November 22, 2013

Backyard Nature Walk Gourd Turkey

Ducky brought home a gourd from preschool. The assignment was to make it into a turkey, with my help. My husband had the idea of looking in our back yard for craft materials, so Ducky and I walked around picking up any leaves, sticks, and other things that looked like they could be part of a turkey.

I got out my hot glue gun, Ducky decided what went where. He was very concerned about making the turkey realistic, having just learned about all the parts of a turkey at school. (Note the spurs on the backs of the legs: this is a boy turkey!)

gourd turkey

Here's another angle. We cut the pine cone in half to make it look more like a turkey tail. The turkey is actually resting on the table with the feet just sticking out for balance. The gourd was slippery and hard as a rock and getting it to balance on sticks was not going to happen.

gourd turkey with labels

All in all, both Ducky and I were very pleased with how it turned out. It's going to make a nice centerpiece for Thanksgiving dinner.

November 21, 2013

Illustrated Tweets: @quinnorton and @listenyoungman

After a long hiatus, and thanks to some encouragement from Jenna H., they're back! Selected tweets from my feed, lovingly hand-picked and illustrated.

My hobbies include making my loved ones eat bugs, apparently.

Now that I have some facial hair, I can feel other dudes kinda side-eyeing me. Sizing me up...

November 6, 2013

The Formula for Righteousness

Did you know that there's a simple formula for calculating righteousness?

Add together the value of everything you own, plus the amount in your bank account and any investments. Then subtract the amount that you owe, any loans and debts.

If the result is a large number, you are a righteous person! If it is a small number, or even a negative number, you are not.

But, you say, what if the number is small or negative, and you know that you are righteous? How can this be?

There is a simple answer: Someone is interfering with the way things ought to be. Someone is getting between you and the blessings you deserve, and those people MUST BE STOPPED!


Unless righteousness is not a number. Unless God's approval is not measured in dollars and cents.

Perhaps a person's wealth or lack thereof has little to do with their character. You can be poor and good, or rich and evil, or vice versa. Maybe wealth isn't a measure of holiness, and material blessings are not all there is worth striving for.

And maybe instead of tearing each other apart, we should lift each other up. Maybe we should reserve our anger for a system that promotes inequality, and a culture that worships greed. Maybe we really should swallow our pride and work together for the good of all.

That would indeed be righteous.

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." - Luke 6:20

November 1, 2013

Poem: View from 2063

There was a time, my child,
When we went wherever we wanted,
Ate whatever we wanted,
Played and used and spoiled,
Because we could.

There was a time, my child,
We thought the world existed
To serve our whims;
When wanting was having.
Our lives were glorious.

Curse us, despise us,
(I do)
But remember:
We were the kings and queens of the world.
How could any mortal resist
The draw of such power?

October 30, 2013

Annual Scary Person Collage: Michael Needham

Every October I make a photo collage based on a scary person. (See previous efforts here and here.) This year, I chose for my subject Michael Needham, the CEO of Heritage Action of America.

For me, the best part of this picture is how I took an ordinary close-up promo picture and uglified it, using photo retouching techniques in reverse. I enlarged the bags and circles under his eyes, enlarged his nose, darkened the lines on his face and his stubble, made his ear misshapen and his eyebrows bigger and messier. I also used the liquify tool to turn his smile into a sneer.

Now he looks like a zombie, with the sinister Gentlemen of Heritage elongated and lurking in the background.

October 25, 2013

Leadership Has Nothing to Do with Job Titles

The other day a coworker posted a link to a really great article, "Why Your Innovation Leadership Training Will Fail."  The author, Henry Doss, explains how the systems and culture of a workplace affect innovation, for good or ill, far more than its leaders do.

I was discussing this article with my husband, and we discussed the concept of "innovation leadership training." He pointed out that this is the kind of training usually given to managers in an organization. "But managers aren't leaders," he said.

That was something that hadn't occurred to me, but he's right. Think about who the leaders are in your workplace. Some of them might be managers, but some of them might be people with no official leadership title. The people who get things moving, who inspire others - they can be anyone, at any level.

And, conversely, there may be managers who are not leaders. For certain organizations, this is fine: managing is a different skill set than leading, and sometimes you just need someone who can handle logistics and politics in that role. But sometimes, if a group that needs a leader lacks one, that can cause problems.

Look around you today and forget about job titles for a minute. Who are the leaders around you? What is being done to nurture their talent for leadership?

July 22, 2013

Is I Is or Is I Ain't?

I listened to "Neurophilosopher" Patricia Churchland on NPR's On Point today. She argued that science proves we are our brains, and nothing more. There is no self, no consciousness, no soul.

I don't know who peed in her Cheerios, but she delivered this news with the sort of glee the Grinch displayed as he waited for the Whos to all cry "Boo-hoo!" on Christmas morning. Her message was that our brains give us the illusion of self, we need to realize that this is just an illusion. The only acceptable religion is Buddhism or some variation thereof, and if you believe anything else you're, at best, a poor sucker, and at worst a plague on the human race.

I have to say, her arguments were rather convincing. And she does make an excellent case for suicide. After all, if I'm just an autonomous pile of neurons, if emotions are just dressed up nerve impulses and "I" don't really exist, why should I keep on existing if I'm tired of it? If the illusion of existence stops being enjoyable, why not end it? I don't need to consider the feelings of friends and family because they're also illusions. It would be like considering the feelings of the light bulb when I turn off the light. Feelings are just convenient labels for various combinations of nerve stimulations. In the end, it's all electrical impulses.

On the other hand, I have to wonder where the rest of the body fits into her worldview. How can I be just a brain when that brain is inside a body that's affecting it? I have skin and eyes and ears and a nose and a tongue. I have a lymphatic system and a digestive system and a million billion invisible bacteria living in and among all those parts.

What's more, this body is in an environment filled with physics and chemistry and biology. Things happen. Things affect me. Other little autonomous piles of neurons - animals and people - interact with me. Many of them are also under the illusion that they, too, have a self. And their illusion communicates with mine, reaches out to it through sound and color and shape.

So I suppose I have to decide: do I abandon the illusion that I exist, or embrace it? Do I do what's rational and logical and end my life when it suits me, or do I let my little illusion of self reach out to the other illusions around me and let them comfort me? Do I let them make me laugh and smile, even knowing those are meaningless neural responses?

Do I believe that a simple sack of meat is all that I am, or do I believe in synergy, that the sum of the parts can be more than the whole, and that this synergy encompasses not only me, but my family, my community, this world, and this universe?

June 29, 2013

Bedtime Story: The Storm Dragon

Photo by Carl Spencer
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Cole who loved storms. Whenever it began to storm outside, Cole would look up at the sky to watch the dark, drifting thunderheads. He loved the booming thunder and flashing lightning.

To Cole, the storm clouds looked like a giant dragon flying through the sky. The lightning was the dragon's fiery breath, and his giant wings created the wind and thunder. Cole liked to imagine himself riding the Storm Dragon through the sky.

But Cole knew that, in reality, a boy is too heavy to fly. Even so, he liked to climb very tall trees because it was the next best thing to flying up into the sky. One day, he was out in the forest behind his house, and he climbed higher than he ever had before. Up in the high branches, he saw a strange little yellow bird. "Hello, yellow bird," said Cole.

To his amazement, the bird answered him! "Hello, Cole," said the yellow bird. "I've been watching you, and I know how badly you want to go up into the sky and ride the Storm Dragon. I'm here today to grant your wish. Follow me!"

The bird flew down to the ground and waited for Cole to follow. It led him deep into the forest, far from paths and fences, to a place he'd never been. There, among the tallest trees, was a small, rocky pool.

"Drink this water," said the bird. "It will make you as light as a cloud, and you'll be able to visit the Cloud Kingdom in the sky. But the magic will only last until moonrise, and then you will return to earth again."

Cole knelt by the pool and cupped his hands. He drank and drank, until he started to feel kind of funny and tingly. He stood up and had a hard time keeping his feet on the ground. He began to float up through the trees; slowly at first, then faster and faster, until he was racing through the sky toward the clouds above.

Then, he was up through the cloud layer and into the Cloud Kingdom. He saw castles, trees, and mountains made of clouds. And before him stood the Storm Dragon, with cirrus clouds for wings, a thunderhead for his body, and crystalline icicles for teeth.

The dragon spoke in a growling, cloudy voice, "Welcome, Cole. I have seen you watching me from below. I was glad to see a boy who loved storms so much, so I decided to grant your wish to join me for a ride during a storm."

"Thank you, Storm Dragon!" said Cole. He climbed up on the dragon's back.

The Storm Dragon beat his wings and flew up into the sky. Below, on the ground, the wind began to pick up. The dragon blew dark, smoky clouds that covered the sun, and the sky grew dark. His wings beat faster, the wind whipped the trees. The Storm Dragon spit lightning from his mouth and clapped his wings together with a thunderous boom. All the while, Cole sat on the dragon's neck, marveling.

But all too soon, Cole saw the edge of the moon peeking over the horizon. He began to feel heavy, like a rope was pulling on him. He knew that his time in the Cloud Kingdom was over.

"Goodbye, Storm Dragon!" he called, as he sank slowly down, down, down to the ground, through the wet trees and back to the forest floor.

The moon had risen and the storm had ended. Cole walked home, filled with wonder at all he had seen.

June 28, 2013

Poem: Unburdened

I walk through fields of wildflowers.
I breathe air,
Drink rain,
Eat apples and clover,
Smell daisies and violets.
With my hands, I touch the wind;
With my feet, the grass;
With my eyes, the sunlight.
Here and now
I am as I was meant to be:
Photo by Joshua Mayer

May 17, 2013

10 Lazy Ways to Burn Calories

photo by Maria de las Mercedes

The weather's warmed up, the swimming lake opens this weekend, and our family trip to the beach is coming up next month. That means that bathing suits are in our immediate future, and that means that it's diet time.

I'm already counting calories and steps, but I'm looking for every advantage. Since I'm already pretty busy, I searched for some really, really simple ways to burn calories.

Out of all the tips I found, here are the ones I think are the easiest to do.

These first two come from a list on WebMD

1. Drink water
2. Fidget

An article from Allure magazine recommends

3. Take Vitamin D
4. Laugh
5. Don't eat right before bedtime
6. Relax, de-stress
7. Watch less TV
8. Eat spicy food

And FitDay suggests

9. Chew gum
10. Go shopping

I think I can manage those things. Bathing suit, here I come!

May 15, 2013

The Ghost Ship: A Bedtime Story

"Will you tell me a story about skeleton pirates?" asked my four-year-old as I tucked him in to bed tonight. How could I say no to a request like that? Here is the story I told him.

Pirate ship
photo by Maria in Toronto
The trading ship Marilou was caught in a calm in the West Indies. A calm is like the opposite of a storm; instead of the wind blowing too much, it doesn't blow at all. If there's no wind to fill the sails, a big ship just sits there in the middle of the ocean. Captain Johnson and his crew were getting worried. They had been stuck out there for five days and were running low on food and water.

The morning of the sixth day, a sailor spied another ship far away. Immediately, the Captain had his men collect old pieces of wood and cloth and make a smoky fire in hopes the other ship would see it. He had a sailor climb the crows nest and flash a mirror in the sun to tell the other ship that they were in trouble and needed help. He hoped they saw his message, and he hoped they would be able to get close enough to help the crew of the Marilou.

But as the other ship came closer, Captain Johnson noticed that it didn't look right. The hull was damaged and the sails were ragged. It looked like it had spent the last ten years under water. The Captain wondered why he couldn't feel the breeze that was propelling the other ship, and how they were able to move at all with so many holes in their sails.

As the ship grew closer, the Captain realized that those were not regular sailors on board. The other ship was crewed by skeletons! Skeletons stood in the crows nest and climbed the rigging and stood at the wheel. Then, with a feeling of dread, he saw the flag atop their mainmast: it was the Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones. These were pirates!

Captain Johnson didn't know how he was going to defend his ship against ghost pirates, but he refused to go down without a fight. "Get your swords and blunderbusses! Man the cannons!" he told his crew. "They will not take us easily!"

But before the sailors could move, the ghost ship raised a white flag. They wanted to parley! Captain Johnson raised a white flag as well, accepting their invitation. Soon, the ghost ship came alongside the Marilou and the skeleton crew laid a plank across between the two ships.

"If I don't return," said the Captain, "try and get out of here. Don't wait for me, save the ship and yourselves."

Captain Johnson stepped onto the ghost ship and came face to face with the pirate captain. He was a skeleton, sure enough, but even without flesh on his bones he was able to talk, and his empty eyes seemed to see everything.

"Do you carry the gold of the Spanish king?" asked the pirate captain. "We have been looking for it for many years."

"Yes," said Captain Johnson with surprise. "We do." The Captain kept his treasure hidden in the hold of the Marilou.

"Give us the gold and we will lead your ship safely to land," said the pirate captain.

Captain Johnson quickly agreed. He went back across to his ship, got the Spanish gold, and gave it to the pirates. Meanwhile, the crew of the ghost ship had tethered their ship to the Marilou. Soon, the ship's ragged sails began to flap in the ghostly wind, and the two ships sailed across the sea.

By nightfall, they arrived at an island. When they were still a ways out from land, the pirates untied their ship and sailed off. Captain Johnson and his crew made their way to shore in rowboats.

"How did you get here?" asked the islanders. "There is no wind today."

"Didn't you see the other ship towing us?" asked the Captain.

"Other ship? We only saw one ship," said the islanders.

May 3, 2013

Nasty Pop-ups


It wasn't AdSense causing the problem. It was one of the widgets in my sidebar, "Share With Sociable." A helpful Blogger forum-dweller named Chuck pointed out my problem and the popup crisis is over.

Unfortunately, I blew away my custom blog template in an effort to purge any bad code, so now my blog looks like crap. Oh well, it needed a redesign anyway.

Original Post:

I've been using Google's AdSense on my blogs for years, but today I turned it off for this blog. One of the ads was generating nasty, deceptive pop-ups.

I discovered the problem when I went to view this blog using our old MacBook, which only has an outdated version of Safari that I guess doesn't have the pop-up blocker turned on. A big window opened up with a modal dialog box inside it, offering to fix the spyware on my Windows machine. I force-quit Safari and went into Serious Webmaster Panic Mode.

I know this site seriously needs a design overhaul, but it's still in relatively decent shape. As a web designer, this site is my face to the world, and it looks really, really bad if something unprofessional and spammy shows up on it.

I thought at first that the embedded SoundCloud player on my previous post was the culprit, so I removed it. Then I thought that my WordPress site, which is hosted on the same server, had been hacked. Then I worried that had gotten some kind of malware on it. But when those both turned up clean, I realized that the pop-ups might be coming from the AdSense ads on this blog.

I turned off the ads, and the pop-ups went away. I apologize to anyone who visited Free Ideas and got spammed.

You know, I never really earned very much from those ads. I think I'm going to leave them turned off. But how bad does it look for Google if I have to turn off their ad service in order to make my site look professional?

March 15, 2013

New Music: alec says

It's too dorky to be rap, not gritty enough to be slam poetry. I'm not really sure what genre this rhyming-spoken-word-set-to-rhythmic-background-loops thing belongs in. On the plus side, it does contain the word "bootkicky." (OK, that's not really a word, but it should be.)

alec says
listen to alec says on soundcloud

For more information on what ALEC is about, visit

On a side note, I'd like to thank Chris Brogan and Mark Hermann for the great podcast interview about the music business they did today. It inspired me first to get off my butt and finish this piece, and, second, to turn down the stock Garage Band loops and turn up my original loops. The final result isn't polished, but it is without a doubt original!

I still can't believe I made the whole thing on my phone using the iOS version of GarageBand. I stood there in my bedroom with headphones on and the door closed, snarling "I want a pony!" into my phone, and created a finished piece of music. Sometimes, living in the future is awesome.

February 23, 2013

Glitter Saver

I finally found a good way to re-use pharmacy pill bottles! They're perfect for holding the leftover or spilled mixed glitter after a craft project.

February 13, 2013

Finding Sacred Space in a Secular Schedule

Today, for the first time in years, I didn't go to church on Ash Wednesday. It's not that I didn't want to go; I did. I meant to go, I planned to go. But my day just didn't go according to plan.

I usually attend the noon service (11:00 at my church, but close enough) on my lunch break. That was my original plan for today. Then, I found out yesterday that I had to be at a meeting at work all day today. That meant 11:00 was out. I couldn't do 7:00am because D-Mac, my first-grader, doesn't get picked up by his carpool until just past seven. 8:30 was no good because I had a doctor's appointment then, and I'd already rescheduled it once. I would have to go to the 7:00pm service.

I dashed out of the all-day meeting a few minutes early to pick up the boys from daycare so I could take  four-year-old Ducky to karate. I tried to call my husband at work to ask him if he could pick up D-Mac after his 6:45 karate lesson, but couldn't get ahold of him. That was when I first began to feel a sense of impending doom. Usually, he makes dinner on Wednesdays so we can all eat during the time between karate lessons, but today he got stuck working late.

So I arrived home to an empty house with two hungry boys, no dinner plans, and only half an hour before we had to leave again. I probably should have punted at that point and heated up some corn dogs, but I was feeling contrary so I decided to actually try and cook dinner myself. This turned out not to be such a good idea. I barely finished a quick chicken stir-fry before we had to dash out the door. There wasn't time to actually eat what I'd cooked. Fortunately, my husband was home by then and had the forethought to heat up a corn dog for D-Mac to eat in the car. I was wearing my velour sweatsuit and didn't have time to change for the church service, so I took ten seconds to grab a pair of respectable pants, some black boots, and a nice sweater out of my closet.

We arrived at the karate studio only a couple minutes late for D-Mac's class. I changed into my church clothes in the studio's tiny bathroom and hustled back to the car. I looked at the clock at that point and saw that I had less than ten minutes before the last Ash Wednesday service of the day began. I thought about driving downtown as fast as I could, finding a parking place, and maybe managing to get into the church before the sermon. I thought about getting home after 8:00 with the boys' Valentines for school still not addressed and staying up long past their bedtime to get them finished.

Completely defeated by the demands of the day, I drove home and changed back into my sweats. I helped Ducky put together his Valentines. I washed some dishes. I picked up D-Mac from karate, then helped him address his Valentines and finish his homework. I put the boys to bed and started a load of laundry.

One thing I love about the church calendar is how it makes time for everything important throughout the year. There are times for celebration, times for repentance, times for remembering the past, and times for looking to the future. But I live in the secular world, which runs on its own calendar. Maybe if I lived in a monastery my life would revolve around the daily offices and the seasons of the church. But I have a full-time job and two kids and all the responsibilities those imply.

The world is going to keep on chugging along as it always has. It's not going to pause for me, or for anyone else. If I need some sacred space in my daily schedule, I might have to just find it where and when I can. As much as I love following the church calendar, I need to remember that it's only a guide, a way to remember to fit everything important in during the course of the year. If I can't make it to a church service on Ash Wednesday, I can still carve out time to pray and meditate when the demands of my life have quieted.

It's late now. Everyone else has gone to bed. Finally, I can make some time to observe this holiday, to mark the boundary between a time of celebration and a time of reflection. Tomorrow will come regardless, with its demands on my time. But by reserving a small sacred space in my day, I can follow two calendars, the sacred and the secular, and live in both worlds simultaneously.

February 6, 2013

January 24, 2013

You Are the Reason for My Success

This week, I learned that one of the reasons I am successful is that I have been lucky enough to have good friends. Specifically, good women friends.

This past Monday I attended TEDx Columbia SC, an independent local TED event. One of the speakers was Dr. Linda Salane, director of the Leadership Institute at Columbia College. She talked about what's keeping women from being successful in business.

One of the problems she addressed was "what women believe about women." In surveys, women say they'd prefer to work with men instead of other women. We apparently think other women are "over-dramatic back-stabbers."

Sitting in the audience and listening to Dr. Salane, I felt both disturbed and surprised. Sure, I knew there were some awful women out there. Heck, there are awful men, too. But there are plenty of women who are good people, people with whom I'd love to work.

Last day of school, 8th grade
It struck me that maybe I've just been fortunate in my friends. From nursery school through elementary school, high school through college, young adulthood on into motherhood, I have been privileged to call some truly wonderful women my friends. They kept my secrets, shared jokes and smiles and memories. They told me when I was being stupid, but stayed friends with me anyway.

So, to all my friends, thank you. Because you taught me that I can trust other women, and work with other women, I've been successful in my career.

To moms of girls, teach them to be good friends and help them find good friends. You'll be setting them on the path to success.

January 9, 2013

Illustrated Tweets: @tryjen

Selected tweets from people I follow, taken out of context.

"your overcoat is quite spongy", said La Rue.

If you've seen my other illustrated tweets, you'll notice that this one looks different. That's because instead of drawing it in my sketchbook with a colored pencil, I used the Brushes app on my iPhone. Very handy if I have time to kill and no sketchbook with me.

The app is pretty feature-rich and I'm just barely beginning to understand how to use it. But I think that, for a first attempt, this isn't too bad. I just have to keep the drawings very simple; it's not very good for precise detail.

January 3, 2013

What we crave: Meaning, Belonging & Self-Expression

We've been hearing about irony's imminent death since 2001, although so far it hasn't happened. But after listening to The Takeaway's recent show titled "The End of Irony?" I think popular culture is finally due for a resurgence in sincerity.

Right now, Boomers and Gen-Xers control much of the media, but the voice of Millennials is rising. The Millennial generation has been raised in an irony-rich environment created by Boomers, embraced and extended by cynical Gen-Xers. Amid this cynicism, Millennials have been told that the end justifies the means: get good grades and a degree, check off the boxes, who cares what you actually learn. All their lives they've been awarded meaningless trophies and ribbons to boost their self-esteem. They've watched religious leaders become increasingly judgmental and wealth-obsessed.

What's missing? Meaning. 

Millennials have embraced the modern equivalent of motivational posters, images paired with inspirational quotes shared over social media. They've made My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic with its message of simple, optimistic sincerity a surprise hit. Folky-sounding music full of heartfelt emotion, like Mumford and Sons', is popular again. Millennials are just beginning to hit their 30's in force, just beginning to rise to positions of power outside of the internet niches where they currently hold sway. As they begin to have more influence over larger swaths of mass media, expect more focus on meaning and the search for it.

What the Other Generations Want

Baby Boomers, growing up in a conformist society, learned to value self-expression and individual achievement. Look at the movie heroes they created: Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman. These are men who won't let the rest of the world tell them what to do, they go their own way. Look at restaurant menus and grocery store aisles since Boomers ascended to power: everything comes in a dozen different varieties, everything is customizable, everything is "create-your-own."

Gen-Xers grew up in a culture where divorce was both new and increasingly common, and the civic infrastructure was increasingly corrupt, mistrusted, and crumbling. Left to fend on their own, they grew to crave family and a sense of belonging. As an example, look no farther than the recent Avengers movie. Would Boomers have created a film where the world's most powerful superheroes form a team and become friends? Gen-Xers invented social media, using technology to connect with other people.  They turned workplaces into substitute families, shunning formality and bringing socializing into the office through game rooms and planned group outings.

Get Ready for the Sincerity Deluge

This isn't to say that Millennials don't appreciate sarcasm and can't enjoy cynical humor (e.g. Rage Comics). There will still be plenty of that to go around for a good long time, especially with Gen-Xers replacing aging Boomers. But anyone who wants to connect with people 30 and under needs to include a kernel of meaning in whatever they do, a sincere message that will connect with audiences and tell them it's OK to think, feel, and wonder.

January 2, 2013

Illustrated Tweets: @ZandarVTS

Selected tweets from people I follow, taken out of context and illustrated.

So thanks for that.

January 1, 2013

My Resolutions for 2013

Perhaps I should also resolve to either get a larger scanner or use smaller drawing paper.