Tuesday, November 3, 2009

...and i've developed a loathing of the word "urban" as well

Lately I have been feeling pretty negative about my decision to become a teacher in an urban setting. Much of my negativity revolves around the baggage that comes with being a white teacher of black students (I plan to teach on the south side of Chicago, where most neighborhoods are extremely segregated, and most of those are predominantly black). I am conflicted by the realization that, if I were a black woman, I would probably actively seek out black teachers for my children to combat the normative whiteness of our culture. It's not that white people can't or shouldn't teach black people, I am just sometimes disheartened by the large proportion of white people, at least in my own program, that suggests to me that we are helping to perpetuate an unhealthy racial dynamic in our schools. To look at the silver lining of my current malaise, however, I think this feeling serves to remind me of the importance of bringing in black professionals to be mentors, guest speakers, and tutors in my classroom, and to create projects and assignments that provide opportunities for my students to be around successful professionals in whom they can see themselves. And I need to focus on the things I can do: I can set high expectations for my students. I can build an atmosphere of trust. I can value my students by taking my work and their work seriously. But it's not easy to stay positive when you're thinking and talking about gross injustice day in, day out.

Friday, October 9, 2009


A number of people on the apartment therapy website, where my living room is currently on view have been asking about the newspaper thingy in the living room. I thought about making a how-to post, (and that will come soon!), but planning that out got me to thinking more generally about my penchant for DIY projects. I've always loved to make things, and I've learned through a lot of trial and error about what makes a successful DIY project, and when you should just go ready-made, so I thought I'd share my insights.

As a general rule, I like my crafts functional and pragmatic. I'm not doing it to fill time: I want to make something cool! (or useful, or pretty, or whatever.) If the outcome of the project has any importance for you, there are three main factors you need to take into account: money, time, and awesomeness. There's no rule for how much each matters to making a project worthwhile: it will vary by person, type and size of project, how much time you have on your hands, etc. But if you don't consider each of these factors, you will most likely be frustrated or disappointed with your finished product, or you may not finish at all.

Allow me to explain. First, take money. A lovely myth about doing stuff yourself is that it will save you money. If you only buy hand-made goods, made in America, by people earning a middle-class income, this is definitely true. However, I can assure you that if money is your sole concern, 9 times out of 10, buying something from Target will be cheaper than jerry-rigging your own. Economies of scale are not working in favor of your little cottage industry. Most raw materials available in consumer-sized quantities are marked up as much, if not more than, the same items sold as part of a finished manufactured piece (hence the existence of ikea hacker). Also, you need to think about the cost of ALL your materials before you begin. If you're refinishing a $5 chair from Goodwill, you are not getting a $5 chair. The supplies you use to refinish it might run you another twenty to fifty bucks: would you have rather bought something else for that price?

Next is time. When you embark on a project, assume it will take anywhere from 2-5 times as long as you think it will. The larger your estimate, the larger your multiplier should be. And as with the money consideration, if you are doing it yourself because the ready-made version seems so easy that you'd be better off making your own, think about how much you will enjoy working on this project, if there are other things you'd rather spend your time on, and how much your time is worth. I am as guilty as anyone of not considering the value of my time (either in monetary terms or in opportunity cost of putting off other things): this may be the element people think about least when undertaking a DIY project. Time is the stuff life is made of. If you don't want to spend the next month in the company of an air compressor and a staple gun, then perhaps you should rethink your supposed week-long reupholstery project. (ahem.)

Lastly, and somewhat more positively, is awesomeness. I mean this very generally to mean any positive attributes of the project, as well as the projected outcome. Perhaps you cannot buy anything like this anywhere, or maybe it will be the prettiest, coolest thing ever: go for it! Maybe you so enjoy the zen-like activity of sanding wood that the 95 hours you spend sanding that dresser will be the happiest hours of your life, and the finished dresser will be just a bonus on top of that experience. Perhaps you want to learn the process of screenprinting, so the mistakes, time and money are part of the cost of this learning process. Or maybe it's a gift for someone special. Whatever your reasons, consider the positive aspects and benefits of your project. But also be realistic about the finished product. Know your skill and commitment level: I used to be terrible about buying vintage clothing that was the wrong size. I'd rationalize the purchase because of the low price and tell myself I'd alter it. But more often than not, it either didn't turn out as expected, or worse, I never got around to alteration. A $5 shirt is not a bargain if it just sits in a bin somewhere. And you'll feel guilty every time you look at it until you're finally honest with yourself and throw it out. So understand the benefits of your project, but know your limitations as well.

So, be realistic. About the cost, the time, and the likely outcome. The more honest you can be with yourself about these things, the more pleased you'll be with your handmade goods. Happy crafting!

Monday, May 25, 2009


I am a shortbread enthusiast. It has the highest deliciosity-to-effort ratio of any baked good: it's not only one of the tastiest things to eat, but also one of the easiest to make. And as if that weren't great enough, you almost always have the ingredients on hand, so it's just one step of difficulty away from conjuring up food in your replicator, Star-Trek style. Shortbread was undoubtedly a major factor in surviving my first Chicago winter. I think made it on average about once a week this winter, trying different recipes, techniques, tactics, and baking times each time, in an effort to discover the perfect shortbread.

So yesterday, as Sean and I were throwing together an impromptu picnic and I was trying to figure out a dessert I could make quickly, I decided to make some shortbread. It came out so good that I think I have finally hit upon my ideal shortbread recipe. Yesterday I used scotch instead of water, which added a subtle smoky taste and was delicious, but I think in general I prefer my shortbread unadultered.

So here's my shortbread recipe. You'll find most recipes are pretty similar ingredients-wise, but small alterations in technique and quantities make a big difference when you're making something this nakedly simple.

1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 superfine sugar (or half powdered, half granulated)
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup salted butter
2–3 tbsp ice water

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put dry ingredients in food processor, and pulse a couple times to combine. (If you'd like to make superfine sugar from granulated sugar, put your sugar in the food processor first, and process for 30 seconds to a minute before adding the flour and salt.) Cut butter into small chunks and add to food processor. (It is essential that the butter be as cold as possible: do not remove from fridge until you're ready to add it.) Pulse until you have the butter integrated: this should look like coarse crumbs. Turn on the processor and add ice water slowly, without dumping in the ice, til the dough begins sticking together. (It will still be pretty crumbly.)

Turn out the dough into an 8-inch baking pan and press it into the pan. (You may want to line the pan with parchment for easier removal.) Score into 18 pieces (6 by 3) with a knife. When oven reaches 400 degrees, reduce temperature to 325 and bake shortbread for 15 minutes.

Remove shortbread and cut into the pre-scored rectangles, and place the pieces about an inch apart on a baking sheet. return to the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly golden-brown on the edges. Let rest on the pan for one minute, then remove to a cooling rack.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

a gripe

I am in the process of applying to teaching master's programs, and I'm noticing a disturbing trend that, as a graphic designer, forces me to ask all teachers everywhere: why Comic Sans? This typeface is surely in the running as the most revolting ever created, but it seems to be a favorite of teachers, particularly elementary school teachers. The glut of Comic Sans has made me ponder what typeface I'd like to use for my sundry materials. I think Chaparral. It looks friendly, modern, accessible, and sophisticated. Not to mention it's also highly legible, and designed for text use.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Yesterday I baked a Czech Easter bread called Mazanec. It's a sweet egg bread with golden raisins and almonds in it, and it's delicious. Thanks for the recipe Babicka: it turned out great! I am sending a few loaves as small thank-you gifts for my letter of rec writers, but now after making it, I wish I could send them the smell too: my apartment was filled with the heavenly aroma of fresh bread for hours. I was initially intimidated by the prospect of making bread: mainly waking up (but not killing) the yeast, and kneading. I love to cook, but when it comes to baking, but I usually stick with shortbreads, tarts, and scones, which are mainly about cutting fat into flour, and less sciency than yeast breads. But it turns out there's nothing to fear! The key to kneading is that you keep at it until the dough's no longer sticky. I was afraid that this point would come gradually, and discerning it would require a zen-like understanding of bread kneading, but it turned out to be really definitive and obvious. Thanks for the great directions Babicka!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

florida citrus part 2

The tangerine tart turned out beautifully. Here's a picture for your vicarious enjoyment.

I made Dorie Greenspan's Sweet Tart Dough which I found over here at Cafe Johnsonia (I left out her lemon zest addition since I was making a citrus tart, although for a different tart, that sounds tasty). For the filling, I adapted this orange custard recipe from Epicurious. I of course used tangerine juice instead of orange, and I skipped the Grand Marnier and instead added half a teaspoon of vanilla. I topped the tart with sectioned tangerines, because then it's healthy, right? Seriously though, the fresh citrus was a lovely contrast to the buttery crust, and the overall effect was mellow creamy, and perfectly sweet.

By the way, this crust is to die for. This is definitely my standard tart crust from now on.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

florida citrus

it's here! our box of florida citrus arrived yesterday, filled with perfectly sweet-tart, juicy honey tangerines. thank you so much babi and tatko! it was like opening a box of sunshine. i think i will make a tart out of some of them this weekend, assuming they don't get gobbled up by then.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Friday, January 16, 2009

a riddle

what do sarah palin, toronto, and hair plugs have in common?

apparently, this email:

i am mystified.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

the upholstery project...now on flickr

I've finally uploaded a set to flickr documenting (sort of) the upholstery project. I noticed when going through the pictures that it looks like I eat bon bons behind the scenes whilst barking orders to Sean the Furniture Boy, but that's really not how it went down, I promise. What happened is that the demolition process is somewhat over-represented because we needed pictures of how the furniture goes back together for reference, and then I slacked on photographing the assembly. This project was decidedly more my baby (my long-past-due baby) than Sean's. And the photos are even longer in coming, of course. But now you get a glimpse into the fun times that were our first month in Chicago. Enjoy!