Monthly Archives: January 2016

30 by 30 Challenge: Make 30 new things by my birthday

So……I have 39 days left of my twenties. To put it diplomatically, I have mixed feelings about this.

As I wrestle with the “should haves” from the last decade, one wish is that I had spent more time making stuff. Growing up, when we asked our mom to buy us a treat of some kind, more often than not she would say, “We can make that.” This shaped all three of us siblings, even if many of those times we never made the thing we wanted to buy. Today, we all approach needs that arise with the question, “How might I make that?” It meant so much to my sister, in fact, that she tattooed “I can make that” on her wrist, a permanent reminder of her identity as a creator.

Making more things, I think, will be a goal of my thirties. I want to spend more time doing than just thinking about stuff I could do, more time creating than consuming.

megamaker-logo-3dEnter the Mega Maker Challenge.

The other day my friend Tony pointed me toward a podcast by designer Justin Jackson who is undergoing a challenge to make 100 new things in 2016. He is inviting his audience to take part, and it seemed fitting to ramp up to year (gasp!) 30 by likewise making a bunch of stuff. This makes a lot of sense to me because…

1. I feel best when I am doing creative work.
2. Because Todd Henry, author of the Accidental Creative, advocates for unnecessary creating, i.e. creating that is not required for an assignment, to ensure our passions are fed and playtime is incorporated into our routine.
3. Because I want to build a habit of making things regularly, and according to The Happiness Advantage author Shawn Achor, you need to do something for at least 21 days to build a habit.

With these reasons in mind, I am going to challenge myself to make 30 new things before turning 30. Below is my list with a few explanations. For the record, I reserve right to change list items, so long as I complete making 30 new things by March 4.

  1. latteLatte (Already done! I’m not a big coffee drinker so this is a big deal. I made it with brown sugar, by the way, which was very yummy.)
  2. (Finish making) Peter’s music video. My friend Peter McKeown, also known as Woodferd, and I have begun producing a second music video. See the first here 
  3. Shadow Puppet. I’ve wanted to make one since seeing a performance in Cambodia. I started one a while ago. I’m gonna finish it.
  4. Story infographic. In my quest to understand Story, I want to create a graphic that illustrates the necessary components of a story arc. Plus I’ve always wanted to make an infographic.
  5. Artsy map of Nashville. These already exist, but they leave all of Donelson and Southern Nashville out. For shame. We live in Southern Nashville on purpose, thank you very much.
  6. Standing soufflé. Julia Child done me wrong. I can’t get a soufflé to stay poofy. I will prevail!
  7. Short Story
  8. Tiered Cake. Never made one. Always wanted to. Fortunately I have a renaissance party coming up soon that will need a cake, as well as a…
  9. Renaissance Costume
  10. Children’s book 
  11. Food Prep video. Edible wants to begin experimenting with these. Game on! 
  12. Photo Essay. This might be way harder than I want it to be, but we will see. Anyone have ideas for subject matter?
  13. Recipe + Story for Josefin. My dear Swedish pen pal and I are going to start sending each other recipes with the stories behind them included. Maybe one day we will have enough material for a cookbook!
  14. Swedish Meal. My dear Swedish Pen Pal gave us a Swedish cookbook for Christmas. We need to get cracking.
  15. An Epic Poem. This will be epic mostly in style rather than length. Ideas for subject matter?
  16. Side Table. I need more of these.
  17. Song for ukulele. How hard could it be? 😉
  18. Peking Duck. One of my favorite Chinese dishes.
  19. Creative Writing Portfolio. Need to compile my best stuff in one place. Any nominations for past blog posts?
  20. Logo. Never made one. Want to try.
  21. UofC swag. Proud of my alma mater.
  22. Continent Cutouts Photo Project. I painted our bedroom blue with the idea we could cut out shapes of the continents in wood and connect photos of the places we’ve been to their corresponding locations.
  23. Lamp. Need more.
  24. Wood carving. Might try to start a nativity scene.
  25. A hat. 
  26. Mocumentary
  27. Comic Strip. Drawing scares me, especially when it comes to cartoonish styles. This will definitely stretch my comfort zone.
  28. Kintsugi. This Japanese concept involves repairing broken items, usually pottery, in beautiful ways. I have a bowl I love and I want to give this a try.
  29. Musical instrument 
  30. Jewelry, preferably from some unusual raw materials.

Here goes! Wish me luck and join the challenge yourself!



Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Life, True Stories

Getting Gritty, part 3

A year and a half ago I wrote a 2 part series called Getting Gritty. This is the third installment on this theme. Part 1 defines grit and examines the life of Leonardo DaVinci and his remarkable perseverance, and Part 2 discusses the balance of grit and rest as the formula for prolific creative activity. 

What do Leonardo DaVinci, Julia Child, and Bob Dylan all have in common? Our first answer to this might be “genius,” meaning natural talent, or “success,” meaning they were in the right place at the right time. The temptation for those of us struggling to live creative and productive lives is to think that they had something we don’t have—or worse, can’t have. If you are like me and fall prey to this temptation, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that what these great minds have in common is something we too can have: grit. The bad news is that what we need to be like these great minds is grit.

True Grit. No, not the classic western. I’m talking about the “stick-to-it-ness” that characterizes many if not all of the most prolific and creative people across history. These figures lived through what Adam Westbrook, creator of the video essay below, calls “The Difficult Years,” or those years of hard work, sweat, and tears that history often ignores. He cites author Robert Green who defines that period as “A largely self-directed apprenticeship that lasts some five to ten years [and] receives little attention because it does not contain stories of great achievement or discovery.”

Five to ten years, no achievement. That is a tough pill to swallow, especially for our instant gratification generation, a people trained to believe hard work is the stuff of fast movie montages and is over before we can blink. Is this really what it takes?

Um, well, yes. Sorry to break it to you. Grit is the thing that links great minds, and if we seek to accomplish creative feats then we must keep working, disregarding failures and the lack of an audience. We must keep creating. Todd Henry, author of the Accidental Creative, urges his readers and podcast listeners often to undertake “unnecessary creating,” meaning creative activity that we do for ourselves, for fun, and not for money. Pursuing our passions is the best training for prolific creative accomplishment; passion and grit go hand in hand.

And that is the good news. When we think of bearing down and getting gritty, we might think that this means assuming supernatural self-discipline. While discipline is important, willpower only goes so far. The only thing powerful enough to push us to this level of creative pursuit is passion, love of the craft, love of beauty, and a surviving hope that, no matter how long it takes, someone else will share that love with you.

In this video essay we learn about the profound passion of Vincent Van Gogh, and while I believe he went overboard by sacrificing his health to his art, his grittiness inspires me to push past a temporary lack of the spoils of “success” and just keep creating.

“Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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Sojourn into Story, Part II: What is Story?

This is Part II of a series, Sojourn into Story. See Part I to find out why stories make the world go round.


It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the greatest stories ever told on film. This past Christmas, I had friends from Sweden visiting who had never seen it. When we came out of the theater they said, “I don’t know how I’ve lived this long without seeing this movie.”

What is Story? Now there is a dangerous question.

Stories surround us, but when we stop to think about it, Story is very difficult to define. It is like asking ‘What is love?’ We all know it when we experience it (at least I hope we do), but defining it gets tricky. Story, like Love, is a word we throw around casually, and in doing so it has lost much of its weight. Just as we say we “love going to the movies” and we “love our kids,” a “story” can refer to something minor or to something incredibly profound.

So how do we pursue such an elusive question? It might help to discuss what story is not. Stories are not merely a sequence of events. For example, I heard a talk given at a networking event in which the speaker shared about something from his life. In an attempt to inspire us to believe in the value of grit and hard work, he said, “I want to tell you a story. When I was in high school we had a really prestigious drum band and I wanted to be part of it, so I practiced a lot and got in.” Good for you, guy. When he gave this account, it rubbed me the wrong way, and I was definitely not inspired. Later that day I understood why: what he shared wasn’t a story. Stories are more powerful than that. They connect the storyteller to our empathy and to our curiosity. They do this through portrayal of conflict, specifically conflicts that inhibit the characters from getting what they desire. How the characters make their choices regarding this conflict, and how those choices change the outcome of events, is what makes a story. In the case of the successful drummer, his reference would have become a story if he had been injured, or if he had to choose between rehearsal and something else he wanted, or of his parents disapproved of drumming. He lacked something to overcome, and the result is a disconnect with his audience. As Robert McKee says in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, ‘True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure – the greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature.’

In other words, all stories are about something going wrong. Think about it: George Bailey is always stopped from leaving Bedford Falls. Snow White’s stepmother tries to kill her. Elizabeth Bennet is forced to endure the company of a man she hates. Harry Potter can’t live while Voldemort survives. Whether the conflict is within or without the character, Story is not Story without it. A Story, therefore, is a sequence of changes a character undergoes as a result of the choices he or she makes in the face of conflict. If the Evil Queen had been ambivalent about Snow White, we wouldn’t have a story, as there would be neither conflict nor choices nor change. If Voldemort hadn’t killed Harry’s parents or tried to kill him in every book, Harry would have grown up as a normal wizard boy, unscarred and, well, boring. As Patrick Moreau of Stillmotion Studios says in his Ted Talk:

Every story needs a person with a strong desire, as well as conflict. Good Conflict creates questions, and humans are naturally driven to find answers to questions we care about. We could preach facts all day, but in the end we need an emotional connection to the problem, which is much better provided by a story.

In short, conflicts, choices, and changes are the ingredients of Story that tap into our souls, that connect us with the characters in an empathetic bond, and that leave us desperately curious about how the story will end.


Stay tuned for the next installment of Sojourn into Story. 🙂



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Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy

Why Yes, that is Purple Soup.

I made the mistake once of bringing a pot of borscht to a church potluck. Most people, I wager, were turned off by the radioactive magenta hue, not knowing that the color came from perfectly natural beet roots. Many who knew about the beets turned up their noses because, let’s face it, beets can sometimes be gross.

But these naysayers were missing out. This is one of my favorite recipes, especially for a January day: healthy, satisfying, and warm, the perfect comfort food to keep up with your New Years’ resolutions.

borscht 2

This recipe I have adapted from the Culinary Institute of America’s Soup book, now sadly out of print. Incidentally, if anyone comes across a copy, please let me know. If you take it for yourself, though, I won’t blame you. Be sure to try the seafood chowder and the Vietnamese beef and spinach soup.

CIA Borscht, adapted

2-3 medium beets
2 tablespoons minced bacon
1 medium onion, diced finely
2 celery stalks, cut to matchsticks
2 parsnips, matchsticks (optional: I don’t add these as I think they are too sweet)
2-3 carrots, matchsticks
2 leeks, white and green parts, matchsticks
1/2 savoy cabbage, shredded (about 3 cups)
2 quarts chicken or veggie broth
Sachet: 1 tsp dried marjoram, 4-5 parsley stems, 2 cloves peeled garlic, and 1 bay leaf enclosed in a large tea ball or tied in a cheesecloth pouch  (I usually use dried herbs for ease and just dump them straight into the pot.  I mince fresh garlic for this).
Red Wine Vinegar to taste
Salt and Pepper to taste
Dollops of sour cream and fresh dill

Wash the beets and simmer them in enough water to cover until partially cooked, ~10-15 minutes.  When cool enough to handle, peel and reserve (use gloves)

Cook bacon in soup pot over medium heat until crisp, 6-8 min

Add the veggies, cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the veggies are translucent, about 15 min. Add the broth and sachet, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 min.

Grate the parboiled beets (wear gloves) directly into the soup. Alternatively, shred the beets in a food processor and add to the soup. Simmer until all veggies are tender, about 10 min.

Remove the sachet and discard.  Season with the vinegar, dill, salt, and pepper.  Garnish servings with sour cream and dill.



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New Year, New Toy!

Happy New Year All!

Ok, confession time: I bought myself a pretty nifty Christmas present last December. A Nifty Fifty in fact, otherwise known as a 50mm fixed lens f/1.8 for my Nikon.


I don’t normally geek out about equipment, but here is a little explanation: In my photography reading I kept coming back to the principle of fast lenses, so called because the wider aperture (most lenses don’t go lower than f/3.5) allows for faster shutter speeds in low light shots. I also learned that fixed lenses, or lenses that don’t zoom, create crisper images. The advantages of a fast, fixed lens therefore would nicely compliment my super versatile 18-200mm zoom, which as wonderful as it is, limits me in low light situations, especially with food photography. Fortunately, a nifty fifty is one of the least expensive lenses you can get!

Over the holiday I tried my hand with the new lens across many different situations. With very little effort on my part, I saw a big difference in the results in all categories, including low light shots, food shots, and portraits. Incidentally, I can simultaneously show off the results of our Star Wars Themed New Years. 🙂

See the Nifty Fifty perform…

chicago street

…On A Chicago Street at Dusk


music box

…At Chicago’s Music Box Theater at night after watching It’s a Wonderful Life



…In Mammoth Caves National Park



…On Christmas Cookies



…on Star Wars themed bagel dough



…on Star Wars themed bagels



…On Storm Trooper Marshmallows



…On a portrait of the strapping Petter


josefin model

…And on a portrait of the fabulous Josefin



This was not taken with the nifty fifty; I just wanted to show off our New Years Star Wars Costumes.



Regrettably, I also did not shoot this with the new lens. If I had bothered to switch it, I would have been able to get a lot more light in there. Even so, admire these Star Wars cocktails I invented: “Just another Tatooine Sunrise” and “Han Shot First.”





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