Wednesday, 27 May 2009

In my day.....and now

This afternoon I took Dr P to see his GP - just routine. We had to wait about half an hour, and I decided to read some of the magazines. In this surgery they are fairly recent, and there is quite a good range. I chose to read New Idea and Woman's Day instead of Time or National Geographic. 

I can't believe how crappy the magazines are, or that people, presumably women, devour this stuff, which is full of news of celebrities, rich people, the British and Danish royal families, their babies, their figures, their weight, their plastic surgery, the alleged state of their marriages or attempts to get pregnant. Kate M is apparently 'forced' to defer marriage and children so that Wills can do even more training in some branch of the armed forces. By the time Wills is ready for marriage, Kate will be in her late 30s, with diminished fertility, and she faces the appalling prospect of not being able to have the children she so desperately wants. HM the Q apparently is against a marriage at this stage in case this focuses more attention on Wills and Kate, to the detriment of the aging Heir and his even more aging consort. (That's what it said.) In my view Kate ought to get pregnant (I presume - wouldn't everyone - that the relationship has been consummated) - and produce a little royal bastard - oops, sorry, we don't use that term any more, and for all I know what used to be termed legitimacy is no longer a qualification or prerequisite for inheriting the British throne. (Must check the Royal Marriages Act and associated laws.) Then at least Kate would have the child she so desperately wants, even if she wound up without Wills. You can't have everything, now, can you?

The Danish Royal family is perfectly happy - or perhaps it is not. Julia Roberts has a perfect figure, despite having produced three children. I think she has twins, so that is really only two pregnancies, but there she was, kids and all, cavorting at the beach in a bikini, not a piece of flab in sight, with the tattoos on her back photographed and enlarged so we can all read her kids' names. Some children of film stars apparently wear very expensive clothes. Others don't. Fancy that.  Some poor young thing (female, of course) suffers serious issues of self esteem because some of her teeth are a bit crooked and not perfectly white. Both of these appalling conditions have kindly been rectified at the expense of some benefactor. The story of Janet Middleton (there are a lot of Middletons about) continues to this very day, with Janet waiting anxiously at the hospital while her ex- (her EX!) husband is having surgery for a benign tumour. Janet has been around since I was a very young married thing, and she must be approaching 70. Fancy her still going, eh! There are pages of psychic predictions and astrology. Fashions in eyebrows are shown along with a photo demo of some young glamour puss with tweezers at the ready, with never a hint of the impending ouch! Et cetera, et cetera.

Is all of this junk really what occupies the minds (?) of many women? There is so much emphasis on trivia and on conforming to media and business notions of how a woman ought to look and how sexy or hot she can look - as though NOTHING else matters.

I used to buy such magazines when I was a young mother, but they were never as bad as this. They adored royalty and film stars, but not to the present insane extent. And - this was in the days before cookery books became readily available - they had excellent recipe supplements and I still use a lot of these recipes. They had sensible articles on child care, and knitting and crochet patterns, as well as - gulp - thought provoking articles from time to time about the conditions of women. How times have changed.

Was it for all of this that we campaigned and fought, over the years, for the vote, equal rights, equal pay, financial independence, contraception and education? And to be regarded as people rather than sexual objects?

I am off to bed now, to sob wildly into my pillow, and to have nightmares about the future if this obsession about female shape and sexuality continues. Some mornings when I get out of bed my eyebrows look a bit raggedy. I must get out the tweezers tomorrow, and smile while I tweeze. I just looked at my stars and they predict that it will hurt. After that I will have some photos taken and get someone to do a bit (actually a considerable amount) of airbrushing, so that I can pretend to be gorgeous. Enough of letting myself go. 

Monday, 25 May 2009

I am not obsessed - oh no!

Here are some photos of the jam making. First, the recipe for quince jelly.
There is, of course, a lot of preparation to be done. First find your jars, and their lids. They then have to be sterilised and dried in a warm oven. The jars must be warm when the jam is ladled into them, as the very hot jam liquid will crack the glass otherwise.

This is the empty pan, with the ladle and the funnel, so that the hot jam does not spill everywhere. I stir the jam/jelly/marmalade with a spurtle, made of Huon pine. This is a Tasmanian timber, pale yellow, which turns over time into a deep gold. It is fabulously beautiful, with the most heavenly aroma, which it does not lose over time. I have a number of bowls made of Huon pine, and a blanket chest, and I sniff them regularly, just for sheer pleasure. The spurtle came from a craft show years ago, where there were lots of lovely wooden bowls and things made by  woodturners from our wonderful Australian timbers. 

The spurtle is a wonderful implement, and this Huon pine one can withstand heat and water. I am told it is of Scottish origin. I use the spurtle for stirring the jam, and also for mixing my Christmas cake batter and the fruit. Because it is impervious to water, the timber was extensively used in the past for boats and water things (don't ask for more specific information). The trees are very old. Many were logged when Lake Pedder was dammed years ago, despite heated protests from conservationists, and so it is still possible to get supplies. As far as I know Tasmania is the only place where the Huon pine trees grow.

Close up of the quince jelly. Look at that gorgeous colour. 
My mother did not teach me to make jam, but my maternal grandmother made jam all the time. We used to have loganberries growing along our side fence, and had a constant supply. It made a delicious jam. Loganberries seem to have vanished from the face of the earth now, and raspberries are now the choice of berries in Paradise, I would think. Everyone used to make blackberry jam, too, as they grew so rampantly and were free, although not easy to gather.

This is the cumquat marmalade. It is a bad idea to make two lots of jam in the one week, as the supply of jars and lids was insufficient. One jar there does not have a lid, although it is covered with paraffin wax, and this is the jar I will have to start using first.
It is quite difficult now to find paraffin wax. In the past, when making preserves was more commonly done, it was available at hardware stores. The wax can be re-used, of course, but I ran out some time ago, and had to hunt around to find the wax - at the local stationery and art supplies shop. It cost me about $25 - quite a lot, but it will keep me going for another few years.

This is the test sample to check whether setting point has been reached. These little dishes (which Stomper gave me) are put into the freezer, so that when the sample is put on them, it takes less time to cool and thus to ascertain whether it has set.
(Do other people fume when the words less and fewer are used wrongly? I do.  I seethe " 'Fewer' is not as many as, and 'less' is not as much as." Fewer people can afford housing loans. Less money is being spent because of the GEC.) Etcetera.

Enough. And so to bed.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Work and weariness - national productivity creeps up slightly

It is Sunday evening and I am sitting at the computer (obviously) feeling rather sore, and  a little sorry for myself. I have not been sleeping well, and my back is sore and aching. Age is creeping up on me, and it has already raced away with Dr P, so that I have to do everything by myself.

The back soreness is due to weak muscles, according to the physiotherapist I consulted some time ago, and I should have been doing exercises to strengthen them. I am no good at exercises - they are hard to remember, and I take no pleasure in doing them. By the time I do the leg stretching ones in the morning, time is slipping by and I have to get downstairs and get on with things. Good intentions and a plenitude of guilt feelings are not enough.

As well as having a sore back, I have not been sleeping well, and last night I tossed and turned, finally falling asleep about 3 am, so I got up late. Part of the sore back problem is due to the mattress - I think it needs replacing. Mattresses should be turned regularly, and this one has never been turned at all. There is a depression where my hips and bottom go. Calling on superhuman strength, I turned the mattress. This was not fun, and it lowers my spirits to have to tackle such things unaided. However I have told Dr P that we probably need to buy a new mattress, given the age and condition of this one. Strangely enough, given our respective weights, his mattress seems to be in better shape, although we may have bounced around more on mine than on his. Perhaps I should invent a mattress meter for future comparative analysis.

Undaunted (despite the sore back, etcetera) I pressed on with life. What else can you do? In addition to cooking quince jelly during the week, today I made cumquat marmalade. I now have a surplus of both commodities, and thus can dispense largesse.

Most of my cumquat supply comes from several trees down the road (in a public area, I hasten to add). The trees are a good size - indeed most of the fruit is too high for me to reach. Periodically I go and harvest the fruit - otherwise it all just falls to the ground in a squishy state, and is wasted. I get some strange looks from passers-by (although I try to harvest at quiet times of the day) who clearly wonder what this strange elderly female is doing! Some people have no sense of preservation. Nor do they recognise cumquats as useful and delicious fruits. There are seldom enough cumquats to make a batch of marmalade in one go, so I take them home, wash all the grime off them, cut them into pieces, and then freeze them until such time until a sufficient quantity has accumulated. It is better to cut them up. You can't tell whether they are any good unless you cut them, and as quite a number are past their prime there is significant wastage.

For the past few years I have had a cumquat in a pot on our front porch. As it faces west, it has been a battle to keep it alive. This year, the flowers set fruit, most of them grew, and they all looked ready to harvest - lovely plump fruit of a good size, just begging to be made into marmalade. So now they have been. My recipe comes from the Fowlers Vacola cookery book for preserves and jams, a venerable publication which is now bespattered with jam. Although I have several other books on making jams, the Fowlers Vacola book is the only one with the recipe for cumquat marmalade. As I had more than the specified quantity, I wanted to do a double check. Dr P did the calculation on how much extra sugar I needed, and I checked the Stephanie Alexander book and sure enough she had the answer - equal numbers of cups of fruit and sugar.

Whenever I make jam Dr P looks at me as though I am very strange. Perhaps he is right. Nobody likes that stuff, he says. Well, I do manage to give away quite a lot to friends and family, but actually I make it because I like doing it. I do like the jams as well, but try not to eat it much, because of the problems it can cause my mattress.

By the time I finished making the marmalade (after the very late start) the day was very well advanced. I'd stripped the bed so had all the sheets and doona cover to wash and dry. My washing machine is acting up a bit - not wanting to finish the loads, so it took some time and a little rough persuasion to get it all done.

Any left over energy was devoted to filling up the garden rubbish bag.  I cut back the stems of the Japanese anemones, pruned severely the lemon verbena plant, which has just finished flowering,. It always grows madly again in spring. In the meantime there is easier access to the clothesline. I then gingerly trimmed the kaffir lime.

This plant has grown very vigorously, and although it has flowered it has never set fruit, despite my remonstrations. It has ferocious thorns and so any pruning has to be done with extreme care. There were some dead branches at the back of the tree, which have dried into very hard wood, so great caution is required when removing the dead bits. 

This day's work does not really sound all that onerous. Most people regularly do much more than I do now, and I used to do so too. I look back and wonder how I managed to bring up three children, with minimal domestic help, work part time, do most of the gardening, and have a social life too. Obviously I must have moved much faster and more efficiently. Retirement slows you down.

In between all this mostly voluntary labour I have been re-reading the Flashman books, by George MacDonald Fraser (I think he died fairly recently). They purport to be the memoirs of Harry Flashman, the bully from Tom Brown's School Days. They are indeed ripping yarns, and so well written - and talk about politically incorrect! If you like 19th century history you'll like these books, which are very expertly researched, with the (in)glorious career of Flashman inventively inserted in graphic detail. In between all my hard labours today I nicked out to the local second hand market. I usually do this each week, as it is a great way of finding cheap books to read. Today I picked up two more Flashman novels, so it just goes to show that when you are on a roll with something, along comes a bit more for you.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

I have been mucking around trying to work with photos, but seem better at accidentally deleting them than moving them around. So here is a photo of the gorgeous autumn colours of Canberra. See below. The next photo was of the entry to the new National Portrait Gallery, but I hit the delete key once too often.
So, organisationally speaking, what follows is a bit of a mish-mash.

I visited this Gallery, which is next to the High Court of Australia building. The exterior is fairly unremarkable, but the gallery itself is great. The Portrait Gallery was for some years housed in Old Parliament House, in the space occupied formerly by the Parliamentary Library. It is not a large area, and thus could not accommodate the collection, which is now extensive. The interior is lovely, flows well and naturally from gallery to gallery, and the portraits are both interesting and impressive - I recommend it thoroughly to any visitors to Canberra. Among the portraits of notable Australians are many by some of our most famous or well known artists, and I like the one of former Prime Minister Robert Menzies by Dobell. He had a wicked touch!

Before I went to the NPG I visited Old Parliament House. The old Library space is now devoted to a Museum of Australian Democracy, which was opened that week. It is an excellent concept, but I found it rather disappointing, as to my mind there was too much emphasis given to interactive displays, which, when you interacted, did not give much more than fairly basic information. I intend to visit it again, and to make more extensive notes.

Old Parliament House overall is a great museum, and King's Hall still contains a number of portraits of former Prime Ministers, including the (I consider it to be) truly hideous one of the Prime Minister from 1996 to 2007, with his wife. I don't know why it is there, or that of his predecessor, as they would more fittingly be in New Parliament House where they both served.

Canberra looks exceptionally beautiful in autumn. In Sydney autumn is much less noticeable, although some trees are finally showing a few reddish leaves. Once you enter the Federal Highway there is a line of poplars, all showing gold foliage, and this prepares you for the splendid displays when you reach the city itself.  When Canberra was founded the Government Botanist researched suitable species for the climate - hot dry summers and cold winters - and in both autumn and spring the city looks very beautiful.

My granddaughter's party was held at the Cotter Reserve. The Cotter River was dammed near its confluence with the Murrumbidgee River to provide Canberra's water supply, and the area has been a picnic spot for many years.  We used to go there often, and swim at a couple of suitable spots on the Murrumbidgee, but it is years since I have been there, and I had forgotten how lovely it is. When my children were little there was a dearth of swimming places, but eventually pools were constructed, and after some years we lived in a medium density housing complex with a community pool.

Like many parts of Australia, the Canberra region was infested with blackberries. They were a dreadful pest, quite out of control. In my own garden a couple of plants took root and for years I tried diligently to eradicate them. Notwithstanding vigorous use of the mattock, some little piece of the root always survived. Lots of people used to go blackberrying, wearing tough (and unbecoming) old clothes and stout shoes, and keeping a good look out for snakes - I never encountered any, I am happy to say. I used to drive way past the Cotter to my favourite blackberry spot, to an area where lots of blokes on motor bikes used to ride, where I took good care to be very unobtrusive. Nobody ever knew I was out there, so if anything had happened to me, there would have been little prospect of rescue. Eventually I found a good blackberry patch closer to civilisation, which was safer. Then it would be off home with the blackberries, some to eat fresh, others to freeze, but mostly to make jam. It is fabulous stuff. 

Some years later a variety of rust to which blackberries were susceptible suddenly appeared - it had been in the testing process, I think, and was probably released illegally, before all the testing had been completed. That reduced the infestations of blackberries considerably. Then when the appalling bushfires hit Canberra in 2003, destroying over 500 homes as well as much of the  surrounding bushland, blackberries were also wiped out . I don't know to what extent they may have recovered. These days I have to buy the blackberry jam. (Tomorrow I make quince jelly: the quinces are cooked and the juices slowly dripping through the jelly bag.)

The Cotter is a wonderful place for a party for 4 year old children, as there is a large playground with lots of play equipment and the children could all run around  and did not need to be organised - just watched and supervised - and periodically they'd come back to be re-fuelled.
The children could also play around the river bed, which is rocky and easy to cross at present, due to drought.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A day at home

It has been quite a busy week, but today was devoted to domestic tasks.

Firstly I went off to get a blood test done - just routine - to check my cholesterol, etc. The nurse advised me not to do any heavy lifting for the rest of the day. However I had to go out and do all the food shopping.

Having spent a few very enjoyable days in Canberra, supplies at home had run out. Dr P got rather pathetic, and wrote out his shopping list for all the things he likes to graze on during the day, and for various other actual necessities such as milk, bread and eggs. I was too busy until today to do most of the shopping, but at least there are things in the freezer to ensure that nobody starves. To help him overcome the lack of comestibles, I made him the wonderful orange and almond cake. The recipe I use is in Stephanie Alexander's big orange book, but I came across a variation by Jill Dupleix, which adds two lemons to the two oranges. It gives it a bit of tartness. It is a lot of fun combining versions of recipes. We are enjoying the cake. I finally worked out some time ago that the fan should not be on high when cooking cakes. It took a while, and a number of rather dry cakes for me to work it out, but eventually the little light in my brain came back on, and illuminated the subject.

We needed so much stuff that I came home absolutely laden. Naturally someone had pinched my parking spot right outside the house, so I had to park illegally across our driveway, blatantly ignoring the No Stopping sign. A stupid decision in NSW abolished the No Parking signs in favour of No Stopping, which means that when I drive Dr P and let him out of the car at the driveway (the shortest and least difficult entry), I am doing something illegal. How ridiculous!

I had to lug all the shopping inside the house, which required several trips, and then had to go out and move the car. At this stage a little moan about woman being a beast of burden tried to bubble to the surface, but then I remembered all the men who do really heavy work, and reflected that despite all our machines, we all still need to use our bodies quite strenuously. 

No bleeding occurred from the very slightly afflicted part. The cupboards are full, and proper meals are being provided. Later I amused myself by reading the article in Gourmet Traveller on how well-known chefs make Bolognese sauce, and indulged myself in the belief that their various preferred versions are inferior to my tried and true recipe.

Having been inspired by the reports of largesse from Kevin, I then did (last year's) tax return, with Dr P very kindly helping me through all the hard bits. When I say I did the return, I mean that I put together all the information and posted it off to the tax agent - this is how I get away with putting in such a late return. It was very pleasant working away together.

My being dilatory with tax returns has a long domestic history. In my younger days I used to do my return all by myself, but then at one stage there was introduced some provision relating to health insurance which meant both spouses' returns had to be done together. This meant that I could not do mine until my husband did his. He took forever, and of course it drove me wild. I'd get out all the information for him and have it all ready to do. It would not get done. Weeks would go by. The piles of papers would get swamped by other domestic stuff. Then I'd lose the impetus. After a while I would try again. At one stage more than two years went by in this way, and I developed a big phobia about Doing The Tax Return.

Once I was on my own, it was necessary to overcome this phobia, and so I made use of a tax agent, the brother of a friend. It was very liberating to realize that if something did not get done it was all my own fault, and nobody else's. I still had to get all the information together, of course, but at least I got it done, and the nice thing was that with the tax agent I did not need to get it done straight away. The task is being done now in a more systematic way, so that at least the relevant documents are more easily found. Today's little effort took only a short time, some of which was photocopying and typing. This should be a lesson to me that in future I should avoid all this putting off the task. By the time I am really old I should be perfectly organised and disciplined. Oh yeah?

So I feel really good. Tomorrow is market day and I will buy flowers for the house. The cumquats on my tree are looking ripe, and next week I will add them to my supply of frozen cumquats, and make marmalade. This is a deeply satisfying endeavour.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Slaving away

Tomorrow the Italian class resumes. There are four students, and each week one of us has to present an argomento, which we can all discuss. You never know whether a discussion will ensue, but usually it does. Everyone always has a lot to say and it is a very lively class. We look forward to it immensely, and our teacher Barbara is terrific. This year we have  been meeting in cafes, over breakfast and coffees. We used to meet at the local community college, but for some very strange reason, last year the manager decided numbers had to be firm by the middle of term, and if we could not guarantee the minimum required, the class would be cancelled.  One of us was away sick, and the very early cut-off date meant there would be no opportunity to gather any additional students. So our class was cancelled.

So we four remaining students felt rather distraught and hard done by. We certainly did not want the class to stop, because we all talk our heads off, really like each other, admire and appreciate the teacher, and never ever ran out of things to say or to talk about. What is more, the obligation to write and present an argomento kept us on our toes, linguistically, so to speak. (I do like a mixed metaphor, if that is what it is.) We made an arrangement to have private classes. Initially we met in a provedore's cafe.  This generally led me into temptation, mostly of fresh pasta, but no domestic complaints occurred. After a few classes we got the distinct impression that they thought we were outstaying our welcome and not spending enough - even though we always ordered breakfast and tipped well. We moved cafes and now have a pleasant and quieter place. We still eat breakfast, drink coffee and tip well.

The term break is now over, and it is my turn to do the argomento. It is never easy for me to find a topic. All the others manage to think up beauties, but I always agonise, with a totally blank mind. Often my topic is rather academic, like my jury experience, or the choice of the site of our national capital after Federation. This tends to lead me into language more complicated than my linguistic ability or competence. But never mind. 

I have had weeks to do this argomento but as usual I left it until the last minute, wondering if I could find an alternative topic. No. Nothing popped into my head. I had to go with my original idea, which was that of red hair. Topics such as red hair lead to having to look up a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary. It is written now, printed out, and safely in my backpack. I don't really want to look at it again until the hour arrives. Sufficient unto the hour thereof. Or something. Having spent all this time and effort, I don't waste to waste any of it, and hence this post.

Two of my three children have red hair, inherited from their father. One is a real red and the other is more of a strawberry blonde. The colours inevitably darken with age. My son has brown hair, although he started off with lovely blond curls. All three have very fair skin. In this climate they are disadvantaged. Unless you have fair skin yourself you do not understand how quickly a fair skinned person can become badly sunburned. I would send them off to school camp, laden with sunburn cream and protective clothing, with very explicit letters to the teachers explaining how fair their skin was, how frequently sun screen cream needed to be applied, how they needed to wear t-shirts, and explaining that twenty minutes was the longest time they should be exposed to direct sunlight , and it was a waste of time, effort and paper. I wonder whether they even read the letters. Within a day the poor little things would be badly sunburned, blistered even, unable to enjoy the camp, and would come home totally miserable. 

At least the grandchildren have better skin. Only one of them has red hair and it is dark, and will almost certainly turn quite dark brown by the time she is an adult.

To do this argomento I used the internet, and it does seem to me that many of the alleged facts are creative fictions. Lists of famous redheads seemed to be rather fictitious. It would take too much effort to double check all the claims. I skipped lightly over the genetics of red hair, and made generalisations about the incidence worldwide and in particular countries. My family has quite a lot of Irish blood, so it was probably inevitable that we'd get redheads. My children's father was a bright orangey redhead in his youth, and his mother was also redheaded. We had two redheads out of three children. My sister C married a redhead. They have five children, four of whom have red hair. My youngest sister P married a man with dark hair but with a red beard, and one of their two daughters has red hair. We have certainly helped disseminate the gene.

One advantage of having redheads was that when I went to pick up the children after school it was  very easy to pick them out in a crowd. You could call this the silver lining on a cloud, but I prefer to think of it as yet another unexpected pleasure of life.

At school there were three redheads in my class. These days, though, I seem to trip across redheads every day. It would be fun to stop them and ask their family history, but so far I have not allowed myself to succumb to this urge. I wonder, though, is the incidence increasing? I am sure that there are many more sets of twins. The other day I encountered two sets of twins on the one escalator. Surely that must have been an improbable occurrence. The statistics need to be checked out.