How to Microwave Gracefully (an account of how it happened)

Sometimes I start with a simple thought on Twitter, decide to take it to the next level, and before I know it things have gone entirely out of hand and I’ve gone from a simple tweet about missing NY bagels to a fully produced bagel love song posted on SoundCloud in a matter of hours.

This time, it started with some simple microwave advice. I ended up live-tweeting while I made a video in 2 hours, and I figured I should get it all formatted in a post before it disappears into the unsearchable depths of twitter forever. Might as well add some further details on what went on too, if you’re interested in a thorough case-study of how one might go about making a weird video. Yes, let’s get way too in-depth! It will mirror the unreasonable nature of the art itself!

This is the tweet that started it all:

Of course, the creative process started before then. It didn’t even start with me microwaving something, but with putting leftovers in the fridge and thinking that I would microwave them later. It is important that I was thinking about microwaving, and not actually microwaving, because when what came to mind was the actual physical process of pressing buttons rather than the food I was putting in the fridge and would presumably want to eat, I realized there was something there. Somehow pushing buttons on a microwave was not just a chore but something worth thinking about, and maybe even worth doing well.

I’d been microwaving using repeated-digit times for a while, but hadn’t thought about how this might relate to other people’s microwave experiences. Twitter is my go-to place to get instant feedback from many people on simple things. My first draft was something like:

Life Hack: use cooking times like :66, :88, and 2:22. Never press 0.

It sounds so much like a tweet. Simple, direct, overplayed. It unartfully communicates a way to press digits, while the prohibition against 0 makes me feel all “don’t tell me what to do!”

What I’d really wanted to communicate was how interesting it is that many people like nice round times, that cooking times on packages are rounded, how because of that we bring that want for roundness to something where it does not apply, something that has a completely different sort of roundness we can find in the flow of our movements.

Flow, yes! Time to ramp up the ridiculousness. There’s plenty of room within a tweet to impart some useful information while couching it in artful flair. This is how I strive to communicate: make the communication itself as enjoyable as possible while being sure that all the information you want to communicate is recoverable. The only way I can manage to edit my more informative videos down to manageable length is to cut every word that does not serve at least those two purposes (and hopefully more). This paragraph could be cut in half with good editing, but in the case of blog posts about videos about pressing microwave buttons it’s all or nothing, I’m afraid.

So if I’m going to tweet about how to press microwave buttons as if it mattered, it would be more fun to pretend it mattered. Glorify it. Make it an almost religious act. Yes, it’s not about efficiency, it’s about flow! 111 feels so good, even where 66 would do! And so came the final version. As soon as I posted it, I decided that as long as I was making pressing buttons sound like an important zen activity, might as well follow up with more instructions.

This final set of tweets communicates a more efficient button-pressing workflow, suggestions on how to implement and enjoy that workflow, implications of our human tendency to ignore our habits, and that I realize it’s all ridiculous and doesn’t matter but am enjoying myself anyway and invite you to join in the fun.

We haven’t even gotten to the video part yet, but as I have not seen many long posts on the art of tweet composition I thought some of you might find the above useful.

Now! As I tweeted those tweets, I was reminded of the most recent video on my second secret channel, in which I take instructions for flattening a tube of toothpaste to a ridiculous extreme. I saw the potential for a similar video.

But no, I wasn’t interested in spending energy on such a video. The toothpaste video took me four long days. If I were going to spend that kind of time on a video right now, I know exactly which other videos I would like to make first.

So I did some other stuff, while the thought nagged at me. I tried to ignore it. Those three tweets, meanwhile, were generating a ton of great replies with people’s agreement, alternate methods, using primes or favourite constants or using oft-neglected buttons like 7 and 9 so that they don’t feel bad (I blame Randall Munroe for creating a subset of the population who spend some of their human capacity for empathy feeling sorry for a button), so basically I was constantly reminded of it.

It’s been so long since I posted a video. Maybe I could make it really quick. Maybe I could make it tonight. It could literally just be a zen ramble real-time guided microwave meditation that I bet I could knock out in an hour. I already had three tweets worth of script written, and the rest would come instantly… maybe add a little hint of creepiness in there just for fun… hmmm! It has been a long time, hasn’t it! I might forget how to make videos altogether, if I don’t get in a quick practice session. Yessss.

By 11pm, I’d convinced myself this was probably a good idea.

People were interested in playing. My original goal was to finish by midnight. Under an hour!

Emily Eifler suggested I live-tweet the event. I’d never livetweeted anything before! Sure, why not!

It took 15 minutes to set up the shot, which involved coming up with the entire concept. I knew I didn’t have much time, and I thought it would be funny (for me at least) to have the visuals literally be someone staring at a microwave as it counts down. Simple and easy. But what’s in the microwave? I don’t have time for that! Imply something creepy and make sure the shot doesn’t include the microwave window. Showing the keypad is important, but in confined space with no editing how do I show my face? And if I back up the camera to include my face then not only can you not see the keypad clearly but you will see the microwave window, or the rest of my apartment, revealing more of my life and things than I am interested in having the internet see, not to mention the composition was terrible.

The only thing funnier than a real-time video of someone watching a microwave count down would probably be a real-time video of a closeup of the keypad. Literally watching a clock count down. This is the sort of daring art stuff I do just because I can. Yes, I can make a closeup of a microwave timer counting down, and people will watch it. My life is awesome. Strongly considering doing a longer followup along this vein. In fact, because it goes so well with this story and I cannot resist taking things to ridiculous extremes, and also because I have the emotional/financial luxury of not caring if I lose every single one of my subscribers, I’m going to do exactly that right now.

Ok, that was NUTS.

See, just because I make fun of the creation process of something doesn’t mean it isn’t art. And we learn surprising things when we indulge in projects that seem too simple to be worth our time. I don’t know if anyone will actually enjoy watching a video of me counting down from 9:99 to End, but for me, standing there in the dark behind the camera counting down into the mic, it was quite an experience. Definitely one worth having. So before we get back to the other video, let’s tangent a bit about this thing I just made.

I chose 9:99 because it sounds like a super legit big time to count down from, yet is not a real time, yet it still works on a microwave, still counts, feels more like 10 than 10:40, and I want people to have a small but worthwhile “aha” when they realize that counting down from 99, which they’re used to, is weird in this situation.

In the first few seconds I realized one second is not a lot of time in which to say a three digit number and I’m eventually going to need to breathe. Merely keeping up took all my attention at first; good diction exercise! I decided every ten seconds was a good amount of time to take a breath. Once I got into the flow enough to think more, I noticed that breathing after 0 put emphasis on 9, appropriate since we were in the 9s, and decided that in the 8s I’d breathe before 8 instead.

I amused myself for a few minutes with this scheme, but once it becomes a pattern that’s boring. I tried changing when the breath is, making it every 11 instead of every 10, to emphasize repeated digits. Then that got boring, which meant I had to amuse myself.

Creating boring situations and then trying to amuse myself within them is my absolute favourite hobby and valuable life skill. Nothing too crazy happened and I still don’t expect it to be interesting for anyone to actually watch, but I did get to try giving different arcs, flows, to the numbers, surprised myself by discovering how much of how we count is in the inflections, the “counting style” way of speaking.

I tried to go back to a simple robotic speech for the dramatic under-a-minute countdown, and somehow in context, after all that, it sounded lost and sad. I went with it.

Including parts where I’d had to do things over, I’d been standing around counting down for nearly 20 minutes. It was fast-paced and intense and physically demanding. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to try it, as loud and exuberantly as I did. I’m sure it’s great at parties.

I was in a zone, I was acting, improvising. I don’t know how much was part of the “story” I was weaving into the countdown and how much was real, but I felt slightly emotional, and a little shaken, when it reached the end. Ah, I can’t even count down with a microwave without throwing myself into my art! Ha. I bare myself to the world by posting this microwave video.

Anyway, back to the live-tweeting of the first video.

I had a hypothesis that with a little rubbing alcohol the greasy keypad might actually be reflective enough to show a bit of reflection. There’s something creepily voyeuristic about watching someone’s reflection. I already had the beginning of the script from the tweets, and I filled it out quickly. Zen microwave, breathing exercises to fill the time, stop. But instead of just demonstrating one possible zen time, why not two? It’s natural for it to not be done and have to put it back in for another 33 seconds, a good time to be familiar with.

I started typing “looks like it’s not done yet” after the first microwavation. But wait, what’s not done yet? Instead of a boring standard microwave sentence, this could be a funny/creepy reveal. Timing wise, it was the perfect place to do it. Start normalweird, reveal creepyweird 2/3 the way through. Same pattern I used in the toothpaste video. Finished the sentence as “looks like it’s not dead yet” and added a bit of creep to the second shorter set of breathing exercises.

Odd how typing out these few paragraphs on my script-writing thought process probably took longer than writing the script itself. I was using forms that already existed and ideas I knew well. The point was not to say something new or insightful. The point was to be fast.

The shot was set, the script gave me simple acting instructions, I slapped on some lipstick and mascara to help the reflection visibility, and was ready to film!

I’d never filmed something before where I cared about specifics but couldn’t see what the camera was capturing while I filmed. If I had a mirror, I might have been able to see if my reflection was properly in the shot while I faced away. As it was, I looked at the camera while putting my hand where my face would be. Seemed to work. Start filming. Press buttons and realize…

Yep, I was focusing on capturing the buttons, but once I was filming and saw the timer counting down I knew I wanted that in the shot. Unfortunately there was no way to get both the start button and the timer in the shot without widening it to the point where you see stuff I don’t want you to see. I’m moving so fast to try to finish by midnight that I don’t have time to type spaces between “step” and number anymore.

Re-set my shot and went for it! Actual filming only took a couple minutes, as it was in real time.

I had no idea if the footage was good, but it was 11:30, no time to do anything but transfer it to the computer and work with it. Unfortunately I didn’t have a mic on the camera. I’m so used to only recording visuals for my videos that I didn’t even think of it. I decided I’d just record the sounds I needed using the mic I had all set up at my computer, and edit it in.

On the bright side, as long as I was going to have to record and add sound effects, might as well record and add some extra stuff, that wasn’t in the original take. Hmmm, what other sounds could be added? Maybe some thumps, as if something’s really in there, to foreshadow the “looks like it’s not dead yet.” So, if you like the thumps, forgetting the mic was serendipitous.

Fridge is a recurring problem. I’ve strongly considered just always ordering out, always ordering perfect portions, and unplugging the beast altogether. I may yet do this.

I had manually held up the mic to save time, but there was a ringing in the recording that I guessed was caused by my hand vibrations. Re-recording with a proper stand setup fixed the problem, but took precious time. At least it was enough time for the files to transfer from the camera!

Made a few last edits to the script. Usually I make narration the driving force, lining up the video with the natural timing of my words. But this was a real-time video, so I hit play on the thing and tried to line up the narration with what I saw. No time to put thought into how I want to say things, no time to try again and get things lined up better– it was recorded, edited, exported from audacity and imported into premier within minutes. (I’ve done that process quite a lot). Even so, at this point midnight was out of the question, what with so much sound editing to be done. I set my sights on 1am.

Now the real time consumer: sound effects! My usual sound-first approach means I often import a single audio track and stick with it. Now, in order to get all the microwave sound effects in, and lined up with the video, I had a cumbersome pile of audio tracks.

I’ve done a bit of adding sound effects to things, but never from scratch, from absolute silence, on a real-time supposedly-live video like this. It was a good exercise.

And after adding those thumps, I thought some creepy breathing was needed.

Honestly, the discovery of the one-ear echo trick may be the most useful result of this exercise. Hear it alone here.

I’d recorded the breathing while watching the video, and as it wasn’t very complicated, I got it in and lined up quickly.

I have a lot of practice making videos by this point, but nothing like the experience I have with music. Producing quick unpolished recordings of improvised songs with improvised harmonies is not a very in-demand skill set, but I consider myself an expert.

A defining characteristic of expertise is that not only can you do a thing, but you know exactly how long it will take. I knew that 15 minutes would be enough to record some simple pleasant background thing (3 minutes each for 3 voices), edit and mess with the balance and add echo and stuff (4 minutes), and export, import, line-up, done (2 minutes). No technical difficulties, no testing out things and seeing what works, just do my thing.

Which meant that with 20 minutes I could relax and consider my game plan, make the voices something special, something that really adds to the video, is unique and essential to the video, something that truly belongs to this video and no other (a pet peeve of mine is when videos slap on random background music). The rhythm of button pushing is compared to Beethoven’s 5th in the narration, so that’s an obvious place to start. Put the rhythm of all sorts of nice key presses into the vocals, quote Beethoven a little…. Fun, but subtle, and with 20 full minutes I was sure I could do better.

Hmm, something that adds to the video… well, the content of the video is basically the narration, so maybe they could actually add to the video. Yes, they start innocent, just as the video itself does, and they don’t become creepy in tone (unlike in the toothpaste video for example), but rather become off-putting by interfering where we are not used to background music interfering, responding to the narration itself, and yet still a layer apart, commenting but presumably unseen and unheard by the narrator.

A nice device. Would love to find opportunity to use again and really do it right. Yes, forget what I said about the one-ear echo thing; this is the best idea to come out of this exercise.

So I recorded the vocals while watching the video and responding to things. The result is imperfect and if I had more time I would have had the responses scripted, funnier, organized to not accidentally overlap with each other or the narration, etc. Like, after the narrator mentions her sister, one voice says “you don’t have a sister” but in the end it’s really hard to make out.

Anyway, that brings us to 12:59!

The result was representative of the intention and work put into it, I think! Success!

Finally done, I took a look at the replies I’d been getting. Many people concerned about my fridge.

And that was that! The video finished exporting, I uploaded it to YouTube:

…and then, having fulfilled my promise to my twitter followers, I took a moment to reflect.

While writing the rest of this post, the 9:99 microwave video was exporting. I just watched it for the first time. I didn’t think I’d actually watch all the way through, but you know what? I like it. I don’t expect anyone else to like it, but I truly do.

Probably just runner’s high.