Friday, January 29, 2016

Readers read... no matter what.

In the last two or three years, I've noticed a tendency to read dramatically fewer books than I once did. And by "dramatically fewer," I mean "reading the same number of books in a year that I used to devour in three months." At first I chalked it up to doing most of my reading online, or that I wasn't making time to read the way I once did, or that I'd picked boring books that weren't holding my attention.

But this week I've had to grasp the horns of the real reason: it's become mechanically difficult for me to read books, because my eyes are aging.

I've always had excellent vision, and I've been able to read for as far back as my memories go, so struggling with the simple mechanics of reading is a new and singularly unwelcome experience. I'm used to curling up on the bed with a book and reading for hours, never feeling any sense of pain or fatigue other than what might come from the emotional content of the pages. I don't know exactly when I had to start squinting to try to make the seemingly double-printed letters come into focus, or when I began holding a book at arm's length as though it were some species of unwanted suitor. And I'm not used to giving up and turning on a blazing overhead light just to make the text readable. But I've also gritted my teeth and resisted buying reading glasses, because... well, you know.

Today, though, after another stare into the drugstore mirror and another wince, I took the plunge and bought a basic set of readers. They look just as horrible on me as any other pair of frames I've ever tried on. But today the thought finally struck me: I'll never have to wear these things in public. I can keep them at home, use them whenever I want to read without discomfort. I'll get through many more books without having to grapple with the twinges of a tension headache, and it won't matter if I look like a complete doofus because nobody will see me (well, except maybe Captain Midnight, and he's sworn to secrecy).

So... yeah. Got home, tried 'em out, got through four chapters of a book that's been languishing on the top of my dresser since mid-2015. This is going to work out swimmingly.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Seeing my sister's art

So I have this sister named Julie who makes lots of stuff, including collages. She submitted some of her collages to the Northwest Collage Society for inclusion in a juried art show, and she got accepted! Woot!

Naturally, my friend Candice and her boy and I had to wend our way to the Washington State Convention Center today and check it out.

The gallery is on Level 2 of the WSCC. If you walk a loop around this floor, you can see all the artwork in the show.

While Candice went downstairs to give her boy a bathroom break, I struck up a conversation with a security guard. He told me he'd been enjoying walking around the building and looking at the various collages, and pointed out which ones were his favorites -- the ones that kept drawing his eye every time he walked past.

We aimed to make a full circuit of the show...

...but we had to begin at Ground Zero, the artwork that we (well, at least I) had come to see.

"Black Haired Girl: Jennifer," a collage made by one of my sisters, featuring another one of my sisters! GAZE IN WONDER UPON THIS GLORIOUS PINNACLE OF NEPOTISM.


There are several collages in the Black Haired Girls series. Aside from featuring people Julie knows who have (or are portrayed with) black hair, they all have backgrounds that symbolically represent an aspect of the subject's personality. In Jenny's case, the background is composed of postcards she sent to Julie. Jenny loves postcards, and one year she decided to send out a postcard every day to people she knew. As you might imagine, it gets difficult to know what to write after the first week or so of doing this, so many of Jenny's postcards have little stories about minor, everyday things -- very similar to status updates on social media.

It turned out very well, I think. Also, it happens to be one of the largest collages in the show, so it's visually striking even from a distance.

(By the way, Jules -- just as we were getting ready to leave, another guy who works at the WSCC came by your collage and said, "I don't know what the deal is with this one and all the postcards," so I asked, "Would you like to know more about it?" and we got to talk for a minute or two about your art. 'Twas fun!)

Are you in or near Seattle? Want to go see some super-snazzy collages? This show is running through the end of March 2016, and it's free and everything, so let me humbly suggest that you hie on over to the Rotating Art Gallery and take in some culchah! (You know you wanna.)

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The view through the wrong end of the spyglass

main road that runs right through the middle of Microsoft campus is a busy, congested area. People are usually in a hurry to get somewhere else, and they don't have much patience for pedestrians, cyclists, or drivers who don't act the way they expect. So I do understand why the driver behind me got hugely exasperated when, one afternoon in early spring, I inexplicably slowed and then stopped my car on the road. He yelled, honked aggressively, then swerved around me to pass on the left -- and only then could he see the mother duck and the long line of ducklings crossing the road in front of my car. He too came to a stop to let the ducklings cross, waving a sheepish apology in my direction. I didn't blame him for his actions; how could he know, from his vantage point, why I had stopped the car?

A few years ago we had a houseguest who came to church with us. During the administration of the Sacrament (aka the Lord's Supper), the deacons -- boys ages 12-13 who pass the Sacrament bread and water to the congregation as part of their priesthood duties -- usually go through the chapel in an orderly fashion, pew by pew, making sure every member has an opportunity to partake. However, our guest became visibly perplexed as he watched one particular deacon wander around the chapel, apparently giving his tray of Sacrament bread to people totally at random. After the meeting, our guest discreetly asked us about it, wanting to know if this boy was mentally askew or something. And we started giggling, because we knew that particular deacon's responsibility was to seek out people in our congregation with celiac disease -- there are several -- and bring them the tray containing pieces of gluten-free Sacrament bread. Since they don't all sit together, nor do they always sit in the same place, he has to wander around the chapel looking for people until he's found everyone who needs him. His actions had never seemed strange to us, because we knew what he was doing and why.

Last Sunday I attended the first meeting of a local interfaith group called Standing Together, composed of Christians, Jews, Muslims and anyone else with an interest in how religious belief works in modern life. There was a panel discussion about democratic values and what constituted righteous actions among the major religions. In the small group discussions that followed, someone brought up a question that's being asked with increasing frequency in the United States: if Muslims believe in peace and justice and living in harmony with their non-Muslim neighbors, why do they not speak out against their extremist co-religionists who engage in acts of terrorism? And someone in our small group, a Muslim woman from Montana, replied softly but emphatically, "But we do speak out against them. All the time. It's just that the media has no interest in reporting on that."

I can't speak for anyone else, but I've reached the conclusion that I see the world around me imperfectly -- whether it's through the tiny peephole of my own limited experiences, or because I've been encouraged to view it through the wrong end of the spyglass by someone looking to push an agenda. And at least for me, the only cure for this pinhole myopia is triangulation -- making an active effort to see things from at least one more angle by talking and listening to people who see the world differently. I may not always agree with their views, but the process helps me discover the route they took to get there, and that gives me reasons to think a little more deeply about what I believe and why.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Handmade Christmas update: gift tags

As previously explained, I've set up a year-long goal to create handmade Christmas gifts for 2016. Movement toward that goal has been pretty light-duty so far this month -- sending out a handmade gift survey to see what people might like to receive, putting together lists, and so forth -- but I've also made a few gift tags. These were made with the idea that I'd be giving some knitted or crocheted gifts, and would need to provide care information along with them.

These 2.5" diameter hang tags haven't been threaded yet, but they're otherwise ready to go. I cut pictures I liked out of a yarn supply catalog, glued them to white cardstock, and cut them out with a large craft punch, then added a smaller hole punch for the threads. The to/from info and care instructions get handwritten on the back.

Kinda like this.
Easy peasy, I liked how they turned out, and they're made with stuff I already had, so bonus!

Today I think I may move further toward the goal by making a few sets of earrings. EXCELSIOR! (Or perhaps RAFFIA!)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A simple SodaScream hack

Hey, SodaStream owners! I'm sure you've recently noticed that this:

(retailed $5.99, 500 mL, makes 50 servings, not bad for diet RB)
has unexpectedly (and unpleasantly) become this:

(retails $5.99, 440 mL, makes 29 servings, tastes like butt)
I'm sure this naked money grab on the part of the SodaStream Powers That Be tempts you to scream like a mighty Scot having a tantrum and fling your SodaStream machine, caber-like, through the nearest window, open or not. But don't engage in needless defenestration, people! For although I don't yet have a good substitute for SodaStream's old diet root beer mix (let me know if you've found one), I do have a simple hack for folks who want to make diet soda without breaking the bank.

You will need:
  • an old-style 500 mL SodaStream soda mix container with cap, emptied and cleaned
  • Crystal Light (or similar store brand) diet drink mix (get the envelopes that make 2 quarts)
  • water
  • a working SodaStream machine
The math is easy: every capful of soda mix makes 1 liter of soda, and every large envelope of Crystal Light mix makes about 2 quarts of drink (for the purpose of our mixology hack, a quart is close enough to a liter to be nearly equivalent). So for every envelope of Crystal Light drink mix you dump into the soda mix container, add two capfuls of water to dilute to the proper ratio. The 500 mL soda mix container can hold six envelopes of diluted Crystal Light mix. Close the container, shake well to distribute your homemade soda mix, and store in the fridge (I'm not sure this is absolutely necessary, but since a lot of these drink mixes say "refrigerate after reconstituting," better err on the side of caution).

You use this just like a standard SodaStream mix: carbonate a liter of water, pour out a capful of homemade mix, and (DO THIS OVER THE SINK, PLEASE!) slowly and gradually pour the mix into the carbonated water. The first time I tried this, it dramatically overflowed and I made a mess on the counter. I think the citric acid causes the reaction, but I might be wrong. Anyway, over the sink, and slowly!

Threw out all your old-style soda mix containers, and can't find another one? Fret not. All you need is a watertight glass or food-safe plastic jar with a lid, as long as it holds about a pint of liquid, and one of those mini-angled measuring cups you can pick up at any kitchen store.

OXO sells a nice one. And no, they're not paying me for this Shameless Plug.
The old-style soda mix cap holds between 1 1/2 oz. (measuring to the fill line inside the cap) and 2 oz. (measuring to the top of the cap), so measure the mix depending on your personal flavor preferences.

Crystal Light and various store brands have all sorts of fruit-flavored mixes available. You can whip them up as-is, or mix and match combinations. The carbonated water seems to take the super-sweet edge off a lot of artificial sweeteners, as does the citric acid. Inexpensive, tasty, refreshing, and (if this is a concern) it won't raise your blood sugars.

Now go forth my minions and enjoy homemade diet sodie on the cheap!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Blam This Piece of Crap Day

We're still a few weeks out, but this sort of thing takes time, so: in the spirit of Talk Like a Pirate Day, Ice Cream for Breakfast Day, No Pants Day, Star Wars Day and a slew of other homegrown holidays, I'd like to nominate February 3 as a new holiday, to be known hereafter as Blam This Piece of Crap Day.

OK, for those of you now saying "EXPLAIN TO ME!", let me back up a bit.

Back in 2009, a bunch of goofballs over at Newgrounds created a Flash game called Super Press Space to Win Action RPG, a parody of some Flash games that lean a leeetle too heavily on the use of the spacebar to move the action along. Most of the people who played it got the joke. A few were left befuddled. And one particular reviewer, a kid with the handle of Axman13, just didn't grok it one little bit -- not the game itself, not the constant use of the spacebar, not why so many people had given the game such high ratings and awarded prizes to its creators. On February 3, 2010, he posted a combative, furious, wonderfully incoherent game review (since removed from the site) that was one of the most glorious examples of incandescent nerd-rage known to man.

Now, it would be very easy for the original creators to start a flame war over this florid reaction to their little game. But that's not what they did. Instead, Deven Mack, one of the game's voice actors, found Axman13's review so amusing that he gave it a proper reading in his best stentorian style, with all the original misspellings intact. And lo, the audio recording of this reading was so manifestly epic that Flash animator Ricepirate chose to give it the full-on animation treatment (complete with obligatory "O Fortuna" BGM).

Here's the result.

"Blam this piece of crap" is, obviously, a phrase that occurs near the end of the review, but it also neatly describes what the original game creators did: they took a piece of crap review and BLAMmed it, upcycling a potentially bad experience into something hilariously worthwhile. It's like taking life's lemons and making lemonade, lemon bars, lemon curd, limoncello truffles, and triple-decker lemon-drizzled lemon zest cake.

"Dot Dot Dot" is hardly the only example of blamming a piece of crap. The next time you're in the grocery store idly wondering why a rotisserie chicken from the deli is often cheaper than a raw one in the butcher block, consider this: all the raw chickens that are close to reaching their expiration date, the ones the store would otherwise have to throw away, end up as rotisserie chickens (or as chicken salad, or as chicken pot pie, or as chicken stir-fry) in the in-store deli. That way, instead of having to take a loss on a chicken that went bad, the store gets another chance to make a profit and you get an instant meal. Not bad.

Various thrift-store crafts, including the recent trend of adding monsters to kitschy thrift-store landscape paintings, are another example of crap-blamming. You might say, "Add a monster to a landscape and it's still a piece of crap!" Yes, but now it's a FUNNY piece of crap.

I know my family in Hawaii will vehemently disagree, but in my opinion Spam musubi counts as blamming a piece of crap. Rice is neutral, seaweed is meh, and Spam is the source of many culinary nightmares from my childhood -- and yet when they're all assembled into musubi, the whole becomes infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Brown & Haley (a Tacoma-based candy company responsible for bringing the world such confectionary delights as Almond Roca and Mountain Bars) used to sell big containers of unwrapped Almond Roca "seconds" in local discount stores. There was nothing wrong with the candy itself; it was just the wrong size to be wrapped in gold foil, so instead of tossing it out, they sold it dirt cheap. But a few years ago, I noticed these "seconds" containers had mysteriously disappeared from store shelves. Then, a few days ago, I had a good look at this:

Image courtesy Brown & Haley
Roca Thins (which are really, really tasty... and, alas, probably really, really bad for diabetics) are big slabs of creamy chocolate with little crunchy bits of Almond Roca stirred in. Hmm. I have a pretty good idea where all those little crunchy bits came from, don't you? And these Roca Thins were actually selling at a higher price per ounce than original Almond Roca, at least over at Bartell Drugs. Congrats to Brown & Haley for a superlative blamming job.

So that's how I think February 3 -- or Blam This Piece of Crap Day -- should be celebrated: by finding the mediocre-to-bad things in life and blowing them up into something fantastic. (Oh, and also by eating way too many Roca Thins. Those things are The Nom.)

Do you have in mind any pieces of crap you'd love to BLAM!? In what ways would you take the ridiculous things in your life and make them sublime?

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

What happened to Catherine

Early last month, as everyone was going about Christmas preparations and so forth, my friend Catherine died of what appears to have been a heart attack. Because it happened so suddenly, and because I was unable to attend the funeral, in some ways it still doesn't seem quite real; I feel as though I could walk the few blocks to her home, knock on the front door, and she'd answer.

I've been thinking about what happened to her -- not in the sense of wondering about the circumstances that took her life, but about what the heart attack took away, and where it went. No one really knows what happens to a spirit -- the indefinable presence that creates a living human being, the part of Catherine that made her Catherine -- when someone dies, though there are a number of competing theories. Some are more compelling than others.

The broadly atheist view of death -- that there is no such thing as a soul or spirit, so when someone dies, he or she ceases to be, save what remains in recorded ephemera indicating his or her former existence -- is the least compelling theory for me. If we were beings shaped solely by chance evolutionary processes to live for a short while, pass on our genes if possible, inevitably die and leave little to no trace of our lives on earth, I suspect we would also have evolved with a sense of mild indifference toward the death of others. We might feel about a friend's life the way we feel about a particularly good lunch -- well, that was worthwhile, but now it's over; when I hunger again, I'll find something else to fill the void. Instead, we mourn. We feel the keenest pain over the death of a friend or loved one, wish desperately to have him or her back again, and sense a consistent void made by that person's absence, one that nothing else quite seems to fill. Even in the case of catastrophes in faraway places, where we did not know personally anyone who was affected, the human tendency is to feel sorrow and empathy for the loss of human life -- and to be appalled by those who lack such empathy.

I'm also not much of a fan of the quasi-agnostic idea that a beloved deceased person continues to live on in you through your thoughts and memories. This is manifestly unsatisfying. If all I need is many memories to make a person live again, then my mom already "lives on in me," and she's not even dead. No matter how well you knew someone, there's a deep gulf of difference between recalling static memories and talking to a living person. It's something akin to the difference between a single recording of a jazz performance in a jukebox and the wild, virtuosic improvisations of live jazz. A person you know well is somewhat predictable in his or her responses, but because living beings constantly grow and change, he or she will also occasionally make a comment or react in a way you never would have expected -- sudden blooms of caprice that can make the conversation a surprise and a delight. You don't get that quality from memories; they are limited by what you already know of a person, so there's no possibility of unpredictability. Plus, the human brain being what it is, our memories of a person tend to become distorted over time; it's easy for our brains to reduce the life of a complex individual to a single defining trait, or to reinforce one set of memories while letting another set attenuate to nothing. After a while one's subjective memory of a person might come to resemble the actual person the way a caricature resembles a photograph.
My religious beliefs, like those of most people, inform my thoughts about the human spirit and what happens to it after death. Mormonism, unlike many other Christian faiths, posits that even a spirit has a physical component, though one that may be impossible for human beings to perceive. (Joseph Smith taught, "There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes. We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.") Coming from this belief, I can't help but think about what little I know of the laws of physics, about E=mc2, and of the theory of conservation of mass: that matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Well, why not apply that to death? If a spirit -- the thing that made my friend a living being, that made her who she was -- is a finer form of matter, and a person dies, does that person's spirit simply cease to be, or is it more likely that the matter or energy of a human spirit is not destroyed at death, but transformed? Is it that difficult to suppose that, just as mass is neither created nor destroyed, the human spirit is in some way conserved at the time of death?

I began by saying that no one really knows what happens to a spirit at death, and I reiterate that I don't know with absolute certainty that these things are so. (To verify it, I'd have to die, which would certainly hamper my ability to make a report.) But I do sense, in a way that feels deeply right even if I cannot prove it, that the spirits of people we knew and loved are not gone forever -- indeed, that they are not very far away. Maybe that's why it still seems to me that I could go knock on Catherine's door and she'd answer; perhaps, in a slightly different dimension from ours, Catherine is busy at home -- just as she was in life -- and listening for a friend to come by and knock.