Monday, January 28, 2013

My hobby - Cake Decorating

In the last few years I've picked up a hobby. I decorate cakes and cupcakes. My husband bought me a decorating class as a birthday present, and I've been hooked ever since. I have spent a few very enjoyable afternoons making buttercream frosting and sugar flowers.

This week all of my free time was spent building a sweet sixteen birthday cake. As per the girls' request (this was a 2-person joint event) my only requirement was that it be vanilla with raspberry filling. I also know, from previous experience, that at least one of the girls was not that fond of fondant. So a buttercream frosting it was!

Although I'm comfortable making cakes from scratch I decided to use a box mix for the cakes themselves. It saves a bit of time, I have a box mix I like very much, and that way I was able to focus my mental energies on the decorations.

Here some photos of the finished cake:

It was a three-layer cake on the inside. The raspberries are real, the roses are sugarpaste and the gold numbers and ribbon are fondant.

I really love making sugarpaste flowers, that they are pretty, and delicate, and yummy. It feels great taking a flower (which is already a fabulous thing) and then kicking it up a notch by making it sweet and edible candy. Plus my favorite memory of the birthday party was seeing the two birthday girls enjoying their flowers, one petal at a time.

I'm no professional or expert, I know that. When I look at the cake I see the flaws. I'm trying to get better, and every time I make a cake or a set of cupcakes I feel like I'm getting better. So part of the reason I made this cake was selfish - I would like to have practice, and this gave me a perfect opportunity.

However the big reason I made this cake and put everything I've got into it, is that I love these girls and I wanted them to have the best cake I could possibly make for them. They deserve it. Happy Birthday girls!

Have you made anything for someone you love? Did it come out how you hoped? Please tell me in the comments (feel free to comment anonymously).


P.S. I have to give extra props to the cake school that taught me how to attempt making smooth looking buttercream - thank you Melissa! And to Lisa, my excellent instructor in cake making and stacking, thank you!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Today's empathy, both the good and the bad

Today I tipped the gas station attendant who filled my car's tank. I gave him $2, he gave me a smile and a thank you. I'm not normally a tipper so this was unusual for me.

I wasn't thinking about doing it beforehand, again, this is an example of going with my gut feelings at the moment. I started with the thought,'it's really cold out there' and the next thought was 'this guy's job sucks, he's out in this horrible weather' and then 'i'd like to buy him a cup of coffee' led to pulling out my wallet to give him the tip.

Later in the day, a coworker was sharing her troubles and I fell into trap #1 (comparing her problems with other people's) and trap #3 (trying to solve her problem) immediately. (Link to the traps article) I tried to come back to her later with an 'I'm sorry, that really sucks' comment but honestly I really think it was too little too late. It's hard to catch these things before they happen, but I'm going to keep trying.


What I see from the above stories (and something I've noticed about myself in general) is that how easy I have empathy to others seems to be related to how well I know them. That is, if I don't have a relationship with the person to RISK, it's easier for me to put myself out there. However, if I do have a relationship with them, well, then I'm scared, my defenses come up, and I shut down empathy.

What about you? Have you tried to build empathy, what has been your experience?
Do you tip frequently?


Monday, January 21, 2013

Pets in Winter - questions and answers

Sometimes, I get the question 'what happens to your chicken in wintertime'.

Chickens, like many birds that do not migrate, have small feathers that grow in close to the skin, keeping them warm through the winter. Like a blanket they have a layer of warm and cushy air pockets built into each feather. As long as they have a place to roost that's out of the wind, they are warm enough even on the really cold nights when it drops below freezing. Which is really good, since it's supposed to get cold around here this week! Brrrr.

We also chose a very hardy breed to keep, Rhode Island Reds, and they are very cold tolerant. Some other breeds have difficulties in the cold weather with their combs or wattles (the red parts around their faces) getting frostbite. The Reds only have one, fairly short comb, and they can put their heads under their wings if they need to get warm.

We were concerned that the water would freeze, so we bought a heat lamp and a sensor. The lamp gives heat inside the coop, keeping the water from freezing. The sensor makes sure that the lamp only goes on when it drops below 35 degrees F, and then shuts off in warmer temps. We don't want to make it too hot, either!

Here are a few photos of Lucy by the coop in wintertime.

It's hard to get her to come outside when there is snow on the ground (it hurts her toes, I think) but a treat can sometimes encourage her down. Today's treats were two rold gold pretzels. She managed to pick one up in her beak, which I've never seen before (usually she pecks it apart on the ground).


The coop has survived some pretty bad stormy weather - like blizzards and superstorms. I'm sure it wouldn't survive an actual tornado, but it's a pretty sturdy structure. My husband built the A-frame in our basement from an online photo of a similar coop.

Another question I get is 'once she stops laying, will you eat her?' and the answer is definitely NO. I wouldn't eat her in any case (I chose to stop eating meat many years ago) but to our family, she's a pet, not food. Once she stops laying we'll just keep taking care of her as long as she's alive.

How do you keep your pets warm in winter? Do you let them go outside?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Airport Empathy

I'm writing this post at 5:30am in Detroit, MI.

I came here last night on business, and after saying farewell to my family and talking nonstop politics to the nice taxi driver, I was finally at the airport and waiting for my flight to leave. We were delayed at least two hours so I ate some dinner and grabbed some edamame to go from the Sushi bar.

I sat in between a young early-20s woman with long, red hair and a mid-30s age Indian woman and her daughter. The girl looked to be about four or five, and was bouncing in her seat. She reminded me of my eldest daughter at that age, just idly singing to herself, in a language I didn't understand.

Halfway through my edamame snack, the young woman and I struck up a conversation. I tried to listen to her openly and with intent, focusing on empathy and my 'I love you man' internal speech, which worked out pretty good. In fact, it worked so well that she asked for my email address so we could keep in touch, which was SO UNUSUAL for me. Me, making friends at airports! :) I wonder if she'll write?


After a while of waiting we were told that our plane had arrived, but they had to clean it before we could board. I was still talking to the young woman when I heard the little girl next to me, starting to get a bit loud. She had progressed to jumping on the heating unit, near the window, and was shouting. The mom was starting to look a little bit annoyed. I should mention that at one point earlier in my little airport adventure, the little girl had climbed under the seat to retrieve a toy, and had kicked me. The mom looked at me and said "sorry" and I said "not a problem, I have two at home, totally understand" and smiled.

The little girl got a bit louder. She had pulled her mom's luggage off of the chair and dragged it over to the waiting area by the plane. Even louder now, saying the same phrase over and over (which I assume meant 'come on' or 'please' or 'mama' or something to that nature). She was nearly screaming it now, and I found myself pulled into looking at her. All I could think of was that this mom, this poor mom, she had been through so much already, taking care of her kid through airport security, through baggage maybe, then through the terminal, and then through waiting and keeping her entertained for hours and hours. So I interrupted my discussion with the young woman saying, "I'm sorry, but I feel so much for this mom, I have to do something" and ran through the terminal. I ran because I was worried about missing the boarding, as we were going to get on at any minute. (Just to make it clear how loud this girl was getting, I could still hear her as I ran through the terminal).I just kept thinking that this Mom was probably tired and done and just out of ideas for how to calm her daughter. I ran to the little candy/bookstore, scanned the shelves, and bought the first coloring book with markers I saw. It's not much, I thought, but maybe it will be a 'new toy' for a short while and give the Mom the break she (to my mind) so desperately needed.

I ran back with the book and thought, "how am I going to approach her, she's a stranger, really" but I ran right up to her. The little girl was still screaming and shouting and crying, jumping up and down, and the mom was just hanging on to her and keeping her from running off. I walked up to her and said, "Excuse me, I just would like to tell you that I know how you feel, I've been where you are, and if this will help you at all..." holding out the book. The little girl - stopped crying - and after a brief moment of hesitation - was soon coloring and sitting down and the mom looked 1 million times relieved. At first the mom had tried to make an excuse for the girl, "she's just tired, she really wants to get on the plane' but then just said, "um, yes, okay" to the book. I wasn't sure why she was trying to explain, at first, and I could tell she wasn't sure about getting something from a stranger, but when the mom accepted the book, she (and all of us at the terminal) seemed much happier for it.

At the time it wasn't the logical thing to do, it was the emotional thing. I was just going with my feelings for the mom, and acting on those feelings.


A few people at the terminal stopped me on my way to the plane (we were boarding now) and commented, "That was a wonderful thing you did". I felt good getting their comments, but not as good as seeing the look of peace and gratefulness on this mom's face as we boarded the plane. Another person said to me that a few moments before (perhaps while I was off  buying the book, since I didn't see this) an old man had come up to the mom and said loudly, "We don't need to hear your child crying. Quiet her down." I was horrified to hear this - although not surprised - but now I understood why she was trying to 'explain' herself to me. She thought I was coming up to scold her, too. Not true!

Finally, as I was getting on the plane, the airline bumped me up to a bigger seat free of charge. I didn't ask - they just did it. Paying it forward, I suppose.

Thanks for listening and please add your stories and thoughts!


Monday, January 14, 2013

Places I've lived :Binghamton NY

I lived in Binghamton, NY in the late 1990s, while attending graduate school.

It was exciting being there, because it was my first time being far from my family and friends. I had a car for the very first time, and I spent many a bored afternoon using it to explore the area. I would say that being there was my first real experience with independent living.

We had horrible weather in Binghamton. At least every month or so you would overhear the joke about how classes should be cancelled if the sun was shining.

One rare sunny day, I drove off in a nice direction following my nose and heading out of town. I found myself on top of one of the many steep hillsides, at a public park. The park was empty of people but full of children's playground equipment, and it sat alongside an old merry-go-round that was closed. I had heard that Binghamton was full of old merry-go-rounds, some of them with classic horses, but this was the first one I had seen. You can see all about them at this link.

I sat down on the hill and watched the sun sparkle over the candy-colored mountains. It was very beautiful.

Here's a nice picture so you can try to imagine.

Photo by Bonnie Campbell

Have you ever been somewhere so beautiful that you can't ever forget?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Empathy Online

I find it very, very difficult to be a good, loving and open listener in an online forum. In person I can smile, I can focus on the person's eyes, I can truly encourage happy and open thoughts when interacting with them.

I find it much, much harder to be a good listener in a text-only format, such as facebook, twitter, linkedin or even just regular e-mail. The words are there, but what's missing (for me) is the context of the words. I can't see their expression, I can't tell if they were tired, or happy, or lonely when they made their comment. It's stripped of all the interpersonal detail that I get very quickly out of seeing someone's face.

I have myself posted material to social media that was misunderstood by being taken out of context, and as a result, caused family and friends to be hurt. I think it's just too easy to be misunderstood online.


I recently posted a link to this article on our facebook page about how fifth-grade students can be taught to empathize with people from history and the choices they have made. This seems very similar to me to empathizing online - a history book is mostly text, with a few photos. The article states that there are four things we need to build up this historical-type empathy:

1. “the introduction of an historical event necessitating the analysis of human action"
2. "the understanding of historical context and chronology"
3. "the analysis of a variety of historical evidence and interpretations", and 
4. "the construction of a narrative framework through which historical conclusions are reached” 

Item 1 (the event) and item 2 (overall context) I can see pretty quickly in most situations with friends or family online, especially if I know the person and/or they live in the same area of the world. My challenge to putting myself in someone else's shoes is to try to come up with a variety of different reasons why they do the things they do (item 3), and to construct their narrative framework (item 4).

Here's a lighthearted example to close with; here's a tweet by @libazann: Accidentally turned on the Con-Air instead of the aircon. Now John Malkovich is trying to kill me & Nic Cage is trying to give me a bunny.

I don't know this person. My first thought is to laugh, because I know the movie she's talking about and I like it. However, perhaps she's sad, and is unhappy that she turned on this movie. Maybe she doesn't like it or is known among her friends as the one who makes fun of John Malkovich and Nicholas Cage. If by 'aircon' she means 'air conditoner', well, now I'm hoping she's not sweltering in a hot apartment somewhere while the dust storm in Australia zooms on by.

Everyone deserves to be listened to. Do you have an experience of being misunderstood in an online context?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Building Empathy

I do not empathize with people easily, and I wonder if that is related to my long history of not making friends easily. I am able to empathize very easily with animals. As a result I became a vegetarian about ten years ago.

I do believe that one way to get closer to others is to share yourself, and I have come to accept who I am as a person and feel comfortable sharing myself (hence, this blog). However, I also think that telling my stories isn' t enough. People have to want to share with me.

I've met other people who are magnets for friends, who receive the openness of others regularly. They seem to (from my outsider's perspective) make friends easily. They draw people to their side. What I've observed is that these people seem to genuinely CARE about the people that they meet.

For example, a friend of mine's mother is one of these magnetic types. When I first met her, and evey visit since, she' s convinced me that I' m her long lost daughter. She exudes love, I think, and as a result I can' t help but love her back.

As was once said, all you need is love.

So I tried it. I tried simply walking through my day and ' loving' people. Call it a mantra, but in the last 48 hours whenever I' ve met a stranger I' ve thought to myself, 'I love you'.

My result?

It' s been some really rewarding hours. I talked to storekeepers, to fellow moms at the exercise studio, and others, and really felt good listening to them. The storekeeper told me all about the first time she tried a squash soup at a local restaurant, and I felt like I had a few sips of it myself. The other mom told me all about her marriage and home life, and I felt like I was in her home with her. Just keeping them positively in mind made me listen harder and connect with them more easily.

Most interestingly, it made them want to tell me their stories. Perhaps they could tell I wanted to listen.

Hey, I love you man.

Peace out.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Lack of Empathy at Work

Many years ago, I worked at a small office in New York. I was pretty happy there doing entry level work, my boss liked me and the only real downside to the job was the long commute.

I worked primarily with men, and there was one guy who everyone had a real issue with. The guy in question looked different than most of the other guys in our section, he was slight, he was generally unkempt in his appearance, and he slouched constantly. Let's call him Don. When I arrived on my first day, Don came to me and asked me to lunch in the office cafeteria.

At the time I considered it a friendly gesture from one employee to another, welcoming me to the group. When he continued to ask me to join him for lunch every day I became suspicious. Nobody else in the office group was going to the cafeteria, and we were getting looks. I refused him one day on a made-up excuse.

It was after Don left that others in my group shared with me their feelings about him. That he was odd, that he was obsessive about his things, and that he played tricks on them and that they enjoyed playing cruel but generally harmless tricks back (like stealing his personal items and returning them days or weeks later). They didn't tell me this before, they said, because he was 'all over me', and because they thought I might be interested in dating him. They wanted to be 'sure', they said.

All this left me feeling rather conflicted. On the one hand, I wanted to fit in. This was a new job (in a new career, actually) and these were the people I was supposed to be trying hard to impress. I didn't want to cause trouble within the group. On the other hand, I had spent a little time with Don and had found him funny and friendly. I wasn't interested in dating him (not sure why every time guys and girls get together THAT is the automatic assumption) but I wasn't going to be mean to him either.

The end of the story is that I chose to never have lunch with him again. I was friendly to him and we continued to have a good working relationship, although I think he never considered me a friend after I dropped him like a hot rock. I also chose not to become friends with the other guys in the office - after learning how they treated him, I really didn't want to be a part of that either.

I empathized with everyone and as a result became friends with none. I don't really think that I handled the situation well - maybe if I was a better person I could have pushed for the friendship with Don and told the rest of the guys to go jump in a lake.

Have you had issues with your co-workers, either now or in the past, that you feel you didn't handle well? Would more empathy have helped?


Just putting a little more thought into the above story. I said that I had empathy for both parties. I don't think that was true. I think I had sympathy for both parties. I didn't really feel what the other co-workers were feeling, so I didn't have empathy for them. I didn't really feel what Don was feeling, or I wouldn't have chosen to hurt him. Instead I chose to feel only my own feelings in the situation - confusion, not wanting to make trouble in a new office, and eventually, hurting Don.

I do remember feeling bad about cutting out Don. So maybe I had a little empathy for him.