Friday, 3 July 2020

Bill's Crackers (but you knew that)

This story begins with a bucket of yogurt. I've had reasonable success freezing and thawing yogurt for later use, but I've learned that success may vary with different brands. It always separates to some extent, but stirring generally does the trick. Not with this latest purchase however. Lovely and creamy when new, but not only did it separate but the solid part was grainy and Bill couldn't cope with this. 

So I strained it overnight, putting a double fold of linen towel into a strainer suspended over a bowl. The result was a jar of whey which I will put into some muffins and a tub of 'yogurt cheese'. I knew I could put garlic, herbs and salt into this to make a kind of dip but before I did that I asked Bill for ideas. His response was to make some cream crackers. I think they should be illegal. 

On the other hand, this is in keeping with the recommendation Michael Pollen makes in his book, In Defense of Food. If you want unhealthy snack food, don't buy it at the store, make it yourself. This will limit the number of times you'll eat it. Not that crackers are terribly unhealthy, they're just terrible. Because we eat them, not just with yogurt cheese but with peanut butter or regular butter. The carbohydrate and the crunch combined with something fattening is almost irresistible. I think this is the recipe he used. 


So I'd best fight back by making those muffins, right?

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Putting a Mask on It

I've been absent the last couple of posting days. On Tuesday last week the neighbours (the ones from which we are 'semi-detached') began a major overhaul of their kitchen / dining / utility room by taking out a wall and putting a door to the outside where a window once was. This is the second wall they've removed and Bill teased me that their house was going to fall down and take ours with it. I didn't find that in the least funny. I'm hoping they aren't creating an echo chamber next door as we already hear far too much of their lives as it is. However, it's out of my hands and I try not to worry about things I can't do anything about.

I had the bad timing on Tuesday to have a migraine about the time the hammering and drilling began. I took some ibuprofen and went to find refuge in the back seat of our car. After a couple of hours I felt well enough to finish the post I'd started but that was all I could manage on my Writing Day. And strangely enough I forgot all about this blog over the weekend. So while the plasterers and electricians carry on their work today, I'm very pleased to say I have no headache.

On the inside. You can see how the wire bends over Bill's nose.

A couple of weeks ago, Bill had asked me to make him a mask. I've been going through all the fabric stash in my craft room and pulling out what I thought were suitable cottons, zigzagging the edges and putting them through the wash. I expect I could make a couple hundred masks if I needed to, but I think half a dozen for each of us should be ample, particularly since we largely stay at home. I went into the post office last Monday to send off my US tax returns (because I'm married to a foreigner and filing separately I'm not allowed to file my taxes online). It was fairly scary but I think I may have got away with it. Bill just went into a small local DIY store this morning, having scoped it out at the weekend. He chose it because a) they are a local one-off shop and b) they hardly have any customers in ordinary times. We have groceries delivered or Bill goes to shops or cafes that serve at their front doors. We have no plans to visit any pubs, restaurants or supermarkets for the foreseeable future. We both feel very fortunate that we are able to stay safe at home most of the time.

So I wasn't in any hurry to make him a mask, but I finally did. Out of Winnie-the-Pooh fabric.

From the outside. 

I chose a pattern by a German lady named Iris Luckhaus, who was a professional pattern drafter at one time. She reviewed a lot of different patterns for masks, decided they all had shortcomings and then drafted her own. She explains it all here. I will make this again, I think, only I may try to figure out how to put a filter between the two cotton layers. It's a pretty straightforward pattern using two 8" squares and two small rectangles and two lengths of elastic. It also has a channel in the top for a piece of wire which can be removed for washing. I used florist wire. The hardest part was figuring out the pleats - I've never made anything with pleats in my life - but I eventually got there. She has quite a few diagrams and I finally found the one that clicked with my somewhat deficient brain. 

I put the elastic through the tubes made by the small rectangles and then had Bill put it on. I tied the elastic behind each ear and adjusted the fit per his instructions, tying a double knot on each side. Then I tightened the knots, trimmed the excess elastic and pulled the knots into the tubes on each side to keep them out of the way.

Sadly, you can't tell it's Winnie the Pooh fabric, but I have a number of other children's cotton prints that I put aside for Bill. Those of you who know him will likely agree this is entirely suitable. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Not Quite Keeping Up

I chose the book for our WI Book Group for June: Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo. I chose it based on the fact that it won the Booker Prize for 2019 (or perhaps half - it was the first ever shared prize, along with The Testament, by Margaret Atwood.) Also that it appeared Barack Obama's list of favourite books he read in 2019. I can't say I'm an Atwood fan, though I recognise she is a powerful writer. It's just that I find her books to be rather depressing and I prefer a bit of escapism in my reading. I'm not sure I'd call what I got as escaping, but Evaristo's book was far from boring.

Every one in the book group said they really enjoyed the book and our discussion was lively. They congratulated me on a timely choice, as though I knew back in May that George Floyd would be murdered and that his death would cause protests world wide. 

Without getting into the story line(s) of the book, it did strike me as being as much about sex as it was about race. I remember telling Bill that the first character, Amma, was not only black, but gay, worked in theatre and lived in London. I commented that I couldn't find a character more opposite to me: white, straight, stuck in my left-brain and a definitely a suburban girl. Fortunately the book has many stories and Amma's is only the beginning. I never came to like Amma but I definitely respected her.

While making my way through this book my attention was drawn to the controversy around J. K. Rowling's essay that revealed a sad past of abuse. The essay highlighted her concern that women's private spaces were potentially about to be invaded my men claiming they were women (in spite of no hormone therapy or surgery) and therefore entitled to be in the women's toilets or changing rooms. She saw this as a potential threat to the safety and well-being of women. She also questioned the motivation of young women wishing to become men; was it because the world treats women as less than men?

I'd read about the actors who distanced themselves from Rowlings viewpoint but didn't read her essay until a New York Times opinion piece titled "Harry Potter and the Scales of Justice" claimed that Rowling's essay was full of hate. That seemed so unlikely that I had to go read it for myself; it certainly is not. However, I found that I needed to look up a number of words to understand her meaning, which made me aware that I've just not been keeping up with the goings on in the world. Just in case you haven't either, I shall share some of the things I learned.

I think I've always used the terms 'sex' and 'gender' as interchangeable, but nowadays they are different things (or perhaps they always were). Simply put, 'gender' is what is in the brain and 'sex' is what is in the pants. Also, 'cis' is from the Latin for 'on this side of ' which is the opposite of trans, meaning 'across from'. So a person who is 'cis-gendered' is lucky enough to have been born with the same genitalia as how they feel in their mind.  

Non-binary can be someone who doesn't necessarily identify as either male or female, but apparently non-binary is a term that means different things to different people and it is important to ask an individual who identifies as non-binary what it means to them. They may well wish to be referred to as they-them rather than he/she-him/her. The character Megan / Morgan in Evaristo's book was actually one of the more popular with our book group, simply wanting to be able to be themselves without having to live up to the expectations of either a feminine or masculine stereotype. 

Another thing that was cleared up for me is that the sex that comes after the word 'trans' is what that person has become, not what they used to be or changed from.  Also, that sexual orientation is a completely different issue to sex or gender, referring to whom one is attracted. For example, a person born male who became female can be attracted to either men or women; or a woman who became a man can be attracted to either men or women. 

All these terms and concepts were news to me and though I'm glad I looked them up, I don't feel hugely wiser. How many people aren't happy about being men or women? Have there always been this many and I just didn't know? One thought that I cling to is the idea that I just need to treat people as human beings, I don't necessarily have to understand them; after all there are plenty of cis-gender people I've never really understood. 

I wonder how all this will be looked back on in fifty years. Will the idea of male/female identity be outdated? What will have replaced it? Will people look back on this as a time of great change and confusion out of which good things came? Will women of any ilk have equal pay and equal representation in places of power? Will Black Lives Matter have achieved their aims? And, most importantly in my opinion, will we have saved our planet from ruin? I can't say I'm optimistic about much of this, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

Monday, 22 June 2020


Our WI Craft group Zoomed in May to chat and share what each of us had made during the past month or so. Someone suggested we have a theme for what we made in June and they came up with 'hearts'.  After we all signed off, I promptly forgot all about it.

The committee for our WI decided we should join Zoom for the £12-13 a month it costs so that we didn't need to bother with the 40 minute limit. We Zoom for our regular meetings, for committee meetings, book groups and book social meetings, craft group and other chat meetings and, soon, coffee mornings. While it is true we aren't bringing in money at face to face meetings we do have a substantial financial cushion and the Zoom fee is something like 20% of the rent we paid to rent the Parish Hall.

Some email or other about booking the Zoom call reminded me about hearts and so that very Monday I sat down with my three cookie cutters (bought for crafting, not baking) and came up with lavender bags. I have about three years' worth of dried lavender from my seven or eight bushes which are growing nicely just now, but not yet in flower. Except for the French lavender which has done it's best ever this year. 

I started with some black net fabric that was in my Aunt Rita's stash. Sadly the plastic red hearts stamped on the netting stuck together after being folded for years. I liked the silver back better than the now patchy red and silver fronts. My sewing machine didn't like any of it, so I sat down to do some hand sewing. I don't care for the look of the lavender through the net, but Bill liked it.

Years ago I played around making heart and star shapes out of sheer fabric bits in my stash. My sewing machine liked this sheer fabric better, apparently (a sharp, new needle, perhaps) and I sort of got away with making these shapes. I called them 'fairy bandaids'... no comment. Anyhow, I found a couple of these and stitched them together for another lavender bag.

Finally, I tried something larger with some more solid fabrics. The back solid is a kind of textured silk I imagine Rita making a cocktail dress from. The front vintage print is in polyester. I think it was given me by one of the sewing ladies from the Linskill group and I imagine it dates back to at least the 70s if not 60s. I had to look up how to do a blanket stitch again and putting this last one together took the most time, but I think I like it the best. They all smell delicious!

The two other ladies produced hearts in a similar fashion as lavender bags, though I think theirs may have been stuffed with something else. One new person had made a great hanging of three hearts in different blue fabrics from old clothes plus some twine and a couple of sticks. Someone else had worked on a cross-stitch for their first grandchild, a girl, which had lots of hearts in it. One lady made some paper cards which employed hearts; I envy her great eye for design. And one of our very clever knitters knitted a three-dimensional snail character whose shell was in the shape of a heart. 

Our theme for next month is flowers. I'll be working on the knitted flower squares of a blanket I'm making, which is a bit boring, but I'm looking forward to seeing what the others come up with!

Friday, 19 June 2020


On Fridays at our house Bill makes bread in the bread maker. I stocked a small tin of yeast for Brexit last year and had a few part-bags of various bread flours when we went into lock down. Since then we've shopped at Buy-the-Kilo, just down the street at the Metro station, to top up the strong white flour. 'Strong flour' has plenty of gluten, needed for making most breads, and is made from durum wheat. This is what all regular flour in the US is made from, apparently, something I only learned in the past few years. We enjoy toast and home made jam on Saturday and Sunday mornings - in bed, to be completely decadent.

The last of the birthday flowers: lavender alliums and some sort of white filler flowers.

During the week, however, we have breakfast at the dining table. Following advice from a former blog Like Merchant Ships (she stopped writing her blog in 2010, but carried on at Tumblr until October last year) to avoid using commercial labels at the table, we have decanted porridge oats (oatmeal) and Grape Nuts into glass jars. Also my instant coffee. In winter we have hot porridge.

The circular metal tray on a hardboard place mat (a British thing, most place mats in the US are fabric) acts almost as well as a Lazy Susan (I wonder, who was Susan?). In addition to cereals, coffee and sweeteners are containers with Bill's 'medications' recommended un-officially by his consultant after he cracked a knee cap while running a couple of years ago: glucosamine and cod liver oil (he pays me no attention when I mention dioxin concentration in fish oils). His knee no longer bothers him - other than I think he drags that food a bit and needs physio / exercises - and he's thinking of giving these a miss when they run out to see what happens. He buys them by the million on eBay. (I see he has put them in plastic food containers that still have a label - must try harder!)

As well as the circular tray, we have our good china and silver, a teapot (full of tea) for Bill and another pot of hot water for me. Bill likes to chop his fresh fruit each morning. I make a box of a wider variety of fruits - including some tinned peaches or fruit cocktail - on Sunday afternoon in preparation for the week. There is also a small creamer jug filled with the last of a wine bottle of orange syrup, or sometimes rose hip syrup, and a large jug of milk.

We eat, then drink hot beverages until we are sloshing, or out of conversation, and then get on with our day.

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Changing Flowers

You may or may not remember that I got some gorgeous flowers for my birthday. I was a bit surprised that it was the carnations that died off first, though the roses looked a bit elderly from the start. At first all I did was to remove the dead carnations, rinse and trim the stems, scrub out the vase and replace it all with fresh water. (I'd forgotten that flowers require a fair amount of attention).

The other thing I did was to remove the lilies and put them in a vase by themselves. The strong smell didn't work very well at the dining table, which I chose as a location because it doesn't get direct sun and we spend a fair amount of time there, morning and evening. I put the vase of lilies in the North Wing (the small room off the hallway leading to the downstairs loo) thinking the smell would be the least obtrusive there. 

Bill opened a wing of the gate leg table in the hall and moved them there, saying the smell would dissipate sufficiently for him. He has an experience of surveying a house in which an elderly woman had died and not been discovered for an unfortunate length of time. Someone had attempted to hide the resulting smell with lilies and this association has remained with him. I don't like strong smells to interfere with the taste of my food, but I could live with a passing waft now and then.

When the next change of water was needed I didn't feel the flowers filled the blue jug well enough anymore, so I broke up the flowers into smaller containers: on the kitchen window sill, on the upstairs landing, in the living room (a bad idea as the damp weather has led me to turn on the fire and flowers don't like heat at all), as well as the dining table. 

They've all pretty much faded now and will need further culling to see if any further blooms are worth re-homing. I'm not sure whether two weeks is a great run for Bill's money, but they were glorious while they lasted.

Our next Women's Institute meeting for July will be a Zoom meeting with a florist and I'm looking forward to picking up some tips from her!

Monday, 15 June 2020

The Lodgers

On one of the really warm nights we had last month I opened both bedroom windows as we were getting ready for bed. The next morning Bill opened the curtains and remarked that we had a wasps' nest in the eve above the north side of the bay window. 

We debated who to call about this and Bill said he would consult a friend in the Long Distance Walkers' Association that he calls The Rat Man, as John works in extermination - and apparently has tons of fascinating stories to tell on long walks. 

I watched them for a while and decided these weren't wasps, they were bees. This complicated the matter. I'm ready to kill wasps but not bees. I'd rather not kill either, frankly, but my home has priority over wasps. I've already had uninvited guests in my roof and it was a real nuisance

The Rat Man's reply was that by the time a bee hive is noticed, the activity is at its peak and they'll move along by themselves eventually. So I'm happy to leave it a few months. Come autumn I may need him to come over with his tall ladder and remove them to another location so I can repair the tiny droop in a corner piece of wood that allowed them entry. I'm learning that triangular pieces of wood are vulnerable locations.

In the meantime we co-exist reasonably well. They only seem to buzz around in daylight when it gets warm enough, so opening the windows at night isn't a problem especially since we keep the curtains shut for privacy. Our favourite sitting place is below them, next to the front porch where it is sunny and sheltered, but they don't come visit much. I had one light on my leg once but a casual wave of my hand sent him away. I'm terrified of wasps but bees don't bother me. They kindly share their flowers with me. 

Bill refers to these creatures as The Lodgers; he seems to have a nickname for most things. This reminds me of the film Gosford Park. There is a scene with Jeremy Northam and Maggie Smith that always makes me smile. If you've not seen Gosford Park, I highly recommend it.