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.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Be unique: Wear hand-made jewelry

Just because you can’t afford high-end jewelry from a name designer doesn’t mean that you are doomed to wear the same nice but boringly mass-produced jewelry that all your friends and co-workers are sporting. Local artists are busy creating affordable, one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces that can provide a distinctive pop to any outfit.

Hint: A distinctive pop is your style if shiny gold, lab-created gems, and crustings of tiny diamond chips make you shudder and cringe. Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, if cheap plastic-y knockoffs of ethnic jewelry send you into a hyperventilating spasm.

Of course, the prices of even small designers can zoom into what amounts to the financial stratosphere with heavy gold and bejeweled pieces. But typically, you will be able to find hand-made, high-quality earrings, pendants, and bracelets if you are willing to spend $15 to $200.

What can you get? Paper, recycled plastic, and glass beads; earthy copper wire and wood; fused dichroic glass with its otherworldly metallic iridescence; “garden-variety” fused glass in rich brights like peacock blue and sunflower gold; a rainbow of semiprecious stones such as topaz, chalcedony, citrine, quartz, carnelian, jade, onyx, moonstone, sodalite, amethyst, tiger eye, turquoise, coral, and agate, to name a few; and PMC (precious metal clay) silver jewelry, a metallic clay that is worked and fired to leave behind almost pure silver masterpieces of wearable art.

More and more, these artists are banding together in cities and mid-sized towns nationwide to hold regular craft fairs and artist markets so that average people can stroll the stalls, meet the artists, and find a treasure or two. Howard Street Homemade and the Lexington Avenue Bizarre Bazaar are two such markets in Asheville.

Another option is a full-fledged art gallery. These days, even many small towns boast an art gallery with a strong jewelry presence, like tiny Tallulah Falls, GA, and its Georgia Heritage Center for the Arts (day trip from Atlanta). However, if local avenues fail you, go to the Internet and search out purveyors of all things hand-made, such as the now-classic Etsy, which recently had more than 1 million pieces of hand-made jewelry available at its on-line gallery.

So please don’t waste your time and your style points shopping for jewelry at the big-box stores!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The perfect lip gloss: A lifetime’s search has ended

I used to love makeup. I literally wouldn’t leave the house without spending at least 30 minutes working on my face. Then I got depressed, and I didn’t even care if I had taken a shower in the past two days on those few occasions I actually went out the door. Some positives did pop up in my life as a result of those dark times. Among the top 10: I got over my obsession with looking perfect.

I still like makeup. I don’t always wear it now, but I enjoy enhancing a feature here or there because I feel more pulled together when I don’t go bare-faced. Unfortunately, I have a new obsession: all the chemicals percolating through most widely accessible makeup products.

I know, many women use these products, so common wisdom is that they must be OK. But a few centuries back, everybody wore makeup composed primarily of arsenic, and that did NOT turn out OK. (One day I read the package of this product you’re supposed to paint on your lips to make your lipstick last longer, and it said that I shouldn’t ingest the stuff. Hmmm, put it on my lips, which happen to be a hairsbreadth away from my mouth, and then try very hard not to swallow all day long.)

Yes, natural and organic brands of make-up are on the uptick, but I have had trouble finding an inexpensive, long-wearing lip gloss that provides a nice hint of color rather than the gloppy, oily, too slick-shiny, sticky, or oddly colored glosses that dominate the natural market. These glosses just don’t look or feel right on the over-30 adult female who is a working professional, a mother, or both.

But not to worry: I have found my holy grail of lip glosses. Sienna Peppermint Hemp Lip Balm from Faerie Made, a woman-owned small business based in Asheville. Here’s why I’m ecstatic:
  • The Sienna color is dark in the tube, but when you put it on, you have sheer, discreetly dressed-up color. Tiny flecks of mica provide a glow rather than a heavy-duty gloss. This shade looks beautiful on just about every skin tone. It flatters me, my 69-year-old mother, my best friend, etc.
  • While it’s called Hemp Lip Balm, it actually has a mix of oils and butters, resulting in a moisturizing gloss that feels luxurious but natural and not overdone.
  • It’s infused with peppermint essential oil, so you have a faint scent and a nice tingle on your lips when you put it on — very refreshing.
  • Last but far from least, it’s cheap: $3.50 for a .15-ounce tube, or $9 for three tubes.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don’t let crewnecks choke your style

In the days of yore, crewneck T-shirts were the sole province of snub-nosed, wily little boys who littered the comic strips and television screens of middle America with their amusing high-jinks. (Think Dennis the Menace, Beaver and Opie, and if you’re too young to know who they are, for the love of God keep it to yourself.)

Ladies back then wouldn’t be caught dead in a crewneck. Skip forward a few decades, and now crewneck T’s in various grades of cotton, rayon, and silk are the staple, go-to top for women across the United States.

Guess what? Ladies knew best. Crewnecks look better on little Bobby or Suzy than they ever will on the vast majority of grown women. Sure, a few women shine in crewnecks, just like a few manage to avoid clown status in harem pants. But I don’t look good in crewnecks, and the honest truth is that you probably don’t either.

Not sure what the big deal is? Put on a knit crewneck and take a look in a full-length mirror.

Notice that the upper-half of your body now bears a strong resemblance to a cereal box (i.e., squat and rectangular). The crewneck creates a visual horizontal line from shoulder to shoulder, and the fabric of the T-shirt falls straight down the body from that wide, wide line.

Let’s experiment: Hook your finger in the middle of the crewneck and pull. Your dumpiness level automatically decreases by a factor of 10 because you’ve broken up the rectangle with a few inches of your upper chest. (The wide horizontal line created by a crewneck can help a relatively thin woman with small shoulders, a small chest, and wide hips to balance out her body. This woman can look stunning in a crewneck, but for the rest of us, it’s: “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”)

That doesn’t mean you have to dust off the iron and switch to collared blouses. A T is a versatile, comfortable piece of clothing that can go casual or corporate. Just ditch the crewneck. A V-neck or U-neck (aka scoop neck) will allow you to keep the benefits of a T-shirt lifestyle while adding a dash of flattering elegance to your wardrobe. And you don’t need a T that puts your full décolletage on view unless you add layers. A simple, modest V- or U-neck will do the trick.

These T’s are available in a range of styles, fabrics, colors, and prices. Being somewhat allergic to malls, I often buy such basics on-line. Some favorites that are within the realm of financial possibility are at J Jill and Eddie Bauer.

If you’re worried about real or imagined “blemishes” on your upper chest, add in unique earrings or a below-the-neckline pendant to draw people’s eyes either up or down (and away from your trouble spots). Go ahead: Release your neck — and your style.

Uh-oh: Can’t afford to get rid of your closet full of crews? Stay tuned for “make it work” advice.