The Best Blog Post You’ll Ever Read. Period.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hyperbolic headlines. They plague even the most banal of stories these days.

I can’t scroll through nary a social media feed without reading grabbers similar to these (totally made up by me):

“This puppy walked by a church….and what this grandmother did next will blow your mind.”
“The Ten Most Amazing Habits You Should Always Do for the Rest of Your Life.”
“Five Post-It Note Colors You MUST Have in Your Office Drawer at Work RIGHT NOW.”

I wish I were exaggerating but here is a screen shot pulled from today’s headlines from one of the worst offenders:

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Really? Things I should “NEVER, EVER” say to a teacher? There are “NO” jobs? You want to applaud “for days?”

Words like “always,” “never,” “only, “best,” worst,” and loads of other superlatives pepper hundreds of thousands of posts each and every day, all screaming for clicks and attention. At first, it was kind of novel. The too long headlines, reminiscent of people who write an entire email in the subject line, appeared quirky and stood out.

Then everyone in the free world caught on and instead of being funny or inviting me to click on the article, the tactic simply makes me hate reading anything on the internet. And that sucks, because I love reading, and I enjoy scanning headlines to see what’s actually going on in the world. Don’t make me want to quit you, interwebs. (Which we all know I can’t.)

Look, we all have to make a living, but the creation of these sensationalized headlines for mundane everyday occurrences has become telemarketing for our eyeballs. Can we leave yellow journalism where it belongs–a hundred years in the past?

There is a glimmer of hope. The folks at Google have begun working on this issue; a programmer has created a plugin for Chrome called Downworthy, which takes hyperbolic headlines and translates them into more realistic language.

Examples include “Will Blow Your Mind” converting to “Might Perhaps Mildly Entertain You For a Moment”, “Can’t Even Handle” becoming “Can Totally Handle Without Any Significant Issue”, “Literally” becoming “Figuratively” and “Right Now” becoming “Eventually”.

I can’t say I won’t be downloading that plugin. It’s one creative solution to this pervasive problem, short of authors (“authors”) actually coming up with headlines that are relevant and non-irritating. (You can read more about the plugin on CNET.)

On the other hand, if you’re not completely sick of clickbait, you can take part in this guy’s competition to create the best, most hyperbolic headline: see markpollard.net.

Since I am one of the ones who is completely worn out by the boy-who-cried-wolf compulsive-liar syndrome that is passing for journalism, my plea is simply….STOP IT!

Evolution of a Crochet Cupcake

In case anyone was wondering, cupcakes have still not lost their hypnotic appeal, and are as popular as ever. Even arts and crafts have become dedicated to whipping out these tasty-looking treats.

When I began (furiously) crocheting again, I came across several too cute patterns for cupcakes and had to replicate them immediately. However, crocheting amigurumi is a practice of patience and making things over and over again. In time, once you’ve mastered a few thousand stitches in different variations across different yarns, hook sizes, and stitches, you begin to understand which patterns will suit your crochet style in particular. The beauty of crochet is there appears to be endless ways to be creative with it.

One of the most crucial lessons I learned about myself with making something new, even if I’m really excited about it and am comfortable with all the types of stitches a pattern entails, is that I will typically need to do a practice run first.

Sometimes you get patterns that turn out to be easy peasy and your first attempt comes out perfectly–such is the case with the chocolate Easter bunny I just made.

But perfecting the crochet cupcake turned out to be something I had to make at least five times over before I executed it to my standards.

Here is how my first cupcake looked. It’s okay to giggle. (Click on the photos to enlarge.)

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It looks like a cinnamon muffin wearing a pink sombrero.

In this instance, I was quite glad I used leftover beige yarn to practice with, instead of going for the good stuff.

My next attempts looked like this. The frosting is slowly getting better but the cupcakes are leaning to one side and still kinda look like muffins.

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After a few of these, I grew frustrated and tried a different cupcake pattern altogether, just to see if I was a crappy crocheter or what. I made this little guy and added some frosting berries on top:

Cupcake diptych-zoesays

Reassured, I tackled the cupcakes again and whatever “it” was finally clicked into place. I added some heavier filler to get it to stand up straight, didn’t overstuff it so it wouldn’t look like a muffin, and got the frosting to look good, as well. Lastly, I tried my hand at sewing on some beads for “sprinkles.” Voilà!

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After finally mastering this deceptively difficult pattern, my goal is to offer some of these for sale in the shop, so stay tuned! The best part about cupcakes is that you can mix and match all different “flavors” and colors, too, so I’m excited to see what I’ll end up with when I get a half dozen or so complete.

Just for emphasis, here’s a side-by-side shot of all the cupcakes from start to finish. It’s not easy to keep trying at something but when you finally succeed, it’s totally worth it.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Threes

On a summer visit last year to the city of Rochester, NY, I visited the City Hall building, as I had heard it was renowned for its architecture.

I was not disappointed.

The atrium is open to several floors, where all of the offices and even Council Chambers are situated. Though I was limited in how and where I could take photos, I worked to get several different perspectives of the gorgeous layered marble arches which make up the center of the structure.

Thus, I invite you to view below my submission for the Weekly Photo Challenge with the theme of “Threes.”

Arched View

From the Second Floor

Municipal Atrium

Zoe Recommends: Dash and Bella Chocolate Chip Cookies

I know it’s a new year and some of us are three weeks into a new health regime. If you’re on any kind of kick where a delicious cookie would “ruin” anything, just pass this post right on by. However, if you’re like me and still try the occasional “best ever” chocolate chip cookie recipe, read on.

I skipped making Christmas cookies this year. To atone for that, coupled with several weekends of unsubtle nudging from my better half, I made this chocolate chip cookie recipe, courtesy of Dash and Bella.

What makes them different?

Less flour, a ratio of double the brown sugar to white sugar, and lots of STUFF in the cookies, namely extra chocolate chips and nuts.

I usually don’t like my cookies with nuts, but since I was trying something new, I decided to go all in. I used chopped pecans instead of walnuts, and instead of using 1.5C of them, as the recipe calls for, I only put in 3/4C. For my taste preferences, that seemed to be the right amount of crunch and texture to add to a cookie. We only had semi-sweet chips so I wasn’t able to try the large bittersweet chips, but that’s for next time.

Otherwise, I followed the recipe to a T and they really came out…..well, indescribably good.

One of the more unique tips is making larger cookies that brown on the edges and you pull them out whilst still raw in the center. The idea is you let them cook on the sheet outside of the oven for two to three more minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.

It’s HARD not to want to eat these when they’re still gooey, but they do require a little extra time to firm up. Then you get that delicious light crunch from the browned edge and the soft, oozing-chocolate middle. I need a glass of milk just describing them.

Speaking of milk, we managed to kill half a gallon of it as we ate the cookies over the next few days day and a half. (It’s hard to keep cookies around with my fiance.)

My results yielded fewer than two dozen large cookies, courtesy of a quarter-cup measure.

The parchment paper is a must and makes cleanup a breeze.

The recipe/author encourages tweaking this to make it your own, so you, too, also, as well have the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Evar.

Now away with thee so you can try them!

Cookies 1

cookies 2

cookies 3

New Goals, New Projects, and a Big Old Tangent

Why hello! Happy 2014!

I hope you all had lovely holiday seasons. I sure did. Believe it or not, I have done a lot of contemplating about writing in the last two months, though it hasn’t (yet) translated to more posts.

Here’s a quick recap on what 2013 ended up being for me:

  • A less hectic and draining year than 2012.
  • A year with no major health setbacks: YAY!
  • Made major advancements in wedding planning. (2014 is The Year of the Wedding!)
  • New or strengthened friendships–awesome!
  • Learned the value of setting goals or resolutions for oneself. I did not set any for 2013 so by the end of the year, I didn’t feel as accomplished as I might have had I written some things down. Ergo, I came up with eleven goals/resolutions for 2014.
  • Took up a new hobby: re-learning crochet and making amigurumi. Yeah, I had never heard that word before, either, but apparently the only way to refer to small, crocheted/knitted animals is through this word. Thank you, Japanese language!

Regarding the last item there: while I really loved taking up crochet again, as I haven’t touched it since I was a kid, I became intensely aware that skills which appear to be simple are the exact opposite of that. Trying crochet again began with an impulse buy whilst Christmas shopping at Barnes & Noble. I picked up a kit called Teeny Tiny Animal Crochet. I’m putting a photo here, courtesy of Barnes & Noble, so you can see why I might have been drawn in:

Animal Crochet

The adorable animals, the words “teeny tiny,” and the cursive font all sucked me in.

Pretty cute, no? After exclaiming in my head how adorable these little creatures were, I immediately thought, “How hard can this be? I can make these.” It was probably more like, “I HAVE to make these!” But whatever.

Problem was, I assumed that the book clearly stating that it’s “even for beginners” actually meant that it would give some verrrrrry step-by-step instructions for those taking up the hook for the first time or starting over again, as I was. I was laughably wrong. The book does attempt to teach you how to read a pattern, which is a learning process in and of itself, and through its photos, tries to get you to understand slip knots and rings and all that.

The kit also gives you two small balls of different yarn (not even a whole skein) and a few more supplies to make “two projects,” that of the bunny and the koala bear. I was immediately drawn to the bunny. I have an affinity for bunnies and couldn’t wait to try and replicate the project on the cover of the book. The koala bear was just “eh” to me; in fact, I really thought I’d be able to make two different bunnies with the yarn.

If that notion were a crochet balloon, it didn’t merely pop–it was shot down.

Box ' Bunny Parts

Box o’ Bunny Parts

In addition to the photos in the book being largely unhelpful (not that photos can’t be helpful but this book shows the wrong part of the step to illustrate something, and what good does that do?), the patterns are inconsistent in terms of how thorough they are. The book is a compilation of patterns from crocheters around the country. Perhaps there was only so much editing that was allowed. Moreover, the yarn hook that was provided had an eye way too small to thread the yarn that comes in the kit. So that was some fun time spent trying to get that to work.

One of the patterns completely omits telling you to stuff the body parts, even though you need to. It also goes into ZERO detail on how to sew animal parts together, which is a pretty crucial part to making a successful stuffed animal together. It simply gives instructions like, “Sew the head onto the body.” Okay, HOW? What EXACTLY is the best way to do that? My dude can attest that there were a couple of times I simply sat and screamed at the book or my yarn in frustration, much to his consternation.

In the end, I did not manage to complete a project with the given supplies. I was able to make three-quarters of one bunny and half of another. The balls of yarn ended up just being practice for me. The irregular bunnies are now my dog’s playthings. I stayed up late on weeknights as I tried to master this craft in a short amount of time, but until you crochet a few thousand stitches and really grasp some crucial concepts, it’s just not going to gel quickly. So for anyone reading this who wants to take up crochet, just remember to be patient. Don’t be like me and through sheer hubris, assume you’ll master this within a few hours. Or even a few days.

There is a bright silver lining to this particular craft, and that is YouTube. YouTube gave me the much needed visuals in order to learn all the crucial basics, while other crochet bloggers out there wrote extensively on subjects like hook type and size, gauge (the G-word, in the crochet world; “Check your gauge!”), sewing (at last!), and everything in between.

I managed to teach myself some crochet basics and what I needed to know for amigurumi through watching dozens of video tutorials from experienced crochet gurus out there on the world wide web. I also researched decent free patterns but also purchased a few from Etsy. I went to several craft stores before and after Christmas to stock up–and I really stocked up–and now have a small yarn store plus essential amigurumi supplies sitting in my living room, which has become my temporary craft room.

Things that are pretty crucial, especially for a beginner, in crochet: large-eye yarn needles, a needle threader, stitch markers, and a row counter. I know the last one there may seem silly, but I just got one in the mail and it is a life saver when you are just monotonously working on a project. Crochet is all about counting and knowing your multiple tables. There is no way around it. The number of stitches in a round or a row or a particular type of stitch are crucial to the success of your projects. Once I accepted that, I armed myself with the aforementioned tools to help me. (Essentially, when I’m crocheting, I feel like I’m conducting my own Lumosity brain-training. Maybe crocheting will help me stave off dementia as I age. That’d be pretty neat.)

Basically, between December 23 and now, I have had some very nice successes and also some really terrible project outcomes. I grant that I may have picked this up more quickly than some might, but I attribute that to my grandmother, God bless her, who taught me and some of my cousins at a young age the art of crochet. Back then, though, we were making potholders and little things like that. So my little crochet muscle memory lay dormant for a couple decades.

At the bottom of this post are some photos of a few successfully made projects. And perhaps a photo or two of my Irregulars, as I’m calling them; those being projects that I either completed or had to abandon midway through due to irreparable screwed-up-ness.

After posting several photos on my personal Facebook page, a handful of people told me I should open an Etsy shop. I sat on that idea for a couple of weeks and then thought, why not? One of my resolutions was to simply be more in the present moment, and what better way to carpe diem than to just to try something for the fun of it? I only have a few listings up but I will continue to add to it.

There are other crochet kits like this out there, including a Wizard of Oz themed set, which seem absolutely amazing on the surface, except that the reviews on Amazon from experienced crocheters say the patterns aren’t fantastic. So, word to the wise, folks. Teach yourself crochet/making amigurumi prior to buying any kind of kit. Once you have mastered reading a pattern and executing stitches, go back and try a few projects that at first seemed intimidating. The book in the kit I bought does have some cute animal patterns, so some good did come out of it, even if it did take me three tries to successfully make a bunny. (See below.)

Despite some initial setbacks, they did not deter me from having an all-consuming passion for crochet. In fact, I have to pace myself at it and force myself to take breaks and do other things so I can have a normal life, in addition to giving my hands and arm muscles a break. If you crochet enough, it will cause some serious joint pain and nearsightedness. Good times.

I’d love to hear if any of you took up a new hobby so far in 2014 or are already experienced in the Ways of Yarn. More to come from my end, I can promise you that!

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Me Me Me: Observations on Facebook Brags

According to many a study out there, most everyone on Facebook is a narcissist of one form or another. And if you’re a frequent Twitter user, it’s probably worse.

I don’t happen to believe that narcissism through social media is linked merely to those two outlets. There are social networks out there I’ve never even heard of. But if you can have followers and if you have enough ego, you can certainly whip up an unhealthy dose of overinflated self-importance.

Ice cream flavor “Facebook”: the “taste of time-wasting narcissism.”

I happen to love social media. That’s probably not a shocking admission. I mean, I have a blog with my name in it. (Perhaps that’s the ultimate form of narcissism?)

But here’s where I want to focus on one specific aspect of social media narcissism, and those are the Facebook Brags. I’ve been watching a lot of The Newsroom lately, so if I come across as if I’m doing a monologue from an Aaron Sorkin production, that would be why.

The whole point of Facebook is to share one’s accomplishments, milestones, the occasional selfie, some vacation photos, a snarky observation or two, and even cute stuff.  And if you’re into debate, there are plenty of conversation-starting articles, too. It’s what makes Facebook go ’round. Facebook takes the narcissism to the next level by advertising every single change and/or update we make: Likes, comments, profile photos, cover photos, job description, etc, as if it’s all equally important; so to that extent, it’s not entirely our fault.

Where self-involvement becomes untenable is the constant (over)sharing of things a person is doing that are “above” his or her friends’ experiences. When your Facebook statuses are all brag and no substance, it makes other people you’re friends with (or “friends” with) want to click Hide.

Recent studies suggest that passive participation, as in, not actively participating, on Facebook makes a person more unhappy. Another blogger went into a lot of depth analyzing the different kinds of updates one can post and their underlying motivations, the main ones being narcissism, attention craving, jealousy inducing, and “image crafting.” Particularly on the subject of blatant brags, s/he writes:

Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re just excited and need to brag to someone. Even if that’s the case, the only people it’s okay to brag to in life are your close friends, significant other, and family members—and that’s what email, texting, phone calls, and live talking are for. Your moment of self-satisfaction is profoundly annoying to people you’re not that close with, and they make up the vast majority of people who will be subjected to the status.

I won’t lie–in the nine years since I have been on Facebook, spanning from my early twenties to my early thirties, I’m guilty of having penned most, if not all, of the types of status messages that Wait But Why writes about. Twenty-somethings are absolutely more self-involved than most other age groups. However, as I’ve gotten older, matured, and reigned in my baser impulses, I now much more carefully choose what I decide to put out there; so much so, that I have found myself all the more sensitive to brag after brag after brag, particularly if it comes from one person.

When I’ve realized someone is a Braggart 4 Life, each status message earns an eye-roll and some kind of thought along the lines of, “We get it, you’re fabulous and we should all be grateful to be associated with you,” and I categorize that person as shallow/superficial and on the outskirts of friendship. I’ve unfriended people for less reason than being a braggart, but I could see this type of behavior driving much of the unfriending happening around Facebook.

My point here is not to make anyone feel badly about using Facebook. I check it all throughout the day, even if I’m not posting anything, just to see what my peeps are up to.

The point is that braggy, douchey status updates, if someone just HAS to write one, MUST also be balanced out with other types of posts. It’s kind of like Newton’s third law of motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction (ain’t that the truth)): for every hubris-soaked statement or photo you put out there, make the next two funny/snarky/sweet/banal. It’s that simple!

Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself without those who would share in your actual triumphs and joys. That’s a promise.

Breathes There the Man
Sir Walter Scott

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
“This is my own, my native land!”
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
From wandering on a foreign strand?
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.

The Beauty of Quiet

The Purple Tree

Real silence: as rare as a purple tree.

I live in a two-story apartment, known commonly as a townhome in the U.S.

One thing that is sacrificed when you choose to live in an apartment building or complex is true silence.

Most people don’t care about white noise. Heck, I have a fan on every night that helps soothe the too quiet of the night. I crave silence during the waking hours, though.

Between being able to hear faint noises of neighbors or loud noises of neighbors’ dogs (I’m pretty certain everyone in my apartment complex has a dog), there are also street noises that reverberate back to our apartment. Sometimes it’s construction or a lawn mower.

These sounds aren’t unusual for city living, apartment or no apartment.

But I find myself cherishing the truly quiet minutes in my life. This morning, for instance, I heard a bizarre shrill sound. It kept repeating itself in a pattern. I followed my ears to the hallway, wondering if a small child or animal was being tortured somewhere. Perhaps my ears were playing tricks on me (I’ve had tinnitus in one ear for a few years).

It turned out to be a mosquito or mosquito-like flying insect, whose wings were making that infernal high-pitched squeal that makes me paranoid I’m going to get bitten, and also drives me insane. Instead of water torture, someone could play that whiny sound of a mosquito’s wings beating for less than a half hour and I’d certainly give up any information I had. That or whistling.

Despite having a moment of, “What IS that??” I realized that I was grateful to have such quiet in my apartment that my bat sonar could pick up on it. On any other occasion, it would have been drowned out by any number of things: the dog wooing, the blare of the TV, the sound and feel of others’ apartment doors slamming, music playing on my computer.

I come from parents who revel in quiet and silence, especially in the morning. At my house growing up, having the television on before leaving for school was absolutely forbidden. I never quite understood why. I just thought my parents were strict. Now, I get it. Aside from not allowing their children to develop an unhealthy habit of staring in a zombified stupor at the television for an hour before heading off to school, they also valued the quiet of the morning. To this day, my mother gets up at dawn to sit in solitude, peacefully journaling. My father has similar routines. He writes constantly and he does not play music or have the television on while doing so. (For him, music is something to which one intently listens. TV and movies are attentively watched.)

I love having music on to carry me through my day but more and more, I find myself turning the music off when I’m deep in writing. I’m also discovering I have a visceral reaction to loud, jarring, and/or repetitive noises. The other day, someone loudly pounded on our patio door, and I about jumped out of my skin. I frequently pause the TV to go,  “Do you hear that? What’s that sound?” It drives my dude a little crazy. It was yet another reason why our former neighbors were the absolute worst ones to be paired next door to, as their lifestyle was ALL noise.

Friends-Ross-quiet

Me, most of the time when it comes to other people’s noises.

Perhaps by the time I’m 70 or 80 years old, I’ll embrace any hearing loss that happens with age. I can swim in my own silence. For now, I’ll ask you to <mimics Ross’s hand gesture.>

Me and the Sea

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I have a strange dichotomy with the sea. Seas = beaches. Beaches are hard to find when you grow up in landlocked states like Missouri. If you want some sea, you have to go and find it.

When I have found it, I have stared and contemplated for long periods of time (what felt like little eternities), soaking it all in.

No matter the weather, these bodies of water mesmerize me.

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I become very aware that I am in an otherworldly place, someplace else that is not my day-to-day. Perhaps the sea is my “somewhere over the rainbow.” The rhythmic sounds of the waves, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh, lull me into a state of inner peace where I am much more easily able to put away my cares. My favorite nature sound is listening to the ocean to help me get to sleep when I’m feeling anxious or experiencing insomnia.

Despite my love for the beauty and tranquility of the water (this is where the dichotomy comes in), I don’t feel the need to live near one.

Some people require being in close proximity to bodies of water. My mother is one of those people. She takes her pleasure from the lake(s) she lives close to; I truly think it grounds her.

But for me, I prefer to keep the specialness of the sea apart from my daily life. In addition to seas and oceans making me feel as if I’m on vacation, which I enjoy preserving, I also do not possess skin genes that allow for high doses of sun on a regular basis. In another life, perhaps I’ll have gorgeous skin that browns like a turkey at Thanksgiving. But in this life, I have pale, incendiary skin, suited for shade, air conditioning, and computer work.

When forced to be outdoors for any length of time, sea or no sea, I swath my skin in high doses of SPF sunblock, the better with which to help me be an outdoors(wo)man for a few hours.

Me and the sea are tight. I can’t wait until the next time I’m near one, so I may dip my toes into the frothy water and drink in the salty air.

Until such time, I’ll remember the sea fondly with previous memories and look through others’ eyes who have captured it in places I will probably never go.

The Lonely but Beautiful Path

This post was in response to the Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea.