Friday, 21 December 2012

Now is the Solstice of the Year

Well, here we are in a fairly bleak midwinter, economically if not in terms of weather. The Winter Solstice is a turning point; the days start to get longer, but the worst of the weather is still to come.   This year it's particularly notable as the date at the end of the Mesoamerican/Mayan long count calendar. It's impossible to miss the predictions ranging from Armageddon and the end of the world, to perhaps just the end of the world as we know it and the start of a new era. Destruction or transformation? Which ever, we're still here. And just at the moment, it's not raining either - it's a miracle!

The Winter Solstice always triggers an earworm for me and I potter about, singing it - if I can.  I usually have a cold at this time of year and this year is no exception. I've loved it since it was in the Christmas pop charts in 1976: Jethro Tull's Ring Out, Solstice Bells.

Go on, play it loud and sing along, you know you want to!  Thank you, Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull.

Good Yule to you all, and may the next year bring you your heart's desire, always providing it does no harm to anyone or anything else!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Good Toes and Naughty Toes

I was looking back over this blog (and through my posts in draft) and I realised that I had started the 'Use It or Lose It' thread, then hadn't started adding exercises.
So, here is the first exercise, bringing back happy memories of early ballet classes, where it was called 'good toes and naughty toes'.  I remember much later doing this in contemporary class as well, although there it was called 'point and flex'. In ballet class, the 'good toes' were pointed with a beautiful arch to the foot, and the 'naughty toes' were flexed.  As you advance in ballet, you realise that the flexion has its place too and there's nothing 'naughty' about it.  I sometimes use point-and-flex in class as a warm up while standing, so that it has a balance challenge element to it. But for starters, let's do it sitting on the floor, so you can see what you're doing.

Remember the rules!
  • I'm not a medical professional.  You are responsible for yourself.  If you're not sure whether you should be doing this, for example because of injury, recent surgery or long-term health issues, ask your GP/doctor, consultant, physiotherapist or other healthcare professional for advice.
  • If it hurts, stop!  It's okay if the movement feels strange, or you can feel a slight pull, a bit of muscle ache or burn, but sharp pain in soft tissue or joints is not good.
  • Be patient and gentle with yourself. Start with the easy exercises and work up to the more difficult versions.
  • Remember that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and that you are unique.  Don't compare yourself to anyone else.
  • Work slowly, carefully and mindfully; concentrate on good form and don't rush the exercises. Quality, not quantity!
  • Work both sides of the body equally, even if it's more difficult on one side or perhaps only one side feels as though it needs it.
  • If you feel as though there's no challenge in the exercise, do it anyway, just to prove you still can.
So, sitting on the floor with your legs out in front of you.  No slouching, now!  Sit up straight, supporting your back against the edge of the sofa or an armchair if you prefer, or lean back, using your arms to support yourself.
How does it feel?  If you aren't used to sitting on the floor with your legs out, just doing this can be quite strenuous. You might want to sit on a cushion.  Are you warm enough? Floors can be chilly, so you might want a blanket, an extra jumper and keep your socks on. (I wonder what happened to my leg warmers?)  Easy?  Then sit up straight, using your core muscles to support you.  
In this position, you can see your legs.  Look at your knees and how they line up with your ankles and toes.  When you are relaxed, your feet may well flop inwards, and your legs may roll in so that the knees face each other.
Roll the legs out from the hips so that the knees face the ceiling, and then straighten the foot so that you could draw a line down from the knee to the centre toe.  This is 'parallel position'.
How does it feel?  Is it an effort to get everything lined up?

With your knees relaxed, flex (that is, bend) your ankles and bring your toes up to point at the ceiling. Try to keep the feet flat, as if they were pressed against a wall.
Now point the foot, first stretching the ankle, then down the front of the foot with the toes still flexed as if you were wearing high heels. Lastly, point your toes, stretching them away from you, without curling your toes under and keeping your middle toe aligned with the centre of your knee.
Work slowly, without sudden movements, and gently, stretching only to the point just beyond where you start to feel the pull.
How does it feel?  One of the things I noticed was that it felt as my skin was being stretched, it was so dry.  Slathering my feet with moisturiser really helped.
Notice how this movement also works the calf muscles.

The next stage is to repeat this with a straight knee. Pull the thigh muscles up and keep them tensed (contracted) while you repeat the point and flex.  You may find that your heels lift away from the floor as your calf muscles move. Practise one foot at a time and then both together in the same direction, and then with one foot flexing as the other points.

Ready for more? Flex (bend!) the knee as you flex the ankle and foot and straighten the knee as you point.  It's very important to keep the knee aligned with the centre of the foot, so watch as you bend the knee and the ankle that they are in line.  Bending the knee moves the foot towards the body.  Keep your heel in light contact with the floor.  Don't aim for a big bend in the knee. Again, start with alternate legs, one at a time, and then both at the same time in the same direction, then both in alternate directions.

Still easy?  Rotate the legs out from the hip joints and repeat the exercises in turn-out rather than parallel.
Then sit with the legs wide and repeat the exercises in parallel (knees and toes to ceiling) and turn-out.

Other variations:
You can do this sitting down and it is a very useful exercise if you have to sit for a long period of time, either at a desk or as a passenger during a long drive or flight, as the movement of the calf muscles aids circulation by helping to pump blood back up the legs (the 'venous return').
Standing up, on one leg.  If the balance challenge is too much, use a chair, wall or ballet barre as a support.  (Really, it's not cheating.  Wobbling all over the place and risking falling over defeats the purpose of the exercise!) 
Do it in the bath or the swimming pool (the flex and point is at the core of  the frog kick!)
Do it lying down with one or both legs raised, still paying attention to the alignment of knees and toes.

And do let me know what you think of the exercise and how you get on!

Friday, 2 November 2012

Welcoming the Dark

It doesn't seem like six minutes since the equinox, let alone six weeks, and it's November already!
The third and last harvest, Nos Galan Gaeaf (the first of winter), Halloween, Samhain, the start of the dark half of the year - quite literally, too, now that the clocks have gone back to good old Greenwich Mean Time.  Mostly the weather is still grey and wet, so it seems to be getting dark from about mid-afternoon.  It's also chilly and the itching caused by my cold-induced urticaria has been driving me mad.  It just makes me want to find somewhere warm to hibernate

In the past six weeks, the last of the swallows have fled to warmer climes, and the starlings and thrushes have appeared, chattering, restlessly moving between fields and trees.

I was idly wondering about the traditional Halloween colours of orange and black. Orange is so hot and lively, in strong contrast to black, which is an absence of colour, void, darkness. The glow of a fire in a dimly-lit room, or autumn bonfires, flames against a night sky.
Pumpkins appeared in the supermarkets, ready to be carved for Halloween. It makes me cross that the pumpkins are removed from the shops as soon as it's November.  It's not as if they don't store well. I bought a couple to cook with, and used one straight away, popping some in a vegetable curry and the rest in a warm and spicy pumpkin and pepper soup. It's so cold and dreary, I can't bring myself to eat salads, but I'm making up for it with fruit.
Apart from the seasonal apples, I found some persimmons, which I love when they are ripe and meltingly soft. I also picked up a pomegranate, but it's not as huge and glossy-skinned as the ones growing in Cyprus.

I usually dislike air fresheners, preferring to burn incense, but couldn't resist a scented candle which changes colour. Presumably there's a colour changing LED in the bottom of the glass which has some sort of sensor to switch it on when the candle wick is lit, and off when the flame is extinguished. It is very pretty on a window ledge, glowing, changing colours against the darkness outside the window

A trip to one of my regular charity shop haunts turned up a pair of earrings in 'antiqued' brass and crystals in autumn shades of brown and gold.  One of the dangles was hanging wonky, but all that was needed was some work on a jump ring. I noticed that the pair weren't well matched - one is brassier than the other, but they sparkle more than the photo shows and are nice to wear.
Another found object was a gold ribbon, discarded as part of some packaging. 
So I put together a little autumn-orange-themed group - persimmon, pumpkin, ribbon, earrings and candles, a cheerful blast of colour to welcome the dark.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Taken for Granted

I do try to count my blessings and not take too much for granted, but from time to time, something happens and I'm surprised at how much I rely on something which is suddenly unavailable.
Yesterday, I had no electricity for 4 hours - all morning. Some maintenance was planned on the line, but I had about 45 minutes notice of the downtime. I managed to make a cup of coffee and glance at a couple of emails before switching the computer off again before the power went off. My plans for the morning were scrapped, so I decided to do some housework.  My normal tolerance for housework is about 20 minutes - it's one of the few things which bores me. I managed 1 hour and 40 minutes before I was starting to twitch, then decided I would have a bath with the remaining hot water.  As I lay there, I thought about my use of electricity and what the lack of it would mean.  No ovens.  I would be able to use the gas hob, but would need to light it with a match. No heating, as the boiler relies on electricity for the controller. It was a grey day, but I would have to make do with natural light, so no beading or anything which requires good light.  The washing would have to wait.  Keep the fridge closed to keep the cold in.  The freezer is in an outhouse, so at least it's cool.  No computer.  My phone had just run out of charge, but charging would have to wait. The land line has a sort of roaming handset and that wasn't working either.  No sewing machine.  No TV, DVD, CD or radio. IPod possible, until it runs out of charge. I decided to do more cleaning, then remembered - no vacuum cleaner.  No more hot water, unless I boil a kettle.
The power came back on promptly and I was happy to be able to switch a light on, get the heating and hot water on, put some washing on and make a phone call.
All this started me thinking about the other things we take for granted, like health care. One of my friends is in hospital at the moment, having been suffering from a low grade fever and worsening left side visceral pain for 5 weeks or so now.  She's had a couple of scans and tests which found nothing much, antibiotics and increasingly strong painkillers which only serve to take the edge off the pain. She's been on 3 different wards in as many days. By the time I publish this, she will probably have been sent home, with no diagnosis and no treatment plan beyond having her in for another test as an outpatient at some time yet to be determined.  She is climbing the walls with pain and frustration.
Even if we don't take our health for granted, we do expect that when something is wrong, it can be found and fixed (or at least, treated). Too often, it seems that there is not necessarily the money, expertise or technology available actually to address the problem in a timely manner.  It's wonderful to have a national health service, but it's staffed by people who are well trained, horribly overworked and only human. The best you can hope for is that they will treat you the way that they would like to be treated, if they were the patient.
In my (thankfully limited) experience, that's not something you should take for granted.
With healing thoughts to all. Goodnight!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Cyprus Holiday 2: Ancient and Modern

It's a month since I came back from holiday and I've had some time to reflect and look back.  The bright sunshine seared itself into my memory, all the brighter and hotter because we always seemed to go somewhere during the hottest part of the day. Mad dogs and Englishmen ...?

I knew Cyprus only gained independence from Britain in 1960, but I wasn't prepared for just how British it is.  It's not just the British who are moving out there, either. There is a huge amount of building going on.  I read more signs in English and Russian than Greek. I can imagine the locals might have a love-hate relationship with the ex-pats and tourists; a vital part of the economy, but the Cypriots might feel that they are in the minority and their language and culture comes a poor second.  I suppose it's just more of the same.  Tucked away in a corner of the eastern Mediterranean as they are, they've been visited and invaded so often throughout history, there's probably something in their genes which is resigned to a constant flow of strangers, languages and cultures.  Almost everyone seems to speak English.
It's easy to get a full English breakfast in the many cafe-bars down the main strips in Paphos and Coral Bay. Also curry and chips, fish and chips, pie and chips, steak and chips ... it reminded me of the scene in Shirley Valentine where a couple come into the taverna and would rather have Shirley's 'chips and egg' than kleftiko. There are Cypriot restaurants, of course, though apparently they are apt to hike up the prices for tourists, or give discounts to the locals. 
I got a smile from a waiter when I ordered my Greek salad in Greek (except for the bit when I wanted to say 'but NO onions!' - my Greek doesn't stretch that far.). After an initial mix up where I got someone else's side salad, it was put right speedily, without onions, with extra kalamata olives but really not enough feta cheese for my taste. I didn't like olives until I visited the Greek islands in the late 1980s. Oh, my! The meze of olives, feta, chunked cucumber and beef tomatoes, grilled halloumi and little stuffed vine leaves! Rings of squid in batter and lemony, herby grilled kebabs! The mixture of tastes and textures in a good Greek salad; soft, salty cheese and olives, crisp lettuce, savoury pepper, sweet, tart tomatoes and cool cucumbers, with perhaps some fragrant fennel leaves.  It's still one of my favourite things and, were I not writing this late at night, I would have to break off about now to go and make one.

We went into Paphos to visit a couple of archeological sites, which only scratched the surface of what there is to see. The first stop was a series of chambers cut into rocks below 'street level', dating from the Hellenistic period. (The Hellenistic period is a fairly modern - 19th Century - concept for the period after Alexander the Great had finished trying to conquer the world circa 323 BC and ending with the rise of the Roman Empire from 146 BC, ending completely with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC.) The chambers were probably built as a tomb complex and later dedicated to Agios Lambrianos and Agios Misitikos and used for worship by Early Christians. 

The next stop a little way down the road was the Agia Solomoni catacomb. This was quite early on in the week, before my knees loosened up with swimming, so I didn't go down the steps, but stayed admiring the old terebinth (?) tree festooned in handkerchiefs and rags, tied on with a prayer for healing.

The 16th Century church of Agia Kyraki stands on the site of one of the largest basilicas found in Cyprus, that of Panayia Chrysopolitissa.  The site has raised walkways to allow visitors to view the excavated mosaics and litter of columns and wall remains. The earliest parts of the basilica apparently date from the 4th Century AD, but it is also the site of St Paul's Pillar. Tradition has it that during his first missionary journey in 45 AD, St Paul was tied to the pillar and received 39 lashes, later converting the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus to Christianity.

The glare from the midday sun made some of the mosaics difficult to see (let alone photograph - no viewfinder!), but I took a few pics to remind me of some designs, because I could imagine them worked in beads and sequins on belly dance costume. There are better mosaics to be seen in the archaeological park near the harbour, but that will have to wait for next time.

Down in the harbour, the castle was inaccessible due to its use as set for open air opera every September. This year's opera was Othello. J had previously arranged to go with friends, so I amused myself that evening back at the villa, quite happy not to be going. Once you know the story, you know it's going to end badly and I wasn't in the mood for tragedy.

I was fascinated to find that all of these old sites were in Nea (New) Paphos, which is only 'new' in relation to Palae (old) Paphos to the east of the modern town, inhabited since the (ceramic) Neolithic (New Stone age, 6000-3500 BC) - or perhaps even longer.  According to legend, the goddess Aphrodite arose from the sea here, and remains were found of a Mycenaean altar to Aphrodite dating from the 12th century BC.  Considering that Paphos was the centre of the cult of Aphrodite, I expected to see little figures of Aphrodite in all of the souvenir shops. But no; perhaps the Greek Orthodox church takes a dim view of her. The little figurines I saw for sale were (rather pricey!) copies of the Idol of Pomos.  This is a Chalcolithic (Copper and stone age, 3900-2500 BC) female figure, with arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, and with a copy of herself worn as an amulet around her neck.  She is thought to be a fertility goddess, but figures were also placed in graves to protect the dead.  Although we shall never know what they called her (she predates the earliest Mycenaean writings) it is clear that the goddess was worshipped here for millennia. Fertility, protection, love, beauty and abundance; in an early farming society, what more do you need? Worship of the goddess waned with the rise of Christianity, but looking at the beauty and abundance of this region of Cyprus, all the signs are that she is still here.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Some people seem to embody elements of nature and my friend J is one of them.  It took me a little while to put my finger on it, but now I am sure.  With her blond hair and smile, she is Sunshine.
J came to belly dance classes and was one of the rare people who don't need to be reminded to smile.  With good posture and presentation and a smile that says you are dancing for the love of it, people will see the smile and miss that you are (for example) temporarily on the wrong foot.  She stopped coming for a while due to a medical problem, which I think reminded her that life is short.  Problem sorted out, she and her husband G retired to Cyprus, where they already had friends and family, settled in ... and offered me the opportunity for my first proper holiday in over 5 years. And 50 years after leaving it, (if you don't count a short refueling stop-over) I returned to the land of my birth.
The promise of a holiday gave me some much needed focus, and after a flurry of knocking jobs off my To Do list, I zoomed off down the M4 to Cardiff Airport and my flight to Paphos.  It was a nice sunny day when I left - 21°C - but even warmer at night when we landed at Paphos, a balmy 27°. The luggage took an age to come through, then I found J outside, both wondering where I was (my phone was still off!) and trying to get hold of G who had gone somewhere with the car.
We went down to a bar in Coral Bay for a drink and to watch some dancers who changed from jumping, high-kicking cowgirls into Samba showgirls, with smiles bigger than their blingy bikinis. So fit, to be dancing so energetically in that heat - no wonder they weren't wearing much!
So began my holiday, tension draining away as I sipped ouzo and lemonade, and laughed and was entertained.
Late afternoon sun
Such an inviting pool!
The following morning, I put on my swimsuit and ventured into the pool.  With the water at 27°, it was warm enough not to trigger my cold-induced urticaria.  A hazy blue sky promising temperatures in the mid 30s by midday. It was luxurious, idyllic and a very pleasant physical shock to be somewhere so bright and warm. My photos look like shots for a holiday brochure. Just looking at them makes me want to go back.

I'd forgotten my unintentional habit of coming down with a cold almost every holiday.  It's as if my body decides I've got time to have a cold once I stop and relax. On the Sunday, I had a head full of cotton wool and eyes which wouldn't stay open. So, feeling feeble, I spent much of the day sleeping and reading by the pool, in the company of next door's cat, who seems to have adopted J and her villa as a preferred home. He often slept in the shade of the chairs and loungers around the pool, or sprawled in the shade of the olive trees and chased the occasional lizard. I missed my own cats terribly, but was warned he had a tendency to reward unsolicited stroking with a meaningful bite, so I left him pretty much to his own devices (but talked to him, of course, in English, Welsh and an odd word of Greek).  More than once, I woke after dozing on a sun lounger to find him snuggled against my legs. Apparently, after I'd left, the cat went around looking for me and then went off in a sulk for a day.
I swam every day, twice on most days.  It was just glorious to glide up and down in the warm water, with dragonflies skimming the pool. I trod water, twirled around, did ballet and belly dance exercises. By the end of the week I could definitely feel the benefits.  I'd forgotten how the rhythm of swimming in a pool helps me to get my thoughts in order.  I vowed I would swim more when I got back to Wales, although unfortunately, both of my closest public swimming pools are a 24 mile round trip, and the times for public swimming aren't really convenient for me.

I managed to get away with not getting very burnt (the spray-on factor 50 worked well) and not getting very bitten.  I did use an insect repellent, but usually I get bitten anyway.  However, J is an even bigger magnet for everything which bites than I am, and it was strange to stand next to someone who attracts the mozzies more than I do!

J and G took me out to do a few touristy things, including trips out to bars at night.  Even at the end of the season, there was still plenty on. We went to see a George Michael tribute act, an open mic night, and I even went to a pub quiz and enjoyed it! The highlight was seeing Ms Debonair at Charlie's Bar in Paphos, a drag act who lipsynched and mimicked some of the artists and their songs and sang some others.  It was all very entertaining and great fun except for the repeated link music between the numerous acts.  That pre-recorded driving beat and spoken build-up introduction quickly became very tedious, but probably acted as a timed cue because there must have been some very quick changing going on behind the scenes. After all the pouting and posing, (Warning, Spoiler Alert!) the finale was the wonderful Charles Aznevour song 'What Makes a Man a Man?', whilst taking off the wig and make up, changing the dress for trousers and transforming back from drag queen to man.

I stayed in a couple of nights, and let J and G do their own thing, as I was finding so much socialising and night life quite overwhelming.  And I really don't like football or anything too loud. One night was a karaoke down in Coral Bay, and from the villa a couple of kilometres away I could hear that the last song was The Green, Green Grass of Home.  Possibly people right at the top of Peyia village and as far as Chlorakas could hear it too.

At home, the grass would indeed be green, unlike the parched late-summer land in Cyprus. Suddenly, my week was over and it was time to go, with last minute souvenirs, a few pictures and a lingering memory of the warm brightness and smell of the sea and dry phrygana scrub.
Big thanks to J and her husband G, who fed me, entertained me, and generally looked after me and provided me with an opportunity to relax completely.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Autumn Equinox

Autumn Equinox, Second Harvest, Mabon, the Holly King gaining strength as the Oak King weakens.  I like to mark the eight festivals of the wheel of the year, even if I don't always do anything significant.  This year, I feel more aware than usual of the changing season.  Perhaps I'm just feeling the cold more after coming back from Cyprus.  There's a difference in the air, the light has changed and it's getting darker noticeably earlier.
I haven't grown any veg this year, so I've nothing to harvest, which feels all wrong.
There were a couple of fine days (though not warm enough to dry the washing!) and cold nights, with our first frost on the equinox. Although I usually connect this time of year with harvested produce, and the warm and muted colours of turning leaves and earth, this year I felt compelled to go to a beach and make the most of the equinoctal spring tides to do some beach combing. I was looking for tusk shells Antalis entalis and saddle oyster shells Anomia ephippium as well as my usual search for sea-worn glass and other interesting shells and pebbles which could be used for jewellery.
I went to Tenby, and walked along South Beach to St Catherine's island, where the caves often collect interesting bits, but this time it was as if they had been scoured clean.  Thinking I saw a tusk shell between two stones, I picked it up.  On closer examination, it was a fossil molar tooth!  Not human, but I would need expert help to find out which animal it's from.


Walking back along the intertidal sand, I found a few tusk shells, as well as a lovely saddle oyster which gleamed with black and green iridescence in the low sun.  I also found some sort of spiny cockle shell, Acanthocardia echinata (at a guess), a scallop Chlamys varia, and still-joined rayed trough shell Macrtra stultorum and Faroe sunset shell Gari fervensis.

Caldey Island looked peaceful in the late afternoon sun.

As the sun went down, a crescent moon showed above the gap between Giltar Point and Caldey Island.

The following day I went down to Pendine, hoping to find some large otter shells Lutraria lutraria.  There were a few broken ones, along with some banded wedge shells Donax vittatus and a number of razor shells. The rocks and rock pools at the western end of the beach hadn't trapped much of interest, even for a few jackdaws, who complained to each other before flying off. A jersey polo-neck, scarf and fleece were not enough to stop a chilly easterly wind triggering my cold urticaria, so I trudged back to the car.

Driving back, I paused on the road down into Whitland to take pictures of the sunset. Lights were coming on in Narberth under the red sky with an inky streak of cloud.  As I neared home, a Tawny owl floated over the road, a dark shape against the dark blue sky.

A little still life to mark the season: my beach-combed shells, including some mussels, the inky blue contrasting with the mother of pearl; multicoloured  flat winkles Littorina littoralis; a small squash and apples, a chrysanthemum flower, which fell out of the bunch I bought as a treat to myself, and night lights for the nights which are drawing in.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Hip Scarves 1: General Notes and What to Look For

I get regular questions about where I get my hip scarves and various other class props, and what do look for, so I thought I would transfer and update the information from my class handouts, creating a little series of posts on the subject of belly dance clothing and accessories, starting with hip scarves and coin belts.

Once the belly dancing bug has bitten you, probably the first thing you’ll want is a hip scarf or coin belt. Wearing a scarf decorated with beads and coins makes you more aware of your hips and the urge to have a little shimmy just to hear your hips jingle is irresistible. Traditionally, a dancer may just have tied a scarf or shawl around her hips.  Heavy hip scarves, glittering and jingling with coins and beads look, feel and sound wonderful when you’re dancing.  They may seem expensive, but considering the work that goes into them, not to mention all the beads and coins, they are generally good value for money, and you tend to get what you pay for.

At the bottom of the scale, many scarves are made of fairly light chiffon with fewer coins and perhaps not as well finished, and are often narrow and not long enough to go around larger hips.  However, these light scarves can be great for slender beginners and children, as they’re cheap, light and often nicely jingly.
At the top end of the scale, scarves are heavy with beads and coins, long and deep and made of heavier crepe georgette.
In between, there is a large range of materials, shapes and decoration.  Here are some ideas of what to look for:

Fabric         Chiffon, crepe georgette, stretch velvet/velour, mesh, assuit, crochet, lamé …
Shape         Rectangle, triangle, curved, or some fancy shape.
Size           Look for details, or look at the picture for how it’s tied, to check how long and deep it is.  Some sellers give details of how long the decorated part is.  If you’re slim and the decorated part is much longer than your low waist/hip size, it could be difficult to tie.  If you’re big, a short scarf may just about tie, but not give good coverage.  Beware some of the photos with the scarf tied around a dummy and with no size details - some of the dummies only have 32" hips.
Coins          …Or are they large sequins (paillettes)?  Generally gold or silver, but some are mixed and some are copper (rare and more expensive!)
Beads          Some scarves have no coins and this is preferred in some classes and workshops, where the noise of a lot of people in loud coin scarves would make it impossible to hear the tutor or drummer.  Most of the larger beads are metallised plastic, which is actually better – less likely to cut and break the thread that’s holding them, lighter, and safer underfoot if they do come off.  Some Indian belts have intricate beaded designs which look beautiful, but tend to spill their glass (ouch!) beads everywhere.
Stitching     Difficult to tell even when you hold a scarf, let alone from a picture.  Sometimes the thread used to string the beads and coins is so soft, the coins cut through it very easily.  If you have beads and coins falling after the first couple of uses of your scarf, take some time to sew through all of the bead and coin dangles, to reinforce them.  Tedious, but necessary.  Use doubled thread and sew a knot in between each dangle.  I'll do another post looking specifically at care and repair.

Hip scarves from different countries have various characteristics, but these aren’t absolute rules and fashions come and go:
Egyptian        Simple rows of coins, or beaded loops and dangling bead and coin fringes.  Generally the largest in terms of length and width.  A recent fashion is for beaded dangles sewn into the centres of flower-shaped sequins, covering the main section of the scarf.
Turkish         More use of crochet work to attach the coins, particularly panels or triangles of lattice/netting, which allows the coins to bounce and jingle (and sometimes get caught and tangled, too!).
Indian           Often intricately beaded or very light, with just a couple of rows of coins.
Chinese/Hong Kong       Lots of large sequins/paillettes.  A row of colourful plastic translucent ‘stones’ on braid along the top edge is a current fashion.  There are also some available now with massive sequins, very flashy!  I have also seen some Egyptian style scarves on some of the wholesale export sites, which makes me wonder how, in the end, anyone can be sure of the provenance of their hip scarf.

Some dancers find that bead and coin hip scarves are too heavy, distracting or not appropriate for their style of dance.  Alternative hip decorations include:
  • Elasticated beaded belts with graduated bead fringes are also available, but most only stretch to approx 40” hip.
  • Fabric belts with embroidery, dangles or fringe, for example to match a galabeya in the same fabric.
  • Shaped, stiffened belts with fringe, which could be part of a bra and belt set (bedleh).
  • Chain belts, ranging from lightweight decorative chains with a single row of coins or small bells to heavy metal.
  • Accent overskirts, such as petals, panels and stretch fabric mini skirts.
For a more tribal look, scarves and belts tend to be layered.  Crochet, embroidered or devoré velvet scarves may form a base, with or without fringe, under a tasselled belt which may also feature cowries, shisha (glass mirrors), beaded rondelles (guls), chains and Kuchi coins and pendants.

I always have some hip scarves to borrow when I'm teaching.  I've never forgotten my first lessons, when my teacher happily lent me a hip scarf and I watched, fascinated by the way her beads and coins moved as she turned and did a fast hagallah back up the room. The start of my love affair with hip scarves!

Thursday, 23 August 2012

This Year So Far

Apologies in advance for what is going to be a rather self-focused post, in the hope, as ever, that someone else out there in blogland finds this interesting or useful.
I've been in a strange, reflective mood recently and distinctly lacking in energy. I realised recently that I haven't had a 'proper' holiday (as opposed to one where I go for a weekend or week of dance classes!)  for more than 5 years. I seem to be doing a lot of work but not being very productive - again. 
So, having given myself a metaphorical shake, I thought I would look back on my resolutions and see how I'm doing.  They were:
  • No more unfinished objects (UFOs).  This includes projects and ideas on the drawing board, choreographies and blog posts which spend much too long in draft!
    Epic fail, I have more draft posts, planned projects and choreographies in progress than ever.
  • Dance and create, every day.
    Okay, I might be managing this one, most days if not every day.  And probably the reason for the increasing UFOs.
  • Enter the Ifanca Helene James short story competition. (My entry for last year's was a UFO.)
    This year's entry was a victim of one of many computer problems, where the file was corrupted beyond restoration and I had no backup, and then ran out of time trying to remember and rewrite.
  • Look after myself better, because I am worth it, (and definitely worth more than a pot of hi-tech face cream).
    This really kicked in from the beginning of May, when I started eating a lot more healthily, giving up red and processed meat, initially in the hope that it would reduce the inflammation and pain in my knees and feet from my osteoarthritis.  So far I have lost 3 kilos!
  • Gain my proofreading and copy-editing certificate.
    I've done a little proofreading/editing, but haven't progressed the course!
  • Finish the year so much more tidy and organised than I started it. Seriously.
    This has rather gone in the opposite direction, and is probably the main energy-drainer (apart from needing a holiday!).   I had stopped doing a 'to do' list, because I always seemed to be adding more than I crossed off.  I've now decided that I work better and am more motivated with the list than without it.  I also need to be stricter with my time management.
So far, 2012 is not a particularly good year.  I've lost half my poultry to dog attacks, had far more time at the doctor's and hospital than in the previous 6 or more years added together and had some problem or other with my computer or printer on almost a weekly basis, partly because, like me, it's beginning to feel its age.  Even though I really cannot do anything about it, the dark, cool, rainy weather doesn't help; April and June were apparently the wettest on records dating from 1910.

Still, enough whining! There's still time for something good to come of the year and I've so many blessings I lose count.  Perhaps I should make a list.

Friday, 15 June 2012

'June just rains and never stops ...'

'... 30 days and spoils the crops.'  Flanders and Swann's A Song of the Weather has been popping into my head regularly, and the reason is obvious. It often turns rather drizzly and wet here after midsummer, but we seem to have had a run of one or two good days, then several rainy days.  We've had some extreme weather, with heavy rain and gales and there's another severe weather warning for today.  It's dark, soaking wet, windy ... no wonder there are hardly any butterflies about.  I saw my first Red Admiral the day before yesterday, when it was sunny and I could hang some washing out to dry.

Bless Flanders and Swann, they always cheer me up.  I had a reprise of The Gas Man Cometh last month, as we tried to find a gas leak, which ended in the need for a new cooker (it turned out that the old cooker was probably the source of the leak). Also bless my Mum for the birthday money she gave me; it enabled me to buy a new cooker, even though I'm sure she would have preferred I spend the money on something less domestic.

I've got several earworms all at the same time at the moment - the weather song, obviously.  I also have music which I'm feeling inspired to do some choreography for, one of which was suggested by a friend for an Isis wings fusion piece.  We were also at a hafla and having an after-performance boogie to the Rizzle Kicks' Mama Do The Hump, so now that has stuck as well.  With my head full of music, we were talking briefly about upcoming choreographies and earworms in class last night.  One of my dancer friends has some sort of amusia, in that she cannot recognise different pieces of music and doesn't easily pick up rhythm or beat.  This is something of a challenge for someone who wants to dance. She also never has earworms.

During the couple of fine days this week, and with the pain in my knee subsiding a little, I thought I should do a little bit of walking.  I had found a site about osteoarthritis management, and the suggestion was to measure distance walked in 6 minutes, with a view to increasing the distance each time.  I thought it was unlikely that this was a total if you were walking out from home, as the first walk might be 3 minutes out, 3 back, then subsequently if you increased the distance, you'd overshoot your home.  Of course, it's no problem if you're on a treadmill at the gym. So I decided to walk 6 minutes out, and I went further than I thought I would, just over a quarter of a mile, a rough pace of 2.7 miles per hour which is reasonable for my little legs uphill. The hedgerows were looking glorious, a riot of red, pink and white campion, golden buttercups, stitchwort, foxgloves with half open spires of flowers, the ferns have just about finished unfurling, wild strawberries, grasses and cow parsley starting to lean over into the road, vetches starting to come through - all lush and lovely.  Bees and insects all over the place.  So much pollen you could see it in the air (good job I only seem to succumb to hayfever when I am really terribly stressed).  I had left my camera at home, thinking I should concentrate on the walk and not get distracted for this first walk, promising myself that I would take photos the following day.

The following day, a tractor with a cutter came through and cut the lot right back.

So I still went for my walk, with my camera, and allowed myself to get distracted and do the 1.4 mile 'loop', but I cheated and stopped in to see my neighbour up the road.  She has started to keep bees and it could well have been hers I saw on my buddleia last year.  Now I know who to call if I see a swarm.  She had a swarm earlier in June, which settled on a rose bush in front of her cottage, so she transferred them to a spare hive, where they made themselves at home only very temporarily before moving on again. We chatted over a cuppa, grumbling about the council cutting the hedgebanks already and despairing at the weather.

It's midday and so dark, I need to put a light on. So much for flaming June!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Use It Or Lose It/Belly Dance Rehab Exercises: The Rules

So, in preparation for posting the first set of exercises under the 'Use It Or Lose It' theme, here are some 'rules' for anyone wishing to join in (and for me too!).  These also hold true for dance in general, whether you are in class or practising on your own:
  • I'm not a medical professional.  You are responsible for yourself.  If you're not sure whether you should be doing this, for example because of injury, recent surgery or long-term health issues, ask your GP/doctor, consultant, physiotherapist or other healthcare professional for advice.
  • If it hurts, stop!  It's okay if the movement feels strange, or you can feel a slight pull, a bit of muscle ache or burn, but sharp pain in soft tissue or joints is not good.
  • Be patient and gentle with yourself. Start with the easy exercises and work up to the more difficult versions.
  • Remember that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and that you are unique.  Don't compare yourself to anyone else.
  • Work slowly, carefully and mindfully; concentrate on good form and don't rush the exercises. Quality, not quantity!
  • Work both sides of the body equally, even if it's more difficult on one side or perhaps only one side feels as though it needs it.
  • If you feel as though there's no challenge in the exercise, do it anyway, just to prove you still can.
Use It or Lose It!

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Use It or Lose It

I had the strangest dream the other night, and it's one I've had before.  I was dancing (I often dance in my sleep) and I did the splits.  It was a vivid dream; I remember feeling the cool floor under my thighs and the stretch in my groin and hamstrings.  It's amazing how muscle or body memory persists - I haven't done the splits since the early 1990s.  Sadly, having a body memory doesn't mean I can still do it.  I don't know why I stopped practising the splits, but I know now it would be very difficult to work towards doing them again. And there are all sorts of other things I can no longer do. I wish I had taken the advice to 'use it or lose it' more seriously.

This loss of flexibility is seen as a natural part of ageing and it might well be, but it probably has more to do with everyday habits; use, abuse, misuse and lack of use.  It's not just use, but proper use which makes the difference.

I've had a problem with the big toe on my right foot since my late 20s, when it started stiffening up and the joint started to grow.  I came down with rather a 'snap' onto that toe in a gym session when I was 17 and although it was bruised and sore, it was just before half term, so it got a few days rest.  Now it doesn't bend enough for me to wear more than a lowish heel, and extended dancing makes my foot ache as I know I compensate for the lack of flexibility by allowing the ankle to sickle (curve outwards). I've had stiff knees for ages; they seemed to get really bad when I was driving for a few hours to commute here from Berkshire at the weekends. The X rays prompted by my sore right knee show that I have severe osteoarthritis in the knee and the toe joint.  On the other hand, it's not stopping me dancing as it seems better once I'm warmed up and dancing than lying in bed at night, even though I can't bend it very well.

While I try to lose weight and pop painkillers while waiting for my consultant's appointment, (which could be 3 or 4 months away), obviously I need to use and maintain or hopefully improve on any flexibility and strength I have. I haven't been offered physiotherapy - perhaps they think as a dance teacher I can provide for myself, although I'm not a trained physio!  So I've decided that I shall carry on with some careful exercises and record them here. Watch out, the first one (or more) will arrive soon!

Please feel free to join me, but be careful and gentle with yourself!  Your body is your responsibility!

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Bring on the Butterflies!

I don't think I have ever seen so much Ladies' Smock (Cuckooflower - Cardamine pratensis) in flower on the farm as there is at the moment.  Some meadows have great patches of it.  If the weather were better, I would go out and take some photos, but at the moment the sun only seems to come out when I'm somewhere else.  We should be knee deep in Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines) butterflies, but the cool, wet weather seems to be holding them back.  I saw one (while it was sunny and I was somewhere else!) at the end of April, but haven't seen one here yet.  Ladies' Smock is their main larval food plant (LFP), but they also use Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) and we have a fair amount of that around here as well.

I was berating myself yesterday for not doing any moth recording in a long time.  I have started to see increasing numbers of moths on my journeys back from teaching and generally numbers really start to increase in May each year as the weather gets warmer (hah!). It looks like we might have a dry night on Saturday.  I'll be on my own at the weekend, so the bright light won't disturb anyone else in the house, but I shall have to remember to set up the moth trap before I go out to the hafla. And then try to get up early the following morning (hmmm ...).

There was no National Moth Night last year, but it's on again this year (now simply renamed 'Moth Night').  Instead of a single day/night, it now spans 3 days; which I think is a big improvement, allowing for changes in the weather and perhaps recording in a couple of different locations.  This year it's 21st-23th June, see the website for more details.  Over the years I've noticed that it starts to rain here at midsummer - I hope we get at least one dry night for recording, otherwise I might have to put the moth trap in one of the barns, much to the disgust of the Barn Owls. They get quite vocal about it and sit on the roof, screeching the Barn Owl equivalent of 'Turn that %£##@^ light out'!

I need to get myself some more specimen pots before then.  And perhaps a nicer net with a telescopic handle.  I'm so out of practice that I shall need them to be able to study the moths to identify them properly.  Not only that, but a long-awaited Field Guide to Micromoths of GB and Ireland is due to be published on 31st May, so hopefully that will arrive in time as well.  I have high hopes of it.  The illustrations are by Richard Lewington, whose illustrations in the Field Guide to Moths are so good that you can put a moth in a specimen pot alongside the illustration and they look the same.  There's a special offer on until 31st August 2012.  I had an order form with British Wildlife magazine, but I think I might order online from the British Wildlife website.

I see from Butterfly Conservation that there is a 'Save Our Butterflies Week' from 19th to 27th May.  I'm already a member, but if I weren't I would definitely take the opportunity to join while there's a special offer on membership until the end of May.  Butterfly Conservation are interested in moths too, and should really be called Lepidoptera Conservation except that no-one would be able to get their tongues around it! The president is my hero, Sir David Attenborough. I'm rather too busy that week already, but I am looking forward to the Big Butterfly Count from 14th July to 5th August and shall make more of an effort this year.  It's such an easy way to record butterflies.  Who wants to join me for a butterfly count picnic?

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Comfort Zone

Emboldened by the completion of the Colour Play crochet blanket, and in the spirit of this year's resolution of 'no more UFOs' (and finish the WIPs), I picked up a project which had been hibernating since May 1996.  Yes, really, 16 years!  My first thought on opening the bag again was: What was I thinking?  Luckily, I had left myself some design notes.  The idea was to knit shapes in autumn shades of red, gold, brown, beige and orange mohair, then sew them together to create maple leaves, then the leaves as if they were patchwork to create a throw.  The original maple leaf shape was a design from a 1993 issue of Patchwork and Quilting.  My Mum bought me a selection of odd balls of mohair yarn as an early Christmas present - the receipt dated December 1995 is still in the bag.  I had also added an odd ball left over from a mohair jumper (I wonder where that went?) I knitted during rehearsals for Barnum at the local arts centre where I used to live.  It was meant to be a project to take my mind off impending surgery and convalescence, but after surgery I couldn't sit up for long.  By the time I could sit up supported without too much discomfort, it was time to go back to work. Then I had more surgery a couple of months later, after which I couldn't sit up unsupported at all.  I think I came to associate the project with that less-than-pleasant period and it remained a UFO.

It looks as though I was initially going to do 4 leaves in each of 9 colours and managed to do about half before I put the project down. The leaves end up about 6"/15 cm high and 8"/20 cm wide, so a throw 6 x 6 leaves would be quite small.  Perhaps I was going to do 8 of each colour, then I would get a throw big enough to be worthwhile.  I noted that I did a test swatch and worked out the shapes from there, but the resulting leaf should be as long as it is wide, so something didn't go to plan.

But, really, what was I thinking?  Surely it would have been easier to chart out the design and learn to do colour work? Or even, if I wanted to go with leaf shapes, to learn how to increase and decrease properly to make a whole leaf, instead of piece work?  Evidently I wanted to stay in my comfort zone, doing what I thought I knew how to do.  The trouble with comfort zones is that you can end up doing things the hard way.  And now - Do I really want to finish this? Can I bear to create another 18 leaves, and if so, what do I do with them?  And the idea of unpicking and frogging, especially mohair ....  Felt?  The mohair is pretty hairy and looks like it might felt as soon as it's washed.  The yarn from the jumper I knitted is a little finer and is the only one with a ball band.

I think I will pick this up again, do all 36 leaves and see what occurs to me.  36 is an interesting number; 2 x 18, 3 x 12, 4 x 9, 5 x 7 (with one over) and 6 x 6.  Or perhaps a triangle 8 leaves high and 8 leaves across the top ....

A few weeks ago, my right knee (which I wrenched back in February during a dog attack on my poultry) has become horribly painful, especially at night.  I haven't slept properly for 3 weeks now, despite painkillers.  While I'm waiting for the results of X rays and blood tests, I'm trying to carry on regardless.  This is a busy month, with the usual weekly lessons, extra workshops, a hafla this weekend, a brief performance next week as part of Adult Learners Week and a show in the Torch Studio Theatre on 25th.  Even sitting here at my desk, my knee is painful, so my comfort zone is currently sitting on the sofa with my leg up, hot water and blanket keeping my knee warm.  Might as well have a cup of tea and get knitting!

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Finished - Colour Play Crochet Blanket

May already! I meant to blog on the progress of the Colour Play crochet blanket, but just got too busy with everything else, as usual. Anyway, Hurrah!  I have a finished object! The 'Colour Play Crochet' blanket is finished and in use as a snuggle on the sofa. The living room is the lowest point in this cottage, and the cold air tends to pool in there.  I like it (so does my cat Greebo).

It's roughly 1.05 x 1.25 m (42 x 50"). I bought yarn for this project and didn't use much of the various colours, but doing a final round on each square in cream, then joining the squares and edging with a single row of double crochet used 3 x 50g balls. So I now have a stash to play with for future projects.  I can't see myself doing another join-the-squares blanket for a bit though. I found weaving in ends and joining the squares quite tedious, but I feel like I've got this creative desire out of my system.

To connect all the squares, I held the squares right side uppermost, edge stitches matching, and hooked down through matching edge stitches to pick up the yarn, bringing it up through the loops and then working a single crochet chain. It creates a flattish ridge and I was pleased with the effect, although it was rather fiddly.  The blanket edges were a bit wavy and uneven, but I went once around the edge with double crochet and it seemed to give the blanket an even, shallowly scalloped edge.

There, one rather scrappy montage (sorry, learning to do those, too and some of the photos are a bit dark because it is dark in this cottage!). Clockwise from top left; some of the green-yellow permutations, unedged squares, squares edged in cream yarn, and the finished blanket being enjoyed.

I learnt a lot from this project.  I needed to relearn how to join in yarn, and am not convinced about the weave-in-as-you-go method I found from somewhere or other - it results in some knobbly raised stitches. I'm not sure about the final arrangement of the coloured squares, with orange-yellow in the centre (I think I was thinking about flowers).  And I realised how little I know about crochet, really, so next projects will aim to continue learning.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Ups and Downs

I have several posts in progress, but find myself rather tired and stressed at the moment.  It's nice to have work, but I'm losing patience and interest in all the additional paperwork involved.  Spring has sprung, there are flowers popping up everywhere, we've had some nice sunny weather, and there was I a week ago, with nothing really to complain about but feeling disgruntled and demotivated.
I was mooching around the kitchen last Saturday, eating an apple and trying to pretend it was something more wicked, when I realised that actually I am feeling depressed.  Not seriously, but enough to feel listless and unhappy, without the energy to make positive changes.  At times like this, I always look for instant gratification, which is why I don't have chocolate, biscuits, cakes, sweets or crisps in the house.  Far too tempting, and besides which, it doesn't work.  I've always found that having something nice planned is better.
I was due to go out to dance at a charity event that evening, so had to shake off my blues and go and get ready.  Having got a shimmy on and got to the event on time, I saw an aquaintance and namesake who had also come to dance (though not belly dance, in her case).  The evening just got better and better, it was huge fun and raised a good amount.
I had seen a Flamenco workshop advertised for the Sunday, so I got my act together and went to that as well.   And I saw another acquaintance, so it turned out to be very social again.  The workshop gave a taster of Tangos Flamenco and Bulerias and was very well taught, with live guitar music and good attention to the rhythms - lots of clapping.  I had really sore feet, but I loved it.  I had an errand to run after the workshop so I went up to Aberporth and had a fish and chip lunch. It was sunny but not warm enough to remove clothing!  The sea was calm and looked so tempting, but a recent weather forecast warned that it was still very cold - under 10 degrees C.  As I was driving back from Aberporth, it struck me that I had my swimming kit in the car and could just call into a local hotel spa and get a day pass.  I like the Cliff Hotel out at Gwbert, even though the changing facilities are too small.  I took a couple of hours to lounge around.  The small salt water pool is my favourite.  There is a starry ceiling over the pool to gaze at as you float.  Lights around the sides switch from magenta to blue, gold, green, coral, lilac, casting shards and glints of colours as you swim and every so often urns and a 'whale tail' spout water into the pool, or a jet starts in the middle, creating a bubbling mound of water. I went from the pool to the jacuzzi, to sauna and steam and shower and back to swim in the pool again, and then dozed off, completely relaxed and happy, on one of their hot rock loungers.  Bliss.  I came away feeling completely restored and ready to tackle the world again.
I arrived home to find both of next door's beagles loose and attacking my flock again. They growled and barked at me when I screamed at them to clear off, so I took to throwing bits of concrete and stones at them (missing, unfortunately). The one remaining goose, Gracie, was shouting in alarm and trying to hide in the back of the silage shed, although that's not a safe place.  Gracie has been traumatised since Sid was killed a couple of weeks ago.  At the time, I attributed it to a fox attack, believing my neighbour's promise that the dogs would not be allowed to roam loose again.  However, a farming friend commented that he had seen one of the dogs loose at the time Sid was killed.   I chased the dogs off into the field, but one doubled back to have a go at Gracie.  As I reached the barn, Gracie took a short run, then flew over the head of the dog, past me, over the compost bins and landed, cackling in triumph, in the middle of the pond.  The dog ran off down the fields with me screaming swear words after it.
I found part of Ruby hen's rump and loads of feathers by the pond, and thought she was gone, ripped to shreds, but I couldn't find the body (like Sweeper in February). As I was calling the flock, I could hear my neighbour calling the dogs.  It took me an hour and a half to round up the rest of them and get them to bed when Ruby turned up, wet through, covered in blood and pond weed.  I took the poor thing through to the house and bathed her wounds as best I could, leaving her in the bath overnight.
Ruby picked up well after a couple of days, so I put her back out with the others midweek, although she preferred the safety of her henhouse.
I popped out to stretch my legs and post a letter late yesterday afternoon and came back to find my head cockerel Red wedged under a gate, trying to fend off an attacking beagle.  AGAIN!  The dog ran off when I shouted, but had evidently been there for a while. There was blood on Red's spurs, which I hoped was the dog's, but I doubt it. His feathers were all over the place - it looked as though he had been chased out of the back of the barn, through the house yard, past the pond, up between the sheds and he had obviously been making a bolt for the safety of his ark when he was trapped, only a few metres away. He has lost a lot of feathers and may be wounded, but seems feisty enough.  I had left Ruby in her house with my favourite Candy as company.  They were safe, but had evidently felt trapped and would have seen the dog attacking Red.  Pickle was hiding in the other ark, but I couldn't find any of the others. Number 2 cockerel Blue (he was no.3 until Sweeper was killed) eventually emerged and I found Shyannie in a bramble patch.  There was a pile of feathers from Fudge in another shed and I feared the worst, but eventually found her hiding underneath a roll of fencing wire, with wounds where the feathers have been ripped out.  Solo eventually made her way back, having successfully hidden somewhere.  That just left Shirl, who had recovered well from her previous bite wound.  I found her dead in a field, clumps of feathers bearing witness to the chase.
When my neighbour got her first dog, I found it barking at a ewe with a lamb, which had become separated from the flock and had run into another field.  I warned her at the time that this is not acceptable and that farmers may legally shoot dogs which are running loose and attacking their stock.  While I was rounding everyone up this time, I could hear ewes and lambs in a nearby field bleating and a beagle barking and baying at them.
I am seriously unimpressed at the broken promise, upset at the death and injury sustained by my birds and stressed that I cannot let the birds free range without risk of the dogs appearing again, until my neighbour takes some action.  And a booking to dance this weekend has fallen through.  I have a friend's burlesque birthday party to look forward to next weekend, but just at the moment, going out to buy some chocolate  seems like a nice plan.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

More Miserable News ...

With the exception of an odd day, the weather here has been pretty miserable recently.  It felt quite surreal to drive in lashing rain which turned the roads into rivers, while listening to news reports about drought in eastern England and the home counties.

I went out last Saturday to pick up a couple of balls of cream yarn, to start pulling my colour play crochet throw together.  I'd intended to use navy, but couldn't find enough balls of one which was not too blackish.  As most of the colours are fairly light or bright, a cream ground will probably be okay.  I did a few squares to test it out, and it does seem to have a lovely light, unifying effect.

A friend shut the chickens away on Saturday evening and let them out Sunday morning, coming back in for breakfast to break the news that she couldn't find Sweeper, my favourite of my 3 cockerels.  Also, that there were fresh white feathers in the barn, but she was sure that we still had both light sussex hens.  Oh dear.  I went out and found that they were indeed light sussex feathers, and I called my hens into the barn to do a head count. All present except for Sweeper, but Shirl had a nasty bite wound on one side and a number of wing and tail feathers missing.  No sign of Sweeper, no answer to my calls.  On walking down the yard, I started to find Sweeper's hackle and then wing feathers in great wet clumps.  Another attack, this time probably on the previous day, when I had been out.  Generally if foxes come up during the day, it's in May-July, when the vixens have cubs and they can hide in the longer grass.  In some mud at the bottom of the yard, I found some prints, bigger and rounder than I would have expected.  Muttering and cursing about big, rogue dog foxes and what I would do to it if I caught it, I wandered into the silage barn.  When I found Sweeper's tail feathers under the ATV, I couldn't stop the tears streaming down my face.

I called him Sweeper because his tail feathers were about 16" long and swept the floor.  One day when he was still a young bird (and I thought he was a she!), I found him quite poorly and dejected with an impacted crop.  I took him into the house, made up a mix of warm water, Greek yoghurt and olive oil and fed him a little at a time, using a pipette.  Much to the annoyance of XP, I sat in the living room watching TV, cuddling Sweeper while I gently massaged his crop, stroked and rocked him until he dozed off.  He slept in a box in my workroom that night and the following morning, he was a lot better.  By the afternoon, his crop was empty again and he couldn't wait to rejoin the rest of the flock.

A further attack and the mystery is solved ...
On Monday morning, there was a terrific rumpus from the chickens, so I bolted outside to sort it out.  I ran through the shed, wrenching my knee and arrived down in the yard; keening with pain, in time to see XP chasing the miscreant - not a fox, but one of our next-door-neighbour's beagles, flying past on its way to get back over the fence, having had a wonderful time, what fun!  It had been in the garden with the head cockerel, Red, in its mouth.  There were Red's tail, wing and hackle feathers in clumps, but no Red.  I went back through the barn, calling the rest of the flock and found Red limping toward me, short of feathers and looking terrified.  I could see more white feathers on my way up to the first field and found Shyannie, also terrified and missing back and rump feathers, hiding in a corner.  XP went up to the veg patch and found several other members of the flock.  There were still a couple of hens missing and I could not find them.  Once Red recovered his composure a bit and started to crow, they found their way back from wherever they were hiding and by early afternoon, all were together again.

My neighbour has apologised and swears that the dog is not going to be allowed to roam loose again.  With lambing underway here, it's just as well.  I just hope my knee is better in time to dance at Majma at the beginning of March.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Trouble With Foxes

We seem to have quite a few foxes on the farm and I have heard a lot of barking at night over the past month.  I try to take a live-and-let-live attitude; it's fine providing they stay down in the woods, feasting on bunnies and any small squeekies they can find. Unfortunately, the foxes don't play by the same rules.  That's the thing about wildlife.

I went away last weekend for a couple of days (of which more later) and came back to the sad news that a fox had taken my favourite gander, Agamemnon.  Normally the geese manage to stay out of the way, sitting in the middle of the pond during the night if need be.  This time, it looks like Aggie got cornered in the cow pen.  The remaining two are evidently traumatised by the attack and have become very aggressive through fear, starting at every movement they see.  It doesn't help that the remaining two have never really liked each other and now have to put up with each other's company.  They'll be better guard-geese for a while, but I have to resort to crooning songs and whistling gently to calm them down enough to eat and preen while I stand guard for them, instead of attempting to peck my legs.

Aggie was the only one of the three who would let me stroke his gorgeously soft back feathers in return for food.  He used to love stretching his wings to show off the white tips.  I'll miss him.

Here are the geese a fortnight ago, as a rainbow appeared ... and Aggie showing off his wings as the sun came out and the rainbow disappeared.

Colour Play Crochet

When I bought the yarn for the baby all-in-one I made, there were only a couple of shades available. The next time I went into the shop, the rack was full of different shades, mostly pastel or bright.  Ooh, colours!  I want to play!  Inspired by granny square blankets, I decided that having a go at making a crochet afghan would be the next project.

I learned to crochet with raffia, with the idea of making a raffia bag (all the rage in 1970).  I learned the basic stitches, but never made the bag.  Crochet blankets seemed to be everywhere in the '70s.  Made with traditional granny squares, they are an ideal stash-buster, as you can crochet in any old odds and ends of similar weight yarn to produce something warm and lovely.  However, in strange, clashing or muddy shades of beige, grey, sage green, puce, orange, dusky pink,  mustard, heather, cream, blue and brown, my lasting impression was that they looked holey, and drab, rather than lacey and colourful.  The rgb colours available here (sorry, couldn't resist it) don't seem to convey the greyness of my memories, which are admittedly coloured by dark, boarding school dormitories - especially during the 3 day week in '74, when the house had no heating or electricity at night from January to March.  It rather put me off, and I never did make one. On the other hand, I dislike random, clashing colours and to avoid that, you need a goodly stash of yarn, which I didn't have.

Back to the present, I was invited away for Christmas, and told that I was to come and relax. (In fact, I was spoiled rotten and very lovely it was, too!).  So I thought starting a crochet afghan would be an ideal project as I would be able to chat and watch TV at the same time.  I don't much like acrylic yarn, but it knitted up well for the baby suit and was so much cheaper than anything else. I could afford to buy 16 balls, all different shades, avoiding the most muted or garish colours, in a colourful rainbow of orange-yellows, greens, blues, purples & pinks.  3 rounds in 3 toning shades would give 6 permutations. 20 sets of 6 = 120 squares, enough for a throw of 10x12 squares.

I looked up a few styles of crochet squares. Over the past several years, most of the crochet I've done is to make doormats from recycled baling twine.  I wanted something basic but denser than the traditional granny square.   After a few false starts where I relearned how to join in different colours and how to do dc, I found I could knock off half a dozen squares in no time at all.   Under the relaxing influence of caring friends and family, my initially tight tension relaxed.

I thought perhaps repeating the same crochet square would get boring, but I've been enjoying it far more than I thought I would and have done quite a few so far ... tidying the ends might prove a bit tedious!

The resulting squares are about 3", so would only make a small throw.  A 4th round in a background colour would give a 4" square, not quite as stiff, and a better size for a throw.  Navy blue would make the colours pop out, but there was no navy available.  I shall consider my next move while finishing the squares, hoping that I don't burn out on the project before then (no more UFOs, remember!).

Monday, 16 January 2012

Ravelry Love!

Looking at my Ravelry profile, I saw that I had been a member for a couple of years.  2 years of periodically browsing the free patterns, while I debated projects on my mental wishlist and subsequently forgot them. Okay, so my new year resolution was no more UFOs (unfinished objects), which means I must complete my WIPs (works in progress).  On the other hand, such inspiration!  Even better, if you see something you like, you can add it to your queue, which is a wishlist kept for you.  You can also list your needles and hooks, so that you  know what you have (or not - I have this on a spreadsheet).  You can list your stash.  It's also a social network. You can look for projects and patterns with a stack of search criteria - by yarn, yarn weight, the type of item you're interested in, the yarns in your stash, key words ....  You can record and share your WIPs, UFOs - which are 'hibernating' - and finished projects.

I remember a time when sewing and knitting your own clothes was often cheaper than buying.  Now, I'm not so sure.  I saw a pattern for a jumper using a lovely yarn which was on sale.  Even at the reduced price, it would have cost about £120 to knit!  Being on the large side, it looks as though most jumpers now would cost at least £40-£60 to knit.  No wonder smaller items are popular; hats, gloves, scarves, socks, little dolls and 'cozies' for everything from teapots to coffee cups, water and beer bottles (for those who like their beer warm, I suppose?), mp3 players, phones, iPads and Kindles.  There are patterns for coasters, potholders and panstands (NB, not to be made from synthetics like acrylic and nylon!) and even face- and dishcloths.  The latter are supposed to be more eco-friendly, lasting longer and being cheaper than shop-bought, but given the price of yarn, I wonder if that's true.  For me, it seems like taking the handmade pledge too far, but I've started wondering about using discarded T shirt hems ....

As I looked through the various patterns and projects, I realised there are a lot of holes in my knowledge of knitting and crochet stitches and techniques. One thing Ravelry doesn't have is a set of tutorials, but I expect there are plenty elsewhere on the interweb.  I love the idea that I could get back into this, learn new skills and at some point, give back by posting a free pattern of my own.  As for creating an original pattern good enough to sell, that will have to wait until another year, when I have acquired some expertise and dealt with the current WIPs, UFOs and  wishlist!

Sunday, 15 January 2012

It Is A Truth Universally Acknowledged ...

... that no matter how big your stash, you won't have the particular item, or colour, fabric, yarn, matching thread, ribbon, button, beads or tool that you want or need for a project.
In this case, no stitch markers.  What?  How did I manage without stitch markers?  (By using loops of waste yarn in a different colour, as far as I remember.)  Could I manage now without stitch markers?  Yes, of course.  Like so many things, I didn't really need them, but I wanted some pretty stitch markers to the point where I knew I would have to make some, just so that I didn't start to daydream and obsess about stitch markers.

So I put down the project to make some, reflecting that this is probably a good way to generate another UFO (but I couldn't do that, because the project in hand was the baby suit).  I took out my findings and some beads, and checked that the jump and split rings I had would in fact fit the 6mm needles I was using.  No, they wouldn't.  And by the natural law of the stash (that you may have all sorts of stuff, but not the precise thing you need at the time), I didn't have any rings big enough.

Burrowing into the stash to find wire to make larger jump rings, what came to hand first was some old copper wire, scavenged when the old house wiring was stripped out.  I forgot about just making simple jump rings and started playing.
I ended up with a few horseshoe shaped markers which could be used for knitting or crochet and a figure 8 style with a glass crystal bead.
Cravings settled for the time being, I used my stitch markers and finished the baby suit. So much more satisfying than using loops of yarn!

Since I was rather enjoying knitting (and the speed at which you can knit up baby clothes!), I thought I might make some mittens and found some nice patterns, all of which called for double pointed needles (dpns).

... Sure enough, apart from a set of antique steel 1.25mm (at a guess) ~ no dpns in my stash!

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Itchy Fingers and Tiny Hands

A couple of months ago, my fingers were itching to do a bit of knitting.  What better excuse than the impending birth of a colleague's first baby to start a small project?

I chose a 'onesie'  - a hooded all-in-one suit - from the free patterns on the Lion Brand website (you just have to register) and picked up some cheap DK yarn from a local store.  Then wondered if I could remember how to knit.  I used to do a reasonable amount, but haven't done any since I moved to Wales 12 years ago.  I couldn't have described how to do it to someone else, couldn't remember and picture in my mind's eye which way to put the needle through the loop.  As I picked up the needles and yarn to do a tension square, muscle memory took over and my fingers seemed to work on automatic.  Fine.  My tension was a little loose, and increases and decreases lacked finesse, but it started to flow.  After some angst and a referral back to the picture to see how the pattern could possibly work, (the front opens on an angle from one leg all the way up the the neck), I completed it just in time for the baby to be born by emergency C section 5-6 weeks early.  So, it will be rather too large for the little love for a few months yet, but hopefully it will be easy to use and wash.

Whilst browsing patterns for baby clothes, I came across lots for baby blankets. At a local school's Christmas Fair at the beginning of December, one of my friends acquired a small 'endless granny square' blanket as a present for the new baby.  It was bright and cheerful and I made a mental note to borrow my Mum's book on crochet afghan squares when I saw her the following weekend (which I subsequently completely forgot about!).  Ah, hit by another creative inspiration ... but that's another post.

The baby shower was today, and we did indeed shower gifts on mother and baby.  He was so lovely, calmly being passed around all his belly dance 'aunties', a tiny bundle of pure potential with hands only just big enough to grip one of my fingers.