The Appalachian Trail

When I was a child, learning to play the piano, for many years my favorite composer was Aaron Copland. One of the first “serious” pieces of music I learned as a beginner was called “Sunday Afternoon Music“, and I played it endlessly. I loved that it was simultaneously simple and complex, that it broke the rules of traditional music but still sounded like one cohesive piece, and I loved the narrative feel of it. I remember it took some concentration for me to learn – there are some unexpected twists, especially for a young musician – but once I had it, both playing it and listening to it was so calming.

When delving further into Copland’s life and work, I, of course, came across his most famous work, “Appalachian Spring“. It feels like such a piece of Americana, like Woody Guthrie or Little House on the Prarie. It’s classic American, in that it feels like the exploration of something new, paying enough due to a root in traditional classical music, but still distinctly non-European in its sound. Discovering Appalachian Spring as an 11-year-old was the first time I had heard of the Appalachian Trail and the idea of someday listening to it while in the midst of Appalachia thrilled me. I always liked the idea of artists creating great works in their natural habitats – Louisa May Alcott writing in Orchard House with a half-eaten apple on her desk and rain pattering on the roof, Thoreau nestled against a tree beside Walden Pond, scribbling away in a notebook. Of course, I would later find out that Copland had no idea what his work would be called when he composed it (he just knew he was composing a ballet for Martha Graham), so the Appalachian Trail was hardly his muse. But still, there was (and is) something so inspiring about the idea of great works being born in simple homes.

Last weekend, I finally took a long-overdue break from hectic city life to disconnect for a few days. On Saturday, we took the Metro-North train up to the Appalachian Trail stop and got off to find that the trail crossed right over the platform.

After years of running through life in New York City, what a relief the view of those trees, water, and boardwalk were. It felt like I could catch my breath for the first time. (Honestly, being out of the city probably did mean I could breathe a bit better.)

We hiked for about 3 hours, to the Dover Oak and back. According to Google, this was an “easy” hike, but it was just right for me in terms of climbing up and down hills and trudging through muddy puddles, without losing the pleasantness and relaxation.

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When planning the trip, I thought “easy” meant we would be walking on a boardwalk the whole time, but most of the hike consisted of trudging along damp paths like these, following white markers like the ones on the trees ahead.

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The Dover Oak

After the hike, we purposely missed our train and hung around for an extra two hours to enjoy our surroundings. When we were walking, we did pause a few times to look at the landscape, but it wasn’t until we sat down to wait for the next train that we realized that this – just sitting – was both the hardest and loveliest part of the whole trip. We sat back, planned our dinner, watched the birds and insects flicker by us, tried unsuccessfully to look for fish, and tried unsuccessfully to put down our phones. I engaged in some amateur nature photography as a compromise with myself.

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Our seats. One points North, and the other points South.

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As we rode the train back, I thought about Aaron Copland and Appalachian Spring. I decided a few years ago that working towards an eventual happiness was not good enough for me – that I needed to do something professionally that would bring me happiness every day. Now, I think I need to go further than that. I need to better incorporate simplicity and peace into my daily life. I need to disconnect at night and not reconnect first thing in the morning, and I need to step away from all of it more often. As I’m writing this and reflecting on it all, I am reminded of the Shaker song “Simple Gifts“, which Copland famously used in his composition:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
      ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
      ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
      To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
      Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.
-Elder Joseph

‘Tis a gift indeed.

The Importance of Being Earnest (and the Cleverness of Language and Stephen Fry)

I read a lot of classics as a kid, but somehow never read anything by Oscar Wilde. I also haven’t read many plays beyond Shakespeare’s works. (Honestly, until I picked the book up, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even realized it was a play!) However, I am a big fan of Stephen Fry, who seems to be a big fan of Oscar Wilde’s, and so, I decided to give this book a go.

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I’m an avid fan of Stephen Fry’s for many reasons which could be discussed in a long blog post all on its own, but one of the things I enjoy is watching him discuss language. I’m someone who cringes a bit when I see a grammatical error or an unrefined metaphor. However, I also quite agree with Fry’s take on language – that it is ever evolving and there isn’t much point on getting held up on small errors as long as the point is clearly coming across. In fact, playing with the meanings of words and phrases can be fun, and it is something that Fry has done endlessly in his comedy sketches and that Oscar Wilde does prolifically in The Importance of Being Earnest. If you’ve ever seen “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”, read a few pages of this play and you’ll see instantly where some of their inspiration came from. As another comparison, think Amelia Bedelia for adults.

My main draw towards The Importance of Being Earnest, was that Fry mentions a line from it in many of his interviews. One of the characters says to a lady he is enamored by, “Would you be in any way offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?” As Fry discusses in the clip below, this is such an unexpectedly poetic use of language. Individually, the words (“offended”, “visible”, “personification”, “absolute”, “perfection”) are clunky and not necessarily the first words that spring to mind when coming up with a romantic turn of phrase. However, altogether, Wilde has built a memorable, charming, and yes, poetic, sentence that would catch anyone’s attention. It is just this clever sort of use of language that I love, and this book is chock full of it.

The Importance of Being Earnest centers around two friends, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, both of whom enjoy occasionally galavanting as fictional alter-egos. In fact, Algernon initially only knows Jack as his alter-ego, Ernest Worthing. Jack created the character of  his fictional brother, “Ernest”, as a means of avoiding responsibilities in his country village home and having fun in London (where Algernon lives).

Jack is hoping to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen, who is impressed with Jack primarily because she thinks his name is Ernest. Algernon suspects Jack/Ernest of leading a double-life and when he comes clean, Algernon decides to have some fun at his expense. Unbeknownst to Jack, Algernon travels to the countryside and meets Jack’s family under the ruse of  being Ernest, Jack’s troublesome brother. There, he falls in love with Cecily, Jack’s young ward, and all manner of confusion and hilarity ensues.

This is a play that I would love to see live. Wilde’s words are so clever that it is easy to imagine them being acted out on a stage as you read. The characters toe the line perfectly between infuriating and endearing. As classic literature goes, this play is a quick read and not too difficult to understand. I recommend it if you want to give the classics a try but still want something that’s light and funny. And, if nothing else, I highly recommend you watch the old clips of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” on Youtube for a laugh. Below is one of my favorite sketches from the series:

Which classics do you love? Do you have any favorite plays? Are you a Stephen Fry or Hugh Laurie fan? Let me know in the comments below!

Mummy’s Classic Chicken Curry

Sunday lunches in our house growing up almost always meant some sort of meat curry – mutton, fish, shrimp, or, most often, chicken. Mummy’s chicken curry is a favorite of everyone in our household, and I think after many attempts over the years and watching my mother carefully, I’ve finally managed to get pretty close. (There’s a very slight difference in taste, which I think I know the reason for, and I’ll explain it below.)

I think a major reason that my mother’s food tastes so good is that she makes the majority of her spice blends fresh from scratch. I’m sure that this is common amongst traditional Indian cooks, especially in India, but I’ve noticed that most of my generation relies on the ready-made boxed spices from Shaan and MDH found in Indian grocery stores. These can certainly make for great meals – I have another chicken curry recipe and a delicious biryani recipe that relies primarily on these spice blends – but they never achieve the complexity of flavor that a dish has when you start with raw spices.

Mummy cooks her chicken with 3 layers of flavoring – an onion for the base of the dish, a blend of spices and herbs for the marinade, and a dry roast of spices to add to the curry. There are a bunch of pieces and it takes a few attempts to learn how to do this efficiently so you don’t spend hours in the kitchen, but the outcome is completely worth it. Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

  • Chicken thighs and/or drumsticks [1.5 lbs]1st Masala Blend (marinade)
  • Garlic [1/2 a head]
  • Cilantro [handful, washed, with stalks]
  • Ginger, peeled [1 inch]
  • Water [1/2 cup]
  • Sea Salt [1/2 tbsp]2nd Masala Blend (homemade garam masala)
  • Poppy seeds [1/2 tsp]
  • Cloves [3-4]
  • Cinnamon stick [1]
  • Whole black peppercorns [6-7]
  • Corriander seeds [1/2 tbsb]3rd Masala Blend (curry flavoring)
  • Large yellow onion, sliced into long wedges [1]
  • Frozen grated coconut* [3/4 cup]
  • Kashmiri chilis (for color) [2]
  • Pre-made spice blend for chicken** [1 tsp]Final Ingredients
  • Vegetable oil [1-2 tbsp]
  • Large yellow onion, diced [1]
  • Water [2 cups]
  • Red chili powder (laal mirch)*** [to taste]
  • Salt [to taste]
  • Pepper [to taste]
  • Cilantro leaves [for garnish]
  • Garam masala*** [for garnish]

*I buy mine pre-grated and frozen from the Indian store, but Mummy often grates and freezes her own. This may account for some of the difference in flavor. Also, it’s best if you leave the coconut out for 15-20 minutes before using it. It doesn’t have to be at room temperature, but it’s easier if it’s not a totally solid block.
**Mummy uses one from Bedekar’s, but I couldn’t find that so I used MDH Curry Masala for Chicken. It works, but I don’t love it, and I think this may account for the slight difference between my dish and Mummy’s.
***This is an addition that I sometimes make for an added kick of spice and flavor. For the garam masala, I either reserve some of what I made before or use a boxed one from Everest (just for the garnish).

Steps

Marinating the Chicken

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Ingredients for the marinade

  • Wash the chicken. If using chicken thighs, dice them into 1-inch pieces. Place in a bowl.
  • Wash the cilantro and add it (stalks included) to the blender. I use one from Bella that’s actually intended for making juices.
  • Peel the ginger and chop into a few pieces if necessary for your blender, and add to the cilantro.
  • Separate the garlic pods. I like to peel them completely, but Mummy actually leaves some of the skins on. Add to the blender.
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This is actually for making healthy juices but it works perfectly well for this recipe!

  • Add the salt and water to the blender and pulse until thoroughly blended.
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A vibrant green color, thanks to the cilantro.

  • Pour the marinade over the chicken and coat completely. Cover the bowl and set in the fridge while you prepare the other ingredients. (If you have the time, letting chicken marinate for a few hours always increases the flavor.)
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I trimmed almost all the fat from the chicken thighs, keeping a little on for flavor.

Making the Homemade Garam Masala

  • Add all the ingredients to a spice blender (this is the one I use) and pulse until you have a fine powder. Set aside.

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Making the 3rd Masala Blend – A Dry Roast into a Paste

  • Roast the onion in a dry (no oil) nonstick pan.
  • Once the onion is fragrant, add the grated coconut, Kashmir chilis, and homemade garam masala from above. Roast until the onions are translucent and slightly brown on the edges and the mixture is fragrant.

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  • Add everything from the pan to your blender, and add in the MDH Curry Masala for Chicken. If you have a powerful enough mixer, pulse until you get a paste. If not, add some water and pulse.

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Putting it All Together

  • Heat the oil in a pot.
  • Once the oil is hot, add the diced onion.

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  • When the onion is translucent, add the chicken and marinade. Let it cook, stirring from time to time, until the chicken is almost fully cooked through. (Mummy actually marinates the chicken in advance and lets the chicken cook while she’s making the 3rd masala blend, but I’m not quite up to this level of kitchen coordination yet!)
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Add the chicken and marinade to the pot

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Cook, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is almost fully cooked through

  • Add the 3rd masala paste to the pot. Stir and add approximately 2 cups of water. (The amount of water may vary depending on how much you added to make the paste, etc.)

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Add two cups of water

  • Put the lid on the pot and let the curry come to a boil until the chicken is fully cooked. Then, turn the heat down and let it simmer for 15 minutes until some of the water has evaporated and you are left with a curry of medium-thickness.
  • Add salt, pepper, and red chili powder to taste.
  • Garnish with cilantro leaves and garam masala. Serve with white rice, chapaati (a common Indian flatbread), or even white Italian bread, and some dahi (plain yogurt).

 

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Do you have a favorite chicken curry recipe or a garam masala recipe/brand that you really like? Share them in the comments below! Happy cooking 🙂

Daal Fry (and some history)

My mother and grandmother are both amazing cooks. They’re amazing because their food tastes wonderful, they cook by instinct instead of sticking to recipes, and they’re ridiculously efficient. My mother can start from scratch and whip up a full Indian meal, and leave the kitchen clean and tidy in less than an hour. I’d say it’s unbelievable but I’ve seen her do it my whole life. My grandmother is in her late eighties and still (despite her family’s protests) gets up and cooks a little something every day. I can only hope that I’ve gotten some of their culinary skills and that maybe one day, some of their efficiency and tenacity will rub off on me!

Over the last few years, I’ve begun trying my hand in the kitchen from time to time, with pastas, curries, or deserts here and there. I go through phases with food – some months I cook regularly, and some months it seems like I’m a daily Seamless customer. I really want to break the ordering-in habit, though, so I’m going to start trying to plan my weekly meals and food prep schedule. I thought I’d share my successes and failures here. Some will be recipes from my mother, some of my own, and some that I picked up other places and modified. I hope you enjoy, and that maybe it inspires you to get into the kitchen yourself! After all, there is nothing quite so satisfying as a home-cooked meal.

Daal Fry

My mother makes a variety of daals. We grew up having varan and different aamtis (Marathi terms), made with yellow split pigeon peas, moong daal, red masoor, or brown masoor. Each variation is delicious and satisfying at the end of a long day. There have been many times when I’ve come home from a trip and thought that all I really wanted was some varan-bhaat (rice and daal). It’s simple, home-cooked food at it’s best.

One quick and flavorful variation is what Mummy calls a “daal fry”, which you can make with moong daal or red masoor. Here is the recipe:

Ingredients

  • Red masoor [1 cup]
  • Vegetable Oil [2 tbsp]
  • Black mustard seeds (mohri) [1 tsp]
  • Cumin seeds (jeera) [1 tsp]
  • Asafoetida powder (hing) [1/2 tsp]
  • Garlic cloves, smashed [2-3]
  • Small onion, roughly chopped [1]
  • Small tomato, diced [1]
  • Water [1 cup]
  • Salt [1/2 tsp or to taste]
  • Pepper [1/2 tsp or to taste]
  • Red chili powder (laal mirch) [1/2 tsp, or to taste]
  • Clarified butter (ghee) [1 tsp, optional]
  • Cilantro, chopped [1/3 cup]

Steps

  • Rinse the red masoor 2-3 times and place in a bowl covered with water while you prepare the other ingredients.
    • Roughly chop the onions. Part of what makes this dish so good is biting into the onion, so you don’t want to dice it too finely.
    • Smash the garlic cloves. This is easily done by place the flat part of your knife blade on the clove and pressing down a couple times.
    • Dice the tomato. The tomato isn’t meant to be a main flavor, just add a balance of sweetness to enhance the other ingredients, so you don’t want chunks that are too large.
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Soaking this daal is optional, but I find I like the consistency better if I do

Ingredients 1

  •  In a pot over medium heat, add the oil. Once the oil is heated (1-2 min) Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, asafoetida powder, and garlic cloves. Move it around with your utensil (I like to use a wooden spoon) so that the spices do not burn.
  • Add the onion and stir-fry until translucent. Do not let them brown.

Step 1

  • Add the tomato and fry until fragrant.
Step 2

Add tomatoes

Step 3

Fry until fragrant

  • Drain the daal and add it to the pot. Fry for 1-2 minutes. Keep stirring, so nothing burns.
  • Add the water and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for 5-10 minutes or until the daal is cooked and has reached your desired thickness. (This is a daal that tastes best thick and not too watery.)
  • Add salt, pepper, red chili powder, and ghee to taste.
Ingredients 3

You can find ghee at Indian and Middle Eastern specialty stores, and some supermarkets. 

  • Add cilantro.

Step 4

  • Serve with white Basmati rice.
Final

The finished product! Daal-bhaat = the best comfort food. 

What kinds of daal or lentil recipes do you enjoy? What’s the meal that just reminds you of home? Let me know in the comments below, and let me know if you try making this! 🙂

 

 

Station Eleven

Imagine that a deadly flu took out most of the world’s population and now, as a result, people are forced to live without electricity, gas, or internet, and learn live off the land to survive. This is the premise of Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel.

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Station Eleven reminded me a lot initially of the (now sadly canceled) tv show Revolution. It’s a post-apocalyptic survival story, and the characters are traveling across the North American landscape with no electricity and no “United States”. In the novel’s case, however, the destroyed world is more of a background setting for an exploration of how humans have become disconnected from the natural world and how some interactions, moments, or choices can have an inexplicable lasting impact on someone.

The most interesting feature of the novel is how the story is told. Mandel jumps around constantly from moment to moment, and setting to setting. It feels almost carefree on her part, but you know it can’t be because it’s done in such a way that it’s not causing the reader to have to do any additional work, and everything makes sense. I don’t know how Mandel kept straight in her head what information she had and had not given away as she was writing, but she’s done a great job. You’re constantly waiting until the end to find out what happened in the future to the characters you’ve connected with in the pre-flu world and you’re wanting to know more about the origins of the people you’ve connected with in the post-flu world. It’s not a mystery novel, but as you read it feels like you’re following lots of mini-mysteries which are all these characters’ life stories and how their interactions, chance or otherwise, have profound effects on their lives.

Mandel really makes you think about how the world is structured today. We constantly hear about how much knowledge we have available to us in the information age, but we don’t often consider that just because it’s available to us, doesn’t mean we have it. All the tasks necessary to run our society are divided into separate careers. A banker probably doesn’t know how to hunt, a hunter probably doesn’t know how to generate electricity, an electrical engineer probably doesn’t know how to run a successful government, and a politician, whatever he or she may say, probably doesn’t know how to set up an efficient economy. We know we have all of this information available at our fingertips with the internet. But, if we lost that magnificent tool, the knowledge in today’s world is so subsetted that we’d probably be lost for a long time too.

Ironically, as I was reading Station Eleven, I kept coming across an ad on TV by America’s Natural Gas Alliance. It starts, “Someone once told me that working for the power company is a noble calling. I believe that it is. People don’t have to think about where their electricity comes from. They flipped a switch, and the light comes on. It’s our job to make sure that it does.” Obviously this type of system has helped our world develop much more quickly than if everyone tried to be knowledgeable about everything – there’s only so much information a human brain can hold. Nevertheless, reading this book made me think that it probably couldn’t hurt to learn a little more about how I get things like running water, electricity, food, and clothing!

All in all, I’d give this book 8/10 stars. It’s narrative is a little choppy (unexpectedly picks up and slows down through the book) but the style is unique and does work. The characters aren’t ones that will stick with you forever but their stories are engaging and will probably make you think about the interactions you have in your own life. Finally, if you, like me, are interested in the post-apocalyptic genre but can’t stand to read another book revolving around a sordid teen romance, then you should definitely check this book out!

Have you read Station Eleven or any other books by Mandel? What is your favorite post-apocalyptic or dystopian book? What do you think of the genre? Let me know in the comments below!

Gun Violence

This post is very different from anything I’ve posted on this blog. I’m horrified by what I am seeing in the news today and felt I had to say something.

Today America was alerted to another awful mass shooting. This time it was in Roseburg, Oregon at Umpqua Community College. Yet again, many people died (10 as of this writing) and many (7) were injured. Yet again, the shooter is dead. Yet again, the President has had to make a sad statement to the press.

News of domestic mass shootings has become so common it’s not surprising. As President Obama pointed out, everything in these situations has become routine. The news channels will show the President’s speech, they’ll show that day’s live footage of the crime scene, they’ll interview some family members of past and current victims, and they’ll try to understand what mental illness causes a person to commit such atrocious acts. There will be candlelight vigils and lots of comments of sending prayers and good wishes. There will be some arguments. And in the end, inevitably it seems, no real change will be made. In a few weeks or months, we’ll roll through this news cycle again.

The President is understandably frustrated. I can’t understand the people who get news like this and still manage to stand up and argue against strict gun regulations. I can’t understand the people who are unable to recognize the heartache in the faces of the families and friends of victims on their screens. I can’t understand why, if you are seeing news like this, you would think it makes sense to make it easier for people to get guns.

Because that’s the real issue. Yes, mental health is an issue that needs to be more deeply understood and more carefully addressed. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the only factor in this equation. A person with a mental illness can’t shoot up a building if they have no gun. This isn’t a question of having the right to a gun for self-protection. The shooter in Oregon today had 3 pistols and a rifle. No ordinary citizen needs access to that kind of hardware for self-defense.

I’m so angry when I hear arguments based on the Constitution. The first words of the US Constitution seek “domestic tranquility” and provision of a “common defense”. Why are we willing to put those profound ideals aside in favor of an arbitrary individual right?Regardless, even if the only words in the Constitution were “Every citizen shall own a gun”, does that mean we should stick to it? At every step in its history, America has updated its laws as times have changed. Vehicle laws, property laws, voting laws – they have all been updated to reflect the times we live in. Why can’t gun laws be updated too?

I sincerely ask the people who support less regulation – aren’t you willing to give up this right (or at least let it be more regulated) if it means saving lives? Aren’t you willing to at least try on the off-chance that it could save the life of at least one child? In this day and age you can’t even say that you don’t know the effects of the lack of policy. You see the victims on your screens all the time.

People aren’t necessarily looking for a ban on gun ownership – just some basic regulations. Don’t you want someone who owns a gun to have passed a background check? Don’t you want them to have a license? If you want to own a gun, what’s the harm in going through this besides it being a slight nuisance? If someone can’t pass a background check, why are we listening to their opinions on gun laws?

It’s just the start of election season. As it goes on, I urge everyone to think about gun regulation policy as they do the economy and foreign policy and social freedoms and health care – it’s a very real issue, with very, very real consequences.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I welcome a positive discussion in the comments below.

Videos – Trying Something New

I’ve talked a few times on this blog now about how big a fan I am of Youtube. (See Sorted Food and Dulce Candy.) Well, meeting Dulce after 7 years of watching her made me realize that I had spent 7 years wishing I could do Youtube myself and being too afraid to actually do it. Like with most things in my life, I’ve had ideas that I stewed on for months or years before I finally decided this week to just put them into motion. I tried my hand at two small film projects.

The first is actually for Instagram, not Youtube. As a creative challenge to myself, I wanted to see if I could make something interesting involving dance in the span of a 15-second Instagram video. This was the result:

I’m hoping to post something like this weekly with #DanceVignettes.

The second is a (slightly) longer vlog-style video for Youtube about an afternoon Proma, Radhika, and I had in the city last week.

As you can see, I don’t even really show myself in the video, and the music I used is a standard iMovie track, but the project was more about trying my hand at editing together film clips I took in a way that’s hopefully interesting! I’m definitely more comfortable writing (in fact, it’s kind of taking all my courage to post this just now, haha), but it was fun to dip my toe into something a little different. Also, if you read my first post on this blog, “Patrick“, you’ll see that video was something I was planning on incorporating from the beginning, so it was nice to come back to it from another angle.

What new things are you trying this week? Are you a vlogger or filmmaker? Do you have any feedback on my two little projects? Let me know in the comments below!