My Food History

Sometimes when I’m driving, to pass the time, I have conversations with myself out loud. Don’t worry about it. Shhhh. It’s fine. Moving on.

On today’s commute home from work, I found myself without my carpool buddy. I was also a bit antsy after realizing I had spent most of the day at my desk with minimal human interaction. Since I had no means of remedying this situation at the time, I decided to conduct an interview with myself. Again, shhh. I’m fine.

The theme of the interview was my history with food and cooking. How did I start? Where am I today? What do I want to learn? What are my influences? Etc.

What was your typical dinner growing up?

I remember most dinners being what I would describe as the “typical American meal”. It was characterized but three distinct parts of the plate –meat, starch, and vegetable. The meat would usually be something like breaded chicken, pork roast, or maybe even a hot dog. Nothing too complicated, nothing too memorable. I remember not liking the texture of most meat. I found anything made in the slow cooker slimy and anything pig based revolting. I have a distinct memory of slicing up a pork chop up into tiny pieces and swallowing them whole because I didn’t want to taste it while I chewed. I suppose it’s not a surprise that I became a vegetarian. Oddly though chicken patty and hot dogs were some of the only meat I did eat, which is unfortunately probably the most processed meat out there.

The starch portion of the meal was either a potato or some sort of grain. I was then and still am a big enthusiast for potatoes. This was easily my favorite part of the meal. Actually, whenever I would refuse to eat something else on the plate, my mom would allow me to bargain by eating a few more bites of potatoes. Thank goodness for potatoes! Occasionally the potatoes would be substituted out for some sort of pre-seasoned microwave pasta or rice dish. For some reason, I wasn’t into pasta or rice at a young age. Something about it being slimy.

The vegetable portion of the meal was usually from a can or a freezer bag medley. I’m not sure if it was the method of preparation or my immature taste buds but, I never particularly enjoyed any of these vegetable servings. Canned green beans –barf. I did go through a phase where I would eat whole bowls of lima beans. Look, I don’t get it either. Kids are weird. We did have a garden for some portion of my childhood. So, we had fresh vegetables when possible. For some reason, the more vivid memories are the canned vegetables. My mom would grumpily chime in here that it always seems like I only remember the bad memories. Oops.

Allegedly, I was a picky eater. My father was also a traditional eater. My mom cites both as reasons as why she never tried to make anything too out of the box in the kitchen. Probably valid. I also think it was product of the time. My parents were busy, canned vegetables, microwavable rice, and frozen medleys were easy. There also wasn’t as much access to creative and unique cooking ideas as there is today. The internet wasn’t available and no one had time to watch the Food Network. Compared to my other friends, we ate healthily. Minimum fast food consumption, usually when Dad was in charge and we didn’t keep sugary snacks in the house.  At risk of being too mean, my mom has since expanded her horizons and now cooks lots of new, flavorful, colorful, and exciting recipes.

Did your family heritage have any influence on your meals growing up or the types of food you cook now?

Not really. My dad’s side is Italian and Czech. My dad’s dad is the Italian one, so I didn’t have the “Italian grandmother” and my dad wasn’t much of a chef to pass any of it on. The signature dish from my Czech grandmother was meatballs. I remember loving these as a kid, but since I don’t eat meat now, it’s not something I would make. Plus, I’m not sure if anyone ever got the recipe.

My maternal grandfather is a mix of German and some other European regions. I don’t recall any specific dishes from this side of the family. My maternal grandmother was born in Albania. She brought over a lot of the Albania culture. Unfortunately, as a kid I don’t think I was very open to this cuisine. I have learned my grandmother’s stuffed grape leave recipe (I think it’s spelled “Sarma”). I’ve had to modify it to make it vegetarian. The other Albania foods I remember cooking are a bread and a cookie. I haven’t been able to find an Albania spelling of the way we phonetically pronounce the bread name, but it’s delicious. I’d like to think if my grandmother was still around, I could have her teach me other Albania foods.

When did you start learning how to cook? Can you describe how that progression occurred?

I wasn’t open to learning how to cook for a long time. I think partly because it seemed time consuming and nothing I was eating excited me that much. For the first three years of college I lived in dorm rooms. Most of my meals were either microwave meals, campus food, or regretfully, Subway. The summer after Junior year, I moved to Ohio for an internship. This was the first time there was a need to cook. I also had a lot of spare time on my hands.

Before I left, I had my mom write down instructions for my three go-to recipes –pasta, breaded zucchini, and breaded chicken. The sense of culinary adventure was palpable. I still have in a notebook where my mom wrote down—boil water, pour in noodles, cook for 8 minutes, drain in colander, pour back in pot, heat up sauce in microwave, pour over noodles. I needed the play-by-play, I was clueless.

When I got back to college for my senior year, I had an apartment for the first time. I slowly started to introduce other recipes into my repertoire. Also, throughout the past couple of years, I had college friends introduce me to other cuisines. I started trying Chinese food, Indian food, Lebanese food, and Thai food (Thanks Hari). My food horizons were expanding. Once I realized rice wasn’t terrible, I started making stir fries. Something so simple, but really the gateway to trying other types of food.

Then I moved to Houston. I already had the cooking ball rolling and things just started to take off. I started meal prepping lunches for work. I started using Pinterest to get recipe inspiration. I started dating Adam who actually knew how to cook. I started liking to take pictures of food which spurring me to find colorful and creative recipe ideas.  I went vegetarian which required me to think outside the box more. I by no means know what I’m doing. I still google how to make rice every time I do it. But I started being a little bit less picky and taking a little bit more risks with the things I tried to make. Some might say being a vegetarian has made me more picky, and to them I say shhhhhh.

What are your favorite things to cook?

I’m not sure if I have a favorite thing to cook. I am a big fan of “one pot meals” where you can just throw everything in the crock pot, fry pan, or soup kettle and get five meals for the week in less than an hour. Those types of recipes allow you to be creative too. You can vary the vegetables, grains, and spices you use.

Above anything else, I really just like cooking things that are different. I get frustrated and bored if every week, I’m just eating a grain salad or roasted vegetables and rice. If I have the time, I rarely repeat recipes. There are so many different categories of food—tacos, stir fry, noodle dish, soup, stew, curry, pasta, grain bowl, sushi, galettes, dumplings, chili, pizza, enchiladas, risotto, casseroles, veggie burgers, etc. There’s no reason to always have the same thing.

And the simple answer to that question is, anything with chickpeas.

What are your pantry staples?

I could go for a lot more pages about what basic spices are necessary for cooking, but I won’t. I think once you start cooking some of the Asian cuisines, you can slowly start to accumulate spices. I used to look at a recipe with six spices and just buy one. Then after doing that five more times I finally had all the basics.

For stir fries and noodle dishes, it’s good to have on hand sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanut butter and ginger. For some of the Indian dishes, buy a curry powder or curry paste. Then slowly start accumulating all the spices. I think I started with cumin and paprika. General spices that are good for almost everything are onion powder and chili powder.

As a vegetarian, I would recommend nutritional yeast and cashews. Seriously, you’ll use that shit for everything.

Then in general always have some sort of grain on hand whether it’s rice, quinoa, couscous, barley, lentil, etc.

What new kitchen adventures do you want to pursue?

I definitely still don’t know what I’m doing, but I really enjoy trying new things. Last week, I pickled vegetables for the first time. That was fun. I’m still not very good at making dough. I think I would like to learn to be better at that, I pretty much rely on Adam for that now. He’s a great sous chef.

My other main goal is to become better at improvising and just having a natural understanding of what flavors would go well together. I rely on Google a lot currently. I also want to develop some homemade hummus recipes. I buy a lot of hummus.

 

 

My Survival Kit

At times, I feel as if I have a harder than average time connecting with people. I’d describe it as a constant sense of FOMO. I’m surrounded by others in the media and in my own life that seem like exceptional “people persons”.  I, on the other hand, constantly feel awkward in social situations, dread new environments, dislike large noisy groups, and occasionally feel overcome by feelings that people just pretend to like me.

I’m constantly reminded that human connection is one of the best things about life. Something that should be inspiring; something that professes the best things in life are free! Anyone can do it! But that sentiment tends to fill me with a tiny bit of dread. It doesn’t feel like something I can achieve easily; it feels like something I’m lacking the skills to accomplish and something I’m missing out on.

I’m an introvert. I’m fairly withdrawn and I enjoy spending long periods of time by myself with my thoughts. I re-energize by being alone. But while, being alone re-energizes me, it also has the twofold effect of making me feel as though I’m not connecting to people the way I should be.

I’m completely unaware of how I come off to other people because my mind is preoccupied with the feelings of anxiety and discomfort that plague my thoughts during most social interactions. I have a looming feeling that others perceive me as awkward and boring.

While this may or may not be true, I have managed to make several friends throughout my 25 years of life.

One particular friend gifted me a “survival kit” for my possibly 17th birthday. It was a cute white stationary box. At the time it was filled with all the teenage essentials…..for some reason all I remember now are the ear plugs and a silver call bell….? Idk high school is weird.

However, now the box is filled with all of the nice letters or endearments from people who have mattered to me. Every once in a while, when I need to be reminded that people care about me I take a peruse through the box. I think it’s beautifully symbolic now that this stationary box still has the words “Survival Kit” scrawled on the lid in my best friend’s hand writing.

The box contains lots of nostalgia and love—old pictures, birthday cards, thank you notes from friends, a thank you note from my college work study for the positive interactions I had with several unique children at the museum’s learning center, notes from Adam, letters from my pen pal, mementos that people have given me, well wishes on my move to Texas, pictures drawn by kids I babysat, handmade crafts from my cousins, random “thinking of you notes”, etc.

It’s a nice way to spend an evening and I’d recommend it to anyone.  It’s a pleasant reminder that even if I’m not as loud and boisterous as everyone else, I can still make an impact on people.

 

A Year in Food

At the end of 2015, I decided to start eating a vegetarian diet.  I can’t say I know for sure what prompted the decision.  I think it was a combination of getting tired of the same old chicken I always ate and the fact that I had done a bit of preliminary research advocating the health benefits. It’s been over a year now and so far no regrets with the decision. I never really ate that much meat to begin with so I can’t say I noticed an incredibly drastic difference, but I can say I rarely “miss” meat. Bacon’s really the only thing I think about occasionally.

One of the biggest challenges to this new lifestyle was figuring out what to eat. Growing up, I was an incredibly picky eater and had an aversion to many different types of vegetables. I also decided at the end of 2015 that I wanted to run my first half marathon, so I knew I needed to make sure I was getting enough calories to sustain a training plan.  Over the past few years, I’ve also been getting into cooking.  My new choice to eat meatless foods seemed to pair really well with my desire to find new and unique (and photogenic!) things to cook.

Eating a healthier plant based diet (still with some dairy and eggs in moderation) I think has somewhat changed my taste buds and I now like and eat tons more varieties of foods and vegetables that I never would have looked at growing up. One of the biggest misconceptions about people that eat vegetarian is that they only eat salad, but over the past 12 months, I’ve eaten and made tons of different foods and thought it would be fun to share!

So this is “A Year in Food”:

Breakfast

I freaking love avocado toast.  It appears at least three times in this post I believe, but many more times in my diet.  Although not obvious from this picture, when eating toast it’s important to cut the pieces DIAGONALLY and to almost burn the toast. It won’t taste good otherwise, trust me.DSC01530 (800x533).jpg

Pancakes. I can’t remember specifically what recipes I used when making these different ones. When I make pancakes for myself I try to make them vegan, so googling vegan pancakes should find you some good options.  The last picture also features some homemade granola on top of bananas.

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Tempeh scramble with potatoes -replaces  eating scrambled eggs in the morning. Tempeh does take some getting used to, it has no taste however and will just taste like whatever you flavor it with. I do try to eat meat substitution (tofu and tempeh) in moderation though. This particular scramble is topped with some tomatoes and avocado for freshness and color.

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Cinnamon rolls. A bit of splurge here.

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Corn bread

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Acai bowls. So many acai bowls. One of them technically has dragonfruit instead of acai berries, but you get the gist. The last picture features some ginger lemongrass tea, as well.

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My normal weekday breakfast is usually a banana, rice cakes, a banana smoothie, or some granola—whatever is easy to grab on the go.

Meals

Spread the Health‘s sweet potato steaks and veggie stir fry.  This is a meal that costs less than $5 to make a serving for 4.

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Rainbow soba noodle salad

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Cobb salad. This is my take on a meal I had at the restaurant in Houston, Americas. No link here, just some couscous, edamame, corn, spinach with a honey mustard dressing and avocados.

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Mushroom and leek galettes (the link to this pin is broken  so I can’t find the recipe )

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Orange Cauliflower.  Honestly, this was meh in my opinion because the fried cauliflower was a little too heavy for my liking, but I would totally make it again with just baking the cauliflower with no batter.  The orange sauce was great!

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Thai pizza (made with pillsburgy dough, because sometimes we need to take shortcuts)

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Swiss chard with chickpeas and couscous

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Lemongrass rice and tofu

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Black pepper tofu, veggies and rice

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Sandwich with hummus, grilled veggies and corn (Inspired by the leftovers in my fridge that day)

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Butternut squash and sweet potato enchiladas

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Sweet potato curry

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Turmeric coconut rice

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Roasted chickpea, mushroom, swiss chard, couscous and avo bowl

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Spread the Health‘s honey crisp apple salad and ratatouille.  Another meal that costs under $5 to make!

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Simple teriyaki roasted brocollini with pine nuts and white rice. Another meal inspired by the leftovers in my fridge.

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Brothers Green Eats’ Kimchi Stew

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Vegan butternut squash stew

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Harissa mushroom trio salad

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Southwestern veggie bowl

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Zoodles and tofu & Chickpea quinoa salad

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Ginger miso soba noodle bowl

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Mediterranean sweet potatoes

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Another taco bowl

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Falafel and roasted veggies

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Sweet potato lentil chili

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Soba noodle peanut stir fry

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Walnut couscous with lemon basil cream

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Teriyaki cauliflower rice bowls

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Buddha bowl

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These are things I will normally cook in bulk on Sunday (#mealprep) and then eat throughout the week for lunch and sometimes dinner.  If we are being honest, I eat a baked potato 8 times out of 10 for dinner, but my lunches are on point!

Snacks:

Spread the Health‘s Chickpea Wraps

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Sweet Potato Fries/Regular French Fries – I’ve gotten in the habit of taking homemade fries on airplanes. It’s great and filling! I’m not linking a recipe because you should be able to google this one.

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Infused Water –this was an obsession I had back in the summer when it was really hot out and needed something refreshing. Also doesn’t this picture look cool.

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Carrot hummus

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Pistachio hummus

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Thai peanut hummus

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Energy Bites –No recipe provided here because I can’t remember which one it is, also google.

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Samosas

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A trio of dips: carrot hummus, black bean, and red pepper cashew

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Sweet potato mousse (can’t find the recipe link, sorry). Also for the record, I took the edible flowers off after taking this picture because I’m not sure how I feel about eating them.

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Veggie fritters

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Pad Thai spring rolls

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Vegan nachos

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Cauliflower white bean spread

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Eating Out

I don’t eat out a lot, mainly because I hate spending money but also because it can be hard to find healthy options. I’ve found a couple of go-to restaurants in Houston and I’ve also documented some of the things I’ve eaten while traveling in the past year.

True Food Kitchen –Edamame dumpling and butternut squash pizza

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The Kitchen at Dunlavy –Avocado toast, tempeh sandwich and Southwestern breakfast bowl

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Local Foods –Chia seed pudding and vegan taco salad

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Indika –Chickpea crepe stuffed with mushroom and tomato masala and millet pancakes with banana blueberries. This was one of the courses from a brunch during Houston Restaurant Week (month)

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Pondicheri –Thali (sample platter)

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Grand Canyon/Sedona –I visited the Grand Canyon with my sister back in May and we stayed in Sedona. We started off every morning getting an Acai bowl from Berry Divine.  We also went to a restaurant called ChocolaTree Organic Eatery. We ordered a sample platter, wraps, and potato/lentil pancakes. Unfortunately, the food here was a bit bland but the patio had tons of hammocks which is the main reason I wanted to go.

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I also had the chance to visit Banff National Park last year.  On the last night in Canada we stopped in a restaurant in Canmore, AB and I ordered this curry.

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While in Breckenridge, we ate at this restaurant called Modis and I ordered a cauliflower steak with bok choy and other vegetables.

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I visited San Diego with two of my best friends from college Katia and Hari (also another veggie).  We went to some restaurant and got vegetarian sushi of some kind.  I don’t remember the details.  Katia and I also went to a brunch place the last morning and I ordered all this fruit and granola which was perfect for the hangover I may or may not have had.

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On the way back from Six Flags in San Antonio, Adam and I stopped at Senor Veggie and got these amazing vegan nachos.

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On the way back from Fredericksburg, Adam and I stopped at Bouldin Creek Café in Austin and got this tofu scramble and veggie plate. The veggie plate has zucchini, vegan corn bread, spinach and brown rice.  For the record, I ordered an “Asian Slaw” and not spinach so they brought that out later.

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My family vacationed to Lake Tahoe in May.  We went to Garwoods, which had a special vegetarian menu apart from the normal menu and they made this great tofu stir fry. I also ordered avocado toast from the hotel for breakfast every morning because –treat yo self.

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On my many visits back to Pittsburgh throughout the year I stopped at these great restaurants.

Smallman Galley –Lentil loaded fries and more avocado toast (look I love avocados, okay)

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Nicky’s Thai Kitchen –Vegan Duck

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The Commoner –Tikki Masala

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Kaya –Jamaican Green Curry

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Basically, I feel like I’ve eaten tons of good food in the past year and I plan to continue that into 2017! So if you have any good vegetarian restaurants or recipes please send them my way.

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I’ve also made other things not pictured from these boards:

https://www.pinterest.com/devitojl3692/vegan-food/

https://www.pinterest.com/devitojl3692/snacks-desserts-and-party-foods/

A competition with myself

There’s two things you need to know about me before reading this.  One, I like to measure success with numbers. Two, I am good at procrastinating.

Perhaps unfortunately, the way my brain works is to compare all things in life on a numerical scale.  What grade did I get on that test? How much does that job pay? How fast did I run that mile? Rationally, I know that thinking of things in these terms isn’t ideal.  It’s possible to not have the top grade in a class but still understand the concepts and be competent.  It’s possible to find a lesser paying job and still enjoy it. And it’s possible to enjoy running and not always be getting faster. I know these things on a rational level, but my first instinct is a different story.

Running is something that as of the last 2-3 years I’ve been trying to get into. I’m not a traditionally athletic individual.  I’m woefully incompetent at hand-eye coordination and I didn’t grow up playing sports. However, running is something that seemingly anyone should be able to do without significant training. I like the idea of not needing equipment and being able to just get up and go whenever the whim hits me. I like being outside.  I like being alone with my thoughts. I like feeling like I’m getting stronger every time I run.  It’s good, it works for me.

But ever since I started running, I was disappointed to learn that I’m not good at it. I have tons of friends who are exceptional runners.  My boyfriend, Adam, can run a marathon at 6 minute flat pace. Gross. Literally all of my friends in college ran the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in 2014 with respectable times. And I’m friends with several other people (Catie, Arty, Erica) who have run full marathons with amazing times (in my opinion).  It’s pretty motivating to be surrounded by talented and dedicated runners but it’s also slightly demoralizing to know I’m so much slower.

On a good day, I can run a 10k in an hour, on a bad day it’s slower.  And by bad day, I mean, a day where I haven’t been eating well that week, a day where the humidity in Houston is up to 90% and the ambient temperature is also in the 90s, a day where I took a break the week before and I’m feeling lethargic, etc.  I know that not every day can be fast, but that doesn’t make me like it. I often get discouraged when my pace doesn’t get faster.  I realize that part of the problem is I don’t really do any sort of track workouts or interval running, I just try to run as fast as I can every time.  Remember guys, I’m new at running. I just learned how to pace myself for longer distances last year.

Sometimes, I will let what seems like a lack of improvement, based on the numerical results from my GPS watch, get to me and I will stop focusing on running so much.  In addition, I will let my excellent procrastination and excuse making skills get in the way.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used an excuse to let myself be a lard for that day and not just get out there and run some distance at any pace.

I’m tired, I feel sick, I have terrible cramps and I feel like my insides are being torn apart (you know you’ve been there), I’ve had a rough day at work and I just want to sit in my bed and eat my feelings, whatever. I will let myself use these excuses and then be inactive rather than have what I would categorize as a mediocre run.

So I decided for April, to motivate myself by setting a numerical goal.  It’s important to know how your brain works so you can trick it. My goal in April was to run at least 3.1 miles every day in the month, NO MATTER WHAT.  A 5k a day, if you will.  And I did it!

While my pace hasn’t gotten significantly faster (the way I generally measure improvement), I definitely felt much better! Knowing that I was going to do all this running, really made me focus on eating well and sleeping well (to the best of my ability).  I think I had my most consistent dietary habits during this month.  I would eat a fulling breakfast every day and a good clean vegetarian lunch. Breakfast and lunches haven’t been an issue for me but I sometimes tend to slack in the dinner department.  Previously, if I had been feeling particularly tired after work I would sometimes eat only cereal for dinner or just ten thousand snacks but never a full meal.  During April, I always made sure to have a hardy snack before the run (usually a banana PB smoothie) and a real dinner.  This really helped.

This goal kind of became something I looked forward to completing and checking off each day. There were days where I really didn’t want to do it. I woke myself up out of naps after work at least 5 times and forced myself to go for a run. When running a lot, it’s important to get enough sleep and I think that was something I wasn’t necessarily doing the best job of. I even woke up early one morning (think 5 am) before work to get a run in so I had the evening free to hang out with friends. This is absolutely absurd because if anyone has tried to wake me up in the morning, they know it’s not pretty.  But I really committed.

Every time I felt that I “forced” myself to run, I ended up feeling really happy about the decision once it was over.  It was nice to feel accomplished for the day and I could feel myself getting stronger.  There were some fast days and many slow days. Yet as whole, during the rest of my day when I wasn’t running, I felt 10x better.

Towards the final week of the month, I realized that 3.1 miles a day would only total 93 miles for the month.  And math-minded Julia decided that that wasn’t good enough and a nice round number like 100 miles would be better.  I was literally so tired from all the running by the last week and I had also given up on consistent stretching by this point (oops) that going more than 3.1 miles a day was a bit of stretch goal.  I managed to slug out those extra 7 miles and completed the month by being able to say I had ran at least a 5k a day for 30 days in a row for a total of 100 miles and I am really proud of myself!

I’m pretty pleased that I’ve found a different way to motivate myself.  Setting numerical goals is something that works for me. I will admit, that after April ended, I had a rather hectic week at work and took four days off from running to sit in my bed and feel stressed and sorry for myself (lol).  I like to call these days #larddays.  I suppose that’s a testament to the power of setting goals and I’m in the process of setting some running goals for myself for the remainder of May.  I’m planning to run a half marathon in January so I’m trying to keep at it even during the terribly hot Houston summer. ­­­­­­

 

Another perspective: College and mental health

Life can be hard, change can be hard, Carnegie Mellon University can be hard.  My time at CMU brings back some difficult memories for a few reasons. During the first year, I had an exceptionally hard time adjusting to college life.  During the remaining years, I was stressed beyond comprehension.

I wore the same hoodie every day for what feels like the entire first semester of college because I was sad.  I slept more than 8 hours a day because I was sad and it was a way to pass the time. I didn’t put much effort into doing my hair or my appearance because it felt like it didn’t matter because I felt like I didn’t matter.

These actions weren’t the usual chain of events for me. Growing up, I was a relatively happy child.  I had loving parents, a privileged life, and generally no complaints. However, I was an anxious child. The smallest discomfort or unfamiliar situation would send me into bouts of tears.  This wasn’t because I was a brat, this was because I didn’t know how to deal with my anxiety-ridden emotions. Social situations were never my forte.

I’ve never considered myself the type of person who is good at making friends. It takes me awhile to form a bond of friendship with new people. Like everyone else, I distinctly remember going through the middle school years feeling like I didn’t fit in. There were girls I had been friends with since elementary school who no longer seemed to want to talk to me. There were cliques of kids who didn’t want to let anyone else in.  I remember spending a lot of these years lonely and wondering why friendships were so hard for me.  Luckily, during these years was when I met my lifelong friend Evie who helped ease the awkwardness of this life stage. I’ve always been exceptionally grateful for her kindness. Throughout these years, I also always had my sister, Angela, and my cousin Heather as default friends. I’ve always been thankful for the closeness of my family.

By the time, I entered high school things were looking up.  I no longer felt as isolated as I did in middle school.  I had corralled a small group of friends who I could hang out with on the weekends and during lunch period. I was never the girl with thousands of Facebook friends or the girl who would get the most carnations on Valentine’s Day, but I was okay with that, as long as I was happy.

During high school, I also had my first boyfriend for about a year.  Due mainly to the fact that I was young and didn’t know how to date someone or how to stand up for myself in a relationship, this inevitably ended. As if someone’s first heartbreak wasn’t hard enough, I distinctly remember reading snide comments on social media by his friends not-so-subtly insulting me. Thanks social media! Anyways, that was something that brought me right back to how I felt in middle school, like I didn’t fit in to these groups of friends everyone else had already formed.  If I recall correctly, I think this actual friend group called themselves “the group”.  By naming themselves, you knew whether or not you were in the group.  I was not.

As you do, I recovered from this trial and began building a new friend group slowly of trustworthy friends with whom I could enjoyably spend my time without feeling like I didn’t belong. After years of feeling alone in middle school and mocked by people in high school, I was so relieved to have achieved some sort of social stability.  Then, I graduated. Everyone moved to different colleges.  I felt alone again.

I was being forced to start over. Making friends and meeting new people was exhausting to me. I wasn’t ready for it. The first year of college I felt incredibly alone.  I didn’t put myself out there to make new friends at CMU because I didn’t think anyone would like me, because plenty of people hadn’t liked me before. I was completely miserable.

Along with the social stresses, the academics at CMU were something that I wasn’t ready for.  I graduated from high school as the Valedictorian without putting in much effort. I was naturally smart.  I could study the day before an exam and do perfectly fine. I didn’t take physics in high school because it wasn’t an AP class. I opted take a different AP class because I wanted the GPA boost (#nerdalert).  Going into my freshman year of college I remember taking my first physics exam, after studying the amount of time I would study for exams in high school, and getting a D.  I was devastated. I had never gotten a D before in my life.  I always felt that I was never the girl that was good at making friends but I was always good at school. Now I didn’t even have school.  I was literally falling apart at all angles.  If I couldn’t even succeed at the one thing I had always succeeded at then what good was I?

I eventually decided that I couldn’t be unhappy every day.  I swallowed my pride and enrolled in CMUs tutoring program.  I started to use office hours and peer study programs.  I was able to build myself back up and get an A in the class.  I also slowly started to interact with people more.  I began making friends at CMU.  My first friend at CMU was Kruti.  She was a chemical engineering major like me and lived in the dorm building across the courtyard.  We had met during the orientation activities that I literally hated but didn’t hang out much. Once I started to come out of my shell, she was one of the first people who would invite me to do things.  Again, so thankful for her friendship.  I met my second friend at CMU, Hari, by being group members on a class team. We met during the first day of classes and then worked together for an entire semester.  By the end of the semester we were more than just classmates, we were actually friends!  One by one, I began making friends again and most importantly, I began liking myself again.

Making the decision to not be unhappy everyday isn’t so easy for other people and that’s unfortunate. I remember going onto Facebook and seeing all of my peers posting about how much they loved college and I would wonder why I couldn’t be like everyone else.  When it looks like everyone else is happy, you start to wonder what’s wrong with you.  But the thing people have to remember about social media is that for the most part people are only posting the highs and you don’t get to see the lows.  Just because you don’t see the lows doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I know for me, it would have really helped to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with transitioning into college.

After I overcame the difficult first year of college, the next three years weren’t smooth sailing. I now had a network of people and a support system, but the stress to get good grades never went away. I know full well that this stress is something I placed on myself.  These are expectations that I set.  I think it’s that way for a lot of people who go to Carnegie Mellon.  The students are all bright and ambitious. At times this can be inspiring to be surrounded by so many driven people, but at other times it can be hard to not get caught up in the stress culture that has developed at CMU.

This article published in the Tartan in 2012 (https://thetartan.org/2012/12/3/forum/mentalhealth) says it best, that student’s parade their stress as a badge of honor.  The article states that in high school “we were at the top of our classes with minimal effort, and that mentality hasn’t changed. The more work you can accomplish without cracking, the more impressive you are. Unit count translates into intelligence.”

There were countless times were I would revert back to childhood Julia’s coping mechanism and just break down into tears when the stress was too much. I remember getting into a fight with my friend over when she was getting her passport renewed (like who cares?) because we were both so stressed out. I have another friend who always offhandedly mentions that “CMU broke him”. I have yet another friend that always talks about how he hated his 4 years at CMU.  There are innumerable other people who have posted on Facebook since graduating describing how Carnegie Mellon was a hard time for them.

We were all stressed. But no one was vocal about how difficult some days were at the time. Getting an education is important, but not at the expense of mental health.

When asked the question, if I could go back in time would I choose Carnegie Mellon again, I think the answer would be yes. The friends I was able to meet through this school are invaluable. The network of people I’ve developed in my new home city of Houston as result of CMU is also something I’m very grateful for. The career I’ve been able to build from my education and networking opportunities offered by the school are another great benefit.  But if asked would I recommend CMU to a prospective student? I think my answer would be no. I’m not sure what that says.

All I do know is that going to any college can be hard.  Going to Carnegie Mellon may have been harder.  But as I’ve grown as an adult, I’ve learned that everyone has ups and downs.  It’s okay. I’ve also learned that if you feel like you have more downs than everyone else that’s okay too, but you need to talk to someone.  Mental health shouldn’t be a second thought, it should be a priority.

A Pittsburgher in Houston

As a child, I had a great affinity for the outdoors and adventure. Perhaps it was simply because I was a member of a pre-internet-pervasive generation or that my parents generally discouraged watching TV, but I spent most of my early childhood recreation outside. All of the neighborhood kids and I would constantly be gallivanting through each other’s backyards, climbing trees, riding bikes, making club houses. Even as I grew up and my family outgrow my childhood home and moved away from my neighborhood friends, I didn’t outgrow this sense of loving the freedom of the outdoors.

At my new house, none of the new neighbors had children who were my age and had my same interests.  At the age of 13, even my older sister was starting to lose interest in “playing outside.” I resorted to playing in the woods by myself.

The backyard of the new house we moved to had about an acre of woods on the property. These woods connected to all the other wooded areas of the other houses’ backyards.  Essentially in my twelve year old mind, endless land to explore. I spent countless days after school or summer afternoons heading to the woods by myself and going on nature hikes. I would attempt to build shelters or climb trees. Sometimes I would just sit and take it all in. Other times I would see how far I could walk through an area with dense brush before I became too tangled and decided to turn around.

Unfortunately as I got older and become more focused on my academics and extracurricular activities, spending time enjoying the great outdoors took a backseat. Additionally, my parents’ and sister’s idea of a vacation was usually going to a beach or tropical place of sorts and relaxing.  (I’m more of a woods and mountain terrain kind of girl.) So even in my free time, there wasn’t much outdoor exploring going on.

Moving on to college, I began to meet more friends with similar interests and learn that you can spend your free time doing things you like and it doesn’t have to be what your family likes. The caveat here being during most of the four years of college I had almost no free time.  I was able to have a few trips to hike in West Virginia, white water raft in Ohiopyle, and ski in Seven Springs etc.

Now, I find myself living in Houston, Texas. It’s been over a year. This is the first time I’ve lived in a city of this size. I work 40+ hours a week and live in a metropolitan part of town in a one bedroom apartment without a yard or even a porch. Transitioning to this largely indoor/urban lifestyle has been a bit disappointing.

I try my best to sustain outdoor activities. I attend a fitness bootcamp at a nearby park and I go for runs along the bayou. But that’s the extent of it. It’s a different kind of scenery though. It’s nothing like climbing up a rugged mountainside and looking out on a spectacular view.

Even on the weekends there isn’t anything in the immediate vicinity that screams adventure. There are some wildlife sanctuaries that make for a nice walk or some very flat parks that make for a nice run, but there are no great hiking opportunities. West of Houston 3-4 hours are some decent state parks that have a decent scenery but it’s all a bit lackluster in my opinion. Also driving 3 hours every weekend just for a mediocre experience, isn’t ideal.

While living in Western, PA for 22 years of my life I failed to take advantage of all the wonderful Appalachian landscapes available for adventure just a few hours from my home. There wasn’t enough time and for the early years I was subject to family’s interests. Now that I’ve moved away, I regret it and resent Houston for its terrible scenery. Luckily flights to Denver are pretty cheap…if only I had more vacation time off work.