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My day has involved some frustration.  My bike lock got wet in the rain, and has now dried and jammed itself shut.  A solid dose of WD40 will probably fix it, but still, irritating.  There is basically no food in the house; a side effect of being gone on and off for most of the month.  And the recurring irritation of our house not really being insulated at all ,so the second the heater shuts off, the temperature plummets, and the heat comes back on.

I really hate being cold.  I live in the SF Bay Area, so it’s not like it gets all *that* cold, but it feels really cold because it’s damp and, like I said, the houses aren’t insulated.  So my house feels like an ice box, and I’m grouchy about having to function in it.  Actually, fairly soon, we’re having contractors come out and insulate our house and add weather stripping and a few other energy efficiency bits that I’m quite excited about, so hopefully I won’t have to spend another winter pissed off at the long-dead-builders of my house.

All of this build up is to give this next bit some context: Hot chocolate can cure many many ills.  Last week, I was at my monthly tabletop game, and all of us were freezing; our host’s house suffers the same problem mine does, with the added injustice of the heater not really working at all.  One of his housemates came home a couple of hours into the game, and asked “Who wants hot chocolate?”  All of us wanted hot chocolate.

I think of hot chocolate as a thing children drink.  I do quite like it, but I don’t think about it most of the time.  I’m usually drinking coffee (iced, actually, even in winter) or sometimes hot tea.  Hot chocolate just doesn’t occur to me.  So when we made hot chocolate in the kitchen full of gamers, it was the first time I’d had it in a while.  If you don’t count the times I’ve dumped hot chocolate mix into my hot coffee, then it’s probably been several years.

We used a cheap powdered mix and hot water, and it was *still* delicious.  Warm and creamy and comforting and perfect.  And I’ve been thinking about it ever time I’ve stepped outside for the last week and change.  So today, freezing my ass off in my kitchen and trying to avoid going into my even-colder-bedroom to do laundry, it finally occurred to me to actually make some hot chocolate.

I think I do actually have some of those hot chocolate mix packets kicking around; I like to take them camping to help make campfire coffee a little better.  They’re not really very good, though, and I had better options in my pantry.

As it turns out, making hot chocolate from scratch is actually pretty easy.  All you need is milk, cocoa powder and a little sugar for a basic but excellent hot chocolate.  I like to add a little cinnamon and almond extract to mine, and a tiny pinch of salt to dress it up.  Here’s my basic recipe:

1.5 cups milk (dairy or non, whichever you like)

1-2 Tablespoons of cocoa powder, depending on how strong you like yours

1-3 teaspoons of sugar, to taste

very small pinch of salt

Combine ingredients in a small pan, and, stirring constantly, heat on low until steaming, but not yet bubbling.  Pour into a mug and serve.

Your cocoa powder will float on top and look like it’s never going to mix in while the milk is cold, but will dissolve nicely once it all warms up.  If you want to add vanilla or almond extract, add it at the end, just before serving.  Powdered cinnamon will add great flavor, but a slightly gritty texture; you can add a cinnamon stick at the beginning to get good flavor without the grit.  Also try adding burbon, or peppermint schnaaps, or a candy cane.  You can also add a few chunks of dark chocolate at the beginning to make it really extra rich.

All together, this usually takes less than 10 minutes, and it’s SO good.  I get the convenience of those packets, but seriously, this is quick, easy and much much better.

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Paint it black.

The “LBD” or Little Black Dress is ubiquitous in Western culture today.  They’re everywhere; a uniform for every woman’s night out.  They can be worn, dressed up with fancy jewelry, to even very high end venues and events.  They’re often a little less “little” on the red carpet, but they’re still present.  Look around the office, the LBD is there, too, dressed down with a blazer or a sweater.  You probably even see your barista in an LBD occasionally.

I can get behind owning a nice multi-purpose dress for those fancy occasions that come up; it’s good to have something in your arsenal just in case.  And black looks good on basically everyone, and it’s appropriate for basically every occasion. Here’s the thing, though.  I really hate seeing black dresses at celebrations.

With New Year’s Eve coming up, I’m plotting my party dress (I should be clearing off my studio cutting table right now, actually), and I’ve been thinking about what I want to make.  I had originally planned to use this lovely charcoal gray silk I picked up to make a 50s-ish dress; it has these adorable teeny metallic silver polka-dots and I thought it was reasonably festive… but I can’t do it.  Gray is too close to black, and I really really  hate wearing black for NYE.

On Winter Solstice, I’ll be wearing all the bright colors I own to celebrate the turning point.  The short, dim days full of watery sunlight when they’re not full of fog or clouds bring me down; my mood is characterized by apathy and I spend my days wanting to sleep through until Spring.  I occasionally thank my lucky stars I didn’t move even further north.  I need a reason to celebrate; I’ve been wearing the same Navy blue and dark green and gray and burgundy sweaters for months and I really need to see some color.  I have a small pile of rhinestone trim and some red yarn I’m working with sitting on my desk; I keep meaning to clear them off and put them away, but I enjoy seeing them and being reminded that it’s not always going to be dark.

It’s easy to wear bright colors in Summer.  Everyone wears them; bright t-shirts, floral sundresses, colorful hats.  We match our surroundings.  In Winter, we match, too.  Grays, dark blues, black; muted colors dominate.  It’s difficult to get Winter clothing in bright colors, even.  I found a fuchsia overcoat at a thrift store, and I snatched it up because it was so unusual.  Gloves are almost always black, especially the heavy duty kind.  Scarves get colorful, sometimes, but I don’t (often) wear Winter scarves in my office.  My Mom and Sister have taken up knitting, and the gifts they’ve made me are bright colors; I wear them often, even when they don’t go with my outfit, because they’re pretty colors, and because they’re like wearing a hug; someone loves me enough to spend hours and hours on this gift for me.   And in Winter, I need all the hugs I can get.

In Winter, when we haven’t seen cheerful colors in months and the weather is cold and horrible it becomes so important to celebrate something.  Holidays like Christmas offer a good excuse for splashes of color.  To me, though, celebrating the turning of the year, the close of all the experiences, good and bad of the old year, and a chance for a new start is the most important.  It’s why I’ll celebrate Solstice, and it’s why I love New Year’s Eve parties.  To be with my friends and welcome in our new experiences and pay respect to the past and to each other; to celebrate the coming longer days, to set goals for ourselves.  None of these things are dark, or glum or somber.  None of these go well with black.

The fashion industry, too, is to blame here.  It’s really difficult to find brightly colored party dresses for New Year’s.  The cursed LBD is everywhere, and it’s used as an excuse to play it safe.  Black is such a popular color!  Everyone looks good in it!  And it sells.  Bright colors are a risk;  some people will dislike them, others don’t dislike the color, but do dislike how it looks on them.  Still other people won’t want to  risk buying a dress that will be hard to wear again; lime green isn’t really the thing at most office parties, for example.   And if the bright colors won’t sell, they won’t get made.

I tend to purchase my NYE dress at thrift stores for this reason.  That lime green dress that someone fell in love with 5 years ago?  It’s at the thrift store for $15 this year.  I’ve found bright dresses at the thrift store that I would never have expected to wear, and they’ve become my favorite dresses.  I go down the rack and pull out every dress that might fit me that isn’t black, regardless of whether or not I think I’ll like it.  I try them on, and more often than not, I’m surprised by how many of the dresses I *do* like.  It’s a fun exercise in getting out of your comfort zone, too.

TL;DR: Wear a bright color for NYE; black is a boring and lazy choice for a celebration.

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Unloved and lost.

I have a problem.  You know how some people end up with half a dozen pets because they just can’t not take home a stray?  I’m that way, too, except that my strays are abandoned or broken household items, the older the better.  I have a collection of antique Singer sewing machines that keeps growing (we had 9 machines in the house for a while there).  It pains me to see beaten up antiques free on Craigslist and not take them home to refurbish.  And if it’s on the curb, right there, in front of me?  I’m doomed.

Which is how I came to possess an extremely battered glass chandelier.

I was 30 miles into a 40 mile ride along some hilly back roads in the Berkeley hills; the particular road I was on isn’t even residential.  There’s some parking areas for hiking trails towards the top, but no houses.  I was slogging up what is usually one of my favorite climbs in the area in nearly 100* heat at a predictably slow pace.  It was hot enough that even in the shade I was having trouble.  I had long since lost view of my two ride buddies.  I was mostly staring at the pavement 20 or so feet in front of me, occasionally looking up in hopes that I’d gotten to the top without noticing it (I hadn’t).  And I looked up, and I thought I was seeing things; there was a glass chandelier hanging in a tree in the back of a turnout that was a few yards from me.  Glad of the excuse, I stopped to check it out.

It had once been beautiful.  Probably not a great quality chandelier, it had been quite pretty at one time nonetheless.  Now, however, it was dirty, one arm was broken in half, most of the bobeche (the glass tutus around the “candles”) were missing and the two that weren’t were broken, the crystal drops were missing, and the metal parts were all corroded.  Still, hanging in that tree looking sad, the chandelier spoke of better times.  Elegant dinners, glittering parties.  I needed to take it home and fix it up.  It couldn’t be that hard, right?

The first challenge, of course, was how do you get a chandelier, a fragile GLASS chandelier no less, home on a bicycle?  The short answer is: You don’t.  I did spend a good 5 minutes considering.  I was on the bicycle with a rack.  I might be able to rig something using my wind breaker (no, I don’t know why I bothered to bring it, either).  Maybe I could use its cord to tie it on?  It didn’t take long for me to realize that no matter what I did, there was an extremely solid chance that I would just damage the chandelier further by trying to take it home on my bike.  But, since it had clearly been hanging here a while, I could probably safely assume that it would still be here if I came back for it with a car.

I almost didn’t.  I almost put it out of my mind and left it hanging in that tree.  But after the ride, one of my buddies asked me if I’d seen the chandelier in that tree, how odd was that?  And so I went home, showered, changed, and got a car.  The chandelier was still there.  I regret that I didn’t get a picture of it at the time; I didn’t think to photograph it until I had it home and in pieces.  And it’s a crappy picture, too.



There had been five arms on the chandelier; one of them was broken in half with a chunk of the middle missing.  The wiring was in uncertain condition, so I removed it entirely.  The entire thing was FILTHY.  The entire thing could be disassembled, so I took it apart and washed all the glass parts; the metal was a bigger problem.  The metal had, at one point, been made to look like brass.  It wasn’t brass.  If the pieces I tried to polish are any indication, they were mostly copper with a brass-ish coating.  Polishing just took the coating off and left them looking even more terrible.  After some research online, I discovered I could replace most of the metal parts with actual brass, but it would be prohibitively expensive.  I also found out that just about the only way re coat the pieces was to paint them, and lo, I happened to have some gold spray paint laying around.  So I sanded the worst corrosion off, and painted all the gold bits with a soft gold paint.

I ordered new insulators for the light fixtures, and cleaned the corrosion off the contacts.  I looked up how to wire the thing without electrocuting myself (actually, this is pretty easy).  I purchased fancy antique reproduction cord and a plug (with modern safety features) to use for the parts that would show.  I got replacement candle covers for the light fixtures, and found fancy LED Filament bulbs that look like Edison bulbs but take dramatically less electricity.  I stalked Etsy and Ebay for replacement crystals and bobeche.

The arm was going to be the hard part.  These chandeliers are sort of mass produced, but there’s still a lot of variation in them.  I’m fortunate; there’s a local shop? epic warehouse of fun? Salvage yard? called Urban Ore, and I had seen bins of spare chandelier arms there.  I packed up the arm and went looking.  It took me a while to get an employee to help me (they were swamped and short staffed, go figure), and then I spent nearly an hour fishing through the loose arms and trying to find one that matched.  I got pretty close; unless you hold the new arm up right on top of one of the old ones, you really can’t tell it’s not original; its curve is a little more dramatic, but only a little.

Once I got it home, though, I discovered that the ferrule, the metal and part on the glass arms, was different; it didn’t have holes drilled in it to hang extra swags of crystals like the others did.  Crap.  But the ferrules on the broken arm were fine; all I had to do was figure out how to switch them out.  With some research, I found out that the ferrules are usually cemented in using plaster; a few days soaking in water should soften it enough to remove the ferrules, scrub off the plaster, and put on new ones.  Naturally, one of the ferrules on my new arm had been put in place using something… not plaster.  There was cotton and glue and some other nonsense going on, but it pulled off easily enough and nail polish remover took care of the rest.  Resetting the ferrules wasn’t too bad, and now all of my arms matched!

I found crystals online pretty easily, and purchased some used drops that were lightly chipped, and new swags, because they were easier to find in the quantities I needed.  Assembly was remarkably easy, though the wiring was challenging to fit into the base because it was kind of bulky.

The only thing left now is to hang it from the ceiling.  Not too terrible for something I found hanging in a tree.


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Some things just aren’t that difficult.

I’m often told that what I’m working on is “difficult”.  I hear it about cooking, baking, crochet, sewing, canning, etc.  I hear it about a LOT of my hobbies.

I usually reply that it’s not hard.  And it’s not!  But what I mean when I say something isn’t difficult is that no part of it is actually difficult; I don’t view very involved things as difficult, even if they’re time consuming.  For example, the picture above is every step I’ve gone through, to date, to make a pair of fingerless gloves from loose wool.  I spun the singles, plied them, wound the resulting yarn into a ball, and then crochet glove 1.  I’m partway through the pattern for glove 2, and then I’ll weave in the loose ends and dye and block them (you can actually dye yarn at any of a number of points, including as loose fiber, I just haven’t yet).

The spinning is often considered its own project, and rightly so; it takes days, if not months ,of work to have enough yarn to make much with.  As projects go, though, spinning isn’t *complicated*.  You basically use a fancy version of a child’s top to add twist to loose fiber.  I do actually consider spinning difficult;  unlike many other things, you can’t really break it down into multiple easy steps.  There’s really only two steps; spin singles, and then ply them together.  Spinning is a skill, like singing, or doing long division in your head.  Anybody can learn to do it, but to learn to do it well, you need to dedicate time and practice and lots and lots of mistakes.

Crochet, though.  Crochet is *easy*.  Those mitts are made using three whole stitches.  So long as you can learn to do each stitch and can keep count, you’re golden.  If you’ve ever tied a slip-knot, you can crochet.  It’s even possible to crochet using just your hands; many people daisy-chain their extension cords, for example, which is just a very large scale crochet.  So, sure, I’ve done those three stitches many many many times at this point, but each stitch is damn easy.  This is a great case of something many people thing is difficult that I would argue is actually simple, but involved.  No one step of this pattern is even vaguely hard, there are just many many steps.

So I would argue that skills are often difficult to learn, but actual projects are rarely difficult, merely involved.   A skill, like riding a bicycle, drafting out an even yarn, playing a musical instrument, etc., cannot be broken out into smaller, simple tasks.  You can’t teach someone to play a violin by breaking down a piece of music into individual tasks.  … well, you kind of can, but it doesn’t sound very good.  You can’t teach someone to ride a bike by telling them “ok, and now you just … don’t fall over.”  A skill is something that requires practice to learn the feel of; there aren’t great words to explain it, you just have to do it over and over again until it works.

Projects, though, can be broken down into smaller steps.  Instead of “make bread” I can write it out step by step; this is what a recipe is.  Most projects can be written up as a recipe of sorts.  You gather your materials, and you put them together according to the recipe, and you get a particular end result.  You often do need to learn a thing or two to  complete a recipe; maybe you don’t know how to knead dough.  Maybe you need to learn how to measure out flour.  Maybe you need to learn how to turn on your oven, or what “preheating” means.  But those aren’t the task “make bread”, they’re merely skills you’ll use during the task.  They’re prerequisites, sort of.  And once you have them, they apply to all things related to measuring and preheating and turning on the oven.

Much of the time, the first time I tackle a project, I have a few prerequisites to learn.  Usually, though, I have done something similar before, and can build on that previous skill.  Or they’re often very simple skills, like “measure out 1 teaspoon”.  I suspect that this is why people who work with their hands often do better when picking up a new craft that people who don’t often work with their hands.  My cousin-in-law mentioned that he’d made his wife’s wedding dress, and I commented that I was surprised he knew how to sew.  His answer?  “I didn’t, but I figured that it couldn’t be that different than carpentry.”

So the next time you’re considering a new project, and are worried that it’s too “difficult” stop and think about it.  Is it actually difficult, or is it merely involved?  Can you break it up into smaller not-difficult tasks?  What is the prerequisite skill you feel you don’t have?  Can you find a tutorial on just that skill?  Can you practice just that skill a few times?  For example, installing a zipper into a square of fabric, just to practice installing the zipper before you actually put one in your nearly-complete dress.

Also consider what the worst case is if you don’t succeed.  If it’s high stakes, like deciding to sew your prom dress three days before the event, maybe pass this time, and learn later, or have someone experienced help you.  But often, the stakes are pretty low.  If you try making bread on Saturday afternoon, and you end up with a beautifully loaf-shaped brick instead, it’s not a huge loss, and you can laugh about it with friends.  If you try to knit a scarf, maybe you instead end up with a fabulous cat toy the first few times.  If you try to ride a bike, maybe you fall over a few times (you probably will), but you’ll heal.  … Also, I’ve been riding for years, and I still fall over pretty regularly because I’m too busy enjoying the view.

In short, don’t write off a project just because it has lots of steps.  Odds are very good that you have most of the skills you need, now you just need to figure out the tasks.  And even when you mess up, you’ll learn something, and increase the skills you have.