Sunday, January 27, 2013

My Dark Secret

Despite my many assurances that my house is now, on the whole, decluttered (and it is), and despite my assertions that I do not buy 'stuff' any more (and I don't), I have a terrible dark secret. A shed, which looks like this.

And this.

Oh, and over here as well.

When we built it, we had fond ideas of lining it and turning it into a summer house, opening onto the pool. Or using it as a home gym. Or at the very least, storing all the bikes and other gear that is now stuffed awkwardly under the house, making it a half day exercise merely to get to the bikes to go for a simple bike ride with the children. But we can do none of those things because I only sort-of decluttered the house, and the things I couldn't bear to get rid of outright sort of migrated to the shed, and then magically turned into the world's most giant clutter-bomb. And now, several years later, steps must be taken. We have ...ummm, maybe neglected to invite the council to sign off on our shed building project. In order to do that, The Man actually has to finish it, and to finish it, we have to take everything out of it so he can get to the walls.

So every day this week I have hauled myself up there and sighed, and pulled out a box, sighed, opened it, and wondered listlessly what possessed me to put all these unrelated items in a box anyway, sat for a while, gazing into middle distance, waiting for divine inspiration. Then I walk down to the house with a few items, find them a home, put them in the bin, recycle them, or put them in the op-shop bag. Then I trudge back up to the shed, sigh etc etc. This is possibly the most inefficient way to declutter that has ever been invented, but it works for me, because you know how organization manuals always tell you to have a box for rubbish, and a box for this, and a pile for that? Well, if I do that I end up with a bunch of boxes and piles that I just shove in the corner when someone interrupts me (and they always do). So when I return later or the next day I am faced with all the same clutter, rearranged into different piles. Madness. So by reducing the pile item by item, the clutter actually goes away permanently. And I get to do lots of exercise and talk to the cat.

And amongst all the junk family heirlooms, I found the perfect birthday present for my brother (Doug, if you are reading this, I bet you are thrilled. A present from the shed. I know, you should be so lucky). So, happy days. And Posy, who 'helps' in all life's inconvenient moments, found all the dress-ups that I have been hiding for two years, and modeled them all, and then, oh heaven help us, she found the chemistry set. So this afternoon we did 'experiments', and I had to watch her like a hawk.

'Look Mummy, if I pour the sodium carbonate into the methyl orange it looks like fake blood. I could take that for News at school. What if I pour both of these into the copper sulph.... oooh, look it's fizzing over the top...' I'm just relieved she hasn't worked out what the bunsen burner is for yet.

Tomorrow, The Boy is going to bolt together the wooden shelves that are piled, deconstructed in the corner. They once held all our homeschooling supplies down in the house, but now I am spurred on by visions of our pared down possessions in neatly labelled crates on wooden shelves. Maybe there will be wall stencils with uplifting mottoes...yes, yes I have been on pinterest too long...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

It Has Taken Years of Nagging for Me to Get This Lucky

This week has been all about school shoe shopping, buying new uniforms, getting the blazers dry cleaned, washing the uniforms that don't fit any more, and putting them away for the next child. Scheduling haircuts, dentists, orthodontists. It has been quite an expensive week. However, in a triumph for 'using up what we have', I didn't order two expensive stationery packs for our highschool students at $74 each, I hauled out the crate with all the unused stationery saved from past school years, and outfitted the girls with most of what they needed, so we managed to get away with a $40 spend at the office supplies shop, which included a whole lot of book covering supplies as well.

All we have to do now is pick up text books next week, for which I will need to remortgage the house. Heigh ho. I emailed The Man, who is, as usual, somewhere else that is not here, to let him know we were spending all his hard earned money, and he said. 'Well, that's what it's there for.' He's such a nice man. Or maybe just resigned to the inevitable.

Being a tired mummy this week, I requested help in the kitchen, and this is what I got:

The Girl's fabulous chicken pie, with leftovers from the weekend's roast. Two days later, The Boy made his famous Thai Chicken Curry. I am a very lucky mummy. Tonight The Boy has gone to visit his girlfriend to teach her how to make a white sauce. The ripples spread out across the pond... and I will be sending some seriously capable young people out into the world.

Do your children do chores around the house? I was completely useless at cooking or housekeeping when I left home, and I want my children to be confident that they can run a household when they come to set up their own. Besides, it is so useful to have competent young people about the house.

Here is what my children do:

The Boy does his own laundry, washes his sheets and towels, vacuums his room, and takes turns with me to clean the downstairs bathroom, and washes the car he drives. We also pay him to wash the other car, mow the lawn, and do the whippersnipping, and various other gardening and renovating jobs. He is not super practical by nature, but has become quite handy with training. He also cooks when asked!

The Girl washes her sheets, vacuums her room, is in charge of the cats, does a lot of baking and cooking, mostly because she enjoys it, sometimes because I need an extra pair of hands.

Rosy vacuums her room, strips her bed and helps remake it, and helps with cooking.

Posy clears the table, and whines a lot when asked to do, well, anything really. The others think she is a spoilt brat because they all had to start doing the dishes when they were six. The truth is I am an old, tired woman, and if they realised how many years it took off my life forcing them to do the dishes when they were younger..

Oh yes, the older three do the dishes. There is no roster, but I try to be fair when I ask them to do a task. If one of them has helped with the cooking, I collar one of the others to help with the dishes. I expect they will be quite pleased when Posy is the last child at home and has to do ALL the dishes.

I don't feel that any of these tasks are particularly onerous, but traditionally, anyone doing exams gets to skip chores. I also think it is important for them to get a sense of the routine of housework that keeps a household going, which of course requires me to be implementing that routine. Mostly happens. Except in summer holidays..

Here is fellow blogger and parent-of-teenagers, Mrs Frantic's, take on chores, and here is a simply wonderful little manifesto from a judge who has a theory about how teenagers should be spending their time. Thanks Michele!

Meanwhile, I am looking forward (not) to another year of working out what is for school lunch...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

My Skeleton Wardrobe - Summer

It has recently come to my attention that I have less clothes than anyone I know. I have exactly twenty five pieces of clothing, plus six pairs of shoes, and that is my Summer wardrobe. There is a reason for this:

I really, really don't like shopping, and I really, really, really don't like clothes shopping. There are so many  unpleasant aspects to clothes shopping. You have to leave the house when you would rather be gardening or reading your favourite book again. You have to decide what you want to buy, you have to TRY ON CLOTHES IN CHANGE ROOMS. Then you have to throw those clothes on the floor in a rage and get dressed, and go and find more clothes to try on, then get changed again. Aaaarrrgh. You have to look at your stretch marks in a full length mirror. The horror. Often you have to go to MORE THAN ONE SHOP and still not find anything to wear. The misery. I know, I know, first world problems.

I have attempted to solve this problem by developing an absolute basic wardrobe over the years, and when an item wears out, I replace it with something as similar as possible. This way I don't have to think about clothes, everything goes with everything else, and when I am forced to travel, I just take everything, because it all fits in half a suitcase, which is all the space you ever get when you travel with children.

This is not a wardrobe that would be remotely adequate for anyone working outside home, but it works for my very non-glamorous lifestyle, and has covered all contingencies so far.

Items 1-8

Four singlets and four Tshirts which all mix and match. Yes, I took off one of those T shirts to take the photo. I am nothing if not thorough.

Items 9-12

Two pairs identical shorts in khaki and beige. Two pairs denim 3/4 length pants. Yes, I know there is only one pair there. I am not that thorough. Imagine them like the others, only darker. Then imagine I iron.
All the T shirts go with all the pants.

Items 13-14

Two skirts. Go with the black and white Tshirts.

Items 15-16

Two shirts. Go with all the pants.

Item 17


Item 18

Casual party dress

Items 19-20

Posh frocks for Events. Green one works for funerals with sober shoes. Sparkly shoes for parties..

Items 21-22

Black cardies. Short sleeved works with pants and skirts. Cardigan on the right is my all time favourite piece of clothing. It is merino with 3/4 length sleeves, lace down the front, flat pearl buttons. I wear it summer and winter with everything. It is eight years old, and I will cry when it gives up the ghost..

Item 23

Linen jacket, goes with all the pants. One summer scarf. Does that count as an item?

Items 24-25

Bathers, jersey knit dress to go over the top. And a sunhat (where is that pesky sunhat?)


That's it folks. Apart from two sets of  'exercise' gear (a girl can dream), and unspeakable gardening clothes.
I recently lost a dear old favourite, a blousy white top that succumbed to holes too big to mend, so I am looking out for another one. Well, 'looking out' may be too strong a word. One day soon I may go into town in order to think about what shops I might consider looking in for such an item...

And I am considering the colour blue. Imagine wearing something blue...

How do you decide what clothes to buy?

Edited to add: Found another top in the washing basket this morning. Cream, jersey knit. 26 items.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Never Too Many Cooks...

Last night I taught The Boy how to make a bechamel sauce. He wanted to know so that he could become the Lasagne King. He could also make half a dozen other dishes now that he can make a white sauce, but he probably won't. His cooking tactic is knowing how to make specific dishes, and getting really good at them, then moving on to something new. The Girl, on the other hand, cooks like a jazz musician, riffing on a theme. When she learned how to make a white sauce, she experimented with all the ways she could think of to use it, and developed a chicken pie filling to die for. The Girl is never held back by mere recipes.

Rosy is still at the stage where she is learning techniques. How to chop an onion safely, why you cook the onion before the garlic, why you cook onion on low, but meat on high, how to deglaze a pan. She is very interested in learning to cook dinner, and has already mastered baking enough for her purposes, which is to make extremely elaborate cupcakes.

Posy has two recipes - chocolate cake, and chocolate cookies, both of which leave mess from one end of the kitchen to the other. She much prefers to sit on the other side of the kitchen bench and eat the raw ingredients while someone else cooks, because she is a bit of a princess, but never fear, she will be learning to cook as time goes on, because I want to send all my children out into the world as capable human beings who can actually feed themselves.

It never ceases to amaze me how little some of the children's friends know about food and cooking. Rosy will have friends over, and they will make cup cakes, and clearly these twelve year old girls have never cooked before. They refuse to crack an egg into the bowl, in case they 'do it wrong', they're scared of the beaters and don't know what the little lines on the scale mean. A number of them are amazed (and not a little concerned) that we send them out to pick dinner ingredients out of the garden. These are not deprived children in any way, but from our nice middle class neighbourhood. And from the intelligence reports I get back, it seems that these children eat a lot from the frozen food section at the supermarket, or large cuts of meat with bagged salad or frozen veg, and apparently, 'no-one else even has a slow cooker, Mum.'
'Poor things,' I say, to be met with snorts of derision from my progeny.

This isn't just a feel-good story about the wonderfulness of my children. Clearly they would love the chance to eat out of the frozen food section 'like normal people'. Although actually they also have friends whose parents cook just like I do, and have gardens they eat from, so I am not such an anachronism as they sometimes portray me. But I do think it is very important that they have an informed choice, and useful life skills to take them into adulthood. And they love to bask in all the compliments they get for their wonderful cooking. What better reputation to have than for being a great cook?

It is not necessarily an easy road, teaching children to cook. It is so much more peaceful to do it yourself. There have been years of tears and tantrums (mostly mine) when the floor is covered with more ingredients than the mixing bowl, the time the blender lid got left off.. when the walls are splattered with spaghetti sauce, when the mini cooks use up all the key ingredients for tomorrow's dinner and don't put them on the shopping list. When they insist on 'doing it themselves' and you sit in another room, flinching at every crash coming from the kitchen. The wonderful thing is though, when you have weathered this maelstrom of mess and emotion, and bravely eaten burnt offerings and cookies where teaspoons and tablespoons of baking soda may have been slightly confused, there comes a time when confident, competent cooks emerge, people in your family other than yourself who can and will cook dinner. Priceless.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Not Jelling

Why can't I upload photos today? I actually took some, and now technology is being fiendish. How surprising. (edited to add: after some whining on other people's blogs, discovered how to get round Blogger's current glitch) I am writing from Adelaide, where we are having a jolly family celebration, and in about ten minutes we will be up to our necks in relatives. This will be quite fun, actually, it is just tragic that we had to get on a plane to do it. Why don't all my family move to Tasmania? I just don't understand. Being on a plane is exactly my idea of what Hell is like. Being bossed around by disembodied voices with perfect vowels, then sitting in a small confined space with a sick headache, something akin to morning sickness. With children. You understand, I DO NOT LIKE TO TRAVEL.

I do not like other people's mugs, their brands of tea bags, or their weather. I do like my father-in-law's apricot tree, which is splendid, and laden with ripe apricots. But this makes me sad because at home my apricots are ripening WITHOUT ME. Which brings me to the subject of this post, which is Jelly. We have lovely house sitters who are taking great care of the cats and the plants, but even the nicest house sitters can't be expected to make jam for one, and the red currants were perfect..

So it was 10 o'clock the night before our departure, and I was in the last stage of making jelly with the red currants and the cherry plums. The only good reason, that I can see, that you would ever make jelly, is because you have fruit that has bits in it (like red currants), or stones that are impossible to remove (like tiny yellow cherry plums). For jelly, you gently boil the fruit without adding water, squishing it down with a potato masher, and after it is well mashed and liquidized, boiling merrily for ten minutes or so, you add the sugar, equal in weight to the raw fruit. This you cook, merrily, or not so merrily, as the case may be, until the mixture 'jells', then you sieve it messily into another saucepan, then bottle it. There is a whole extra layer of possibility for enormous mess here, compared to ordinary jam making.

The recipe I ordinarily follow for jelly suggests eight minutes as ample time for 'jelling', so because I was rather tired and fancied not being up till midnight, I went with that, and didn't test for 'jelling' as I normally would. My usual method is to put two saucers in the freezer, and as the mixture starts looking like jam I put a blob on one saucer, pop it back in the freezer for a minute or two, then take it out and push the blob with my finger. If it wrinkles, it is ready. If not, I rinse the saucer, pop it back in the freezer, then take out the other saucer and test again, because the trick to 'jelling' is that it happens inside of a ten minute window, and you don't want to be hacking jam out of the jar using a butter knife like an ice pick. Well, that is not our problem with the latest batch of jelly, or should I say, delicious pancake syrup... eight minutes was not enough, Delia.

Life lessons learned: a) If there is something you do well, keep doing it the way you always do it. b) Always scribble notes on recipes. The year between making jelly is too long to remember that eight minutes is not enough..

Another note:  I read on Pinterest that pouring boiling water into jam jars and leaving it to sit a few minutes makes the label peel off like magic. True. Who knew, something useful on Pinterest. Of course you still have to rub it with eucalyptus oil to get off the sticky spot under the label, but still, very useful tip.

Yet another note: Making jelly late at night before you go on a family trip is a really silly idea.

Solution: Don't go on family trips. Get them all to move to your state instead. Come on people..

Monday, January 7, 2013

How Much Preparation is Enough?

I am writing tonight with a haze of smoke in the sky. There is only one topic of conversation in Tasmania, and that is, the fires. And although I am safe in the suburbs, half an hour's drive from the nearest fire, my mind keeps turning to the question, 'What if...?'

So many people have had to leave their homes with little or nothing, the fire travelling so quickly, and so many more have been stranded without electricity or water until the roads open again. Of course, I don't necessarily need to prepare for a bush fire, but there are so many situations that are far more likely that I'm not prepared for either.

And here is how prepared I am for an emergency. Several weeks ago I updated our first aid kits, and changed the torch batteries. Which is good as far as it goes, and of course, turned out well for The Boy, but I could probably do better.  Here are some of the areas that have occured to me:

Insurance: We have it, which is all good, but most importantly, we have a local insurance broker who handles all our insurance, and who knows us. I can't think of anything more stressful in the event of a car accident or the house burning down, than having to have endless conversations or disputes with a disembodied voice, possibly from India, from a huge insurance company. This way, I get to make one phone call to a nice local man who will sort it all out for me. Not necessarily the cheapest option, but peace of mind, priceless.

Petrol: I hate filling up the car, and always put it off until it is nearly empty. Sometimes the car sits in the driveway, unused for a day or so, on empty, even though there is a petrol station just down the road. Not useful in an emergency. You don't really want to run out of fuel as you are fleeing from a bushfire. But as Melissa discovered, there are emergencies short of a bush fire that require fuel in the car..

Pets: If I had to leave the house fast, I would want to grab the cats of course. We have two medium sized cats and one small cat crate. That equals one big cat fight. I should get another crate. Also useful if I needed to get them both to the vet at the same time, or cat-sat.

Important documents: My dad is nothing if not organised. As we were growing up we lived in lots of different houses, but wherever we went, important documents such as passports, wills, insurance etc were always kept in a big old Milo tin. It always lived on his bedroom closet shelf, which ever house we were in, and that was the first thing to grab in an emergency. Of course now it is possible to do technical things like sending photos of documents to clouds somewhere, along with our fave photos, but do we? I know The Man has some on various files different places, because he travels so much, but I've kind of abdicated responsibility on this one due to technical difficulties (mine). I could nag though... I'm good at that...

Decluttering and Organisation: If the power is off, or the house full of smoke, or I need to fly interstate right away for a family emergency, I need to know exactly where the torches are, not have to trip over things in the dark, quickly find the clothes or other items I need without sorting through piles of clutter. I'm doing OK with this. Decluttering, done, but always ongoing, torches in cupboards at front and back doors, and under our bed. Candles and matches together in sideboard. We have two battery boxes, one for regular, one for rechargeable batteries. Tripping hazards in Posy's room - ongoing. Clothes - generally sorted and in cupboards. I'm pretty sure I could pack up a bag for a week and leave in fifteen minutes if I really had to. A few years ago when all my clothes lived in a giant pile on the floor... that would have been a different matter.

There are some thoughts, but more keep occurring to me. Does anyone else out there have plans for when things go wrong?

Edited to add: Here are some more things I thought of overnight..

Updated your will lately? Nope? Us either.

Does everyone in the family have clothes they could wear to a funeral? I remember when my mother-in-law died twelve years ago I spent half a day rummaging around in friends' closets for suitable clothes for the children before we left to fly interstate, and then had to borrow something for myself from my sister-in-law because what I took didn't fit..

Is there enough extra bedding, blow up mattresses etc for a couple of guests if family and friends are left stranded after their own emergency? I discovered recently that we can accomodate an extra eight, but again, only after half a day of hauling out camping gear from under a giant mess in the shed. I have now stored sleeping bags, extra pillows and blow up beds in the cupboard under the stairs. Also useful for sudden teenage sleepovers. I would so much rather have The Boys' friends sleeping on my floor than attempting to drive after drinking.

Battery operated radio. The entire Tasman Peninsula has lost power, and will be without it for weeks. No phones or computers to find out what is going on. I have a very old radio by the sink that I listen to while I'm cooking, and the local ABC radio station has been amazing over the last few days, providing incredibly detailed information for people affected by the fires, with people phoning in local information as well, and that would be some of the only information reaching some people on the Peninsula.

OK, enough already. Cleaning, cleaning, making jam...

Saturday, January 5, 2013

When A Whole World Disappears..

It is hot, hot, hot in Tasmania, and it seems as if half the state is on fire. We are well protected in our lovely city suburb, but the sky is a smoky haze. Down the south of the state an entire peninsula has been cut off by the fires, its narrow neck with only one road, burnt out, entire little towns burning, no electricity, people being evacuated from the beaches like Dunkirk.

A dear Blueday reader, e, who writes a lovely blog from Hobart about her garden and her cooking, has parents in one of those little burnt out towns, thankfully safe, their home intact but covered in the ashes of a community that has all but disappeared.

Here are photos of e's parents' garden, taken a few days ago on her Christmas holiday. This is what my garden wants to be when it grows up. It is such a labour of love by a life-long gardener. Every line of this post reads like a pastoral idyll. Two days later, and their neighbourhood now looks like this.

It is just heartbreaking to think of all those homes lost. Gardens, animals, hundred-year-old houses, all gone, only memories. I packed away Christmas today - tree, decorations, cards - and every Christmas decoration has a story, a memory. And I realised that every 'thing' that I own that is truly valuable to me, is important because of its story, the person who made it, or gave it, that the place I found it, or bought it, is what makes it special. I know it is just 'stuff', but it is special 'stuff', and I am so grateful that my garden, my house, my stuff, is still all around me, that my children have a school to go to, and that I have lovely electricity, and don't have to start again tomorrow from nothing.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the comfort and security of our lives can be snuffed out between one day and the next. Right now, I am just incredibly grateful for every single happy moment.

Friday, January 4, 2013

25 Meal Portions from One Chicken

I like chickens. That is, I like to see a happy, well-tended chicken, and I love that contented clucking noise they make. I like the idea of maybe keeping chickens one day, but I don't want to actually have to touch one... I am no Dr Dolittle, but as I said, I think chickens are nice and deserve a happy life, which is why I only ever buy ridiculously expensive free range ones, and my goodness, when I do, it needs to go a long way.

Here is the typical end-of-life trajectory for one chicken at our house. Last Saturday I roasted the happy chicken and five of us had a very small serve of chicken with enormous mounds of roast and steamed veg. That night I shredded the rest of the meat, and we ate it for Monday lunch as chicken and salad wraps for fourteen. Saturday night I also popped the carcass into a saucepan with water and made stock. Before I threw out the bones I picked the remaining meat off them and stored that in the fridge too, so on Wednesday night I made comforting chicken and vegetable soup for six with the glorious wobbly jellied stock and left over chicken meat.

So there we are, twenty five individual meals from one chicken, and no waste, which makes me very happy. Thankyou Mr Chicken. However in the interests of full disclosure I must confess that last night I wanted to use up the last of the scary tentacled potatoes, so I made potato pancakes from a recipe I found on the web, and fried them up in the yummy flavourful chicken fat I had skimmed from the top of the chicken stock once it was cold. Oh, and some butter of course. They looked lovely, all golden brown and delicious, but they tasted vile, gelatinous and stodgy, like potato depth charges, so we gave up and had toast instead. I will use the rest of the chicken fat to roast potatoes, which is clearly a much kinder way to use a potato, and give up trying to make potato pancakes, which never end well for me..

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

In sickness...

Glowsticks. And children. In case you were wondering. New Year's Eve was sparklers and glowsticks, and walking up to the top of the hill to watch the fireworks, which started on the stroke of midnight from the town hall clock. There have been days of fun with our normally distant but most beloved relatives, walks and swimming and hours of boardgames... and throwing up.

Our guests were mortified to have brought a nasty tummy bug with them across Bass Strait, but I reassured them with the tale of the time we were The World's Worst House Guests. It was after my grandmother's funeral, and just after The Man had stepped onto the plane to continue a business trip, that Posy, then a baby, started to throw up at my brother's house. She threw up all night, and used up all my sister-in-law's towels. Then the other children started in...

The next day my poor brother and sister-in-law joined them. I spent the day disinfecting the bathroom and washing towels, feeling just terrible about making them ill, then drove the children to my mum and dad's house, and got there just in time to spend the next two days in bed. Oh the bliss to be ill at your mum's house, and have her look after the children!

It was then I discovered my grandpa was in hospital on an IV drip, with gastro, transferred, no doubt, by loving hugs from his great-grandchildren at the funeral. Thankfully, he made a good recovery, but it took some time for me to recover from the terrible guilt of having almost killed Grandpa at his own wife's funeral..

So anyway, a couple of twelve year olds throwing up? Nothing to worry about. However, when there's gastro about, eucalyptus oil is a girl's best friend. I always have a giant bottle of it on hand. Wash everything in hot water with eucalyptus oil in the fabric conditioner drawer of the machine. Put it in the mop bucket to wash the floors. Put it in a spray bottle with water and spray everything, especially the doorknobs. I'm pretty sure germs get downright discouraged at a whiff of eucalyptus oil. At least it makes you feel like you are doing something proactive anyway. Positive thinking probably kills germs too.

Our guests have departed for further Tassie adventures, no-one is ill, and after restocking in the milk and bread department, I'm going to see if we can survive until next week from the pantry and garden. If this seems like a low target to aim at, it is because we will be tripping along interstate then, for further family celebrations, which will be chiefly characterized by the COMPLETE health of all family members involved...