I like listening to music, and I also like sharing music I enjoy with others a lot.
But my own enjoyment of any given song can vary so much based on what I bring to the song: my mood, something that resonates in the lyrics, or an experience I had with it. There are songs that are more impactful because of a specific day I can remember listening to them or because they happened to comfort me during a tough time or because I woke up from a dream with the song stuck in my head.
All of this context doesn’t go with the songs when I share them; but affect my enjoyment of the song dramatically. This doesn’t just extend to my favorite songs, but a lot of songs. Sometimes I find myself with a strong desire to share music only to realize that anyone I’m sharing it with probably won’t hear it the way I do or appreciate it the way I do without that context.
I’m not sure it’s something that can be transferred, but I still find it interesting. When someone shares a song that is especially meaningful to them, I often wonder what there is being them liking it — if they purely like it musically, or if they’ve had some emotional experience with it or connect strongly to the lyrics in some way I’m not seeing. I probably still wouldn’t enjoy the music the way they do; but I would understand better why they were sharing it and why it was meaningful to them.
Here are a couple of songs I’ve wanted to share, but I’ve realized it’s more because of the things I associate with them than anything else.
The Hills and the Rivers – By The Collapse – From the album “Apocalyptic Dreams”
“As it all falls into place, there will be gnashing of the teeth But put no ashes on your head, let the World be infinitely sparkling instead A wind blows through the World, in ripples of cellphones and concrete and oil What I saw yesterday will not be here tomorrow
When I was just a boy, I would play with the salamanders in the woods, eat blackberries in July, make up stories for the clouds as they moved through the sky. Last night I had a dream, I was in the backyard of the house I grew up in. Past my garden, on the ridges of the hills, there were machines removing all of the earth.
I had a dream last night, I saw the Moon fall right out of the sky. I was standing in a crowd by the sea, as the waves crashed through us I felt at peace. I remember yesterday, acting like there was no tomorrow. There will be no Judgement Day, but there will be a tomorrow.”
Musically this one is not my favorite. Lyrically, it’s nothing special but invokes some imagery that particularly resonates with me.
I find it endearing as what feels like elegy for the passing away of a way of life, written by some folks from honest country soil. I’m thoroughly a country boy, and driving the beautiful scenery of upstate New York I often try to dream of what a particular hillside would look like if it wasn’t marred by highways, power lines, or what passes for a city around here: if that “ripple of cellphones and concrete and oil” wasn’t marring it.
As a boy (or even now) I would play with salamanders in the woods and eat blackberries in July. But what makes the second verse resonate for me especially are nightmares I still sometimes have of the the hill across our street being apocalyptically destroyed. A song is always more powerful for me when it’s become connected to dreams I’ve had, the brain’s own form of visual poetry, tapping into the emotions I felt then.
Somewhere in my own mind, also, is that scene of a crowd, standing by the sea, watching the end of the world. Standing with all my loved ones on the night when the sun makes it’s final trip below the horizon.
So; not the best song, but one that manages to capture a certain mood of envisioning this beautiful countryside being apocalyptically swept away. It taps into my emotions in a way it might not for everyone. (I think I’d enjoy it more without that kind of annoying horn)
Smoky Mountain Angel (of Doom) – by Groh
“I am the messenger, I am the Smoky Mountain Angel of Doom Here in the room Put my jacket on You’re gonna pay for every day you slammed the back door
Would he, the Porch King of San Juan, Make a Steel Angel of you? I’ve seen maybe 14 of his angels Sitting on his Green St stoop
And with my hands on 10 and 2 Man I got so heavy the sun withdrew But I drove through the night for a word with you
How was I to know you would never come home? The refrigerator buzz sounded so alone And the kettle grows quiet Wild winds silent Storm begins to form And the living room lights go out
I am your reckoner, I am your jury on judgement day You will atone for every phone call claimed to have been out-of-State
I got the bills and I did the math And the sum was time that I can’t subtract Well I gave you my word and I want the word back
How was I to know you would never come home? The refrigerator buzz sounded so alone And the kettle grows quiet Wild winds silent Storm begins to form And the living room lights go out”
This is a weird song, and I don’t appreciate all the lyrics — especially the second verse. I think the first few times I listened to this song I didn’t think much of it.
But it grew on me. Groh uses some unusual but particularly vivid imagery. The line that particularly piqued my interest:
“The refrigerator buzz sounded so alone”
During the year of 2019 I was recently employed with a work-from-home job. I’d had jobs before, but none with as consistent and unchanging of a schedule. Almost every morning, there would be a period where everyone with jobs had left for work and everyone without hadn’t yet woke up — alone, every morning, I would do stretches in the gym with the first light of the sun creeping over the hill and filling the house.
Alone, every morning, the only sound in the gym was the buzz of the refrigerator.
It is a sound I am well acquainted with, and I often reflected on the loneliness of the sound.
I’m not sure how many other people can relate to it so well, but by choosing that imagery rather than a more traditional “empty house” sound like the ticking of a clock, Groh made the lyrics significantly more impactful for me, drawing not just upon a single memory, but countless memories of those mornings.
What does the rest of the song mean? To me, it’s about someone who has been left alone being tormented by their own thoughts, doubts, and fears about what they did wrong. “How was I to know you would never come home?” is a rhetorical question asked into the empty, silent house – the storm that begins to form in the silence is the singer’s own mind answering that question. The Smoky Mountain Angel of Doom is his own conscience, making himself pay “for every day you slammed the back door” because maybe that was the reason “you never came home”. “I am your reckoner, I am your jury on judgement day” is again, his conscience speaking to himself, judging, reckoning, blaming himself for every mistake that lead him to being here, alone, with only the buzz of the refrigerator.
It is still not one of my favorite songs, but hopefully you can see what I see in it now, and why I appreciate it. I often appreciate the small things in a song as well, and the audio clip at the end of someone apologizing for sharing their entire life story while being assured it’s fine before the microphone is cut out is also terribly relatable and fitting in the context of the song. (The microphone is cut out by, I imaginatively interpret, the storm from the Smoky Mountain Angel of Doom) Those little inclusions can change a lot – the clip at the start of this version of “What Can I Say?” on spotify https://open.spotify.com/track/4LSqTCveucOSTzM02U5QTv?si=FN4xTW2lQwm6rR6feCOA0w changes the song a lot, and I just don’t appreciate the youtube versions that don’t include it nearly as much.
Lord, Have Mercy – Adopted
Better Days – By Simply Three
This is quite a departure from the other sings in two significant ways: they are both instrumental, so I can’t analyze the lyrics, and I they are both songs I think are outstanding regardless of the context I bring to them.
I tend to interpret songs the way that makes me enjoy them the most; not necessarily the way the authors intended. I will often read a more Christian viewpoint or message into songs than the authors necessarily intended. On the other hand, if I can’t interpret the lyrics in a way I like; I ignore them altogether and just appreciate the song for it’s musicality.
That’s not the case for these two songs, though – I take in the context of the title quite a bit when listening to them.
Both of these songs make me very emotional, and I’m never quite sure if it’s out of sadness or joy or, more probably, a mixture of both.
Both of these songs intermingle deepest sorrow with hopefulness, despair with joy, as the song flows up and down. “Lord, Have Mercy” has impacted me the most when I feel furthest from God and I’m struggling quite a bit. At the most sorrowful moments sings out “Lord, Have Mercy!” with the instruments, and then the song lifts up in hopeful answer: God has had mercy. For some reason this song always breaks me, as it drags me through the memories of my worst sin and brokenness and then reminds me that God loves me anyway.
“Better Days” is a bit sadder, more wistful and nostalgic. To me it never feels like a song about the better days past, but rather a lament longing for better days in the future. To me, this is a cloudy day song when you’re longing for brighter days. Maybe I just interpret it that way because of the place I’m at in life; but it feels like a song that embodies the longing, the need, for better days than the ones we’re currently in. Like “Lord Have Mercy” there is some sorrow but also some hope. More of one than the other depending on my mood, and some days I’m just not sure which is moving me more.
I can’t think of any thoughtful, meaningful ending to conclude with. This was kind of a pointless post. I just like music. I have a playlist of 3,674 songs (255 hr 15 mins of music) on Spotify I am always expanding. I added roughly 40 songs just in the past week. I’m always looking for more music to listen to, so if you have a song to share (especially if this post has brought a song to your mind that has a story or some meaning attached to it for you) please share in the comments.
January, February, March, and April were the slowest months of the year and even so we fit in so much. I went on my first 5k in Chenango Valley State Park, friends invited us to a sledding party (with way too many donuts!), and we hiked Slide Mountain. Sundays we went to choir. For Easter, Evan and I made our first batch of chocolates. We had fun celebrating Tadgh’s birthday, walking in the woods with friends for Cadie’s, and I finished my first photobook project for Mom’s. We nearly killed Curtis hiking to a fire tower that was missing it’s bottom set of stairs. These cold, indoor months are also when our circle of online friends and Discord servers expanded, introducing us to many of the friends we’d spend the rest of the year with.
Some happy times are just that — happy. Others have a thread of purple sorrow woven into the fabric of happiness. The happy times that, inside, you know are only borrowed by self-deceit. They are not truly yours to keep. The thread of sadness is because you can see that the coming sorrow of losing what was never yours is going to outweigh the joy you had while you pretended.
You feel it coming. You smile because it’s a happy time in a good year; but inside you feel it there — what isn’t there. The empty thing that isn’t being filled up, what won’t last, turning your insides cold even while your outsides are being warmed by sunlight, friends, and your own smile.
It was a good year.
A good year for kayaking. A good year for obstacle courses and 5ks. A good year for getting first-row seats for sunsets and fireworks from the top of a fire tower.
Sometimes that thread of sorrow grows as the joy grows. August was the climax, the apotheosis, the crescendo. Joy and happiness, mingling together like an artist who doesn’t know how to mix his paints but still makes masterful strokes, creating something beautiful and ugly.
Hiking in that perfect summer weather surrounded by wonderful views and wonderful smiles, friends and family. Through no credit of mine, everything is going perfectly, the things only God can control conspiring to give us a most blessed day, reminding me of how small my role is in all of this. It’s a good hike.
But slowly I’m hearing that distracting, distant noise.
Good friends can enjoy each-others company in any ordinary slice of woods on a sunny summer day, but this was no ordinary place, and some delightful surprise was around every corner: a hole in the ground leading to a little tunnel, a rock scramble, a cliff to climb. Some days are like storybooks, unfolding in a sequence of never-dull moments. Combine it with the company of good friends and it’s hard not to smile, to laugh. But behind those laughter-painted eyes that cold feeling is gripping me. I’m hearing that distracting noise, the roar of a distant ocean wave, getting louder, louder, coming to break upon these mountains.
And when that wave hits you, it knocks you flat.
August. The crescendo. Surrounded by more friends than ever before, but feeling more alone than ever before. Despite the physical closeness, you grow increasingly aware of only the distance between each other, the lack of knowing, the insufficiencies, what’s missing in the spiritual heart of it — and why?
Where were these people when I was younger?
Why didn’t we hike then, back when happy memories were recycled by the imagination in next day’s play, rather than carried away by high tide when you return to work on Monday?
It was a good year.
A good year for resin projects, writing letters, and fall colors. A good year for blackberry picking and babies, swimming and sledding.
September, October, November, December. Another year disappears with an applause and encore. We topped ourselves again with chocolates. We hiked, ran, and played. I expected to be more nervous on stage; but maybe the practice memorizing the lines paid off. It actually became easier for me when I started to act the lines and use my funny old-man voice to play Balthazar, delivering the good news about Christ Jesus. Taking on the role of an old man felt very natural to me for some reason.
An abundance of new friendships does not eliminate loneliness. There is not a direct one-to-one correlation. Sometimes loneliness is not caused not by the number of friendships, but by the depth, and new friendships are inherently shallower. But depth is not itself a cure to loneliness, either, if your loneliness even is curable. A relationship with a child or a parent, no matter how deep it is, is not the same as a relationship with a peer.
Loneliness caused by the absence of one kind of relationship cannot be filled by the presence of another.
In some ways, though, the more surface level friendships you have the more it draws attention to the relationships you don’t have. Making your loneliness, ironically, worse with more friends. It makes you realize how little the friends you have know you, and how little you know them. The truths not shared, the tears not seen, the screams not heard.
It is no fault of theirs, nor your own, that the type of relationship you have with them is not the type that has room for the type of knowing and being known that you need.
It was a good year.
A good year for trying new things, for giving gifts. A good year for birthday parties and graduations. A good year for baptisms and broken hearts.
My baptism seemed like such a small thing, but it is symbolic of a much greater truth, a truly miraculous saving grace. For years – all my adolescence – I was caught in a loop, a spiral downwards, that I despaired of ever escaping.
This year, I escaped.
We lie to ourselves, telling ourselves we need just one more thing. Then we get that thing and come up with a new lie about what would make us happy. We would be happy if only we had real friendships. We’d be happy if we weren’t lonely anymore. We feel the hunger and thirst and we try to figure out why.
Really, though, we’re just hungering and thirsting for the new creation.
A year we won’t forget — or will we? Almost 10 years ago we moved, leaving behind the place I had always called home, wondering when I would wake up and find this new place was home. Now the old house has my brother and his wife and their three kids living in it, and as we help them get a Christmas tree, it feels like only a moment ago that me and Evan were catering their wedding with a fleet of borrowed crock pots hoping we weren’t about to give a couple hundred people food poisoning.
I remember that, but I don’t remember anything else about that year.
“Sometimes I gaslight myself when I’m feeling better, doubting that things were ever so bad. (….) Things were never really that bad for me. Were they?
I can remember very distinctly one night when I was clearing the table after dinner, weaving in and out of the pleasant after-dinner chatter, carrying away used glasses.
Wanting nothing more than to smash them into my skull with all my strength, smash them and smash them until my face was a bloody pulp, until my hands full of bloody glass fell limp.
I remember wondering if anyone could see that on my face as I cleared the table with efficiency and speed. I wondered if it would seem out of the blue if I lost it one day and followed through. My knuckles were turning white as I gripped the glass, and I was a little afraid I would.
I remember wanting to punch a tree again and again until every bone in my hand is broken. I remember burning myself with the hottest tap water. Biting myself as hard as I could.
It’s been awhile since I wanted to hurt myself. It’s been awhile since I wished God would kill me. It’s been a while since I’ve had to scream as loud as I could inside my head to down out the memory of who I am.
Praise the lord!”
On May 24th, 2020, I was baptized by a friend and member of our church. It was in response to, and recognition of, the work God had already done in my spirit. Just a few months before on March 15th, I wrote the above excerpt in my journal.
It’s difficult for me to talk about how I’m doing spiritually. The healing is mixed with the hurt, the resolved with the unresolved, the pain with the joy. Much of what I struggled with for my life up until this year is still too difficult for me to talk about, and some of it is still tangled up in who I am and the things I still struggle with today. Some wounds take a while to heal, and some struggles are too personal to share here.
But the work of saving grace God has done in my life, particularly this past year, is very real and too significant to let pass without some dog-eared page left on this blog to give testimony to it.
“Mental state is pretty low. Last night I was boiling in undirected rage and as I was going to bed my left fist just sort of clenched uncontrollably tight with built up tension and anger. Apathy and self-hatred are at a peak. (. . .) It invokes a very despairing feeling that I’m powerless, completely powerless and doomed to an endless self-destructive cycle. No hope. No hope.
But there is hope and I trudge on slowly, I’m sure something will happen at the appointed time.”
(My journal, 6/5/2016)
Even with the details sparse, I hope that you can join me in rejoicing for the work God has done in my life.
I had hoped to share more so that anyone who struggles or has struggled with similar things might be edified and feel a little less alone, but after sitting on this post for the whole year, I realized I wasn’t able to do that yet.
Also, this blog is sort of a collection of my projects and these were, collectively, a big project that consumed a lot of my time this year.
Growing up we never went on hikes (or vacations of any kind), it wasn’t until my teens that my brother Arlan showed me the world of hiking by taking us on finger lakes trails. It wasn’t until 2019 I realized there were even cooler things pretty close by when she organized a trip to Minnewaska State Park, and I also began to realize that the Adirondacks were within driving distance, too. Here I was drooling over a slight valley view in our woods when there were even more beautiful places right within reach! Our Minnewaska trip gave me a taste of it, and I wished it was something our family would do a lot more often.
It wasn’t until this year I realized “Wait, I’m an adult, that’s a problem I can solve!”
I mean, just driving yourself some place and going for a hike isn’t too hard, but scheduling, organizing, planning, mapping out a trail, and providing food and water and backpacks for 15+ friends and family can turn out to be quite time consuming.
Just finding a date that can work for everyone can be a trick — I think my biggest hike was 17 people and the smallest 14, and for each of those everyone has a different schedule. (Of course, every time a few people I invited couldn’t make it, but I tried my best to get as many people as possible in on it)
Secondly, deciding where to go. Even once I narrow it down to the Adirondacks, there are a lot of them. I had to spend a lot of time looking up different mountains and considering the length, difficulty, driving distance and views.
Once a mountain (or park) is picked, then a trail has to be chosen. This involves many of the same considerations of views and difficulty, but I’d usually also look up trail reviews for other factors. These factors included user reviews mentioning the amount of traffic from other hikers, which direction around a loop was more enjoyable, how well marked it was, and so on.
Then I’d usually learn the trail as well as I could and make detailed maps and directions; often spending a while in Photoshop cobbling together a variety of maps or images or marking out my own using AllTrails. Consideration and planning had to be done around parking and back-up parking options as well — lots were full on one trip, and on another the park had construction with lots shut down and we arrived early and sat in long line in order to secure a spot.
Then there was food and water. Water, especially, is a big concern among our family to stave off headaches and dehydration, especially for strenuous hikes planned in summer months where the heat and humidity could be brutal. Deciding what food to pack and how much for everyone is one thing; but a more difficult consideration was often how on earth to carry all the food and water when many of the hikers were young, short, or not at all fit or used enough to hiking to carry a big pack.
Communication was also another big task: conveying to everyone when people had to be ready to leave, how long the hike would take, when we’d likely be back, who was coming, how many vehicles were needed, and many other things. For my first hike I went overboard, presenting a document with probably too many pictures, charts, and graphs comparing the hikes to other trips we’ve done. By the last trip, I’d learned that effective communication lies in brevity and began sending shorter emails with the most pertinent details either in the title or first few lines, with as clean formatting as possible.
By the time the actual day of the hike came around, I’d have spent weeks or months planning, so in service of allowing myself to actually enjoy the day, I was usually content to let someone else be road leader for the caravan of vehicles and someone else be trail leader once we began hiking. I’m sure it was a failure of leadership on my part that I never officially designated this role to anyone, but I didn’t get much in the way of complaints. And for my part, though it was tiring and a lot of work, organizing the hikes were never stressful for me the way I did it.
Another aspect, possibly overlooked by some of the hikers but not those who live in the same house as me who got to witness my whirlwind of post-hike activity, is the cleanup. Once we’re home, I usually made a point of emptying every backpack, putting everything bad in it’s place, and throwing out all of the trash. This wasn’t a small task, and one I usually did alone and propelled only by momentum, exhausted to the point of collapse, but it was nice to lend a sense of completeness to the project and leave nothing to take care of tomorrow.
I organized four hikes – a small one to Labrador Hollow for my birthday, a big one to Big Slide Mountain in the Adirondacks, and big ones to both Mohonk Reserve and Minnewaska Preserve. Throughout the year, thanks to the efforts of others, we also went on smaller hikes – twice to Snow Mountain, once to small slide mountain, and countless on finger lakes trails and to fire towers.
It was worth every bit of work.
Not just the pure joy of hiking itself, but also and especially the time spent with friends and family.
Occasionally I make New Years Resolutions, not out of any special reverence for the new year or any delusion that such resolutions will bare fruit, but just because I’m always resolving to do better in some way another all the time, new years or not. My life is lived in fits and spurts, hills in valleys, struggling through depression or peaking in mania, and at my lowest points I always fruitlessly make a list of things to try when I start again.
Of course, I always fail these resolutions. But I always try again. Try and fail, try and fail, try and fail. That’s life. I think that for me, at least, if I stopped trying every time I failed it would lead me to stop living.
At the start of 2020, I resolved a few things in my latest attempt to “remake Justin.” There were many – pages and pages. For probably the first time in my life, surprisingly, miraculously, a good deal of them actually bore fruit.
Two of these were “be more of a leader” — organize things, lead things, be first to speak up — and “say yes to more things” — accept invitations and pursue opportunities, even if I wouldn’t have normally.
It was this second resolution that led me to sing in choir and perform in a nativity play, two things way, way, way outside my comfort zone that the Justin in any year prior to 2020 never would have dreamed or imagined I would be doing.
Miscellaneous other projects I worked on this year: photobooks.
I’ve come to think of myself as sort of a “technical artist” in that most of my art is not straight up artistic (such as painting or drawing) but rather relies on a combination of art and technical skills, such as working with resin, cooking or baking, or in this case the technical skills involved in making a photobook. The combination of the two makes up for the fact that I’m neither very artistic nor very technically skilled, but with a bit of both I can still make some pretty nice things.
The technical aspects don’t always make for very good blog posts, though, so I’ll spare you the details and keep this short.
The first project as making photobooks of our family for my Mother. This included going through over 240,000 photos from 1950 to 2019 and narrowing down the selection considerably. Finally they had to be edited and arranged into three separate albums with a combined total of about 222 pages.
This involved cropping, color-correcting, colorizing, de-speckling and artfully arranging all of the photos while accounting for bleed, margins, and other technical aspects. I ordered these in seamless lay-flat, meaning some of my spreads went across both pages as there is no seam or gutter as with a traditional book. Also, there are two copies (as in the above picture) because the first additions were misprinted by the printing press so I got a free reprint. However, documenting and proving that this was the case was another step of the process that took some time.
Technically this was mostly a 2019 project as a lot of the work was in November & December of 2019, but it wasn’t finished until April 13 of 2020.
I also had a bit of fun wrapping it.
(The box was wrapped on the INSIDE, too, with a patchwork of wrapping paper scraps. I like doing this to use up the leftover bits nobody else can use.)
Photobooks – Take two
My next photobook project was turning a family friend’s blogging history of some 5,000 posts between 2004 and 2020 into two photobooks. The project was technically started in August and finished November 22 (rushed to completion as I badly needed to start on Christmas Chocolates) but in actuality I think the bulk of the work only took about a month; half of October and November. I knew I couldn’t afford to work slow on this.
Working on these photobooks involved very different emotional struggles than working on one for our own family; I relate to each of them in a different way than my own family. I connect with the life moments in a different way and struggle to decide which photos and stories to include for very different reasons.
At times I doubted whether the whole thing was good idea or not; it felt like an invasion of privacy and I felt wholly inadequate and totally out of place being the one to decide which of the treasured moments of 15 years of another families history most needed to be included in their photo books.
Other times, the thought occurred to me that maybe they would consider me adequate to the task (as much as anyone outside the family could be). Our friendships grew a lot in 2020. Reading through the entirety of this blog and assembling the books I was reminded both how well our families have grown to know each other, but also how little we still know each other and how much distance there is: countless things I’d never know without the blog, and countless more that never made it there. The blog itself is as much a gift to all it’s readers as these books are a gift to them, and assembling the books I was humbled, grateful, and probably more emotional than I was assembling our own photobooks.
In spite of the many mistakes, doubts, and budget cuts (not seamless lay-flats!) I think my clients were nevertheless satisfied. Merry Christmas, guys.
Since the last chocolates post was unpleasantly long for y’all, I’ll try to keep this one shorter.
In keeping with tradition, we genuinely tried to make things easier for ourselves and scale down but ended up, once again, far more than before.
25 boxes of chocolates
50+ pounds of chocolate
A couple of missteps led to this. One, we were determined to make the chocolates smaller, thereby reducing the overall quantity of chocolate given out – even though the 1,200 chocolates is more than the 720 we gave out last time the poundage may actually be lower. (I don’t believe a I have the poundage from that time)
Furthermore, we did fewer flavors (12 down from 18) and Evan tried to make “bases” (what we call the flavors before they’re coated) easier to make.
Unfortunately we learned the hard way that a greater portion of the workload is measured in (pieces × difficulty of assembling individual piece) and while the “bases” were easier many flavors, such as Locusts and Honey, required a great deal of effort per piece to assemble and coat. Combined with the greater number of individual chocolates, we had ourselves the biggest job yet.
The second misstep I insist was not really our fault. We learned from Debbie’s Secret and Box of Sorrows that the custom packaging can really eat up time, whether we are making a wooden box with a resin pour or 32 boxes printed, cut, and assembled at home. (It can also be incredibly frustrating. More on that later.) We also knew from feedback (we send out forms — if you had our chocolates and didn’t get one, just ask Me or Evan to send it) that people really appreciate the packaging, so we didn’t want to skimp on it.
Therefore, we decided we would pay the extra money to send my box design to a printing company and have the boxes printed for us to save some time and effort. We put in the order November 11th, and it “entered production” November 12. When we made the chocolates Thanksgiving weekend and the boxes still hadn’t shipped, we knew we need a plan B. We contacted support and they were very unhelpful. Ultimately, they failed to deliver remotely within the timeframe that they promised us when we made the order (they eventually shipped December 23rd but still have not arrived). We (largely me) spent a lot of effort on the packaging this year, and no small amount of that was trying to salvage the box situation.
What made me think maybe we are a bit crazy is not just these two things causing the chocolate making process to balloon in difficulty and time taken, but also the fact we were, as usual, busy with other things at the same time. The boxes were ordered late (and the brochures hand-printed instead of ordered) because I was too busy working on Photobooks for a Christmas present to get started on the chocolates as soon as we should have, Evan and I were both participating in a Nativity play, and, of course, we were doing most of the chocolate making during the bustle of Thanksgiving.
I could go on about the whole process from the first chocolate to the last box shipped, to frustration of getting music working in the basement to the contesting the box payment with our credit card, but that would make for another long, boring blog post.
Instead, just view the google album: https://photos.app.goo.gl/pYWkLPcsVSUCQVfe9 and check the comments on each photo. I’ll leave a comment on all of the photos giving more information and commentary on the process. I think this is something that lends itself better to a photo-album format anyway, and I’ll avoid you the trouble of a too-long blog post.
Evan is very much the “tip of the spear” on these warpaths and the creative genius behind most of what you see. I’m not trying to minimize my role, just a disclaimer that even though I’m writing about it, it’s really Evan’s brain-child. For the previous post I had Evan read it over and give his input, but this time I’m just going crazy – “These words reflect my opinions not the opinions of my employer” and all that.
How does it all start?
One day, I walk pass Evan and he’s muttering to himself. I catch the word “chocolate” and nothing else. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, my skin prickles. I start to mentally prepare myself.
To be fair, any time Evan’s muttering to himself I experience those symptoms. There’s a running gag that if the FBI ever show up and raid our house, it’ll be because Evan was researching and purchasing some highly volatile, illegal chemicals for one of his experiments.
After the extravaganza of our last episode, we promised to plan more, make fewer chocolates, and write better recipes:
“In total, we gave 7 families chocolates, sending out over 336 chocolates of 12 different varieties (recipes of Evan’s creation) packaged in 32 custom designed, hand-made boxes. We used over 20 lbs of chocolate, and that’s not counting any other ingredients.”
This time around we were making chocolates for just one person (Debbie) and I figured we might do 3-4 flavors and fit them all in one box like a traditional box of chocolates.
Around July 15, Evan pitched his plan: 10 flavors, 10 of each, 10 boxes – 100 chocolates. 1/7th the recipients, 1/3rd the chocolate!
As for the better plans and recipes? I think we probably had 1/7th the plan and 1/3rd as good recipes, too!
July 23, Thursday, production started.
July 28th, Tuesday, Debbie’s birthday party, Evan and I were late for dinner as we were still assembling the boxes for the chocolates.
This is about usual for our chocolate making process. We spend 2-3 days working separately in our spare time on bases and prep work, and then we have 2-3 days of “more intense” work where we finished the more complicated bases, coat everything, and figure out how to get it packaged.
For this batch, we made Pecan Pie, Orange, Mint, Peanut Butter, Honeycomb, Raspberry, Coconut Almond, Caramel, Strawberry and Toffee. I couldn’t tell you much more about them because we made them up fairly well on the spot and may not have even tried the finish products of all of them – Debbie and other second-hand recipients could probably give you a better description! A favorite was the honeycomb largely for it’s aesthetics.
I honestly can’t remember much about the production of these chocolates – despite less planning and recipes, things went pretty smoothly. The big hiccup was that the aforementioned honeycomb was nearly impossible to coat, and kept sprouting new leaks. We’d patch a hole and a new one would appear, spilling out all the honey inside. We feared all the honey had leaked out by the time we were done (we never did manage to stop it) but apparently not – they were still plenty sweet!
Evan asked Caleb to make a “funny drawing” for the boxes with some general direction, but we didn’t we have a very clear idea of the general aesthetic. As Caleb’s drawing came into realization at the last minute, we formed a hasty plan around it.
The chocolates were by and large finished Sunday (the 26th) with me doing some trimming and patching on Monday (27th) to finish things off.
The day of the party, the 28th, I did some last-minute decoration of the chocolates. Me, Evan, and Caleb scrambled to finish the packaging. By the morning, Caleb had not yet finished the drawing but based on the draft we had decided on the name “Debbie’s Secret” and that each chocolate would have it’s name printed in both French and English with fake reviews from ladies who’s name riffed off of Debbie’s in some way. As I had work most of the day, Caleb helped as we desperately brainstormed chocolate names, fake Debbie names, and reviews.
I’m a bit embarrassed and self-conscious about how far we took some of these scandalous, innuendo-filled reviews, so I’ll leave you with only a glimpse and let you imagine the rest.
It was not until 6 pm (when we usually have dinner) on the day of the party that we actually finished the names, so we were pretty well printing them as we wrote them while folks sat down to eat.
And printing, as always, was a lot of fun.
At this point Debbie was around, of course, so we had to sneak the printed boxes from the printer up to my work loft while Me, Caleb, and Evan cut, marked, folded, and glued the boxes. We were called for dinner before we quite finished everything, so after dinner we had to go back upstairs, complete the last finishing touches, then carry all of the boxes downstairs in a larger box – past Debbie – into the basement, where we loaded the chocolates into each box.
Technically – technically – we weren’t late! We finished boxing and packaging everything just around the time Debbie was opening gifts and got to receive ours, too.
Once again we promised ourselves to scale down, plan more, and write better recipes “next time.”
“Next time” wasn’t going to be very far away. Debbie shared her birthday chocolates, and among her beneficiaries was a friend who also received them the first time around. This friend, who had the most extravagantly exuberant responses out of all our recipients on both occasions, was having a birthday and graduation party on August 15th. Given their clearly established enthusiasm for chocolate, it seemed like the most logical gift.
The Saturday after Debbie’s party, August 1st, Evan remarked to me: “hmmmmmm I have VERY little time.” But life kept us busy and downtrodden, so it wasn’t until August 9th that we (mostly Evan) ordered necessary ingredients, some of which wouldn’t arrive until the 14th!
So… some ingredients won’t arrive until whenever they are delivered mid-Friday, and the party is Saturday Morning. I think we’ve established this time around we have perhaps the tightest operational timeline.
How about the scale? We promised to scale down.
Apparently, “scale down” means something different to Evan than it does to me.
We did 10 flavors for Debbie, so Evan proposed we “scale down” to 18 flavors.
Fewer quantity of each? No, 10 of each kind, still.
Still – just for this one friend right?
Well.. another friend’s birthday was early September, but the party was our best opportunity for gift-giving to them also, so we’d be making 10 of each 18 flavors for her, too.
However, when the proper party invite arrived in the mail, it turned out someone else was having a joint graduation at the party, so it would be rude not to give them 10 of each 18 flavors as well.
Err, but then on Monday we learned another friend at the party also had a birthday in August. . .
So. . we have Monday to Friday to do this, with supplies arriving in the mail throughout the week, as late as Friday.
At least we have recipes this time, right?
The above is – no joke – as close as we had to “recipes” on August 14th, Thursday, when we first began to actually make the chocolates.
OK then.. Surely with all this work and so little time we can’t go as crazy with the creative names, descriptions, and packaging right? We aren’t going to tediously print and hand-assemble boxes for each flavor for each person – 72 boxes?
“A magic fantasy theme (. . . ) magical potions covered in chocolate (. . . ) The boxes would be made of wood (. . . ) something you would ship something in a boat in the old days. Basically “purdy pretentious chocolates ” would have bought them from an auction were stuff from a ship wreck was being sold, and sending them out to our best taste testers for reverse engineering. I wanted to use our roll printer at work to print out scrolls and artificially age them. The story being that the person sending them on the boat had been traveling around collecting strange magic recipes and taking notes and experimenting and stuff. The recipes would have jokes and references to (. . . ) favorite fantasy books (. . . ) So basically the boat came from another dimension”
As Evan “detailed” his plan (“detailed” in quotes – actual details, as you might have gathered, were rather sparse) all the way from the quantity to the packaging, each step of the way I would smile and nod, outwardly assenting while inwardly thinking “are you crazy???” with each escalation.
Now, it’s a bit unfair of me to paint the picture of Evan being crazy.
Well, I mean, he is.
But he’s also realistic and understood that the plan, as described so far, was not realistic. It wasn’t going to happen. We would have to compromise. Evan is somewhat inclined to give up on something if he knows he can’t make it according to his vision, but I tried to encourage him and lay out a plan for completing the project anyway.
Break the project down into it’s smallest parts and do the most important things first, I suggested. Make the chocolates first, and see if we have time for packaging after that. When making the chocolates, just make flavors we’re most excited about first, work our way down the list, and see how much we get done in time.
That’s what I told him.
There is a reason Evan lets me collaborate with him, and it’s not because I sit him down and tell him all the things wrong with his plan, or freak out about how much work and stress it’ll be.
Rather, being a naturally competitive chap, my inclination is to try and be more crazy. After all, there’s nothing like an over-ambitious plan to help you escape from the troubles of life. Despite laying out a plan for a down-scaled completion of the project, the more glum Evan got, the more determined I was to make as much of his crazy dreams come true as possible.
We were trying a lot of new things this time. Not just new flavors, because we’re always doing new flavors, but also new techniques. We were trying to have some fun with the aesthetics of the chocolates this time (trying, I say, because we fell rather short) and were using a lot more molds, dyes, and other things that we wouldn’t normally do.
Because of this, relatively few chocolates turned out “easy.” Once again, we set up our base of operations in the basement, using three folding tables by the stove. We would work on our crazy inventions in a frenzied manner, stirring pots and muttering as we combined all sorts of exotic ingredients, coming across to passerby’s as a pair of wizards experimenting in their dungeon. Occasionally we would emerge from our dungeon, covered head to toe in chocolate, frazzled and looking for a drink and a bit of time to relax and catch up on the outside world.
At such times, anyone hanging out in the kitchen might hear some humorous remarks – I remember Caleb commenting that he wished he was recording our dialogue after he caught me asking Evan “Ready for some basement torture?” and Evan wearily replying “Yeah, sure” as we headed down to tackle the careful construction of the Dragon Eggs.
Before we get into the construction of each chocolate, let me go on a tangent about the packaging. First, for some context, I was knees deep in another time-consuming project (another gift for the graduation/birthday party). Don’t tell them, but I may have been getting up early, going to bed late, and forgoing eating, showering, and other life essentials in order to get this all done in time. (If it wasn’t such an easy thing to do while multitasking, I probably would have put off breathing) This is just by way of apology and explanation for the results of the packaging. The intention was that each of the for recipients would get a custom-made wood box from a different time period.
Each box would come with a guide that had a page or two of backstory for each chocolate, explaining not only the flavor but the adventures the fictional “Westmore Brothers” went through in order to procure these chocolates, written in poetic form and accompanied by epic Indian ink illustrations of each frightful mythical beast they bested in battle. These stories would flawlessly incorporate references to all of our recipient’s favorite fantasy books in a seamless and engaging way, tying the chocolates, this fictional adventure, and favorite fantasy books into one epic book of poetry.
We failed utterly. But you know what they say! Shoot for the moon; land among the stars. For the boxes, we had to settle with just one, not four – though I have to say, I’m pretty happy with it:
(The text was wood-burned by Deirdre)
The other three, unfortunately, would have to be content to merely see this box and get their chocolates in a normal corrugated carboard box.
The chocolates themselves would be bagged in these beautiful silver-blue bags, tagged with labels. (This was it’s own fair share of work; printed on cardstock, torn for a weathered look, and then a hole for the string burned in with our wood burner. Cadie and Caleb helped significantly with these steps!)
As for the booklet.. the drawings were cut, the length was severely reduced, and the references to fiction were few and embarrassingly, ham-fistedly forced in. For someone who has never written poetry and doesn’t even know what proper poetry is. . . OK, OK, it was bad, but cut me some slack! I set myself up a pretty impossible task, alright? How do you make a rhyme about Gimli and Legolas following the Westmore Brothers into Narnia to get Gnomes Pie from the Earthmen? How do you make a poem about them fighting a Mermaid while simultaneously mentioning the fact that this chocolate has earl grey tea cookies and orange gummy in it?!?!
Reality check: we worked from Tuesday the 11th until the morning of the party, Saturday the 15th, and among the many things that were not done Saturday morning (we needed to leave before 11 pm) was… pretty much all of these poems!
Not to mention printing and aging this pamphlet, tagging and bagging the chocolates, and making a final note to nail on top of the box of chocolates. Again, my apologizes to the other three recipients who didn’t get their own card-stock, hand-aged version – just regular printer paper was all time allowed.
All of this backstory was just so I could include the “poems” along side my description of the production of each chocolate, and you’d have the backstory to go with it – that these “poems” were written frantically by a Justin, who had been forgoing basic necessities such as sleep, at the literal last second on Saturday morning, eyes darting frantically between a thesaurus and rhymezone.com as the seconds counted down. It took the four of us a surprisingly long time to tag, bag, and distribute the chocolates between the four boxes. By that time we were already late. A few minutes down our road, we realized we forgot the guide booklets and had to turn around.
All things considered, I think it turned out alright.
Earl Gray Cookie with Orange Gummy aka Mermaid Membrane
This one was an absolute delight in my opinion, I loved it. It was also not super difficult. The earl gray tea cookies were amazing by themselves (we should make them again some time, just to eat!) and so was the delightful orange gummy Evan made. Even the “easy” things have nuanced troubles when seeing them through to completion: cookies weren’t the right size and all had to be trimmed down to shape, which was difficult to do without them cracking. The gummy layer didn’t chill on a level surface and was thicker in some places and paper thin in others. Assembling little sandwiches out of two cookies and some orange gummy involved a fair amount of tedious handiwork.
This one was pretty easy and familiar, the only issue was it was very prone to leaking after being coated. For a while, we’d keep patching places where the cream was leaking out, and it’d find a new hole to sprout out of. After a while we just gave up!
Coffee Angel Food Cake aka Coffee Lembas
The trick here was just getting the balance of coffee right in the angle food cake; I totally randomly winged the coffee amount without measuring. It called for expresso which we didn’t have, and rather than figuring out a conversion, I just kept adding it in until it looked and tasted reasonable.
Also I accidentally made way too much, and we had more than an entire cake extra.
Which was fine, because it was awesome.
Granola Bars aka Dwarven Bread
I kinda just went all round the house adding random things. I don’t really remember what ended up going into these. I’m not sure they turned out all that great.
This one had no recipe or even a very clear idea of the goal; I named it R.O.U.S. bait when all we were sure it would have peanut butter, but we almost cut that from the final chocolate! Feedback from Easter chocolates included a request for a Twix bar, so this one ended up like Twix: a layer of caramel, a layer of peanut butter, and a layer of sugar cookie crust.
We toasted a bag of hazelnuts and tried to turn them into butter, but we didn’t have quite enough, and turning it into butter didn’t work quite how we liked. . . this was another I’m not really sure I got to try or figure out how well it came out.
This one was about as simple as they come – toast the coconut before mixing it into the chocolate. (Yes, I was getting desperate with the rhymes at this point and rhymed “coconut” with “butt”)
Pistachio Puff Pastry aka Gnome Pie
While making puff pastry takes a bit of time, these weren’t too difficult – but a disappointment. There wound up being too much pastry and not enough of the filling, which so the filling (which we thought tasted bad anyway) was overwhelmed.
OK, to be totally level with you here – and this isn’t Purdy self-deprecation – we struck out three times here. We totally failed. Evan tried twice (burned a batch, the other lost it’s shape, had a funny taste, and absorbed moisture from the air and got soft) I tried twice, all three times we completely failed. I actually started a batch of mixture, realized halfway through I overbeat it, and threw out the whole batch of mixture before I even finished it.
All the times we baked it they fell totally flat and had a kind of nasty taste.
We shrugged, coated what we had, and included it – but we wouldn’t blame our recipients if these ones went in the garbage.
We were kinda worried the hot chocolate would dissolve the pop-rocks, we weren’t sure how much chocolate to add per how much pop rocks, or how we wanted to shape and decorate them, but we kind of winged it and it turned out great. I didn’t get to try much of this, but it was hit among some of the audience, and it was probably the simplest and easiest thing we did.
A fig filled with black garlic, this was one of our weirder flavors – but fairly simple to create, the only real hitch being how late the figs arrived in the mail. (Evan wasn’t real happy with the quality of the figs, either.) Otherwise, it was fairly simple to hollow out the figs, fill them with a black garlic paste, and coat in chocolate.
Seasoned Crunchy Chickpeas aka Harpy Bones
In other lands, a Harpy we slew, stealing it’s bones before we withdrew! They were like chickpeas, crunchy, and quite so deliciously munchy!
Let’s not talk about these.
Peach Cream aka Griffon Egg
Evan did most of the work on this one; my memory is it went fairly smooth, but we didn’t really have enough white chocolate, so we had to be sparing and careful when coating them. I don’t think I ever got to try this flavor coated, but the peach filling Evan made seemed very good.
A new world again, we found a Griffon Egg, when suddenly – it’s mother grabbed me by the leg! During battle our elf-friend died, how very much we cried!
The eggs flavor was difficult to be placed, but at last, of peach we decided it taste!
Maple Syrup and Toasted Pecan aka Manticore Claws
We had tried – and failed – to do one like this in the past, where instead of coming out like caramel, it came out like fudge. This time it was very delightful and actually turned out how we wanted!
Rasberry Booze aka Chimera Blood
This was the frustrating one. Because of the alcohol content, these never froze – and let me tell you, coating a liquid is a pain. I loved the beautiful bright-red, gold-speckled forms I made and found it tragic to have to continually hide it under increasing layers of bulky patches, all the while the contents leaking out. These could have been amazing, but by the end they were bulking masses of blobby chocolate with barely any raspberry left in them.
Blackberry Tapioca Pearls aka Kraken Eggs
These could’ve, should’ve, been good – but they weren’t. A blackberry sauce with bubble tea tapioca pearls sounded delicious; but the tapioca pearls didn’t keep their pleasant texture, but turned hard and chewy. The best we could say about these is they convincingly looked like sea-creature eggs, at least before they were coated in chocolate.
Cherry Triple Cream aka Cyclope’s Eye
If we had not already slew, many a beast, with this crew, battle this giant, we would not have dared, at us with one eye, it stared! But we slew it too, and gathered it’s eye for you!
It tastes like cheese and cherry, I’m quite sure it will make you merry!
With our dwarf we slew many a beast, and turned this box into quite a feast! But at last his heart longed for home, for at last, he wished, to cease to roam.
This one tasted delicious! We ran out of the fancy triple-cream cheese and had to use regular cream cheese; but a lot of people didn’t care for the more expensive cheese anyway. All the cherry goop kept falling off, making these hard to successfully coat with as much of the cherry flavor as we wanted.
Beef Jerky and Mango aka Dragon’s Meat
So he was homeward bound, when we heard quite a dreadful sound! A great red dragon of flame and scales, flew forth with breath of fire and burned our sails!
as this tale comes to an end, dwarven brothers joined our friend, when, side by side, they fought, such fiercesome destruction they wrought! After this deadly tango, they gave us some meat that taste of mango!
This was another unique flavor. The base concept – slapping some jerky and mango together and calling it a day – seems simple. But from the very start Evan had the concept of covering these with almond slivers dyed red to look like dragon scales. The actual process of gluing the Mango and Jerky well enough to coat hem, and then attaching the scales in a way where they wouldn’t fall off, turned out to not be so simple.
For most of the chocolates, coating is a one-man process and me and Evan are both coating different things. For this one, it required a bit of team work, where one person coated the mango and beef (which had already been “glued” together with chocolate earlier) while the other went behind quickly attaching the “scales” before the chocolate hardened. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds (well, if any of this is sounding easy to you) because the beef and mango chunks were very irregularly shaped and finding the room to actually place the scales on without them falling off was tricky.
Do we have pictures of this process or of the completed chocolates? No. The lack of documentation (both pictures, and reminders of what went wrong to learn from next time) is one of mine and Evan’s laments. But the chocolate gets everywhere, and it’s a busy, hectic process. We struggle to find the time to stop and breath, let alone clean up well enough to get out a camera and take pictures. (Some of these photos are from Cadie, some are from the start or end of the day before we work. A few are from those few times we do take the time to breath!)
after we bade goodbye to this dwarf band, At last we returned to our own land, My brother and I, Caleb and Mordecai!
And sent this ship through a cupboard on it’s own, a final journey to a land unknown!
I’m writing this in December, months after the fact. I wish I could conclude this properly, but it was too long ago for me to remember many details.
I remember finishing a night of chocolate-making with Evan, then immediately going out the carriage barn to start mixing up another batch of resin for my other project, stirring it outside while staring up at the inky black sky as the Perseid meteor shower put on a spectacular show.
I remember the final night before the party, worn out from the early mornings and late nights, making a battle plan with Caleb. I came up with a list of all the things I wanted to but hadn’t yet done – an impossibly long list – and mulled over which of my darlings to give up and which to try and complete the next morning, and what Caleb might be able to help with overnight.
What I remember most is how they were received; too many people crammed into a small room shouting their excitements, their thanks, laughing, drooling, hugging, screaming. We were invited to many other graduations and birthday parties.
I’s always worth the work!
10 Reasons Me And Evan Aren’t As Crazy As You Think
This part may be met with some resistance, but I feel like I’ve over-aggrandized our achievements and feel the need to ground it a little. I’d hazard to guess that if you put your mind to it (the hardest part, perhaps) that any of you reading this who cook or bake could do these very same things. Have you ever made granola before of any kind? Great. Just cover it with chocolate any old haphazard way and you’ve got one of our chocolates.
1. Just Simple Cooking
Granted, if you can’t cook, maybe you can’t make chocolates. Otherwise, what we do isn’t any harder than the cooking anyone does. We don’t utilize knowledge of chemistry of food science. We don’t figure out how to temper chocolate. We don’t measure anything. We don’t even use a thermometer. We don’t utilize any special skills or knowledge.
2. Coming Up With Flavors Is Not Actually That Hard
I shouldn’t speak for Evan because he usually does this step, but you can honestly just google chocolate ideas and you’ll find most of the flavors we’ve done aren’t anything new. A lot of people make chocolate covered beef jerky, for an example, and we got a lot of ideas this way.
Failing at that, just pick any random object or flavor and combine it with chocolate. Figs. Black Garlic. Pop Rocks. Whatever. It might be terrible. Guess what, so are a lot of ours! Not all of our flavors turn out good, the bad ones just get overlooked. There were quite a few flops in this batch, like Unicorn Horn and Kraken Eggs.
Lastly, if you try a unique flavor but you fail to deliver on your vision – that happens to us a lot, too. Nobody is any the wiser. They don’t know what you envisioned, they just appreciate what you did.
3. Lack Of Planning Is An Advantage, Not A Talent
Maybe when I say we do it without any planning, recipes, or measurements you find that to be some kind of awe-inspiring talent. The truth is, it would be too difficult to sustain motivation for the whole project if we planned everything out to the last detail. Lack of planning saves us a lot of time, stress, and commitment. (Though it’s also why we don’t get to try many of our chocolates – we run out of ingredients or make too few to try!)
4. We Screwed Everything Up
… and it’s not a talent, because that lack of planning causes us to screw everything up. I can’t tell you the number of times Me and Evan proclaimed this entire project was ruined because of our latest mistake.
Could you tell from the result? No? I didn’t think so.
You might think you couldn’t do this because you’d screw everything up. Well, you probably would – just like us – but nobody who enjoyed your chocolates would notice.
Remember, we tried four times to make the Unicorn Horn. We failed each time.
5. Recipients Are Blinded To The Flaws
… and they will be if you tried it, too.
You can’t notice our innumerable mistakes, and we wouldn’t be able to notice most of yours, either.
6. We Get Lots Of Help
If you’re still thinking we’re crazy and you could never do it – keep in mind we don’t do it alone. There is a reason it takes the two of us to do this. If you had a perfect partner-in-crime, you’re chances are significantly increased.
But while the majority of the work is done by Evan and I, many various family members and friends have always pitched in here and there. Not much; but even a tiny mount of help at a crucial time in any project can be a life-saver. Without a third hand at just the right moment, the house of cards collapses.
7. A Lifetime Of Experience
Although I’ve been touting how achievable this is for the average cooking-capable human reader, it’s worth noting we’re building on a lifetime of experience cooking and baking for a large family. I think this helps us more in handling the scale and scope of the project than anything – when you are used to cooking for such a big family, it’s not a very big jump up to make so many chocolates.
8. Shoot For The Moon, Land Among The Stars
If you try to make chocolates as good as ours, you’ll probably fall short. If you try to make chocolates better than ours, you’ll give us a run for our money!
At least, trying to do 10x better than our past attempt is how Evan and I manage to keep our rate of quality steady.
9. Divine Intervention
. . . is what separates “crazy” from “stupid”.
It’s amazing me and Evan haven’t had some horrible fight when tension are high and we’re ragged from working late and the frustration of mistakes, let alone succeed in making passable final product.
You’d think they’d have something better to do, but there must be a guardian angel helping us.
10. Maybe We Are A Little Bit Crazy
. . . but NOT in a good way. For some reason, people always affix “in a good way” after telling us we’re crazy, but I don’t agree. Often the manic sprees that enable these projects end with a depressive crash, and we’d gladly give up our chocolate-making ability to have the ability to be better at making conversation or friendships instead. Purdy’s are undeniably crazy, but it’s not necessarily what fuels these chocolates, and even if it is, I’m not sure it’s worth the cost.
Until Next Time
Ultimately, if we can do it, it must not be to hard! Though it may surprise some of my readers we are, after all, only human. Below-average humans, at best.
See you again, next time – which some of you know isn’t long from now, as I sit a few feet from 25 boxes of Christmas chocolates.
This is a long one, but it’s full of torches, alcohol, disasters, recoveries, hours of sanding, soot sprites and some pretty cool resin projects!
I’m not sure how I first got interested in resin projects, but I think it was when I found these cool wood resin rings.
I also saw many, many cool moss bio-dome projects on the internet, and somehow the idea came to mind to combine the two and make a moss bio-dome preserved in resin.
I decided to go for an easier project to begin with, knowing any kind of spherical mold is not going to be easy to work with, let alone the other complexities of such a project. I assumed my first few projects with resin would be learning experiences with poor results. Recalling a candle I had made many years ago as a birthday present for TT that had flowers preserved in it, I decided to make her a similar project using wild flowers preserved in resin instead of candle wax.
Fortunately I am blessed to be able to walk through these beautiful fields as part of my morning routine, and in early June they are full of a huge variety of wild flowers. It didn’t take much time out of my day to harvest them as I went. (Supplemented by a few blossoms I stole from my Mom’s garden!)
I looked up many methods for drying and preserving flowers. Many of them involve flattening the flowers, but I wanted to preserve the three-dimensional volume of the flowers so I went with silica sand. Smaller than silica beads, this can fill in and support flowers as they dry, keeping their shape.
One of the delights of this project – which unfortunately I did not capture very well – is uncovering these hidden treasures after the drying period. After drying they are extremely fragile – rather than digging, it is best to slowly poor the silica sand into another container as the sands slowly unveil the beautiful treasures you buried just days earlier.
Tweezers and a very soft brush also come in handy. Some flowers held up very well, but others had to be grabbed carefully by the stem using tweezers. I kept them all in a Tupperware container with a lid for safe keeping.
I read many dire warnings of the colors of flowers fading a lot when dried or preserved in resin, and while I did experience this to some extent, most of them turned out quite beautiful!
I was seeing in my mind these flowers arranged in an artful, picturesque bouquet. But when it came time to actually turn them into a resin project, reality hit me hard: I had no idea how to actually get that to happen. Ultimate I chose the “charge full steam ahead” method so I could get the “learning from my mistakes” stage over as soon as possible, and just threw stuff into the three molds I had, poured the resin, and hoped for the best.
Did I mention I didn’t have a proper workspace? I was using some broken furniture thrown in the attic of our carriage barn. The broken table was not remotely level, so you can see I’ve artfully shimmed a board with some paper towels to rest my projects on so they would harden level. (Also notice the pile of disposable gloves – resin gets everywhere and is difficult to clean!)
It didn’t take me long to realize my first horrible mistake: resin is heavy. Flowers are light. They float. With nothing holding them in place, most of my flowers floated to the top of the open-faced molds (what would be the bottom of the final project)
In spite of this they came out looking alright. They also had a lot of bubbles – something I sort of anticipated, but I wanted to see how bad it would be.
Some people thought that enhanced the visuals; though it does obscure the view of the flowers. I don’t think it hurt these projects, but I could see how it would be problematic in the future so I decided to give it another shot with some different techniques to reduce bubbles:
A wide, shallow mold causes fewer bubbles as they can more easily escape
Using a torch or heat gun can eliminate surface bubbles
Pouring a thin layer of resin, putting the flowers on it while it is still tacky, then letting it harden before finishing the pour can “freeze” the flowers in place so they don’t float
First, time to collect more flowers!
I didn’t have a very clear vision for this next project. I also didn’t have time to find a mold. I frantically searched for anything that might be wide, flat, and circular to use that I also thought I could get the resin out of — rather than having it stuck there indefinitely.
In the end I found a disposable flower pot liner and started throwing in my latest dried flowers and leaves willy-nilly. I was afraid of over doing it and adding too much.
If you try to cook a pretty good meal and screw up, it will just be an O.K meal. If you try to cook an AMAZING meal and you screw up it will still be a really good meal. People will confuse “is a good cook” with “makes good meals” and think you’re a good at cooking when in reality you’re just bad at cooking very good things!
I’ve found this principal to be immensely beneficial in any endeavor. Most people don’t even realize that, much like the first three, this project was also a horrible disaster – because despite how much I screwed up, it still looks good.
I’ll briefly, but not thoroughly, categorizes the many failures of this project:
As seen above, the mold had a leak
Because the mold leaked, the entire thing got glued to the board it was resting on. It was very difficult to remove without also breaking the resin cast. I had to use a system of many Popsicle-stick wedges, working them under the unstuck side at first and gradually moving them closer, until I was able to use a butter knife to break the cast free
Also, the resin did not release from the plastic mold. It was difficult, time consuming, and frustrating to peal the mold off of the resin in shreds, spending hours trying to pick the last pieces of plastic mold off.
Despite my best efforts, the arrangement of flowers still floated and shifted, “ruining” my original layout
Preserving the 3D shape of flowers worked against me here — I was trying to do a thin, flat pour. Instead it ended up really thick, AND some of the flowers still poked out of the top.
The torch, while effectively removing bubbles, also melted my plastic mold (duh) making it even harder to remove, but also making the final shape not perfectly circular
It dried too fast, meaning the resin dried out before it fully leveled, so the final product has waves and ripples of expanding resin instead of a smooth, flat top surface
Some of these flowers weren’t preserved well enough, and lost their color, got damaged, and fell apart during the casting process
My main takeaways were:
Always use a proper silicone mold, which will easily release resin and can withstand torch heat and won’t leak
The torch works wonders on bubbles
Anything you want to stay put needs to be secured in place somehow
These projects took me roughly three weeks in June, from collecting flowers to the final resin pour.
In mid-July, after licking my wounds and ordering some new material, I ambitiously decided to move on to my dream project of a moss bio-dome,
While I did think I had learned some things from my previous projects, like many of my endeavors, I mostly chose to advance on to this project because there was a birthday coming up for someone who I thought might appreciate such a project.
Step one, collect materials!
I had a difficult time balancing all of this on my arms, and got quite a hand cramp trying to hold on to things until I got home on more than one occasion! I collected a LOT of material from the woods for this project, because I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. I wanted enough things to choose from that I could improvise as I got started.
I found this really neat mushroom that was as hard as wood and almost the perfect size to fit in my biggest spherical mold. Said person with a birthday upcoming recently had her tablet screen break and made light of it by saying it looked like Gandalf’s rune; which tangentially inspired the idea to paint Gandalf’s ruin using glow-in-the-dark paint on the back of the mushroom. (This had to be painted in many layers to get it thick enough. It was hard to find a thin enough paintbrush. I also one time accidentally touched it when wet and ruined it!) I’d also been watching a lot of Studio Ghibli films lent to me by this person, and figurines from some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films just seemed like they would be right at home in a little nature diorama — pictured above on the other side of the mushroom are Soot Sprites from My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away.
In the first picture, you’ll notice clay in the bottom of the big mold. This was put in first so that, when removed at the end, the final cast would have a flat bottom so it could be placed on a shelf without rolling off.
Next, I purchased some resin dyes and made a very dark brown/black resin mixture for the base poor. This is the “ground” that the moss “grass” will grow on top of.
My cramped work space is becoming increasingly cluttered.
I did learn some things from my first project. This time, everything was glued down. Early experiments proved that moss cannot be super-glued to resin, so I had to use hot glue for the first layer. Super glue was used in all other cases, as it works much better and more cleanly to affix all other items to each other.
The big unknown was working with a spherical mold. They come in two parts, and I’d heard horror stories about them being forced apart or leaking during the curing process, causing a huge spill and ruining projects.
To reduce bubbles, I did one poor over everything to seal everything organic so it wouldn’t leak air and fill in the cracks. I taped the edge of the mold to make sure the edge could be easily cleaned when it came time to put the top half of the mold on and finish the pour.
I was very pleased with how this one was coming out – I thought the concept and execution looked great – and I thought it was going to be amazing as long as the mold stayed sealed during the second pour.
To build some anticipation for the final result, I’ll go on some brief tangents of some other complexities of working with resin.
This small butane torch was acquired recently by my sister to toast marshmallows for a baking project. It served me well as a bubble-remover on my resin projects.
The alcohol was used for clean up. I cannot stress enough that resin is very messy and well get everywhere and the cleanup process for each pour is tedious and lengthy. Each mixing container (inside and outside) and stirrer (the resin has to be stirred for ages before pouring) has to be cleaned with the alcohol, pictured above, as well as any surfaces it may have got on.
My oldest brother was alarmed at the combination of a torch and alcohol, and advised I don’t use them in close proximity. (Lest I catch the fumes on fire and cause a fireball) Luckily the alcohol doesn’t come out until after I’m completely done using the torch.
Using said torch to get rid of bubbles on my two bottom pours. (Bonus: in the backdrop you can see where my other project leaked and sealed to the board..)
My increasingly messy setup, spilling over onto the chair and floor.
Concept for a secondary pour.
I had only planned to use the biggest mold, and didn’t really have any particular ideas for how many or what to make except that I wanted to at least use the Soot Sprites, Kodama, and Totoro figurines.
Many of my smaller pours, such as this one, occurred just because I mixed too much resin and didn’t want it to go to waste.
Now, for the result of my big pour. . .
My beautiful, carefully crafted nature diorama is indecipherable beneath the absolute hail of bubbles that appeared, except the baleful eyes of a few soot sprites staring out of the haze. (Not to mention the expected stem and seam line)
I tried so hard to avoid this. Although I realized as I began this project I wouldn’t be able to use the torch once the top half of the mold went on due to the small opening, I still used other techniques to prevent bubbles: for an example, if you do multiple pours the bubbles are reduced. If you pour all at once, the bubbles at the bottom can’t reach the top before the resin cures, so I did smaller pours one by one. (Including the initial pour to seal everything)
Secondly, the faster it cures the less time there is for bubbles to escape. The attic I was curing them in was so hot that resin cures very quickly, so for this creation I had let it cure in the much cooler basement instead.
All for nothing!
To top it all off, I was running low on resin and for some reason the resin stuck on a small part of the mold and tore a hole, so doing new pours was impossible. My deadline was also fast-approaching.
A panicked flurry of shopping, borrowing, and brainstorming I tried to come up with a way to salvage this creation and make new ones:
Borrow a Dremel tool to get rid of the stem and to grind down the sphere so that hopefully more of the contents are visible
Sander to flatten the bottom (the clay wasn’t level) and/or possibly help remove bulk amounts of resin from the sphere
Very fine grit wet/dry sand paper, as well as polishing agent and a microfiber cloth, to attempt to polish the sphere to a shine after removing a bulk of resin
Ordered more resin
I also did some research and found a different type of resin from a different supplier that was meant more for the kind of pours I’m doing. It turns out the resin I was using was meant for smaller or flat pours, not large solid objects. The new resin I ordered was thinner and takes longer to cure, so more bubbles can escape. This is a double-edged sword as I was quickly running out of time and was not sure I could make new creations in time with a slower-curing resin
Ordered a new mold
Ordered a mold release spray to treat molds to make sure it will release easily; to avoid future mold tears and/or trouble releasing resin
A sealant/spray that may trap more air in organic material to prevent them from releasing air bubbles and/or to spray the final product to make it shine.
The process of sanding and grinding down the large sphere was very long and tedious. I had to repeatedly clean everything to check and make sure I wasn’t getting too close to any of the objects within; I didn’t want to accidentally cut into one of my Soot Sprites.
These large bubbles are problematic. I can’t sand them out without destroying said soot sprites. You can already see the tip of the mushroom as been damaged at the top.
My smaller mold had similar issues. It didn’t look as bad at first, but after I ground off the stem and mold line, the bubbles filled up with dust, turning them white and making the whole thing look even worse.
Here are the 6 layers of sand paper of decreasing grit I used to slowly polish it off. If you’ve ever sanded anything, you can feel my pain. If you haven’t, try it sometime – great exercise in patience and endurance.
The picture is misleading as I also needed to spend a decent amount of time with a larger grit sandpaper to actually take off a thick layer of resin evenly. Since I wanted this one to remain spherical, I couldn’t use motorized means like I was for the bigger sphere.
A lot of patience and getting up early to spend some hours working on it.
Did I mention I was working on a different, time-consuming, non-resin project at the same time? More on that later!
Luckily, after rinsing off the dust, it appeared my labor was not in vain! It was starting to look pretty clear and shiny.
But my bigger resin sphere had bigger problems — remember those big, ugly bubbles at the top?
I decided I need to fill them with more resin.
But how? I couldn’t remold it since it was no longer spherical. I could pour resin over the top, but then it would dribble out and drip along the sides; the whole thing would need to be re-polished. If I didn’t sand before the pour, would the rough surface be permanently encased in the resin?
I decided to just go for it and pour resin over the rough, unpolished surface to fill the gaps.
It worked shockingly well – the pouring resin did a better job of “polishing” it than hours of sanding! It did result in drip lines, but I said to heck with that – looks good enough for me! The whole thing came out kind of misshapen and ugly, but the scene within was now clearly visible and time constraints pressured me into calling this “good enough”. I had to check how well the glow in the dark rune worked though . . .
Perfect! I rather un-humbly thought this project was insanely cool and was pleased with myself despite the countless setbacks and failures.
Meanwhile, I tried my new type of resin and some new techniques to make a few more. .
I absolutely love the contented smile on this Kodama’s face with the daisy in his hair, as he sits with his legs crossed in a shell from our recent Kayaking trip – and the ferns all about him like seaweed!
And hey, guess what, this guy glows in the dark too! The way he lights up his shell home just looks amazing in person even though it’s hard to capture. Again, I was just too pleased with myself. My only regret is that due to time constraints and the other projects I was working on, I had to gift this one with the seam line and the plug at the top how they are in the first picture. (If you’re reading this, I can it back and fix it if you want!)
And here we have Big Totoro and his medium and small friends!
.. as well as another curious Kodama in the back!
I love the blue Totoro reaching for his fathers staff, and the three wide-eyed smallest Totoro’s huddling together for comfort.
This little guy was made out of rushed extras, but it failed horribly because the dreaded moment occurred: the sphere mold came apart while drying and spilled everywhere. This made a huge mess and ruined the pour. But I just gave it away like this! It’s still kind of neat.. right?
Here is the full cast together!
Despite the imperfections, disasters, and incomplete aspects, I think they came out pretty cool.. what do you think?
I’m not sure how good of a gift they made – what exactly are you gonna do with them? – but they were fun learning projects, and it doesn’t matter if they didn’t come out great because they were totally shown up by my OTHER project, with Evan.. more chocolates!
Which leads us to my next project.. some hasty ordering of some cool dyes, and some rushed amateur carpentry, and I was all set for my final resin attempt. .
First I had to cover all the areas of my box I didn’t want to get messy, and use hot glue to seal EVERY seam so that the resin wouldn’t all leak out like with a mold!
.. on second thought, I should have taken further precautions.
Dropping in bits of dye and swirling it around was really fun to get creative with. . .
. . . and the emerald and silver powders, too!
The finish project! I say this a lot, but it really was better than it looks in pictures. I was very happy with how the resin on this turned out.
… oops! It still leaked! This is is what I alluded to earlier. It hardened to the floor and I almost couldn’t get it off. That would have really ruined my life. Luckily, I was able to pry it up eventually without breaking anything! (Except peeling some paint off of the floor)
That’s sneak peak at the other project. Another post will be coming soon going into all the exciting details of our two latest chocolate projects since the last time I wrote about it!