Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Break

These last four months have disappeared with the kind of fluidity that is most often reserved for birthdays parties, vacations and the first years of a child’s life. They have dissolved into one another with an ease and readiness that, in retrospect, leave me stunned.

They have been 4 very good months, overall. As with any like adventure, there have been moments grace and moments of terror, but mostly there have been moments of calm. It has been the kind of calm that hits in the hurricane’s eye: ephemeral and a bit noisy around the edges, but a calm nonetheless.

I might be lying about that calm thing.

These past 4 months have been chaos. The chaos of living in a strange place, alone for the first time in years and having to figure out what to do when a tire goes flat, the oil needs changing or the storm window won’t close all the way; the chaos of a new job with new faces, vague expectations, hidden agendas and if you’ve never worked in academia know this: we could teach the Beltway a thing or two about playing politics; and the chaos of meeting and befriending new and exotic people (of course they’re exotic—they’re New Yorkers!). The learning curve has been steep; I’ve fallen on my tail-end more than once and stepped in more piles of stinking goo than I care to admit. I’ve offended a few people, hurt a couple of others, and am still trying to figure out what another one or two are up to. I’ve made bad decisions, followed faulty lines of inquiry and forgotten to breathe more than once.

But I’ve also met people I genuinely like, have a job that I love, and feel that sense of home, rightness and belonging in this place. Not bad for a first semester of chaos.

So, as I’m cleaning out my apartment refrigerator this evening, packing up my laundry and presents, cleaning out the bathtub and running the vacuum in preparation for long winter break, I’m going to pretend that when January 20 comes and I’m back in residence, I will remember the steps to this dance that I’m still learning. Better yet, I’ll bring a clean Mason jar to capture some of the vapor that is this time—but I’ll be careful not to poke holes in the lid even though time, like fireflies, sometimes needs some breathing room.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Startbox, my Startbox

When I decided last summer that I was moving here, I had moments of panic when I couldn’t imagine where I was going to come up with the necessary household goods to stock two places of residence. You know, stuff like pots, pans, spatulas.

The nice guy I married suggested a trip to Ikea, homeland of cheap assemble-it-yourself furniture and meatballs. "At Ikea," he told me, "they have boxes for things like this." A few mouse clicks later, I found them: Startboxes.

Startboxes are a marvel of modern engineering. In a 12 x 21 box, I found pots, pans, baking dishes, mixing bowls, storage containers, trivets and an assortment of tools. The pieces fit together like a 3-dimensional puzzle—you know the kind. Sometimes they have money tucked into the middle, sometimes a bottle of wine, and in order to get to the treasure, you have to take the puzzle apart.

There were spatulas, a peeler, metric measuring cups, a garlic press, kitchen shears (among other things) and my favorite of all: a groggy.

Yes, a groggy. It said so right on the package. Groggy.

A groggy, in case you’re wondering, is a corkscrew. A fairly standard restaurant-style corkscrew at that.

By now, 4 months into my apartment, I’ve used the garlic press and the spatulas, the peeler and the can opener. I’ve even purchased and used English measuring cups. But my groggy sits in my drawer, sadly unused. I should go buy a bottle of NYS wine so that I can finally use the poor thing. I think about it regularly, but never do it because here in Wine Country, you have to actually go to a wine store to buy it. Liquor, also, comes from the wine store, though you can pick up a 6-pack of Yuengling just about anywhere. Except for a wine store, of course. And I haven’t yet made it into a wine store.

But of course there’s more to the story than that—there always is.

I believe, as much as I believe in anything, that we are, ultimately, the product of our choices. We make good choices, we make bad ones. How we react to and clean up after those bad ones is also indicative of who we are not just in how we present ourselves externally, but of who we believe ourselves to be internally. Granted, what we do, how we do it, is colored by experience and belief but in the end, who we are is defined by those choices.

I come from a family with well-documented, addictive personalities. Thanks to science, we are beginning to understand and recognize that there are bits of genetic code that help to make those addictions more, well, addicting. So on the one hand, I am a product of those things that were done by others. But it is the other hand, that notion of choice, that drives my decision to leave the groggy in the drawer.

What I know, because of my genetic coding and because of behaviors I have seen modeled, is that the bottle of wine will very easily lead to the bottle of scotch, and the bottle of scotch, well, it’s not something I need to have in my solo apartment. So I choose, each time I drive past the wine store and think about veering into the parking lot, to look out the opposite window at the empty lot across the street from the store.

So my groggy waits.

Meanwhile, the box, my empty Startbox, is in the closet because eventually I know that I’ll be packing up the pots, the pans, the garlic press, and taking them to wherever I go next, be it a house here in upstate New York or somewhere else. I will try to fit the pots, the pans, the garlic press back into those confines though I know that, like other genies from other bottles, they’ll never go in exactly the same they were in the beginning.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dinner Time

I'll be the first one to admit that I'm not a foodie. My categories of reacting to food are pretty simple: what the hell was that?; I like it; and Oh My God I Think the Earth Just Moved. What particular ingredients or techniques lead to these reactions, I cannot say. I suppose this makes me gourmand rather than gourmet. I can live with that.

Upstate New York has a strong "go local" ethos. We grow our own produce, manage our own dairies, produce our own meat, are home to Wegman's, the mecca of food stores and you can't walk down the street without tripping over countless dozens of "Made in the Finger Lakes" labels. We like local.

Despite this availability of good, locally-grown food what's been challenging for me is feeding myself. Like most of the women in America, I spend at least half of my life on a diet. Unlike most of them, I actually could stand to lose about 40 pounds. American women have terrible relationships with food, always defining our days by whether we were dietarily "good" or "bad." Its a codependancy of the worst kind.

When I moved here, I thought it would be a good time and place to focus on those pounds, show them who's in charge and buy some new pants. It would, I reasoned, be easier to "be good" if I didn't have to worry about feeding my boys.


Since I live alone, it seemed expedient if not in fact prudent to build my food lifestyle around the mass availability of Lean Cuisine and Healthy Choice entrees. Quick, easy, calorically controlled. What could be bad about this?

Boxed entrees, for those who are unaware, are remarkably homogeneous. The picture might show macaroni and cheese or Asian potstickers, but in the final analysis, it all tastes like...calorically controlled, microwave-ready food out of a box.

The hell of it is, after weeks of steady box-diet that included the occasional donut or cheeseburger when I couldn't stand it for another minute, I gained 10 pounds.

Granted, the basic weight-loss formula is calories in should be less than calories out. I get a lot of exercise. I do those things "they" tell you to do: park far away, take the stairs, go for walks and bike rides. The plain truth is that I've consistently gotten more exercise these past three months than at any other time in my life, all while enjoying my steady diet of boxes.

I decided, recently, to get serious about it. I planned, portioned and counted everything for two weeks. I had the numbers down to the smallest calorie count that is reasonable for my body and made myself run up and down the stairs at work for no good reason other than to burn those calories. Heck, I even used fat free half 'n' half in my coffee which, if you know me at all, you know is a real sacrifice on my part.

At the end of those two weeks, I stepped on the scale and...nothing. The needle didn't budge. To say I was annoyed would be a gross understatement.

What I decided, after a lot of reflection, was to get rid of the damned boxes. Instead, I would experiment with eating real food. I created some ground rules for this experiement: no boxes, bags or cans. The exceptions were dairy and bread/pasta because I don't own a cow, and while I love baking bread it isn't feasable for me right now. This meant I had to give up the safety-net of my boxes, throw out the carefully-controlled 100-calorie snack packs, not drink diet cola (I did cheat twice on this one), pitch the boxes of breakfast cereal and really pay attention to what I was doing in my tiny kitchen. Beyond those rules, I could have anything I wanted so long as I made it myself. Cookies? Sure--go bake some. Garlic toast with that pasta? Absolutely: melt some butter and mince a clove of garlic.

For the past week, I've cooked everything I've consumed (with the exception of a couple of lunches when I opted for a salad from the cafeteria). Risotto with shrimp, asparagus and bacon. Chicken and cous cous. A to-die-for pecan coffee cake. There were some culinary earth-moving moments in there, though I can't tell you why.

This morning, with a sinking stomach, I headed for the scale while mentally reviewing everything I had eaten this week. Real butter. Cheese. Chocolate chip shortbread.

Before I stepped on the dreaded thing, I thought about how I'd been feeling this week, both mentally and physically, and the answer was: better. I feel unquantifiably clearer, stronger and more energetic. This realization was fogged somewhat by the knowledge that I'd been eating real butter, but no matter. The damage had been done and I could always go back to the boxes next week if this one had proved disastrous.

With my eyes squinched half-closed, I approached that square white beast in my bathroom. I shuffled onto it, holding my breath, mentally preparing myself for a return to portion-controlled swedish meatballs and rice cakes with endless gallons of diet pop.

In a while, I'm going to go and do laundry. On the way home, I will stop at the market to stock up for next week. Ratatouille sounds good. Ratatouille with some garlic bread. Maybe I'll go crazy and bake a nice batch of maple scones for next week. And I have this jar of Finger-Lakes made wet walnuts (which is acceptable because the entire ingredient list is: walnuts, NY maple syrup) that are just begging to be baked in a crust with a nice wedge of gooey cheese.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Finding Home

I've lived a lot of places. Nowhere exotic, just numerous towns and cities across America ranging from Alabama to Alaska and multiple points in-between. Some I've liked, others I couldn't wait to get away from. A few of them even earned the designation "home."

I've lived in Michigan for 15 years now. I've made some very good friends, had a nice life, gotten a good education. But never once, in that time, have I crossed the state line back into Michigan and felt the "I'm home" ping. On the weekends that I head back over I announce "I'm heading home this weekend," and my colleagues say "have a good trip home" and so I go...home.

I didn't give it much thought, really. Just figured I'd already called so many places "home" that the concept no longer really registered. A state of mind/where the heart is/pick another cliche and you've got it.

I spent this past weekend at home, enjoying my family, my pets, being in my familiar space. As always, I had just unpacked when it was time to re-load the car and head back through Canada and on to my apartment here in upstate NY. Canada is always a drudge drive. Farm country is farm country no matter what country you're in.

The Rainbow Bridge at Niagra Falls was clear, which makes the driving easier--when the border waits are long, I lose patience pretty quickly. I've been through enough by now that they scan my passport, ask a quick random question and send me on my way. It's waiting to get to the booth that takes so long.

So I crossed into New York, headed toward Buffalo, and mentally prepared myself for the two hour drive to my apartment. I zipped through the EZ-Pass line onto the Grand Island bridge and then I felt it. A little...ping. A little ping followed by a warm, unexpected sense of "yeah. I'm home."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Finger Lakes Heating

I have an apartment in an old house. The place was built sometime around the turn of the 19th century and has since (likely within more recent years) been converted into a large apartment for the owners and three smaller ones for people like me. It has great charm: bricked-in fireplace, cracks in the walls and soup-bowl floors. I love it.

I'm the youngest person in the building, which says a lot given that I'm in my early 40's. It means that I'm the one they call when the door sticks or there's a problem carrying something up the spiral stairs in the back. There are perks, too--my landlord gives me all of the home-grown tomatoes I can eat and I never have to worry that wild orgies will keep me up late. They know that I work "up at the college" and like to ask about how it's going, hear that I'm starting to settle in. What they don't know is that I might freeze to death come winter.

The house has radiators.

Not baseboard heat, but honest-to-god water-fed radiators. I've never had radiant heat in my life. I grew up in Texas in the late 60's/early 70's. We had first-generation forced-air heat and were by golly proud of it.

I have radiators and they scare the hell out of me. Do I add water, can I put plants on the decorative covers, what if they spring a leak, will the thermostat on the wall really control the heat or is it just for giggles?

I woke up to a 58-degree apartment, and know that layering won't be enough for much longer. Nights here in the Finger Lakes are getting chilly, and mornings are tough because I don't want to drag myself out from under the warmth of my 3-quilt bed, I'm going to have to tackle this demon. And soon.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Sometimes, I feel like I've forgotten the potato salad.

I had a meeting of chairs and directors today. A two-hour meeting to be exact, and as I sat in the room listening to these talented, mostly articulate people I couldn't help but wonder what it is I'm supposed to be bringing to the party.

And of course, in every room of talented, articulate people there's always one who is so linear and literal that anything outside his or her immediate line of understanding is subject to inspection. This is not unlike Bill Clinton and the question of "is" except that these people really mean it.

I hope I don't grow up to be one of them.

But I digress. In hiring me, my institution has taken on its first-ever compositionist, so I have ideas. Lots of them, some of them even pretty damn good but the challenge of being the new kid on the block is that I have to keep a lot of them to myself for now. Instead, I sniff the air, lick a finger and see which way the wind is blowing. My reluctance to go storming in means that I spend a lot of time just listening. And wondering if I should've added more mayonnaise.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Moving Sideways

I'm married, and I have a 7-year-old. Like too many parents in contemporary America, I work in a different state, an 8-hour drive away from home. Unlike most of those parents, I'm a mom.

My husband and son live in Michigan, a state recently celebrated for having the highest unemployment rate in the nation. I, on the other hand, live in Upstate New York. It's beautiful here, especially as fall begins to creep in.

Michigan is also lovely this time of year, the crispness in the air made even crisper by the simple pleasure of walking to the bus stop, waving goodbye to the boy as he heads off for school. It would be very easy to become maudlin, overly emotional and, well, a complete wreck.

That, however, would be counterproductive. My husband is self-employed, which means that I have moved here not only for money, but also for health and dental care, a TIAA-CREF retirement package and numerous other lovely benefits. We do what we must, and for me this means moving forward rather than wallowing in what I'm currently missing.

You might ask "if your husband is self-employed, why didn't he move the business with you?" And the answers are: we own a house in Michigan, and this job may not be a perfect match. The first is the one we can't control: we own a house in Michigan where, if we are lucky, we would be able to sell it for half of what we owe. The second, well. I have every reason to believe that we'll like each other just fine. But until we're sure of this new relationship, it seems prudent not to take the large loss on the house and uproot the child only to be stuck in a place with no family, no resources.

And so here we are: 8 hours apart.