Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Imperial Gardening and Metric Costing

When doing by-the-book Square Foot Gardening, one makes up 4x4’ boxes (6” deep) and fills them with a mixture of composts, peat and vermiculite. The boxes are set on weed cloth and a precise number of seeds or plants are placed in a particular arrangement in each square. The soil mixture (plus water) is all that is healthy plants need, and – a big plus for me, the person who once mistakenly pulled up all of Bill’s parsnips -- the plots are almost entirely weed free and so it’s not a problem distinguishing between plant and weed. I thought it looked interesting enough that I bought the book and was going to follow his plan.

There were some obstacles, however. The author seems to envision (the pictures show) great fields of sunny green lawn on which he has plunked down these lovely white boxes overflowing with plants. Our back garden is about 20’ x 7’, enclosed by a brick wall, and here by the North Sea we’re as liable to have sea frets as sunshine; the temperature rarely hits 80. It is nearly always windy here, even within our little enclosed area and the warm growing season is short. Still, that’s not a major issue with the right crops, a bit of pre-planning and the use of cold frames (don’t I sound confident, never having done it!)

Also, Bill pointed out that the soil was in excellent condition, thank you very much. He’d been working with it for several years and all our composted kitchen waste has gone in. He objected to my ignoring all that work by covering it with weed cloth and so the soil in the raised garden area is just that: soil.

When I did the calculations converting litre bags of peat and vermiculite to the cubic area of our garden (after subtracting the area used for paths and the compost bin), it appeared that even using our own compost, it would cost £121 for the peat and vermiculite, before any wood for the frames or plant seeds were obtained. That was more initial outlay than I was prepared to make as that represents about 5½ months worth of vegetables bought at green markets. We don’t have any problem with water shortages up here, so the water holding qualities of vermiculite aren’t critical, though I did buy a couple of small bags.

I did think there were too many rocks in the soil to imitate the very light consistency of the soil the book proposed, so I spent a few hours sifting it (Bill provided a mesh-bottomed pan and said it was called ‘riddling’). I finally found a method that didn’t kill my back – sort of a let’s-do-the-twist move (with less soil) instead of the hula-ing motion that deposited as much on my feet as back on the garden. The sieved soil looked very nice, though I was disconcerted when I discovered earthworm parts at the bottom of the pan, which is nothing compared to what they probably thought about it.

Whilst he did think removing rocks wasn’t a bad idea, I think Bill was relieved to hear me remark something to the effect that control over nature was largely an illusion. I think he was a beginning to worry that I would try to get the earthworms signed up to tenancy agreements on their assigned square foot -- or, as it turned out, more like 710 sq. cm. Since Bill was doing the muscle work with a fair amount of skepticism, I didn’t feel I could be too exacting about the dimensions. I’m trying not to be too compulsive about the whole thing. (It’s a great way to procrastinate, being compulsive, you know.)

It’s definitely going to be a work-in-progress, as I suppose all gardening is. I think I have the sowing in recycled boxes down pretty good, though, so at least I have some little plants looking for a good home. Bill tells me it’s good practice drawing plans and considering the height and spacing of plants, etc, so that part is good fun (an activity I can do propped up with pillows and coffee, but I recognize eventually I do have to get out of one bed and get to work on the other.)

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The Weekend: Here and Gone

Steve & Vickie came over for dinner Saturday night, which was lovely; we haven’t seen them since Christmas. They are expecting their first child (on 4 July!!) and we laughed about the medical staff referring to her as a ‘geriatric’ mom. We had lots to catch up on: news about our other friends, names for the baby, maternity leave plans, how their dogs are doing, the latest reorg at work, Bill’s new job. Bill’s cooking was superb as usual: crackers with smoked salmon and boursin cheese to start; chicken and chorizo with mushrooms in a tomato sauce; roasted potatoes, parsnips and red peppers, steamed broccoli; sweet potato pie with whipped cream. I intended to take pictures, but forgot all about it. Vickie looks really great; I think pregnancy agrees with her, even at her greatly advanced age …

They brought Series 6 and 7 of West Wing for me to watch. I think Vickie is trying to wake up my political conscience, even though we sit on opposite sides of the fence. That doesn’t matter – we both think it’s a great show. Unfortunately this means my productivity is likely to drop even further, which one wouldn’t have thought possible.

Sunday morning Bill and I met John from the running club to recce a possible course for a road (or multi-terrain) race.

It was raining when we set off from home, but we had fairly dry skies for our recce.

We met a few obstacles but came up with a tentative plan A. We thoroughly enjoyed our leisurely ride along the riverside.

I tried to take a few fun pictures in addition to documenting possible problems on the route. (Pictures which have gone into hiding somewhere; will add them to this post when I have tracked them down. Found them: Bill had downloaded them in a new folder...)

Monday night at the club we had a short (3 mile) handicap race; I generally get to start first, being by far the most handicapped runner, and the fast guys have to wait a l-o-n-g time to start. After that, free food and a drink at the pub.

Friday, 25 April 2008

British Bureaucracy at Its Best

Just got off the phone with the UK Border Agency, part of the Home Office. Found their website yesterday, but didn't call as they were having a 'reduced service' (AKA being on strike, I think to support the teachers' strike). After about a 7 minute wait and listening to 7 or 8 recordings nothing to do with me, thank goodness, I got a real person to ask my question.

I have a sticker in my old passport that gives me 'leave to remain' (love that phrase) for an indefinite period. Having just renewed my passport, how do I get that sticker in the new passport. Turns out there are two ways.

One - Post both passports to them, it will cost £160 and take between 4 and 14 weeks


Two - (silly me thought this would be the economy version) Book an appointment, show up in person in Croydon (near London) and it will be done on the same day; this costs £500 (+ the train fare, etc)

The third option is to carry both passports, but she didn't recommend this if I travelled very much, ie for business.

Guess which option I'm going to choose?

Thursday, 24 April 2008

But First, a Little Carpentry

I’ve been playing around with the idea of Square Foot Gardening. I looked into this because a couple of my tightwad references mentioned it and because Bill said the gardens were going to be my job now that he was working a 9-5 M-F job. I thought this was fair enough, except that I don’t know much at all about gardening. My experience with taming the great outdoors is mostly about cutting grass. I did once have great success with growing beautiful, giant tomatoes when I lived in Salt Lake City, but the climate here will not support tomatoes without a greenhouse. My very slight foray into this area in Oklahoma City was curtailed when I encountered several species of creepy-crawlies in one afternoon. The worst I’ve seen here are snails and slugs and I can cope with those; just give me some gloves and a box of salt.

Back around 2000-2001, Bill and I had an
allotment garden for a year or two; but we couldn’t keep up with it properly. That was at the height of our marathon fever and training for a spring marathon like London or Barcelona is a major conflict with maintaining an allotment at the weekends and working full time. Bill was the mastermind behind the allotment maintenance and we had fabulous crops of runner beans and spinach, but we’ve also had those from our back garden, a plot of about 20 x 7’. We’ve put our name on the 2-year waiting list for another allotment, but in the meantime I figure I need to find out (a) how to do this thing and (b) if I even like it well enough to take on in a big way. I do find it frustrating to pay the asking price for strawberries and raspberries, though, knowing that they aren’t that difficult to grow and it is very satisfying to plan a meal that includes fresh courgettes (AKA zucchini) or leeks straight out of the garden.

The attractions of the SFG method for me are that it (a) breaks down a big job into small parts, ie 1 SF at a time; (b) removes the need for long handled tools, with which I’m unbearably clumsy; (c) eliminates this business of sowing and then thinning, which I’ve always thought wasteful; (d) seems to make gardening more like a handicraft, ie everything is in reach. I see me down on my hands and knees, tending to plants at eye level. This may not sound great to everyone, but I think I’ll be more comfortable with it.

We have to make some compromises with the original method, but I’ve enjoyed sketching plans to incorporate the concept of every thing being within reach, ie within 2 feet. Bill moved the location of the path and showed me how to use his jigsaw (!!!).

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Happy Saint George's Day!

St. Patrick's Day gets a lot of notice in the US, but the many descendents of English settlers ought to pay some attention to St. George. That said, in my experience the English themselves don't do a great deal about celebrating this day, but it may be because I'm not a school child. Last night, on our walk after dinner, Bill and I observed the English flag flying outside the posh prep school nearby.

I don't recall seeing the English flag much until a couple of years ago when the England football (soccer) club made it to the World Cup. I'm afraid I tend to associate the flag with football and with the
British National Party, a far right political party that I know little about other than our Neighbourhood Watch guy (George) is a member and doesn't like having an Asian family down the street. You always know when George is working his allotment, as his flag is flying.

Putting aside English politics, St. George is also the patron saint of a number of other countries, of people with a variety of onerous occupations, of Scouts and of persons suffering from any of several loathesome diseases, including syphillis. (Crosses my mind to wonder what Scouts get up to these days.)

I visited to see if they had it (of course not), so I'm sharing the UK's logo for today (, because the little dragon is just too cute to miss.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Cold Comfort Farm

Last night Bill and I watched this film that we taped off the TV several years ago. We both love it, but for different reasons each time it seems, mainly because we keep recognising the actors from other films we like. It has a great cast, but because I have limited exposure to TV and films I'm only recently discovering many of them:

Kate Beckinsale - VanHelsing
Ian McKellan - Lord of the Rings
Eileen Atkins - Cranford, Cold Mountain, Gosford Park
Stephen Fry - Gosford Park
Joanna Lumley - Absolutely Fabulous, Shirley Valentine
Miriam Margolyes - Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets
Sheila Burrell - Gaudy Night (Lord Peter Wimsey)

Stella Gibbons wrote the comic novel, Cold Comfort Farm, in 1932; the film was made for TV in 1995. Several of the films and TV series Bill and I really like are set in the 1930's in England. I love the clothes, he enjoys the cars and we both like the grand old houses. I'm not sure either of us would choose to live in that time between the big wars (though the upper class lifestyle looks pretty comfy) but the romanticised version is luscious.

I looked at Amazon in the US for this -- they wanted $65 for it, which, much as I love the film, is ludicrous! It's much more reasonably priced at £4-6 at the British Amazon ( Credit cards manage the currency exchange and even with postage, this isn't a bad price. Mind that the DVD region type can be played on your machine. I don't seem to have a problem with either Region 1 (US) or 2 (Europe) on my DVD player, which probably means I'm violating 16 international laws.

If you get to see this film, or any of the other films or series I've listed, I would highly recommend them to you.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Dental Care on the NHS

The main topic of discussion at the sewing circle the first time I went was the new bus passes. At 60, people in England get bus passes making use of their local service free and this year that service extended for any bus (not coach) journey across England. Everyone was all atwitter about where you could and couldn't go, had they got theirs yet, etc.

This last Tuesday someone brought in some fashion magazines, a copy of Hello! and a brochure from the new private dentistry office about to be opened down in a regenerated area of the quayside. I found the discussions about their experiences with dental services to be fascinating, particularly as I was not impressed with my last trip to the dentist.

In response to a recall letter from my dental surgery (they call all doctor and dentist -- even Member of Parliament -- offices here surgeries, it doesn't mean you'll get a full gown & glove operation!) I rang for an appointment. In order not to wait 3 months, I said I would see anyone, not just my dentist. On the day I saw a young girl, supposedly a hygienist. If I spent 5 minutes in that chair I would be amazed; it felt more like 3. She may have touched 3-4 of my teeth with a cleaning implement, then she stopped and said it was fine, that was all.

I figured my teeth were fine; I went in to have my teeth cleaned for prevention, not for a problem. It was my pocketbook that got cleaned and polished, however. I paid the £15.90 charge a bit dazed and confused by it all.

I've done a bit of research and found some interesting information from a
lay and the professional source and so feel better armed for my next visit. After this experience, I shall be asking to see the dentist, even if that means only seeing him every 9 months as he mentioned last. At least then I do get the cleaning done -- at least so far.

Both my parents had false teeth before the age of 50 and they raised me to appreciate and to take care of my teeth. I was 27 before I ever had a cavity, but these days gum disease is generally recognised to be the health bigger issue.
Oral health isn't just about vanity which has always been my primary motivator (isn't that true for most of us?), so I don't feel at all guilty about standing up about this. I've had excellent dental care in the US through my insurance cover at work and whilst I feel I have a marker for comparison in that respect, I've been out of the US for so long I have no idea what things cost. In any case, cost comparisons with the US are not useful; on the other hand, looking into France or Germany might be worth considering...

What I do know is that £15.90 is 3 weeks' worth of fresh fruit and veg, so I plan to get my money's worth to make sure I can still chew the stuff.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Happy Birthday, Daddy

43 Things about My Dad

1. He was born 17 April 1918 in Minneapolis, Minnesota & named Lyle.
2. He grew up in Madison and Milwaukie, Wisconsin.
3. He was an only child and I am his only child (so far as I know).
4. He was the last male of his family going back at least 3 generations (which is why I was supposed to have been a boy, but he was pretty nice to me all the same).
5. He was raised in the Lutheran church; I have his childhood prayer book.

6. He graduated from Riverside High School in Milwaukee; I have his 1933 yearbook.
7. After finishing high school he attended business school, where he learned to take shorthand at 200 wpm (and his handwriting never recovered).

8. He didn’t talk much, but he had a ready wit and he liked to play jokes on people, but not very mean ones.
9. He was 5’8” and had brown hair and brown eyes; he wore size (US) 8 shoes.
10. He struggled with his weight, which fluctuated between 160 and over 200 pounds.
11. His first wife’s name was Adeline.
12. His second wife’s name was Kathryn – Kay – my Mom.
13. He served in the US Army Air Forces in WWII and was stationed at the base in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he met Mom, who was working in a photography lab.
14. They married on the 28th of September 1944 in Ft Smith, Arkansas, a week before his unit was sent to Italy to fly reconnaissance missions for a year. I have Mom’s almost daily letters to him, which he saved and brought home.
15. He smoked Pall Mall cigarettes (the ones without filters) until a few years before his death from heart failure and emphysema.

16. He was an introvert, very uncomfortable with making ‘small talk’ – incapable, really.
17. He got a kick out of the fact that as a child I would do whatever he did – including eat handfuls of dry dog food; it doesn’t taste too bad, but there’s lots of sand in it -- at least I like to think it was sand.
18. He was a self-employed portrait photographer for many years. He was especially good at photographing babies. His pictures, painted by Mom, hang in many of the older, distinguished homes in Oklahoma City.
19. He drank Schlitz beer.
20. He also drank scotch and water – by the quart glass.
21. He had a moustache for most of his life.
22. His favourite meal was salad, a very rare steak and a baked potato.
23. I always thought he was handsome; as a child I told people my Daddy looked sort of like Santa Claus (because of his weight) and Clark Gable (because of his moustache).
24. He liked to work the cryptoquote in his head and to tell Mom the solution when he passed the paper over to her to do the crossword.
25. He was not a morning person – very grouchy until after some very large cups of black coffee.
26. He had 14 years’ sobriety in AA at the time of his death.
27. He was never very good at managing money; he was known to be a soft touch for a loan and usually insisted on picking up the ticket at restaurants.
28. In the late 60’s he took a job as a sales tax auditor for the Oklahoma Tax Commission. A few years later he was selected for training to be one of their first computer programmers.
29. He drove cars very fast but proficiently; he didn’t believe in using the brakes unless absolutely necessary (a smooth ride was the aim); he got upset with people who carried on conversations, looking around whilst driving.
30. For a short time after retiring from his State job he drove a taxi; I asked him if he was insured against his passengers having heart attacks.
31. He was introspective and tended to be hard on himself for his shortcomings.
32. He had a strong sense of duty and felt it was important to be of service to his fellow man.
33. He had beautiful manners; I used to say he had the fastest (cigarette) lighter in the West; he always opened doors, walked behind a woman going up the stairs (and in front of her going down), walked on the street side of a woman if going along the sidewalk. I was taught to say 'please', 'thank you' and 'may I interrupt?'
34. Women almost invariably liked my Dad; and strangely enough so did babies.
35. He had a deep, gravelly voice.
36. He quite admired Gina "Lolla-mygosh" (Lollobrigida).
37. He rarely laughed, but he smiled and his eyes twinkled.
38. He was a voracious reader and had a large vocabulary; he particularly liked detective stories and science fiction, but dipped into many other kinds of books.
39. He was fascinated by the US space program. I’m not sure if he was just humouring Mom, but it’s possible he believed in UFOs, life on other planets and the like.
40. He had pithy, memorable sayings:

I've always heard it paid to advertise (expressing disapproval at my wearing tight jeans).

It’s important to be useful as well as decorative (encouraging me to continue my education).

Having a lot of things means having to take care of a lot of things (after I complained about having to do so much laundry).

Everyone has a contribution to make in life, even if it’s only to serve as a negative example (this may have referred to one of my boyfriends).

Feeling useful is very different to feeling used (speaking of his own experience in doing some sort of service work).

I find the less you say, the more intelligent people assume you are (people generally regarded him as very smart).

41. When undergoing tests for stomach cancer, which proved negative, he told me that (a) he’d named me as his next of kin and (b) I should remember that the quality of his life mattered far more to him than the quantity.
42. We spent many contented hours together sitting in the same room in very companionable silence; it was a communion we shared as only children.
43. He died the 27th of September 1988 in his bed at home in Oklahoma City.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Top of My List

OK, I'll admit it: I've been holding out. I shared earlier about some web logs that are wild and funny, but they aren't actually the ones I visit most often. I'll tell you about my current favourites, but you have to promise to come back and see me now and then, OK?

They are a diverse lot and I like them for different reasons but, sorry guys, they are all pretty girly except the last. One day I'll figure out how to do one of those blog roll things (makes me think of toilet paper and so it hasn't been a top priority as yet) on the side bar, but for now I'll just tell you about them.

I Googled something about 50-year-olds and clothing after getting sick of looking at skinny-minnies in skimpy styles -- many of which I've already done, thank you very much. This is currently my very favourite blog. I'm not big on the way it's presented and the name's a bit weird (Second Cherry), but I find the content about clothing, shopping, women's issues, (and thrift!) absolutely spot on. I think she and I would have a lot to talk about, even clothes and stuff aside. I like reading about her life as a Brit living in France and her insights into French culture. I've linked you to one of my favourite pages, but look around and see what else you find. I think she's cured me of my very expensive women's magazine addition.

As authors go, you probably couldn't find a more opposite person at my second favourite, Pleasant View Schoolhouse. I was first impressed with how nice her blog looks. I wish my house were half as clean and uncluttered. She makes beautiful use of her very talented son's photography and the content describes a serene, affluent lifestyle, focusing on the domestic and family aspects. I believe she lives somewhere in Colorado.

My next favourite is Like Merchant Ships, who lives in Nashville. Her lifestyle has much in common with the previous blogger, but with more emphasis on thrift and raising small children. Her blog has the look of a slightly more hectic life, (ie a bit more average stay-at-home mom) but it is very easy to navigate. She networks a great deal with other web logs and whilst I can't tell how (if?) she makes money from her blog, she really works at producing it and there is a lot of creative ideas and thoughtful labour on display.

Finally, Zen Habits is written by a guy who lives in Guam. Much like Pleasant View Schoolhouse, his blog presents an almost surreally calm existence in spite of the fact that he has 6 children. He apparently has over 50,000 subscribers so he must be doing something right. I have to admire the discipline this man has. I read his posts about motivation, productivity, simplicity and happiness with a great deal of awe and in much the same way as years ago I rented a Jane Fonda aerobic video and sat watching it in my bathrobe...

I love the content of each of these, but I also am hoping to learn about about managing a weblog from them. Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Gratitude List

I have developed the impression that ‘gratitude’ is sort of an old-fashioned idea or is seen (particularly amongst the stiff-upper-lip Brits) as a bit soppy or perhaps it’s seen as somehow subservient. Popular culture tells us we’re entitled to all the good we get. I won’t argue with that concept, but if one never registers any gratitude, what use is the good in our lives? In the absence of gratitude we are condemned to a life of discontent.

Some friends taught me long ago that it was a good practice to periodically write a gratitude list and to carry it with me, even, for frequent referral in bad times. I’ve written most of my gratitude lists when I was at my lowest; sometimes I had to dig deep to find anything for which I was honestly grateful, but finding one or two things at first, others rolled along. The longer my gratitude list, the more I felt bolstered up against the present troubles. It enabled me to spend more time looking at the good than at the bad and that was a big source of strength.

Compared with other times, my life is brilliant these days and my list could probably go on forever, but walking to my sewing circle this morning, it crossed my mind to think about what I might put on such a list. Today I am very grateful for:

1. Having Bill in my life. He is probably the most thoroughly decent man I’ve ever met. He also happens to be smart, funny and to share many of the values that I hold. I know he’s not perfect, but he’s one of the best things ever to have happened to me.

2. Having had the family that I did, particularly my parents. I grew up knowing that I was very loved and wanted. This isn’t a gift given to every child. They weren’t perfect either, but they gave me wonderful things like time and patience, work ethic, respect for others, permission to be myself. I could add each of these individual endowments and many others to my list. I don’t have a lot in common with my remaining family (my parents’ lifestyle was fairly bohemian in the midst of the Bible Belt), but I know we love one another and pull together when it counts.

3. I enjoy good health. Some of it is down to my efforts, but a lot of it is a gift. I have my sight and my hearing (such as they are) and all the other faculties one needs to enjoy a full and active life. Although afterwards I felt like I’d been rolled down a hill in a barrel, as of last night I can still run as far as 7 miles even if it takes longer than it used to. My asthma, if that diagnosis is correct, is more of a nuisance than a major threat, at least for the time being. There is an endless list of afflictions I am grateful not to have.

4. It’s generally always a mistake to compare ourselves with others, but if I’ve learned anything from my travels it is to compare myself not with my neighbours or my friends, but on a much wider scale. In that bigger scheme of things I have to acknowledge that I am very wealthy indeed. I have everything I need and a great deal of what I want (and most people I know are actually in that same situation). I could list my home, my car, my clothes – the lot.

5. I have friends that I enjoy, people in my life that I care about. I don’t have as many life-long friends as I might, had I stayed in my home town instead of moving away and then abroad, but I’ve kept a few and made a few more on the way and I’m grateful for the special people who are in my life. Though I may not see them for weeks, months or years, we are in contact thanks to the miracle of the Internet and in my thoughts very frequently.

6. I’m grateful for the life I’ve led thus far, even the parts I didn’t much enjoy at the time. I mostly like the person I’ve become and I love the life I’m living now. I don’t know that, had the past been any different than it was, I would be what and where I am today. After that bit of philosophical reasoning, perhaps it’s clearer to say I feel very lucky to have travelled as widely, had interesting jobs, met interesting people and experienced the things I have. Had I had a different life, made different choices, it may still have been as rich, but the life I’ve had up until now has far exceeded what I ever dreamed about growing up.

I’ll stop here; you get the idea, I’m sure. The next time you feel a bit of dissatisfaction creeping in, I recommend getting out a paper and pen and jotting down your gratitude list. Works every time for me.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Garlic Pasta with Prawns

We had a ‘fish’ day on the list, e.g. the suggested protein for our evening meal was fish. Too lazy to go down and ‘fish’ through the freezer to see what we had, but knowing we had some prawns and wanting to use pasta instead of rice, which we had the previous 2 nights, I searched on these 2 ingredients in (You need to appreciate how rich it is, my writing about cooking: the smoke has just cleared from the kitchen where I left a large pot of lentils cooking, for too long, it turns out. But I’ll tell you about lentils later).

I found a recipe for garlic pasta with prawns
but decided it needed a bit of tweaking. I was telling Bill that I thought it needed a bit of colour in addition to parsley and so planned to put in peas. Also the recipe called for Parmesan and knowing that he is not particularly partial to Parmesan, checked with him about this. His response was ‘Precisely.’ So I asked, "But is it permissible?" You can see where we were going with this conversation and why we get along so well. We ended up having prawns and pasta with parsley and pumpkin, as we had no peas and parsnips would not add the colour I particularly wanted. Bill pronounced it ‘Perfect.’

Garlic Pasta with Prawns

Add about 6 hand fulls of pasta shapes to a pan of boiling water, cook for about 10 minutes and drain. Meanwhile, sauté a diced onion in olive oil and add 3 sliced cloves of garlic. [My prawns were frozen and so I boiled them for a few minutes as well. They would have been more tender had I let them thaw overnight. I also boiled my frozen cubes of pumpkin, left over from Thanksgiving, still, to thaw]. Add prawns [I used most of the package] and pumpkin to the onion and garlic. I cut the cubes of pumpkin into smaller pieces.

When the onions are translucent and the pasta cooked, drain the pasta and coat it with about 20 ml of olive oil, then add the prawn mixture. Sprinkle each serving lightly with Parmesan cheese and with dried parsley.

It wasn’t too bad, if I do say so myself.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Beans in the Crock Pot

I really hated beans when I was a kid. I don't think my Dad liked them much either, being the typical meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. Mom occasionally made a pot of beans and ham just for herself; I think it was her comfort food. She subscribed to the practice of eating black-eyed peas on New Year's Day for good luck in the coming year. I remember negotiating her down to 3 beans in order to assure my good fortune. I somehow acquired a taste for beans as I got older and I'm pleased to have the memory of companionably sharing beans and cornbread at a couple of meals.

Beans aren't quite my comfort food, admittedly, but Bill and I do very much enjoy them. My dead-easy recipe for beans requires a bit of foresight in soaking a cup of beans at least overnight. More often I soak them for about 36 hours, replacing the soaking water several times in hopes of reducing the gas-producing quality, though I tend to think your stomach just gets used to digesting beans as you eat them more often. When I'm really organised or have the time, I use the discarded soaking water on houseplants, as I've read it contains nutrients.

In the morning (or at least by noon) I put the drained soaked beans in the crockpot with a diced onion, a can of chopped tomatoes (I buy whole tomatoes and save a few pence by chopping them with scissors in the opened can) and, if I have it, a couple of pieces of bacon or a bit of ham; cover with water. It's important not to add salt as it makes the beans tougher. It's all well cooked 6 or 7 hours later. Serve with rice and/or cornbread. As Jamie Oliver says, "Delish!"

Friday, 11 April 2008


Bill and I have been down to
Colchester the past couple of days, for Bill's work. I just went along for the ride and because I was a little curious about Essex. I don't know where all the comments originate, but apparently all girls from Essex are called Sharon and wear white shoes. What is wrong with this, you ask? I've no idea (unless they're wearing white shoes and it's not between Easter and Labor Day, which is a rule my Mom lived by).
It took us about 6 hours to drive the 300 miles; Bill swore at several foreign lorry drivers (ie truckers with left-side drive vehicles) and 2 women driving very slowly down the motorway, obviously talking to each other on hand-held mobiles (which is illegal here). I agreed with his concerns, but pointed out he sounded ultra-conservative complaining about woman and foreigners.

Bill's head office was walking distance from the hotel and I walked along with him to help get my bearings but then I just returned and parked myself in front of the TV. He was back before I knew it and suggested a drive down to the coast. Unfortunately, road works and the diversion brought us back full circle, so we didn't go to West Mersea as intended but to Brightlingsea instead.

I think we were too tired to do much wandering and we were both a bit disappointed at all the construction down by the yacht club. Bill said this used to be one of the Cinque Ports (5 ports at the narrowest part of the English Channel) established in the 12th Century and used for trade, until it silted up. There was a huge scrap heap at the end of the car park. The yacht club was situated between that and an amazing old building (the picture above) which was formerly a pub, but its current use was a mystery. Some new apartments were being built near the ferry landing and so it looked as though they had just discovered the luxury of living next to water instead of using the area as a garbage dump.

Anyhow, in preparation for going to Colchester I looked up fabric and charity shops in the area. There was only one fabric shop (The Remnant Shop) which turned out to be wonderful -- I went a bit mad in there, I'm afraid; and lots of charity shops, but I only made it to one. I also collected
information about the relative wealth of the areas in which I found charity shops, but this wasn't very useful as the wealthier areas were pretty much out of reach, being out of the town centre. I could have taken Bill's car, but since it's new to me and a bit weird (you can either drive it as an automatic or as a standard transmission) I preferred not to bother with it.

I scored at the Salvation Army, though, finding a cute top from Jigsaw and some black velvet slacks from Next and paying £6 for the lot. I've no idea what came over me at The Remnant Shop, but I completely lost track of time (and money) and came away with more than I cared to carry for long, so I hopped on a bus and headed back to meet Bill. I mis-read my watch and so was very early. The receptionist at his office referred me to a
lovely restaurant near by where I decided to have a snack and kill some time. As it turned out Bill's meetings were finished very early as well and he joined me in a nice lunch before we set off on the tedious journey home.

Bill chose a winding road that took us through a number of pretty villages and I had to re-form my view of living in the South of England. My observations have mainly been on my train journeys to London, seeing cramped estates built one after another along the railway lines. I thought the population density would be nigh as unbearable as in London, but it turns out that Essex is lovely. Bills says it looks 'foreign'. For one thing, the houses are not uniform in design, colour or placement on the lots like up north and there are lots of Tudor style -- many authentic -- houses. Colchester is England's oldest recorded town, as of 77 A.D., though Romans are said to have started building there some 30 years prior. The variety of houses and the apparent prosperity of many of the villages was very attractive.

Bill's already talking about the next trip and whether we should spend the weekend in the area. We didn't get to see the Dutch Quarter which has to do with Flemish weavers from the 15th Century, nor have we visited Colchester Castle. I can see there is a lot to do around there, but one thing's for sure, I need to keep away from the Remnant Shop!

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Rice Dish

This is one of my all time favourite recipes; it's my default in the absence of any other inspiration. I can start cooking this and have it on the table in 30 minutes, so it’s a favourite when I’m tired. Originally from The Tightwad Gazette, I've tweaked it by adding more vegetables.

2 cups boiling water
1 cup rice
Stock cubes

2 cups vegetables, diced
1 med-large onion

2 TBS oil

Requires skillet with a fitted lid
Makes 2 main servings or 4 side servings

  • Boil kettle and mix 2 stock cubes (any flavour) with 2 cups water.
  • Dice the onion and put in skillet with oil, stir occasionally while browning.
  • Collect 2 cups of diced or frozen vegetables, whatever you have on hand; aim for a pleasant mix of 2 or 3 colours.
  • Add 1 cup rice to browned onion and stir to coat with oil.
  • Add stock liquid and vegetables and bring to a full boil.
  • Reduce heat to minimum, put on lid and leave for about 20 minutes.
  • If you want meat in this dish, put 3-6 oz. diced beef, pork or chicken in oil and brown before adding onion and choose complimentary stock flavouring; this may require more oil (I never do this as the stock gives plenty of flavour without meat, though I did add a can of kidney beans once and it was great).
  • You can experiment with herbs and spices as well but, again, it isn't necessary.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Books in March

I didn't read as much as usual last month, which I take as a good sign that I was busy doing more productive things. Still, books are a major love in my life. These are the library books I read in March. There were half a dozen others that I checked out but couldn't bring myself to read past the first chapter. As you can see, I started at the beginning of the fiction section; I tend to choose authors who have at least two books on the shelves at the time of my selection. I wonder if I'll ever get past the A's?

Bad Manors - Lisa Armstrong
Brick Lane - Monica Ali
Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
MacDougal Street Ghosts - Hesper Anderson
Midnight Flight - Virginia Andrews
The Five People You Meet in Heaven - Mitch Albom
Viva vintage : find it, wear it, love it! - Trudie Bamford

Friday, 4 April 2008

My New Best Friends

I've been looking all over for yoga and sewing classes (not combined activities, you understand, but looking at the same time). I want them to be within walking or cycling distance and very inexpensive, which I realise is asking a lot. I've not found a yoga class yet, but I've scored on the sewing big style with a class that meets from 10 to 1 on Tuesdays at an old school less than a mile away from my house.

It's more of a sewing circle, really, but with an (antique industrial) overlock and a regular sewing machine supplied. The eight women who were there are mostly retired employees of a nearby factory that is now shut down (it all comes from China now) and my experience with previous sewing instructors is that these people have a wealth of practical knowledge. I was there a little early. When the others began arriving I chipped in right away by helping to move the tables into a smaller square and picking up an almost dead bug in a paper towel and taking it to a waste bin down the hall (yuckkk). The ladies I met first, Nora and Ruby, made sure I was introduced to each of the others as they arrived. A pile of handmade cards collected at the place where a Hazel normally sat and she brought pastries for everyone to celebrate her birthday. We started with a cup of tea/coffee and then got down to work. Nora invited me to sit next to her.

They mostly bring their own projects, but Nora said she often gets requests for alterations and other bits of sewing from other people in the building and so she doesn't bring a project. They have cabinets full of fabric and notions and she pulled out a roll of denim and several of them began making shopping bags. Others were knitting sweaters or sewing furniture covers. There was lots of bustle between the tables, the machines and the cabinets. I went around and spoke with most of them about what they were making and they were all lovely. Enid doesn't sew anymore, not having good use of her hands now, but she comes along for the company and was contributing to the shopping bags project.

Before long, I decided to run home and get Ellen's sweaters to see how they might suggest altering them. Nora threaded the overlock machine and stitched the first neckline for me. As soon as I finished the handwork on it I did the second sweater myself. Enid suggested a different approach on the third one and though I didn't have time to do it there, I finished it up at home. It wasn't as easy and took quite a while, but it turned out OK. I wanted to be able to go back next week and tell her I took her advice.

Nora brings sandwiches for everyone and they took a break about noon for a sandwich and another coffee or tea. I worked through, though Ruby offered me half of her sandwich; I wasn't hungry enough to stop (one of the benefits of keeping hands busy!) Nora said she would bring one for me next week if I wished. I'm going to have to think up some projects to take advantage of all this lovely expertise! I'm really annoyed I didn't find this sooner and I can't wait to go back next week!

The only problem is that if the 'little job' comes through, it will likely have to be on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I may not be able to continue for long. We'll have to see. In the meantime, I thought I got excellent value for the money: a whopping 50 pence to cover the coffee supplies.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Jane's Visit

Bill’s sister from Sydney was with us the past couple of weeks. She neatly timed her arrival to coincide with his birthday celebrations and I took her to the airport this morning. Bill was upset that the ‘head office people’ at his new job were coming to see him today and so he couldn't do the airport run. I'm very sorry to see her go as well. Besides enjoying her company immensely, having her here has gotten me out and about more than I have been and, with the improved weather, I’ve enjoyed that.

Jane’s had varying success with her daily visits to her 93-year-old mother, Ellen, at the residential home. Some days they had reasonable conversations, others not. Apparently Ellen has taken to shouting out “BILL!!! Where ARE you?” at unexpected intervals, making everyone jump. Whilst I can see why she might do that assuming that Bill was visiting along with Jane, I gather she does this even when she has no visitors. Ellen’s voice has a sharp edge and Jane’s imitation of her calling “BILL!!! Where ARE you?” made me think of some Mynah birds that belonged to a friend of my family when I was young.

Jane culled Ellen’s wardrobe whilst she was here and we went shopping for replacement garments one day. I enjoyed the challenge of removing some of the ribbed neckbands on sweaters she didn’t like and hopefully making them more useful. We also called in at at Vivienne Westwood’s new shop (I wouldn’t buy anything even could I afford it, but I’ve read her biography and wanted to see her clothes for myself). Another day we went to another village (where the posh people live) and trawled through all the charity shops for baby clothes for Jane’s expected granddaughter. Driving Jane to and from a cousin’s house briefly dragged Bill back into the family he generally takes for granted. Another day she and I went into town to go to the green market and fitted in a visit to the local historical library, two vintage clothing shops and a coffee house for lunch.

We searched my magazines for craft ideas for her endless supply of fabric sample books (her daughter works in the interior decorating & design industry). We caught up on the state of things with her descendants and our respective partners. We didn't spend all her visit chatting. On the days I stayed home or had solitary ventures, I think Jane enjoyed the quiet time and the lack of any schedule or requirements other than to visit with her mom.

I’m looking forward to meeting up again in the US for Bill’s birthday gathering.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Happy List

Some book I read once suggested making a list of 100 things that made me happy and then making sure I had enough of those things in my life (and when I find that book again, I will credit the author). I did this a couple of years ago just for fun. I was surprised how difficult it was to actually name 100 things.

I included time with my favourite people, activities I enjoy, places, possessions, animals, colours and textures, anything I could come up with. For a while I busied myself trying to make sure I included some of those things in my life – reading good books, planning the next Mediterranean holiday, smelling flowers and petting animals I passed on the street. Then, being frugally minded, I took at look at the costs associated with the items on my ‘Happy List’, putting an 'x' by items that cost a little and 3 x's by the most expensive.

I found that having an enjoyable run (somewhat serendipitous, but more often associated with being fit, or at least with pacing myself properly), finding new combinations in which to wear the clothes and jewelry I own, dinner by candlelight (and 51 other items) were all pretty much free of charge. Fresh, juicy fruit, having dinner parties and long hot showers (and 18 other things, including a long list of shockingly sinful foods) weren’t particularly dear. At the more pricey end, things like sunshine and alcohol are best enjoyed in moderation anyhow and if one lived in Greece or France it would soon become commonplace, which would be infinitely sad.

This was really valuable information for me when considering whether I could afford to 'retire' early. I left work knowing that I was still going to have a very high quality of life full of things that give me great pleasure.