A few things: December 2020

First of all, in case you’re curious:

Yes; she actually sleeps just like that, standing up, with her head resting on me.

She is ridiculous, my sweet, old (so old) brown doggie. We are ridiculous together, in this ridiculous , ridiculous year.

On that note:

What creativity sometimes looks like. And yes, I did actually pick this thumbnail image on purpose.

It is December, the final month of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2020.

Of course is it also December, the final month of the enlightening, clarifying, transformative “Let’s-see-what-you’re-really-made-of” 2020.

That’s how major transformations work: Terrible darkness, unspeakable sadness, great awakening, and tiny miracles, all jumbled up together.

Onward we go. You can do it. Here, I’ll give you some distractions to keep your mind off of heavier things:

I promised to focus on creativity this month, and to share a tutorial on the glass yogurt jar candle project (the “Paris” candles, as we call them). You might remember this particular project from when I wrote about it way back in 2019 (the before times… oh, how long ago that seems…). Anyway, do I know how to make a video tutorial? I do not. But I gave it my best shot, and maybe you’ll be a tiny bit entertained. And if you need a project to do while you’re at home, weathering the pandemic and not able to do any of the things you usually do in December, then maybe my little project will inspire you to do a project of your own, just for the hell of it.

But before we get to that, a few notes on creativity in general, starting with this one: You are creative, even if you don’t think of yourself as a creative type.

Also: I understand that you are likely tired, worn out, run down, depleted, and possibly depressed. I get it. And you don’t have the mental space to try anything new nor the energy to think, much less to think creatively. Yes, I get that, too.

You know yourself and your limits, and maybe the ideas here are just things to file away for another day, when you’re in a different mental place. But maybe — just maybe — a tiny, simple, creative thinking exercise could actually help you feel better.

It’s worth noting that creativity is a practice, kind of like yoga or meditation. You can work on your creativity, help it develop. Sure, there are people who have more native, natural strength in the broad area of creativity. But your human brain, whether endowed with an extra dose of creative predisposition or not, is a creativity machine in action, every day.

Proof? Have you ever had to figure out another route home, because of a traffic jam or downed tree or power outage? That’s creativity. Every single time you’ve come up with a Plan B, you’ve exercised your own creative super power.

My favorite creativity-building activity is simple. (If you’ve already watched this month’s little intro video, then you already know how simple it is.) You can do this little activity anywhere, any time. What I love most about it is that it’s grounded in math and numbers.

When someone says to me, “Oh, I’m not creative like you; I’m not an artist,” this is the exercise that pops up in my mind. Ready? OK: Think of a number between 1 and 10… … … …

My number’s 4; your number might be something other than 4. Doesn’t matter. Pick your number, and stick with it.

The exercise is to think of every mathematical equation that will result in the number you picked.

So, for the number 4…

2+2, 2×2, 1+3, 0+4, 5-1, 15-11, 12/3, 36/9, -36+40, (12/6)x2, 167-(16×10))-3, .25×16

And so on, and so on, and so on. And that’s just the simple starter round.

There are an infinite number of equations that equal 4. You can write and write and write, and you still won’t run out of options.

It’s a silly exercise, right? But it’s super simple, and you can do it any time — when you’re walking the dog, or cooking dinner, or waiting in the carpool line, or staring out the window trying to come up with something clever to write in a year-end appeal letter.

And because it’s math (good old analytical, non-emotional math), it exercises the part of your brain that isn’t prone to anxiety or emotional hand-wringing or worrying about whether or not you’re creative. It’s like taking your brain for a little walk, giving it a bit of fresh air.

When you train your brain to consider multiple alternatives, your brain gets better at considering alternatives and devising creative solutions to ordinary problems.

What have you been forced to do in 2020, perhaps more than ever in your life? Yes, you know it: You’ve had to devise creative solutions to ordinary problems.

Maybe you’re tired of being creative. Maybe you are so depleted from the daily pivots and re-inventions and survival strategies that you’re ready to do the unthinkable (binge-watch Hallmark Christmas movies). If you’re stuck (depleted, worn down) from trying too hard to solve one particular problem or set of problems, then it’s possible that your brain just needs a chance to solve a different problem for a few minutes. And that’s why the math game is worth your consideration. It’s low risk, high return (the complete opposite of fucking 2020).

So, give it a go and let me know what you think.

Moving on…

Reading and Watching and Listening

Speaking of mental breaks, I have taken a bit of a reading break for the past few weeks, partly because I needed a break, and partly because my work-work has been very busy, and partly because I was writing, trying to bang out 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo (didn’t quite get there, but I made some good progress and am glad I pushed through), and writing this piece for The Daily Memphian.

Most days I still read my morning e-newsletters (Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American, The Hustle, The Skimm, WSJ’s The 10 Point ($), and Understandably) and listen to The Daily and Up First.

And I am still working my way, if slowly, through Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste, which is an excellent book in every way but not an easy read.

My book group reads a short story for our December gathering. This year’s selection is Ghoul, by George Saunders. I’ve started reading it four times and haven’t gotten past the first half page, so I can’t say whether or not I recommend it. Will report back in January.

A few articles worth sharing:

Like microgreens? Then maybe you’ll want to try growing them yourself, on your kitchen counter.

Not unrelated to the tip about creativity: Your Brain Is Not For Thinking.

The New Yorker‘s Best Music of 2020 has some good suggestions (even if The Strokes’s The New Abnormal, which I love, and Taylor Swift’s folklore, which I also love, didn’t make the final cut).

The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2020 (A Children’s Bible is going on my Christmas wish list)

In a “file under ‘duh'” story: When Schools Closed, Americans Turned to Their Usual Backup Plan: Mothers.

Counter to that: A heart-warming and interesting story about a restaurant in a tiny Colorado town that is making it through the pandemic by embracing a kinder work culture.

A lovely essay from Connie Schultz: Mourning Doves and Chickadees

Cheers: The Discreet Charm of a Flask

And for you mothers with elementary or middle school aged children (and for one of you readers in particular), here’s a piece from the archives: After the Children Have Grown. This gem popped up in my “Best of” Pocket feed. I hadn’t thought of this column in the years since I cut it out of a real, print edition of the paper, which I used to read at my kitchen table or on my porch, page by page, section by section. Anyway, I cut out this particular column back in 2013, when my children were both still in elementary school. Something about it seemed important, and I could hear my own mother’s words in Madeline Levine’s writing – writing that has guided me, if subconsciously, for the better part of the past decade. Re-reading it now was a kind of affirmation.

Last, but not least: I Want to Live in the Reality of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

On that note…

The Friday after Thanksgiving I finally settled down and hopped on the bandwagon to watch The Queen’s Gambit. If you’re still holding out, wondering how a show could live up to all that hype, well, only you can make the decision to watch or not watch. I’m just telling you, I loved it. Loved. What I loved most is that all of the characters are flawed and human and imperfect.

Cooking

I’ve been working on variations of two ordinary, completely basic, utterly comforting comfort foods: Grits and potatoes.

My stove-top grits have become a weekly affair, and cooking them (standing and stirring and stirring and stirring) is deeply enjoyable. I like the Grit Girl grits, and I cook them in the cheery yellow, double handled skillet that stays on the stove because it’s heavy and that somehow makes it too hard to put away. I use a liquid-to-grits ratio of 3 (or 4):1, and for the liquid I use mix of stock and cream, or — and this was a new discovery — a mix of stock, cream, and buttermilk that gives a nice tang. Cook until the grits are tender (25-ish minutes over a medium flame), season with dried mustard, onion powder, garlic powder and salt, and then stir in cheese (cream cheese, Gruyère, and Parmesan make up my usual trio).

Wait. What? You are shocked, SHOCKED, to read “onion powder and garlic powder” as ingredients? You wouldn’t dream of using such lowly stuff? Well, here’s my argument for them, in this recipe: Grits are comfort food. Soft, creamy, comfort food. This is food you can eat after having oral surgery or watching the nightly news. The only texture should come from the grits, which are cooked until they’re very tender. You don’t want bits of real onion or garlic messing up that creamy comfort. Trust me.

Also on the weekly repeat: Potatoes. I’ve made several batches of mashed potatoes partly because my kids will eat them but mostly so I’ll have leftover potatoes to use for celery soup, a seasonal favorite. Using Jane Grigson’s recipe as a reference point, I cook celery and onions in a great deal of butter until they’re wilted, cover with stock and simmer until the vegetables are tender, stir in a gracious heap of mashed potatoes and a generous pour of cream, then let the immersion blender do its thing until I have a smooth, not-too-thick, delicious soup. As an alternate I tried eliminating the celery and using fresh celery juice instead of stock; it was good, if quite strongly flavored.

In improv weeknight Shepherd’s Pie (made with ground turkey, not lamb, because turkey is what I had on hand). Pretty? No. But it was tasty, and easy to make, on a weeknight, because I had a tub of leftover mashed potatoes in the refrigerator.

Making a huge vat of mashed potatoes might lead you to other things, not just celery (or leek) soup, too. Potatoes are inexpensive and pretty much foolproof. And if you’re going to peel, boil, and mash five potatoes, then you might as well cook a dozen or more. Then you have what you’ll need to make potato pancakes or a shepherd’s pie (I made mine with ground turkey, fresh carrots, onions, and peas — easy and teenager-approved.)

Other potato deliciousness? Gourmet‘s Potato and Parmesan Gratin, which requires a fair amount of prep work but is totally worth it.

Side note: This Gourmet cookbook, edited by Ruth Reichl and published in 2006, is one a treasure trove. I bought my copy from a library sale, which just endears the book to me even more.

An unexpected kitchen joy from the past month? Watching my college freshman (home until January) cook for himself. He knows how to prepare eggs several different ways. While that may sound unimpressive, it has been my experience that eggs are the truest test of cooking ability. If you can handle different types of egg preparation, then you can cook just about anything. So, my son can cook, and his mother is pleased.

Makers Gonna Make

OK, here is it, by request: the glass yogurt jar candle tutorial. Will it give you everything you need in order to try this project yourself? Probably not. But maybe it will give you enough ideas that you can make a project of your own.

Because you are creative. You are.

Materials and Sources

  • Small glass jars (the yogurt jars are what we had on hand, but any small jar will do)
  • Martha Stewart Metallic Paint (I bought it at Michaels)
  • Jolie Paint, or Annie Sloan Chalk Paint (or probably any chalk paint) (I used French blue because blue is my favorite color, but any color would work) (Jolie paints available at me & mrs. jones in Memphis)
  • Modern Masters Metal Effects Oxidizing Copper (or Bronze) paint and Modern Masters Metal Effects Patina Aging Solution (also at me & mrs. jones)
  • Several paintbrushes, so you don’t have to wash them in between (don’t want a wet brush) – you could also use sponges to apply some of the paints
  • A dish (or several small dishes) for the paint
  • Work towels
  • Wicks, soy flakes, and a pouring cup, if you’re going to make candles in the jars (soy flakes available at Walmart, if you can’t find them in a local crafts store) (yes, of course you can also order from Amazon)
  • (Side note: None of these links are affiliate links. I don’t even understand how affiliate links work. If I share a source with you, it’s because that’s a source I use, not because there’s any incentive for me to share.)

Your supply list might be entirely different, because you might take a look at how we made the painted jar candle project and decide to do something else that is uniquely your own. Because, one more time, you are creative.

You are.

P.S. In January maybe we’ll cook together. It could happen. Or I could have another idea for something else. You’ll just have to come back and see. Until then, be well.

9 thoughts on “A few things: December 2020

  1. I absolutely love your posts and truly look forward to them. Creativity is not something I find easy or enjoyable on my own. It’s something I prefer to explore with others. I especially love the article After the Children Have Grown, and wish I had read it years ago as my boys are now really grown! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, perspective and talents with us! Happy Holidays!

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  2. I left my creativity in a sack next to a dumpster. The other one released two albums and 18 songs from home in the past ten months. And, had her hair permed. If you haven’t seen James May’s cooking show on Amazon, check it out. He is one of the presenters of the original Top Gear and Grand Tour. He opens the show by saying he can’t cook, and then proceeds to learn.

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