Sunday, 18 January 2015

Taking Stock - This Year's Fearless List

Last year I listed some of the things I found the very thought of rather tricky. Pah! I knew NOTHING.

In 6 months of mentoring from the lovely Andrew Edwards at BBC Radio Leeds, I did so many things I was scared stiff of that my earlier list seems laughable. Walking up to total strangers to ask their views on a subject  - without the shield of a BBC ID badge or other legitimising item - was scary enough.  Interviewing people terrified me but I did it.  Interviewing people on topics I knew nothing about was harder still. Trying for an interview I didn't have to edit - eek!  I never managed that to a decent standard but even trying it freaked me out.
Source of many scary tasks

Then there was the techie side - trying to work out for myself how to edit and tweak a piece with just the software on my laptop.  I got pretty good, considering. (Considering I know nothing and I never mess about with my computer just to see what it does. And I'm a pretty analogue person in a digital world)

From last year's list I did do daily exercise for a month, read Lord of the Flies, ate meat and something aniseed (still hate aniseed, still find the taste of meat fine but the texture distressing. Except pastrami, which is ace), and even kept my opinion to myself several times.  It nearly choked me, so I doubt I'll make a habit of it.  I didn't knit something other than a scarf but I did learn to crochet toys and made two - a rabbit and a dragon - and that blanket for Miss B's birthday, so I consider that a yarn-based ambition fulfilled.
Remember him?
Looking forward, what are the things that seem tricky, intimidating yet worth having a go at this year? I've had a good think about the areas of my life that aren't quite right, and what I could challenge myself to do to improve them.

I'm in the midst of giving up wine. Well, not entirely, but drastically reducing my wine drinking. Mark and I always have wine with our dinner, and then more while watching TV.  It just crept up over the years.  So we're mostly giving up alcohol except for the odd occasion - like my ballet weekend and last night, after hosting Miss B's birthday party.  Cripes, that was a draining day. I've 3 or 4 more things coming up in the next 2 months that I won't mind my having a glass of wine at, but that's about it. The plan is to continue in this vein until spring. It's good for our health and our bank balance. I know both could do with the boost!

I've also realised I'm lonely. I used to see people far more often - whether it was my marvellous pal Julie at sewing class and pilates, the truly ace Emma on our dog walks, or even my monthly book group with women I've been friends with for over 10 years.  Somehow I've retreated inwards and just don't see most of my friends very often. Thank heavens for my mate Kirsty and our procrastination coffees. Without them I might never see anyone. And the less I see people the easier it is to retreat inwards - never a good thing for me. I need people.

Essentially, I'm now unemployed. The school is offering loads of free clubs run by staff members, so demand for the clubs I run (that they pay for) has dried up. Understandably.  In fact, I think it's good for the school and good for parents (Miss B attends a couple and I'm grateful for the free activities) but it means I only had 2 sets of lessons to teach instead of 6.  I'm only baking a couple of cakes a week for Haley and Clifford's regulars, as wholesale baking margins just evaporated in the rising cost of ingredients and power. The franchise "Eggfree (in tiny letters) Cake Box (in big letters) played merry hell with my bespoke cake business, what with using the same damned name to all intents and purposes.  And the more pricey wedding/celebration cake end of things was something I did under sufferance anyway.

So I need a new way to spend my days. For the first time I have no day to day business and no tiny children at home. I need to look into ways to earn money without doing a soul-destroying job I hate, or to volunteer/train at something worthwhile. That could help with the loneliness thing too. The lack of schoolyard chatting, toddler group mornings and work interactions (and the lack of a home-educated kid, who gave me 18 months of good company at one point) and the lack of cash to go out and about only compounds things.

I don't want to think of myself as someone who doesn't work, doesn't contribute to the world, hides away from people. Although in the long dark stretch of the year, those are the easy choices. If I'm to be the Me I like, I need to alter this.

Still, making changes is scary.  Even looking into possibilities of changes is scary.  It is particularly so for me - for the last 16 years I haven't dared to look more than 6 months ahead, and the thought of the future repels me completely.  In fact, since I was about 25, the only time I've been happy to look ahead a year or two was when I was planning my first baby. The future - my future - scares me rigid.  But this blog is called Fearlessly Attempting, not Shying Away From, so I'd better up my game.

 Here are things I'd like to Fearlessly Attempt at least some of this year-

  • Give up regular alcohol consumption until Spring
  • Look for a new way of earning a living
  • See friends regularly
  • Attend at least 5 book group meetings 
  • Have a week of decluttering one room a day.  A month of decluttering weekends would do too
  • Walk 30km in a month
  • Sew something someone could wear (me or the kids)
  • Sew a copy of my favourite tunic by making a pattern from it
  • Learn a new skill
  • Go to a WI meeting
  • Volunteer on a weekly basis 
  • Apply to work at a community radio station
  • Learn to quilt  (please help, Liz Merckel!)
  • Build a new garden project

One thing I have decluttered already is my work shelving unit.  It was covered in a profusion of baking supplies and equipment, all jumbled together. Much of it I no longer need, other bits could be consolidated.  However, downsizing the baking shelves felt like admitting I wasn't working anymore, so I'd put it off.
Happily (!!) my craft supplies were slowly eating my bedroom.  It was chaos.  My lovely calm room was in a dreadful state and I had nowhere to put anything.  It was depressing.  But it was also the spur I needed.

So, I attacked the shelves. I binned some things, reorganised others, bought more IKEA small crates and labelled everything with my Sharpie. I have a shelf for cake boxes, boards and packaging, one for ingredients and the top shelf for things I only occasionally need, like sugar craft supplies and jam-making things.  I have 2 shelves for fabric, needle felting, craft supplies, pens, projects and equipment. The old CD shelves are stuffed with yarn (it looks like a wool shop!) and the tiny wall-mounted boxes that used to hold cupcake sprinkles now hold the kids' Hamma beads, sorted by colour.

It's ACE.  I can find stuff.

Here's a shot of it, part way through:

So, lots to think about, lots to do.  I wish you luck with your aspirations, and I'll let you know how I get on with mine.
J xx

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Ballet Weekend!

It's my favourite weekend of the year!

I abandoned my children and Mark with nary a backward glance and high-tailed it to London on Friday for the start of my glorious weekend away. I had everything ready for the perfect train journey as you can see -

Coffee, crochet (using my lovely new hook from Marion) and earphones so I could listen to my Radio 4 podcasts.  It was a nice way to relax.

After dropping my bags at the hotel I went straight to the TKTS booth at Leicester Square to see what was available. I was utterly delighted to get a ticket to Women On The Verge, starring the fabulous Tamsin Greig and one of the heroes of my teen years, Haydn Gwynne.  She played Alex in Drop the Dead Donkey, and was all the things I wished I were. So double YAY getting tickets for that.

My main goal for Friday was to find the perfect red leather handbag. Remember back in July when the house was broken into and my bag taken? I put the insurance money on one side so I could buy a suitable lovely replacement in London while the sales were on.

I don't know about you, but I find it hard to buy things like that online.  I'm a tactile soul; I need to feel things like cloth or leather before I can decide whether I want them.  Quite a few things that looked lovely when I saw them online weren't nice to the touch when I found them in the shop. And if I'm only going to have one handbag, it ought to be a decent one.

So, having done some research I had a list of shop names and addresses and a sensible route covering all of them so I could make my choice.  First up - Regent Street.

I had no luck along most of it - the Liberty sale was down to dregs and most places just didn't have anything I loved.  I got a nice 2 course lunch in a little French cafe and went in search of a shop called & Other Stories. It's the more stylish part of the H&M chain, apparently, and has several branches in Scandinavia and the Benelux, bur only one in the UK. They'd had some nice bags and ankle boots on their website, so seemed worth a look.

The boots were quite narrow fitting, so I didn't get the rather dashing pair I'd being eyeing up online. However, a petite satchel-type bag - originally £95, listed at £45 on the website - was down to £28 in the shop.  The leather was soft and supple, the shoulder strap a good length and I thought it would be great for when I don't need a massive bag full of stuff.  It's this one here. At 70% off, it would have been rude not to buy it, surely?

This first purchase made, I met my Very Excellent Mate Laura for a coffee.  Laura and I used to see the ballet together - especially when Bon was living in Saudi - and we've known each other more than 10 years.  However, her job, finishing her PhD and having a baby (now a toddler, the gorgeous Sylvie) meant we hadn't met up in about 3 years.  It was so lovely to spend time together. She's such a fab person.

When we parted I stepped up the bag hunt.  I detoured briefly to buy some clothes for Luke - damn those kids and their growing! - but otherwise blasted through the accessories section of every department store and boutique like a guided missile.  My penultimate stop was that home-from-home for the white middle class English woman, John Lewis.

Oh boy. They had MASSES of bags in the sale.  Masses.  And loads of them were red.  Red is the best colour for bags, by the way, because it goes with all the usual base colours - black, navy and brown.  It is also my favourite colour. The lad in John Lewis laughed as he saw me, complete in my red woollen coat, stacking 15 red handbags in front of the mirror to try them all on.  "I'm sensing a theme..."

I thought I'd found a PERFECT mix of everything I wanted, until I realised it was by Mulberry and was £849 in the sale.  Perhaps not.

Eventually I whittled it down to 2 - a leather crocodile print satchel by Osprey and a soft, less formal bag by Donna Karan.  The Osprey bag was utterly gorgeous but rather impractical - not very capacious, not shoulder strap (and I like the option of one) and quite formal.  The DKNY bag had fab curved pockets, super soft leather, a removable shoulder strap and was much more 'me.' But ohhh that crocodile print was pretty.

I went to House of Fraser to browse there and have a think.  I happened upon a pair of zebra print Vans for £16, and snaffled them immediately.  My scruffy, comfy shoes are nearly falling apart so I had an excuse to buy the Vans.

A cuppa and a coin toss later (always helpful when you want to find out which outcome you were hoping for) I knew it had to be the DKNY.  Formal and fancy is nice for weekends away, but this will be the bag on my arm most days for the next few years.
Isn't it nice?

I dropped off my shopping and went to the theatre, where Tamsin made me laugh and Haydn made me cry. I loved the production - bright, vibrant and thoroughly good fun. However, the theatre's Circle levels have very steep sloping ceilings, so the back 2 or 3 rows can't see the upper level of the stage.  Some action does take place there, leaving those of us at the back sliding down in our seats, cricking our necks in an attempt to see. On the off chance you are likely to go, I wouldn't sit further back than G, H at the most.  Luckily I was able to move forward into an empty seat after a bit.

Yes, I DID stay behind to get autographs and photos and no, I'm not going to show you.  I took them for the amusement of Bon and my Very Excellent Mate Alison, who was so amused by the Matthew Mcfadden picture last year.  Suffice to say they are hopeless pictures but I was delighted to meet such ace women. I have the heart of a groupie and I'm not ashamed of that.

On Saturday morning I opted out of the torrential rain and stayed inside with a book. Once Bon arrived we headed to the shops and cafes in a cold wind but thankfully no further precipitation.  I shopped a bit, I bought coffee beans to get me through the (mostly) dry January we're having for  (mostly) pecuniary reasons but the main activity of the day was talking. And talking. And some more.  I was hoarse when we paused to get ready for the ballet. (Although in fairness I was rather hoarse to start with - my throat is still ropey).

Matthew Bourne made us laugh and cry, again.  Was this the 4th time I'd seen Edward Scissorhands or the 5th? Not sure, but it was still magical. We had a marvellous time.

Incidentally, should you ever be in the vicinity of Sadler's Wells, I recommend The Gate vegetarian restaurant which is next to the traffic lights.  We've been for the last 3 years and found it delicious. As a pair of pescetarians, it's nice to have a whole menu to choose from. (The aubergine with the horseradish sauce is my favourite)

On Sunday we were up and out early to meet my ace sister in law Elif. We met at Trafalgar Square, where there was an impromptu memorial to the victims of the attacks in Paris.

A security guard said there would be a demonstration that evening, with the French flag projected against the building.

 Mark's brother Drew is a good natured but pretty vague soul.  He did have the sense to marry an ace woman, however. in addition, he works at the National Gallery, which is ideal for visiting culture-vulture sisters-in-law wanting to cadge free exhibition tickets. Drew had sorted us out with free passes to the Rembrandt exhibition, bless him. I don't think he's a fan himself - when Elif asked him what Rembrandt was like he apparently told her "paints brown pictures."
Daft sod.

I was blown away by the paintings we saw. The difference between the reproductions I'd seen in books and the real paintings was incredible - like the difference between a pressed flower and a fresh one.  They seemed to pop right out of the painting - a 3d trompe d-oeil. Elif's favourite was a tiny sketch of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, and Bon loved the technique of the Alexander the Great painting, but my favourite was the first self-portrait in the exhibition, from around 1650. He looked as if he was someone I'd know, and want to talk about things with. 

I think we were united in our lack of admiration for the Jewish Bride. The blurb talked about the loving and intimate caress. All I saw was a woman with a slightly pursed mouth trying to move her bloke's hand, saying "Will you take your hand of my tit, damn it? The portrait painter's here!" The portraits and the guild painting were more my taste.

After lunch at the gallery Elif went to work, Bon and I wandered around and browsed in the shops. I really value the time to chat; I wish we lived closer together. She headed off for her train, I seemed to have misplaced a good hour or so and Waterstones, and the weekend was winding down gently.

Before the train home I joined those gathered at Trafalgar Square to show solidarity with Paris and all those facing violent attacks. I'd never seen so many French people gathered anywhere outside France before. The memorial had grown in size during the day and, as I watched, ever more people came to place their pencils and pens in the circle of candles. The atmosphere was thoughtful and reflective. It was a moving experience.

I'll confess to feeling a little bothered by the focus on the events in Paris. They were undoubtedly dreadful and a real threat to a world I know and understand.  But in the same few days 2,000 bodies were found in Nigeria. As if Boko Haram felt they hadn't been vicious enough, they then did the single most twisted thing I've ever heard of: they strapped a bomb to a 10 year old girl, sent her into a busy market and detonated it from afar. 

They turned a child into a bomb.

I agree Nous Sommes Tous Charlie. But surely we are all Nigeria too.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

A brief hiatus

Hello again! I hope your Christmas and New Year were all things splendid and pine-needle-scented and you are facing the return to normal life feeling refreshed and invigorated.

I'm not.

I've not blogged throughout December for 2 reasons.  The first is this -

I wanted to crochet a blanket for Miss B in time for her birthday (which is near Christmas.)  My grandmother could produce amazing works of crochet and embroidery; I wanted to make something of an heirloom for my child to keep with her as she grows up the way I did with Grammy's things.  However, it was a much larger project than any I'd undertaken before.

It took me 3 weeks of crocheting pretty much every spare moment of the day. If I was sitting down there was a hook in my hand and the blanket growing across my lap.  I took it on the bus, to appointments that I knew I'd be waiting for, to cafes and I didn't watch a moment of television while not simultaneously crocheting like a woman possessed.  I certainly had no time for blogging when there were rows to finish.

I am delighted with the result.  So is Miss B who carries it around with her to watch TV snuggled with, and drapes across her bed each night. Many thanks to Lucy of Attic 24 for the pattern and the crochet-along encouragement,

The second reason is much less fun. I've been ill. Not anything serious, just unendingly poorly.  

Mark and the kids had a nasty virus in November - fevers, sore throats and coughing.  The kids had 3 or 4 days off school each, except poor Luke who attended every day because of mock GCSE exams. I caught it on Thursday December 4th - the day I was supposed to be baking for the school fair.

I bailed on the school fair and only made it to the ballet of Lord of the Flies with Luke the next night because I was heavily medicated and Mark kindly drove us to and from Bradford. (He's a top bloke, isn't he?) I spent the weekend and most of the next week in bed. Feverish, achey and weak, I felt very relieved I'd done the Christmas preparation early. Even making mince pies felt exhausting.

I had about a 6 day period of being well during which I slipped away from chores for the day and went to see The Hobbit on my own. It was great, although casting attractive men as dwarves has made me feel a bit funny with each instalment. Richard Armitage and Aidan Turner are too sexy to be dwarves.

Sadly, the few days feeling fine didn't last and the virus reasserted itself. This also happened to Miss B, who missed much of her last week in school.  I was laid low by the 20th, got even worse across Christmas Day and Boxing Day and have continued to be raw of throat and coughing fit to die ever since.  It's been a full month since I first came down with the thing and it's wearing thin I can tell you.
So, no exciting news to report, no new skills to share and not much time for reflection either. 

However, I can share a picture of our tree, complete with the traditional Christmas Lizard inspecting some of the decorations:

And here's the craft bag I made for my niece Cara from old jeans, lined with a sundress B outgrew. I'd give you instructions if I had any - I just sort of made it up.  I filled it with projects and kits for Cara to try. She's very creative.

I hope I'm fighting fit by Friday, when I head off for my annual ballet weekend. It's pretty much my favourite event of the year.

Best wishes to you and yours for a happy and peaceful 2015.
J xx