lifetoast

Month: August, 2012

solace, always

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Did I really spend twenty-six hours in a SUV with my worldly possessions, four people and two dogs? The trip seems surreal now: a hazy memory of caffeine-spiked driving, numerous pit stops courteous of my small bladder, and dreamy sighs at the verdant dips and peaks of the landscape.
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We arrived at a little past midnight in a silent street: a bit frightening honestly to a Southerner from the suburbs. Yet it’s a week since my arrival and I’m steadily growing accustomed to the old city. I haven’t felt the longings for home but have been wrapped in a whirlwind of interior decorating and found solace, always, in the kitchen.
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Eats here have revolved around a mini-baguette, basil and a selection of cheese- mozzarella, goat gouda and a mild bleu to be precise. Real meals outside of a hastily stirred egg fried rice and spicy ramen have been the panzanella salad above and the pesto spaghetti below. 20120824-life-7

A panzanella salad is perfect for that day old baguette, especially when it’s been toasted and allowed to meld in a balsamic vinaigrette, while pesto blends my favorite things- herbs and garlic- into a full-bodied nutty paste. This particular pesto is festively flecked with sundried tomatoes; it has been slathered on thick slices of kalamata olive toast and, as seen, coating slippery noodles.No recipes yet; I’m a foundling believer of having them thoroughly tested before presenting it to you.

Tomorrow marks the first official day of dental school and, thus, the end of summer. Here’s to fall.

Oh! And, by the by, if you’re looking into furnishing your place, I would recommend the following sites that have been quite enthralling-but treacherous for the wallet- to browse: Joss and Main, One King’s Lane, and The Foundary.

settle in

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Hi, all. It’s been quiet around here and it’s because I have arrived AT LAST.

I’ve been too busy driving, reassuring my mother of my safety, listening to talks of stranger danger, trying to find where to buy things and scolding Chibi for barking at every dog, stranger and loud noise to do much else. But I’m stealing a few minutes of sleep to say my clothes are neatly hung and folded; bed, mattress and dresser acquired; and first meal made. After days of fast food and greasy Chinese, I craved something simple: sun dried tomatoes softened in warm olive oil, tossed with rice and herbs, infused with truffle oil and topped with a well-seasoned egg.

More to come.

jade luck

I found it suddenly amidst the mess: a rabbit the size of my thumbnail. I rolled it in my hands; the cold jade nagged at my memories. With each roll, excitement burbled slowly within me because maybe..could it be?…that this was the child we had lost?

It was after our firstborn-the “Will you marry me?” Taco Bell hot sauce packet- sometime sophomore year of college. We had wandered a Mexican flea market in San Antonio and there adopted this bite-sized jade rabbit and a sibling (a horse, I think). I was ecstatic by how Lilliputian they were and carried them with us everywhere, which was their downfall.

Remember that day? We had spread out newspapers on my living room floor to paint something or another, placing our two children side by side to watch. And then they were gone, lost in some moment. We speculated they had disappeared in a hurried clean up. It seemed like a terrible omen at the time- to have lost our beloveds in mere days!- but time passed and the loss slipped from our minds.

I immediately sent you a picture when I found the jade rabbit but you were unsure of whether this was really our long lost child of yore. Wasn’t our rabbit made of onyx, you asked. I paused. It’s been quite some time. But here’s what I told you: We lost a child long ago, perhaps an onyx one, perhaps not a rabbit at all, but this one appeared. And it appeared now, reminding me of what had been lost, like a sign to say: it will all be okay. Hah. This all sounds ridiculous-the obvious: why did we love to call inanimate objects our offspring?- but I admit the wee thing has been a comfort. The last few days have been heart-wrenching and I am afraid. Change is here.

Yet I savor these moments: chaotic and full with tender love. I have staved off hysterics to be truly present for it all- late-night home renovating, planning for Amy’s wedding, our sixth anniversary- but what I truly love has been the minutiae in the day: deep belly laughs with the girls that rise above the restaurant din; hours sprawled on the study room sofa with my mom, watching episode after episode of a Korean drama; you procrastinating and playing guitar while I read, humming absentmindedly along; and the quiet, unhurried moments cruising in my car. This is what I will miss the most.

In spaces of silence and loneliness, of doubt and uncertainty, I will grasp that piece of jade luck and this feeling of warmth.

in detail: masraff’s

My dear friend Melissa celebrated her birthday yesterday. Aligning with Houston Restaurant Week, festivities were set at contemporary American Masraff’s. Flanking the bar, our sizable group was perfectly situated beneath the glowing fireplace elevated ten feet above and adjacent to the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the patio. The table was burbling with chatter by the time Mat and I arrived. After saying hello to the birthday girl, Mat and I settled next to Kirk who has been confined in the great Wells Fargo tower for much too long. Amidst discussion of power walking as a questionable Olympic sport, the hazards of matchmaking friends, and sizeable biceps, we ate.

Kirk, Mat and I agreed that ordering different items and eating family-style was the best option. We started with appetizers: calamari seared and tossed with oyster mushrooms in a soy reduction; tender spinach leaves topped with caramelized onions, creamed goat cheese and a garlic vinaigrette; and a creamy shrimp risotto. The calamari was the winner of the lot: lightly breaded, the steak cut slices were buttery, tender and a pleasant departure from their scraggly, deep-fried siblings.   OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Entrees were NY strip steak paired with asparagus and a truffled gold potato; seared ahi tuna and diver scallops with lemon and pea risotto, sauteed baby zucchini and sunburst squash in a saffron emulsion; and house cured pork chops with ginger braised red cabbage, pineapple confit and drizzled with a char sue glaze. The entrees were good but one particular side captured my heart: the spud, hollowed and piped with its flesh fluffed and invigorated with truffle oil, elicited moans and an appreciative “oh my God” that was echoed down the table by Melissa. A coffee was necessary at this point to ward off chills and prepare for dessert.
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Our last course was the much acclaimed crème brûlée; the molten chocolate eruption; and triple berry bread pudding with white chocolate, blueberry compote and cream cheese mousse. The crème brûlée, nestled in a butter roasted peach, was creamy and smooth; its crackly caramel top a foil to the custard beneath. As much as I savored each bite of the rich custard, I stole bite after bite from Mat’s two part dessert: an intensely fudgy cake that scalded my tongue with its volcanic temperature and then soothed with cool vanilla bean flecked ice cream.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Much love has been lost for upscale restaurants that provide pretentious service and scant portions but at Masraff’s the food was filling, the waiters warm, and the company fantastic. I felt a certain tenderness towards Tony Masraff as the white haired man-impeccably dressed, I might add- stopped by our table to inquire about the meal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A fabulous dinner rounded out with laughs-and plenty of pictures-all around. Happy birthday, Melissa.

countdown commencement

There are ten days until the big move. Ten. The countdown has officially begun.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The car needs to be sold; effective packing techniques employed; doors to be painted.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This past month my mom has thrown herself into improving the house. Replacing a few rotted boards has rapidly evolved. There are new tiles throughout the house; newly varnished walls, yet the work continues.

The kitchen cabinets are gusty- as are the bedrooms- for all the doors have been removed. Choosing to redo the cabinets ourselves, we stripped the old color, sanded with fervor, and stained them red mahogany; the panels now wait patiently for their final clear gloss. Lined up against the backyard fence, the doors were painted in whispering wheat, a barely there golden brown, but a sudden thunderstorm prevented a second coat so the doors too are lying in wait. And, lastly, all bedrooms have been gutted into the living room as wood floors are being placed down.

I’m excited to see the final outcome but mostly I’m excited to have Chibi stop barking incessantly at the construction workers. All this commotion has also distracted me from the days passing by, an unpleasant side effect that has made me increasingly misty-eyed.

government versus private loan

Dental school is “an investment in my future.” For those interested in how I will be financing this investment, read below. Forewarning, it is a lengthy-and dry-post.

To start, my current cost of attendance- including living expenses- for first year is estimated at $89,300. I’ve been awarded $42,722 in Direct Unsubsidized Loans, which means that I would need an additional $46,578. This is the maximum I would be allowed to apply for in loans and I most likely will not-and should not-need the full amount. Since I won’t be having any financial support from family or a job, I evaluated my loan options. For me, this came down to the Direct Plus Loan and the Discover Health Profession Loan. (Although other financial institutions offer private loans, Discover seemed to offer the best rate.)

To compare whether a government or private loan would better suit my needs, I created a chart based largely off of this one.

Direct Plus Loan Discover Health Profession Loan
Fixed Interest Rate 7.9% 6.79%-7.89%
Variable Interest Rate N/A prime index +0.00% to
prime index +2.50%
(currently 3.25% to 5.75% APR)
Origination Fee 4% of loan principal Zero
Has Income-Based Repayment Yes No
Cosigner option Borrowers with adverse credit history may be required to apply with an endorser May improve your likelihood for loan approval and may lower your interest rate
Auto-Debit Reward 0.25% 0.25%
Graduation Reward No No (fixed rate loans)
Yes (variable rate loans)
Early Loan Repayment Penalty (?) No No
Public Service Loan Forgiveness Yes No
Grace Period 6 months 9 months
Deferment and Forbearance Options Yes Yes

I initially started out with Direct Plus but, based on my research, I’ve put in a Discover fixed interest loan application with my mom as cosigner. Here’s why:

Fixed Interest Rate– Discover has a better fixed rate overall and, if you have a cosigner, you could possibly receive a lower interest rate. My mom has an excellent credit history and should be able to help make that happen.

Variable Interest Rate (& Cosigner Option)- The prime index is currently at 3.25%.  Assuming no additional interest added, at half the Direct Plus loan’s fixed rate, it’s a very tempting offer. Additionally, Discover offers a Graduation Reward for those who have a variable rate loan with the institution. However, keep in mind that the variable rate is subject to change during the lifetime of the loan so you’re taking a gamble. The highest prime index on the July 1, 2007 to July 1, 2012 chart was 8.25% in July 2007, a pronounced difference in five years. Assuming the prime index doesn’t sky rocket, a variable rate loan is the way to go. However, the key word is “assuming,” which is why I decided to stick with a fixed rate loan for peace of mind.

Origination Fee- According to the Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation, an origination fee is charged for each Federal Direct PLUS Loan made. This is reason alone to consider alternative options since 4% of the loan principal is a sizeable amount. Assuming a $40,000 loan each year, you would have to pay an additional $1600. That money then gets compounded with interest which can amount to an additional $10,000 after 4 years. Yikes.

Income-Based Repayment (& Public Service Forgiveness Program)- Direct Plus does have a very appealing Income-Based Repayment, or IBR, which is great for the recent graduate because it will alter your payment amount based on your income and family size. Plus once you’ve initially qualified, you can continue making payments under the plan even if you later no longer have a partial financial hardship. I would also like to highlight that under IBR:

1. If you repay under IBR for 25 years and meet certain other requirements, your remaining balance will be canceled.

2. If, while you are employed full-time for a public service organization, you make 120 on-time, full monthly payments under IBR (or certain other repayment plans) you may be eligible to receive forgiveness of the remaining balance of your Direct Loans through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. (Federal Student Aid)

However, there are also negatives. One being that you may have to pay taxes on the amount that is forgiven or canceled.

Lastly, something not mentioned on the above chart is that loan consolidation is an option for government loans as well as private loans. My college loans- all government- are now consolidated under Direct Consolidation Loans, which only handles government loans. My Direct Unsubsidized Loans will also later be consolidated under Direct Consolidation; if I had taken the Direct Plus Loan, those would have as well. However, private loans can also be consolidated. According to FinAid.org,

Since most private education loans do not compete on price, a private consolidation loans is merely replacing one or more private education loans with another. So the main benefit of such a consolidation is obtaining a single monthly payment. Also, since the consolidation resets the term of the loan, this may reduce the monthly payment (at a cost, of course, of increasing the total interest paid over the lifetime of the loan).

However, since the interest rates on private student loans are based on your credit score, you may be able to get a lower interest rate through a private consolidation loan if your credit score has improved significantly since you first obtained the loan. For example, if you’ve graduated and now have a good job and have been building a good credit history, your credit score may have improved. If your credit score has increased by 50-100 points or more, you may be able to get a lower interest rate by consolidating your debt with another lender. You can also try talking to the current holder of your loans, to see if they’ll reduce the interest rate on your loans rather than lose your loans to another lender.

IBR is advantageous and the options for loan cancellation/forgiveness should be considered but I believe that I’ll be able to make my payments without too much struggle. And, if necessary, Discover, like Direct Plus has deferment and forbearance options.

So that was my thought process through the financial aid ordeal. I’m now just waiting on the school to provide verification. I’ve heard that loan money doesn’t come in until late August/early September so I’ve been saving up through the summer for the initial move-in but it would be a pleasant surprise if my bank account was suddenly replenished by orientation. Wishful thinking, I know…

again, the indomitable monster

One summer semester in college, in an attempt to save money, I purchased parking next to the soccer stadium at a fraction of the cost for garage parking. I applauded my frugal and mature self.. until classes began. I came to find that the lot, perched on a hill, was only accessible by foot and the rare bus. So I would scamper down the slope in the mornings, a lengthy but manageable task. But each afternoon was hellish. With no breeze for relief, Texas heat brutalizes your senses. Sweat beads on your forehead, slicks your  hands. Every inhale is stagnant and heated; every step, heavier than the last. Each afternoon trek was further confirmation that I despised this dreadful season.

This year weeks of grey skies softened these scorching memories but Texas has finally climaxed to official summer weather. I ventured out to the grocery store past noon today and met the indomitable monster again in all its fiery glory. I am campaigning for reverse days from early June to mid August in which we all sleep from the hours of noon to seven and work in the night.

After scampering back to the cool sanctuary of my home, I made biscotti and knitted. (More on the biscotti once I’ve smoothed out the kinks.) Giant knitting sparked my intrigue with this picture.  Yes, I have the spirit of a 60-year-old woman. Yes, there is a scraggly ball of dark blue yarn tucked away somewhere proclaiming my failures at crocheting. But I was a woman possessed.

With inspiration from a chunky knit tutorial and a few videos on technique, I began a pattern.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am now on my second batch of three balls of yarn. According to the math, I will need seventy balls of yarn. Seventy. I’m guessing slash hoping that I won’t need all seventy balls since my needles and yarn are larger than the one specified by the pattern. Still, I plan on taking full advantage of Michael’s 40% off coupons.

This will be an abomination to handle by the fifth time I do the pattern but I am smitten with my blanket already. A downy thing made of an acrylic/wool blend, it isn’t the least bit rough and the trio of super bulky yarn has added a welcome heft.

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I will update you on it’s development. Until then I would recommend you employ a reverse day. And eat Snyder’s of Hanover honey mustard and onion pretzel bites! As a testimonial to the habit-forming snack, my mother stashed them in a yogurt container to prevent us from devouring the delicious nuggets; however, I am quite resourceful when a craving strikes.

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if sans laptop

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Tufted settees and tables of thick reclaimed wood crowd my mind but I am pulling myself away, rising from the depths of virtual interior decorating, to write to you.* I shan’t say much more though; sleep is slowly engulfing me and before long I’ll be spouting about needing oranges and finding squirrels.

*This is a test for posting via phone if I am ever sans laptop so let me know if anything seems awry.

**The above picture is Amy’s vegetable barley soup: yesterday’s lunch. I’m developing a tender heart for Amy’s after trying her curried lentil soup.