Thursday, March 29, 2012

Graduate School, the Countdown

The last 6ish months have been centered around the one, final requirement for this MSEE I'll (hopefully!) be getting in May. All the previous stuff - coursework, homework, tests - those were just hoops to jump through. Minor irritations on the road to getting this graduate degree that I'm not sure I even want anymore. No, it's the thesis that matters. The thesis tells you, your adviser, your department, that you actually did something during the past twenty four months.

So you struggle. You beat your head against a wall, because if you're like me, you never had to write something this broad or deep using your technical writing voice. During college, we wrote 10-15 page project reports for our unit operations lab, but they didn't need tables of contents, lists of figures and tables, references, and appendices. Although I know a lot about optical particle counters, tray dryers, and water filtration systems. And most of my writing since college has been short bursts - emails, short reports on projects at work, and blogging. None of which are conducive to the sort of writing theses require.

So it wasn't surprising when I came back from our trip to Ireland over Christmas to find that my adviser wanted the entire results and discussion section rewritten, reorganized, rethought. And that was only the tip of the iceberg. Well then. And to do that while interviewing, waiting anxiously for the call, the one with a job offer - well, things were a wee bit stressful for a while there. Every draft since, however, has gotten closer and closer. (Although, of course, I was happy with my thesis a couple rounds of edits before my adviser was. That's what I get for choosing to do my research with a perfectionist!)

Through it all, I've stomped, complained, cursed, and yelled. It's hard to have someone tear apart something that you've put so much effort into. Every incredulous red comment (what were you thinking? why didn't you check this? fix this!) was a stab in the gut, a judgement on my intelligence, my hard work. How do people do it? How do you manage to work through that battle with grace and equanimity? Because I didn't. Oh no. J would very gently remove my laptop from in front of me, telling me that the email, the draft, the questions would still be there in the morning. That I didn't need to deal with it now, and that I needed some time to cool down. Oh, and I needed to remember that my beloved MacBook Pro would not survive a headfirst propulsion into the wall across the room.

But! Vindication! After all those months, I finally received the go-ahead to send my draft to my committee members. I can schedule my defense. Okay, so that's a bit of a letdown - you mean that after all that work, I still have to stand up in front of people and talk about it? Honestly, does anyone even care anymore? But really, I'll take it. After having to give presentations in front of the guys in my old department, the idea that I will be presenting to people who 1) know what I'm talking about, 2) are there of their own volition, and 3) are not looking for a reason to criticize me - what's to worry about?

So mid-April, defense. End of April, submission of my thesis. May, Wisconsin. Let's get this show on the road, shall we?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Simple Mantra

It's not very often that I read a blog post that really makes me step back. One that makes me evaluate what I'm doing, how I approach that particular topic. And thank goodness for kickstarting this here blog back up again, because now I have somewhere to talk about it when it does happen. Blogging is incredibly narcissistic, but few people clearly express that narcissism in a way that still applies to others. Most just give you a window into their life, without any real inclination at the end to apply it to your own. Well, that's my opinion I guess, so feel free to disagree.

But I read just that sort of unique post this morning. It's from a blog that I pulled into my Google Reader because I met another woman who writes a running blog, and because when I clicked over to the site, it made me want to read all of the archives while laughing hysterically. So I did. Angry Runner is a running blog (duh), but it's one that manages to do something I find very difficult. She is sarcastic, puts in way more miles per week than I do (as in 2-3 times as many), does so faster than I do, and still doesn't make me feel guilty about my running. Instead, she makes me feel awesome that I even run at all. Sound hard? Yeah, but she nails it.

So the post that she wrote this morning hit home. Essentially, the take-home is that you either ran today, or you didn't. You can come up with any excuse you want, but if you didn't run, that's that. She used more words, and of course her words are a heck of a lot funnier than mine are, but that's the gist of it. Not only that, no one really cares what you did yesterday, if you ran a lot of mileage last week, or if you're running ridiculously fast when you do run. The only person you answer to at the end of the day is you. That's it. And as long as you can sleep at night on those days you don't run, good for you. But the choice is yours.

As I try to put in more mileage (prepping for this 10 mile race), I realize that this is so incredibly true. Yeah, J might nudge me out the door on days when I don't feel like running, but I could ignore that and just not run. And really, those days that I don't run? Most of the time, I'd be happier if I had. Or even if I had hopped on an elliptical, swam laps, gone for a long walk, or (god help us) ridden an exercise bike for an hour or so. So really, what's holding me back from just running? Hell if I know, but I do know this - the next time I try to come up with excuses for why I didn't run that day, I'm going to think of her post. You either ran today, or you didn't. And nobody cares what your excuse is.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Running


I've been running since I was 7 years old. Competitively. I remember when I told my dad that I wanted to run the Sunburst 5K - he responded with a "well, why don't we try running that distance on the track first, and go from there?" I'm sure he thought that I would get bored by 12 laps on a track, it would make me too tired, or something else would come up that would make me not want to do this. Instead, we got done and I still wanted to run that race. (And for those wondering, it is an incredibly well-run and well-supported race. If you get the chance, run it.)

After that, running was what my dad and I did. We ran the Sunburst every year until I got to high school, did fun runs at the local parks, and he coached my grade school track team. In high school, I picked up cross country and indoor track. Combined with cross conditioning during the summer, I was running year-round. And I loved it. Until I didn't.

It was a no-brainer for me to continue running xc and track when I got to college. It was one of the benefits of going to a D3 school - I wasn't a speed demon by any means, loved the communal aspect of team running, and I could keep enjoying a sport that I'd been involved in for almost a decade already. But college was different. Mileage was upped, and that wasn't a good thing for me. I'm more of a long sprinter (400, 800) than a distance runner, so I was constantly exhausted. Going to meets and invitationals sucked up my weekends while practices sucked up my afternoons. My friends would go to the cafeteria for dinner before me because I would barely make it before it closed. It sucked. So I quit cross country, or at least quit racing. I went to practice when I could, went to meets to cheer, and called it good. And I enjoyed track, so I kept up with that for another year or so. Sprint workouts were much shorter, the sprinters were fun to be around, and meets were fun as well. But in the end, I quit track as well.

As an aside, I learned a lot about how not to coach from how coaches handled me leaving the team. My freshman year coach in college was 100% for me not competing as often, cutting down mileage, etc. The coach who came in the next year said he was for it, but really wasn't. And then when I quit track, he protested volubly. My friend who quit at the same time? She wasn't as fast, so he let her go without a word. I have stories from high school coaches douchery as well, but let's just say that they were pretty damaging to my psyche as well.

Once I quit racing, I basically quit running at all. I didn't enjoy it anymore, there was a whole lot of emotional and mental baggage associated with lacing up running shoes, and I would get incredibly nervous before even a regular old run. It wasn't until a few years later that I could begin to enjoy running again. Except for a couple half-marathon-related incidents, I was back to really enjoying running for running's sake. Because running is fun, it's a great stress reliever, and you make awesome running-related friends. So after a multi-year racing hiatus, I'm running the Tar Heel Ten Miler in April of this year with my mom. In August, I'll be running a 5K with my dad - the first race I will actually run with him in years. Am I nervous about it? Hell yes. But I feel like I'm able to own the sport again. Running is my thing. It has been my thing for a long time. And I'm incredibly excited about that.

(Oh, and the picture at the top? It's the elevation chart for last Saturday's run, the first time I willingly ran up the hill into downtown Chapel Hill. It has basically made my week. I'm pretty sure I irritated friends with my excitement about that run. But damnit, I'm excited.)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Interview Questions

So I did mention that I have a job waiting for me post-grad school. And that's pretty awesome, since I'm not one to enjoy uncertainty. But here's the thing - that set of interviews? Terrifying. There are a few reasons why, but two really stand out. I tend to be (too) honest when answering interview questions, and I really really wanted that job. I liked the job. I respect the company. I want to go back to Wisconsin. J really liked his old job too, and this would make things oh-so-straightforward. So it's safe to say that a lot was riding on that day of interviews.

As a side note, this was also the first on-site interview that I had been involved in where I was one of a very, very small number of people with technical backgrounds. I was interviewing for a position that didn't require an engineering, science, or math background, and it was a completely different experience. I know that there are stereotypes about technically oriented people, but they're... sorta true. These people? These people with sales, marketing, business, psych, whatever degrees? So much more talkative. Much more fluid in social situations, easier to hold a conversation with, and more extroverted. I was in heaven. We actually hung out at the hotel bar for hours after the employees dropped us off post-dinner the night before. Everyone just talked, and not always about the interviews the next day. I found out that one woman rode horses as well (!!!), one guy was super into sports and didn't believe that women's basketball was worth watching (BOO!), and more. Despite my nerves about the interview, getting to hang out with people like that was incredibly enjoyable. And it's a pretty good sign when you get along with basically all of the other interview candidates, right?

So. Interview questions. I (obviously) can't really talk about the more unique ones, but there is one that I had never heard that I did want to talk about. "Tell me five things you are not."

Yeah. I've never gotten that one. On and on with the "tell me about a time when..." questions, but never one like that. I was stumped. I mean, we always talk about what we are, but rarely what we are not. Ask me what I am? Feminist, runner, baker, confident, scientist, motivated, intelligent. The words just spill out. What I'm not? Uuuhhhhh...

So I tried. I'm not... lazy. late. patient. (shit! shouldn't have said that!) detail-oriented. (double shit. not that either!)

I don't even know what my fifth word was. And there were pauses. Big pauses. While I could have rattled off all sorts of things that I am, defining myself through antonyms was so much more difficult.

Why is that? Why would it be so much harder to answer the question, even if it was just asking the flip-side of a question that would be so simple? I wish I knew.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Saying hello

There have been weeks at a time when I don't think about this site, when I forget my promise to at least consider coming back here to write. And then friends will ask what my plan is, if I'm going to start writing again, if I'm still baking. Well, maybe it's time. Maybe there is no right time to start writing again, because I will probably never come up with the post to start. And there I go, rambling again. You guys really don't need to see how messy my brain is right now.

But hey! Here we are, a few months later, and my brain is finally doing shit right for once. So we get to talk about what's on my mind currently.

I'm in the final months of my master's program at UNC. My life revolves around my (rather ugly) thesis, quite a few Igor-related snit fits, and not much else. And I'm glad I did this program. While it felt really weird to tell professors in my department that I was accepting a position at a software company, doing absolutely nothing related to my degree, it's the right thing for me. Those two things may see irreconcilable - my MS in environmental engineering followed by a desk job related to software. But if you look at every decision you make as something that is supposed to improve you, rather than something that is supposed to advance your career, it begins to make sense. Those three years working on flexible packaging taught me a lot. I learned how to be less abrasive, more tactful, and more outgoing with people I didn't know. This master's program has taught me that I love learning for its own sake, not just for the field that the learning is centered on. And that as long as I'm in a position to keep learning, I will be happy. It makes me understand my mom's career path a lot better, and explains why she was the one most okay with me not continuing on for a PhD. My dad and sister are so in love with their respective fields that they would not be happy if their work was not centered on those fields. I don't have that sort of passion - not about plastic, not about environmental engineering - and that's not a bad thing. It makes my career prospects more flexible, more undefined.

I've had to convince J, his family, and my family that this new job I will be starting in June really is the one I want. For all that I believe that, it's occasionally hard to say it in a way that doesn't sound like I'm trying to convince myself. What's actually happening is that it is forcing me to put into words how I feel, and how I have felt since I started struggling with what I want to do with this degree. This past year has been hard. I've rocketed between depression, frustration, and joy; the ups have been just as dizzying as the downs.

So yes, I'm back. In one way or another, I will try to continue writing here. The blog title no longer makes sense, but I have too much of a connection and attachment to it to give it up. And who knows, I might pop in here with baked goods every once in a while. I've still been baking, although not as much as I used to. And that's a post for an entirely different time.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Words

Well then. When I decided one day that I was done, that I was no longer excited to bake for TWD, no longer excited to take pictures, no longer excited to blog, I didn't think it would just end. Kaput, one day full throttle, the next - nothing. That result shouldn't have surprised me. So much has happened in the last year and a half that keeping with this hobby was more than a little unrealistic.

You see, it's not just the things I wrote about - starting graduate school, moving halfway across the country, getting married. Every person is constantly evolving, and my evolution lately has just been a bit more... abrupt than I was expecting. And some of it dealt intimately with blogging, baking, the whole shebang.

For the three years previous to April 2010, I was in a nice little bubble. My life was regimented, and it made certain lifestyle choices easier. For instance, I put in more hours at work than many in my position, because I felt it would help with career advancement. (Obviously, I didn't stay long enough to find out if that was the case.) My free time was spent almost exclusively at the gym. The YMCA that I belonged to was stellar given that it was in a podunk town in the middle of Wisconsin. There were pools always open for lap swimming, treadmills, ellipticals, and fitness classes galore. And unlike the powder puff fitness classes here at UNC, these made you work. Your legs would tremble as you left a 60 minute class. I loved it. I was spending 1-2 hours each day doing intensive cardio, probably another hour of lifting each week, and I barely would take two days off each week. Beyond that, I had a ridiculously regimented eating schedule - measuring out my cereal each morning (1 1/2 cups of Kashi H2H), eating carrots (10, I counted every day), apples, and maybe a granola bar (Clif Kids, because they were only 110 calories) at lunch, and then having a bowl of grain + veg + egg or cheese for dinner every night. It never failed.

Can you imagine then that my body image was more than a little screwed up? I worried constantly about how flat my stomach was, whether my collarbones showed enough, if my inner thighs were getting flabby. It was, in a word, neurotic. I can't count the number of times on any given day that I would pinch my thighs or that I would run my hand over my stomach. If I didn't like what I felt, that just added some mileage onto that week.

You know what that regimented lifestyle can't handle though? The complete freedom that comes with graduate school. The time that needs to be scheduled by me, that isn't eaten up by the standard 8-5 job. And with that came problems. It turns out that by stocking the kitchen with enough for two people, I also had stocked it with binge materials. After three years of not giving myself a choice, the abundance made me go more than a little haywire. That actually took time, but in the year since, a lot has changed. I've stopped beating myself up over the occasional emotional / angry / boredom-induced eating that happens. Well, not stopped exactly, but it doesn't give me the feeling that I should figure out how people with bulimia teach themselves how to purge. I made it through a short bout of minor depression. My diet is more varied. And I've grown out of much of the clothing I had worn before. Having to purchase a new pair of jeans last April was hard. Harder than I ever thought. I was always proud of fitting into the jeans I had worn in high school - being the same size for 8 years is pretty impressive. But they didn't fit. And every time I would wash them and have to wiggle back into them, it became harder to justify.

Who would have thought that purchasing new clothes would be liberating? No longer was putting my jeans on a test of my willpower. It was just, well, putting my jeans on. No big deal. And shirts? Well, I didn't like things touching my stomach (unless it was concave / was a sixpack - yes, that was the case most of the time growing up). (And no, even J can't touch my stomach. I don't let him.) So I stopped buying close-fitting shirts and started wearing ones that were more comfortable, both for my body and my mind. And my weight? Well, it turns out that my body was just reallocating mass. I've gained maybe 3-4 lbs, and haven't budged on the scale in a year. But I'm not going to weigh myself regularly like I used to. Even though I know part of it is conversion of muscle to fat, it's much-needed fat. God, that's a hard thing to say.

I still have my weird quirks. I still feel my collarbone, I look for a hollow on my hands, I pinch my waist, I measure my wrists with my hands. But for the most part, I've become more at peace with how I look.

What's crazy is how this has spilled over into other parts of my life. I feel more attractive on a daily basis. I have more fun when eating out with friends. I don't worry about that second (or third) glass of wine. Actually, before this I probably wouldn't have even had one glass of wine. And it's removing one of my greatest fears about having children. Other than that whole "something that big is coming out of what? Um, NO." I never wanted to subject myself to something that would so completely mess up my body. Scars, stretch marks, and never-going-to-be-tight-again stomachs. Widened hips. Sagging boobs and butt. But now? Well, big deal. If we want children, those side effects will be nothing compared to the end result. And those side effects should never be the deciding factor when considering having kids.

What does this have to do with this blog, other than giving a reason for some of my neglect? Well, I still obsess too much over food. Despite knowing that I could always have that second cookie tomorrow, I must eat it today. You know, in case it wasn't there tomorrow. My brain still needs to rewire itself, become less driven by these sorts of things. So a few months ago, I purged my Google Reader of most of the food blogs I read. Now it's primarily design / wedding / lifestyle material, although I have a handful of food blogs I read for dinner inspiration. Soon after the RSS purge, I decided that I wouldn't bake things I didn't actually want to eat. TWD has been great, but I've made recipes that I know I won't like. No matter what, I will never like flan. Or creme brulee, most ice creams, anything with figs, and most of the intensely sugary recipes in the book. And yes, it breaks my heart that I was so close. After 3.5 years, I had four months left. I would be one of the few who had been there nearly from the start, faithfully baking and making each week's recipe. While that was one reason to stay with the group, it wasn't enough.

So I might blog again. Will it be here? I don't know. It might be baking, or more savory. It might not even be food related. I can't predict what will happen, especially since I've begun writing my master's thesis. I will finish at UNC after next semester, with our plan of going back to Wisconsin once it's all done. Beyond that, my life is pretty loose. I need to be more okay with that, because I truly feel that it will make me a better, more well adjusted person in the end.

I am keeping my Twitter active, and have been, so here it is for those who are interested: TWITTER

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

TWD: Cornmeal and Fruit Loaf


Here we are, over 3 years later, with me getting to pick for Tuesdays with Dorie again. And what do I do? Oh, the ways I screw up - let me count the ways! One, I again pick something cornmeal-based. Two, there's (again!) fruit in it. Three, I don't post until well into Tuesday, with more than a slight chance of not even posting on Tuesday. There are reasons, I promise - the start of classes, the gearing up of my fellowship, the re-invigorated pressure on publishing my research... Oh, and by some freak accident, my internet was out last night. And this morning. The luck, huh? I mean, we didn't lose internet this weekend when Irene skirted by us, but we lost it due to some randomness involving signal towers and messiness. I disapprove.


I don't, however, actually feel bad about the first two of the aforementioned screw-ups. I like cornmeal. Scratch that. I love cornmeal. And cornbread. And fruit in baked goods? I'm there too! Especially with the addition of freshly grated nutmeg and the re-shaping into twee little muffins. Oh, and the use of the fun little muffin liners my mom gave me for my birthday last month. That's a nice touch too. So I guess this was a good choice for me, especially because they were then re-purposed for J's breakfast this week. Given that he never remembers breakfast, that's a very good thing.


Also a good thing? Having multiple things to work on at once. After a summer that was so one-dimensional that I might have thrown a few fits along the way, the addition of coursework and reading and organizing seminars and such makes me happy. I'm even gearing back up to having people over, kicking off (quite spectacularly) with a regional party for the A Practical Wedding-sponsored Yay New York event. Any party revolving around doing good is worth having, and the addition of cake, champagne, amazing people, and lots of laughter? A million times yes. Especially after J decides to make a champagne flute tower, just because.



Cornmeal and Fruit Loaf

1 cup buttermilk
5 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp salt
1 apple or pear, peeled, cored, and cut in small dice
1/2 cup dried apple or pear

Preheat oven to 375F. Butter a 9x5 loaf pan, dust the inside with flour, and tap out the excess. Put the pan on a baking sheet.

Whisk together the buttermilk, melted butter, and eggs.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt, making sure they're evenly combined. Switch to a large rubber spatula and stir in the wet ingredients, stirring just until everything is moistened -- as with muffins, less mixing is better than more. Gently stir in the fresh and dried fruit, and scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for about 1 hour, or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool for 10 minutes before running a knife around the sides of the pan and unmolding. Invert and cool right side up.

Last Week: Golden Brioche Loaves
Next Week: Chocolate Spice Quickies