beautiful blooms

25 More Life Lessons I Learned From Gardening (2016)

  1. It is technically possible to keep your hands clean. It just won’t be as satisfying.
  2. There is nothing like the scent of fresh rosemary.
  3. Some things need lots of sun and some need lots of shade. What makes one flourish makes another fade. This is also true of people.
  4. There can be order in chaos—and vice versa.
  5. You can breed for prettier colors, but they will never smell as good.
  6. Watch out for cat shit.
  7. Every garden is beautiful in bloom.
  8. There is peace in accepting the dirt under your nails.
  9. Not all dirt is created equal, however. Choose the right kind for the things you want to grow.
  10. Life will find a way.
  11. Some roots once they take hold can never be pulled. Consider wisely what you plant in your garden.
  12. Bugleweed has roots like that.
  13. Sometimes you will know that the rosemary could not have overwintered. You will water it anyway in the spring, hoping. This will not have been the worst waste of time in your life.
  14. Abundant water is a blessing.
  15. Cats are vile, wretched creatures.
  16. They will nevertheless make you happy when they roll in the catnip.
  17. Catnip. See No. 11.
  18. You can’t have ladybugs if you don’t have aphids.
  19. Worms are people too. Try not to disturb them.
  20. Call 811 before you dig.
  21. Avery with flowerSometimes you will wonder why other people pay someone else to do their yard work and then drive to the gym for exercise.
  22. Gardens are like living rooms, meant to be reorganized every once in awhile.
  23. Some of the things your dad has told you were wrong.
  24. A hobbit hole would make everything better. Even the cats.
  25. Not every time, but sometimes, when you’re gardening and the phone rings, go ahead and answer it. There is room in gardens for friends and family.

Read last year’s list here.

Donald Trump

Someone Asked if #NeverTrump People Would Come Around. This Was My Response.

I do not like that Donald Trump.
I could not, would not like that chump.

I would not vote him here or there,
I would not vote him anywhere.
I would not vote him then or now.
I would not vote him anyhow.

I do not like his orange spray tan.
I do not like his tiny hands.
I do not like his gibberish.
I do not like his childishness.

I don’t like his rhetoric.
I don’t like his politics.
He has not read the Constitution.
He does not have any solution.
He does not like free trade and speech.
He does not love that liberty.
He loves walls and lots of rules.
His economics are for fools.
There are no checks and balances
To counterweigh such lack of sense.

So, I do not like him on the stump,
I will not take him with a lump,
Not with a poll jump,
Not with an endorsement bump,
Not in a trash dump.
Not with a sump pump.

I will not change my mind, I won’t.
I don’t like him, no I don’t.

I hate authoritarians.
I hate all that collectivism.
I will not support that rump.
I will #NeverVoteforDonaldTrump.


A Lesser of Evils: Why Ted Cruz Is Not My Anti-Trump

I’ve never been a lesser-of-evils sort of voter. It’s too cynical and depressing an approach to life. Anyway I rarely think one of the major party candidates is “better” in some meaningful sense than the other.

This election is different. I cannot shake a nagging unease that one candidate must be avoided, perhaps with a vote for any marginally lesser evil capable of stopping him, however distasteful.

That candidate is Ted Cruz.

I’m not joking. There’s no punch line coming. I don’t think Ted Cruz believes in fundamental, unenumerated rights, constitutionally protected from political majorities at the state and local levels.

Probably many or even most of the other candidates share this shortcoming. What sets Cruz apart is his more sophisticated ability to appoint Supreme Court justices who share his views, as he has vowed to do.

Under that specter, liberty-leaning voters should ask for clarity and reassurance from the Cruz campaign on the following issues before casting a vote in his support.

Does Ted Cruz Want to Limit the Power of Judicial Review? In 1803, the Supreme Court decided Marbury v. Madison. Since that time, the Court has exercised three powers:

  1. It can refuse to enforce acts of the other branches if five or more of its nine justices believe such act was in excess of constitutional powers.
  2. It can enforce acts of the other branches of government, if five or more of the justices believe such act was constitutional.
  3. It can require otherwise constitutional acts of the other branches to be exercised in accordance with the Equal Protection Clause.

That’s it. Under the first, the Court delineates areas of individual liberty into which no political majority may intrude. Under the second and third, it enforces the acts of other branches of government. Under none of the three does the Court “make law.”

Liberty voters should therefore ask what Ted Cruz is gunning for when he says things like:

I don’t think we should entrust governing our society to 5 unelected lawyers in Washington. Why would ya possibly hand over the rights of 320 million Americans to 5 lawyers in Washington to say, “We’re gonna decide the rules that govern ya?” If ya wanna win an issue, go to the ballot box and win at the ballot box. That’s the way the Constitution was designed.

I think we can rule out number two; he’s not complaining about acts of the political branches. His rhetoric, to the contrary, suggests that he wants political majorities unfettered by such inconveniences as meddling Supreme Court justices.

He could be taking aim at number three, in which case it is not the laws he dislikes, but the doctrine of Equal Protection. Either way, the Court is not responsible for having enacted the laws that are subject to that doctrine. The political branches are.

It sure sounds like it is the first option Cruz is targeting. He does not like the Court delineating areas of individual liberty beyond the reach of political majorities.

That is a deeply authoritarian approach to government. Unless and until Cruz repudiates it convincingly, he cannot be my “not-Trump.”

Does Ted Cruz Believe in Unenumerated Rights and Substantive Due Process? Under the view of many libertarians, the Constitution enumerates the powers of government, but not the rights of individuals. The former are few, narrow and circumscribed. The latter are many, broad and transcendent.

This is the view held by Rand Paul and other libertarian constitutionalists from organizations like Reason Magazine, the Cato Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Institute for Justice.

It is also my view.

One textual source for this approach is the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits political majorities at the state and local levels from depriving individuals of the privileges and immunities of citizenship, of equal protection of laws, or of liberty without due process.

The “liberty” thusly protected has been interpreted to include economic endeavors as well as other peaceful activities integral to enjoyment of life and the pursuit of happiness. The concept that such freedoms are Constitutionally protected, even though not expressly mentioned, is sometimes referred to as the doctrine of “substantive due process.”

There are competing schools of thought. One is that only individual rights expressly enumerated in the Constitution are beyond the reach of political majorities. Under this view, the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted to prohibit racial discrimination, not to proscribe state infringement of unenumerated rights.

That is the view expressed by Ted Cruz at a hearing he conducted before the Senate Judiciary Committee exploring ways to “rein in” the Supreme Court. Cruz’s comments at the hearing suggest, on deeply personal issues from marriage to economic rights, he prefers “the Supreme Court defer to state legislative decisions rather than uphold individual rights.”

This is as unlibertarian a position as a candidate could hold. Saving the GOP from a Trump loss to Hillary Clinton is not a reason to support a nominee committed to undermining individual liberty in favor of majority rule.

Is Cruz Committed to Individual Rights? Or States Rights? Ted Cruz’s passion is not the fundamental liberty of individuals, arguably enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. It is, rather, the power of state legislatures found in the Tenth.

He’s “a Tenth Amendment guy,” according to his wife. Indeed he once headed the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Tenth Amendment Studies. When Ted Cruz talks about limited government, he is talking about limiting federal government. His concern is federal versus state, not individual versus collective.

Then too, even on that more beloved Constitutional provision, Cruz is willing to stray if it means more power for the right kind of majorities. He was in favor of the federal government defining marriage before he was against it. He likes states’ rights when they ban same-sex marriage, but not as much when they decriminalize marijuana.

He might be a federalist, for those who don’t mind states’ rights served squishy. But he’s no libertarian.

How Far Will Ted Cruz Go to Bend the Judiciary to His Interpretation of the Constitution? Despite the “sour fruit” of John Roberts’ decisions in NFIB v. Sebelius and King v. Burwell, conservatives continue their misguided pursuit of a “deferential” judiciary. In their statist hearts, they would rather accept the big government of Obamacare than lose the power to regulate social order.

If NFIB v. Sebelius is the price of winning the next Obergefell v. Hodges, it is one they will pay.

This is not a trade-off liberty lovers should make.

Yet Ted Cruz wants to subject the Supreme Court to term limits and retention elections. As the Institute for Justice’s Evan Bernick wrote in the wake of Cruz’s SCOTUS hearing:

…[I]t is Cruz who strayed from the text and history of the Constitution, both in his histrionic criticism of Obergefell and his suggestion that the cure for America’s constitutional ills is an even more inert judiciary.

Cruz’s most fundamental error lay in the premise of the hearing itself: The most pressing threat to constitutionally limited government today is not “judicial activism” but reflexive judicial deference to the political branches.

We can have a judiciary that reflexively defers to the political branches or we can have constitutionally limited government — but we cannot have both.

Liberty voters must consider whether they want Supreme Court appointees to facilitate the powers of political majorities or to protect individual rights from the overreach of such exercise. Ted Cruz appears to be on the wrong side of that choice.

Until he convinces me otherwise, that puts him on the wrong side of mine.


Opening Scenes That Hooked

Dr. ElevenAs promised, I compiled a list of opening scenes that successfully hooked me in recent years. These are books I either did or would spend money to read based on the opening pages. I haven’t finished them all—I generally have multiple books in progress—but the opening scenes and sample chapters hooked me enough to shell out money for the rest of the book.

In compiling this list, I further refined the concept of using urgency to hook readers in the opening pages. The urgency that compels me to keep reading arises from a need to get somewhere. It can be a character’s need to reach a destination, either physical or metaphorical—safety, justice, love, conquest, information, etc. Or it can be my own need as the reader—to achieve understanding, solve a mystery, explore an imaginary world, resolve an emotional issue vicariously through the characters, etc.

Author and writer C.S. Lakin, who is currently doing a blog series on first pages, explains it thusly:

To make a brain go into alert mode, some mystery or element of danger, or the incongruous, must cross its path.

With that concept in mind, the following are hooks that worked for me:

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, by Matt Bell:

BEFORE OUR FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH the bear I had already finished building the house, or nearly so.

In the hasty days that followed, I feared we moved in too fast and too early, the house’s furnishings still incomplete, the doors not all right-hinged—and in response to my worries my wife said that was no trouble, that she could quickly finish what I had mostly made.

Beneath the unscrolling story of new sun and stars and then-lonely moon, she began to sing some new possessions into the interior of our house, and between the lake and the woods I heard her songs become something stronger than ever before. I returned to the woods to cut more lumber, so that I too might add to our household, might craft for her a crib and a bassinet, a table for changing diapers, all the other furnishings she desired. We labored together, and soon our task seemed complete, our house readied for what dreams we shared—the dream I had given her, of family, of husband and wife, father and mother, child and child—and when the earliest signs of my wife’s first pregnancy came they were attended with joy and celebration.

The voice is strong. The prose is clean and clear, yet distinctive, and pleasing in pace, structure and lyricism. It inspires confidence in the author.

A potential destination has already been suggested: the birth of a baby. Obstacles have been presented: the encounter with the bear, the struggles to furnish their home. Complex and potentially dark emotional dynamics have been presented: the point-of-view character has failed to complete the necessary preparations; his pregnant wife has had to take over the lead role; yet he still speaks of having “given her” their shared dreams. There is an implication in the wording of the last line that later stages of the pregnancy will not be attended with the same joy and celebration.

All of this is interesting. My “spidey sense” is tingling in wariness of an emotionally charged and possibly disturbing tale to come. Because the writing is so strong, I feel confident the author knows how to deliver that tale.

I have not read past these three paragraphs. Based solely on their strength, I would pay money for the rest of the book—if magical realism were one of my genres. It happens not to be (I only got the sample chapter because a friend and fellow writer is reading the book) so for now this remains on my maybe list.

The Martian, by Andy Weir:


I’m pretty much fucked.

That’s my considered opinion.


Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare.

I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.

For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them.

This opening doesn’t merely foreshadow a coming challenge—it opens smack in the thick of one. An urgent destination has already been presented: the POV narrator needs to get unfucked. We already know some of his obstacles: he is stranded alone in a location so isolated no one will find his records for a hundred years—and everyone thinks he is dead. That’s pretty dire.

I also liked the clean, confident prose and voice, both of which made me want to spend more time inside this character’s head. Based on the sample chapter, I bought the book. I haven’t finished it, but only because I ended up seeing the movie first.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker:

We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it.

We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin.

We were distracted back then by weather and war. We had no interest in the turning of the earth. Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries. Hurricanes came and went. Summer ended. A new school year began. The clocks ticked as usual. Second beaded into minutes. Minutes grew into hours. And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.

But there were those who would later claim to have recognized the disaster before the rest of us did. These were the night workers, the graveyard shifters, the stockers of shelves, and the loaders of ships, the drivers of big-rig trucks, or else they were the bearers of different burdens: the sleepless and the troubled and the sick.

Again, we have the urgency presented up front. There is a disaster of some sort. It has to do with hours not pooling into days. It is like “a tumor blooming beneath the skin.” That sounds bad. Plus it’s mysterious. I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s so horrific my mind has never contemplated the possibility.

I also like the prose. I don’t think it’s perfect—do seconds really “bead” into minutes?—but I do think it’s some of the best. And from a first time novelist! I loved the imagery of the night workers, tuned in to the hours of darkness, somehow perceiving an impending disaster before everyone else.

I bought and finished this book, and will check out any future novels by this author.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison:

Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.

“Cousin? What…” He sat up rubbing at his eyes with one had. “What time is it?”

“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”

“Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”

“Get they clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”

“A message from my father?”

“Is’t not what I said? Merciful goddesses, boy, canst do nothing for thyself? Here!”

What hooked me was the way they talked. What’s toward? Is’t not what I said? Canst do nothing for thyself? I wanted to keep reading just to “hear” more of that.

Notice that the language was set in an urgent scene. Setheris is snarling. Maia is fumbling. There is an absent father. A messenger has arrived, creating a stir in the household not unlike a fire.

This immediate urgency combined with the pleasing manner of speech kept me reading to the end of the sample chapter, by which a point destination had been announced, obstacles presented, and conflict demonstrated. Based on the sample chapter, I bought the book and finished it quickly.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel:

THE KING STOOD in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene. The king stumbled and reached for them as they flitted here and there in the shadows. His name was Arthur Leander. He was fifty-one years old and there were flowers in his hair.

“Dost thou know me?” the actor playing Gloucester asked.

“I remember thine eyes well enough,” Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.

“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” he said, and not only was this the wrong line but the delivery was wheezy, his voice barely audible.

Station ElevenI bolded the line that hooked me. This is an interesting example, because it may have succeeded due to my own ignorance. Having never seen or read King Lear, I didn’t know if there were supposed to be centaurs (I also had no idea what the book itself was about). I read into that line that something otherwordly might be occurring, and it gave me chills. Enough to keep reading the sample chapter, which maintained the lyrical, otherwordly undertones, lending an almost mystical atmosphere to what were seemingly ordinary surroundings.

I loved the first chapter, loved the book, and it is now one of my all-time favorites.

Now, there was an immediate, dire emergency occurring by the end of the fourth paragraph of the book. But it was not occurring to the POV character of that chapter. Another, different thread of urgency pulled me along. That was the sense of being on the brink of something uncanny, potentially disturbing about to occur; something that made you tense and overcome with the beauty of things all at the same time, reluctant to continue but lured onward by the beautiful writing.

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little further down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

AnnihilationI bolded the elements that hooked me. A potential destination has been presented: the resolution of the expedition. An obstacle has been foreshadowed: the impending threat no one sees. Mysteries have been revealed: a tower that is not supposed to be there; an untroubled landscape called Area X that has been abandoned for decades for strange reasons.

Based on those hooks, and the clean prose, I finished the sample chapter. It had a certain similarity to Station Eleven’s first chapter, in that nothing outwardly awful happened—yet it managed to leave me tense and disturbed with the sense of impending horror. Can’t stop reading and can’t bear to go on.

This isn’t  one of my usual genres. Actually, I’m not even sure how to characterize the genre—speculative horror, I guess?—but it’s not one of my usuals, however we slice it. I still bought the book. I had to read it with all the lights on. Even then, it was hard to go on sometimes. Yet I finished it in two nights.

And I LOVED it.

I have also read the second in the series (the third is downloaded and waiting). I am fascinated by these books. The prose is powerful and has some of the same lyrical graces as Mandel’s. Beyond that, VanderMeer does two things so skillfully I can’t wrap my mind around the level of talent. He shows, without telling, nuances of psychological and interpersonal dynamics that turn every interaction between the characters, however seemingly mundane, into riveting story elements. And he imparts a near overwhelming sense of psychological disturbance without resorting to anything overtly gory or horrific.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman:

I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sounds enfolded me and I was safe.

Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.

I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.

My mother left me a complicated and burdensome inheritance. My father hid the dreadful details from everyone, including me. He moved us back to Lavondaville, the capital of Goredd, and picked up his law practice where he had dropped it. He invented a more acceptable grade of dead wife for himself. I believed in her like some people believe in Heaven.

was a finicky baby; I wouldn’t suckle unless the wet nurse sang exactly on pitch. “It has a discriminating ear,” observed Orma, a tall, angular acquaintance of my father’s who came over often in those days. Orma called me “it” as if I were a dog; I was drawn to his aloofness, the way cats gravitate toward people who’d rather avoid them.

He accompanied us to the cathedral one spring morning, where the young priest anointed my wispy hair with lavender oil and told me that in the eyes of Heaven I was as a queen. I bawled like any self-respecting baby; my shrieks echoed up and down the nave. Without bothering to look up from the work he’d brought with him, my father promised to bring me up piously in the faith of Allsaints. The priest handed me my father’s psalter and I dropped it, right on cue. It fell open at the picture of St. Yirtrudis, whose face had been blacked out.

The priest kissed his hand, pinkie raised. “Your psalter still contains the heretic!”

“It’s a very old psalter,” said Papa, not looking up, “and I hate to maim a book.”

“We advise the bibliophilic faithful to paste Yirtrudis’s pages together so this mistake can’t happen.” The priest flipped a page. “Heaven surely meant St. Capiti.”

Papa muttered something about superstitious fakery, just loud enough for the priest to hear. There followed a fierce argument between my father and the priest, but I don’t remember it. I was gazing, transfixed, at a procession of monks passing through the nave. They padded by in soft shoes, a flurry of dark, whispering robes and clicking beads, and took their places in the cathedral’s quire. Seats scraped and creaked; several monks coughed.

They began to sing.

The cathedral, reverberating with masculine song, appeared to expand before my eyes. The sun gleamed through the high windows; gold and crimson bloomed upon the marble floor. The music buoyed my small form, filled and surrounded me, made me larger than myself. It was the answer to a question I had never asked, the way to fill the dread emptiness into which I had been born. I believed—no, I knew I could transcend the vastness and touch the vaulted ceiling with my hand.

I tried to do it.

My nurse squealed as I nearly squirmed out of her arms. She gripped me by the ankle at an awkward angle. I stared dizzily at the floor; it seemed to tilt and spin.

My father took me up, long hands around my fat torso, and held me at arm’s length as if he had discovered an oversized and astonishing frog. I met his sea-gray eyes; they crinkled sadly at the corners.

The priest stormed off without blessing me. Orma watched him disappear around the end of the Golden House, then said, “Claude, explain this. Did he leave because you convinced him his religion is a sham? Or was he … what’s that one called? Offended?”

I bolded the hooks. The opening paragraphs about music from the time before birth were enough to draw me in initially.

Then there are touches of humor: Orma calling our POV character “it;” her being drawn to him like a cat; her father inventing a better grade of dead wife; the priest purporting to improve on Heaven’s intent.

There are mysteries presented: Why does she remember the time before birth? Why does Orma call her “it?” Why does he seem unfamiliar with the concept of “offended?” What is the complicated  and burdensome inheritance from the mother? What did Yirtrudis do to earn the priest’s disfavor?

There are also hints of obstacles: the emptiness inside; a dead mother and distracted fatherr; a hidden past; religious conflict.

The scene in the cathedral intrigued me. I didn’t know exactly what was going on, but there were elements that stimulated me—saints and heretics, superficial piety, intellectual honesty–and I wanted to know more.

I prefer bold, confident world-building where the author does not feel the need to explain or justify it. She just believes in it so strongly the reader can figure it out from the vivid details; no explanation required. This book was like that.

Arguably there is not a lot of urgency in the opening pages.  Nevertheless, several strains of mild urgency combined to draw me along: wanting to figure out the mysteries; wanting to understand the world; the character’s need to fill the emptiness inside with music; my vicarious indignation on behalf of the fallen saint Yirtrudis and the character’s distracted but intellectually honest father.

I bought this book and LOVED it. There’s a sequel called Shadow Scale that I own but have not yet read.

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth E. Wein:


I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling Bridge with my five big brothers–and even though I am a girl, they always let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer von Linden, i know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.

The writing is clean and confident. The voice is strong and clear, but anguished. The narrator is in some dire situation in which she has given up resistance. What happened to make her do that? What deal did she make? I would have to keep reading to find out. Bonus points that there’re apparently Scottish people involved and I’m going to get  historical information about WW2.

This book is also not one of my usual genres. It has a bit of a “girl power” vibe that isn’t my usual thing. I loved it nonetheless. The fascinating illustration of what it was like to be a British pilot—and a female pilot—during WW2 will stay with me forever. I was moved to write a (positive) review, and bought this book for someone else as a gift.

Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey:

Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a short-fallen season, I may say that I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.

It is hard for me to resent my parents, although I envy them their naïveté. No one even told them, when I was born, that they gifted me with an ill-luck name. Phèdre, they called me, neither one knowing that it is a Hellene name, and cursed.

When I was born, I daresay they still had reason for hope. My eyes, scarce open, were yet of indeterminate color, and the appearance of a newborn babe is a fluid thing, changing from week to week. Blonde wisps may give way to curls of jet, the pallor of birth deepen to a richness like amber, and so on. But when my series of amniotic sea-changes were done, the thing was obvious.

I was flawed.

It is not, of course, that I lacked beauty, even as a babe. …

No, the problem was elsewhere.

To be sure, it was my eyes; and not even the pair of them, but merely the one.

Such a small thing on which to hinge such a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. …

And it shone red, and indeed, red is a poor word for the color it shone. Scarlet, call it, or crimson; redder than a rooster’s wattles or the glazed apple in a pig’s mouth.

Thus did I enter the world, with an ill-luck name and a pinprick of blood emblazoned in my gaze.

My mother was Liliane de Souverain, an adept of Jasmine House, and her line was ancient in the service of Naamah. My father was another matter, for he was the third son of a merchant prince and, alas, the acumen that raised his father to emeritus status in the City of Elua was spent in the seed that produced his elder brothers. For all three of us would have been better served had his passions led him to the door of another House; Bryony, perhaps, whose adepts are trained in financial cunning.

But Pierre Cantrel had a weak head and strong passions, so when coin swelled the purse at his belt and seed filled to bursting the purse between his legs, it was to Jasmine House, indolent and sensual, that he hied himself.

And there, of course, betwixt the ebb tide in his wits and the rising tide in his loins, he lost his heart in the bargain.

Kushiel's_DartAgain, I bolded the parts that hooked. The prose is bold, distinct and sensual; the voice haughty yet defensive; and the world intriguing. What’s a cuckoo’s child? What does it mean to be House-born? What is the Night Court? What are adepts?

I would have to keep reading to find out.

Plus, there’s a child involved, one that is cursed, flawed, and marked—born of star-crossed lovers. It’s not clear yet what the destination is or precisely what form the obstacles will take. But the girl’s need to overcome her curse and my need to solve the mysteries (and keep reading that prose) was enough to draw me in.

This was the first book I read by Carey. I thereafter finished the whole Kushiel’s Dart trilogy, two more trilogies set in the same world, and a handful of her other books. I also recommended them to a good friend who liked them as much as I did.

Fire and Hemlock, by Diana Wynne Jones:

Polly sighed and laid her book face down on her bed. She rather thought she had read it after all, some time ago. Before she swung her feet across to get on with her packing, she looked up at the picture above the bed. She sighed again. There had been a time, some years back, when she had gazed at that picture and thought it marvellous. Dark figures had seemed to materialise out of its dark centre—strong, running dark figures—always at least four of them, racing to beat out the flames in the foreground. There had been times when you could see the figures quite clearly. Other times, they had been shrouded in the rising smoke. There had even been a horse in it sometimes. Not now.

Here, now, she could see it was simply a large colour photograph, three feet by two feet, taken at dusk, of some hay bales burning in a field. The fire must have been spreading, since there was smoke in the air, and more smoke enveloping the high hemlock plant in the front, but there were no people in it. The shapes she used to take for people were only too clearly dark clumps of the dark hedge behind the blaze. … It was called Fire and Hemlock. She sighed again as she swung her feet to the floor. The penalty of being grown up was that you saw things like this photograph as they really were. And Granny would be in any minute to point out that Mr. Perks and Fiona were not going to wait while she did her packing tomorrow morning—and Granny would have things to say about feet on the bedspread. …

Her hand knocked the book. Polly did not get up after all. And books put down on their faces, spoiling them, Granny would say. It’s only a paperback, Granny. It was called Times out of Mind, editor L. Perry, and it was a collection of supernatural stories. Polly had been attracted to it a couple of years back, largely because the picture on the cover was not unlike the Fire and Hemlock photograph—dusky smoke, with a dark blue umbrella-like plant against the smoke. And, now Polly remembered, she had read the stories through then, and none of them were much good. Yet—here was an odd thing. She could have sworn the book had been called something different when she first bought it. And, surely, hadn’t one of the stories actually been called “Fire and Hemlock” too?

Polly picked the book up, with her finger in it to keep the place in the story she was reading. “Two-timer” it was called, and it was about someone who went back in time to his own childhood and changed things, so that his life ran differently the second time. She remembered the ending now. The man finished by having two sets of memories, and the story wasn’t worked out at all well. Polly did not worry when she lost her place in it as she leafed through looking for the one she thought had been called “Fire and Hemlock.” Odd. It wasn’t there. … Odder still. Half the stories she thought she remembered reading in this book were not there—and yet she did, very clearly, remember reading all the stories which seemed to be in the book now. For a moment she almost felt like the man in “Two-timer” with his double set of memories. What a madly detailed dream she must have had. Polly found her place in the story again, largely because the pages were spread apart there, and stopped in the act of putting the book face down on her rumpled bedspread.

Was it Granny who minded you putting books down like this? Granny didn’t read much anyway.

“And why should I feel so worried about it?” Polly asked aloud. “And where’s my other photo—the one I stole?”

A frantic sense of loss came upon her, so strong that for a moment she could have cried.

Fire and Hemlock 1There were several hooks for me here. The first was prose that managed to be conversational without being muddled. It got bonus points for being in British dialect.

The second was the mystery-imbued illustration of what it is like to imagine significance into a treasured childhood possession (the picture) and then suffer the nostalgic loss as its power fades with maturity.

Then we get a repeat of the conversational prose, as Polly imagines her grandmother lecturing her not to stretch the spine of the book by laying it down open-faced.

Then comes the coup de grace:

An alternate timeline?! False memories?!

Chills! I’m in. I’m buying. I don’t even have to finish the sample chapter.

But as if we needed more, Diana Wynne Jones delivers the urgency: Polly’s frantic sense of a loss so profound she suddenly must weep.

This is another one of my all-time favorites. I was obsessed with this book after I finished it, as evidenced by this marathon post about the ending (don’t click if you don’t want spoilers!).

This and some of the other examples above illustrate the point from my previous post: there is a strong correlation between loving the opening pages and loving the book. It’s not an absolute 1:1 correlation—I have loved books that did not hook at first and hated books that did—but it is very strong.

And that is why so many in the industry insist on hooks in the first pages.

Not every book will hit the mark as hard as these authors did. The goal is to incorporate as many of their elements as possible. Strong, clean prose. Unique voice. Rich worlds. Mysteries. Urgent destinations. In my own future writing endeavors, I plan to use C.S. Lakin’s First Page Checklist as a reference.

Feel free to share in the comments examples of hooks that worked for you

Writerly Tip: The Importance of the Early Hook

I recently joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors group on Facebook. A couple of days ago, a member named Eric Martell posted the following question to the group, which prompted a long discussion thread:

Just about everyone engaged in giving advice to writers seems to agree that today’s readers must be hooked quickly or they’ll lose interest. I’ve read that the first sentence must be a hook; same with the first paragraph and the first chapter. No backstory allowed, just hook the reader with a character that they instantly care about and a question that the character must have answered by the end of the story. …

Do you think that sometimes rules suppress creativity? Is it better to occasionally ignore the advice and write a story diverging from the mainstream for the sake of literary diversity and experimentation?

Both the original post and the comments inspired some thoughts.

First, I’m not qualified as a writer to give feedback on a question like this. I am qualified as a reader, however, to reflect on my own tastes and habits, which I presume are shared by some number of others. As I read the original post and some of the comments, I was struck by the significance of that distinction, i.e. between writers’ feelings about what they want to create versus readers’ feelings about what they want to consume.

Second, there is nothing wrong with a writer focusing on art over reader tastes. Tastes are subjective and vary by individual. Writing doesn’t have to be for other people’s consumption anyway. It can be simply a form of self-expression, a means of giving voice to something inside that wants to come out. We can write for the same reason we sing when we are alone: because we enjoy the act.

Third, however, many writers do want to sell books, if for no other reason than because getting paid for one supports the luxury of writing another. Doing that requires at some point offering a version of the book that will enjoy market demand.

write without fearI think this is what authors mean when they talk about writing with the door closed and rewriting with it open. Or writing without fear and editing without mercy.  Write a version that is for you. Do it fearlessly. Don’t let the world in to mess with your vision. Let the manuscript manifest itself as your idealized version of it. You can stop there if you are so inclined. Or you can proceed to the next step. Open the door. Let the world in. Carve your darlings without mercy. It is okay; you’ll always have that original, perfect draft for you.

Fourth, as a reader, generally speaking, if the first couple of pages don’t hook me, I don’t keep reading. I’m the sort of reader artists and literary types scorn. I’m finicky, fickle and judgmental. I like good writing, but not at the expense of plot. I have a short attention span, but a long list of books waiting to be read. Life is too short, I’m too busy, and there are just too many other books to devote time to one that is less than captivating.

Fifth, technology has impacted reading habits. In earlier eras, there were fewer books from which to choose. They were more expensive to acquire. There were fewer libraries and bookstores; transportation was slower. Having acquired one of the limited books available, a person who loved reading was therefore more likely to stick with it until the end.

As a child and teenager, my situation was in essence like those adult readers of earlier eras. I didn’t have unlimited access to books. Once one was in our house, I was pretty much going to finish it—because there would not be alternatives until a grownup took me back to the library. The book therefore did not have to work as hard to hold my attention; my attention was captive by circumstance (and youth).

I’ve become pickier as my tastes matured and alternatives were more easily acquired. Now I can take myself to the library or bookstore. I have my own funds to expend.

And of course—electronic books were game-changers.

I can download ten sample chapters in less time than it has taken to type one of these paragraphs. I can download ten more over the course of the day. My Facebook friend wrote a book. Download the sample chapter. My mom’s friend’s daughter wrote a book. Download the sample chapter. I saw an essay I loved by this author, think I’ll  buy one of her books. Download the sample chapter. This agent liked these five books last year, I should probably check them out. Download the sample chapters. Etc.

Tonight I’ll  scroll through the list of samples to decide which I want to try first, open it and check out the first page or two.

If they don’t hook me, I have dozens more waiting.

I go through several more until I find one that does hook. Then I keep reading. If I’m still hooked by the end of that sample chapter, I pay to download the rest of the book, which is instantaneously available.

To state it more explicitly: readers don’t have to shell out money until after they have been hooked.

Some still do anyway. There are clearly millions of readers whose habits are different than mine. No one has to write to serve any particular group’s tastes or habits. A corollary to the observation that authors don’t have to write for others’ consumption is that, even if they do, they don’t have to write for particular types of consumption.

[A couple of side notes: I don’t think I’ve ever been hooked by the first two pages but then not been hooked at the end of the sample chapter. However, sometimes I fall out of love later in the book. Also, I do sometimes read and finish books that did not originally hook me, such as when the book has come strongly recommended by someone I know and trust well; when I’m reading the book for craft-related reasons; or when I have been assured that later books in the series get better.]

Sixth, the prior point demonstrates the importance of the early hook (to readers like me, not all readers), but it does not explain what the hook is. Because reading tastes are inherently and inescapably subjective, what succeeds as a hook is going to be different for different people. A hook that hits it out of the ballpark for some readers will be a big, indifferent meh for others.

Theoretically, the hook could be anything. A compelling voice. A character that attracts interest. An expression of humor. Interesting dialogue. A mystery that must be solved. The glimpse into a unique imagined world. A political, social, technological, scientific or historic subject that interests me. Emotional resonance.

It is rarely a single element standing alone. Rather it is something that piques my interest and is supported by other variables, like the power of the prose; the charisma of the characters; the wonder of the world; my confidence in the author; etc.

Often though, the common theme uniting successful hooks is a sense of urgency.

I discovered this after a wise beta reader advised me to reread the first pages of my favorite books. Although the form of the hook varies from book to book, when its substance conveys a sense of urgency, I am more likely to keep reading.

This does not mean the book must open with action or a life-or-death struggle, as I have seen some suggest. Although that is one possibility, the sense of urgency can arise equally from an opening scene devoid of physical action or danger.

It can arise from a great injustice that needs to be rectified; I will keep reading out of a desire to see justice achieved. It can arise from an unfair burden or risk placed on a child; I will keep reading in the hopes of seeing that child reach a place of well-being. It can arise from an unrequited attraction between two characters; I will keep reading to see if they get together. It can arise from a character finding herself in an awkward situation; I will keep reading to reach the point of relief from my vicarious embarrassment. It can arise from the character encountering immediate difficulties in accomplishing an immediate goal (car breaking down while late for work; a storm rolling in on a hike; not having enough cash to buy groceries for a hungry child; etc.); I will keep reading to find out if the character resolves this immediate problem.

While writing this post, I revisited the opening pages of books that have hooked me in recent years. I’m compiling a discussion of successful hooks for my next post. In the meantime, I would love to hear feedback from others about what makes a hook successful for them as readers and examples of books that had it.

Thoughts and ideas in the comments!

Hot Processed Salt Soap Bars

salt bars diagonalSometimes when I want a new recipe, I browse handmade soaps on Etsy for inspiration. I always like the look of hot processed soaps the best, and my favorite often turn out to be salt bars. They have a pale marble look I find lovely, and I’ve been meaning to try my hand at a recipe for ages.

The salt is supposed to contribute to a harder and longer lasting bar, as well as provide exfoliating and moisturizing qualities. And healing. Everything in homecrafting supposedly has healing powers. As with all the other folklore, take it with a grain of salt. Heh heh. See what I did there?

If I’m being honest, I might just like the look and the concept of salt bars. In any case, I did four separate batches: one cold processed; two hot processed and made with distilled water; and one hot processed and made with beer. The results were great, I love the bars I’ve tried so far, and the following is how I did it.

What Type of Salt? From what I can tell, you can use any type of salt you like, table salt, sea salt, Himalayan pink, fine, coarse, kosher, whatever.

But not Dead Sea Salt.

Apparently, Dead Sea Salt contains a lot of other minerals, which have a tendency to turn the soap into a weepy or gooey mess.

I haven’t seen any recipes where people use Epsom salt either. Since it seems to have minerals other than what’s in regular salt, I wouldn’t recommend it.

For my first batches, I used coarse grained Sea Salt that I bought at the grocery store.

How Much? The range I have seen is from 50% of the total oil weight up to 100% of the total soap weight (oil plus liquid plus lye). I chose to try 100% of the total oil weight in my first batches because I had read that less than that sometimes turns out too much like an ordinary soap bar.

How To Size the Recipe to Fit a Mold? In Part II of my original soap tutorial, we went over how to fit your batch to your mold. This link has additional methods for sizing a batch of soap to cylindrical or irregularly shaped molds. Briefly:

For a normal square or rectangular mold: 1) calculate the volume of the mold in cubic inches by multiplying the length by the width by the height; 2) multiply the resulting volume by .40.

For a cylindrical mold (many people use PVC): 1) multiply pi by the radius of your circle squared; 2) multiply that by the height of the mold; 3) multiply that by .40.

So if your mold has a diameter (width) of 4 inches, its radius is 2 inches. 2 squared is 4. Multiplying that by pi (3.14) = 12.56. Times 12.56 by the mold’s height (length) in inches. Multiply that result by .40.

For an irregularly shaped mold: 1) fill the mold with water; 2) measure the water in ounces (an ounce of water by volume is also an ounce by weight); 3) multiply that number by 1.8; this is the cubic inches of the mold; 3) multiply that number by .40.

As I have said before, the numbers that result are your total oil weight in ounces. You don’t have to worry about accounting for the lye and liquid. Either room for the lye and liquid is already accounted for in the calculation or those components fill space between fat molecules in a way that does not increase the size.

But what about the salt? We’re adding (potentially) 100% of the oil weight in salt. Won’t that substantially increase, perhaps even double, the size of the batch?


Here’s the part where you have to get a little bit experimental. As you can see on this tutorial, you can just play around with the numbers until you get something close to your mold size.

If you want to be more scientific, figure out the percentages of the total that each component (oil, liquid, lye and salt) comprises. Derive them by running the recipe through SoapCalc for any size batch (the percentages will remain the same) being sure to add in the salt you intend to use. For the recipe that I made (using salt at 100% of oil weight), they worked out like this:

Oils 40%, Liquid 15%, Lye 5%, and Salt 40%. Using those numbers, if you have a 5 lb. mold, your oil weight needs to be 40% of 5 lbs. in order to accommodate the 40% of 5 lbs. that will be filled by adding the salt.


I hot processed all but one of my salt bar batches. Hot processed soap mixture is so fluffy that adding salt did not increase the size of the batch in the way you might expect. In fact, the visible volume of the cooked soap did not appear to increase at all when the salt was added. It just got denser. Not bigger.

That being said, it did add a small amount of volume. I had just used the normal amount of oils that I would use to fill one of my 1.9 lb. molds. I had other molds on standby in case the salt made me go over. It did, just not by much. I couldn’t get the whole batch into one 1.9 lb. mold. But nor could I come anywhere close to filling a second one. The overflow amounted to about one thick bar of soap.

NOTE: I did make one batch of cold processed salt soap. Cold processed soaps are molded before going through the fluffy, expansive phases of hot processing. So I could see how adding salt at that pre-expansion point would make the recipe bigger. But then again, no one takes hot v. cold processing into account when sizing batches. I used a slab mold that was plenty big to handle any extra depth contributed by the salt, but I can’t say I noticed any difference in the size.


The best I can say is play around with your numbers, stick with small batch sizes at first, and keep standby overflow molds on hand until you get a feel for how the added salt affects the volume of your batch.

What Method of Processing? To briefly review:

In cold processing (CP), being mindful to keep the temperatures of the components low (say under 100 degrees F), you combine them without any added heat; blend until they have reached the point of “trace” (emulsification); mix in any additives, including salt, hurrying to keep the soap from reaching the next stage of saponification; and pour the mixture into the mold. Ordinarily, you would unmold it the following day and cut into individual bars if necessary (it still has to cure for awhile before it is safe to use). With salt added, you will need to unmold it more quickly, potentially within an hour of pouring into the mold, so that it doesn’t get too hard to be cut.

NOTE: As explained in this discussion of “trace” at the SoapQueen blog, in cold processing, additives may be blended at the point of a thin trace and the soap molded while it is still a smooth, easily pourable consistency. Alternately, it can be stirred further to the point of a thick trace, which allows for various decorative techniques. I believe the main allure of cold processing is those various decorative techniques.

With hot processing (HP), you don’t have to worry as much about the temperatures of the components; you are going to cook the mix anyway. You bring the batch to trace the same as with cold processing. Certain additives can be blended at that point (I always add sugar syrup). Then you let it cook. Other additives can be mixed in after the cook, which protects them from undergoing the saponification process. The final consistency of hot processed soap is thick and fluffy. It does not pour into a mold so much as get glopped into one. It does not take the fine details of an ornate mold. It does not permit the fancy techniques that can be used in cold processing. But it is safe to use that day (although it will get harder if allowed to cure).

The vast majority of salt soap recipes and tutorials are for cold processed soaps. Other than the aforementioned Etsy ads, which contained little information about the process used, I could only find a couple of tutorials—mostly by people like me who prefer hot processing so strongly they had to make the attempt.

The big question for me was does the salt have to go through saponification for the concept to “work?” If so, could you still hot process the mixture after adding salt at trace? Was hot processing salt soap even, like, a possible thing?

Mixing the salt into a batch of beer soap.
Mixing the salt into a batch of beer soap.

The couple of hot processing tutorials that do exist all added the salt after the cook, so I decided to go with that. I did one batch of CP to compare (of course, the whole aggravation of CP in the first place is that you have to wait for it to cure before you can even try it). I did NOT try adding the salt at trace and then attempting to cook it. I have no idea if that’s a viable thing.

Which Oils to Use? Technically, you could just add the salt to any old soap recipe. The problem is that the salt acts against the lather. To overcome the lather-killing effect of the salt, it is better to use a recipe designed specifically for that purpose.

One of the bubbliest oils used by soap-makers is coconut oil. Almost all the salt bar tutorials recommended 70-80% minimum coconut oil to ensure the soap still lathers despite all the salt. I chose to go with 80%.

Weighed against coconut oil’s bubbly propensity is the issue that it is considered by many people to be potentially drying. Soaps with high coconut oil content are often heavily superfatted to compensate for this. Most of the tutorials recommended 20% superfat for a salt bar, and that’s what I used.

After playing around with the results on SoapCalc, I came up with: Coconut 80%, Olive Oil 10%, Castor 9%, Mango Butter 1%.

Other Lather-Related Considerations. Besides choosing the oil combination, there are two other tricks (that I know of, there might be more) to maximize lather.

One is to add sugar (just ordinary white table sugar). The usual rate given is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of sugar per pound of oils used. There are various methods for incorporating it. The one I use is to reserve 1-2 ounces of my total water measurement for the recipe and dissolve 1 t. per lb. of oils into that water. (If I’m using a liquid other than water, I use 1-2 ounces less of that liquid than the recipe calls for and dissolve the sugar in 1-2 ounces of distilled water to make up the difference). I mix it into the batch at trace.

The other possibility I considered was to use beer as my liquid. The best and bubbliest soaps I have ever made are beer soaps. I used to think this was from natural sugars in the beer. A home-brewer friend of mine recently pointed out that there is no sugar left in the final product of beer (also no yeast, which is sometimes cited as the source of the benefit to soap-making). I therefore no longer have any clue as to the chemical explanation for what beer contributes to soap making.

However, I remain convinced that it does add something.

The most profuse compliments I get are for my beer soap batches, and I have personally observed the difference in lather. After my conversation with the home-brewing friend, I considered the possibility that the difference was just a product of my imagination and expectations. However, in cooking the various batches of salt soap for this tutorial, I tried one batch using beer as the liquid. The difference was so pronounced that I have gone back to believing it is real and not imagined.

This is the batch where I used beer as the liquid. Although the batch was the same size as in the pictures below where I used water as the liquid, it did this almost continually throughout the second, "expansion" phase of the cook. I had to stay right there next to it and stir it back down each time this happened. Eventually, it moved into the third, more settled phase and stopped doing this.
This is the batch where I used beer as the liquid. Although the batch was the same size as in the pictures below where I used water as the liquid, it did this almost continually throughout the second, “expansion” phase of the cook. I had to stay right there next to it and stir it back down each time this happened. Eventually, it moved into the third, more settled phase and stopped doing this.

NOTE: One word of caution about using beer as the liquid. Beer and lye generate an even hotter chemical reaction than water and lye. Not only could this lead to a volcano (of the lye-liquid itself or of the whole mixture after it is added to the oils), but burned beer lye-liquid stinks. The smell will fade from the soap as it cures, but it is better to avoid it altogether; soap cooked with non-burned beer lye-liquid has a distinct and (to me) pleasant scent. It is vital therefore to follow all the precautions for keeping the temperature of the lye-liquid low.

Rather than getting the liquid just on the brink of freezing, I actually let the beer freeze. When it was frozen, I took it outside and set it in a snowbank before adding the lye. The lye instantly melted the frozen beer. I kept it in that snowbank until I could remove the container without having it feel warm to the touch. After adding the lye-liquid to the oils, I had to stay right there at the crock pot as it cooked. It would have overflowed otherwise. I had to repeatedly stir it back down to release heat. At some points, I turned the heat off altogether.

Putting It All Together. I think I mentioned I had decided not to worry about fitting the salt into my mold. I just used the normal weights of all the other ingredients for my 1.9 lb. mold. I didn’t know how much volume the salt would add, so I just kept a second mold on standby for any overflow. The recipe came out as:

Coconut Oil 24.32 oz.
Olive Oil 3.04 oz.
Castor Oil 2.74 oz.
Mango Butter 0.30 oz.

Liquid 11.55 oz. (of which 1.5 were reserved to make the sugar syrup)
Lye 4.21 oz. (20% superfat)

Sugar 1.9 t. dissolved in the reserved water and added to the mix at trace

30.4 oz. salt (equal to the total oil weight) mixed in at the end of the cook

The Process. I followed my usual hot processing method.

This is before trace. you can see that some of the liquid and/or oils is not yet fully emulsified.
This is before trace. you can see that some of the liquid and/or oils is not yet fully emulsified.
  1. Measure the oils into the crock pot on high to get them melting.
  2. Measure the distilled water into a container and put it in the freezer to get it cooling.
  3. When the water is on the brink of freezing, take it outside and put it in a snowbank (or tub of ice water) and add the lye. If you are using beer, go ahead and let it freeze first. Avoid breathing the fumes while mixing the lye and liquid together. Let the lye-liquid cool in the snow bank or ice water.
  4. When the oils are fully melted, turn off the crock pot.

    This is after trace. Everything is fully emulsified.
    This is after trace. Everything is fully emulsified.
  5. When the lye-liquid container is cool to the touch, pour the lye-liquid into the crock pot with the melted oils.
  6. Mix with a stick blender until trace is reached. Some soapers recommend only turning the stick blender on in brief pulses to avoid burning out the motor. I have never worried overmuch about this, as most of my recipes reach trace quickly. Then again, I have burned out a stick blender too.
  7. When trace is reached, mix in the sugar syrup made by dissolving 1 t. sugar per pound of oils into some reserved distilled water. Mix with the stick blender until it is fully incorporated and a nice thick trace, re-achieved.

    The first, "separation" phase. Note that this is how the mixture looked during this phase immediately after I remixed it. Before I remixed it, the edges had started to climb up the sides of the crock and fall back in on themselves and the separated liquid/oils were pooling in the middle.
    The first, “separation” phase. This is how the mixture looked during this phase immediately after I remixed it. Before I remixed it, the edges had started to climb up the sides of the crock and fall back in on themselves and the separated liquid/oils were pooling in the middle.
  8. Turn the heat back on, cover the pot, and set the timer for 45 minutes. DON’T STOP WATCHING. These mixtures can overheat and volcano out of the pot if you turn your back. If it starts to creep up, do any combination of the following: 1) keep mixing it to let some of the heat out and tame it back into submission; 2) turn down the heat; 3) turn off the heat altogether, the chemical reaction occurring generates its own heat and may be enough to cook itself; 4) keep the lid off the crock pot. This is especially a concern if you used beer for the liquid.
  9. During the cook, the soap will go through different stages. First, it might try to separate a little and you will see separated oils or liquids pooling. Feel free to blend it back together when this occurs (arguably, you don’t have to, but it might make you feel better and will also release some heat). It might look like runny apple sauce during this phase.
    The second, "expansion" or mashed potato phase.
    The second, “expansion” or mashed potato phase.

    Second, it will stop separating and go through a fluffy, expansion phase. This is when it is very likely to overflow the pot if you forget to pay attention. Just follow the steps listed above to deal with it if this starts to happen. It might look like expanding mashed potatoes during this phase.

    Third, it will stop expanding and settle down and just cook for awhile. It might look like vaseline or glossy mashed potatoes during this phase.

    The third, vaseline-like or "glossy mashed potato" stage. The mixture will stop expanding and settle down to just cooking.
    The third, vaseline-like or “glossy mashed potato” stage. The mixture stops expanding and settles down to finish the cook.
  10. Once you’ve reached both 45 minutes and the third phase of the cook, you can test for doneness. There are scientific ways of doing this, using pH test strips or phenolphthalein to confirm a range of 7-10 pH, or you can just do the “tongue test.” Use a tooth pick to swipe up a little of the mixture. Blow on it to cool it off. Spread it over the tip of one finger like warm candle wax. Touch it to your tongue. If it zaps like a battery, it’s not done yet. If it doesn’t give an electrical zap but just tastes like soap, it’s done.
  11. Turn off the heat.

    I forgot to snap any pics of the batches made with water as the liquid after they had been put into the loaf molds. I did snap this one of the beer & salt batch in the slab mold
    Forgot to snap pics of the batches made with water after they had been put into the loaf molds. I did snap this one of the beer & salt batch in the slab mold
  12. Mix in any additives. This will of course include the salt. You could also add colorants or essential oils. You have to work fast here. The more it cools off, the harder it will be to mold into one uniform slab. It will start to break apart into crumbles that won’t stick together.
  13. Get it into the mold fast, ideally while it’s still quite warm.
  14. Check it in an hour. With normal hot processing, you let it sit in the mold overnight. With salt, the mixture hardens quickly and may get too hard to cut. salt soap bars

    As soon as it feels solid and not squishy to the touch, unmold it. An hour is a good estimate of when this might occur. Now is the time to slice it into separate bars.

  15. Try it. The bars will harden the longer they cure, but the soap can be used as soon as you like. Take pictures of all those suds so you can show your friends.


Debriefing After the New Star Wars

  1. StarWars_ForceAwakensThe new Luke Skywalker is a girl. Way less sulky than the old one though.
  2. The new Han Solo is super young. Too young to have any sort of crush on like I did the old one. I would mention he has nice lips, but it seems age-inappropriate. #Apophasis.
  3. The chemistry between the new girl Luke Skywalker and the new super young Han Solo was pretty cute.
  4. So were the old Han and Chewy.
  5. The new Darth Vader is not a girl, but still kinda effete.

    Left to right: New Han, new Luke, new Darth.
    Left to right: New Han, new Luke, new Darth.
  6. The new R2-D2 is roly poly and cutie patootie and expressive.
  7. Stormtroopers still shoot wide.
  8. Princess Leia’s face is not the same.
  9. She might be a smoker.
  10. The new Emperor Palpatine is Gollum.
  11. A thing happened that made me feel feelings. Even though we knew it was coming, I wasn’t ready. I will, in a meaningful sense, never be ready.
  12. Something else happened that started out seeming kinda sexist and I was imaging how if even I (who wrote all those sexist things above; see 1, 5 and possibly 8) was annoyed, then the shrill legions must be losing their heads. Then it got gratifyingly unsexist.
  13. You know how we’ve been saying “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” for the last twenty-five years? Well that line has its own new incarnation, and my daughter repeated it twelve times on the way out of the theater.
  14. The family sitting next to us consisted of five members each one decked out in full, top-to-bottom Star Wars character regalia.
  15. The visual effects were pleasing, and the film managed to evoke the originals in style and ambience.
  16. There was a hurdle to overcome in getting the old audience to care about new characters and their relationships without a lot of time spent on back-story and buildup.
  17. I think it worked. It probably did for younger audiences, and I felt like I had gotten there by the end. I wanted more Rey, Finn and Poe and I wanted them all to be together.
  18. Also more Chewy, R2 and BB-8.
  19. I thought the final scene was in Scotland, but it was Ireland and very beautiful.