When I was eleven years old, my parents put me on a Greyhound to Boston to visit my cousin Carolyn. I was an awkward pre-teen and she was a proper grown-up, in her mid-twenties, working as a teacher and living in an apartment at the top of a house, with sloped ceilings and just her one queen-size bed that I was to share with her for the weekend.
I adored my cousin like no other person in my life. When I was really young, I’d follow her around like a puppy. She taught me how to draw flowers out of dozens of tiny squiggles. As I grew up, my adoration of her grew exponentially. She had style. She read lots of books. She was an artist. She had her own apartment.
During that weekend visit, I stayed out till midnight for the first time, and ate an ice-cream cone as we walked by street performers in Harvard Square. We ducked into a convenience store during an unexpected downpour. She read me Stephen King short stories when we were tucked into her bed after all those adventures. At the bus station before I left for home, she gave me the book. I proceeded to read most of King’s oeuvre, as it existed at the time, before my thirteenth birthday. (Carolyn admitted one day that she’s horrified that she read me Stephen King stories when I was eleven. I assured her it was the perfect choice.)
Carolyn’s lived in New York for a couple of decades now, and her apartment remains my favourite place to visit. It always smells of a particular thing I’ve never been able to put my finger on, though I’ve bought the same kind of lotion she uses and sneak sniffs of her shampoo every time I’m in her shower, ever on a quest to bring that smell home with me. I’ve always thought, deep down somewhere in the recesses of my mind, that if my home could smell like hers, it would be more special, and maybe would seem magical to our guests like Carolyn’s home is magical to me.
The soap I just made smells exactly that way. Which means that because there are nearly twenty bars of it curing in my studio right now, pretty much my whole house smells magical. When I walked in after dropping Owen off at daycare this morning, I nearly had to sit down from the happiness.
I still have no idea what it is in my cousin’s place that smells exactly like this, but after more than twenty years in search of it, I’m a little at a loss for what to do now that I’ve found it for myself.
I did, of course, ask Carolyn about the source of the scent many times over the years. She always had no idea what exactly I was referring to. Because, of course, she smells it all the time. Now that my house smells like it, I’m determined to not let it smell so strongly for long, because I’d be sad to habituate to it; it wouldn’t be special anymore.
But for now, I’m sitting in happy.
I’m writing up this post because I really would have benefited from reading one like it before I went on my latest soap-making adventure. But sometimes, as we all know, people who share tutorials and recipes online aren’t always as thorough as we’d like. So here’s what happened.
After my first go at making cold-process soap from a kit, I stocked up on ingredients to make my first batch entirely from scratch. And I got it in my head to use honey, so I started looking around for honey-soap recipes, and I found quite a few. So I made my soap and I used honey, and about half an hour after I poured the soap into the mold, I took a peek and saw that it was turning an alarming shade of very dark brown, and so I started googling what might go wrong with honey soap. And I discovered something that none of the blog posts I’d read mentioned: honey makes soap get super hot.
Ordinarily, when you make cold-process soap, you want to insulate the mold with towels, to keep the heat in. As with all things, it’s a balance, and if you mix your soap fairly hot, insulating it will keep it too hot, but overall, generally speaking, your soap needs warmth.
Honey, though, man. Honey soap, I discovered quickly after googling what can go wrong with it, gets so hot that instead of worrying about insulating your mold, you should consider putting it into the fridge or even the freezer. That’s how hot the honey (it’s the sugars) makes the soap get.
So after learning that, I put the mold in front of a painfully draughty window, and though it’s a significantly darker colour than it would have been had it not superheated, I’m told by experienced soap makers that it’ll be perfectly fine to use. So at least there’s that. Check out the comments on the photo, below, to learn more from soap-makers about this:
And now I’ll list my recipe, with relevant notes about using honey, so if you’re here because you want to use honey when you make cold-process soap, hopefully you won’t fall into the same trap I did. This is not a tutorial. Making cold-process soap involves lye, which is a very dangerous chemical when not handled properly. For a great beginner tutorial, see this.
Cold-Process Cocoa-Butter Honey Soap
Notes: Oils listed in percentages so you can use this recipe to yield any amount of soap you’d like (with specific amounts for use with a 4-pound mold in parentheses). Honey (or any sugary additive) makes soap mixtures super-heat. Rather than insulating your soap mold as you would normally do, prepare a very cool, or even cold, place to put your mold immediately after pouring to prevent it from overheating.
- 34% (15 oz.) olive oil
- 28% (12.30 oz.) coconut oil
- 19% (8.36 oz.) ethically sourced palm oil
- 10% (4.4 oz.) castor oil
- 9% (3.96 oz.) cocoa butter
Put all that into a lye calculator to figure out your lye and water amounts. For a 4-pound batch, use 6.23 oz. of lye and 14.50 oz. of water.
Let the lye-water and oils cool more than usual before mixing – some people recommend letting them cool to quite a bit below 100F. At light trace, add about 3 tbsp of honey. (I also added about 3 tbsp of oatmeal, milk and honey fragrance oil, which discolours to a light tan.)
After pouring into your mold, cover the top with parchment paper. Posts I’ve read recommend placing the mold in a cool or cold place, ranging from the refrigerator to the freezer to a windowsill if it’s cold outside. The photos you see here are the result of me first not knowing about the honey-superheating factor, so at first I put a towel over the mold, then I noticed that the soap cracked a bit, so I removed the towel, then about half an hour later I noticed that crazy dark colour forming, and so I started looking up what might be going wrong, and then I put the mold in front of a draughty window. From what I’ve read, superheating can really go wrong, especially if you’re making a milk soap. So mine didn’t go terribly wrong, just a little bit wrong, and soap-makers have assured me the soap will be perfectly usable.
So there you have it. A honey soap recipe with notes about working with honey.
Go make some soap!
Have I mentioned that I started a little blog about my adventures reading with Owen? I think I forgot to tell you. It’s called A Short Read, and you should take a look if you have kids in your life or occasionally find yourself having to choose books for them.
Like with most things I’m passionate about, I have opinions about kids’ books, which have been a part of my daily life for the last three years. I wanted a place to write about the ones we love, since I’ve found it hard to find solid reviews of kids’ books that aren’t drivel. By which I mean I want both reviews and books that aren’t drivel.
One of the books I wrote about over there is called Dinosaur Rescue! by Penny Dale. It’s a gem, and one of Owen’s favourites. When I published the post, the book’s publisher got in touch and asked me to write a guest post for them about my experience with Owen’s very stereotypically boyish interests.
And so I did. You can read the post here. If you like it (or find it flawed or infuriating or whatever), leave a comment over there, eh? Maybe they’ll ask me to write for them again. I really enjoyed it.
Today, for the 52nd day in a row, I took a photo of something I was in the process of making and I posted it on Instagram and all the other usual places. (Today it was a doodle I worked on while taking ten minutes off work to watch the end of the hockey game, because obviously.)
And on this 52nd day of my Year of Making, I’m ready to declare this project a resounding success. It’s not a success simply because I’m still doing it. It’s a success because through this project I’ve achieved something I’ve longed to achieve but never managed to make happen before.
In his (outstanding, you should read it) novel The Hotel New Hampshire, John Irving wrote the character of a coach, and this coach’s approach to fitness is summed up as: “You have to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”
Now, for me, with limited attention span, over-active imagination, and a healthy sense of general life responsibility, the obsession I’ve wanted to achieve has never meant, like, all-consuming fixation. I’ve just wanted to walk my talk, you know? Have making play an important role in my everyday life, not just in theory, but in practice.
I had high hopes for Year of Making, because I decided to approach it with as little constraint as possible. “Making” could involve dinner preparation, knitting a sweater, or colouring with my kid. Because I didn’t limit myself to doing any one sort of thing, or doing anything to a particular degree, I’ve not once felt stressed about this project. Not once have I felt it a burden. Not once have I even felt inclined to fake it. Most of the time, I’ve just trained myself to notice when I make stuff, where before I might not have appreciated how much I do make. But occasionally, I’ve found myself telling Greg that I’ll watch TV with him in half an hour, because I want to really concentrate on making something first. Which is the sort of thing that makes me feel happy and more engaged during the limited time I have that’s not devoted to work or parenting or being a partner or friend. Where before Year of Making I’d do much of my crafting in front of the TV, I now make myself time without distraction so I can try out new techniques or follow involved instructions, or just sit in the quiet and let my mind wander while my fingers mess with something or another.
My appreciation for this project transcends the simple satisfaction I feel just from sticking with it. My true delight comes from finally having gotten around to making experimentation a central part of my creative life. Talk about walking my talk.
In the eight weeks I’ve been doing this project, I’ve cooked meals I’d never considered cooking before, I’ve made soap for the first (not the last) time, and I’ve been doodling and lettering where before this project I did neither. (It’s the doodling and lettering that’s becoming a creative obsession, actually. Last night, I crawled into bed with coloured pencils, such is my increasingly uncontrollable drive to colour stuff in.)
And still, I’ve continued knitting and sewing. I haven’t replaced my old hobbies with new ones, I’ve just been making more time for making stuff.
And that part – making more time for making stuff – is the reason I love this project so much.
What about you? Have you been having a year of making? How’s it going?
My friend John just pointed me to this on Facebook. In the model of 3D printers and the online platforms that host open-source plans that anyone can print, some folks have developed OpenKnit, “an open-source, low cost (under 550€), digital fabrication tool that affords the user the opportunity to create his own bespoke clothing from digital files.”
Check it out:
Last week I posted an Instagram of a page from my bullet journal, and was pretty well stunned when some very kind humans said they’d like to have a poster of it. (I wrote more about the whole surreal experience in last week’s newsletter, which you should totally sign up to get.) Given that this whole thing happened on a lark, I’ve decided to continue on the simplest possible path, which is to make the high-resolution file available to download using a pay-what-you-want model (skip to the end to get the file!). This way anyone (that means you!) can download the image and print it yourself at whatever size you’d like (within reason, let’s be real). If you don’t want to pay, no worries! Download it anyway. If you do pay, know that I’ll be donating 50% of the revenue to Charity Water*. Want to support Charity Water but not pay me? No worries, again! Just go make a donation directly.
Note: The image is optimized for printing on 8.5″x11″ paper (should work just fine on A4 paper, too), but it’s high enough resolution that it should print fairly well on paper as large as 11″x17″ (I recommend you go smaller than that). You can get it printed on nice stock at a place like Staples for just a couple of bucks. The image does not have black borders. I included a border in the image below so you can see what the whitespace looks like around the drawing. You may want to get creative with matting it (or cropping it). I did not Photoshop out the errant pen stroke at the second I. Feel free to mess with that if you’re so inclined. Feel free to distribute the file, but I encourage you to share a link to this page instead – all your friends can still get the file for free if they want, but maybe some of them would like to pay for it and/or support Charity Water. Let’s give them that option, eh?
I just read this post by Wil Wheaton, and in reading it something clicked in my brain, and so now I am here writing about it*.
Despite it being true that I don’t much mind the fifteen pounds I could stand to lose, I’d actually like to lose them.
I have a FitBit and love it, but I don’t manage to use it very effectively as a motivator (mostly because I’m usually most motivated to sit on my ass and read stuff or make stuff or write stuff or edit stuff). Often, my FitBit simply serves to tell me how little I move around.
The thing that clicked in my brain while reading Wil’s post is that I am not connected with the right people through Fitbit or LoseIt (LoseIt is an app that easily lets you track what you eat). My dad, my cousin, and my friend who’s a marathon runner are not the right people to “compete” with for steps and diet. And neither are random strangers.
The people I’d like to connect with for some shared upping of the movement and good-food-choices game are people who, like me, work from home. We who work from home don’t have a commute and we don’t walk up and down hallways and flights of stairs all day. We who work from home need to go out of our way to be even a tiny bit active, and that’s a different sort of challenge than people have when they commute and need to motivate themselves to stop at the gym on their way home from work. The last time I recall losing weight, it was around seven years ago when I went on a seventeen-day book tour and schlepped my ass and my luggage all over the damn place. Pounds, they shed right off me.
I fucking hate the gym. I have approximately zero interest in fad diets. If there’s a book about it, I discount it by default. All I want to do is get better at making activity and wiser food choices a normal part of my day. That’s it. I’m not a foodie and I eat for convenience, and I’d like to eat better convenient food. I want to be held accountable in some way that doesn’t activate my adolescent attitude problem.
So here’s what I propose:
If you work from home and you are, like me, generally speaking, more interested in exercising your brain and your hands than the rest of yourself, let’s connect on Fitbit and/or LoseIt, and subtly encourage each other to take an hour every day and get out of the damn house. Let’s be brutally honest with each other about the crap foods we eat so that we might also subtly encourage each other to make wiser food choices.
That’s it. If you fall into this category of people who work from home and hate the gym and want to get moving and eat better, and you want to do this thing, shoot me an email and we can swap usernames and whatnot.
* I will not make a habit of blogging about healthier eating and exercise. Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.