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Things I thought everyone knew, groceries edition.

20160209_150200I apparently had a strange childhood.   Of course it seemed normal to me, and my sister and I often stare at friends when they say things that we had thought that of course everyone knew.  One of our friends didn’t know until a few months ago that you can have many shoes re-soled, for example.

One thing that I think has hugely impacted my life that basically nobody in my generation does well is writing a grocery list.  I don’t mean jotting down the three things you’re nearly out of that happen to occur to you right before you head out.  Instead, Imean really, truly writing a comprehensive list of all the things you are out of or will need to feed yourself for the upcoming week.  If done right, a grocery list will save you a ton of time, probably a good bit of money, and a lot of guilt over wasted food.

You won’t need to go back to the store three times because you forgot something.  You can plan to use up or freeze leftovers for future meals.  You won’t eat out just because figuring something else out sounds like too much work; it’ll already be done.  You’ll already have a plan for those quickly-wilting salad greens, so they won’t go to waste.

Here’s how I do it:

You need a note pad that will become your permanent groceries note pad.  You need a pen or pencil that will become your permanent groceries pencil.  You need a large binder clip and a string.  Tie the string to both the binder clip and the pencil, then clip it to the note pad.  That note  pad should now live somewhere you can easily see it and write on it every time you run out of something, and where you can refer to it each evening when you’re getting ready to cook.  Mine hangs on a hook on the pantry.

Now gather up your calendar and the calendar of anyone else in your house you’re cooking for/with regularly, any cookbooks you’d like to cook out of, and probably a beer; the first time you do this will take a while, and it can be irritating and exhausting, but it will ultimately be so much better, I promise.  If you get a CSA and have a list of the contents on hand, grab that, too.

Grab your grocery pad and go through your house.  Check everywhere you keep food, or grocery items like cleaning products or toilet paper.  Keep two columns, one for things you need to buy, and one for things you’d like to use up.  Include things you’relow on, don’t wait until you’re out unless it’s something you use very rarely.  You will probably only need to do this step the first time.

Now, sit down with that beer and those cookbooks and calendars and your CSA list.  First, pick the day you’ll go shopping.  This first time, give yourself AT LEAST four hours.  You’re not just going to shop, you’ll also need to get everything home and put away, and if your fridge is like mine, that might take some doing.  It’ll take a while the first few times, but it will get faster.

Now, look at your calendars and figure out what meals you’ll be cooking for, who you’ll be feeding, and how much time you’re willing to spend each evening.  For example, don’t try to plan a roast chicken on Tuesday night; you’re not going to have a lot of time or energy for it, so you maybe plan that for Sunday(there’s a reason Sunday dinner is a thing).  Now, go through your cookbooks or beloved recipe websites and find recipes that meet your criteria for each evening.  Prioritize things that use up your CSA produce, and plan to use the things that spoil the fastest earlier in the week.   Remember to plan side dishes.

Try to plan meals that use up the things on your earlier list that you want to get rid of.  If you decide to cook something later in the week that has a particularly delicate ingredient, consider either moving that meal to earlier in the week, or picking a day where you could drop by the shop and get that item the day you’re planning to cook it.

Remember that you’re going to need to eat lunch and dinner, and probably some snacks.  I usually eat the same thing each day for breakfast and lunch, which makes planning them easier.  Things like sandwiches can be augmented with leftover salad from dinner, or soup frozen into single servings.  You could also easily just plan to make extra of dinner and re-heat leftovers for lunch if that’s your thing.  Same thing for snacks; I tend to keep hummus and pita and fancy olives kicking around because I like them, they keep well, and they fit my dietary requirements.

If you’re going to have friends over, take their eating habits into account, too; do you have a vegan friend who drops by on the regular?  Or maybe gluten free?  or maybe you just have that one friend who prefers coffee to tea?  Come up with something to have on hand for them, or if you’re sharing a meal, find one that they can eat.

Example 1:

In this example, I’m home alone in the evening; I want something quick, that maybe my husband doesn’t eat which I like.  Shrimp fits the bill; it’s fast, I love it, and my husband can’t eat it so I rarely get to have it.

_____day:  Breakfast: re-heated quiche

Lunch: Sandwich with side of soup (frozen and reheated from last week)

Dinner: Just me; quick shrimp stir fry with sauteed spinach and naan

Snacks: hummus, olives and pita; fresh fruit

 

Example 2:

My husband and I have dates with our partners, and we’re all cooking together.  My partner and husband both can’t eat seafood, and his partner is vegetarian (but will eat seafood, of course) and hates celery.  There’s more hands, so a more labor intensive dinner won’t actually take a whole long longer.

______day:  Breakfast: Re-heated quiche

Lunch: Sandwich and fruit

Dinner: Veggie enchiladas, Mexican rice, re-fried beans

 

Once you’ve got your meals planned out,  startwriting your grocery list.  I divide my list into sections based on where in the grocery store things live.  For example, all of the bulk goods I’m buying will be grouped together under “Bulk”, all the dairy items will be together, all the produce, etc.  I know my grocery store pretty well, so it’s not hard anymore, but if you don’t know your store well, then do your best, and maybe take notes for next time.  I know this sounds a little obsessive, but planning how you’re going to move through the store and grouping your list that way will save you time by preventing backtracking; it will also mean you’re not having to scan your whole list to cross off an item.  Include the items from the earlier list of things you’re low on or out of.  Go through each meal you’ve planned and check the recipes; add any ingredients that you don’t have to the list, and check to make sure you have the others if you’re not sure.  Add any luxury items like ice cream or beer that don’t fit into any of the meal categories.  Now, take a deep breath, and a sip of that beer.  You’re done!

Congrats, you’re ready to go shopping!  Take your list with you and cross off items as you put them in your cart.  When you get home, put everything away promptly so things don’t spoil.  If you’ve got the time, consider prepping some things ahead of time, like chopping a few onions and putting them in a jar in the fridge to use for the week.

After you shop, hang your meal plan where you can see it so you don’t have to wonder what you planned for tonight.  Hang the list with a fresh piece of paper showing, and every time you use a pantry item up, write it on the list.  Grabbed the last roll of TP?  Onto the list.  Almost out of flour?  Onto the list.  This will take the place of going through the house taking inventory the next time you plan.  If you like, you can keep old meal plans and use them again.  There’s no reason to start fresh each week unless you want to.

I know that this is really long.  I know it sounds like a lot of work, and honestly, it kind of is.  But on Wednesday night when you get home late from work and you’re starving and you’re considering just ordering takeout, you’re already set.  You already have a quick snack that you like waiting for you.  You already know what you’re making, you already have all of the ingredients.  You already planned for fast weeknight meals, so now all you have to do is spend half an hour tossing ingredients together and you’ll have a delicious homemade dinner ready faster than the delivery guy could get to you anyway.

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Heaven

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.

 

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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.

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The value of complaints.

I keep seeing this “21 Day Challenge” thing going around.  The idea is that you wear a bracelet on one wrist and any time you complain, you swap it over to the other wrist; sarcasm and snark count as complaining.  You keep that up until you can go 21 days without complaining.

That sounds pretty good, right?  We could all be more positive.  But here’s where it concerns me: there is no exception for *valid* complaints.  There is no exception for when you need to say “Hey, that thing that’s happening, that’s not ok.”  And that *is* a complaint, make no mistake.  Calling out bullshit, or mansplaining, or harassment is complaining.  And it’s IMPORTANT to call that stuff out.

I’m down with reducing the number of snarky comments, or “I hate the weather.”  Everyone in San Francisco already knows that it’s ludicrously hot, none of us need to reiterate it.  A suggestion that I heard that I quite liked was that in any case where you’re tempted to complain, bring up a potential solution to the problem, too.  This is still kind of problematic, because sometimes your solution is going to have to be “don’t do that thing that you’re doing that’s not ok,” and you have no power to control whether the other person will actually take your solution to heart, but it’s better than just not saying anything.

If we begin to stigmatize all complaints, then we make it that much harder to do the already difficult work of calling out racism, privilege, sexism, abuse, even.  And that is all kinds of not ok.  So.  How do we fix this challenge so that valid complaints are not stigmatized?  Thoughts?

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Multi-tasking

We know, as a society, that humans are bad at multi-tasking.  Science has tested this over and over and over and has never gotten any other result than “yup, we’re bad at multi-tasking.”  And yet, we keep doing it.  We keep demanding in job descriptions that people be good at it, we keep setting up situations that require it, and we keep being surprised when we’re not very effective and we’re super stressed out.  One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Maybe it’s time to stop being insane about this thing.

Personally, I find multi-tasking extremely stressful.  The thing is, I often think I’m bored if I’m not trying to do several things at once.  For example, I only rarely eat dinner without also poking the Internet.  This isn’t actually satisfying on either front; I put a good amount of effort into making good food, so why am I only half paying attention to it?  If what I’m doing online is so interesting, why am I half-assing it?  And if it’s *not* that interesting, why am I doing it?

I joke that one of my hobbies is picking up new hobbies, and I also joke that I never have free time.  One of these things is true, one of them is only sort of true.  I truly love learning new things, I love finding out how something is done, and that I can do it, which is why I pick up new hobbies all the time.  But I have significantly less time to do that in because I spend a lot of time poking the Internet; checking Twitter and other social media sites, watching cat videos, or falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole.  If I’m bored, my default is to do those things, and probably also shop around Etsy and Ebay, even though I have no intention of buying anything.  It’s habit.  But it’s deeply unsatisfying.  I sit down and then when I look up, I’ve lost several hours.  The result is that I sleep less than I’d like, and I feel like I have no free time, while simultaneously feeling like I’ve done nothing all day.

The thing is, just sitting with my thoughts is… unsettling.  It’s very rare to see someone be alone with themselves, and we often feel pity for those people.  That person sitting alone at the restaurant or coffee shop probably has their computer with them; they’re not really alone.  Try going into a coffee shop sometime and sitting down with no electronic device and no company.  For me, at any rate, it feels extremely uncomfortable.  I feel like everyone is judging me for being all alone, and if I really think about it, I use my phone or laptop to hide from that feeling; “see?  I’m not really alone, I’m busy!”  But busy doing what, exactly?

I have spoken before about spinning yarn; it’s a form of meditation for me, as well as just something to do with my hands while I talk or consume hands-free media.  The thing is, I have to make myself spin with no other distractions going on.  It is always uncomfortable.  I always feel my thoughts trying to run off and squirrel around.  I want to distract myself, I feel bored.  But distract myself from *what*?  I’m actually doing something I enjoy.  And yes, I do spin better when I’m not thinking about what I’m doing.  So why not focus my energy into experiencing it, rather than thinking about it, or into some other distraction?  My thoughts behave like a small child on a long car ride; the longer I ask them to sit still, the stiffer and more artificial it gets until finally the squirming starts.  My partner suggested meditation, and trying to still my mind; it went terribly.  I kept trying, and it kept going terribly.  But moving meditation is a thing.  Mindful meditation is also a thing.  So I have learned to focus instead on the feel of what I’m doing.  To feel it as fully as possible, so to speak.  To feel my arms lifting, my fingers drawing the wool, the way my legs need to be to hold the spindle support.  And when I start to think *about* what I’m doing “oof, my face must look silly right now” or “I bet I could make a better support if…”, I bring my focus back to the feel of what I’m doing.

It’s much like swimming in rough water.  When you first get in, it feels like you’re being buffeted and dragged to and fro, and isn’t this obviously a terrible idea?  But if you go deeper, let yourself sink below the surface, the water is calm, and easy, and beautiful.  It feels the same when I do a single thing.  I feel at first like I’m being pulled in a dozen directions, but if I can just let myself sink into what I’m doing, there is a sense of peace and Grace.  All of which is to say that I think giving up multi-tasking is a good thing.  I’m intentionally not multi-tasking this month.  I made breakfast this morning, and then sat at the table, alone, and ate it, paying attention to the texture and flavor and the motion of my hands as I used my fork.  I had sort of peripherally known that I sit with my left hand in my lap when I eat, but today I was really aware of it.  I was also aware that I sit bent forward at the waist, with my head almost over my knees.  Thinking about it, I know this is because of an injury a few years ago; my tailbone was severely bruised and hurt if I sat up straight and put pressure on it for almost a year.  I hadn’t realized that I’m still keeping my weight off of it, though, and I suspect that’s contributing to the chronic back and shoulder problems I experience.

So my goal in the next 30 days is two-fold; to only use my computer when it’s what I actually want or need to be doing (work, for example, or looking up a recipe) and to only do one thing at a time.  I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit already; I have music playing today while I type this.  Though if I didn’t, one or both of my roommates would have some playing, and this way I can choose something minimally distracting.

I’ll keep you posted on how I feel about all of this.  Cheers!

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Well, that’s a thing.

I’ve recently sent out some jewelry to a blogger I follow, Jen Yates of Epbot, who’s frank discussion of her own struggle with anxiety and depression has made me more aware of my own problems.  A dear friend of mine has recently gone through a serious depressive episode, and we spent a lot of time together; meeting for breakfast was one of the few things that would help him get out of bed in the mornings.  He kept apologizing for being depressed, and for talking about it, but his description of his symptoms and experience of being depressed, like Jen’s, helped me realize that I, too, was suffering from Depression.  I was flat out astonished when I recognized some of the symptoms they were experiencing as things I, too experienced.  “Wait, that’s not *normal*?”

Because of them, I got help.  Because I got help, I had the spoons to start this business and blog.  I thank my friend in person on a regular basis, and we still have breakfast pretty regularly; he still doesn’t like mornings.  I wanted to thank Jen, though, because she put her own problems out there so very publicly.  There is a huge stigma against mental illness in the USA (I can’t speak for anywhere else, since I don’t live there), and the only way we get to move past it is to talk about it openly, and like it’s normal.  Jen is a pretty public figure; in addition to Epbot, she runs the site CakeWrecks, and has a pretty big following.  I felt that she was very brave in putting herself out there, and I appreciate it so much.  I feel like I would have had a much harder time getting myself and Heliotaxis off the ground without knowing someone who’s doing something I admire is going through the same things as I am.

And so I sent her some of my jewelry, as a gift, and as a thank you.  I hope she enjoys it.  The package arrived at her PO box this morning (USPS tracking is magic, and I can’t decide if it’s awesome, or horrible), and now, though I told myself I wouldn’t, I’m stressing out wondering if she’ll like it.    Putting myself out there has been consistently the hardest part of having a business.  In many ways, it’s walking up to random people and saying “please judge me”.  And it’s hard.  But it’s also kind of freeing.  And I’m not the only one doing it.

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Mary, Mary quite contrary…

My grandmother’s name was Mary Jean.  Her life, like her name, defied the expectations of her generation.  She had earned a Masters in Chemistry, and worked in a lab in 1950.  She was a terrible cook.  She was always right, even when she wasn’t.  She was a tiny Irish Catholic firebrand, and I loved her.

She wasn’t the classic Grandmother.  She wanted us to call her Grandmama, like the Russians did, she said.  She liked it better.  She never made cookies, she didn’t sing.  Apparently, she *did* know how to sew, but as a child I didn’t know that; I never saw her do it.  Only later, when she moved into assisted living, did I ever see her sewing machine.  My Mom remembers Grandma sewing, but only when Mom was quite young.

Grandma took us shopping and always put our towels in the dryer just before we got out of the pool so they were warm.  We always used the same towels; I still have mine, and use it when I go swimming.  She had weird metallic silver wallpaper and a sheer brown curtain in the Guest Bathroom.  And fantastically horrible green carpet.  IN THE BATHROOM.  She used to make us rootbeer floats and let us eat them with her fancy iced tea spoons which were made of plastic and shaped like brilliant colored gems strung together as the handle.  There were plastic gems in a lot of things in Grandma’s life; she even had strings of them hanging in her bathroom window as curtains until I was 12 or so.  I hate almost all of her jewelry, we apparently have very different taste.

We used to spend a week every summer at my grandparents’ place.  They lived in Orange County and had a pool, and Grandma used to take us on a tour of the kitchen and pantry to show us all the goodies she’d bought for us when we arrived.  She’d forbid Grandpa from eating any of it, but we never minded if he did, and he pretty much always did.

Grandma smoked like a chimney, but only ever outside, at least when my sister and I were around.  When we were going through her things, Mom found a bone and silver cigarette holder, and gave it to me because she knew I’d find it amusing.  I don’t smoke, but I almost wish I did; the cigarette holder is so glamorous and it reminds me so strongly of my grandmother, even though I never saw her use it.  I don’t know the name of the cigarettes she smoked, but I occasionally smell them while I’m walking around, and I’m instantly a kid standing in her front entry and marveling at the perfectly groomed lawn and the enormous antique mirror in the stairwell.

Even as she aged, my grandmother remained difficult; she refused help, and always insisted she was fine, even when she wasn’t.  She’d take the shuttle from her apartment and get groceries, even though she didn’t have a kitchen.  Some of it was the onset of dementia.  Some of it was stubborn refusal to change, and some of it was probably her way of protesting.

When I got married,  I considered wearing her wedding dress.  My mom had it in storage by that time, and we pulled it out.  The only time I’d ever seen the dress was in my grandparents’ wedding photos, which were in black and white.  The dress was cream lace and SCREAMING PINK lining.  I was shocked.  The sleeves were actually separate gauntlets; apparently, her sister had worn gloves to get married, and refused to take her gloves off to have her husband put the ring on her finger.  Apparently, it was a challenge.  Grandma, being her pragmatic and kind of harsh self, insisted on wearing fingerless gauntlets instead of gloves, to avoid the fate her sister had encountered.  I liked the gauntlets, but I didn’t end up wearing the dress.  As it turns out, my grandmother’s waist was smaller than my thigh.  There was no way I could wear the dress, even if I’d decided I could rock the screaming pink.  Mom and I took the dress apart and used the lace as the overlay for my non-traditionally colored wedding dress.  I wore blue under that cream lace, and I couldn’t help thinking of Sleeping Beauty’s warring fairies when I thought about the colors my grandmother and I had chosen.

By the time Grandma and Grandpa moved into assisted living, things had gotten pretty bad.  They were doing ok largely because Grandpa was spending huge amounts of time and energy hiding how frequently my grandmother was slipping into her own world.  I started to mourn for her then, because she wasn’t quite that person who’d been my amazing Grandma.  By the time Grandpa passed away last year, Grandma was so far gone that she didn’t even notice.  Still, when prompted on Valentine’s day to share who else she’d loved in her life, Grandma insisted that there had never been anyone other than Grandpa.  She finally passed away today, after being in and out of Hospice care for several years.  I’m sure I’ll mourn her more in the coming weeks and months, but right now, I’m simply relieved.  Finally.  Finally we’re done.  She can rest, and be with Grandpa.  Mom can relax.  I can stop flying into a panic when my family calls.  I can finally wear that black dress, and then get it out of my closet, where it’s been sitting as a reminder for several years.

I hope that she and Grandpa are together again, and I hope that they’re happy.  I miss you both.Wedding

 

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Pie and bicycles.

I made a pie last night.  I’m “giving up” sugar, by which I mean I’m doing my best to not eat quite so many pastries, candies, and sweets.  This is a little about my weight, and mostly about avoiding dire health consequences that my folks are currently scrambling to mitigate.  But sometimes “doing my best” means that I make pie because it’s less bad for me than the ice cream sandwich the size of my hand.  If you haven’t had them yet (and you like such things) CoolHaus ice cream sandwiches are fantastic.  But so is pie.

Last night, I made the best pie crust I’ve ever made.  And it’s all because we got lost on  bike tour.

My family has pie at Thanksgiving, and maybe Christmas, and that’s about it.  Mom isn’t a fan of making pie crust if she can avoid it; she actually threatened to buy it last year, but I offered to make the crust instead.  Occasionally, we’d have apple pie, and there’s that infamous Peach Pie Incident… Suffice to say that I was never really into pie as a kid, and I was especially not into pie crust.  I mean, ew.  It’s bland and boring and kind of tough.  What’s to like?  So I just never bothered with pie.

Three?-ish? years ago, I went on my first ever bike tour.  A couple of my friends and I packed up camping gear and food and lots of water and sunscreen and rode our bikes up over the California coastal hills into the Central Valley.  It was a long climb, followed by 18 miles of downhill; smooth sailing!  Then we road through the Central Valley; it’s flat as a pancake, but it’s pretty, and we camped at Caswell Memorial State Park, which sits on the banks of the Stanislaus River.  It was stunningly pretty, though it was pretty evident from the look the Ranger gave us that they didn’t get many cyclists camping there.  We got the same look from a different Ranger in the morning when we left.

And then we got chased by Chihuahuas.  Before breakfast.  They run surprisingly fast, and they actually were gaining on us by the time we noticed them; it took us a good half mile of sprinting to ditch them.  Finally safe from the resident mini-wolves, we cruised into town to grab a solid breakfast before we headed back over the hills to home.  We eventually found the restaurant we’d planned on, but it took us a while because street names can be kind of stupid, especially when you’ve never been to the town before.

After breakfast, during which I introduced my friend who grew up in Israel to Pigs in a Blanket (he was mildly horrified), we headed out of town… and found out that since our map had been printed, there’d been a huge construction boom.  We got thoroughly lost and had to backtrack several times.  It was frustrating, and especially demoralizing because we ended up on busy streets and highways when we had been planning to avoid them.  Finally we ended upon back on track.  10 miles along our route, we saw a sign that said “Road Closed”.  Next to it was a produce stand advertising ludicrously cheap avocados and other delights, including Apricot Pie.  Pie sounded better than backtracking another 10 miles, and I love apricots, and had never had them in pie, and one of my friends is very much into pie, so we were seriously considering stopping.  Sure there were only three of us to eat a whole pie, but honestly?  That would be ok.  But then, in a shocking twist of fate, the Israeli friend checked his phone and actually had reception!  So he checked Google Maps for an alternate route; none of us wanted to backtrack.  I was busy staring at that Apricot Pie sign and dreaming.  Sure, I’m not that into pie, but it still sounded pretty amazing.

Technology came through for us, not with an alternate route, exactly, but with the suggestion that our route might not actually be closed… A thin grey line marked as a bike route ran where our road was supposed to have.  We decided to skip the pie and go find out if the grey line actually was a bike route, or if we were going to be backtracking after all.  It was decided that if we did end up having to backtrack, we’d stop and have pie, because, well… pie.  And more food while cycling basically always sounds like a great idea.  And then we could also tell ourselves that backtracking didn’t suck so much; at least we were getting pie out of it…

But we didn’t end up getting pie.  Instead, we passed the “Road Closed” sign, and rode our bikes on an actual road for another quarter mile before we found a badly paved not-even-one-lane-road that looked like it might actually take us where we wanted to go.  So onward we went.  That weird little path, as it turned out, was kept paved and maintained by a local bicycle group.  We wrote them a thank-you note, because, seriously, backtracking sucks.  I was so happy to be back on route that I hardly even mourned the lack of pie.  The rest of the ride went without incident, and we returned triumphant, and exhausted, and desperately in need of a shower.

But the apricot pie that I didn’t get to try kept coming back to me.  I could not get it out of my head, and I do like a challenge, and pie crust is supposedly quite the challenge.  So I started looking at pie recipes.  I made dozens of pies; apple, peach, strawberry (not my favorite), chocolate, and finally apricot.  I’m a pie convert now.  I adore pie.  And I love the crust, when it’s done right.  Pie recipes, though, are kind of weird.

Fruit pie filling is pretty much a method rather than an actual recipe, a lot of the time.  Chop up enough fruit of your choice to fill your crust, and then a bit more because it cooks down.  Toss it with sweetener and thickener of your choice, toss it in your crust and bake.  I tried cornstarch, I tried tapioca (turns out, I find it incredibly bitter), I tried doing without, I tried flour, rice flour… you name it.  But I like corn-starch the best; the tapioca was pretty, it turns clear when you bake it, but the corn tasted better.  Rice flour works about the same as corn-starch, and I was unimpressed with regular flour.  I found that mixing my sugar and starch together and then sprinkling it over the fruit gave me the most even coating, so that’s usually how I do it these days.

Pie crust isn’t really a recipe, either.  Pie crust is flour (of some kind), solid fat of some kind, and liquid of some kind, combined with technique.  The flour is usually white all-purpose flour; I personally like using about 2/3 AP flour and 1/3 Whole Wheat Pastry Flour.  Your liquid is usually water with occasional additives; apple cider vinegar and vodka are popular, the cider vinegar gives the crust a pleasant, subtle flavor.  Often, recipes add a bit of sugar or salt to the crust for flavor, but be wary of recipes that call for much more than a Tablespoon of sugar; it will make your crust tough.

The fat in pie crust is something people get really really vehement about.  Some people swear by lard, some by butter.  Nobody recommends margarine.  I prefer the flavor of butter, but texture-wise, I get good results with butter or shortening, and with Earth Balance.  Earth Balance is a vegan butter substitute that I started using because several of my friends are vegan.  I keep using it because hot damn does it make the crust easy to work with!  For whatever reason, Earth Balance makes the un-cooked crust so much easier to handle; it doesn’t stick as much, it doesn’t tear when you transfer it to your pie pan.  It makes a more tender and less flaky crust than butter, but technique can help with that, and honestly, it’s a reasonable trade off in my book.  I think it smells funny, but it tastes fine to me, and I often use it in my crusts even when I’m not planning to feed vegans.  Make no mistake, though.  Margarine, Imperial Butter Substitute, and the like are not to be trusted.  They’ll give you icky, chewy results that just taste off.  Liquid fats will also not work; the fat needs to be solid in order to make the crust flaky.

You can get away with screwing around with your ingredients if your technique is good, but if your technique is bad, no amount of perfectionism in the ingredients stage will save you.  I tried many many different pie crust recipes, and I think they failed to adequately emphasize the importance of technique.  Of course, nobody wants to tell you that the first six times you make their recipe, it’s probably not going to be that good.  I really like this recipe from Smitten Kitchen: All Butter, Really Flaky Pie Crust.  She offers some really solid advice for technique, and the ingredients work well for me.  I also incorporate some technique from an Indian cookbook I have, written by a gentleman named Raghavan Iyer.  He suggests that, when making Samosa dough (which is basically pie dough) you knead the dough with your hands two or three times to smooth it out.  I now often leave my water/flour mixture a little dryer than the recipe calls for, and turn it over itself a few times with my hand.  I also incorporated my experience making laminated dough (this is a pain in the ass, but fun), and I leave large chunks of butter in my crust, about the size of the end of my finger so that when I fold the dough over, the butter flattens out and folds over itself to make even more glorious flakes.  I also tend to bake my pies a little extra; I like it when the crust is on the darker side of golden brown because it tends to be more crisp and flavorful.  Crust that still tastes like uncooked flour makes me sad.  To that end, I’ve started experimenting with different baking techniques.  The pie I made last night went into a metal pan, and that gave me the best result yet.

There’s a lot to love about pie.  You can stuff with basically anything; fruit fresh or raw, custards, mousse, stew, veggies… roasted beets and feta is an excellent combination.  Once you’ve got some practice, pie comes together very very quickly so you can look like a rockstar when you get unexpected guests.  Whole uncooked pies freeze well, so you can save some of the summer bounty for the middle of winter to remind you that the sun still exists.  Pie dough keeps well in the fridge for days, so you can make it ahead of time and serve fancy quiche for breakfast with basically no effort, and you’ll still have some dough left to make tarlets for a weekend dessert.  It’s super easy to make vegan, so you can look courteous and thoughtful at your next office potluck.

I’m really into pie, these days.  It has become one of my go-to desserts.  It’s especially nice now, in Summer and in conjunction with my sugar ban because fresh fruits hardly need any sweetener to be a delicious dessert.  It’s an excellent harm-reduction option for me, because it’s something I love even when I’m not trying to give up sugar.   It’s been a delightful challenge, and I expect I’ll keep practicing the art; one can always be better and it’s not like anyone minds helping me eat the experiments.