29 November 2012

An apron sewed

You didn't expect that we could actually eat a meal at the dining table while a sewing project is in progress, did you?

For almost a year I've had some fabric and a pattern set aside to make an apron for Anna. She's asked me to do it many times. With her confined to home due to her bee-stung foot, and me with no urgent work to do, I thought it was a good time to finally do it.

Our well-furred cat lay himself down among the threads and sewing detritus, much of which was due to Anna joining in, sewing buttons onto scraps as little gifts for me, and stitching together a felt pillow stuffed with cotton wool to provide comfort for her stuffed-toy duck, who is about to have her babies, you know. (This duck doesn't lay eggs, she said, this one has live babies.)

The project took over four hours, but that was with a fair amount of unpicking because I kept modifying the pattern and getting it wrong, and with Anna frequently needing me to tie knots, rethread the sewing machine needle and generally help her out.

She loves her apron. "I can't stop looking at my apron!" she said.

Here she she is trying it on for the first time and acting the TV cook, giving a demonstration of how to prepare a certain dish. First you chop this, then you mix this....

Later that day we had to do some baking, of course. She stirred the chocolate brownie mix on the stovetop. She, like me, can't bear the thought of the apron doing what it is meant to do: get dirty!

26 November 2012

A bee sting and a lovely day

Poor Anna, continuing her run of health problems, now has a bee sting. Unfortunately she has reacted to it like her Mama does: she has a red, swollen and unbearably itchy foot.

She wasn't at home with us when she got it, or I would have got an antihistamine into her pronto and this wouldn't have been so severe. I give her the only thing I've found that helps a severe itch, and that's icepacks to numb it.

However, it meant she couldn't go to school, and what a day we had together! She drew, and practiced her timestables (her idea not mine), then I taught her how to play chords on a ukulele (she's been picking for a little while now). She tried so hard, forcing her babyish fingers to land where they needed to on the strings. Our lesson took about twenty minutes, and now she knows three chords and she's away, playing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer and Little Drummer Boy, and singing along tunefully. Fantastic.

She requested a plait in her hair, and then, after a trip to buy chicken food and pea straw, we found ourselves in the quaint little town of Cambridge. The Cambridge clock tower struck 11.15 am, and Anna couldn't believe it. She didn't know there was such a thing as a clock striking. The things I haven't taught her yet!

We headed for a bookshop full of wonderful books, stationery and art supplies. Her foot was too uncomfortable to limp any longer, so I hoisted up the darling 25 kg body and carried her like a toddler.

Then I noticed something that I really, really liked. As I carried her, she was stroking my forearm, elbow to wrist, elbow to wrist. Lovely.

24 November 2012

The idle parent

I'm part way through a book called The Idle Parent, by Tom Hodgkinson. I am loving it!

It's on my pillow, where I left it after my siesta.

As a result, this will be a short post. Sleep calls. It's 8.30 pm, and I want my ten hours.

From what I've read I imagine Tom, who lives in North Devon, to be a bit of an intellectual toff who takes little exercise, lives in a stone cottage, has a quiff hairstyle and drinks a tad too much. I really like what he says and how he says it. Tom, you are a man after my own heart.

The ideal situation for parenting, we both think, is a gang of children playing wildly together while the parents hang out and chat, and neither group bothers the other (except of course when the grazed knees and banged heads report in for some comforting). (Tom thinks the parents should be drinking. Booze does little for me.)

This is one of the reasons I had to quit Playcentre. I was there to chat with the other mothers while Jack played with the children, but after a few weeks I made the terrible realisation that we were meant to play with our children. Woops. Throw in the evening meetings and jobs to keep the parent-run centre going, and I was out of there.

Tom thinks parents need to be happy and relaxed, and to do that we need to get enough sleep and avoid stress. "In my experience, full-time jobs interrupt sleep to an insupportable degree: there is no siesta time," he writes. Unsupportable! And intolerable, he could have said.

"The mega-corp doesn't need you; the kids do," he continues. "Unslave yourself.... Hard work will not lead to health and happiness... Better to be penniless and at home than rich and absent."

Of course, parents do need to work to earn some sort of living, say Tom and I, who have standards below which we will not slip.  "...the idle parent aims to make the money-earning enjoyable and creative. So be clever about it."

I have that one sorted out, I think, or almost, but my poor husband is enslaved. Tomorrow I start the design work to divide our third bedroom into a bedroom and a spare bedroom/office, with the hope that one day he will be able to work part-time and from home, while my part-time earnings fill the void, and of course we need a home office to do that seriously.

It may be just a dream, but I'll prepare to make it reality. Unfortunately the renovation will involve a whole lot of money and, um, hard work....

(p.s. I looked Tom up on Wikepedia and he has no quiff, and if he takes little exercise it's not obvious.)

23 November 2012

School lunch overhaul

I've been making school lunches for over four years now and I've never been happy with the lunchboxes or drink bottles. Recently I've come up with a solution. I'd love to tell you I sewed our new lunchboxes myself, but it isn't true!

Anna picked the flowers on the way home from school.
I like an insulated lunchbox, because it gets so hot here in summer and I like my children to have a bit of protein with their lunch to carry them through the afternoon, which usually means some kind of meat or fish in their sandwich. I don't want it sitting in the heat for hours. So they have an insulated lunchbox with their various food items in separate containers in the lunchbox, plus an icepack to keep it all cool.

It looks like it's overflowing, but it's actually on its way to
being unpacked. In fact these lunchboxes are exactly the
right size for us.
(I'm lucky they almost never lose things, like the separate containers. Both of them seem to instinctively realise that it's up to them to look after their stuff because their Mama forgets to check for it.)

The trouble is this: sooner or later some food spills and gets into the seams or a split in the lunchbox lining, and despite my nightly wipings, it stinks.

So I found some lunchboxes that can be thrown in the washing machine  They're made to order in New Zealand by a lady who was sick of stinky lunchboxes! They are $15 each (or $25 with two containers inside), plus postage, from this website.

I've bought book bags from her too because I got sick of sending a $6 version bought through the school to the dump every year when it split and peeled. Much like the lunchboxes I started out with - $10 from the Warehouse, destined to fill up the dump. I'm pleased to bow out of the throwaway society whenever possible.

The new lunchboxes aren't cute and fashionable, but my children are satisfied with them, and the plain package means there's nothing to go out of style. These should last for many years.

I also bought two stainless steel drink bottles, because water sitting around in plastic, even if it's not polycarbonate, absorbs pthalates (hormone-disrupting chemicals) from the plastic, which are not my idea of a satisfactory ingredient for a school lunch. I chose Safe Bottles, although I'm not sure if they're the best or not. I've since seen another one that's only a year or so old and most of the paint has peeled off. Frankly I'm not thrilled with the obvious branding on them, either.

Other than that they seem fine, and although they're not suitable for freezing water in the night before for a deliciously cool lunchtime drink, the wide mouth means I can put icecubes in them. Mostly I can't be bothered, but I do it for the very hot February weeks.

Previously I'd made the mistake of buying aluminium drink bottles from the supermarket. Then when I scrubbed them with a bottle brush one day I noticed that the inside had corroded.... into the children's water, no doubt. Woops.

I wrote this just in case anyone else is having the same problems and needs a solution, and especially for anyone kitting their children out for school for the first time. The lunchbox lady does schoolbags too, which are also notorious for falling apart (not hers! I mean the shop ones), although we have avoided that problem with a Camelback backpack which is solid as anything four years later. My other advice on that front is to get one the right size - so often I see five year olds with schoolbags that are way too big, and look very uncomfortable. No good for walk-to-school people like us.

p.s. I meant to write this post a bit earlier but got sidetracked browsing felt.co.nz. I am a little bit in love with these stamps - I have a thing for feathers at the moment.

22 November 2012

Box of treasures

Yesterday a box of treasures arrived at our house.

A tiny selection from the box
A friend had no space for a box full of 1967 edition hardcover children's books. The Swiss Family Robinson, Black Beauty, Call of the Wild, Huckleberry Finn... I'm sure you know the kind I mean. Some I have read, and many I haven't. I think I'll be reading them all.

I'll have at least one rival though: Jack, the bookivore.

"It's really good you got these," he said last night, as he pulled his nose out of Robin Hood.

So here they are, taking up one of Jack's bookshelves. There are two stories per book, and the back cover of one is the front cover of the other, if you know what I mean. While you read one story, its partner is upside down.

I'm going to start with Little Women. I've heard it mentioned a thousand times and never read it. And then I'll move on to a bit of the great Mark Twain. His quotes always make me stop, think and admire. Here's a couple:

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.

20 November 2012

Sauerkraut at home

I've begun a new probiotic adventure tonight. Instead of taking a walk in the beautiful, still, clear evening air, I've been kneading cabbage. Why, oh why?

To make sauerkraut, which is full of good bacteria that will hopefully infest my gut.

My hands hurt. The chopped cabbage has to be kneaded with salt until the brine comes out of it. Three-quarters of a cabbage went down to only two cups or so of kneaded kraut-stuff, which was a bit demoralising, because that will make two or three serves at the most.

The cabbage leaf on top is meant to keep the
chopped cabbage under the brine. 
This is how I made it. I put 3/4 of a chopped savoy cabbage in a bowl, and sprinkled on a tablespoon of sea salt that was hurriedly begged from my neighbour, because I only had the supermarket iodised stuff. I then kneaded for about five minutes - not long, granted, but it definitely gave my hand muscles a workout. At this point there had been quite a transformation: the volume of cabbage was greatly reduced and there was lots of water in the bowl, all of which came from inside the cabbage.

I put it all in a clean jar and was pleased to see that the brine came above the level of the cabbage, which is how it's meant to be. I put some whole cabbage leaves on top to stop any of the kneaded stuff floating up into the airspace, which would make it go mouldy. That's when I took the photo above.

However then I was told that the leaves on top would go mouldy, so I discarded them and pushed a small jar on top of the kneaded cabbage to hold it down.

It'll be a couple of weeks before it's ready.

I ate sauerkraut in Germany, and really liked it. But can I really be bothered with all this carry-on?

Answer: I'll give it a go. But only for a few months.... it's all in aid of ridding myself of migraines.

The milk kefir I posted about has to go, as does the Caspian Sea yoghurt. The pain that returned to me a week or so after bringing dairy - albeit fermented - back into my diet was too much to bear. Farewell, delicious yoghurt, for another few months at least. I miss you so.

18 November 2012

Beautifully arranged

I've long admired Anna's ability to arrange things. Tonight I can't bring myself to tidy the lounge floor.

Blast off!
 It's made of an old set of Cuisemaire rods.

17 November 2012

Hello kefir, meet my gut

There's been an introduction taking place in my gut.

New, friendly bacteria, please meet existing, possibly not entirely friendly bacteria.

I've started on a new adventure making probiotic drinks, full of good bacteria that will colonise my intestines.

Kefir, water kefir and Caspian Sea yoghurt
Horrified by the price of probiotic powders and pills, and informed by a gastroenterologist at a party that most of them don't have the right strains of bacteria or not enough of them, I made some purchases that let me turn real food into probiotics. Hence the new line up of Agee preserving jars on our kitchen bench (at which my husband rolls his sterile western eyes).

I bought some kefir grains, which when plonked into milk and allowed to sit at room temperature for 24-48 hours, ferment the milk into a slightly thickened, tangy drink that is yoghurt-like, yet different. It's sharper and a bit fizzy, and I think has a tiny bit of alcohol in it. It's meant to be so probiotic that it puts normal yoghurt to shame.

If you've read the 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' series, you might remember Lisbeth drinking some kefir. She'd bought it of course - Lisbeth doesn't make food! In some parts of the non-Western world it's drunk regularly, and a quick search on pubmed does suggest kefir is indeed good stuff. And the importance of healthy gut flora for good health is really taking off in mainstream medicine (see this from the Economist, where gut flora made the front cover).

Water kefir grains
I also bought some water kefir grains, which get put into a jar with sugar, water, lemon, raisins, root ginger and not much else, and make ginger beer (most of the sugar is eaten up by the kefir). I suspect this is the only one of my concoctions that anyone else in the family will partake in. The first batch is ready for drinking tomorrow, and my premature taster was delicious.

Finally, I bought a bit of Caspian Sea yoghurt. How did a yogurt fiend like me know this existed? Anyone who eats plain yoghurt, this is fantastic news: I just mix one part of Caspian Sea yoghurt in with nine parts milk and let it stand in a jar at room temperature for 24 hours. There is no preheating of the milk or anything fussy like that. It turns into the most wonderful, creamy yoghurt. It's definitely not as thick as Greek yoghurt, but I prefer mine a bit runny. Incredibly easy, and apparently full of probiotics.

I bought my water kefir grains and Caspian Sea yoghurt here. They are about $16 a pop.

You may remember I'm not having gluten or dairy to try to get rid of my migraines. It kind of worked, and at least halved their frequency. I'm still following that diet apart from introducing the fermented dairy. However, even with that my migraines have increased again. But I will persist for a while: it's meant to take two weeks for the gut bacteria to adjust.

However, I now know that my gut must be leaking gluten and casein into my blood stream (where, so the theory goes, it then acts on my nerves to sensitise them and make me more prone to migraines). There is another slightly whackier theory that says probiotics can heal the gut's leakiness. So that's what I'm trying to do with these unusual drinks - heal the gappy gut.

I shared this post at Frugally Sustainable.

14 November 2012

Difficult-time gifts

We've received gifts of roses and home baking to help us recover from the time in hospital. Oh how lovely such things are - they are rare these days, but they still matter, and mean more than ever!

I admit to having become a bit lazy about doing such good turns, but I resolve here and now to always take a little something to friends and neighbours who are having a rough time.

The hospital stay certainly took it out of me. Not only did I feel exhausted, but I kept forgetting things, and operated through an extremely foggy mind. Stress and lack of sleep certainly take their toll on the brain. Only yesterday - three days after we came home - did I feel my spark return. 

It's good to be back.

13 November 2012

My new employee

This is my son Jack working at his new job, proof-reading an article I've written. I took him on yesterday, and I'm paying him $5 per article.

When I told him I'd pay him, I saw his pupils change to dollar signs, followed by a flashing image of an ipod. But to me, the price is worth it.

He's nine years old now, and he's at least as much of a book worm as I was at his age. He's known where his apostrophe's (ha ha - he's not proofreading my blog posts) should go for a couple of years now, and he's been correcting his teachers' spelling for that long, too.

A quick read of my old writing book from standard four (age 10) shows that my apostrophes, while generally present in the words that they should be, were frequently balanced directly over the s, committing to neither the left or right.

I'm guessing that it will be helpful for him to learn while he's young that he can make money by doing something he excels at. Of course, he enjoys it, too, and takes it seriously.

Regular readers will remember that Jack has a bit of a debt problem. It's reducing, though, and on learning of his latest balance, he said delightedly, "I don't have to do anything! I just have to do my jobs and not spend anything!" Ah, the secret of saving money.

12 November 2012

Baby alone

During the two days Anna and I spent in the hospital, I kept noticing a small child who was alone in a side room. Always.

No one visited him, apart from the nurse that was looking after him during her shift.

When I asked, a nurse told me he'd been there, alone, for four days, and that this kind of thing happens regularly. The parents have reasons - they live too far away, they have children at home they have to care for.

I think he (or she, I couldn't tell from the name) must have been about 18 months old going by his size, but I couldn't tell for sure. He didn't seem to crawl or stand. And, disturbingly, he never cried. Like those Russian babies in orphanages who have figured out that crying doesn't work.

The damage.

This was the worst thing I saw during our time there. Apart from Anna crying and shaking with pain and fear when her drip lines failed and had to be re-inserted in a different vein, that is. But our hearts are meant to break for our children, aren't they? We are meant to do anything we can to protect our children from pain and fear - but not all parents do.

And while we read to Anna, brought her drawing materials, played I Spy and 'paper, scissors, rock', the family opposite us told their completely unentertained two-year-old to 'shut up' when she cried and, I'm sure, hit her at one point (she was allowed five sobs in response, at which point she was told to 'shut up' again, and she did).

Anna rewarded me today. "Mama is the hero of the family this week," she announced. "You saved me." On questioning she said I'd saved her from having her knee cut open to release the nastiness in the boil (because the district nurse who came today to do the first of her daily dressing changes assumed that had been done, but I pointed out that it had erupted by itself).

But I think I saved her in a different way: by not being one of those parents. She is so blessed, as was I, not to be born into one of those families. "There but for the grace of God, go I."

11 November 2012

A change of scene: hospital

What happened to sunny scarecrows? Could that have been only a few days ago?

Anna and I were transported on Thursday to the strange world of hospitals. She had another crop of boils, and one on her knee had started to invade up and down her leg, sending out patches of red, and shooting her temperature upwards. Cellulitis, it's called.

IV antibiotics were needed. If the infection entered the joint, which was oh so close to that boil, there would be permanent damage.

There were wonderful, hardworking professional staff. How lucky we are to have a completely free, advanced medical system, with a major hospital 10 minutes from our house.

There were incessant buzzers, beeps, crying babies, and sleep was hard to find. We are tired.

There was a spectacular view.

There were sadnesses, too, which I will write about tomorrow. Things to throw parts of life into a new perspective.

But we are home, and she is well.

6 November 2012

A gathering of scarecrows

Each year the Hamilton Gardens host a gathering of scarecrows in their kitchen garden. The scarecrows are made by anyone who wants to join the fun.

Visitors vote for their favourites, and there are winners in each category - family, school, kindergarten etc, plus an overall winner.

Next year, we are going to make one!

On the same day, the grow-at-home giant pumpkin competition is launched. You can buy seeds and seedlings, which are of a cultivar that tends to grow huge. They're inedible, I believe. It's judged in March. Some people bring their pumpkins on trailers for the weighing-in!

By late summer, the kitchen garden itself is full of enormous pumpkins.

Jack as a two-year-old visiting the kitchen garden.

5 November 2012

A decorated casket

Today, on my 40th birthday, I was greeted at 6am by little Anna walking in the front door saying "Mrs Cluck's dead now." And she was.

I'd known it was imminent (see my post from when I first noticed it here). I'd telephoned a chicken expert and described her symptoms, and was told that he'd never managed to save a hen with a 'sour crop' - basically a blockage in the digestive tract. Death came at most 48 hours after the symptoms started. Until then she was wonderfully vigorous and healthy - a thing I look for and enjoy every day in my hens. Such crude living conditions, such rude health.

She was placed into the casket Anna had decorated for her the night before, while she was still in her sick bay, eyes closed, shutting down. (Ever the biologist, I was interested to note that her eyelids came up from the bottom, rather than closing down from above like ours.)

Jack wouldn't look at the corpse, but requested a feather to remember her by. (Those things are stuck in hard, I found!) We were all sad.

 She will fertilise the passionfruit vine growing near her burial spot. Anna planted a sunflower seed on top of her.

Should I have ended her suffering earlier by killing her? I don't know. I didn't want to and wasn't sure I could do it humanely. Should I feel guilty? It's not a privilege accorded to humans suffering unavoidable deaths, is it?

My birthday, to be celebrated properly with a very small gathering on Friday night, was good anyway. I enjoyed all my cards, especially the handmade creative, witty ones from my husband and children. On the back of his, Ian revealed a terrible secret: he's known for a long time where my chocolate hiding spot is. Darn it.

As for my present, look out for better photos from a soon-to-be purchased camera. Then you can all enjoy my birthday present! (Later update: I think the old one was better.)

4 November 2012

Little Bo Peep

When I chose this bonnet for a little girl turning one, I couldn't decide if she would look more like Little Bo Peep or one of the girls from Little House on the Prairie. The latter was my absolute favourite TV programme for a long time, and I wanted to dress like those girls!

I think Little Bo Peep won.

I bought it from felt.co.nz, my new favourite place to buy gifts. The seller is listed here.

Happy first birthday, Ella!

3 November 2012

This blogger turns chicken nurse

Gentle, mournful chicken calls float about our bedroom in the morning. Our four hens live out the back of our house, and a few weeks ago our neighbours got some too. Interestingly, they have different voices!

This morning I was jerked out of my dozy sleep-in by a call that sounded wrong. This pyjama-clad blogger raced outside to find a sick looking chook. I transformed into nurse mode.

Obviously sick. I'd never even seen a chicken's eyelids before.
Note the flopped-over comb. I'd read about it but never seen it before.
I lifted her up and tipped her upside down to check her cloaca (egg laying and everything else hole). Healthy. But before I tipped her right way up, some fluid came out of her mouth. Hmmm.

A consultation with Dr Google revealed that she probably has 'sour crop', basically a blocked fluid-filled belly. I gathered the troops to witness me squeezing out her foul juice.

Can you see the white fluid dripping past my leg?

Then I made her a sick bay with provisions: water with a dash of apple cider vinegar in it, some plain yoghurt and her normal food. The first two things are to provide good bacteria to counteract the bad ones in her crop. Strangely, I'm just reading a book about the importance of healthy gut flora in humans!

The other hens were madly curious to see what I was up to!
Sick bay
I did another squeeze a bit later on - also fruitful - and squirted some yoghurt into her mouth, which she swallowed. 

At bedtime, she had just sat in her sickbay all day, hadn't touched her provisions, and left completely clean straw. Not good - these gals do regular droppings when things are normal. 

The truth is, I may find her dead in the morning. I really, really hope not - she is one of my best layers. Stay tuned: I may have my first chicken corpse to dispose of. 

Pity it's not tree-planting season; corpses are the best fertilisers, I hear. A while ago I admired a friend's flourishing cabbage tree and he told me there was a cow under it!

What happened next? My post about it about it is here.
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