Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolution

As many people are, I have been thinking about this past year now that is almost...well, past. One thing I noticed is how many "firsts" I had in 2010. While a few of them were not ones I'd care to repeat (first time getting fired, first time filing a police report), many of them were good (first boyfriend, first trip to Six Flags, first time falling in love). I also spent a lot of time this year with older people, by which I mean people old enough to be my grandparents. I noticed that by the time you get to 70 or 80, you fall into one of two categories. The first category is people who are uncomfortable with change and tend to focus on how great things were in the past. The other category is people who roll with the changes and still seem to have more energy than people half their age. I definitely know which category I'd like to fit into in my old age.

My thought is that the best way to have an open mindset when you're older is to start out living that way as soon as possible. So my New Year's resolution is that, every day this year, I will do something new.

Technically, we all have "new" experiences all the time, because we have never lived this exact moment before. But I have noticed that most days are made up of doing the same things I've always done: wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed. I would love to see the world, or drive cross-country to visit all 48 states (in the continental US; driving to Hawaii would be a bit difficult). But for now, I am going to start with one small thing every day.

It might be taking a different route home from work, or eating lunch at a new restaurant. It might be learning a new crafting technique (although I will not count new knitting/crochet patterns; that would be too easy). Every summer I make plans to visit different movie theaters; this summer that may actually happen. Every couple days, I will recount my new experiences here.

Question for the comments: What is the best New Year's resolution you've ever made?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Convention Wrap-Up: Chicago TARDIS 2010

I spent my Sunday afternoon at the Chicago TARDIS. For those not in the know, it is a fan convention for Doctor Who, which is the longest-running sci-fi show ever. If you have never heard of it (which I actually had not until earlier this year) that is because it is from Britain. New episodes run on BBC America, and reruns play on PBS (WTTW in Chicago; Sunday nights at 10). Do yourself a favor and check it out! If you need info on Doctor Who, check out the TV Tropes page (WARNING: TV Tropes is highly addictive. Proceed with caution) or read the AV Club primer.

I was hoping to get some good costume pictures, but there actually were not very many people in costume. This was probably because we came at the tail end; I expect there were some good costumes on Saturday. Jason and I wore our matching Doctor Who shirts, featuring David Tennant and most of the Tennant-era villains. Our first stop was the dealer room, where we found some great stuff. I got a Cyberman figure for my brother (who claims to not be a Who fan, but I think he's coming around), a Dalek pen for Jason, and a keychain for myself that plays some sound bytes from the show (two catchphrases each for the Daleks and Cybermen, one from K-9, and the TARDIS sound). Jason got me a Matt Smith figure; Tennant will always be my favorite Doctor, but Matt Smith is very good. I like him almost as much as Ten.

We skipped over the panel discussions and went to the screening room, where they were running episodes on a giant screen. I had planned to watch all of season 5 before we went to the con. I almost succeeded; all I had left was the two-part season finale. Jason and I got to the screening room just as they started Part 2, so we decided to sit in.

SPOILER ALERT: A discussion of the ending of "The Big Bang" follows.

At first, I just thought the scene where the Doctor was describing the TARDIS to Amelia was kind of cute. It was nothing I hadn't heard before: the paradox of it being both old and new; how he stole (or "borrowed") it; how it was "the bluest blue you'd ever seen." Then, when Amy puts the pieces together at the wedding, I was kicking myself for not figuring it out myself. The TARDIS fits all four conditions for the old wedding good-luck charms: Something old, something new, something borrowed, AND something blue. Brilliant! And thus, she saves him from being trapped on the other side of the cracks in reality. Then she and Rory fly off in the TARDIS for their honeymoon. Okay, I want like season 6. Right now. Especially because Neil Gaiman wrote one of the episodes!

Steven Moffat has officially stolen the title of "Evil Genius" from Joss Whedon in my mind. Evil because he scares the shit out of the audience, and genius because it somehow works out in the end. And he is a brilliant writer. I suppose there is room for more than one Evil Genius television writer, but I think "Magnificent Bastard" fits Joss Whedon better anyway.

After "The Big Bang" finished, we went back to the dealer room and met up with our friend Liz. Liz is awesome. She was there because she works for the prop-building company that had provided a life-size model of the TARDIS. Like I said, awesome. I got one picture of that, but it came out blurry.

There is one picture really I wish I had gotten. There was a girl waiting in line for an autograph with her mom, and she had a knitted Dalek plushie! I also saw someone with a knitted K-9; I think it might have been a purse. As soon as I finish some of my other knitting projects, I shall have to raid Ravelry for that Dalek pattern. The world needs a Dalek plushie. Also on my list of stuff to knit from Doctor Who: a 10-foot Tom Baker scarf. Anyway, I had a great time. This is the third con I went to this year, and Jason and I already have plans for another. Coming in March: C2E2!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Yarn: A Non-Snob's Guide (Part 1)

As I type this, the first snow of the winter is falling in Chicago. This means that, without a doubt, knitting season has begun. (Avid yarn crafters will point out that knitting season never really ends, but those who don't like to knit or crochet when it's 95 will agree that it's time to start up again.)

I was talking with a fellow knitter over the weekend and the conversation turned to elitism. We agreed that the presence of "yarn snobs" can make a knitting group less welcoming. Yes, knitters can be elitist. I have noticed that many of my knitting books were written by yarn snobs. It is not hard to tell from reading the "Guide To Fiber" section, or something similarly titled. What follows is a non-snob's guide to different yarn fibers.

Basic info: Acrylic yarn is synthetic, as opposed to coming from an animal or plant. It has a (somewhat unfounded) reputation for being cheap and uncomfortable for that reason, but technology has advanced enough that today's acrylic yarn can actually be quite nice. Lion Brand has two that I really like: Wool-Ease is 80% acrylic and 20% wool; Vanna's Choice is nice and soft and comes in a wide variety of colors.
Pros: Acrylic yarn is inexpensive and very easy to come by; most of the yarn at craft and fabric stores is either acrylic or an acrylic blend. It is also machine-washable.
Cons: The really cheap stuff can be scratchy. Before you buy a skein, pick it up and feel it. Try and get your fingers inside. If the yarn feels uncomfortable in the skein, it will not be fun to work with, and the finished product will not feel much better. Walking around with a big skein of acrylic yarn is also the easiest way to draw the wrath of yarn snobs.
I use it for: Afghans; craft projects like stuffed animals; Christmas stockings.

Basic info: Wool is the most common of the animal-based fibers (and Captain Obvious would like to remind you that it comes from sheep). There are two basic flavors of wool yarn. The original will shrink when washed in the washing machine, which is exactly what you want for a felting project but not so good for a sweater that you have been working on for two months. Superwash wool has been treated to prevent shrinking; if you have a felting project this is the kind you do NOT want.
Pros: After acrylic, wool is the easiest fiber to find. It is soft and warm and will keep you dry even when it gets wet. It is wonderful to work with. Price-wise, it is less expensive than the other animal fibers.
Cons: Just be careful when you buy it and when you wash it. If it says "Superwash" on the label, it can be washed in the washer (though you might want to do it with your delicates). If it does not, wash it by hand and let it air-dry unless you want it to shrink. Super-soft wools, like merino, tend to "pill" (those little tiny balls of yarn that appear after it has been worn for a while).
I use it for: Mittens and hats. Wool is the only thing I will use for mittens, because of its near-miraculous waterproofing abilities. Seriously, if you have kids who like to play in the snow, they need wool mittens. I only wish I had known that growing up. Superwash wool is also excellent for winter socks and sweaters.

Basic info: Cotton is the most common of the plant-based fibers. It can be hard to dye, so it usually comes in lighter colors than wool or acrylic.
Pros: Cotton is also easy to come by. It is pretty soft, especially if you think wool is itchy. It will not pill or shed like acrylic or any of the animal fibers. It is usually machine-washable, although the colors will fade after a while. It is the least expensive of the plant fibers. If you are worried about how "green" your yarn is, organic cotton is easy to come by.
Cons: Cotton gets heavy when wet. It can also be difficult to work with, because it does not have any stretch. If you make a mistake and need to rip out a few rows, the yarn will be more kinked than wool or acrylic would be. It is not very warm.
I use it for: Dishcloths and dish towels (one application where wool would be disastrous; you'd end up with fiber all over your dishes). It is also good for lightweight tops or a knitted swimsuit (no, I'm not kidding. There are patterns for it).

This post is becoming much longer than I thought it would be, so I shall finish there for today. Stay tuned for more; next time we will get into more exotic (and expensive) fibers. For the non-crafters, stay tuned for a post coming soon about the Chicago TARDIS convention.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Geeks, Gender Roles, and Bullying

I'm continuing the chain here--I read this story about a girl in first grade being bullied for having a Star Wars water bottle and just had to pass it along. The kids tease her for liking Star Wars, because that is apparently "just for boys." My heart goes out to Katie, and I can't help but remember the times when I was teased for liking something "different."

Like in fourth grade, when every other girl in my class decided that boys had cooties. My two best friends at the time were boys, and we'd gather at my house to play with Hot Wheels. I always wanted the "boy" toys from Happy Meals, too. The Barbie figurines were useless. The Hot Wheels were cool. Oh, and the pink Lego sets? I can't stand them. It implies that those are the only Lego sets that girls are supposed to like. Please.

Then fifth grade came. I bonded with the new kid (who also happened to be a boy) over this fantastic book the teacher read to our class. Everyone else thought we were strange because we wanted to go to Hogwarts...and then Harry Potter became a worldwide phenomenon. By the way, the reason Joanne Rowling writes under the name "J.K."? The publishers thought boys wouldn't want to read a book written by a woman. No joke.

As I got older, I discovered that as I went to larger schools I was more likely to find boys and girls who shared my interests. Oh, and first grade is a bit young to think about this, but women who like Star Wars are very popular among men who like Star Wars. I met my loving, wonderful, Palpatine-robe-wearing boyfriend Jason through a dating website designed specifically for geeks. He collects Star Wars lightsabers and we've had several lightsaber battles after dark in the park. Words cannot describe how cool that was. We trade Star Wars jokes back and forth, and we're planning on writing a crossover fanfiction where the Doctor (from Doctor Who, natch) ends up on the Death Star. My point is that geeks are cool, and anyone who says differently is either just jealous or feeling insecure.

Who decides what boys and girls are "supposed" to like? Where does this idea come from, that boys are blue and girls are pink? And how can we change it? I was reading some of the other comments that had been left for Katie (and there are quite a few now!) and most of them contained the same advice I'd been given: ignore them, and one day it won't matter. Looking back at it, I remember not believing it...but now, of course, I see they were right. Is there any advice that works *now* and not ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road? At least now Katie knows that she is not alone...and the Force is definitely with her.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Halloween Costumes and Cake

I had a marvelous Halloween. The only little snag was with the vampire fangs. They didn't stick like they were supposed to. Either the putty had an expiration date (it had been sitting around for a year) or it just wasn't that good to begin with. But I am still very proud of my cape.

Isn't the fabric awesome? And I've always wanted to have a cape. I sat outside with Emperor Palpatine (aka my boyfriend Jason) and we passed out candy for a couple hours. As usual, it was interesting to see the mix of costumes. Jason was a bit disappointed at the lack of Star Wars outfits; we saw one kid as a stormtrooper and one mom as a Jedi. The kids that I babysit came by with their parents. I couldn't get any pictures because they came at the same time as a bunch of other kids, but their costumes all came out great. Their mom was smart enough to make everything out of fleece (there was a tiger-in-a-football-jersey, a shark, and a lion). I say smart because as typically happens in Chicago, it was around 50 degrees. I saw more than one little fairy princess whose dress was covered by a winter jacket.

Jason couldn't wait to show off his Palpatine costume. He's working on getting in to the 501st Legion, where the members dress up as Star Wars characters for various charity events. The catch is that all of the costumes have to be movie-accurate, with literally pages of costume requirements. The robes were custom-made, but apparently he still needs shirring done on the sleeves. His brother does really good stage makeup and costume design, so he's going to do the mask. Right now, though, we have the awesome Palpatine robes:

So. Cool.

We followed up the candy distribution with a horror movie fest. We watched "Monster Squad" (a group of kids team up to take down Dracula & Co) followed by "Poltergeist." Jason and I started watching "Trick 'r Treat" but one of us (read: me) chickened out about ten minutes in. It wasn't exactly too scary; I just can't handle gore. Or a kid who eats poisoned candy and then projectile vomits blood all over the guy's porch. That was about when I decided I'd had enough. I did agree to give it another try, though. Apparently the giver of poisoned candy gets eaten by vampires at the end.

One more thing before I go: I promised you cake. And no, the cake is NOT a lie. Here is my Halloween pumpkin cake.

The cake was from a boxed cake mix and the frosting came in a can. I made it in two round pans and layered them (got the chance to use my cake leveler!) and smoothed out the frosting as best I could. The frosting was pale orange, so I covered the top with orange sugar.

I got the face by making a cake stencil. The process is fairly simple. First, trace around your cake pan onto thin cardboard (I used a flattened cereal box). Next, draw your design and cut it out with scissors or an X-Acto knife. Finally, place the stencil on top of the cake and cover the cut-out areas with sprinkles (in this case, black sugar).

To get the sprinkles on the sides, I tilted the cake (verrry carefully) and sprinkled them on. I worked on a small area and then turned it a little bit more to work on the next section. The cake was delicious, and everyone got enough sprinkles.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Costumes and other Halloween stuff

Ah, Halloween. The costumes, the candy, the scary movies, the haunted houses, the jack o'lanterns...I love it all. This year I have a homemade costume. I'm going as a vampire, complete with a cape that I made myself. Actually, it's not that much of a costume. Black pants, orange shirt, the cape, and a pair of fangs. I've learned from trial and error that not all fake fangs are created equal. Obviously, the cheap plastic ones are out. They also have ones that look like dentures, but with fangs. You stick them over your regular teeth with this putty stuff. I tried those a couple years ago. The putty works well, but because the appliance itself goes over your regular teeth, it comes out looking like you've got teeth that are twice as long. I came out looking like a vampire dweeb, which was definitely not the look I was going for. The best ones I've found are these:

They also attach with the putty, but they're much smaller and you only cover the canine teeth (which are the ones that are supposed to appear longer and pointy). And they come in a little coffin box, too, which is a nice touch. They're kind of hard to find, so I actually picked up a pair last year shortly after Halloween and, by some minor miracle, actually remembered where I put them. Four bucks at Wallgreens, which isn't too bad.

I'll have to post some pictures of the cape. Actually, I'll have to take some first. Look for them after Halloween. I found some great fabric: black with a silvery spiderweb pattern. The cape ended up being simpler than I'd originally thought; I found a pattern for a vampire cape and decided that my rudimentary sewing machine skills weren't quite up to doing something with a lining and a stand-up collar. I opted for a witch cape instead, which looks really cool with the spiderweb fabric. I probably should have tested the pattern before I cut the fabric. I'm not sure if I switched to the wrong size in the middle of cutting out the pattern piece, or if it was just designed for someone really tall, but I had to shorten it by ten inches.

I love homemade Halloween costumes. They just have so much more personality and imagination than the packaged ones. I've seen some great ones over the years. Back when Tomagotchis were all the rage (remember them?) I saw a Tomagotchi costume that was just great. And one year a music-loving friend of mine went as a piano in a costume made from a cardboard box. My brother's friend went as Larryboy one year when they were little (ten geek points if you know who that is!). Some family friends are bringing their kids around on Halloween so I can see their costumes, sewn by their mom. They've got a five-year-old going as a shark and a seven-year-old going as the mascot for LSU (which, I'm told, is a tiger. In a football jersey). I've seen some of the progress, and I think the mom may have had to design the shark outfit herself.

Oh, and here is a random bit of advice if you want to save money. Never buy sewing patterns unless they are on sale. I'm not sure exactly why this happens, or how widespread it is, but patterns at Hancock Fabrics (my normal haunting grounds) usually run $10-$15. Then they go on sale for $1.99 or sometimes even $0.99. So if you live near a Hancock Fabrics (or other store that operates this way), watch the sale papers for when they're putting patterns on sale.

Before I forget: Neil Gaiman has a great idea for a new Halloween tradition. He suggests giving someone a scary book as a Halloween gift. He's calling it the "All Hallow's Read." I don't know too many people who enjoy scary books, but I do have someone in mind and I even know what book I'm going to pass along.

If you need an idea for a book recommendation, allow me to suggest The Graveyard Book (written by, yes, Neil Gaiman. I decided to read it for Halloween as my own "All Hallow's Read" gift). One of the first books I've read in a long time that I felt the need to finish in one sitting. The characters, the pacing, everything was fantastic. I found it at the library in the children's section, but if Harry Potter has taught us anything, it's that children's books aren't only for children. Please don't let that stop you from reading it. The Graveyard Book is about a boy whose family is murdered when he is a baby, and he is adopted by the ghosts in the nearby graveyard. The ghosts are quite nice, really. Nicer than most of the humans he meets, in fact. I can't really say much more without spoiling anything, but apparently it is heavily based on The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling's original, not the Disney version). I shall have to add that to my list of books to read.

Going back to costumes: I love having any excuse to dress up. I went to my first sci-fi convention this summer (and my second), although I didn't dress up beyond wearing appropriately geeky T-shirts. I'm planning to go to C2E2 next year (Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo) and I had this crazy idea for a costume: Princess Peach...with a badass weapon. Sort of inspired by the "Self-Rescuing Princess" t-shirt from Thinkgeek. My boyfriend and I are still debating about what her weapon should be. Possible ideas include a sword (classic), a giant Nerf gun (over-the-top), a flamethrower (a la Ripley from Alien), or a lightsaber (because...why not?). I've got time to figure that out. The more important thing, to me, is the dress. This is the look I'm going for:

I did a basic search for Princess Peach costumes. The little girl costumes are, oddly, much closer to what I want than the adult costumes. Or maybe it's not so odd, because costume companies have decided that any female over the age of sixteen (or twelve?) who bothers to dress up in a costume must want a skirt that comes halfway down her thigh. I want a big, poofy skirt, dammit! I did find some adult costumes that look pretty good, but still not exactly what I'm looking for. I'll probably keep searching. I don't want to spend a ton, either. It would almost be worth attempting to make it myself, but again, I doubt if my sewing skills are up to the task. It's much easier for me to revise a knitting pattern, just because I've got more experience with it.

Question for the comments: What is the best homemade costume you've either made yourself or seen on someone else?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Crochet Project: Tetris Afghan

As I mentioned in my last post, most of my crafting comes from knitting and crocheting. I knit more often than crochet, but it's nice to be able to do both. I like crochet for smaller projects, and I love making granny squares. For those not in the know, you've probably seen projects made from granny squares without knowing what they're called. Here's a nice simple one:


They're small, easy, and addictive. Even beginning crocheters can churn them out easily. There are whole books of granny square patterns--they can be plain, like that one, or have color changes and patterns in the middle--and are the building blocks for larger projects like pillows or blankets.

I was inspired by the simple beauty of the granny square to make some sort of picture...but what could you make with only squares? The answer came almost immediately: Tetris! I will admit that, when it comes to video games, I am usually pretty lost. Most of my video game knowledge is picked up by osmosis from my brother and/or my boyfriend, and my strategy usually consists of pushing random buttons and watching what happens. But Tetris is one game I actually enjoy. So I set out to design a Tetris afghan. After A LOT of design ideas, I finally came up with two that I really liked.

The one on the right could be an actual Tetris game...if you were really, really bad. It was easier to design one with black squares on every row than it was to design one with no black squares, but the neat thing about the one on the right is that there are exactly 20 squares of each color: 20 black squares and 5 of each Tetrimino shape. The one on the left is really more inspired by Tetris, because of course the shapes packed so closely together wouldn't be found in a real game. I turned the Tetris-game design into a real afghan for my brother's birthday last year.

The color scheme that I chose is from the iPod version of Tetris (SO addictive, aside from the finicky controls) except I realized, after the blanket was complete, that I'd mixed up the colors for the red and green pieces (the red ones are actually supposed to be green, and vice versa). Oh well.

It's 10 blocks wide and 16 blocks tall, which works out to 160 little granny squares. These are pretty small, and they work up quickly, but it was A LOT of work to assemble. I sewed the Tetriminoes together using the same color yarn as the block, and then I joined the different blocks and black squares together using black yarn and slip stitch. The slip stitch join is slightly raised, which gives it a bit of texture. I put a lot of work into the design, and I'm really pleased with how it came out.

You can use the granny square idea to assemble any kind of (small) picture...I think it works really well with 8-bit video game graphics. What next? My new favorite video game is Pac-Man...I swear those ghosts are ganging up on me!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

First Post!

Welcome to my blog. I have been inspired by Jen of Epbot (and Cake Wrecks) to start blogging about my two biggest passions: crafts and geekiness.

What kind of crafts, you may ask? Sadly, I do not have the time or resources to attempt any of the stuff Jen does (like her penny table--seriously, it's amazing!) but I taught myself how to crochet and knit. I also do a bit of sewing, and I would love to get into dollhouse miniatures. I have some photos of crafts that I've already done, so I'll begin posting those soon. I also have some more planned, but those may have to wait as they will probably end up as Christmas gifts.

What kind of geekery? Well, let's see. My favorite at the moment is Doctor Who. I discovered it earlier this year and I'm catching up on all of the David Tennant episodes. I've seen a couple with Matt Smith, and he's very good, but Ten will always be MY Doctor. Star Trek is awesome--my favorites are the original series and Next Gen. I really liked the 2009 movie, especially because of Zachary Quinto as Spock. I was an avid follower of Heroes until I realized that they would never stop adding characters, and it just got too hard to follow.

If a show or a movie is connected to Joss Whedon (evil genius), I will watch it. He is a genius because he is very good at creating believable, likable characters, and evil because he then tortures them. But yeah, Buffy, Angel, Firefly, I'm there. Angel was my "gateway drug" into vampire fiction, and from there I discovered L.J. Smith's "Vampire Diaries" (before the TV show), Charlaine Harris's vampire series (also before it was turned into "True Blood"), and many others. These days I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I like vampires because people tend to assume this means I am a Screaming Teenage Twilight Fan Girl (STTFG). For the record, I am no longer a teenager and was never a screaming fan girl. I was a bit of a fan for a while. These days I'm trying to stay away from all the Twilight debates. I'm ready for the books to fall into obscurity.

I was a ground-level Harry Potter fan, thanks to my awesome fifth-grade teacher who read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to our class, back before it became a worldwide phenomenon. I don't like the movies as much, but I'll probably go and see the last ones.

Somebody stop me before I ramble on any more! I shall finish this post simply by saying, "DFTBA!"

(All right, fine. It stands for "Don't Forget To Be Awesome." Now go follow the link for more info!)