Dear Black & Decker: What Were You Thinking?

Setting up a new toaster oven should not under any circumstances require the following ingredients:

1) A plastic spoon

2) Four paper towels

3) All ten fingernails

4) Frequent misting of household chemicals

5) 28 minutes

This goes double when above tools are necessary to forcibly remove a colorful, life-sized sticker whose only purpose is to tout the same product perks bragged about on the garishly-decorated box.

And yet…

6 minutes into the procedure

6 minutes into the procedure

After -- Note the cat in the reflection. As I bent to take the picture, he jumped onto my back for a better view.

After a thorough de-stickering. Note the cat in the reflection. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, he is sitting on my back. Never bend to take a picture in our household lest you become sat upon by random animals.

Spreading the Blog Love

As anyone who’s ever tagged me for a meme knows, if I don’t answer right away then I never do. And to be honest, I never answer right away, usually because I can’t think of what to write. By the time the words would have come to me, I’ve usually forgotten the assignment. (Incidentally, this is not very different from my middle school years, when I procrastinated on my homework until long past the expiration date. Of course, back then I could blame it on friends, lack of motivation, and an unhealthy interest in a certain few boys who, in turn, had no interest in me whatsoever.)

But when my friend Robin Bielman awarded my blog — and six others — the lovely badge to the left, I knew I couldn’t ignore it. Sheer terror had much to do with my dutiful response, since Robin knows where I live, she could totally take me in a fight, she knows several of my more potent secrets, and she critiques my writing. There was more to it than lack of courage, however. I loved the spirit of this award, which was designed to acknowledge bloggers who tirelessly entertain near-strangers with regular, good-quality content — and all for free.

It’s deciding which worthy bloggers deserved the honor next that gave me the most difficulty, of course. How is it possible to narrow down my favorite blogs to just seven, even when accounting for those who had already received the badge from someone else? And how could I do that without hurting the feelings of those who were left? After all, I think everyone on my blogroll is deserving of recognition. And so I grabbed all of the eligible names from my sorely outdated list of links, shuffled them in a high-tech fashion, and chose the top seven. If you have the opportunity, please take a few moments to check out the following blogs, as well as the ones from my blogroll that ended up later in the randomized list and so didn’t get chosen this time around. I bet you’ll find some fun new reads that way.

And now, without further fanfare, I hereby present the I Love Your Blog badge of honor to:

  • Katie from Cactus Kate for her gorgeous photographs and awe-inspiring gardening abilities
  • Courtney from Five-Second Dance Party for her unflinching honesty and warm-heartedness
  • Sandi Kahn Shelton for writing posts that never fail to make me laugh and, on some occasions, tear up
  • Alyson Noel from Tales from the Real OC (Really!) for her fun updates, insights into the life of an author, and many cool website recommendations
  • Chemical Billy for writing drop dead gorgeous prose that makes the world around her come alive for her readers
  • Eileen Cook from Just My Type for finding the most random, bizarre, and entertaining links to pass on to the rest of us. I don’t know how she does it!
  • Emily from The Sassy Lime for being such a sweetie, and for her cheerfulness in the face of near-constant pain

Thank you, ladies, for your inspiring, entertaining, and always-interesting posts! Please pass on the blog love by putting the badge of honor on your sites and awarding it to seven other deserving bloggers.

Note on a Unrelated Topic: If you’re reading this through an email subscription or an RSS feed, or at, you have been successfully transferred over to my new blog. Stay tuned for a fun surprise later this weekend!

How to Look Like a Local in Six Easy Steps

I live in a tourist town, which means that in certain seasons we are overrun by camera-toting sightseers intent on packing in as much adventure as their credit cards and cranky kids will allow. From early spring to late fall work hours increase as many businesses close later, grocery stores morph into scary places filled with clots of vacationers and their cockeyed carts, and our favorite restaurants are inundated by sun-stunned visitors escaping the heat. Shortly thereafter I begin to have nightmares in which our house is taken over by unwelcome tourists who feel that we are unreasonable for not letting them wash their Hummers in our backyard.

Whenever possible during these crazy months, hubs and I escape our personal half-acre of paradise to take pictures of other wonders and spend time with someone else’s tourists for a while. Although the scenery’s different, many of the tourists look exactly the same, as we’ve discovered by traveling widely. This year it will be California. Last year it was South Carolina. In August. In record heat.

After growing up in a Midwestern city that attracted many businesses and college students but nary a tourist, living in a place like this has been an experience. When your daily life is someone else’s vacation, you learn a lot. For example, I’ve learned when to visit the grocery store, which streets and restaurants to avoid and, most importantly, how to dress like a local. The last skill has netted me requests for directions in several neighboring states, Philadelphia, Boston, and Madrid. It may not be handy if you don’t know your way around the town you’re visiting, but it can help you avoid getting scammed by people who take advantage of clueless travelers, and it can net you better service in restaurants, bars, and grocery stores.

Giving the appearance that you’re at home isn’t that difficult. The number one rule is: Avoid wearing fanny packs. Locals and attentive tourists alike have beheld the horrors of such adornments in large concentrations, and so they do not use them. This is not to say that fanny packs don’t have their perks; if your butt is too flat, for example, they provide the illusion of bulk. Since I’ll never have that problem, I eschew them altogether. Rule number two: Be nice to wait staff and other service people. Also, drive like you have at least a passing familiarity with traffic laws. Walk with confidence, even if you don’t know where you’re going, and learn to look but not gawk. And finally, for the love of God, do not take video footage of buildings, mountains, trees, or other unmoving objects.

See? It’s not too tough. For bonus points, don’t use a local’s garden hose to wash your car without their permission. They don’t like that sort of thing.

This Is My Blog on SoCNoC

I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of seeing the same post up on here day after day. However, I’m still SoCNoCing in addition to, you know, having an actual life, which makes this a good day to revive my Five on Friday tradition (if you can call something I’ve only done twice a ‘tradition’). If the planets re-align or my ingrained sense of guilt gets to me or I become sick of writing a million and a half words a day on my book, I’ll be back to more regular posting early next week.

When I first started Five on Friday, it was with the intention of sharing five favorite links and a video. Since then, other bloggers have played with the meme, and it has morphed into something different for each of them. It’s a fun thing to watch. However, this time around, I’m going to have to go with the original idea, because I’m a bit of a stickler. Since all my creativity is being siphoned off for my book, you get an obvious topic this week: Five writing-related links I’ve found helpful, plus a bonus video for those who have no moral objection to the wonders of YouTube.

  1. Feeling lonely? Directionless? Looking for a good community of writers, some great writing advice, an abundance of laughs or, at the very least, a cult to replace the one you left after that religious phase you went through in high school? Might I suggest Will Write for Wine? It’s a podcast! It’s a forum! Best of all, it goes well with chicken and pasta!
  2. If you’ve seen the size of my TBR piles (yes, plural) you’ll know that reading isn’t dead — not in my household, at least. But if you’d like proof that others share my addiction, you may find some solace in “Book Lust” by New York Times columnist Timothy Egan. While not a traditional writing resource, it provides plenty of inspiration for those who are convinced that the book industry is doomed. Unless they’re really cynical, in which case they’ve probably already given up on being published anyway, and are therefore unlikely to be reading this.
  3. Link number three is the perfect time to pause for a moment of gratitude, because even if reading isn’t dead, it’s still not an easy industry to break into. Yet I’m an info geek, and with all the resources for writers available out there, I’d still rather be writing now than at any other time in history. For a taste of what I mean, take a look the following three agent blogs. (You get three links for the price of one here, since narrowing it down was pretty close to impossible. Plus, I’m feeling generous.) If you haven’t read Nathan Bransford’s blog, Ask Daphne by Kate Schafer, and Pub Rants by Kristin Nelson, I highly recommend that you trot off there next and take a look at the advice they have to offer both aspiring novelists and those who are already published. Follow the links in their sidebars to find even more great editor/agent blogs.
  4. For those times when I need a character name and either can’t come up with one or realize that I’ve been inadvertently naming characters after former elementary school classmates or B-list actresses, I visit the Random Name Generator. Just plug in a few parameters, press the button, and you will be presented with a list of names to choose from. Best of all, if you don’t love any of the ones that come up, you can just do it again. And again. And, for those more into procrastinating than writing, yet again.
  5. As it turns out, it’s hard to narrow this topic down to five, which is why Writer’s Digest creates an annual list of the 101 best web sites for writers. (Note: It was loading very slowly on my computer, so some patience may be required. Then again, if you’re reading this list you’re most likely interested in publication, in which case you probably already have a well-developed sense of patience. Good job.)

And, finally, the promised bonus video. Although everyone and their cat has probably seen this by now if they have least a passing interest in novelship, my internal sense of right and wrong has ordered me to share it with you anyway. Enjoy.

Now it’s your turn. (You just knew I’d turn this into a homework assignment, didn’t you? You can probably even guess what I’m about to ask. Let’s see if you were correct.) Now that you’ve seen a few of my favorite writing-related websites, what are some of yours?

In other news, Ilana Stephens, a talented writer and fellow Will Write for Wine forum member, interviewed me last week for her blog. Since I’ve mostly disappeared from the internets lately I’m only now sharing the link with you. I’ve conducted a few blog interviews myself, but I’ve never been on the receiving end of the questions. I have to admit, it was pretty fun, and it made me feel kind of important — and since I’m the proud owner of and slave to three haughty cats, my ego could use the boost.

How to Use a “Resealable” Bag

Oh, dear. You’ve really done it, haven’t you? You just fell prey to one of consumerism’s biggest myths — the resealable bag — and now you’re staring at your new purchase, wondering how to get the thing open. What was it? Cheese? Cereal? Doggie treats? Come on, you can confide in me.

Well, no matter what it was, let me tell you a little secret. You are not alone. Those so-called easy-open/easy-close bags? Yeah. They aren’t. And the directions? Ignore them; they encompass only a fraction of the steps you’ll have to take in order to use your product. But I’ll tell you what. I like you, I really do. And so I’ll give you a hand. I’ve been duped, too, after all. I understand. And so, for your tutelage, I will provide sample package directions, followed by the actual steps for opening, and then closing, such bags. Advanced users may wish to skip to steps seven and ten, respectively. Oh, and one more thing, from me to you: next time don’t believe the hype. Okay? No more buying products just because of the package’s ingenious engineering.

What the directions say:

1. To open bag, tear along dotted line.

What the directions mean:

1. Search in vain for mythological pre-torn notch said to enhance tearing power.
2. Give up. Use force in attempt to create notch.
3. Bandage bleeding finger.
4. Attempt to break into bag with teeth.
5. Make appointment with dentist to have chipped tooth repaired.
6. Study bag, looking once more for notorious notch or tear strip. NOTE: The red dashed line along the top is not a clue. It is only there to taunt you.
7. Use scissors.
8. Pull bag open.
9. Perform victory dance.

What the directions say:

1. To seal bag, press closed.

What the directions mean:

1. Clear seal strip of any obstructions, such as product residue, fingers, and air.
2. Line up both sides of strip.
3. Press strip closed.
4. Tug package opening gently to ensure that seal worked.
5. Repeat steps 1-4
6. Vow not to let a simple plastic bag defeat you.
7. Line up both sides of strip.
8. In surge of pragmatism (or is it despair?) press along just two inches of strip, so you haven’t wasted energy when seal continues not to function.
9. Test to ensure seal.*
10. Give up and tape, staple, or clothespin the @&*% thing closed.

*In the unlikely event that the seal works on the smaller section, continue as follows: Finish pressing along strip. Test seal. Realize you forgot to squeeze out all the air. Attempt to open only a small section of strip. Fail. Pick up spilled cheese, cereal, dog treats, etc. Discard. Squeeze air out of bag and begin again from step one above. Repeat as necessary until bag is sealed. NOTE: You may wish to simply skip to step ten.

Five on Friday: Hail to the Chef

Back by request, round two of Five on Friday, wherein I occasionally post five links on a certain theme. This week’s theme is recipe sites.

The sad fact is that I’m severely lacking in kitchen skills, which means that while I have collected many beautiful recipes from a variety of cookbooks and websites, I rarely have the time, talent, or courage to follow through. I’m an optimist, however, so if a recipe website exists, I’ve probably visited it. Even when I don’t collect any promising recipes, I can feel as if I’ve gotten something accomplished, merely by ruling out possibilities and thinking about cooking for a while.

My shiny array of kitchen appliances adds to this delusion. (Three cheers for wedding showers!) If I can’t cook it (and I probably can’t) it’s not for lack of machinery. Have waffles to iron? Food to process? Need to whip, blend, juice, chop, steam, or mix? I’m your gal — or, rather, my kitchen is; you’ll probably want to do the actual cooking yourself. And you can find the recipes to do so at the following sites. If you have an RSS reader, you can even stay up-to-date on new recipes, as many of them offer feeds.

1) Recipe*zaar gets top billing because it is my all-time favorite recipe site (although All Recipes, a similar site, deserves an honorable mention). Search their database of thousands of recipes by ingredient, course, required appliances, and almost any other criterion you can come up with. Compile an online cookbook, add your own recipes, and visit the forums to ask a pressing question or just browse the questions and answers already posed.

2) Sometimes directions alone just aren’t enough, which is where a site like Visual Recipes can be helpful. As the name implies, each step in the recipes is illustrated with a photograph.

3) For me, it’s never enough to know that something is a particular way. I want to know why. Which is why I so totally dig The Science of Cooking. For more information, watch the webcasts or visit their forums.

4) Cooking by Numbers is for those desperate moments when you’re down to a can of tomatoes, a bottle of vinegar, and three eggs. Fill in the ingredients you want to use, and it will spit out cooking suggestions.

5) Ahhh. Bread. One of my favorite things in all the world. I’ve long admired those who can make the perfect loaf of bread. I have yet to reach that point, but The Fresh Loaf, a site entirely dedicated to bread-making techniques, has given me some hope.

What about you? How are your cooking skills? Have any favorite recipe sites or cookbooks?

Five on Friday: Wherein I Commit Mass Linkage and Hope to Leave You Smiling

One of my addictions is a site called StumbleUpon. I could spend an hour or two surfing through the sites that they recommend for me based on my past likes and dislikes. One side effect, however, is that I’ve begun to accumulate a lot of favorite links. And since since good internet content — like most things — is best when shared, I’ve decided to institute an occasional feature I’m calling “Five on Friday”, which will contain links on a particular theme, and will happen anywhere from weekly to never again.

Yes, I know this mass linkage thing is not revolutionary. Lots of people practice it in their posts. Now it’s my turn, and I’m kicking it off with Links that Make Me Smile. I found most of them through StumbleUpon which, incidentally, does not count as the first of five links. That said, here you go: five links to sites that left me smiling, and a bonus: my first-ever embedded YouTube video. (I’m so proud, though what does it mean if I’m already breaking my own rules? Hmmm.)

Follow the directions at Automatic Flatterer, and give your confidence a boost. (Is it embarrassing to admit that this always makes me smile?)

You’ll probably want to watch this advertisement twice — once to puzzle through it and once to figure out how it was done. Trust me, I know it doesn’t seem amusing at first, but it’s worth it for the ending alone.

Every musical genre has its own set of rules. Visit this site to read the not-so-serious Rules of the Blues. (It makes me think of Adventures in Babysitting: “Nobody leave dis place without singin’ the blues”. Anyone else remember that movie?)

I’d like to link to at least one blog entry with every “Five on Friday”. It’s hard to narrow it down, but this post from Rude Cactus gave me a huge smile and begged me to share. This is the story of his newborn son’s birth just a week or two ago. I’ve read it several times, and it always makes me feel better about life — and less nervous about eventually having children of my own.

And, finally, the bonus video. Since it’s hard not to laugh when others are doing so — especially if they’re children — I present you with Baby Ethan:

So, there are a few of my recent favorites. What links make you smile?