The grass is always greener

KikuyuWhen I moved to Auckland, aged eight with my family I had two overwhelming impressions.  The first, about which my mother cautioned us assiduously, was that the gravitational force of Auckland was such that we would soon add ‘eh?” to the end of any question in place of more civilised interrogatives such as ‘isn’t it?’ or ‘don’t you?”

Luckily this was never a problem, eh?

The second was that Dad’s beloved* iron push reel mower would no longer be a useful member of our family.  The grass in Auckland was just too tough. That crab grass, that damned Kikuyu!  It climbed everywhere, through more respectable seeded lawns, into cracks, up your front steps if you’d let it.  It could take you down.

Children spend their time a lot closer to the lawn than we do. Playing, reading, press ganged miserably into extended sporting events, they develop a heightened awareness of the texture and scent of their physical environment.  Even though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, there was a cultural chasm between the soft green lawns of Christchurch and where we now found ourselves.  In our Airways supplied house in Mangere, the rain came out of nowhere and hissed on the red scoria footpaths and the tough wiry lawn.

We’re lucky not to have a lot of Kikuyu in our current garden (although my friend Helena kindly offered me some of hers).  Out of sheer luck we have a type of resilient native grass which deals as well as anything can with drought in summer and deluge in winter.  It graciously waits until the the very end of summer to brown off and then springs up to reassert itself at the first sign of rain.

Running our own business and working the way we do has meant that until now we were prepared to pay someone to mow for us.  Recently however, Paul the lawn man gave notice.  It was hard to know if it was the obstacle course of bikes, the endless cabbage tree leaves or simply, ahem, seeking greener pastures.  At the same time, I left full time employment.  This means we need to think about how we are going to manage our lawn from now on.  My brilliant suggestion is that we turn it all hugelkultur beds.  My beloved who has previously been dedicated, as many men are, to the idea of the mythical ‘cricket pitch’ down the middle is demonstrating some flexibility, but not that much.

The impeccable green swathe does seem to be a primarily male imperative.  I prefer flowers and veges and I don’t care if I have flatweeds.  As Aunty Margaret once sweetly pointed out to a naughty neighbour she caught spraying over her boundary “If you get rid of all the daisies, how will the children make daisy chains?”.  I have to admit I haven’t spotted my boys making too many of those, but I am delighted to have the cheerful little faces of the daisies bobbing away out there.

It turns out that there are many advantages to push reel mowing as this rather charming blogpost from The Art of Manliness points out.  We sacrifice a lot for speed and convenience.  Push reel mowers are more sustainable, provide exercise and apparently the scissor motion is better for your grass than the rip and tear approach of the petrol guzzler.  The biggest benefit to my mind though is how wonderfully quiet they are.  I hate the shriek of mowers and leaf blowers as they rend the peaceful day to smithereens.  As a child I loved that susserating sound the push mower made as it whirled and snipped its way across the lawn.  And clearly there are some spiffy new looking models and the smell of freshly cut grass is heady and evocative. Although I am no less lazy than I was before, perhaps the matter warrants further examination.

Would you be prepared to use a push reel mower?

*May be making a rose coloured assumption here – Dad feel free to correct me if you hated that mower!

Let them eat cake; a baker’s manifesto.

Birthday cakeI am a huge fan of cake. I love baking cakes, decorating cakes… mostly eating cakes.  I have had to make peace with the fact that despite my ‘A’ in Feminist Legal Theory, one of my happiest places is in my kitchen with a spatula.

Personalising the perfect cake for the right person on their special day is a true creative pleasure. As officiously self-appointed official family cakemaker, I’ve probably made made more than 150 cakes for friends and whanau over the last ten years.  I’m no patissiere, but I have a couple of very reliable recipes and as an enthusiastic amateur I  now know my way around a garden variety celebration cake.

I used to have to consult my cookbooks, go to to the library and  internet for inspiration and that fellow cake enthusiast feeling.  But it was pretty exciting to see the emergence of YouTube tutorials, television shows, and truly excellent websites dedicated to celebrating both brilliant cake making and, er, epic fails.

But here’s the thing – what has happened to cake decorating over the last three to four years is just plain nuts.

It’s no secret that most cakes fall within the high sugar, high fat treat food, category.  It’s not meant to be an everyday food. But I am staggered by the trend to sheer excess and overuse of fondants, and frostings  The decorations have taken over and the ratio of icing to cake is way out of whack.

The emphasis now seems to be on the form rather than the flavour.  The result is sometimes amazing but not an amazing eating experience, as anyone who has ever chowed down on a plug of fondant will tell you.  I’ve made my own share of fondant bumblebees and monkeys, but I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable with the priority that appearance is taking over the edible experience. I feel strongly enough that it may even be a personal manifesto: It has to be all about the delicious.

I blame the world domination of the cupcake, which has gone from a near muffin with a glaze and some sprinkles to an entire business model and the tired inspiration for a thousand chicklit covers. The cake acts simply as an apologetic support for an effulgence of overcoloured buttercream.  Is it weird or a natural correlation that at this time of concern about body image and obesity, when type 2 diabetes is epidemic that there should be such an obsession for sugared decoration?

TV shows have to take a lot of the responsibility.  Television is a visual medium, so the drama comes from how the cakes look rather than how they taste.  The shows are fun, but they don’t have to focus on flavour and, lets face it, not every cake needs its own working hydroslide, thanks Ace of Cakes.

Pinterest is in the dock on this one too.  While there’s some serious skill involved, fondant crafting seems to have taken over where Fimo left off, with ‘”Amazing ‘lil cowfaced mermaid cake topper tutorials” popping up all over Facebook, Youtube and Craftsy too.  And maybe that’s the point, that it has become crafting rather than cooking.

Another personal rising concern is the seductively intense colour offered by the modern gel colourings. Again, I can’t claim high ground.  I have three sons and have eaten a miniskip’s worth of bright blue icing during my parenthood.  But am I the only person who thinks this probably isn’t quite right? If someone came along with some decent and effective ‘natural’ colourings I’d be an instant customer right there.  But despite my searching there doesn’t really seem to be a good alternative offering just yet. Perhaps I should take a hint: maybe we just weren’t meant to eat cyan?

miette_bookGorgeous San Francisco bakery Miette put out a beautiful and useful book recently.  I understood their philosophy is that a cake must be more about taste and texture than architecture and fashion.  Their cakes are so so mouth watering and yet so simple and beautiful that I defy your mouth not to water when you look at them.  And not a single one is overdone in its decoration.

Interestingly, Miette cakes aren’t huge either.   The European influence at work here dictates that a small slice of divine quality is worth far more than an enormous slab of banality.  I’d go with that.

Maybe you’re well ahead of me on this, but as my children leave their primary coloured baby years. I’m feeling a pull towards a more ‘natural’ style of baking.  The low cal, artificial sweetener, apple-puree-butter-substitute is not for me – unless I am baking for someone with diabetes and my experience to date is that they don’t want it either.  But I am interested in trying more nut flours and fruit ingredients such as those set out in New Zealander Amber Rose’s recently published book Love, Bake, Nourish.  I’ll bet I can find a way to personalise those suckers.

What’s your favourite celebration cake?




The horrifying implications of laryngitis

Swatch murky red brownsIt is quiet, oh so quiet.  The children are playing away quietly, happily.  I am working away quietly and happily.  And yet, it is a wet day during the school holidays and there are no screens in operation (save this one ;-) ).

The other days of this wettish July school holidays have not been like this. Some of the previous days of this holiday have witnessed conflict and collective volume of epic and unprecedented levels.  Although I am grateful to be at home for the first school holiday in years, you may be surprised to know I have not always been joyful and grateful at the close of each day.

So, what marvellous feat of parenting have I wrought to bring about this miraculous state?  Quite simply, I contracted laryngitis. For the last three days I have been unable to make myself heard, above a hoarse and ineffective rasp.  It has been frustrating, irritating, funny and sadly instructive.

When you have laryngitis, it’s hard to say ‘I love you’.  On the other hand, it’s also hard to say “Pick the damn thing up”,  “Whose is this shirt in the middle of the floor?”, “Who left this on the sofa?”, “How many tiiiiiiimes?”, “Do you really need to…?”, and “For God’s SAAAAAKE!!!!”.  Although this is in fact a loving household with a great deal of open physical and verbal affection, I’ll leave it to you to guess which form of expression is more common.

Interestingly with the exit of (my) verbal expression, a lot of the negativity has gone too.  The sarcasm, the ‘tch’, and the eye roll.  Communication by sign language requires definite eye contact which seems to increase compliance. Which is just as well, because it precludes the usual pointless repetition of requests and argument.

As I have become quieter the children have taken to whispering back.  They think this is hilarious.  But the upshot is less pointless noise.

We’ve still got our grumpy patches but they are reduced, and there do seem to be more overtly loving bits. Spontaneous cuddles are big.  Overall life is calmer.

The implications are rather horrifying.  I have to accept that I am the source of a significant amount of the negativity in our house. At the very least it seems clear that my reactions act as an accelerant on conflict and volume.

It makes sense that as a parent I’m going to the the one making smaller people do things they don’t want to do (be clean, be organised, share). So, I’ll naturally create situations which generate heat which will be exaggerated as routines fall away during the holidays.  Also, my renewed SAHM status means I am bringing fresh standards to bear on the household which may not be universally welcome (although eventually I think the resulting order will be appreciated).

However the clear lesson from laryngitis is that I can avoid throwing verbal petrol on family hot spots.  Conflagration is upsetting, negative, sad, and worst of all, avoidable.

Learning it is one thing. living it is quite another.



On becoming an opshop queen

Dollar coinBeing on a budget is like being on a diet.  Suddenly the world seems chock full of desirable items you might not have looked twice at before.

And there’s really nothing like a bargain is there?  King of these has got to be the prize you’ve been eyeing which you pick up for a fraction of the original price.  It’s that very basic human drive which keeps Trademe humming.  I have to confess I’ve generally found Trademe annoying and lacking that real world thrill of the hunt (although this visual search version Rummage is a bit more fun).

Therefore, my preferred bargain destination for a retail fix on a budget, is the op shop. Even amongst op shops around here, there is a hierarchy. You’ve got to know where to focus your miserly attentions.  The Hospice Shops, for example, have wised up and present their wares in a professional manner.  You pay accordingly, but they tend to attract a higher quality level of goods.  And of course nobody could begrudge a slightly higher price, given the funding goes to such a good cause.

The Salvation Army and the Red Cross, though equally laudable in their aims, generally run a lower price, higher volume game (however see the link above for a clever deal the Red Cross is doing with Country Road clothing). And although well picked over by Trademe resellers, there are still surprising bargains to be had for the frequent and discerning shopper.

For the crafty, such as my super-arty friend Carolyn, there is a treasure trove of repurposable art materials waiting to be transformed into desirable contemporary objets d’art.  If you’re a frequent flyer, quite often the shop will hold items for you, and of course I always try to drop off more than I pick up in my endless Sisyphean (some might say doomed) household decluttering mission.

Woollen blankets are suddenly terribly trendy amongst crafters, and the old Princess and Onehunga blankets are not as thick on the ground as they were.  However I’m looking to make hot water bottles covers and cushions, so I’m happy with fragments and damaged blankets which still go for a couple of dollars considering the amount you’d pay at Centrepoint Fabrics for a similar length of good quality wool.

Braided rugI love me a little handmade charm and the braided rug I made for Mr 12’s room was mostly put together from old denim and cotton duvet covers from the Sallies.  All up, the material cost around $20. The equivalent, even from cheapie Spotlight, would have set me back much more and been of lower quality.  And although I do admire the skill and art of quilting, I can’t help feeling that there’s something slightly counterintuitive about buying brand new fabric to chop into little bits to make into another brand new thing.   Buy at the op shop and you help divert clothing away from landfills. Yes, and all the smugness of recycling can be yours too at no extra cost!

I find the op shop particularly handy for picking up different sized cake tins and other kitchen basics (Six white ramekins for $2 anyone? Designer zester for $3?). I was prepared to splash out six whole dollars on a new shirt today, only to find that there was a half price sale on, so I forked out just $3 on a gently worn shirt.  At other times in my life, I’m slightly embarrassed to say I might have spent up to 100x more for a similar garment which would have looked pretty much the same after two months’ wear.

Although like any addiction, retail will always have its pull for me, I am trying to resist the siren call of the new and choose the wiser path where I can do less damage overall. Wish me luck!

For your thrifty earworm songs today, you have a choice of Thrift Shop by Macklemore, I Need a Dollar By Aloe Black or One Day off Second Hand Planet by Opshop.  You’re welcome!

What’s your favourite recycle boutique? Do tell!

Overheard: Adventures of a junior videographer

Tin cansMr 9 came home early from his first gig as school videographer.  He was full of the noise and drama of it.

“They had to cut the production short!  One of the juniors threw up right in the middle of the stage!  It was chaos!

Do you want to know the worst thing?  He threw up on a little girl’s shoes!

One of the teachers said ‘sh*t’… I guess she forgot she was miked up.

But don’t worry – I got an excellent slow motion shot.”

Not for the first time did I feel l live in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon strip.

In the company of ladies

Mosaic flowerSome years ago, I joined a folk painting class with a few friends of different ages and stages. Eventually we were chucked out, ostensibly because the teacher no longer wished to run evening classes.  But we always secretly suspected it was for laughing too much, and not paying enough attention to our correct colours and strokes.

The other thing about ‘decorative painting’ (as were were instructed to call it) is that it is extremely prescriptive.  We all have very different tastes and preferences, and although we had benefitted by learning paint control and technique, we all wanted to build on what we had learned and break out a little.

However we just weren’t quite ready to let go of the ongoing creativity and sense of companionship we enjoyed, working on different projects together for three hours on a Monday night.  So when Helen bravely and generously offered her lovely big table we jumped at the chance of continuing to meet each other every week.

We meet, we check in, we paint, we embroider, we glue, we sew.  Mostly we talk loudly and laugh even louder.  Tea is drunk (in quantity), cake is eaten, children sorted, victories celebrated, health discussed, problems aired, resignations contemplated and embarrassments shared, to the great enjoyment of all.

A surprising amount of work gets done. It’s the ideal opportunity to create, to make birthday presents and finish those UFO’s, or unfinished craft objects as my friend Helena calls them in her post on the topic.  Helen creates graphic and imaginative images with strong lines, Carolyn her amazing mixed media and altered art and Julie her gorgeous flowered pastels and embroidery.  I could pick their work, sight unseen, out of a police lineup (not that there has been any need for this to date you understand).

When the National Government cut funding to community education I was exceedingly angry at the typical shortsightedness.  It’s not just upskilling in Mandarin, wood turning or Thai cookery, it’s the creation of personal cross linkages which builds community.

Our Monday night group creates for me an unprecedented feeling of support and community.  Without this encouragement. I wouldn’t have felt empowered to start the 100 Days Project or this blog. When life gets too busy and I feel too tired to set off, my husband always encourages me to set off: ‘Go! You always feel better for going’. And he is right and good to do so.

I get by with a little help from my friends.  Do you?

Thank you CFs.