I peered across the room to the see the clock on the kitchen oven. By this time of day the sunlight was blasting its way into the apartment completely annihilating the dull green glowing time. I finally had to get up from the couch and delicately tip-toe around the piles of papers and research that stacked like a miniature skyscrapers around my feet. Once in the kitchen I cupped my hand to block the light and check the time. 10:32 AM.
“Oh hell,” I muttered. I had woken up at 6 AM to start working and already four hours had flitted away without my notice. My head, buried in the collected works of Karl Marx and Carlo Petrini and fueled by an exaggerated cup of black tea, had been too preoccupied.
My stomach growled a low bass rumble that shook the kitchen. I felt exhausted, stressed, and completely empty. I grabbed a piece of bread and smeared it with a bit of butter before wolfing it down to fill all the nothing inside me. As soon as I swallowed some of it a ripple of nausea took over. I felt my throat beginning to contort and my tongue instinctively taking a sluice-like position. I turned on my heel and threw myself over the sink and spit out the bread I was still chewing. I immediately braced myself for what was sure to come.
I waited. My stomach churned. My diaphragm sent my torso heaving. Nothing came. I waited some more. Nothing.
I dragged myself up and wiped the tears out of my eyes. A deep breath followed by another, heavier breath. I forced the rest of the bread down. I washed it all with the rest of my tea, which by now was hoarse and cold but I wanted the bitterness to nullify the lingering gastronomic vertigo that my stomach seemed to be recoiling from.
It was time for a break.
The anxiety attack had been caused by, unsurprisingly, the thesis. I had finally received feedback on my last chapter from my second reader. Most of it was positive, but she had noted a few places where she thought my arguments rested too much on broad generalizations and needed some more concrete evidence, preferably Marxist.
I had avoided learning anything more than the basic premises of Marxist critique and theory during my academic life because I had found it rather dull and uninspiring. Now, at the end of a nine year run of undergrad and grad school, Marx came bum-rushing in right before the finish line to kneecap me with a lead pipe. I had spent the previous 32 hours reading through most of Marx's major works attempting comprehend his theories. (Which, now, I will admit, are kinda intriguing.) I was mentally drained and physically exhausted.
I was doing my best to do a three day turnaround on my thesis and get a near-perfect draft to my final reader. With only 5 weeks left in the semester I needed approval or else I was doomed to enroll in a regular semester instead of enrolling in continuous enrollment semester of which I was currently on my last semester of.
Here’s how it works and the situation I find myself in: Each student gets three semesters of continuous enrollment where you aren’t really taking classes. It’s just more time to work on your thesis or project. Continuous enrollment costs about $200. If you go past three you have to re-enroll in a regular semester which costs about $2000.
I’m trying to get the thesis fixed and approved under a tight deadline so I can finish this semester. The reason for the anxiety is that if my reader requests a revision I probably won’t have enough time to fix it and get it to her. I would have to wait 6 more months and pay thousands of dollars in order for her to spend a few hours reading a revision. Her hands are essentially tied as she is disallowed to legally or contractually do any work outside of school time and read it when she is not on the clock else she get in trouble with the school.
I had appealed to the school for an extension, citing that the house fire last January during my first continuous enrollment semester had destroyed most of my research along with everything else and that I hadn’t dis-enrolled at the time simply because it wasn’t on my mind. Homelessness will do that. The graduate department (aka: The Bastards) perplexedly concluded that this was not a valid reason. So now I'm trapped in a web of bureaucratic yellow tape and deadlines. I imagine the dean of the college simply lying in wait deciding on when to plunge its mandibles into my wallet and soul (it’s not a matter of either/or, but of which one first).
I was now on day three of trying to revise and perfect a 160-page document on that not only did my graduation hinder on, but another six months of my life and thousands of dollars of possible tuition money that would come out of my pocket. Hence the anxiety attack.
Staring into the sink I knew that there was only one thing to do right now. I got out my good pot and my canning materials, and pulled out the hefty bag of strawberries I purchased the other day in preparation for this. I would make jam.
Jamming is my mode of escape from stressful situations. It’s methodical work that requires all of your senses and attention. You have to diligently cut and chop every piece of fruit to similar size. You're constantly touching, smelling, observing, and tasting. Jamming requires you to be intimate with your produce as each batch will have a different personality. Yesterday’s may be slothful and bubble for hours in a syrupy mess before coming together, while today’s may be unripe and unruly, and tomorrow’s batch may be quite keen on you and jam with little more than a click of your heels. Each batch requires supervision and an always stirring hand in order to ensure uniformity.
Jam, thank god, requires that you think and focus on nothing else but jam.
This is why I find it to be such a grand escape. Plus, the bonus of jam making in order to escape is the jam. Your effort results in a rich, concentrated fruit that envelopes the eater.
As I pushed the strawberries into the pot I noticed a bottle of Bordeaux sitting on the counter. BF and I had opened it last night and capped the rest off for later. Without much consideration I grabbed the bottle and poured a few steady glugs of it in the pot. I immediately then put the bottle to my lips and finished the rest. It was dark, fruity, and with a taste of berries and pepper; but without exposure to air the wine was also harsh and burned at my negligence. I twitched a little and felt better as my body warmed.
Time passed and the jam came together. It tasted as red probably should, full of spring and precociously sweet fruit. I processed it and licked the spoon clean.
The wine began to take hold and the work had relaxed me. My stress began to wash away and my brain relax as it pushed out concerns of superstructures and deadlines and thought about lid sterilization. Ah, lid sterilization. I pondered about how utterly simple and wonderful lid sterilization is. No rhetorical questions are involved in processing jam. You just preform the task with attentive care.
As I write this days later the anxiety is still present, but tamed. My thesis is now sitting in a professor’s office awaiting judgment. I’m still on the verge of throwing up half the time when I think about it or open my e-mail knowing that a fateful e-mail may await me. The well wishes I have received are hopeful, inspiring, and greatly appreciated, but now it rests on my work and the approval of a single individual. I have no inkling on what her impressions will be.
Still, I have jam. I can eat that and momentarily, even for just a split second, relax. Those split seconds matter to me. That is why jamming, then, is so damn important. Any escape is.
Strawberry & Red Wine Jam
3 1/2 lbs. strawberries, hulled and diced
1/4 cup red wine
juice of 2 lemons
1 lb. sugar
1/8 teaspoon butter
1. Place all the ingredients in a stainless steel or copper pot, or a enamel lined dutch oven (not an aluminum pot as this will leach). Let macerate for about 10 minutes. Place a small plate in the freezer as this will be used for testing later.
2. Turn heat to medium-high. The mixture will bubble and froth vigorously. Skim the foam off the top and discard (or save it and put it on cheese or yogurt; super tasty). The boil will subside to larger bubbles, but still bubble vigorously. Be sure to begin gently stirring the jam frequently to prevent it from sticking and burning to the bottom.
3. After about 20 minutes begin testing the jam by placing a small amount on the cold plate. Allow 30 seconds to pass and then run your finger through it to see what the cooled consistency will be. Boil for a few minutes longer if desired for a thicker jam.
4. Ladle into hot, sterilized canning jars and seal leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Wipe the rims of the jars clean before applying the lids. Screw on the rings to finger-tight. Work quickly. Process in a water bath to ensure a good seal. If you want you can skip the water bath and just screw the lids on tight where the heating-cooling process will create a vacuum seal, but the water bath is a surefire method for a secure seal.
*To sterilize the jars, rinse out clean mason jars, dry them, and place them, without lids, upright in a 200°F oven for 10 minutes. To sterilize the lids put them in a shallow bowl and pour boiling water over them.