Friday, August 31, 2012

Academic Interlude: Nerdly Excitement!

Computer on Desk

This week has been a very exciting one for me: after almost two years of working on my research project, I have begun compiling the data into figures in anticipation of submitting a manuscript.

I think every academic discipline has its own work flow—in other words, a certain order in which things happen as the work progresses from idea to polished, published final version.  Because many of you are probably not scientists, I thought I’d share the way that science flows for me.

Step 1: Initial idea or observation.  (Hey, that’s interesting!)

Step 2: Intense testing of initial idea or observation.  (Still interesting, but what if…?)

Step 3: More testing of observations.  (Good, my idea is holding up against more rigorous testing.)

Step 4: More testing of observations.  (Still good, but I’m getting kinda bored here.)

Step 5: More testing of observations.  (Yeah, I’m definitely bored.  But at least my idea is still holding up!)

Step 6: Submit a grant.  (I/we/the lab needs more funding!)

Step 7: Get grant reviews back.  Sulk and pout over the current state of science funding.

Step 8: Compile data into figures for manuscript.  Submit to boss.  Receive critical feedback from boss.  Revise figures.  Repeat.

Step 9: Write manuscript.  Submit to boss. Receive critical feedback from boss. Revise manuscript.  Repeat.


Step 11: Wait impatiently for reviews on manuscript to come back from journal.  Receive reviews.  Sulk and pout over current state of scientific publishing.

Step 12: Revise manuscript.  Do more experiments.  Resubmit.  Repeat until manuscript is finally accepted.

Step 13: DO HAPPY DANCE!  Then get back to copy-editing manuscript into final version.

Step 14: Paper is finally published!  Wallow in scientific glory.  Then return to Step 1 and start process all over again.

As you can see, I’m on Step 8 of what is a very long and very labor-intensive process.  To be honest, I’m also still on Steps 5-7, but the point is that I’ve made it to Step 8.  I’m still doing a lot of experimental work, mostly in the hope of finishing up one of the final figures for the paper, and I feel good because I can see progress.

I also feel good because to some extent, in trying to get as much done on that final figure as possible, I’ve put off making the figures and getting the manuscript ball rolling, even though my boss clearly told me he wanted a draft by the end of August.  I’m lucky he hasn’t scolded me yet.  But this week, because I finally carved out the time to make figures, I feel like a weight has been lifted.  Procrastination, even if it’s deliberately done to make time for something else, makes me feel heavy and weighed down with guilt.  By finally tackling something that’s been on my to-do list for too long, I feel like all this energy has been released.  It feels awesome.

On a deeper level, seeing my work condensed into four Powerpoint slides is so satisfying.  For some people, that may feel dehumanizing, but for me, it feels orderly and beautiful.  It’s what I’ve been working toward for three years, and since the first year of my postdoc was a bust, scientifically speaking, the progress I’ve made feels that much sweeter.  And now I have the pleasure of returning to the literature to think about what I should read, what I should cite, and how my work fits in with the larger body of work that other people have published.  I tend to read in spurts—I’ll read a lot in a short period of time (such as earlier this year as I was preparing to write the earliest drafts of the grant), and then I don’t read much while I’m focusing on experiments.  I think I’m approaching an opportunity to read more, think more.  That’s exciting and always a little bit daunting.  But I’m ready for it.  Or I will be, very soon.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Holy moly, people!  I’m up to 40 subscribers in Google Reader.  This news tickles me, though I think I’m not going to make it as a professional blogger any time soon…

(Also, my mother has recently jumped on the technology bandwagon, so she may or may not be one of those subscribers.)

At any rate, thank you for reading, for subscribing, for making blogging fun.  I mean it.

PPS  I’ve got another summery post cooking now, so I promise to spare you any more blogger vanity.  Unless that’s what you want…?

Wishing Out Loud, with More Green Peaches

It’s back-to-school week around here, and I think it is for some of you too.  Except for me, today is just another Monday, and I confess, I miss going back to school.

Not graduate school.  Oh hell no.  Graduate school was all about the dissertation; it was about producing something.  I miss going back to school for the sheer joy of learning.  I miss feeling like something amazing was going to happen during the semester, a sort of magic carpet ride of ideas and wisdom flying below, above, and all around me.  I miss college, especially the courses I took for pleasure—Spanish, Russian history, a class on mysticism and ecstasy (which, during graduate school interviews, got me the side eye from the professor who would become my PhD advisor.  Ah, memories…).

At this point in my life, if I had the luxury of taking a college class or two, I’d take some courses on feminism.  It’s an area of knowledge that feels like a big gaping hole in my life.  I’ll even up the ante: should I be lucky enough to teach a small-group seminar later in my career, I’d love to team-teach a class on the biology and politics of sexuality.  I can claim some street credit in the biology domain, since my research focuses on female mating behavior, and I’d love to recruit a partner in crime to teach the politics and to teach me a thing or two in the process.

I’m wishing out loud tonight, but a blog seems like a good place for that sort of thing.  With school starting and autumn just around the corner, I’m also wishing that the new season would swoop in and save us from August.  But then again, there’s summer’s last hurrah, best demonstrated in produce form, such as green peaches and ricotta piled clumpily onto a piece of bread.

Green Peach and Ricotta Crostini

I told my friend Ammie about this recipe and declared it a “green peach emergency.”  Emergency may have been a strong word, but I do think we should be eating all the peaches we can get our hands on before they disappear for good this year.  This simple but sassy little number comes from Melissa Clark, who envisioned it but left us with just a vision and no recipe.  Well, friends, I was intrigued by that vision of green peaches tossed with brown sugar and vinegar, then paired with some creamy cheese and tasty bread.  In a word, this is fabulous.  Easy but somehow decadent, you get sweet and tart, salty and peppery, delicate and chewy.  Yum.

Happy back to school to all my teacher and student readers!  Someday I will join your ranks again.  For now, you can find me lunching on bread and peaches, in between experiments and analyzing data.

Green Peach and Ricotta Crostini

Inspired by Melissa Clark and her book In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite

Serves 2-3 generously

2 large green peaches, chopped (about 1 pound)

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. rice vinegar

3-4 slices of good bakery bread, such as ciabatta

Good ricotta cheese (or I bet a vegan cashew cheese would be yummy here too)

Freshly ground black pepper

3-4 slices of good bakery bread, such as ciabatta

1)  Mix the peaches, salt, sugar, and vinegar together.  Set aside 

2)  Lightly toast the bread.  Then dollop on your creamy cheese, grind over some black pepper, and top with the peach mixture.  Eat.  Repeat often.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Here’s what I’m cooking this weekend:

To Cook

The first two dishes are from Gourmet Today; the brownies are here.  I haven’t made any of these recipes before.  I’m particularly excited about the lemon rice.  It’s a South Indian dish, spiced up with mustard seeds, ginger, and tumeric, and it sounds amazing to me.  I had some mediocre lemon rice at the one Indian restaurant we have here in town, and all I could think was, this dish has the potential to be so much better.  My Indian friend assured me that her lemon rice was much tastier than the restaurant’s version, which I totally believe.

What are you cooking this weekend?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Crazy Ways I Save Money

This post is Part II of a pair of posts about startling expenses and the flipside of startling expenses.  Today I’ll share with you a few of the crazy ways I save money.  Now, I should say upfront that financial priorities are very personal and idiosyncratic—what works for you may not work for me, and vice versa.  I urge you not to see my list as judging people who choose not to save money as I do.  The best thing about your budget is that it should reflect your values and priorities, not mine.  Consider this post food for thought.

(You can find Part I: My Startling Expenses right here.  Happy reading!) 

My Crazy Ways to Save Money:

* Don’t have a car.  There is a history and set of reasons behind this decision that I won’t detail right now, but suffice to say, not having a car saves me a ton of money.  And right now, without any job stability, I’m happy to squirrel away as much money as possible.

* Ignore the fancy electronics.  I come by this habit naturally.  I’ve never been big into fancy gadgets or technology, so I don’t have an i-Anything, a fancy cell phone, or a DSLR camera.  The technology thing is a bit ironic since I work in a technical field, but I’m a story-driven scientist.  I’m not into technology for the sake of technology, but I do appreciate it when technology makes it possible for me to meet my science goals.

* Make your coffee at home. Stay away from Starbucks.  I actually buy my coffee beans from Starbucks frequently, but I rarely buy a cup of coffee from them.  I tend to reserve coffee for the occasions when I’m out with friends.  It’s a social thing for me, just like eating out is mostly reserved for spending time with friends.

* Be a drinking lightweight.  I also come by this habit naturally.  While I love wine and a good mixed drink (mojitos are my current favorite), I have a low tolerance for alcohol.  I am happiest when I stop after one drink.

* Don’t indulge in exotic travel, even though everyone says you must and you should.  This idea will almost certainly strike some readers as insane.  And it’s not entirely true for me, either: I dream of visiting Italy some day, or the south of France, or even the Pacific Northwest of my own country.  I do want to travel.  But right now, it’s not a priority for me because I prefer to spend my vacation time with my family.  I have a young niece and nephew, and it’s really important to me to build relationships with them now.  Kids grow up so fast!  The kids are a higher priority for me than Italy, so my vacations are far less expensive than they could be because I’m not jetting off to Europe.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good.”  We make choices about how to spend our days, and I know that I’ll never regret the days I spent with the youngest members of my family.  

* Two words: Plato’s Closet. Shirts for $5? A never-worn sundress for $6? Yes, please!  I’m a firm believer in the idea that you should get your money’s worth out of your closet.  I like beautiful clothes, but I also love a great deal.  Plato’s Closet offers both.  Earlier this year, I found two plaid shirts and a sundress for a grand total of less than $20, and all three pieces have injected some much-needed color and interest into my wardrobe.  I’m actually not opposed to paying full price for an expensive piece of clothing, but that’s a very rare splurge for me.  I tend to gravitate toward used clothing stores, thrift stores, or the Target/Kohl’s end of the spectrum.  But you better believe that I try to eke every last penny out of my closet!

What are your crazy (or not-so-crazy) ways to save money?  Do you tend to be an over-spender or an under-spender?  I tend to be a bit of an over-spender on food (groceries and eating out), but I’m not much of an impulse buyer in other areas, so that makes my wallet happy.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Startling Expenses

Holly posted recently about her startling expenses, and I thought it was a great way to think about the big financial picture of your life.  Whether or not you realize it, there is something—SOMETHING!—in your financial life that someone else would consider a startling expense.  There is something that you value enough to put your cash out for it, and there is someone who would be shocked—SHOCKED!—by your willingness to do so.

I of course have some startling expenses, and I thought it would be fun to share with you what they are and why I am willing to prioritize them.  In a follow-up post, I’ll share some of the crazy ways in which I save money.  Again, what counts as startling or crazy is all relative—much depends on the individual, methinks.

Startling Expenses:

* Rent.  I live in a city with a fairly low cost of living.  Nevertheless, my colleagues are sometimes shocked by what I pay for rent.  The thing is, I love my apartment and I’ve lived in it for almost three years.  It feels like home now.  I like my neighborhood a lot; I am within walking distance of the loveliest bistro/wine bar in town in addition to two other wine bars.  (Have I mentioned that I like wine?)  My neighborhood has sidewalks, which a lot of neighborhoods do not in College Station.  I’m a quick bike ride away from my favorite park and close enough to campus to bike regularly.  In other words, I’m in a great location and I don’t take that for granted.

Let’s also consider the question of moving.  Moving is messy, disruptive, and expensive.  It’s a pain in the ass.  I’d rather stay put where I am, in an apartment and neighborhood I like quite a bit, than move to get a better deal on rent.  My current home is lovely and comfortable, I can easily afford the rent, and here’s the kicker: although my rent has gone up each year, it’s still less than what I paid for rent during my final year or two of graduate school.  Ha!  That’s what living outside of a major metropolitan area can get you.

* Cooking gear.  I love to cook (of course!), and I love beautiful cookware.  When I was in graduate school, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to wait to procure the nicest cooking gear available.  I could ask for the good stuff for birthday and Christmas gifts.  When an unexpected burst of cash stimulated my wallet, I bought a Le Creuset pot.  Over the years, my kitchen has accumulated a very nice selection of cooking equipment, much of which I believe will last a lifetime—if not longer. 

* Groceries.  I believe that few things are as important as what you put in your body.  Food matters, people—not that you fine folks don’t already know that!  My grocery bill would probably shock some people, but I am happy with it.

* Wine.  So, the problem with dating an oenophile for a long time is that he will turn you into an oenophile if you let him.  And dear readers, I did.  I was Matt’s willing, even eager, guinea pig.  We drank many delicious bottles of wine together, and now I have a much better sense of what I like.  Through experimentation, I’ve found red wines that I enjoy, and my wine palate has become more sensitive to the nuances in white wines.

I tend to buy a bottle of wine once a week or less, but it’s definitely an important part of my budget.  Life is too short not to drink wine.

* Presents for other people.  I was raised by a very frugal father.  One of the big challenges of my adult life has been figuring out where to be frugal and where to spend.  I decided that when it came to other people, I wanted to be generous.  I budget money for gifts, but I remind myself to err on the side of generosity.  It’s my nightmare that people will remember me as a cheapskate or a miser.  I want to be remembered as being generous with my time, love, and money.

* Living in Texas, while my family lives in Michigan.  This may seem like an odd item to have on my list of startling expenses, but allow me to explain.  I knew, when I took this job in Texas, that it was going to require certain sacrifices.  I now budget for $400-500 plane tickets so that I can see my family twice a year.  I also have to budget the time for travel and the after-travel recovery period—being in transit for 12 hours is hard on me, and it always takes a few days before I feel like myself again.

* Well-fitting jeans, complete with tailored hems.  I don’t spend a lot of time or money on clothes shopping, mostly because I’m happy with what I have.  But I will fork out for good jeans.  My two favorite pairs are from Gap, and I had both of them hemmed.  It’s so nice to have jeans that fit well!  And at 5’1” in height, it’s almost guaranteed that any jeans I buy will be too long, so now I plan to have them altered by a tailor.  I just wish I knew of a good tailor here in College Station…

Stay tuned for Part II: The Crazy Ways I Save Money.  In the meantime, do you have any expenses that might be considered startling by others?  Do tell—I would love to hear what you think!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Cost of August

Oh, August.  Between the heat, minor boredom, and a much-needed tune-up for my bike, I am over-budget for my August Extras.  Here I present the photographic proof of my spendthrifty ways:

August Extras 

Let’s face it: spending money is fun, and yes, it is a good way to relieve minor boredom, provided it’s not the only strategy employed.  In my case, you can see that most of August’s extra money went toward travel and getting my bike fixed, which didn’t leave much room for fun.  Fun in the form of a new cookbook, for example.

Gourmet Today 

Here I was inspired by Teena’s continuation of her Gourmet Project.  To be honest, I missed out on Gourmet back when the magazine was still in print.  I was intimidated by Gourmet, and frankly, I still am.  I like really simple food—my favorite way to eat fruits and vegetables is still raw and freshly chopped.  I’m also a frugal cook simply because I was raised not to waste anything.  Why would you waste perfectly good leftovers or bits and bobs of ingredients?  I worry that Gourmet is the antithesis of my frugal, simple upbringing: it’s excess for the sake of hedonic pleasure.  And yet…I think I still have a lot to learn in the kitchen.  I could stand to pay more attention to detail, to take more risks, to move outside my comfort zone.  I was talking to my friend Daine earlier this summer, and he said to me, “Your recipes are good, but I always think to myself, ‘This needs more flavor!’”  By “flavor,” he specifically meant fat, and it's true: Daine is far more liberal with the fat and sugar than I am.  But his words made me think about how sometimes, I settle for bland food because I’m just too tired to think about more exciting seasonings.

And then there’s Matt, who poked gentle fun at me for not following recipes as written.  He certainly had a point.  I’m hoping that Gourmet Today will, if I let it, teach me some new tricks.  It’s funny how in the lab, I have no problem following protocols to the letter, but in the kitchen, I am much flakier.  There is probably much to be learned from following recipes with a pedigree as distinguished as Gourmet.  We shall see!

Yellow Pot

Speaking of kitchens, having my own mint plant has been a longtime dream of mine, and you can see it’s now come true!  My plant is healthier than this photo suggests; I plucked that yellow-and-brown leaf after taking this photo.  I bought this pretty yellow pot because the mint needed something roomier.  (The mint was a gift from my friend and colleague Christopher, who cultivates a very productive backyard garden.)

Almond Flour

Almond flour!  I heart almond flour and finally decided it was time to do a serious restocking by ordering four pounds from Amazon so that the price per pound was nine bucks.  Of course, after that, my hippie food store was selling it for seven bucks a pound, but oh well.  It just goes to show that regret can always be found at a bargain price.

But I don’t regret this purchase, even though it certainly nudged me over my budget for August.  I love almond flour for pizza crust, cookies (baked or not), as a crispy topping for baked eggs, and as a general go-to ingredient.  I like that it’s more nutritionally dense than grain flours, and I think it’s just a nice change of pace in vegetarian diets, which tend to be heavy on the grains.

New Candle

Finally, I spruced up the old homestead with some candles from Pier One.  I love Pier One’s style and could easily spend way too much money in there on any given day.  Fortunately, I’m usually on two wheels for my ride home, so that prevents me from buying too much breakable stuff.  I bought this spice-scented candle in anticipation of fall with all its cinnamon-ginger-cozy goodness.  For me, home is not complete without a few fragrant candles.  The medallion necklace is a fun bonus.

August is shaping up to be a good month for me.  I’m running outside regularly.  I’m eating well and trying some new things in the kitchen.  My work life is productive and moving in a positive direction.  I’m certainly not wallowing in depression and vats of ice cream, and I’m keeping an open mind and an open heart about the future.  I’m cultivating compassion and trying to choose my behavior, rather than just reacting willy-nilly to things.  Spending a little extra money on nesting and my cooking life seems like a very worthwhile investment to me—an investment in the here and now of life.

* * *

PS  Check out Holly’s fun post on her startling expenses: “Startling Expenses: Splurging vs. Saving.”  It’s a cool post idea, one that I might steal borrow… 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Three Cheers for Rachel Toor (Hip hip woot!)

You know how sometimes you are lucky enough to stumble across an author and you just adore every word she writes?  Right now, for me that author is Rachel Toor.

I mentioned her on my blog before, and reading a new piece from her this week reminded me again of what a wonderful, insightful writer she is.  I want to read everything she’s written.  This week’s piece, “Becoming a ‘Stylish’ Writer,” was published in The Chronicle last month, and I just wanted to give her a high-five.  It’s so true that a gifted writer, who spins prose that dazzle and intrigue, makes reading an absolute pleasure.  But a writer who chugs out heavy, dull paragraphs makes reading a chore, drudgery, the kind of thing that I have to bribe myself to read.

In “Becoming a ‘Stylish’ Writer,” Toor quotes Richard Hugo, a poet and academic, who wrote, “In much academic writing, clarity runs a poor second to invulnerability."  That seems like a pretty fair assessment of academic writing.  But I also know that for the most formal genres of science writing, grants and primary research papers, sometimes there is barely enough space for clarity, let alone invulnerability.  So it’s a bit of a tightrope walk, trying to write sentences that are easy to read and engaging while holding onto the argument.  For me, it’s the focus on the argument that (I hope) keeps the sentences clean and not too painful to read.  I can’t avoid the fact that my science writing is highly technical—it’s the nature of the beast.  But I do think a lot about the logic of experiments, the structure of the argument, and trying to write a paper that I would (hopefully) enjoy reading if I were on the other side of the publishing process.

* * *
PS  For your reading pleasure, you should know that Rachel Toor has a website filled with her writings.  I just read “Why I Can’t Avoid Dating Academics,” and I was laughing to myself the whole time.  I can’t help it that I like smart men, I live in university towns, and I spend all my time on campus.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fortune-Telling, Part Two

Finally, finally!  I have good news to share, and I’m finally sitting down to tell you.  The short version is that one of the grants my advisor and I submitted earlier this year was reviewed quite favorably.  The reviews weren’t good enough for us to get funding yet, so we’ll have to revise and resubmit the grant.  But I am cautiously optimistic about our chances for funding.

Wait.  Cautiously optimistic?  No, that’s not right.  I am thrilled to get positive reviews on the grant application.  Absolutely thrilled.  It’s very common for grants not to be funded the first time they are submitted; in fact, I think it happens more often than not with applications that are ultimately funded.  My feeling is that positive reviews and R&R (revise and resubmit) are about as much as we could have hoped for this time around.


I have to confess something to you.  I don’t feel right divulging too many details about the grant reviews, mainly because this grant was submitted under my advisor’s name, so it’s really his grant, though I think he would agree that I was the driving force behind the submission.  We wrote the research proposal together, as a collaboration, and I knew going into the submission process that it would be submitted under his name.  I am very satisfied with how we handled things—I was able to do most of the work writing the grant (which I loved), and my advisor and I revised, edited, and tweaked it together.  The most important things to me were that 1) I played a major role in the development and writing of the grant and 2) we submitted the very best proposal we could dream up.  Obviously getting our grant funded is the ultimate goal, but I don’t have control over that.  I focused on what I could do and what was under my control, and as far as those things go, I feel that I met my goals.

This month I’m working on an experiment to generate data that I think will be included in the grant.  The data will almost certainly be included in my not-yet-written paper.  I’ve already made a list of changes that need to be made to the text of the grant, and I’ll start working on those after I meet with my advisor this week.  In short, things are going well.  I am relieved that I get to keep my current job, for a little while longer at least.  Most of all, I am feeling just a tiny bit more confident about this whole postdoc gig.  2012 has been a really hard year for me, and the good news about this grant could not have come at a better time.

So, for now: eyes forward, chin up, shoulders squared, and fingers crossed for a grant resubmission and a manuscript that needs to be written soon… 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fortune-Telling, Part One

You were all so kind to me when I told you about my grant rejection last month!  It’s only fair for me to give you an update on what happened with that grant, even though it’s not the most pleasant blogging topic.  I have decided to forge ahead and share it with you in the interest of providing my readers with some insight into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant review process.  Remember, the NIH is entirely funded by taxpayer dollars, so I’m telling you how your money is spent (or not, in this case) on academic science.

Prior to submitting my NRSA application, my prediction was that funding was a long shot for me.  The top reason for this?  I have not published any papers from my postdoctoral work.  The reason for that, in a nutshell, is that I had a massive project failure in year one.  I’ve spent years two and three developing my current project, which I think (hope!) is getting close to publication stage.  My current project is the basis for the grant.  I think I’ll talk a little more about that failed project in a future post, but for now, I’ll say this: innovation, by definition, means doing something that’s never been done before. That requires risk and a willingness to fail.  Though my project failure didn’t make me happy, I recognize it as a necessary part of my work, so I don’t feel the need to flog myself over it.

In the grant review process, reviewers take a long, hard look at your publication record.  It seems like your past productivity may, in fact, be the first and most important thing they examine.  I think most people would consider me successful: I got good grades in college, I was a productive graduate student, and I completed my PhD in six years.  I was an author on several papers with my graduate advisor, so I do have a publication record.  It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve had something new come out.  And frankly, in my field of genetics and behavior, that’s pretty common.  I’ve noticed that my peers tend to publish something new every 2-3 years—it takes us a while to develop a new project.  The standard for work in my field is very high, so we spend our years meticulously conducting experiments and analyzing data.  Maybe our rate of production is low compared to other fields—I suppose that means we value quality over quantity.  How can anyone criticize us for that?!?

Anyway, so yes, my grant reviewers were less than pleased by my recent lack of papers.  The other point they made (which I had also predicted) is that my career goal is not the best fit with this award.  So be it: I’m not going to lie about what I want to do with my scientific training.

Finally, and this part is truly baffling to me, they were very critical of what is called the “training environment.”  In other words, my work environment, including the institution, my lab, and my advisor.  To my mind, there are no major problems for me in those areas.  I’ll be the first to say that in research, advisors and advisees have complex relationships, but generally, my advisor and I have a professional, productive relationship.  It’s not perfect—no relationship ever is—and we’ve been through a lot, but I like to think that we’ve done the best we can.  I think that from an NIH perspective, I’m not learning enough new techniques.  But the thing is, I came out of graduate school having learned a huge number of techniques.  I don’t need a dozen more techniques in my arsenal.  What I need is an advisor who will give me the right balance of freedom and guidance to help me become an independent researcher.  My postdoc advisor has been doing that for me—he doesn’t hold my hand, metaphorically speaking, but if he thinks I’m on the wrong track, he’ll point me in a different direction.  Training-wise, I have been very happy with my overall experience as a postdoc.  It’s that question of funding that has loomed over my head.  But the price of innovation is that you have to be dedicated to the project, funding situation be damned.

Stay tuned for Part Two, an update on the other grant application…

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Tiny Ambition

I have a PS to add to my last post, and it’s this:

In the Kitchen Flickr Set_cropped

I am (sorta kinda) cooking my way through Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.  I have no deadline for this project.  I’m not blogging about it formally.  I’m not following each recipe strictly.  I have no problem excusing myself from the meat recipes or adapting them as I see fit.

In other words, this project is perfect for my life right now.  It’s always there for me when I want it, and it makes no impositions on me when all I want for dinner is a grilled cheese sandwich…although there are several variations on the grilled cheese sandwich in the book!

My three favorite recipes or adapted recipes from this book are my roasted broccoli and tofu dish, the chocolate egg cream, and one of the red lentil soups.  I’m always craving one or more of these things—comfort food at its finest!

I suppose my little In the Kitchen project means that I may have (sorta kinda) lied in my last post.  I apologize.  But I think in comparison to the blogs I’ve read where the blogger is literally cooking the entire book that my project is hardly a contender.  Perhaps my point today is that sometimes, a small (teeny-tiny!) project is the perfect size.  Sometimes we don’t want or need a huge commitment.  And that’s okay.  Life ain’t all go big or go home.  Sometimes it’s baby steps or stop-and-go, a boomerang throw or just creeping toward tomorrow.  Anyway, I do have a Flickr set of photos for this project, and I’m working on adding captions to them.  Feel free to check it out and ask questions or leave me a comment!  I always try to make time for you, dear readers.

Happy weekend, everyone.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Simplicity: On Knowing When Not to Start a New Project

Texas Dusk with Flags on the Side

I think a lot of us thrive on the energy of new projects.  Something new gives us a burst of energy and inspiration, a feeling of ambition and the desire for accomplishment.  New projects are powerful!  They also challenge us, make new demands on us, even frustrate us.  Above all, I think they motivate us in a way that our existing projects may not, simply because a new project is novel.  Our brains crave novelty.

I started a new project-within-a-project at work this month, and it’s been tremendously satisfying to master the technology and see the data.  I won’t bore you with the technical details, but as I was doing the pilot analyses, I was reminded of how important novelty is.  Even though it frustrated me when the analysis wasn’t working, it felt so, so good when it finally was working.  I don’t get a lot of instant gratification in my work, but when it happens, wow.  It’s awesome.

I’ve been thinking about this question of new projects a lot lately.  Maybe it’s the time of year—back-to-school time for the college students around here, and soon it will be back to school for the younger kids too.  But for me, it’s work as usual—mostly the same as ever, with the occasional exception of something new to try.  On the internets here, there is no shortage of cool projects you could try, and the three that have captured my imagination the most are:

* Kendi’s 30x30 Remix, which I think some of you already know and love.  The gist: pick 30 pieces of clothing from your closet and make 30 outfits.  If feeling ambitious, photograph your outfits and share them with the internet.  (Read more about 30x30 here.)

* Rachel’s No Spend Month Challenge, held annually every July.  The gist: spend less money than normal by restricting the household budget and then making good use of your pantry, home cooking, cheap ideas for fun, and general frugal living skills.  (Read more about the No Spend Month Challenge here.)

* Finally, and this is my very favorite: cook every single recipe in a special cookbook.  For example, Teena cooked and blogged her way through The Gourmet Cookbook.  And now, lucky for us, she’s cooking and blogging her way through Gourmet Today.  I’m so excited to see her back on-line and blogging regularly!  Hip hip!

I feel excited just thinking about these projects.  But what I have realized this summer is that I do not have room in my life right now for any of these things.  My days are filled to the brim with work, running, friends, and taking care of myself and my home.  I don’t want the added pressure of a new hobby project because I just know that I’ll feel guilty if I can’t give it the time I think it deserves.  In fact, I’m even several posts behind on this blog—I’ve got news for y’all that I just haven’t found the time to share!

Simplicity is knowing when not to start a new project.  So for now, I’m just going to appreciate other people’s efforts on their projects while I stay focused on my own.  There’s nothing wrong with being an audience member rather than the performer.  In fact, if all of us only cared about being the star, there would be no audience to appreciate our efforts!

I remind myself that my word for this year is devotion, and it seems that I chose the perfect word.  This year has tested my devotion to my work, to compassion and kindness, and to staying calm.  As the old saying goes, “Nobody said it would be easy, but they said it would be worth it.”

(But I still hope that some day I’ll have time to do my own 30x30!)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

In Praise of Wrapsacks

Hey hey!  I’m so surprised that it’s been five days since my last post.  This week has been rather hormone-fueled, and I prefer to subject my loved ones, rather than the entire internet, to that pleasantry.  It hasn’t been all bad, of course, because most weeks aren’t.  There was a trip to Home Depot for a new planter and a hammer(!).  There’s been much data analysis at work and some good conversations.  There was wine-drinking last night, and there will be more of that tonight.  There will also be a half-batch of paleo chocolate chip cookies.  I made that recipe a few weeks ago, and it’s absolutely delicious.  Tonight I’m going to try some dried ginger instead of or in addition to the cinnamon—I love ginger and chocolate together.  In a word, yum!

Today I want to say a few words about those wrapsacks I showed you last time we talked.  In addition to being adorable, they are a valuable addition to every earth-loving shopper who tells herself that “Paper or plastic?” is the wrong question.  The real question is, “Where are your reusable shopping bags?!”

Two Wrapsacks

They’re right here!

These wrapsack totes are made of cotton, and they zip up into a convenient little self-made pocket.  Unfortunately, the zipper on my lizard tote came off its zipper track, so I’m using a big paper clip to hold that one closed.  Wrapsack totes come in a variety of pretty batik patterns.  I am greedy and want to own them all.

The two things I love most about wrapsacks, in addition to how cute they are, is that the shoulder straps on them are the perfect length for carrying stuff on your shoulders and they have a reinforced bottom.  In my experience, with other reusable bags, it’s the bottom that starts falling apart after a lot of use.  You start getting tears and holes, and then little things start slipping out, and eventually your reusable bag is not so reusable any more.

I’ve only had my wrapsacks for about six weeks, so it’s too early to tell how they will hold up after heavy usage.  But my sister-in-law Amanda swears by hers, so I think we can take her word for this.

As for the price, I must confess that Amanda got me a pair of wrapsacks for half-price, through her co-op, I believe.  On-line, the wrapsack totes are $14.99 each, and I think they are totally worth every penny.  They’re such high-quality, sturdy and beautiful at the same time.  (I wouldn’t mind if someone called me sturdy and beautiful.  What a lovely combination!)  Anyway, if you are on the market for some new reusable bags, I think wrapsacks are the way to go.

See you at the grocery store, friends!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Grocery Transport via Bicycle: How I Make It Work

Bike with Groceries

Me with Wrapsacks

One fun fact about me that you may not know if you don’t read my running blog or know me in person is that I don’t have a car.  In fact, I’ve never had a car.  The reasons for that are many, but the short version is that I never got a license to drive independently as a teenager.  Because I never had a car, I never got used to having a car, which means I’ve never relied on the speed and convenience of a car.  Over the years, I’ve used my feet, a bike, and public transportation to get around on my own.  I’ve also had very generous friends with cars who have taken care of me by offering rides.  I am grateful to have wonderful friends, but I do think it’s fair to say that for the most part, I’ve relied on myself to get around and get things done.

Today I thought I’d share with you some insights into how I manage to remain carless even in Texas, where for most people, I think it’s almost unfathomable not to have a car.  I’ve chosen to remain carless so far because it saves me a ton of money, my job here is not stable at all, and it is possible to live in my town without a car.  Allow me to explain.

I live in College Station, Texas.  It’s a small city—certainly not rural Texas—and I live within easy biking distance of two good grocery stores: Brazos Natural Foods and HEB.  I like BNF for my organic groceries and a lot of basics, like onions, garlic, coconut milk, canned tomatoes, thick-cut rolled oats, and sugar.  BNF is a tiny, local store, and with limited space comes a limit in selection.  I love BNF for what it does have, so I try to get over there every Saturday for a good grocery haul.  The pictures above are from today’s trip, which was close to $60 in groceries.  (The reason the total is so high for only two bags of groceries is that among other things, I bought eggs, half-and-half, cheese, fresh raspberries, and toothpaste, which are all a bit pricey.  Also, the guy ringing up my groceries was new, and I think he may have made a mistake or two on my bill.  Oh well.)

I go to HEB for its wider selection of produce and because HEB is open later in the evening.  HEB has a lot of good organic stuff too, and I’m grateful to have one close to me.

My grocery habits generally require two trips per week, one to BNF on Saturday and one to HEB on Tuesday or Wednesday.  Being on a bike means that I have to be mindful of how much I’ve bought—the heavier the load, the more difficult the ride home.  I think this works to my advantage because it means I don’t buy much stuff that’s not on my list.  I buy what I’ll eat, and I eat what I buy.  Without a car, I can’t make quick trips to the store, so when I cook, I have to make do with what’s on hand.

I use two basic strategies to keep my cooking life flowing: I pick a recipe or two and buy ingredients, and I keep a supply of staple ingredients on hand.  I always like to have onions, garlic, canned tomatoes, some beans or lentils, cheese, a fresh green, and rice or bread on hand.  If I have those basics on hand, I know I can create something delicious any night of the week.  My spice collection always comes out to play here too!

A how-to post like this one demands a few tips in list form, so here are a few tips that work for me to do almost all my grocery shopping via bicycle:

* Invest in a sturdy bike.  I love my Schwinn cruiser.  It’s very solid and comfortable for riding around with bags of heavy groceries.

* Be realistic about what you can haul home. Much of this will depend on you and your level of strength, but a good gauge is the weight of your shopping basket.  When it starts becoming too heavy for me to haul around the store, I know I am awfully close to my limit for what I can manage on my bike.

* Along those same lines: beware the heaviest items.  I buy a half-gallon of almond milk every week, and I try to avoid buying too many canned goods or bottles of wine if I’ve got almond milk on my list for that day.

* Buy fresh stuff.  Fresh produce has less packaging, so it’s lighter in weight and easier to haul home.  Plus it’s delicious, so why wouldn’t you buy fresh produce?  It can, however, be a bit delicate, so be mindful of how it’s packed into your bags.  Sadly, my bananas are often bruised during the ride home, so now I try to position them so they’re less likely to get bumped and thumped.

* Invest in good reusable shopping bags.  Over the years, I’ve gone through many of these bags.  The best rule here is that you pay for what you get.  If the bags are cheap, they probably won’t last too long.  I’ve had cloth or plastic reusable bags from Whole Foods, Target, and HEB, and none of them are great for hauling groceries on a bike.  My newest investment is a pair of wrapsacks.  My sister-in-law got them for me, and so far, they are awesome.  I’ll write a bit more about them in my next post.  For now, here they are, sitting next to my bike.  Aren’t they adorable?

Wrapsack Closeup

* Reward yourself for your hard work.  Because I save so much money by not having a car, I feel okay splurging at the grocery store.  My favorite treats are fresh fruit, bakery bread, chocolate bars, bottles of wine, a nice cheese, and those individual Greek yogurts.  That list may sound awfully healthy, but honestly, most of the food I eat is cooked from scratch, so anything that can be eaten straight from the package is a treat.

* Finally, I will contradict myself.  If you really need to do a big grocery haul, don’t be afraid to pay for a cab ride or to bribe a friend to take you shopping.  I sometimes need more groceries than I can handle on my bike, so I’ll take the bus to HEB, do my shopping, and then take a cab home.  The cab ride costs $13-15, which is worth it for the convenience of buying a lot of food in one trip.

A word about my bike here: I do not have a basket or any sort of gear for hauling stuff.  I imagine that having something along those lines would be awesome; I just haven’t gotten around to purchasing and installing some gear.  I make do with my wrapsacks, my shoulders, and my handlebars.

Any questions for me about hauling groceries on a bike?  Any other questions about the carless lifestyle?

PS  This post was not sponsored by any of the stores or products mentioned here, even though I would not be opposed to accepting their sponsorship of this blog!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

31 Days

Today is the first day of the worst month of the year.  Hello, August.

I’ve never liked August.  It’s a long, hot month with little to break up the monotony.  There are no big holidays in August, just the impending end of summer.  Living in Texas, I treat August as a countdown: starting today, we’ve got 31 more days of the inferno, 31 days to survive.  It’s the end of August that gives us something to celebrate!

The good news is that I have something delicious to share with you today.  Remember how I was lamenting that despite numerous attempts, I had yet to come up with a good vegetarian version of the green peach dish in Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite?  Well, my lamenting has been replaced with contented chewing: now I’ve got a great green peach and black bean salad.

Summertime Green Peach and Black Bean Salad

(Trust me: this salad is more delicious than it looks. I promise.)

It was worth the effort.  I was initially intrigued by the flavor combination in Melissa’s dish: green peaches (of course!), garlic, ginger, sherry vinegar, olive oil, and fresh basil.  Unusual but delicious!  I really wanted a good vegetarian way to showcase that combination.  I thought black beans might work well, since black beans are very tasty with other fruits, such as mango.  The problem is that every time I baked another version of my black bean version, the black beans dried out and made the dish unappealing.  Rather than being juicy and succulent, the dish seemed as parched as me after a run in the Texas heat.

I had an epiphany when I realized that green peaches don’t need to be cooked to be delicious.  That was the key!  I could just toss all the ingredients together and call it a salad.  What’s even better is that by making a salad, this dish requires no cooking: just some light chopping and a little can-opener action.  (Or, if you’re thrifty and organized, you can cook a big batch of black beans and use two cups of your homecooked beans here.) 

I’m not one to shy away from using the oven, even in August, even with my mother’s voice scolding me in my head for wasting energy.  But I do love a good chop-and-stir number, one that’s easy on the cook and her air-conditioning bill.  So I’m going to keep this recipe handy because it, alongside some jazzed-up rice or a nice sandwich, makes a mighty fine lunch or dinner.

Summertime Green Peach and Black Bean Salad

Inspired by and adapted from In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite by Melissa Clark

Serves 3-4 as part of a component lunch or dinner

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 tbsp. sherry cooking wine (I bet sherry vinegar would be fine here too)

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 tsp. freshly grated ginger, plus more to taste

1/4 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste

1/4 tsp. black pepper, plus more to taste

1 16-oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed or 2 cups cooked black beans

1 pound hard (green) peaches, sliced into ~1/4-inch slices

2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil

1)  For the dressing, whisk together the oil, sherry cooking wine, garlic, ginger, salt, and pepper.

2)  Place the beans, peaches, and basil in a large bowl.  Pour the dressing over everything, toss gently, and serve.  This salad keeps nicely for a few days in the fridge, too.