April 30, 2013

How to Store Your Winter Wardrobe

A collection of old suitcases are stacked on one another to provide storage in a vintage or hipster room.

I've always wondered what mothballs smelled like. They are always described as the signature scent of musty old uncles and batty aunts in children's stories, but I never knew what it meant. Now, dear readers, I know what moth crystals- if not moth balls smell like and- there's a reason my window has been open all day.

Yes, the time has come. The last sweater collected from the dry cleaners. The canister of moth crystals has been purchased. And, with the weather remaining a balmy 70 degrees, it was finally time to collect my various winter garments that were strewn about my room and put them away.

Now two boxes stand beside my door, ready to be carried down and stored in the basement until next fall. I thought it might be helpful to explain the process. It is pretty simple.

Ceder blocks with lavender sprig

You will need:

~ Your winter clothes (These are the sweaters, long underwear, hats, mittens, scarves, and socks worn in cold weather. Also include though the long sleeves shirts, woolen skirts, and winter dresses only worn in the colder months. Why have them clutter up your closet?)

~ Boxes

~ Plastic garbage bags.

~ Moth Crystals, moth balls, cedar blocks, etc. (You want something to deter pests, especially if you are storing wool or other natural fibers)

~ Tissue paper

Well organized basement storage.
A very well organized basement storage

What you will do:

~ Collect all of your winter clothes. This is, for me, the hardest part. Hats seem to be hiding in strange corners, socks are unpaired, skirts forgotten in the closet. Take a week perhaps and just pile everything into the middle of the room while you collect them.

~ Clean everything. Wash it, if you can. Dry clean if you can't. Remember to scrub down boots too.

~ Sprinkle some of the mothballs or crystals on the bottom of the box. Then open a garbage bag inside. Both box and garbage bag alone have their disadvantages. Boxes are susceptible to damp and garbage bags are fragile. Simply combine them together. Plus, the moth crystals will deter the moths without, hopefully, penetrating through the plastic of the bag.

~ Though this step isn't necessary in the slightest, I wrapped all my garments in tissue paper. Why? They looked nice? An added layer of protection? The excitement of unwrapping them in the fall? It was a fun and easy step.

~ Place everything neatly inside the garbage bag. Don't squash them to make everything fit.

~ Close the bags, sprinkle some more moth balls on top, close up the boxes themselves. And store them in an out of the way place generally safe from excess damp, humidity, or light.

Voila! You are finished. Maybe you have a single box. Maybe you have a dozen. But your winter wardrobe is stored which gives your closet plenty of room to store your spring clothes.

April 29, 2013

On an Aristocrat's Bookshelf: Ivan Turgenev

Ivan Turgenev sits in beautiful library with a book on his lap and staring out into the distance.
Ivan Turgenev in a Beautiful Library
Turgenev is not one of those names that spring readily to mind when most think of great Russian Literature. (At least, in my circles, this is the case.) Perhaps this is for a reason- Turgenev does not have the same sweeping grandeur or philosophical treatises as Tolstoy. Perhaps he does not deal with matters so weighty as Dostoevsky nor as shocking as Nabokov. No devil has yet appeared in human form in his books- that I have recognized. If anything, he is the Russian Jane Austen.

Despite this, in the past few days Turgenev has become one of my favorite authors.   As part of my Summer Reading, I've been choosing a much wider variety of books than normal. Turgenev's First Love sat on the local library shelf. I picked it up on a whim, read the back, read the first couple of pages, and was sold. A book about Russian Aristocracy, dealing with concerns of love and well created main heroines? What isn't to love?

Turgenev's main strength is how accessible he is- much like Austen. The Penguin Classic's translator is lucid and, apparently  does great credit to Turgenev's writing. His characters are well formed and interesting. Their conflicts- mostly internal struggles- are exciting to read. Just enough is left out of the exposition that the reader has to work to fill in some of the details- a trait missing in many American authors.

But what charmed me the most about First Love is that his charming characters are actually charming. Too many times have I read stories where social, charming, captivating characters are so not because of their actions or words, but because of their descriptions or the rather false reactions of other characters. I actually liked Turganev's heroines- which is a feat for writing about the 1840's. Their actions were charming, I could see why they ensnared the attentions of many men. Yet, they weren't obnoxious or cloying.

In short, I highly recommend this author. You have the satisfaction of reading a classic, but reading it for pleasure rather than obligation. His characters are delightful to observe and you feel a real pathos.

April 28, 2013

Eco In Black's Good Goth Keeping Challenge 1

“A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”

― J.R.R. TolkienThe Fellowship of the Ring

In my stumbling through the interwebs, I have been lucky enough to happen across the blog "Eco in Black." Among the various, lovely posts is a New-Samhain resolution of "Good Goth Keeping"- a series of tips and tricks to help Goths come to terms with famous Delphic instruction "Know Thyself!"

Though this lacks a post to itself, the first principle of self-knowledge is shared between the Greeks and the Neo-Aristocrats. If your interior world is unmapped, then you stumble blind through the world- victim to your emotions, whims, and biases. So, it is wonderful when we can find other travelers down the road to self discovery. After looking through some of the tips, I've decided to follow down the path of Good Goth Keeping and post how my process is going.

The first tip was: Assess your physical baggage and the psychological will follow.

I have a lot of clutter. Is this because as a grad student the contents of 23 years of life are shoved into one room? Or because I really do have clutter. Either way, I followed Eco's suggestion of assessing my room and have come up with several lists. First, what the clutter is comprised of:

~ The floor of my closet where my shoes and laundry reside.

~ Papers- be they letters to be sent, written, read or filed. Be they school work, research work, or random scribbling.

~ Clothing- at the moment, it is very bad since today is laundry day, the winter closet has to be packed away and my summer wardrobe is yet to be properly sorted away.

~ Various craft projects, unfinished or un-started ideas, odds and ends for sewing or knitting. Etc.

~ Books. Since starting my new summer reading goal, I've returned from the library with 18 new books to read. Between these, my school books, and my already owned books I am slightly drowning in piles of books.

~ Tea supplies. Pots, cups, and a ridiculous number of actual tea.

Next, where do these piles accumulate? Where are the very messiest parts?

~ Bottom of my closet.

~ Lower level of my dresser

~ To the side of my work desk/ book shelf.

~ Next to my radiator.

Further investigation has revealed a set of practical goals to finish by the end of this summer to clear away mess and create better, less mess creating habits.

~ Find a new way of storing my shoes rather than a large box. (This will help with clothes and the bottom of my closet.)

~ Use up, pass along, or throw away tea that I don't really like. I have a lot of half empty tins of tea that I'm saving for some inexplicable reason. It might take about a week to finish off the last few crumbs and cut the tea paraphernalia by half. (Helps with lower level of dresser and tea)

~ Create a several new storage boxes from cardboard and cloth for filing and holding other objects. (Helps with papers- if I could have all my letters in one nice place- and finishes up project I've been waiting on.)

~ Organize my crafts: make a list of projects I want to create, materials I need, bag materials together, throw away away useless scraps, package everything else up and store in the basement. Actually finish those projects that I want to make.

~ Be on the look out for cheap bookshelves or innovative storage methods for everything else. Possibly shelves on the wall.

Such for the physical clutter. The psychic clearing will come once I actually begin to do these projects, rather than just have them there. This was a good exercise. It's given me a good set of goals for the summer and made me aware of problem areas. Not quite the same effect as Eco's decluttering process- but very useful never the less.

Over the summer, I'll continue to comment on and try to apply the Good Goth Keeping challenges and the progression of these projects should any interesting revelations arise.

What have other people discovered when looking at the clutter they accumulate?

April 25, 2013

A Sewing Triumph: My First, Finished Skirt

The cover picture
Today I have finished my first solo sewing project: Folkwear's Walking Skirt. A long journey has finally finished and I wanted to share some of the adventures and lessons learned along the way.

It all started while browsing through my local thrift shop. I happened across nearly 4 yards of blue, damask fabric. In all honesty, it is probably upholstery fabric. The drape isn't terribly good and the pattern would look nice on a chair.

Now, I know I'm not a good seamstress yet. But I have been hankering for a floor length, Victorian-esque walking skirt to incorporate into my wardrobe. At only ten dollars for 3.75 yards, it was too good a deal to pass up. What better way to practice my skills?

Next, after considerable searching, I settled on folkwear's Walking Skirt pattern. Though I have never sewn with them before, their selection of ethnic and historical patterns are lovely. If you are a seamstress or want to be, check out their catalog.

A good, basic skirt
This is when I begin to regret not having a camera to show the step by step process.

As you can see from the line drawings, the skirt is pretty basic. A very good beginner's pieces. The pattern requires straight seams, gathering, slip stitching, and a button hole. If I didn't have the internet at my disposal, I might have panicked a bit more than I did. But looking up a few tutorials for each of the terms and mucking about myself, makes me feel confident enough to try it again.

Veteran seamstresses, hold your chuckles, but here are some lessons I've learned:

~ When the pattern gives you little marks, stars, or dots, mark them on your fabric when you're cutting them out. It save so much unfolding, repinning and then marking.

~ Invest in some sewing chalk. Pen, while seemingly a brilliant idea at 11 in the evening, is not. Especially when it is a contrasting color to your fabric.

~ If your fabric has nap (ie the front looks noticeably different from the back), make sure you can easily tell the different. I spent so much time peering at the fabric trying to see if I was looking at the front or back side.

~ Notches are easier to cut and match than the raised triangles.

~ After cutting, I would serge or finish the edges some how to keep the edges neater and from fraying.

~ Buttonholes are addicting.

~ I desperately need to learn to cut in a straight line. My edges were wonky, ragged and generally a mess. But I dismissed the confusion with the rationalization that "it will be hidden by the hems." Here's a hint: those wonky edges are what you will be following during your hemming. Which leads to:

~ I desperately need to learn to sew in a straight line. Wonky edges lead to wonky seams. Those little corrections that seemed so slight under the needle are noticeable on the fabric. Also, having all the fabric lined up before sewing.

~ In short: small imperfections compound.  If you aren't making mistakes or being frustrated, you're not learning.

Street and walking view lengths

As you probably guessed, the skirt came out a little wonky. I need to hem it again and actually measure for my height this time, rather than just follow the instructions. I'll also probably cut the button off and move it an inch to the left, to tighten the waistband. In fact  I'll probably create a new waistband and try it again at some point. But now?

I am pleased. Very pleased. The skirt is full and amazing. I love that I know how to make a placket and a button hole. My understanding of skirt anatomy has increased ten fold as has my comfort levels with adjusting and tailoring skirts. I also think I'll be able to salvage my utter failure of a recent drafting attempt. 

What are some stories from your first sewing adventures?

April 24, 2013

On an Aristocrat's Bookshelf: This Summer's Reading Challenge

Starting today, I will read a minimum 30 hours a week.

Yes, this comes out to 4 hours and 20 minutes a day.

Yes, this is the equivalent of picking up a part time job.

Yes, the time I will spend in class per week is but half of this goal.

A shelf of old, leather bound books in various states of worn covers.
One day my library will contain books like this

Yes, I am looking at my schedule and wondering why I am typing this number and not something more manageable like 10. Or, say, 5.

But there are two facts and one revelation that strengthen my resolve.

First, I am bored in school. Despite the assurances that it will get better, the improvement isn't scheduled until next fall. In the mean time I have only 15 credits to keep me occupied. Rather than suffer under the malaise of wondering if my best mental years are behind me, I'm going to do something difficult and challenging.

Second, Nicholas Nassim Taleb claims to have read for 30 to 60 hours a week all through his schooling. Since he is my current hero and because he claims that this reading has led him to his amazing ideas of Anti-fragility and Black Swans (titles of his books. Read them), I'll do the same.

Third, said author mentioned in that time that he never forced himself to finish a book. He read until it kept his interest and if he didn't understand something or found it too technically difficult, he moved on to something else rather than struggling through it.

That is the revelation. You are under no obligation to finish a book that bores you. None. How many times have I stalled in my reading because a plot didn't capture my interest or the subject matter was a little too technical? How many times have I put off picking up new books because I had so many half started?

You don't need to worry about that. Because this is extra curricular reading, there is no dead line, no necessity to finish. Who cares if it is one of the "greatest works of literature of all time?" Who cares if your friend swears you'll love it? If it doesn't capture your interest, there are thousands of other books out there that will.

Challenge details:

A beautiful old library on two levels in dark wood found in Portugal
The University of Coimbra General Library, Coimbra, Portugal 
Challenge: To read for 30 hours each week.

Cost: none. I'll rely on many, many trips to the local library and the books I already have.

Specifications: Read only books that have been published at some point. (Alas, no fanfiction). Books can either be physical or electronic. Books can be from any genre and do not necessarily need to be "challenging" in and of themselves. Readings for school, outside of class, and for the first time will count. Books do not need to be on my book list, though crossing some of those off would be nice.

How to implement: I'll take most of the time from the time I spend online. Wake up  a little earlier and reach for my book rather than the computer. Bring books to bed and to school.

Foreseen problems: Feeling pressured to read rather than actually getting enjoyment for the story. If this happens too often, I'll stop. The 30 will be a loose goal not a fixed amount and I'll adjust as needed.

Foreseen consequences: I'll have to be more efficient with my correspondence and blogging. Not to mention school work. Fewer pictures with the blog and more posts about books and literature.

Re-evaluation times: I'll do a quick re-evaluation in a weeks time and post about that.

A corridor of book shelves at Trinity College.
Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge

Would anyone care to join me in this challenge? If not, this would be a great time for book suggestions!

April 23, 2013

Aristocrat in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook

A yellow kitchen in an old castle.
Despite the old walls, the kitchen still feels welcoming.

It is a sad fact of life that not all of us are born knowing how to cook. It is even sadder that reading through cook books, food blogs, or nutrition text books does not grant you the ability either. Oh, it is possible to slough through a cook book, following each recipe exactly, and emerge with some idea of how to cook. But it won't be that enviable competency of the kitchen.

The sort where, upon strolling into the grocery store and seeing tomatoes are on sale, immediately inventories their fridge and buys half a dozen knowing how to create salsas, pizza sauces and the like as soon as they return home. It isn't the sort who has rack upon rack of spices and tosses them into the soup seemingly at random- stopping only taste the broth, nod sagely to themselves and then a few more sprinkles of this and that and- Voila! Perfection in a bowl.

Luckily, if cook books lead to half knowledge and experimentation leads to unedible or bland constructions- in my experience- there is a very simple way to learn how to cook: ask a friend. Learning from another person is far more enjoyable than the other ways and, I believe, is far more instructive. Unlike a cook book, a friend can answer your specific questions or explain how to do some incomprehensible step. The process is very simple:

A gothic kitchen: the wall behind the stove is a decadent carved tile. Worth of a castle.
A dream stove.

1. Find a friend who is willing to teach you to cook. No doubt there is always someone who possess more knowledge in the kitchen than you. Be it your best friend or someone you would like to be better friends with, ask them. People like doing other people favors.

2. Choose a menu. Depending on your skill level, it is better to start with simple basics that you can make on a weekly basis without going over budget growing sick of. Pizza dough and pizza, roasted root vegetables, pasta sauce, home made soup, fruit tart, etc.

3. Go shopping. Everyone has their own route through the grocery store and their own small list of things to buy. Going shopping with a friend is like stepping into an entirely new building. Aisles you never traveled down before suddenly become full of new, exciting products. Plus sales or certain items might spark last minute menu revisions. An elegant touch is to offer to pay for all the groceries. After all, you're the student.

4. Cook! You may end up doing a lot of things you've done before- like chopping garlic or washing lettuce. But that's alright. Watch your friend carefully. Ask questions or for clarification. Pay attention to what spices or sauces are used. Play some nice music. Have a good conversation in the down time. Learn to clean as you cook.

5. Eat the food you prepared. Most cooks will have a commentary about what they have just made. The butter didn't cool enough. The chicken wasn't cut into small enough pieces. It could have used some more garlic salt. Listen to that and memorize the taste of the food. You are beginning to develop a palette for different dishes. Soon, possibly, you'll be able to deconstruct dishes at restaurants.

6. Make the food again. Within the next week, make each of the dishes you learned again. They won't be exactly the same. They won't taste quite as good. But you need to memorize how to make them and start learning to tell yourself that "Oh, this needs more salt" or "That was over cooked." This is also a good time to realize that you didn't remember how hot to have the oven or that you weren't paying close enough attention to the spices. Look it up online or call your friend.

7. Go back to the cook books. Now that you know the basics of how to roast a sweet potato or make a pizza, go to the cook books or online for inspiration and variation. Tastespotting is one of my favorite cooking sites. As you grow more comfortable with the foods, feel free to start improvising with ingredients or techniques. The more you learn, the more confident you'll be in the kitchen and the better your diet will become.

How did you learn to cook?

April 19, 2013

How to Beautify Your To-Do List

A Vulcan Victorian stands in a ray of sunlight with an opulent, full skirted gown
Beautiful, but not very practical
An inordinate amount of my free time is spent slipping through the interwebs looking for inspiration. Inspiration for what? Pictures of gorgeous ball gowns. Blog posts about how to elegantly hold a purse. Tips on how to politely inform your parents that you are goth/steampunk/alternative. All well and good bits of information if, when I shut the browser, I feel better about the world.

However, I don't attend balls- or many events that necessitate such extravagant formal wear as a poor grad student. My various cards, accouterments and the like are stored in my backpack or coat pockets- not a purse. And my parents have always supported my eccentric behaviors.

My internet time while, not exactly wasted, hasn't helped me find inspiration for the actual day to day tasks with which I am faced. Looking through the beautiful costumes and gowns is uplifting but not helpful when trying to pull together a practical outfit for sitting in class. Tips for lady-like actions from the turn of the century are inspiring, but not applicable to modern day juggling between job, school, family and friends. Watching the slow transformation of an ordinary kitchen to a gothic masterpiece is only so useful as  you have a kitchen to similarly transform.

Faux cherry trees in bloom, strung with lanterns, flank a white couch in a room that is half-forest, half dinning room.
Again, beautiful design with limited applicability.
In short, the inspiration found online is good for the soul but not direct application. To actually begin taking steps towards direct application, you need to for go your sources of inspiration and take a look at what you actually do in your day, wear in your week, or have in your room.

A girl in a tan full, bustled skirt and white shirt with a simple jabot stands in a steampunk tent
One of the most wearable and practical steampunk outfits I've found
For instance, I went through my day and came up with a basic list of activities of which I partake: breakfast,
commuting by foot to school, class note taking, class participation  lunch, homework, dinner, keeping in touch with friends, reading, blogging, letter writing and sewing. There are other activities interspersed depending on the season and location, but on a given day it is a good bet that I preform the majority of these activities.  Obviously, the list will be different for each person.

Lets take the first activity, breakfast. A normal, dull routine consisting of oatmeal with various garnishes and a cup of tea. How do I make this more Aristocratic? I could improve the setting: have flowers on the table. Make sure I sit down and eat leisurely  Include a fruit with breakfast. Take time to read through a novel or nothing at all rather than rush. Make sure I don't skip a meal. Again, it depends on your aesthetic for how you would improve this meal to better suit yourself.

Or take another: homework. For me, an Aristocrat studies for understanding the material rather than the test grade. This means completing all assignments in an orderly fashion. Pre-reading the lecture material and outlining sections to ask questions and going back to review material that may have been forgotten.

A darkly wooded bed room where the bed is hung with white linen curtains a red rug is on the floor.
A much easier to attain aesthetic as well
Ideally, you should go through each of your activities and brainstorm a list of how to do such daily activity in a more elegant, gothic, steampunk, or lolita manner- depending on  your aesthetic. Then choose one aspect from one activity and practice it for a week. Pay attention to how it changes your life, how it makes you feel, and, if it improves your general day to day living, keep it. If not, move on to something else.  At the moment, I am trying not to rush through meals, but take them slow and consciously.

It is well and good to dream about your aesthetic or to live it on the weekend, but why limit yourself and live your days in humdrum existence?

April 18, 2013

Penpals and Interpals: How to Find a Penpal on the Internet

A victorian lady sits before her letter and considers the next line, her pen resting on the edge of her lips.
How I would like to look writing a letter
That letter writing is superior to e-mails or texts, is a first principle of most alternative cultures. The pleasure of receiving a thick envelope in the mail, reading another person's joys and sorrows in their own handwriting, feeling a real connection knowing that this letter was held in another's hands and traveled possibly thousands of miles to arrive at your door step. Nor need it be argued that the material of letter writing is infinitely preferable- the thick stationary, themed stamps, pens, fountain or quill, colored ink, and sealing wax. These are all able to reflect a particular aesthetic. But even a letter written on lined school paper in pencil is precious.

So, you have your paper, your pen, your desire to write the stories that clutter up your mind and have no outlet- but no address on your envelope. Correspondence isn't a single girl's game. There must be two to write.

I have six penpals to exchange letters with. Only two of them, my grandparents and my cousin, I knew previously. The other's are completely new. Where did I find them? On the internet.

Two richly dressed Victorian women sit reading a letter.
"Pleasant Letter" by Alfred Stevens

There are many sites to help penpals find similarly minded people. I've tried several over the years and my favorite is Interpals. The basic process is simple. You sign up for a free account which lets you create a profile. On this profile you can write as much or as little as you choose, though there are prompts like favorite books, favorite movies, etc. Unless you restrict the privacy settings, you can go view the profiles of other people and others can view your profile. If you find someone who strikes your interest, you send them a message. 

Yes, before you object, there are creeps, dullards, and pervs on the site. There's no way to really filter them on a free site. However, you have complete control over how much information you reveal about yourself- and you certainly wouldn't put anything too confidential. There is also a handy tool to block users from looking, commenting or sending you a message. 

But these are a small percentage of the genuinely lovely population which makes up the site. The trick to finding like minded people is to know how to write your profile and what to look for in a penpal. These are my tips to finding a good penpal on the internet:

A victorian woman with dark hair contemplates the first line of her blank letter.
Think before you write.
First, know what you want out of a penpal. Do you want long heartfelt letters dripping in emotions for each letter? Or do you prefer something lighter, more day to day activities? Do you want a regular correspondent who sends off a letter ever two weeks? Or someone who writes longer, more irregular letters? Do you care about mail art? Or is the content good enough for you?

For me, I am an irregular correspondent and I warn my potential penpals of that from the first message. There are days that I am inspired to write a twenty page letter and there are times when two or three months pass without comment. Know yourself and don't expect more from others than you do yourself. I also prefer longer, more emotional letters to chatty letters- but again. Know your audience- it is possible to have many different flavors of correspondent. 

The Queen Mother in a fur stole writing a  letter.
The Queen Mother writing letters before her marriage in 1923

Second, your profile:

~ Don't be stereotypical. This includes saying "I'm looking for interesting people." (Who isn't?), starting your profile with any variation of "Hi, My name is X. I am a X. I like X, X, X...." This is a chance to show your creativity and intelligence. In the same line, don't say "ask if you want to know more" when you have given the reader nothing to ask about.

~ Don't include a four inch paragraph of one word sound bites. Yes, it might pick up many more search keywords, but it is a pain to read through and gives very little about your personality.

~ Do write a long profile and update regularly. There is no shame in spending a great deal of time and effort making sure the face you are presenting to the world is as authentic, beautiful and thoughtful as possible. Yes, you are advertising yourself. That is why the website exists. So create a profile that strikes the balance between the person you'd like to talk with and who you are honestly. Personality isn't static.

~ Do include favorite books. It is the ultimate judge of a profile for me. I love Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I could probably quote more trivia than you'd believe possible. But if in the past twenty years you haven't read anything in the whole history of human fiction and non-fiction which you like better than Harry Potter- that is sad. Very sad. Also, if you want to speak with intelligent Europeans, your book list had better be extensive and varied. 

~ Do be polite with everyone. The annoying "hi how r u?" messages are inevitable. There are many ways to deal with them: block the offender, ignore the offender, send a brief "no thank you," or, my preferred method, a polite "no thank you" with a brief explanation of why you are declining the conversation. At least this way, they can see what mistake they made and maybe keep from doing it again.

~ Do respond to first messages promptly. If someone new messages you or someone replies to your opening message favorably, reply as soon as possible. It keeps the worry at bay.

~  Do be proactive in searching and messaging potential penpals. Don't wait for them to contact you first. Your first message should be short - no more than five sentences- show that you read the profile, ask a follow up question, and give them the chance to back out if they aren't interested. 

~ Do not be offended if someone doesn't wish to speak with you. There may not be that spark. There may not be the time. There may not be the interest. Either way, people are not obliged to speak with you. It is polite to give them a chance to back out to keep feathers from being ruffled. I ask that if they are too busy to write to give me a title of a book that they enjoyed, preferably from their country.

~ Do exchange several letters before giving out your address. Not only to make sure the person is trustworthy, but also to make sure that you have a good chemistry for writing.

~ Do have fun. This is a great way to be exposed to many different conversations and cultures. Be savvy, polite and never apologetic for your country. Think of good stories you want to share and specific things you want to know. 

In another post, I'll give my tips for writing a good letter. If you are interested in contacting me via interpals, my screen name is "EvelynCEC7B8." I'd love to talk. Have any of you used an online penpal finder?

April 17, 2013

Aesthetic Analysis: an Introduction

 On a lark, I went back to re-read my original introduction. The passion I captured still resonates, but I've only focused on two of the three purposes. This past month especially, I've been able to give some tips for applying the aesthetic and chronicled some episodes of my life. However, despite a general post about evolving knowledge for a wider aesthetic, this blog has been lax in actually discovering the aesthetic of a Neo-Aristocrat. Which is a shame, considering the hundreds of pictures I've collected over the years that have struck my fancy or made me think "Ah! This is Aristocratic."

Hence, an introduction of a new series: Inspiring your Aesthetic.

This will be a fun, easy series. Each post will include one picture from my collection, usually fashion related. Generally falling into either Steampunk, Lolita, or Gothic. There may be some architectural or interior design ideas. Maybe others. I'll explain what elements appeal to me about this picture, what can apply to me, and how I can add more of these elements to my daily life. Unfortunately, most of these pictures were collected long before I thought of sharing them on my blog, so I don't have credits or references. If you recognize one, please let me know where it is from so I can link back.

A woman clad in Neo-Vicotrian garb leans against a beautiful end table against a grey backdrop.

What I love most about this photo is the color composition. Everything matches without being monochrome. The wall matches the lampshade, which transforms into the pewter lamp, which connects to the glossy finish on the table. The woman's outfit matches as well. The white of the shirt matching the color of her corset while the corsets accents pull in the brown of the skirt.  Then the position of her hands, the empty space created by her arms, the tilt of her torso contrasted against the horizontal lines of the table- it is a beautifully composed piece which, like a flower arrangement, improves the longer I look.

Unfortunately, the look itself doesn't work on my body type. The colors themselves would be flattering and practical- I always think cream and brown are a lovely combination. However, my shoulders are broad enough that they excess mutton sleeves would make me look ridiculous. Considering I've never found a pencil skirt to flatter my hips, I doubt I'll find a fishtail dress that will. However, as a cleaner version of the traditional Victorian bustle, it works nicely on this model.

I do like some of the details. The tight wrists with the dark buttons alluding to spats is an interesting idea and relatively easy to do. If the sleeves were a little less full and mutton-y, I'd like the cut off at the elbow. The lack of sleeves would be neat and clean. No accidentally knocking a glass over with a sweeping gesture. The high neck with the ruffles is also a good touch, and the gathering at the bodice.

As for the decoration, I like it. Not for my entire house and probably not so minimal, but for a room? That grey is a beautiful color to paint the walls and I love how the complex carvings of the table contrasts with the simple lines of the lamp. The flowers add a touch of life and softness to the otherwise dead elements. As an entry way, with that the table for the mail? Yes.

Unfortunately, being a poor grad student with one room to my name, there is little direct aesthetic I can glean from this picture. There are a few lessons I can take forward:

~ I like the complementary colors. When choosing outfits or thrifting, I can look for pieces that match what I have in my closet better.

~ The dominant color scheme of my room is brown and red- yet all my furniture is varying shades of brown. This summer, I can buy some stain and darken the wood to a richer brown to match the red. I should also choose my accessories with more care- a more dominate theme might be beneficial.

~ I like the high collar and the button arms- those might be able to replicate in a shirt.

~ I can try to declutter many of the flat surfaces I have around my room. Make them a little less chaotic looking and a  little more stylish.

Was there any inspiration that you drew out of this picture?

April 16, 2013

Two Principles for Getting Along with Anyone

A man leans against a tree looking imploringly at the raven perched in the branches overhead.
Conversation by Sergey Solomko

There are days when I wish I could retreat to a lonely castle in the mountains. My servants would be the spirits of the wind- silent and invisible. The nearest village would be a twenty mile hike through impenetrable wilderness. No one would talk to me and I would not have to talk to anyone.

For the sensitive among us- the artists, ladies, gentlemen for whom a casual comment wounds deeply- who can not just shrug off the words of the world, it can be difficult to navigate the treacherous waters of the social world. Was that comment meant in jest? Or was it meant as a subtle insult? Did the turn in conversation reflect some commentary on my actions? Or was it innocent and we are, once again, over reacting? Seeing demons in the mist?

For those of us with cut glass souls, it seems as there are two options in dealing with the world. Either we wrap our fragile hearts in a deep cloak of cynicism and irony- allowing not even the sincere comments to penetrate. Or we remain open, vulnerable, and continually exposed to the slings and arrows of outrageous conversion.

Two people converse at a cafe in silhouette.
From Rttmsdag on Deviant Art

While I would not forgo my sensitive nature, there are two ways I've found to blunt the tongues and actions of others.

First, assume beautiful intent.

The laws of physics create too many beautiful phenomenal for the universe to be malevolent. Look at newly discovered nebula, artistic renditions of common proteins, or the patterns carved into the sand by wind and water. Maybe these aren't inherently beautiful, but humans have found them so. In the same way, even if we can't apply the words good or bad to the universe entire, we can certainly choose to appreciate it as beautiful  rather than ugly.

Applying this idea further, when meeting or interacting with people, assume they are being governed by the same laws of physics that created all of these glorious phenomena and are the best they can possibly be at that moment. Maybe you can't see it right now, but you might also not be aware of all the various factors in their life which are exerting an influence on them. The quiet, withdrawn person who didn't return your greeting so enthusiastically might be suffering from bad news or impending job loss.  We might never be aware of every factor in their lives, so better to assume they are being the best they can be.

Two men are engaged in conversation. One, however, looks concerned and offended by the other.
From "How to End a Conversation"

However, if something hurtful rather than negligent slips, fall back to the second principle:

Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.

Hanlon's razor is not the most flattering image of humanity, but has proven true in most cases. It has also helped me more than the first principle because it relies on an underlying principle which I know is true "You are not the center of the world." Quite honestly, none of us are important enough to incur the malice of everyone we meet. (If you are, well done.  You've lived a more Nietzchen life than me).

People's thoughtless comments are rarely planned out carefully with the intention to hurt. Twists in the conversation are almost never commentary about some aspect of yourself. Most likely, people are forgetful, stupid, or haven't made certain connections. If you point out how a comment made you feel, most will be horrified and, probably, think you a little strange for being so affected.

Plus, in all honesty, it certainly feels better to think that the hurtful comment was the mistake of someone else rather than one of your own.

A painting of a Victorian party. Couples are gathered about a ballroom in various modes of conversation.
An Elegant Soiree

The next time you're in a conversation or go to a party, try to enter assuming beautiful intent. If that doesn't sweep away the niggling barbs, assume incompetence rather than malice. People aren't out in the world to make you miserable.

A final thought. If you have met someone who does unleash a near constant or reliable stream of perceived insults, limit your interactions with them. Their negativity is unnecessary in your life. If you can't get away, try talking to them and explaining how their words are perceived.

April 15, 2013

Aristocrat in the Kitchen: Plate Size

A heavily laden Thanksgiving table where the serving dishes are vegetables and all the food is natural.
From November 2011 of Martha Stewart Living

Food is one of the most important and most complicated things we do to our bodies. Passion  lifestyle, memories, and health all center around your diet and yet there is so much confusing and conflicting information about what to eat and what is healthy to eat. Untangling those problems is a series of posts for another day.

What I want to talk about today is plate size.

I have a confession: despite my schooling, intentions, and better knowledge, I don't eat until I feel full or, better yet, until I'm not hungry. I eat until my plate is empty. As with everything, there are several reasons: I eat at my desk while studying, I don't pay enough attention, I put off hunger until my blood sugar drops, I am loath to throw food away, etc. Many of you probably have similar problems.

However, as we all know, over eating is a huge problem in America and the developed world. The body is overwhelmed by the calories, the processed sugars and carbs, the sheer glut of food- and becomes sluggish and unresponsive. I lack the self discipline to leave that last half of toast on the plate or those last four bites of pasta in the bowl. If I try to impose such discipline on myself, then the struggle exhausts my will power and I end up caving in somewhere else. Studies show this is a common phenomenon.

Pretty Pink Lolita dining ware, perfect for a spring tea.
Found on Haute Design by Sarah Klassen

This is all to explain why I am so happy with my latest discovery in the realm of life hacks: little plates and bowls.

There are two principles I am working from:

First, the human body is designed for feast and famine situations. It wants to over eat because it lives in constant fear that this will be the last meal ever, despite seeing the full fridge and cupboards every day. Unfortunately, there is not much we can do to overwrite this biological predisposition. Will power only gets you so far.

Second, the reversal of the shopping cart phenomena. Stores use huge shopping carts to encourage shoppers to buy more. After all, the contents of your grocery list look pitiful in the expanse of empty wire. Why not add a few chips?

Nine bowls, each filled with a different dish, that are served along with Korean dinners. Goodness in small quantities.
Korean Banchan

My room mates have in addition to their normal plates and bowls, a set of salad and small soup bowls that hold about a cup of soup. For the past week, I've been trying to exclusively eat with these smaller dinner ware and these are my results:

~ One cup of soup- the recommended portion size on the side of the box- looks pathetic and sad in a regular bowl. In a small one, it looks like a full meal. A single scoop of vegetables or pasta seems dwarfed by the vastness of a regular plate. On a salad plate, it looks overflowing. By restricting the size, I've simulated over abundance and satisfy my bodies worry of not having enough.

~ I am not hungry.  Despite reducing my portions by sometimes up to 50%, I don't feel hungry at the end of the meal. I remain satisfied until the next meal. It might be the visual cue of an empty plate which sets off my

~ There are more meals in my fridge. Because I'm still cooking the same amount but eating much less, I can usually squeeze another serving from the food prepared. A lucky find for grad students on a budget!

~ I pay more attention to what I'm eating- this could just be the  novelty of using smaller dinner ware and will fade as I acclimate, but I enjoy having a bowl I can hold in the palm of my hand. Which means that-

~  I usually eat slower, chew more and enjoy the food more. All essential proponents of better digestion.

~ I feel better. Both physically for eating better and less and psychically for being virtuous and dainty by using smaller portions.

~ There's more room in the dishwasher. A very small point, but it makes me happy to increase the space between unloading.

Beautifully detailed, textured Iranian plates
Beautiful Iranian plates

 I'd like to add an addendum to a rule mentioned in an earlier post:

A Neo-Aristocrat knows how to manipulate his or her environment to best suit his or her well being.

Rather than worry about weight gain, struggle with ingrained habits, and feel bad about my lack of discipline  I manipulated the world and did away with the problems. If you want to do the same, here are some tips:

~ Go to the thrift store and purchase a small plate and small bowl. Salad size or smaller. It shouldn't cost more than a few dollars. Naturally, don't buy doll size plates. Choose something that will reduce your food intake without taking you to the opposite extreme of anorexia.

~ If you can't afford that at the moment- believe me I understand- try just putting less food on your plate. It doesn't have quite the same effect, since the food looks so soft and pitiful and I feel like I'm not eating enough, but it make work for now.

~ Make sure you do the same technique for your other snacks. Don't bring a bag of chips to the desk- bring a small bowl. Try buying smaller fruit to eat. Make sure that there is a definite limit to your food.

Are there any other tips for portion control that you have?

April 14, 2013

Why Wash Wool (and Other Natural Fibers)

In a decadent, decaying mansion, laundry hang on clotheslines under an ornate chandelier. Is it decoration or necessity?

In an earlier post, I promised an explanation of how I wash my natural fibers. I am beginning to collect quite a few different pieces of 100% something or the other, only because I have overcome my fear of ruining those pieces in the wash- a fear which seems common to many people browsing the thrift store. This will not be an exhaustive tutorial of how to washing things- and if any of it is incorrect, please let me know before its too late. It's simply what has worked for me in the past.

If it is laundry day and the pile of clothing looms threateningly, do not- I repeat- do not just throw it all into the washer and run away. Different fabrics require different care depending on how they are created at a microscopic layer. Wool, for instance, is the hair of a sheep. And like our hair is comprised of tiny scales. When these strands are heated, the scales spring open and latch on to each other. If the fibers are then agitated, these newly formed teeth reach out and claw across each other, sticking and tangling- so when you pull your sweater out of the wash (which is designed to heat and agitate fabrics) it's the shape remains but about twenty sizes too small because of how the fibers compacted. Hence horror stories of ruined wool items.

But fear not- this need not be the fate of all garments.

An elegant, old-world style makes even a laundry room appealing.

First, look at the inside tag of each and ever item. These are put on by the makers who generally have a decent idea about how their item should be handled. If it says wash in cold, put in a cold pile. If warm, put in a warm pile.Never the two shall mix. It is surprising how many natural fibers can stand up to the washing machine- I have cashmere sweaters that like warm and cotton that likes hot.

If the tag says dry clean- it's a suggestion- not a commandment carved in stone.Put it to the side for the moment.

A Victorian Soap add where two women in white bend over a basin of water.

If the tag says dry clean ONLY- you're in a dilemma  The most common reason for this concern is that the item has a, generally, wool exterior and a silk or polyester lining. If you wash the wool in warm, it will shrink. If you wash the polyester in cold, it won't be washed. Dry cleaners- through magic I know not- are able to circumvent this problem. I've come up with three possible solutions:

~ If you have the money, want to ensure the life span of the piece, or just bought it from the thrift store, take it to the dry cleaners.

~ If you are a broke grad student like me and are ambivalent about necessary cleanliness or lifespan of the piece, put it in the pile with the other dry clean pieces.

~ If you are hard core, remove the lining from the item, wash each separately, and, I guess, resew them together afterwards.

Now, look to the much smaller pile of dry clean garments. What you need now is a bath tub, some mild detergent  and many, many, many towels. A spare room is also useful. Or understanding room mates.This technique is especially recommended for Grad students because the steps are far enough spaced that you can get a good chunk of studying finished between each.

An ordinary bathroom is transformed into a beautiful oasis through an abundance of house plants

First, fill up the bath tub with cold- it must be cold- water. Add a bit of detergent. Let the detergent soak in and then carefully add your sweaters and other things. If you are terribly conscientious, separate colors from whites from black. Fill the tub so that all the sweaters are submerged.

Do not scrub the sweaters.

Do not swish them about.

Do not mix them up, turn them over, attempt to reenact the parting of the red seat, etc.

Do squish them down lightly until they are submerged. Do gently press down on them- careful not to agitate the fibers. Do work any particularly dirty spots generally. (For actual stains, consult the internet.)

Let them soak in the water for as long as it takes you to memorize another chapter, then drain the water, fill the tub up again, and soak. This is the rinsing phase.

Once, you feel the detergent sufficiently rinsed, drain and leave the sweaters in there for a while. Press gently on them to remove some of the excess water, but let most of it drain out through gravity.

Here is where the towels come into play. After the sweaters are washed, rinsed, and drained, pick them up gently and, without squeezing, wringing or twisting, lay them flat on a towel. Yes, they will be heavy and soaked. Roll the towel up, squeeze out the excess water and transfer the sweater to another towel in another room. It will take about two days to dry fully (see what I said about understanding room mates) check twice a day to turn the sweater over and change out the towel underneath.

This would be an excellent time and place to put all those other clothes to dry. For, as you were reading the labels  you'll notice that about half of those clothes that can go into the dryer ask to be either line dried or dried flat. Listen to those requests! It is the hot air and the tumble drying that wear out clothes so fast. Plus, by air drying, you are saving electricity on your bill.

If a garment is knitted rather than woven, it will most likely be asked to be dried flat. If you try to dry it on a hanger, the garment is going to lose its form and you'll end up with awkward bumps on the top of the shoulder. Most unsightly.  Lay these out on a towel as well and they should be dried with in a day or two.

Those with tags that say tumble dry low, can be tumble dried low with just about everything else that is left over.

Now, you are still not quite finished. After everything has dried out, pick up your iron and ruin it quickly over your linens, cottons and any wool that are wrinkled. Pay attention to the tag not the iron settings. Another annoying thing about synthetic fibers is that you can't iron them without turning them into plastic. Natural fibers can be ironed and have that lovely, crisp quality. Then hang everything in the closet right away rather than keeping it piled on your floor. After all that work, it would be a shame not to put things away properly.

Do you see why washer women were so Vital to the Victorians?

Much like this post, laundry can seem enormously challenging. But it's not. All told, it is maybe three hours of work spread out over two days time. Getting up to change the laundry, turn over the sweaters or iron a few shirts is a great study break and can calm the mind while the hands remain busy. Plus, the next time that you put on your sweater, skirt, shirt or otherwise, you know that you are wearing something of great personal value.

If anyone has tips, tricks or questions, I'd love to hear them. Again, if it seems I am doing something wrong, let me know.

April 13, 2013

This Is Your Mood on Music

Painted by Michael Workman
For the past few weeks my mood swung towards the melancholy. Perhaps it is the change of seasons. Perhaps it is the grey skies and rain that mark the coming of summer. Perhaps it is just the natural swing of my moods.


 I've noticed that a number of more atmospheric songs have infiltrated their way into my current, constant play list. Kafabindunya has beautiful, ethereal sounds - I recommend that you listen to them at least once- but they are long and melancholy. Listening to them I can transport myself to the lost wastelands of a post-apocalyptic world where the skies are every grey and the light is ever muted and the only living thing for miles is me. Reading, writing, accomplishing meaningful tasks seems beyond the scope of my energy.

As finals loom on the horizon, I have begun to play more classical music from a long instilled belief that the mathematical precision of bach can help me master all of physics. (It can't.) But in the past few days, my attention span has improved, I've crossed off several tasks on my to do list, and have been feeling more energetic and stable. Melancholia is relegated to those brief moments of contemplating the grey sky.

 In short, music not only effects my mood but my ability to function in the world. 

Now, I realize I am a highly sensitive introvert. Music, art, movies, really all media, affect me on a deeper level than they do for friends and family. It is only natural that my mood would be very affected by my sound track. Combined with  the seasonal changes and the weather, I became a perfect tuning fork for melancholia.

Melancholia is not a wrong or sinful state to be in. On the contrary  our obsession with remaining happy and stable is detrimental to our well being. Sadness, like pain, allows us to realize that there is something that makes us unhappy and needs to be fixed. It allows for greater introspection and empathy- two other characteristics sorely lacking from modern society. 

But melancholia without reason is harmful. Melancholia which lasts for too long is unhealthy. There are also times which are not conductive to being mournful and thoughtful- such as finals and tax season. Attempting to live forever in the state of feeling the worlds or your own anguish- much less basing your identity around such feelings- is frankly, counterproductive and idiotic. This is another problem I have with the Goth subculture as I understand it (please correct me if I'm wrong). "Memento Mori" (1) is vital but, as La Rouchfoucauld stated with his usual brevity "Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fixement." (2)

First, a Neo-Aristocrat knows his or herself. 

Second, a Neo-Aristocrat knows how to manipulate his or her moods to best fit the situation.

Faking or repressing emotions fails, but if you know yourself well enough to know what affects your moods, why listen to music which will make you less capable or functional? Better to wait until you have the space (and you should make the space) to be melancholy and then use the music to further your mood.

1. Remember that you will die
2. Neither the sun nor death can be looked upon fixedly. 

April 11, 2013

Why Wear Wool (and Other Natural Fibers)

Perched on the edge of a railing, a woman in a page boy's cap and long wool coat looks off camera. Her dress pattern of swirls like galaxies contrasts nicely

In an earlier post, I mentioned my desire to only buy and wear natural fabrics and promised a blog post of its own. Voila!

First a most basic overview:

Our clothing is made of fibers which can be divided into two categories: natural and man-made. Natural fibers (like wool, silk, cotton, linen, and hemp) are derived from animal or plant based products and are the fibers our ancestors have been spinning, weaving and wearing for centuries. Man-made products are a new invention- made within the last hundred and fifty years and are synthesized from petroleum by products and other chemically clever means (if anyone is interested in such a topic, I've probably learned enough Organic Chemistry to puzzle out the method.)

Now, there are some eco-friendly main made products synthesized from bamboo and other sustainable materials. As important as ecological consciousness is for a Neo-Aristocrat, fashion and budget are equally important. Most garments made from the trendy organic cotton or bamboo products are very minimalist and- in my opinion- aesthetically displeasing. Plus, you are unlikely to find them in a thrift store.

There are three reasons why I prefer natural fibers. The first comes from the benefits of wearing natural fibers. Due to various molecular and chemical formations, natural fibers last longer, are more breathable, contain some anti-microbial benefits and do not pill. May I repeat: they do not pill.

Most modern clothes are a mix of cotton and synthetic material designed to last maybe half a dozen times through the wash before ripping, tearing, falling apart, or creating those nasty little bundles of fiber that look and feel terrible to wear ie pills. At this point, the original wearer either tosses the shirt or, if moved by some desire to save the environment or help others, donates it to a thrift shop.  Quite frankly my dears, if you find the piece unwearable, your average thrift store shopper will too.

However, clothing of natural fibers is designed to hold up through many years of wearing and washing. Most of the clothing with a 100% natural fiber tag is still perfectly wearable by the time it reaches the thrift store. It looks and feels of a higher quality than most other items around it.

A beautiful, Victorian blouse featuring pintuck details, a high neck collar, and a lacy overshawl.

Which leads me to my second reason for loving natural fibers. They are more expensive to produce than man-made synthetics. Either plants must be cultivated or animals cared for- both which take much longer to grow than chemicals in a vat.

Generally, I've found that the more expensive the cloth the more innovative the design or, at least, the better quality the production. Higher end fabrics are marketed for higher end clothing- not discount or ridiculously cheap brands like what populate the modern malls of America. Higher end clothing tends to have the more interesting details and finishing that are absent from much of what I find in Forever 21. Better buttons, better seems, better zippers all result in a better product for you. (Of course, I realize that not all natural fiber pieces fit this stereotype, it is just the average of what I've found).

Finally, it is actually possible to find pieces like this. Due to trends in modern consumerism, much of the well made pieces are vintage or nearly so. At least, they don't fit exactly into the modern aesthetic. What? You don't care for a calf length wool skirt depicting an abstract french fishing village in muted blacks and greys? Well, by all means, it fits perfectly in my closet!

A Modern Red Riding Hood stands before the paparazzi in a beautiful red cape.

In short, yes, you do need to be a tad more discriminating. Yes, the pieces are harder to find. But it is worth it to have clothing that will be healthier for your body, last you longer, and be far more unique than what you can find in most modern stores. And with that: a new law of thrifting: buy for the fit and the aesthetic, not the fabric. Unless you are hungry for a new project.

I'll address maintenance concerns in a later post. Below are some links if you want to learn more about the health benefits of natural fibers- keep in mind the biases of most websites:

~ A lovely, basic overview of natural fibers

Everything you could possibly want to know about natural fibers and then some

A good graph to compare the relative strengths of different fibers

Why natural fibers are better in the landfill