Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Homemade Doorstops and Floor Protection

I've found that inviting people over is a great way to push me to do those little projects I wouldn't bother with otherwise. It makes me sit down and do something I enjoy...once I get started.

One doorstop started with Bill's idea. At some point when the downstairs loo was being built last spring he put a milk bottle, half filled with water, where it would stop the new door from banging the wall and leaving a dent. That milk bottle remained while we were away on various trips and while I was doing my UK tax return. It wasn't until I'd sent out the Thanksgiving invitations that I turned my attention to making a bag to cover the milk bottle. I probably could have chosen an easier doorstop to make, but Bill liked his idea and I so tried to work with it.

The outside was a lush fabric scrap some crafting or sewing group had given me (as it, it would go to the tip if I didn't rescue it). The lining was some fabric I bought 20 years ago for a project I never tacked. I still had the receipt folded up in the fabric. I'm not that wonderfully thrilled with how the bag turned out, but it's completed and it's totally functional. Job done. Were I to tackle it again sometime, I wouldn't fit the bottom part to the size of the milk bottle, I'd just make a big squishy looking bag that had the drape I wanted (the first time) for the top part. I'm not very spatially competent, me.

The other place that needed a doorstop was to protect the corner of my china cabinet from the dining room door. Bill gave me a block of wood that was just the right shape and size. I proceeded to wrap it like a give. Then realised that I was just making another hard surface to put between the two hard surfaces, which wouldn't accomplish anything...duh. Starting over, I buried the block in several layers of wadding and then went back to wrapping.  The result is kind of silly, but I like it. The green matches the carpet and the chair covers; the dark blue matches the blue velvet curtains in the dining room.

The one innovation I was quite pleased about came about after Bill had installed the bamboo flooring in the extension. He was about to put my Grandma's sewing machine cabinet in the alcove opposite the loo but worried his new floor would be scratched. I've been saving milk bottle caps for Vivien for some charity that gets money for recycling them (we have some mad projects going on like that). I took four of those bottle caps, cut larger circles around them from dark brown fabric and stitched covers for each of the bottle caps. Bill put those under the legs of the sewing machine and it slid around just great!

Have you done any 'home sewing' lately?

Monday, 23 February 2015

Pasta Sauce

Bill got an ENORMOUS crock pot for Christmas. I was happy enough with my old £5-bargain-from-the-fleamarket-15-years-ago crock pot, but he wanted one that you could take the 'crock' part out and soak it. 

I've been trying to think what to do with this GIANT thing other than cook 16 meals worth of beans at a time. I think of crock pots as being mainly to do with beans or with meat. I don't wish to add substantial amounts of meat either to our diets or our pocketbooks. 

One thing I did remember cooking 20-some years ago when I lived in Salt Lake was the pasta recipe from The Tightwad Gazette.  As I recall it was practically a party day any time I took a jar off the shelf for dinner. 

I had loads of homegrown tomatoes then and I did the proper canning thing with a hot water bath and all. I remember being really paranoid because of the odd case of botulism associated with home canning, so I was very careful to follow the rules. And I promised myself NEVER TO TASTE something I'd canned that wasn't just right - I'd talked to a woman recovering from botulism who'd done just that, even though she knew it was risky. She was lucky to have survived.

The recipe doesn't call for a crock pot, but I remember struggling to get it all into my biggest pan. So I decided to see how it worked in the new BIG crock pot. I used tinned tomatoes (on sale at my green market four 800g tins for £1!), counting them out and squeezing most of the juice/water out. Bill helped me by grinding the onions and green peppers in Grandma & Grandpa's old meat grinder. I cooked everything except the tomato paste in the crock pot (it was barely half full, but those were huge tins of tomato paste) over night. I added the tomato paste the next day, mixed it all up and put it into jars, not quite filling them to leave room to freeze. 

It smelled and tasted wonderful, mainly because of the herbs and garlic! That said, the tinned tomatoes weren't as big as my homegrown ones (and nothing ever compares to home grown tomatoes, right?) so the paste is a bit acidic. I may try adding a bit of baking soda, not being a huge fan of sugar. When I make it again - and I expect I will - I'll probably double up on the tinned tomatoes. Also, I'll probably try cutting back on the oil, maybe by a third to begin with. We're not on a low fat diet by any means, but it's not unusual for us to find processed foods too oily and a lot of older-fashioned recipes are too rich for our taste.

All that aside, I was well pleased with the outcome and will look for other sauces to make in batches to freeze. 

Do you use a crock pot much?

Friday, 20 February 2015

Queen Victoria

There are several series which I have started on this blog and not continued/finished.  So I thought I'd pick them up again. I particularly enjoyed writing about the women listed in Deborah Felder's book: The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time. Felder wrote about them in the order that she had ranked them, but I chose to write about them chronologically, in hopes of fitting them more closely in my mind with the time in which they lived. I'll have to go back and re-read my posts about the earlier women. I see I last wrote about George Eliot who lived from 1818-1890.

The next person listed is Queen Victoria (1819-1901), ranked 38 out of 100. I must admit I'm not much of a fan and I'd need to go back and re-read the library book to remember why Felder gave her that much credence. Though I'm certainly no expert, the only real way in which I would consider her influential is that she and her husband Albert changed the pattern of behaviour for British monarchs. 

They both had unhappy childhoods which they attributed to the sexual escapades and affairs of their parents; they decided to be more upstanding, to practice higher morals and to raise their children to behave similarly. I'm not sure the latter attempt was successful, considering the life of their eldest son, Bertie. Nevertheless the Victorian era became synonymous with rigid social rules about sexual morals, such that even when discussing furniture one said 'limbs' rather than 'legs'. The Victorian era is also remembered as one of hypocrisy (hence the name, Victoria's Secret for the lingerie company), because of the levels of poverty that led to prostitution, the widespread use of child labour, also the strictest observance of the class system. Between the 'family values' they upheld and the size of the family they produced (nine children) Victoria and Albert personified a lifestyle with which the growing middle classes of Britain could identify.

Just before Victoria came to power in 1837, Britain had passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 which outlawed slavery in the British Empire (with a few exceptions). In 1838 £20 million pounds was put aside to pay to slave owners as reparation for the loss of their slaves; of course no reparation was offered to the slaves themselves.

Nothing I've read about Victoria suggests she was a particularly fond mother.  She thought babies were disgusting. Later, she saw her children as obliged to serve and please her and seems to have had little regard for their feelings. Whether this was because of her view of being a mother or of being a queen, I'm not sure. I gather this was not an uncommon attitude in Victorian society overall, particularly where advantageous marriages were concerned. 

According to Wikipedia Victoria supported the Reform Act of 1867, before which only 14% of the seven million men in Britain could vote. This act doubled that number. However, Victoria was not in support of women being able to vote.

Victoria has never been depicted as particularly intelligent but rather a woman ruled entirely by her emotions. Her journals report that she enjoyed her sex life with Albert, which is fair enough. After his death she withdrew from public life so much so that a protester put up a notice on Buckingham Palace demanding that

"...these commanding let or sold in consequence of  the late occupant's declining business."

She was known to be susceptible to flattery and apparently had the odd crush on various men, earning her the nicknames of "Mrs Melbourne" and "Mrs Brown".  Queen Elizabeth I also had affairs of the heart, or at least one with Robert Dudley, but as queen before the institution of constitutional monarchies she had a great deal more power and during Elizabeth I's reign England became a great power.

The Great Famine in Ireland happened during Victoria's reign, when Britain was at its peak, the richest nation in the world. For some time I've held her largely responsible in my own mind. However, just now I've read that she gave £2,000 toward the British Relief Association in aid of the Irish, more than any other individual. 

I've long thought of her as full of self-pity, a spoiled and pampered individual who happened to be born into the royal family. That said, she had a horrible childhood living under the Kensington System, an elaborate set of rule devised by her mother and her mother's supposed lover to keep Victoria weak and dependent.  She clearly adored her husband, though she was loathe to lose any of her power to him. I can't imagine that being royalty, particularly being the longest reigning monarch in Britain's history is conducive to having what I would consider to be an admirable character. The 'constitutional monarchy' had been in place for well over a century by the time Victoria became Queen, so her powers were quite limited, perhaps only to "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn".  So perhaps I'm too hard on the woman. In any case her name describes the era in which developed societies became industrialized and she perhaps witnessed the largest changes in the world during her reign, the longest in British history to date.

By the way, mark your calenders. This year 11 September will not only be the 14th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, it will the be day on which Elizabeth II takes the place of Queen Victoria as the longest reigning monarch.  I'm wondering what sort of events will mark the observance of that event!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

A New Neighbour!

We are so excited to welcome young William into the world! Born Tuesday morning, 8 lbs. 3 oz.  I got to see him in person today. He was already visiting next door with proud father, Matthew, and Grandfather, William, whilst mother Julia was catching up on some much needed rest.

He's even more gorgeous in real life! 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Le Matte de Shower

Actually, French for shower mat is 'le tapis de douche' but I like my title better...

This is a drafted post from last summer , heavens, September 2013! when we were camping at Loche in France. I can't tell that I ever wrote about that trip, only about some of the books I read while we were in the Loire Valley. It was just after our first invitation to cat sit in Nice and we literally flew home, spent one night at the house, packed the van and started the journey down to Dover to catch the ferry to Calais. We'd booked well before we knew we'd be going to Nice so it was all sandwiched in at the last minute. I don't know anyone else who goes to France for three weeks, flies home and then goes back to France for two. That seems to me to neatly describe our life these days: periods of manic activity followed by a month or two of collapse. 

Anyhow, for those of you who have not experienced motor home travel one of the features of most caravan parks is a shower block (the French aptly call it a 'sanitaire') which also provides toilets, laundry and dish washing facilities. The housekeeping of said facilities varies from site to site, most being fairly pristine I'm grateful to report. But no matter how clean there is always the 'wet foot through clothes' moment. Unless you can stand on one foot for longer than I can, whilst juggling toiletries / towel / clothes when provided with limited shelves/ hooks /seating. One likes to keep the towel clean so it can't go on the floor and the water would simply soak through anyhow.

I just hacked around the rectangle then tucked the edges under.

So, I brought a sewing project with me to Loches. It involved hand towels from our enormous  inherited collection and rescued umbrellas which I had a weakness for the first year or so I was retired, along with single gloves. I'm over the glove addiction but must admit umbrellas still call to me in their pitiable dead-spider way, particularly if they are colourfully marked spiders. I prefer hoods myself, with a drawstring (which looks stupid) or spare scarf tied around the outside to hold it on; few umbrellas can cope with the gale force winds we have around here. But enough about the weather. 

My project simply involved sewing together the plastic fabric of the former umbrella to the absorbent terry cloth of the hand towel and voila - a shower mat was born! They work great. I've since gone around with the sewing machine as my hand stitching was a bit haphazard and didn't hold up well with machine washing. 

I do get a ridiculous amount of satisfaction from making stuff like this.

Friday, 23 January 2015

My Instincts were Right!

Four and a bit years years ago I wrote about my experience with using a financial advisor. I talked about all the reasons he did not impress me and I stopped using him after about three months.

Bill sent me a link to a news story about this man and there are any number of headlines online about him.  I gather he told some of his clients that he was investing their money in a property scheme in India but in fact he was running a Ponzi scheme and took a total of £2.6 million pounds from (reports vary) between 37 and 41 people.

  1. Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organization, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned by the operator.

I'm grateful that I got shed of him when I did.  I doubt I would have invested in his property scheme but then he always did give me the creeps, for all the reasons I wrote about earlier. I don't think my intuition is terribly fine tuned, but I do recognise inconsistent behaviour and dubious ethics when I see them. And I've always believed that if something seems too good to be true...give it a miss. I'm fairly risk averse, I'm afraid.

I do wonder at the people who get caught out by shysters like this man. Are they completely unobservant? Greedy and unethical themselves? Or impossibly naive?

I hope you've never been caught out - I do hear stories about people who have been.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Social History of Trash

Waste and Want - a social history of trash, by Susan Strasser, was one of the weirder book titles on my Amazon wish list and Simon kindly obliged me. I finished and Bill is now reading it. I learned a number of amazing / obvious things:

The practices of housewives shape society and have a major economic impact. Back when women worked almost exclusively in the home with little spending money of their own, they - and their children - made pocket money by selling things like rags (made into paper before wood was used) and fats (for soap and candles - though many housewives made their own). Pedlars literally 'traded' door to door, offering household goods to homemakers far from shops but also collecting recyclable goods that their employers sold on to scrap dealers. A housewife might not have enough money to buy a new implement, but she might have goods for which she could trade part of the price.

There was a day when clothing was patched and re-patched until the textiles were altogether hopeless. Fabric and clothing were expensive before industrial times, being very labour intensive to produce.

If homemakers didn't need the cash, such re-sell-able items were given to servants or put out for poorer families to find in their scavenging. Many children scoured the streets to find such things to add money to their family income; they were called 'swill children'.

It is typical to put one's waste items on the periphery of one's property. It seems obvious that trash bins are set out for collection near the street and they are generally kept outside of the home in the mean time. Things on their way to the trash sometimes reside for a while in attics, basements or garages...(or at least that is what Bill hopes).

Children have always scavenged for spending money. I remember collecting the odd pop bottle I found for the 5-10 cent deposit that I could spend on candy. Bill remembers paying for movie admission with jam jars. Which explains the name of a local small theatre called the JamJar Cinema - I always wondered about that!

I was amazed to learn that sorting trash was a common requirement before World War II, not just a recent innovation as an environmentally friendly practice. Re-cycling trash - indeed just collecting trash - has always been a profitable business. Said businesses haven't always been particularly ethical in the manner of disposal and lower socio-economic locations have always born the brunt of disposal.

I remember dumpster diving being discussed in The Tightwad Gazette. This isn't something I've ever done much. A friend and her dad used to find bits of jewellery behind the mall near her house and she mentioned cases of food on the odd occasion. I've walked past the back of Subway and seen enormous plastic bags full of bread loaves in the trash bins. The amount of food wasted by commercial concerns has always seemed wrong to me. Dumpster diving is classed as stealing in the UK, but trespassing is the greater difficulty; most garbage bins are on the private property behind the premises, often gated. I recently saw a comment remarking about grocery stores having collection points for food banks at the front of the store at the same time they are filling their trash with discarded food in the back of the store.

Two terms were discussed at length at the beginning of this book, one familiar and one new to me. In fact, in one of those many little coincidences I encounter when reading a lot, I just now was reading a magazine interview with Annie Lennox (Vivien brings me her magazines which I read and pass on to Lucy who passes them on to the waiting room at the hospital where she works). Lennox mentions that these days we're always looking for the latest new thing whereas in her (my) grandparents' day whatever they had they kept and re-used. They were looking for value. Lennox says she thinks that's important. Not what you'd expect from her, eh? Maybe we all start looking for more value as we approach 60?

In Waste and Want Strasser talks about 'stewardship', about valuing the material something is made with and valuing the labour, the time and the skills that went into making it. Dictionary definitions of stewardship talk about careful and responsible management of something; protecting and being responsible for something. Responsibility is obviously a major component of stewardship. Valuing and re-using what we already have doesn't seem to be the mainstream these days, but it is definitely what feels right to me. Mechanization has removed much of the skilled labour once required and so much is made from convenient but uninspiring plastic or fiber board; I can see why it's hard to value these cheap new things. This is one of the many reasons I prefer old things and buying secondhand to get them. 

Strasser also talks about 'bricolage' and 'bricoleurs', terms I'd never met. Apparently the former is French for 'tinkering' but Strasser uses it as making things from what you have on hand. The Tightwad Gazette taught me to make Halloween costumes from what I already had, to cook from the ingredients in my kitchen (something I should have learned from my Mom, who made amazing meals from scratch). Strasser talks about the days when people kept parts and bits they knew would come in handy for future repairs or other projects. She talks about the skill set that is now largely lost, the knowledge of how to fix things. 

As a child I remember bragging that my Dad 'could fix anything'. I grew up watching him build shelves and stairs, make the refrigerator and the toaster work again, do all sort of automotive repairs. He and Grandpa both understood how things worked. My confidence in my Dad's ability to put things right was one of the corner stones of my childhood security since I knew we didn't have a lot of money. Maybe that's why I so love this idea of bricolage. Any fool can throw money at a problem; it takes a bit of ingenuity to find a different solution, a more hand made one.

I was disappointed to read that even as early as the late 19th century women purchased fabrics to make patchwork quilts. I'd always imagined that paying a small fortune for coordinating fabrics to cut up and then sew back together was a relatively recent development. However, according to Strasser women often at least supplemented their collected bits with new fabrics and almost no quilt that survives today can't be tied in with a published pattern which may even have come with the pieces cut and ready to sew. 

One of the reasons silk dresses have survived far more frequently than linen, cotton or wool dresses is not just because they may not have been worn as often, being special, but because silk wasn't recyclable as these other materials were. As mentioned earlier, paper was originally made from the plant based fabrics; wool was put onto fields for fertilizer, something I'd not heard about before.

My former job threw some interesting experiences my way, one of which was to tramp through a landfill site (I had to buy special safety shoes to wear!). It didn't smell great, but the odour was not at all the worst part of it for me. The sheer volume of recognisable items being bulldozed was insane, things that didn't look like rubbish to me, at least no more rubbish than they were brand new. A person could have started a new Toys Were Us chain from all the plastic toys I saw. They looked 95% OK, just not perfect anymore. Clothing, paper, all sorts of things that could have been saved from landfill with a bit of effort. The worst for me was the idea that people spent hours of their lives earning money to buy things that were casually discarded; that limited resources had so little value for most people. The landfill seemed to me evidence of a lot of what's wrong in the world: greed, ignorance, sloth.

I'm sure Bill thinks I'm slightly mental on this topic and I agree that I spend a stupid amount of my time walking to my paper recycling bag with bits, but I am mindful of what I send to landfill, which is why I wanted to read this book. I'm in no way Zero Waste myself, but I am completely amazed at what people throw away. 


Just recently (another coincidence) I was directed to this man's website showing the way he makes his living scavenging trash in Montreal. I'm grateful someone is prepared to do that to save some of these beautiful/interesting things from landfill.

I don't suppose you spend much time thinking about the implications of your trash, do you?