Category Archives: Passions

All my posts about things-about-which-I-am-passionate-other-than-writing: you’ll find posts here on parenting, knitting, cooking, frugality, the environment, gardening and whatever else catches my eye this week.

All-Edition Books One Step Closer?

Ever since I’ve had my Kindle—or perhaps more precisely, since they introduced the kind-of-crappy and disproportionately controversial text to speech feature— I’ve been longing for a day when I could be reading my book in the house and then get in the car and listen to the audio version, which would, like my Kindle, pick up from where I left off.

And now, Jeff Bezos has apparently been peeking inside my head again, because lo! What did I find on the Kindle edition page for “Happier at Home” by Gretchen Rubin, but this little tidbit?

VersaText from Amazon and Audible


My Reading Nirvana

When Audible came along and offered audio books at an accessible price in digital format I jumped, LEAPED, on that bandwagon. (Seriously, the Audible booth at the New York Book Fair in 1999 was down the same neglected side alley as that of my then-company Xlibris. Two guys huddled in the Audible booth looking lonely, and I dashed up to them to tell them I was a fan and a subscriber and to thank them for the service. They looked a little non-plussed, but I was happy!). The only flaw I ever saw with audio books (beyond the cost, which had made them a library-only possibility for me until this point) was that sometimes I didn’t want to listen, I wanted to read. But at least picking up a $6 paperback duplicate was a realistic options, so hey.

Long before ebooks were a reality I was frustrated with paper books’ inability to remind me where I left off or help me find the first instance of when “Piotr” turned up in a book I hadn’t picked up for a while and how he fitted into the story. Then along came the PDF and the Palm Pilot and the Jornada with their proto-ebooks, complete with search function.

Then came my long-term love, the Kindle, to make ebooks (and the process of buying them) work properly.  Much as I fell deeply, passionately in love with my precious Kindle, I almost immediately hated it for making me want to read ALL THE TIME. I started to fantasize about the day when I’d be able to put down my Kindle and hop into the car, or stand at the sink washing dishes, or fold laundry, and have my story read to me while I couldn’t be staring at the page. The crude Text-To-Speech function hinted at a better world, but scared the pants off the people who look after authors’ rights (since selling the audio book rights to your work is such a lucrative side deal for authors and publishers, and deservedly so. There’s a lot of work in a good audio edition).

I always suspected Amazon would come up with a better (and fairer) solution. I even said the fateful words, “I’d be willing to pay a bit more for access to all the different editions. Seems reasonable.”

The Price Of Wishful Thinking

In this case, the price is, well, double the price of the Kindle edition of the ebook. But that’s bound to change as the idea catches on. I think a ‘bundled edition’ price, closer to the traditional trade-paperback price might be where titles from big publishers settle. But even now, the Kindle and Audible editions together (which, by the way, sync up with each other, so you can keep going from where you left off in either device, just like I wanted!!!!!) is slightly less than the list price for the hardback.

I’m bouncing in my chair a little.

I’m such a fangirl of Amazon. I know the Author’s Guild is deeply wary of them, publishers barely tolerate them and other booksellers see them as evil incarnate, and I understand all these things. But as a reader and a lover of books and someone who is interested in the progress of literature over tradition, and yes even as a writer, I am THRILLED that Amazon keeps coming up with ideas that are designed to delight the reader. It’s not a common concern within the book industry as a whole. I’m sad to say that, but I’ve been inside and I’ve never seen anything that has lead me to believe I’m wrong in saying it. Apart from Amazon.

So thank you, Mr Bezos. We are obviously book-brain-twins and I’m glad you’re in business.

Let The Summer Time Roll

I enjoyed our two weeks away, and it was definitely long enough for me to start thinking about all the things I wanted to do when I got back.

There are many writing-related things, of course, but I’m trying to let them take a back-seat to family life, since I have my boys (9 and 7) all to myself for two and a bit more months. That’s a backseat, not ‘getting out of the car and wandering off’, Write-Brain, ya hear me?

So anyhoo, today was the first day of Operation Summer.

Before we left I had purchased three recorders (yes, the musical kind) and two instructional books with the plan of getting the boys good enough to play from the Star Wars and Harry Potter books I had also bought. A has already had some recorder lessons at school and scurried off in an ‘it’s-too-early’ grump this morning, but I managed to snag the sweetly-enthusiastic 7 yo, G. I got him to stop making hideous screeching noises by showing him how the holes make impressions on your finger pads — if you’re doing it right. He was quite tickled by that. Then we went through the book’s lessons on note-length. I’ll say it one more time: the boy has rhythm!

He managed to successfully, if not consistently, play B, A & G, and I left the lesson there for today.

I confess to being a complete wimp when it comes to grocery shopping and doing it almost always when the boys are at school. So much so that the thought of having to take them with me today filled me with a kind of cold horror reserved by most people for public speaking and death. But I know that part of my job as a parent is to prepare my children to take their place in the real world and function without a mum or a wife or a paid staff to manage their affairs. So I made a list and told myself that I would take them to the shop and send them out to find things and all would be well.

Still I managed to stave it off for a while by saying ‘no, no, leave him with me’ when one of the neighbours sent her son over to play then sneakily announced her intention to slope off to the doctor’s. (Really, it was great; the boys burned off some energy and I got to feel like I did a good deed – even though it mostly involved not-having-to-entertain-my-kids-myself. Win!)

But eventually I could put it off no longer (well, I could have. Of course I could have. We could have eaten chicken breast with Kraft Mac’n’cheese instead of with broccoli and beets and I could have fed the boys month-old Frosties for breakfast).

i put on some soothing classical music in the car, to calm things down on the drive to the store. (It actually worked pretty well. I’m sure it will never work again.) All was calm and serene as we piled out of the minivan and scampered across the grocery store parking lot, the soles of our shoes threatening to melt right off on the boiling tarmac (really! It was like that scene from Terminator 2 where the T-1000 gets stuck to the ground by the liquid nitrogen. Except hot. Not cold. And our feet didn’t actually break off. OK it was nothing like that, but we just watched it again and the image is stuck in my head. Sue me. Unless you’re James Cameron in which case, don’t. You don’t need my money.)

The serenity was quickly broken by cries of ‘quit it’ and “he’s touching me!” and all sorts of joys of childhood that MY children are supposed to be above. I don’t know why this drives parents quite as crazy as it does, given that we were all once children imprisoned in relationships with irritating siblings who knew just which buttons to press to get us in trouble for whining about something THEY did, but it does. Maybe it’s the sheer relentlessness of it. I have been poked so often in that one spot, that just hearing the edge of a whine in a voice makes me wince as if someone has punched me.

In the store I let A drive the trolley for a while until my nerves finally frayed (lord help me when he’s old enough to actually drive). Then I sent the boys out on errands for various fruits and vegetables, but confess to losing heart a little when both boys forsook their quest for their stated heart’s desire – raspberries – to instead marvel at (and hit each other in the face with) a fruit that looked like Banakaffalatta from that Spaceship Titanic Doctor Who Christmas Special with Kyle Minogue. Sending A alone into the dark interior of the produce section to find a solitary orange resulted in my having to mount a rescue party and retrieve him from his position staring blankly at the orange display, clutching a little net bag of pearl onions hopefully in one hand. (“We could make pickled onions!” he said, quite truthfully. We still, however, lacked an orange.)

Somewhere along the line G touched something then stuck his finger in his eye, resulting in a frighteningly blood-red orb leering up from among the brassicas, and A managed to convince met to buy more chips and chocolate than were strictly necessary, but we finally made it to the checkout. Where we were slo-o-o-wly checked out by a boy whose mother really should have taken HIM to the grocery store more often when he was 9 or 7. (“Is this celery?” “No dear, it’s broccoli.”)

All I can say is ‘thank you, Reader’s Digest, for placing your humor issue on the supermarket checkout stands this week. Both boys seized upon it and all was calm as “Zack” picked his red-faced way through my spring onions and (heaven help us!) beets.


My celery sensitivity has made many pre-prepared foods a minefield for me -soup and stock among them – so I am currently simmering up a batch of chicken stock, and have already made a teriyaki marinade for tomorrow night’s flank steak (hello, barbecue!). I have part of a chicken tikka marinade ready too, so I’m feeling pretty good about this shopping trip and its results.

Tomorrow morning I plan to use some of the bounty of apples I inadvertently let the boys sneak into the cart to teach A how to make apple pie. From scratch. With nothing but a knife and a rolling pin and the able tutelage of Delia Smith. And that’ll give us a good home for the evaporated milk A wanted to buy.


A insisted on picking up some living parsley while we were in the produce section. I was quite surprised when he, very responsibly insisted on planting it this evening. Sadly he decided to do it right when the mozzies were at their most voracious, but hey. We also scratched out a couple of lines in the soil for carrots. A could definitely be a gardener. That’s something to work on this summer as one of the many ongoing little projects.


I’m also planning on making the boys memorize poetry this summer, because it’s awesome and a huge contributor to one’s ability to use the language properly. While I wait for their materials to arrive, I stalked around the upstairs of the house re-familiarizing myself with “Casey At The Bat” which I learned a couple of years ago but then forgot. I’m using the ‘memory palace’ method to assist me (Google it). In my head, the outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine on my front porch, and Casey advances to the bat in my dining room. And if that didn’t make any sense at all, you need to a, read the poem and b, Google ‘memory palace’.


I’m making fingerless gauntlets. Because it’s 100 degrees.

And that’s what I did on my summer vacation. So far.

Lemon Water In the Morning

I keep running across articles about the health benefits of drinking lemon water on ye Internets, so you know, it must be true:

lemon water pitcher

While I’m extremely skeptical of their ‘scientific’ content, there are a few points I can’t argue with:

  • It’s pretty
  • It encourages me to drink more water, when I have a pitcher of the stuff on my desk.
  • It keeps my coffee intake lower.
  • Drinking more water discourages me from mindless snacking AND makes my skin look fab-u-lous – something I need to think about with That Big Birthday staring down at me from the calendar.
  • It’s really tasty.
  • It does seem to be helping me lose weight (possibly because of the points above, more than any other reason).


I don’t have a lemon press and wouldn’t want to have to clean a juicer every day, so here’s how I prepare my lemon water, in case you want to follow my healthy example:

  1. Wash a whole lemon and slice it as thinly as you can 1
  2. Drop the slices into a half-gallon pitcher – the prettier the better: you’ll be more likely to keep it around.
  3. Chuck ice cubes on top of the lemons until the pitcher is about half full.
  4. Slowly fill the pitcher with water.
  5. While you’re waiting for the pitcher to fill, wash your chopping board and knife and then give your knife a quick sharpen so that tomorrow’s lemon slices will be paper thin tomorrow. 2
  6. Grab a glass and your pitcher, head to your desk et voila, healthy sugar-free water that will taste better and better with every glass.

I do refill my pitcher if I get through it, and the second batch is lemony from the get-go.

So that’s my advice: slice, drink and be merry!

  1. Thin slices mean more of the lemon’s flesh is exposed. More surface area means more of the lemony goodness. Discard seeds that fall out as you’re slicing. Do this in a beam of sunlight for added happiness.
  2. There is nothing quite as therapeutic as starting your day by slowly torturing a fruit with a razor-sharp knife. It really gets the frustrations out.

Frugal Flapjacks (cereal bars – not pancakes) Recipe

When I was back in Scotland this summer I rediscovered several things I had completely forgotten about. One of these things was, oh joy, Flapjacks.

Flapjacks are not, as in the US, pancakes, but rather a gooey cereal bar consisting mostly of butter and golden syrup and oats, cut into squares and served almost anywhere you can get a cup of coffee or tea. They might have stuff in them (dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, lemon, spices, anything you can imagine, really) or they might have stuff drizzled on top (icing, chocolate, sticky stuff of all descriptions), or they might come gratuitously naked (it is Europe, after all). In any form however – as long as the baker has included the right amount of gooeyness – they are universally delicious.

Since we’ve been back I’ve fallen into the trap of buying bags of factory-made, individually-portioned, never-go-stale snacks for the boys. This, in spite of the fact that I love to cook, I prefer to feed them real food 1, I don’t like to encourage the deforestation of the rainforest 2, I like to be frugal where I can 3, and I have major guilt about waste 4.

So, thanks to the magic of the Internet I was able to find a few recipes for UK-style flapjacks to set me on the right path. I made a trial batch. The boys’ eyes spun around in their heads several times and I had to hide the rest of the batch (in the freezer, in case you’re coming over), which I took to mean that they wouldn’t mind finding these tucked into their lunch boxes from time to time.  So I made another batch today while waiting in for a dishwasher repair man who, it turns out, isn’t coming. Again. 5

And, because I know you’ll ask, here’s today’s version.

(It is very caramel-y, not overpoweringly sweet6.)



  • 4 oz butter (I like salted)
  • 1/2 cup soft brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons Golden Syrup (can be hard to find in the US, but makes all the difference to the taste)
  • 1 3/4 cups Old-fashioned/Rolled oats
  • 1/3 cup chopped dried dates (taster’s note: you could definitely use more if you really like dates)


1. Preheat oven to 300 F. Line a 7×9 or 8×10 pan with baking parchment and butter (you can go more eco-friendly by avoiding the parchment, but you’ll have to butter the pan generously and it might be a bit more difficult to get the flapjacks out). I used a ceramic pan and the edges did not burn.

2. Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan or in a large bowl in the microwave, being careful not to burn.

3. Stir in the oats and the dates until coated with the buttery mixture. You can add spices at this point if you wish. I know how much you Americans love your cinnamon…

4. Slop the whole lot into the prepared dish, flatten it out, and bake for 30 minutes. Cooking time may have to be adjusted if you are a, using a smaller pan; b, using a metal pan – watch out for charred edges. You’ll know the flapjacks are ready when the oats look toasty, there is no evidence of bubbling liquid at the edges and your house starts to smell so good that the squirrels are tapping impatiently on the windows.

5. Pull out of the oven and allow to cool slowly. When it is still slightly warm and soft, pull the whole thing out onto a chopping board. Slice the big flapjack into 12 little square flapjacks and allow to cool the rest of the way.

Julie's Date Flapjacks

You can store these in the freezer and they’ll last quite a long time. A frozen flapjack, pulled out and tucked into a lunchbox, should be perfect for eating at lunch or snack time. And honestly, if you have strong teeth, you can treat yourself to one with just a few minutes notice…




I’m currently using cling film/plastic wrap to wrap them, but will soon be investing in some Wrap-n-Mat pouches to hold them (I already like their sandwich wrappers but only 50% of my children will eat sandwiches…)



Convenience food is so pervasive where I live that I think people lose confidence in their ability to make something delicious without setting aside great amounts of time or effort. I also think people lose sight of how much money you can save with a little effort. These flapjacks are an awesome illustration of both these issues. The prep work takes almost no time. They bake quickly and it’s hard to screw them up, unless you put too little mix in too big a pan and end up with paving stones, instead of flapjacks. But you have to try pretty hard to get them wrong.

In terms of cost, I worked it out for you. Even allowing for the exotic Golden Syrup (which was far and away the most expensive single item, but which will last through 21 batches of these babies), these flapjacks came out to $0.17 per serving (assuming you can eat only one at a time and call that a serving). My little pre-packaged snack packs cost $0.50 each.

If I served a snack like this to both of my children every day for a year, the pre-packaged snacks would cost me $365. The home-made snack would cost me $124.

Holey moley. Quite apart from the fact that I just blew hundreds of dollars on snacks for the boys alone (ha!), at least the home-made version saves me $241 7

So go forth: cook good food for your little ones … and treat yourself to something nice with the savings ;)



  2. Thank you, cute Lego exhibit at the Philly Zoo a couple of years ago, for ruining Oreos for me, forever – or until someone can convince Nabisco to stop using Palm Oil
  3. More money for gadgets!
  4. Six packets generate one cardboard box and six foil packets worth of waste. If I were any kind of mathematician (and if it weren’t trash day) I’d break down one of those boxes and some of those packages and give you measurements and area and volume. But you get the picture.
  5. His loss. He’d have got a flapjack if he had turned up. I, however, can hand-wash dishes for the rest of my life with no such suffering
  6. And yes, I did fall off the low-carb wagon, thanks for noticing
  7. Or as I like to think of it, the first half of an iPhone 5…

Fun Food For Kids – Dinner Bricks

I like to feed my kids real food as much as possible – rather than something processed and canned and overpriced — so I like to cook for them.

Back when they were babies I cooked everything for them. But when they were hungry, there was no time for  waiting around for chopping, steaming, pureeing.

One of my friends introduced me to the genius idea of making batches of steamed, pureed vegetables, freezing them in iceblock trays and then tipping them out and quickly zapping one or two whenever I needed them.

Fast-forward six years. My kids are still hungry NOW! (with the exclamation mark).

Last month when I was cooking up some pasta for lunch, I realised (ka-pow!) that I could make a huge batch and freeze some individual portions for later. But how to store them? I dont’ have much freezer space so lumpy bagfuls of unidentified frozen dinner tend to get buried and forgotten and quickly fill up the freezer. I’ve toyed with squeezing the storage bags flat, but even at that, they end up slipping and sliding and causing a slippery, pointy avalanche whenever I open the freezer; plus I run into the problem of reheating them quickly inside their plastic prisons which, I’m assured, is not the most healthy option. (mmm, melted plastic).

Enter The Dinner Brick

While an icecube tray would no longer fill the stomachs of my growing lads, I realized I had, in my pantry, a nine-portion mini-loaf pan.

Dinner brick pan

I lined the pans one at a time with cling film 1, dolloped in a three quarters of a cup full of pasta and meat sauce, wrapped up each portion and shoved the whole pan into the top of the freezer.

When they came out: bricks of nutritious goodness ready for the zapping.

(Sorry I didn’t take any pictures.  We just polished off the last one at lunch time)

Updated: I took a picture of the next batch!


The Fun Part

When I first pulled one of my little packets out of the freezer I was being hounded by a hungry six year old.

“What can I have? What will you make me?” he repeated.

Losing patience I slapped one of my nutritional super-packets down on the quartz surface where it made a KLONK loud enough to silence the boy for a moment.

“That.” I said. “A dinner brick.”


Admittedly, I did have to endure about five minutes of wailing about how he didn’t want a brick for dinner while I defrosted and reheated said item, but when he was finally presented with a steaming plate of pasta and meat sauce (liberally dusted with grated parmesan), his face lit up, and he dashed off to tell his brother that he was getting to eat a Dinner Brick, like it was the most exciting thing in thing in the world. 2


I’m planning on making more batches of Dinner Bricks in different flavors and contents, so that the journey of discovery can continue! I’m thinking mini shepherd’s pies, next…

And so, I give you: the Dinner Brick. Use it well.

  1. I know, still plastic, but easy to get the food out of after freezing
  2. there was something very sci-fi about putting a solid rectangle into a box, pressing a button and being rewarded with a plate of real food!

Looking for Wool To Finish a Knitting Project?

Swatching on 4mms

Knitters, crocheters, yarn-fans everywhere, this one is for you:

You’re working on a project. You’re proud that you’ve almost finished but then, the unthinkable happens. You run out of wool!

What to do? You know you’ll never find the right colour or dyelot at your local yarn store, because this project has been on the needles for years.

Ravel It

Try looking for the wool in someone else’s stash, listed on Ravelry (you are a member, aren’t you? Aren’t you?!).

Lots of people have the odd ball of yarn in their stash that they put up for sale or exchange. It’s all in the database, waiting for you to find it.

Go here and enter your yarn name.

Check the  “will trade or sell” box (this means someone has marked the yarn, in their stash, as something they’re willing to part with)

Scroll further down to make other refinements to your search. (You can even  filter it by country too, to avoid int’l shipping rates)

If you can’t find it on Ravelry, you can also look on ebay, which often has a good yarn stash, but less likelihood that someone will simply swap with you.

Build Your Own Leaf Bin

[This is from the archives, but it’s the perfect time to pull out this post again]

I hate waste, so autumn drives me kind of crazy. All my neighbours sweep their leaves to the front kerb, where a big borough lorry comes along and sucks them up. Then, in the spring, everyone has a truck load of mulch delivered.

I say: stop the insanity! Use your own leaves to make your own mulch! Build a leaf bin!

leafbinsupplies It doesn’t take much. Just a roll of hardware cloth, a piece of scrap wood and a way to fasten them together (I used a cable staple gun that we had lying around.

I bought a 10′ roll of 3′ tall, 1/4″ mesh landscape fabric from the local big hardware store.

Step 1: Unroll the hardware cloth and lay it flat on the ground. Stomp on it a bit to get it to unroll if you need to. No need to get it totally flat, though, as you’ll want it to roll up again in a minute. Building A Leaf Bin
Building A Leaf Bin Step 2: fold one end of the mesh around the piece of wood (which should be just a bit taller than 3′, so you can bash the end of it into the ground to help support your leaf bin). Staple the mesh to the wood, all along the length.
Step 3: Fold the mesh over so the free end is touching the wood. Building A Leaf Bin
Building A Leaf Bin Step 4: Staple the end to the wood, as neatly as you can while wrangling 10′ of metal mesh.
Step 5: Stand it up. The mesh is strong enough to support itself, but the wood helps. You can then pound the wood into the ground to hold your new leaf bin in place. You can also use metal or wood stakes to define its shape a bit better and give it extra stability. Building A Leaf Bin
Building A Leaf Bin Building A Leaf Bin

Shred your leaves with a lawnmower or a leaf muncher; pile them up and let the microbes save you a pile of money. Know what’s in the mulch you’re putting on your soil (nothing but natural ingredients).

Strasburg Train by jwordsmith

No Money for Public Transportation in Energy Bill

Strasburg Train by jwordsmithSo, remember when Barack Obama stood up and said we were going to have to increase public transportation to help with the energy issue?

I cheered, but thought ‘no way you’re getting the people I know in the US to take public transport’.

Then I heard this report about how teenagers are less likely to get their drivers’ license straight away these days (in the 70s, 75% of 16 year olds had their learner’s permit. Now it’s more like 50%). The article went on to talk about how it’s harder for them to find time to learn later, after college, when they’re working and liable for the full cost without their parents’ help.

Yah, though I. We’re going to HAVE to increase public transportation, for that next generation!

But apparently not. According to Green Planet, there is no money in the new Energy Bill for public transportation.

And if there is no money for public transportation, going IN to the committees I can’t see anyone adding it.


I took a look at the Politifact site, who are keeping track of the campaign promises. And it seems the record on Transportation is not all doom and gloom. Sure, a couple of things are stalled, but there are some good things happening.

There was money for high-speed railways (something this country could use. Trains are slower than buses here.) and general public transportation improvements in the stimulus bill. There’s a new way for employers to give tax breaks to employees if they use public transportation instead of only being able to give benefits for car-based schemes like carpooling. And there are a bunch of other promises on transportation that are ‘in the works’.

So look at that. A little research and my big outrage-bubble has just lost all of its air. My rant has turned into a reasoned look at the world.

Oh, now I can see why the news outlets and ‘agenda’ websites don’t bother doing research and reporting both sides of stories. It makes for a much less fiesty report and fewer outraged commenters.

Or am I just being cynical?

Best Chocolate Buttercream Icing EVER

(as defined by my seven year-old son, so you know it’s good!)

This is a delicious, rich dark chocolate butter-cream frosting recipe, with hints of orange. Perfect for icing an 9×13 cake or 8″ or 9″ round layer cake.
Rich and chocolatey. No eggs in the mixture, but firm enough to spread.  Substitute vanilla essence or other fruit flavoring if you don’t want the Cointreau/alcohol.

Julie's Birthday Cake

Julie’s Orange Chocolate Icing


3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
4oz salted butter, softened
1/2 cup Dark Hershey’s cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk
1 tbsp Cointreau


1. Pile all ingredient into a bowl and beat until smooth.

2. Eat.

(This much icing will more than ice the middle, top and sides of an 8″ double-layer sponge cake.