Friday, 31 October 2008

Halloween & Samhain

I quite like celebrating things that I feel are worthwhile but one thing I shan’t be celebrating this year is Halloween. At least, not in way it’s celebrated these days. I’ll light some candles in honour of those ancestors who have moved over to the spirit world - those who I loved and knew and those that I didn’t but who are each responsible for my own existence. That will be the extent of it though.

I really don’t like what Halloween has become. Sure, it’s fun with spooky stories and such like, it’s not that part of it I have a problem with, it’s the commercialism that’s developed around it that I hate.

These past couples of weeks the shops have been spilling over with tacky, cheap polyester costumes that probably won’t even last the night, let alone be brought back into use again next year, along with a plethora of plastic pumpkins, spiders, skulls, skeletons and lord knows what else. Pumpkins will be carved but few will actually be eaten and far too many won’t even bother to compost the flesh that’s removed. The impact on the environment thanks to this one night and the way we’ve accepted that it should be celebrated because that’s what the shops want us to do, has far too great an impact on the environment for my liking. Whatever happened to making costumes out of old sheets, recycled clothes and the likes and dressing the house with old twigs made to look like witches broomsticks, etc?

And then there’s those who will actually be scared on Halloween. Here on our estate we have flats and houses that are specifically earmarked for people with special needs. Some of those living in these properties were very frightened last year by kids who were banging at their doors in the dark, making strange noises outside their windows and generally larking around. Some understood what was going on but others didn’t and even some of those who did were still worried because, as we all know, kids can sometimes go too far, especially when they’re preying on the weak and vulnerable. Halloween can have the same effect on many older people.

This year the housing association have arranged a ‘walk about’ around the estate with the kids. Hopefully this will ensure that those who are vulnerable won’t be visited and the whole trick or treating process will go smoothly. There will also be games and prizes, the main one being for best ‘home made‘ costume. Hopefully it’ll be a success and parents will put themselves out to make their own costumes instead of nipping down to Asda for a witches dress or skeleton outfit and the plastic rubbish will stay on the shelves because there won’t be a need to decorate the house. And of course, the special needs people won’t be bothered by it. Unfortunately it won’t lessen the impact in the greater scheme of things but as they say, every little helps.

But up in all this mayhem, I wonder how many actually know what Halloween really is? Well originally, in the Christian sense, it was All Hallows Eve - the night before All Hallows Day, the day that Christians honour the saints. But it was around long before that. Samhain is the night before the Pagan new year, so you could call it their new year’s eve. It was, and still is, considered to be the night when the veil between this life and the after life is at its thinnest. The old Celts believed that the spirits of the dead could possess their bodies so they turned out the lights in the hope that the spirits wouldn’t find them but also dressed up as ghouls just in case they were found but would hopefully be able to scare them away again. Nowadays it’s more a celebration of the lives that have gone before and to remember with blessing the year that’s passed.

The catholic church didn’t much like pagan traditions though, so in an attempt to stop all the ‘afterlife’ malarkey they decided to turn Samhain into All Hallows Eve instead. What emerged, however, was Halloween as we generally know it today - a blend of the two. We no longer believe that the dead will come back tonight, but still we hang on to the pagan traditions by telling ghost stories and dressing up in scary costumes. And then the fat cats got on the bandwagon and everything went tits up for the environment!

And yes, I’ll hold up my hand and admit I’ve also dressed up in tacky costumes and bought plastic pumpkins and other such rubbish. I did it when the kids were younger and I wasn’t giving a whole lot of thought to the environment, but then again we didn’t know then what we know today so although I wouldn’t proclaim my innocence entirely, I’d still say I wasn’t being less caring towards the environment than I am now because everything’s relative to your knowledge. I wouldn’t do it now though. No way.

Sharon J


Image Credit: Darin


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Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Off To London Again, Sadly

Today I’m off to London again. As some of you already know, I absolutely loathe the part of London that my family are from but there are times when I have to go down, like it or not. Tomorrow is one such time.

A good friend lost her mother to lung cancer last week - one of the most god awful diseases anybody could suffer - and as I’ve known the family for about 35 years, attending the funeral is one of those things that I feel I have to do. For my sake and for that of my friend, especially.

LM is coming with me. She’s never been to a funeral and as her grandad (my dad) is very ill at the moment and could ‘go’ at any time, she felt she’d like (if that’s the right word) to experience a funeral before his time comes, so that she’s prepared for what’s likely to happen. She also knows my friend well and would obviously like to pay her respects too.

We’ll just be staying for the one night. A quick shimmy down the motorways, a night in a hotel, the funeral and then home again. No doubt I’ll be knackered after the journey and everything but sometimes you just have to do things you’d rather not do and I'm sure the family are suffering far more than I will be. My love and thoughts go out to them.

Sharon J


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Tuesday, 28 October 2008


Today is the start of Diwali, the Indian festival of light.

Now I’m not Indian, nor do I have any Indian connections, but I do feel that to become a truly diverse but unified society (and in my opinion unification is important - separation just doesn’t do society any good) we should all not only respect one another’s traditions but actually participate in them, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on our spiritual beliefs (some will clash just too much to expect mutual participation) and personal circumstances.

Of course, nobody can be expected to celebrate every event in the calendar of such as diverse society as the UK - we’d probably end up having some kind of celebration every week - but Diwali’s a big one so to mark the occasion, we’re having a candlelit curry tonight.

I'm having a couple of friends over for the evening and LM will be home. I'll be lighting lots of tea lights around the living room, the big candles on the table, and cooking a chicken tikka masala. Yes, before you start shouting about tikka not really being Indian, I know all that but it’s the only curry LM will eat so tikka it will be. Well, that and colonial beef curry, and that’s certainly not authentic Indian either. We’ll have it with rice and naan bread and garnished with fresh coriander (sadly not from my garden - it died) and we'll have a laugh as well as talk about what Diwali is - a celebration of good over evil in humans.

Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that good can and actually does win over evil - what with the papers and telly news being full of stories of murder, rape, bullying and the rest - but there are actually far more good people in this world than bad.

The light that’s celebrated isn’t light as we generally think of it, but the spiritual light within each of us and thus Diwali is a kind of celebration of our spiritual birth as human beings so it’s a time when we should try to learn ways of being more benevolent ourselves in order to being more good into the world and make it a better place for everybody. If that isn’t something worth doing then I don’t know what is.

I’m quite looking forward to it :)

Sharon J

PS: I bet Emma will be having a whale of a time during Diwali and posting some fab photos :)


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Monday, 27 October 2008

9 Ideas to Help Keep Your House Clean & Tidy

Although I’m no domestic goddess and have never been what my mum describes as ‘house proud’, I do like the place to be reasonably clean and tidy. A few dust bunnies in the corner I can live with but dirty work surfaces that your fingers stick to... no way!

Because of my condition, I’ve had to look for ways to keep the house in a acceptable state without having to keep getting up or standing for too long at a time; unless I utilise the time spent on my legs as efficiently as possible things just won’t get done.

Here are some ideas that I use and that would help anybody who’d rather spend time doing something other than housework.

1. While I’m waiting for a pan to boil, the microwave to ping, or the sink to fill, I wipe down work surfaces and/or unit doors, put the dish-wash away (or even just part of it if that’s all I’ve time for), purge a few out of date items from the fridge, wipe the outside of the fridge, the light switches or another little job that only takes a minute or two but helps keep the place neat and clean.

2. If I have to go upstairs for any reason, I look for some item or another that can go up with me. I generally place things to go up on the lower steps and pick a few up every time I pass. The same goes for stuff that needs to be brought down (I really must get a couple of those stair baskets). If there’s nothing there, I’ll have a quick look round to make sure there’s nothing else, like a pile of folded laundry on the armchair (yes, if I dry inside using the clothes horse, that’s where they get stacked).

3. I plan my jobs in each room so that I use the minimum number of steps and time spent on my feet. This can be as simple as ‘take handful of votive candles out of drawer and replace used ones as I move around, open window as I pass it, collect living room litter bin and take to kitchen for emptying’. Three little jobs done in one sweep of the room.

4. I keep a micro fibre cloth in a drawer next to the sofa. That way I can start dusting as soon as I see that it needs doing and without having to go to the kitchen first. Again, I work my way around the room systematically. The used cloth goes out with me next time I head for the kitchen and a new one comes back in.

5. I keep a complete set of cleaning tools upstairs. That way I can clean anything that needs it without having to go downstairs to collect the appropriate bits and pieces first.

6. I try to make sure I do the tasks that make me feel the house looks cleaner and tidier before tackling anything else. For me that means a tidy coffee table and clean floors in the lounge and, in the kitchen, clean and tidy work surfaces and clean appliances (although everything doesn't always get done!).

7. I tackle the jobs that take more time and effort the longer I leave them before those that will be just the same later, regardless of whether ‘later’ is in an hour, tomorrow or next week. Washing up takes longer if it’s left to sit and grow as does the laundry (I’m sure dirty dishes and clothes reproduce) whereas dusting takes the same amount of time regardless.

8. I open my post by my ‘pending’ shelf so there‘s no need to move after sorting. One pile is for filing, the other is for shredding. I then file and shred on a weekly basis. Any junk mail is either added to the shredding pile or put straight in the bin.

9. If I’m going to be standing to prepare food anyway, I might as well make two portions (at least) and freeze the rest.

No doubt you have your own ways of cutting down the time you spend on household chores and if you do, please let me know. I'm all for saving time and energy :)

Sharon J


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Sunday, 26 October 2008

Freezing Marinated Meat

I don’t know whether most of you already know this or not but it was new to me so I thought I’d share it just in case.

If you find some steak on special offer (any kind that’s suitable for marinating - beef, lamb, pork etc), you can make up the whole batch in individual bags, seal ‘em and freeze ‘em.

I tried it with some pork recently. I just marinated an extra couple of loins along with the ones I was using that day, popped them in a freezer bag, tied it up with a good tight knot (which you would anyway if you’re freezing it) and put it in the freezer. Then all I had to do when I wanted it later was defrost it and chuck it in the pan - no waiting around for hours while it marinates cos it was already done!

Why didn’t I think of that before?

Sharon J

PS: If you're new to marinating meat, you might want to look at this post.


Image credit: Landotter


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Saturday, 25 October 2008

Illness Conversations

One of the comments left on yesterday’s post got me thinking about my attitude to ‘talking about illness’. Unlike some people who seem happy to chat away about every ailment they have (and even some they don’t have), I very rarely have a conversation about mine.

Yes, it gets mentioned at times because it HAS to get mentioned - I have to explain why I can’t do something or why I do have to do something, and sometimes people are curious and ask about it, but I rarely go in depth and very few people know the true scale of my health problems.

When I originally fell ill and spent several months in a special unit in Manchester, I became quite close to some of the other patients. We were all sharing more or less the same experience, some of us complete newbies to tackling the problems that would unavoidably become part of our lives, some with years of experience who could help and advise the rest of us. They were mostly good people and I enjoyed their company. However, apart from their names being on my Christmas card list, I haven’t kept up contact. Yes, there were promises of visits and the such, and at the time I meant it, but it didn’t happen.

It sounds mean I guess but the one and only reason I didn’t keep up contact with them is because of our shared problems. Yes, there would be a certain degree of support in having them as part of my life but I knew I just wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable ’illness talk’. For me, it’s enough having to live with these things without having to talk about it too. It’s there, it’s not going away, and no amount of talking about it is going to change that.

I even got to know a lady who lives here in Crewe during my last stint in hospital. I really liked her and under other circumstances would have loved to have met up with her ‘on the outside’ but I didn’t ask her for her number and she didn’t ask for mine. Maybe she feels the same way.

There are already enough reminders of these things in my every day life as it is. The things I can no longer do, the things I have to do that I’d rather not, the pain, the knowledge that your life is in the hands of others… they’re enough without having to be reminded through conversation. I already do what I can to keep everything medical out of eyesight so as not to have it in my face the whole time so I’m sure I don’t need somebody rambling on about it whenever I meet them. And it’d happen, I’m certain of that.

Some would say I’m still in denial, that I should talk about it more and let it become a natural part of my life. Well if that’s they way they would deal with it then that’s great, just don’t expect me to be the same. I’m not in denial, I can assure you I KNOW exactly what’s happened to me, what the consequences are likely to be, and how it effects my daily life. I don’t need to talk about it to understand that. There are zillions of subjects that are far more interesting.

Since starting this blog I’ve been asked several times whether I could post more about what happened to me but I haven’t. I don’t want to. It doesn’t interest me. It gets mentioned when it needs to be, but that’s the extent of it.

Sharon J


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Friday, 24 October 2008

Yesterday Was Rubbish!

I had a lousy day yesterday.

My energy levels have fallen all week and yesterday, I hope, was when they hit rock bottom. I woke up at 2.30 am and couldn’t get back to sleep so the tiredness added to the general lack of energy really threw me into a pit of sticky black tar, where just putting one foot in front of the other was an effort.

I stayed in bed until mid-afternoon because, on top of being so damned lethargic, I’d developed a searing stomach ache. They’re not unusual for me - my bowel being no more than about 14 inches long means that wind easily gets trapped there and can’t get out (I can’t, erm… fart, to put it bluntly). The pain can be bloody agonising at times, and yesterday was one of them. I really could have done without that, especially as I was supposed to go to Aldi and get a couple of memory cards that were on one of their special Thursday offers, for my daughter. That obviously didn’t happen.

When I did get up I realised that my planned meal for the day wasn’t going to happen. The stomach pain had eased by then but still I didn’t have the energy to stand in the kitchen and actually make something. Luckily I had some home made beef burgers in the freezer that I’d made last week so I whipped them out for thawing. Actually, whipped isn’t the right description at all - I stressed because I couldn’t find them and Richard, who’d come round to set up my evening trolley for me (an aseptic surface had to be laid out twice a day with sterile bits and bobs so that I can detach/attach my feeding bag) had to dive in and find them instead. I was, to say the least, being a miserable mare. I was snappy, had absolutely no desire to hold a conversation and just wished he’d bugger off again. Not nice, I know, but that’s how it gets to me sometimes. It’s the feeling of uselessness more than anything I think, combined with the frustration of not being able to easily do most of the things I once took for granted, like finding four beef burgers in the freezer!

The post was waiting for me on the table but there was nothing nice there either. No letter to say I’d won a cruise in the Caribbean or even a note from my mum with a tenner in (she does send me the odd bit of money now and then, bless her). No, just a bill for my Ikea card and a horrible letter from the Virgin credit card people telling me that as I still hadn’t paid off my arrears they would be sending the whole amount for debt collection blah blah blah. I’ve been paying off as much as I can but £200 a month is too much so I’m gonna have to call them today and try to make some kind of arrangement.

Anyway, LM came home from work so I quickly fried the aforementioned burgers and popped open a couple of cans of potato gratin (30p from Asda - the same thing used to cost over a quid in Tesco!). The accompanying “salad” was nothing more than a chopped up baby gem lettuce but it had to do - I wasn’t going to start faffing about with all sorts of veg. It was, I figured, better than sod all. Luckily I had enough of everything for three rather than two, because LM’s boyfriend turned up and if there’s one thing I just can’t do, it’s eat comfortably in front of other people who aren’t having any without at least offering them some.

Me: Want some dinner?

Him: You bet. I love your cooking so whatever you’ve got going is fine by me.

Me: It’s only burgers and tinned potatoes (hoping he’d think that being as I wasn’t actually ‘cooking’ as such, he’d not bother)

LM: They’re Mum’s home made burgers (damn - why did you say that?)

Him: Oh, then definitely.

Oh well, so I had to stand and fry a couple more than I’d first thought but I have a perching stool by the cooker so it wasn’t too bad and just so’s you know, I’m not usually that mean, I was just tired. It didn't help though when LM told me that they tasted really bland compared to the last ones we had. Ever felt like aiming something hard at your daughter?

During dinner KT (that’s LM’s fella) asked how I was feeling. “Bloody awful” came the response. He knows all about my condition so didn’t need to dig any deeper, he just asked what he could do to make my day a little bit better. Apart from something that involves illegal herbs, and that wasn’t on the cards, there was nothing I could think of. LM had the answer though: “Just leave her alone,” she said. “When she’s like this, expecting conversation will just wind her up so either shut up and watch the telly or we’ll go upstairs out of the way.” Sensible girl. They went upstairs. Pity they didn’t do the washing up first - I should have thought of that when he asked. It’s still waiting for me now. Oh well… it’s just a few plates, a frying pan and a saucepan. No big deal really.

I finished off the day just veged out in front of the box. I tried to read but couldn’t relax and concentrate; I tried to knit but the kitten (he’s the size of an adult cat now but at just six months, still acts like a kitten) grabbed it and pulled my stitches off the needle. As I was in the middle of turning a heel on a sock, I wasn’t a happy bunny. The kitten’s lucky he didn’t fly through the window!

Today I’m off to do my weekly shop. Fingers crossed it’ll be a better day. Pity it’s raining.

Sharon J


Image Credit: Lorenzo Pierini


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Thursday, 23 October 2008

Bloody Celebs!

Jade wrote something in her poverty post last week that really caught my attention. How comes bloody celebs and their antics get more press coverage than the starving people of Haiti, for example?

What is it with them that makes it so worthwhile for newspapers to write stories about who they’ve been seen with, where they’ve been seen, what they were wearing and all the other crap that’s associated with them? Why would we care more about what they’re doing than the terrible plights of the people who are living in the real world - the world that affects a HUGE percentage of the population and not just the favoured few?

Who’s behind all this? Is it the big cats who are pushing to get their products noticed? If a celebs wearing a new Gucci dress, it’s in the magazines and the day time telly shows are ‘teaching’ us how we too can look like Ms Alltits at just a fraction of the price. If a celeb hits the headlines then it’s highly likely they’ll sell more records, or more people will go see their films. If another’s seen coming out of a fashionable London nightclub with her skirt up her backside and lipstick smudged, are more of us likely to want to frequent said nightclub too?

Celebs are used to sell everything from crisps to sofas these days but why? Would anybody really prefer a sofa that’s been endorsed by a celebrity than one they’ve chosen because it actually suits their taste and comfort requirements? And do kids really prefer crisps that famous footballers eat (or do they?) over other brands? Why? Why? Why?

What on earth has happened to make us have such hero worship for a few people who just happen to be good at the jobs they do? Why would we have more interest in them than world events?

Ok, so maybe it’s a bit of escapism but how far do we need to escape? As it is now, it seems we’ve closed our eyes to a lot of the problems that our fellow human beings are suffering in this world so isn’t it time we accept reality and start doing something about that instead?

Sharon J


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Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Favourite Meals

Somebody asked me a while ago what my favourite meals were. I couldn’t answer straight off because there are so many different foods I like that narrowing it down to favourites isn’t easy but I’ve spent some time this morning thinking about it and have come up with the following, although they‘re in no particular order:

  1. Stew & Dumplings
    While the stew is packed with different vegetables so pretty healthy in that respect, the dumplings are a bugger. I have to have them though. Stew just wouldn’t be the same without them and now that the colder weather's here I can't resist getting the stew pot out.

  2. Minced Beef & Onion Pie with Boiled Potatoes, Carrots & Gravy
    Pastry isn’t particularly healthy and I have to admit that I can’t get on with wholemeal shortcrust pastry. It just isn’t the same. I do use it now and then, when I’m feeling that LM needs more fibre, but on the whole I stick with plain flour. My pie oozes with gravy that has a touch of red wine added to it, and it has to be served with spuds and carrots otherwise it just isn’t right.

  3. Lasagne
    I don’t get to have this very often as LM can’t stand it but now and then, when she’s not home for dinner, I put one together and eat more than I ought to. In fact, I have some left over Bolognese sauce from last week in the freezer so I’m going to use that to make a lasagne tonight.

  4. Pork in Creamy Paprika Sauce with Rice
    Because of the problems I have with what remains of my bowel, I can’t eat food that’s too spicy but this is just right. The paprika sauce is tangy without being too hot and the creamy consistency mixes well with the rice. And I love pork!

  5. Marinated Pork Loin with Buttered Baby Potatoes and Salad with a Sweet Vinaigrette Dressing
    We have pork loin quite a bit as it’s one of LM’s favourite meats too. I always marinate it first with my favourite being a sweet and spicy marinade (the recipe can be found here). Alongside sweet baby potatoes and a crispy green salad, it’s just too delicious for words!

  6. Biff Snadder (beef fillet strips with sautéed mushrooms & peppers served in pita bread with béarnaise sauce and salad)
    This one’s a Norwegian fast-food speciality. You’d find it available at most fast-food places that are regularly dotted along roads both in towns and in what often appears to be the middle of nowhere. I dont’t make béarnaise sauce myself (way too much faffing about) and whereas I was once dependent on Lise sending a powder mix over, I've now found a farm shop that does jars of absolutely gorgeous bearnaise :)

  7. Pancakes
    Ok, so maybe they’re not usually eaten as a main meal but in our house they are. Not often, granted, but when we do have them we ravish them! I prefer mine with strawberry jam and crème fraiche but lemon and sugar’s good too. I also like to vary the pancakes themselves, sometimes adding raisins, or cinnamon, or whatever happens to take my fancy. Sauteed fruit makes a good topping, too.

  8. Hotdogs with potato pancakes, potato salad & dried fried onion
    Something else we don’t have very often because the hotdogs have to be proper Scandinavian hotdogs and the only place I’ve found them here is Ikea. Every time we go I stock up on them but because we can’t get them easily, I have to eek them out. The potato pancakes arrive courtesy of my daughter when she visits and are kept frozen. I could make them myself but as long as I have some in the freezer I don't bother. Once I run out I suppose I'll have to get the frying pan out though.

  9. Carne con Papas
    A traditional Cuban meal of beef and potatoes in a thick, mild chilli sauce. Really warming on a cold day and generally goes down well with guests.

  10. Pizza
    But only the one I make myself. I’ve made it the same way for the past 20 years and I’m pretty sure that if I tried deviating from the recipe my kids would have my guts for garters!

    And just to add one more,

  11. Fried Egg & Mash
    Comfort food. Now and then all I want is good ol’ egg and mash!

But then there's fillet steak, beef casserole, mushroom stroganoff, cajun chicken, baked salmon, smoked trout, home made burgers and... oh, there's just so much good food!

Sharon J


Image credit: Abstract Gourmet


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Tuesday, 21 October 2008

I Worked Hard But I Didn't Recycle

I was tidying the house a bit yesterday. Nothing major, or at least not what most others would call major, but for me it was hard work. My legs hurt if I stand for too long, bending does my back in something chronic (I’ve wrecked my back because the leg pains cause me to walk and stand all wrong) and I tire really easily. I hoovered half the rug, sat down; hoovered the other half, sat down; tidied stuff off the surfaces, sat down; carried the rubbish out, sat down; wiped the surfaces over, sat down. You get the picture?

Anyway, I was upstairs in the bathroom emptying the bin when I noticed that somebody had thrown an empty shampoo bottle in it - a bottle that should have gone in the recycling. There was also an empty toothpaste pack in there (not the plastic container but the box it comes in) that should also have been in the recycling bin. Now I generally expect anybody to take stuff that needs recycling down with them and put it outside in its proper place - the recycling bin. Clearly, that hadn’t been done. But what did I do? Did I take them out and dispose of them properly? No, I took them out, sighed and then threw them back in, tied up the plastic bag and took it all down to the landfill bin.

And do you know what? I didn’t even feel guilty. I was knackered, and just didn’t have it in me to do anything about it. I’d done the clothes wash, hung it out, done the dishes, made dinner, vacuumed the living room, porch and kitchen, tidied the living room, stripped my bed, got rid of some rubbish from my bedroom (including putting some stuff in the recycling bin and some other stuff in the charity shop box) and I just didn’t have it in me anymore to worry about it. I just wanted to get finished, sit down (again!) and do nothing else for the afternoon.

You’ll probably think I’m letting the side down but I’m not a purist and I’m sure as hell not perfect. I do what I can to make life easy on myself - I’ve simplified considerably since the start of the year and although there are still areas I’m working on (and some I haven’t even got round to thinking about starting on yet), I have to find a balance that keeps me relatively healthy through leading a quieter, simpler life that’s kinder on myself, the environment and my purse, and I’m not going to allow myself to stress or push myself too far physically for the sake of a few items that didn’t go into the recycling bin. It happens.

During the weekend I also threw a tin can in the landfill waste. I’d fed the dog and as it was evening and I was practically on the point of collapse, I just didn’t have it in me to wash it out there and then. I didn’t want a dirty dog food can standing on the worktop overnight either, so it went in the normal kitchen bin. But hey…. how many things did I recycle or find a way of reusing? Well a whole lot more than I didn’t, that’s for sure, and that’s what counts.

I really need to get an extra bin for the bathroom though. There should be room for one, so I don't really have an excuse.

Sharon J


Image Credit: Dylan Hartmann


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Monday, 20 October 2008

Twelve Ways to Stay Warm This Winter That Won't Cost A Fortune

Brr... it's starting to get chilly.

If you're anything like me, you'll be looking for ways to stay warm this winter without increasing those ever rising fuel bills or wasting unnecessary resources. If that's the case, you might be interested in these tips for eco-friendly, cheap ways to ward off the cold.

  1. Don’t let drawn curtains hang in front of radiators. If yours do, either shorten them or tuck them behind it.

  2. If you have water fired radiators, consider fitting Radiator Boosters. They work by sucking air up and blasting it into the room eliminating the loss of heat through walls. I have a sofa in front of my main living room radiator but since fitting the booster, the warmth in the room has increased dramatically. Fitting aluminium foil behind radiators (shiny side towards the radiator) will also help reflect heat back into the room rather than straight through the wall.

  3. Buy or make draught excluders to keep the cold from creeping in under your doors (and the heat from creeping out).

  4. Don’t worry about becoming a size zero (or anything even close). Humans were designed to have a layer of fat on their bodies because it both bolsters us against bumps, protecting our bones, and insulates against the cold. Believe me, when I became positively skeletal (through no choice of my own, I hasten to add) I felt the cold far more than when I have a decent fat layer around me. Of course, being obese isn’t good for you either so try to strike a balance.

  5. Have a bowl of soup. If you’re feeling peckish, heat up a bowl of soup instead of grabbing the biscuit barrel. It’ll warm the cockles of your heart.

  6. Get physical. As long as your using energy you’ll feel warmer so get up off your bum and do some housework, dance or play chase with the kids instead. Of course, there is another way of getting physical which leads me to my next point...

  7. Have a cuddle. That way you’ll be sharing your body heat with somebody else and you’ll feel so much warmer for it.

  8. When you sit still, pull a blanket around you or slip on an extra woolie. You might even consider taking up knitting and making them yourself.

  9. Wear a beanie. Yes, I know you might think that’s gonna feel pretty strange indoors but as 20-40% of body heat is lost through the head, it really will help you stay warm and it doesn’t have to be chunky. If possible, choose one made from lightweight wool rather than man-made fibres because not only will they keep you warmer, they’re more environmentally friendly too.

  10. Dress in layers. Animals that live in cold environments generally have two layers to their fur so take a tip from nature - several thin layers of clothing insulate far better than one thick one. Again, natural fibres are better than man-made alternatives.

  11. Wear socks or slippers. If your feet are cold, you’ll feel cold all over. If you can knit, try making some home-knitted socks out of wool sock yarn as they keep your feet lovely and toastie. If not, buy yourself some comfy slippers and wear cotton socks (acrylic doesn't keep you warm as it retains the moisture between your skin and the fabric whereas cotton breathes).

  12. Don’t sweat. If you find yourself sweating, take off some clothes or take a rest because sweating will ultimately make you feel cold. Pace yourself and layer your clothing according to your activities instead.

Having lived in Norway – a country where winter's so cold that my duvet once froze to the wall – I do know a thing or two about keeping warm. My trouble is, since coming back to the UK, I haven’t been too good at taking my own advice. That’s going to change this winter, though. I’m on an energy and money saving drive so anything that’ll help use less while I stay warm gets a big tick in my book.

Sharon J


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Sunday, 19 October 2008

Swedish Meatballs

Most of you no doubt know that I spent 18 years in Norway and as the only difference between Norwegian and Swedish meatballs is the size (Norwegian ones are much bigger), meatballs quickly became a staple in our house. We still have them at least once a month - you have to hang on to some things from ‘home’ and they’re one of my youngest’s favourite meals and as most supermarkets sell them, they’re obviously popular here.

What I’ve noticed though is that people buy what’s called Swedish Meatball Sauce. It comes in packets and is made by Coleman’s. Whether or not there are any other brands I couldn’t tell you but the fact that meatball sauce is VERY easy to make, buying a packet mix is a complete waste of money.

Rather than buy ready made meatballs and sauce, you might just as well make your own. Here’s how:


250g minced beef
250g minced pork (double the beef if you don't have pork mince - or vice versa)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground black pepper
3 tsp fresh parsley or 1 tsp dried (optional)
1 tsp ground nutmeg (optional)
2 tbsp cornflour
300-400 ml milk (or use water if you don’t use dairy)
½ small onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp butter or margarine for frying

  1. Mix the minced meat and salt together until it’s a sticky mess then mix the cornflour, parsley, nutmeg and pepper in.
  2. Gradually add the milk or water while still mixing then mix in the onions. Form into whatever sized balls you like.
  3. Brown the fat in a frying pan then add the meatballs (in batches if necessary). Shake the pan now and then to ensure that they’re fried on all sides. Once they’re nice and brown, leave them to fry over a gentle heat for 3-5 minutes, depending on their size.

Meatball Sauce

3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp flour
500 ml beef stock
A little vinegar taken from a jar of gherkins (optional)
A few drops of soy sauce or gravy browning (optional)
A little milk (sorry, but water just won’t cut it but you could use a milk alternative I guess)
Ground black pepper

  1. Melt the butter in a saucepan and mix in the flour to form a paste (or roux, which is the proper word for it).
  2. Add the stock and simmer very gently for about 5 minutes so that the flour taste disappears.
  3. Add the soy sauce/gravy browning, vinegar, a little milk and pepper to taste. Simmer for another minute.
  4. Taste - add more pepper if needed.

Y’see, the sauce really is easy and sooooo quick. And let’s face it, who doesn’t have butter, flour, some form of beef stock (unless you're a vegetarian of course, but then none of this would interest you anyway) and black pepper in the house? The other stuff’s just an added bonus if you happen to have it.

The meatballs aren’t difficult either and home-made ones are not only more authentic, they taste a whole lot better too. And as with all made-from-scratch food, you know exactly what you’re getting.

Traditionally, along with the above sauce, Swedish meatballs are served with boiled potatoes (in their skins) and lingonberry sauce, only I haven't been able to find either lingonberries or ready made sauce anywhere. Ikea probably do it but I'm not going all the way there just to find out. I must remember to look out for it next time I go though (I always get their weinerpølser - hot dog sausages - there's nothing in this country quite like them!)

And a meatball meal in the cafe is a must too :)

Sharon J


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Friday, 17 October 2008


I’m still on the subject of poverty here. I know it was only meant to be for one day and I’m sorry if you’re getting bored now but it’s an important subject and if just one person stops and thinks a little more because of what I’ve written, it’ll have been worth boring all the others.

On the Blog Action Day website there’s a list of 88 ways to take action against poverty. I wouldn’t agree that all of the suggestions are ‘action AGAINST poverty’ as such, but they’re undoubtedly actions that would at least make the individual better understand just what poverty is and what it might feel like. One suggestion is: on one day only, eat food that you have asked someone for directly or for the money you need to buy it. Pay attention to the feelings.

I know the feelings.

About eight years ago I left my ex partner for a while (I stayed with a friend) before returning to the house after his departure from it. When I returned I was penniless. Because I had sole responsibility for Paul, my special needs son, I’d had to give up my job when I’d initially left and wasn’t able to go back to work. I applied for benefits.

Now you’d think that would be pretty straight forward wouldn’t you, but no… not in this country! I waited and waited but nothing happened. I had to borrow friends’ telephones to call the benefits agency (no money for a telephone of my own or to use in a phone box) but all I was ever told was that my application was being processed. A month passed, two months passed and still I had nothing but child benefit to survive on. I think that was about £25 per week for my 2 children back then - I was receiving nothing for my son as he was an adult and as I hadn’t NEEDED to previously apply for money from the social fund for him before, I hadn’t bothered. I didn’t believe in taking out of the communal pot just ‘because you can’.

It stands to reason that the small income I had didn’t cover our costs. Our meals were inadequate (I’ve no idea how many times I went without food in order to let the kids eat), the children needed shoes that I couldn’t afford and the rent wasn’t being paid. Most nights we sat without electricity and heating was a luxury we could only dream of at the time. We tried to make it fun by telling stories around candles (I remember getting a huge pack of nasty green ones for £1) and pretending we were camping under our duvets but life was, to say the least, pretty miserable.

Clearly, I couldn’t manage on such a small income and there were times when I had to go to friends with my hat in my hands and ask for money or/and food. God, was that embarrassing. Unless you’ve been in that position, you’ve no idea how humiliating it feels. I’d put it off for as long as I could but sometimes I had no choice, it was either that or let my kids go without a meal again (yes, there were days when none of us ate anything other than cheap bread). There was a point where I seriously considered taking the bus to Manchester to sit on the street and beg. Thankfully, I never had to actually do that but I can understand why some people do. Sometimes you just do what you have to do.

Luckily my housing officer (I was living in a housing association - the same one as now but a different house in a different area) was really good and understood my position. The eviction threats kept coming from head office but she told me to ignore them, that she’d deal with it. You still worry about it though.

It took six months before my giro eventually arrived. Sure, I got a hefty back-pay but what did that help while we were struggling? It didn’t make us any less hungry during those six months, it didn’t put new shoes on my children’s feet or winter jackets on their backs and it didn’t keep us warm on cold winter nights.

I hope I never experience such a situation again and that none of you ever will. Poverty is soul destroying and in a world of plenty, it needn’t exist.

Sharon J


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Thursday, 16 October 2008

My Personal Experience of Homelessness

Yesterday’s blog action posts really made me think. There were so many interesting and valid subjects and several have made me see things in a different light.

One thing I’d like to share with you is my own experience of homelessness. I’ve never had it anywhere near as bad as some, but I’ve tasted what it can be like and I hope and pray that neither my family or I ever have to experience anything like it again.

My experience of homelessness happened about 10 years ago now, maybe a little longer. Our family - that’s me, my ex and my three children - had moved to England in order to be closer to my mum. We rented a house on the south coast and set about finding jobs. That wasn’t too difficult, although my ex was on a minimum wage and, due to Paul’s special needs, I was only able to work part-time from home. The money we had coming in just wasn’t enough to keep up with the pressure of high rents in the south, food costs, transport, energy and everything else and as we‘d been out of the country for too long, we weren‘t entitled to benefits. After six months or so we realised that we couldn’t manage and would have to go back ‘home’ to Norway.

With the last of our money we booked our place on the ferry and with just a car laden with our personal possessions (only those that were important to us), we headed back, not knowing where we’d go or what we’d do. The dog and Lise’s pet rat came with us - the rabies tests etc were extra expenses we could have done without but we couldn’t leave them behind - they were part of the family and we figured this was going to be tough enough for the kids as it was, without having to lose their pets too.

The following couples of months were spent on friends’ sofas, in various cheap and ill equipped cabins (one was about 10 square meters and saw five of us in two very narrow bunk beds with nothing other than a two-ring burner and a very hard ‘sofa’ - no running water, nowhere to store anything and nowhere to move) and several nights spent sleeping in the car. Believe me, a small car laden with possessions is NOT comfortable when five are sharing with a dog and a rat! By the time we finally got out of the car and into yet another cabin, we were all so tired that I’m surprised we made it over the mountains in one piece. Some nights were spent in the forest, some on the beach - we kipped wherever we could.

The children took the whole experience surprisingly well. We lived on cheap (and not particularly nutritious) food but they didn’t seem to mind, and when they look back now, they say they didn’t realise just how serious the situation was and that to them it was just another adventure; they met lots of new people and did things that other kids didn’t normally do. Fair enough. But would they have felt the same way if the situation had continued for months or even years? At least we weren’t ‘on the street’, but plenty of children are, and will be for most if not all of their lives.

When we eventually found a house we could afford to rent (the social had come through with financial help for us by this point), it was way up in the mountains and pretty much a tumble-down shack but that didn’t matter - it was a roof over our heads and we could stay as long as we needed to. As it turned out, those six months spent living at Bontveit were some of the best of my life - the people on the mountain were incredibly friendly and the nature…. well, you’d have to see the place to believe it. Who wouldn’t want to go swimming in a natural pool at the foot of a huge waterfall whenever the sun shone (and it did that year - a lot!)? Who wouldn’t want to eat breakfast on the veranda whilst looking out across the valley where an eagle flew across every morning? I’d swap it again for town life any day! We still didn’t have much in the way of material possessions - just a few bits of second-hand furniture we’d manage to find at the local Sally Army shop - but we had each other and we were immensely happy. Until my ex got sick that is… then things went pear-shaped again and we headed off back to England. And here we still are, minus the ex but with experience that has helped shape us.

Being homeless and broke was tough, there’s absolutely no doubt about that. You worry constantly about where the next meal’s coming from, where you’re going to put your head down for the night, how the children are going to be effected by it all, what it might do to your health and much, much more. For the sake of the children we had to try to hide the severity of the situation, but it isn’t easy when everything around you seems bleak and you’ve no idea what the future might bring. You try to stay optimistic and find the little things that still make life good, but for every night you spent sleepless, worrying, it becomes increasingly difficult. And although you don’t want to feel bitter, when you see people spending money on luxuries that they take back to their huge, expensive homes, it’s difficult not to be.

NOBODY should have to experience homelessness EVER. If we all shared the resources we have more equally, it would never need to happen. Basic shelter, food and clothing are surely HUMAN RIGHTS?

Sharon J


To find out more about homelessness in England and Scotland, please visit Shelter. You can also make a donation on the site to help eradicate homelessness and help the many who are experiencing our government's failure to provide adequate housing for those who are in need of it most.


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Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Blog Action Day: They've Committed No Crime

Somebody once said that affluence creates poverty. Our greedy over-consumption causes suffering amongst millions.

  • Around 30,000 children die EVERY DAY from hunger.

  • It would take just 1% of what the world spends on weapons to put EVERY child into school, but still 72 million children ARE NOT being educated.

  • Every SECOND child in the world is living in poverty.

  • ONE IN THREE children have NO adequate shelter.

  • EVERY YEAR the same number of children die worldwide as there are children in the UK.

  • ONE IN SIX families live in SLUM conditions.

  • TWENTY percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than SEVENTY FIVE percent of the total consumption.

Our crimes - their suffering.

Sharon J


This blogpost was written as a contribution to Blog Action Day. More than 9,000 bloggers worldwide have joined together to raise awareness of poverty and the issues related to it.


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Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Greed = Stupidity

I’m getting tired of the credit crunch stories now. Every day we hear of cases where people are having to sell their homes because they can’t afford their mortgages, even though they’re in negative equity and will still be paying for something they no longer have for a good few years to come.

Yes, I think it’s sad when hard-working people who are simply trying to create a decent home for themselves are hit by this but isn’t it a fact that if you take out a mortgage that you can’t afford to pay, then you’ll have to forfeit your home? Didn’t these people know that before they went to the bank?

Once upon a time you could borrow around 3 times your income up to about 80% maximum to invest in a property. In other words, you had to actually save for a deposit and BE ABLE to repay the loan but 100% mortgages eventually became the norm, being offered to all and sundry regardless of income and repayment ability. Surely, if somebody borrows more than they can reasonably afford then it’s their own look out when they can’t keep up the payments? And similarly, if the banks are stupid enough to lend money to people who don’t have the means of repayment, shouldn’t it be their loss when things go tits up?

Yes, I know that interest rates have risen but anybody with any sense surely knew that was a possibility when they take out a mortgage? Shouldn’t they have calculated with that possibility before they dived in? Or is the desire to own property so strong that we’re willing to risk anything for the sake of it? People say they want the security of owning their own homes but in all honesty, I feel a whole lot more secure in my rented property (housing association with secure tenure) than I would in a mortgaged house that I couldn't afford.

Just a few days ago I heard of a case where a woman was offered, before the credit crunch, a ‘self assessment mortgage’. Her mortgage broker put her income down as £95,000 even though she actually earns just over half of that. Shouldn’t mortgage brokers who advocate this kind of procedure also be held responsible when problems arise? And what have credit institutions been thinking when they’ve been willing to throw money at people without even checking their income? Not that those who took out self-assessment mortgages based on fabricated figures are innocent - far from it - but why on earth should the tax-payers have to bail out the banks because of their own stupidity?

If people had just stuck to what they can afford (and I’ve lived beyond my means before so am not entirely innocent either) instead of thinking they deserve a big house, better car, luxury holidays or whatever, then this housing crisis would never have arisen. Banks wouldn’t have had the opportunity to lend more money than people could afford to repay and nobody - with the exception of the few whose circumstances have changed drastically since taken out a mortgage/loan - would be in danger of losing their home or spending sleepless nights waiting for the bailiff to knock.

If you ask me, greed is synonymous with stupidity, whether it’s on the part of the banks or the borrowers themselves.

Sharon J


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Monday, 13 October 2008

Comparing Ourselves To Others - The Good and The Bad

When we compare ourselves to others we can often feel negative because they're better at something than we are or have something we don’t. BUT comparing ourselves with others can also motivate us to do better. I know that when I realised just how good a saver my mum has been, even though times have been very hard for her, I compared myself and how I’d got into debt instead of saving and was motivated to sort my finances out and save more myself.

There are areas where comparison is natural, like during sports events. But in those situations there are rules to be followed whereas life in general has no such rules.

Comparing ourselves to others has almost become a cultural norm in the UK and undoubtedly in many other parts of the world, too.

There’s a huge difference between comparing yourself to others with envy and learning from their successes and failures though. Isn’t it better to use comparisons to improve rather than berate yourself?

Life isn’t some kind of competition - it’s a personal journey to be lived in the way that’s best suited to the individual. When we start trying to live like ‘everybody else’, we end up losing our own sense of purpose and can even forget who we actually are. I know all about that because it’s happened to me and as much as we may believe it, the grass truly isn’t greener on the other side.

It’s really just a matter of putting more focus on going where you want to go with your life and who you really are instead of trying to follow the pathes of others? When you’re enjoying who you are, what you're doing and what you have, it’ll won’t matter that you’re not great at drawing, dancing the jitterbug or doing cartwheels, don’t own your own home, drive a fancy car or earn as much as your neighbour. All that will really matter is what you have, what you believe, where you’re heading and what your personal place is in the big scheme of things.

Sharon J


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Sunday, 12 October 2008

When Time Doesn't Go Far Enough

What should a person do when time just doesn’t stretch far enough to satisfy everybody who wants a piece of it?

I love spending time with people but I also equally love spending time alone. I generally have a decent balance in the two but just lately I’ve felt under pressure to spend more time with some people than I’ve been able. Well, I could spend more time with them but that would mean I’d either have to give up some of my alone time or spend less time with other people. Or a combination of both. I don’t want to do either.

I truly believe that we MUST look after our own needs first and right now I just don’t have the time to give to those who are asking for more of it. I don’t want to hurt them by rejecting them but that’s what usually happens. They don’t seem to understand that there are many people in my life, all of whom I enjoy spending time with because each of them brings something different to my life, and I only have so much to share between them all. Some get more than others, granted, but that’s only natural. Similarly some get very little.

What can I do? Am I being selfish by saying no? Is it me there’s something wrong with when I feel tense and stressed because people are expecting more of me than I’m able to offer?

Sharon J


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Saturday, 11 October 2008

Beauty & The Beast

Being a beautiful day, my friend Carol - who I haven’t seen for ages - and I decided to drive out to Middlewich yesterday to look for a fishing lake I’d heard about. I’ve been keen to get back into fishing y’see, but hadn’t yet found anywhere in the local vicinity that allows ‘my kind of fishing’. By the I mean coarse fishing without all the palaver of ground baiting, huge poles, keep nets, landing mats and the likes - I just wanted a place where I could sit in relatively peaceful surroundings with a simple rod, a baited hook and wait for the bite while I ponder life.

Shakerley Mere turned out to be quite beautiful and very accessible for somebody like me who has mobility problems. The path around the lake is even, there’s plenty of parking, and lots of open pegs to fish from. The lake's stocked with perch, tench, roach and bream (slimey suckers - yuk!) along with, apparently, some pretty huge carp, although fishing for the latter holds absolutely no interest to me - way too much faffing about. Ideally I’d like to fish for brown trout, the way I did back in Norway, but that appears to be impossible here without fly fishing equipment and expensive day tickets.

What I didn’t like about Shakerley Mere is the fact that the M6 - the country's busiest motorway - runs right along one side of it and although the lakes is big (we’re not talking Great Lakes big but bigger than a pond) and we were on the opposite side, the noise from the motorway definitely destroyed the feeling of peace. Sitting on a bench amid beautiful trees and shrubs clothed in their dazzling autumn colours whilst looking out across a peaceful lake where swans, ducks, geese and moorhens gently glided through the water should have been tranquillity itself, but with the constant drone of high speed traffic, it just wasn’t. Still, I’ll probably give it a try next year once the fishing season gets underway again as it’s the best place I’ve found so far. It’s just such a shame that such beautiful nature spots are so easily destroyed by our modern lifestyles.

We also got talking to a man who was waiting for the RSPCA to arrive. A bird had caught its wing on something on one of the two islands on the lake. Possibly left-over fishing line although I can’t say for sure, but as the carp tend to sit around the islands (an online search revealed this particular piece of information) it's a fair bet that carp anglers aim for them. The poor thing was flapping desperately and clearly becoming tired but even though it was already an hour since the RSPCA were called, they’d yet to arrive. By the time we returned to the same spot, at least another hour had past, the bird was hanging quietly by this time, probably exhausted, but still there was no sign of the RSPCA. Do they only arrive quickly when they have a camera crew in tow? It makes you wonder.

Nature has provided us with an incredible amount of beauty but man has an uncanny knack of destroying it.

Sharon J


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Friday, 10 October 2008

Bottle & Can Deposit Schemes

A lot of countries in Europe (and probably elsewhere for all I know) have a deposit scheme in place when it comes to plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans. You pay a couple of pence extra on top of the normal price but when you take them back to the bottle and can banks you get that money back.

I first moved to Norway in 1980 where the system was already in place. Every large supermarket had an automated collection system that issued a payment slip that could either be exchange at the check out as payment for part of your shopping or as cash and the smaller supermarkets and grocery stores had manual systems. It worked. Far fewer bottles and cans are found littering the streets and countryside there (although that could also have something to do with a difference in mentality too) and they few that do get thrown away are foraged by those looking to earn themselves a few bob extra. Kids especially can generally be seen hunting through the litter bins at zoos, outdoor swimming pools, lakes, picnic areas and the likes, looking for discarded bottles and cans that they can get a themselves a bit of extra pocket money from. Sounds gross I guess but there isn’t usually any dangerous litter in the bins in those places.

When I was a kid we had a deposit system on glass bottles (I can’t remember plastic bottles being used at all then and cans still weren’t anywhere near as commonplace as they are now). I’m not sure when that disappeared but I imagine it was when plastic bottles and cans took over. But why not bring the deposit system back? Surely that would increase the number of bottles and cans that are recycled which in turn would lower the cost of production and, obviously, leave less of a footprint on the planet.

It seems odd to me that the UK - a place that likes to think of itself as one of the world leaders - isn’t doing something that simple.

Sharon J


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Thursday, 9 October 2008

Releasing Grudges

Haven’t we all borne grudges from time to time? I know I certainly have. I’ve generally been pretty good about them though - I’ve either approached the person who’s the cause of my grudge and talked things through properly or I’ve simply dropped it. There is, in my opinion, simply no point in carrying grudges with us through life.

Bearing a grudge wastes energy. It turns positive energy into negative energy - instead of spending time thinking about the good that surrounds us we spend it, or at least some of it, thinking about how such and such a person has done us wrong. And let’s be honest, all that spent negative energy does us absolutely no good. The situation doesn’t improve but we can often end up feeling wound up over something that’s happened and no amount of grinding over that particular stone will make it un-happened.

Ok, maybe an initial response where we vent some of our negative emotions over what’s happened can be helpful - we all know that bottling things up isn’t good for us - but there comes a point where we either have to deal with it or let go. If we don’t, then every time we happen to run into the person who we consider the cause of our grudge will just continue to release negative energy, and by ‘run in’ I don’t necessarily mean that we meet them on the street, but every time we hear their name mentioned, see a photo with them in, or come across something that reminds us of them, the latter of which can be anything from switching on the TV only to see their favourite programme playing, hear a song they particular liked, or hear somebody use a phrase they often used themselves.

I have plenty of reasons to bear a grudge towards certain people who’ve been part of my life, but now that I’ve expended the initial negative energy needed in order to release some steam, I try to focus on the good things about them. Everybody, even my abusive ex partner, has good sides and just thinking about all the bad things really doesn’t help me move forward.

There are lessons to be learned from everybody we meet. It isn’t always easy to see the lessons at the time, but once we have things at a distance, if we really start to look, they’re there to be found and experience is what we grow on.

Who knows, maybe that person you’re bearing a grudge towards has actually taught you an important life lesson. If that’s the case, be grateful instead of just hanging on to that grudge.

Sharon J


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Wednesday, 8 October 2008

What A Wonderful Friend

The Vienna Festival Ballet are going to be performing Swan Lake in Crewe at the end of the month. Swan Lake is one of the ballets that I’ve always wanted to see but have never had the chance to and the Vienna Festival Ballet are famous for performing classical ballets that are kept true to the original, just the way I like them.

I really wanted to see it but knew I couldn’t spent yet another £20 on entertainment this month. If it’d been a tenner then fair enough, but twenty quid was just too much. This saddened me somewhat but I have other priorities that had to come first.

Enter my friend Jo.

Knowing how much I wanted to go, she donated the extra tenner and told me to book that ticket pronto! She wouldn’t hear of anything else and told me it was as much for her as for me because then she’d get to hear all about it; the costumes, the sets…. everything.

Yesterday Richard went to the Lyceum and bought my ticket. I’m in more of less the same seat as when I went to see Annie (LM is coming with me this time too - she also loves the ballet) so we’ll have a good view and… oh, I just can’t wait! I’m gonna wee myself soon, I’m that excited!

What would life be without good friends?

Love you, Jo xx

Sharon J

UPDATE: After Jo gave it to me, I'd bunged the 'tenner' in my skirt pocket. When I got it out today to replace the money I'd taken out of my grocery envelope, I discovered that there were actually two! She'd paid for the whole ticket! Joanne... you're too good to me. Really, you are.


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Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Do You Throw Away Over £400 A Year?

Everywhere I go these days, people seem to be whinging about the credit crunch and the soaring food prices. Some are insisting that they can barely afford to eat, while another has said that his child can’t have his 5-a-day because they just can’t afford so much fruit and veg. Yet another is saying that eggs from caged birds are the only affordable ones and then there’s the one who insists that everything should be served with potatoes and carrots because they’re the only veg that are still relatively affordable.

Well I don’t know about everybody else but I’m on a low income - lower than some of those who are doing the whinging - and yet I manage to give my daughter her 5-a-day and never ever buy anything other than free-range eggs. We eat good, balanced meals that include a good variety of vegetables, usually as an accompaniment to meat although we do eat veggie meals too, and occasionally I'll even get to have fish (LM isn’t keen on seafood, unfortunately). The fruit bowl is always full and there are plenty of healthy snacks to be had. How comes then, that I can do it but the whingers can’t? Maybe I have a money tree growing in my back garden that I'm not telling anybody about? Or perhaps I have a magic purse that just keeps putting the tenners back in whenever I take them out? Nah... no such luck. I'm just thrifty and mindful of what I buy, that's all.

For me, the answer lies in priorities. My main priorities are shelter, food and adequate clothing. Everything else comes after that with entertainment being furthest down the list. Yes, I do like a tipple now and then and a visit to the theatre or the cinema are things I love doing but I won't do them at the expense of what we eat. The second point is, that because I prioritise food, I’m mindful of what I buy and how much I need. I hate food waste and try to use up as much as I can. Sure, some of it ends up in the bin but very little - most of what doesn’t get eaten by me, LM or my guests is either fed to the worms or one of the four-legged furries.

Apparently, each of us throw away an average of £420 worth of food each year. Imagine chucking four hundred pound coins in a bin bag, tying it up and then throwing it on the landfill to slowly rot away. You just wouldn't do it, would you? Together we're chucking away 10 billion pounds here in the UK alone! 6.7 tonnes of food, all going to the landfill! If that isn’t sickening in a world where people are still starving, then what is? Where are our consciences when we’re allowing this to happen?

What really riles me is that most of those who are complaining about the rising cost of food fill their shopping trollies with frozen microwave meals, ready made sauces and lord knows what other rubbish. Food that’s full of salt, sugar and hydrogenated fat. They’re happy to buy a couple of take-aways every week and then say fruit and veg is too expensive! Or that it costs too much to cook from scratch!

Exactly where they get that idea from is anybody’s guess. I’ve recently been keeping a running tally of the cost of each meal I make and most have cost far less than a shop-bought ready-made version. The few that have cost more have been far superior, with a greater variety of healthy ingredients. And even the food that isn’t particularly healthy, like meat pie, tastes a whole lot better than the cheap versions from Asda and the likes.

Cooking from scratch is also far more satisfying. I love experimenting with flavours and trying new veggies, spices, meats, herbs and whatever else I can lay my hands on. And having put real work into preparing a meal as opposed to warming it up makes it far more rewarding to eat; I feel far more grateful for my food that way. And time doesn’t have to be a factor - there are lots of meals that can be put together and cooked in under half an hour and with everybody having a freezer these days, batch cooking makes things even easier for those who are pressed for time and slow cookers are great for preparing a meal that's ready when you get home, although I'd imagine getting everything ready in the morning can be a bit of a bind.

I can only guess that most of those who are moaning just can’t be bothered to cook properly for themselves. “I don’t like cooking” really isn’t a good enough excuse either when children are going without a decent, balanced meal.

Vesta have a lot to answer for. It was their frozen curries that started this whole "fast meals" thing.

Sharon J


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Monday, 6 October 2008

Parking in Westminster

You may remember that LM and I visited the theatre in London a while ago and that I had a pretty miserable time what with the stairs and my injury (see here if you didn’t read the original post) and that the evening was topped off with a parking fine. Apparently, you’re not allowed to park anywhere other than in designated disabled parking spaces with a blue badge in Westminster, or for 2 hours maximum in other parking spaces (not long enough for a theatre visit). The result was a £120 fine although that would have been reduced to £60 if I’d paid it within 14 days.

I didn’t pay it. Instead I wrote to Westminster City Council (although their collection offices are based in Warrington, Cheshire!) politely explaining that I didn’t know their rules differed from those elsewhere in the country and that as the three disabled bays that we’d been able to find close enough to The Lyceum had all been occupied, by not parking elsewhere I wouldn’t have the same freedom to visit the theatre as able bodied people and hinted that surely that was discrimination?

A letter has arrived back. They’ve waived the fine but have made it clear that now that I know the rules any further fines will be enforced.

The fact that I don’t have to pay is good news but I’m still concerned that disabled people are being discriminated against. We’re not all lucky enough to be able to use public transports comfortably (ok, so there’s not really such a thing as using public transport comfortably in London but you know what I mean) and as blue badges are only given to those who can’t walk more than 100 yards comfortably, it stands to reason that we can’t park too far from our intended destination. Why then not more disabled bays at least? I can't say I feel particularly welcome in Westminster.

Sharon J


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Sunday, 5 October 2008

Fuzzled Brain

I have a friend staying with me for the weekend and after a heavy night out at another friend’s house last night and not crawling into bed until about 4am my brain’s now way too fuzzled for blogging. I had a brilliant time, though. But then whenever I take the trip up to Manchester, I always know it's gonna be good :)

Speak to you tomorrow, folks.

Sharon J


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Saturday, 4 October 2008

Marinades for Meat

Although I’ve tried to incorporate more vegetarian meals into our diets, the truth is that my family are all hardened carnivores - we simply love meat. Pork, beef, ostrich, reindeer, venison… you name it and I’ll probably eat it. The same applies to poultry.

For years I knew nothing of marinades. My mother certainly never used them and they weren’t popular in Norway during the years I lived there. That has, however, changed.

Since discovering the secrets of a good marinade our meals have tasted much better. Even LM, who’s incredibly fussy about her food, will often tell me how delicious a piece of meat tasted even though it may have started it’s shelf life as a plain old pork chop. Marinades are, as far as I’m concerned, the cook’s best friend.

Ok, so they add a bit to the cost of a meal but what you get back in terms of flavour, tenderness and sheer eating pleasure is by far worth those extra pennies. A marinade can turn a good meal into a great one.

If you’ve never used a marinade before, I suggest you make your own rather than use one of the ready prepared bottled varieties. Not only is it cheaper, but the more you learn about marinading, the more you’ll be able to mess around with flavours yourself, bringing individuality to every meat or poultry dish you prepare.

A good marinade should contain some kind of acid as this breaks down the muscle tissue making the meat more tender, with the most commonly used acidic ingredients being citrus juices, vinegars and wine. Although the acid will flavour the meat, it should also contain some kind of added flavouring such as herbs, spices, garlic, onions and the likes. Lastly, but very importantly, it should contain some form of oil as this is what infuses the meat with the flavours. Olive oil is most often used. Some insist that it should be extra virgin although I’ve never found it necessary.

To help get you started, here are a few of my favourite marinades:

Simple All-Meat Marinade

For each portion of meat use:

½ small onion, finely chopped
½ tbsp Mixed Herbs
25 ml olive oil
1 ½ tbsp white wine vinegar (or distilled malt vinegar if that‘s all you have)

Sweet & Spicy Pork Marinade

For each portion use:

1 ½ tbsp honey
1 ½ tbsp lemon juice
1 ½ tbsp soy sauce
25 ml olive oil
1 ½ tsp paprika
1 ½ tsp cumin
1 ½ tsp cinnamon

Norwegian Beef Marinade

For each portion use:

25 ml olive oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp lime juice
½ tsp brown sugar
1 clove of garlic (or 1 inch garlic paste)
½ cm fresh ginger, finely chopped or grated
½ a small red chilli, finely chopped

Quick Chicken Marinade

For each portion use:

1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsps olive oil

and finally, especially for Catz...

Garlic & Coriander Marinade for Pork

For each portion use:

2 ½ tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp garlic paste
½ tbsp fresh, chopped coriander

Mix marinade ingredients in a lidded bowl, plastic container (Tupperware style) or zip-lock type bag and bung the meat in, making sure it’s all nicely covered. Use your fingers and rub it in well. Put it in the fridge and then leave it for 2 hours at least for pork and chicken, and 4 hours for beef. An extra couple of hours will improve the flavours and the larger the cut of meat, the longer it should be left. In fact, because marinades were first used as a way of preserving meat, you can actually leave it for up to a couple of days. I do think the meat tends to go a bit too mushy if left for too long though so 8-10 hours is usually my maximum.

If you’re able, turn the meat now and then to ensure even coverage. Of course, there’s no point dashing home from working during your lunch break just for this but if you're close to the fridge anyway, it's worth doing.

Fish and vegetables can also benefit from a good marinade but as this is about meat, I won’t elaborate here. A Google search should bring up a good few results though.

I’m so fond of marinades that I can’t actually remember the last time I prepared a piece of meat without one. It must have been a beef fillet steak - that’s the only meat I find perfect ‘as is’ but not one we have very often.

Sharon J


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Friday, 3 October 2008

A Night Out

LM and I went to the theatre last night. A local dramatics group are having a week long run of Annie and I have to say, they were excellent. Had I not known they were amateurs, I would never have guessed. But then again, professionals are only amateurs who happen to get paid to do what they do, aren’t they? That doesn’t necessarily make them any better. Of course, a professional production has more financing behind it so the stage sets and costumers are usually more impressive but even so, I think the Acton Operatic Society did a VERY good job (just thought I'd give them a plug there). I'll definitely be going to next year's performance, all things being as they should be :)

What’s more, we were in the stalls so I didn’t need to climb three million gazillion a couple of hundred stairs in order to find our seats and I didn’t need to walk down six flights of stairs to the loos, only to fall a*se over tit on the way up again and injure myself. What’s more, unlike London, blue badge holders can park pretty much wherever they like around these parts, including double yellows, so I didn’t get a parking fine either. It's just as well that both theatres being called The Lyceum wasn't a bad omen!

Considering the tickets were only ten quid each, I’d say it was definitely a worthwhile evening out. We did get ourselves a drink and a packet of smarties in the interval and I bought a programme because they deserve some support. But whereas before we would have had a restaurant meal beforehand, instead we ate a lovely meal at home: garlic and coriander marinated pork loin chops, garlic potato gratin and asparagus. It tasted as good as anything we’d get in a restaurant and at a fraction of the cost. Ok, so I had to prepare it and LM was supposed to wash up later although Richard kindly did it instead, but the money I saved by not eating out has gone straight into my kitchen fund. One step closer to the goal. I daren't think what anybody who came close to us and our garlic breath must have thought, though.

I’m glad we went and really want to make a trip out with LM a more regular occurrence. Last month we went to the theatre in London, the cinema and for a picnic in the park. Ok, so it’s not always frugal but bonding is important too and that comes through shared experiences. They don’t always have to cost much but as we both love going to the theatre, like going to see bands perform and enjoy the luxury of seeing a film at the cinema now and then (that’s how they were meant to be viewed, after all) I’m willing to spend a bit extra every month. I’m as frugal as I can be otherwise, so don’t feel guilty for splurging a little on what we consider to be worthwhile entertainment.

It was a good night out :)

Sharon J


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Thursday, 2 October 2008

What’s More Important To You?

A while back I put up a poll asking readers what was more important to them. The results were as follows:

Shopping Locally - 28%
Using Car Less - 34%
Cooking From Scratch - 35%
Green Cleaning - 23%
Growing Own Produce - 35%
Reusing & Recycling - 44%
Other - 1%

Of the 67 of you that answered, 44% of you thought reusing and recycling were the most important. I can’t tell you how many people that was as everybody could make multiple choices but I don’t suppose anybody’s surprised by that result. Reusing and recycling are easy things we can all do in our daily lives to help improve the chances of this planet sustaining life as we know it, if not forever (nothing’s forever) but at least for a while yet. A while, in universal terms, being a good few generations. I’m kind of hoping that my descendents will be able to celebrate the turn of another millennium, but maybe that’s too much to ask for. Still, reusing and recycling stuff instead of just tossing it on the landfill does and will make a difference but there’s still a long way to go. I still need to sort out my bin cupboard so that I can recycle more than I do at the moment and it’s really important that ONLY recyclable stuff goes in the recycling bins. If it’s contaminated, it can quite easily end up on a mountainous landfill in India. Just take a look at this post by Indian Earth for more on this. It’s really quite shocking.

Cooking from scratch was right up there alongside recycling so it’s clear that more people want to know exactly what’s going into their food these days. Or is it just that the blog attracts those who like good food and know how to prepare it? Perhaps a mix of both. I still see plenty of people filling their supermarkets trolleys with rubbish but a few of my friends who have never taken the time to learn to cook before have actually starting making an effort these days so the message is obviously spreading. I still use the odd packet sauce and have some tins and things in the cupboard for days when I simply can’t make a meal (when my energy is rock bottom) but in general our food is made from scratch and not only is it healthier that way, it’s cheaper too.

Related to cooking is growing your own produce, another one that was right at the top with 35%. I can’t say that comes as any surprise - allotments have flown out of the door around these parts and even a friend who I would never have thought would bother with anything even remotely related to growing vegetables asked me whether it’s possible to grow them in pots as he’d been thinking about giving it a go. I have to admit that, apart from herbs, I haven’t grown anything edible for years, but that’s going to change. I’m getting stronger all the time so all I need now is somebody to make a least part of my garden maintainable and I’ll be out there with my gardening gloves and watering can next year.

It’s good to see that using the car less is considered important with 34% of you. Y’know, I think I’ve even noticed that there aren’t quite as many cars on the roads around town these days. Whether that’s because of people’s ethical choices or because of the price of fuel at the moment I really don’t know but whatever it is, it’s a good thing. Now we just need to get through to those driving their whopping great 4x4s for no apparent reason.

I’d have thought, with so many cooking from scratch and growing their own, that more than 28% would have found shopping locally important, but obviously not. Perhaps some of you just don’t have any local shops that are easily accessible or that the choice just isn’t good enough to make the trek worthwhile. I know I have trouble finding everything I need in local shops and often have to weigh up the environmental cost of using the car to get to the farm shops against nipping to the supermarket but I do prefer to support local producers and retailers whenever I can. Even at the supermarket I look for UK produce and the closer to home the better. Asda are at least good at labelling their fruit and veg with not only the country of origin but, if it’s UK produced, the area. I also try to stick with seasonal produce because even though I can get most things all year round now, I don’t want to support the forced production of food in greenhouses that use huge amounts of energy.

I’m not perfect though, and yesterday I bought strawberries. Yes, strawberries in October! Only because LM is really fussy and won’t eat any other fruit than strawberries, raspberries and blueberries though and I really do want to get as much fruit and veg into her as I can.

What really surprised me was that so few found green cleaning important. Only 23%. In several posts I’ve written about the damage that chemicals do to the water, the creatures that live in it, the environment as a whole, not to mention what it does to us but still it’s right down at the bottom of the list. I really don’t understand that because green cleaning isn’t difficult, in fact it’s easier than using the plethora of cleaning agents that can be found under the sink in most homes. Just a few products will do most jobs around the house without polluting the planet. If you're interested in reading what I've already written, you can look here and here and here. Maybe I should write more about this.

Sharon J


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