I was planning on writing about puppets today, but instead, I’m writing about something else. Because after a week and a half of staring at the same three rooms, I’m ready to really mix it up. Break the mold. I mean, do something just absolutely WILD.
So I baked oatmeal raisin cookies.
And I’m not even going to talk about the recipe I used (plot twist – it’s the one on the quaker oats website). No, I’m going to talk about why I made them.
I have not left the house in a week and a half. There are things I love to eat that I’m starting to run low on. Tortilla chips. Fresh salad. Chamomile tea (I clearly live a wild life). But I have a LOT of oatmeal.
Here’s the thing about oatmeal.
It makes sense on paper. It is cheap. It stays good for ages. It’s a great part of a balanced diet. But I just don’t like it.
And because it makes sense on paper, I keep thinking it’s something I need. I’ll be in the grocery store, and think “oh, I haven’t bought oatmeal in a while. I probably need more.” And I’ll buy some. And I’ll get home, and reach up to put it in the cabinet to discover another container of oatmeal is already there, and it has been used exactly once since I bought it four months ago.
On top of that, oatmeal is on every single recommended supply list for if you’re looking at stocking up on groceries. In fact, these lists are stuffed full of items that look good on paper. None of the major lists address the fact that everything you’ve stocked up on for the month appears to be beige and bland. You know what should be on those lists? 32 oz. containers of red pepper flakes. Family size bags of cheetos. Cans of diced hatch green chiles. If you’re holed up inside for a very long time, make sure you also have ingredients that make you WANT to eat.
All that to say, I now have 3 separate containers of oatmeal, and I may very well retire before I finish eating them.
So I did what everyone always does whenever they need to put a dent in their supply of dense, beige, practical-on-paper food. I paired it with something that actually tastes good. Butter. Brown sugar. vanilla.
And we all know that raisins are in the recipe due to the same problems, right? Someone way down the line was like “man, I need to clear out the back of this cabinet. It’s jammed up with 4 mostly full containers of oats, and 17 individual serving size boxes of raisins.” And before you know it, oatmeal raisin cookies were invented. (I’m also convinced the dirty martini was only invented to give everyone a reason to use up that jar of olives in their fridge door.)
But you know what? Once you throw in all of the ingredients for a birthday cake, this healthy survival food isn’t so bad!
I had a substantial phase where I built catapults. I built them out of anything. LEGOs, K’NEX, matchsticks, pens, pencils… Anything that could take tension or create leverage got co-opted into catapult pieces.
I primarily referenced The Art of the Catapult for blueprints.
This book outlines the development of catapults through the ages. It also comes with handy construction outlines for each model. Sadly, most of the instructions require extensive power-tool usage and advanced hardware.
Fortunately for the safety of everyone in my vicinity, I did not have access to power tools in my teenage years. So everything was pretty much hot glue and ingenuity.
Unless you have access to a handy 50 pound counterweight, the easiest model to go with in your apartment is the Onager, a Roman catapult from around 350 A.D. The Onager throwing arm is powered entirely by twisted cord. For the homemade varietal, the components you need are a frame to hold the cord, a throwing arm to winch up inside the cord, and a block to stop the swing of the catapult arm at its peak.
Then just load up with the ammunition of your choice (ideally the severed heads of your enemies) and fire away!
Stop-motion filmmaking: an activity for sitting confined in a small space while closely tracking the incremental changes in a subject over a very long period of time.
This is what you’ve been training for.
And speaking of trains. I’ve recently acquire two tiny lego trains that I thought would be perfect for a stop-motion exercise. For instruction I referenced the LEGO Make Your Own Movie Book. It is not comprehensive, but it came with a LEGO skateboard, so that’s cool.
I also downloaded the app Onion Cam2, which allows you to do stop-motion right on your smartphone (for free!) It’s super fun, but I also learned that the lack of storage space on my phone means I’m limited to making very short movies. The constraints of no-budget film.
I set up a tear-out backdrop from the book, lit with a desk lamp, and clipped my iPhone to a tripod. The app allows you to onion-skin, showing a transparency of the previous frame so you can judge how far to move each subject between frames. It’ll also export anywhere between 12 and 24 frames per second, depending on how much patience (or phone memory) you have.
The trains are great because, well, they don’t have limbs. So there’s very little you have to move between takes. All that to say is, this is not my most exhaustively detailed film.
It might sound like a bad idea – learning a skill that might send you to the hospital while staying indoors to help create less work for the hospital system.
But let’s face it. I don’t currently own a unicycle. I’m guessing you also don’t currently own a unicycle. So for all intents and purposes, today we are learning how to ride a theoretical unicycle.
Theoretical unicycling, like theoretical physics, is completely harmless.
I learned how to ride a unicycle from the book: How to Ride a Unicycle
Which I realize as I look at this book again, is really not a very good book. But somehow I still figured it out. I guess if I can learn to ride an actual unicycle from a mediocre book, it’s plausible you can learn to ride a theoretical unicycle from this post?
If you’re wondering if I can actually ride a unicycle, here is the most recent digital evidence I have.
Proof both that I can ride the wobble-machine, and that it’s possible to ride one and not die. Theoretically.
According to the book, it takes 7 to 15 hours to learn how to ride one of these. Which is troubling. Imagine getting on a flight (back when we still took flights) and being told your travel time would be 7 to 15 hours. What’s happening in those eight maybe-hours?
Honestly, in both cases, a lot of discomfort.
There are two tricks to riding a unicycle. Getting on top of it. And staying on top of it.
You need to start off with something sturdy to cling onto for dear life. In my case, it was the back of the sofa in our living room. Hence the indoor-learning
Based on my experience, you put your foot on the lower pedal, the seat between your legs, and kick up onto it. Hey, that wasn’t so ha–
Then it shoots out like a rocket from between your legs and puts a tire print on your attic door that stays there for the next five years.
So you practice that mount up again and again while listening to audiobooks until it stops rocketing away and stays put. Now you can sit uncomfortably on top of this thing while you cling desperately to your sofa. Progress.
Then comes the finessing of the pedals. Your first pedaling is clumsy, jerky. Each one veers the solo wheel to the right, and then back to the left. Your thighs squeeze the seat like a vice. You clutch wildly at anything for support. You’re very glad no one is watching this.
Over time, it smooths out. Once you’re comfortable enough that you can keep your center of gravity above the wheel (instead of mostly on the back of the sofa) you’ll make a lot more progress. Soon you can hold yourself up in a doorway. Then against a wall. You can’t quite go on your own yet, but you can move to practicing outside on a sidewalk.
Note: as soon as you switch to practicing on concrete, buy a lot of protective gear. Or really good health insurance. If you’re in the US, you’ll find the protective gear to be much cheaper than the insurance.
Once you’ve got the hang of it. You can ride free with no support. First just a few feet, then a few yards. Then you’re circling around the block!
You’ll find uneven surfaces to be painful, drop-offs incredibly jarring, and hills to be an absolute nightmare. (There’s a reason I don’t unicycle often in Pittsburgh.) But don’t let that stop you. For every obstacle, there’s a dozen more overly persistent athletes out there determined to overcome it. If you’re really up for some armchair unicycle adventuring, you can watch through Ed Pratt’s entire unicycle tour of the United States.
And maybe that’s the best of all worlds here. Learning about a wildly unsafe activity with all of the best cinematography and none of the personal risks.
I could say so much about cartoons and comics, I could spend two whole weeks on the topic. (And who knows, I might just get to,)
But we’re not at full blown lecture mode. Yet. We’re just looking to have fun with a few skills.
There are two contrasting how-to writers that I’ll recommend for drawing up some quarantine cartoons.
One is Mark Kistler, of Draw Squad and Imagination Station.
I didn’t catch Bob Ross growing up, but from what I’ve gathered, Mark Kistler is the Bob Ross of cartoons. I used his books for step-by-step cartoons for a long time growing up. To the point, where opening this book up today, I found some 10-year-old Daniel originals inside.
This is a great book for getting the confidence to start out drawing cartoons. It starts with super easy assignments, and then baby steps you through different techniques of shading and “3-D DRAWING!”. Plus everything in there is a specific kind of 90s zany. I picked it up today and got this lil guy in about 5 minutes while watching Great British Baking Show.
But it’s a fairly prescriptive book. It’s a little like bowling with the gutter guards up. Or driving with your eyes open. Almost too easy. If you want to take your destiny in your own hands, I recommend going with Linda Barry’s Making Comics.
I’ve written about her before, I’ll write about her again. The goddess of casual freeform cartoons and collage. She spent decades perfecting her drawing, and then took a step back and started investigating how completely untrained humans and small children draw. You can follow her quarantine art adventures on insta @thenearsightedmonkey.
Her instructions are all general recommendations and freeform exercises for getting your ideas flowing onto paper without thinking about them. A lot of her figurative exercises use a super-simple Ivan Brunetti style humanoid to move beyond stick figures, but not TOO far.
Cartooning is great, and super low maintenance. It works with any size of paper, any kind of writing implement. Less is more, and you can discover character in the most whimsical ways. It’s an easy go-to for me when I’ve got time on my hands.
And you can do it too! If you do not attempt to draw at least one quarantine dolphin, or giraffe, or mutating alien space potato in the next week… well, just know I will be very disappointed in you.
Sure, baking bread takes a lot of time waiting around. But suppose you’re looking for something to do that will really keep your hands busy. Something that requires your complete attention. Something that requires hours and hours (and hours and hours) of practicing. Something you can do with objects already inside of your house.
Let’s talk about juggling.
People are mesmerized by good juggling. People are also irritated by bad juggling. It’s really easy to identify bad juggling, because that’s when things fall on the floor. While even the best jugglers drop things, it’s recommended to do most of the initial thing-dropping in the privacy of your own home.
Which means there has never been a better time to learn juggling than now.
Here’s what you’ll need. Three objects. They should weigh more than a plague-ridden tissue, and less than a microwave oven. They should ideally be the same size and weight. If they are breakable, keep in mind you *will* probably break them. If they are pointy, you *will* probably drop them directly onto your naked eye. Keep this in mind as you select your objects.
My #1 recommended reading if you’re looking to branch into Juggling is Juggling for the Complete Klutz.
I got this book when I was 10. And learned how to juggle entirely from its pages. That’s right. BEFORE Youtube. It also comes with 3 bean bags to juggle. I have taught entire every juggling workshop I’ve done based on this book. If you’re buying any one thing for juggling, buy this.
If you’re just looking to play around though, you don’t need to get anything special. Go to your closet and grab 3 socks, ideally long winter socks. (If you’re the sort of person who has no socks because you wear Crocs all the time, I have nothing to say to you.)
Take the sock, and double knot it into a ball. If it’s a small sock, fold it inside of itself, or fold it over a second sock to make a ball. Make three of these. That’s all you need for juggling.
Sure, I could teach you how to juggle with all this:
But the point is, you’re learning something from home. So we’re using common objects and juggling with this:
Now, the method. There are only 4 steps to juggling.
1. THE DROP.
Take one sock-ball. Throw it into the air. Don’t catch it. *THUD*
Congratulations. You dropped it. That’s step one.
You can try this with all three at the same time if you’d like.
2. THE TOSS
Pick up your sock ball. Hold it in the palm of your right hand (not on the edge of your fingers). Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your elbows at right angles. Throw the sock-ball so that it arcs in front of your eyes. Don’t worry about catching it.
You ideally want the sock-ball to arc as high as eye-level and then land close to your left foot. Practice that toss.
Once you have that toss consistent, try to catch it in your left hand as it comes down. Juggling is the art of throwing – not catching. You shouldn’t need to move your left hand too much to catch it.
Once you’ve got the right-handed toss down, practice with the left hand.
3. THE EXCHANGE
Now, pick up one sock ball in each hand. Throw the sock ball from your right hand, and catch it with your left.
Wait, but your left hand is full…
How are you supposed to catch it then?
Well this is impossible. Guess we’ve just got to give up. Sorry.
What if you threw the left sock to empty your left hand? Aha! Back on track.
I’m not going to find a better way to demonstrate this quickly, so I’m just going to borrow an illustration directly from the Klutz manual.
Scoop the second ball under the first, and throw it back toward your right hand. It should go the same height as the first throw, and land evenly in your right hand. Two tosses, two catches.
This is the maneuver you can practice indefinitely. Get the height right, the position right, the timing right. Try starting from the left instead of the right. Get this two-throw exchange down solid, because once you move forward, you’re at:
4. THE JUG
Now start with three sock balls. Two in your right hand, one in your left. Throw one from your right hand like you’ve been doing. Then throw the one in your left hand so you can catch it, like you’ve been doing. Only now, when the left sock-ball comes back toward your right hand, there’s STILL a sock-ball in your right hand. Well, I guess you’d better throw that one too.
So you throw from your right hand again to catch the left sock-ball. And now you discover your left hand is still full from catching the last one. So you have to throw again to catch it. And it just KEEPS GOING AND NEVER STOPS.
This can become overwhelming very quickly.
And now you see why we started with THE DROP. Because you’re going to have to drop so, sooo many of these to get comfortable with juggling three sock-balls in a cascade – a never-ending multi-tasking loop.
Fortunately, there’s a million different sources out there to help you with whichever part you’re getting stuck on. If you like books, there’s the Klutz manual. If you’re a visual learner, there’s countless Youtube tutorials on the subject now. If you like interpersonal learning, you can always call up a friend (like me!) to walk you through it and give pointers on Facetime.
But if you enjoy it, and stick with it, you’ll have something active to do indoors for the next two weeks (or two months) until eventually, you can juggle sock-balls any which way.
*NOTE* After several takes of this video, I concede that juggling balls and bean bags are slighly superior to sock-balls. Sock-balls are totally useable, but you’ll have a faster learning curve with something a little less… socky.
(You can also make great juggling props by filling balloons with some of the rice or beans that you’ve got stockpiled in your pantry right now. Here’s a tutorial)
But practice as much as we’d like, we’ll never be as cute as this little nugget:
At the end of last week, I noticed that stores were starting to be sold out of ingredients for bread-making- instant yeast, bread flour, rye flours. They weren’t sold out of bread, mind you. Just the ingredients for baking it yourself.
So lets talk about baking bread.
At the heart of it, you really only need 4 ingredients. Flour. Salt. Yeast. and Water. This recipe that I’m working off of today also wants sugar and oil. But if you don’t have those, it’ll still work out.
If you like to deep dive into subjects, the book that really sparked my interest in this 4 ingredient approach to bread is 52 Loaves. The author William Alexander is a food writer and another serious fan of durational writing challenges. He writes about the process of baking a loaf of bread every week for a year to try to perfect his approach. Highly recommend.
But, here’s the quick and easy version we’re trying today. The proportions from the recipe are:
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
2-1/4 cups warm water (110° to 115°)
3 tablespoons sugar plus 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons canola oil
6-1/4 to 6-3/4 cups bread flour
I’m also adding some extra flavor, just for fun. I’m throwing in some Italian seasoning and parmesan cheese. Both of these containers are almost empty, so I’m gonna throw the whole thing in there. It seems like ?about? the right amount?
As far as equipment, you’ll want a measuring cup, a large mixing bowl, a tea towel, and bread pans too. If you don’t have one of those, you can probably improvise.
(Fun fact – for measuring, 5 shot glasses is about 1 cup.)
From the recipe “In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1/2 teaspoon sugar” (oh, you’ll need measuring spoons) “in warm water; let stand until bubbles form on surface.” This process takes about as long as you’ll spend trying to combine the next ingredients.
The next steps are all the basic combining of ingredients.
“Whisk together remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, salt, and 3 cups flour.”
“Stir oil into yeast mixture; pour into flour mixture and beat until smooth.”
“Stir in enough remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, to form a soft dough.”
“Turn onto a floured surface; knead until smooth and elastic, 8-10 minutes.”
First off, you should thoroughly wash your hands before you knead the dough. But I somehow suspect you’re already hyper-thorough about handwashing this week.
Kneading. This is the best part of bread making when you’re stressed. Take that 5 pound ball of dough, throw it down on a surface, and just beat the crap out of it. I don’t really care what you do. Punch it, knead it, roll it, karate chop it. Keep the dough moving and cowering in terror for the full 8 minutes. It gets tiring. It feels rewarding.
“Place in a greased bowl, turning once to grease the top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 1-1/2 to 2 hours.”
I throw my dough back in the same bowl I just mixed it in. It rises better in a humid environment, so soak the tea towel in warm water, wring it out once, then drape it over the top of the bowl. For a warm place, I’ve put it under a heat lamp from a multisensory opera I made last fall. Mostly because I think it’s fun. You can also just put it on a sunny windowsill or leave it at room temperature. (The heat just speeds up the rising a little).
Now wait for an hour and a half. Realize that this is a long time to wait. That you don’t usually spend this much time just waiting around. Enjoy it. Watch some dog videos. Watch some of The Great British Baking Show. This is nice.
Once the dough has doubled, “Punch dough down. Turn onto a lightly floured surface; divide dough in half. Shape each into a loaf. Place in 2 greased 9×5-in. loaf pans. Cover and let rise until doubled, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.” That’s right. Sucker punch the dough. Reinstate your position as alpha. Rip it in half and roll each half up into a smaller loaf. Set it in the pans. Soak your tea towel again, and put both pans back where they were.
Wait some more. Get back to those videos you were watching. You can get in one or two more episodes before the next step.
Once it’s risen again in the pans, you can slash the tops a couple times with a very sharp knife. (I use a clean X-acto knife). The slashes allow it to expand without exploding in weird ways, and the sharpness of the knife means it releases as little of the built-up gases in the loaf as possible (this is what gives you nice, airy bread).
“Bake at 375° until golden brown and bread sounds hollow when tapped or has reached an internal temperature of 200°, 30-35 minutes.”
Bread likes a slightly humid environment. It makes the crust a little softer. If you don’t happen to have a professional grade steam injection oven (I certainly don’t), you can just slide a baking tray with some water in onto the shelf below the bread. Keep the over closed the whole time, and this will turn into steam as the loaves are baking.
Pull them from the oven, and check out your handiwork. Is the bread perfect and warm and delicious and amazing? Good for you. Enjoy your handiwork.
Is the bread acceptable and maybe a little dense? Good for you. Maybe you can dip it in soup, and you can hardly even tell. Or with enough butter and jam, even mediocre bread can shine.
Is the bread a sad crumbling mess? Don’t worry! So is the rest of the world. The important thing is that you tried something new and tactile and fun. And you had something to do while sitting around inside.
14 Skills for 14 Days a.k.a. Stay Home, Learn Skills.
It has come to my attention that many people are suddenly looking for creative options for socially-distanced activities.
Not to brag, but between the ages of 10-15, I was pretty incredible at social distancing.
I had very few friends. I was homeschooled. I participated in solo sports like tumbling, trampolining, and rock climbing. My hobbies included hiking, learning circus skills from books, and reading science-fiction.
And honestly, I got a LOT done. The skills I developed in that window have gotten me a foot in the door for a lot of professional artist gigs. And I’ve never gotten back to that level of self-taught productivity. Sure, I’ve had windows of social downtime that have led to picking up weird skill sets (learning jumpstyle dance in 2012, becoming a freelance audiobook narrator in 2016) but the years of my childhood where I got out of the house the least were the years that I picked up the most special skills.
Now, I’m not going to talk about *WHY* someone might be looking to spend a lot of time practicing new skills at home. That’s not my field of expertise. I’m not trained as a sociologist or epidemiologist. I cannot speak to the state of the world or best practices for personal health.
I’m trained as a writer and entertainer. And if people are looking for ways to stay occupied for 14 (or more) days at home, well BY GOLLY I’m going to give it to them.
For the next 14 days, I’m committing to staying in my house and practicing socially distanced creative skills. During this time, I’d like to share one skill a day that I have successfully taught myself. Some of them I’m good at. Some of them I’m bad at. But most importantly, all of them are fun challenges that YOU TOO CAN TRY FROM THE SAFETY OF YOUR OWN HOME.
The subjects I’ll be covering include:
Monday, March 16th – Baking Bread
Tuesday, March 17th – Juggling
Wednesday, March 18th – Cartooning
Thursday, March 19th – Unicycling
Friday, March 20th – Stop-Motion Video
Saturday, March 21st – Break dancing
Sunday, March 22nd – Self-tape Monologues & Solo theater
Monday, March 23rd – Building a catapult
Tuesday, March 24th – Puppetry
Wednesday, March 25th – Yo-yoing
Thursday, March 26th – Headstands & handstands
Friday, March 27th – Moonwalking
Saturday, March 28th – Audiobook Narration
Sunday, March 29th – Tabletop Theater
If anyone has a range of skills they’d like to spend two weeks sharing from home, I challenge them to create their own iteration of this. Let the games begin!