Category Archives: Family, Friends and Home

#61 Upgrade Christmas Crackers

January again.

That month after Christmas when it’s too hot to move out of your own shadow, so the country takes its month-long siesta. Which means it’s the perfect time to

#61 Upgrade Christmas Crackers

You may be thinking that the weeks following December 25th aren’t the most logical time to do this, but there are several reasons why January is, in fact, the perfect month to begin:

  1. The memory of how disappointing Christmas crackers really are is fresh in your mind.
    Pretty as a picture with a cracking start they plunge downhill after that.
    Paper hats that make the beautiful look plain, and the not-so-beautiful look plain and silly, and jokes that would cause any self respecting dad to weep. [‘Q: WHAT DO YOU CALL A HORSE IN PYJAMAS?  A. A ZEBRA’   Really? After two hundred thousand years of evolution, this is the best we can do?]
    The final blow, of course, is the useless, tacky, plastic toy that’s destined for landfill.
    Sigh.
  2. In January, the big department stores offload their unsold Christmas crackers for peanuts. I found a box of six very elegant ones, normally priced at $75 for half that price. However, $37.50 still seemed a bit steep for higher quality paper, a louder cracker bang and a slightly better class of rubbish inside.
    In the end, I lashed out on this box of ten crackers for – wait for it – 50 cents. For the entire box.
  3. By starting this project now, you have a whole year to discover more flattering festive attire than a flimsy paper hat, find jokes that are truly rib-tickling, and source tiny thoughtfully chosen items that can be tucked into existing crackers. Hand-picked treasures to match the interests of family and friends.

The first task is to gently disembowel the crackers of their contents, taking care not to damage the cracker strip.

Enter the toaster prongs – perfect for the job

Not confined to the kitchen any more

After removing the small bow and straightening out one end, it’s an easy job…

…performed with surgical precision

While the contents may have delighted a child in the 1950s, they don’t quite cut it any more:

Although at 50¢ for the lot, it seems churlish to complain

Now comes the fun bit: thinking up ideas for better gifts that are small enough to fit into a cracker and will give the recipient a lovely surprise.  And you have a whole year to find them! Twelve months to keep an eye out at stationer’s supplies and hardware stores, garden centres and kitchen shops, and every retail establishment you might enter between now and December.

A quick scout around home has turned up a few ideas already:

  1. Brightly coloured handkerchief – large or small
  2. Mobile phone hook – it attaches to back of the phone, rotates 360º and lets you hang it in the car, slip it on your finger or rest it on an angle for photo taking or viewing
  3. Strawberry huller (yes, really)
  4. Garden seeds – for the green thumbed
  5. Ear buds – for the podcast devotee. Handy to have more than one set…
  6. A wee nip – for comfort
  7. A USB stick
  8. A mini book-reading light
  9. Lipstick
  10. Book of stamps – remember them? Still needed on the rare occasion.
  11. Hair bands
  12. + 13 + …    = Your imagination.

Finding a glamorous alternative for paper hats has proved much more difficult. Does anyone look good in one?

So what about including larger colourful handkerchiefs for folk to tie rakishly around their necks during the festivities instead? At least there’d be a use for them after Christmas. A few colourful paper hats for the littlies mightn’t go astray, though.


Finally, write down the best jokes or the pithiest tweets or the funniest comments you hear throughout the year. They’ll be perfect to include in the cracker when December rolls around.

Or better still, ask a relative to come up with some bespoke cartoons. You never know your luck:

#60 Learn New Tricks

Working out if there are better ways to manage all the small domestic activities that make up a life isn’t something that’s consumes a lot of time for many people. This is a pity, because without reflection, one never knows if removable barriers exist on the pathway to an easier life.

Recently, I had a chance to view my domestic habits through fresh eyes.

OMG! Was there ever room for improvement…

#60 Learn New Tricks

It all came about when long-standing friends whose home renovations were progressing more slowly than planned and who were temporarily without a functioning home, came to stay for several weeks.

Not only did I have the pleasure of sharing my space and time with two good friends, but the changes that I’ve made courtesy of their insights have resulted in stunning improvements to my life.

[I hate to disappoint anyone reading this who thinks they may learn new or exciting tips, but this journey began from a pretty low base. My domestic blindness, it would appear, knows no bounds.]


Hot Water System
I have gas hot water. It’s very efficient. Too efficient. When you turn on the hot tap, it’s dangerously hot. For aeons, anyone having a shower at my place has risked second degree burns if the cold water tap isn’t turned on immediately.

But had it occurred to me that I could rectify this?

No, it hadn’t, until more intelligent people living in the house brought a solution to my attention.

Simply move the dial on the outside gas hot water tank down from ‘5’ to ‘3’ and – presto – cheaper gas bills and no more scary showers. D’oh!


Extension Table with Solid Chairs

I upgraded my kitchen table about three years ago, and for some obscure reason, bought one that could be enlarged with an extension to accommodate 8 to 10 people. It also had solid chairs that even Hercules would have had trouble shifting.

Nice enough, but …

I live alone. I don’t need a table that can accommodate 8 to 10 people. In fact, the thought of entertaining so many in that space gives me palpitations. Nor am I a weight lifter.

But it wasn’t until I was complaining about the table-setting to my new house mates that it struck me I didn’t have to put up with it. I could pass it on to someone who’d love it in a way I never could, and buy a more suitable arrangement.

 so…oo much better!


The Laundry

When you only have to wash and dry for one, it’s easy to overlook the fact that you’re bending to put the washing in the machine, bending to pull it out, lifting and carrying a loaded basket outside and bending repeatedly to peg it on the line.

But people who are getting a little older shouldn’t have to do all this bending. So imagine my delight when my house mates affixed a metal stand they no longer needed to lift the front loading machine a foot off the ground. No more bending.

But wait. There’s more.

I didn’t know you could still get those clever laundry trolleys like my mum had in the 60s, but it appeared one day and has remained here. I feel quite spoilt.

And with its new, improved functionality the laundry space cried out for a mini makeover. No more baskets crammed higgledy-piggledy everywhere. Now they’re strung in a faux French-Provincial style from the roof and much more accessible. Très bon!


Kitchen Tips

Where to start?

*Roasted hazel nuts make everything better:

breakfast muesli,
salads,
stir fry,
chicken and avocado sandwiches,
for munching while walking the dog
with any form of chocolate
ground up for cake-making flour…

Simply Fabulous.

*Filo pastry triangles can be reheated in a sandwich press. Crisper than a microwave, faster than the oven. 

*If trays and large plates are stored vertically rather than horizontally, your heart won’t sink each time you have to extract them. Simplicity itself.


The Garden

Then there was an old fire pit bought in a fit of madness one day.  The one that consumed massive amounts of wood and briquettes, and sent immeasurable quantities of CO2 into the air such that I couldn’t justify using it any more.

Rather than offload it at the local Waste Management Facility, I was inspired by my house guests after hearing of their plans to make wicking beds for their new vegetable garden.

So the pit’s now lined with black plastic – with a small window cut out to release the water overflow – has some AGI-pipe and stones in the bottom then geofabric under the soil.

It’s a bit amateurish, but so far the basil is thriving, the coriander and parsley seeds are emerging and it only needs watering once a week.


There have been lots of other little improvements too, like finally working out how to pre-program the heater so the kitchen’s warmed before I get up in the morning, or how something called graphite will make a lock that a key’s always jammed in work much more smoothly.

But my friends have moved into their sparkling, renovated home now and I’m bereft of company and ideas.

Will there ever be the opportunity to gain such insights again?

Naturally, I asked them if they’ve changed anything about their lives as a result of sharing with me.

I’m pleased to report that just a few streets away there are now ziplock bags in a freezer containing peeled, whole ginger waiting to be grated into something delicious for dinner any time they need it.

#57 Enjoy the Royal Melbourne Show

Despite a childhood growing up in regional Victoria, followed by several years living in Melbourne, I’ve never been to the Show.

This year, unexpectedly, my time finally arrived:

#57 Enjoy the Royal Melbourne Show 

In the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed the only ones who snared such an exotic outing as the Show were the kids with fabulously wealthy parents or indulgent grandparents who could afford the trip to Melbourne, the entrance fee AND the cost of the enviable Showbags. Or the kids who, lucky little sods, had a carnie for a relative. How I envied them.

They’d all return after the September holidays full of exciting tales of terror-laden big dipper rides or crazy dodgem cars and they’d be sporting the coolest toys that the rest of us could never have because they were only available in select Showbags once a year and only at the Show.

Toys like yoyos with red and white curly logos reading CocaCola on the side while the rest of us had to make do with plain, ugly ones that didn’t advertise anything, or hula hoops with glittery colours, so much more sophisticated than the plain-jane ones we had to suffer.

Show 1

                                                            …aah, the carnies

Of course, by the time I moved to Melbourne to study at eighteen, no self respecting, cool ’70’s chick would be seen dead at the Show. Not that I could afford it then either, but how naff would it have been to admit I wanted to go?

A few weeks ago, my sister and I were reminiscing about Bertie Beetles, those little insect-shaped treats of our childhood made up of the crumbs of Violet Crumbles coated in chocolate. We discovered, via the internet, that they can no longer be purchased in shops, but here’s the rub: you can buy Bertie Beetles once a year if you purchase a Bertie Beetle Showbag at the Royal Melbourne Show!

Foiled again, damn it!

But there’s a joy in growing older. Now that there’s no-one to impress and nothing much embarrasses me any more, I could jump at the chance to attend the Show when friends invited me to stay an extra day recently while I was visiting them in the city.

As I was telling my friend the Bertie Beetle story on the train, having just accepted her invitation to attend the Show the following day, she mentioned that the Showbag pavilion could be bumper-to-bumper with people sometimes (there’s a whole pavilion dedicated to Showbags? Really? Amazing!) and it might be difficult to get the Showbag of my choice. So I said it didn’t really matter if I didn’t get a Bertie Beetle show bag.

A stranger sitting opposite, a woman about my age who evidently overheard our conversation, leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said.

‘Yes, it does matter. You must get a Bertie Beetle Showbag.’

Aah, I thought. A woman who understands what a 50 year history of Showbag envy feels like.

As well as the Showbag pavilion, there were other things I didn’t know about the Show. Something called Pie in the Sky

Pie in the sky

which is apparently as well known a meeting place at the Show as Under the Clocks at Flinders Street station is in the city.

But then I saw the plaque about it, and it seems it’s a pretty recent addition…

Pie explanation

…it only went up in 1977

The joy of the Show is that there’s something for everyone.

The baby animal petting arena was a delight – though the animals wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to capture a good image – and the dog shows were … well, different, unusual, nice.

There was the sublime…

Show 3

the humorous …

Show cake

and the ridiculously wacky…

Show 2

But best of all, there was this:

Berties

So thank you, my lovely stranger on the train, for your understanding and encouragement.

#51 Construct…something

A story oft told in my family –  and it’s not apocryphal – is that when my father was conscripted into the army in 1941 and tested to assess where his skills lay and therefore where best to deploy him, he scored zero for ‘mechanical comprehension’. Zero.

Never before in the history of the AIF – and possibly the navy and the RAAF – had a seemingly intelligent chap failed to answer even one question correctly in this particular category. As a result, he became something of a cause célèbre for a while, then found his niche writing and producing sketch comedy and variety shows – in between fighting the Japanese – which helped boost the men’s morale in their down time.

What this meant, of course, is that I grew up never seeing a hammer, nail, screwdriver, drill, lever, cogwheel or any type of power tool in use at home. Ever. And although I’d longed for a meccano set as a child to no avail – though to be fair, I never told my parents this as it would have shocked them – becoming a talented handyman has long been a secret, unfulfilled desire. I am in awe of people who can build things.

So on the basis that my old letter box needed a makeover recently, the time to put to use my horribly stunted home handyman skills had arrived:

#51 Construct…something (that requires limited tool skills)

The letter box in question is nothing more than a space between bricks that had a plastic tub at the base, wedged in with two black rubber hose lengths, to catch the letters and a makeshift ‘lid’ to prevent rain dripping down. Embarrassing really…

…hence the blurry photo

So its replacement would need to be made of a waterproof material that could be measured to fit snugly, cut to size without using anything with the prefix ‘power’, formed into an oblong shape with a couple of ‘steps’ bent in opposite directions and then painted.

Material that could do all this was totally beyond my mechanical comprehension (I’m with you, Dad) so I turned to a friend and expert we’ll call my Bunning’s Buddy (or BB). We meet there most weekends; he to buy mysterious tools and materials for his latest innovative mini-Taj Mahal projects and I to watch in awe before heading to the garden section.

(I’d post photos of the AMAZING floor to ceiling bookshelves he made that can be opened with a hidden handle to reveal an entire bedroom behind, but it might make my revamped letter box look even more pathetic.)

Anyway, BB recommended using Corflute:

…a hitherto unknown product that looks like cardboard but acts like plastic!

Turns out, this waterproof material can be measured to fit snugly, cut to size without using anything with the prefix ‘power’, will bend along straight lines and can be painted. Bingo!

Using the well known rule among tradies to ‘measure twice, cut once,’ I soon realised this guide was meant for professionals. The rule for newbie home handymen, is ‘measure twice, cut once, return to Bunnings for more Corflute, measure twice, cut once, return to Bunnings again for supplies, repeat ….’

But eventually, stage one was successfully completed:

Then stage two:

And finally stage three: painted and secured:

And all done without hammering a nail, driving in a screw, using a power tool or cutting myself with the Stanley knife.

Dad would be proud!

#34 Renovate Painlessly

You’re laughing uproariously now, aren’t you? Thinking that the phrase ‘renovate painlessly’ is a supreme example of an oxymoron on a par with ‘government organisation’ or ‘business ethics’.

Of course you’re right, but it seemed a neater title and more likely to catch the eye than the more honest:

#34 Renovate Painlessly (If at all Possible – Which of course, It Isn’t) 

Over ten years ago, I did major renovations to my kitchen, moving from its outdated faux-log-cabin-look with incongruous lime green bench tops (what were they thinking?)

IMG_20151020_0002

to a more streamlined modern look:

New Kitchen 2003

But what these cool Before and After shots don’t show is the agony of the weeks and weeks of living like this:

IMG_20151020_0005


Recently, I decided to give my place a face lift, but being reluctant to suffer in this way again, took the easy approach and went with a simple repaint. And the good news is that you can feel like you’ve moved into a newer, larger home just by painting the ceilings, walls and skirting boards in lighter colours!

For those of us who waited patiently in the wrong queue when the skills for Choosing Design Features were being handed out, the agony of having to decide on a colour scheme has been taken away by the ever-helpful Mr Google.

Type in ‘what is the most popular colour to paint indoor walls in 2015?’ and the number one answer is ‘Antique White (USA)’. If you then ask a couple of knowledgable designer friends and the answer is exactly the same, you know you’re on a winner. Because even if it ends up looking awful, at least it’s the colour du jour and no one will dare criticise. 

(As opposed to the delicate peach colour I independently chose for the second bedroom which has resulted in many comments along the lines, ‘Ah, an old fashioned colour. How quaint! It will probably come into vogue again one day’.)

So before long, and relatively painlessly, this:

IMG_1537

magically turned into this:

IMG_1629

And the dark hallway:

IMG_1539

miraculously expanded into lightness and brightness:

IMG_1628

…aided and abetted by furnishings and turning on lights, but doesn’t everyone cheat in the after photos?

Of course as everyone knows, once a bedroom has been painted, its fraying carpet and budget curtains scream in unison that they want a makeover too and what began as a relatively painless renovation becomes much more complicated.

However the whole experience of shifting furniture, rearranging ornaments and trying for a minimalist look has taught me that both tidying up and getting rid of junk can also make a home look so much better. Who knew?

If the idea of actually tidying up is enough to give you an attack of the vapours though, I’d recommend buying a very large, flat pack cupboard and finding a very talented person to put it together.

laundry cupboard

Bet you can’t spot the mess in the laundry any more…

#31 Photograph the Whimsical (and the Wonderful) in your Neighbourhood

 

It began as the Humans of New York project and has now been taken up by many around the world. An intrepid photographer chooses random people in their city and takes a shot or two.

In this context, even though the idea came from the US, a ‘shot’ means a photographic one, not the other sort. The photos are then posted online, together with a short autobiographical quote from the subject. They’ve become wildly popular websites.

While the idea of approaching a stranger in this way has its appeal, I sheepishly decided that in a small city where you frequently run into friends and acquaintances, it’s a bit too confronting to attempt.

So instead, I’ve been taking my own snapshots around home but with a slightly different slant.

My latest project is called:

#31 Photograph the Whimsical (and the Wonderful) in your Neighbourhood

Once you begin doing this, you’ll never look at your surroundings in the same way again.

For example, does anyone have any idea why someone would toss two pairs of their discarded running shoes over electricity wires in a busy lane, as I photographed recently?

Urban myth has it that it may signify a place where you can purchase drugs, but wouldn’t that be too obvious? Or is it a way of recycling old shoes by turning them into “street art”, albeit not highly original?

Following this discovery, I noticed that the electronic news headlines which roll around the window of our local newspaper office each day can be inadvertently humourous.

This is either due to a misprint which changes the meaning altogether…

IMG_0757

 

 

…or because it lacks the gravitas one normally expects from news headlines…

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 1.45.54 pm

…this is why I love living in a regional area

A further wander around town has highlighted some of the whimsical projects our local council is fostering. In an effort to reduce graffiti, they’re covering the small electricity boxes on various street corners in the CBD with specially-protected anti-graffiti photographic facsimiles of our more iconic buildings.

So not only do we have an attractive post office…

Real PO

but now we have a ‘mini-me’ post office as well (plus a whippet to help with perspective):

IMG_1425

Or if you prefer, you can play ‘spot the imposter’:

OPSM Real

versus

IMG_1330


While doing some roof repairs to my home recently, workmen found this little gem tucked under the eaves. It will be the envy of politicians everywhere, taking the idea of  ‘feathering your nest’ to new, literal heights as the local sparrows collect the feathers of my moulting chickens to weave their plush homes:

Bird nest one

Can you imagine how good this would look cradling the starling’s eggs shown in an earlier blog?

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 11.56.39 am

Fit for a Disney Princess


And if you walk a dog often enough around Gateway Island, then one day, when the light and the weather conditions are perfect, you may capture a memorable image of Big Ears silhouetted against the lake…

IMG_1349

 

…or the local wildlife might decide to put on a show for you at Noreuil Park:

7 Aussie Cockatoos

“Seven Aussie Cockatoos
Each sitting on a post
Having so much fun to find
Who can SCREE…ECH the most”

The real benefit of this retirement activity is that it need never end.
Have smart phone …  will shoot!

#29 Discover an Affinity with the Ancestors

Genetic throwbacks in families can be out-of-the-blue events, and I’m told there was some initial surprise when I was born. In an extended family where everyone was generally dark haired and olive skinned, this new baby with red hair and pale skin, while not unwelcome, was a little unexpected. It seems my mother had forgotten that her late, grey-haired grandmother had once been a redhead.

This has finally led to my investigating my antecedents and in particular, looking to:

#29 Discover an Affinity with the Ancestors

Some years ago, I heard a family rumour that a paternal great-grandfather, despite being of southern Italian stock, was a redhead. Alas, the only photograph I have of him is in sepia hues:

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 12.33.19 pm

Were you really a Ginger?
(and it’s okay for me to ask – as Tim Minchin says, only a Ginger can call another Ginger, Ginger)

So it seems that great-grandpapa’s genes combined with my Scottish great-grandmama’s genes to produce the unexpected colouring in a wee bairn a few generations later.

But while I have no doubts about my affinity for so many things Italian (think home-grown tomatoes, opera and anything to do with the preparation of, cooking of and eating of food) an affinity for things Scottish has been singularly missing in my life.

Until recently.

Did you know that every April, Bundanoon, a delightful town in the Southern Highlands of NSW turns into Brigadoon? 

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 1.15.28 pm

…to the extent that the sign into town is changed…

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 1.18.11 pm

…and even the Bundanoon railway platform has a makeover…

Bundanoon railway in April

And this year, by sheer accident, I happened to be in Bundanoon/Brigadoon on April 9th for the 39th Bundanoon Highland Gathering with my sister who, although not a redhead, has the same Scottish blood and a strange affinity for the bagpipes.

Pipe band

And what can bring a lump to the throat more than hearing a Scottish Pipe Band play Waltzing Matilda?  [click on picture]

How quickly one can develop a warmth for one’s ancestors. The moment I spotted the Highland Gathering mascot with his ginger hair and ginger moustache, I felt truly at home.

McRedHead


Some participants took the suggestion to dress for the occasion quite literally…

IMG_1202

 And who ever said they’re not influenced by advertising…

Walkers shortbread…has never taken real, buttery, Scottish shortbread home and found it doesn’t last long …

ShortbreadBut the best thing about discovering an affinity with Scotland is the news that the Edinburgh Military Tattoo is coming to Melbourne next year.

Bagpipes and Gingers? I’ve booked the tickets already…