31 August 2012

Candlelit dinner

Sometimes lighting candles can make all the difference, I think. The mood changes, becoming calmer, and somehow things seem a bit special.

This afternoon and evening have been a whirl of kitchen activity in preparation for Anna's birthday party tomorrow. And although the placemats were plastic and the candlesticks old jar lids, the candles gave us a little pause in the whirlwind.

30 August 2012

Great hair and saving money: poo to shampoo

So many times I've heard hairdressers say how a good quality shampoo really makes a difference to your hair. Maybe a salon-type one (which I've used for a long time now) is better than a supermarket one. It certainly earns the salon a lot more money.

But now I've found out that no shampoo is even better! Ditto conditioner!

I know it sounds radical. It is this:
~ hair cleanser: baking soda and water (about 2-3 Tblsp to a litre of tap water)
~ conditioner: apple cider vinegar and tap water (about 4 Tbsp per litre of water, or experiment with using even more vinegar)

Using a funnel, pour them into squeezy bottles (e.g. old shampoo bottles). Even milk bottles can get you through until you manage to find some empty squeezy ones. Maybe you could do an early morning reconnaissance of your neighbours' recycling bins on rubbish day? Whatever you do, don't pay for one!

Stash them in the shower.

Before I go into instructions on how to use, allow me to be more persuasive.

I swear my hair is BETTER than before. Here is a photo to show those of you who know me that no disaster has occurred with the change of routine:

I took this today, and started with the 'foliage' setting on the camera, thinking that might suit my hair. Ian wondered if the 'underwater' setting might suit better, given there's no specific 'seaweed' setting.
I can now go 5-6 days without washing my hair, whereas it used to be 4-5 days before it got a bit oily looking.

And how earth-friendly is it? Virtually no packaging (if you get your baking soda and vinegar from the Bin Inn or other bulk source), and no synthetic chemicals into the wastewater system. Awesome!

The savings, of course, are significant. This will save me at least $100 a year (I used to buy the really good stuff).

OK, how to use it:
1. Cleanser: flip your head forward and squirt or pour a cup or so of the baking soda water onto your scalp. Massage the scalp thoroughly for a couple of minutes. Don't worry too much about the hair itself. Then rinse out thoroughly. No need to repeat.
2. Pile your hair on top of your head if it's long enough, and just squirt the conditioner over. Tilt your head back as you do it because if you get it in your eyes it hurts quite badly. Then comb your fingers through your hair to distribute the vinegar. It doesn't seem to need to be left long - a minute, perhaps. Then rinse thoroughly.

Are you worried about the smell? It disappears in a few minutes from your hair and the shower.

I got the idea for this hair washing method from this great blog.

Stand poised for more baking soda posts in future. Perhaps I should have called this www.bakingsoda.com. I just checked and it's not taken! I have other green-living recipe experiments to report on also.

29 August 2012

Watching them sleep

I love taking a minute before bed to watch my children sleeping.

This is especially the case with Anna. Today is her sixth birthday.

Anna, 4 days old, with her Daddy.
(The dear little suede head! The funny widow's peak!)
When she was very young, she would only ever sleep with a warm body next to her.

These days, she loves the cat to accompany her to the land of nod!

Actually, she is great at going to sleep on her own now. It took a few years. It makes life much, much easier.

28 August 2012

Home sewing: crafty cloth baskets or bags

A few months ago I came across some cloth 'buckets', as they were called, on a blog. I liked the look of them so much that I took what felt like a giant leap and bought the pattern on line, plus some fabric and puffy stuff to make them stand up from a fabric shop.

Sewing them was great! I am very inexperienced, but the sense of achievement was wonderful. I made quite a few, some as gifts and some to keep.

Anna's ballet bag.
A cute little handbag-sized one.

This bag sits under our hall table waiting for library books that need to be returned to the library. Then it comes home again with us, filled with new books to enjoy.
I played with the pattern only slightly. Instead of what the pattern calls burlap (which is what I would call sacking, from what I can see) I used my choice of fabric for the outside and a contrasting cotton or calico for the lining. The calico-lined bags hold their shape particularly well. Plus sometimes I made the handles longer to create a bag rather than a basket style, and changed their position.

Imagine the untold generations of women before us that had to sew their family's clothes (and those before them that had to actually weave the fabric!). I felt good knowing that if I had to do that, I just might be able to. They'd look pretty rough to start with, though.

What surprised me most was what the children thought of me sitting and sewing for hours, because I did it during school holidays. One day I got the sewing machine out and they said, "Are you going to sew?" I said that I was - do you wish I wouldn't? And they said "We love it when you sew!"

The pattern can be bought from here for $9US.

27 August 2012

Two clever tricks with baking soda

Today, I stained our kitchen benchtop for you. I want to show you just what baking soda can do! I wrote on it with permanent marker, and gave it a blob of oily Indian curry paste (thank you Madam Patak) for 10 minutes or so. If you have a formica benchtop and like curry, I'm sure you know about those turmeric-y stains.

I like to use the permanent marker on the benchtop when the children have friends around. Their eyes get REALLY big! What a naughty mama I must be, they think! Then I show them my magic. I tell them they must always remember that if you can't get a stain out, try rubbing it with baking soda. Tell your Mum and Dad, I say. I like to spread the Good Word on these things, and take the traditional approach of getting'em while they're young and impressionable.

Firstly I try to rub it off with a bit of eco-ish commercial spray and wipe. It doesn't help much.

It's hard to see the yellow curry stain. It's still there, though.
Here's what I do next: go to the pantry and haul out the baking soda. Sprinkle a bit on the stain and rub it quite hard with a wrung-out cloth. Remember the value of elbow grease and think what strong, toned arms those Amish women must have. But seriously, you don't have to rub overly hard.

Half of it's gone. Note the dampish lump of baking soda to the top right of the photo. That's the consistency you're after.
The baking soda needs to be damp, so it's a bit lumpy rather than a powder. The dampness of your wrung-out cloth is about right for this. If the baking soda gets too wet it just dissolves and doesn't work.

All gone.
Once it's gone, rinse out the cloth with water and wipe well again. Any residue will be a bit gritty, but harmless and easy to wipe off.

If the stain's stubborn, tip a little bit of plain white vinegar on the baking soda and rub like mad while it fizzes.

Now, secondly: TEETH. Jack tends to get stained teeth, a fact the dental nurse always comments on. He's never had a cavity but he's had several tooth polishes to remove the stains. Last time we saw her I asked if it would be all right for me to try polishing them with baking soda. She looked skeptical but said it couldn't hurt.

It works! Careful brushing has kept the stains away for a few months but, as always, they had started to return. I dipped a damp cotton cloth  in baking soda and rubbed hard on his teeth. All gone. It doesn't taste very nice though. Fortunately he's a fairly acquiescent child compared with the other one.

I'm not sure about adult teeth stains. I have only a few and they are very hard to see and access (tucked in between my molars near the back of my mouth). Today I tried the baking soda rub but I wasn't really sure if it worked or not. So I gave my front teeth a polish. Wow! Even tonight I keep rubbing my tongue over my teeth because they feel like I had my annual scale and polish at the dentist!

If you give it a try, let me know how you get on.

Note: I don't recommend using baking soda on oiled or lacquered wood. Perhaps not on any timber, actually. It works too well and seems to take some of the colour away.

Also, when I used my toothbrush dipped in baking soda, it seemed to fray and age by a month within half a minute. Just a cloth for me in future.

26 August 2012

Ode to birthday cakes I have made, and Jack

Today my boy turns 9. Nine years of celebrating this lively, lovely creature who only exists because of Ian and I. Why does that seem so magical, when there are so many millions of other lively, lovely young creatures on the planet? From gametes to baby to child: so common, but so amazing.

Each year he has had a special birthday cake. Here are some of them.

Perhaps not a usual 3-year old's choice, but he wanted a chess cake
(Note: it was more work than it looks, and the black icing tasted terrible).
At age 4, he lived as Simba from The Lion King, and wore a tawny-coloured lion tail almost constantly. The orange sweatshirt is no coincidence.

Guests at this party still remember smashing the chocolate pinata with a hammer then gorging themselves on the thick slabs of broken chocolate.
This year he was feeling a bit too grown up for a very fancy cake. I was relieved. Even better, he helped me decorate this one.

Here he is, triumphant after some birthday party apple bobbing, and half way to being a man. So much change and so many adventures to date, and so many still to come. Happy Birthday Jack!

25 August 2012

My best bread recipe

I make bread almost every day, and have done for many years. Lots of people have asked for my recipe, so here it is. 

I love that I am in complete control of the ingredients, it is much cheaper than bought bread, and it avoids all those planet-contaminating things like packaging and transport (although of course the ingredients have to be packaged, but I buy the flour in bulk in 5kg paper bags).

I use a breadmaker machine, and just add the ingredients in the order listed below. See my note at the bottom of this post on why I think they should always be added in this general order even if the instructions to your machine say the opposite.

Hand-made bread is fantastic fun and I love doing it, but the breadmaker is so fast and convenient. 

Our favourite bread

1 tsp dried yeast granules (not the breadmaker kind)
1.5 c standard white flour (not 'strong' or 'high grade')
1.5 c wholemeal flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp sugar (or use honey, or molasses, or a combination)
1 Tblsp gluten (this makes it rise better and gives it a finer texture. Using high grade flour should give the same result)
Extras: 1-2 Tblsp of seeds, e.g. sesame, sunflower, linseed, pumpkin seeds
1 Tblsp oil
1 c plus 1-2 Tblsp water

Press start. 
When finished, remove from breadmaker and allow to cool for 10 minutes or so before turning out of the bucket.

Slicing is easiest with a good bread knife and a well-cooled loaf.

~ If it is too squishy, add a little less water next time. If it's too solid, add a bit more.
~ If you want all-white bread, use only white flour and add less water - try 3/4 of a cup instead.
~ Try making rolls by mixing it on the dough cycle, shaping into balls, coating them lightly in flour, and sitting them on a baking tray to rise in a warm place (e.g. an oven at 40oC) for an hour (and cover them with a clean teatowel during rising), then baking at about 200oC for 10 minutes or until they just start to turn golden on top.
~ Almost irresistible when warm with real butter on top.
~ Don't expect it to be nearly as good the next day, because it stales quickly. It still toasts well, though. I often slice and freeze what's left over at the end of the day for toast or breadcrumbs. 

Bread bucket full of ingredients, just before the water is added.
This smells sooo good!

How to preserve the life of your breadmaker by always putting the yeast then dry ingredients in first: 
Some breadmakers ask for the liquid to be put in first, followed by the dry ingredients with the yeast on top. Mine doesn't, but my previous breadmakers have, and I think this was one of the reasons for their repeated early deaths. 

This is why: I usually put this on before bed, and set it to be ready when we wake up in the morning. If the liquid is put in first, the seal around the paddle (the moving bit that does the kneading) is frequently soaked in water for hours. And it is this seal which always fails and leaks within a couple of years.

I haven't tried putting the dry ingredients in first in a different breadmaker, but I will if/when I have one again, being vehemently opposed to buying a new bucket or even entire breadmaker every two years (because the buckets by themselves are so expensive). I see no reason why it shouldn't work just as well - all the machines work basically the same way. The only important thing is that the yeast and the water are separated by the floury layer, so that the yeast doesn't get activated too early and be spent by the time the mixing gets going.

23 August 2012

The latest home design accessory

According to a recent issue of Your Home and Garden, houseplants are back in style.

I'm there! Last year, after hearing someone talk on National Radio about how many nasties house plants can pull out of the air, I decided my family must have this health benefit! I launched into plant-and-pot hunting mode.

Lounge: A "Parlour Palm", antique brass planter from trademe.
My Bird's Nest Fern on our beloved old dining room sideboard, pot handed down from Mother-in-law.
A Peace Lily on my bedroom dressing table, which was once my father's and hard-yakka sanded down by me the summer before I first went flatting. Pot from our local dump shop. I enjoyed the plant's elegant white flowers during summer.
Look what little green surprise I found pinned to one of the parlour palm's leaves! Anna loves this rosette, which I won when I was little. 
I'd shied away from houseplants for years because watering them just seemed like another chore. But now I love having them and really like the way they look. I water them every week or two (more in summer), and when I think of it I add a few drops of liquid houseplant fertiliser (bought from the supermarket) to their water. They look pretty healthy.

I lost only one: a beautiful fern. Note: ferns like it cool and damp! Under a heat pump is not their favourite place.

22 August 2012

Dairy farm blues

Mothers parted from newborns, orangutans losing their habitat, my children drinking cow hormones. These thoughts were going through my mind today as I was given a tour through a dairy farm with some Year 1 classes, one of which was Anna's.

The Year 1s are learning about milk through a programme that seems to be provided by Fonterra. The 5 and 6 year olds have made butter, yoghurt and junket, and learnt the basics about how cows make milk. Little cardboard cow ambassadors named Rosie have been duly folded, and the Rosie's World website frequently visited. The Fonterra farm we visited was as clean and lovely as a farm can be, and the farm workers very friendly and organised.

But day old calves were penned together, wobbling about on their long legs, having been taken from their mothers after their first feed so we could have their milk. There is something so fundamental about mothers caring for their babies that I hated to imagine how the calves and mothers felt.

And there was a heap of palm kernel, ground into a dark brown meal and looking a bit like ground coffee, which is mixed in with maize silage (mulched up maize leaves along with some kernels, by the look of it) and fed to the cows in long troughs at a stop-off before they go to be milked. Gone are the days when cows only ate grass, I learnt.

And you know where palm kernel comes from, don't you? It's what's left of the edible fruit of the oil palm tree after they have crushed out the oil. It's grown in South East Asia and vast quantities of it are shipped here to feed dairy cows.

The terrible, sad thing is that Orangutan forest habitats are being destroyed so oil palm plantations can be planted. Fonterra insists it's not contributing to the destruction because it only buys the waste product of the fruit, not the oil itself, which is the main point of growing the stuff. They defend themselves reasonably convincingly here. (Look out for cheap chocolate, most soaps, bought biscuits and crackers... your local supermarket and probably pantry is actually laden with the oil itself.)

And then there's the issue of cows these days (unlike in the past) being pregnant most of the time, in order to get maximum milk out of them. Like all pregnant mammals, their blood and therefore milk courses with oestrogen. It's not filtered out, and we drink it. I'm not sure if it's identical to human oestrogen, but because our oestrogen receptors are notoriously unfussy, they certainly don't care which species made it. They'll happily accept its instructions to go on and do sexually mature female things to anyone's body.
[Later note: apparently there are only trace amounts of oestrogen and progesterone in milk.]

However, I understand that our digestive system breaks a lot of it down before it can hit our bloodstream, thank goodness. But not all of it.

Then we drove home, crossing the murky Waikato River. And you know what they say about dairy farms and water quality...

Anna in the farm's biggest tractor.

All this, and our family still drinks milk, and eats yoghurt and cheese. And I still want that icecream maker.

21 August 2012

Ukulele adventures

With just two nights of uke practice under our belts, we feel pretty flash. However, Jack can't get his strumming right, and I'm pretty slow with the chords. I watched his quick brain and fingers immediately leap to the chords he learnt last night, while mine fumbled and had to be reminded.

To get some smarter strumming skills, we turned to YouTube. It did help something fall into place with the strumming, but watching people who have been playing for several decades put us in our places! The expertise out there is incredible. We loved this as a ukulele example and this as generally wonderful.

One of Jack's great ambitions is to play Duelling Banjos with his Daddy (him on banjo, Daddy on guitar). I was thrilled to see the chords and words to Camptown Races on the leaflet that came with the ukulele, mainly because this bluegrass fan loves it but also because Jack can play it on the violin. However, he didn't quite see that I wanted to do a duet with him the same way he does with Daddy! We tried, but his enthusiasm was somewhat lacking.

It is challenging, and fun. With something so enjoyable, sociable and brain-building going on, does bedtime matter so much, I wonder? Sigh... during the week, I suppose it has to.

Anyone can join in the music! And this girl has rhythm.
Speaking of bedtime, I can't leave YouTube music alone. James Hill is a famous ukulele player and this is why.

20 August 2012

My new purchase

When I was 16 (23 years ago!) I went to the Solomon Islands. At one point on a remote island I was transported from one village to the next in a little dugout canoe. The people probably did a lot of canoeing from place to place. It could get boring. So, being human, they figured out a way to make it more fun. They sang!

And did they ever sing. They sounded like angels, because they do it all the time, I suppose. There was no electricity from what I can remember. Maybe there was a transistor radio. But if they wanted to listen to something good, they had to make it themselves.

Their voices were quite harsh to my western ears, but landed in exactly the right place every time, and they constantly sang in harmony. The children joined in quite naturally. I loved it. I wanted more of it, and I still do.

So what did I buy today? Not a TV, or an ipod, or an ipad, or even a mobile phone. I don't have any of those things. But I bought a ukulele! It's beautiful.

The three of us who are aged over 5 have hardly been able to put it down!

I'm working on sending the chords into my automatic brain, so I can let loose and play the many songs in my head that are begging to have a better reason to be sung.

19 August 2012

Watching a kakapo

In two weeks we will be seeing a real kakapo! Sirocco is his name and mating is his game. Well, the game he's famous for, on Youtube - he tries to mate someone's head. It really is hilarious: you can view it here. If you haven't seen it, I guarantee it's worth it. It's short.

He's at Maungatautari, a fenced-off, predator-free 'mainland island', until late September. It's about 45 minutes (I think) south of Hamilton. Only a few of the tours are fully booked so far, but a letter to the Waikato Times yesterday by someone who'd visited him said it was unforgettable and unmissable.

A comment on his Maungatautari facebook page says:

"Incredible Sirocco on Wednesday - boy does he know that he is the star of the show.
Absolutely a MUST SEE for anyone who has ever given a sparrow a second glance!!"

I booked our tour virtually the day the bookings website went live. No way am I missing this opportunity! The rest of the family's coming whether they like it or not. I think they'll like it.

If you want to see him too, click here to learn more and book.

18 August 2012

A very, very old ritual

We have a new nightly ritual. It's new to us, but very, very old, this cooking over the fire business. I've even read a theory that sitting around the fire played a key part in humans learning how to speak. Talk about fundamental.

Every night, after dinner, the request comes: can we toast marshallows? The fire has usually burnt down sufficiently by this stage.

Two nights ago they roasted 11 and 15 each, respectively, which is when we realised that we couldn't just let them sit there with the open bag between them. Now they have a limit of five each.

"I love the fire," said Anna. "I love toasting marshmallows!"

The cat, too, perceives the beauty of it.

Does anything speak pleasure like a cat in front of a warm fire with a loving body to snuggle into?

17 August 2012

What we find beautiful

I've always wondered: why is nature so beautiful to us?

There are good evolutionary biology reasons why we find beautiful people beautiful - it's a measure of 'quality', if you're into mate choice theory.

But sunsets? The song of birds? Trees? Flowers?

But beautiful they are. Here are some "spring's coming" examples I saw on our walk home from school today.

16 August 2012

He was my everything

One of the greatest books I've ever read is 'Wuthering Heights', by Emily Bronte. So dramatic, powerful, dark, fascinating, tragic.

I've read it three or four times. I fell in love with it for the first time as required reading for a stage 1 English paper at University. I picked it up most recently a few years ago when Jack was a baby, or a toddler. He's now about to turn nine.

Me with Jack, 7 months old.

When I read it last, it seemed so different to the previous times, I suppose because I'd changed so much in those 15 or so years. There is one sentence I think I remember clearly. It was the maid/narrator, Nelly, saying of Hareton when he was a little boy (because she'd raised him) how she knew he was clever, because:

"He was my everything, and I his."

(I hope I'm remembering correctly. It was years ago, and I'm just going by memory, because I don't own a copy. This is a mistake and I must get one.)

And that's how it was with my little boy. I was shocked by it, and I adored it. He didn't need to be able to talk, because I knew what he was saying with every little grunt and expression. Oh, how I loved that baby. (And love that boy!)

15 August 2012

Living below the line

As I sit here drinking my hot, milky drink with cinnamon and bush honey, eating gingernuts - not because I'm hungry, but because I like it - I contemplate doing the upcoming 'Live below the line' challenge, paying only $2.25 a day for everything you eat and drink for five days. Because that's what 1.4 billion people generally live on, and they have to buy everything with that, not just food.

I'd be eating a few of these mung bean sprouts (I love my sprout jar):

And consulting this book a lot:

My family isn't keen, and the children (well, the boy child at least) are far too fussy. (Ah, I hear you say, a child would never let him or herself starve - but I'm sure Jack would if the food choices didn't suit him. Maybe he'd give in after a few days. He would, however, consent to exist on potatoes, rice, apples and eggs.) So it would be a solo mission for me, all the while preparing normal "rich people's" food for them.

Isn't it nice to be on the rich side of the world - to sleep on a mattress elevated above the floor, to wash clothes in a machine every day, to have multiple condiments to choose from, to be able to afford almost anything in the supermarket but find it hard to decide what to have for dinner. To be able to fill your children's bellies each day, and let them go to school instead of making them work to support the family. To have a separate room for sleeping, let alone a bedroom each! Oh, the luxury.

14 August 2012

Television, and peace

As the Olympics approached, I remembered previous years of absolutely loving watching the gymnastics. So when a friend offered to lend us her spare TV, I jumped at the chance.

And hasn't it been great? Gabrielle Douglas was my favourite. The floor.... the beam.... the super-strong men on the rings and bar.... the oh-so bendy and elegant rhythmic gymnasts, the divers.... New Zealand winning the rowing. Wow. We feasted on it.

But what a change for our family to have a TV dominating the lounge. To have children sitting and staring at something, so 'zoned out'. (Somewhat tidier, to be sure, with less creating going on.) To have parents saying 'Be quiet!' in order to hear every detail of what the winning athlete says. To have such a large call on our time and family life. To have later nights, and less reading.

Even last night, when I saw part of a documentary on Paul Simon going to South Africa to record Gracelands, I never wanted to keep the TV. But it was fantastic to see those oh-so-coordinated black Africans grooving away in the studio as Boy in the bubble was recorded. Such rhythm and joy - I cannot get enough of African music, song and dance!

We're returning the TV this weekend. This evening it's off, and there is melody in our lounge:

Please note: this was minutes before he put it down and switched on Mad Max.  That TV has to go! He agrees.

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