Thursday, July 28, 2011

In a funk

For once, I have nothing witty, sarcastic, insightful, or even vaguely amusing to say. Two weeks worth of 7 am shifts, unbearable humidity, and severe stomach cramps have left me not so much hot and bothered (which is actually quite a fun state to be in, no?) so much as sweaty and mal a l'aise. Thank heaven for mid-week days off once in a while (and late afternoon naps).
In an attempt take my mind off the heat, perhaps I should reflect on the coolness of the past two weeks. The last time I started a new job (over four years ago, really?!), I was timid, nervous, and withdrawn. Ah, how times have changed.  Practicing my newfound technique of self-deceit and false confidence, I approached my new position as student lab tech with gusto, smiling and chatting and pretending not to be overwhelmed. I thought working in the lab at the veterinary medical center would be dry and cold, as opposed to working in the front of the hospital where you get slobbery, hairy, and hot (and love every minute of it). I thought I would hate it. Thank God I thought wrong (it does happen, on rare occasion). Though one or two of my coworkers may be a little chilly (maybe it's just the air conditioning), everyone's personalities are starting to reveal themselves the longer I'm there. It's quite a cast of characters - I may or may not have cast a sitcom in my mind. Repetitive to no end, the work follows a regular routine of preparing and running samples over and over again. As a creature of habit, happy to wallow in monotony like a beetle in a dung heap, I find myself quite content and suited to lab work. In two weeks, I've learned more about blood than I did that time I watched the Miracle of Life video at the Museum of Science (the horror. THE HORROR). Sometimes they even let me play with cerebrospinal fluid! You know you've chosen the right area of study (a little late to be unsure of wanting to be a vet now, though, isn't it?) when, after sitting through over three hours of online lectures about red blood cell anomalies, find yourself wanting to get some popcorn and settle in for the next episode. So I started the summer in the familiar milieu of the front of the house, so to speak, the business end of an animal hospital - messy, hectic, full of new people, pets, and peril (I'm looking at you, cats who need to be handled with hawk gloves) - and am finishing it behind the scenes - cool, ordered, sterile (until someone splatters the vial of monkey urine and we have to summon the hazmat team), and routine. To my pleasant surprise, I still feel right at home. Maybe I am cut out to be a doctor after all (did I mention my stethoscope came in the mail yesterday?) ...

What kind of ass leads with "I have nothing to say" then proceeds to run their mouth (or keyboard, as it may be) for that long? About a subject no one but their mom and aunts (yes, I see you all out there) care about? As an apology, let me leave you with some pictures from the past few days - my adventures in St. Paul.
Some ugly food (I could blame it on the terrible lighting in the kitchen, but this one was truly hideous - quinoa quiche with summer squash crust - sounds much more appealing than it appears)
Scenes from the St. Paul farmer's market - huge and completely local

$7.75 buys two heads of lettuce, cauliflower, a gigantic bunch of basil, two bunches of beets (red and golden), a honey-stick, and a yellow zucchini bigger than a body-builder's forearm (the picture really doesn't do it justice)

My ferocious guard dog - striking fear into the heart of no one

... except a pair of my shoes ("Who, me?")

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Proper motivation

For someone who knows exactly where she's going in life, I have absolutely no sense of direction in any literal sense. With GPS navigation stuck on the windshield, an entire book of maps on the seat next to me, and absolutely not a clue in my frazzled brain, I spent much of the past week traversing the inconveniently-named and utterly baffling streets of St. Paul. I have covered every inch of the city, even though I've only intended to go to a select few destinations. Even walking, with every intersection, I find myself doubting, questioning, turning round and round to see if something, anything looks familiar. The walk from the free parking to the building on the U of M campus where I work is about 3/4 mile through a brick and mortar jungle of buildings indistinguishable from one another and streets that twist and turn like an excited toddler dancing to the Wiggles. Needless to say, I leave plenty of time in my morning commute for finding my way to work. However, I may have bought myself a few more winks of sleep in the morning by discovering a remedy to my navigational woes: proper motivation and false confidence. Yesterday, I was determined to get back to my car (no longer a cave, by the way), as quickly as possible, without a single wrong turn. Knowing this was about as likely a scenario as me not polishing off the last cookie sitting in the break room (it was taunting me!), I puffed out my chest, held my head high, and lied to myself. "You can do it!" Most of the time, this fails as miserably as one would expect, but this day was different. There was purpose in my steps, proper motivation: ice cream. The rapidly melting pint in my bag, quickly liquidizing in the 103 degree Minnesota heat (an unlikely phrase, no?) propelled me onward to my destination with determination. At every intersection, an almost supernatural force guided my steering wheel in the direction of home and a safe haven in the freezer, quashing the panicky "which-way-do-I-go-oh-no-I'm-going-the-wrong-direction-have-I-seen-this-house-before-I-don't-think-so-but-maybe-I-have-crap!-stop-sign" that threatened to spring from my heat-scrambled brain (sizzling in my skull like eggs in a skillet).
Today, I accomplished this feat without the aid of any sweet dairy requiring rescue. My GPS remained in the off position the entire time, yet my brain stayed on and got me to and from work without so much as a second-guess at the oddly laid out intersection with the wooden bear lawn ornament on the corner (he waves at me every morning). Lo and behold, my false confidence had taken hold and become real.
Lest this story become too inspirational and uplifting, let me conclude with two thoughts. The moral of the story is not to believe in oneself, but to lie to oneself and always have a bribe (preferably food) ready when proper motivation is needed. Secondly, the ice cream sucked. There, no one will leave here feeling warm and fuzzy like last time. My work here is done.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Traditiooooooon! (please tell me you've seen Fiddler on the Roof)

When you move out from under your parents' roof, you have to get your own stuff, and there's a lot of it. When you start stocking your home and life from scratch, you realize just how much crap you use over the course of a day, a week, a month: toilet paper, bed linens, furniture, USB cables, salt and pepper shakers, plastic straws, batteries, a screwdriver (which can incidentally be used to jab into your eye when you realize how fast the total bill is piling up). Every time you go to do something routine, you realize you need another odd and/or end for the task that you took for granted before. Want to clip that horrible hangnail on your big toe? Sorry, no toenail clippers; you'll just have to suffer every time you move your foot and your sock catches on that damned little sliver and threatens to rip out the rest of the nail.

Not only am I discovering how to stock my home by getting my own stuff, I am realizing the necessity of getting my own identity. Before, I was an Independent because Mom and Dad were Independents. I bought Angel Soft toilet paper because they always had. I never questioned washing dishes with a cloth instead of a sponge because that's just the way it's always been done. Now I'm free to choose how I want to do things, even as mundane as folding towels in thirds instead of half, what I value, and what I want to be. Or am I?

Even though I am under no obligation to do anything like my parents or continue in their time-honored traditions in even trivial daily tasks, I find myself unnaturally attached to all the little quirks of my family. Now, every time I do something that I now realize (courtesy of my roommate) that not everyone in the world does (only my family, surprise surprise), I feel connected to them, even from 1500 miles away.

Traditions, whether major or trivial, significant or quotidian, link all humans, bridging vast distances in time and space to hold us together on a scale as grand as a species and as intimate as a family. Today I discovered the importance of tradition in not only connecting people but in defining an individual. After not having attended Mass regularly in four years, I had the undeniable urge, an irresistible tugging on the strings of my heart, to go to Church. For the first half of Mass, I thought it was only a desire to deepen my relationship with God, now that He is really the only friend I have available to me in any proximity. However, as I recited the Our Father, my mind's eye saw Mom and Dad in a pew halfway across the country doing the exact same thing, as well as Memere and Pepere, my aunts and uncles, and so many others I care about. My religious identity is no longer just about God, but about my family and our identity, our traditions. My heart steered me towards the nearest church on my very first Sunday alone not just because of religious desire, but also because I knew Mom would be proud, because it's what I was brought up to do, because it's what Thibodeaus have been doing for centuries, and because I honestly want it to be part of who I am. I can't let my parents' actions and preferences define me anymore, but more and more that seems to mean freely choosing them for myself. I am no longer Catholic because my parents are, but because I am, by my own volition.

In one hour on a Sunday morning, I learned things about myself that I had not been able to pin down in almost twenty-two years; this morning, I began in earnest to define my identity as an independent individual, which, ironically, is inexorably tied up in and depends upon the traditions and values instilled in her by others. I can only hope to make my family proud by continuing on in the traditions of love, faith, and our unique brand of insanity that define who we are and the person I am (all too suddenly) becoming.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Ugly food (or: My racist dinner)

As an avid food blog enthusiast, I always took for granted the gorgeous pictures and food styling. Not until I tried to photograph my own eats did I realize the skill and finesse required to make food look attractive. Or it could be that my food resembles, to borrow a phrase from my former piano teacher, a dog's breakfast. I never really paid attention to the aesthetics of my meals before starting this blog, but tonight as I looked down at my bowl, deciding how best to capture the essence of my dinner on film, it struck me just how ugly it was. U G L Y, it ain't got no alibi, it's ugly.

This line of thinking begs the question: in the world of home cooking, do looks really matter (the reading voice in my head suddenly morphed into Sarah Jessica Parker. That last sentence sounds like a voiceover of the culinary equivalent of Sex and the City)? Personally, if I've made something for myself, I know exactly what's in it, so my expectations of taste have nothing to do with what I see on the plate. However, if someone else serves me a dish, the only clues to its quality other than aroma are visual, making presentation much more important to the enjoyment of the meal. Add this to the list of reasons I love cooking for one (I do indeed have an ever-growing list because that way I can convince myself it's fun rather than a sad state of affairs that will likely mark the rest of my life as a spinster in a house full of hamsters): if no one else has to eat it, I don't have to make it pretty. This still doesn't displace the current #1: you get to lick the spoon.
I did take pictures of my dinner, but for the sake of my ego and to give this recipe full credit (its looks and my dismal photography skills truly don't do justice to it), I will keep them in my little vault of shame (if I can find any spare room. Perhaps they can squeeze between a second-grade encounter with a draconian lunch lady and my lust for Kiefer Sutherland).

Saint Paul was a sauna today; the air felt as wet as the flash-flooded streets from last night's storm. When I got home from a shopping expedition that took far longer than expected due to a non-functional GPS and lack of any sense of direction on my part, my hot and frustrated self did not feel like cooking anything for dinner at 8:15 at night. Since I'm too cheap to buy anything other than vegetables and basic foodstuffs now that I have to foot my own grocery bill (it's been veggiemess for lunch and dinner every night so far), I had to improvise. I had fresh corn and a can of black beans on hand, as well as a lime (which I bought for $.40 instead of a $.79 lemon). I decided to put on a sombrero and go to Mexico. Problem was that corn and beans do not a meal make, so I pulled out my oldest trick: adding a can of tuna. Voila, Fiesta Tuna. It may be slightly racist, but in my opinion, you can make any meal with vaguely Latino ingredients more exciting and appealing by putting Fiesta in front of it; it makes it sound like the newest special at Applebees (or the Taco Bell value menu if it turns out poorly).

Whenever I try in earnest to measure what I put in anything, the outcome is bleaker than my dating life. However, when I just chuck stuff in a bowl and run with it, I've found that the gastronomical stars will occasionally align. So, without further ado, the "recipe" for tonight's politically incorrect dinner.

Fiesta Tuna (possibly the most hilarious and preposterous sounding thing I've ever made):
1 can tuna
1 plop plain yogurt
Sprinkle of desired Mexican-ish seasonings, salt, and pepper
Goodly squeeze of lime juice (or splort if you're like me and get a squishy lime)
Heavy sprinkling of nutritional yeast (or shredded cheese, but I was too cheap to spring for it at the store)
1 ear corn, cut off cob (or frozen)
1/3 - 1/2 cup black beans
avocado - if you have any on hand, it would probably be delicious
Combine all ingredients, stir, shield your bowl in shame from your roommate's view (she'll never believe something that looks like that could actually be edible), put on some mariachi music for full effect, and enjoy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Jesus loves me (more than you)

I am officially an adult now, living on my own. Assuming it would be like every birthday since age twelve, the instant significance of the moment struck me acutely when I watched my parents walk through the automatic glass doors of the airport terminal: I am alone. I am free. I am responsible for so much. I am independent. I am unsure what comes next. I am unattached. I am unprepared. I am excited. I am going to get a ticket if I don't pull out from in front of the doors soon. All these I am's at once, but the most surprising: I am okay.
Okay because, as was the answer (marked correct and given credit about 80% of the time) to all the high school religion course exam questions that escaped my mind: Jesus loves me. He must, because my new life has some pretty cool shit in it, to put it bluntly. Because I have yet to start aching for my (old? former? no longer? still?) home, the wise thing to do is to list why my new home and life is cooler than a Minnesota February. When the homesickness hits (and it will, like a giant cartoon anvil falling from the sky on Wile Coyote's unsuspecting head), I will remind myself of everything that makes me want to be here and nowhere else.
My gas stove - one of my criteria when I chose my housing (priorities, right?)
My own bathroom - the shower stall may be smaller than the cardboard moving cave I had in my car, but it's mine
My (roommate's) dog, Rory - who doesn't love a big mushy Rottweiler sweetiepants? Especially when you're a twenty-something single woman living in a big city
My new mattress - I may not get to spend as many hours in it as I would like in the coming months, but it's still awesome
My roommate - she loves Brussels sprouts. Enough said.
My job - I have one, which is more than a lot of people can say
My future - I'm going to be a doctor. For real.

Chopped in the first round

On my last night at home, I was alone. I was glad to be alone, not because I wanted to cry in private or watch dirty movies or even strip down to a white dress shirt and undies and reenact Risky Business. Nope, a night alone and a fridge and pantry full of food that needs to be used means one thing to me: Chopped night (cue the “aawww yeaaah” sound effect). Doing my finest Ted Allen impression, I open the fridge doors (after a pause to heighten the dramatic tension) and announce the basket ingredients for the appetizer round: cauliflower, cremini mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, and a half-eaten summer squash. You have twenty minutes before Mom gets home and complains about the smell of vegetables cooking: your time starts … now!
After the twenty minutes had passed, I looked down at my plate in horror; none of the ingredients had made it to the plate! In fact, nothing at all had made it on the plate. With every plan I formulated, as I went to retrieve the requisite ingredients, everything I needed was packed away in boxes, irretrievable under fifty pounds of winter sweaters (yes, I need that many; Minnesota is cold, baby!). My first-choice treatment of cauliflower is to coat it with olive oil, toss it with salt, pepper, turmeric, and nutritional yeast, and roast it. Mushrooms I saut̩ in my designated mushroom pan (the best gift my Memere ever gave me!), a large stainless steel calphalon skillet. I toss in chopped garlic, deglaze with white wine vinegar, and try (usually without success) not to eat them all before they arrive at their final destination, be it pizza topping or whatnot. Brussels sprouts go raw into salad or are thrown in the pan with whatever else is cooking to get nice and caramelized and crunchy. But when no one else is home to complain about the smell, I have one of my favorite treats: roasted shredded Brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar and toasted almonds, inspired by Kalyn. Pure vegetable bliss. Summer squash either gets shredded on the mandolin into faux-noodles and serves as the base for what I like to call veggiemess (my go-to meal most nights, consisting of whatever cooks fast and is about to go bad thrown in my enormous saut̩ pan (five quarts! Oh dear, my parentheses addiction is getting out of hand. A parenthetical insertion within a parenthetical insertion Рgrammar Inception!) with half a head of garlic and smoked paprika) or gets the simple, yet most delicious, treatment of slicing and browning in olive oil and topping with sea salt.
That sums up my basic cooking style the past year. Too busy to have time to make recipes most times and too tired to care to follow them the rest of the time, I fell into the habit of just taking literally whatever vegetables I pleased out of the pantry, slicing and dicing, and chucking in whatever seasoning tickled my lazy little fancy that night. Truth be told, I could eat this way for the rest of my life; it’s cheap, easy, completely customizable, and foolproof. You literally cannot mess up veggiemess because the whole point is to end up with a hulking bowl of plant matter that looks utterly unappetizing yet tastes like exactly what you’ve been craving all day. As a bonus, you can eat half a pound of squash, an entire container of mushrooms, half a bag of greens, and most of a head of garlic for usually under 300 calories. That way, if your stomach isn’t about to burst like a big fleshy grape being squeezed, you can have more dessert!
Anyway, after being chopped in the first round for my miserable performance (even when I did manage to produce something, the cauliflower was mushy and tasteless), I decided just to eat the dregs of the quart of Fage 2% that was meant to be a basket ingredient for the dessert course straight out of the carton to dull the sting of failure. If you need a reminder of how I feel about Fage 2%, just look back a few posts. I’ll spare you my poetic tributes and insipid metaphors about dairy clouds this time. As I was shoveling yogurt into my face with abandon and not feeling the least bit as embarrassed as I should have about it, I realized that I had stumbled upon a potential money-making idea. I should pitch to the producers of Chopped a new concept. As I discovered that night, it is far more difficult to cook without the ingredients to which one is accustomed than to cook with new ones. They should take certain staples out of the pantry instead of giving the chefs obscure ingredients, then tell them to make classic dishes that require said elements. I’m going to be rich, I tell you! Unless one of you dirty little sneaks writes to Ted Allen first, that is.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

On the road

George Carlin once said that home is where you keep your stuff. If that’s true, I live in an embarrassingly powder blue Toyota matrix, packed comically full from floormats to ceiling. My father, the designated organizer/packer/putter-of-things-in-boxes-and-overly-full-refrigerators, has strategically stacked cardboard boxes all around so as to confine me to a little corrugated cave in the back seat. In filling these boxes, I realized just how much stuff I had: errata for which I have no use, need, or even particular desire, yet have kept for years in some cases. Initially, I thought the size of my car would limit the amount that I could bring with me, that I would be leaving behind personal treasures and much-needed supplies. As the boxes filled up, I carefully considered each of my possessions, and my desire to be enclosed in a cave for two days instead of an iron maiden with collectibles and keepsakes for spikes outweighed my attachment to it. My mother, upon hearing my announcement that I had finishes packing, was appalled by what I was leaving behind. “You’re not bringing THIS?!” she would ask incredulously, holding up something-or-other. “Noooo,” I would reply, dragging out the word and emphasis a little more each time. “But someone GAVE this to you!” Here is where I had to resist the urge to face-palm and go Niecy Nash on her ass. People give you things all the time, sometimes useful, more often not. You are under no obligation to keep them just for the sake of having that object around. To me, the sentiment attached to them is a lot more meaningful (and doesn’t jab you in the spleen every time Dad takes a sharp right turn).
This move presents a singular and quite valuable opportunity: to start completely new and unencumbered by years of accumulated stuff. I get to choose every single thing that will be in my new life now, a freedom that is exhilarating and makes me keep breaking out in smiles at odd moments (not that my family isn’t used to that; I have far too many inside jokes with myself).
A welcome change from the past few days, these smirks have replaced a furrowed brow and clenched jaw holding back tears. The reality and finality of an empty bedroom and a full car hit me. However, parting with my house and my stuff did not truly constitute parting with my home; here George Carlin was wrong. I may be passing through Ohio, but with my parents in the front seat, I have yet to fully leave home. Part of home did stay back in New Hampshire, though, and it nearly killed me. For days leading up to yesterday, I was dreading the inevitable goodbye to my dogs. Even though I’ll see them in about six months when I return for Christmas, that brings me no comfort because I know they won’t be my dogs anymore. It won’t be my home; I’ll just be a visitor. I won’t try to describe the sentiment because any pet owner either has experienced or can easily imagine why I find my face mysteriously wet whenever Hannah and Jason come to mind. I try not to think that for the foreseeable future I will be dogless, that the moisture on my face will be from tears instead of puppy kisses.
What does dry my tears is knowing that I’m headed (at twenty miles an hour over the speed limit, ahem) towards a place that already feels like home. I don’t feel lost or floating, or even in transition. In two days’ time, I will be living in a house I’ve never laid eyes on, sharing space with a person I’ve never met and to whom I’ve spoken only once, bringing with me nothing but my clothes, a Swarovsky crystal squirrel, and my laptop (okay, so I snuck in all my cooking supplies; they seemed way more vital to my happiness than anything else). Yet somehow, that doesn’t scare me. Me, with all my neuroses and anxiety and need of familiarity! It excites me. Just as I am free to choose my stuff, I am free to make a new home for myself (and I will try to make sure the stuff I fill it with isn’t junk!).

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Lazy Tuesday breakfast ... on Saturday

Well, the English department at Bishop Guertin should be proud; post number three and already I have stayed true to one of my underlying motifs: neglecting my duties. I took great amusement in making and photographing a creative breakfast (just like the real food bloggers, mommy!) on my late-to-rise morning off work Tuesday. With ever bite, I imagined witty commentary on my creation and the scores of comments full of accolades for my culinary genius. When it came time to compose this gastronomic ode, it also came time to go to work, and it feels like I've been there ever since (more on that later - I've neglected this particular duty so long I can smell the fruit pixels going bad in the digital pictures).

With all the buildup, this little bowl seems a bit humble and plain now, but it was so satisfying and delicious a melange of simple and fresh that I am compelled to share it. The bottom layer, the foundation, if you will, was a generous glob of Fage 2% (an aside: in the battle of Greek yogurt, Fage takes the day in the 2% category, but Chobani has surpassed the rest in 0%). To me, a bowl of Fage is like a ready-to-burst cloud (if rain came from cows): soft and thick, smooth and dense, heavy, yet at the same time light enough to float in the air. Resting on this dairy nimbus was a chopped peach, rescued from an imminent trip to the garbage (call me frugal, even cheap, or just downright gross, but I will eat around moldy patches on fruit if I deem it still "good"). Call it God, intelligent design, or nothing but a one in Avogadro's number chance, but the full force of nature went into making certain fruits delicious. I don't care how many years of training a chef has or how many hours or how much thought and technique go into preparing a dish, nothing ever tastes as good as some of the things that just grow on trees or sit in the dirt. Knowing strawberries were in my future, I decided I wanted a little texture and crunch before they came on the scene. I sprinkled on some homemade muesli  (really just a term to make throwing all the oat, nut, grain, and dried fruit leftovers in the cabinet sound impressive) inspired by Alayna's. Briefly, I contemplated layering on some banana soft serve, then my gaze fell upon the already hulking pile of dirty dishes; I decided to spare myself the task of washing the food processor as well. Instead, I dusted the peaches with cinnamon and drizzled on some maple syrup for sweetness. Chopped fresh strawberries ($3.26 a pound organic at Trader Joe's - makes them taste even sweeter!) topped the concoction, followed by another smattering of muesli.

Yes, Virginia, people really do put pictures of their food on the internet for public consumption (at first the pun was unintentional, then I decided to roll with it). I claim no skill whatsoever in composition, lighting, or food design, so feel free to fill your belly with laughter at these photos (ok, ok, I'll stop with the lame figurative language now; even I'm cringing).

My last day ever (?) at work is in three days. The question mark is superfluous; my time at Daniel Webster Animal Hospital really is over, but I can keep from crying by putting it there. To be short (since I was so long-winded about so petty as matter as breakfast, why not be short about a four-year experience that has shaped who I am at my core and changed the course of my life?), it's been a source of challenge, learning, discovery (mostly about myself), frustration, intense sadness, pride, and a quiet and bone-deep sense of happiness like nothing I'd felt previously. When doubts about moving and the endeavor of vet school creep in, I remind myself of this sensation and what it means - this is what you want to do, what you are at your deepest core prepared and designed to do, Megan. When nothing about my impending (6 days from now) future is certain and it all seems overwhelming, these Hallmark card sentiments have kept me calm, sane, and committed . (Look, Mrs, Thistle, I'm weaving in another theme!) As with my shoes, I hate to leave this place behind, but I anticipate more challenges, disappointments, heartbreak, and true joy in a new hospital, in what seems like a whole new life.