Friday, 10 June 2016

Crafty mum - seed bead jewellery

I first got inspired to try making seed-bead jewellery after a trip to Tanzania back in 2006.  The Masai women that we saw created and sold some incredible decorative jewellery.  As usual I wondered if I would be able to make something, and on the plane ride home started thinking about how it could work.
Photo from 
Seed beads are very inexpensive, and the materials and tools you need to make the jewellery is minimal.  Choose the colours you want, and get started.  I used my own designs and experimented with different techniques, which haven't all been successful, but I've just had a glance on Google and found loads of awesome designs and tutorials on the web if you prefer to have a go at something that's been tried and tested.

Over the last decade I've occasionally dipped into my seed-bead box to have a go at something new, or to make a personal gift for somebody, but I've got so many crafts on the go that I've not really dedicated much time to learning the art properly.

The example above is a poor one.  I made a bracelet and a necklace for my daughter and my two nieces for Christmas, and also painted a little jewel box to present them in.  Unfortunately, one of my nieces, aged 6, broke hers just minutes after she opened it.  I'd fastened it on for her, demonstrating the barrel clasp, but she immediately tugged it to take it off, assuming it was elastic, and it snapped.  I took it back from her, promising to fix it and send it back,  I finally got around to it two weeks ago, reworking it with double thread to make it a bit more robust.  It proves impossible to get four threads through some of the beads though, so the result is a little scruffier than it was before.

Have you made any seed bead creations?  Fancy sharing a link or a picture?

"You're looking great!" - the reality of life with microscopic polyangiitis

I'm told that I have a disease called microscopic polyangiitis, a type of vasculitis where the immune system starts attaching the cells lining the small blood vessels, mostly in the kidneys.  Nobody knows the cause of the disease, few people have heard of it, and (in my case anyway) it presents with few, if any, visible signs that anything is wrong.

Here's how I'm feeling at the moment:

Lots of minor symptoms which don't amount to much on their own, which many people experience and often consider normal.  Added together they make me feel horrible and poorly.  At the moment these include: lost appetite (which has led to speedy weight loss), nausea, tiredness, aches, random unexpected and very long period, muscle cramps, itchy and sore eyes and itchy skin which comes up in a sort of rash which comes and goes.  Quite a lot of this has just developed in the last few weeks after my having been fine for ages since I started treatment.

Sometimes I feel a awful and get home and do a lot of nothing.  

Mostly it's minor.  I'm still working full time teaching a class of four and five-year-old's and doing all the planning, preparation and assessment that goes with that.  I'm still out walking the dog at 6.15 every morning.  I'm still (mostly - sometimes I can't be bothered) doing the groceries, making sure the children do their homework, cooking, doing laundry and housework, going on holiday and even applying for (and getting!) a new job.  

Sometimes I feel completely normal and fine.

Mostly, how I feel can vary from hour to hour.

Here's what the doctors are telling me:

  • my blood pressure is too high
  • I still have blood and protein in my urine which indicates that my kidneys aren't functioning properly.
  • My blood results (about which I'm still woefully clueless) are not showing enough improvement.
  • I need another kidney biopsy to see what's going on and what to do next about the treatment.  (Had this earlier this week)
Here's what other people are telling me:
  • "You're loads better than you were in January/February" (before diagnosis and treatment)
  • "You're looking great!"
  • If I'm feeling a bit rubbish then it's, "That's probably from the steroids / treatment / medication."  or "it's just because you've got a cold though, isn't it?"
Which basically leaves me...

Completely confused and unsure, unwilling to trust what I'm feeling at all.  I don't feel right, but I'm not actually poorly (not compared to others I hear about with this and other illnesses).  Maybe this has all been some horrible mistake and there's nothing wrong with me at all?  Perhaps I'm imagining some of these symptoms?

When people ask, "how are you?", I'm answering quite truthfully, "I really don't know,"

That's what life is like for me with this disease at the moment.  I have absolutely no clue whether anything I'm feeling is real, whether it is connected to the disease or completely unrelated, whether its a side-effect of the cocktail of medicines I'm taking, or even just normal.  I'm hoping that after my next clinic appointment next week I might have a bit more idea what's going on.

Just venting really.  Tired of it all.  Fed up and wish it would go away.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Crafty mum - embroidered shorts

I don't know where I got this idea from, but since I have a daughter who likes to combine her love of all things girlie with a propensity to wallow in mud and climb trees, we have to have clothes that will stand up to a certain amount of rough treatment.
 I took a pair of her brother's outgrown shorts and decided to prettify them.
It's taken me over a year, as they've languished at the bottom of my sewing basket and been occasionally worked on in between other projects, and I was dreading her trying them on in case after all that effort they no longer fit her.  
Here they are... some proper tough shorts for adventures, with pretty butterflies and flowers embroidered all over them.  I've now been commissioned by son to sew some bits and pieces on to his clothes too.
I know that you can buy clothes, both pretty and tough, for next to nothing at Primark or the supermarket, so it really doesn't matter if they get torn halfway up a tree, but I like to do things differently, and if that means spending hours embroidering shorts that will only be worn for a few months, then that's what I'll do! ... in any case, I have plans to cut out the embroidered bits and incorporate them into a cushion once they're outgrown, so it won't be thrown out.

What crafty projects have you been working on lately?  Fancy some embroidery?

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

6 steps to prepare for a teaching job interview

Competition in the teaching job market seems to be as fierce as ever, with sometimes many tens of applicants chasing one vacancy, particularly the prized permanent positions which offer so much more security and scope for career progression.  If you've made it as far as the short-list then your application form must be pretty good, so the next hurdle is the interview.  How to demonstrate to this school that you are the best person to fill their vacancy.

Confessions of a Teacher: Teacher Interview questions and answers:
  1. Find out about the school - you'll most likely already have done a lot of homework about the school, including a visit and tour before you completed your application form.  Now is the time to consolidate that research.  Revisit the school website; read key policies; read any school newsletters; have a look at the most recent OfSted Inspection Report.  Being able to comment at interview on something that the school does and how you can contribute or add to it will help the panel to see you as the missing piece of their school jigsaw.
  2. Plan your answers - When I've had feedback from unsuccessful interviews, particularly where the headteacher knows me, I've been told that I don't say enough at interview.  Even though the headteacher knows that I do something or know about something, when the opportunity to say so comes up in the interview, I miss it.  I've now made myself a set of Key Interview Answer index cards.  Each card has a potential topic on, and a brief note of the key items I must get across when I answer a question on that topic.  So I have cards on Safeguarding, Outstanding Lessons, the Curriculum, Behaviour Management, and Assessment.  I've also made a note of specific examples from my own practice that I can talk about in each area.  Before the interview I am looking at these cards daily, and I'll take them with me to look at as a refresher just before the interview.  Hopefully when the questions come up I'll remember to cram in every point and not miss the chance to show what I know and can do.
  3. Update your knowledge - Make sure that you are up to date with changes to the curriculum or assessment.  If there have been changes then they will almost certainly ask about what you think about them in your interview.
  4. Prepare your lesson - Almost all teaching interviews now include an observed lesson to give the panel the opportunity to see how you really interact with children, and how you operate in the classroom.  This is another area I've had feedback on from unsuccessful interviews.  Each time I've been told that while I clearly know my stuff and have a great rapport with the children, my lessons are too complex and busy.  So the first rule here is to Keep It Simple.  Have a very clear idea of what you want the children to learn from the lesson, and work on how you are going to achieve that.  If possible, get in touch with the Class Teacher beforehand to find out what topic or area of work the class are currently covering so that you can fit in with or refer to it.  The teacher should also be able to give you information on class groupings and abilities and whether there will be a Teaching Assistant in the room, so that you can plan accordingly.  The panel don't want to see the top of 30 heads working in their books, they want to see you interacting and teaching, so the more interaction in the lesson the better.  Don't be scared to use practical activities and games - yes, the children will get excited and the noise level may rise, but as long as you are on top of this and the children are engaged then some good learning will be happening.  Be wary of relying on technology - finding out that the interactive whiteboard is different from the one you are used to, or that the computer won't read your memory stick minutes before your lesson just adds an extra layer of stress that you don't need.  There's plenty of time in the interview to talk about how you use technology in the classroom, for your observed lesson aim to do without (unless its a Computing lesson!).
  5. Practice - Practice answering possible interview questions (back to those index cards), and if possible practice your observed lesson.  While every class will respond differently to any lesson, by running through it you'll at least have a clear idea of potential pitfalls, time-scales and the resources that you need, as well as feeling more confident when it comes to actually delivering the lesson.
  6. Plan your day - we're now on the logistics side of the interview.  What time do you need to arrive?  How will you get there and how long will it take?  Where will you park?  Do you need to take a packed lunch?  What time will you expect to finish?  What will you wear?  What will you do afterwards?  (Usually the Headteacher or Chair of Governors will phone later the same day to let you know the outcome of the interview, so you can either be driving home, pacing nervously up and down your sitting room, taking your kids to their swimming lesson and sitting in a noisy swimming pool, relaxing with a book in your favourite cafe, or out for a nice walk with the dog - whatever you will be doing, make sure that you can hear your phone and will be available to take that call.
Good Luck!

I've written this post because I'm in the middle of making all these preparations.  I have a job interview on Thursday for a part-time post starting in September teaching Key Stage Two.  I had applied for a couple of permanent and full-time posts, for which I wasn't short-listed (boo).  But with all the issues with my health at the moment (which seem to be getting more rather than less complex), I think part-time or even Supply Teaching is probably the best option for me for the moment.  I'll let you know how I get on.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

An ethical life - do meat and fish have a place?

I'm writing a series of posts on living more ethically.  Having tackled ethical shopping for fruit and vegetables here.  It's time to have a look at meat and fish.

In the UK some 860 million animals are reared every year for the food industry.  It's our favourite source of protein.  The average meat-eater will consume 760 chickens, 20 pigs, 29 sheep, 5 cows and half a trawler net full of fish in their lifetime.  
image from
What are the ethics involved in meat-eating?

There are a couple of ethical issues to consider.  Meat production has become more intensive, which means that on the plus side, meat has come down in price, but on the negative side, means that animals are often suffering as a result, either through over-crowding, lack of proper attention to health and well being and lengthy transportation of live animals.  In addition, in order to farm intensively, animals are often kept in unnatural environments, given hormones to reproduce more than they would naturally, given antibiotics to prevent illness rather than treat it.  Intensive meat farming where far more animals are stocked in a smaller area can also lead to agricultural pollution as waste runs off the farm and into water courses.  Reliance on commercial feed rather than grass to feed this large number of animals also leads to environmental and social problems elsewhere, with land used to grow food for animals, consuming both land and water that could have been used to grow food for humans - it takes 900 litres of water to grow 1kg of wheat, but 100,000 litres of water to raise 1kg of beef.  A real strain on resources in a world where resources are far too scarce and too many people are dying through lack of food and water.  The end product is often over packaged and is routinely injected with water (to increase the weight and price) and preservatives.

As an extra issue, meat is also high in saturated fat, so too much of it could be placing a strain on our bodies and therefore on our health services.
And fish?

Fish stocks are in serious trouble.  We are taking too many fish out and not leaving enough for them to be able to reproduce quickly enough to replenish their stocks.  When we fish on a large scale, we also employ techniques which regularly decimate entire ecosystems, or inadvertently kill other species.  To counter the over-fishing problem fishing quotas have been in place for years, which means that to feed the desire for fish (and for our own health we are being told that we should be eating more fish, aiming for at least two portions per week), we are increasingly turning to fish farms.  Fish farms have their own ethical problems, as they routinely treat the fish with antibiotics, anti-parasite chemicals etc.  Prawns are usually farmed in developing countries which often employ child or very cheap labour, coupled with dangerous working conditions using a range of toxic chemicals which are then routinely dumped in the sea.
image from the Vegetarian Society of Ireland
What would the ethical choices be?

The most obvious ethical choice would be becoming vegetarian, or better still vegan, avoiding propping up the meat industry entirely.  Alternative sources of protein include quorn (a synthetic fungal protein) and soya or tofu (which has its own ethical issues such as deforestation to grow soya, and the use of genetically modified soya).

If giving up meat entirely is a step too far, then you could consider reserving meat for the weekends and special occasions.  This would make it easier too to make other ethical choices (which may cost more) about the meat that we do consume:

  • when buying any meat, opt for organic and free-range as it means that the animal will have been treated better, with lower stocking densities, access to feed outdoors etc.  Look for the organic and RSPCA Freedom Food logos.
  • buy meat from a local butcher who should be able to tell you the source and provenance of their product.  It's also unlikely to be injected or tampered with (especially if you can see the butchery with your own eyes!) and over-packaged;
  • buy lamb in the Summer.  Lambs are born in the spring, so should be big enough to eat by early Summer.  In order to have "Spring lamb" in the supermarkets in February the poor ewe is being given hormone treatments and often forced to give birth as many as three times during the year, or live lambs are being transported across the continent in dreadful conditions between where they were farmed and where they will be slaughtered, so they can be delivered to supermarkets as fresh as possible.
  • Opt for line-caught or organic fish;
  • choose pollock, or plentiful haddock, instead of cod.  Check the Good Fish Guide, from the Marine Conservation Society, for a list of sustainable fish.
  • Choose smaller cold-water Atlantic prawns rather than larger Tiger or King prawns (the ones farmed in developing countries).

And the Ink Spots household?

I'll be honest here.  I like eating meat.  I was a vegetarian for a while, as I didn't think I'd be able to kill an animal, and if I couldn't kill one myself, then it wasn't right to eat them.  My husband (before he was my husband) defeated me with the logical argument: "well you can't do your own colonoscopy either, but if you needed one doing you'd get somebody else to do it for you."  I started eating meat again with only a little guilt.  I'm a sucker for a lovely bit of roast and a bacon sandwich.

However, for all the reasons above, I am trying to cut down on the meat a bit.  I don't think that we'll be able to reserve it for the weekends, "you forgot to put any meat on my plate!", but I have been able to swap a meaty mid-week meal or few to things like jacket potato with cheese and beans or tuna, omelette, or pasta with a vegetable sauce.  I'll keep gradually making these swaps until it becomes more of a habit for all of us.  
I only buy free-range chicken, but need to make more of an effort to buy organic and free-range meat all the time, and use local butchers... which becomes easier and more affordable the less meat we eat.

I only buy pole and line caught tuna,  but I do need to be more selective about the prawns I buy (I just love those juicy big ones - now I'm not so sure!) and make sure that I buy a range of fish from the sustainable list.

I guess the answer here is that while with fruit and veg I was doing okay but still had more to do, with meat and fish I am a long way from making the kind of ethically sound choices that I would wish for.  Still, as I mentioned in my first post about ethical living, the choices we make towards an ethical life have to be made one at a time, small steps towards better habits.  We're taking those steps, and knowing that we need to is a good start.  I'll review how we're getting on as time goes by.

What about you?  Do you buy sustainable fish?  Organic meat?  Have meat-free Mondays?  Are you a vegetarian or vegan and wonder how I could touch a bacon sandwich?  Are you trying to cut meat down in the diet of a carnivorous family member?

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Make more of May - a quick life update

May is one of those months that everybody likes.  In May the weather takes a definite turn towards Summer, plants and flowers start growing, BBQs are dusted off, people spend more time outdoors and soak up a bit of well-earned sunshine and warmth.

I thought I'd take the opportunity to give a brief update on what's going on with me, and where life is currently going, especially for those of you that were concerned by my post back in February, where I shared that there were problems with the health of my kidneys being investigated, but I've not mentioned them since!

Let's do the health thing first.  At the kidney biopsy in February I was told that I would hear the results at my  next appointment in three weeks time, unless the results were urgent.  I got a phone-call from the Renal specialist three days later.  It turns out I have a type of Vasculitis called microscopic polyangiitis.  Vasulitis is where the immune system decides to start attacking the blood vessels.  There are lots of different varieties, and microscopic polyangiitis involves the blood vessels in the kidneys, and occasionally the lungs.  So my immune system had started attacking my kidneys, which were inflamed.  They wanted to start treatment right away.  The treatment involves starting on a hefty whack of steroids, which they taper down quite quickly because of the side-effects, and also giving a low-dose chemotherapy type drug infusion every three weeks for ten cycles.  Both of these treatments can have lots of side-effects so they keep a close eye on you, and also give lots of other drugs to try to reduce the side-effects as much as possible.  It means that I trek up to Birmingham every three weeks for the infusion, and again in between for a clinic visit, and also have a blood test here in Hereford mid-cycle.  Its a bit of a long-term illness - it should be in remission by the end of the ten cycles in the Summer, after which the treatment reduces to a maintenance dose.  I'm not sure how long that goes on for, but I think they monitor things and making sure there are no relapses over a couple of years and then gradually try withdrawing the treatment.  I've now had four treatments with the cyclophosphomide infusion, and am due my fifth on Tuesday, and the steroid dose has been reduced from 60mg per day to 20mg over the course of the treatment so far.  

I have to say there have been moments where the whole thing has been a bit overwhelming.  I mean, I'm 37 and previously healthy, reluctant even to take paracetamol most of the time.  Then suddenly I have this long-term illness and am chucking back so many tablets that I think I'm rattling.  Having seen some of the other folks at the clinics and in the infusion suite though, I think I've had it pretty easy.  First of all, thanks to the vigilance of my optician and the competence of the doctors, my illness was picked up and diagnosed very quickly.  I had already seen the specialist before I even felt unwell!  I'm also getting off fairly lightly with the treatments.  I get the impression that others can react pretty badly to it, or get many more side-effects.  I feel a little fuzzy, shaky and very tired the evening and next day after a cyclo infusion, and am getting other side-effects, but nothing serious, and am still managing to work full time.  My side-effects have included sleepless nights - I think that's the steroids.  I've been waking very early in the morning (like between 2 and 4am) and have often been up by 4.30am - also leading to me being pretty grumpy by the time I pick the children up from school at 5.30pm.  Luckily as the steroid dose has been reduced, this seems to be an improving situation.  I get puffy legs as the day wears on, the skin on my hands has gone papery and thin, I've got spotty, I've got a fat face, I've had bouts of nausea (better now, as they changed one of the drugs) and I have AN ENORMOUS APPETITE!  Seriously, I'm hungry all the time.  I lost quite a bit of weight in the few weeks before the biopsy, but have now put it all back on.  One of my  missions for May (and June, July, August etc), is now that the steroid dose is coming down, I've really got to get in control of my eating and try to shift some of the weight back off.  I can't do much about the vasculitis, but  I can make sure that the rest of my lifestyle is healthy.
my fat face today out walking the dog.
My family is lovely.  They've had a bit of a hard time over the last few months, as I've been tired and grumpy.  To be honest, Bug doesn't seem to notice much of the time, but  then she surprises me by making me a card asking "ar you ok?".  C gets more worried, and when he can see that I'm tired or feeling unwell, gives me big cuddles.  I've been trying my best to make sure the house is still clean and tidy, the dog is walked, we have clean clothes and food at the right times, but there have been times when all I've managed to do when I get home from work is curl up on the sofa, and leave it all to Hubby.  Despite my mood swings and fluctuating energy levels, he has kept going with everything.  The whole thing does seem to have sparked a bit of "living for the moment", and we've fulfilled a couple of dreams by going on holiday to Venice, and ordering a brand-new VW Camper.  Hopefully we'll keep on with that - I like that we're getting on with living right now. 
We like Herefordshire, it's a beautiful place to live.  We're still hoping to sell the house in Scotland (sooner rather than later) but currently have tenants in there and are renting down here.  We can't wait to finally buy a house here and make it into our own home - because we know we aren't planning to stay here we aren't doing anything that would need undoing at the end of the tenancy, it feels very temporary.  I'm pretty sure we'll be in this place at least until the end of the Summer, so another thing to do in May will be to get some veggies and flowers in the garden.  Last year I got a few tubs and pots around the place, and I hope to make use of some pallets and extend that this year, allowing space for the children to have their own planting area too if possible.  We can either take them with us or bin them when we finally do move.
Work - I'm really enjoying being back at work, though obviously with all the trips to doctors and hospital, blood tests and feeling unwell or tired it hasn't all been easy.  I'm currently covering a maternity leave at a tiny little school in rural Herefordshire teaching Reception Class.  It was a challenging start, as there were two classes sharing one classroom, which was slightly chaotic to say the least!  Things are now looking much better, as I have a huge classroom, which is beginning to look more like the way a Reception Classroom is supposed to look (though getting resources ordered via our "umbrella" school is unbelievably slow - we are definitely the poor dependent!).  In professional terms I am really enjoying the challenge of teaching a different age-range.  The LEA are coming in to moderate my EYFS judgements on the little lovelies at the end of May, and while I'm hoping that I'll learn from the experience, I'm also hoping that it won't be too much of a learning curve and that they'll agree with most of my judgements.  I'm feeling pretty good because I've already done a lot of the evidence gathering and preparation work ready for that, and by doing so, it will also put me ahead of the game when it comes to writing EYFS Profiles and school reports towards the end of term.
In the meantime, I'm also applying for jobs for September.  Watch this space to see how I get on with that!  

Everything else - writing, crafts, model railway, Scouting, making stuff - It will come as no surprise having read all the above, that my writing, my crafting, the model railway (which came out of storage a couple of months ago), and all the other projects with which I like to fill my life, have taken a definite back seat over the last few months.  I am still required to make things by my demanding daughter, and do my best to fulfil her requests, but am also trying to teach her that with many demands on my time, I need to prioritise, and making a cat costume is lower on the priority list than filling in a job application!  I hope to get back to all these things of course, but just now getting fit and healthy, spending time with the family and keeping up at work are my three top priorities - in that order.

What are you up to in your life at the moment?  How are you getting on with your life dreams and priorities?

Monday, 11 April 2016

The Beautiful City of Venice (and taking children on a city-break)

We've just come back from our first European city-break with the children - to the gorgeous city of Venice.
Venice is breathtaking.  I'll tell you a little bit about the holiday, and throw in the things that we've discovered about travelling with a 5 and 6 year-old as I go along.

While C had been on an aeroplane before, aged about a year old, from Exeter to Edinburgh, this was the first plane trip that either would know about.  The airport and the aeroplane was every bit as exciting for them as the rest of the holiday.  We talked them through - several times - how the airport works and which bags would stay  with us and which go in the hold.  C got quite worried about having anything metal on his person or in his bag, so Hubby showed him the list of permitted and not-permitted items on the internet.  They packed their bags of things for the journey well in advance.  Despite my warnings about lugging a heavy bag around, C insisted on filling his with large hard-backed books about space.  Later, when he was beginning to tire of carrying the bag up and down steps and bridges in Venice, I made sure he kept hold of it!
We drove down to Gatwick on the Sunday afternoon and stayed in a nearby hotel, enjoying a meal at a local Harvester restaurant.  The hotel wasn't strictly necessary, but saved an unreasonably early morning drive, and meant that we were in plenty of time for the flight.  We used Purple Parking, who offer a hotel/parking deal and lay on a bus to the terminal.  This was, of course, all part of the adventure for the children.

Once through security, we made straight for the indoor children's play area.  One of us stayed and loosely supervised the children (did my puzzles), while the other went and browsed in the shops.
On the plane Hubby had booked two pairs of seats by the window, so we took a child each.  They had the window seat and we showed them all the exciting runway goings-on.  As we took off I handed out the sucking sweets - turns out not to be a good idea for Bug.  She was so busy looking about and chatting that she nearly choked on her sweet several times and had me worrying that we'd be turning the plane around and getting a paramedic!

On arrival at Marco Polo airport we got cash and bought our boat tickets across to Venice.  The Alilaguna boat-bus was quite low in the water and the windows covered in spray, but we still got a great view as we motored up the Grand Canal and disembarked just near the famous Rialto Bridge.  From there it was a short step to the hotel.  We actually weren't staying in the hotel (Ai Riali), but in a separate apartment.  Great tip for families by the way:  It didn't cost more than a room in the hotel, but our apartment (just behind St Mark's Square) had it's own kitchen, 2 bathrooms, sitting room and 2 bedrooms.  It meant that we could eat when we were hungry, the children had space to play, and we weren't stuck in the same room as them being quiet and dark while they went to bed early.  A porter from the hotel carried our bag and led the way to the apartment.  I nipped out to find a supermarket (marked on the map for me by the hotel receptionist) to pick up essential supplies.  I felt a bit like Audrey Hepburn as I trip-trapped along through back alleys and over little bridges.  I didn't even need the map on the way back!  I'm not sure Audrey Hepburn has ever been to Venice, but it felt like the kind of place that Holly Golightly would be very much at home.
Most days we breakfasted in the apartment, then headed out for the day.  We'd have a full hot meal at lunchtime, and then a lighter tea back at the apartment.  That's another tip for parents with children - Continental Europeans tend to eat later, and many restaurants don't start serving their evening meal until 6.30 or 7pm.  If your children need to eat earlier than this, then consider having your main meal at lunchtime, usually served between 12 and 2.
We bought a 48 hour tourist pass for the Vaporetto (boat bus) which takes you just about everywhere, and used that to space out the walking and give little legs a rest.  We also did one trip in a taxi boat, which felt very decadent (but was considerably cheaper than a gondola trip!).
It's worth heading to the toilet whenever you are in a cafe/restaurant or museum, because public toilets cost 1-1.5 Euros per person.  Most of the ones we visited were decent toilets, though I did experience one very dodgy one!
We visited the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.  It's full of contemporary art which allowed the children to interpret it in whatever way worked for them.  Bug was delighted to find two Picasso paintings, as she's learned about him at school.  We also visited a couple of beautiful churches to see the Tintorettos and other beautiful Renaissance Art.  The children looked at the pictures and statues and tried to identify Bible stories that they had heard.  We climbed two bell towers, with views across to one another, as well as across the whole of Venice: San Marco is the tallest campanile in Venice, in St Marc's square and waking us at 6 each morning; San Georgio Maggiore is on another island just opposite St Marc's.  We also paid a visit to two museums: the Natural History Museum of Venice and the Murano Glass museum.  The displays on evolution and adaptation at the Natural History Museum are superbly curated, but we were less keen on the "collections" of dead animals, including a beautiful gorilla killed as recently as the 1920s.  The Glass Museum had a video at the beginning showing some of the techniques still in use today to make the different types of glassware, and that brought the collection of glass over the last two and a half millennia to life a bit, but the children definitely needed a run around in the garden afterwards.
In between these visits we just explored the city on foot and vaporetto, stopping for ice-cream, lunches, coffees and shopping whenever we needed, heading back to the airport on Friday afternoon.
They say that Venice is a city of romance.  It's certainly romantic, and we saw plenty of evidence of honeymooning couples and weddings.  The setting is stunning; the architecture and history fascinating; the buildings all showing signs of faded glory in various stages of restoration; the canals and the life people live around them and the multitude of tourists are intriguing.  It's also a great place to go as a family - small enough that you can get around the whole place very easily, big enough that there's plenty to see and do, enough interest with transport alone to keep small children happy, the pace of everything slowed down by the absence of cars.  We had a wonderful time and I would definitely recommend it.

None of the links or mentions on here are in any way affiliated to me, nor am I getting paid in any way to write or endorse any products, attractions or accommodation.  All opinions are entirely my own.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

An Ethical Life - choosing what fruit and veg to buy

As part of my series on living more ethically, I'm going to start by thinking about fruit and veg.

It seems an odd thing to worry about, when so many people in the world don't have enough to eat at all, or are suffering the ill effects of malnutrition.  So many people live without the luxury to be able to choose what kind of fruit and vegetables to eat, they are just glad to get anything to eat.  But actually that's just the point.  Those of us who do have that luxury, should take advantage of it to make good and wise choices about the provenance of our food that will, in the long run, benefit those elsewhere in the world or our communities who do not have that luxury.

Every time we look at our plates we should ask ourselves where the food came from, how it was produced and what it cost - not just in terms of money, but in terms of the environment and social justice.

So what about fruit and vegetables?
We are advised by health professionals that for good health we should be eating five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.  Actually, the food gurus suggest this should be closer to nine portions per day, but with average consumption at only three portions, a push to five seems slightly more realistic.  However, eating more fruit and vegetables, while beneficial to health, isn't about ethics.  What is about ethics is how we eat and buy those fruits and veggies.  We are living in a time when you can walk into a supermarket at any time of day or night, any month of the year, and expect to buy a pineapple or some strawberries - despite the fact that these products do not grow locally, or are in completely the wrong this right? 

Every time we pick up an apple or pineapple we need to consider:

  • pesticides
  • food miles
  • grower and picker rights
  • season
To entice us to buy fruits and vegetables, supermarkets lay out stacks of perfectly formed specimens.  Unfortunately, this means that 20-40% of farm produce is wasted, because it isn't perfect enough for our shelves, even though it tastes absolutely fine.  It also means that to reduce the risk of blemished produce, the farmer relies more and more on a range of pesticides and fertilisers (the fertilisers also keep the food available out of season, which we'll come back to later).  The fertilisers also cause massive problems in the environment, as soil biodiversity and water courses are polluted by the run off from farmers' fields.  The very creatures on whom we rely to pollinate our crops (bees and other pollinating insects) are damaged by the chemicals we put on the crops to help them grow better.  In developing countries, without such stringent safety controls, farm workers handling these chemical pesticides are often also put at risk to their health.
As a consumer, we can change things for the better by:
  • accepting (or even seeking out) fruit and veg that doesn't necessarily look perfect.  Jamie Oliver is on a mission to sort this out and has convinced ASDA to try a "wonky veg bargain box" which seems to have gone down very well. 
  • Buying organic produce.  Yes, it costs a little more, but organic farms do not pollute the environment.  Plus, because they use natural methods to keep their farms healthy, such as crop rotation, they tend to be more biodiverse environments rather than the big swathes of monoculture operated by industrial pesticide farms.
  • Growing your own.  If you've got even a small space and can grow a few of your own fruits and veggies in season, then you know you've got something on your plate that hasn't contributed any pesticides to the environment (as long as you grow organically of course!!)
Food Miles
Is it crazy that for every 100 items of fruit and veg eaten in the UK, only five are grown here?  In 2003 the Guardian bought a basket of fresh food containing twenty items.  It included pears, tomatoes and lettuce.  The total food miles of the produce in the basket was more than 100,000 miles!  Peas are being air-freighted from South Africa, lettuce is being flown in from Spain, tomatoes from Saudi Arabia.  Supermarkets want to give us what we want, and we want a wide variety of cheap fruit and vegetable available year-round.  So they provide it, shopping around globally for the best deal.  The problem is that this is not the best deal for the planet.  Food miles, and in particular air-freight food miles, contribute 20% of the UKs greenhouse gas emissions.
What can we do about it?
  • buy local (not just "British grown" from the supermarket, as despite the fact that your apple may have been grown in the orchard next door to the supermarket, it will still have been taken to a centralised sorting/storage point, then perhaps somewhere else to be packaged, then somewhere else to be distributed, then back to the supermarket to be sold.)  Buy from local green grocers, farmers markets, box schemes or farm shops, where the food is actually locally sourced.
  • Grow your own, then the food miles are food steps - close to zero pollution.
  • If you really want to buy fresh fruit and veg that isn't in season (more on seasonality later) or doesn't grow locally - and who doesn't love a banana or pineapple - then try to get food that has been trucked in from mainland Europe rather than air-freighted.  If you're still hankering for that fresh pineapple that you really can't source locally, then think carefully about the country that it came from, and try to make decisions not to buy things from countries who make poor ethical decisions.
Grower and Picker Rights
While it's great to get fresh fruit and veg for a bargain price, we need to think about how realistic those prices are.  If we are paying next to nothing for fruits and veg, then it's highly likely that whoever grew it is getting even less - I mean, even with economies of scale, the Supermarket is focused on profit isn't it?  Because supermarkets buy in such large quantities they can force the farmer to accept a lower price than they would normally.  This means that either the farm becomes unprofitable, or the workers on the farm are paid less, or put in more dangerous or awful working conditions to cut costs.  In addition, because our farmers receive subsidies from the government and the EU, it makes sense for them to produce more than we need, thus making it much harder for farmers in the developing world to make any money.
To shop ethically with regards to grower and picker rights:
  • seek out the Fair Trade logo, which ensures that farmers, usually in the developing world, have been paid a fair price for their produce;
  • grow your own - you are the grower and picker;
  • buy from local farm shops, farmers markets or pick your own, where you can see or ask questions about conditions and prices;
  • ask questions - are the strawberries you are buying picked by migrant workers, and if so are they treated fairly and paid a decent wage?  I live just up the road from a massive S&A soft fruit farm, and I often wonder how the workers there are treated.
Science is a wonderful thing, and advances in agricultural and food storage science have meant that we are able to grow or preserve fruit and veg to such an extent that from somewhere in the globe, we are usually able to get pretty much any fruit and veg that we want, year round.  By doing this we are a) increasing our food miles, b) losing biodiversity, because we tend to only cultivate the fruits that will have the longest storage, or the longest harvest time, c) losing out on taste and nutrients because fruit and veg loses out during storage and transport, d) blighting our countryside with the polytunnels that we need to grow this fruit and veg over such an extended period and e) losing touch with the cycle of the seasons.  
  • grow your own
  • buy from farmers markets, farm shops and pick-your-own etc. 
  • in the supermarket, seek out British grown produce that is in season now (this is not easy.  I live in Herefordshire, one of the biggest apple producers in the UK, and yet even as the apple harvest was in full swing all around me, and there were free windfall apples on offer at nearly every farm gate, the choice in the supermarket was still pretty much limited to imported Granny Smiths and Golden Delicious!).
How do we shop for fruit and veg ethically in the Ink-Spots household?

Not nearly as well as I'd like, which is what this series of posts on the blog is all about really.  Working full-time, I still rely on the convenience of the supermarket for much of my shopping.  

I've made enquiries about a fortnightly delivery from a local fruit and veg box scheme, and have now prioritised it to get on and join the scheme as soon as I'm back from holidays ( if you're interested).  I did get a veg box delivery when we lived in Scotland, but found the choice in the bag limited in the winter, and in the Summer grew most of what we wanted anyway so didn't bother in the end.  

Here I have a rented garden with very limited growing space, so while I grow my own herbs, and plan to grow lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, chard and a few potatoes again this year, my growing-your-own options are pretty limited until we've got a long-term home and garden again.  

I do opt for Fair Trade wherever there is a choice.  

I love our local pick-your-own, and the children love to go there with a shopping list for fruit, which I also found remarkably inexpensive, and will continue to visit there as often as I can.  

Organic produce is still all too often a little too pricey in the supermarket, but I think I should go for it a bit more often.

I'm not too good at seasonality - partly because we always want a nice salad, tomatoes and so on.  The strawberries I've bought recently have been noticeably tasteless, so I'll give them a miss now until they are actually in season.  I think using the fruit and veg box scheme should help me to keep a bit closer to the seasons.

The same applies to air miles.  I love a banana, a pineapple, and chillies and lemongrass and so on, even though I know that they are air-freighted across the world.  Hopefully having a bag of local fruit and veg that needs using up will encourage me to be a bit more inventive with local foods, and have the air-freighted foods a bit less frequently.
court farm leisure, my local pick-your-own and farm shop, Tillington, Herefordshire

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

An Ethical Life - What is ethical living?

What is "ethical living"?  How do you know when you are living ethically?
According to Wikipedia, "Ethical living is the philosophy of making decisions for daily life which take into account ethics and moral values, particularly with regard to consumerism, sustainability,environmentalism, wildlife and animal welfare. At present it is largely a personal choice, and not an organized social movement.
Ethical living is an offshoot of sustainable living, in which the individual initially takes a series of small lifestyle changes in order to limit their effect on the environment. Making the decision to start to live ethically, can be as easy as beginning to recycle, switching off electric lights when leaving a room, buying local organic or fairtrade produce."

Everyday life is full of small decisions and big decisions.  From whether to pop into McDonalds for tea, to whether to buy a new vehicle and which one.  What kind of house to buy, which bank to use, whether to put that in the compost or just chuck it in the bin.  To pick up a take-away or rustle something up with the left-overs in the fridge that need using up.  What kind of nappy to put on the baby and whether to let your children watch TV.

Every one of these decisions has an impact on the world around us.  Each determines how much energy and resource we consume, how much waste we produce, and how we impact on our local and global communities.  Yet each decision has also to be balanced with the impact it has on our lifestyle and our purse.  We have grown up in a generation of consumers, in a world of consumers, and bucking the trend takes effort and willpower, changes of habit and mind-set.  

The decision to live life more ethically is usually done one decision and one step at a time.  There are times when life gets in the way and you slip easily back into easier old habits, but as long as you have the intention to make a smaller and more positive footprint on the world we live in, you'll take more of the small steps in the right direction, and some of the big ones too.  

I like to believe that I think carefully about the impact of what I do and how I live my life with my family.  I know I don't always get it right, but I do try to think about how what we do affects the planet.  Over the years on this blog I've posted a few times about how we try to do things, and I'll be revisiting ethical living in different areas of life in future posts too.

An article from The Independent in February 2008 suggested the following ten tips to start living more ethically.  They suggested:  
  1. use energy efficient appliance such as washing machines and dishwashers to save energy and money.
  2. Stick to the speed limit and save fuel.
  3. Make sure you buy fish carrying the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo which is sustainably fished.
  4. Put on a jumper rather than put up the heating.
  5. Don't send flowers.  They are flown in from around the world.  Instead give a house-plant.
  6. Missing for some reason!
  7. Have a shower rather than a bath.
  8. Use a "hippo" water saver in the toilet cistern to restrict the amount of water used with each flush.
  9. Buy ethically sourced jewellery - respecting the communities where the gemstones and precious metals come from.
  10. Drink tea sourced as part of the Ethical Tea Partnership, where certain minimum working and environmental standards are met.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Feel better this February

I know, I know.  I've been a very absent blogger.  I have great intentions but two very good excuses.  

The first is that I am now working full time and have two children.  The job I'm doing is taking a little adjusting to as they have some very "exacting" requirements on paperwork, most of which are bizarrely inefficient and seem designed just to increase teacher workload without offering any benefit to the children's learning... but with only a two-term contract I'm not sure that's a battle I'm prepared to fight, so I think I'll just submit and buckle down.

A much more pressing excuse for my absenteeism is that I've spent most of January feeling really very unwell and with ZERO energy.  For somebody like me who, umm.... how to put this... aims to be superwoman and be brilliant at everything this has been a very hard month.  

To start with I have a virus of some sort.  My first week at my new job I was fine, but then on the 11th Jan I suddenly felt awful.  It started with a sore throat and jabbing ear-ache and then progressed to a cold and racking cough.  THIS HAS NOT GONE AWAY!  It's got to the point where I'm coughing so much that I'm sick, I'm coughing all night and my stomach muscles and ribs are very very unhappy.

To add to this joy, it turns out my kidneys aren't working.  This is an interesting story, because we wouldn't have found out had it not been for a thorough optician!  In October at a normal eye check-up the optician noted a bulge in one of the blood vessels at the back of my eye, and suggested that I should get my blood pressure checked next time I was at the health centre.  Two weeks later I did and it was very high, so the nurse told me to come and get it checked again two weeks later - still high.  Next I was to see the GP, who told me I probably drank too much tea and coffee, and that I should buy a blood pressure monitor and check my blood pressure at home over a few days, she also arranged for a blood test and dismissed me.  The blood test must have shown something interesting because in the few days before Christmas I got a flurry of phone-calls, "you've been referred for an ultrasound of your kidneys", "you've been referred for some more blood tests", "we need to fit an ambulatory blood pressure monitor at 9am on Monday 4th January"... all with no word of explanation from the GP.  I said no to the latter.  How could I go and have a blood pressure monitor fitted when I was supposed to be starting my new job, and with no way of contacting work over Christmas?  I got another appointment with the GP... who didn't even look at the blood pressure readings she'd asked me to take, and who hadn't yet looked at the ultrasound report which had been sent by radiology 2 days previously.  She told me there was no evidence of my high blood pressure until I could get the ambulatory blood pressure monitor fitted so I should make an appointment for that, did an examination of me (without even speaking to the two children I'd had to bring with me) and basically dismissed me saying that everything seemed normal.  A few days later, when she had the results from the blood tests and the report from the ultrasound man in front of her she obviously changed her mind, because she phoned and told me I had "nephrotic kidneys", she was putting me on blood pressure medication immediately and referring me to a kidney specialist.  WHAT?  I looked up nephrotic kidneys and thank goodness didn't have half the symptoms of that, so resolved not to see this GP again, who seemed to veer from dismissal to panic and back again, and to wait and see what the kidney man said.  He was very calm and matter of fact.  He told me that my kidneys weren't working properly and that they needed to find out why, so they would do a biopsy of my kidneys, have a look at the results and then decide what could be done.  In the meantime, he doubled my dose of blood pressure tablets to try to bring that down to normal.  

That pretty much brings me to now.  Over the last couple of weeks I've had increasing pain in my back, which may or may not be to do with my kidneys; increasing fatigue and lack of energy which may be to do with my kidneys, or the fact that I'm coughing all night.  On Thursday I went for my pre-op assessment in Birmingham, and then went to the GP (saw a different doctor!) who felt that most of what I'm feeling is down to my cough, and prescribed me some anti-biotics in the hope that we can get rid of that before Monday when I go for my biopsy.  After the biopsy I have to take a couple of days off too, so I hope that some enforced rest will help me finally lose the cough before I go back to work on Thursday.  With any luck I'll have all my energy back over half-term and for Bug's 5th birthday (and if I don't I'll know that the kidneys are to blame for that).  The biopsy results have to go through both microscopy and spectrometry, so I don't see the kidney specialist again until the end of the month, and hopefully he'll tell me that I have something that can be fixed nice and easily.

So, all in all a pretty rubbish January, but hopefully I'm going to start feeling better very soon, and by the end of the month have a plan to sort the rest out.  Just reading this back and it seems a bit of a self-pity-a-thon, sorry about that, and if you've read this far, then thanks for sticking with me.  Hopefully Mel's smily service as usual will resume again soon.