Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cake Decorating Practice

The other day, a friend of mine asked me to make the dessert for her daughter's 10th birthday party. I happily accepted a chance to make someone happy AND practice my cake decorating skills. For your amusement, here I take you through the process step by step. I do feel like I'm getting better every time, and I so love this. Making cakes is making edible art. Everything is gone at the end except the memories. Whatever I create will be destroyed, so it is temporary art. Kind of like sushi, I guess. Except no fish. :)

The Design

We met at a local coffee shop and talked about details. What kind of cake, what kind of filling, what kind of decorations. I borrowed crayons from my kids, and used a pad to sketch out ideas. Here's the result:

In case you can't read my handwriting she decided to do a 'springtime' theme; including bugs and butterflies and flowers. The cake would be cupcakes, chocolate with raspberry filling and raspberry icing. The icing would be purple, her favorite color. I also tried to show her in my drawing what the result would look like, hence the blue sketch in the lower left corner.

The Plan

I had done flowers before so I wasn't worried about that, and I had an idea for making caterpillars using a snow-man style method (stacking up balls and squishing down). I was, however, not sure about the butterflies.

In the cake decorating blogs and articles I've read, the hardest thing about butterflies is that you are either going super-realistic or cartoony, but not both. I would have to choose my method before I began.


One way to do butterflies is to be realistic, say, by taking pre-printed edible rice paper and cutting out butterfly shapes. These shapes can then be bent and molded to look like butterflies have landed on your cake. Here's an example from cakecentral.com. I even went to the store and looked at options for edible paper; but in the end, I decided not to go that way. Firstly, it wasn't 'created by me', it would have been someone else's pattern or design. Secondly it wouldn't have worked with the other items I was doing, the caterpillars were going to be more cartoony than realistic. Third, it was for a kid's party and I thought that was leaving 'springtime fun' and moving into 'elegant' which didn't fit the theme.

So I decided to go cartoony. I even got candy eyes and decorated them with chocolate candy dots.

Several hours later.... here's my result.

The Finished Dessert

Again, I had an amazing time preparing this for my friend and seeing the final product come to life. The look on the birthday girl's face was something I'm not going to forget for a very long time. She wanted to know what she could eat (everything on the cupcakes) and which one she could have (I made a special daisy that she chose, you can see it in the center of the larger cupcakes). All the kids loved them. I can tell because they ate both the cupcakes and the frosting, and they came back for seconds. Usually that's a good sign!

Here's a few pictures of the finished product. Note that I included a few toy bugs as supplementary design elements, you can tell the difference because the toys are on the tablecloth/plate.

The mini cupcakes were also chocolate, but didn't have any filling.

Thanks for reading! Please add your thoughts below. Are you practicing a new skill too?


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Case Against Empathy - an email discussion with Paul Bloom

This week, I read Paul Bloom's article, "The Baby in the Well" from 5/20/2013's issue of the New Yorker, subtitled, "The Case Against Empathy". I was very upset after reading it, so I thought it would be a good idea to try to talk to him, ask him where he was coming from and try to understand the article. To be empathetic instead of angry, similar to what I had done with my facebook friend

I was upset because the article seemed to be trying to encourage people not to use empathy. The article called empathy "narrow-minded", and a poor choice to use when making decisions. I confronted him about each of these ideas. 

What I learned from our conversation was that again, if I can put aside my feelings and actually listen to what people have to say, I find that we are really not so far apart as I thought we were. 

I also think that our discussion brings to me an idea - that there is a difference between conscious empathy and unconscious empathy. I'm going to be thinking about this and maybe I'll have a future post about it too. 

For your amusement, here's a few excerpts of our discussion. Have you pushed yourself to talk to someone who disagrees with you, and see if you can come to agreement? Where did it lead?

Thanks for reading,


[Janet] wrote:
Hello Mr. Bloom,
I read your article, "The Baby in the Well", and I have some questions for you. I'm hoping you will take a few moments to answer them, as I'm not entirely clear on your message. 
...if I am interpreting your article correctly, you may be encouraging people to dismiss empathy as a force for change....

...you call empathy 'narrow-minded', and you then make the case that being narrow-minded is a bad thing. ... I agree that it's limiting to focus empathy on one, identifiable person rather than a group. However, saying this is bad seems to ignore the possibility that a person could choose to give nothing at all....I believe that a person, like me, will only begin to give if we are moved to do so. I'm generous when I think about it but selfish by nature - I focus my resources on my life, my family, my money and my friends. If I'm going to part with my hard earned money and the time I have so little of, I must have empathy first.   

...Empathy empowers people to take action...

...I believe that people are easily overwhelmed by all of the horrible ways that beings suffer in our world. There's this fantastic line in one of my favorite movies, Ever After. Have you seen it? The king's son says, "I used to think that if I cared about anything I would have to care about everything." It was only after the character found a cause to support that he was able to move forward, and actually help people. I think I'm a little bit like that too. I think 'there's no way I can help, I'm just one person.' I stop feeling overwhelmed, however, if I focus on one small thing. By focusing my attention I'm able to find a way to use my mind to help.

[Paul Bloom] wrote:

....I'm not entirely against empathy -- as I mention at the end of the article, I think it's essential for intimate relationships....

...I agree that empathy has driven people to do wonderful things. But, as I discuss in my article, it has also motivated terrible things, such as savage punishments that are driven by empathy for victims. See also here, 2nd paragraph:

...My argument is that empathy is often inadequate for policy decisions. You simply can't emphasize with a billion people; or with people who don't yet exist; empathy is insensitive to number and it's statistically stupid. ... I'm calling for people to use other moral faculties instead, such as self-control, perspective taking, rational deliberation, notions of fairness, justice, and impartiality, and conceptions of human rights. 
[Janet] wrote:

I understand your point now, I think. You agree that empathy is good on a one-person-to-one-person level. However, when we use empathy to push for mass policy change we make poor choices. I agree with this, in general, as it does seem impossible to me that I could empathize with people-not-yet-born or entire civilizations of people. 

I also agree that people do punish more harshly when they empathize with the victim, or punish less harshly when they empathize with the criminal.  However, this doesn't make me think that we should have less empathy. It makes me think we need more. If instead of empathizing for one side or another I empathize with both sides, then I have a chance to use my brain to make the best decision. It's the perspective-taking that you are talking about. I'm intentionally choosing to find a way to empathize not only with Tsarnaev but also with the eight year old boy victim. I think it's possible for people to develop their empathy so they see both sides of a situation. What do you think?

[Paul Bloom] wrote: 
I think we're mostly in agreement here. I think empathy can be very useful for certain more "local" problems, as in the story of you and tailgaters; it's often the moral thing to try, as you nicely put it, "being two people at once". 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Book review - The Bookie's Daughter (A.K.A. Empathy practice through reading)

About a month ago, on a friend's recommendation  I picked up a copy of "The Bookie's Daughter" by Heather Abraham. Here's a link to the website for the book.

I'm a big fan of books and reading in general. I read primarily on an e-reader these days, but I still love to pick up the old paperbacks. I love to get lost in the pages of a great story or to just get a good laugh. Sometimes even the smell of an old book is enough to make me feel good*.


It has been suggested to me that reading books of nonfiction can help you to have empathy by letting you see inside a person's mind, and see the life that they want to share.  Which is what you are all doing right now by reading this blog, seeing into my thoughts.


My review is that I liked the book - I give it two thumbs up! 

I really liked the author's voice that she chose to use in her writing. She was clearly an older woman writing about her experiences as a child and teenager, and I heard the older woman's voice speaking occasionally, looking over our shoulder with the quotes atop each chapter. Primarily, however, I heard the voice of a child. The girl was bright and crass, loving and tough. She had a lot of attitude and she seemed to keep her cool in almost any situation.  I wondered at the time how she managed to remember so many details of events, including specific conversations, from decades ago. Was she inventing them, or did she do research with other witnesses? It seemed hard to believe that a girl so young would remember the past so well.

I know that for me, I remember events down to the last detail when they are horrible, or scary, or one of those moments that seems to last forever. In this case I believe that much of this girl's childhood was exactly that - horrible, scary, and one of those moments that seemed to last forever.

As frightful and heart wrenching some of the events described in the book are, the other thing I particularly enjoyed about the storytelling was the sense that no matter how bad it was the author was never going to go 'too far' with me. She kept it dangerous, but still safe. She held my hand, so to speak, through the darkest parts, and I knew that everything would be okay in the end.

Finally what I really found amazing about the book was no matter how hurtful the members of her family seemed to be, it was absolutely clear that they loved her, and that she loved them.

Read a great book lately? Tell me about it!


*Honestly I was pretty shocked to find the above link exists at all - but apparently I'm not the only one likes how old books smell!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Getting along - Empathy with Differences

The other day I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw that one of my friends had posted a message saying she was anti-[Whatever]. I say anti-[Whatever] so you can insert here whatever kind of hot-button topic you want, Abortion/Pro-life, Homosexual rights, Israel-Palestine conflict. Whatever pushes your buttons.

This presented me with a problem. I was pretty upset by what she had said, and here's a summary of my thoughts:

"Oh, my gosh she believes THAT!?

"I don't want to see that kind of thing. Maybe I should block the website it came from."

"Maybe she's so different from me, she's so far on the 'other side' that I should not be her friend anymore. We aren't close, I only met her once at a party. I haven't put anything into this relationship. I can drop her and nobody I know will care."


At the same time, I know that one thing I'm trying to change about myself with this empathy practice is to open myself up to people. Yes, I might get hurt, but that doesn't change what I should do. I needed to know why she was doing this, at the same time I needed to let her know that what she was doing was hurtful.

So I decided to message her privately.

I let her know how upset I was by her post. I pointed out a few issues with her position, but primarily I let her know that if she kept posting things like this I will have to block her posts. I asked her to give me more information about her statement, and why she felt it necessary to share this one-liner with all of her friends on Facebook.

I was angry, but I didn't want to let that get in the way of communication. We had some back and forth, her stating her position (quite strongly) and me trying to understand her position. In the end, what I realized is that I was not trying to argue with her. 

I didn't want to fight over who was right, and who was wrong. I did, and do, truly believe that she has every right to her position. However I did want to let her know that I had a lot of trouble with her post on Facebook for two reasons. One, it seemed to miss any and all of the subtleties of her as a person and her position as a whole. I believe that a one-liner saying what ‘side’ you are on stands in the way of discussion. It's like (to me) that she was choosing which sports team to root for. Anyone rooting for the other side immediately would become grouped as 'the enemy'. Was she trying to invite debate? Was she hoping to convince her friends and family? I wondered, and asked her, how many of her other friends she's pushed away through these types of posts.

Another reason that I told her for why I had trouble with this type of blanket one-liner statement is that it encourages others to feel good about hating [Whatevers]. These are not the type of statements that encourages peace, love and understanding. 

Here's a great way to get along with others. Talk to them. Ask them questions. Here's a video talking about a fun way to do that, from SoulPancake, called "Take a seat, make a friend".

Have you had this happen to you? What did you do?


Friday, May 3, 2013

Driving a car with empathy - guest post

Thinking about empathy and thinking about seeing things from another’s perspective, it occurred to me that I actually find myself in both perspectives on a regular basis. I’m talking about tailgating. I do it often AND I find it often done to me. The thing that surprised me once I started paying attention was how radically different my mindset was depending which end I was on.

When I’m tailgating, I’m invariably thinking about how inconsiderate this guy in front of me is for blocking up the road. Doesn’t he know I have somewhere to be? Can’t he move over (or pull over on a one lane road)? Can’t he speed up? What the heck is his problem? Sometimes I flash my lights. Sometimes I’ll zoom around on the right. Sometimes, as I’m passing, I’ll glare over at the other driver, communicating my disapproval. Does he think he owns the road? That he can set the pace for everybody?

When I’m being tailgated, I’m invariably thinking about what a jerk this guy is. Why does he have to be so close like that? Can’t he go around me? Can’t he relax a bit? He’s being dangerous and rude. Sometimes to get a tailgater away from me I’ll intentionally slow down. Like waaaay down. That’ll show ‘em. Does he think he owns the road?

See the problem? It’s really obvious once I lay it out like that. We tell ourselves these little stories about the world around us and it always revolves around US as the main character. But the truth is, EVERYONE is the main character. No one is more special than anyone else. The guy going slow has his story and the guy going fast has his story and neither one is more important. Point of fact I realized that I’m BOTH guys depending on what day it is and where I’m going and what sort of mood I’m in.

Since having this realization, I try to deliberately remind myself of the OTHER story, which ever it is. So when I start tailgating someone I remind myself of how I feel when I’m being tailgated. I realize that I’m being a jerk. I’m making him nervous. If he doesn’t get out of my way in the first few seconds then likely he’s not going to and I should back off. Likewise, when I’m being tailgated I realize that here too I might be the jerk. If there is room for me to get out of the way then I should do so. I’ve even pulled over on one-lane roads to let people pass.

It’s weird to think about being two people at once, in this case the slow guy in front and the fast guy behind, but sometimes I think it’s what this world needs.

Thanks to my husband for this article - Janet