In which I have permission to do less

Three weeks into January and aren’t we all doing well on giving up the booze? Well, I for one, lapsed and opened a bottle of Prosecco, but that was to celebrate someone else’s good news. Fizz it up as much as you like, there is nothing remotely celebratory about anything non-alcoholic.

Other than that, it’s been an easy run. I’m finding the cold, dark, early starts hard enough as it is. If I were also waking up feeling tired and seedy, I genuinely don’t think I could get out of bed, even to chuck a bit of Whiskas in the general direction of the cats. There have been a couple of evenings when I’ve thought a glass of wine would be good, not because I wanted it for itself but because it completes the picture. Radio on, ingredients piled up in front of me, cooking a meal, glass of wine to hand… How one’s mind tries to trick one.

The surprise to me, though, has been the effectiveness of one of my not-quite-resolutions. I might have to reach a bit, but I’ve done one productive thing every day. I’ve been keeping a list and I’m finding that the whole idea really works. After the first couple of weeks, work has gone straight back to more travel than I’d like, with a positively Sisyphean outlook for the year ahead. I need to make sure I maintain some balance, and at the moment, that permission not to heft more bloody boulders around at home is proving beneficial. The house is a bit messier, the laundry pile a bit bigger; but I’ve cooked more meals and read more books. So that’s all right then.

In which change is unsettling

Yeah, I know, let’s state the obvious for the thicky twins at the back of the class. And maybe ‘unsettling’ isn’t the right word anyway, maybe it’s more ‘tiring’. Whatever the apposite term,  I find myself resistant to the prospect of change, even while simultaneously trying to impose some control over it.

What’s behind this is the slight prospect of redundancy. I say slight, because while there will definitely be redundancies, the area of the business I work in is still getting investment. Digital marketing should be a pretty safe place to ride out whatever is coming.  Should be. Should.

And that’s my concern. I don’t have a whole lot of safety net, and ‘should’ isn’t secure enough. Much as I’ve tried to train the cats to hunt £50 notes, they still keep coming home with small animals instead, so it looks like I’m the one who’ll need to keep a roof over their furry little heads.

As a result I’m doing a bit of light job hunting, but that in itself provokes more questions.  I’m also trying to save for a deposit for a house, and I’ve no expectation of trying to buy in the South East. I was already thinking that moving north would be the logical way to stretch my money; if I can get the same salary in a cheaper part of the country, then the saving, and the buying, gets easier.

It’s all feasible. There are jobs, in Manchester and Leeds, and good jobs at that. I wouldn’t live in either city, but the countryside is glorious and I’m so used to driving now that any commute coming in under 100 miles for the round trip seems a breeze. Chuck in a probably negotiable one day a week at home, and a house somewhere with good walking on the doorstep, and that’s certainly a lifestyle I could tolerate.

But. Making it all happen feels knackering rather than exciting. Even looking for somewhere to rent in a location several hours away is a logistical horror. I’m unusually comfortable with the current status quo, and while I’ve upended my life entirely several times in the past, all I really want to do now is to settle. Any change that happens will be the opposite of that. Yet change is also inevitable, if not inexorable, in that even if my job turns out to be secure, the house owning goal still requires moving. In fact, it probably demands moving sooner rather than later, so why not take this current uncertainty as a nudge to action?

I’ll resolve the problem of my own inertia one way or the other. Waiting around to see how things turn out is never my preferred approach, so it’s likely that in fairly short order I’ll pull myself together. Just, not quite yet.

 

In which I fail at shopping

You’d think that, with all the sales at this time of year, I’d be handing over money as fast as I can. And I will not lie, gentle reader, it’s a tempting thought. I’ve tried. Believe me, I’ve tried. My attempts aren’t helped by the fact that Oxford is my nearest city, and not only is it a terrible place to try to shop, you can’t afford to anyway by the time you’ve been pillaged for parking.

So, I turned to the interwebs, once the unidentified fault with my internet connection had ‘sorted itself out’, as Plusnet customer support so cheerily put it. So that’s all right then. (Note to customer support – not really.) But it’s just as depressing online as in the stores.

The high street is telling the same old story. Jigsaw’s prices are hilarious, I’m bored with every single one of the dresses in Hobbs, Boden’s getting more expensive but their quality doesn’t match. M&S lost the plot years ago and has now lost the cast, crew and director too. French Connection’s great showing last Christmas was clearly a blip, and I can’t do Next or Zara because all their clothes are so cheap and nasty they shrink if you give them a hard stare. Gap consistently looks like a jumble sale. It would help if you could get a nice slice of Victoria Sponge from the WI while you’re in there. I keep trying to like Pepperberry, really I do, because I appreciate their sizing. Who knew that tricksy third button could be tailored not to gape on a shirt? But I want their approach to sizing in better quality fabrics that are properly finished.

Where are the affordable, well cut, classic-with-a-contemporary-edge items all hiding? The good black sweater in a washable sort of wool; the decent flannel trousers; a couple of dresses that aren’t either too short or too long, and in one season only colours. This doesn’t seem as though it’s asking for the moon on a stick. I don’t want to dress as though I’m 24,  but I’m not ready for Austin Reed yet, either.

Clothes shopping shouldn’t be so damn hard.

 

It’s a new day, it’s a new year, it’s a new me

Oh no, my mistake. Same old me. Well, two out of three ain’t bad, as Meatloaf so effectively, and indeed, affectingly, reminds us.

So, hands up who survived Christmas? I did, and even this year’s unlooked for but anticipated illness wasn’t so bad. It hit its peak on Christmas Eve, so that I basically slept the day away, but that did mean I was well enough on Christmas Day to wear my new PJs and socks and sit in front of a fire while reading. That’s my definition of a pretty good day, Christmas or otherwise.

After that, I was better and I bought more books, and so I book surfed triumphantly through the rest of the holiday period until reality bit today.

And I even survived that. Looks like it’s game on for another year.

I generally don’t make resolutions but a new year kicking off does rather prompt a bit of thinking. Also, I seem to have really, really needed that holiday, which suggests to me that the work-life balance got a bit out of whack in the last quarter of the year that was. Well, I know it did. New metric: if I consistently don’t have milk for tea, life is going to hell in a hand basket.

Consequently, I have two vague notions to launch me into 2016:

  1. I will do something productive every day. Let’s assume that like all the rest of us good corporate boys and girls, I’m always productive at work. Ahem. However, by the time I’ve done that, I’m a lot less productive at home because it’s much easier to flick endlessly back and forth between Twitter and Facebook. I’m defining ‘being productive’ pretty widely, to give myself plenty of scope. It could mean ‘cooking real food’ or ‘writing a blog post’, or ‘doing some exercise’ or ‘writing a letter’ or ‘doing that goddamn filing I was supposed to do over Christmas’. The goal is only one productive thing, because when life gets busy again, as it inevitably will do, I tend to try to over-achieve. This means I always have a ‘to do’ list in my head and I’m always measuring myself against what I’ve crossed off the list. But, as everyday life is made up of small tasks and chores if you let it be, the list never reduces and while I’m busy being busy, I don’t pet the cats or watch the sun set.
  2. I will use my brain every day. This is going to be much more difficult. For a start, I have to stop kidding myself that doing The Times Codeword counts, when it’s so easy that it clearly doesn’t. And, the Twitter/FB thing breeds a lack of concentration and a jelly brain. I’ve decided blogging falls into the brain using category because (you’ll have to trust me on this one) I do have to think about what I’m writing. And sometimes, the writing frames the thinking, which is a good and useful thing. Beyond that, I haven’t really solved the ‘how’ at all, although I could make a start with the pile of unread copies of The Economist that is threatening local domination…

Meanwhile, I wish you all well with whatever the year holds for you, dear reader, and I’d also like to start the year by saying ‘Thank you’. For the most part, I don’t know who reads this blog. There a few regulars, and some drop-ins, I think. Someone seems to have spent New Year’s Day reading a lot of it. (Who are you? Do ‘fess up!)  But whoever you all are, thanks for taking the time.

 

In which I am not a fan of Adele

So, Adele. Back in business with ‘Hello’, one of the most whiney ass songs I’ve heard in a long time. A quick poll amongst colleagues (four of us going for a Christmas lunch in the car when the song came on) revealed that I’m not alone in my views.

As far as I can make out, the back story for the song is that Adele (ok, probably not her IRL, but let’s keep it easy for the explanation) dated a guy a few years ago and then dumped him. End of. Cut to song.

In the intervening time, poor Adele has failed to move on at all, so now she’s drunk dialing him every time she feels a bit lonely. Which, if that ‘I must have called 1000 times’ line is true, is every single night for the last 3 years. Sweetie, of course he’s not home. He’s probably moved several times to get away from your incessant calling, and he has nothing to say to you.

He doesn’t want to talk about what happened. You dated for all of a month before he figured out you were in the trouble zone of the needy and obsessive continuum. He was relieved when you broke up with him.  If you didn’t keep calling, he’d barely remember your name. No, he wants to get on with his new life and let’s say he’s learned from experience and his new girlfriend is not a self-obsessed crazy lady.

She, by the way, hates you. And with good reason. There they are, settling in for a romantic evening a deux. The fire is lit, the wine is chilling and then the goddamn phone rings and rings and rings, and they look at each without speaking because they’re beyond wondering who it is and pretending you aren’t a nut job. She’s like ‘I thought you changed your number?’ and he’s like ‘I did, I swear, I don’t know how she keeps getting hold of it’, and she’s ‘Well, I don’t know either but it’s funny the way she always calls. Are you sure you didn’t speak to her again?’.

Because there was that one time when he cracked and in sheer desperation thought that maybe closure would be a good idea, and actually had a conversation. It didn’t work, of course. And a little sliver of doubt enters the room, while the new girlfriend wonders if really, this whole thing is just too coincidental and he’s still too hung up on that bitch who screwed him over to have a real relationship with the woman in front of him.

Anyway, I guess Adele forgot that happened because it was three glasses in to her evening and she pours generously. Besides which, it’s not about him, it’s about her her her.

Seriously, Adele. Get a hobby. Get a cat. Leave the guy alone.

 

In which I set new rules for Christmas

I’m reading a lot of crap about Christmas. It’s all so much: food, expense, hassle, travel, stress. Why are people doing this to themselves? As someone who veers from making some effort to none, I can tell you that there aren’t any rules. At no point do the Christmas Police come round and tell you off if you can’t be arsed to send cards this year and don’t bother with mince pies.

Also, if you don’t visit people, they get over it. If they don’t get over it, they aren’t the sort of people you should bother visiting, so really, it’s a win-win.

So here are my new rules, to help those who appear to be struggling:

  1. You don’t have to send Christmas cards. You don’t need an excuse, just don’t do it. Barely anyone will notice and they’ll promptly forget. You just saved yourself £20 on postage, get a couple of bottles of wine instead.
  2. You don’t have to make anything. If you can afford it and if it saves you time, buy it. Anyone who ‘really prefers the homemade version’ should either learn to make it themselves or shut the fuck up with their passive-aggressive neediness.
  3. You don’t have to go anywhere/see anyone/ do anything if you don’t want to. See above re ‘getting over it’.
  4. You don’t have to have a tree. Of course you don’t. Or, you can have a tree in every room. Whatever. No one counts. Except people with obsessive compulsive tendencies and if you don’t have trees, they’ll probably count something else, so it doesn’t matter.
  5. There is no compulsory Christmas food. None. Supermarkets and magazines want to make us think that a day can’t be special without tree-shaped nachos for dips and bowls of gold coated truffles on every flat surface. This is total bollocks. Think about your favourite food. Great! Is that what you’re eating on Christmas Day? If yes, awesome. If not, what the hell happened?
  6. What to wear for the Christmas party. Much like ‘how to get a bikini body – put a bikini on your body’, the answer to what you should wear for a party is whatever the hell you like. Ok, if the dress code is likely to be strictly enforced you’ll need to give it a passing nod. Or, skip the do entirely (this is something else that is perfectly acceptable). Otherwise, wear whatever will allow you to enjoy the evening without feeling underdressed, overdressed, too fat, too thin, or too uncomfortable on heels that are 2 inches higher than you usually wear. The shops are full of lace and faux fur and pleather and metallic mid length pleated skirts. Unless you genuinely like any of that stuff and expect to wear it on at least three more occasions, fuck it.

Am I being massively hypocritical and saying all this, while privately going full on Kirsty whatserface and knitting my own tree? Not really.

I have:

  • Ordered a 6ft tree
  • Baked a Christmas cake for my sister
  • Decided to bake cookies for colleagues instead of giving out Christmas cards
  • Written some of my cards (last year I didn’t do any)
  • Already made a trial batch of mince pies, with home made mincemeat. I’m not sure I can be arsed to make any more, though.
  • Dodged both office Christmas parties

I will be:

  • Spending Christmas Day on my own, having politely weaseled out of the family get together by saying ‘Are you fucking mad, I’m not doing that?’
  • Not bothering with Christmas lunch. I might make roast butternut squash soup, though. Or just a cheese, apple and crisp sandwich, with a good cup of tea, and a couple of Jaffa Cakes for dessert. That’s one of my favourite meals.
  • Going for a Boxing Day walk. Unless I’m hideously ill, as I usually am.

Because it’s all about balance. There’s a lot of Christmas. It is much. The way round that is you just choose the elements you want and sod the rest.

Christmas biscuits

These are actually molasses spice cookies, or in England, treacle spice biscuits, or as my team at work call them, Christmas biscuits. What’s in a name? Any biscuit with a similar blend of spices would smell as seasonal. These, though, also have a  delicious combination of textures, a little crunchy on the outside but meltingly smooth inside.

You’ll need all of this. It looks like a lot, and you can miss out the cloves or allspice if you don’t have them, or skimp on the ginger and cinnamon a bit. Or, as I’ve discovered while writing this out, you can just about get away with 1/3 cup of treacle rather than 1/2. Oops.  But the recipe really is better with everything thrown in.

  • 11 oz/ 2 1/4 cups of plain flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2tsps ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tsps ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 6 oz/1 1/2 sticks butter, softened
  • 2 oz/1/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 2 oz/ 1/3 granulated sugar + some more for rolling the biscuits in
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup treacle

Line a baking tray with baking parchment and heat the oven to 200C/375F.

Whisk the flour, spices, baking powder, pepper and salt in a medium bowl and set aside.

You’ll be adding the flour mix to the wet ingredients, so in a large bowl, beat the sugars with the butter until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolk and vanilla extract and beat again until it’s all combined. Add the treacle, and beat again until that’s all mixed in.

Gradually blend in the flour until it’s thoroughly mixed in.

Pour some granulated sugar onto a small plate, and get a small bowl of cold water ready. Dip your hands in the water, then use a tablespoon measure of biscuit dough and roll it into a ball. Roll the dough in the sugar (the water will make sure the sugar sticks) and pop it on the baking tray. Leave about 2in between each biscuit.

Bake until the biscuits are brown and cracked. This should take about 10-11 minutes but you’ll need to turn the tray halfway during the baking. If you aren’t sure if they’re ready, flip one over. It should be nicely brown on the bottom.

Leave the biscuits to cool for a few minutes on the tray, then move them to a cooling rack.

If you want to be fancy, you can mix up a bit of icing and drizzle that over them once cool.