Tuesday, 26 February 2008

A knitting problem solved

I mention in my post about recycling yarn that I had worries about the yardage I had available to make the Must Have Cardigan. I have spent the best part of a week worrying about whether I had enough yarn; I was almost paralysed by it. In my head, I'd made the decision to make the sweater with the recycled yarn and I didn't want to use anything else.

All the indicators were, though, that I didn't have enough - after all, how does 1kg of yarn drop to 760g? My memory says that I'd actually run out of yarn making the original sweater and had to buy extra, but that made even less sense if the original balls were the 50g they claimed to be. So I isolated several skeins of yarn when I rolled the hanks into balls and they turned out to be between 40 and 45g each. Cleckheaton's website told me that each 50g ball should be 71 metres long, but I'd reached the point where I couldn't trust them.

Reluctantly, I swatched one of the DK yarns in my stash, but it was too fine. It made gauge, but had no body.

Finally, I unburdened myself on the Yarn Addicts (the closest thing I have to a Stitch-n-Bitch) and, thanks to Fluff, I have my answer. She kindly found me a converter: http://girlfromauntie.com/tech/convert/ You plug in your stitches per inch and your wraps per inch and it gives you a result e.g. 5/10.

I have 760g of wool. On the 4.5mm needles specified in the pattern, it gives me a gauge of 19 stitches to 4 inches, or 4.75 stitches to the inch and 10 wraps per inch. Per the calculator it comes to:

"Approximately 2.105 metres per gram, 105 m per 50g or 115 yds per 1.75 oz
760 g is equivalent to 1600 m or 1749.8 yds
DK-worsted weight (10-16 wpi): 5 to 5.5 spi in stockinette
All calculations, wpi and gauge approximate."


I've had this yarn lurking in the stash for at least 4 years, waiting for a suitable project. It was too good to throw out, which is why I frogged the original sweater. Now it's got a project to go to!

- Pam

Sunday, 24 February 2008

I was a musician once

Once upon a time, I was a musician. I did singing exams. I could count my way through hundreds of bars of music, take my pitch from a note played by the violins and come in right on cue. You know that difficult note in the middle, I was the one who pitched it for the rest of my vocal section. I was good - not soloist material but a damn good chorister.

Today, I had to confront how far I have fallen. Today was my audition for the choral society. I sang "Hopelessly devoted to you" badly, struggled to pitch some scales and couldn't hold 3 B's in a row for the sight singing test. My voice was all over the place. Basically, I had to beg for a place in the choir. I'm in; I'm down for Second Soprano (once upon a time, I sang first - even though I'm naturally a mezzo soprano, I stretched my upper register to hit the high notes).

I have to work on my voice and my musicianship. I have to relearn how to count music, how to feel the beats in the bar. My top notes have vanished. Even my breathing is screwed - my capacity to support my voice gets exhausted after half an hour.

Singing lessons would be good but aren't in the budget right now; the only singing teacher I know doesn't play the piano either, so you have to pay for both her and an accompanist. My big problem is that I'm not a pianist. I have a piano thanks to Kim and I can pick out a few notes, but I can't play and I can't accompany myself. I need help. The internet is a great resource, but there are huge gaps in what you can do with it. I know websites where you can download sheet music and players that will accompany your practice (e.g. www.musicnotes.com); I know websites where you can buy backing tracks but what I don't know is where I can get scales that I can read and sing along to while they're being played. All suggestions gratefully received.

- Pam

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Frugal knitting

I have been lusting after the Yarn Harlot's new sweater from the moment she first started talking about it on her blog. It took me about two weeks to acquire a copy of the pattern and, since then, I've been pondering the question of what yarn to knit it in. Worsted weight doesn't exist here and Paton's yarns are hard to find (ironic since Patons and their parent company, Coats, are British).

In the meantime, I've had these balls of yarn lurking in the bottom of the knitting basket. They come from a crochet sweater disaster I made in the 1980s. The pattern looked good (still does but very Eighties). However, I didn't do a swatch and didn't get the correct gauge so the sleeves were all out of proportion. At the time, I cobbled the sweater together and wore it for a while. Several years ago, I ripped it out, rolled the yarn into balls and it's been lurking at the bottom of the knitting basket ever since.

The yarn is Cleckheaton's 12 ply pure wool, which is equivalent to aran weight. I figured that, if I had enough, it would make an adequate substitute for the Paton's Classic called for in the pattern. (A WW2 leaflet on recycling yarn says that unravelled yarn is slightly thinner/lighter than it's original weight.) Theoretically, what you see here is 1kg of yarn - that's what the original pattern called for and I don't recall having any left over (mind you, I couldn't find it if I did). When I weighed it, it turned out to be 750g. I've almost finished the Soft Sweater (finished the last sleeve three days ago) so, last Saturday, I proceeded to prep this wool for reknitting.

As you can see from this close-up, it's a bit knubbly and fuzzy from previous use. Since I didn't wash it after I frogged it, it also still shows the imprint of the crochet stitches.

I started by winding the yarn into hanks around a chair back. Turned out that one chair is too narrow, so after the first one I used the clothes horse instead. I tied each hank in four places, using left over sock yarn.

When I had three hanks, I dropped them into a bucket full of warm water and took it outside with a towel. Rolled each hank up separately in the towel and wrung out the water before hanging them on the clothes-line to air-dry.

Somewhere, I remember reading that if you weight down the skeins, it'll stop the wool getting all curly. (It worked.) If you look carefully, those are 1 litre jugs of Kirkland Maple Syrup which I brought home from Canada in my suitcase.

Voice of experience: if you are recycling white wool yarn, do not hang it in full sunlight. It will yellow. I learned that the hard way when I frogged the UFO from hell.

Last night, I hand rolled the three hanks back into balls (NB, I couldn't get the first, single-chair-back hank back on the chair) and began to swatch for the sweater. At this stage, I have two worries: yardage and gauge - more about those later. Washing the wool has smoothed out the old stitch indentations, if you eyeball it it looks smooth. But you can still feel tiny nobbly bits from where the yarn has felted slightly and close up it looks a little fuzzy (originally it was a smooth-finished yarn).

- Pam

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Why, indeed?

Sorry, I just couldn't resist.

- Pam

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Book review: The Lost, by Daniel Mendelsohn

I stumbled across The Lost when I was at a loose end in Schiphol airport; it was just before Christmas, I was waiting for my flight home from a visit to the Dutch office and I'd run out of books to read. The bookshop had a table full of English-language books and the cover caught my eye:

Something made me pick it up. I don't normally read Holocaust literature. I've read a The Diary of Anne Frank and a couple of autobiographies but, on the whole, my World War 2 reading is driven by an interest in the Home Front - that is where the experience of my family lies (and in the POW camps of the Japanese, but I digress). I may be Jewish but I'm also sixth generation Australian and if we had family murdered by the Nazis, the connection was so distant that nobody knew who they were. On my father's side, we don't even know which shtetl they left behind.

How do I summarise The Lost to give you a flavour of the story? It is simplistic to say that The Lost is the story of Daniel Mendelsohn's search for information on what happened to his maternal great-uncle Schmiel Jaeger, his aunt Ester and their four daughters who were murdered by the Nazis. There is so much more to this book than that. Perhaps the best thing I can do is direct you to Andrew Mendelsohn's website where he details the photos they took on their first trip to Bolechow, the town from where their mother's family had emigrated to America. Schmiel had made the journey to New York and then changed his mind, returning to Bolechow to build his life there.

In deciding to find out what happened to this branch of his family, Daniel Mendelsohn had set himself a difficult task: within his family, there had always been a wall of silence about pre-war Schmiel, as if the memories were too painful and the survivors felt guilt at not being able to do more to get Schmiel's family out of Poland. Then, of course, the Holocaust had eliminated so many of the people who had known the Jaegers and time was taking it's toll on the rest. Daniel set out to interview as many survivors as possible, giving the reader their stories as well as their recollections of the Jaegers. He also fleshes out the actions of the Nazis, turning historian to provide the reader with information on how they decimated the Jewish population of Eastern Poland, in the "Aktions" and the casual daily brutalities they inflicted.

One by one, Daniel identifies how the Jaegers died. But that isn't the only thing he wants to know, part of his quest is to get the answer to the more difficult question: "What were they like?", to learn about their personalities and to give voices to the faces in the family pictures. When it comes to Ester, he never gets a satisfactory answer.

This is a writer's book, beautifully written and a pleasure to read. One minute, you are in the room with Daniel and his interviewees; the next, you have stepped with them into the past as their histories are told. It was compelling and very hard to put down. It is also a multi-layered, multi-faceted book since Daniel uses Talmudic commentaries to illustrate family interactions and the nature of memory, although I found myself skipping those in order to get back to the main narrative.

I'd give this book a rating of 10 out of 10. Read it. It will change your life.

- Pam

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Hot and Sour Soup

It's been a while since I posted a new recipe and I've been promising this one to people left, right and centre. It is delicious, filling, full of nutrition, cheap, very easy to cook and only 2.5 WW points a portion! It is a good supper-in-a-bowl.

This recipe comes from a really badly organised Weight Watchers cookbook called "Menu Plan Eat Enjoy". I can't over-emphasise how badly indexed this book is; each page contains a full day's menu of dishes/recipes, but only the headline recipe is indexed.

Hot and Sour Soup


1.2 litres/2 pints chicken stock (I used 600ml of strong stock made from the Christmas turkey together with 600ml of boiling water)
350g/12oz skinless boneless chicken breasts sliced thinly (I used a 250g bag of cooked turkey chunks which I froze at Christmas)
75g/3oz shitake mushrooms (I used normal mushrooms, adding a small amount of dried shitake which I soaked for 10 minutes first)
I large red chilli, deseeded and chopped (or use a heaped teaspoon of lazy chilli)
1 red or yellow pepper, deseeded and diced
150g/5oz pak choi cut into quarters then separated into leaves
100g/3.5oz dried egg noodles
2 tablespoons Chinese cooking wine (or sherry)
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons light soy sauce (I used regular soy sauce since that's what I have)
20 grinds of pepper, preferably white

  1. If using dried shitake mushrooms: place in a bowl, cover with hot water and allow to soak for 10 minutes.
  2. In a large saucepan, bring the chicken stock to the boil. Add the chicken (or diced turkey if using). Bring back to the boil and simmer gently for 5 minutes.
  3. Add the mushrooms, chilli and red/yellow pepper. Bring back to a simmer and cook for 3 minutes.
  4. Break the noodles into smaller sections and stir into the saucepan together with the remaining ingredients. Grind over pepper. Simmer for a further 3-5 minutes or until everything is cooked.
  5. Divide evenly between four deep bowls (the hardest part).

- Pam

Friday, 15 February 2008

A story of hate

I have to say thank you to Boston Gal's Open Wallet for drawing my attention to this story on Oprah's website about Sylvia, who's life and financial health were devastated when her husband, Joe, committed suicide after running up huge debts leaving her with nothing. Please, read the story on Oprah and then come back here.

There is far more to this than meets the eye. It isn't just the story of a woman who's husband committed suicide because he couldn't see his way out and wanted the world to stop. Most suicides are not about "I want to die"; they are about "I want xxxx to stop. I can't take it any more". What struck me was the huge depth of hatred that Joe had for his wife and family. Joe's suicide was less about being unable to live with their debts and more about wanting to wound. He was determined to leave a legacy of pain behind, well beyond the level of grief a family would feel at the death of a loved one. This is why I think that:-
  • Joe cancelled the life insurance policy, guaranteeing that his wife and children would lose their home. Despite life feeling so bad that suicide becomes the only way out, most loving parents worry about what will happen to their children - often that is the reason suicidal women make their last call for help after taking the tablets. (A variant on the "I can't go on like this" suicidal mindset are the thoughts "I am bringing my children down. I am a blight on their lives. They would be better off without me.") A more normal response would be for the suicide to rationalise their death by thinking: "Now they don't have to live with me going bankrupt. They will have the life insurance money to take care of them".
  • My gut tells me that a loving dad would not want to be found dead by his children, "I don't want them to see me like this", so would kill himself away from the family home. The article doesn't say how he died, but in America it is statistically likely that he shot himself. I may be wrong with this assumption, but it seems to me that he wanted them to suffer the horror of finding him dead in the garage, blood and brain matter everywhere.
  • Joe was an abusive husband. He was very controlling of his wife and was probably physically abusive (Oprah uses the phrase "physically aggressive"). The children would sleep in the marital bed "to protect mommy". He intimidated Sylvia into doing what he wanted, forcing her to become his template "wife". No matter what they claim, abusive husbands rarely love their wives: they hate them; they despise them; they belittle them; if only their wife became x, y or z, then they would bestow their love on them.
Nothing will take away the pain and grief Sylvia and her children have suffered. I hope that with the help of their family they will be able to rebuild their lives and, instead of having their lives defined and limited by the pain of Joe's suicide, the effect is "Daddy died. After that, we learned to live and be free".

- Pam

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Inflation and Recession

In December, I woke to the news that food prices have inflated by over 5% in 2007 (6.6% per this article at the BBC) and that wheat has topped $10 a bushel for the first time ever. Whilst my cousins who farm on the plains of northern Victoria may be happy with the price for their wheat, the runes for the rest of us weren't good.

I awoke yesterday morning to news that the cost of living for the average British household has risen by £1,300 a year, with households now spending an average of £1,307 per month on living expenses. The Daily Telegraph has the best article, here. This announcement was followed by inflation figures for the UK showing that by whatever measurement you use, inflation has gone up in Britain. Of course, the official measure (the CPI) is half the level of the actual cost of living (as measured by the broader RPI). The difference is primarily due to political expediency by the Government several years ago, who decided to exclude rampant increases in housing costs and thus trumpet that they had conquered inflation. They hadn't; they'd just removed the highest rising component.

Personally, it feels as if everything has gone up. I'm paying £1.10 a litre for diesel for the car (that's over $7 a US gallon!); a year ago, I thought it was high at 94p. Food prices have increased markedly; after 8 years, we're struggling to keep within our £100 a month supermarket budget. And a night out with friends seems to cost quite a lot more than a couple of years ago.

And I'm not the only one. Listen in to other people's conversations and you can't not overhear remarks about belt tightening. It seems that, long before it officially happens, Joe Average (the "man in the street") has entered his own personal recession. Credit card debts are biting; mortgage rates continue to rise (even though the Bank of England has cut the base rate, the average mortgage rate has increased in the last six months) and salary increases are not keeping pace. Joe Average has every reason to feel pain in his hip pocket nerve.

Am I worried? Yes. Although, my job should be safe for the life of my project (another 18 months or so) and big infrastructure projects are flowing in to all the engineering firms. It's the side-effects that worry me: the increases in living costs; the increase in the cost of borrowing, just at the time when we will need to refinance (our mortgage comes off its 5-year fixed rate in August. It won't ratchet up like an American ARM, but the standard variable rate is more than 2% higher than we are used to paying).

I'm aware that it's no use worrying over the things I can't control. I will have a job, or I'll be made redundant; the mortgage will increase or we'll be offered another fixed rate a price that doesn't hurt too much; these are things beyond my control. What I can control is how inflation affects me: I can choose cheaper options; I can save to buy what I value and stop wasting money on things that aren't important; I can't reduce my commuting costs by much, if anything, but I can build my budget to accommodate that; I have the knowledge and the tools at my disposal and I have a peer group here on the internet who will support me.

I watched a program last Wednesday night that is predicting a huge personal debt hangover for Britain, Repossession, Repossession, Repossession. It was quick to lay blame at the door of the banking industry for permitting customers to overborrow. However, it neglected to address the issue of personal responsibility for several of the people it profiled. The explanations were too simplistic. It's easy to blame the banks, but the banks don't take out the credit card to purchase the shopping.

I am still mystified by the couple who lost their house; their claim was that they hadn't been able to afford their mortgage when they purchased their house 8 years or so ago and, therefore, had run up huge debts trying to make the payments. Their story just doesn't add up.

The thing is: their original mortgage was only £27,500. Plug that number into a mortgage calculator over 25 years (UK standard mortgage period) at a penal rate of 7% and the payments are £194 per month. Both of them were discribed as having full time jobs - even if they were on minimum wage, their joint take-home pay 8 years ago would have been £1,400 a month. Throw in Council Tax of £100 a month, utilities of another £100, and they still had £1,000 to live off. How, then, did their debts escalate to over £140,000? Blaming their mortgage payments just doesn't cut it.

- Pam

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Dear Bank

Dear Bank

Thank you so much for your letter last week, issuing me with a new debit card for my "Bills" account.

We've had a long relationship over the years and I appreciate your thoughtfulness. You were there for me in February 2000, when Sammy-the-dog ate my wallet in a fit of revenge (he hadn't had enough attention the night before) and I had to replace my cards. My, how we laughed, when I phoned up to ask for new cards because "the Dog ate them!".

You were there for me in 2001, following my divorce, when I did all that horrible paperwork and changed my name back to my maiden name. We timed it just right, so that all of my cards were re-issued in their regular sequence showing my new name.

Why, oh, why, then did you send me that card last week a) when it wasn't due to be replaced and b) in my OLD name? A name I haven't used since 2001. I've remarried since then, remember??? OK, my accounts are still in my maiden name but that's because your systems couldn't cope with me having some accounts as "Mrs Alphabet" and my personal cheque account as "Ms PipneyJane" - you said that you couldn't link them together for ease of access on the internet. But why send me a card in the name of "Mrs Dumbo"????

Yours, etc,

Definitely NOT Mrs Dumbo!

Monday, 4 February 2008

That was the week that was

What a week! In just over seven days, I have:-

  1. Saturday. Australia Day, 26th January. Belated celebration of Howard's birthday with drinks, a tour of Hampton Court Palace (conducted by a friend who is a Warder), and dinner. Here is Malcolm trying to wish Howard "Happy Birthday!" :o)
  2. Sunday. Attended an Asian wedding fair with my friend, Rima. Saw some amazing clothes and beautiful dresses. Oh. My. God. The work that goes into an Asian wedding outfit! I'm not sure if they are an embroiderer's heaven (the beadwork!) or hell (each dress is a labour of love). Rima will make a stunning bride.
  3. Monday. Celebrated DH's birthday on Monday 28th January. His presents: a pair of socks made to the Yarn Harlot's "Earl Grey Sock" pattern; and a promise of the New England Patriots fleece of his choosing (since there was a chance they might win Superbowl XLII, it was worth hanging on to see if they'd issue a commemorative sweater). So that DH wouldn't think the socks were a present, I finished grafting the toes and sewing in the ends on Monday morning. (Got up extra early.) Not sure about the toes - the pattern narrows to 18 stitches, which looks rather pointed particularly on the one at the top of the picture. The yarn is by Lana Grossa. Here is a shot of the detail:
  4. Tuesday. Hosted "the guys" for dinner prior to us all attending a games convention, Conception 2008. Fed them a modified version of the "sweet and sour pork" recipe from the latest Weight Watchers magazine. (instead of pork, I used 250g of the turkey frozen from Christmas). Recipe to follow sometime soon - not only is it low in points, the portions are massive.
  5. Wednesday. Went to work, leaving a house full of sleeping guests. They headed off to Conception around lunchtime. The plan was that I would do a day's work and join them on the South Coast around 8pm. Was meant to finish work at 4.30pm; actually left the office at 7pm, having clocked up over 3 hours overtime in 2 days (I could have done with staying late on Tuesday, but it wasn't possible with everyone coming over for dinner). Nearly 2 hours and 100 miles later, I pulled into the "holiday village" and tried to figure out which cabin was ours.
  6. Thursday and Friday. Played 3 sessions of Cthulhu; 1 session of Cold Cities; knitted a PAIR of socks(!). This is me, Max-the-GM and the sock: Cooked one supper for 6 guys who could compete in the eating Olympics (my version of Pipi-An, a Filipino "peanut chicken" dish - again, recipe to follow sometime soon). Made a horseshoe for a friend's wedding on the Saturday. And here is a shot showing the horseshoe and ribbon.
  7. Saturday. Drove home, then into London to attend my first Black Tie wedding in two decades. The church was lit by candle-light, the bride was beautiful, the dress was by Vera Wang, the band was Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. DH looked as gorgeous as ever (did I tell you that the first time I saw him, he was wearing a dinner suit?) and we had a ball. Here is a shot of Kim and I in our party dresses. And the bride and groom.
  8. Sunday. Attended the christening of the daughter of Saturday's bride and groom. Beautiful church (still filled with the flowers from the wedding), nice vicar. 300 metre walk to our host's home to toast the baby's good health.
  9. Sunday night/Monday morning. Hosted a Superbowl Party. Just six of us (oh, and Rob-the-Giant's-fan in New Zealand, via text). This was the first year I have managed to stay awake right to the very end. And what an ending. DH was distraught as the New England Patriots lost in the final minute of the game. Amy, I was thinking of you. It was heart-breaking.
  10. Monday. No work, thank God! The Superbowl finished around 3.30am. I have to drive to Site tomorrow, but today is my own. Woke up at 8.30, cooked breakfast for the survivors and settled down to blog.
- Pam