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So! Your only child is turning three, and you want to make him something you know will delight him. You decide to make him a fancypants train-shaped cake, but you’re too cheap and too broke to buy a fancypants train-shaped cake pan. Luckily, your aunt taught you to decorate cakes when you were six, so really, how hard can it be?

So you sketch an outline of your design on paper. You break the sketch down into simple shapes you can cut out of a cake. Of course, squares are easier to cut than curved lines, but a train has to have wheels. And, um, a face.train-cake.jpg

Cakes tend to come out of the oven with their tops in a slight dome shape, so you cut off the dome and leave the cake with a level top. Oh, ho! The canvas is prepared.

Now you lay out the pieces of your template on your cake. It would make the sides of the cake easier to ice if you could align the sides of the templates with the edges of the cake (and bonus! This would mean less cutting of the cake, too), but you cracked the underside of one cake in a couple of places, so you put the bits of paper where they won’t be over a crack.

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You cut out the shapes: the body of the train out of the chocolate cake…

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…and the smaller pieces out of the white cake. (Such a thoughtful host you are, making sure your guests will have a choice!) And you assemble the cake on a foil-covered sheet of cardboard.

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Now comes the fun part: you get to mix up different colors of icing and cover the cake with them. So you mix, and you frost the cake, and in the two decades or so since you last did this, you have forgotten that to avoid crumbs in the icing, you should put a big glob of icing in the middle of the cake and smooth it outwards with a spatula.

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So the first layer of white icing will be full of chocolate cake crumbs, and the face of the train will appear to have more acne than… well. A little less acne than you had as a teen, but not by much. You wait for the icing to dry and add another layer on top, to cover up the speckles. You also refuse to take a photograph of the cake in this embarassing state.

Poor thing. You never really wanted your photo taken with that kind of acne, either.

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At last, you can continue mixing icing in various shades of blue and finish coloring the cake. Your son thinks this is delightful. He brings a spoon to the table with every intention of eating the cake, but when you tell him you’re not finished coloring it and the cake won’t be ready to eat until tomorrow, he gives you the spoon. “Here, Mama. You color cake with my spoon.”

You congratulate yourself on remembering your aunt’s trick of waiting for the icing to dry halfway, and then pressing a paper towel against it to make a texture in the surface of the cake. Much easier than trying to get the icing perfectly smooth.

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You mix up some black frosting for the finishing touches. The cake is done! Your son admires it before you put it in a bakery box in the center of the kitchen table, where it will be safe until morning.

Hours later, you return from visiting your grandfather, and realize your mistake.

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That Cat saw the box on the table while you were gone. That Cat loves lying on and in boxes, especially when they’re on tables. That Cat is now seriously in the dog house. You cannot let your son see this. He would be devastated.

So you don’t cry (six hours of decorating that cake!), and you distract your child until bedtime, and you tuck him in, and then you consider your options.

Function Junction is a small town. The only bakery is a teensy one inside a grocery store. They don’t do fancypants cakes. Even if it were possible to get them to paint a blue train on an ordinary sheet cake in the two hours between when they open in the morning and the time of the party, it wouldn’t be the same. And the new three-year-old would know it. Not a good way to start the day.

The cake is unsalvagable. It’s not just that the icing is smeared, or even that the cake is a little squashed: when you lift the lid of the bakery box, the top half of the cake lifts with it. This was not meant to be a layer cake.

So seven minutes before the grocery store closes, you make a mad dash out, and buy more cake mix and more icing.

You now have 12 hours until the party. And in that time, you must not only reconstruct and redecorate the cake… you have to bake it first. It all goes much faster now, but it’s still two in the morning before you go to bed.

Six hours of work, followed by another four, all in a twelve hour period. Was it worth it?

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Your son notes with glee the only visible change you made the second cake: “You colored my three in.”  You spend the first half of the party watching him drag each arriving guest to the refreshments table to see “my blue train cake!”

Was it worth all the work? Would you do it all over again?

Absolutely.

Following up on Busy Mom’s lead, I present an often-confused pair of related verbs: “lie” versus “lay.” I find that even people whose use of the language is otherwise impeccable can confuse these at times.

Remember these two points:

  • “Lie” is not what you do to something, it’s simply something that you do.
  • “Lay” is not a thing you can simply do. You must do it to someone or something else.

If you find conjugations and examples helpful, here you go. I’m using “the baby” as a logical thing that one might lay down on a regular basis, and finishing the sentences with “down” because I feel that helps clarify the difference between “I lie” as in lying down versus “I lie” as in telling a lie.

Present Tense:

To Lie: To Lay:

I lie down. I lay the baby down.

You lie down. You lay the baby down.

He/she/it lies down. He/she/it lays the baby down.

We lie down. We lay the baby down.
They lie down. They lay the baby down.

Seems simple enough so far, doesn’t it? Let’s continue.

Past Tense:

To Lie To Lay

I lay down. I laid the baby down.

You lay down. You laid the baby down.

He/she/it lay down. He/she/it laid the baby down.

We lay down. We laid the baby down.

They lay down. They laid the baby down.

If you compare the present tense “lay” column to the past tense “lie” column, it’s easy enough to see where the confusion comes from.

Mnemonic: Wherever I lie down, I lay my body down.

I prefer to eat organic wherever practical. In general, I feel it’s better for the environment, better for animals, and better for people. For me specifically, I find it often tastes better, and the use of organic rather than “normal” milk has a measurable positive effect on the functioning of my digestive system.

Here lately, though, with my job search entering its sixth month, there hasn’t been much that’s practical about paying a nickel more for groceries than I have to. And even when I had considerably more money and more options for where to purchase food than I do right now, eating strictly organic was far too expensive to be feasible. So, I had to pick and choose what to purchase under the “organic” label and what to simply seek out the lowest price on. In choosing my produce, I used a list produced by the Environmental Working Group as a guide to what to seek organics on and what I could relax about.

The page I linked above gives the full list of 43 types of produce they tested. The link at the top of the page lets you download a wallet-sized guide to print and cut out, listing the top and bottom 12 in terms of pesticide residue present in those fruits and veggies once they’ve been washed and (if appropriate) peeled. It’s handy to use, and makes it easier to go a little greener without giving up the greenbacks.

Of all the things I could post here, I would not have thought that a post in which I linked to someone else’s post would be getting the most hits and attracting the most controversy.

So. After reading back over Kerflop’s post about an injury to her son and the product whose use lead to it, and the comments section on that post, and various other blogs’ posts on the subject including more than a few rants — and after seeing how many hits my own brief post is still getting — I feel the need to return to the subject and address a few things I’ve seen being said.

First, a basic summary of what happened to Kerflop’s son:

  • He was performing his assigned household chore, cleaning scuff marks off the walls.
  • In performing this task, he normally used either a Magic Eraser by Mr. Clean, or an Easy Eraser by 3M. On the day in question, he used the 3M Easy Eraser.
  • He exercised poor judgment, as a five-year-old sometimes will, and rubbed his cheeks and chin with the Eraser.
  • This resulted in scrapes and burns to his face. The scrapes were from the abrasive action of the Eraser; and those scrapes probably made it much easier for the chemical base in the Eraser to burn his face.

Now, to address a few conclusions you might be jumping to based on that description:

  • Kerflop did check the labels of both products before allowing her son to use them. The only label on either at that time was on warning against ingestion.
  • If you look at a new package of Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, you will see a warning that it can abrade the skin (though there is still no warning of burns due to the basic pH of the product). This warning is relatively recent.
  • The 3M Easy Eraser, which Kerflop’s son was using on the day in question, apparently still bears no such warning.

Kerflop in no way deserves to have it implied that she is a bad mother, or that she was neglectful or irresponsible to allow her son to use what seemed to be an appropriate and safe cleaning product, under supervision and for its intended purpose. (She certainly did not give this to him to use as a toy, as I have seen stated.) She also accepts responsibility for being a little too trusting of the labels of the products, which she has learned to her dismay were inadequate.

I posted about this subject originally because I know quite a few parents who are quite fond of these Erasers, and who seem to think of them as a highly effective version of a soapy sponge — which would be a reasonable thing to have an ordinary five-year-old use for cleaning, if that were true. I wanted to spread the word and help make sure parents who are fans of these products are aware of the harmful effects they can have, given their inadequate warning labels.

I’m posting this followup because a number of people seem to be forming judgments based on an incomplete reading of Kerflop’s post (or worse yet based on secondary accounts). I hope drawing out a few pertinent points here will make things clearer for at least a few people.

But I feel this little PSA warrants its own post:

Ms. Kerflop has discovered in a most unpleasant fashion that Magic Erasers can cause chemical burns. It seems that this applies to all of the “Magic Erasers” of any brand, only some of which may have warning labels. Most of them have no listing of ingredients at all, and appear to be a cleverly-designed sponge rather than a chemical cleanser.

This is a popular product among moms I know, who particularly praise its efficacy at removing crayon and markers from walls and furniture; so I feel the need to help spread awareness of this hazard.

At least one person has found that post unclear. So, in even simpler terms:

RSS feeds show you what’s new on a website whenever something new is put on that site.

An RSS aggregator lets you see the RSS feeds for all your favorite websites by visiting just one website.

This is why, right now, I can see that of the 80-odd websites I like to read on a regular basis, 26 of them have new articles. I can find that out by checking one website (my NewsGator account) instead of checking all 85 to figure out which ones have updated. And I can also check to see the titles of the articles before visiting the sites, so that I can skip the ones that don’t interest me.

I hope that’s clearer this time. And again, I hope it helps someone to make better use of their time by streamlining their web surfing.

A quick note: If you already use an RSS reader, feel free to skip this post. Or not — it does contain a link to a great explanation of RSS that you may wish to give to friends rather than trying to explain RSS yourself.

If there are more than a few websites you read daily — be they blogs, news sites, web comics, or what have you — an RSS feed reader can save you a lot of time. (Of course, depending on how you use your time online, you may be wondering why you would want to streamline your use of something you use primarily to waste time at work fill the time when you’re waiting for a program to compile. I will leave that to your judgment. Just remember that I’m not the one suggesting someone might, horror of horrors, use the internet at work to read anything not work-related. Shh.)

If you think I’m going to explain the wonders of RSS, though, you’d be wrong. Well, I’ll give you a one two-sentence summary: It lets you look at just one place to see which of the 100s of sites you care about have updated. You pick the sites, so it really is only ones you care about.

The real purpose of this post, though, is to give you a link to this excellent and simple explanation of what RSS is and what it does. Go read it, while I let my tea cool. Thank you, Back in Skinny Jeans!

How to explain RSS the Oprah way

I personally use NewsGator to read any number of sites, from friends’ personal blogs to general news to science magazines. For a time I used Bloglines, which seems to be the most popular web-based feed reader (perhaps because the name is an easy one to remember), but after reading that it had problems with updating the feeds of certain sites, I checked and found that, sure enough, certain blogs that I had assumed were not being updated were instead not showing up on Bloglines. So far, I’m happy with NewsGator.

May this post help someone understand RSS. Or at least save someone a little time in their daily routine, even if you don’t understand all the technology.