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6 Questions for a Better 2017

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutionsHappy New Year! Welcome to 2017!

Coming off of the tumultuous 2016, I anticipate that many of you, like me, are spending these first January days contemplating hopes for the new year. In customary resolution fashion, we might think about the number of pounds to lose or the novel we want to write or the instrument we’ve always wanted to learn to play. These are all good thoughts, but we know resolutions can be empty words, as proven every February at the YMCA. When resolutions lack resolve, what’s the point?

Over the last few weeks, three things happened that made me rethink our normal approach to resolutions. The first involved prepping for an end-of-year meeting with my design partner. He had assembled a long list of questions to help recap our work in 2016 and plan for 2017. The questions took me by surprise; they were way harder to answer than expected, but this was great. He asked things like, “What did I learn about myself through our 2016 efforts?” and “If I had one word for 2016, it would be…”

The second was developing a similar list of queries for a 2017 strategy meeting for another client, asking questions including “What data are fascinating?” and “What will be the most fun projects for 2017?” Developing these questions meant that I needed to focus on not only what we wanted to do in the upcoming year, but why.

Following suit with this questions theme, the other day I listened to one of Todd Henry’s Accidental Creative podcasts in which he asks the following:

  1. What do I want to experience? (And how do I want to feel?)
  2. What do I want to learn? (What areas of curiosity do I want to pursue?)
  3. Where do I want to go? (Places to travel!)
  4. How do I want to change? (What do I want to be different by the end of the year?)

In all three instances, I appreciated the questions because they probe the emotional reasons lurking behind WHY we want to resolve to do X,Y, or Z. They also create boundaries to help our goal-making more intentional and systematic. This might not sound like a lot of fun, but when the choice is to say, “Losing weight would be nice,” verses “I want to improve my health so that I have more energy for work and play,” the latter intentional approach creates a powerful, tangible ‘so that’ that can motivate us beyond the first few weeks of January.

In this spirit, here are a list of questions I hope can help you effectively reflect on 2016 and plan intentionally for a thriving 2017. Enjoy!

  1. What went well for you in 2016? What do those things have in common?
  2. What are the top three things that bugged you about your work and play in 2016? Why do they continue to bother you?
  3. What took up the most time in 2016? Do you want this to change, or stay the same, and why?
  4. What did you learn about yourself in 2016? Answer for each: emotionally, spiritually, physically, professionally, relationally.
  5. What top five experiences do you want to have in 2017? What has inhibited you from doing them before? What are the intermediate steps to attaining those experiences?
  6. What top three things do I want to learn in 2017? Who, or which resources, can help me learn those things?

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What Good Editors Do

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There isn’t a writer in the world who hasn’t felt the pang of poorly edited work.

Whether it is a student paper declaring nebulously in red ink, “Be Clearer” (big help, thanks), or an essay that reads like someone else wrote it entirely, all writers endure unhelpful feedback from time to time.

The irony is that most writers are also guilty of dishing out unhelpful feedback. When we edit someone else’s work, the temptation is to see it through the lens of how we would do it, and this creates a hindrance to editing well. This is not to say that the writers are not talented; they might be able to turn a phrase prettier than a pansy, but that means very little when tasked with editing someone else’s product. It comes down to this:

WRITER MINDSETS ≠ EDITOR MINDSETS

Obviously, there is overlap between writers and editors. Many writers can be great editors and editors can be great because they understand the experience of writing. But we are talking about a Venn diagram here–two separate categories of thinkers who only occasionally overlap.

Why so little overlap? Let’s turn back time to two courses I took in college, the worst and the best. The worst class was taught by a professional writer-in-residence. I had read her books and they were awesome, so I arrived to the first class eager to learn. Twenty minutes in it was obvious she had no idea why she was an accomplished writer. She had very little to say about style, technique, research strategies, or successfully engaging an audience. What she achieved had been through blind instinct, and she therefore had little instruction to endow in spite of her considerable experience.

By contrast, the best course began its first day by illustrating how readers and writers think differently. Writers set out to organize ideas and get them down on paper in pretty arrangements. The difficulty is that ideas are nouns…things…stuff. Readers read for meaning; they want to know what’s happening, what’s moving, what’s changing. Readers watch for verbs. Given this, we were told that the key to great writing lies in the writer’s ability to write the way readers read best, i.e. through action and change.

Extrapolating from both of these experiences, I see two pillars of great editing: first, great editors understand why a piece of writing works or doesn’t work, and second, they successfully bridge the gap between how writers write and readers read.

For this first pillar, editors need to be aware simultaneously of the big picture points, the minutia, and the relationship between the two. It is this balance that allows them to make wise decisions about any changes they make to someone else’s work. It serves no purpose to change something at the sentence level unless it serves the paragraph’s aims. It makes no sense to delete or move a paragraph unless there are demonstrable reasons to do so. Good editing points to concrete reasons for why changes A, B, and C achieve the writer’s goals.

Notice: the writer’s goals. The writer most likely had good purpose in setting out to write, whether or not he executed his goals well. This brings me to the second pillar of good editing: the editor is the writer’s advocate, not his competitor. The editor stewards the writer’s voice. She is an ambassador of the writer’s words, making sure they resonate with the audience. Ambassadors say things their country’s president would say, not what they would say if they were president. They only tailor the message if and only if the audience will struggle to understand.

So how to become a good editor? There are several practical steps to take.

  1. When sitting down to edit someone else’s work, remember that you are not rewriting it, you are editing it. This is an entirely separate skill from writing, a completely different hat to wear. You will be using many of the similar tools of a writer, but you will NOT apply your own voice and you will NOT change things just because that is how you would do it. Instead, you will focus on strategy, reason, and resonance with the audience on the writers’ behalf. Make sure you know the reasons behind everything you change. If you don’t have a reason, don’t change it. 
  2. When you get a new piece to edit, refrain from making any changes until you’ve read the entire piece. Sit on your hands if you need to. But don’t touch it until you’ve read it as a reader would read it. Imagine it were already published, in a newspaper or magazine or book. Imagine you were simply consuming it…how would you take it? What confuses you? What made you slow down? Keep a mental–or physical–note of difficulties you experienced as a reader. Then on your second go through, return to these areas and ask yourself, “What might make it smoother or more persuasive?” Stick to Occam’s Razor as much as you can, as often times a simple move like cutting a word or rearranging some sentences will solve the problem much better than trying to rewrite it without the writer’s notes in front of you. 
  3. Ask the writer questions. Don’t think you need to solve his problems blindly. If you are having difficulty divining the writer’s intention with a sentence or concept, just ask him about it. You are partners, after all. Ask him to rephrase things, or to explain it as if to a novice. Often both you and the writer will stumble across simpler ways of communicating ideas than either of you thought of in the first place. 

 

To sum up, editing is not about passing the torch to another writer. It is an entirely different skillset. If you have a good editor in your life, go and give them a hug. And a cookie.

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How to Bermuda, Part 1

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View from Gibbs Lighthouse

“You took da bus?” cried our hostess in her endearing accent. “All da way from da airport?” She said it like she had never heard of any tourist doing something so complicated.

Traveling well requires a good bit of creativity. Or money. Often both. But creativity can kick in to help you save money, learn more about a local culture, and help you have a much better trip. You can also have some fun surprising locals with your cunning.

Bermuda, one of the havens of the super-rich, proved on our recent visit to require ample creative problem solving in lieu of shelling out for exorbitant taxi rides and restaurant meals. I gathered that, because many of the tourists were either so rich they didn’t care what the taxis cost or had arrived on cruise ships with prearranged island tours, we remaining DIY-ers  had to fend for ourselves. We learned a lot about Bermuda through pure scrappiness, and I am proud now to share with you what we learned.

  1. WHY BERMUDA…
    My parents honeymooned in Bermuda and always described it as paradise with pink beaches. This proved fully accurate. The water is so clear that you can see rainbow-colored fish straight through the cresting waves. Rocky outcroppings along the southern shore make for secluded swimming grottoes so picturesque it hurts. Bermuda is a world-class destination for golf, sailing, and scuba diving, and offers many other activities including cave swimming, kayaking, and renting mopeds. Located in the middle of the Atlantic at a similar latitude level to North Carolina, it is decidedly not Caribbean, and for much of the year has significantly cooler temperatures (averaging around 75-80 in the summer). It is a quick flight from East Coast cities (less than two hours) and we found the best deal from New York’s JFK. The Bermudian dollar is fixed to the value of the American dollar, and the currency is interchangeable, so easy peasy. All told, Bermuda makes for a seriously nifty getaway.

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    Jobson Cove

  2. BEFORE YOU GO…
    One of the most important things to know about Bermuda is that it is very expensive to be there. Almost all of the country’s GDP comes out of off-shore banking, which means they produce virtually nothing of their own and import everything they need. This means you will be paying $17 for a sandwich, $30 for an entree, and $7 for a loaf of bread. This shouldn’t turn you off to visiting, but you need to be aware. My husband and I made it work on a budget by cooking breakfast and one other meal in our apartment rental, and then sharing an appetizer and an entree at a restaurant for the remaining meal. Another way to ease your wallet pain would be to bring non-perishable and non-produce snacks from home like pretzels, trail mix, etc. along with refillable water bottles (the water is safe to drink).

    In planning our itinerary, I was surprised to find few guidebooks, and even fewer recent guidebooks, available for our type of traveler. The Fodors I perused proved a waste of time; no way was I going to believe that the cheapest accommodation ran north of $300 nightly. I’m also not into birding or shopping and wasn’t planning on playing golf this time around. Given this, I spent my prep hours looking at TripAdvisor reviews for activities, taking notes on the nicest beaches, the prettiest nature preserves, and must-see historical landmarks. In the next installment, I will cover top attractions.

  3. LODGING…
    Finding lodging on a budget was no easy feat, especially in high season. Originally I set out to find a hotel to benefit from amenities like airport shuttles and pools, but ultimately suffered from sticker shock, feeling frustrated by the thought of spending more than $200/night on decrepit rooms desperately in need of refurbishing. Bermuda, however, is full of alternative lodging options including B&Bs and apartment/house rentals. We had good luck with VRBO, finding several solid choices in our preferred price range. Our first VRBO inquiry led to even better luck because, though that particular unit was not available, the property manager sent us back a list of available units that were even CHEAPER AND NICER than the one we had wanted! The company was Bermuda Accommodations Inc., and I can recommend them highly. We booked a small apartment with a fully outfitted kitchenette, a king size bed, a huge bath tub, AC, and charming hosts, all walking distance from the nicest beaches on the island.

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    Marley Beach, our favorite

    This leads me to location. Much of the island’s attractions are spread out across the island which means you will be doing some commuting between them. This will be slow going. The speed limit is only 25 mph, though it actually feels fast on those narrow, windy roads—believe me. At this pace, the two main villages, Hamilton and St. George, are about a half-hour apart. The nicest beaches are 20 minutes south of Hamilton. The Dockyards are about 45 minutes away from everything. This said, it is important to choose your lodging to be closest to the features you will use most often. If you want to be near the nicest beaches, then stay along the south coast in Warwick Parish. If you want to be closer to multiple public transit routes, restaurants, and night life, stay closer to Hamilton. If you want old-world charm, shopping options, and access to Tobacco Bay, stay in St. George.

  4. WHEN YOU GET THERE…
    Your plane will soar over waters that grow increasingly turquoise the nearer you get to landing. You will step out of the airport and breathe in the salty, sunny air. Then you will realize there was no information booth in the airport. Customs just dumped you onto the curb to be accosted by taxi drivers. No maps, no guidance, no functional pay phones. We went around asking employees for tips and eventually figured out the buses.

    From the airport, you have several options to reach your lodging. The first is to have arranged it ahead of time if your lodging offers shuttle service. The second is to pay for a taxi. This might be the easiest option, but depending on where you are located, be prepared to spend, especially if you get in on a Sunday when they charge 25% more on fees. The third is to take the bus. There are several buses that pick up in front of the airport and go either to St. George or Hamilton. Reference where you’re staying on this bus map and pick your route. You will need to pay in cash until you can get other bus tickets. They do not give change, so have some coins ready to pay exact fare. If you are transferring to a second bus, ask the driver to give you a transfer slip, and he or she will tear off a piece of paper noting the time. Remember that the pink poles at the bus stops lead you toward Hamilton, and the blue poles lead you away from it. NOTE: Depending on how crowded the bus is, the driver may not let you on with luggage. We were told they rarely enforce this, but there are between 0-1 luggage racks on these buses, and some bus rides are packed full.

    You can buy bus passes and individual tickets at the bus terminals, ferry terminals, and information booths. These tickets also work on ferries. They offer multi-day passes as well as packets of tickets. Probably the best way to save money was to estimate the number of trips you will be taking and buy a packet of 15 All-zone tickets. This way the tickets can be used by whomever (whereas the passes can only be used by one person at a time) and you save a bunch of money by buying in bulk. Just remember to ask for those transfers!

    Stay tuned for Part 2, Top Bermuda Activities!

 

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How to Make a Renaissance Feast

This past weekend our friends hosted a murder mystery dinner party set in Elizabethan England. They called it “Myrder at the Blackfriar Taverne.”

They put me in charge of food.

I told them that I might need some boundaries.

They thought I was kidding.

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As I set about thinking through my plan, my initial inclination was to make things I already knew were delicious and pretend they were from the period. Then I remembered that I had the internet, and such access to knowledge holds us all to higher standards. Here are the steps I underwent. Should you ever host or cater a similar event, I hope will this be useful to you:

  1. Think through the categories of food you need: Starters, drinks, breads, entrees, sides, desserts (I made a spreadsheet to keep track of my plan and potential recipes). This is important because your research could easily send you spiraling off down rabbit trails and two hours later you find yourself with eighteen recipes for chicken and nothing else. Have a mission in mind. Therefore, instead of looking for “Elizabethan Recipes,” look for “Elizabethan Cake Recipe.” That said, your mission should also leave room for serendipity. You might find little factoids, as I did, of foods typical to the period that we no longer use. For instance, Elizabethan cuisine involved many floral flavors like rose and lavender, and we use much less of that today. Because of this, I knew that I needed to incorporate floral notes into the food when appropriate, thereby making it more accurate to the time period. Incidentally, this cake and this frosting were fantabulously delicious.

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    Elizabethan Honey Cake with Lavender Buttercream

  2. Choose your recipes with care, but don’t go crazy. Given that it took humanity a shockingly long time to add amounts to their recipes, many of the documented dishes that survived history are, for practical purposes, useless. Many people have made their own guesses as to what the recipes required, so given the high level of uncertainty, choose your recipes in a way that balances historicity, feasibility, and potential edibility. Remember, this is your dinner too. Challenge yourself, but be kind to yourself as well. For example, for this party I had to choose a recipe for manchet bread, a white bread typically reserved for nobility as white flour was expensive to obtain. Many recipes used lard, which I didn’t have, and others had no measurements, so it became very difficult to figure out what “real” manchet was. In the end, I picked a recipe that looked delicious, seemed supported by research, and had contemporary measurements. It was delicious and beauteous.

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    manchet, the bread of nobles

  3. Cross reference whether people ate the ingredients you want to use. Research the eating habits of different social strata…it’s fascinating. It seems Elizabethan peasants ate much more healthily than their noble counterparts. Believing vegetables to be “ground food,” nobles typically shunned nutritious options and instead indulged in white flour and white sugar, and paid dearly to do so. They loved sugar so much that the financially pressed nobles would blacken their teeth with soot to make them appear to be rotting from the sugar. It is also important to realize that, depending on when in the Elizabethan era you choose to focus, foods like potatoes, chocolate, and tomatoes had not yet made it across the ocean, and even after they did, they were only consumed by the most adventurous. Tomatoes were considered poisonous, in fact, for many years after their arrival in Europe. I share all of this because depending on your dedication to era-appropriate menu items, it helps to consider the facts.

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    mini meat pies, made with roast shredded pork, minced beef, minced sausage, carrots, onions, and peas.

  4. Think through your timing. This is true of any large catering venture, but you might not realize how long your leech, a milk and wine jelly, takes to set. Each layer of this pudding requires 12 hours each in the fridge, so I’m very thankful I checked the recipe a couple days before. In addition, bread needs time to rise and pie dough (with butter) needs to chill before rolling it out. Because you (probably) don’t have a kitchen staff in your castle bowels to get everything out on the table at the right time, you have to schedule yourself wisely.

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    Eight Cornish Hens

  5. Everyone loves cheese. 
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Best of luck with all your themed party cooking experiments!

Also, in other news, after this party I can now cross off several items from my 30×30 Maker List, including #8, the tiered cake, and #9, the Renaissance costume. Technically I made two costumes, because I was responsible for the hubby costume as well as my own. I made my costume out of curtains and a pillow sham. Seriously. I am also going to add Renaissance Feast to my list, as that was quite a feat of making.

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3 Lessons in Food Photography

Recently I’ve been on a quest to learn more about food photography. Unlike most travel photography, which by nature depends on serendipity, food photography involves more staging and premeditation. Food photographers must ask themselves, “What can I do to this food to make it look irresistibly delicious?” They then use their mysterious powers of manipulation to make me salivate.

But really, what do food photographers do? I spent some time looking at a slew of food photos and made some observations which I would like to share with you. (The photos below come from the magazine, Edible Nashville, for which I have so far written two articles and am working on a third. Check it out!)

  1. White outs.
    I’ve noticed many food photos that overexpose backgrounds purposefully so as to pull all attention onto the food. In the photo below, the pork seems almost haloed by light, making us feel like this glowing scene really does have touches of the divine. It also looks nice and sanitary and safe.

    2a. Color Matters: Complementary Color Pairing 

    I am ashamed I never noticed how critical color is to food photography. On the one hand, the need for color is obvious; we all want our food to look fresh and colorful, so food photography naturally would enhance these characteristics. But my epiphany goes deeper than this. Food photographers make use of color theory, and often pair together sets of complementary colors, meaning colors that sit on the opposite ends of a color wheel (purple and yellow, red and green, blue and orange). These contrasts really make the image pop and prick our curiosity for how those colors must taste.


2b. Color Matters: Analogous color pairings 

Continuing with this color theory epiphany, food photography often exhibits ranges of similar colors, or analogous colors, meaning colors that sit next to each other on a color wheel. In the photo below, see how nicely the frame pulls you in with the color progression from cream to yellow to orange to red.

Photography by Mark Boughton


3. The Power of a Neutral Background 

Another pattern I saw across many food photos is the use of neutral colored backgrounds: creams, browns, and steely grays. These backgrounds make an excellent stage upon which the colors of the food can dance freely.

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