Tag Archives: life

Goodbye Minneapolis

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A chapter of my life ended last Friday. It’s been an odd feeling, saying goodbye when I am so ready to move on. It’s no secret that Minneapolis and I have had an extremely complicated relationship. There are things that I truly adore about the city (i.e. the best bike commute in the world) and the people I’ve grown to be friends with and yet, this is a place that will never be close to my heart. No doubt a valuable period in my life, but one where the bright spots shine poke through the cover of bleakness.

Over the weekend while most of my earthly belongings headed towards Georgia, I sprinted into to the open arms of the Pacific Northwest and my family for a short intermission before I begin life in Atlanta. I packed the car with my most valuable treasures (the two cats, my new and fabulous bicycle and the contents of my spice cupboard) and drove 1700 hundred miles in my 10-year old car with my 23-year old cousin to Olympia.

Somewhere in the middle of North Dakota an epiphany struck. This road trip, and more importantly, my postdoc in Minneapolis was a constant tug-of-war between ‘making good time’ and ‘having a good time’.

I chose my postdoc for the science and for the mentor, despite the fact that it meant that I would have to live in the Midwest (in contrast to most of the other postdocs in the lab who wanted those things AND had strong familial ties in the region). So from the outset, my postdoc was simply a strategic hoop to jump through to land a coveted faculty position, wherever that may be. I didn’t set out to ‘have a good time’ but rather to ‘make good time.’ So I shied away from making friends and making Minneapolis home, as that would take time away from my scientific and academic goals.

I’m not one who believes that scientists live in isolation and are wasting time when not working. I took time off, travelled and spent many a weekend with my dearest friends that I’ve accumulated over the course of my life to either celebrate major life events or to simply hang out on the couch with a glass of wine. These were the people that I had already invested in, value beyond all else and whom I wanted to spend my time with whenever possible. So I flitted off to Chicago, Austin, California, Durham, Olympia, Paris, Portland, Boston, etc. to keep those people in my life. All at the expense of making ties in Minneapolis.

The same is true for my academic community. The University of Minnesota was simply a stop along the way. As a postdoc, it’s difficult not to feel like a ghost. You sneak in during the middle of the night (your start date is almost never tied to the academic calendar) and you pass people in the halls without acknowledgement. I just did not have the capacity to invest in the department. Resolving that conflict was hard – I was deeply committed to my intellectual community as a graduate student and I am looking forward to making my mark in the future. But in this time and place, during my postdoc, I couldn’t do it and felt guilty for not trying harder.

So I ‘made good time.’ My one and only postdoc was four and a half years long – a blink of an eye in the current academic market. In a time when a lot of people are leaving academia, doing 6-7 year postdocs or multiple postdocs, I have been extremely successful and even so, I felt like this took too long and there have been costs inextricably tied with my success. My life could have taken a different turn a couple of years ago and I would have left Minneapolis at that time. I have fretted incessantly (and unnecessarily) that things will fall through at the last minute while preparing for this move. This person who I am, who I’ve become is due entirely because of my past experiences, which I consider to be a result of the context and my decisions at any given time. And that particular turn let me take the opportunity to invest, just a smidgen, in Minneapolis. As such, this goodbye is more complicated than I anticipated. Yet I revel in it: my life has been rich, varied and complex and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Goodbye Minneapolis. You haven’t been my favorite, but you have been important.

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Oh … hello!

Is anybody there?

This tiny, online space is not forgotten. I simply took some much-needed time for me. But I’ve missed this terribly. This place. Writing. It’s not to be overlooked or undervalued.

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I haven’t been comfortable sharing my thoughts, opinions and experiences for immediate public consumption. Striking a balance between my online presence and real-world life has been an impossible task over the past year (and it’s not just me). Nonetheless, there has been a fair amount of ice cream and perhaps a cocktail or two. Some fantastic travels to the south of France with dear friends and scuba diving in Bonaire with family (where you might just find yourself swimming with a pod of dolphins) and many other places near and far. A re-upholstered chair and a revamped sofa table turned kitchen cart. But more than anything else – life as an academic and biologist.

This past year has been a doozy and change is underway.

(The details on that are for another time).

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But on to more pressing topics … It’s springtime in Minneapolis! At last! Opening the windows, biking into campus, beers on patios and the start of farmers markets. – a glorious time indeed. I’ve been in a flurry of spring cleaning – my closets, my kitchen, the laboratory. No space I occupy has been safe from my critical eyes. I adore the process of shedding winter layers. To rediscover lost treasures and carefully assess what to keep close and what to finally let go of.  It’s no small task and not an easy one either. But the psychological satisfaction of this particular accomplishment is one of the best there is. It’s not for everybody, but it certainly is for me.

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Now that the dust has been cleared and I’ve got no upcoming travel scheduled, I’ve been having fun playing in my kitchen. To brush up on my skills and hone my culinary instincts. To anticipate the summer bounty and enjoy fresh, seasonal food again. Which brings me to … RHUBARB!!! I’ve waxed poetic time and time and time again about my favorite spring crop, so let me just cut to the chase. An afternoon tart of roasted rhubarb with cardamom pastry cream and orange poppyseed shortbread crust.

This dish took me the better part of a Saturday morning, but there is no reason why the parts can’t be made independently and assembled whenever it pleases you. It’s good. Very good. In my opinion, worth not only the time, but also the number of dirty dishes.

 Not-so simple rhubarb tart
Serves 4
 
Roasted Rhubarb
~10 oz rhubarb, cut in 4 inch pieces
3/4 – 1 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
 
Combine all ingredients in an oven safe dish. Roast at 300 degrees for about 50 minutes, occasionally  so that the rhubarb is soft, but still holds its shape and the juice is reduced to about a quarter cup or so.
 
Cardamom Pastry Cream
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup milk
2 eggs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½” cubes
 
Make the filling: Whisk together sugar, cornstarch, cardamom, and salt in a 2-qt. saucepan; whisk in milk and eggs. Bring to a boil over medium heat; cook, whisking constantly, until thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from heat; whisk in butter. Transfer mixture to a bowl (pressing through a sieve, if you are so inclined, as I usually am); press a piece of plastic wrap onto surface of filling. Refrigerate until ready to use.
 
Orange Poppyseed Shortbread Crust 
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon orange extract
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
 
Cream the butter, mix in the sugar, lemon zest, poppy seeds and salt followed by the flour and mix until it forms crumbs. Press the mixture into a 4” x 13.5” rectangular tart pan. Freeze for 10-15 minutes and bake in a preheated 400F oven until lightly golden brown, about 15 minutes before letting it cool.
 
Assembly
Spread chilled cardamom pastry cream into baked shortbread crust. Carefully top with roasted rhubarb pieces. Brush with the reduced vanilla orange juice. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Expectations

(Woosh)

That was January, flying out the window. I won’t lie, January 2013 was a pretty complex month me. I spent most of it hibernating in my apartment (and the numerous days of sub-freezing temperatures only reinforcing my behavior).

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I tackled ghosts from last year and it was more difficult and took a larger part of me than I anticipated. 2012 was a hard year and it was only okay because I had allowed myself the year to heal. Heartbreak takes time, I had learned the hard way previously in my life and as such, I had no expectation that I would bounce back quickly. But when the one-year mark passed and despite a significant career achievement, I was disappointed in myself, an emotion that digs deep into my mind and settles in for while (and let’s face it: it’s the middle of winter – who doesn’t want to settle in for a while?). And once that happens, it’s nearly impossible to get yourself out of that downward spiral.

Why wasn’t I happy yet?

I’ve all but abandoned this blog – it’s primarily been about food, yet I don’t want this to be a perky, isn’t-life-grand!!! and OMG are you as obsessed with quinoa as I am? sort of space. Those sorts of blogs are increasingly irritating to me, resonating as shallow and superficial and isn’t something that I want to participate in or even be associated with. I have no interest in food styling and having a whole cupboard full of food props. Instead, I strive to have similar tones of emotional honesty that I read here and here. (I’m not entirely sure if its a coincidence that both authors live in the Pacific Northwest). Don’t worry – I still love food.

It’s just that I’m moody.

And that mood has had undertones and, in most cases, overtones of sadness. There’s been a rain cloud that’s been hovering over my head for longer than a year now – and in January I got fed up with it. I tried to actively push it away. Turns out, it’s pretty challenging – pushing a cloud. I even went to a pretty terrible social dating event that completely freaked me out and made me realize that perhaps telling myself that I was ready isn’t actually the same as really being ready. Did I mention that I am currently writing a big career development grant? No? Well that’s happening also and wrecking all sorts of havoc on my mental state.

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And then suddenly, my perspective shifted. I read two articles (one I can’t recall where I found and this other one). The first referenced a book I distinctly remember reading as a 10th grader for Honor English, Man’s Search for Meaning. Now, while I remember reading it, I can hardly recall any of the details aside from it was written by a psychologist and Holocaust survivor. But, this article, the one I can’t seem to place, made the point that you don’t need to be happy to having meaning in your life. It’s a somber thought, I know, but it made me realize that perhaps I shouldn’t have happiness be the state I aim for. There is oodles of meaning to my life and it turns out that this emotion is much more important to me.

The second article centers around the idea of joy. That it is not only distinct from the idea of pleasure (my first cup of coffee in the morning is a moment of pure pleasure); but that joy is intense, complex, simultaneously surreal and yet fully rooted and at times exceedingly uncomfortable. As I’ve been holed-up, writing my grant, I’ve come to realize that’s how I feel about science. Being a scientist is hard (and not because you have be super-duper nerdy smart, but for a whole host of other reasons). I’ve even at times considered leaving it – but something, something that has always seemed beyond definition, stops me.

I’m pretty sure that something is joy.

Then a funny thing happened. Once I let go of the idea of happiness, accepted the meaning in my life and realized my joy, I’ve been able to see things clearly. It feels different. It feels good.

Oh, and that rain cloud? It seems to have lifted.

My Break-up Nature Paper

I have an article in Nature that is going to be published at the end of the month. As a biologist, it’s kind of a big deal. Academics are horrible elitist snobs and the truth is, where you publish your work matters and Nature is at the top of the food chain. So this is a notable accomplishment.

I got the final acceptance letter of the manuscript exactly one year after a significant relationship ended. That break-up was instrumental in fueling the progress of the project. I was left homeless for several weeks, relying on the hospitality of friends, and spent long hours working in the lab on nights and weekends so not to take advantage or disrupt my hosts’ everyday lives. I spent my summer holed up, digging deep into the ancient literature (for my field that means the 1950s and 60s) and writing the manuscript, the perfect excuse to not go out and enjoy the weather or have a life. This fall was a whirlwind of travel, revisions, rebuttal letters and calls to the editor and finally acceptance.

It’s normal for me to hate a paper by the time it gets published. You spend inordinate amounts of time fussing with the explanation of the details of an experiment, the formatting of the figures, finding the balance of conveying the meaning and relevance of your results without overstating. It’s exhausting and by the end of it you can no longer see the story through the words. This particular paper has been more painful than most for a whole variety of reasons.

I know that I should be proud of this accomplishment, that it’s worth celebrating, but I find it impossible to do so because my thoughts almost immediately turn to the driving force of this paper. I vowed that I would try and get back ‘out there‘ once this paper was finished. Now that I received the pre-prints and we have a tentative publication date, that time is nearer than I’d like or am ready for. I’ve held on to this heartache longer than I should have. Tying it tightly to this paper was an excuse to not let go or possibly allowed me to avoid dealing with my feelings. I don’t discuss it, my horror story of a break-up but I carry it around with me; my own personal rain cloud. I’m not angry, but rather, severely disappointed in what happened and, at least for me, disappointment is a more difficult emotion to resolve than anger.

I’ve been hibernating lately (which the weather in Minneapolis facilitates nicely this time of year), acting the recluse, mostly because I’m terrified of the idea of letting somebody into my life, and becoming a part of somebody else’s. The problem is, that I miss it terribly and readily admit that I am lonely, but I haven’t gathered quite enough courage to make it happen.

Looking at the pre-prints of the Nature paper (meaning that it’s typeset and actually looks like what will be printed and is no longer a drab Word document) allowed me to read the article with a new perspective – as reader and not as an author. It turns out, it’s pretty cool stuff. I had forgotten that. Yet, woven within the text are the discussions over authorship order, the last minute hobbled-together experiments, the frenemy-like correspondance with reviewers and the agonizingly slow response from the editor. Ultimately, the paper is stronger and better written because of it all. But those challenges are not easily forgotten.

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 This is a self-portrait from a few days ago. I like it because this girl (although I don’t know if you can call somebody approaching 32 a girl) looks interesting. She has bright purple hair and likes to wear jewelry, but not makeup, and has a style that garners compliments from strangers. She has a nice smile and intelligent eyes, and although you might not see it in this photo, has a highly expressive face. She’s even been called charming and people like to be around her. Yet, without a doubt, there is more than meets the eye, as life experiences shape and change who you are. I just hope that it’s for the better.

I don’t have a good conclusion for this post, or my life for that matter. It’s only fitting, I suppose, just because you’ve published the paper doesn’t mean that you are finished with the story…

More Baking Therapy

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My friends are part of my family. They mean the world to me and I have endless love for them. So when they are hurting and heartbroken because life can be cruel sometimes, I take it personally. I want to sit on the couch and hold their hand and just be with them, so they don’t have to be in that scary and dark place alone. Except for those pesky hundreds of miles that separate us.

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I have a friend suffering a devastating loss and it upsets me. Because of the pain that I cannot take away and because there is so little I can do, amplified because I am not there during this difficult time. I have ceased to be amazed at how adult my life as become, which I suppose is a perfect example of my adultness. The problems that you fret over – they are the big ones, the ones with no good solutions and they weigh heavily upon me.

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So I bake. It is my therapy. Or perhaps, more realistically, my escape. To have a goal, a blueprint that you can see through to the end. Having complete control. Knowing the variables. My mother thinks that I am some frou-frou cook, making everything from scratch, taking the hard (and time-consuming) way to do things. I think she may have a point. Sure, I could make something easier, with fewer steps or more store-bought ingredients, but that’s not me. I like that I can choose the hard route. I like the process, the transformation of whole foods into something else. Cracking the eggs, straining the puree, using any and all of my extensive collection of measuring spoons. Lugging my gorgeous green stand mixer from the dining room to the kitchen counter. Dirtying every pot, mixing bowl and mesh strainer. Pouring a glass bourbon, and then a another one to help dull the edge of life. Because some nights you just need to bake until 1:30 in the morning. Even if it is a Tuesday night.

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I’ve had my eye on this recipe for these Pomegranate Clove Thumbprint Cookies every since I got my hands on Ripe by Cheryl Sternman Rule over the past summer. Then I spied a quirky Cranberry Curd recipe in a recent issue of Cooking Light and my gut told me they had to go together. My gut doesn’t usually steer me wrong and this is no exception. Don’t forget the pomegranate arils – they make the cookies unexpected and delightful. And the color? It simply speaks for itself.

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If you are lucky enough to have your friends nearby, invite them over and share an afternoon, some hugs and these cookies. Be warned however – they don’t travel well (I suspect gushy nature of the curd is at fault), which is why dear friend, I didn’t send them your way. Please forgive me.

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Pomegranate Clove Thumbprint Cookies with Cranberry Curd

The recipe for the cranberry curd makes about 3 cups of curd – way, way more than you need for these cookies. Seal it up in a jar and enjoy the seasonal treat on crackers, biscuits or buttermilk pancakes. It has a nice mouth-puckering quality to it, as all curds (and anything cranberries) should. This curd is slightly different than the curds I’ve made in the past (lemon curd I and II, rhubarb curd, blackberry curd – it’s possible I have an obsession…) as it calls for the butter and sugar to be beaten together before incorporating the eggs or adding any heat. I was a little apprehensive about the technique, but was satisfied with the result.

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Cranberry Curd
from Cooking Light, December 2012
 
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 (12-ounce) package fresh cranberries
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 large egg yolks
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
 
Pomegranate Clove Thumbprint Cookies
from Ripe, by Cheryl Sternman Rule
makes ~20 cookies
 
1 cup (120 g) flour
1/2 cup (80 g) almond meal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon (85 g) granulated sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
~1/4 cup cranberry curd
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For the cranberry curd:

Combine water, lemon juice and cranberries in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 5 minutes or until cranberries pop. Using an immersion blender, process until smooth (can also use a blender or food processor). Strain cranberry mixture through a fine meshed sieve over a bowl; discard solids.

Combine sugars and butter in a bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well combined. Add egg yolks and egg, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in cranberry mixture, cornstarch, and salt. Place mixture in the top of a double boiler. Cook over simmering water until a thermometer registers 160° and mixture thickens (about 10 minutes), stirring frequently. Remove from heat; let stand 5 minutes. Stir in liqueur. Strain through a fine meshed sieve once more. If using later, cover and refrigerate.

For the cookies:

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, cloves, cinnamon and salt. Set aside. In another large bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy, ~2 minutes. Stream in the sugar and beat 2 minutes longer. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract. With the machine OFF, dump in the flour mixture. Turn on the mixer and stir at the lowest speed for 30 seconds and then increase speed to medium and beat just until the flour mixture in completely incorporated. Refrigerate the dough for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 375º and line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Scoop ~1 1/2 tablespoons dough and portion into mounds. Using the end of a wooden spoon (or your thumb), form a depression in the middle of the cookie. Bake until the cookies are set and golden brown around the edges, 15 – 18 minutes. Cool completely. Fill each thumbprint with cranberry curd (the recipe suggests 1/4 teaspoon, I sort of just heaped it on…) and top with 4-5 pomegranate arils.