Friday, January 23, 2015

Secrets of winter biking

When I first started riding my bike to work in 2012, I set a temperature limit of 40 degrees. If it was colder than that, I would not ride. But this winter, facing a continuing need for exercise and a growing impatience with both waiting for the bus and riding my exercise bike, I decided to put my big girl pants on and brave the cold. I learned that biking in the cold is not only possible, it's not even as bad as I thought it was! But you do have to make some concessions.

1. You have to dress for the weather. 

Biking in winter is a tricky endeavor—wear too little clothing and you'll be miserable out of the gate; wear too much and your core will overheat, spawning yet more misery, compounded by sweaty clothes and damp hat hair upon arrival. I've found that a thin hoodie is plenty for temperatures as low as 40, and for even lower than that, I wear a midweight faux wool coat. I cover up my legs, on the many days that I'm wearing a skirt, with a simple pair of 5-dollar leggings. Really, you don't have to work too hard to keep most of your body comfy on a short winter ride.

But for your face and hands, quality is key. In my early days of riding in winter, I got frustrated by the way my fingers always froze no matter how fluffy my gloves were, and the way the wind ripped right through all my hats, making my ears cold and my brain dizzy.

I mostly solved the hands problem with a pair of massive insulated gloves. They work so well that I have known the backs of my hands to get sweaty on particularly energetic rides...but there are still times when my fingers go numb. And wait! There's more! Since the gloves are so bulky (I think I bought them a size too large) they impede my operation of the shift and brake levers. I had one close call a few days ago where I nearly ran into a car because the fingers of my glove got caught while reaching for the brake, and I only saved myself with some artful steering and a little luck.

At REI they sell these ridiculously expensive gadgets that look like diapers for your handlebars, which I think I could use to keep my hands warm and still retain full access to my controls. I'm not ready to invest 95 to 300 dollars, but I have a winter coat that's reaching the end of its lifespan, so I see a craft project in the making!

For the ears problem, I can mitigate it in most weather with a simple pair of furry earmuffs. I look like a fool in them, but they work better than any knit hat I've tried, and they are much friendlier on my hairdo than a headband. When the temps are below forty, I break out the big guns: A multifunction fleece balaclava that oh-my-gosh changed my life! When I'm wearing this bad boy, I'm told I look like a ninja, or like I'm wearing a burka, but I don't care, because with it on my head, I can ride like a speed demon without even feeling a hint of breeze! The balaclava is great at keeping out the wind, but that means it's also great at keeping out oxygen, which brings me to my next point:

2. You have to ride more slowly. 

It's hard to breathe through a windproof layer of microfleece, and I find that I can't get enough air to keep up my usual breakneck pace when wearing my balaclava. Besides, as I've mentioned, overheating because of wearing heavy clothes while exercising is a constant issue. So I've had to learn to bike a little more slowly in winter to keep my body temperature and oxygen supply consistent. But I guess that's OK, because driving slower isn't a bad idea when there's the potential for running into ice.

Despite the ongoing challenges, I'm super-happy that I decided to step outside my comfort zone and start biking in winter. This means I save a half-hour of working out every day almost year-round! An unexpected benefit is that all this new gear makes me better equipped to tolerate all sorts of outdoor activities. Just last weekend, I went skiing against my better judgment and managed to stay warm the whole time (although my nose still ran, even in the balaclava). Plus, being a winter biker gives me added bragging rights, plain and simple.

But before I can legitimately call myself "hard core," I'm going to need to learn the secrets to biking in the rain and snow. But I will figure it out...and once I do, you'll be the first to know.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cookies from the Bakeshop

Over the weekend, my boyfriend, his sister, his brother-in-law, and I visited the Bakeshop on Fillmore, in Arlington. My intention to just buy a simple chocolate chip cookie and leave turned into a gluttonous free-for-all when the rest of our party somehow managed a to rack up a bill of over 80 dollars and sample everything while still in the store. While they were buying out the whole shop, I grabbed a second cookie. Here are my reviews.

Peanut Butter Pillow

I was a little surprised when I broke off the first piece to find that this was actually a chocolate cookie filled with peanut butter. It was astonishingly thin. I don't know how they got the peanut butter in such a little cookie!

It was the perfect marriage of textures—chewy cookie on the outside, and creamy sweet peanut butter on the inside, and the flavor was everything I expected.

I won't give this cookie a perfect 5 stars, mainly just because it didn't wow me as I was eating it. But it definitely didn't taste bad.

Sadly, though, this thin, almost-not-giant wisp of a 55-gram cookie cost $1.75, or 3.18¢ per gram! Anti-bargain!

The Bottom Line

Taste:4 out of 5 stars
Texture:5 out of 5 stars
Price:1 out of 5 stars

Chocolate Chip Cookie

The chocolate chip cookie was perfection!

It was soft and chewy and tasted almost like eating cookie dough, but with the added benefit of a slightly crisper outer layer to keep it all together and keep my teeth entertained.

The taste was and not buttery but with some other rich flavor I couldn't identify. I loved it!

A little bit larger than the peanut butter pillow and the same price, this cookie was a slightly better value but still behind the curve at 2.09¢ per gram. Perhaps a special-occasion indulgence.

The Bottom Line

Taste:5 out of 5 stars
Texture:5 out of 5 stars
Price:2 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Prairie City Chocolatey chunk cookie

My first experience with Prairie City Giant Cookies was not exactly mind-blowing, and I really had no intention of ever trying this brand again—until I made the mistake of walking into a gas station hungry during a long trip. Those chocolate chunks looked so welcoming! I caved in pretty quickly and bought the cookie. But, like before, the experience of eating it was less than awesome.

At first, its performance on the crumble test did nothing to endear it to me. It broke into big chunks and was harder to break than I prefer. A few larger crumbs fell off, so it passed the test, but without flying colors. As far as my mouth was concerned, it appreciated the crunch around the middle of the cookie—it was balanced out nicely with chewiness, but towards the edges, it was too pronounced.

The flavor, on the other hand, was good and buttery, and the chocolatey bits were generous in size and tasty.

Since I did not pay for this cookie myself, I'm going to assume that prices for Prairie City cookies are pretty much the same across the country and haven't changed in value since my last review.

The Bottom Line

Taste:4 out of 5 stars
Texture:3 out of 5 stars
Price:3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Falling in and out of art

I used to pride myself on my creativity. When I was younger, I was drawing constantly, taking art classes, hand-making all sorts of eclectic gifts, and doing crafts just because I wanted to. Lately, though, I haven't been doing much of that at all. The craftiest thing I've accomplished – or even attempted – in about a year was preparing several batches of artisanal soap at the end of December—and that was really only because I needed some Christmas gifts and wanted to scale down my massive collection of soap-making supplies since its only function over the last two years has been to take up a lot of space. Thinking on this uninspired existence of mine, I started feeling a little down—worrying that I had simply lost my creative touch.

But after Christmas, I suddenly had the muse fall upon me. Random moments were punctuated by bursts of weird creativity.

"If I was an artist," I told my boyfriend while we were driving, "I'd create a giant wire sculpture of a tree, and put it on top of a car, with the roots draping down over the sides and growing into the windows." "If I was an artist, I'd make tiny little scenes of fairies all over these rocks and take pictures of them!" "If I was an artist, I would crochet a cap for that round river stone and make it into an acorn."

Aside from my repetitive use of the same opener, "If I was an artist," it was clear that I hadn't lost my creative touch. I was on a roll, and I had to wonder, what made it happen? And in a similar vein, if I hadn't lost lost it, why had it temporarily disappeared?

It didn't take long for me to figure out the answer to both questions: Time!

Yes, that miraculous substance that rules our lives had asserted itself again. For the past few years, I've been working 8.5 hours a day and doing work-related prep and cleanup tasks for another hour at least, and by the end of all that, there's been little time or brainpower left for non-essential pursuits. But the entire week after Christmas, I'd basically just been home all day, free to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. Without the enormous drain of working, I suddenly had the liberty to let my mind wander—and it was fun!

I've learned two valuable (and reassuring) lessons from this: 1) it's not that I've ever stopped being creative, it's just that I've been forced to let the mundane requirements of everyday life take precedence. 2) My fashion fixation is not a vice as I sometimes worry it is—it's merely a pragmatic outlet for the creative energy I still have. When you don't have the time (or the studio) to construct massive sculptures and spend hours photographing tableaus, you work art into your life however you can. For me, that's assembling thematic outfits, salvaging unwearable clothing, and occasionally embarking on an epic embellishment experiment. In this way, I get to see the fruits of my labor and display my creations in the environments where I actually spend my time.

So, I'm not going to feel guilty about ordering another eBay dress on the same day I receive a shipment of 5 pairs of shoes, just 3 days after buying not one but two sequined shirts along with a package of false eyelashes (which I recently claimed I would never even try)—that's just how I express myself!

I feel much better now, but I'm still wondering if other people out there are confusing a lack of time or a lack of energy for a lack of talent. We all have creative bones in our bodies, but I think many people's are burdened with the weight of too many responsibilities. Here is the moral of this story: Don't let burnout happen to you! Let your light shine, however dimly, and never doubt your own abilities. And just wait until'll be building trees on top of cars in no time!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Toledo Zoo Oatmeal Scotchie

It's been a while since my last giant cookie review, but when I went home for Christmas, I picked up a couple of confections to blog about. The day after Christmas, I was at the Toledo Zoo gift shop, staring into the cookie case and trying to decide on a giant cookie to review, when my eyes lit on an oatmeal scotchie. It is not often that you find oatmeal scotchies for sale, so I was delighted at the late Christmas gift! It was an easy choice to decide which cookie would get my review.

A few days after purchase, I ate it for breakfast, and I was hungry, so I accidentally scarfed it down without paying much attention to the experience, but this is what I remember:

The flavor was a little more buttery than I'm used to, perhaps even a tad more buttery than i prefer.

In spite of being very thin, and thus running the risk of becoming too crispy, this scotchie stayed soft and chewy, just how I like it. The oats, as oats always do, added a pleasant texture. And don't get me started on the butterscotch. I looooove butterscotch! A cookie always gets top taste points when it contains butterscotch.

So all in all, this oatmeal scotchie was quite a winner, except where it came to cost. It weighed only 70 grams but cost $1.60, making it a hefty 2.29¢ per gram!

The Bottom Line

Taste:5 out of 5 stars
Texture:4 out of 5 stars
Price:2 out of 5 stars