Where creativity grows

Category: Challenges

Each month, I will announce a new creative challenge. The idea of a challenge is that you will work on something every day for 30 days with the goal of forming a creative habit.

A musical journey

One of the pillars of the creative mindset is music. The guests at Matt and Cassandra’s wedding represented nine different countries. In an effort to have everyone represented during the reception, they asked guests to share 3-4 songs from their homeland. We heard music from India, Sweden, Ukraine, Mexico and of course Spain. Hearing all of these new and unique-to- me tunes made me realize that my favorite Pandora stations were so perfectly dialed in that I not only knew every single song that came up, but I also loved them. While there is nothing wrong with the Arctic Monkeys or that many artists that match the algorithm of their music, I was in the market for something new. I put an all-call out to my Facebook page to see what people could toss my way. I also said that I would give extra points for international music. 

The feedback I got was awesome. First and foremost, I heard back from people I did not expect to hear from. That meant that we had a connection I did not know about— music. Second- while I got a lot of suggestions, I did not like a lot of it. It just was not the kinda music that would make my creative juices flow and make me want to get up and dance— or more importantly to go and create! 

A colleague recommended a few songs by a Chinese artist. Another said she loved cleaning to a Phish playlist on Spotify. Another suggested a station called Rockfluence. I was amused when a local Elginite suggested a German artist named Antifuchs. I wasn’t sure if he knew that I was a German teacher, but as it turns out he did. Glad he was able to confirm that this was not school nor institution friendly music. Didn’t matter, I enjoyed the sound of her music tremendously. Then my neighbor down the block surprised me with some epic suggestions of New Orleans style calypso music that was crazy fun. Too many Zooz Radio and Trombone Shorty were two of my favorites. I didn’t realize that what I was actually looking for was something that would make our house have a café feel to it. When a long time friend suggested the Pink Martini station on Pandora, I knew that I had struck gold. The station definitely has a Sunday Brunch Café station feel to it, but it has a solid international twist to it that has me smiling, dancing and daydreaming all at the same time. I turned it on this morning when I got up and it has been playing for eight straight hours without a single thumbs down on a song. LOVE! LOVE! LOVE!

Do you have a song or a playlist that gets your creative juices flowing? Please share! I am always on the hunt for new music.

A staycation

As I mentioned in the first post in this series, not everyone can just pick up and spend eleven days in Spain. However, one of our most memorable days in Spain was when Matt and Cassandra shared their favorite places and experiences with us. It gave me the chance to look at our hometown with different glasses. What would I put on such a list if I had to share our hometown with guests? 

Coffee and a pastry at Arabica Cafe. Although Diane and Chef Brian are currently trying to sell the cafe so that they can start chapter two of their retirement plan, it is still one of my all time favorite spots. I did almost all of my interviews for my book The Many Faces of Elgin there. The coffee is good and the pastries are amazing (or go later in the day for lunch- wowza). 

Check out the dam at Kimball Street. It is one of my all-time favorite spots in Elgin. If it’s freezing cold out, you might spot an eagle. If it’s summer, you’ll probably see a line of people fishing. Either way, it’s a very peaceful and beautiful spot to see the Fox River. Stroll down a bit and check out Walton Island.

At Kimball Street Dam
Eagles over Kimball Street Dam

Enjoy a bike ride, run or walk on the Fox River Trail. You can park at the Gail Borden Library in downtown and head north toward Algonquin or head south toward Aurora. 

Enjoy a martini at The Martini Room. Each month the lounge hosts the art of a local artist. Although they do not sell food, their cocktails are outstanding.

Martini Room

Get a bag of popcorn at Mama Lee’s to snack on while checking out the shops around downtown. Meraki Market features the work of local artisans. Elgin Knit Works is a beautiful yarn shop. Steep ‘n Clay is a tea and pottery shop. There are a variety of antique shops scattered around downtown as well.

Check out the public art throughout town. Elgin has amazing murals and sculptures. Most of it is accessible on foot from downtown. 

Get a German pretzel roll at Herb’s Bakery. These are the real deal and they sell out very fast. Call ahead and order a half-dozen…or go crazy and order a dozen. You won’t regret it. 

Have an iconic meal at Al’s Cafe (lunch or dinner- you won’t be disappointed). 

Elgin has a large hispanic population and as a result some excellent options for authentic food. One of our favorites is Taqueria Chapala on the far east side. 

Elgin Symphony Orchestra at the Hemmens Center. We are crazy lucky to have three amazing orchestras in Illinois. If you want to skip the major hassle of traveling downtown to see the CSO, you won’t be disappointed with free parking, ample dining options within walking distance and world class talent at the ESO. 

Discover the amazing architecture throughout Elgin. Whether it is a walking tour of the famous painted ladies and other historical homes or the various churches and temples, Elgin has it all. 

Painted Lady

Bluff City Cemetery is a stunningly beautiful historic cemetery on the far east side of town. Wander the grounds and then go for a hike in Bluff Spring Fen, which is accessed at the far end of the cemetery. 

What would be on your Staycation Itinerary if I were to visit your area? 

The 12 Days of Hot Chocolate

This year, Tom and I decided that we were going to focus on making our own Christmas memories and infusing our home with the joy of the season. That is how the 12 Days of Hot Chocolate came to be. While we have always been somewhat snobbish about our hot chocolate consumption (ie no Swiss Miss and hot water allowed in this household), we have never searched for a recipe that takes our hot chocolate to the next level. 

 

Our basic hot cocoa recipe (2 servings)

  • 2 cups milk of choice

  • 2 TBSP dark chocolate cocoa powder

  • 2 TBSP sugar

  • Splash of vanilla

 Heat milk in the microwave and stir in the rest of the ingredients. Serve with your favorite toppings. 

 I turned to Pinterest to find twelve recipes for us to try. The teacher in me and the engineer in Tom of course had to make a rubric to score the recipes. We went back and forth on a lot of different ideas, but in the end opted to keep it nice and simple with a 3 candy cane rating system: 

 

  • 1 candy cane – we did not even finish the mug and won’t ever make it again.

  • 2 candy canes- we finished it, but probably won’t make it again

  • 3 candy canes- absolutely loved it and will add it to our personal cookbook

 I printed off the 12 recipes and made my shopping list. We were ready to get started!

 

The results:

I don’t want to disappoint you this early in the post, but full disclosure- we ended up not trying all twelve recipes. Very early on we discovered what we like, love and hate about hot chocolate. We used the recipes to explore different flavors, but in the end we didn’t need all twelve recipes to figure that out. I will include links to all twelve at the very end in case you want to do your own experiment.

 

All things being equal:

There are a few elements that we kept standard throughout the recipes, despite what the recipe actually called for. 

  1. 70% cocoa Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips

  2. Dark cocoa powder from Costco

  3. Silk Unsweetened Almond Milk or Organic Skim Cow’s milk

  4. Anywhere that called for heavy cream or half-half, we used Silk non-dairy half-half.

 And so it began….

 

Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate 

I am obsessed with all things chocolate and peanut butter, so I started our adventure with the only peanut butter and chocolate recipe. I was sure this would be my favorite before we even started. I mixed everything up and poured the concoction into the His and Hers penguin mugs we would be using for the challenge. I took a huge sip and let out a howl of excitement. Man was that yummy. Tom was less impressed. My initial impression was that I would drink it every day for the rest of my life. Tom thought he might finish it, but he is not a lover of chocolate and peanut butter like I am. Within a few minutes though we both felt like someone had stuck a straw into a jar of Skippy. To my shock and chagrin— neither of us finished our mugs! I don’t know if it would be better with higher quality peanut butter. I only had creamy Skippy on hand from my holiday baking as Tom prefers the chunky Crazy Richard’s peanut butter for everyday use. Perhaps more milk to thin it out or even less PB, but overall this one was a big bust!

Peppermint Hot Chocolate- 3 candy canes

Not much I love more this time of year than peppermint. Next up was a peppermint hot chocolate recipe that was sure to win our hearts— except for the fact that I cannot read. I made the recipe and we both agreed it was tasty, but it seemed really sweet. When I looked at the recipe, I discovered that instead of putting ¼ tsp of sugar, I poured in a heap ¼ cup. Oops! I made it again later that week with a more appropriate amount of sugar and we both really liked it. We started thinning out the recipes a bit with this one, because we prefer to drink our hot chocolate rather than chew it. This one was a WINNER! 

Colonial Hot Chocolate

 

Our third recipe was one that we were holding on to share with some friends when they popped by for a holiday visit. The Colonial Hot Chocolate recipe had a unique flavor palette and we knew our foodie friends would enjoy doing this taste test with us. This recipe involved me hunting down a few ingredients I had never used before (star anise & ground cardamom), but overall it was an incredibly easy recipe to make. Given the incredibly unique combination of flavors and how easy it was to make, we all agreed this was one of the best hot chocolates we had ever had. This is a solid dessert hot chocolate, but could also serve as a lovely regular recipe if thinned out a bit. 

Nutella Hot Chocolate

After the peanut butter hot chocolate recipe, I was a bit gun shy to try the Nutella Hot Chocolate. I could not have been more wrong! It was awesome— just nutty enough to be unique and the perfect balance of yummo chocolate flavor. 

Hot Chocolate

After a few recipes that were next level with flavors and add-ons, we decided to step back and try a basic recipe that could potentially be our go-to hot cocoa recipe. This one was a sure fire winner— with one change. Tom and I agreed that we much prefer to drink our hot chocolate rather than almost chew it— so I added in an extra cup of milk to the recipe. Yummo!

Cinnamon Hot Chocolate

Next up was going to be a Mexican Hot Chocolate, but neither of us were excited about the idea of something spicy. Instead, I opted for a recipe for a cinnamon hot cocoa that I was hoping would be similar to the cinnamon crunch latte I had at Panera last week. We were both busy with projects and it was the perfect time to throw in a cup of holiday cheer. Tom proclaimed this was his absolute favorite recipe and I was very close to agreeing. Steeping a whole stick of cinnamon in milk for ten minutes produced a beautifully delicious hot chocolate. With some fresh whipped cream on top, this one was AMAZING! I actually made this again the very next day,

 

Parisian Hot Chocolate

We gave one last recipe a try before declaring the challenge complete. The Parisian Hot Chocolate recipe was elegant and grand, but it was WAY TOO MUCH of everything for us to enjoy. Even with me thinning out the recipe, neither of us finished the mug. We agreed that we know the basics of what makes a great cup of hot chocolate in conjunction with how we like ours prepared so that we can now mix and match a bit from the recipes we tried out. 

Here is a list of all the recipes in case you want to do your own comparison:

  1. Nutella Hot Chocolate

  2. Mexican Hot Chocolate (House of Yumm) / Mexican Hot Chocolate (Green Healthy Eating)

  3. Peppermint French Hot Chocolate

  4. Colonial Hot Chocolate

  5. Parisian Hot Chocolate

  6. Homemade Hot Chocolate Recipe

  7. Italian Hot Chocolate

  8. Maple Sea Salt Vegan Hot Chocolate

  9. Homemade Cinnamon Hot Chocolate Recipe ~ Barley & Sage

  10. London Fog Whipped Cream Hot Chocolate

  11. Thierry Rautureau’s Hot Chocolate (from Theo Cookbook)

  12. Peanut Butter Hot Chocolate

How does one celebrate a birthday during a pandemic?

Most years, my husband and I take Columbus Day weekend to head out of town for a few days to celebrate my birthday. We find a bed and breakfast or even better and AirBnB somewhere a few hours from here. With a collection of podcasts on a flash drive, we hop in the car and start our adventure. That was not an option this year. The COVID19 numbers in Wisconsin and Indiana are rising daily and it was just not worth the risk. So how does one celebrate their birthday in the middle of a pandemic? I wasn’t thinking socially distanced car parade or anything like that. I had to get creative!

Back in July our close friend, who is also my running coach, was in town due to his own pandemic-induced madness. He was turning 47 on July 5th and decided that he was going to run 47 miles along the lakefront in Chicago. Before you get all stressed out about his decision, it would help you to know that he is a semi-professional ultra-marathoner for whom 47 miles is a pretty short run. Anyhow, I loved that his birthday celebration was centered around fitness, but there was no way I was going to run 45 miles in one day. I had walked close to 30 miles in one day, but running and another even more miles was just not going to be in my cards. So my husband suggested that I come up with my own challenge.

On October 6th I turned 45 and I decided that my challenge would be to run fifteen 5Ks in fifteen days between October 1st and October 15th. I was overwhelmed by all the people who signed up to run with me. Yes, of course, most of the segments were snatched up by friends from The Dick Pond Athletics Running Club where I do most of my running. However, I had friends from work who asked to do a segment. I even had a friend who is a fast walker, but who has never run, sign up. I was humbled by everyone’s generosity with their time!

I had 5 under my belt when I took a spill during run #6. I was embarrassed , but popped back up and finished the run. The next day I was with my friend Tammy when I took an even nastier spill. I could not finish this run and I was worried that I had really hurt myself. Thankfully our athletic trainer at school checked me out and was confident I had not broken anything. Relief is the understatement of the year!

Now that I knew I was not going to be able to complete the challenge in 15 days I had to decide how I was going to pivot and still honor my goal. Would I play it safe and just say that the runs had to be completed during the month of October? I did not want to do that, because running 45 miles in one month is not totally unreasonable for me to do. Would I just give up and try it again next year with 46? Out of the question! I decided I would just pivot and be ok with getting it done in up to 20 days. That would give me a few days to heal from my falls and still push me to get back out there.

Last Friday, I woke up and my monkey brain was out of control. I was questioning why on earth I had ever decided to do this challenge. Really…what was I thinking? I knew that I was tired and I was super stressed out about work. I reminded myself that I had deliberately built in 15 days in a row of 3 things: 1) time with special friends 2) celebrating my birthday and 3) exercise. How on earth could that be viewed as anything other than awesome. As of today, I am 10 runs into my 15. I’m taking today off to catch up on life stuff, but I’ll be back out on the trails tomorrow and for the next five days. 

While the pandemic forced me to come up with a different way of celebrating my birthday, I have to be honest, I’m already kicking around ideas for what I will do next year!

2.5 x Warrior

52 Frames and why you should take on a challenge project

In December of 2017, I was preparing to deliver the last few copies of my book The Many Faces of Elgin. The previous 24 months had been consumed by writing, making portraits, editing, layout, sign-offs, marketing and so much more. It was everything I did during those two years. I squeezed in a for-fun photography outing every once in a great while, but it was not often. Landscapes, flowers, butterflies, etc were placed on a long-term back burner. When I was done, I wondered if I would ever pick up my camera again.   

When I randomly happened onto a post about a photography challenge called 52 Frames. The rules were simple– submit one original photo taken the week of the challenge based on that week’s theme. The goal is to be a weekly warrior (submit a photo every week for 52 weeks straight). It did not take much to convince me to sign up for the challenge. 

You can start the program whenever you want, but I was starting with the first challenge of 2018. Every year the first challenge of the year is a self-portrait. What on earth had I gotten myself into? Remember what I said about portraits and flowers and landscapes and such? Not only am I not good at portraits, but I despise being in pictures. The nightmare was real. I won’t lie— quite a few tears were shed that week, but I submitted my first image and my journey had begun.

When I look back at the two photobooks I have made so far (2018 / 2019), I am struck by how much this group has helped me to grow not only as a photographer, but also as a person. When I first started sharing my photography on social media, I definitely fell victim to the dopamine hits I got from getting likes. Because my family and friends liked everything I ever posted. I had an inflated sense of reality. 52 Frames challenged me to learn new techniques, shoot subjects that never interested me and most importantly to pursue my photography for me and not for anyone else. Each week I specifically seek out comments that help me improve and grow. I used to tell my husband that I was a fair-weather photographer. Now 52 Frames has me shooting 52 weeks a year. I have submitted a whole mess of self-portraits— even when it was not directly the challenge theme. I have taken pictures of M&Ms, soldering irons, flags, eggs, candy corn, Darth Vader, flowers, strangers, fire, graffiti and so much more. Most weeks are REALLY hard for me and I consider myself a creative person! I am pushed to my limits regularly and somehow every week I show up. I am more than half-way through my third year with this project and I cannot see myself stopping any time soon.

I highly recommend challenge projects because they force you to show up and practice. Here are some ideas:

  • 52 Frames– This is a photography based project, but you can see the weekly challenges on their website if you wanted to apply the theme to a different medium (writing, painting, doodling).
  • Project 365– Take a single photo every day of the year. The original Project 365 was to take a selfie every day. Some people choose to document food or just an event from their everyday lives. Again, you could apply the concept to anything you want to do every day for a year.
  • Project 52- same idea as project 365, but only once a week. 
  • 365 Thank you notes (based on this book). Write and send/deliver a thank you card every day for an entire year. You’ll be amazed by what this gratitude exercise does for your overall well-being.
  • 100 strangers. Take a photo of 100 different strangers. If you are not a photographer, perhaps you write a short scenario about 100 strangers. Snap a quick image with your cell phone and then write up your scenario.
  • Learn a new word everyday.

Here are few more ideas:

Everyone has creativity within them, but it is a muscle that needs to be used and flexed from time to time. These challenges encourage you to make having a creativity mindset a priority in your life. 

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