Table of Contents


Photo: Desert Dunes

Eyeline Layer in Photoshop

Photo: Blue Orchid

Photo: Life On The Farm

Opportunities for Creativity

Where Does Creativity Come From?

Perspectives from a Female Engineer

Opposed to Busywork

Volunteering : For the Win!

Buying Food In Bulk

Health Insurance Strategy : Updated

Word Power

The Wonders of Eucalyptus Oil




Photo: Desert Dunes

Desert Dunes
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
Please contact me for any usage or licensing options.
Desert patterns of the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes just before sunset.

Location
Death Valley National Park, California

Technical Info
Canon 50d
Tokina 11-16mm Lens, 16mm
f/13, 1/125s, ISO 100

Playing around with the "Diffuse Glow" filter in Photoshop (Filter => Distort => Diffuse Glow) really gave me the stark, desaturated look I had been hoping for when I took the original image. In real life, the sun reflected off of the sand ripples and across the background mountains really giving a harsh desert feel to the environment. The camera captures whatever it can, and then it's a huge process to infuse the image with original feeling of being there on the day. The Diffuse Glow filter option seems to work well when there is sufficient contrast in the image, so I did some work on the Midtone contrast first before using this filter to achieve the results you see here.

For reference, this was the original image out of Bridge (I tweaked a few knobs here from the original image, but do most of my work in Photoshop):
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved
Original Image for "Desert Dunes"
Hope these ideas help you too!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Eyeline Layer in Photoshop

I wanted to expand on one of the steps in the workflow snapshot of my "Life On The Farm" photo. I've been adding what I call an 'eyeline' layer to all of my recent photo processing and plan to keep using in the future. The layer is designed to add extra support to where I intend the eye to travel over the composition. It's intended to adjust the grouping of objects across the canvas (as opposed to local adjustments to separate nearby objects like blades of grass).

Before Eyeline Layer:

Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
No Eyeline Layer
After Eyeline Layer:

Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
Finished Image with Eyeline Layer
It's a subtle effect, but I find the final image has a more 'set' or 'complete' sense about it. The effect is definitely noticeable when toggling the two layers back to back.

To construct the 'eyeline' layer:
* Add a "Levels Adjustment Layer" in Photoshop (that's the half light, half dark circle icon at the bottom of the layers window; and select "Levels").

* I don't actually touch the levels curve, I've done this entirely so I can subsequently paint on the mask (default is a white rectangle) attached to the layer.

* Change the Layer Mode from "Normal" to "Multiply"
   This will apply "Multiply" to the entire image which will darken everything initially (notice the increased color saturation as well).

* Now for emphasizing the eyeline: Grab the Paintbrush, set the paint color to black, and start painting the path you intend for the eye to follow through your composition.

Using the full 100% opacity, this effect will appear rather extreme, but I start here to block in the main concept. From this point, I add secondary darker or lighter areas as supporting 'eyelines', and I back off the layer opacity as needed (for this example, I set the opacity of the Eyeline layer back to 45%).

For reference, here's the Eyeline Layer Mask I used for this image:
Eyeline Layer Mask for "Life On The Farm"

I've been really enjoying the effect of emphasizing specific areas of the composition using this method, and hope you find this technique useful too!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Photo: Blue Orchid

Abstract image of a mysterious blue orchid glistening in the sunlight.

Blue Orchid
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
Please contact me for any usage or licensing options.
This is a blue orchid dendrobium I purchased at my local supermarket. I have seen whole plants of these available in the past year or so (both at the hardware store and grocery store) under the name: Blue Mystique

Someone did some strange science to the orchids to make them grow this way. Ordinarily, I'm all about appreciating the amazingness that is pure nature, but the colors here were just so striking, I had to take a picture!

I don't have the technical details for this image because it was taken on slide film back in the day. (The automatic feature of digital cameras to record the metadata with the image is so nice!)

Equipment:
50mm Macro Lens
Minolta 600si Camera
Slide Film

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Photo: Life On The Farm

Appreciating green pastures and a little red barn.

 Life On The Farm
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
Please contact me for any usage or licensing options.
I relied heavily on the RAW file for this one to recover the detail in the sky (which would have been completely blown out white otherwise). That's just the start for me though these days, as I've been playing quite heavily with some Photoshop darkroom-esque techniques along with some LAB color tweaks. I'm still learning all about what you can do with LAB color, but I'll post the techniques I've had the most success with in a later post.

For this image, I spent quite a bit of time working on the midtone contrast, and sorting out groups of nearby tones (evening out local unexpected dark patches after applying adjustments to larger regions like the foreground or the sky). When doing this sort of thing, I've been filtering any black and white specific edits (like midtone contrast, dodging and burning), to dedicated luminosity layers to avoid adding funky colors. For those interested in seeing what kind of steps it took to arrive at this image, I included a snapshot of my Photoshop Layers window down below along with the image out of Adobe Bridge. It's not the most streamlined of flows, but hey, it's what I did. I'm still working to speed up the process so I have more energy to process more pictures!

Location
The Palouse, Washington

Technical Info
Canon 50d
Canon 18-200mm Lens, 18mm
f/13, 1/20s, ISO 100

Filters
Circular Polarizer

Behold the Photoshop gymnastics in my layers window:

Laura Knauth's Photoshop workflow for "Life On The Farm"
... and these are just the layers left over from what ended up working. The ultimate goal is to have only adjustment layers (the lines that have the down pointing arrows) until the very end so any subsequent tweaks would propagate to the final image. The big break in the middle is where I copied over adjustments made to a copy of the image in LAB mode. Then I realized I wanted to make a few more adjustments and piled on another group of layers for the final product.

Image right out of Bridge:
Intermediate state of post-processing "Life On The Farm" : Copyright Laura A Knauth
I've been importing the picture in 'Neutral' mode to remove all camera color processing with the intention of having more color options as a later step in Photoshop (a default camera setting like Landscape mode would have had punchier colors at this point).

I always am curious to see people's before and after images. Hope this is a helpful comparison!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Opportunities for Creativity

This is a quick follow-up post to: Where Does Creativity Come From?

As I was watching a movie the other night, I realized there are a few specific techniques I've been incorporating into my life which have helped to spark my creativity, so I thought I mention them here too.

Turning Disappointment into Enthusiasm

The times when I've been really excited to watch a particular movie, read a novel, or play a video game, but it doesn't turn out as I'd hoped, I try to take some time to wonder about what it was that sparked my interest so much, and what I would have done differently to make it a more rewarding experience. Usually, there's something about the characters, the setting, the situation that is a really compelling and worth further exploration. It's something that resonated with some part of your own experience, that calls for further understanding. It indicates some interesting idea that you have to offer, just aren't quite aware of yet. Someone else wasn't able to make it take shape, but you can!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyteray/8654010430/
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
Please contact me for any usage or licensing options.

I've found this exercise to be a gold mine of creative ideas. Instead of thinking you've wasted your money or your time, you become engaged trying to figure out where you thought the story should have gone, what aspects of the character you thought aught to have been developed, what would have been a worthwhile resolution? I usually have quite a few notes to jot down initially and also after letting these things rumble around for a few days.

There are a lot of movies and books out there, and plenty of them don't deliver. It's a map to buried treasure for you. Even the mostly great ones have some aspect to them you might have tweaked in some way if the artist had called you up personally for your opinion, right? So pretty soon, there you have it: a big stash of cool ideas all your own. For writing, I usually need about at least three interwoven compelling ideas to come up with what I think is a strong story: a particular setting interacting with particular characters that are triggered by some compelling scenario. Whenever one of these pieces is missing, I'm grateful for my stash of previously collected ideas. I thumb through my notes and frequently find just what I'd been looking for.

This doesn't have to involve just storytelling though, it could be anything. For photography, I go through a similar process for the pictures or paintings I look at. Maybe something about the overall structure grabbed me, but I loose interest when focusing on the details. I still find it worthwhile to identify what worked & separate it from what didn't. And even if I really like the whole picture, I still ask myself: if I was standing right there, how would I have framed it? what would I have tried to do, and is that more or less likely to work? That way instead of potentially being disappointed, you become either inspired or empowered. The goal is to stay actively engaged one way or another.

Noticing
As I go about my day, I've been trying to make a point of noticing some detail about some part of my experience that I hadn't noticed before. I've gone on hundreds of walks through my neighborhood at this point, but whenever I call on myself to pay attention and notice things, something new and unexpected never fails to be right in front of me. Hidden in plain sight. It's kind of like awareness training.

This doesn't have to be anything huge, just true & you hadn't noticed it before.  It could be a pattern on a manhole cover, new shoots popping up for springtime, a funny little bird chirp, whatever. You don't have to know where it fits in yet. Like kindling, it's all fuel for creativity, somehow, somewhere.

Reverse Engineering The Fantastic
If it was going to happen, what would it look like? This is a favorite question I ask myself to kickstart my creativity. You deliberately turn off your inner critic & just suppose that something you didn't think was possible could happen. Then, you try to build upon anything and everything you know to figure out it would work. So instead of spending your energy tearing down an idea, you engage your energy to built it up. It's a fun process and you inevitably end up realizing that with just a few tweaks to the initial premise, it's actually not so far outside the realm of possibilities as you previously thought. The story I'm currently writing started largely because I began speculating about a possible science fiction interpretation of Welsh fairy lore. You never know where these things are going to end up. It's like being a detective, but you're trying to uncover something true without putting too much pressure on yourself. I wonder if this is a process of many science fiction authors of the past, like Jules Verne or HG Wells, let alone actual feats of creative engineering. From Star Trek communicators to smart phones?

And as always:
What if? It's the classic spark for many a creative endeavor.

So there are a few more practical tips and exercises that I've found valuable for collecting kindling & firing up my creative engines. Hope these ideas help you too. :)

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth 

Where Does Creativity Come From?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyteray/8510186023/
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
Please contact me for any usage or licensing options.
Where Does Creativity Come From?
From Wondering.
 
From asking questions, and pursuing the answers.
"Knock, and the door will open."

Unbinding Yourself
What limits your life options, what crushes your spirit is accepting someone else's limiting beliefs as your own. This is the case for external judgments about you personally, or any 'facts' you accept about life in general.  A little example: If someone says with certainty: "The Egyptians worshiped cats" and you accept their opinion as truth. You've just limited yourself. Some limitations are subtle, some are more obvious; both can have big consequences. As I've been doing historical research for my novels, one of the most valuable skills I've learned (and realized it applies just about everywhere in my life) is to put a mental "in your opinion" after every declarative statement that crosses my path. It's such freedom!
 
And even for personal matters, this approach applies to critics, bullies, all authority figures alike. Because what if they are wrong? No matter how sure they sound, if you are the one who accepts their incorrect opinion as fact, you are the one who's limited yourself. In my little example, I would digest the statement: "Egyptians worshipped cats" as: Egyptians depicted cats in their writings. It's someone else's interpretation that this involved "worship". That opinion goes in my mental slush pile. (Symbolically, a big bucket of proposals that are not likely to get any of my 'funding,' so to speak.) I might come to the same conclusion, but maybe not, and certainly not by default.

Now, it is still useful to know what everyone else assumes so you can respond effectively to your environment, but that doesn't mean you need to accept their assumption for yourself. To wrap up the example: just what the Egyptians were truly communicating by carving representations of cats remains an open question; it's a placeholder as you continue more research to sort out the rest of the puzzle. (Incidentally, I've become increasingly convinced most of the ancient writings are symbolic, not literal, which makes all the difference … BTW, everything seems to point to an aspect of the development of consciousness, but that's for another blog topic and future novels.)

There's just one small example, but it's shocking to realize how much of the history books, news shows, and all manner of 'common knowledge' are just opinions. Adopting opinions as facts ties you to the status quo. It's fine if the status quo is great, but what if it's gone off track? How can you find a creative solution if you are confining yourself to someone else's false opinions? Your mind loves solving problems, but can't do it if it's cluttered with false associations. So, learn the art of mental digestion: separating facts from opinion, and unleash your creativity!

Mental Digestion
It's not all or nothing. The art of mental digestion is kind of like the process of digesting food. You don't just inject food directly into your veins; even the healthiest food would become toxic if undigested (except apparently for fresh coconut water). Your body transmutes the food molecules from what you ate into something useful to build your cells and discards what it cannot effectively process. The process of mental digestion aught to be the same. Instead, we are raised to memorize every word of text books, injecting the material directly into our minds without filtration, without transmutation. We are strictly graded through school for 100% absorption, as if injecting that content directly into our veins. It's kind of like downloading a program directly from the internet without running a virus scan. Risky!
http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyteray/8598300385/
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved.
Please contact me for any usage or licensing options.

Now that I see it in this way, accepting whole heartedly the best known methods of even the most illustrious authority figures, the most revered historical figures, is a risk I can no longer take. If all is well, the extra step of checking everything, of running your own virus scan, might not be necessary, but if you are feeling constrained, uncreative, or things are beginning to go awry, it might be worth a look to reconsider what you had accepted as obvious truth.

We are in an era where authority figures assure us they've checked everything 'for our safety' and therefore the most rational thing we can do is accept their best known methods. I bought into it for so long, but now disagree. I think each person individually is capable of sorting out the best solution for the most important issues that effect their own lives. Medical, financial, career, world view, whatever it is: No approval needed, no waiting for statistics needed. It's a difficult transition process to look to your essential self for support, not external authority figures, but it has been one of the most freeing experiences of my life. Like a tree that has been bound for years 'for safety' to protect it from the high winds, the trunk has become all spindly; now there is a danger when cutting those bindings that the spindly trunk might fall over. It's a gradual process of learning how to reliably depend on yourself, to responsibly strengthen your core. But you have to start somewhere. Bit by bit, from here, forward.

When you are prepared to extract only partially what you hear, identify and deprioritize the opinions, you can safely consider an infinitely wider range of experiences and find some value in them all. (It's true, time and energy is a factor, so it is beneficial to put yourself in scenarios where you expect a high priority return on investment.) It's a challenge; I'm not saying authority figures can't help, but just to be mindful there's some tendency to get boxed in so much that you deprioritize your own authentic judgment. And with this approach you realize that some important tip can come from just about anywhere, so you pay attention, you become more appreciative of more human experiences. Maybe the garbage man, maybe someone posting on their blog, maybe anyone at all knows a health tip that has not yet been formalized by medical science. If your mental digestive fire is strong, you might figure out how part of that tip cap be applied to improve your life. Just saying...

Another example: There are many books I've read while doing historical research that I consider pivotal in shaping my current understanding and helping me frame future novels, but I'm hesitant to share them because I actually disagree with the author's entire premise. ;p  What I monumentally appreciate is the authentic data points those books uncovered. Once I extracted those facts from the author's opinions, I found those books to be immensely valuable. But if I recommend the books here as some of my favorites, people would probably assume I agree with every word or even most words which is not the case at all - doh! I suppose it's like finding the particular piece you were missing; it's not the same for everyone.

Conclusion
By strengthening your own digestive fire to extract more useful data from a wider range of experiences, your creative impulse, your pattern matching skills have such a wider base of useful material to draw from. I have found it greatly improve my own creativity and perspective. This approach also undercuts elitism and values the perspectives of more people. I say that is good. So, if you're looking to boost your own creativity, I recommend these tips to remove artificial limitations, broaden your scope, and let your inner wondering go to work!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth  

Perspectives from a Female Engineer

Though I hardly paid any attention to being specifically a 'female' engineer while I was at school or in the workplace, I realized my perspective on the topic might be helpful to someone, particularly since I never even considered the thought of being an engineer even once until the month before I started college. Maybe (hopefully) the situation has drastically changed by now, but up through high school, I didn't even really know what an engineer was; if someone would have asked me, I would have probably said a train operator. ;p  So, how can you know what you want to be when you grow up if it isn't even on your radar?

I was always proficient at math and science, but was the only one in my senior year high school math class who didn't initially sign up for a field trip to tour the engineering school at my local university. When I realized that everyone in the class was going on the day, I think I decided, 'why not?' & scrambled to get on the bus after all. I had been interested in just about everything at school but had no particular career path in mind. (Unfortunately, I was too scared of being an entrepreneur at the time, so never considered you could potentially forge a responsible career for yourself in something like writing or photography. Another blind side on the ol' radar, for another post …)

But anyway, I realized that the engineering degree plan looked essentially like my standard high school class schedule. And also, almost all of the classes were mapped out (only two or three elective slots the entire four years). Since I was bewildered at how to put together my college class schedule to work towards a degree, I found the defined plan of the engineering curriculum a relief. I thought there was no reason I couldn't give it a try to see what happened. By that time, I had figured out electrical engineers did things like work on computer chips. The Pentium had just hit the market and I thought it would be really cool if I could work on something like that one day. (And six years later, I found myself doing exactly that. :)

Being Female in a Mostly Male Workplace

The first class I took where I was the lone female among a classroom full of guys, I quickly realized that if I did the work and showed I wasn't getting any special handouts, the topic of gender in the engineering environment was absolutely a non-issue. I was a bit nervous initially, thinking I might be belittled or bullied or something, but I can't even say I noticed a hint of any negative undercurrent related to me being female at all. Discussions almost always centered around some sort of problem solving with everyone focused on the task at hand. That continued straight through from college, grad school, and into the workplace.

I think there was one comment in my 18 or so years in an engineering environment where one person asked me something about my hair after a meeting. (In a nice way, just totally off topic.) It actually threw me for such a loop that I probably paused for several seconds honestly trying to figure out what language he was speaking. ;p I was probably thinking through all the engineering acronyms to figure out what something called H.A.I.R. might be, and what it had to do with our project. Ha, ha. So yeah, while on the job, very rare to be talking to fellow engineers about anything other than engineering, in my experience.

The only real effect I noticed about being the lone female in a room full of engineering guys is you stand out more. I suppose that is added pressure. Sometimes it's fun: unexpected people wave hi to you as they pass by & you're pretty sure they are in your class or on your team, but can't place them, so you just wave hi right back (and try to remember more people for next time). On the other hand: I was highly motivated to be as useful & sharp as possible which I think did take a hidden toll, but that was my issue, nothing anyone else did or said. (I was the kind of person who would have thought a 'C' was failure, an indication I was on the wrong track, but most of the guys would probably have interpreted a 'C' as 'average', and continued on with no problem.) I suppose in an age where some extra scholarships were preferentially given to females, I was highly motivated to show that my grades were what got me there, not any special favors.

The Worst

I can honestly say that the worst treatment I ever received as a female in the field of engineering was from a women's support organization: WISE (I think it stood for Women In Science and Engineering). I was usually so busy through college that I didn't even think to join any special groups outside of class, until the last few months before graduating when I'd heard a recommendation to join this women's organization which was offering $500 for being in their program. Since it involved attending a few meetings, writing a few essays, and doing some outreach, I thought: Why Not? So, I completed all their checklists and received a mock $500 check at the final banquet where they touted my academic accomplishments as if they were their own, and then … they of course refused to honor the check, quoting (rather hostilely, I might add) some bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. They were just using me. What a waste of time and human spirit. And I had been banking on that $500 to buy supplies for grad school, too ... sigh. I would not recommend any fake support groups to anyone in college. Just do the work to develop your own character and capabilities, because that's all you need to apply for grad school, or a job, or anything really.

Actually, there was one other bad situation at work where a creepy old guy sent me an offensive email; but I replied via email (so it was on record) telling him not to ever contact me again, and that was the end of that. I think there are a few guys from older generation who are honestly bewildered to see a female in engineering, but if they comment at all, it's usually something like: "Golly Gee Willikers, a female in engineering? Never would've thought it." Which is totally benign: amusing actually. It's as if they honestly can't believe their eyes.

The younger guys don't even seem to give it a second thought. (Now, there are definitely some jerks out there, but I'm not counting them as part of this blog topic if they're jerks to everyone.) Maybe I was fortunate, or just listened to my gut to maneuver myself into good teams, but most of the people I worked with were absolute gems. Many became good friends. (I still remember going to see the Ballet around Christmas one year with about four engineering guys. Looking back on that, it's kind of funny, but at the time, it just seemed like hanging out with my work buddies.)

Summing It Up
 
So, if you're wondering what it's like being a female in the technical field of engineering, I've found that if you just do the work helping to solve problems, the guys are happy to see you. If anything, you're just changing things up a bit to make it interesting. That's my experience anyway (in both electrical and computer science engineering). One caveat is that I always steered away from management positions (which may be a different story); the politics of it just never interested me at all. There might be some lingering machismo good 'ol boys attitude in upper management, but since I have no experience there, so it's not fair to comment. I was always interested in solving technical problems, so kept maneuvering 'sideways' in my career to keep learning new technical skills (probably not to the benefit of $$, but certainly for my soul). It's just what I was drawn to.

But in general, if you've never considered engineering as a career option, know that the coursework in college is essentially just an extension of high school. If you can do it there, you will most likely have no extra troubles with it in college. Engineering is basically a big vocabulary lesson; after that, it's common sense and problem solving, as with any career, I suspect. And if you know someone who might be intimidated at the prospect of being a lone female engineer in a room full of guys working on a technical problem, in my experience, it's all about the work and nothing about appearances. As it should be. Go humans!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Opposed to Busywork

I had to rant today about the waste of human potential that is busywork. Over the past election cycle, there was much talk from vaunted economists across the news shows about economic policies to stimulate the economy in a way that amounts to paying people to 'dig ditches and fill them up again.' And lo, over the past several years, I have been stopped countless times in long lines for road construction where people are literally digging ditches and filling them up again. (Most of the roads had already been recently resurfaced and were in fine shape.) A sign usually stands nearby proudly declaring: "Your Tax Dollars At Work." I am not impressed.

The idea seems to be that the government wants to pump money into people's hands so they buy more things and stimulate the economy. That may a fine strategy and am not debating it here, but if that's their objective, why give people busywork to take up all of their daylight hours in the process? Why waste their energy like that, their creativity? It's an insult to human ingenuity not to mention productivity.

If you truly intend to stimulate the economy with the true spirit of freedom, instead of paying people to burn energy (busywork), offer a grant to people who present a reasonably viable entrepreneurial strategy. Why not essentially give them a boost to start their own business? The very material prospect of receiving funds if you can come up with a business model would encourage people to really think about what they could offer. It would engage people's creativity, their enthusiasm, their true hope for what they can contribute to the future.

Some new businesses may indeed fail, but the experience for those new entrepreneurs would still be incredibly valuable, and would help inform better strategies for their future endeavors, whatever they may be. And at the end of the day, a failed attempt at starting a business would leave that person (and the environment) no worse off than if they had spent that energy digging a ditch and filling it up again. Regardless of the outcome, it would encourage a certain spirit of integrity, ownership, and authenticity.

And many of these new businesses would succeed, many by filling a demand for a currently unoffered service. Who knows where that creativity could lead? What unexpected options it could bring to the economy? More options and more stability. I suppose this general idea of an entrepreneurial spirit is similar to microcredit or microfinance in that it sees the dignity and value in what the 'masses' have to offer.

Busywork is bad enough for children and teens as a kind of 'babysitting' in schools, but it continues in subtle ways through adulthood with different fancy sounding names like: Keynesian economic policies. Is it to bamboozle people, or do the policy makers not realize how amazing people are if given the chance to think? Busywork treats adults like children; assuming they won't do anything productive if left to their own devices. We can do better! People can be amazing if given the chance, and especially if given incentive to be inventive. Get the creative juices flowing!

End of rant - thank you. :)

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Volunteering : For the Win!

I had forgotten the many benefits of volunteering, but recently remembered it was one of the lessons I'd taught myself way back during high school. I remember spontaneously deciding to volunteer to help setup the photography darkroom before class: I wanted to learn about how to mix the chemicals and learn more of the 'behind the scenes' technical details about the equipment. Not only did I gain the sense of satisfaction from reliably setting up the darkroom so we could all produce our creations, but I ended up establishing a much stronger relationship with the photo teachers on the campus. In that position, you can't help but learn random tips and tricks along the way: hearing about photo contests, learning about new equipment or techniques you would have never thought to even ask about, and other opportunities here and there.

One of the big bonuses happened after I graduated: my college charged a prohibitive fee for their darkroom usage (I was going to put all photography on hiatus), but due to the connections I had established with the high school photo teachers, I was able to continue using my old high school darkroom and other photo equipment all throughout my undergraduate years. :) I don't think there would have been any way I could have negotiated to use the high school darkroom during my college days if I hadn't volunteered there during my time as a student. Valuable life lesson!

Producer Not Consumer
Since I'm in the process of starting a new career, I've cut back on membership to places around town that I love visiting, but can't justify the expense right now. I recently realized that volunteering at these places is a wonderful way to continue my involvement 'for free' and even significantly enhance the experience by meeting the people behind the scenes and learning so much more than I would as a paying customer. We're talking botanical gardens, wildlife reserves, nature parks, museums, galleries ... Whatever your interest, I highly recommend investigating volunteer opportunities. When there's so much conditioning nowadays to be a consumer, it's very refreshing to realize when you are volunteering, you have become a producer of what you love.

Foot In The Door 
When trying to break into a difficult industry (publishing, photography, ...), volunteering drastically reduces your cost to an organization. Maybe some training overhead, but otherwise you position yourself as a no-risk trial run for what could turn into a career down the road. It's a gesture of goodwill, and people are generally so appreciative for the help of someone with initiative and drive to learn. It's a nice change of pace from a 'job' environment. And if it's not something you really are enjoying after all, you are the one in the driver's seat who can try something else without drama. Hopefully though, if you are a good fit for that environment and prove yourself reliable and fun to work with, you will probably be on their A-list and the first to know about any job opportunities or other 'insider' insights. If nothing else, you are in a great position to make some strong networking contacts.

Networking and Opportunity
Many times, it's the people you meet and unexpected opportunities you hear about that make the largest long term impact on your life, rather than a short term paycheck. That's where volunteering comes in. With your wider range of contacts, you hear about random opportunities, tips, and other insights that might not have otherwise crossed your path. Many times in life it's who you know that leads to 'lucky' breakthroughs, and volunteering at something you love to do can help shine a light on opportunities there you didn't know were available to you.

Finding Volunteer Opportunities
I've either contacted individual places directly to find volunteer opportunities (many have websites with volunteer listings), and I also found new places to volunteer that I hadn't known existed by doing a Google search for 'volunteer' and city name. I found a few websites that list pre-scheduled local volunteer events posted by various organizations. It's been a fun way to explore the city!

One More Example
http://www.flickr.com/photos/lyteray/8730386392/
Cherry Blossom Fantasy
Copyright Laura A Knauth, All rights reserved
I just got back from a volunteer session in a local nature park where we helped propagate local plants. I didn't know what to expect, but it was such an interesting learning experience. Turns out, you can cut new shoots from many different trees and shrubs in springtime (we looked for 'pencil width' shoots just as they were just budding), clip any stray stems, put the stick in at least 5 inches of soil (with about a foot out of the soil), and with regular watering, voila! new plant. Amazing :)  The measurements would change depending on the type of plant, but that's an example. (We were focusing on large shrubs.) Gardening costs can really add up, so I unexpectedly learned how to save $$ in my own garden for the future! Hey, if you have a neighbor with a gorgeous looking plant, you could just ask to take a small clipping to grow one of your own. State forests in my area appear to allow taking clippings for small personal quantities. For national forests, you can apply for a free use Forest Products Permit. (I'd put a general link if there was one, but it looks like each forest has it's own permit, so you'd have to find the one for your area.)

So, above and beyond to thinking of volunteering as giving back to the community (which can be wonderful all by itself), I've found volunteering at something that fulfills your hearts desire simultaneously offers so many of these other unexpected benefits ... not to mention the high likelihood of making new friends with shared interests.

Hope these tips help send more opportunities your way.

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Buying Food In Bulk

I had mentioned in an earlier blog post that I was getting a nice discount from my local health food grocery store from buying food by the case (seemed to be about 30%). I've since found an even better option: buying wholesale directly from the distributor (eliminating the middle man of the grocery store and saving even more).

I had heard it was possible in some cities to visit distributor directly, but at the time of my original post, it didn't seem possible in my area. I had called around to what I thought were the local distributors in my area, but they were not open to the general public (only other grocery stores). Maybe the search engines recently improved, who knows, but I tried searching again recently and found a produce distributor that sells directly to consumers in my city. Yay, the savings! 

Due to seasonal demand organic avocados from the grocery store were $65 for a case of 36 - ouch (but still much better than buying individually).

Buying wholesale, a case of organic avocados cost me $53 last month.
A case of organic lemons (40lbs; 95 count) was also $53.

These are savings of about 50% off from the regular grocery store prices. I've arranged my finances so my food bill is the most significant portion of my annual budget. Savings like this really help.

Buying wholesale directly from the distributor also means much fresher produce. Your food isn't waiting around for who knows how long in the back of the grocery store. You pick it up right from the big trucks that deliver it to the city.

The key with buying wholesale produce is that you have to eat it up in time. I have a system worked out for the avocados where I ask for 'green' or 'firm' avocados directly off of the truck. (Otherwise they heat them up so they ripen from green to brown, and I can't usually get to them all in time if I buy them pre-ripened.) I store them green in the fridge and pull out a couple every day. After an initial 4-5 days, the first avocados have ripened & the next two are staged to ripen the day after that and so on (I eat a lot of avocados). ;p

If you eat a lot of a particular kind of fruit, vegetable, or whatever, it may very well be worth your time to look for a wholesale produce supplier in your area to see if they sell to the public. We're talking mangos, oranges, grapes, ...

The place I found is very convenient. I call in advance to place my order and can then pick it up on whatever day I've arranged. There is a sales office with a little parking strip outside, so I can drive my car right up (dodging the big trucks along the way). They also accept credit cards (but some wholesale suppliers might only accept cash from the general public, so I'd ask in advance).

If you're interested, try this key word search on google maps for your city: Wholesale Produce

Glad I finally found this option for my location. Persistence is key ... as always!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Health Insurance Strategy : Updated

I posted last year about my health insurance strategy, but have made a major change since then. My insurance strategy has been to buy high deductible policies (across the board for any insurance) for true emergencies only and save a reserve fund to handle smaller matters myself.

Last year, I left my corporate career to pursue writing and photography on my own (technically unemployed), but bought a high deductible health insurance policy through Blue Cross Blue Shield. I put in over $1000 in premiums since buying the policy (using my own after tax money) which was painful since it's a policy I hope I never have to use - it had essentially a $17,000 deductible. I thought I was being responsible.

What changed: I received a letter from my health insurance company that due to the 'Affordable Care Act', my old policy would no longer be available. It was being replaced by essentially the same coverage (still a $17,000 deductible), but would now cost 3x the premium. What was a $71/month premium would now be a $220/month premium. What the !?!?!?  That's $2640 per year. We're getting on par with my food bill here.  It's essentially a mandate to go back to work for someone else. All for a $17,000 deductible policy I hope I never need to use.

At this point, I cannot endorse supporting what seems to me a failed system. In the spirit of capitalism to vote with your dollars, I canceled my health insurance policy. Looking back over the last 20 years, the only time I visited the doctor was for stomach troubles. The first thing I'd told the doctor was that it felt like I had food poisoning all the time. He never asked me about food; just ran every other test in the book over the next year. They charged my insurance company thousands of dollars, poked & prodded me, all to just pat me on the head and tell me I probably had IBS. Experimental pills were prescribed to mess with my colon; I opted out. (After subsequent self experimentation, I've concluded I was gluten sensitive. I removed gluten from my diet, and my acute issues went away. Many of my health posts discuss my food strategies which I hope make it less likely that I will need chronic medical attention.)

The Rub: There is going to be upcoming penalties for people who do not buy policies & have to pay taxes. My understanding is the penalty will kick in for anyone with income after deductions (last year, the standard deduction limit was $10,000 per year for individuals). Looks like the penalty is $695 per person by 2016 or 2.5% of your income if that's greater. This does effect my options for converting retirement accounts to a Roth IRA which utterly stinks. Hopefully there's an exemption somewhere I missed for wannabe writers... This mandate seems illegal to me since I'd be paying a penalty even if I'm no burden on the system. I mean, if you are paying for all medical expenses out of pocket or do not have any medical expenses, why are you charged an additional penalty 'just in case' you might not pay at some point in the future? Seems like a racket.

So, as scary as it is since for most of my life I had thought the system 'would take care of me', I'm saving my premiums per month to pay for everything out of pocket. Maybe the good news is they won't order so many weird tests since I won't have insurance & would be more interested in discussing options... I'm just doing the best I can here with what I know.

Anyway, it's done for now, but I'm always learning; let me know if you have any comments or feedback! Thanks :)


Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

Word Power

The Art of Rhetoric

Why don't they teach this in schools? As I was doing research for my novels, I stumbled across the subject of rhetoric: templates of speech that create resonant power and drama. I feel I've found a missing piece of myself! Turns out, the most memorable authors throughout history, the most memorable speakers are most likely using the techniques of rhetoric. It's a skill they either pick up by reading other books steeped with these patterns, or study it directly as was done in Ancient Greece and through the nineteenth century.

From Shakespeare to Dickens to Melville to Emerson and Lincoln (just to name a few), all of these authors have used rhetorical devices to communicate their ideas. And perhaps, that has made all the difference? Having a compelling idea is one thing, but having the tools to communicate that idea in a compelling way commands attention and adds undeniable style. There are these two essential factors to make something useful happen: inspiration + capability. Rhetoric provides the capability to support inspiration. 

http://www.amazon.com/Farnsworths-Classical-English-Rhetoric-Farnsworth/dp/1567923852/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1394939236
(I don't get anything for the link;
it's just for reference)

I've read several books on rhetoric by now, but the best so far has been:

Classical English Rhetoric
by Ward Farnsworth

I checked it out of the library and took so many notes that I was basically transcribing the book, so I finally just decided to buy it outright. ;p  

Aristotle is the classic source for rhetorical techniques and it looks like there are several free options to download his work on archive.org. I haven't looked through them yet for the best one, but I'll update the link when there's one in particular that I end up finding most valuable.  I liked Farnsworth's book because he includes many literary examples from authors frequently studied in school, and I find his concise organization of eighteen particular rhetorical devices (with many variations) to be incredibly helpful.

So often in students are almost made to revere literary 'geniuses' of the past, to feel inferior themselves, when in fact, these authors and speech writers have become skilled in basic rhetorical patterns of speech. Not to take anything away from them, but study rhetoric for yourself so you can reap the benefits too; power to the people!

Breaking the Rules
The one comment I've received so far on my writing from professional publishers is that I 'need more sentence fragments'.  Well, as a college grad, this remark initially made me scratch my head. But, my writing was grammatically correct; but no snarky people could nitpick anything; but ... but ...  Well, I now have the sense of what that comment implied. Rhetorical devices are not something you would use to get an 'A+' in grammar school. In fact, using rhetoric would probably get you points docked off a 'perfect' sentence structure. Grammar school is one thing, true life is another; what's more important, perfect sentences, or powerful sentences?

The key with knowing rhetoric, with infusing yourself with the underlying patterns, is that you know inherently come to know when to 'break the rules' to create deliberate power and drama. Rhetoric is about learning to trust your ear, not just your mind. It's motivation to free yourself from rigid grammatical bonds. It's about staying true to the underlying purpose of the sentence, and knowing why you organized your sentence in that particular way. It's not about 'breaking the rules', but deliberately communicating more effectively. Yeah!

Mental Jujutsu
Even if you don't have aspirations to be a writer, at least take a look at these rhetorical devices since countless politicians (or their speech writers) employ these techniques. If nothing else, use it to immunize yourself from the emotional pull evoked by these rhetorical patterns; it's mental jujutsu! Politicians can use it to incite people to 'join the cause', to pull the population this way or that. At by studying rhetoric yourself, you can separate the technique from the actual idea itself to gain better perspective.

I was so relived to discover the art of rhetoric for myself. It really does imbue prose with a kind of poetry. I have a long way to go to decondition myself from rigid grammatical dogma and instead absorb these underlying rhetorical patterns into my very bones. I'm excited to do it though because I can see it's the path to true creative freedom. Hope exploring rhetoric helps you too!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth

The Wonders of Eucalyptus Oil

Hey, I'm posting again after a long hiatus! (I was doing massive amounts of research for my historical novels.) It's great to be back. Today, I just wanted to give a quick tip about a home remedy that has really saved me this past year:

Eucalyptus Oil vs Dust Mites
About a year after I moved into my home, I started having some bad allergies (itchy eyes, stuffy, that sort of thing) and occasional contact allergies on my toes - very itchy. I had no idea what the problem was for years and tried various things with no benefit. Even after I had narrowed the culprit down to dust mites, none of the remedies I tried were effective. I tried cleaning out the air ducts. It cost something like $600, a big investment for me, but had absolutely no effect. Replacing the carpets with hardwood floors was way out of my budget, so I tried periodically steam cleaning them. Though it was a time intensive process, it seemed to bring temporary relief (the hot steam kills the mites), but I still had issues with my shoes, socks, furniture, ...
 
Finally, I discovered eucalyptus essential oil. Hurrah! Relief!! All I've been doing to rid myself of these allergies and itching is to put two eye dropper squirts of eucalyptus essential oil in a spray bottle filled with white vinegar & walk through my house spraying the carpets, sheets, pillows, lounge chairs, stuffed toys, curtains, whatever. I do it daily every morning while I'm still sleepy eyed and waking up. The vinegar solution I buy is from Costco: it's pre-diluted to 5% acidity. For me, I don't notice any color fading issues, but use your discretion. I also don't notice any unpleasant vinegar scent either, just eucalyptus. It's dry in minutes. I picked vinegar as the base because it has other disinfectant properties I like, but I don't know that it's essential for the dust mite issue - it's just what I've been doing. I also haven't experimented with the amount of eucalyptus oil in the vinegar, I noticed that two dropperfuls was working, so it's what I'm continuing to use.

I also put a solution of eucalyptus essential oil and vodka in a spray bottle and spritz my socks before putting on my shoes. (And sometimes combine that with a dusting of eucalyptus oil infused baking soda to help freshen my heavier shoes.) It's worked like a charm for me.

One more use: I also put a squirt of eucalyptus oil in the washing machine water and a squirt in the dryer (I pick something like a cloth or non-delicate item; hasn't left any marks as far as I can tell). The clothes or sheets or towels come out with a fresh scent and seem to be dust mite free!

Eucalyptus Oil vs Colds
All winter, I either put a dropperful of eucalyptus oil in the humidifier water or in my diffuser to disperse the oil into the air. I think it really helped to purify the air; I made it through the winter without going down for the count, anyway. The times where I started to feel a cold coming on, I took the extra step of putting a few drops of eucalyptus oil in a large glass bowl, pouring steaming hot water over it, and breathing in the steam (with a towel tented over my head to concentrate the steam). It seemed to me to really help clear up my lungs.  

The Score

Eucalyptus Oil         : Winner!
Common Nuisances : 0

These are just my random tips, but I noticed a big benefit from using eucalyptus essential oil in these ways. I had no idea eucalyptus oil was such an effective deterrent for dust mites. It really saved me a lot of money (from having to replace my carpets, shoes, and who knows what else). It's so amazing to finally find a decisive solution to these increasingly bothersome issues. And I love that the solution involves buying individual quality ingredients rather than an expensive pre-packaged mixture of who knows what. I've seen eucalyptus essential oil at regular health grocery stores, but I've been trying to only use therapeutic grade essential oils which I order online (for people in the States, I usually buy mine in bulk from MountainRoseHerbs.com).

Hope these tips help!

Blog Post by Laura A Knauth