Fast Food for Slowing Down


Things have been a little nutty around here lately. The recycling bin is overflowing, our kitchen/dining room/desk table is a hodgepodge of to-do lists, exam reading and bills to pay. To make matters worse, sweet Pico impaled his mouth on a stick last night in the park, and has been down for the count ever since. With a move on the horizon, new projects ramping up, exams to study for and wedding to prepare for, crazy has become the new normal. Chris and I have barely had time to fit in the repeat runs to Home Depot and the plumbing store, so you can imagine what’s happened to our rhythm of cooking and eating together at home.

In two days, we leave for a week of vacation on North Carolina’s Outer Banks with Chris’s family (my soon to be niece and parents-, sister- and brother-in law ), where I imagine we’ll be spending quite a lot of time cooking big, if simple meals for us all to share. But until then, it’s leftovers and trail mix from the glovebox as we run around checking things off the to-do list.

But even when things are chaotic for us, one ritual remains. Breakfast. I’ve been a devoted breakfast eater for years now (I’m proud to say I come from breakfast and ice cream for dessert-eating stock). Breakfast has been habit for me for as long as I can remember, but as I’ve gotten older and life feels less and less structured and dependable, I find I rely on the ritual of sitting down in the morning to keep me feeling sane. It’s a way to snatch a little peace and quiet before the day runs away.

Pico sleeping off the pain, utterly unconcerned with the chaos.

For Chris, things have looked quite different until recently. When he lived alone, the first thing he did in the morning was walk Pico the two blocks through Gowanus past the Italian bakers waking up and the auto mechanics chatting outside their shop, to the neighborhood coffee shop where he’d order a cortado and a pastry (usually a bran muffin, at least the man had some health sense about things). He  quaffed the coffee on the short stroll home, and picked at the muffin before and after his shower, and then again on his way to work.

This was one of those things I just had to put my foot down about. Given our sometimes misaligned work schedules, we usually only sit down for dinner at home a couple of nights a week. But I felt strongly that we needed something to anchor us to the table, to home, to one another every day. (More to the point, I feel a little nervous about leaving the house before I’ve had my coffee; it’s really not a good idea for me or anyone I might encounter.)

And so, each weekday  since we’ve moved in together, Chris and I sit down at the table over coffee and a light meal. NPR’s Morning Edition patters away comfortingly in the background. Chris grinds the coffee (yup, he actually grinds it with a hand grinder) and I get breakfast going. Then we slurp the strong, black stuff we brew from our respective mugs and eat in silence, each of us reading, taking our time chasing sleep from our systems.

Sometimes breakfast is oatmeal, especially in cooler weather, sometimes Swiss mueslix, sometimes even a green smoothie (especially if we’ve had a particularly indulgent evening the night before). But more often than not, it’s a handful of granola, some plain whole milk yogurt, and a bit of whatever fresh fruit we happen to have in the house. I try to have granola on hand all the time (I’m a bit of a compulsive larder re-filler, running out of my staples feels as unnerving as surprise service changes on the Subway). It takes just moments to fix a bowl, and the comforting constance of the meal gives me a sense of heading off into the potentially haywire day with a solid, grounded start.

I found a few free minutes between tasks today, so I tossed a batch together to take on vacation. This granola is leaps and bounds better than any boxed cereal you can buy (except for the sweet stuff I love to put on ice cream. We weren’t allowed sugar cereal growing up, so I went hog wild when I spotted the cereal bins in my college dining hall. I’ve been in an only mildly successful recovery program from Cap’n Crunch, Golden Grahams and Cracklin’ Oat Bran…atop ice cream or, in moments of supposed virtue, frozen yogurt… since I graduated.)

It takes less than five minutes to put my granola together, especially if you keep the ingredients in stock in your pantry  (it helps that all of these foods have long shelf lives, all which can be extended by storing them in the fridge). And as long as you set yourself a timer reminding you to check on the trays and rotate them every twenty minutes or so, you can get on with anything else you might need to tackle while the good stuff bakes.

It’s this kind of homemade fast food– simple, reassuring, even predictable– that I rely on for everyday nourishment and to slow down the crazy, too.

I base my recipe loosely on Molly Wizenberg’s Fifth. I sub a cup each of raw pumpkin and sunflower seeds for two of her recommended four cups of nuts, mostly for economy’s sake and also because I tend to keep a lot of seeds around to toast and throw into salads. As for the nuts themselves, I particularly like pecans or cashews in this recipe. I also like to  add lots of unsweetened dried cherries (add after baking) and a few more big pinches of salt (Start with her recommended 2 tsp. and taste again after baking. If you prefer a saltier crunch, add while the granola is still warm and somewhat sticky). Play around with this recipe and see what kind of crazy quilt morning meal you can come up with for yourself.





Taking Stock

Wow. It’s, uh, been a while since I was last here. And I was a little nervous to come back again. But after a few false starts this warm May morning, I decided to peek in and have a look around.  I’ve been pretty worked up these past few months, and now that I’ve found  a moment to breathe, It’s time to take stock.

I was pretty sure I was going to let this whole blog thing die. There are some old ghosts lurking here and, frankly, it feels like this writing belongs to another life. A lot’s happened since I last posted (yup, that’s October 2012 you see there on that last post, Hurricane Sandy-weirder-than-sci-fi-apocalypto-week). After so long,  why bother returning? Why not just start over, clean slate?

Here’s the thing. I miss writing. I haven’t been doing much of it lately. Not this kind at least.  I’ve been doing a hell of a lot of the kind of writing that makes me procrastinate with Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge and other people’s Instagram and checking my email (again) and finally sitting down to write a few tortured paragraphs toward completing my dissertation proposal. Which is all well and good in that, hopefully, eventually, it’ll be born into something fruitful, something I can be proud of. But it doesn’t give much back to me in the way of satisfaction.

What’s more, when I do that kind of writing, I don’t seem to want to do any other kind of writing. Or reading. When the academic brain is on, my creativity goes into hiding. Sure, balance and all that, but that’s never been a forté of mine. This is the only way I seem to be able to do it; a thirteen week sprint where I read and write only dense theory-laden, argumentative (and kind of obnoxious) stuff.

This is not good. Exhibit A: One day a few weeks ago Chris innocently asked if I’d read something in The New Yorker, and I snapped back, “Why do you ask? You know I don’t have time!” Turns out he was asking about an article I had, in fact, managed to read on a commute in to school. Not only had I read it, I had marked it up with stars and notes, finding it relevant to my dissertation research. That, apparently, is exactly why Chris was going to recommend it to me.  “I just thought it might be useful,” he said, rightfully irritated.

I’m always sure, when I’m in the thick of the semester, that I’ll feel that awful low-level anxiety FOREVER, that the “you’re-never-really-done-I-could-read-one-more-chapter-and-actually-have-a-day-off-this-week-but-am-too-glassy-eyed-to-read-anymore-but-are-you-sure-you-really-have-time-to-watch-Parenthood?” feeling will persist in perpetuity and I’ll end up an old, cranky, laptop key-handed monster. The thing is, of course,  just as fast the chaos escalates those early days of the term, it ends.

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Yesterday was the end. Finally. Sure, I have a few meetings to go to, and a final to grade, but my own work is done for the year. Spellchecked, double spaced, turned in. In fact, my doctoral coursework is over altogether. I went to my last classes this past week, and sent in my last written assignment yesterday. In retrospect, those two years went by in a flash. But they sure felt like a slog when I was in them.

It’s hard to wrap my head around the past two years (okay, four semesters, I’m counting in academic units here). An awful lot has happened.  Despite all my misgivings– which very nearly convinced me to cut and run– I’ve stayed in grad school. There’s been quite a bit of travel, with London and Ireland last summer and frequent visits to the Barbecue belt on the highlight list. And there’s been more personal excitement than I can possibly squeeze into a readable post. I finally caught the attention of a man I’d had my eye on (rather shamelessly) for years. Turns out he’s leaps and bounds better than I imagined he would be (and trust me, I’d set the bar high in my mind’s eye). His deep dimples and sparkly gray-blue eyes still charm me just like they did that muggy April night I first met him. It’s funny to think about that night now. It preceded everything that’s been written here by more than a year. We’ve been attached at the hip now since January of last year, and we’re getting hitched in September. We’re buying an apartment together, too. We’re not going far, just around the corner. We’ll lose the glorious roof here I love so much,  but we’ll gain a bigger kitchen, more room for friends to visit, and, in a major victory for Pico (the man came with a pup), across-the-street-access to the dog park. No farm yet, but I’m not complaining. We’ve got it pretty good.

There’s been so much looking forward and planning and juggling of logistics these past few months that I haven’t been very attendant to what’s happening in the here and now. To real purpose or the small moments of pleasure. I’ve just been trying to stay afloat which, for me, usually takes the form of putting my head down and plowing ahead. Good for productivity, not so great for, well, anything else. I wasn’t the only New Yorker who adopted a gruff Puritan attitude these past few months; during the brutal winter we just finally emerged out of, we were all just trying to make it through without frostbite and hoping that, one day, it’d be spring again. Not that it’s an excuse, but at least there’s a sense of solidarity.

But there’s a sure change in the air. I spent yesterday taking a long walk, playing in the park with the dog, napping, making granola, reading for pleasure. Last night, I slept straight through for the first time in weeks. I woke up rested and actually excited for Saturday. After months of seeing Saturdays as an “opportunity” get work done while Chris was up at the restaurant, I had a day with no to-do list. The weather report said it was due to be 80 by this afternoon, and from the bedroom window I could see that the leaves of the courtyard vines had all burst forth from the week’s rain.

Before Chris headed off to work, we made breakfast, drank coffee, walked the dog. I went to the market, excited to finally pay attention to cooking again but skeptical; there’s been nothing but ratty kale and root crops for months now. I was greeted with a pleasant “so there!” retort to my gloomy expectations. I found ramps and nettles, watercress and asparagus and sorrel. Funny how those first green things can bring such a wave of relief, a promise of hope. We know the deep freeze of winter carries the promise of abundance, but until we see it again, finally taste it, it’s hard to believe.

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The other sure sign that the crazy has finally wound down? I come back to my own writing. Every term, like clockwork, and especially when the years is over in full.

This morning, I got the old itch to put some words down just because. I thought about starting over, I really did. I could come up with a new title for a site, divorce today’s writing from all that came before it. But I realized I didn’t really want to. After years of jumping around in short chunks, huge changes and big grief, it  feels good to have some proof of continuity, of making it through. Of settling in. The old posts here may seem as though they belong to another life, but the fact is they don’t.

The world we live in now makes it so easy to edit and revise the way we’re seen, and the way we think about ourselves. Post, cut, undo, delete, unfriend. But life doesn’t work that way. There are no real take backs. And thank god. We’re given the gift of memory which, if we’re lucky, lends a little to the way we act in the nows, the whens, even the ifs. So even if it hurts a little to peer backwards, I’m taking it all along with me.