Questionable Hy-Giena: When Soapmaking isn't so Clean Cut. (And Other Dirt.)

“Top Ten: Gina Napoli’s Soapmaking Class vs. Fight Club”

  1. You can talk about my class.
  2. You can talk about my class.
  3. I don’t pour lye on anyone’s hands.
  4. I don’t smoke around glycerin. My homeowner’s insurance, and all that.
  5. I buy my fats at Costco. There is no climbing or snagging bags of human fat on chain link fences.
  6. I WISH my bars could sell for $20 apiece.
  7. I haven’t spliced subliminal porn into reel-to-reel movies.
  8. I am a one-woman show. Unless you count the people who occasionally pass out at my husband’s parties, I don’t have an army making soap or mayhem x in my basement.
  9. My class includes all the supplies and equipment you’ll need to make 36 homemade bars for $250. (Proceeds go to the American Cancer Society.) You can pay with check or cash. In Fight Club, you can zero out your credit card.
  10. Did I mention, you can talk about my class? In fact, tell all your friends.

“Building a Bridge While Running Across It”

Like every Type-A whinger I know, I had a roadmap for my life, complete with timetables, a critical path analysis, and a risk assessment. By 2016, I would be a Solid Gold dancer-slash-novelist-slash-scientist married to Julian Lennon. I had a PLAN, dammit.

Then nothing on my plan happened, um, as planned. That short-sighted network canceled Solid Gold. Julian Lennon never received my letter asking him to marry me. (Surely Mr. Lennon would have been on the first plane to Pennsylvania if the post office would have done its job.) If you count working in IT as being a scientist, then cool. But I don’t. And instead of working on my novel, I write shorter pieces to accommodate my rapidly shrinking attention span. Like this blog, for example.

Tick-tock, tick-tock. As my youth experienced shrinkage behind me in the rear-view mirror and the sands in my hourglass turned me apple-shaped, I slipped into acceptance and excuses. It felt very much like the fifth stage of grieving, really. Maybe I can’t dance in stilettoes while wearing gold sequins. And I haven’t written the Great American novel. I also haven’t invented anything chemically cool. Dare I even think I could snag rock-n-roll royalty? (Of course I can’t, because I can’t even dance in heels.)

Do I feel that I settled in life? The surprises my life has brought me were more fun to discover than my nerdy plan. Changing course gave me some skills I hadn’t really thought about developing when I made my first plan. That helped me grow the hell up. Mature, even. With a sigh and some vomit-swallowing, I had to yield to circumstances and form a new plan. An old Army colonel I used to work for called it “building a bridge while running across it.”

A batch of soap I made this weekend felt that way, too. Not like vomit-swallowing, but a re-direction of sorts. I had planned to make Black & White Cookie soap. I added the amount of cocoa shells the recipe called for. Having created and tested this recipe, I felt confident enough that the chocolate layer would be perfect as planned, morphing into lovely, dark chocolately soap. Jerry and Elaine couldn’t have bought a better cookie at the deli.

Except it didn’t turn black. It wasn’t even dark brown. It was a milk chocolate, really. To present that as a yin and yang cookie would have been a social embarrassment. Like bringing a cinnamon babka instead of chocolate. Or stealing back a marble rye out of a host’s kitchen.

So I made a new plan. I had an old recipe for marshmallow soap. But I didn’t love it. It needed work. I looked at some old recipes for vanilla soap. I looked through my oils and herbs to see what I had on hand. I wondered what I was thinking when I bought all this crap. Like tapioca pearls?

I only had one ounce of powdered marshmallow root. The rest was in bark form. I tried to powder another ounce. It would have given a bather splinters. My grinder didn’t cut it, literally or figuratively.

The result looked better than I expected. In fact, it looked prettier than the original vanilla soap. Like frosty cake with tapioca pearl sprinkles. I put that weird what-was-I-thinking material to use.

Hot Chocolate with Marshmallow Topping. Voila!

I can’t say whether my changed course is better than my original plan. Writing articles, flash fiction, and blog posts has a quicker publishable payoff than a novel. I get to mix chemicals in my soap shed. Sorry, Mr. Lennon, Mr. Kopp is the bloke for me. I taste no vomit. It’s all chocolate babka and marshmallow happiness. Running and bridge-building.

“Draining More Than Just Oils”

I had a task I kept transferring to new to-do lists for more than two years. Then when I finally crossed it off, it took me about 45 minutes.

Like most of my big craft ideas, draining my oils followed loose versions of Plans B, C, and D. I geared up for the big event by staging containers and labels near the door. I bought special cheesecloth. To build the suspense, I left those items in a shelf by the door, rearranged them a few times, and piled other things on top of them.

If you’re guilty of crap like this, too, then you and I can hang. There’s plenty of stuff we can put off doing while we do said hanging.

By the time I committed to the last tactical “drain and squeeze” mile, one of my oil samples had solidified in its jar. In case you are ever invited to Trivia Night and need to know if cocoa shells absorb hazelnut oil, salt, and sugar, the answer is “true.” This also explains what chocolate has done to my gut.

I tried to like nut butters. I really, really tried. But I don’t think I’m trendy enough. Each time I opened the jars, a pool of oil lay in the core, surrounded by a solid brick of trendy spread. Except it never spread. It murdered my bread is what it did. But back to the oil. I didn’t even need to strain it through cheesecloth. The sediment lay in a solid layer on the bottom of a container while I poured the oil into another. Just like its un-stirrable parent nut butter jar.

Leftover from George’s college days was a beer collection that I inherited as part of his dowry. Because beer makes some of the most skin-nurturing soap, I steeped hops in grapeseed oil to accompany. Then I forgot about it for about 7 years. It must have been near the labels and containers somewhere. By the time I had run out of excuses, the hops were so oil-saturated, they almost disintegrated when I squeezed them.

Then my pre-arthritic hands threw the remains into the trashcan. I relaxed too hard and spilled the trash can. Oily hops conditioned my shed floor.

Maybe I expected more after all that build-up. I guess I expected congratulatory confetti to fall from the ceiling.

My inner optimist resolved to eat a slice of cake as a reward. The pessimist refused to celebrate such a filmy victory. And the overtaking realist didn’t bother to steep another batch of anything in oil. Ambition to drain more oils in seven years, there isn’t.

“Mother/Daughter Art Classes”

Taking art classes with my 10-year-old daughter was supposed to be fun. Like so many of life's worthwhile undertakings, planning felt fun and promising. In my mind's eye, I wore a beret and painted an amazing masterpiece, or at least a drawing that looked like something. In reality, up until this point, drawings coming from my borrowed sketch pad had stick-figure bodies holding up huge heads.

Our classes took place on cozy Sunday afternoons. Kids' classes were in the basement. They could draw any fantastical elements they wished: fairies, dragons, anime girls, oh my! Their teacher set up their canvasses and pencils for them.

The adults' third floor portrait class held a room full of us taking ten full minutes to decide the exact angle for arranging the easel. I took an extra five minutes to switch my charcoals from left to right, then back again. I thought of my daughter, probably not even noticing the luxury of someone else setting up her workstation.

Student introductions. My introduction? “I drew a picture of my husband, and it was kinda bad. So, um, I wrote this class on my bucket list.” Everyone else had art degrees, then – boom – life kicked in, then retirement, and here they were dusting off their pastels. Like feathers out of a pillow on top of a mountain, I couldn't stuff all the feathers back in.

For our first assignment, we had a pretty young girl model for us. Our teacher said, “Study the model and how the lighting brings out her facial features. Lights and darks. Shade what is there. Trust your eyes. Don't just draw what you think should be there.”

I sketched. But my pencils weren't kind to our Mediterranean model, or to me. The light and dark shading turned into dark eye circles, sideburns, and a goatee. No matter how many times I ran that muting white pencil or the gummy eraser over it, a most un-handsome man started back at me.

Our teacher said, “I can see what you're trying to do there.”

My fingers felt so full of filthy soot, like I just clapped erasers full of black chalk. While I drew, I smeared my hands over my picture like a left-handed third-grader learning cursive in Catholic school, giving my girl a 5 o'clock shadow rivaling a nun with a hormone imbalance. No sink or hand sanitizer in sight.

After that, I didn't turn my easel around to show anyone. I wiped my hands on my pants, wondering if I could drop the class and get my money back. Surely the artist next to me who just dropped and cracked all his pastels would love to buy my supplies from me.

At break time, I kept working. Anything to keep people from peeking at the mess I just made. I pretended I didn't notice looky-loo artists walking around to look at everyone else's work.

A nice lady said, “We would love to see it. I'm sure it's not that bad.”

I moved aside as she craned her neck to look. She studied it like a doctor doing a mole check. “Ah, yes. I can definitely see what you're doing there.”

After class, my daughter opened my sketch pad. She smiled and nodded. “Now that's a face, Mom.” Her voice sounded like mine the first time she dressed herself. (She chose a pair of shorts and an inside-out sweater that day.) That little encourager will be a good Mom someday. And a decent artist:

Samantha's cast of characters watch Star Wars in 3D
Ancient Egypt

As for me, I think I should stick to planning. And stick figures.

“Shed. Not the Noun – the Verb”

This year, I need to work on shedding. Not those New Year’s Resolution pounds. They’re perennial and have become part of me.

I mean, shedding what isn’t helping me move forward.

"Resolutions are pointless. I made a schedule." That's what I said to myself last year. Even with two major health episodes, I accomplished much -- about half my checklist.

One of my checklist items was re-writing my picture book into a middle grade early chapter book. Why did I spend time on that sort of tedium instead of playing in my new Soap Shack? Why didn’t I punch myself in the face instead?

Here’s why: The editor my agent hired thought my picture book would sell better as a middle grade chapter book.

I didn't think my whimsical fantasy concept would translate fully to older kids. And it didn't. (Think 12-year-olds who still believe in the Tooth Fairy, and you've got my story concept applied to a MG reading level.) But I had to take my shot.

Then my agent dropped me. Any other writers know that pain? Many have (later, after everything turned out for the better) cited this to be their finest hour. I got mad for about one hour. Then it was fine.

I read the editor's notes. Carefully. Because the editor my ex-agent hired used to work for a big-name children's publisher. She would know what sells, right?

Some of the insights were helpful. I will think about her tips on restructuring the story and characters’ motivations.

Other insights helped me realize why she "used to" work at that big publishing house. Like expecting a 2nd-grade boy to be logical, or thoughtful, or unselfish, or always likeable, or possess an understanding of family finances. Her nephews must be tiny adults.

And if I really sat down and analyzed my limited interactions with my ex-agent, I would wonder why I signed. Then I would kick myself for staying. Being her client was like texting my teenager. I wondered how she could network with publishers -- potential buyers of my story -- when she wouldn't network with me. I wish this was sour grapes instead of blushing hindsight. Was I so desperate to have an agent to get my book published? (Rhetorical question. I'm sure all you readers out there can smell my desperation through your computer chips.)

My lesson: To get the most out of a “business-only” relationship, forming a personal bond with the client or customer is a must. Hiding from people might free up more time for work, but the time gained is spent working harder – not smarter.

As I type this, I am wincing. I need to shed that same attitude and use that same hindsight on myself. Then move forward.

This shedding could be the end of my book-publishing career. Or it could be the death that needed to happen in order to move MY story forward.

I'll place this experience on the pile of projects that didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped.

I shed it. As a verb.

Happy New Year.

“The Hair Oil”

I always tell my daughter how much I love her artwork. And I don't lie. Her biased mother thinks her daughter has talent.

But one of her drawings gave me pause. She said, “I drew a picture of me cutting your hair, Mommy.”

She could tell I didn't like it. Reason why? It looked like 80's metal hair. So did my Dago 'fro.

Her picture inspired me to mix up a batch of my homemade hair oil. It's the greasiest mixture I could think to put together: jojoba oil, vitamin E oil, aloe vera gel, distilled water. Then some essential oils: vanilla, patchouli, lavender, citrus. Just like any oil and water, it needs a little shaking up.

Years ago, my initial recipe batches left me looking like a Halloween Morticia Addams. I also tried it as a “leave-in” formula, which gave me the same creepy, kooky, altogether ooky effect. And thick, like syrum. A few attempts later, I finally mixed a solution thin enough to make it through the spray nozzle.

My latest attempt at making hair oil resulted in a heady combination that smells something like a hut at the Renaissance Faire and the shag carpeting in the back of a van at a drive-in. (Not that I would know.) The oil provides ample insulation between my frizzy mess and my flat iron. There is a sizzle when they connect each time, sending smoky wisps of fragrance into the bathroom steam. The desired effect is oo-la-la elegant.

It's really too bad 80's metal hair isn't IN anymore. I had to explain to my daughter what it was, and why it was so tubular to the max back then.

She said, “Oh, you mean like Katy Perry?”

“The Soap Shack Set-Up”

The Soap Shack is my backyard hideaway she-shed now housing all of my soapmaking supplies. This will give me (and those intruders who live with me) a dedicated area to work on craft projects and be as messy as we want. Scribbles on walls and floors will give the space character, and the lye fumes will also generate a certain ambience.

The Soap Shack has a second-story storage loft, two work tables, and a slew of shelving. Motion sensor lights fill the workspace when I walk in, and they'll stay lit as long as I don't sit still too long. My husband and stepson invested two years of brainpower and sweat into building this little area where I can hide. (At least I don’t imagine they were trying to get rid of me.)

I'm already making use of the cubic storage. My shelves filled up almost immediately when I moved in. It looked just like that scene on “Bewitched” when Samantha and Tabitha twinkled their noses, making all the labeled boxes, plastic snap containers, and craft kits march into place. That's probably how the boxes multiplied themselves. I can't imagine I collected all this stuff myself. I have been suspiciously eyeing toolboxes with my husband’s name stacking up on one of the tables.

As with any project that changes gears several times mid-stream, the Soap Shack's blueprint re-design had a small problem. Okay, it's not small. At all. It's a heavy ladder right in the middle of the workspace, partially blocking access to my shelves. If I were still working at the warehouse, the process improvement team would have conducted a time-motion study on how much time I will waste per year walking around that ladder. Then we would move the ladder 3 feet to the right, thereby shifting the waste to another part of the workspace. But it would take time to shift that bulky thing, because my ladder is sans rollers.

Speaking of bringing nerdy manufacturing tenets into my home life... Out of the 6 S's in making my workspace Lean, I got as far as Sort, Straighten, and Shine. But it won't stay Shined. I already bought 6 bottles of lye to get me started for cold-weather soapmaking. When the aluminum fixtures have been completely corroded from lye fumes, it will be a badge of honor. But back to my 6 S list… Standardize isn't going to happen. Sustain? Maybe... If one of the S-words is Someday. Safety? Ok, I’ll be more careful with that lye. I’ll take my soap batch out to the porch with my HAZMAT gloves and protective eyewear.

It won’t be the first time my neighbors have pulled up a chair to watch me.

Gina Napoli is an independent freelance writer who has been published 178 times in 51 different print and electronic venues, including academic publications, book compilations, and magazines with local and national circulation. Topics include continuous process improvement, information technology, U.S. military, business, career management, reviews and opinions, elder care, health, human interest, special interest, general interest, and children's stories.