In which Musings Towers has relocated

So, here we are, properly in the Cotswolds, in a village that puts one irresistibly in mind of Hot Fuzz. Fellow villagers say ‘Hello’ as one passes them on the street. A neighbour popped round to introduce herself. Drivers wait politely in turn to negotiate the narrow streets. T’aint natural.

The house has been beaten into some sort of order, with only a few boxes remaining unpacked, and that mostly for lack of anywhere to put their contents. I’m not sure everything is in the right place yet, but it’s in a place and that’ll do as a start. I seek a new bookcase and some kitchen storage, as well as a couple of rugs. But the bare bones are there.

The cats, poor little things, were traumatised by the whole experience. By the time it came to lure them into cat carriers, in fact they walked in of their own accord. They were very unsure of the new house for a day or so, and they seemed increasingly desperate to go outside. When I found Charlie outside an upstairs window, on a 2-inch wide ledge, eyeing up the jump to the garage roof, I cracked and let them out. He’s all right, but Belle’s developed a habit of waking me up at 2am by affectionately kneading me and purring, while trying to nibble my nose and ears. She can keep it up for literally hours and she won’t take no, or being shut out of the room for an answer. She just barges back in again.

Still, I feel a bit like one of the cats myself, prowling and restless. With none of the routines in place yet, I’m gradually adapting myself into a way of living here. I haven’t found that easy flow that gets you out the door in the morning on autopilot. There seem to be too many rooms involved and they’re on different floors.

So at the moment it’s all strange and ill fitting, not bad, but different and with rough edges to be smoothed out. There’s a list of tasks to be done and items to be bought. Ask me again in a month.

In which maybe there are some clothes, after all

I’ve been despairing for months. Is it me? Is it them? I can’t tell, but I can’t spend money for wanting to. The situation has reached such a nadir that earlier this week, I was so disheartened I failed even to buy mascara. I need mascara. It’s the only thing that makes me look awake in meetings.

Summer is always bad, this year has been worse than usual. Off the shoulder, formless, floaty, spaghetti straps. No no no. In any case, the weather hasn’t cooperated so if I did buy any of that stuff, it would be hidden under multiple layers and I’d look like someone who wears their entire wardrobe because they don’t have anywhere to store it. Plus, I work in an air-conditioned, under-occupied office. It might be 25 degrees outside, but cashmere is my friend in summer. In winter, I upgrade to a cape that is basically a faux fur trimmed blanket. Yeah, stylish and warm. Eat that, Slanket!

I’m also going through a phase where I’m bored with/hate all of the clothes in my wardrobe. You know how you get up one morning and everything that was fine the day before is suddenly incontrovertibly wrong? That.

There is hope, though. It’s called ‘autumn’. It looks very much as though straight and wide legged trousers will be available, in lovely fabrics like wool and flannel. I don’t care what fashion will be telling me, these are what I really want to wear, along with a sweater, a jacket and boots or smart trainers. Jeans for the weekend.

Except that I keep trying on smart trainers and realising that they’re ugly. Instead of looking as though I’m effortlessly pulling off a sporty-yet-smart urban vibe,  I look like I work in a care home. I think I might have to get dark grey Converse and call it done. There are, thank goodness, great boots all over the place so that’s not even a concern.

And then, there’s outer layers. I’ve been holding back on jackets a bit, feeling I had too many. It must be said, I don’t have any like this and it may well be it stays that way. But, goodness, it would be fun.

Bomber jacket

 

And, my coats are starting to look a little too worn and my autumn coat is plain black , and really, do I really need an excuse for this? Worn with aforementioned navy flannel pants and dark grey Converse?

 

Coat

Oh autumn, do get on with it.

In which I’m getting educated again

One of the main problems I have with work, other than it makes you leave the house and talk to other people and sit there all day long, is that it’s a bit dull. Busy does not equate to intellectually challenged, it just means more to do in the same amount of time. My job is busy, but it’s not hard, so I consistently have all this mental capacity going to waste, and fuck me, I’m 45 this year and I can hear the high pitched whistling noise of years passing by in which I’m achieving bugger all. I’m too lazy to be an autodidact and I need some kind of framework to make me put the effort in. Periodically this general sense of ‘Oh my god, my brain is going to mush’, hits a peak and I buy textbooks and dig out my PhD application, and then realise it’s a house deposit or PhD fees and

 

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(Because it turns out free WordPress is a pain in the ass with gifs)

But then the country went mad one week (Brexit) and nothing made sense, plus work is an ongoing emotional maelstrom (which I’m observing in the way that some people chase tornadoes) and I suddenly wanted very much to have something that was cold and practical and fact based to hang on to. Then I realised also that really quite a lot of the population is largely either batshit (Brexit, Trump) or incomprehensible, and thought some way of explaining that might be good.

Thus, as a neglected girlfriend to her former lover,  I have fled back to the welcoming arms of the Open University and registered for a BSc in Psychology & Law. This makes no sense whatsoever against my learning profile, and that’s kind of the point. It’s way off base for me, so it should be more of a challenge. Unfortunately, the first year’s module is all online (what, no box of reading materials?) and because it’s only undergraduate I think I might have to talk to some of the other people on the course (what for?) but still. The old grey cells should get something of a workout for a change and I’ll have access to JSTOR again. Get in.

In which I hit the re-set button

Mostly, by taking a week off and having a few days camping and hiking in Wales. The rest of the week I’ve been at home, balancing my time between pre-move fixes and chores around the house, and doing nothing. It’s simultaneously obvious and easily forgotten, how important it is to have time just to be.

The campsite was ideal. Yes, hot water; no, electricity. The downside was it rained and I had wet hair for two days (I shoved it under a hat). The upside was I mostly forgot about my phone. It wasn’t enough time away (is there such a thing as enough time away?), but it was a good start. Successful camping is all about getting the basics right, and they were.

And I hiked/scrambled/slogged up Snowdon, about which I’d been somewhat trepidatious. Much as I like walking, I don’t like going up. Snowdon was about going up in rain, into cloud. As neither of us is feeling at the peak of physical fitness, the deal was that if either of us wanted to stop, for any reason, we would. In the end, it wasn’t as tough physically as I thought it would be, so it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get to the top. I did wonder ‘But why am I bothering?’ and the answer came ‘Because there’s tea up there.’

I learned a few things along the way. The views are amazing, but I don’t like scrambling for them. I can make it up a small mountain, but mountains are not my achievement. Tea is a great incentive. There is a place for fleece in my wardrobe, bought one morning when it was clear I didn’t have enough layers. Cheapshit waterproofs do not hack it in Snowdonia. It was good to move, to push it a bit, to have fresh air strongly laced with rain whipping my head clear. I need to make time for more of that.

Back at home, I’ve been trying not to lose my days to things I must do, because the working week is full of briars enough. Holiday is about what you want to do but I also needed to feel that it was strongly differentiated from work time. Days full of email and meetings rarely give you anything to show at the end of them. So I decided to enjoy the chores that had to be done. A couple of hours in the garden and it’s tidy again. A morning washing down exterior woodwork, in the sun, listening to the radio. I’ve replaced a shower hose – who knew it was that easy? Small tasks, small satisfactions but at the end of the day I can look around and see ‘I did that’. Good.

10 reasons team days don’t work for introverts

I have bills to pay, a house deposit to save for. I’ve got a clean driving license and a savings account, National Trust membership and a John Lewis rewards card. I may not have a mortgage but I pay more than most mortgages in rent. I’ve got 20+ years of professional experience, and I’m a fucking grown up with a pretty busy life.

I do not expect to walk into a meeting room to find the tables covered in plastic and littered with craft materials and paintbrushes, with a plastic apron hanging over the back of the chair. When a woman half my age starts telling me how much fun I’m going to have painting, that is my cue to leave.

I say this on behalf of my fellow introverts, but also on behalf of anyone else who’d kind of prefer to be treated like an adult during their working day. This team building madness has to stop.

Lemme break it down:

  1. Do your remember, when you were a kid, that sense of disempowered fury you had when your parents made you do something you really didn’t want to do and you couldn’t figure out why? Now imagine feeling that, but as an adult.
  2. Wasting my work time tells me my job isn’t important.
  3. I didn’t do this shit as a kid. I’m damned if I’ll do it now, just to help you with your tick box exercise.
  4. The day of enforced socialising, with no downtime, is already flaying my soul. Throwing kindergarten activities into the mix is salt in the wound.
  5. Wasting my time tells me you don’t understand how important my time is to me, especially when I’ve had to travel for it. That’s a big disconnect.
  6. Repeatedly telling me I’m having fun doesn’t mean I’m having fun. It highlights the disjunctive nature of the experience, increases my sense of isolation and emphasises to me that there is a vast cultural difference between me and my employer.
  7. Forcing me to join in causes me to develop an intense, but thankfully short-lived, hatred for every single one of my colleagues. Except for the other normal people, and we bond in our mixture of adversity and disbelief.
  8. Forcing me (and peer pressure counts) to socialise beyond the normal 9-5 working day at the end of a team day, is actively stressful. See ‘development of short-lived hatred’, above.
  9. Healthy organisations are inclusive. Inclusivity allows for diversity. I would never allow some misguided belief that ‘everyone ought to show willing and participate’ to drive me in planning a day that I knew a percentage of people would find deeply uncomfortable.
  10. I get that y’all need to hang out together and do ‘fun’ things and bond and feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourselves. Knock yourselves out. I don’t. Respect that. If a team can’t handle that, you got bigger problems than a sodding team day will fix.

Hello? Hello? Is anyone still there?

Bit of an unexpected blogging break there, chaps. My laptop died unexpectedly, and it’s taken a few weeks to figure out what’s wrong and get it fixed. Back up your laptops, friends! I managed to upload my CV to Dropbox from email, but other than that, I wiped everything. I didn’t have much stored anyway, and really old photos are on my really old Mac, which still fires up if I can round up enough hamsters to power it, but still. Read my cautionary tale and be afeared! TimeMachine is synching with a shiny new external hard drive even as I type.

So, what’s been happening at Musings Towers, you cry? Well, in no particular order:

  1. The cats have killed the usual number of small birds and mammals, and memorably, one bloody huge pigeon. Belle made a valiant attempt to eat it, but after strewing feathers everywhere she gave up and slept for the rest of the day.
  2. I’m in shock (and anger, and disbelief and denial, and and and) about Brexit. Let’s just not go there.
  3. In partial response to the above, I started comfort reading fiction. I’m half way through A.S. Byatt’s Frederica quartet. I know I’d read The Virgin in the Garden and Babel Tower years ago, but I’ve never read the whole thing. Part of it was being read on R4 and it immediately became imperative to acquire the lot. Reading it has been interspersed with various other books, ranging from the last Terry Pratchet, to the latest Tessa Hadley, The Past. Fiction helps when the world’s gone mad, as it assuredly has.
  4. Not so much on the baking front, but this weekend I managed to make:
    1. Coconut macaroons that did not turn into coconut soup
    2. Some gluten free scones that didn’t rise at all, but to which all the baking powder (5tsp!) did impart a slightly metallic taste. I must be able to do better than that.
    3. Proper scones, to be eaten with proper jam and proper clotted cream.
  5. After several lovely years at this incarnation of Musing Towers, I’m moving. I will be sad to leave, but my landlords are getting on a bit and keeping the farm going is incredibly hard work, so they’re thinking about selling up and retiring into this house. I think my new place will be good, though. It’s in a village that has a shop, two pubs, a vets, a library and a doctor’s surgery. Inevitably, it also has a fair number of people in order to support all that but with any luck, I’ll never meet any of them. I’m moving over the Bank Holiday weekend in August, so I’m in that in between phase where I have to get all the moving out chores done here as well as planning packing and the purchasing of new bits & pieces for the house.
  6. After several years of being bored off my tits a lot of the time, I’ve finally knuckled down and registered for another OU course. I still can’t afford to do a PhD, and there’s no other classics stuff I can sensibly do, so I’ve taken a complete change of direction and gone for a degree in Psychology & Law instead. It will start in October, and I got very excited, anticipating the delivery of the usual OU box of readables I could dive into, but it turns out that this course is all online. Newfangled didactic methods, I never heard the like.
  7. In order to afford the OU course, I’m planning to give back my really quite nice convertible and swap it for something that isn’t a convertible and is therefore about half the price. I don’t much care what, because in my spoilt, princess way, if the roof doesn’t come down it’s not a proper car anyway, so who cares? Anyway, let’s hope that Mercedes-Benz will play along with the idea, ‘cos I don’t have a Plan B.
  8. Because some attempt at exercise was well overdue, I suffered through 5 personal training sessions. Every one of them left me aching, but I got stronger every time, too, and a decade plus old injury seems to have been fixed.  I’m definitely booking some more, and it’s beginning to seem inevitable that I’ll start running again, too.
  9. Bringing us right up to date, I drank a bit too much sparkling stuff at Battle Proms at Blenheim last night, and am slightly suffering for it today. But there were fireworks, and cannon and musket fire as well as the music, and if Land of Hope and Glory only sounds ironic at the moment? This too shall pass.

 

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What’s been cooking?

Lots of different cooking activity lately, from which I have learned that you can do what you like with granola but you need decent sized flakes of desiccated coconut to make successful coconut macaroons. Seriously. I made extremely sweet coconut soup and even when I decided that treating it like cake mix and baking it in cases might work, it was still a bit wrong. Don’t go there.

Becky’s granola by way of Nigella who got it from Andy in Connecticut

I’ve started making my own granola, based on a Nigella recipe but with reduced sugary elements because just the thought of fruit compote + syrup + honey + sugar makes my teeth itch. But it’s kind of fun to mess around with the ingredients, and it means I get to skip the raisins (I have never understood the dependency of breakfast foods on raisins) and use what I prefer instead.

Today’s recipe was:

  • 225g oats
  • 60g white sesame seeds
  • 60g sunflower seeds
  • 60g light brown sugar
  • 125g whole almonds (I’d have preferred pecans with the maple syrup but didn’t have any)
  • 3 tbsp maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp runny honey
  • 1 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1/2 tsp Maldon sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • optional apple sauce or compote of choice
  • 125g dried apricots or dried fruit of your choice. I mean, I suppose you could use raisins. Freak.

Mix it all up, bang it in the oven on a couple of baking trays and leave it for about 20 mins or until golden brown. I will say that because I don’t put so much liquid in, the granola doesn’t clump as much as you might prefer. I don’t care, so I don’t worry about it, but if you do then throw in some apple sauce or similar.

Once it’s out of the oven and cool, add in the fruit. Don’t do what I did first time and bake the fruit with the rest of the mix, because then you end up with fruit that is caramelized if you’re lucky and plain old burnt if you’re not🙂

Store in airtight jars and you’ve got a couple of weeks’ worth of breakfast. At least you get to start every day with a sense of achievement/smugness, before everyday working life beats it out of you.

Gluten free lemon meringue cake

I made lemon meringue cake to take into the office and it destroyed productivity for the entire morning. The whole cake was gone by 10am and my colleagues were on a sugar rush like kids at a party. This cake has now become the benchmark by which other baking is measured, although probs best if we don’t tell senior management about it.

So far, so good but it’s my friend S’s birthday in a couple of weeks and she is gluten intolerant. So, today I’m practicing a gluten free version, which means I’ve basically made up the ingredients for the sponge layer based on limited knowledge and guesswork. I even looked up the point of bicarbonate of soda so I knew whether I needed to keep it or not.

Lemon meringue cake is basically a fancy sandwich cake. The biggest problem I had with it was maintaining the structural integrity of the top layer of sponge + meringue while maneuvering it into position. I don’t particularly like the texture you get with gluten free flour and I don’t think it’ll be stable enough to hold together during that process, so I’m going with almond flour.

For the full on gluten version, it’s off to Nigella again.

Here’s what I’m trying as the alternative ingredients list, we’ll see what happens.

  • 125g butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 300g caster sugar
  • 150g almond flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp bicarb of soda
  • 1 lemon
  • 4tsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • good quality lemon curd
  • 150ml double cream for whipping

Lemon curd

Just in case this post isn’t hitting enough middle class keywords, I made my own lemon curd yesterday, specifically for use in the lemon meringue cake. It it is ridiculously easy, to the point that I’m kind of embarrassed I haven’t done it before.

  • 4 unwaxed lemons, juice and zest
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs + 1 egg yolk
  • 100g butter, cubed

Put the lemon juice and zest, sugar and butter and melt in a bowl over a pan of lightly simmering water. Usual caveats about bottom of bowl not touching water apply. Stir occasionally until all the butter has melted.

Meanwhile, lightly whisk the eggs. Once the butter has melted, slowly whisk the eggs into the lemon mixture, keeping it all over the heat. Leave to cook for 10-13 mins, stirring occasionally, until it’s thickened and coats the back of a spoon. Leave to cool, again stirring occasionally, then spoon into sterilized jars. Keep it in the fridge.

[I sterilised my jars by washing them in boiling, soapy water and then baking them at 170C for 20 minutes].