Quality Control

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February is really difficult. In fact, February is so difficult that anticipation of the month makes January suck pretty hard too.

I have actually been writing a lot, but without finishing anything. Sometimes I think it’s better to do nothing than to do less than my best. Doing nothing is a terrible way to get anything done though.

High School Metaphors

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I have a new ‘foreign’ coworker. At some point, I may write something about the most gratifying type of ‘I told you so’ I’ve ever experienced in my life, it’s related to European coworkers moving to the States. What particularly caught my interest this week was a comment I made while we were comparing Universities and High Schools in our countries.

“Everything I know about American High School sort of comes from these movies like, like,” he was glancing upwards at an imaginary list, trying to find the right name. I knew what he was going to say though. “Like Mean Girls,” he finally finished.

“Yeah, actually it’s a lot like that, maybe worse actually,” I said and his eyes widened politely. I knew that I needed to explain more, “I went to a school that was so homogenized, that the differences between people, I mean we had twins and there would be a popular twin and an unpopular twin. So where that movie makes it out that there’s some sort of meritocracy, but that it just has skewed values like being hot, in reality there is no rationale to anything at all. For me that was worse, I was sitting outside looking at all of this with no idea how to navigate it all.”

Obviously in this dramatic recreation I am more eloquent than I was in person, but I’m still surprised by how easy it was for me to articulate that point. I think that I spent a lot of junior and senior high school frustrated and angry, not because I was unpopular, but because the rules about being popular were grossly inconsistent. I hate when things don’t make sense. I mean, I also wanted to be popular, I believed that my system of values were superior. The confusion was just another layer of insanity that no one really ever consciously addressed.

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself this. I would say that most people are stupid, so stupid that they can’t follow their own rules. I would say that I’m that not perfect either. I would say that changing your mind isn’t a weakness and that needlessly searching for meaning where there is none isn’t science.

More easy writing prompts

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More writing prompts for elementary school students.

I like to make… slightly creative things to share, but only slightly creative. I like to color pictures more than drawing them. I like to knit. I like to bake or cook, where I’m following instructions that allow for limited doses of creativity.

What is toys could talk? That would be really creepy. Honestly, toys would know all of the most embarrassing secrets about our lives from before we knew better. I suspect that we wouldn’t ever be able to give away our toys or share them with others.

My shopping list: Based on my neurotic personality, I probably seem like the type to make detailed lists. Honestly, I would enjoy the exercise of making a detailed list, putting the list in order to make my shopping trip most time efficient, and then putting relevant coupons in an envelope. I don’t have time to do this though. If I’m lucky, I will have a chance to check the kitchen to see what I’m missing, and then I can try to figure out what I need for the next week while I’m in the car riding to the store. I work through the store systematically, going through each aisle. If I don’t believe I need something from that row, I just walk faster, but I still go through all of them if I can, because that’s how you find new things and get new ideas. I prime myself at the beginning of each aisle, by remembering what’s down that row so that I can be on the lookout for anything I need. I can do a full week’s grocery run in about 20 minutes, plus another 5-10 for check out.

Don’t Litter: Uhh, yeah, obviously. For environmental issues in general, there is an interesting conflict between wanting to do the right thing, having the ability to do this efficiently, and knowing that the positive impact a single family can make through conservation and recycling is nothing compared to industrial and commercial sources of environmental damage. People should still do what they can, when they can, but I tend to be more understanding when someone drops a wrapper without noticing. As with most ethical issues, I will draw the universal line of minimum effort right below what I am capable of doing.

Big pets and small pets: All pets are awesome. I’ve recently gained new appreciation for pets that you observe only, like fish or snakes, in addition to pets that obviously return affection like dogs, cats, and birds. My heart belongs to big dogs though. I am crazy about Newfies or Leonbergers. We’ve recently been throwing around the idea of an Irish Wolfhound. There are a lot of lifestyle changes that would be required before a dog would be a reasonable investment. Getting a dog is like having a kid, knowing that they will never grow out of the potty-training toddler phase. Until I can string a few good years together, I’m going to force a dog to deal with my crap.

Insects, insects everywhere: The only time my boyfriend lived alone was his first year at graduate school. He applied for and rented an apartment in a complex, sight unseen and without any recommendations from locals. It was an okay place, but there were issues, one of his first surprises was a notice that his apartment would be inspected and treated for bedbugs despite the fact that he never made any complaints and hadn’t seen any bed bugs. On my next visit after that, I remember noticing weird dark blotches underneath the windowsill next to his bed. I thought that they were like mildew or dirt or something. I have a sick fascination with this stuff so I touched it with a tissue and oh my god, it was a bed bug and some of the splotches were blood and no no no there were bed bugs everywhere. A day later I started to get itchy bites on my hands and feet, in little ‘breakfast, lunch, and dinner’ lines. It was horrible. My boyfriend was fighting the bed bugs for the rest of the school year. When he finally moved out, he left the u-haul filled with his belongings in the summer sun for an extra day because we heard the heat could kill the last lingering bed bugs.

I’m happy when I feel like I have enough time. Maybe it’s better to say when I have enough energy so I feel like I have more time? It’s really difficult to describe that in more detail, but I have a few indicators. When we go to bed at night and there are no dirty dishes left in the sink, that generally means I’m having a good week. When I have enough energy to make coffee and breakfast for myself in the morning that probably means I will have a good day. I sometimes wonder if these things are causes or effects. Sometimes I don’t care, and I try to make change my fortunes by focusing on these types of simple tasks.

First Grade Writing Prompts

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I was in the mood to accomplish something (anything) and I decided to do a Google search for writing prompts and just stick with one of the first things I found, even if that became an entire rant about how stupid the suggestions were.

A Special Birthday: Last weekend, I planned a birthday party for my boyfriend. Although he is in his late twenties, I went about the entire event more like he was still in first grade, complete with a Lord of the Rings theme and cheap party favors. I picked up the blu ray collectors edition of the original trilogy and we watched the movies while we all rebuilt our Lego Tower of Orthanc. The cake was Guinness chocolate with Bailey’s cream cheese frosting – with candles even. I got pretty-pretty-princess rings for all of us to wear, and I asked everyone what magic his or her ring did. It was almost perfect. I wish that a few more of his friends could have come, and that maybe we didn’t have so much leftover beer, but those are hardly complaints.

I’d like to see… a large Asian city. I think that I want to go someplace incredibly foreign and new and strange. Hong Kong or Tokyo are my prime candidates right now. I haven’t gone to Asia for a few reasons. First of all, a flight the long would be super lame. Next, it would be a rather expensive trip for something which might not really be a fun experience. I intend to be overwhelmed, to feel strange and confused. I think that’s important, but it’s hard to choose discomfort over napping on a beach. Also, I’m unsure how much language or safety would be a barrier. I want to feel out of my element, but I also really want to make it home safely. For that reason, I long ago ruled out traveling through India alone. Finally, I love discovering new details in the places I already visit. Why travel half way around the world when there are still streets in my own town that I’ve never driven through?

The biggest thing I ever saw? I mean, I’ve been to several cities, I’ve been to a few big mountains for skiing, and I’ve crossed the Atlantic in a plane. I’ve also looked through a telescope and seen M31 Andromeda, which is an entire galaxy. I think maybe a better question for an adult is when did I feel the smallest? I remember the first time I walked north along the Lake Michigan bike path in Chicago, seeing the McCormick Center for the first time with the sky line spread out behind, the museum campus and the planetarium off to the right, all under blue skies. I thought I was almost to the downtown neighborhood. Thirty minutes later, I was finally walking past one of the largest freestanding buildings I had seen in my life. It was broad, with sort of a trellis roof with black triangular struts. I had spent the entire walk becoming smaller and slower in my mind with every step.

Noisy Times and Quiet Times Wow. This writing prompt is my life. Uhhh… I spend weekdays as a cubicle slave, usually low sided cubicles with only the very top level of management in offices. The lower sides are a sort of compromise between privacy and natural light which I generally appreciate. My first few professional roles were in very intense, research oriented departments, it was like a library unless there was an emergency. I mean, we shushed people for breathing tapping their toes. At some point I was traded to a group where there were daily production emergencies; we might as well have done away with the individual workstations entirely because we were so frequently gathered at one cubicle for troubleshooting. I am now in a more stable work environment, for a smaller company. A greater variety of work is done within a smaller physical office space, and different work styles bump against each other. That’s just me being polite. What really bothers me about my current cubicle is that I can hear people clipping their nails every Monday, as though these people don’t have clippers at home. There’s also one guy who hacks and coughs all afternoon. It fills me with irrational rage. To cope, I have been wearing ear plugs or listening to music. This would be simple enough, but I don’t have much selection. The internet filters at this office prevent streaming media, and the cell service is too bad to even send text messages or receive incoming calls, so I’m stuck with what I have downloaded to my phone. I listened to the Awesome Mix twice a day everyday for several months, before I finally made the decision to switch to podcasts. Now, I just have to worry about laughing outloud at the Nerdist.

Mindfulness through Instagram

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I have had bad stretches of time in my adult life. When I’m feeling well, I try to learn better coping techniques, always returning to cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness as my favorites. One of my biggest difficulties with meditative type exercises, is that I have trouble shutting all the parts of my brain off in order to be truly in the moment. I don’t think my preferences are that far off from normal, but there are a few examples that stand out in my mind.

I am good with non-repetitive movement. I like rock climbing because there is a problem solving component. I like dance and yoga because I can focus on virtuosity of motion and form. I like running for less than an hour. That runner’s high, zone out relaxation that some people talk about? I can’t relate, once I get into the groove, my mind can wander and suddenly I’m enumerating all of the other items on my to-do list that can’t happen while I’m wasting time running. I return in a rage; hot sweaty, and overwhelmed by everything I need to accomplish.

I have stronger focus when I have background noise, especially conversational sounds, I work better. Music is difficult because it makes me want to dance and start choreographing in my head.

In general, I still need some sort of stimulus to occupy part of my brain, the part that runs away if left to itself. While it would be nice to eventually learn to be alone in my own head, I am also always trying to find new ways to distract the runaway brain.

In the last year, I have fallen in love with “photography.” I put this in quotation marks, because it’s a means to an end, and I’m less interested in the final product than in the process of arriving there. I also put this in quotation marks because I acknowledge that most of what happens on Instagram is a bastardization of the art form. It’s like saying, “I posted a video blog on YouTube so I’m a film maker.”

There are a few ways that Instagram makes photography more accessible.

First, because Instagram updates are posted from a cell phone, you are encouraged to use a cell phone camera. Cell phone cameras are pretty simple to use, with fewer buttons and features, it’s easier to focus on composition. It’s a wonderful creative constraint.

Next, cell phone cameras, and especially Instagram make it easy to edit photos almost immediately. Once you get in the habit of looking at a photo and thinking about how you could improve it, suddenly, you’re doing this between every shot. Take a picture, look at it carefully on the screen, think about how you would crop the photo or change the contrast, and then make your next shot from a slightly different angle to integrate those improvements.

Instagram then provides a platform for feedback from other people who are interested in photography. You can learn by trial and error. If you’re taking pictures for family members and friends who ask “Wait, who’s car is that?” or “Do you even know that person?” or “It’s black and white, are you trying to be artsy?” then you will not keep taking photos for very long. Instagram is a self selecting community where fewer dissenters will be hanging around.

Finally, Instagram provides exposure to new ideas nearly endless examples to learn from. One of the reasons I didn’t like photography when I was younger was because I hadn’t been exposed to the variety of styles that I see online. I had a lot of misconceptions about photography needing to be black and white to be considered art. I thought the subject matter had to be unique or significant. It had never occurred to me that I could take pictures of everyday things, that I could focus just on color or texture for example.

Since setting up an Instagram account, I’m more aware of what makes something beautiful to me and I’m almost always open to seeing the potential for a beautiful photograph wherever I am. This gives my runaway brain a new task to focus on in the background. When I’m actively taking photographs, I’m completely in the moment, focused on every detail of the scene, brainstorming new ideas and angles, thinking about a million different factors simultaneously. It’s relaxing and a brilliant break from cubicle tedium during the day.

I’ve tried a few different challenges and small projects on Instagram, mostly about color. I have a new idea for the next few days, something that I might end up posting on here instead of on Instagram. I recently found a features hub with beautiful pictures, mostly with a slightly dark but dreamy aesthetic. After about a week, I realized that most of the accounts in that social circle all belonged to girls still in school, some still in middle school. I felt ridiculously old. In response to one girl’s comment, I explained that adults go to Starbucks because it makes being a cubicle slave tolerable, not because we intend to waste tons of money on sugary junk food in liquid form. I’ve decided to try and do a photo essay about my daily life. To try and capture what my daily life feels like, and a little of how it looks with photographs and minimal text. We’ll see how it goes…

Fast Notes about Failure

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My Dad started teaching me to ski back when I was only 4 or 5 years old. I’m pretty sure I was in kindergarten, which settles my age at 5, but really the important part is that I was too young to say ‘no’ or to fully understand the danger implicit in the activity or to ask for snowboarding lessons instead. I was also too young to feel cold, somehow, but that’s unrelated. I started skiing just before snowboarding became popular, you couldn’t rent equipment at most places yet, and you couldn’t really get snowboarding lessons through the ski school for ducklings. My Dad was a great skier; he was excited to share that with me, he wouldn’t have been able to help me with the snowboarding and he wouldn’t have had the patience to deal with me. So there you have it, for a lot of reasons, I was a skier from the beginning.

By the time I was in High School, I was something of a skiing expert. I had been going almost twice a week every winter for ten years, after all. I would skip the ski lessons on our school trips, I would cut through the woods and under ropes, I was chaperoning my friends down the black diamond runs. At this point, I had the opportunity to switch to snowboarding, which would have been cool, made me a more well rounded winter athlete, and maybe given me the courage to take jumps. Instead, I was scared to lose my status. How could I possibly justify going back to beginner status, how could I waste all that time and money doing something I wasn’t already good at?

Pride.

I’m mentioning this because I got a new camera for Christmas and it makes me afraid that I don’t know anything about what I’m doing anymore. I’d like to be the sort of person who isn’t afraid of failing, but I also really hate failing. I think that’s normal.

I’m also embarrassed to be an adult who still doesn’t have a handle on this part of life. Feelings are hard. Learning isn’t as easy as it used to be. The future is terrifying and awesome.

Gingerbread Houses Part III – Construction Tips

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Over the last week I have baked 10 houses worth of gingerbread in anticipation for a holiday party. I thought that it might be worth putting down my notes for when I get the absurd urge to do this again.

I basically used this Food Network recipe, but I have a lot of tips and details I can add, including information about how to make a pattern for the house.


Second Shopping Trip

I recommend preparing the gingerbread pieces well in advance so they have time to harden completely. In that case you will have plenty of time to plan your decorations and you can make a second shopping trip exclusively for the fun stuff. For the candy, it’s best to hit a grocery store with a bulk candy aisle because it will be possible to purchase small amounts of a lot of strange candy.

  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • ~ 1 tablespoon of water [used to adjust moisture in the frosting]
  • ~ 1 tablespoon of lemon juice [could be replaced with vanilla or almond extract, or rum, this is used to adjust moisture, to add a good scent to the frosting, and to cut the sweetness a little bit because you’re going to get a bunch in your mouth]
  • parchment paper [good for covering the work space, could also use newspaper or a towel]
  • disposable tablecloth [something to protect your table or counter]
  • cardboard base 
  • food coloring [optional, for making the frosting a different color]
  • colorful candy [here are some suggestions]
    • colored licorice
    • gum drops
    • sugar wafer cookies
    • chocolate melting wafers (these come in dark, milk, and white chocolate)
    • chocolate nonpareils
    • nerds
    • gummy bears
    • candy canes
    • sprinkles, especially crystal sugar

Prepare the Frosting 

Amounts for the single batch recipe are listed next to each ingredient as it is used.

  1. Add 2 egg whites and about a tablespoon of water and a tablespoon of lemon juice to a large mixing bowl.
  2. Beat the egg white until the mixture consists of small uniform bubbles.
  3. Add 1 cup of powdered sugar to the mixture and beat until uniform.
  4. Continue to add powdered sugar about 1 cup at a time until the frosting is stiff. This will be about 2 pounds, or one bag, of powdered sugar total. If more liquid is needed, add lemon juice or water to balance the sugar.
  5. Test that the frosting is ready by pulling the beaters out of the frosting; it will make little peaks that do not fall over immediately.
  6. Store the frosting in the refrigerator until ready to use. I’ve had the frosting survive a night in the fridge and it seemed to be fine, but I might be extra wary about licking my fingers in that case.

When you are ready to use the frosting prepare a temporary pastry bag:

  1. Fill a Ziploc bag with some frosting, about a cup.
  2. If desired, add a few drops of food coloring to the frosting and squish in the bag to mix.
  3. Press the frosting down to the bottom corner of the bag, letting out any extra air.
  4. Snip the bottom corner of the bag.
  5. Maintain pressure and you can now squeeze out a small line of frosting. It won’t be perfect, but it does a pretty good job.

Frosting can also be added to the gingerbread using a spoon or a knife. For the joints of the house, I actually recommend dipping the edge of the gingerbread cookie directly into a wide bowl of frosting; this lets you get a nice even coating.


Prepare the Working Area Set up the area where you will be working. I recommend covering your table in newspaper or a disposable table cloth so clean up will be easier. Set up the base for the house. A piece of cardboard covered in parchment paper is good for this purpose. The size of the cardboard will depend on what you’re planning to build, some people like to create an entire lawn with landscaping around their houses, some people just do the basic.

Strategy I (Recommended, but never used) Plan how you would like to decorate your house. Lay out the sides and roof and decorate each piece individually. The construct the house last. This allows you to move the pieces around and get extra close and detailed with your work. This method also lets the decorated sides dry flat, letting the frosting ‘glue’ set completely.

Strategy II (Usual strategy because it’s more fun) Construct the house first, then decorate. This lets you see your work in progress, but also carries the risk that you destroy the house while you are decorating.


Final Construction Tips

  • Less is more. The frosting must dry out to harden, the thinner the layer of frosting, the faster it will harden and the sooner you can move on to the next step.
  • Test which way the pieces will need to go together. For my pattern, the trapezoid front/back pieces needed to be inside the sides so that the roof would not fall through. Test this with your pattern so that you remember which way the pieces go together before you start gluing.
  • To put the house together, I recommend putting the front, back, and sides all together at the same time. Dip the bottom and one side of each gingerbread piece into the frosting so that there will be frosting to glue the pieces to each other and to the base. If needed, use a soup can or something to lean the pieces against while they dry. Allow the frosting to harden for as long as you can stand before you start adding more to the house.
  • Add the roof pieces to the house by adding frosting glue to all four edges of the gingerbread tiles. There may be a small gap between the roof pieces. You can leave this at the top, and fill the gap with candy. Allow the frosting to harden for as long as you can stand before you start decorating.
  • Add candy decorations to the house using frosting as glue. Less is more and if you can go slowly the pieces will be less likely to fall apart.
  • I like using the plastic pastry bag to add tiny dots of frosting glue to the larger candy pieces.
  • Using a knife to spread a thin even layer of frosting is good for adding lots of smaller pieces or for adding sprinkles or glitter.

 

house7 house6 house5 house3 house2 house1