My Favorite Dinner Date

I drove around the restaurant in my rented red Chevy Sonic, looking for a way to get to the parking lot behind it. The temperature had dropped and I was hoping I could park behind the restaurant instead of a few blocks away. There was some rush hour traffic in downtown Madison, so crossing the intersection of Blair Street and E. Washington was crazy.

After many circles, including going down a residential street dead end in order to do a u-turn, I made it to the back of Sardine. I was excited to have found an excellent parking spot: right in front of the door. I had dressed up just a little bit for the occasion, wearing a new oversized caramel-colored sweater and a long-sleeved gold-striped white sweater underneath.

I walked in and sat at the bar. In the past, when I dined by myself I would request a table for myself so I could read, but my husband talked me out of it. He travels a lot for work, as do I, and refuses to take a whole table for himself. It made sense to me, so now I sit at the bar. It’s nice to be in the company of people at the bar, even if they are strangers.

Drink at the bar at Sardine

Drink at the bar at Sardine

I had been to Sardine a few weeks before, my first trip to Madison, so I was familiar with the menu. I ordered a lavender-infused drink (don’t remember the name, for it was French) and then asked for a warm duck confit salad and house-made cavatelli pasta. I’m not a French restaurant aficionado (can’t pronounce most of the stuff on the menu anyway) but I came to this restaurant as per the recommendation of a friend and didn’t regret it. In fact, when I was planning my second work trip to Madison I decided I would revisit Sardine instead of going to a new restaurant.

Earlier, in November, it had been a brunch place in Cleveland Cincinnati, Ohio. (Edit: This wonderful place is called Taste of Belgium, and if you’re ever in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood you should check it out!) I walked half a mile on a Sunday morning, a few hours before my return flight to Houston, to a place that had been rated highly on Yelp. When I walked in, I barely found my way to the hostess; that’s how packed it was. But the wait was worth it for the tastiest chicken and waffles I’ve ever had. I can still taste the sweetness of the belgian waffle mingling with the spiciness of the chicken breast.

Had to take a bite before taking the picture!

Had to take a bite before taking the picture!

Ever since I started graduate school I’ve traveled often. First, there was the trip once a semester back to Puerto Rico. Add to that my semi-regular bus/car rides to New York City to visit family. Then there are the academic conferences that you must attend as a graduate student (how this puts many graduate students in debt is another post altogether). In addition, my husband has almost always traveled for his work as a broadcaster, and I sometimes tag along by myself or with the little one. Now, I’ve started a new job that requires me to travel every month or so. I always like to try local foods when I travel, but when I travel by myself I make a point to try to treat myself to dinner.

I remember one particular academic conference I attended in Calgary, Canada. I was staying at a hotel far from the conference location (because it was cheaper, of course). I was alone and didn’t know anyone other than the people on my panel. After a full day of panels and academic conversation, I returned to my hotel mentally exhausted–and I was hungry. I walked downstairs to the hotel lobby, trying to figure out if I should go out and try to find a cheap alternative or if I should just walk into the little restaurant at this hotel. I went with the hotel restaurant.

I don’t remember what I ate or how much it cost or who the waiter was. Now what I remember is making that decision to treat myself to dinner in a new country at an unknown place. I also remember looking at the menu and sizing up what I could and could not afford (after all, this was dinner at the hotel restaurant). The meal wasn’t anything to write home about. But it was a nice little treat for myself.

I don’t remember when I started doing it, to be honest. As a graduate student I was always being trained for austerity. Eating at a restaurant seemed like a luxury, like money spent on something other than books (or conferences, for that matter). But even when I was away at conferences I tried to take a little time for myself. My advisor suggested, when I was prepping for my first academic conference, to always take a day to take in my surroundings, go out, take a break. That advice has stuck with me ever since.

Taking myself to dinner is a form of self-care, I’ve realized. It can be pricey, I know. I haven’t always had the money to treat myself to a dinner at a hip French restaurant, even if it’s in Wisconsin. I understand that treating myself to dinner entails privilege. Heck, attending those conferences as a graduate student entailed privilege: I had a fellowship, I took out student loans in addition to the fellowship, I had a credit card (that I had maxed out by the time I had a daughter, but that’s Another Story, Part II).  But I always try to go somewhere nice for dinner, somewhere that isn’t a sandwich or a pizza or takeout. I think of it as spending money on an experience instead of on a thing.

Eating out isn’t something I started doing as a graduate student either. I grew up in a humble household. We had a little bit of cash, but my parents were not rich by any means. We watched what we spent all the time—a habit that sticks with me today; I’ll buy a bottle of wine and cringe if it’s more than ten dollars. But one thing my parents would do from time to time was treat us to eating out. Whether it was a sit-down place or a kiosk by the edge of the road in some far town, we always took time to go out and eat.

As an undergraduate in San Juan, I had a friend who loved going out for dinner. We’d go out once in a while and check out restaurants; sometimes I paid and sometimes he treated me to dinner. I was still a poor undergraduate, you know.

My sister-in-law likes to remind me of the Italian restaurant we went to the day we first met, and I tend to think that it set the tone for our relationship: we bond often over food, even now that I’ve started eating meat again and she has become a vegan. When I traveled more often to NYC, we would always find a restaurant to try out, and we shared plates so we could sample more things for the same price. This Christmas we ventured out to a local farmer’s market in Houston and had breakfast on our laps.

So when I travel, I go out. I don’t do it every night (I followed up dinner at Sardine with continental breakfast at the hotel lobby and soup from Panera on my way back from work), but I try to at least find one night where I go and find a restaurant with some good Yelp reviews and see what the future holds.

What’s in it for me, other than good food? The feeling that I’m doing something nice for myself. I am sometimes hard on myself and on my eating habits, so I am trying to talk myself out of monitoring what I eat and chastising myself for what I don’t. But when I go out, I give myself a pass. I try to enjoy the food for what it is, and remember that this will not happen again. This plate at this moment? This is it.

One thing I learned when I decided to step away from my tenure-track dreams was that I wanted more time for myself and for my family. When I was on the traditional academic track, I felt I had no control over my days because I always had something to work on in the hopes that I would become a professor some day. So now I make an effort to take time for myself.

Self-care is important at any stage of our lives and that it doesn’t have to be about things. Self-care can be about experiences, sensorial and otherwise. It doesn’t even have to be about dinner you buy for yourself; that’s just the approach I take. It could be about taking the time to make a meal for yourself, carving time out of your schedule to make something that you like or that you want.

Taking myself out to dinner (or sometimes lunch or brunch) is me taking a time out for myself. Sitting down, looking at the menu, waiting for the food: this process allows me time to just be with myself. They’re moments of being, in a life where I’m always multi-tasking.

Don’t Stop Till You Read Enough (Books)

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I went to Cincinnati last weekend and all I got were more books.

I can never read enough books.

I don’t mean that I am a voracious book reader. When I begin a book, it takes me a while to get into it. I usually need a big chunk of time to start the book so that I can be sufficiently invested in the book to want to pick it up again. I read, and as I read I try to remind myself of details that came before. Wait, what day is it again? Who’s that dude? Where do they live? I’m gonna have to start this paragraph again. I resist the urge to take notes when I read because I want to distance myself from the kind of reading I do when I am working on a research project, and also because I am afraid I will drift off in a tangent and forget about what I was reading in the first place.

I don’t have big chunks of time available to read anymore. I only have little bits here and there, so I end up reading an article, a blog post, a short essay on my phone or my iPad. Adding books to my devices doesn’t help because I drift from long form to short form after a couple of pages. On my iPad I have right now

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between

Scientific Writing = Thinking In Words

Get a Freelance Life

Coming to My Senses: A Story of Perfume, Pleasure, and an Unlikely Bride

Stylish Academic Writing

Of all of these, I’ve gotten farthest in Scientific Writing = Thinking in Words: 22%. And that’s because it’s related to the class I am currently teaching. I’ve only recently allowed myself to stop reading books I don’t like or don’t feel invested in, but all of the above titles are books I find interesting–I just haven’t gotten far enough in them.

Audiobooks help, but not as much as they used to when I had to drive two hours a day to work. I fell in love with some books that way, and felt that familiar urgency to find out what the next chapter held that I used to feel when I read as a teenager. Gone Girl is one of the titles that comes to mind, But now that I work from home and my commute has been reduced to two days a week to a school that’s 25 minutes away, my audiobook listening time is a lot less. In the past few months I’ve downloaded several books:

Pym

The Great Gatsby

The Intuitionist

The Colossus of New York

The Interestings

Stiff

Of those six, I’ve already read three; they were books I wanted to read in audiobook version, so maybe they don’t count?

At the end of the day, who cares how many books I read or don’t? The English major in me.

No matter how many books I buy, how many audiobooks I put on my phone, how many ebooks I put on my iPad, I am not reading enough. The English Major Inside My Head berates me for not taking time to read a book instead of catching up on the articles I saved to Instapaper, for not choosing a book over watching an episode of 30 Rock, for not reading on the plane instead of napping. Reading articles on how to make time for reading don’t help either. The English Major Inside My Head says that’s all bullshit. And it especially doesn’t like that I’ve been spending all of this time in the morning writing and I don’t take time to read.

I wonder where this critical voice came from. But I wish it would shut up already.

Part of me thinks it has to do with the fact that the reason I chose to be an English major was to read more books and study the craft of writing fiction by reading all of these books. Talking about my love for books was an essential part of my personal identity for a long time, similar to how teaching was an essential part of my professional identity. Take for example my Twitter handle: @literarychica And now that I don’t read as much or as often as I used to, I feel weird even claiming that handle. it’s been around for so long that I can’t bring myself to change it, but sometimes it feels like faulty advertising. Like the time I dated someone who said he was disappointed I didn’t read more.

Some days I just want to sit down and read a book. Like today. And then that little voice creeps up and says, “you could if you stopped checking Twitter.” Or if I stopped blogging. Or if I stopped working four different jobs. (It’s a freelance life for us.)

But really? I just have to stop being so hard on myself and just read a book for fun. When did reading books stop being fun? Maybe around the time I started feeling like it was my job to read.

Gimme a Break

I took a break because I didn’t want to blog. A couple of Mondays ago I woke up early to write, like I always do, and after a few attempts at starting a blog post I realized, “I really don’t want to write a blog post.” So I didn’t. I wanted to sit with my thoughts, not force anything.

To be honest, the little break came about because I received not one but two rejections in less than a work week’s time right around the date I published my last blog post. I know, rejections are par for the course in academia, in writing, in life. That doesn’t mean the rejections hurt any less. The rejections didn’t dampen my confidence in my abilities as a writer either; in my gut I know I have some good pieces in my repertoire. It just made me wonder about what I am doing as a writer. (Yes, it made me wonder what I am doing wrong, but I realized that might be the wrong question to ask when it comes to putting your writing out there.)

So I stayed away from blogging for a little bit. Somehow, I felt like blogging would be putting pressure on myself to produce when, really, I didn’t feel like it. Also, blogging was starting to feel like a job. Sure, I should treat blogging like a job if I want my writing to reach a broader audience, but I didn’t want to feel like I was always producing, always putting out without putting back in. I thought, no one is telling me when to blog. I’m the boss around here. So I stopped.

What did I realize during the past couple of weeks?

1) I’m trying to do too much at once. Pitching, blogging, looking up references for my writing advice posts, reading to stay current. I know, I know, I should be indefatigable when it comes to my craft; I need to commit to being a writer and hustle all the time if I one day want to publish my writing outside of the blog. Don’t stop the hustle! But I felt like I wasn’t taking the time to digest ideas, to read and think. The race to pitch each week and produce two blog posts each week on top of editing and prepping for class and teaching and all the other craziness I have in my life made me feel like I wasn’t enjoying writing any more. I became a business, man. Not to mention teaching and editing are my main gigs.

2) In the meantime, I felt like I lost sight of what was my thing. What am I good at? In the race to pitch and blog, I wasn’t developing my craft. I was just producing. Even now that I am trying to get back into writing, when I sit down to work I feel a little lost, like I have nothing to hold onto. It’s all foggy up in here.

3) I need to embrace my strong suits. There are some topics that suit me better because I have extensive knowledge about them. If those topics are academic-y, I need to find a way to make them attractive to others, but I also shouldn’t shy away from them. Also, I’m very good at writing the personal stuff. So, writing about my connection to something apparently is more effective than just writing a typical introduction. I’d been trying to step away from that because I thought that was too personal of an approach. Maybe I’ll write more personal essays from now on. My last post is certainly in that vein.

4) Maybe I’ll pitch more personal essays. Not sure who would want them. The subjects I want to talk about are not necessarily news-y, so that’s always tough to sell. A lot of the personal essays I read are on blogs. But if I pitch, I may pitch a personal essay because that seems to be my strong suit. It also seems to be the thing I want to write about.

5) I should use the blog to post works in progress. More writing, less talking about writing? Maybe. I enjoy doing the Friday Free Writing posts. But I need to write more for me. There may be less Friday Free Writing posts–or they’ll at least be less regular.

My plan the next few weeks? Nurture the writer inside me. Let her say what she wants to say, even if it’s not necessarily pitch material. Sometimes all we need to do is just write. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing.

False Starts (Or, My Collage of Blog Posts)

Today’s post is one of those posts where I’m not sure if I’m coming or going. I decided to do a round up of posts I’ve left halfway. (Full disclosure: this collage post and title come from this Daily Post blog post from last May.) I’m not even entirely sure if I want these drafts out there for all to see, but hey! What’s the worst that could happen: someone thinks I’m a sloppy writer? They’re drafts, folks.

If there’s one you, my dear readers, would like to read more of, let me know in the comments and I’ll give it a shot.

 

Part I

I didn’t always want to get a PhD.

When I was very very young, I played teacher. One time, my parents ordered an encyclopedia set, and the day they received it I had a friend over; I remember taking out the new books and using them to “teach” my friend. I don’t know how fun she thought this was, but I loved it. Later I wanted to become a vet but, get this, I decided against it when someone told me I’d be in school for 12 years. I moved on from vet to oncologist. The doctor who operated my wrist when I was 11 was an oncologist, and I was amazed at what she had done and the intricacies of the procedure. Later, it was writing; I wanted to become a music journalist because I read a lot of Rolling Stone and I was a fan of alternative music.

Eventually, books and writing became more and more important in my life, and I wondered what to do with my love for books and for writing. I had very few hobbies outside of reading, writing, watching tv, and hanging out with my friends. I was also a voracious reader. So when 11th grade rolled around and I had to consider what I was interested in and what schools I would apply for (after all, that’s what the other “smart” kids in my class were doing), I decided that I would do something related to writing and reading. I looked into a summer camp for prospective teachers, and applied for this exclusive program. I loved it, and the next semester decided to apply for English programs. (Why English over Education? I figured the best way to learn about books and about writing was to immerse myself in good books. Very simple thinking.)

With the handful of articles about going or not going to graduate school that have appeared in the last few months, I have found myself thinking a whole lot about my own decisions. I went from a BA in English and Modern Languages to an MA in English to a PhD in English back to back to back. Even though many articles suggest a break between degrees (to see if you’re “Really ready” to go to graduate school), I just plowed through semester after semester, all the way to my PhD.

 

Part II

Years ago, in high school, someone told me–someone who could see into the future–that I was destined to travel. I know some of you don’t believe in that, but I sort of do. Yes, me with my PhD. Leave it at that. Little did this seer know that travel had already marked my world, an indication of how it would become a trope in my life.

I was born in New York, the child of migrants: Puerto Ricans who had moved to New York, part of a mass exodus in the mid twentieth century that would later be called diaspora. Before I understood what being a New Yorker meant, my parents decided to move back to Puerto Rico and as a result my sister and I were uprooted and subsequently planted in a sleepy country town. By the age of seven, I was already caught in between traditional notions of what it meant to be Puerto Rican and stereotypes of Nuyoricans.

I would not stop there though. At 18, I moved to San Juan to attend la Universidad de Puerto Rico, and later I moved to Binghamton, NY, for graduate school. I probably should have been more selective about my criteria for graduate school–all I was looking for was PhD programs in Translation and closeness to New York City–but nevertheless Binghamton changed my life forever: I met my now-husband there, I met some wonderful people there, and I had my daughter there. Her birth certificate says “Binghamton, NY” on it, but as of summer she now lives in City #3: Houston, Texas.

I was always mentally prepared to leave Binghamton. I went there for graduate school, and at the beginning I dreamed of going from Binghamton to New York. Later, when I met my husband, we both agreed that we couldn’t see ourselves staying there, for professional reasons. Binghamton is a wonderful place to raise a family, and we would be close to our loved ones, but we were thinking about our careers at the time: him, broadcasting; me, college teaching. Also, many of my friends had left Binghamton by the time I got pregnant . A handful had stayed, but I had already dealt with the blow of seeing people leave and having to separate myself from others; I knew eventually I’d have to say good-bye too. Leaving to teach/work somewhere else is the fate of a lot of graduate students. We know that comes with the territory.

But leaving Kansas City was tougher than I thought. Sure, by May 1st I was ready to get in my car and drive down to Texas just to have my family back together again. But for almost three months I ruminated upon my departure. People asked me about Rob’s move, they asked me about my move, they asked me about my job prospects, they asked me about apartments. For a while it was all we could talk about. And so I thought about it even when people didn’t talk about it. Amid all this thinking I remembered how I had wanted to make Kansas City a home for us. Eventually it started to feel like home. It was probably the first city I really felt was home, not because I was born there and still mourned my departure (New York) or because I grew up there (Sabana Grande) or because I went to school there (Binghamton, San Juan). I told myself, this will be our home for a while. I stood on our terrace, stared out onto the street, and told myself, yup, this is where it’s at.

So the move to Houston was of course a move to a new home. I embraced the adventure that was moving to a new city (the fourth largest city in the United States). I loved the idea that we were staying in an urban environment–our fondness for cities is one of the things my husband and I have in common. But that meant I would have to let go of Kansas City and the things that made it a home for me. Or was it the other way around? Can I say that Kansas City became a home, or would it be more accurate that I tried my best to make it a home for myself? Is it fair to say that a city is our home, or do we claim them as our homes? It all brings me back to my dissertation research and the idea that home is more of a social construction than a natural, organic thing that stems simply from where we were born (or not).

So Houston will become home again too. That process of home-making will look different from the process in Kansas City…I think. And that’s alright. Meanwhile, I will continue to travel.

 

Part III

I sometimes dream of having a whole day to just respond to emails. Not work emails, mind you. Emails from friends, the “let’s catch up” kind. I don’t get them anymore because, surprise, I’m bad at responding to them. If this were a blog post in itself, it would be called “Dear Friends I Don’t Write To Anymore.” A post explaining why I am a jerk and why I don’t write back to people immediately.

Letter writing. Didn’t that used to be a thing? People would write letters. People would stay in touch that way. Now I find myself just sending a text in between other activities. In the parking lot after I drop off Elena at daycare, I send off a quick message. On Twitter I do a quick tweet. On Facebook I like a post. We move on. There has to be time for long messages, right? For long, rambling messages to friends. To explain where we are and what’s up. Is that what the phone is for?

I do miss having my friends all in one place. (Facebook is not the same thing, in my universe.) It’s not that I miss having friends, because I do have them, but I miss the presence of my old friends in my life. The people I hung out with. The people I went drinking with in my early twenties. The people who nursed me back to mental health through break-ups or dates gone bad. The people who worked on their homework with me until dawn.

Dear friends who I haven’t spoken to in years: It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I mean, just yesterday I liked your Facebook picture with the puppies in the living room, or something of the sort, but we haven’t heard each other’s voice in years, haven’t we? Some of you, we don’t even chat through Facebook. What has happened? Why can’t we keep in touch? Why can’t I keep in touch? I know I let it go, Lord knows I had my own drama to take care of. And maybe it was my fault. I always blame myself anyway.

Or do we simply keep on growing? Do we shed people as we go through life? Is that right or wrong or simply life? And why do I seem to hold onto all of you in my head, thinking, wow, I should do a better job of keeping in touch with people?

It’s weird. There are these people we meet and who become a part of our lives for a period of time. We can’t fathom living without them there. And then one day you move away. Or they move away. Or they go to another department. Or they start another job. Or you start another job. Or, simply, life happens. And you live on. And you lose touch.

Where do our friendships go to die? And I don’t mean the friendships that are toxic or that are meant to die a quick death, but the ones that we really thought would live forever, and then didn’t.

I feel like I want to reach out to so many folks, but I don’t. I feel it’s too late. Or I’m too embarrassed to admit that I am complicit in letting these friendships die. Or I wasn’t the only one, but I did let the die. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s all I can focus on, on what I did or did not do.

 End transmission

I Grow Old

No, no, I’m not talking about T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (although it is one of my favorite poems of all time). I’m talking about growing up, and growing old.

Today, on my way to pick up my daughter from daycare, I heard part of a Trent Reznor interview with NPR’s Melissa Block. I caught the interview toward the end, and I ended up listening to it tonight after she went to bed. However, from the bit that I heard in the car, something stood out to me that Trent said (yes, I call him Trent because that’s what my friends and I called him when I was in 9th and 10th grade–and yes, we listened to Nine Inch Nails when I was a teenager, and I don’t know what that means.)

Trent said to Melissa Block,

I’ve kind of watched with amusement as the press has latched on to ‘Reznor, now 48, happily married with two kids and an Oscar winner,’ as if I can be summed up as that now. ‘He made a song with a major chord in it that we don’t understand’ is something that references Joy Divisionand New Order. It’s pop-punk. That’s the tagline for who I am now. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago, and I’m happy to not be that person. When I’m onstage, the songs that we’ve chosen to play from the back catalog are things that still resonate with me and matter to me, and when I’m in those songs, I get transported into those songs. It can be draining to go through that.

Whoa, Trent, whoa.

"nine inch nails @ ippodromo delle capannelle, rome - July 22, 2009 - by Pitto" by Flickr user Daniela Vladimirova, CC-BY-2.0

“nine inch nails @ ippodromo delle capannelle, rome – July 22, 2009 – by Pitto” by Flickr user Daniela Vladimirova, CC-BY-2.0

So, Trent and I are years apart. I’m in my mid-30s, he’s in his late-40s. We’re different people. And it’s not that Trent has kids and I have kids and that makes me feel old. No. What stuck with me as I drove in the later afternoon was the feeling that this man had penned songs that meant something to me when I was younger. R.E.M. meant something to me when I was younger too, but that is different. I’m not a Nine Inch Nails fan, but I had friends who were. Nine Inch Nails is part of a certain period of my life, and listening to those songs I listened to back then (some of them aggressive, some of them precious, some of them harsh, some of them obscure) transport me to a different time and place. NIN’s The Downward Spiral was a staple of my middle school/high school years, what the cool alternative kids in Puerto Rico were listening to. (They were not listening to R.E.M., in case you were wondering.)

So hearing Trent Reznor talk about how he didn’t play some of his old songs any more made me smile. It felt like he was admitting he had outgrown some of the songs, and it reminded me that it was okay to outgrow some of the songs/artists that you once upon a time listened to. It doesn’t mean we’ve become uncool as we grow up–maybe we do, but that has nothing to do with the music we listen to or don’t. That’s who I was. And I still love music. I just…I don’t know. Maybe I’m listening to something different (in the music, not just in terms of artists). It’s…weird. I still recognize myself in some of those old tracks I play, tracks by Aterciopelados, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Toadies, Nirvana, etc.

It also takes the pressure off of me to try to keep up with music nowadays. Seriously, I can’t keep up, folks. I listen to NPR and sports radio in my car, for goodness sake. I get my new album recommendations from folks I follow on Facebook or Twitter. Or in this case, NPR.

I’ll be listening to the newest by NIN (which came out on September 3rd, by the way). In the meantime, here’s an oldie from my high school days. Don’t laugh.

NIN, “Hurt” (1994)