XO from TX

James Turrell’s SkySpace, an art installation on the Rice campus. You can gaze at the color-changing canvas from two decks.

Every now and then, driving around the pot-holed streets of Texas, I’ll catch my reflection in the rear-view mirror and think: Whoa. This is me/my life now.

I mean, I look the same (+ 12 unfortunate pounds of stress weight). I act mostly the same (+ the occasional hangover). Behind these sleep-deprived eyes, though, there’s been a sea change in my soul – in the deep well of emotions that dwells within me. A week ago, I would’ve told you that graduate school was everything I wanted it to be. I spent 45% of my time drinking Topo Chico at the grad-student-run bar, 23% working out, 15% thinking about my grant proposal, and 38% failing to understand statistics. It was luxurious. Now, though, shit is getting real. Deadlines, projects, exams, fears of failure, are piling up.

Before I completely get sucked into the abyss, however, here’s what I have learned in my first month of living in Houston.

My building on campus borders beautiful outdoor spaces and houses the art gallery.

Pros

  • My ‘hood. My house. My roomies. Everything about my living situation is lovely. I’m located in the hip “gayborhood” of Houston, which, compared to the SF Bay Area, is pretty tame — but it’s still got lovely little pockets of counterculture, trendy stuff, shady shit, etc. It reminds me a lot of Long Beach. My apartment, too, reminds me of the craftsman home I rented in Berkeley: creaky hardwood floors, floods of natural light, and lots of character. My roommates are like-minded and kind… and we’ve got the sweetest pup in the house.
  • My program. My cohort. My friends. They say the people make the place. Fortunately, I’ve very quickly found my community at Rice. They’re my family here. (I have actual family here, too, which is nice — but they’re not the ones putting up with my stressed-out shit on a daily basis like my labmates!)
  • The weather. Some may hate the humidity, but it’s been pretty manageable for me. Then again, I’m the kind of person who likes to sit in a warm car like a cat sunbathing in a windowsill. Anyway, I get to wear sundresses and sandals all the time, which has been doing great things for my psyche and wardrobe (less so for my wallet).
  • Tacos and Tex-Mex. I now understand the difference between Baja Californian cuisine and… Mexican food that is not that. I’ll never forsake El Chavito or Alerto’s back home, but there’s something to be said for the artery-clogging hybridization of Texan and Mexican food here.
  • Valhalla. My friends and I basically congregate at this aforementioned on-campus bar every week. Nothing is nicer than sitting underneath the willow trees with a drink after a long day at lab.
  • The social scene. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I no longer have a significant other (a story for another day, or maybe never?). This has drastically changed my lifestyle. Since being here, I’ve been so, so social. I’ve “crashed” a Taylor Swift concert, walked late nights along the Buffalo Bayou, went dancing super-drunk, hosted wine and taco dinners (a far cry from my elaborate SF parties, might I add), closed down coffee shops, and loitered at countless bars. In other words: I’ve had a lot of freedom and fun.

Houston sunsets can be pretty magical. Also: please ignore the fact that I totally took this picture while driving.

Cons

  • The weather. Again, though I can put up with the heat, this does result in a few unfortunate side effects. I thought I was impervious to mosquito bites but, um, definitely not. It also means that I can’t really enjoy the surprising number of green spaces in Houston. Outdoors isn’t really a “thing” until winter. (This is fine, however, considering that my options leaving California were the arctic Midwest, untenably expensive East Coast, or Texas. I’d still pick the latter, even now.)
  • Transportation. This is no San Francisco. I definitely miss walkability and consequent accessibility. Luckily, I’m enjoying driving more than I thought I would (especially after 5+ years of biking and taking MUNI/BART). Blasting hoodrat music while swerving around the streets makes me feel 17 again/like a true Houstonian. However, when I’m not driving, I have to Uber — and, embarrassingly, I’ve had to call for one whenever I’ve had one too many beers (which is, um, exactly one beer).
  • Urban planning. Houston is the wild west. Warehouses can pop up next to houses next to restaurants with abandon. It’s a jumble of glitter and grit: Pottery Barn blocks away from the projects. The streets that thread through these areas are pockmarked with potholes and brushed over with faded lane dividers. It’s workable, but pretty shabby if you compare it to the charismatic beauty of my previous location.
  • The social scene. Though grad school has helped me find my tribe, Houston still has a pretty different demographic from my West Coast roots. Every time I find out someone is from California (and especially from OC or SF), I feel an automatic, unbreakable closeness with them. I’ve become intensely aware of how strongly I identify with my home state — how much it has shaped me. As they say, you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
  • School. Oh, right. That’s why I’m here.
  • Time management. I hardly have time to eat food, let alone cook/document my meals and write about them here. Which brings me to an important point…

My favorite place to study on campus: a glass-walled cafe.

I’m guessing that the format of this blog is going to change quite a bit. I’ve even considered putting yoursjulie to rest — it is so entrenched in a life that is no longer mine. I look through the posts and feel like I’m looking into someone else’s experiences. There’s a deep disconnect between the girl who spent entire weekends baking cookies and the bedraggled grad student who furiously codes on her laptop at a picnic social.

All the same, this blog has been such an outlet for me. I can’t abandon it. I will obviously not be posting as often, and definitely not about elaborate days-long baking projects, but I’ll still be here.

I can promise you, too, that despite the radio silence, I am doing just fine. Sure, I am a homesick Californian. Yes, I am a poor graduate student. Yup, I’ve got barely any time and even less money. However, there are countless moments when my heart brims with gratitude and contentment. When I walk out of my lab after an afternoon shower and see the trees dripping with rain, the sun lighting up each translucent leaf. When I roll into my lab late with a (not basic at all) chai latte in hand, having had the entire morning to myself. When I grab last-minute late-night milkshakes with my friends, so delirious and happy I forget about the impending stomachache. Even, amazingly, when I stay five hours after class to work on stats, because I’m trading snacks and stories with my lively and lovely cohort the entire time. As my adviser likes to say, I’m working hard and playing hard. Somewhere along the way, Houston has started to feel like home.

My food photog skills remain A+.

P.S. The one food photo I’ve managed to snap: kolaches, a beloved Houstonian treat, are a Czech pastry that come filled with sweet or savory ingredients. This here is a boudain (Creole sausage) version from Mornings Kolaches. Dangerously good.

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