Yes, I have seen Fight Club...

So in 1999 a movie was made of the book Fight Club. The premise of the movie (according to IMBD.com) is that “An insomniac office worker looking for a way to change his life crosses paths with a devil-may-care soap maker and they form an underground fight club that evolves into something much, much more...”

The soapmaking part is an intriguing social and economic statement about modern life. The premise is that they steal fat that has been liposuctioned from people, turn it into soap, and then sell it back to those same rich people through high end retail Macy’s –like stores. Essentially people pay to get rid of their fat, and then pay again to obtain it again. I personally like the macabre, almost Sweeney Todd-like references (and now that I think of it Helena Bonham Carter is in both movies). And if that isn’t enough the glycerin they siphon off of the soapmaking process is also used to build bombs.

So although this movie came out almost 15 yrs ago, I will have one person (usually a guy) ask me if I have ever seen the movie. I say yes and then explain this (in a shorter more compact way than I am explaining it now)…

According to the American Council on Exercise the average obese woman is 32% body fat, however the human body needs about 12% fat for daily living, so let us just assume that 20% of the overall weight could even be extracted. 

Thus, if you are a middle aged woman who weighs 200 lbs, 40lbs is fat.  Now the fat needs to be rendered to remove it’s water before it is made into soap. 

According to Dr. Jeffrey Utz, Neuroscience, pediatrics, Allegheny University, different people have different percentages of their bodies made up of water. In adult women, fat makes up more of the body than men, so they have about 55% of their bodies made of water. 

So 40 lbs of fat minus 55% water = 18 lbs of rendered fat to make soap with. Assuming a 6 oz bar of soap, that leaves you with just 48 bars from the average human obese woman who has had ALL of her excess fat extracted through liposuction. And if I remember the movie correctly, the bags they steal certainly don’t seem very heavy or numerous for that matter. 

Seems like a lot of work for a soapmaker so professional they can sell to the big box stores!
And for the bomb thing? According to soapmaker Kailer Westerman: In the simplest terms: you make soap out of fats and lye. The fats already contain glycerin as part of their chemical makeup (both animal and vegetable fats contain from 7% - 13% glycerine). When the fats and lye interact, soap is formed, and the glycerin is left out as a "byproduct". But, while it's chemically separate, it's still blended into the soap mix. While a cold process soapmaker would simply pour into the molds at this stage, a commercial soapmaker will add salt. The salt causes the soap to curdle and float to the top. After skimming off the soap, they are left with glycerin. They then separate the glycerin out by distilling it. (if you are keeping up with the math this is about 2 lbs of glycerin for every 40 lbs of fat they started with. 

Now glycerine itself is very stable and even good for you, nitroglycerine is commonly produced by treating glycerol with white fuming nitric acid under conditions appropriate to the formation of the nitric acid ester. It is dangerously sensitive and dropping or bumping a container may cause it to explode. This is the bombs are made of. This isn’t explained in the movie at all from what I recall and they use quite a few large barrels of this stuff.

I am pretty good with chemistry, and this is waaaaayy beyond me.  So this is my personal myth busting of the movie. I haven’t read the book, it may explain more, but the movie was too violent for me the first time and I have been told the book is worse, so I will skip it. 


Survival Mode

I have explained my life to people in terms of a roller coaster. January through April is the steady climb up the first hill. I am plugging along, making soap, filling orders, and getting ready for the inevitable drop. May through December is the rest of the coaster: there are twists and turns, hills and valleys, and even a few dark tunnels and slow spots, but mostly I am just hanging on for the ride. Once Christmas comes, I have pulled into the load off point, and slowly walk around to get back into the queue to ride again in just a few weeks.

But how do you survive as an artisan, with a family, during those time where you are just hanging on and the corkscrew of life is leaving you dizzy and nauseous? 

Two words: Survival Mode. This is where my abilities to triage my life comes into play. Here are some of my tips:

1) Don't worry about other people so much as you usually do. Let them take care of themselves. Trust that if they need you they will let you know. Explain to your family and friends that if they need you, you will be there, but your crystal ball is on the fritz, and you won't be able to "just tell" when they need you, they will need to speak up. 

2) Take time to chill: your way. Don't let anyone tell you how to relax. Want to read, then read. Want to go dance, then go dance. 

3) Your family is in this pressure cooker with you. I still wonder if my family tries to drive me nuts more during Musikfest because they miss me, or if they just drive me nuts easier because I am so tired and stressed. It is probably a combination of the two. Cut them some slack, don't say or do things you may regret later. 

4) Set small goals in order to feel accomplished. There are times of the year that taking a shower makes my list of things to do, and it feels good (in more ways than one), to cross that one off the list. 

5) Remember that what you are doing is hard, you are not a wimp. You are working crazy hours, in an emotionally draining environment, and you have a family to be a part of with all the ups and downs it brings on too.

6) Try not to think about your problem when you are tired. They seem much worse than they really are. Worry when you get up, not just before bed. 

7) Find grace. If this is through prayer, meditation, or something else. Don't stress about not making it to services, yoga class, or what have you. This is most likely a self imposed guilt and you don't need that right now on top of everything else too. My God listens if I just pray at night when in bed and the house is quiet, I hope yours does too, and can be pleased even with the most feeble prayers.

8) If you can't be consistent, be sure your shock and awe is memorable. I tend to believe that you teach the people around you how to treat you. This is best taught through consistency, but if a line is crossed, be sure it isn't crossed again. Get creative. When one of my favorite gluten free pizzas was eaten by someone other than me, I proclaimed that we never had to get regular pizza ever again just for them, since the family obviously liked mine just as much. They have never eaten my pizza again, they are never too lazy to dial the phone and order their own.

9) Don't go crazy with junk food, or alcohol for that matter. It will only make life harder in the long run. 

10) Exercise, but not to exhaustion. Anything that gets your blood pumping is good. No time to run? Park at the back of the parking lot. Don't be lazy, but don't be crazy either.

11) Set priorities with your spouse or family members. Approach housework together and errands too. Be a support network. Communicate needs to one another. Find solutions together. Don't just dictate.

12) Make good sleep a priority for everyone in the house.

Once this time of survival is over, then take a break, recharge, and thrive!


Packaging is for your eyes, not for your skin

I recently read that 2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in developed nations can be attributed to the packaging sector. This would include anything that offers physical protection, containment, information transmission, marketing, or security for a product. You can also include convenience and portion control to this list as secondary results of a package.

The US GDP15684.80 billion US dollars in 2012.
This means we spent 313 billion dollars on packaging. 

How much of your purchase are based on the packaging of a product, and not what is inside the package? Do you think a pretty box means a good product? Is it disappointing when the packaging and the product quality don't match? Do you care less about the quality of  a gift, as long as it "looks pretty"? 

I have to admit, I fall prey to these marketing tactics too. It takes a while to learn that the ugly tomatoes at the farm market taste better than the pretty ones at the grocery store. It takes longer to learn that this fact most often translates to almost everything in life. 

This is one reason why so many small businesses and handcrafters struggle. We often don't have the knowledge, means, or time to put into something we often see as trivial: packaging. We think that because we have a superior product, the outside box shouldn't matter. But then we are outsold by the mediocre product with the fancy box. 

What should we do? I think there are two options: 1) raise your prices and have your customers pay for pretty packaging, or 2) work your tail off and succeed anyway.

I chose option #2. 

I will admit it. I am more of a farm market soapmaker than a boutique soapmaker. No pretty packaging, just what is legally needed. Simple, no fuss, little to throw away. It keeps the prices low. I splurge a little: teal paper bags rather than kraft brown, nice tubes for the shave brushes, pretty colored lip tube caps, but only when it is in a price range I can afford.

I have looked into opening a storefront. Rent, heat, lights, plus insurance will all equal $1 or more per bar price bump just to keep the place open. Nope, not gonna do it. 

For me it is about longevity. It is about making a product that I use, at a price that I would pay for it if I couldn't make it myself. It is about keeping things simple, not following trends, not getting rich fast (or at all for that matter). It is about keeping it real, and honest, and true. 

So no matter what you are buying, try to scrape the surface a little, find the truth, support the little guys, keep it real, keep it simple. Don't buy into the hype. That is my motto lately: don't try and sell hype, and don't buy into another's hype. The packaging is only for our eyes. 



It's all about the bonnets

Many. many moons ago, before becoming a Soapmaker I was a contract employee at a large theme park in Orlando Florida. You know the one, the one with the giant mice running around with their goofy dog friend :) Well when I was there I had the privilege of working with many people who has been there for eons. Some of these people had been there long enough that they personally knew the founder of that place, or had least had the opportunity to meet him while he was alive.

But the business was changing, there was a palatable feeling in the air of old vs new. The young guns, the bean counters, the newest technologies were taking things over. Most of the old timers didn't like it. They thought that there was a sacrifice in quality happening, and a change in how everyone was being treated, that the family was gone, and it was just a business now.

When I left that place, a few people got together and bought me a watch and a necklace with said mouse on it. I got a card that told me that I did things the old way, and that a certain person, if he were alive that day, would have been proud of me. I have all of those things still to this day. I cherish them and the people who gave them to me. I cherish their ideals, their work ethic, and all the things I learned from them. In a little way I try to honor them every day in the way I run my business, treat my customers, and make my products.

So now you are thinking...what's up with the bonnets?

Well, I am about halfway through a nine day show called the Kutztown Folk Festival. It has been here for over 60 years. It too has gone through it's changes. It has been run by different people, had its internal political issues, and is always trying to stay old, but still attract the youth and new customers. It is always a challenge, and some people like the changes, and some don't. Some think they are sacrificing the quality of the show, and some don't. No mater what, they can't make everyone happy, that is just the way life is.

But for the last 60+ years, Zion UCC Church has been a food vendor there. They came together as a community and worked for weeks serving old fashioned foods, made by hand at the festival site, and served with love and Christian goodwill. It was a fundraiser, it was community outreach, it was a way for them to come together for a common goal. But they too are undergoing change, and the battle between old versus new, young versus old seems to be raging in their ranks. Last year was their last at the festival. they cannot come back, their entire set up has been auctioned off, they have no resources to ever return.

Yes, they even auctioned off the bonnets. Three of my customers, UCC parishioners, people who I proudly call friends now, bid on, washed and fixed most of the bonnets that were available. I was presented with a bag of these bonnets on Friday before the show opened. This week I am wearing one every day of the festival. These items have a history all their own. Many are decades old, only seeing the light of day for a week each summer. I will bring them out each year and in my own little way continue the tradition. I am proud to have been given this gift. I will cherish them long past my time at this festival. To me this represents a little binding between old and new.