Friday, 4 December 2015

The Happy Art of Wrapping

Every year in mid-December my Facebook feed is full of people bemoaning all the wrapping they have to do.  It seems to be a last minute and ridiculously time-consuming chore to many people.

May I suggest another approach? Enjoy it.

I love wrapping presents. It's one of my favourite Christmas rituals. I set it out Just So and I look forward to it as a lovely quiet interlude.  This is how it works:

First of all, get all chef-y about it and set up your mise en place.  (That's a poncey French restaurant way of saying laying out all the things you need where you need them. Don't Mess With My Meez is an essential tenet of my life.  I hate it when people mess with my stuff.)

I need all the presents stacked on the living room floor.  A cup of coffee - or a pot of coffee with milk and a mug as this will be a multi-coffee activity - a mince pie or two and the Christmas film of your choice will keep you going.


My wrapping film of choice is While You Were Sleeping. Christmassy and cute.  I used to watch White Christmas but you can't wrap and watch dance numbers. 

For the wrapping you need your wrapping paper, scissors, tape, ribbons, decorative bits, a pen and labels.  I strongly recommend Scotch tape or Sellotape. Fannying about with tape that tears off in ragged points or that you're endlessly picking at with your nail trying to find an edge makes the whole enterprise needlessly painful. A bin bag per person/destination is also handy, unless your family keeps all the presents under the tree.  I do a bag per child then a bag for the people we see at my parents' house and a bag for those at Mark's parents' house.  It just makes it easy when we're driving to North Wales to have a bag to grab and pop in the boot to take in rather than root about through a mound of gifts.

You're all set - drinks, mince pies, film and supplies. Before you press Play you must do the most important thing - barricade the door.  I'm not kidding, properly block it.  I move a stool in front of the door and sometimes write a note too, along the lines of "DO NOT COME IN. If you do come in I get to keep your presents and eat your chocolate." The only possible way to relax into wrapping in my experience is to be left the hell alone. If you have kids, the prospect of having someone else do the wrapping can be a good incentive for one's partner to keep the kids entertained. Or do it while kids are napping/at school/in bed/at a friend's house. But peace and solitude are important.

For the wrapping itself, may I suggest brown kraft paper? You know the stuff - thick plain paper with faint pinstripes. It's cheap, comes in big rolls, doesn't tear easily like some wrapping papers, gives a nice crisp folds and is appropriate for every occasion.  I love it and use it for Christmas, birthdays, everything. I just swap the Christmassy ribbon for brighter colours. I do buy patterned paper to use for the younger kids' present too, because they like it, but I try and stick to things that look nice together.

The fun of kraft paper is what you put with it.  I like ribbons of jute, satin, velvet, small Christmas tree decorations, white or silver pens, rubber stamps - anything really.  Butchers twine - that twisted red and white string - also looks good on it. I often pick up nice bits in the after Christmas sales and pop them in my Christmas box to use the following year.

This year it was oversized jingle bells and painted wooden hearts and stars.




I found a set of tiny rubber stamps in a winter motif in a craft shop year ago, reduced to £2. I thought they'd be nice on gift tags. Yes, I have plain brown luggage labels as gift tags. They come in bulk, they are cheap and I like the minimalist chic vibe going on here.



Instead of feeling like I've a hateful chore I'm trudging through, I have a lovely peaceful afternoon with a romcom of my choice and a growing stack of gifts that (I think) look pretty.


Friday, 30 October 2015

A question of Darcy

Recently, a friend attributed my love of Pride and Prejudice to the appeal of a soaking wet Colin Firth emerging from a lake. Heaven knows in the 20 years since it aired it's remained one of the iconic heart throb moments and caused millions to swoon.

I. Think. Not.

I hate that scene. It's one of my most loathed scenes on telly. More than the time Gordon Ramsay tricked a vegetarian into eating pizza with bacon and boasted about it, more than any appearance by Jeremy Clarkson.  Even more than John Selwyn-Gummer shoving a burger into his little girl's face during the BSE crisis.  Allow me to explain.

I love Colin Firth. I think he's marvellous - very talented, extremely attractive and charming. I've seen Fever Pitch more times than I can remember and pretty much every film he's made since. Although singing in Mamma Mia wasn't one of his better moments...

In no way whatsoever is Colin Firth responsible for that dreadful scene. It's entirely the fault of Andrew Davies, the ferociously successful TV writer.  He wanted to sex up the dry and proper Mr Darcy for modern audiences so he had him partially disrobe and plunge into the water, emerging all tousled and hunky.

That's attractive and all, if it weren't for the fact that I know Fitzwilliam Darcy. I know him pretty well; I've spent countless hours with him.  I read P&P at least twice a year. What he looks like is pretty fluid and the nuances of his motivation I'm happy to let others play with, but at his heart I know him. I know his faults and his strength and I love him for them.

Mr Darcy is a very proper young man. He, like another of Jane Austen's heroes Mr Knightly, believes in honour, dignity, duty and being a gentleman. He is proper in the old-fashioned sense. Darcy is intensely private and reserved - rather shy really, retreating into stiffness when confronted with the unfamiliar.

His reversal in behaviour comes when Elizabeth forces him to recognise that his sense of self-worth has lead him to behave with arrogance, valuing his consequence above all else. It's awful realising you're in the wrong. He is hurt and but once his temper cools he realises the truth in her accusation. So when he sees her in the grounds of Pemberley he wants to prove her wrong, to be welcoming. Gracious even. "Look how wrong you were about me, I am a true gentleman" which progresses into "I realised you were right, so I've fixed it."

That meeting is both awkward and touching - both characters discomfited, neither quite knowing what to do, and aware of a change in themselves they can't yet let the other know of.  I love it. It's perfectly written just as it is.

Darcy wouldn't plunge himself into a lake on his way home unless her were actually aflame. Even then he'd be more likely to take the offending jacket off and throw it to the ground. He's not the impulsive, physical type. Andrew Davies wanted to make him more appealing to a modern viewer by showing a relaxed, unguarded man indulging in a relief from a stuffy day. In a different character I'd have liked it - hell, as a human, heterosexual woman I like it, but I absolutely loathe that he did that to Darcy. Davies rewrote him to sex it up a bit, and that re-write became the image of Mr Darcy in popular culture.  Andrew Davies deserves a slap with a kipper.

Incidentally, Matthew Macfadyen's Darcy works well for me - again, there's a modern slant as you see more vulnerability, but it's emotionally and psychologically consistent with the Darcy Jane Austen wrote. Nice work, Deborah Moggach (except for the ghastly scene added for American audiences that I've done my best to blot from memory.) It helps that Matthew Macfadyen is utterly lovely.

I know my fixation with some of my literary heroes can make me a cussed thing - I refuse to watch Life of Pi because the book in my head is so perfect. (This drives Luke crazy. ) I am happy with my images from the author's words and don't want them supplanted by someone else's vision.
I wouldn't watch To Kill A Mockingbird until I was in my 30s because Gregory Peck plainly isn't Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck is about as handsome, authoritative and charming as a man can be, and an absolute idol. Atticus is older, thin, with fading eyesight, thinning hair and a tendency to stoop, and he can't play ballgames like the other kids' dads. He isn't a fine figure of a man but he's a very fine man indeed.

Anne Shirley, Gilbert Blythe, Laura Ingalls, Scout and Atticus, Charlotte and Wilbur, Lizzie Bennett and Darcy, Elinor Dashwood, Dorothea Brooke, The Grand Sophy and so many others have been amongst my dearest and most cherished friends for years. I want to share them with the world, buy copies for my friends' children, revisit them regularly.

I don't need to shove them in a lake to see their appeal.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

All Change

16 and a half years ago I went on maternity leave from my full time office job. Back then the leave was 14 weeks. I worked to 37 weeks and Luke was a little late being born. This meant I was due to go back to work full time from 8am to 5pm when he was just 9 weeks old.  

I couldn't do it.

I quit.  I worked from home as a web designer, admin and tech support woman for small businesses for a few years then started Cake Box, my bakery from home.  Other than 9 months of popping into a local estate agent to update their online files on a Saturday when our first child was a toddler I've worked based from home all that time.

All this changes now. I've got a job. Yikes.

I shouldn't be so surprised, of course. Millions of people have jobs. It's *normal* to have a job. And it's not like one dropped from the sky into my lap, I did have to apply for it. Indeed one of my challenges for this year was to find a way to earn money. But to work in an office, not be my own boss, have colleagues and - gasp - childcare issues seems kind of intimidating right now. I'm trying to work it all out in my mind so life will go smoothly but there's such a lot to think about . I need to leave the house at 7:30 am and Mark is in Slough some of the week, so getting our 9yo sorted and to school on time will be interesting. I am fortunate in having Very Excellent Mates who are willing to help out.

It's going to be fine, of course. It will mean a lot of changes for everyone in the family but after a couple of months it will be normal to us.  

One of the things I'm clearly going to need is a reliable method of transport. The school I'll be secretary for is just over 3 miles away, not on a direct bus route. Oh look, what a perfect reason to buy a new Vespa!

I picked a Vespa Primavera 125 - it's a lovely dark grey-blue colour with a beige seat; it's quite retro looking. It runs like a dream and those lovely new tires grip the road so well compared to my poor old ET4 it was a totally different riding experience. I'd better like this job; I have to keep it so I can pay for my bike!

My now-defunct ET4

Isn't that a pretty bike?

vroom vroom

Some of the other things I wanted to attack this year were  - 

  • See friends regularly - I'm getting better at this

  • Attend at least 5 book group meetings  - Tick
  • Have a week of decluttering one room a day.  A month of decluttering weekends would do too - I've got some areas much improved but there's loads still to do.
  • Walk 30km in a month - my ruined knee kind of scuppered this one, so I need to get back on track now.
  • Learn a new skill
  • Go to a WI meeting - I've been to 3 meetings and a meal, and have joined
  • Volunteer on a weekly basis  - Between reading with the school and the food bank work I was doing more than once a week. Most of that will have to stop now I'm working, though.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

In which people are just lovely

I was in for a cracking weekend.

I'd planned it months ago. Registered for Rugby World Cup tickets, booked my Yarndale ticket, had all my favourite things with some of my VERY favourite people.  Fantastic.

Friday night Dad headed here to avoid the match traffic and Mark bought fancy fish from the lovely fishmongers and cooked us a gorgeous meal. I'd never had halibut before. It's lovely.

Saturday was match day. Mark, Miss B and Luke went to the cinema to see Inside Out (and were treated to popcorn at the Everyman by the rather ace Jessica who works there) while Dad, Zach and I were off to the rugby. Canada vs Italy, and given the crushing defeat in the Canada vs Ireland I was trying prepare Zach for disappointment. I needn't have worried. It was marvellous.



I mean, yes, in the end Italy won but it started with a 10 point lead for Canada and right up to the last 5 minutes it could have gone either way.  Masses of action, great excitement and huge men with beards battling it out mere metres away from us. We were so close to the touch line; any closer and we'd have been in the scrum itself.  I'd had a pig of a job sorting out Zach's ticket after they'd allocated him a seat in another part of the stadium. After 4 1/2 hours on the phone I got him moved to directly behind us, assuming I'd take that seat myself. In the event the lovely blokes next to us swapped so we could all be together.

(Given how loudly I cheered, Zach and Dad might have preferred to have left me sitting a little further away. I do get rather excited.)

That evening I got yet more excited watching a punishing match between England and Wales. I texted my apologies to the next door neighbours after an injury-wracked Wales roared to victory in the final moments. Marvellous stuff.

Sunday was Yarndale. All hail the Yarndale crew for a third event that brought so much happiness to others. It was so organised and well considered that it was a joy to attend. I had every faith it would be.

I had hoped to go with my Very Excellent Mate Rach again, but it didn't quite work out. A mum from the school run had asked to go with me, too, but her work schedule clashed with the event. My neighbour Vanesa had also planned to come with me but had to visit a relative in hospital. That's OK - I had a brilliant time the very first Yarndale when I was on my own, so at 9:30am I set off on my beloved Vespa at half nine for a day of yarn, craft and meeting new people. There was plenty of mist and it was pretty chilly but that would soon burn off and we were promised a glorious sunny day. I love a chance to ride in the sunshine through the gorgeous scenery of this region, and I was confident I could squish my purchases into the storage space on the bike.

At 10:25, a few miles outside of Skipton, it went horrible wrong. My poor Vespa lost power and made some truly appalling noises.  I drifted to a stop at the hard shoulder of the A65 as lorries blasted past me.  My iPhone told me I was 7 minutes from my destination.  It was wrong.  I wouldn't make it to Yarndale until 2pm.

While I was waiting for the breakdown truck and feeling very isolated indeed, people were ace to me.  A bloke in a car on the other side of the carriageway pulled up to say he lived in the next village, so would it help if he fetched me some petrol? Then a guy on a Ducati pulled up. Roger had owned a Vespa ET4 like mine some years back and offered to see if the problem was something he could repair. He had a toolkit on his bike, had a look and a listen.

We agreed our Italian bikes sure had style but that if it was reliability you wanted, Hondas were hard to beat no matter how clunky they looked. Ducati and Vespas were more temperamental beauties. Roger did his best but the fault was beyond his skills. He offered me a lift to Skipton but I needed to stay for the recovery truck.  He reluctantly went on his way, but I was very touched by his help and concern.

The lad driving the recovery truck was called David.  He and the insurance service were thrashing out the details of taking the bike back home for me as it was 25 miles away and my cover had a 20 mile limit. Drat.  Then I remembered Colin Appleyard Motorcycles had a branch nearby.  Before their Leeds branch shut down I'd used them for repairs for 15 years - perhaps they could take the Vespa? Google claimed they were open on Sundays, so I started ringing while David loaded the bike up.

We set off, with me continuing to ring the garage.  In between calls, David told me all about his upcoming holiday to Dubai with his partner, and how much he was looking forward to it. He was so friendly and pleasant he made a tough situation much nicer. However, Google's information was wrong and the garage was all locked up. Oh bugger.

By this time Mark, with Miss B in tow loudly protesting the interruption of her pancake-making activity, arrived at the garage too. He'd brought me a flask of coffee which is one of the many reasons I love him so much. I drank that while David rang his depot to run something past them. Rather than leave me and my bike stranded or drive the 25 miles to Leeds which still wouldn't get the bike to a garage, David offered to take it back with him to the locked depot overnight and drop it off at Appleyard's in the morning.  That meant Mark could take me to Yarndale, the insurance would still cover the distance and the Vespa would be safe and secure until I could get her looked at.

Brilliant!

Mark got me to Yarndale where I had a lovely couple of hours despite feeling knackered by the events so far. Jane from Baa Ram Ewe gave me a big hug when I arrived to help soothe me from my bike upset, and I had a cuppa and a butty before diving into the stalls. I had a go at lacemaking with bobbins like the people I saw on holiday in Bruges - very cool! I met up with exhibitors I knew, chatted to the Yarndale committee, bought everything my mother-in-law requested plus a hank of hand-dyed alpaca wool for myself. I met fellow rugby enthusiast and many, many fellow crochet junkies. I got home by public transport, complete wiped out, and Mark had made me another lovely dinner.

My Vespa is beyond repair, it seems, and I am feeling bereft. But I am also very touched by the friendliness, good nature and kindness shown to me in so many ways by match stewards, fellow fans, motorists, Roger, David and Mark and everyone at Yarndale.
People are just lovely. I'm glad to have met so many of them.

J xx

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Small summery surprises

On the whole, I take a rather Dim View of big surprises.  I love anticipation - why remove so much of the fun of a situation by preventing someone from looking forward to it? Thinking of lovely things ahead is what helps me on tough days.

However, little unexpected things brighten my day.  Like finding self-seeded flowers in bloom at the bottom of my garden, or collecting a double yolker from the nest box.

One of the hens was certainly walking bow-legged after laying this monster - 


And one of the new hen laid her first tiny egg the same day, bless her feathery wee self, and strutted about crowing her achievement for all the world to hear. You'd think no bird had ever laid an egg before for all the obvious fuss she made -


Another nice surprise was being given all these gooseberries from my next door neighbour - 

which I cooked up with sugar in my big jam pan -


 - so I could make jars of gooseberry jam for my Dad. It's one of his favourites. Funny how the colour changes from that lovely green, isn't it?


Not really a surprise, but a delightful unexpected thing I discovered this summer was the presence of a grand piano in the middle of a covered square in Ghent. The roof of the structure was just amazing, the piano rich and beautiful, and watching passers-by sit down to plink plonk out Chopsticks, play some boogie woogie or carry us away with Bach's Toccata and Fugue was one of the highlights of the trip for me.




How does that even work? Wouldn't the changes of humidity and temperature constantly send the piano out of tune? And yet it sounded wonderful to my untutored ear, even in the pouring rain.

A few weeks later I was in Leeds city centre. I'd had fun chatting on BBC Radio Leeds with my erstwhile mentor Andrew Edwards and my partner in chat Caroline Eden. I like being on the radio with Caroline, she's good fun.  Later that evening I was going out for a meal with my Women's Institute pals for the centenary celebration, so I had some time to kill between the two engagements.
Look at what I found - 


A painted grand piano in the Trinity centre! A cluster of young men were hovering around, waiting for a chance to play it, egging each other on.  This lad is a student at Trinity University. He played a lilting piece of his own composition; others played a fair few pop songs to the delight of some school kids wandering by.  I know it's only a temporary feature to celebrate the triennial International Piano Competition, but I do so wish it were a permanent feature. One of my favourite surprises this summer.

Mum and Dad came over for a visit in July, which gave me a chance to surprise Mum in the daftest way possible. 

Since first tasting Viennetta ice cream in the 80s, Mum is completely predictable. "Wouldn't you think they'd make that tray out of chocolate?" she'd say of the dark brown plastic tray the ice cream sits on.  She's right, of course, it looks just like it ought to be dark chocolate. But what makes it funny to us all is that Mum has said it every time without fail, for 30 years. She doesn't even realise she's said it out loud some of the time.

So why not? I bought a Viennetta the week they were due to stay. I removed the squiggly ice cream block and popped it back in the freezer while I washed the tray, lined it with cling film and painted it carefully with melted chocolate.  Once the chocolate had nearly set, I bobbed the ice cream back in its new chocolaty tray. 

After dinner I removed the plastic tray and clingfilm from the bottom, put the Viennetta on a serving plate and brought it over to Mum.
"Don't you wish the tray was made of chocolate?" she said, right on cue.


We laughed all evening. Couldn't stop.  The look on her face was absolutely priceless. I couldn't speak for laughing, and I'm giggling again just writing about it.
Some surprises are worth it.


Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Too much to say

I'm sorry for the gap in posts. Sometimes I can't blog because I don't have the words or the positivity to tell you stuff. Other times, life seems too full to step back and write about.
This past few months has had so many things in it I wanted to tell you about that I hadn't time to compose my thoughts about one before the next occurred.

I'm fine, my family is fine and we've had a lovely summer. We've seen some examples of the best and worst impulses of people, been to wonderful places, read/baked/pickled/cooked/made/tried all sorts of things and spent time with family and friends.

I hope to be able to talk to you about it all over the next few weeks.

In the mean time, here's a photo of a cathedral in Bruges in the late evening sun and a giraffe from Ghent's graffiti street:


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Jam today

It's the very start of the strawberry season here in Yorkshire. Over the next 3 weeks there will be enough strawberries to satisfy even Miss B, our resident fraisivore. Most of the strawberries aren't quite ripe yet but those that are, are perfect for jam making.


The strawberries from my garden, Strawbopolis, are for snacking purposes only. To be brutally honest, I forgot to water my strawberry plants last year the second the fruiting season ended (I'm a bad, bad plantswoman) and lots of them died. Those that did survive look ace and are producing lots of fruit, which is more than I deserve. Oops.

To pick my strawberries, I went to Kemp's of Horsforth. My friend Jean knew the elder Kemp back in his rugby club days and says he was a dashing blade. Jean's 86, so I guess the Kemp family's farm has been a fixture of North Leeds for a long while. I like getting produce direct from the grower, and even more when it's a local family business. It's much nicer than handing the cash to a supermarket. In addition, PYO means I can be as picky as I like about the fruit; and I am very picky.

Today's haul was a bit disappointing. I was clearly rather too keen and should have left it a week because so few berries were ripe that it took me best part of an hour to pick my 3 kilos. Still, the flavour was good and it's a nice way to while away a morning.
A few ripe strawberries for snacking

Back home, I put on Lily Allen's album Sheezus and set to work hulling the strawberries. My Very Excellent Mate Rachel gave me three Lily Allen albums recently and I love them. When it's a bit of a dead time for radio they are my songs of choice. Rachel also has Cary Elwes's memoir As You Wish for me, which I am very excited about.  Hurray for VEM Rach and her thoughtfulness.

When it comes to jam making  I refer to the mighty Pam The Jam, author of the River Cottage Handbook on Preserves. Pam Corbin's recipes are clear, well explained and almost always work well for me, although I prefer slightly less sugar when I can get away with it. Between cordials, jams, jellies, curds and marmalade I have used her book until it is stiff with sugar spatter and stained with fruit juice. I raise my elderflower martini to her.

Here's my version of what Pam recommends -

Strawberry Jam

2.85kg of hulled strawberries, with any bruises trimmed (3.2kg picked weight)
600g granulated sugar
1.75kg jam sugar
5 large lemons

10-12 clean jam jars with lids

If at all possible, don't wash the strawberries. Wipe any grubby bits off but generally just leave them. Dry strawberries make better jam.
Put the clean jam jars and lids on a lined baking tray and put in the oven. Turn the oven on to 150 degrees and leave the jars in to sterilise.
Stick all the strawberries in a maslin pan or VERY large stock pot. Add the granulated sugar and simmer on a low heat for about 5 minutes until mostly soft.
At this point I let the mix cool before pushing 2/3 of the fruit through a metal sieve with a messy combination of a silicon spatula and my fists. Then I plunge my hands into the jam pan and squish up any lumps of fruit until I have a mostly smooth and partially seed-free mixture.  Pam Corbin doesn't have this step in her recipe because Pam isn't trying to feed fussy family members who don't like pips or fruit pieces in their jam. Lucky, lucky Pam.

NB - By now I look like I've been involved in a massacre. I usually have to swap to a fresh apron at this point or everywhere I lean I make strawberry prints.

Put the jam mixture back on a low heat and add all the jam sugar. This contains the pectin we'll need for the jam to set. I use more jam sugar and less granulated sugar than Pam because overall my sugar-to-fruit ratio is lower - I like a touch of tartness because it tastes more of strawberry that way - so I need the extra pectin to get a good set.
Heat the jam through gently, stirring all the time to ensure the sugar doesn't burn to the bottom of the pan. When it has dissolved completely add the juice of all 5 lemons and turn the heat up. That acidity really lifts the flavour of the strawberries.
Incidentally, cold lemons don't produce as much juice. If your lemons were in the fridge, it's worth popping them in the microwave for about 20-30 seconds before you squeeze them.

Once your jam is boiling away, Pam says it will take 8-9 minutes to reach setting point. Personally, I find it takes closer to 15, but I'm probably doing something wrong.

If you have lots of frothy scum on the top of the jam, pop in a blob of butter and stir the jam until it dissipates. Then it's time to fill the jars, which have been sitting in the oven all sterile and ready to go.
I find it easiest to fill them on the baking tray. It contains any spillage and is easy to clear up.  Put a wide mouthed funnel onto a jar and pour in the jam until full. If you haven't got a jam funnel I find tipping your jam into a glass or earthenware jug with a spout will do as a way to fill the jars with minimum spillage.
Be careful, please. The jam is insanely hot, you do not want any of it splashing on you if you can help it. I got 3 tiny little dots of jam on my knuckles as I was holding the thermometer and they came up as blisters almost immediately.
Put the lids on the filled jars immediately (I use oven gloves or a tea towel) and leave to cool.

I absolutely LOVE the metallic pop the lids make as the jar cools and creates a vacuum.  I find something I "need" to do to make sure I'm in the kitchen for that. It's very satisfying.

Ten jars, two small dishes and a bit for tasting
A note about setting point - You can faff about with drops of jam in cold water or creases on cold saucers but I find my sugar thermometer far more reliable. You can get them from places like Nisbets, and they're well worth having.

Those two little dishes of jam are for my lovely neighbour Wendy, and Jean who knew the Kemps 'way back when.  Sharing a bit of jam will do when the red wine runs out.
All hail kick-ass octogenarian women!

J x

Friday, 27 March 2015

Cong-rat-ulations

Parenthood leads me in odd directions.  The other week I washed and blow-dried a hen's legs and undercarriage so she wouldn't be too muddy when I took her to visit a class at B's primary school.  (The hen was less than delighted but remained stoical.)  But more surreal than that was primping Zach's pair of rats ready to enter a show.

The Yorkshire Rat Club was having one of its bi-monthly shows in March. This one was held in a church hall very close to us. Zach heard about it and wanted to enter his rats Naruto and Kakashi into the Pet category.
Kakashi

Being a less-than-thorough kind of lad, he didn't read as far as the entry requirement, application deadline and so on.  Being a more-than-thorough type of woman, I did.  I contacted the breeder we got them from to check the details, filled in the forms for him and emailed them off. I reserved show tanks and read up what was expected.  I did not expect what was expected - giving them a bath and trimming their claws, ideally 3 days before the show.

Rats have tiny, tiny hands.  Well, paws, but they look like hands and rats sit up and hold things with them.  Their hind paws are bigger, although still pretty small, but the front have minuscule claws.  And they aren't best pleased at someone holding them and trying to clip the ends of their nails.

They have mixed feelings about baths, too.  Kakashi ran about a bit, clambered over the taps, splashed at the water with his paws and had a good explore.  He tolerated the claw trimming with only a few squeaked protests, but I was glad I was the one holding him not Zach - he was very wriggly. Zach was on towel-drying support.
Naruto was outraged by a bath, scrambling to get away. When I dried him and trimmed his claws he swivelled around and bit me.  He managed to rake a thin strip of skin from my little finger which took ages to stop bleeding. I knew I liked Kakashi best for a reason.
Somewhat unwisely, Zach pointed out I'd got blood on the rat's fur.  When he saw my face, he back-pedalled quickly and said how nice and clean the rats looked.  The damned finger lead for 25 minutes.
I am a wimp

Leaving the Big Lad to sleep as only teenagers can, the rest of us trouped along to Oakwood church hall on Saturday morning for 10:30 to enter the rats in the show.  One of the organisers had suggested putting one rat in Pets and the other in Varieties so they weren't competing against one another.  What the heck, we thought, so entered Kakashi as a Silver Fawn rat in the varieties and his plumper brother in the Pet section.

How long do you think a small local Rat Club show can last?  There are some bits and pieces to buy from a couple of pet stalls, a tea-and-bacon-butty type counter, and there's waiting for the rats to be judged.  I guessed a couple of hours.

I was wrong.

The first 90 minutes were quite fun - lots of people to chat with, animals to play with and so on.  The next 90 minutes were more dull.  The THREE HOURS after that really dragged, particularly as our phone batteries went flat.  Not to mention we were expecting to watch the 6 Nations Wales match that afternoon.

Yes, we were there for over 6 hours.  For 4 hours of that, we kept thinking "Surely they're about finished? Surely it will only be another half hour at most."  The friendly and enthusiastic people of the Yorkshire Rat Club told us later that it had been a pretty quick show; some can last another hour or two!  If we'd any idea we'd have stayed for 45 minutes at the start, left Z with a drink and butty (he was having a lovely time) and bobbed back for the last hour or so to keep him company while he waited for the judging and certificates to be done. It was a looooong and hungry day.

On the plus side we met lots of really lovely people. A family with a girl close to B's age kept us company for most of the time. We chatted about loads of things (although avoiding the topic of rugby in the hopes we could watch it on iPlayer later) and they shared their grapes with the kids.  We praised each other's pets to the skies, and had a good old natter to while the hours away.  Zach also made friends with several breeders and exhibitors. He was interested in all of it.

The pet judges having a play with some of the entrants
The judging was both interesting and funny.  The Pet category was judged on criteria that seemed to be "is this rat cute? is s/he friendly?"  The judges got each rat out several times and played with, cuddled and messed about with him for ages.  They both clearly loved these little whiskery beasties and made a huge fuss of them.  Naruto behaved just as he does at home - was quite friendly but mostly wanted to snuggle inside the judge's cardigan. He's a typical male rat -  preferring a cuddle and a snooze with people to the energetic exploring the female rats favour.  The judge thought he was lovely.

Naruto in the yellow cage, taking yet another nap 


The Varieties category, on the other hand, was like a rodent Crufts.  I kept wanting to laugh - I had no idea it could all get so regimented. The judge had a white jacket and everything. Weight, hair length, bone structure and colouring were closely examined against a National Fancy Rat Society standard, which the judge kept in her head (although I saw her google something once.) There was no nonsense, just a focused scrutiny of each animal. The judge ploughed through far more animals than the pet judge in a fraction of the time, while her assistant took copious notes.

4 hours in and Kakashi wasn't even judged.  The breeder told us he was a Silver Fawn variety but he was declared by everyone at the show as Argente Cream (don't ask me) and therefore disqualified as being misidentified.
It doesn't matter how alert you are, Kash, you're still out

I've included links to Google images. Heaven knows how they tell those colour varieties apart. Some are the same darned photos.

I was rather concerned for Zach. He was massively excited about it all, and I didn't want him to come home without even a certificate.  I'll also admit to feeling slightly aggrieved, about which I am embarrassed. I'm immensely fond of Kakashi, he's a lovely natured beastie and my clear favourite, but he isn't even my pet. He's Zach's. So, feeling defensive when others fail to recognise his aceness is doubly ridiculous.
When we spoke to the judge later she said "even in the correct category he'd not be a good example as he's too light boned and his face is narrow while the guard hairs on his rump are too long." I felt like saying 'Yah boo sucks!" because I think Kash is a poppet.  And that, my friends, is why I shouldn't go to these things. Well, that and the instant coffee.

 At the end of the afternoon the winners were finally announced.  Way to go Naruto! He won best buck in the Juniors category, 2nd best overall, 4th in the "Pet Challenge" (we still aren't clear what that involved) and a special award as the one the assistant judge wanted to keep for herself because he was such a sweetie.  Zach had and armload of rosettes and certificates, and was just over the moon.

Miss B "helping" him with all those rosettes
So it was worth it after all.  Zach was full of all the people he'd met, the rats he'd played with and bursting with pride and happiness at Naruto's rosettes.  It was lovely seeing him so delighted with his day.

There's another show in May and he's already hoping I'll take him.  As long as I have a book, a flask of real coffee and butty, I expect I will.

Because this time Kakashi will win.
J x


Monday, 16 March 2015

Roll With It

I'm teaching an evening class at the moment. It's called Family Cake Decorating, although sometimes I think it should be "Messing About With Icing" as mess is a pretty substantial part of the process. It's the 4th year I've taught this particular course and by the time it ends at 7pm I still find I'm glazed like a doughnut from all the icing sugar I've been handling. Not being messy is a skill I've yet to acquire.

I love teaching people new skills.  I get such a kick out of helping someone try something they've never had a go at before. Often all it takes is a little guidance and boom! they've made something marvellous. That grin of "look what a fab thing I did" from people in my class is one of my favourite parts of the week.

I usually bake many, many cupcakes to give my class of 12 plenty of stuff to decorate.  This time, however, I'm not. Taking in 3 or 4 dozen cupcakes each week gets expensive. The school subsidises the class but I do want to keep the ingredients costs from getting too high. It occurred to me that as long as my students had a surface to decorate, to didn't really matter what that surface was. A cupcake or a biscuit can work equally well as their canvas, and with a biscuit I can make bigger batches, so they get more goes. I'll still do a couple of cupcake weeks but so far the biscuits are going down very well.
Just a fraction of a week's biscuits

Several people in my class asked for my gingerbread recipe as last week's gingerbread men were a hit with their families.  I'm putting it here as well in case anyone fancies a go.  It's a pretty nice one, although the dough can be a pain to handle when the kitchen gets hot. However, there's an easy way around that. 


Gingerbread biscuits

180g butter
125g caster sugar
1 egg
125g treacle
420g flour
2 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp bicarb

Cream the butter and sugar together until pale. Add the egg and treacle and combine thoroughly.  Sift the flour, spices and bicarb together and add to the mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon or by hand to bring it into a sticky dough - don’t overwork or knead the dough or the biscuits will be tough.

Ideally chill the dough for a while - the treacle can make it messy to handle when too warm. Roll out and cut into shapes, leaving room for the biscuits to spread slightly on the baking tray. Bake at 180 (170 fan) for 8-12 minutes depending on the thickness of your biscuits.

A NOTE ON ROLLING OUT DOUGH:

The more flour you add to a dough the tougher it will be. When rolling out biscuits dough - and especially pastry dough, where the thinner you can roll it the better- this can make the difference between a great result and a poor one.

You can avoid it sticking without adding flour by placing your dough between two sheets of clingfilm. Roll across the clingfilm until the dough is your preferred thickness (very thin for pastry, a pound coin thickness for most biscuits), peel of the top sheet, cut into shapes fitting them as close together as possible. Then lift up the bottom sheet of clingfilm and peel off the shape/disc and place it on the baking sheet or tart tin. 
 I can just hear Mary Berry congratulating you on the nicely baked tart without any hint of a soggy bottom. Paul Hollywood will tell you it's a nice thin pastry and a good bake overall.  Award yourself Star Baker and a smug grin.


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

I've Never Seen Star Wars - family style

Have you heard Marcus Brigstock's show on Radio 4 in the 6:30 comedy slot? It's about people trying things that they've not done before, then rating the experience.  It's often very funny - Sandi Toksvig in high heels and Ian Hislop buying jeans both made me laugh.

Confronted with rather bored kids this half term, I suggested we do a family version.  We'd each come up with things the others hadn't done and help them give it a go.

First up, Mark taught Miss B how to make coffee with the Baby Gaggia.  Oh how I love that machine! Miss B needs a little help removing the group head (the bit the ground beans go in) from the machine ready to fill it with fresh grinds, but other than that she's taken to it like a duck to water. That's brilliant news for me - someone else prepared to make me coffee. B's subsequently made 3 cups of coffee and does a pretty fine job. She gives it "5 or 6 out of 10, probably."

Next, Miss B was the instructor.  She showed Z how to plait.  I was the supplier of hair to be plaited, which did get painful a few times, but after B's expert tuition he got the hang of it. Sort of.  I don't think Nicky Clarke  - or even Chris Pratt - need worry though.


B remained in the teacher's chair for the next two tasks - showing Luke how to thread a needle and Z how to skip.  My ace mate Liz Merckel gave Miss B a small sewing kit for her naming day present when she was a baby.  In that kit was a needle threader, which B thought was a VERY useful thing when she rediscovered the sewing kit last year.  Luke's not got the best fine motor control, so a needle threader means he can easily do something that required concentration before.  Top notch.

Out of love for him I have not photographed Z's attempts at skipping.  He remained positive and enthusiastic - which was particularly laudable given the conflicting advice B and I were offering - but he just couldn't manage more than 5 skips before getting tangled.  I surprised myself by being able to demonstrate it at all; my knees have been dreadful lately and I didn't think I had any jumping in me. 

Mark took Luke somewhere to have a go at driving.  He absolutely loved it!  It wasn't far and the car is an automatic, so there's less to worry about than with a manual stick shift, but Luke did extremely well. He was giddy as a kipper afterwards.

Luke and Mark undercoated Warhammer figures to teach us some painting techniques but one of the lads' mates turned up and activities were suspended while they played  hung out.

After dinner was the main event - getting me to play video games.

I do NOT play video games.  At all. Ever.  Over the years there have been many gaming devices in our house and I haven't been remotely interested in any of them.  I do love Civilisation on the laptop, but even then I turn war off if I can and just play the science and culture strands. I don't even know how to turn the Wii U on, nor how the PS3 controllers work.  Nor do I wish to. So, when I said I'd give their games a go the kids were very enthusiastic. They've been trying to get me to play for years.

Each of the kids chose a game for me to play: Portal 2, Mario Kart and Call of Duty.

Portal 2 was on the PS3.  I found the whole moving and looking around simultaneously thing quite hard - two little joysticks and some buttons for jumping and firing portals at the same time.  I disgusted the lads (and had Mark agreeing with me) by preferring "inverted" controls. Apparently people have different views on whether the command Look Up means you tilt the joystick up or down.  Charlie Brooker and Dara O'Briain have a long-running disagreement about it. I'm with Brooker - I push forward to look down and back to tilt my view upwards.
A nice thing about Portal 2  -  as there was no time pressure I could work each puzzle out and try again and again until I could move about without crashing into stuff constantly.  I didn't have to kill anything or get yelled at, I could work it out myself in a calm environment.
The story of Portal 2 contains plenty of wit and imagination.  It was a quirky and interesting game. 6/10

Mario Kart on the Wii U with the game pad was a very different controller.  The touch screen was nice - just like my iPad  - but I found the holding position a little uncomfortable when using it as a steering wheel in the game.  It is a brightly coloured and noisy game - like a soft play centre had thrown up on my TV screen. 
 The pressure to go fast and keep up - even on the slowest setting - had me clenching my feet and forgetting to breathe.  When I finished the races I had a dent in my thumb from pressing the A key so hard.
After my 3 warm up races we had a multi-player race.  It was awful.  The quartered screen didn't give me enough of a idea where I was going so I was endlessly crashing, going the wrong way and falling off the track.  My best race position was coming 11 out of 12 and I couldn't wait for the noise to end.
Not for me. 4/10

For Call of Duty I was back on the PS3.  This is a FPS - a first person shooter - which meant everything I saw was from my character's perspective.  I had the same move/look around controls as Portal 2 with the added aiming and firing, swapping between weaponry and being under time pressure as ghastly zombies came to kill me.
It was utterly horrible.  I couldn't control anything worth a damn, the look of the game was dark and horrid, the actual point of the game was all the things I don't like - violence, horror, fear - and I felt a knot in my stomach the second I started. I don't find shooting things remotely fun and I hate horror movies. (I am a wuss who gets nightmares) I think Zach was right to choose it for me as I couldn't really say I'd had a go at video games without trying a FPS.  But bloody hell it was unpleasant and I am NEVER going to do it again.
0 out of 10.

When we return to this project Mark will sew a little lavender bag on my sewing machine and B will try a physical activity she hasn't before.

I'm proud of my gang for entering into the spirit of things with such positivity. I like it when we all Fearlessly Attempt things.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Books, wine and red noses

I love books.  Not just reading, but books.  I surprised myself by disliking my Kindle very much when I got one -  I loved my iPhone and iPad, I'm not technology-averse, but I hadn't realised how much the physicality of a book mattered to me. A Kindle is handy for travelling (which I rarely do) and it would save on shelf space (a constant issue).  But if I really want to read something, I need an actual book.

The downside of this book fetish is that we never have enough space to keep all the books we have.  With 3 reading-mad kids the problem is only getting worse, so some years ago I hit on the perfect way to pass on books - a book swap party.

This is how it works:

I invite everyone I know on an open house basis. We all pile books we aren't likely to read again on the tables, have a good rummage for new things to read,  drink a lot of wine while chatting to people about the books, and put £1 in the charity pot for each book we take home.

Genius, don't you think?  Everyone gets rid of books they don't need and can choose new ones, we have a good time and whichever charity I've picked gets some money.  A good deal for everyone.

This year I chose to raise money for Comic Relief.  Red Nose Day is a month away but there's no reason not to start early.  Also, I'd been looking forward to the craft book Comic Relief was issuing this year, so I guess they were on my mind.

Miss B was enthusiastic 


She did a lovely job on the signs and negotiated a later bedtime so she could chat to people and look for books.

I'd baked some cheese straws, although as it was nearly St Valentine's day I made them in heart shapes.  I love cheese pastries. I use a Nigella Lawson recipe from the kids' section in How To Eat, but with mature cheddar and smoked paprika. The trouble is, no matter how many I make they never quite last long enough.
2 of 6 trays I baked
When the people came I had a brilliant time.  We chatted, I poured drinks and offered snacks, greeted newcomers and prevented my over-enthusiastic kids from absconding with the crisps. I relied on the shared experience of the books to get people talking. I love the book chatter I hear from the swapping tables - the "I loved that one," "Ooo, my mum read this and liked it," even the "Just hated it." The shared experience and enjoyment, or the strong difference of opinion... it's just ace.  Books are such parcels of happiness.

My Very Excellent Mate Emma brought along a copy of her latest book for children, Wild Thing Goes Camping which she kindly let me raffle off on her behalf, and dedicated the book to the winning child.  Another tenner for Comic Relief and a very lucky girl - thanks Emma!

The last of my friends left about 11:30, leaving behind a kitchen full of used wine glasses and a full charity jar.  There were some bottles of wine too, so Mark and I "bought" them from the book swap and popped money in the jar.

I was too wide awake at that point, so I settled in with The Great British Sewing Bee to unwind.  I can't resist the Bake Off, Sewing Bee and Allotment Challenge.  I love enthusiasts having a go. Fearlessly attempting, even.

The next morning, having raised over £90 for Comic Relief with the books we swapped, there were still heaps left.  I could have had another event with the leftovers! by evening they were all delivered to the charity shop and we'd moved the furniture back to its normal position.


That's it until next year.  I wonder how many more book swaps I can host before ebooks kill it off.  A fair few more, I hope.

J xx

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Birthday Hijinks

December may be given over to Christmas (despite being the birthday months of my friends, father-in-law and the fabulous Miss B) but the party doesn't stop with New Year.  With more birthdays than you can shake a stick at, January is a busy month too.

Miss B has more birthdays than the Queen. She had her ACTUAL birthday in December, celebrated with just us, a party tea in early January with her best friend Olivia and our ace WildThing Family mates who came to visit, and her party with school friends in mid January, which was divided into a party for 7 and a sleepover for 3. More of that in a moment.

Zach became a teenager this past month. We went out for dinner as a family on the night itself. With mates he didn't want a big celebration, just some close friends to sleep over after gaming through the night. He wanted a black forest cake like the one mentioned in Portal and Portal 2, but everyone knows that cake is a lie.  It said so right on top of it.
(piped with not-properly-melted chocolate on not-quite-set icing as he came down the stairs, so it was pretty messy)

Two nieces, my brother and my mum all have January birthdays as well. I'd taken over gifts for Neil and the girls with the Christmas stuff, but was uselessly behind with Mum's present.  I was making her a padded iPad cover, nice and snug to protect it when she travels, but I messed up the measurements and made it 2mm too tight. So I had to start again, and thus post it a bit late.  Not exactly ideal, but at least the finished present was nice.


I was really pleased with Bonnie's party this year.  I wanted to keep it fairly low-cost while still being loads of fun and something a little different.  Knowing how much she  loves to dress up and preen, we decided on a "photo shoot."

I ordered some photo props on sticks made from card - glasses, moustaches, bow ties - through eBay for about £4.  We moved the big mirror into the kitchen, propped it on the table as a dressing area, and heaped costume jewellery, hair clips, scarves, hats, shawls and anything else we could think or up for the kids to play with.

Using a double duvet cover hung from a shelving unit as a backdrop and old bedside lamps to improve the lighting, we had our "studio."

 A couple of old frames with the pictures and glass removed and we were set for the party guests.  Of course, we needed a couple of practise models to make sure the lights and backdrop would work ok.    What can I say, I've a face for radio.

The girls had a fantastic time.  I took the pictures with my iPhone, nothing fancy, and kept a tick sheet next to me to ensure I got several photos of each child.  I didn't want to discover as I went to print them out I had 25 of Emily and none of Aaliyah (which nearly happened. Aaliyah is much the quietest of them all).  In fact, the person I got fewest pictures of in the end was Miss B herself.  She was so busy chatting, dancing and helping her friends create 'looks' she nearly forgot to be photographed.
One girl so heavily disguised even her mum didn't immediately recognise her!
I took loads of pictures in which the kids gurned, posed, went all Vogue and gangsta, and nearly fell down laughing.  It was great fun.


Then I put out the food for them to dig into before settling them down to watch Maleficent on DVD in one room while I edited and printed off the photos in the other.  Each girl got her photos as a party bag, along with cake and sweets. I bought 3-packs of those little perspex blocks that hold a crocodile clip for displaying a photo, so each party-goer got her own best shot displayed.  I emailed the others to their mums.

All in all, with the cake, sandwiches, brownies, mini-cupcakes, crisps, hummus, veg sticks, grapes, blackcurrant squash, party bag bits and photo paper, I think the cost of the party came to under £40.  My Very Excellent Mate Kirsty loaned us the DVD and most of the dressing up things were items we had already - especially hats.  We do love hats. One of the most fun and affordable parties I've done in ages. 

Before I took the photo studio down, Luke did a quick Zombie Apocalypse 3-D pose. Try not have nightmares OK? If you feed him pizza he probably won't kill you.



Sunday, 18 January 2015

Taking Stock - This Year's Fearless List

Last year I listed some of the things I found the very thought of rather tricky. Pah! I knew NOTHING.

In 6 months of mentoring from the lovely Andrew Edwards at BBC Radio Leeds, I did so many things I was scared stiff of that my earlier list seems laughable. Walking up to total strangers to ask their views on a subject  - without the shield of a BBC ID badge or other legitimising item - was scary enough.  Interviewing people terrified me but I did it.  Interviewing people on topics I knew nothing about was harder still. Trying for an interview I didn't have to edit - eek!  I never managed that to a decent standard but even trying it freaked me out.
Source of many scary tasks

Then there was the techie side - trying to work out for myself how to edit and tweak a piece with just the software on my laptop.  I got pretty good, considering. (Considering I know nothing and I never mess about with my computer just to see what it does. And I'm a pretty analogue person in a digital world)

From last year's list I did do daily exercise for a month, read Lord of the Flies, ate meat and something aniseed (still hate aniseed, still find the taste of meat fine but the texture distressing. Except pastrami, which is ace), and even kept my opinion to myself several times.  It nearly choked me, so I doubt I'll make a habit of it.  I didn't knit something other than a scarf but I did learn to crochet toys and made two - a rabbit and a dragon - and that blanket for Miss B's birthday, so I consider that a yarn-based ambition fulfilled.
Remember him?
Looking forward, what are the things that seem tricky, intimidating yet worth having a go at this year? I've had a good think about the areas of my life that aren't quite right, and what I could challenge myself to do to improve them.

I'm in the midst of giving up wine. Well, not entirely, but drastically reducing my wine drinking. Mark and I always have wine with our dinner, and then more while watching TV.  It just crept up over the years.  So we're mostly giving up alcohol except for the odd occasion - like my ballet weekend and last night, after hosting Miss B's birthday party.  Cripes, that was a draining day. I've 3 or 4 more things coming up in the next 2 months that I won't mind my having a glass of wine at, but that's about it. The plan is to continue in this vein until spring. It's good for our health and our bank balance. I know both could do with the boost!

I've also realised I'm lonely. I used to see people far more often - whether it was my marvellous pal Julie at sewing class and pilates, the truly ace Emma on our dog walks, or even my monthly book group with women I've been friends with for over 10 years.  Somehow I've retreated inwards and just don't see most of my friends very often. Thank heavens for my mate Kirsty and our procrastination coffees. Without them I might never see anyone. And the less I see people the easier it is to retreat inwards - never a good thing for me. I need people.

Essentially, I'm now unemployed. The school is offering loads of free clubs run by staff members, so demand for the clubs I run (that they pay for) has dried up. Understandably.  In fact, I think it's good for the school and good for parents (Miss B attends a couple and I'm grateful for the free activities) but it means I only had 2 sets of lessons to teach instead of 6.  I'm only baking a couple of cakes a week for Haley and Clifford's regulars, as wholesale baking margins just evaporated in the rising cost of ingredients and power. The franchise "Eggfree (in tiny letters) Cake Box (in big letters) played merry hell with my bespoke cake business, what with using the same damned name to all intents and purposes.  And the more pricey wedding/celebration cake end of things was something I did under sufferance anyway.

So I need a new way to spend my days. For the first time I have no day to day business and no tiny children at home. I need to look into ways to earn money without doing a soul-destroying job I hate, or to volunteer/train at something worthwhile. That could help with the loneliness thing too. The lack of schoolyard chatting, toddler group mornings and work interactions (and the lack of a home-educated kid, who gave me 18 months of good company at one point) and the lack of cash to go out and about only compounds things.

I don't want to think of myself as someone who doesn't work, doesn't contribute to the world, hides away from people. Although in the long dark stretch of the year, those are the easy choices. If I'm to be the Me I like, I need to alter this.

Still, making changes is scary.  Even looking into possibilities of changes is scary.  It is particularly so for me - for the last 16 years I haven't dared to look more than 6 months ahead, and the thought of the future repels me completely.  In fact, since I was about 25, the only time I've been happy to look ahead a year or two was when I was planning my first baby. The future - my future - scares me rigid.  But this blog is called Fearlessly Attempting, not Shying Away From, so I'd better up my game.

 Here are things I'd like to Fearlessly Attempt at least some of this year-

  • Give up regular alcohol consumption until Spring
  • Look for a new way of earning a living
  • See friends regularly
  • Attend at least 5 book group meetings 
  • Have a week of decluttering one room a day.  A month of decluttering weekends would do too
  • Walk 30km in a month
  • Sew something someone could wear (me or the kids)
  • Sew a copy of my favourite tunic by making a pattern from it
  • Learn a new skill
  • Go to a WI meeting
  • Volunteer on a weekly basis 
  • Apply to work at a community radio station
  • Learn to quilt  (please help, Liz Merckel!)
  • Build a new garden project
Yikes.

One thing I have decluttered already is my work shelving unit.  It was covered in a profusion of baking supplies and equipment, all jumbled together. Much of it I no longer need, other bits could be consolidated.  However, downsizing the baking shelves felt like admitting I wasn't working anymore, so I'd put it off.
Happily (!!) my craft supplies were slowly eating my bedroom.  It was chaos.  My lovely calm room was in a dreadful state and I had nowhere to put anything.  It was depressing.  But it was also the spur I needed.

So, I attacked the shelves. I binned some things, reorganised others, bought more IKEA small crates and labelled everything with my Sharpie. I have a shelf for cake boxes, boards and packaging, one for ingredients and the top shelf for things I only occasionally need, like sugar craft supplies and jam-making things.  I have 2 shelves for fabric, needle felting, craft supplies, pens, projects and equipment. The old CD shelves are stuffed with yarn (it looks like a wool shop!) and the tiny wall-mounted boxes that used to hold cupcake sprinkles now hold the kids' Hamma beads, sorted by colour.

It's ACE.  I can find stuff.

Here's a shot of it, part way through:

So, lots to think about, lots to do.  I wish you luck with your aspirations, and I'll let you know how I get on with mine.
J xx