Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Two-Parter: Refilling the Well and What 2011 Taught Me

Snowy Michigan Morning

I’m curled up on the couch, with Iron and Wine on the stereo and a blanket over my legs.  I have to say, it’s pretty nice to fly home on a Thursday, go to work on Friday, then have the weekend to work and putter at home.  Today I shopped for groceries, baked banana bread, caught up on my blog reading, and spent some time working on a grant.  And by “working,” I mean largely pondering some questions, but now I’ve downloaded some new papers, so I’m going to settle into my couch with a slice of banana bread and read after I finish this blog post.

It’s nice to be home.  But I think it was even better not being home.  Even if it means living out of a suitcase for a week, I feel better that I was able to see my family this month.  I feel a lot calmer and less overwhelmed by my life, and that’s a feeling I’d like to carry with me into January.  There’s something about spending time with kids that feels so grounding and so right, like I’m doing exactly what I should be doing.

Being with my family is always an opportunity to refill the well, so to speak, a chance to share new thing with each other.  On my happy list tonight is: 

* This Week in Paleo/Latest in Paleo podcasts.  My sister-in-law Amanda mentioned to me that she listens to a Paleo podcast while working in the kitchen.  She warned me that it’s not very vegetarian-friendly, but still, when I got back to Texas, I had to look it up.  I like the Paleo podcasts hosted by Angelo Coppola because there’s lots of interesting discussion about the science of health, nutrition, and fitness.  It’s my kind of science talk!  Angelo is skeptical but open-minded, and when it comes to how science really works, he knows his stuff.

* New boots for Christmas.  I’ve needed new boots for a long time now, so I was thrilled to find a beautiful pair from Santa!  And by Santa, I mean my family.  Same thing, right?

* My sister’s awesome gluten-free pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, which she makes with my niece (who loves to bake with us).  Theresa made mini versions of these for our Christmas brunch, and they were outstanding.

* * *

I am really glad that 2011 is coming to a close.  It’s tempting to say that it’s been a shitty year for me, but I recognize that 2011 had a lot of great adventures and successes too.  Let’s say that 2011 has been a hard year.  I like the metaphorical fresh start that 2012 is bringing, but I’ve been thinking about what 2011 taught me.

I learned that living a thousand miles from my family is not a viable long-term condition for me.  I have to move closer to them, preferably within the next 2-3 years.  I’m defining “closer” as a four-hour drive, but Amanda reminded me that Chicago is such a cool city that it would be acceptable too.  So maybe I’ll move back to Chicago if I can find a job?  Or I’ll look for jobs in the Midwest and see what gems I find.

I learned that despite the supposed biological clock ticking in my ovaries, I am in no rush to have children.  I feel as picky as ever about the men I date, and for that, I am grateful.

I learned that I am stronger than I realized.  I’m in it for the long haul, even if I flounder sometimes.

I learned that I care more about relationships than anything else.  Not just romantic relationships, all kinds of relationships: familial, friendly, professional.

I learned that I’m not very competitive any more.  I feel much more motivated by the idea of working as a team, to make us the best we can be.  I’m not entirely sure what this means for me professionally, but I’m excited to explore it.

I learned that hope can make all things possible.  So I’m taking hope with me into 2012. 

Plane Wing and Sunset Over Middle America

Happy 2012, my dears.  Thanks for sticking with me this year, for all your comments, your wisdom, your advice, and your companionship.  Truly, this is the year that I learned the value of community in blogging, and I can’t wait to spend another year with you.  Happy, happy new year.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Field Notes from Michigan

 Devin on his Tractor

Lydia and Mommy Digging for Bones

Deer Sighting on a Snowy Morning

Devin in Christmas Box

Kiddos in Matching Christmas Pajamas

Seven days in Michigan, during which time there was…

* impromptu ice-skating with my five-year-old niece and her daddy.

* pan-fried Halloumi cheese.  Crispy, chewy, perfect.

* a 13-month-old who decided that it was time for him to start walking…

* (…but we still heard plenty of thud-thud-thudding as Devin hustled his way around the house on all fours.)

* crustless pumpkin pie, a holiday staple in our family.  Both the kiddos approved.  The big people did too.

* a visit from Santa Claus, who brought plenty of paleontology gifts for Lydia, the aspiring bone-digger, and lots of blocks for Devin, whose curiosity knows no limits.

* a Christmas brunch, with all the best breakfast foods: frittata, extra-creamy hashed brown casserole, bacon, pancakes, fruit, and coffee spiked with Irish cream for the grown-ups.

* a pizza dinner out with an old friend, with lots of laughing and remembering the days when we were so young and hopeful.

* rambunctious games of tag, with a toy goose whose feet went fwap-fwap-fwap on the wooden floors, a Lydia who giggled the whole time, and a Devin who hustled after his big sister with remarkable speed.

* an easy morning spent with friends and their adorable small children.

* a backyard deer-spotting!

* …and on the eighth day, there was a long day of travel, with one delayed plane, cold leftovers (the Indian food was better than the pizza), some Christmas chocolate, and the achy feeling of leaving my family.  But I’m pretty sure it was worth it, for all the fun, cheese, love, and memories.  Next time I’m in Michigan, there won’t be snow on the ground and there might even be sandals on my feet, but I’m glad that every year ends with a wintry Michigan and a chance to hit the pause button.  2012, I’m almost ready to welcome you.  It’s been a hard, long year, but I’d like to think that 2011 is ending a high note.

Lydia on the Couch

Monday, December 19, 2011

On Writing and Keeping the Faith

 These days, I like to start my posts with something pretty or calming, such as this palm tree.

Palm Tree

This post has nothing to do with palm trees, but I feel better if I can look at a palm tree.  Don’t you?  It’s like we’re on a tropical vacation!  (Please ignore the grey sky behind the palm tree.)  If you want to complement the effect with a cocktail, I recommend this fruity, rummy drinkYum. 

I know that several of you fancy yourselves writers, as do I.  Writing is very much on my mind these days because I am facing the daunting task of writing two grants and one manuscript in the next six months.  That’s a lot of writing of the science variety, and I’m more than a little nervous of how I am going to get all that writing done while still doing experiments and basic self-maintenance, such as getting dressed every day.  But mostly I’ve been thinking about how it is that we, as writers, make something out of nothing, or at least we make something out of a box of random bits and bobs.  Whatever gadgets and gizmos that inspire us, we throw in the box.  And then we start thinking: how do all these weird pieces fit together?  What is the thread that connects these items in a way that would make you say, “Aha!  Now I know what that box is for!”

For me right now, it’s mostly a matter of staring at the box (er, my computer screen) and plenty of time spent not staring at the box.  I’ve always been the kind of person who does her best thinking while doing something that doesn’t look like work: chopping onions, jogging in the park, laying in bed and trying to fall asleep.  When I sit down at the computer, I’ve already written half of what I’m going to say.  But what I find really exciting is that I don’t know the other half of what I’m going to say—that’s when the magic happens.  That’s when I feel like I am really, truly writing—spinning something from nothing.  It’s exciting!  In those moments, I can’t believe that I’m getting paid to do this.  I have to do a lot of work before I can sit down to write something—and I have to chop a lot of onions—but for a few precious moments, I am getting paid to write.  And that’s pretty awesome.

This month, I’m going to Michigan to see my family for the holidays.  I’ll be gone longer than I would have planned, had it not been such a headache to book my flights out of Texas.  While I’m on “vacation,” it’s going to be a bit of a working vacation because I’ll be trying to make some headway on a grant proposal that’s due in February.  And you know what?  I’m looking forward to it!  I love seeing my family and I love that we’ll have lots of time for morning coffee drinking, ice skating, holiday baking, shopping, and general merrymaking, but it’s also good to take a break from all that togetherness.  I live alone, and it can be hard for us hermits to spend days and days with other people without taking a break.  My goal is to spend at least two mornings or afternoons at Panera, working on the grant.  I figure if I can get 4-6 hours of good, deep-thinking work done on this proposal, then I’ll be in good shape when I come back to Texas and we’re really under a deadline to crank this thing out.

I’m grateful that writing projects are portable in a way that my experimental work is not.  I won’t be dragging flies or video cameras with me to Michigan, which might freak out the security people at the airport.  Instead, I’m taking just my computer, and no one will bat an eye at my Dell.  Most importantly, I’m trying to be as upbeat and positive about these writing projects as I can.  We may not have a very good chance at getting one or both of these grants funded, but like I said to my boss the other day, if we don’t apply, we have a 100% chance of not getting funding.

The other thing that I am reminding myself these days is that no matter what happens in the next 6-12 months, I am going to learn a lot.  And that is a very good thing.  It’s the same thing I told myself in graduate school when I was applying for a grant, and in the end, that situation worked out quite nicely.  So I’m going to keep the faith and believe that in 2012, things will work out.  I don’t know all the details, but I’m going to keep the faith.  Even scientists need faith in something, even if it’s something as ambiguous as the Universe and Its mysterious ways…

Writing friends, how do you keep the faith during the more ambiguous parts of your process?  How do you stay calm when your work is giving you reason to freak out?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Perfect Holiday Reading

Bus Reading

My lovely sister gave me this terrific little book for my birthday.  I mentioned The Indian Grocery Store Demystified in my Splendid Table post a few months ago, and the book does not disappoint.  It’s perfect for geeking out over ingredients and tantalizing descriptions of Indian goodies.  Take, for example, this passage about yogurt:

“Yogurt enrichens and thickens sauces, acts as a tenderizer in marinades, is used in creamy dips, or is folded into cooked rice.

“Dehin is a thick yogurt cheese made by straining off the whey in a cloth-lined colander in the refrigerator overnight.  This is used to make shirkhand, a dessert that is blended with sugar, saffron, and rose essence and sprinkled with chopped nuts.  Similar to sour cream, dehin can be flavored with spices as a dip.  Kharis are smooth, yogurt-based sauces and soups.  Pachadi are yogurt salads that are similar to raita but have grated coconut added.  Mishti doi is the Bengali delicacy of sweetened yogurt set in clay pots and served at the end of a meal.”

Shall I go on?  How about a quick description of one of my favorite spices, cardamom?

“The flavor of cardamom is sweet and zesty with a hint of eucalyptus.  For subtle flavor the whole pods are added to rice pualos, simmered dishes, puddings, and sugar syrups.  It is best to lightly bruise whole pods first so that their fragrance will permeate the dish.”

Maybe you are in the mood for a sweet:

“Mysore pak.  A famous South Indian sweet, this is a rich, melt-in-your-mouth, chickpea-flour shortbread.  It is made by slowly adding roasted chickpea flour into a buttery, cardamom-infused sugar syrup, then stirring it constantly until it froths.  The yellow-ochre mixture is cooled and cut into thick squares.  It has a silky-smooth surface, a melting texture, and a rich, buttery, toffee flavor.  It is usually garnished with sliced almonds.”

Yum.  Mysore pak, you had me at toffee.  But what if I’m in the mood for cheesecake?

“Kalakand.  This is Indian cheesecake.  Creamy bars or diamond shapes are made from a condensed, boiled mixture of chenna cheese, ghee, milk, sugar, ground almonds, and pistachios flavored with cardamom.  The cream-colored treat tastes like a cheesecake brownie with a dense, fudgy texture.”

Oh baby.  A cheesecake brownies with cardamom and pistachios?  Now that I might have to try to recreate at home as an American knockoff.  We can do it!

I really could go on and on, but I probably shouldn’t quote the entire book in a blog post.  Suffice to say that this book satisfies a deep craving for delicious food prose and a sense of the exotic.  I feel transported to a place I’ve never been.  And I think sometimes, when we read, that’s exactly what we want: to feel lifted out of our everyday lives and deposited somewhere new and exciting, where our only task is to taste and sniff and explore.

Will I ever visit India?  Maybe someday, when I am brave and rich enough to buy that plane ticket.  Until then, I’ve got a kitchen and a tiny Indian grocery store near me and an appetite big enough to keep things interesting.   

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On the Internet, Everyone is a Scientist

Two things are worrying me these days.

Thing the first.  I worry that “friends with benefits” has ruined dating.  I’m not a fan of friends with benefits as a way of interacting with men.  I realize that FWB is all the rage among the college set these days, and I’d guess that even when I was in college, it was popular, which would explain why I was not the most popular girl on campus.  It’s okay—the college kids can have their FWB.  But what about us older folks who actually want to date?  As in go out with someone, have fun, get to know that person, maybe hold hands if everybody is feeling romantic?  I fear that dating is a lost art, that men don’t know how to court a woman without assuming they are in a relationship.  I had a good discussion about this with a colleague today, and he and I agreed that even among people for whom life partnership is the goal of dating, it’s important to get to know someone before making assumptions about the nature of the relationship.  I’m not explicitly on the market for a life partner, but I would like to date, should I be fortunate enough to meet a nice man.  I’m just afraid that even if I do meet a nice man, he will be so clueless about how to court me that I will throw up my hands in frustration and decide that being a spinster is easier than dating.

Take a lesson from the fruit flies, gentleman: you’ve got to court her before you make any lusty moves.  Flies who try to skip the steps of courtship are met with a very firm NO in the form of a kick in the head.

Thing the second.  I’m doing research these days for my grant application(s), and I’d really like to find some scientific studies that link dieting to sexual dysfunction in women.  My search is turning out to be more difficult than I had hoped, but it’s especially frustrating when I run into articles like this piece from “FOXSexpert” Dr. Yvonne K. Fullbright.  The article, which is along the lines of what I’m hoping to find, is filled with scientific claims about what happens to a woman’s libido when she loses too much weight, but where are the damn references?!?  That popular news piece does me absolutely no good without references, and frankly, I find it rather presumptuous of her to tell a story like that with almost no citations to back up her claims.

The reason that the article bothers me so much is that I think a woman’s libido may shut down far earlier than the point at which she stops menstruating or displays a severe loss of body fat.  For me, the whole point of combing the science archives and googling things like “nutrition and sexual dysfunction” is to find a few studies that might back me up here.  But Dr. Yvonne K. Fullbright, you are no help to me.  No reviewer who is evaluating my work is going to let me cite a FOXSexpert article as evidence.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is This Thing On?

Hello?  Is anybody out there?  Do I still have any readers left after my inexplicable silence?

Actually, I have a really good explanation: everything fell apart.  And by “everything,” I mean my computer fell apart and I’ve spent way too much time over the past week trying to restore its health.  But I do believe that tonight, with the installation of over 60 Windows Updates and finally, FINALLY, rebuilding my “blogging office” (also known as Windows Live Writer), I feel like order has been restored in my virtual world.

Hi!  It’s good to be back.  I have missed you and this blog.  I say that in all seriousness: one of the most frustrating things of the past week has been the loss of my writing routine.  I write for all kinds of reasons: to share, to take notes, to ponder, even to grieve.  I think out loud on this blog.  I make sense of my world.  And it’s been tough not having that outlet, even just for a week, because I had so much to say.  Now, after spending hours and hours saving my files, reinstalling the operating system, and installing hundreds—yes, literally hundreds—of updates, I’m just tired.

For tonight, let me say I’m sorry to have disappeared with no warning.  I really did miss you.  And for tonight, I’ll leave it at that.  I’m going to watch Grey’s Anatomy while eating a cranberry-chocolate bar and sipping herbal tea.

Ah, home sweet home.

Monday, December 5, 2011


I wouldn’t say that I’m feeling especially certain or confident these days.  I do feel certain that everything is going to be all right, if I can just be patient.  And this feeling of mine was echoed in a note from the Universe, who said it so charmingly that I wanted to share:

Have you noticed, how lacking clarity is clarity itself?
How, if you aren't sure about something, that alone has meaning?
Honor uncertainty. It's the seed from which
all-knowingness comes.
Give it time.
The Universe
I'm not sure, but I think you needed that.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I did need that! 

I found the Universe’s notepad via an old post of Chrissy’s, whose blog is always worth perusing.  I don’t know what’s going to happen next around here, but the Universe says knowing that I don’t know is something.  And even chaos, uncertainty, blurriness—these things can be beautiful because they shake you and wake you and make it possible for you to say things you didn’t know you needed to say and do things that perhaps you haven’t done because they weren’t “important” enough to do right away.

I’m embracing the chaos, even as I try to create some order around me.  Eventually, the path will become clearer, but for now, we are meandering together.

Blurry but Beautiful

Sunday, December 4, 2011

And So It Starts

Scenes from a Saturday…

Computer and Coffee Cup


Soup and Bread

I started writing my paper on Saturday.  Writing a science paper is like being in labor for months, or at least it feels like it to me, a woman who has never been in labor with a child.  (Perhaps the mothers in the audience will forgive my use of this metaphor.)  It requires a lot of patience, attention, deep breaths, and tolerance for uncertainty.  Will you find the right words to describe your results eloquently?  Can you craft an introduction that is at once snappy, interesting, and accurate?  Can you inject some provocative speculation into the discussion without making the reviewers go berserk?  It’s all very exciting, the craft of writing.  A science paper is simultaneously fiction and nonfiction: it’s a set of data, edited and parsed for presentation, told as a story.  Turning science into a story makes it a work of fiction because the process of doing science is never as clean as it appears in publications.

And yet, I do love to write.  Even the messy, stop-and-start process of writing a science paper delights my word-loving heart.  Even knowing that my paper will get shredded by my advisor, reviewers, and any readers I can rope into reading it* doesn’t subtract from the joy of getting to write professionally, even if it’s on the weekend.  I could feel myself hesitating to start writing this paper, but I feel really good now that I’ve started.  My goal is to submit the paper by the end of February 2012, which means my advisor needs a draft a few weeks before that, which means I’ll be writing the paper and finishing(?) experiments in January.  Which is, um, next month, in case you were curious.  Wow.  When I put it like that, it kinda freaks me out.

But I’m going to take the writing section by section, and I’ll take the data figure by figure.  I’ll write a shitty first draft, if I must.  And I’ll make myself a really good lunch because writing, as you know, is hard work.  It’s important to keep ourselves well-fed while we create something from nothing.

Have a good week, my dears.

* Want to be one of my readers?  Yes?  Seriously?!?  Hurray!  Let me know in the comments or send me an e-mail at lifeloveandfood [at] gmail [dot] com, and I’ll send you the manuscript when it’s ready for readers.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

When It Rains…

…it pours, right?  Too many things are going wrong in my life at one time!  Today I felt like if one more thing went wrong, I might be reduced to tears and forced to go home and hide in my bed.

But not everything is wrong around here.  Like this beautiful candlelight, for example.

December Candlelight

And those sweet little kids in the photos behind the candle.  The baby, my nephew Devin, turned one on Monday.  I can’t wait to see both of them in a few weeks.

But this week, this very week, has been less than awesome.  Normally, when I write an Up/Down (+/-) list, I start with the good stuff and then I don’t have much to say for the bad stuff.  This week is different.  For example:

* My kitchen has ants.  ANTS!  Normally I’m pretty relaxed about bugs, but not this time.  They showed up on Thanksgiving, I think, and I’ve been smooshing them ever since.  And I find them cuddled together in an ant-mass in the strangest places: under a sponge, in my coffeepot.  Yes, IN MY COFFEEPOT.  It was so gross but also fascinating, as far as animal behavior goes.  It made me think of the aggregation pheromone that fruit flies release, which helps other fruit flies find them.  I wondered if ants might do the same thing, and a colleague at work confirmed that ants do release an aggregation pheromone.  Fascinating!  That explains why I found hundreds of them in and crawling on my coffeepot.

Animal behavior aside, I’m so tired of the ants.  I hope the pest control people are able to take care of this problem because I am seriously outnumbered by the ants.  Damn exponential insect reproduction.

* My computer has a trojan, which is mostly just a pain in the butt: unwanted popups, computer freezing, slow processing time.  But I’m worried it could destroy my machine, so I consulted a tech-savvy friend, who recommended Sophos/Webroot (thanks, Andy).  Wish me luck as I attempt to heal my pathogen-ridden computer.

* And then of course, there is the on-going stress of trying to cope with work and planning for an uncertain future.  I’m so happy tomorrow is Friday and I’m working at home this weekend.  At least I get the luxury of my couch while analyzing data or writing my paper!

Whew!  That’s my Down list, and while it’s only three items, they’ve been sucking the joy out of my life.  But today, while feeling grumpy about everything that’s going wrong, I forced myself to think of some good things, something worth remembering, such as:

* A colleague lending me his super-sharp forceps for my dissections.  Good tools make lab life so much easier!  I even managed not to damage his forceps, which is kind of amazing because I am a klutz.  Matt can confirm this for you—but I think he’s lucky I haven’t accidentally given him a black eye.

* Rediscovering Monna McDiarmid’s blog.  I “met” Monna a few years back and have perused her blog occasionally ever since.  She and her partner recently moved from Bangkok to Japan, so her blog has been ripe with new Japan moments and some nostalgia for Bangkok.  Here are two posts I especially like: Preparing for the Flood and Dreaming of R&R in Bangkok.

* “Winterizing” my summer dresses from Five Bamboo.  I wish I had a photo of my outfit from today, but let’s just say that a cowl-necked top is a sundress’s best friend in winter.  Its pretty color and lovely layers add interest and warmth to sleeveless dresses.  (If you’re curious, the cowl-necked top I wear all the time is shown here.  It’s useful for hiding, turtle-like, on especially bad days.)

* Gillian Welch.  Matt introduced me to this amazing musician, and bless his heart for it.  I’ve been listening to her newest CD, The Harrow & the Harvest, at home—it’s haunting and beautiful and dark and honest.  You can listen to the whole album here.

* And finally, tomorrow is Friday.  Can I get a hell yeah?  I thought so.

Happy weekend, dear readers.  I hope to be back here on Sunday with something for you to read.  Thanks for sticking around, even when I’m a bummer.