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.

Hey, Yarn is Yarn, right?

When I was about 11 I took a notion to try tapestry, even though I knew nothing about it.

They had taught us some rudimentary needle skills at primary school (the girls were whisked off once a week to do needlework while the boys mucked about with paints. I have always been grateful for that, even though it seemed a bit anti-feminist at the time).

I think I had also started reading Jean Plaidy historical romances and the heroines were always sitting around making tapestries, when they weren’t being ravished, or raced through the countryside in the dark to avoid A Terrible Fate.

My Granny was the needle-woman in our family, and also the only one who ever had a stash of spare cash (those tapestry kits ain’t cheap, kids), and so she was tapped to talk to Santa about getting it for me. That Christmas I was delighted to receive a tapestry kit of horses (which I was very into at that age) running through the surf.

Granny joked that it would keep me going for the next two years. I laughed. She was right.

I set it down and came back to it over those two years and in the process of finishing it, learned a lot about colour and painting and patience.

I haven’t done any needlepoint or cross stitch since, and I’ve never really felt tempted. I like my knitting because I can do it while I’m doing other things, while fancy needlework requires good light and ‘eyes on the canvas’.

Then I saw this:

Klimt Tapestry Cushion Kit in Coral. Isn’t it gorgeous?

Soooooooo tempted….

chopped salad

Chopped Salad Will Save My Life

I’ve never been a fan of salads.

It could have something to do with growing up in a country where a salad consisted of a few limp lettuce leaves, a slice of tomato and spoonful of Salad Cream. Salads were only ever served in the summers (which were notoriously short. Sort of regarded as a day here and there, rather than a proper season), and even the one dressing available is still marketed as “pourable sunshine” because the taste of it inevitably reminds us of those summer salads of childhood.

The introduction of the exotic ‘vinaigrette’ dressing some time during the 80s made salads a little more palatable, but still, i couldn’t get excited about them, but still never something I was likely to choose over a big plate of pasta and meat sauce or something with chips.

There is no denying, however, that a big salad is a great way to get in your 5-a-day if, you know, looking after your body is something that’s important to you. Which it is to me.

It’s also a lot of food-in-the-mouth time for the amount of calories it contains, if that sort of thing is important to you. Which, sadly, it is to me. (Sometimes).

So I’ve been experimenting with chopped salads and I’m actually, GASP, enjoying them.

What is a Chopped Salad?

Can you guess? Yup, salad. All chopped up.

The thing I like is that you just pick foods that you like, dump them on a big chopping board, get a big cook’s knife and start whacking away at it.

As you chop, things spread out on the board, so you corral them with the knife and scoop them back in to the center, mixing as you go.

It’s entirely up to you what to put in: if you like iceberg lettuce’s crunch, throw some in. If you like spicy mustard greens or spinach’s iron boost, use those as well/instead. Toss in peppers or don’t. Any type of onion, or go pure. Want nuts? Go nuts!

Today’s Chopped Salad

chopped saladToday I used iceberg lettuce, because that’s what I had. I added a spring onion, some shredded carrots, some slivered almonds and flax seed, a couple of slices of deli ham and turkey.

Then I threw them all into a big bowl and gave them a final toss with my latest favourite salad dressing: 1 tbsp salad cream and a dollop of Scotch Bonnet sauce (thanks to Neil & Fiona for turning me on to scotch bonnet sauce) 1

Oh, and then I threw on a handful of Cranberry Trail mix on top for occasional sweetness and crunch. 2

Mmmmmmm!

With all that healthy goodness in there, how could this salad not help save my life?!

More on Chopped Salads:

Jamie Oliver salads: http://www.jamieoliver.com/about/jamie-oliver-videos/ministry-of-food-green-salad

Tracy Porter’s All-American Airhead Chopped Salad video about how to make a chopped salad http://tracyporter.com/blog/more-tracy-porter/tracy-porter-salad-videothe-all-american-classic-chopped-salad

  1. The size of the dollop depends entirely on how far I want the top of my head to blow off on any given day.
  2. I’m a big fan of texture.

All You Need Is Rov(ing)

I can be a bit reserved.

I can see someone who looks really interesting and unless I’ve got a good excuse (like when I worked for newspapers, or in bars and shops) I tend not to wander up, introduce myself and ask all the questions I want to ask.

Last week, however, my love of wool overcame my fear of foolishness.

When you are sitting down in the dentist’s waiting room and the only other person there is not only wearing hand-knitted socks in jewel colours, but stabbing away at some raw, unspun wool (roving) with a needle in full view of everyone, you know right there and then whether or not they’re the sort of person you want to be talking to.

I’m so uncool that she was exactly the kind of person I wanted to be talking to.

“OK,” I said, smiling and sitting down beside the bespectacled crafter who sported long, greying hair and a serene expression. “I have to ask what you’re doing with that wool…”

Soon I had found out about needle-felted dolls (tiny) and that , Kristina, was originally from somewhere not far from Strasburg (the on in Germany, not the one in Lancaster County) and had arrived in Pennsylvania with her husband and two teenage children, after five years in Hawaii. We discussed the challenges of settling in to a new place, of leaving family behind and of raising families in new places. And of course she had a connection to the local Waldorf school, which shouldn’t surprise me at all.

Her family does not even own a television, and we were able to rave on together about the wonders of the (almost) tv-free life. She was wary of computers too, though, so my suspicions that our interests only overlapped, rather than completely coinciding, were confirmed.

Still, it was so nice to sit down next to a complete stranger and, because we had one thing in common, find we could have such a great and far-ranging conversation.

I really do enjoy chatting to new and random people, even if I do seem to need a prop to get started!

How To Write A Story A Day

I’m not sure yet (because I haven’t done it), but I think it’s going to be possible to write a story a day.

Here are some of the ways I’m planning to make time every day to tell stories:

Tell Stories To My Children

One of the main reasons I have little time to write is that I have children. It’s tough to sit down and writing a story when someone is likely to burst in and tell you that they *neeeeed* something right now, and another one trails behind him saying that he *neeeeeds* the same thing, or more likely something completely different.

But I have found that one of the best ways to ‘write’ stories is to tell them to my children. Whether at bedtime or during potty-training, or in the car, there’s nothing quite like having a live audience for keeping you going. If their attention starts to wander, you know you have to step up the action. If you pause for a moment, they demand to know what happened next.

Maybe if I can carry my phone around with me and record the stories I tell to the kids, that’ll help me out a few times.

In The Car

Again with the motherhood thing, I spend quite a lot of time driving around. Sometimes I’m alone, and sometimes they’re wa-ay in the back playing with toys. Again,  with my trusty phone nearby, I can tell at least part of a story on every journey. I think recording stories is going to be really helpful, even though I love to write (with a fountain pen and everything).

Word Count Challenges

I like limitations. I like to know I only have 1000 or 200 or 50 words into which I have to shoehorn a story. Some days I’m planning to set myself a short word count limit and trying to craft a short story within it.

Time Limits

I always found that seat-of-the-pants writing during exams worked really well for me. With a time limit, I can’t afford to listen to the inner critic. So some days will be Time Limit days. Write a story within an hour, half an hour, by 3pm, whatever seems to work that day.

Genres & Styles

Some days I’ll assign myself a genre to work in. Write a film noir story, write in the style of Virginia Woolfe, write a monologue, write in the third person.

Rewrites

Like the genre/styles assignments I’m planning to write the same story several different ways. I”ve got another blog post coming with more details about that)

So, those are some of my ideas. How about you?

Creative Writing Mentors

There are books that I enjoy and there are books that I love.

The ones that I love tend to be the onest that make me impatient to put down the book and pick up a pen. (Then I’m torn because I don’twant to stop reading…)

When I want to do some creative writing I tend to dip into a piece by one of my favourite authors (sometimes that can be a TV show or a movie) to get that fix, before I start.

My “Get Jazzed About Writing” superstars are 1:

Douglas Adams – his mind is so brilliant an dhis bvoice so unique that it could seem intimidating. But reading his writing (fiction or non-fiction) makes me so happy that I want to do the same for other readers.

Joss Whedon – (TV/movie writer) because of his storytelling skills and unique voice. He creates worlds that feel real, characters that you can love, puts funny and unexpected lines in their mouths, and then creates storylines that stay absolutely true to themselves, even if it means sacrificing a beloved character or a happy ending. Everytime I find myself sobbing “Damn you, Wedon, I HATE you!” I know that I want to be able to tell stories as well as he does.

Neil Gaiman – For language and heroes and uniqueness, and a bright shining optimism about human nature, lurking amidst the demons and horror, the creepiness and the gore.

Terry Pratchett – for biting satire and observation of humanity and for a way with language for which I would gladly gnaw off my own legs below the knee (but no higher).

Elizabeth Peters – for sheer fun, heroic characters, historical situations and suspense.

Agatha Christie – for writing skill, language and absolute integrity between characters: everyone speaks, moves and acts as an individual.

John O’Hara – his short stories about life in a fictional Pennsylvania town really appeal to me; and seem like a great blueprint for turning your own life experiences into fiction (one story simply follows a boy as he walks to his fatehr’s office to show him his new riding clothes, but it is absolutely gripping, and we learn a ton about the boy, his father, the town, the era; all in one very short, very tight scene.)

Ray Bradbury – the master of the “what if?” What if you grew up in a town where rocketrs to the moon were as common as airliners are to us? What if the Loch Ness Monster was real? What if your husband piloted spaceships for a living, and it was a dangerous job? What if books were banned?

What are your ‘get jazzed about writing’ inspirations?

  1. The links on this page are links to my affiliate account at Amazon

Better Breakfasts – Southwestern Scrambled Eggs

My Better Breakfast quest continues. Mr Kellog may have had a point (we do need more fiber in our diets) but his cereals just don’t cut it as a morning meal for me. The carbs burn off and leave me hungry. The sugar makes me sluggish. I need protein! I need ‘no hunger’ breakfast recipes. I also need to lose weight. So here’s my latest Better Breakfast Recipe:

Eggs make a good breakfast food: they are quick-cooking, protein-packed and satisfying. But I get really, really sick of the taste of eggs.
So I came up with this scrambled egg recipe. You’d barely know there were any eggs involved, but you get 1-2 servings of veggies and all the protein you can handle before noon!

Mmm, steamin' scrambled eggsINGREDIENTS

1 tbsp butter (you can use a low fat alternative if you like, but I’m using a little butter. It’s natural and tastes good and satisfies my body’s need for a little fat)

1 egg, scrambled or two egg whites if you’re watching cholesterol/fat  (buy free-range eggs. They taste better, although that might just be the absence of guilt…)

Spash of milk

1/4 cup salsa (I use organic, medium or hot. Your taste may vary)

1 big handful of baby spinach, washed (if you don’t like spinach, throw in some other soft, quick-cooking veggie for added virtue)

1/2 cup black beans, rinsed (I used organic black soy beans which I bought by accident, and really liked)

A few shavings of Parmesan cheese  (because I love that umami taste. Use a potato peeler to shave a few thin slivers off the block)

METHOD

Heat your butter (or wimpy non-fat cooking spray) in your frying-pan/skillet of choice. I use a small, thin non-stick omlette pan. Medium heat, don’t let the butter burn.

Mix an egg with a splash of milk. Pour into pan. Allow to cook for a minute, until you can see that it’s starting to firm up at the edges.

Turn the heat up and stir like crazy until the egg is mostly cooked, but still looks kinda moist.

Toss in the spinach, stir until it starts to wilt.

Throw in the salsa and black beans, give it all a stir and allow to cook through.

Serve on a nice side plate, with shavings of Parmesan arranged artfully on top. Get yourself a cloth napkin and some water in a crystal wine glass.

Sit down and enjoy.

TIME

mmm, soy beans(Prep: 2 mins; cook: 3 mins; eat: 2-3 mins) 8 minutes

GOOD STUFF

Protein from eggs, cheese and beans, 1-2 servings of veggies with associated fiber, vegetarian (though no vegan, obviously), small portion, enough fat to tell your body to stop whining for it.

WW Points: 6ish

Health Care Reform for US – Why We Must Have It

I’m taking on one of the many, many myths about what will happen in the US if we have health care reform. Just one, but I think it’s one of the two or three most powerful and it says:

“If we change the system we’ll end up having to pay more.”

But how much do you know about how things work today?

Last month I had a sore throat. I went to my doctor. I paid my $25 co-pay. She swabbed my throat to check for strep, put the cotton swab into a little plastic dish, checked the reaction and said, nope, not strep. The sample did not go to a lab, no-one pored over it for hours analyzing it, and she told me that it often misses strep anyway, if it hasn’t developed sufficiently.

Three week later I got a notification that my insurance company was being billed over $70 for that test 1.

Luckily I have extremely generous health coverage courtesy of the Evil Big Pharma company that pays the bills around here.

But What If I Didn’t Have Good Coverage?

Back when I was first in the US, I went to a new doctor who recommended a series of tests “to establish a baseline” or something like that. I’m a good, obedient girl who assumed that doctors do what’s best for their patients, so I held out my arm and let him drain some of my blood.

Then my insurance company declined to cover the costs.

I freaked out and called the doctor’s office in a panic 2. They made sympathetic noises and sent me a revised bill for a token amount that was likely much closer to the true value of the doctor’s time and efforts. It was still an unwanted dent in the budget, but more than that, I was disturbed by the casual dishonesty of it.

If the test costs $30, why are you billing my insurance company $140?

As it turns out, this is standard practice.

The whole medical community (hospitals, specialists, general practitioners) understands that you have to get what you can out of the insurance companies when you can…and when you can’t, well, you still treat the patients who can’t afford you, using the cushion of money you built up by treating the ones who can.

You see what we’ve done here?

We’ve created a system where the only humane thing to do is commit insurance fraud.

Let’s be clear: I don’t mind subsidizing the less fortunate. I really, really don’t. I think it’s my duty and makes me more human, humane and decent. But I hate that it’s done dishonestly.

So what, if the insurance companies are getting scammed?

1, And I know I might sound hopelessly old-fashioned for saying this, but I believe this institutionalized fraud is bad for the soul, or, if you prefer, bad for the moral character of the people involved and the society as a whole. If you are training people to ignore the Jimminy Cricket voice that is chirping in their heads “You’re using someone else’s money to pay for this”, then you are training people to squash that voice in less altruistic moments too. Maybe I only use my cell phone for two business calls a month, but what the heck it’s easier just to claim the whole bill as a business expense on my taxes. It’s not that much money when you look at how much the government collects… Or, even worse: meh, everyone’s doing it.

2,  Less importantly but still significant: current practices drive up costs for everyone, making insurance more expensive for people who can afford it and inaccessible to people who don’t have a few hundred to spare for the premiums every month. Five years ago, my co-pay at the doctor’s office was $10. Last year it was $15. This year it’s $25. And my insurance company covers fewer services today than it did ten years ago.

And that’s without any reforms.

I can afford it now, but there was a time when that large a fee for every doctor’s visit (with a family of four it adds up) would have been a serious hardship.

If health care reform makes things ‘more expensive’, I say so what? It’s going to happen either way.

I’d rather it happen in a way that made health care more accessible to everyone.

I’d rather have less money to spend on plastic cr*p for my kids, and know that someone with a pre-existing condition who works two 30hr a week jobs 3 can actually go to their doctor when their condition flares up, and they won’t have to spend their off-hours researching the cheapest treatment options or the ways they can get into debt to cover the costs.

There’s a world of difference between ‘not being able to afford to go to Aspen twice this year because the government increased taxes on the fabulously wealthy to cover the health care costs of the stinkin’ poor4‘ and ‘not being able to sleep because I don’t know how I’m going to pay my child’s medical bills’.

Really.

  1. $70+ I kid you not. And it looked like one of those pee-on-a-stick pregnancy tests you can buy online for $1 a pop. I guarantee you my doctor did not pay even 50% of the bill for that test when she ordered them in bulk
  2. Being from the UK I wasn’t familiar with medical billing and the numbers boggled my mind
  3. because certain employers like to keep you below a certain number of hours so that they’re not legally obliged to pay health insurance benefits to you — ask me how I know…
  4. No-one except movie stars and sports gods will admit that they are wealthy, but I say if you’re earning over half a million a year, you’re wealthy. Get used to it!

A Kid’s View Of The World

It is so refreshing to rediscover life through the eyes of a child.

Especially my slightly twisted children.

Today’s Stories From The Boys’ Blog:

1. How Urban Legends Start

I’m listening to A and G playing with a big cardboard box.

They’re pretending to mail themselves to Disney World.

For now, A is sealing his brother inside the box.

“Tape me!” says G.

“With real tape or Duck Tape?” asks his brother.

“Duck Tape.”

“Noooo!” cries . “That’s the WORST kind of tape!”

“Why?” G’s voice was slightly muffled.

“Because it’s Duck Tape. They make it from real ducks. They kill them and turn them in to tape!”

While I was typing I heard A scurry off downstairs.

Then I head G explode out of the box and scurry after him crying,

“Nooo! I was joking about the tape!”

I guess he thought A was off to murder some ducks….

2. Watch Out, God’s Finger Is On The Button

After prayers tonight G (aged 4), betraying his guid Scots Presbyterian roots, said,

“Julie,” (he’s very informal), “I think God is remote-controlling us.”

Predestination? At 8:14 on a Friday night?

I didn’t feel like getting into a theological debate, but I fear the thousands of dollars we’re spending on a good Free-Will-And-All-That Catholic Education might be money down the drain.

Heavens!

Best Job In The World

Sometimes being a stay-at-home mom is really really tough.

Those are the days where everybody is fighting, nobody is sleeping and you haven’t showered, talked to another adult or had a moment to yourself for as long as you can remember.

Then there are days when it snows just enough…

Just Enough Snow

And the temperature gets up above freezing so you spend a couple of hours building a snow fort

Snow Fort I

or two…

Gregor Behind Snowfort II

and teaching your four year old how to make a really big snowball…

…or a snowman.

Snowy!

And you end up with some impressive hat hair…

Hat Hair

And the only people who laugh at you are laughing with you.

Best job in the world!