Monday, 30 May 2016

Favourite Audiobooks

A. S. Byatt
Read by Harriet Walter

Three Men in a Boat
Jerome K. Jerome
Read by Hugh Laurie

A Certain Age
Lynne Truss
Narrators: Dawn French, Janine Duvitski, Rebecca Front, Lesley Manville, Lindsey Coulson and Siobhan Redmond

The Grand Sophy
Georgette Heyer
Read by Sarah Woodward

By the Pricking of my Thumbs
Agatha Christie
Read by Alex Jennings

The Uncommon Reader
Alan Bennett
Read by Alan Bennett

Terry Pratchett
Read by Nigel Planer

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The Perfect Wardrobe?

I went through a phase a few years ago where I wanted to feel more in control of my life. There were things going on I had NO power over whatsoever so I turned my eye to the domestic sphere to see what I could make decisions about. I was drawn to minimalism, loving the idea of having less, and what I did have meaning more. One of the areas I was especially interested in was sculpting the perfect wardrobe. I could create it, build it, and then never have to worry about it again; an area of my life permanently sorted.

In my research, I came across phrases like Capsule Wardrobe and Minimalist Wardrobe which are both very similar concepts. I hesitate to say they are the same as I am sure there are devout minimalists out there who would disagree. Anyway, the term capsule wardrobe was coined by Susie Faux
. The basic premise is that a person only needs a wardrobe comprising of a few essential items of clothing that don't go out of fashion which can then be dressed up with seasonal additions and accessories. Go on Pinterest and enter the term and you will come up with reams of images. The theory is that with a capsule wardrobe you can get dressed in the dark and whatever you put on will work as an outfit.

Example from Jo Lynne Shane blog

A minimalist wardrobe takes that premise a step further by setting strict limits on how many items that capsule wardrobe can contain. Miss Minimalist has written about this at length, and the chapter in her book The Joy of Less on wardrobe sorting is one I would recommend. This article from her blog refers to the 10 item wardrobe. Courtney Carver has also devoted a fair amount of time to the combined subjects of wardrobes and minimalism and Project 333 is a minimalist fashion challenge I have done a few times. 

From Courtney Carver's blog

In the course of my reading the importance of having the right colour palette was repeated over and over again. You can pay a lot of money to have someone ‘do your colours’ or you can search on the internet and see if your hair colouring, skin tone, eye colour make you an autumn, a winter, a spring or a summer.

A Pinterest find

Pooling all the information I had found, I tried this and that over a few years and learned some useful stuff along the way. A minimalist wardrobe tends to be low on patterned clothing. Patterns tend to be brought to outfits through scarves and similar. I found that I liked patterned stuff too much to go down the true minimalist route. I have no issue with plain trousers and jeans but I needed a bit of diversity in my tops and skirts. 

I realised that a lot of the items listed as ‘essential’ and ‘timeless’ on the average capsule wardrobe list were items I would not wear by choice. A crisp white shirt, for example, and a tailored jacket. I don’t do well with restrictive rules and with a reduced wardrobe you have to stick to a set colour palette for everything to match, something I found difficult to do. I would still say these lists are worth looking through as they help give you an idea of the kind of thing you do and don’t like. 

Another aspect to wardrobe building is the ethics behind what you buy. Beyond certain staples like stretch vest tops and underwear, I tend to get the majority of my clothes in charity shops. This is based on financial reasons, but also on ethical reasons. I like the idea of using something that has been cast away and giving to charity while not directly supporting those clothing manufacturers with dubious human rights records. I wear my clothes to death so knew I could not be one of those people who treat their clothes like treasured items and keep them going for years. Spending a lot of money per item unless it's on shoes is just not worthwhile for me.

Check out the Ethical Consumer website for more info

My approach to my wardrobe now is this:
Every 2-3 months, I take everything out of my wardrobe. Everything. I put it away in drawers and on shelves so that I am left with a deliciously empty wardrobe. A clean slate. I even gather up all my undies, socks, pyjamas etc and put them in a different place too. I would recommend this practice to anyone - it feels so satisfying!

I then let my wardrobe accrue naturally over the course of the next couple of months. The weather dictates what I need to wear and I have a look through my stored items to see what is suitable. It’s a simple pleasure to watch the those hangers fill up a bit and to try not to add to this tidier, smaller collection unless I have to. It gives me a sense of perspective on what I use and what I don't. Twice a year I have a good look at all my clothes and what I haven't worn or haven't enjoyed wearing ends up in a bag for the charity shop. 

From House for six

I wouldn't say my wardrobe is the true capsule dream as if I got dressed in the dark I might end up in some interestingly mis-matched get-ups. My wardrobe isn't minimalist either as while I do aim to avoid buying for the sake of it I'm not against buying a pretty top or dress in a charity shop or on sale that I might have no justifiable need for but find too lovely to pass up. 

I realised a while back that there is no such thing as a perfect wardrobe. Clothes come and go and personal tastes change too. What's important to me now is not ticking off certain items on a list but making sure that what isn't right for me can be moved on in case it's right for someone else.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Duct tape + binbags + one good friend = . . . .

I've been trying to make my own clothes for a while now. Trying being the operative word. My attempts have been around the top/ dress area and have not been successful. There are some people out there who are a perfect match to sewing patterns and then there are the rest of us. The amendments I have discovered the hard way that I need to make are:
* sway back adjustment
* narrow back adjustment
* waist adjustment
* grading out the pattern at the hips as depending on the pattern I am 1-2 sizes bigger on my bottom half than my top half.

This ignores those standard adjustments that everyone tends to have to make. 
* lifting or lowering bust darts
* arm hole adjustments.

Up until now, I've been following the path of pattern making like so:
1. Cut pattern pieces and make toile out of old bedsheets. 
2. Mark adjustments on bedsheet, re-draw pattern pieces where required, make second toile.
3. Mark adjustments on top two, re-draw pattern pieces where required, make third toile.
4. Third toile still not right. Get fed up, put in the bin, and decide I really need to give up on the idea of making my own clothes.
5. 2-3 months later, pick a new pattern and repeat above.

I am aware that a seasoned seamstress might look at the above and tut that I gave up when I was so close - and that seamstress might have a point. It's the constant cutting and making of fabric that leads to the disheartening phase of the enterprise so in an attempt to bypass that I did some research on YouTube and called upon the aid of a good friend.

One good friend + 2 rolls of extra-long duct tape + two binbags + one carrier bag + 90 minutes = a dress form! As having a dress form professionally made costs around £150, this seemed the cheaper option, especially as I'm still not convinced I won't shelve this dream of seamstressing anyway.

The plan is to cut the pattern pieces on paper and make what adjustments I need to by fitting it to the dress form first. This should mean that I should hopefully skip making three toiles and make one which then needs only minimal altering before I can try to make a wearable garment. We will see if it's that easy!

Here's the finished item. She needs more, um, stuffing, as her bottom is not filled out to its fullest capacity. She looks a tad kinky with that high rubbery shine and I'm thinking of calling her Bettie Vader. Bettie after Bettie Page. If I need to explain the Vader nod then you are on the wrong blog.

Bettie Vader in her shiny, wipe-clean glory

Being covered in that much duct tape is an interesting experience. And a sweaty one. If you're planning to do this, high summer would be the wrong time to do it!

I cut three holes in a bin bag for my head and arms and cut up a carrier bag to provide extra layering around my neck and upper arms so I wouldn't get stuck to the duct tape. As the waist was done it became clear that the bin bag was going to keep on hitching up around my bum - that old sway back in action - and so another binbag was used to give me extra length in that area. I looked like I was off to a fetishists cocktail party. 

During the process I learnt that:
* my grumpiest cat does not like the sound or smell of duct tape and was heartily unimpressed by the whole event.
* barnacles have the longest penises proportional to their body size in the animal kingdom. This bit of fascinating info came from the friend who was taping me up. Come on, this was a girl wrapping another girl in adhesive plastic, the conversation was hardly going to be conventional!

Unimpressed grumpy cat, looking even grumpier than usual

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Random reminiscences of breast MRIs

If you want to turn a frown upside down, then consider a BRCA1 diagnosis as an opportunity to experience lots of new things you wouldn't otherwise necessarily have gone through. A breast MRI is one of those experiences - at least it is in Suffolk, UK, with the NHS protocols in this neck of the woods. Mammograms are not recommended because they can cause damage to breast tissue which you'd really rather avoid if you have a gene that means you are prone to breast cancer. A yearly breast MRI was advised for me while I was making up my mind on what surgical decision, if any, to take.

The MRIs I have had have been a bit different from the picture above as I have gone in headfirst, and also had a cannula in one arm so both arms were down by my sides. The cannula injects dye of some kind so the scan can get the best image possible of la boobs. The holes for your boobs are pretty big and I was told that some women are too large in that department to fit in the spaces available. I had plenty of space for my DDs and was actually told to shuffle up rather than plonk them right in the middle.

I can't lie. It's a sexy moment. Not.

How to describe the sound? Listen to this version of Hello by Martin Solveig and Dragonette. At about the 25 second stage you get a dah-dah-dah-dah-dah sound. It's like that but without musical cadence. And it goes on. And on. It sometimes changes pitch and tone but it's still a constant dah-dah-dah-dah-dah. The headphones block out some of it but not all.

Mine lasted on average about 40 minutes.

I'd arrive at the hospital, announce my presence to the person on reception in the MRI room and wait to be called up. As with the majority of hospital appointments, I don't think I ever got called through on the dot but I never waited long. A blue shopping basket similar to what you could find in a supermarket was passed to me into which I put my belongings and clothes, the items then put in a locker while I was having my scan. The gown given was laced up at the front, a rarity for hospital gowns which tend to give priority to access round the rear.

The staff were always pleasant and professional. Getting the cannula put in wasn't that nice an experience but my veins in that area were robust enough to be found in the first go and I didn't need to feel like a human pincushion as the nurse tried to get a good spot.

You can feel the dye going in. It's a weird rather than an unpleasant situation. Towards the end of each MRI I had there seemed to be a sudden burst of dye that made me think I might have wet myself owing to a certain localised warm feeling down below. This was a pretty mortifying experience first time and the embarassment did serve to distract me in the final 5-10 minutes. I checked with the MRI staff and was told it wasn't common for people to have that sensation but it did happen.

That deals with the physical side of the MRI but there's a mental element to the procedure to. There's the booking of the scan where you are asked when your last period was/ next period will be as ideally the scan needs to be taken around a certain point in your cycle. Having had an uneven 4-8 week cycle until recently, this was always a question I could only guess at and I was made to feel that hardly anyone had irregular cycles and if I just tried a bit harder I could fit into the norm and make the booking of an appointment easier.

You have your appointment booked and you mentally shelve it. For a while.

The closer you get to the date, a little querulous voice begins to sew seeds of doubt. If you go looking for something, this voice prompts, of course you are going to find it. As if the only thing that causes cancer is testing to see if it's there in the first place.

When you get to a few days before the scan you find that voice beginning to draw up plans of what to do if your MRI does come back with something nasty. Who will you tell and how? What will the next steps be? As if by planning as much as you can you will somehow be able cushion the blow by having a to do list ready to roll.

When the scan is done you feel relief. That's it done for another year. You won't have to think of heading into that tone-deaf noisy tube for another 10+ months. I found that the horrid catastrophe-anticipating voice quietens down then but it doesn't go away until the letter confirming all is well comes through the door.

Regular monitoring is a sensible option for those with the BRCA1 gene. It's a means of keeping an eye on a situation that you've been forewarned about and an opportunity to catch things early enough for any treatment to have a good chance of success.

Just because it's a rational decision doesn't make it an easy one. The monitoring represents a wear and tear for the nerves, depending on your character. For those who just want to forget BRCA1 it is a regular reminder that it is still there and still needs to be dealt with.

When I was in the 'danger zone', as my breast consultant put it, I made the decision to have a double preventive mastectomy and had my last MRI about two years ago. I don't miss them but I was very grateful to live in a country with an NHS where monitoring could be done without incurring a hefty price tag.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Favourite Novellas

Books of between 75 and 150 pages

I Look Divine
Christopher Coe

Reflections in a Golden Eyes
Carson McCullers

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark

Love of Seven Dolls
Paul Gallico

Bonjour Tristesse
Francoise Sagan

The Rules of Life
Day Weldon

Dorothy Strachey

Loitering with Intent
Muriel Spark

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Random thoughts on graveyards and funerals

There are those who love walking round graveyards. I rarely take a wander in these kind of places but I can understand the lure for people. When I was at Belton House last weekend I spent some time walking around the churchyard, taking pictures and having non-maudlin, meandering thoughts about funerals. 

While I was looking at the tombstones - the majority very old and crusted with lichen - it occurred to me that I had never given any thought to what my own headstone might look like. Following that thought through on its random train I realised that was because I didn't expect to have a headstone. I'm not a religious person so a burial plot this close to a church would not be an option and also what with how few plots there are about these days I have always assumed I'll be cremated and my ashes scattered somewhere. No ornate carved marker for my remains. No coffin mouldering amongst the earth and worms, waiting to be dug up and disposed of when all my kin are gone and there is another body queuing to take my place.

I liked the idea that I will have no marker, no set place for people to leave flowers and feel they have to tend. I won't be a set of dates that a graveyard explorer will see and wonder at. Some stonemason will be spared the task of creating a monstrosity in marble of a fat ginger cat with wings playing a harp.

I find churchyards to be quiet, calming places. True, I've only roamed about them during the day so perhaps at night I'd be a tad more spooked but in the rain or in the sunlight they seem places beyond people, if that's possible. Nature weaves in and out from the overgrown, flourishing forget-me-nots to squirrels dancing about their daily lives and birds hopping from stone to stone while moss establishes more of a footing. Any people you see about are quiet, often subdued or thoughtful, so a burial area is more about the absence of living people than their presence.

Any tombstone I had would not be in keeping with the sombre air that some people feel is due. I would want a simple inscription, no name, no dates, yet something that expressed who I was.

I'm thinking:

If you can't get a nod in to Douglas Adams on a hypothetical tombstone then what's the point of life? (42?)

I gave a smidgen of thought to my funeral service, something I haven't really done before. I assume my ever-growing proximity to 40 is prompting these matter-of-fact thoughts. Here's hoping that when I get to 60 I don't start asking people who visit what they want when I die and putting sticky labels on items with the relevant names on as my Gran did. 

I don't want hymns or talk of sin and redemption. I do want random readings from books I know and poems that mean something to me. The poem below encapsulates a lot of my feeling about life and not just because I dislike housework with a passion.

Dust if you must - Rose Milligan

Dust if you must, but wouldn't it be better

To paint a picture, or write a letter,
Bake a cake, or plant a seed;
Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there's not much time,
With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;
Music to hear, and books to read;
Friends to cherish, and life to lead.

Dust if you must, but the world's out there
With the sun in your eyes, and the wind in your hair;
A flutter of snow, a shower of rain,
This day will not come around again.

Dust if you must, but bear in mind,
Old age will come and it's not kind.
And when you go (and go you must)
You, yourself, will make more dust.