Monday, September 7, 2009

Computer Problems

Look for new, regular posts starting next week. I've had a hard drive disaster on my three-month-old Acer computer. But I am rebounding on a laptop while I try to get my desktop fixed, and I should be ready to go again next week.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Jewelry for the (ahem) underemployed

Tired of your current jewelry, but need some LOW-budget options? Rediscover your inner college student and pick up the spray paint.

Since waves of unemployed writers and would-be writers have clogged the freelance market, I’ve had some spare time to search out old fake gold and silver earrings at thrift stores. The beautiful retro ‘50s and ‘60s jewelry is no longer there for the taking on thrift-store counters like it once was, but you can still find hoop and dangle earrings with surprisingly nice shapes. They run a measly $1 a pair at most Goodwill Stores. (I will wear clip-ons. If you only wear earrings for pierced ears, obviously be choosy about the posts going inside your ears.)

When the earrings are extra-shiny, I scuff them with sandpaper to get some tooth. Then I spiff up my finds with the spray paint. And if I feel particularly industrious, I add a top coat in a clear satin to boost the durability.

Rust-Oleum has a hammered metal spray paint in multiple colors that I really like. Unless the earrings are fairly bulky, you don’t get a strong hammered metal effect, but the finish still provides a great depth of color that plain old spray paint can’t match. I’m going to start looking for bangles next to see if I can continue my crafty ways.

The leftover spray paint has multiple Martha Stewart-esque uses. You can freshen up outdoor furniture, lamps, candleholders, mirror and picture frames, even bathroom accessories. I took three overly ornate plastic gold-tone mirrors I found at the thrift store, spray-painted them all violet, and hung them on my unrenovated bathroom wall. They're now the most high-end-looking part of the bathroom. So if you are ready-to-scream tired of something and it’s not a collectible, see how it looks with a coat of spray paint.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Try my grammar/writing blog

I’ve launched a grammar and writing blog: Writing Re-Enlightenment. Why? Call it a backlash against texting, Tweeting, and whatever else is causing people to neither care about nor be able to recognize good writing.

I am a freelance non-fiction writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience in using the English language to communicate effectively. I recently started writing fiction as well. This new blog represents my small attempt to share what I know — and what I am learning — about grammar, writing, literature, popular fiction, non-fiction, communication, and creativity.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Flex your creativity muscles

I’ve been a professional nonfiction writer and editor for about 20 years. So you’d think that I would know how to write pretty much anything. Yet I was one of those people who dreamed about writing fiction instead of actually doing it. Basically I was too scared to try, and reading those ever-present articles about the dedication of true writers didn’t help. You know, the ones that say: “A real writer has to write. It’s in our DNA. We find a way no matter what, or we’d go crazy.”

Meanwhile, I would come close to crying blood as I struggled to find both the time and the creative energy to write a few paragraphs of a short story over a period of months, if not years. So I was pretty sure I would never qualify as a “real” fiction writer.

But then last October, I lost my primary writing contract due to consolidation in the publishing industry, and I decided that my enforced sabbatical was a perfect time to put my vague dreams into more solid form. So I enrolled in a creative writing class at the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.

I’m now about to start my third straight semester, and I’ve already written more fiction than at any other time of my life. I’ll admit, I’m no _____ (fill in the blank with your favorite literary giant). In fact, I haven’t been able to get a short story published yet.

But even if I never manage to make anyone’s best seller list, I’m better off. Learning to access my creativity, to work with language, and to create a good story that can impact a reader has produced an unlooked-for side effect: All of my writing has improved.

Whether I am writing a blog, a corporate presentation, or a scintillating educational article about technology transfer, I can dip into the creative well to craft a stronger story. It’s also now easier for me to be creative in other areas, such as designing mosaics, because I’ve gotten used to letting my mind flow freely and allowing ideas and inspiration to pop into my consciousness.

The Great Smokies Writing Program has classes in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry — any of which can help anyone channel their creativity and learn to use language in new and better ways. The fall semester may be the program’s strongest yet, according to Executive Director Tommy Hays.

If you live in WNC, take advantage of this great opportunity. If not, scour your area and find a good program. A lot of people have let their creativity atrophy. (I think the mere existence of Twitter brings that lesson home.) So flex your muscles.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bargain Alert!

Anyone who visits the Spotted Dog Farm booth at the Asheville City Market this Saturday, August 22, and says the word “polymath” gets $5 off a candle. A big thanks to Sumner S. for her beautiful beeswax candles and a great bargain!

PS-There is a news story on today about paraffin candles causing indoor air pollution.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Candles: Go for the glamour of beeswax

There are candle people, and there’s the rest of the world. For years, I wanted to be a candle person, one of those women who has half-burned candles scattered artfully throughout her home and always seems to be saying, “Last night, I lit a candle and …”

I craved that mysterious romanticism that seems to be the birthright of the candle clique. But OK, it’s not me. I am perfectly happy lighting a candle every two to three months instead of two to three times a week.

When I do light a candle, however, I want to set a mood — peaceful, spiritual, joyful, sensual, or elegant — that cannot be achieved with electricity or a run-of-the-mill, mass-produced candle.

Handmade pure beeswax candles stand alone, head and shoulders above their paltry competitors, such as paraffin, gel, or even soy. Some rival candles are environmental nightmares, while others are OK on the ecological front. But none measures up to the power of the bee.

First, beeswax is all-natural, and unless our civilization manages to destroy the honeybee, it will remain a renewable resource. Beeswax also produces a radiant golden flame and a long-burning candle (not cheap but definitely economical).

Second, the extremely subtle honey scent of a beeswax candle won’t asphyxiate you, your significant other, your children or anyone else you’ve invited to be in the same room as a burning candle. Other candles often are perfumed to the point of an allergy attack, if not outright rankness.

Third, you don’t have to consider your home’s color palette. The dull gold color of a beeswax candle, which comes in pale to dark shades depending on what our bee friends have eaten, is nature’s neutral: It goes with every color in the rainbow, livening up traditional decor and grounding modern decor. Consequently, a beeswax candle can be moved from holder to holder and from room to room without regard to potential color or style clashes.

I currently have two, both purchased at the Saturday Asheville City Market:
  • A plain 3x3-inch round pillar beeswax candle ($12) from Soulshine Beeswax Candles in Black Mountain. This is the ultimate in candle versatility. Standing alone, it’s a glowing beacon, but it also can blend into any tablescape. (Is tablescape a real word, or have I watched Sandra Lee on the Food Network once too often?)
  • A 3-inch pressed flower pillar beeswax candle ($16-$18) from Spotted Dog Farm in Asheville. If you’re thinking, “Huh, country, how nice …,” stop! Sure, some of the flowers are a little frilly. However, I got a bachelor button candle, which is simple enough to work with retro or modern décor once you ditch the raffia ribbon (or just untie the bow), as would the fern candles. And even one of the pansy candles — surely the epitome of country — reminded me more of a French Impressionist painting than a prop from “Little House on the Prairie.”

When I again live in a perfect (money-making) world, I also have my eye on a beeswax lantern ($53/large) with pressed Queen Anne’s lace from Bee Global in Robbinsville. Architectural, yet delicate, it would make a statement year-round.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Great grain almighty: Plant a halo on hulled barley

More than likely, you have vague childhood memories of barley as a bland, pasty grain floating around a bowl of soup. That barley looked and tasted like it was flattened by a steamroller, and basically it had been. The not-quite-idyllic barley of your youth was pearl barley.

“Pearl barley refers to covered barley that has been processed to remove the tough, inedible outer hull and then pearled or polished,” says the National Barley Foods Council.

The pearling process removes the bran and endosperm, so pearl barley isn’t a whole grain. Mom was duped into believing that pearl barley was the best barley on offer. Learn from her mistake.

Sold practically everywhere, pearl barley is a better nutritional option than white rice. But pearl barley is a pale imitation of its plump, golden, chewy, satisfying, and nutritionally super-sized sibling: hulled barley.

With hulled barley, only that inedible outer shell is removed, leaving behind all the whole-grain goodness. And it’s a lot of goodness. One-quarter cup of uncooked hulled barley, which is about 1/2 cup cooked, has approximately 163 calories, 34 grams of carbohydrates, 8 g fiber (soluble and insoluble), 6 g protein, 1 g fat, 10% of daily iron requirements, 2% of calcium, and appreciable levels of thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, manganese, and selenium. (For full nutritional stats, visit Nutrition Data.)

There are a lot of bewildering stove-top recipes for cooking hulled barley that require overnight soaking and strange liquid to grain ratios (e.g., 4 cups liquid to 1 cup barley). The confusion may be due to the fact that two types of whole-grain barley exist:
  • Hulled (covered barley with the tough outer shell removed), and
  • Hulless or hull-less (a barley with a loose outer hull that basically falls off). This variety appears to require more water and a longer cooking time.
I use hulled, so I’ll share my basic guidelines for that. If you end up with hull-less, check out the cooking tips at the National Barley Foods Council.

The short barley grains pair nicely with sticky rice, so I often cook ½ cup of hulled barley and ½ cup of Lundberg Farms Short-Grain Brown Rice or Brown Sweet Rice. I follow the cooking directions for the rice.

If I want my grains less sticky, I sauté them in a teaspoon of olive or almond oil first. If not, I just dump the 1 cup of grains in a pot with a generous 2 cups of water, bring that to a boil, slap a lid on, and reduce the heat to medium/medium-low. Depending on how long I let the grains boil before reducing the heat, cooking time will be 35 to 45 minutes. Then I turn off the heat and let the pot stand, lid on, for 10 minutes before I fluff the grains with a fork. I usually cook enough for one week (refrigerate it) or one month (freeze it).

If I want “stick-free” grains, I often combine hulled barley with medium-grain Lundberg Golden Rose Brown Rice. I boil the grains like pasta for 35-45 minutes in a big stockpot of water, drain in a colander, and fluff after about 10 minutes.

If you’d like an actual recipe, Alton Brown of Food Network fame tells how to bake hulled barley:

Search out hulled barley in the bulk foods section of a natural/organic grocery or health food store. In Asheville, I buy it at Earth Fare for under $2 a pound. You can also order it on-line (e.g., hulled at Amazon and hull-less at Bob’s Red Mill).

The reward is worth any hassle.