Tuesday, July 2, 2013

My hacks

I love how you can call anything a "hack" now. I recently clicked an article called something like "15 Summer Hair Hacks!" and it was just a bunch of shit you can buy, like dry shampoo and hot rollers. Sigh. If you're using a pre-made tool the way it's meant to be used, it's not a hack, it's just capitalism. Anyway, whatever, let's all share our "hacks"! Leave yours in the comments, please. Here are some of mine, apologies in advance for the faux-hacks. (For the uninitiated: "hacks" are just tips.)

Productivity Hacks
  • 2-Browser Hack: I need the Internet for work, so most of the time I can't just "go offline" in order to get shit done. So I divide my online life into two browsers, work-related (Firefox) and not-work-related (Chrome). In the morning, I open my work email and work browser right away and try to fire off as many tasks as possible before, say, 10 a.m. I put off checking my personal email as long as I can stand it, because I'll inevitably get distracted by other tasks related to that, or Twitter, etc. Later in the day, I'll sometimes bounce around between work and non-work stuff, but if I really need to concentrate, I'll close my non-work browser again.
  • Distraction Hack: If you use Outlook for work, turn off the pop-up notifications. Needless distraction, you rarely need to respond to an email the very second it arrives.
  • To-Do List Hack: I have a spiral notebook that serves as my work to-do list. For non-work tasks, which usually have softer deadlines (errands, poetry things I want/need to get done, etc.), I write each item on a Post-It note and stick them in clear view on the shelf above my computer. When I complete a task, I tear the Post-It down, which is very satisfying. Some stay up semi-permanently as a daily reminder (e.g. "BE AN ACTIVIST").
  • Poetry Hack: The "muse," she doesn't come around as often as she used to, and if I sat around waiting for inspiration to strike in poem-length bursts I'd write about three pages a year. So I intentionally devise projects that can encompass much smaller-scale inspiration. For example, The Self Unstable is full of lines and ideas that I expressed (in different language) on Twitter or my blog, revisited and rearranged into "koans." 
Food/Cooking Hacks
  • Rice hack: I boil rice instead of using the absorption method. Details on how to do that here. You don't have to measure anything and I like the resulting texture better. 
  • Flavor balance hack: Use sugar like salt as a general seasoning. A pinch of sugar (or dab of honey) makes many savory foods taste more balanced: sauces, vinaigrette, soups, etc.
  • Egg hack: Poach eggs in a thick liquid like tomato sauce (AKA eggs in purgatory) or salsa – way easier and more idiot-proof than doing it in water. Just heat up the liquid, crack in the eggs, cover and simmer over lowish heat for 5 minutes or so. (Pour the eggs and hot salsa over broken tortilla chips for instant chilaquiles.) 
  • Recipe remix hack: When trying a recipe for the first time, consider split testing it – i.e., split out half and either leave out or add an ingredient (or use a different brand, etc.) or cook it by a different method (e.g. on the stove vs. in the oven). Then you'll have a head start on knowing how to improve it next time.
  • Herb hack: Fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley can last up to a week in the fridge if you use this cleaning/storage method: Within 24 hours of buying a bunch of herbs at the store, rinse them off (or dip and swish in a big bowl of water) and let them dry out on a paper towel on the counter. Then put the whole bunch, with the slightly damp paper towel underneath, in a large Ziploc bag. I recommend using some of the herbs on the first use so the bag isn't packed too full.
  • Wine hack: Decant everything, even cheap wine, boxed wine, white wine! You can split-test and see for yourself, it does taste better.
  • Wine hack 2: Chill your red wine for 10-20 minutes before opening and drinking, it's really meant to be served a bit cooler than room temperature and tastes much better this way.
Beauty/Style Hacks
  • Photo hack: Squint in photos – just barely! – to convey intelligence/intensity. This is basically a variation on smizing.
  • Haircut hack: I don't like paying for haircuts so I only cut my hair about twice a year. I do, however, like change so I get a lot cut off, 5 to 6 inches at a time. That means I can go gradually from bob to lob to long hair: three different styles for ~$60! (Note that this only works because I don't dye my hair or use a lot of heat tools, so visible damage/split ends are minimal even after six months.) 
  • Eye makeup hack: I use long-wearing cream eye shadows as a base on my lids instead of a dedicated eye primer. (Cheap drugstore version: Maybelline Color Tattoo, good but most of the colors are impractical. Less cheap version: Benefit Creaseless Cream Shadow.) They serve the same purpose of making your powder shadow last longer and crease less, but provide the first layer of color on their own so you can skip a step. 
  • Body scrub hack: Make your own body scrub: mix coarse salt and/or sugar with any oil that's appropriate for rubbing over your body. Coconut oil is nice in the summer. Right now I've got one going based on the Target version of Neutrogena's body oil, which is nice and light and even gets a little foamy as you scrub. I store this in an old Talenti gelato container. Subhack: Buy Talenti gelato. It's delicious and comes in nice, reusable clear plastic pints with screw-on lids.
  • Bathtub hack: I scrub out the tub with a mixture of baking soda and Dr. Bronner's almond soap. It's abrasive enough to get it spark-a-ling clean very quickly and the almond soap is one of my favorite smells, so all told it's a pleasant experience, compared to the toxic blue foam I used to use. (Otherwise, the Magic Eraser works for almost everything, it really is fucking magic.)
  • Organization hack: If there's a place in your house where little doodads and craps tend to accumulate, put a bowl or a basket there. You don't have to actually "organize" it but having all the crap in a decorative container instead of scattered on the counter/table just looks better. 


  1. I guess my book hack is covered by the basket hack. I put books in baskets as accents and marginally better looking dump sites. Looks better than piles and piles and as an added bonus, the cats can't knock over the baskets.

    1. I get a little antsy when book piles get to high. My only hack for that is reshelving them, though. And/or putting them in the bathroom. Anything in the bathroom gets at least a little bit read.

    2. Book hack: haphazard stacks on the floor, so you can have fun negotiating the toppling pagodas of beauty and wisdom in the dark.

      LP hack: put 'em in milk crates on the floor. Don't alphabetize--that's anal. Haphazardly stack CDs on top of the LPs.

      Business hack: Any papers directly or indirectly related to money--photocopies of tax forms, car deed, passport, teaching certif., etc.--go in a cardboard box with "IMPORTANT PAPERS" written on the flap. No organization inside the box is necessary; you know your extra checks or whatever are in there somewhere.

      Cash hack: Stash cash in a circa-Depression cigar box like the ones in Paper Moon and Taxi Driver.

      TV hack: Have a small portable that gets no stations, that's strictly for old VHS tapes. These you can watch--often with no sound--while you play guitar. Store the TV in a corner, as if it were unimportant to you, seldom used. If it's the focal point of the room, people will think you have plebeian tastes.

      Holmes hack: Keep your tobacco in a Persian slipper and your to-answer correspondence jackknifed to the mantel.

    3. The business hack sounds about my speed.

  2. How do you remember your to-do list without alarms to remind you??

    1. Alarms? What?! My to-do list is very 18th century.

    2. One of the things I've found regarding "to-do" lists is that if you have a little patience, on average roughly half of the items on the list will take care of themselves without you having to do anything about them.

  3. Deer hack: You're driving on a country road at night. Far ahead, you see something in the road. It's a deer. More than one. Several deer, standing there. As you get closer they stop moving and look right at you, your headlights. You slow down. You think they'll move any second now. You slow down some more. You had been doing 60 or 70 and now you're slowing to a full stop at the bottom of this long steep hill and they're still not moving. Like statues. You're sitting there parked in the middle of the road in the middle of the night and there are no other cars. These four or five deer are blocking the road not ten yards in front of your car and they're still not moving. What do you do?

    What you do is this. You turn off your headlights. You turn them on again. What you see when you turn the lights back on is that the deer have already snapped out of their stupor and are bounding swiftly, silently away.

    It worked once, anyway, for this reporter.

    1. PROSE POEM/SHORT SHORT HACK: Publish your blog comments in literary journals.

  4. Watch Gene Hackman in "The Conversation."

  5. Fastfood Apple Empanada a la Mode Hack. If Taco Bell is across the street from McDonalds buy a warm apple empanada then drive across to McDonalds and get a small sundae but ask for the caramel dipping sauce from the Happy Meal apples with caramel dipping sauce. Break Apple empanada in half and stick it in the sundae, then cover with the caramel sauce. Excelsior.

    1. Wish I could go back in time and do that when I was 8.

  6. I've always worked jobs (i.e. for a living, as it's called) that have fixed hours, and that I don't have to take home with me. (Most of the jobs I've had have been covered by union contracts.) Once I leave work for the day, I'm done with work till the next workday.

    On your desk, put things (paperwork etc) in stacks instead of piles, because stacks look more efficient. (Psychologically they also feel less chaotic and so less stressful.)

    As far as I can remember, I've never bought a new techno-gadget, or any kind of gadget, as soon as it has come out. I always wait a few years to see how the dust settles. (E.g. cf. beta max.) I live through the 1980's without an answering machine, and I didn't get a compter to use at home until 2004, and didn't get a cell phone until 2009. I still don't have a "smart" phone.

    I've never owned a car. For day to day travel around town, I take the bus and/or lightrail train, and/or walk. I buy a monthly transit pass that allows unlimited rides for 31 days from the first time you use it. When I occasionally need to get someplace that's not easy to get to by bus, I take a taxi -- the money I save by not having a car easily pays for this.

    I keep minimal food in the house. I make grocery trips a couple of times a week and just get a few items, easier to carry. (I live walking distance from several grocery stores.)

    Sleep takes priority over everything. If I get home from work and I'm seriously tired, I'll sleep for two or three hours. Then I wake up awake.

    I tend to scatter my vacation days through the year, and take a lot of them one or two days at a time on Thursday and Friday, to make long weekends. This is a recommended way to reduce stress. (I tend to take the majority of the days during the warm part of the year.)

    For poetry:

    I write by hand in a stenographer notebook (spiral bound along the top). In recent years I've resigned myself to MS Word (and it's true it does make editing easier), though if poetry magazines and publishers still took typewritten manuscripts, and if manual typewriters (and the ribbons, etc.) were still easily available, I would still probably prefer them.

    I normally don't write multiple drafts of a poem. I start with the first line, and work through the poem line by line. If I get stuck, I leave the poem half-finished in the notebook until I know what comes next, then I resume writing. Sometimes this makes for slow writing, though poems do sometimes come pouring out all in one piece. So typically the first draft is also the final draft (though I may go back and make small changes, if I find something that doesn't quite work.) In my notebook, a typical poem will have maybe one-third or one-half of the lines crossed out and rewritten; sometimes less than that, if it comes fairly easily. I have poems that I carried around in my notebook for years half-finished, and finally finished them.

    From time to time I pick some poems I like (10 or 12 or 15) by other poets, and pretend I'm putting together a small anthology. I listen for how one poem follows another, for contrast or similarity of tone or voice or movement. I've found this to be good practice for ordering poems in my own books -- I can play with the order in the pretend anthology, and since they're not my own poems, I have little emotional attachment to them, and it's easier to listen with an objective ear to how they're working together.

    I'm very sparing and selective in sending poems to poetry magazines. I probably get published about as much as I would if I sent a higher volume of poems to more magazines.

    I don't enter literary contests and I don't submit poems to magazines that charge reading fees. Period. If the day ever comes when contest and reading fees become universal in the poetry world, I'll self-publish if I have to.

    1. I'm slow to buy gadgets too! I JUST got an iPhone, like three weeks ago. I must say, I like it.

      I like the anthology tip!

      I entered a few contests in the past, when trying to publish my first book, but in general I think it's better to get some fans on your side and then get it published through a contact (even a distant one) or an open reading period, when you have reason to believe the editors would like your work (because they've told you so or published you in a journal, for example). Pretty much every chapbook or book I've had published has been through those kinds of avenues, which just makes me even less inclined to enter contests in the future.

    2. Apropos of anthologies, next week I'm spending a day or two on a library crawl. In Michigan several university libraries and at least one public library (Detroit) have rare early books by Bill Knott: The Naomi Poems, Auto-Necrophilia, the Selected and Collected from '77, etc. I'm going to drive down--right now I'm in northern Mich, you see--and make my own bootleg copies of them.

    3. Likewise, all of my books have been published by people I'd known for a number of years bafore they published me, and I sent them the manuscripts after they specifically asked me to.

  7. I love the word "hack." My poetry hack (making me the hack): making minimialist abstractions from the words in my Anthropologie and Crate & Barrel catalogs.

    (I haven't published any of these, but don't put it past me. Cough-hack-cough.)

    I use the Talenti cannisters as baby food jars. The fact that we had so many of these cannisters under our sink disturbed me only for, like, five seconds.

    1. The chocolate peanut butter cup flavor. SO GOOD

  8. The magic eraser is my "hack" for everything (ironic, considering I eschew most chemicals, and God knows what's in the eraser, but it ain't natural). But the biggest magic eraser "hack" is using it to clean up the white MacBook. It's like NEW.

    1. It's actually not chemicals! I looked into this because I was so amazed. It's just some kind of super-abrasive material that physically scrapes stains off. Crazy, huh?

    2. Eeeps. I'm not sure if I'm reassured or more disturbed. Reassured, I think.