What I like about me

One of my writing friends achieved a milestone with her blog today – she published her 100th post.  (Woot!)  To celebrate her accomplishment, she decided to celebrate herself – and she loudly and proudly wrote 10 things she likes about herself.  Then, to keep the good times rolling, she asked her readers who have blogs if they would play along and  participate in the activity as well.  So, in honor of Miss Jennie’s big day, here are 10 things I like about my own self:

  1. I try my best and give my all – no matter how “unimportant” the task at hand may be.
  2. I notice little moments, and I take the time and make the effort to share them, so that other people might enjoy them as well.
  3. I support other people whenever and however I can.
  4. I volunteer, simply because I believe it’s the “right” thing to do in life.
  5. I’m a fantastic listener.
  6. I’m always on the lookout for things to learn.
  7. I’m brave. (#11, 16, 69…)
  8. I’m action-oriented.  Even (especially?) when things might be uncomfortable, I suck it up and go for it anyway.
  9. I love.  Even when it’s risky to do so, I can’t help myself.  I love.
  10. I can write this list with ease.  Up until a few years ago I would have struggled with this task; today, I banged it out in just 10 minutes.  I’m proud of how much I’ve grown.  :)

Jennie, thank you for being a force for good in the world.  I’m more than happy to play along with you.

Friend, readers, Romans – lend me your likes.  :)  What do you like about YOU?  Share a comment – or write a whole post about it.  If you decide to publish a little somethin’-somethin’, I’ll link to it below.  (And I bet Jennie might just do the same, too.)



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Beyond 101: Visit the Art Shanty Projects

I live in a state where winter can occupy the climate for six months of the year – literally.  (I.e., November through April – or longer.)  Fortunately, I also live in a state populated by hearty and determined folk of strong Midwestern stock who refuse to let a little double-digit sub-zero temperatures and a few feet of snow knock them down.  Indeed, my fellow citizens laugh in the face of brutal Arctic conditions; instead of burrowing indoors until the ice melts, people here plan activities that make ice a critical element to success!  In addition to hobbies like broomball and ice fishing, annual events like the Winter Carnival turn what could be perceived as a liability into an asset.  Small towns throughout the state also host localized versions of winter celebrations – but very few are as unique as the Art Shanty Projects.

I heard about the Art Shanty Projects from three different individuals: a colleague, a friend on Facebook, and one of my yoga teachers.  Adhering to my Rule of Three, when  the project was mentioned at the end of savasana last Sunday, I took that as my cue to make the long drive across town, get over my semi-irrational fear of walking on frozen water, and explore a variety of artist-created ice houses spread over a small stretch of winter lake.

Describing the Art Shanty Projects is a slightly challenging task.  The creators of the event describe it this way: “Art Shanty Projects is an artist driven temporary community exploring the ways in which the relatively unregulated public space of the frozen lake can be used as a new and challenging artistic environment to expand notions of what art can be.  The project provides a unique opportunity for artists to interact with their audience, and vice versa, in an un-intimidating, non-gallery like environment. Artists can choose to work in a way that directly engages the audience – i.e. knitting or singing Karaoke – or in a more passive way.  The project must self-govern to respect the environment of the lake and the community of fisher-people that already exists.  We are bringing a new use to a place that already has an established relationship with its patrons.”

Sarah Harper, a journalist for a local indie paper, described the Art Shanty Projects like this: “It’s a juried event, so people have to apply to be able to put their ideas into the form of plywood, paint and 2-by-4s. But you don’t have to be a famous artist, or even a professional one, to get a spot. The result is a wide range of shanties. Some have simple premises, others higher-minded; some are built beautifully, others are a tad more ramshackle.  The event is cool (and cold, heh) because none of the shanties take too long: you’re in, you’re out, you’ve gotten the picture and you’ve been reminded that snow isn’t just the thing your car gets stuck in. It can be the thing you do yoga (“snowga”) in with the free spirits running the Meta Shanty.  It’s not a contest – actually, it’s the exact opposite of a contest.”

My yoga instructor (the gal whose comment nudged me into going to the Art Shanty Projects) described the event like this: “It’s kind of like Burning Man…only family-friendly…and no drugs…and really cold.”  Hmm…. sounds, interesting?

As I have never been to Burning Man, the above description provided me only a vague sense of what the Art Shanty Projects might be like.  But my curiosity was piqued, and my sweetie was game to explore them with me – so yesterday the two of us bundled up in our warmest winter gear, and made our way to a frozen lake to take in the experience.

Now that I have been to the Art Shanty Projects, I can see why they are challenging to describe to someone who has never experienced the event.  To me, the gathering reminded me of a very cold, speed-dating version of the Fringe Festival.  But if a person is unfamiliar with the Fringe, that explanation doesn’t help much, either.  So I think one of the best ways to describe the experience is not to talk about it, but to show it.  With that, I give you…

(As lived by Stef)

1. Pedal Bear

As my sweetie and I left solid land and forged a path across the ice (gulp), the very first thing we saw was the Pedal Bear.  I hadn’t planned on taking photos during this outing (since I wanted to keep my body as warm as possible, and the outdoor air temp was a mere 8 degrees F), but as soon as I saw the Pedal Bear, I knew that plan was out the window; this stuff was too good not to document:

01_polar pedal

As my husband and I crossed in front of this contraption, the little “bear” steering the big bear around the lake yelled, “RAAAAWWWWRRRR!!  Get out of my way, or I’ll eat you! RRAAWWWRRR!”  then laughed.  Awesome.

From the creators: “Engage in conversations about climate change, alternative transportation, and innovative use of recycled materials while pedaling the Pedal Bear! A larger than life polar bear will rove across White Bear Lake powered by the kinetic energy of our shanty audience.”

Pedal Bear was like a PedalPub, but without the alcohol, and on ice instead of the street.

The Pedal Bear was massive; I was impressed with the size of the big bear as I was the personality of the little steering “bear”.  Here’s a close-up of both of them:

02_polar pedal close up

2. The Curling Clubhouse Ice Shanty

From the creators: “Here you’ll find everything you need to engage with the sport of Curling! The Curling Clubhouse Ice Shanty will provide a modified rink, instructional diagrams and lessons. But wait that’s not all! The shanty itself will provide an observation deck and warming house complete with a small gallery on the history of curling.”

The above description is exactly what this shanty delivered:

03_curling indoors

From the interior of the shanty. The walls inside the space had a variety of curling-related information – including the 2014 Olympic schedule!

04_curling outdoors

Just outside the shanty – a lovely curling area.

3. The Mailroom

From the creators: “A surrealist shanty, once inside visitors are inside The Mailroom they are transported to a lonely hotel hallway for a moment of solitude with an  invitation to share anonymous stories.”

Again, this description is quite apt; here is what I encountered when I entered The Mailroom:


4. The Dance Shanty

Upbeat music from inside this PVC-pipe-and-tarp construction entertained the entire lake – and passers-by were invited inside to dance for as much (or as little) as they wanted.  When my sweetie and I entered the Dance Shanty, the hosts welcomed us with a huge “Woo hoo!”  It was a wonderful way to be greeted.  :)  My sweetie and I jumped around inside the Dance Shanty for a song, then continued on our exploration.

The Dance Shanty welcomes all event participants - young, old, and everyone in between.

The Dance Shanty welcomes all event participants – young, old, and everyone in between.

5. North Flicks

As my sweetie and I approached the North Flicks shanty, the first thing we saw was a window. I peered in, and couldn’t really make out what was going on inside:

08_north flicks window_looking in

Some sort of art/craft project – but what exactly?  Now a bit more curious, I walk in the shanty for a closer look:

09_zoetrope sign

A sign informed me I could “Create my own zoetrope”.

But what’s a zoetrope?  As I looked at the materials on a table, I deducted that a zoetrope is a circular version of a flip book. (Both of these items are simple forms of animation.)


The strip of a face appearing (in the bottom right corner of the picture) is what helped me figure out the objective of this shanty.

Fun!  But the space was crowded, so I decided to let the kids make the craft; my sweetie and I continued on to the next shanty.

6. The Creep Shanty

From the creators: “Who says we can only be creeped out at Halloween?  This Haunted attic will house a variety of disturbing yet engaging activities. Have your photo taken with a washed–up post–holiday Santaclown. Visit with demonic toy puppets. Sit down at the Donner Dinner Party. Hopefully you make it out of The Creep Shanty with your wits about you.”

11_aim to offend 12_shame break

Oh darn, we missed this one.  Oh well.  :)

7. Lost Found and Wanted

13_lost found and wanted

From the creators: “An art shanty version of the want ads. Lost, Found & Wanted Shanty will be making connections all over shantytown throughout the month. Visit a real old fashioned typewriter in this shanty to write up and post what you’ve lost, what you’ve found, a personals ad, or something to trade. With visitors encouraged to share both real and fictional needs, exchanges, and invitations this shanty is sure to help make dreams come true.”

From inside the shanty:



The sign on the door made me smile:

16_door is alarmed

I can’t tell if the door is alarmed as in it will sound loudly should someone attempt to break in (which is laughable, considering that the shanty is made of plywood and contains nothing valuable inside), or if the door is alarmed as in it is worried about the contents within its four walls. I like the absurdity behind both interpretations. :)

8. Drama/Puppet Therapy Circus – Sami Shanty

17_therapy circus

Approaching this shanty, my sweetie and I saw a few interesting pieces outside:

18_inward looking chair

Sometimes a chair is just a chair. And sometimes not. :)

19_outward reflection chair

From the creators: “In the tradition of the Sami structure known as the Lavvu, the Drama/Puppet Therapy Circus Shanty will encourage audiences to look either to their past or their  future for inspiration in participating in this shanty’s activities. Visitors will be given the choice to perform or observe and the line between private confessions and performative scripts will be blurred.”

While this sounds fascinating, this shanty was very full when my sweetie and I approached; and in the interest of staying warm, we decided to continue on.

9. Ice Ice Maybe

20_ice ice maybe

From the creator: “The Shanty’s primer high-end boutique specializing in the commodification of timelessness, Ice Ice Maybe offers the finest ice encased objects that money can’t buy.”

When we entered this shanty, the greeter welcomed us very warmly, and explained the concept: “Ice Ice Maybe is the only retail shanty on the lake.  On the ledge outside you will find a variety of treasures; if you deem any of them to be intrinsic to your nature or anything that you need, bring it inside.  I will ask you a series of questions about the item, and determine if it should belong to you.”  Hmm, interesting!  I stepped outside the shanty to “shop”:

21_ice trinkets

22_more ice trinkets

But none of the items available for “purchase” called out to me – so my sweetie and I kept on walking.

10. Elevator Shanty

Within ten feet, we found ourselves outside a strikingly real-looking elevator – complete with a lobby!


24_elevator lobby

But please remember that we are literally on a lake.  Very intrigued, we stood in line to ride the “elevator”.

As we waited for the elevator to return to the ground floor (and yes, the numbers above the door were changing as we were waiting), the artist in charge of the shanty asked, “So, do you folks know what to do in an elevator?”  Um, yes?  She continued, “So, you know that you have to push a button to go anywhere, right?  Because some folks out here, they  walk into the elevator – but then they just stand there.  I guess they don’t know that the elevator won’t move unless they actually press a button…”  We smiled.  Point taken.

A second later the doors opened, and my sweetie and I entered the space along with six or eight other people.  The man nearest the control panel asked us what floors we needed.  A few folks tossed out numbers (“Six!” “Nine, please.”  “Eight.”), and the man pressed the corresponding buttons:

25_elevator interior

Again, this is inside a plywood box on a LAKE! Yet it felt like a real elevator. So friggin’ cool.

A second later the floor of the elevator felt like the box was really going up!  Now, I ride an elevator at least ten times every day when I’m at work, so my body knows exactly what the sensation of an elevator ride feels like – and this experience was spot on.  It was the strangest feeling.  Incredible.

From the creator: “While waiting in the ice-lobby visitors cannot even begin to imagine where the Elevator Shanty will take them. With elevator themed music, puns, and general rowdiness the Elevator Shanty will surely take you to new heights on the ice.”

11. The Jigsaw Shanty

26_puzzle shanty

As my sweetie and I approached this shanty, we saw jumbo-sized puzzle pieces in the area outside the door:

28_make a puzzle

Once we stepped inside the shanty, we found out what was going on:

27_puzzle shanty wall

Each wall of the shanty was a puzzle!  The host of the shanty invited us to write a secret on one of the walls; next weekend’s visitors to the shanty would construct our wall as they made their own.  By the end of the month, all four walls would be decorated and re-constructed – and the Jigsaw Shanty would be complete.  Cool!

12. Speak Your Truth/ This I Believe Shanty

29_high school art shanty

The instructions for this shanty were posted on the door, and read: “Enter – wait for eyes to adjust.  Artwork made by Southwest High School students based on what they believe. 3 people at a time.”

After entering the shanty and waiting for my eyes to get used to the dim light, I saw a lovely mixed-medium piece:

30_high school art

My favorite.

13. Are You a Robot/Monster?

31_robot monster exterior

From the creators: “In the age of Instagram and Facebook uploads what could be more fun than getting your picture taken as a Robot or Monster? This shanty revives the tradition of cardboard cutout photos in Art Shanty fashion.”

When I peered inside the shanty, I saw this:

32_robot monster interior

A classic stick-your-face-in-the-hold-and-become-a-creature display!  The entire shanty provided robots and monsters of various shapes and sizes on both the inside and outside of the space; probably 20 different options in all?  But this one was my favorite:

33_puppy monster

Puppy monster! :) What a cutie.

14. The Wind Shanty

From the creators: “Celebrating the blissfulness of wind, this shanty will invite all who enter to reflect and play with the wind. Writings about wind will be encouraged as will all kinds of interactive wind games such as flying kites, designing your own wind spirals and wind dancing.”

Outside of this shanty I saw one person skiing behind a kite (an activity that seems perfectly suited for a frozen lake), and inside I saw a variety of very unique wind chimes.  Here’s one sample:

34_wind shanty

A perfect chime for a poet.

15. Cook Yourself Kitchen and Ski Up Refrigerator

A.K.A. – A sauna.

Yes, a real wooden sauna was attached to a small shanty.  From the creator: “Bastefully enjoy cooking yourself and other visitors in a traditional Finnish sauna. Not into cooking? Visit on Sundays for an eclectic line up of performances hosted  in the Ski Up Refrigerator.”

My sweetie and I visited the shanty on a Saturday, so I don’t know what the ‘Ski Up Refrigerator’ is all about; but the sauna is the real deal.  I didn’t go in (there was a big line), but I saw lots of people going in (and coming out), and they were definitely warm after visiting this one!

35_sauna shanty

The sauna. The attached shanty is to the right, just beyond the snow wall.

16. The Meta Shanty

36_meta shanty

From the creators: “Rejuvenate yourself in this metaphysical space for decompression. Inside the geodesic dome of The Meta Shanty you will find Loving Kindness Meditation, Astrological Readings, Taro Cards, and Essential Oils Workshops. Out on the ice you can participate in Snowga (yoga in snowsuits), Qi-gong, and Tai-Chi.”

Now this is my kind of shanty!  Sadly, when my sweetie and I were walking by, none of the outdoor activities were occurring.  And though I wanted to explore this shanty, I didn’t want to remove my boots (again, I was attempting to preserve my body heat as much as I could), so I just walked past this one.  Sad.  :(

17. Town Hall Shanty

From the creators: “Hear ye, Hear ye, people of Art Shanty Town are invited to, well, name the town! Visitors to the Town Hall Shanty will be invited to participate in governing Art Shanty Town through opportunities ranging from creating a code of law to designing a flag and seal. Outside of the Town Hall Shanty is a village green for public discourse and celebrations.”

Apparently Carl was one of the first visitors to this shanty, as the Town Hall was named after him:

37_town hall carl

I suppose I could have re-named the Town Hall after myself, if I asked for a dry erase marker….

Inside, the shanty offered a variety of clever programs and events:

38_town hall carl event

As well as some cool art postcards (made by the shanty creators, and sharing an important message):

39_town hall carl art

Outside of the shanty, the Town Hall did have a “village green” (white), complete with official city bell!

40_town hall carl bell

(Yes, we rang it.)  :)

18. Sunrise Shanty 

42_sunrise shanty explanation

More from the creators: “Share the intimacy and preciousness of watching the sunrise with a small group of shanty goers in the Sunrise Shanty. Utilizing a solar-powered dawn simulator small groups will sit together first in the darkness and slowly getting to know each other over the course of an imitation daybreak.”

A lover of the sun, I was excited to experience a unique sunrise.  My sweetie and I entered the shanty, and sat it two chairs the creators had set out.  One of the creators nodded in our direction and said, “Hello,” while the other one looked off into space while simultaneously cooking something on a very small wood-burning stove.  I smiled at the artist who greeted us.  The four of us then sat in silence.  A few seconds later four more visitors came into the space, and the two creators treated them in the same fashion.  The new visitors smiled back, and now the eight of us sat in silence.  After a full minute of silence, the four newest additions left the space; after another full minute of silence, my sweetie and I also departed.  Upon leaving the shanty, I saw this sign:

43_sunrises every 30 min

I guess that explains it?

While I was disappointed to not see an indoor sunrise (or sunset), I was impressed by the real wood-burning stove.  It made the shanty nice and warm.  Cozy.

41_sunrise shanty

The exterior of the Sunrise Shanty. It ain’t much to look at, but it sure felt good inside!

One shanty that we walked by but didn’t enter was Noah’s Art Shanty.  The space was absolutely packed each time my sweetie and I walked by (as in, another body literally could not fit beyond the door); after our third time past this shanty, we decided to just skip it.

One shanty that we never saw (but that apparently was at the event) was The Music Box Shanty.  I wonder how we missed that one?

After an hour of being out on the lake, I was ready to get out of the wind.  I felt really happy by all that I had seen and experienced – but I also wanted my face and hand to get warm.  (My left hand was fine; it was my right hand that was a wee bit frozen from being exposed due to all the picture taking.  [But it was worth it.])  :)

As my sweetie and I walked off the lake to head back to the parking lot and into our warm car, we passed by this sign:

44_no swimming

Yeah, that seems about right.  :)


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Beyond 101: Donate my hair*

(*and color my hair, and allow someone else to choose my hairstyle)

I was born with a full head of hair.  At one month old I sported a lush black mop top; by the time I was two years old my chestnut-brown hair was halfway down my back.  During my childhood and adolescence I vacillated between exceptionally long hair and more manageable chin-length styles.  I rarely worried when I visited our family stylist – if she gave me a “bad” haircut, I knew it would grow out in a few months, and I could try something new at that time.

As a kid, it didn’t even occur to me that other people might have a different relationship with their hair.  But as I transitioned from naïve childhood to less-innocent adulthood, I realized the power that hair can wield.  I’ll spare everyone a diatribe on the influence of beauty in American culture; suffice to say, “pretty” people are often treated better than “less pretty” individuals – and wearing long hair is one way an American woman can help herself appear “beautiful”.

Over the past few years I have let my hair grow.  Not for any particular reason – apart from frugality, laziness, and apathy.  Due to these three forces, I simply didn’t bother to schedule frequent visits to the salon.  So I’d see my stylist once every six months to clean up my hair’s jagged ends and give my straight locks some more body and movement – but otherwise, I just let my hair go.  As the length moved past my neck, then shoulders, then upper back, I began to notice my personality change ever-so-slightly.  As my hair rested past my chin, I began to feel more comfortable in the presence of other people.   When my strands moved closer to my shoulders, I began to feel more confident.  As my mane grew longer and swayed across my back, I found myself occasionally feeling cocky.  With long hair I felt pretty and powerful; apparently I gave more importance to hair (beauty) than I wanted to admit.

I don’t want to live a life where my self-worth is measured by external factors – so when I realized the nearly-unconscious influence my hair was having on my heart, I decided change was necessary.  I needed to cut my hair.

For many years I had considered donating my hair to a well-known national organization that provides wigs to cancer patients.  But my hair was never long enough to meet their usage criteria.  As I became more serious about making a drastic change, I conducted research about various nonprofit organizations that provide free wigs to individuals who need them – and learned that many groups do not accept layered, gray, or color-treated hair.  As I’m approaching my forties, my dark hair is beginning to show signs of my age (i.e., I’m starting to gray) – and a few months ago I realized that if I was serious about ever donating my hair, now was likely my last window of opportunity to do it.

So I let my hair grow unfettered for another two months; and the second it got to a sufficient length, I made an appointment with my stylist.  During our consult, I told her that I wanted to donate my hair.  She smiled.  When she asked me what style I wanted to receive after she chopped off my braids, I replied, “G, I want you to do whatever you want.  I’ve been coming to you for over ten years; if there’s a style you’ve always wanted to give me that I haven’t been willing to try before, now’s your chance.”  My stylist’s smile grew much more broad. I continued, “Oh – and I’m willing to have my hair colored, too.  So you can do something with that if you’d like as well.”  With that, G’s eyes grew wide and bright.  She clarified, “So, I can do anything I want to your hair?”  I nodded, and answered, “Yup.  Whatever you want.  I trust you.  Just don’t make me look like a boy.”  G laughed, told me there was no way she could make me look like a boy even if she tried, but then promised that she would give me a very feminine style.  With that, she practically skipped to the far end of the salon to mix up a demi-permanent color for my head – and I sat back in her chair, anxious, but also excited.

When G returned, she segmented my hair into four sections, then loosely braided each one.  She applied a small band just below the spot where she would make the big cut – and when I saw how close her scissors would be to my head, I inhaled sharply.  G paused.  She said, “Are you sure about all of this?”  I drew in a breath, and answered honestly, “No, not at all.  But I need to do it.  So go.”  With that, I shut my eyes – and heard a big snip.

Ten seconds later, four long braids laid on G’s workstation.  Wow.  It was done.

But actually, it was only just getting started.

Now that my hair was nine inches shorter, G applied the color treatment to my strands that remained.  I kept my eyes closed for the remainder of the salon appointment – I wanted to experience a big surprise at the end of it all.  So I had no idea what color G chose (not that I would probably have been able to tell from looking at the mixture, anyway…); I only know that the dye mixture felt cool, gloopy, and heavy as she applied thick layers to sections of my head.

Once every strand of hair was sufficiently coated, G wrapped my head in a towel, then had me go off to “process”.  The wait time was rather short (just 10 minutes), but during that time I enjoyed a lovely seated massage.  When the requisite 10 minutes had elapsed (and my shoulders had loosened ever-so-slightly), G’s assistant took me back to the sinks and gave my hair a through rinse, then a proper shampoo and condition.

From there, I was led back to G’s salon chair, where she began the “real” haircut. For fifteen minutes I heard scissors snipping all around my head, and felt more and more of my neck being exposed.  After getting the general shape of the cut where she liked it, G blew my hair dry.  I thought that was the end of the scissors part of the day, but in reality G had a lot more cutting planned.  Once my hair was dry she could see how the style would actually look when I wore it each day, and she performed detailed shaping work accordingly.  For another fifteen minutes G circled around the chair, cutting hair on one side of my face, then the other, then taking the back up a bit, then balancing the front… I genuinely feared that by the time G was finished, I would only have a few inches of hair remaining.  It was at this point that I had a silent chat with myself – and it went something like this: “Stef, you surrendered control of this appointment.  And you did so for a reason: to be free.  Your hair does not define you.  No matter how long or short, how dark or light, how curly or straight, your hair – this hair – is just that.  Hair.  Little colored strands of proteins protruding from your skull.  Whether you have a ton of it or none at all, the core being of who YOU are remains unchanged.  So move past this.  Focus on your heart, not your head.  And most certainly not your hair.  Do that, and you’ll always be beautiful.”

At that moment, G set her scissors down.  She gave my new style a few swipes from a hot iron, and a liberal dose of spray.  I heard her set the product down; then she asked me, “Okay Stef, are you ready to see?”

I took in a breath, and set a tight smile on my face.  “G, I am.  Let’s do this.” And I opened my eyes.

Upon seeing my reflection in the mirror, I beamed.  G had given me a super-cute bob that maximized the slight curl of my hair while also keeping the strands manageable.  As she slowly spun me around to look at the cut from all angles, I told her, “Oh G, it’s terrific.  I love it!”

“And what about the color, Stef?  Do you like it?” G asked.

Truthfully, I was so focused on the cut, I didn’t even notice the color.  I leaned towards the mirror for a closer look.  The hue G chose was a few shades darker than my own, but it looked completely natural on me.  And in addition to covering the few gray strands growing around my temples, the treatment gave my hair a depth and luminosity that had been lacking for quite a while.

“It looks really good, G.  My hair looks so much shinier than before!” I answered.

“And warm,” G added.  “I think this color adds a lot of warmth to your hair.”

I nodded in agreement.  “That’s a perfect way to describe it.  Warm.  I like it.  I really do.”

Now it was G’s turn to smile.  “I’m so glad!  I had so much fun doing this cut and color; I don’t often get to do whatever I want to a client.  I really enjoyed myself, and I’m glad you’re happy with the way things turned out.  And,” she closed, “you don’t look like a boy.”

I laughed out loud.  “You’re right G, I don’t look like a boy,” I affirmed, smiling.

G led me to the salon’s hostess stand.  I thanked G one last time, gave her a hug, and then turned my attention to the salon receptionist to process my payment.  The gal looked at me and asked, “How can I help you?”  Slightly confused, I replied, “Um, yes, I’d like to pay for my services, please.”  The receptionist appeared genuinely surprised, and asked, “Er, okay…. what services did you have done, exactly?” Now I was really confused; this woman had checked me in for my appointment less than two hours ago.  I gently stated, “I just received a cut and color… from G…” – and immediately the woman’s jaw dropped.  She stated/asked, “Wait – when you checked in, did you have hair down your back?”  I nodded yes, and the gal squealed, smiled, and cried out, “Oh-my-gosh, your hair looks SUPER cute!!  And the color looks terrific!  Wow, I didn’t even recognize you – you look so different!  You look great!” The other assistants behind the stand nodded in agreement.

I have to admit, I liked that reaction.  :)

After processing my payment, I walked to my car.  As I opened the door to get in, I caught my reflection in the driver’s side window – and felt a small jolt of surprise.  I did look rather different… Wow. This change is going to take some getting used to.  But it’s good.  Change is good.

The next day, I got to enjoy various colleague’s reactions to my significantly different appearance.  A few individuals actually didn’t recognize me immediately; it took them a few seconds before they were able to process my new look.  Some colleagues played it cool (“Hey, nice haircut,” they said in a very mellow tone), others tried to be funny (“Say, where did you hair go?” they chuckled good-naturedly), and others were effusive in their praise.  My favorite reaction was from a lovely lady who, when she saw me for the first time post-cut, cried out, “Oh wow, Stef!  Your haircut is lovely!  You look so darling!” She paused, then stated again, “Absolutely darling!”


It’s been a week since my big haircut took place, and over the past seven days I’ve mostly gotten used to the new length and style.  (Though I am still surprised each morning when I shampoo my head in the shower, and realize that my hands don’t have much hair to wash!)  I’ve learned how to dry and style my hair in a way that I like, and have adjusted to seeing my short locks in a mirror or window reflection.

In the grand scheme of life, a haircut is a rather unimportant event.  But change – particularly an adjustment in an individual’s personal appearance – is not always so trivial.  Through this experience, I received the opportunity to dig deeper into my own constructs of self, value, worth, “beauty”, surrender, and acceptance – as well as to see how others around me respond to these notions.  Most importantly, though, I got to help a child cultivating these notions for herself; and while I like to think that my gift of long hair will help a young girl develop a sense of self-acceptance, my larger hope is that one day she won’t need a wig to see her true value and worth.

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#71: Shop at Penzys

Before my husband and I got married, we took our relationship on a few “test drives” to see how we might fare when the novelty of romantic infatuation waned (as it always inevitably does).  One of the best ways to learn about another human is to travel with them – and within the first year of our courtship, my husband and I traveled to meet his parents, my parents, and a few siblings and other family members.  One such trip took us to Madison, WI, where my husband’s older brother was finishing up a PhD (or maybe his post-doc; I’m not sure…), as well as learning the ropes as a new dad.

During our weekend in their apartment, my future brother- and sister-in-law treated my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I to several terrific home-cooked meals.  One dish involved chicken (I ate meat back then) seasoned with incredible flavors that were new to me.  When I inquired about the food, my now-sister-in-law disclosed that the meal was incredibly easy to pull together; the seasoning was a spice blend from Penzeys.

At the time, I had no idea what Penzeys was.  Some special store brand sold in Madison?  A local artisan spice manufacturer?  A specialty food store?  Turns out that Penzeys is a bit of a mix of all three – it’s a specialty store that focuses on distributing high-quality spices, as well as creating unique spice blends.  They began as a local shop in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but now have multiple locations in 29 states.  I was intrigued to learn more about this “Penzeys” place, but my then-boyfriend/now-husband and I chose to focus our limited time with his brother’s new baby son instead of going shopping.  (I still stand by this decision.)  ;)  I figured I could check out Penzeys some other time.

Yet, over a decade later, I still haven’t gotten my rear in gear to make a brief drive across town and explore the special spice store.  Why?  I’m not sure.  Part of the issue is laziness, I’m quite certain.  Another likely reason is that I seem to always be able to find some other way to fill my time.  Additionally, some part of me felt like I never had a ‘real’ purpose for shopping for spices.  I mean, if I need cinnamon or oregano, I can pick up those items at my local grocery store.  Why drive all the way across town to get something I can purchase so close to home?

Well. This weekend, each of those factors was challenged: I got motivated, realized I had a block of open time on my schedule, and found myself so utterly bored with my usual meals that I desperately needed something to make them novel again.  Finally, 14 years (!) after I first learned of Penzeys, I got my butt in my car and made my way to the shop.

After a challenging two-block walk pushing against 30 mph winter wind, I stepped into the cheery, bright, country-esque space – and felt like I had walked into a rural Indiana neighbor’s home.  It was quite a lovely feeling, actually.

The store was divided into small ‘shops’ – sections of the store focused on a particular theme.  I could describe each of these shops to you – but I think in this case, photos will be much more effective (and enjoyable) than words.  So I present to you a fun little ‘virtual’ tour of Penzeys:

The very first section I saw was dedicated to pepper. I found this to be rather strange…

Once I got closer to the shelves in the pepper section, I realized there is quite a variety of peppers available.  White, black, green, pink, whole, cracked, ground… I had no idea pepper was so complex!

Look at all that pepper.

Continuing in a counter-clockwise path along the store, the next area I walked into was the Baking section:

03_baking sign

This area had everything from cocoa powder to vanilla beans, from almond extract to lemon peel:

I'm a fan of the cocoa.

I’m a fan of the cocoa.

Apparently an important element in baking is cinnamon; so much so that this power spice had its own dedicated section!  (Just like her friend Mr. Pepper.)

Is cinnamon "above" associating with the other baking spices?  Cinnamon, don't get uppity...

Is cinnamon “above” associating with other baking spices? C’mon cinnamon, don’t get uppity…

The next section was also dedicated to a sole ingredient; but this item definitely merits its own special space on the sales floor.  Wars have been waged on behalf of it, after all.  I’m talking about NaCl.  (Aka ‘salt’ for any non-chemists in the house.)

They put it in a boat - how cute.

They put it in a boat – how cute.

After a lot of homogenous displays, I was happy that the next section I approached was rich in diversity; I entered the land of “Seasonings.”

A-Z seasonings, no less!

A-Z seasonings, no less!

Every spice and seasoning blend had a sample jar that customers could open in order to see/feel/smell the product (and taste it, I suppose, if a person didn’t mind the billions of germs that surely lived amid spices that thousands of other people had put their noses up in to… But I digress).  I found that sniffing unknown items really helped me determine if I might like them.

John, this one's for you!  I'm not a big fan of garlic, so I passed on this option; but I did think about you enjoying it on a bagel with cream cheese and sliced tomato.  :)

J A, this one’s for you! I’m not a big fan of garlic, so I passed on this option; but I did think about you enjoying it on a bagel with cream cheese and sliced tomato. :)

Dad, of course I thought of you when I sniffed this.  (After I stopped coughing, that is…)

Dad, of course I thought of you when I sniffed this. (After I stopped coughing, that is…)

After smelling every new-to-me seasoning, I performed the same actions in the Herbs section:


And again in the Spices area:


Which got me thinking: What’s the difference between a seasoning, an herb, and a spice?  (The question intrigued me so much that I actually researched it; I discovered that a spice comes from the bark, root, stem, seed or fruit of a plant, an herb is from the leaves of a plant, and a seasoning is anything that flavors food [like salt].  Thanks for the info Maraline!)

After leaving the land of spices, I discovered another set of mini-shops within the store.  Each of these sections was focused on more comprehensive foods and/or ‘giftable’ items, such as:


These ingredients help anyone make a pot of chili to the level of their heat tolerance/liking.  [I'm a super-mild gal.]

These ingredients help anyone make a pot of chili to the level of their heat tolerance/liking. [I'm a super-mild gal.]


13_soup bases

Likely a tastier alternative to bouillon.



This section was kind of crazy. They had blends labeled “Buttermilk Ranch”, “French Vinaigrette”, “Green Goddess”… and each one smelled exactly like the way the item usually tastes! Forget Hidden Valley (and all of their artificial ingredients) – hello Penzeys!

And last, but certainly not least, gift boxes:

15_gift box

I had no idea Milwaukee was a specially designated ethnic group…

The variety of gift boxes on display was quite unique; Penzeys offered everything from interesting flavor combinations like Salad (see picture above for some ideas), Curry, Cheese, Extracts… to more occasion/recipient-specific boxes like Spicy Wedding, Cocoa Lovers, Baker’s Assortment, Grill and Boil, Taste of Mexico, Salt Free…

Once I finished my exploratory walk around the store, I made a second circle, selecting a few key items to purchase.  I limited myself to spices/seasonings/herbs that I likely wouldn’t be able to purchase anywhere else; and at the end of this tour of Penzeys, I returned home with:

16_my purchases

Each of these spice/seasoning blends (apart from the salt) smelled absolutely fantastic in the store – but the real test was yet to come. Of course, I’m talking about taste.

The first item I tore into was the salt.  After reading The Four Hour Chef last year, I realized the importance that high-quality salt can make in enhancing the flavor of food.  As a result, I promptly ordered the primary brand of salt that Tim recommended in his book – and I was not disappointed.  But I recently ran out of my last box of that seasoning, so when I was in Penzeys I asked one of the store clerks what salt he recommended.  He pointed me towards the Gray Sea Salt – and when I saw it was from France, I was sold.  :)

The packaging noted that the salt was a tiny bit damp to the touch, and had a slight floral scent.  As I picked up the first grains with my fingers, I did note that the salt felt a wee bit like moist sand.  I sprinkled a healthy portion of the seasoning onto my food (sautéed broccoli), and took a bite.  As the veggie approached my lips, I actually did smell the tiniest hint of a floral note, which really surprised me (as I’m not a fancy foodie who can detect notes of cinnamon amid the mole sauce).  Encouraged, I began chewing the broccoli – but found that the salt tasted just like regular old Morton’s.  Which isn’t “bad” (it is salt, after all), but this Penzey product pales in comparison to Maldon’s.  Lesson learned.

The next evening, I decided to crack open the “BBQ 3001″ blend.  As I started to twist the lid, I noticed something small-yet-special:

17_penzey heart

The lid of every Penzey’s spice container is marked with this lovely safety seal.

18_penzey message

The full message is “Love to Cook – Cook to Love.”

Aw… I love it when manufacturers use product space in creative ways.

I added a liberal sprinkling of the blend to a mock-chili I had thrown together, and was surprised by the first bite.  I tasted a lot of what I consider non-standard BBQ spices: cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg.  It was as if my chili had cookie crumbles in it; it was bizarre, and rather unpleasant.  But instead of abandoning the meal and starting over, I decided to add some salt to it – and that one action completely transformed the flavor profile.  The dish went from sweet to savory, and the seasoning blend became a cohesive BBQ flavor.  With a few grains of salt, the smoke, pepper, and mustard seasonings in the “3001″ blend came through – and my meal became a savory chili delight.  Wild!  Almost magical.

Feeling encouraged, the next day I experimented further, and combined 1/4 teaspoon of the Pizza Seasoning with 1/4 cup of regular tomato sauce to see if I could make pizza sauce.  As the mixture cooked (in a microwave for 60 seconds), it absolutely smelled like pizza!  But my nose has been fooled before; could my tongue be convinced that this duct-tape-and-string concoction fill the role of a suitable pizza sauce? The answer: Totally.  This mixture tasted like a slightly spicy pizza sauce.  Wow – what a cool trick!

I have yet to open and use the Singapore Seasoning, so at this time I can’t report on my experience with that blend.  But, if you are eagerly anticipating my riveting review of this flavor encounter (that’s a little sarcasm for ya), let me know in the comments, and I’ll whip up a quick dish so I can add a P.S. to the bottom of this post.

Otherwise – this has been my full experience with task #71.  I have to admit, it was a lot more fun than I expected it to be!


Posted in 101 in 1001, day zero project, postaday, wplongform | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Beyond 101: Eat an MRE

I’m a learner.  I adored school at every stage of my development; in fact, I remember being angry the first time my mom kept me home because I was sick.  I read books with voracity (see 1981) and spent hours flipping through encyclopedias, just to see what interesting facts I might acquire.  I preferred museums to movies, delighted in exploring unfamiliar places, and was usually game to try any new experience.  My curiosity sometimes put me in not-so-great positions (like getting stuck in a cave [literally]), but overall, my inquisitiveness served me well.

And it still does.  I still revel in knowledge, continue to have the heart of an explorer, and find new endeavors deeply satisfying (usually).  :)  So when one of my work colleagues commented that he was thinking about acquiring some MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) for his next backpacking excursion, and our manager offered to bring in a leftover MRE from his former military days, I offhandedly commented, “Yeah, and if you have a vegetarian one, I’ll try it, too.”  Now, truth be told, I wasn’t overly eager to consume an MRE; I’ve been told they’re kind of nasty.  And I thought (suspected) that the military probably didn’t even make vegetarian options for their industrial, shelf-stable, tragedy-ready meals – but my manager surprised me by immediately responding, “Sure, I’ll bring in separate meals for each of you.  You can both enjoy the goodness that is an MRE,” offering the last statement with a semi-sarcastic tone.

So thanks to my overwhelming desire to try new things, my sometimes-impulsive nature, and my big mouth, earlier this week I found myself sitting in my manager’s office, peering down at a very bland MRE bundle:


The only “semi-vegetarian” meal my manager had remaining in his residual stockpile of MREs was MRE #4 from 2005 – aka the cheese and vegetable omelet.

Notice the little soldier on the top left side of the packaging?  Semi-intimidating.

Eggs?  Seriously?  I can think of fewer things that might be nastier in a dehydrated, reconstituted, preserved form than eggs.  Alas, “beggars” can’t be choosers, so I took the brown package from my manager (who was smiling fiendishly, I might add), and began to explore the contents within:

After a bit of struggling, I was able to break through the heavy-duty outer wrap - and peered inside the package.

After a bit of struggling, I was able to break through the heavy-duty outer wrap – and peered inside the package.

When I turned the outer pouch upside down, two tightly wrapped packages spilled out.

When I turned the outer pouch upside down, two tightly wrapped packages spilled out.

After I broke apart the plastic-encased pack from the above photo, I was left with the following: Shredded potatoes with bacon (which my manager assured me wasn't really meat, so I was fine to eat it)...

After I broke apart the plastic-encased pack from the above photo, I was left with the following: Shredded potatoes with bacon (which my manager assured me wasn’t really meat, so I was fine to eat it)…

… the main course...

… the main course…

… toaster pastry (fits in nicely with the breakfast theme)...

… toaster pastry (fits in nicely with the breakfast theme)…

… crackers (which, seeing them marked this way, reminded me of a very funny skit from Chris Rock about generic food his mom used to buy when he was a kid, because she was cheap)...

… crackers (which, seeing them marked this way, reminded me of a very funny skit from Chris Rock about generic food his mom used to buy when he was a kid, because she was cheap)…

…jam (to spread on the crackers)...

…jam (to spread on the crackers)…

…Skittles?!  I was expecting chocolate!  Big bummer...

…Skittles? I was expecting chocolate! Big bummer…

…ah, good ol' Accessory Packet C...

…ah, good ol’ Accessory Packet C…

… a very sturdy spoon (I'm not sure if the heft of this utensil is a good sign or not)...

… a very sturdy spoon (I’m not sure if the heft of this utensil is a good sign or not)…

…a hot beverage bag (which my manager told me I might as well throw away, since the heater would likely barely be able to heat the food components of the meal, much less have any leftover power for warming water)...

…a hot beverage bag (which my manager told me I might as well throw away, since the heating element of the meal would likely barely be able to heat the food components, much less have any leftover power for warming water)…

…and last (but certainly not least), the heating element of the MRE.

…and last (but certainly not least), the heating element of the MRE.

Once everything was separated into their individual packages, I broke down the contents one step further – i.e., liberating the individual condiments from their collective plastic container, and removing the “hot” portions of the meal from their cardboard box.

The accessory packet contained: a mini bottle of hot sauce (which my manager swore I would need to make the meal palatable), a tiny ration of toilet paper (which would be the entire quantity a person had to use for their day - unless they brought some extra on their own accord), a single moist towelette (I love how a fancy waiter is presenting the package - what a disconnect), moisture-proof matches, a packet of salt (but no pepper - I was disappointed by that), two pieces of gum (which my manager swears have a laxative effect; I took his word on that one), and a package of apple cider (which I promptly threw away, because I dislike it that much).

The accessory packet contained: a mini bottle of hot sauce (which my manager swore I would need to make the meal palatable), a tiny ration of toilet paper (which would be the entire quantity a person had to use for their day – unless they brought some extra on their own accord), a single moist towelette (I love how a fancy waiter is presenting the package – what a disconnect), moisture-proof matches, a packet of salt (but no pepper – I was disappointed by that), two pieces of gum (which my manager swears have a laxative effect; I took his word on that one), and a package of apple cider (which I promptly threw away, because I dislike it that much).

The further I get into this meal, the less appealing it gets.  Hmm...

The further I get into this meal, the less appealing it gets. Hmm…

As I slipped the egg pouch from its brown overwrap, I noticed that he backside of the container contained some “persuasive” text.

Aka, this food is crappy, but you need to eat it anyway.

Aka, this food is crappy, but you need to eat it anyway.

Once I had removed as much extraneous packaging as possible, my manager suggested I start warming the eggs; and while they were heating, I could explore the no-“cooking”-required elements of the meal.  That sounded like a solid plan to me, so I examined the heater element of the MRE kit to determine how to get the eggs hot.

I chuckled at the illustration to incline the food pouch on a “rock or something”.

I chuckled at the illustration to incline the food pouch on a “rock or something”.

In my naivety, I expected the heating element to get really hot; otherwise, how could it penetrate the heavy-duty plastic casing around the eggs enough to actually warm them?  Answer: it couldn’t.  And it didn’t.  I was able to carefully-yet-comfortably handle the flameless heater for the duration of my meal experiment:

The egg pouch inside the “heater”.

The egg pouch inside the “heater”.

Once the egg/heater combo was set to do its thing (my manager offered one of his business books as the “or something”, since we didn’t have any rocks readily available in his cubicle to lean the eggs against), I cracked open the consume-at-room-temperature food items, and began to sample the various components of the meal.  First up: crackers.


Two crackers came in the pouch.  I broke the corner off of one, and noted that the texture was decent – i.e., not rock hard, yet not crazy-crumbly.  I started chewing on that first bite – and within seconds every drop of moisture was removed from my mouth.  Immediately my mind went back to the Fort Snelling bakeshop, and the hardtack ration the period-actor shared.  I smiled to myself; looks like some things rally never change!

I massaged the strawberry jam packet to 1) ensure any liquid was re-integrated into the solid mass, and 2) warm it a bit to hopefully make it more pliable, then applied a smallish glop of the jam to a section of the cracker.  I tried this next bite of augmented-with-jam cracker, but found it only marginally better.  Luckily, there was a lot more food for me to try – so I set the cracker aside, and broke into the toaster pastry.

As I lifted the pastry from its plastic packaging, I immediately noticed that this item was actually soft!  I expected the “pastry” to be impossibly hard (a la the regular toaster pastries that are sold in supermarkets), so to see that this version had genuine tenderness was impressive.  As I set the pastry on the desk, I also noticed that it had a natural apple and cinnamon scent to it.  Again, impressive!  I found these traits encouraging; now I wondered how the pastry would taste:

22_toaster pastry

Popping a bite into my mouth, I was truly pleased with this item.  It was appropriately flaky, had a good apple and cinnamon flavor to it, and wasn’t cloyingly sweet.  I would actually eat this again!

Feeling encouraged, I made the move towards the main component of this MRE: the eggs.  I extracted the plastic pouch from the flameless heater, shook the excess water from the outer wrap, and massaged the crap out of the pack.  As I kneaded the pouch, it made a “squish, squish” sound.  Ew.  I could also feel the ineffectiveness of the “heater” device; as I kneaded the pack, I could feel cold parts of egg mingling with warm parts of egg – rendering the entire contents only slightly warmer than room temperature.  Again, ew.  Once I mixed the eggs as much as I could, I ripped the top of the pouch, and found:

23_cooked eggs

If I had any illusions that I might be able to consume this meal as my actual lunch, they were shattered the second I saw this glorious mess.  However, I was determined to get a decent sample of the fare – so I picked up the brown plastic spoon, scooped out a glob of egg drivel, and drove it into my mouth.

Holy hell.  The eggs looked like sawdust, and their texture was comparable.  Even more bizarre than the texture of the eggs, though, was their flavor.  They tasted like a combination of eggs, salsa, and tuna.  How the military was able to infuse eggs with a fish flavor, I have no idea (or, perhaps, I just don’t want to know…); suffice to say, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.  I took another bite, then decided to pause on the eggs and try my luck with the shredded potatoes.


I followed the same process with the potatoes that I used with the eggs: warm them for a few minutes in the ineffective flameless heater, knead the pouch to mix the warm parts of food into the cold parts (while hearing and feeling the same “squish squish”), then tearing open the pouch to find:

25_cooked potatoes

Using the same brown spoon, I scooped up a glob of the potatoes, popped it into my mouth, and started chewing.  Now, if I didn’t know that what I was eating was supposed to be potatoes, I would have sworn that I was eating a mild jalapeno rice.  The “hashbrowns” had the exact texture and flavor profile as a cheap Mexican pilaf; it was confusing.

Seeing as how both the eggs and the rice/potatoes weren’t great on their own, I wondered if adding them together might improve the situation?  I put a small scoop of each onto the spoon – and was surprised to discover that co-mingling these items had absolutely zero effect.  Instead of tasting an egg/tuna/potato/rice casserole, I tasted two very distinct items at the same time.  It was very crazy, almost surreal.

By this time my manager was having a grand time observing me sample this not-fantastic food.  He commented that the way he ate his MREs when he was in the field was by dousing the food in hot sauce to make it more palatable.  I’m not a fan of hot sauce, but I figured I would at least try the suggestion.  So I dabbled a tiny bit of hot sauce into the egg packet, stirred it around a bit, took a bite – and almost gagged.  Hot sauce definitely did NOT help me; in fact, it rendered the meal completely inedible.  Now that the eggs were toxic, I tossed them into the trash; my manager immediately collected the rest of the meal and, with an air of satisfaction, heaved it into the can.  It made a large, heavy, “thud” sound.

If I were starving, I could (and would) totally eat this meal – or any MRE, for that matter (so long as I wasn’t forced to use the hot sauce).  But.  I don’t think I would choose to consume an MRE voluntarily.  If I was ever placed in a situation where my options were dehydrated food or an MRE, I’d select the first option.  But hey, now I know!  And even better, my MRE curiosity has been satisfied.

After my manager and I briefly chatted about what I thought of the MRE, he did offer that the military tries to improve the meals with each passing year.  And since the meal I just ate was from 2005, current-day MREs might taste (and feel) a whole lot better.  Still, I think I’ll pass on eating another one.  Thanks anyway.


Posted in beyond 101, postaday, wplongform | Tagged , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

#98: Watch the “7 Up” documentary series

I first heard about the 7 Up series from my blogging friend Carla (whom you may remember from another of my 101 tasks: to try a pair of Vibram’s shoes).  Carla mentioned the films in one of her blog posts, and many of her readers commented about how awesome the series was.  I had never heard of the films before, so I had no idea what they were about – but with so many people exhorting its praises, I was intrigued.  I asked Carla for a quick summary of the series, and she briefly explained the premise:  Fourteen seven-year-old British children from widely ranging backgrounds are interviewed about a variety of subjects. The kids are then reinterviewed every seven years to see how their lives (and attitudes) have changed (if at all).

I have a special place in my heart for social psychology (indeed, I have an undergraduate degree in the subject), and I suspected I would enjoy watching a longitudinal study of people from various backgrounds unfold right before my eyes.  However, I had a hunch that actually sitting through over 14 hours of video would be challenging; I can barely make it through a 90-minute movie in the theater.  I simply don’t do well with sitting for long periods of time, staring at a screen.  So I suspected the only way I would actually make the effort (and time) to view the entire 7 Up series would be to put it on my 101 list – and that is how #98 came into being.

This holiday season I was fortunate to be able to take a long break from work for Christmas and New Year’s; I figured this period of time would likely be my best shot to get through the entire 7 Up series.  My sweetie is also home with me during this time, and he expressed an interest in viewing the series as well – so we made a point to watch the movies together.  Over the course of 6 days, he and I plowed through all 7 videos in the Up series – and while my eyes are now red and my tush is now flat, I can say that I have seen every minute of the 7 Up documentary series.  (Well, to be completely accurate, I can make this claim for the next 6 years – at which point the newest video will likely be released.)

All in all, I found the series quite interesting.  Though it was difficult to watch so much film in so few days, I think I got more out of the experience consuming it this way than I would have had I tuned in to a single video once every 7 years.  As I watched each film I took brief notes (as I knew that later developments in the series would likely ‘taint’ the ideas I had about the earlier films), so if you would like to follow along with me through a more detailed journey of the series, you are invited to continue reading this post.  However, note that in my comments, I might make statements that could be considered “spoilers” – so if you have plans to watch the series, and want to do so with an unbiased perspective, you may want to end reading this post at this point.  Just a head’s up.

Alrighty – you in for a stroll through 56 years of life in a few paragraphs?   Cool; here we go!

7 UP:

  • This film is in black-and-white – I honestly didn’t expect that!  Of course it makes sense (the first film was shot in 1964), but still, I just didn’t have this in my mind…
  • Seeing the children in formal clothing (skirts and muffs, fedoras and ties) was startling.  And seeing the kids eat school lunch meals using china plates and metal silverware was also totally unexpected.
  • Hearing the ‘proper’ language some of the children used was also strange.  (Example: “My heart’s desire is to see my daddy.”)
  • The interviewer made a comment, “The vast majority of children will leave school at 15 [years old] and start work.”  Wow, how times have changed…
  • The video ended with very dramatic, nearly ominous music.  Very 1950s sci-fi feel.  It made me chuckle.


  • This film was in color.  Very grainy color, but color nonetheless.
  • It’s interesting to see how much the 14-year-old kids looked just like their 7-year-old selves.
  • It’s also interesting to see how consistent their personalities have remained over their childhood and adolescence.  Many of their interests have changed over the past 7 years (not surprising), but their personalities, their demeanor, their affect (even their mannerisms) remain nearly fully unchanged.

21 UP:

  • This film had the same media quality as 7 Plus Seven.
  • It’s weird: 75% of the 21-year-olds no longer look like their younger 7- and 14-year-old selves; but 90% of the 14-year-olds looked exactly like their 7-year-old selves. Strange.
  • Many of the participants were quite defensive during the interviews, and reacted rather strongly to calmly-asked questions.  It felt like several (most?) of them resented having their lives “intruded” into – yet they consented to continue with the projects even as adults.  If they didn’t like the intrusion, why didn’t they refuse to participate once they turned 18?
  • The décor, clothes, and hair in the film were all VERY 1970s.  A tragic decade for fashion and aesthetics.
  • This movie was quite a bit longer than the two previous films; I prefer an hour-long experience versus a two-hour one…

28 UP:

  • The film quality is slightly better in this set of interviews.
  • It’s funny to see how significantly the fashion changed form the late 1970s to the eary 1980s.
  • Now spouses and children are entering the picture (literally); it’s quite interesting.
  • I’m genuinely surprised at how much one of the participants matured from age 21 to age 28.  Surprised, and pleased.
  • It’s very interesting to see how culture is changing in the 1980s.  (Feminism, race, socio-economic class – it’s all in flux.)
  • One of the men in the series looks a LOT like one of my uncles; watching him was a little spooky.
  • All of the participants look older than 28 years.  Is this an effect of the semi-grainy video? The lifestyle of growing up in the 1970s?  (I.e., more smoking, less use of sunscreen, etc.)  A function of living in England?
  • Two men chose to not participate in this round of interviews.  One of them is a documentary film maker – so I found his lack of willingness to answer a few questions for this documentary project rather rude.
  • It’s interesting to see how some lives have stayed exactly “on track, how some have only improved, and how others have only deteriorated (some quickly, some slowly).  Interestingly, social/economic class is not a valid predictor of ‘success’ in life (at least, not so far…).

35 UP:

  • The film quality is still grainy – was film in the early 1990s still that poor?  Or did video technology in England lag behind the US?
  • The parents of the now-35-year-old “kids” are starting to die; these adult children are facing the realities of Life more and more with each passing film…
  • Some of the 35-year-olds look very haggard – much older than a mere 35 years.  (And I’m in my late 30s, so I can say this.)  :)
  • The kid who became a documentarian continued to decline participating in this iteration of the series.
  • At least two other kids were absent from this video – with zero explanation offered for their absence.  What?!  I need (okay, I really want) to know what happened to them!  At least tell me if they are still alive or not…

 42 UP:

  • My sweetie and I tried to watch this DVD with the Director’s Commentary – but it was way too annoying.  I’m a unitasker through and through – instead of fighting my nature, I’m learning to embrace and celebrate it.
  • The participants are now only a few years older than me; and damn, most of them look like hell.  (Though most of them looked rough at 35, too.)  Looks aren’t everything, of course – but external appearance can indicate how a person feels internally.  I hope in a few years time I both look and feel good.  Not “young”, but good.
  • The first participant on this video said that his life was basically over now (“I’ve done about as much as I can”) – and I find this incredibly sad.  I don’t want to feel like my life is over until it is literally done (i.e., when I take my final breath).
  • Whereas the theme for 35 Up seemed to be parental illness and death, the theme of 42 Up seems to be marriage (and marital strife).
  • A few of the kids’ personalities have changed a bit as they have grown older – but most of the participants are fundamentally the same now as they were at 7, 14, 21, 28, and 35 years old.
  • One participant who was absent in 35 Up was still absent here – with zero mention as to why.  What has gone on with him?  What’s his story?  I need to know.  I need closure.
  • It’s interesting how the exact same experience is perceived and processed in so many different ways between various participants.  It goes back to one of the fundamental questions of the film: How much of life is nurture (experience), and how much is nature (the way we internally process the world)?  Such a curious question…

49 UP:

  • I’m really glad my sweetie wanted to watch this series with me: 1) so I can talk about it with someone, and 2) so I’ll actually watch all of the films.  I’m starting to struggle at this point in the series…
  • The video quality in this film finally looks “modern”.  Wow – that took longer than I expected.
  • The participants are growing increasingly irritated/frustrated/angry with the reporter/film maker; many (most?) of them feel that he has “misrepresented” them within the interview/editing process.  And perhaps some of that is true – but I suspect a larger source of their anger is insecurity with their own selves, and regret for some of their own personal choices/decisions thus far in their lives.
  • There is still no mention of one of the participants who has now been missing for 20 years.  C’mon, tell us something!

 56 UP:

  • The story of the kids is now the story of their families: their parents, spouses, exes, children, grandchildren…
  • After being gone for the past three films, one of the participants is back!  But he only came back to promote his band.  Incredibly disappointing.
  • A semi-rhetorical question was posed from one of the participants inquiring about the accuracy of arriving at any sort of conclusions from this longitudinal study.  The response was profound, and made me pause: “[The series] isn’t a picture of Nick, or Suzie, but it’s a picture of anybody [aging] over time.”  The Up Series is the story of lives, and of Life.  The set of videos is so compelling not because the individuals are super-special, but because the premise, the life journey, is rich – no matter who you are or what you have.  Something big “clicked” in me at this moment in the film.

As I reflected on the series in its entirety, three key thoughts came to my mind:

1) In reflecting on why some of the adults found the process of participating in this documentary series so painful (one of them literally described it as “a big pill of poison that enters my life every seven years”), I wondered if it was because in the process of answering questions and stating what has transpired over the past few years, each individual is forced to become truly aware of the life they are living?  Instead of ignoring/numbing out/refuting what each individual has struggled with/against in their life, they are forced to really look at those things, and articulate them to another human.  But ultimately, isn’t it better to address regrets and difficulties in life in the present versus as death nears?

Some of the adults are carbon copies of the 7-year-old children they were – but others are changed, and some quite dramatically.  This tells me:

2) That anything is possible.

3) That we each have a lot of control over our own lives.  Not total control, I get it – but
we do have the power to influence our own futures.  We just have to be willing – both to make the decision, and to exert the effort to push the decision to fruition.

So there you go – life lessons from a life-long study.  The next logical question is will there be a 63 Up?  And if so, will I be around to see it?  Only time will tell – on both counts…

101_Up Series

(If you want to see pictures of each participant’s progression over time, you can view them here.)


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Another year comes to a close

Each year the good folks at WordPress create a data summary of every blog/site they host, and I thought a nice way to close out 2013 would be to share some highlights of that info with all of you.  Here is how 2013 treated the Smile, Kiddo blog:

smile kiddo stats1

smile kiddo stats2

smile kiddo stats3

(I’ll do one better: Here are links to the blog spaces of my Top 5 Commenters.  Ladies, thank you so much for your active support!  It truly touches me.)

And here is a little photo montage of how 2013 treated me, Stef.

smile kiddo year in review

If you want to read more details about the photos above, check out these blog posts:

With that, I hope you all have a safe New Year’s Eve – and an amazing 2014!

Wishing everyone much peace, love, joy, laugher, and smiles,


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