in every room, and enough space to accommodate guests when they come to visit me, will propel me through the horror that is moving.  I haven’t moved in six years!  It’s going to take a miracle to get me packed up and out of my current apartment, which feels so much like home to me that I cannot imagine living anywhere else.  My current home and my future home are having a turf war in my heart.  I know who will win by the end of this month, but still, the battle pains me.

Besides cheap housing, there are other treats that Texas has to offer.  I really didn’t expect to find such delicious food in College Station.  What a marvelous surprise!  In addition to my new favorite coffeehouse with its addictive chocolate truffle, Hubi and I had dinner at a very, very campy Mexican restaurant that served very, very tasty food.  I ask you this: why do so many Mexican restaurants feel compelled to make their interiors so silly and bizarre?  At Los Cucos, they’ve placed giant fake palm-like plants in the middle of the room—it doesn’t get much worse than fake palm trees.  The rest of the decor must have been so hideous that I just blocked it out because I don’t remember.  But the food—that I do remember.  I ordered the Rancheros Mexicanos, a fancy name for what looked to me like tostadas, dressed up in their going-out clothes.  The kitchen was gracious enough to accommodate my vegetarian request: they covered crispy fried corn tortillas with spoonfuls of refried beans instead of chicken.  On top of this base were thick shreds of juicy cabbage and a creamy something-or-other to tie the whole thing together.  Was it slices of avocado?  Sour cream?  Both?  Apparently I remember the food less clearly than I’d like to admit.  But please don’t take that as a negative review—my shoddy memory is a result of too little sleep and too much excitement last week.  I really liked Los Cucos and plan to return, as soon as I’ve caught up on my beauty rest.

I shouldn’t poke too much fun at Los Cucos’s campy interior because I have a history of taking Matt to the campiest restaurants in Evanston.  I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I was sitting in The Lucky Platter with Daphna and Ian, thinking about the terrible tackiness of The Lucky Platter’s decor and remembering the time that Matt and I went there for lunch.  It was the first weekend we spent together, and we ate crispy thin-crust pizza and a gingery fruit salad laced with cilantro leaves.  I remember feeling so happy to be with him but also not quite sure what to do with him.  But with Matt a plan turns out not to matter too much—the important thing is that we are together.

But!  I may break my long-standing tradition of taking Matt to restaurants with good food and questionable decor.  On Friday night, Hubi, Raquel, and I went to dinner at a lovely restaurant in nearby Bryan called Square One.  I imagine this restaurant is the kind of place Matt might visit when he is in the mood for excellent food and charming ambiance.  With Hubi and Raquel, it was an evening where the food, the wine, and the conversation were so good that the details have slipped away from me, but no matter: I hope to return, perhaps escorted by my carnivore.

I am still brimming with curiosity and optimism about my impending move to Texas.  It’s a great relief to experience a hint of what life outside the lab might be like.  Surprisingly, the thought of doing science in Texas has brought me tremendous comfort.  Throughout graduate school, science was the great challenge—science, that fickle mistress who bats around experimental hopes and dreams like a cat torturing a mouse half-dead from its injuries.  I think science means something different to me now.  Unlike Texas, science is something I understand, something I feel well-equipped to perform.  It’s still hard work, but I don’t feel afraid of it.  Texas scares me as much as it intrigues me.  I don’t expect Texas to ever feel like home the way the Midwest feels like home to me.  I think that’s okay.  If home is where the heart is, my heart is already split into quarters, divided between my family in Detroit, my Chicago family, my Albion family (who have divided it even further to take it to places like Boston and Plymouth), and a certain carnivore (who, I should add, is not really a carnivore but does eat a big steak after every visit with me).  And soon enough, home will be a little apartment in Texas, where I will bake batches of granola and stir pots of soup to conjure up a feeling of contentment that is the magic of being at home.