Living a simple life: A is for Attention

A is for Attention

This post is part of the 2017 A-Z Challenge. Woot! 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog, and about my life in general. Last year was a difficult one for me: I almost certainly slipped into depression, although I did not get formally diagnosed. Still, I spent a lot of time staring at the wall with my thoughts circling the drain.

Thankfully, a mix of counselling, exercise, self-reflection, omega-3 supplements, yoga and meditation has pulled me out of it.

So what is this about, and what does it have to do with the A-Z challenge?

When I first started this blog, I did so with an A-Z challenge. The posts were short and perhaps perfunctionary, and I didn’t gain any long-term readers from it (I don’t have any long-term readers!)

I’ve been blogging in one form or another for over fifteen years. But in recent years I’ve moved away from creating, writing, exploring, and toward consuming. I lost the art of long-form journal writing in favour of short Facebook updates. Facebook updates that were, at best, a highly edited, extremely bland version of me that was both Safe for Work and Safe for Extended Family.

XKCD: Fuck. That. Shit.

So – I want a reboot. Blogging is important to me. Owning my own platform, however few readers, however little attention it gets, is important to me. I’m not going to pigeon-hole myself into a particular blogging niche. This isn’t about brand, or selling myself, or monetising. It’s not about readers (though anyone who does read this, hello, good to see you around!)

A is for… Attention

Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are. –Jose Ortega y Gasset

Look: I’m easily distracted. It’s modern life. I carry a tiny-but-powerful computer around with me in my pocket. It gives me instant access to most of human knowledge, a bewildering kaleidoscope of opinions, an endless array of cute gifs, and it’s so easy to use.

So when I emerged from my depression, I found myself blinking at the endless amount of time I had wasted — apparently trying to read the entire internet.

There’s a South Park episode about weed. Somewhere during that episode, Randy says: “pot makes you feel fine with being bored, and it’s when you’re bored that you should be learning some new skill or discovering some new science or being creative. If you smoke pot you may grow up to find out that you aren’t good at anything.

I’ve never much liked weed. But I do like my smartphone, and I use it a lot. I use it multiple times a day. It’s like a tic, during any moment of quiet, any pause, any brief lull in the rhythm of the day – out comes the phone.

Endless gratification. I can post a picture to instagram and tag it with a hashtag and almost immediately get a couple of likes.

Endless entertainment. I can open a dozen websites that feed me news, opinion, how-to articles. I can graze wide and far on information, none of which I’ll retain (and much of which isn’t relevant).

Meanwhile, the seconds of my life tick away.

Calvin & Hobbes: Never not relevant

So this post is my declaration of a reboot. I am going to use this A-Z challenge to force myself to blog daily. To help me explore and figure out what’s important to me. To help me balance my consumption of content with the more creatively satisfying creation of content.

I am going to use this A-Z challenge to remind myself to pay attention.

Designing Pipettes in the Dark: thoughts on responsive design

I recently developed a custom ‘responsive design’ wordpress theme for new science blog Pipettes in the Dark. (I freelance in web design & development – you can see my portfolio over here at Monochrome Rainbow).

You should definitely go read the first post — about Lego and WOMEN IN SCIENCE.

It’s been a little while since I’ve developed an entire theme from scratch. One of the big challenges in web-design is crafting layouts that work on a range of screen sizes. We use a range of devices these days, from smartphones right up to smart TVs.

Don’t think a bigger screen-size is such a challenge? Well, you’re wrong. Text is easiest to read in columns of about 50-75 characters. This is why newspapers and magazines print in columns.

You have three choices on a big screen:

  1. Fix the max-width of your text areas so that they don’t grow (can often end up with ‘tiny website lost in acres of white-space’ syndrome).
  2. Make the font-size increase proportionally to the column width (actually not a bad idea, especially if you assume people are sitting further away from bigger screens).
  3. Or, final choice, you can ‘flow’ text into multiple columns using responsive design and media queries.

Native apps versus responsive design

There are two approaches to ‘solving’ the multiple screen-size problem. The first is by producing native apps for mobile, tablet etc. These usually work better, and can take advantage of mobile technology like GPS, notifications, etc. However they can be pretty expensive and hard to keep up-to-date.

The other approach, which works better for individuals and small businesses, is to use a responsive design. That way you can have one website that is fluid across different screens. You lose some functionality, but if you’re basically just delivering content then that’s no big loss.

Responsive design is mainly coded via media queries.

Media queries are awesome. Deliver different stylesheets based on screensize, and you have one website that works on multiple devices.

Media queries are used for responsive design
Media queries used for three breakpoints to create a responsive design

Pipettes in the Dark is a fairly standard blog, with no sales pitch or calls to action. I was able to stick to a tried and tested basic layout that everyone will be familiar with. The closer you stick to ‘standard’ layouts, the more familiar people will be with navigating and using them. Originality can be over-rated! Just remember the last overly-complicated flash website you tried to use. Frustrating, right?

So I went with the two-column site with a header and footer. I then adjusted the width of the columns once you hit the tablet size, enabling the sidebar to stay readable.

Finally, for mobiles, I got rid of the sidebar altogether. Sometimes, hiding non-essential information is the best way to go when you have limited space.

Designing for SCIENCE

The design elements have an interesting backstory. The header text or logo is meant to look like text spelled out with ‘PCR Bands’. Nope, I don’t know what PCR Bands indicate either, but I googled some images and was able to approximate the general look and feel in Photoshop.

The background texture is channeling the idea of pipettes in a box.

The colour scheme is grayscale, accented with hot pink. Keeping a limited colour-scheme can be challenging, but we kept enough contrast in each section to retain legibility. Hot pink is vivid and exciting, plus it is associated strongly with women. The blog itself will tackle some of the gender expectations/challenges within the generally male dominated field of science, and the colour scheme reflects that.

Pipettes in the Dark is also the first of one hundred websites I designed and deployed as part of my Forty Before Forty! I’m expecting almost all of the other ones to also use responsive design… unless there is a really good reason not to.

Want me to help you with your website? Get in touch with me

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

I was tagged by fellow-writer Louise Gibney (also known as Miss Write!) to participate in this writing process ‘blog tour’. Louise’s first novel Girl Meets Boys is unfortunately no longer available for sale, but I’m eagerly awaiting her second novel — which she has said is “a story of family, grief, personal discovery and development.” She also writes tons of fantastic articles on her blog.

Louise asked the following questions:

1. What am I working on?

Writing Process: Moonstruck
Stock images by wyldraven and DigitalissSTOCK.

My second book is a science-fiction/horror called Moonstruck. The hero, Stephanie Walker, joined the Space Navy to escape her past and has worked her way up to First Mate despite being grumpy, violent and unsociable. Disliked by her crew, she’s nonetheless their only hope after a monster starts killing them with abandon. Luckily, she has the help of new recruit, Daniel, and she realises that they are much stronger working together than she ever was on her own.  The book is currently about 20,000 words short of its second draft.

I’ve also tentatively planned out the sequel to The Rising Wind and hope to start on the first draft of that soon.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In a lot of science-fiction and horror, you’re often left with a ‘last survivor’, a lone hero who rises above impossible odds. In this book, I wanted to flip that a little bit, and show a group of people overcoming differences and working together to survive. As for whether they do or not, I guess you’ll have to wait and see…

More generally, I try to include a lot of diverse characters in my writing. The Rising Wind, for example, features a gay couple, but the book isn’t about that. They are just like a normal couple, and the alternate reality that they live in – whilst it has a lot of problems – really doesn’t have any prejudice about same-sex relationships. (At least at this point in its history.)

3. Why do I write what I do?

I grew up reading almost everything I could get my hands on. Sci-fi, detective novels, classics, Mills & Boon, historical romance, straight historical novels, trippy post-modern stuff, everything! I really like combining lots of different elements together in my work. There’s always nearly a fantastical element, but my stories are rooted in a world quite like our own. I also have opinions that some would describe as radical, and I like to explore how some of my ideas would play out if they became a reality.

4. How does your writing process work?

I’m still refining my process, and I’m terribly slow. It took me well over five years to write The Rising Wind. I usually have to spend ages writing ‘around the characters’, stuff that helps me understand who they are and how they think, but which won’t ultimately make it into the final story.

Anyway, here is my current writing process:

I start by writing out a few scenes in Scrivener, just to get a handle on the world and the characters. I call this a first draft, and it’s normally puked out and rarely has any decent ending.

Then I use workflowy to rough the story out, chapter-by-chapter, and scene-by-scene. (I used to use excel)

Then I re-write in Scrivener. I love Scrivener because it lets me drag and drop scenes around and stops me thinking of the book as the linear a-to-b thing. I give each scene a couple of labels, one is the POV and the other is the state its in. I’ll move around the story at random, so you’ll get some scenes that have been re-written several times and are close to ‘final draft’ and others that are still ‘stuff happens’.

Once it’s in a fit state, I send it to beta readers and get feedback. They are usually good at picking up the odd gaping plot hole.

The last step is to hire an editor to go through it. They usually send back lots and lots of notes, and we work each scene two-or-three times.

Short stories I skip a few of the steps here, but they still get re-written quite extensively. I don’t think I’ve ever sat down and written the story I first came up with. They always end up evolving!

Other writers to check out

Cybelle Pauli – A fellow member of the nanowrimo group on Facebook, Cybelle writes some interesting feminist poetry.

Laura Hayley – Another member of the nanowrimo group, and writes over at Quaktaculaura. I’m delighted to see her giving my favourite form of prose writing a go – namely the short story. I thought her latest one, Black and White, was particularly poignant. I wish her the best of luck getting her manuscript accepted!

Matt Holland – I’ve had the opportunity to see Matt’s writing evolve over the last few years. He’s developed a fantastic and unique voice. Biting, funny, with great characters. Definitely check out his Gallaetha novels!

The blog turned twenty

I picked up on this tidbit of news as I was browsing through my feedly list.

A blog I follow, Six Pixels of Separation, linked to the Guardian article. It would appear that the once new and exciting blog has become a comfortable middle-aged pastime.

I started blogging when I was about 17. That’s twelve years in which I have more or less continuously written about my life, my thoughts, my politics and my experiences.

The early days of blogging

I started with html files on a site built in notepad. My blogs were pretty short, and mostly about my life: what I got for Christmas, my thoughts on Buffy, my school lessons. At the same time as this blog I was also trying to run a fan-site with a little guestbook that later became a massive forum.

After I got tired of manually updating HTML files all the time, I moved to Greymatter, (my first experience of open source software!). Greymatter was lovely, it had such a pleasant feel to it. But when it was abandoned by its creator I ended up writing my own php script and coupled it with a mySQL database.

That – and my forum – were how I learned to program for the web. Those programming skills ended up earning my keep when I became an adult. Who knew my silly blog would have such an impact?

The rise and fall of LiveJournal

I also started journaling on LiveJournal. Blogs are public, or have very clunky privacy controls. Livejournal was the first example of a platform in which you could choose who saw which post. I had lists of friends, some of whom were privy to my my soul-searching existential angst, some who saw only my posts about what I got for Christmas. I started writing on LiveJournal more than my ‘real’ blog. In LJ I told my deepest secrets to people I hardly knew. That was part of the point: there could be no come-back, no messy consequences. As a result, I made many close friends all across the world.

Those friends would later put me up as I travelled around the States, making a trip that should have been prohibitively expensive pretty cheap and amazingly fun. Who knew that turning your private diary into a semi-public affair would end up earning you a circle of such fantastic people?

I’m still on LJ, though everyone knows it isn’t what it used to be. It’s not that LJ has changed, it’s just that we’ve grown older (and the young uns are on tumblr and snapchat and other things I no doubt don’t know about).

When blogs grew up and started showing up at the office

After a while I moved away from my own custom php blog onto some of the platforms that had been built by others. MoveableType I never got on with, but eventually I stumbled upon WordPress… and I never looked back. (This current blog is built on WordPress, and most websites I build for clients are on the same platform)

As I came out of University I became desperate to ‘make money online’ and started several blogs for that purpose. My first scared me with its success and I abandoned it in confusion: it was a blog about how to write, one of my posts went viral on StumbleUpon and I suddenly realised that I, a young woman with nothing published and a mere 3-year degree in Creative Writing, was not the right person to be trying to teach writing. I made, perhaps, 50p out of googleads.

I later tried a minimalism blog, a permaculture blog and even a personal development blog but my heart was not in any of them. Meanwhile, other bloggers were making six and seven figure sums. Blogging had become a profession, a bit of a kooky one, but one that could make serious money.

About this time I got my first proper job, and to my surprise it involved writing for the web, and notably blogging. I wrote under a pseudonym, and I wrote about how to write video games. The blog was moderately successful, and my pseudonym was even offered a book deal (it never came to fruition, alas). I was essentially being a paid a (fairly measly) salary for what I had used to do as a teenager: namely blog, mess around with HTML, and talk about video games. Nobody was more surprised than me.

The truth was though, the web in general had become far more professional and far more corporate. Teenagers still built sites in HTML with tiny fonts and big picture backgrounds. But in the grown-up world user experience, conversion rates, SEO, and money, money, money was the name of the game.

At the same time as I was being paid to blog about video games, I also started writing under my real name as part of a group blog about gaming. The blog was called girlsdontgame and is now, sadly, defunct. It was probably the most successful blog I’ve ever been a part of, however. The posts were popular – I went viral on stumbleupon again – and eventually we came to the notice of some big league game companies.

EA invited me to San Francisco – paid for my long distance flights and my hotel room – and I was given early access to some Sims games, plus a goody bag of freebies. All because I enjoyed writing about the video games I would have played anyway. But companies like EA knew that people read blogs for reviews, not magazines. Bloggers were more honest, more personable, and much more diverse. They took unique perspectives. And they argued with each other. They scored hundreds of thousands of visits.

Companies still blog, and companies still court popular bloggers.

Hello, my name is Social media

Then came MySpace. Blogging was part of MySpace, but it was much more informal. Later, MySpace became Facebook. People tried to predict the next Facebook, but instead… twitter helped the internet to explode. Different types of social platforms sprang up everywhere; platforms for photos, platforms for videos, platforms for long-form writing, platforms for readers, platforms for microblogging, platforms for sharing music (that was MySpace making a comeback).

I was still blogging – trying to find a way to capture that early magic – but I was also trying to be on every social media platform in existence. The internet was…. diversifying. Rapidly.

Welcome back to today

These days I write on LiveJournal, which is still the place for my angst and sadface. I post to Facebook about my life and share photos of parties and events. I keep this blog, which is semi-professional and a great place for deeper, more thought-out posts about the world. In my day-job I manage an NGO blog integrated into our Drupal CMS. I have a tumblr, where I share silly gifs and rabid politicism and less well-thought out rants about the world. It’s an ecosystem that seems to work for now, but no doubt it will shift again in the future.

One thing is for sure. I’ll always be blogging in some shape or form.

Power and fear

Last week, journalist David Miranda was detained for nine hours under the Terrorism Act. In addition, some hard-drives were (pointlessly!) destroyed at The Guardian’s London offices. Both of these actions were spurred by the fact The Guardian and David Miranda were actively working to investigate and reveal the length to which the USA and UK governments are monitoring… everyone they can get data on.

All of this prompted my friend to ask on Twitter:

To which I responded:

Specifically I was referring to the Tor Project, but there are also other solutions. The article How to keep the NSA out of your computer discusses ‘mesh networks’, essentially an alternative to the internet. One of the most prominent of these is Hyperboria. Use Bitcoin for any financial transactions that you want to keep secret. You can use bitcoins for pretty much anything, including food in some cities.

Unfortunately, there is a ‘tech savvy users only’ gateway to this stuff – because the surveillance techniques are so heavily technical, the solutions are as well. The ‘easy’ internet, comprised of Amazon, Google, ISP’s… this stuff can be used by anyone, but is also monitored.

Josh responded to me:

Now this is a subject close to my heart, because someone I greatly love has been on the wrong side of an airport detention policy. Like many (completely harmless) people, this person was treated outrageously; lied to, kept in miserable conditions, denied food, denied telephone contact with the people worrying about them. They were detained for over 24 hours, and then denied entrance to the country and sent back on the next flight.

I, who had gone to the airport to meet and greet them, was also repeatedly lied to.

It was my first real experience with the power of the state government: and it made me realise that we enjoy our ‘human rights’ only with their permission. You can do everything right, fill out all the paperwork, break no rules, never claim welfare, pay taxes, vote for central parties, be white, middle class and not subscribe to ‘other’ religions – and still get fucked over. Should you do anything ‘wrong’, whether on purpose or by accident, I can only imagine how much worse it is.

And here we see despair and hopelessness. The apparatus of Government is insanely powerful. It manipulates the media, it controls the military, it works in partnership with the corporations that own so much of our lives. Meanwhile, ‘everyone else’ – without full access to the facts, and with many diverse lies that appeal to their emotional needs, and who also need to get on with the hard work of living a normal human life – is pretty much hopelessly unequipped to deal with the Government.

It is a David and Goliath set-up, except that David doesn’t even know what’s he’s fighting or why.

We are not powerless

This is a false set up. It is a popular one, and a beguiling one, but it is not true. The ‘Government’ may have power and wealth and military might, but it is also made up of people. Incompetent people! Read the stories of detainees and you swiftly realise that the airport security personnel are people, way out of their depth, dealing with situations in idiotic ways. Read the stories of big business owners and you quickly realise they are sociopathic, and just as likely to turn one each other. The Government loses briefcases full of important info, gets their secrets leaked by The Guardian, and destroys hard-drives – apparently unaware that data is rarely confined to a single, physical location. They are not some robot brain, committed to a single purpose.

We do make a difference

We may only have human rights with their permission, but they exist only with our collective permission. We do make a difference:

  • Slavery is now illegal in all nations (the last place, Mauritania, made it illegal in 2007)
  • There are now only two countries where women cannot vote: Vatican City and Saudia Arabia. Saudia Arabia plans to change this in 2015.
  • Global poverty is declining – and dire poverty could be eliminated in 20 years
  • Public health measures have brought global life expectancy up to about 67. This is of course unequal, but the level of inequality is dropping around the world. Medical advancements are making access to life saving devices cheap enough for all.
  • We have almost hit ‘peak population’ – since the beginning of time we have been shouting about the dangers of human overpopulation. Now it looks like in 2050 we will peak at around 10 billion, and then population will drop/hold steady. Providing secondary education to girls is the single most effective intervention to reduce population growth; and access to education is improving.
  • ‘Serious’ crime rates have been decreasing.

There are three serious problems that face us:

  1. Climate shift/environmental issues. Basically, we have fucked the planet. Any solutions will come from the the tech & science sector. As an issue, it will probably impact on everything from food prices to environmental refugees to large numbers of people killed in extreme weather incidents. There will be consequences (and already have been) – we’ve gone too far to prevent them – but we can mitigate the severity of those consequences and do our best to adapt and protect.
  2. Inequality. Whilst dire poverty is set to be eliminated, overall inequality is growing. The very rich are, well, getting richer. Oxfam are calling for a new goal;  end extreme wealth. An equal society is a happier, more productive, better educated, and more stable society.
  3. The repercussions of moving into a digital & global age. Every time in human history that there is a major upheaval the ramifications were massive and far-ranging. The fallout from the shift into a digital age is difficult to predict, but will definitely include issues about data protection, the right to privacy, and the difficulty of working, trading and governing in a global economy. Who pays tax and where? Which laws and cultural assumptions come out on top? Is access to internet a human right in the way that access to education is? Who stores the data? Who monitors the internet? What about hacking? What is money, once it’s been reduced to numbers in a computer program? How do we cope with possible pandemics which could easily spread globally in a few hours?

Here’s the thing: none of these problems are insurmountable. We’ve been saying it’s the end of the world almost since we had the capacity to project the future. But despair is not helpful. It is entirely possible that the rich could escape the ravages of climate shift, spying on us at will, whilst the poorer citizens of the world live and die horribly. But it is equally possible that rationality and compassion could win out, that we find a way to use our considerable ingenuity and problem solving skills to adapt to a changing climate whilst still equalising our lifestyles. That we can find a way to celebrate diversity and live together instead of clashing over political and ideological differences.

And if we don’t? Well, at least if we hope and work towards the best outcome we’ll be happier than if we just give up now.

 Make a difference

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

The only thing that we can do is make a difference on the micro level. We all have the ability to make a difference on a tiny scale, but those differences all add up to a whopping big change on a global scale. There are lots of ways you can help, and the best thing to do is pick the cause(s) you are most passionate about and do something relating to them.

  • Support a charity that does something you agree with. Run a fundraiser, donate, volunteer some time.
  • Look after your friends and loved ones.
  • Support local, environmentally sustainable farming methods.
  • Stop buying stuff you don’t need.
  • Pass on your skills (blog, teach, make a youtube video, share with your friends).
  • Do the research on internet memes. Don’t just share a picture because you agree with it, check the facts before you hit ‘share’. You are responsible for the spread of misinformation.
  • Go on protest marches.
  • Keep a (wild) garden. Grow veg. Give the veg to your local food bank.
  • Do your research on corporations. Whilst it is probably impossible to avoid buying from companies that have some unethical practices (particularly where IT, clothing, and food are concerned) you can kick up a stink about the worst excesses. Boycotts can work.
  • Dispose of your waste properly. Recycle or reuse it.
  • Stay informed. Use your vote.
  • Fight against welfare cuts; these are people who deserve to live, deserve to relax, deserve to have fun. Compassion is a wonderful thing.
  • Support a living wage.
  • Speak up against discrimination. Accept that you will discriminate. If someone tells you that you are discriminating, apologise and figure out why.
  • Keep an eye out for children. They need the support of everyone in a society, not just parents and teachers.
  • Do the right thing wherever possible.

X is for… eXcuses

I’m slightly disappointed I didn’t manage the last four posts of the A-Z Challenge in time. The only thing worse would be to not complete the challenge at all. So here are three of my last four posts (happily condensed into one post for ease). I’m missing W – but look for it turning up tomorrow. (I’ll give you a hint, it will be some lovely wallpapers for your computer).

X is for Excuses

Original image by swissmiss.

It only seems right that a late and limping almost-final entry into the Challenge should be about excuses. And I’ll be honest; I have a lot. My second novel is still not finished. I haven’t done a pull-up for almost four months. My low-sugar challenge went off the rails spectacularly (who knew it would be so hard to quit the demon sweetener?) I missed a project deadline at work — actually it went flying by at the speed of light about four weeks ago!

For all of these things I have reasons. Excuses. I moved house twice in the last five months. My commute now takes anywhere from an hour to two hours. Other projects got dumped on me. I just want to relax for one night and I’ll get back on it tomorrow.

Difficult. The problem is, of course, I want to finish that novel (and a third, and a fourth). I want to be fit, and able to crank out twenty pull-ups with ease. I want my job to go well, and my career to be a success. I want to enjoy health and a long life.

There are lots of productivity tips out there, and I’ve applied some of them already. Productivity isn’t the issue. I strongly believe working hours are too long across most of the world. With unemployment so high and wages so unequal? There is no reason two people could not do the job that one person does now; and both would get better quality of life.

Exhaustion, stress, depression. These have become almost default positions for so many people.

But these are the parameters we work with. Changing the way the world works is out of my control, for the most part. So what can I do?

I think a little bit of forgiveness to ourselves is allowed. A celebration of what we do get done, rather than reflecting on what we don’t. One project at work fell by the wayside — because I got pulled off onto another, highly critical and more important project. I worked (and am working) my ass off on that project!

I haven’t finished my second novel, but I’m halfway through the second draft and I keep on keeping on. Progress is made, and I know now that I will keep plugging away, at weekends and on holidays and eventually at least a handful of these stories will get written down and released to the world.

I can’t do a pull-up yet, but my fitness is light years away from where it was two years ago. It’s a part of my life now, and even though I’m not as fit as I want to be, it’s still nice to feel so much stronger than I used to be. The other day I even managed a feat of strength after someone else had failed — something that would never have happened before. (I used to be the weediest person you can imagine, with arms like tiny soggy spaghetti strands).

Excuses? Is often another word for reason.

If I’m making progress, I’m doing okay. It might be inching and slow, it might be blazing fast (it won’t last!) but as long as I keep heading towards the things that I want, it’s fine.

Every journey is made up of thousands of steps; but also rest-stops, conversations, detours, meeting strangers, getting pissed off, being attacked by a horde of orcs, having your brain taken over by the Borg — okay, you get my point.

Life would be boring if we just walked in a straight line to our destination without pause.

Y is for… yesterday and yankee.

Me and my other half
Me and my other half

Yesterday was a Saturday, and one of the first I have spent at home and relaxing. It was nice, and here’s why:

My partner is American. Of the four+ years we’ve been married, we’ve been apart for probably half of that time. Even when he finally moved back to the UK, we had some housing issues that stopped us from living together. We have not had what you might call a straightforward courtship and marriage.

It doesn’t matter, however, because all the chaos and craziness has just gelled us together stronger and harder than ever before. Yesterday we hung out, we watched a movie, we snuggled and every second of it was precious. 🙂

Z is for… endings (and new beginnings)

Book shelves filled with books
Original image by brewbooks

So much for the A-Z Challenge. I hope you enjoyed this rather frantic ride. I’ve decided to do another challenge (one that doesn’t involve blogging quite so often). If you are also looking for a blog challenge, here’s one you might want to try:

May Blogging Challenge

However, I am thinking of doing something a little more rounded and ticking off another life goal – namely, to read the Telegraph’s ‘100 novels everyone should read‘ list, and writing a review for each one.

Right this minute, however, I’m off to do some writing.

Have a great day xxx

V is for… Vikings

The letter VThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

Did you see the movie Thor?

I did, completely by accident. I am a bit of a comic book fan, but never really liked the Spider Man movies and as a result got put off the Marvel Movie franchise. But I was around a friends house one day and he suggested we watch it and I was like “Meh, whatevs.”

Two hours later I was a committed fangirl to the nth degree (I have a bit of a problem with getting OHMYGOD-OBSESSED with certain things).

Anyway, I adored Thor, bought it for myself and quickly dived into the rest of the Marvel movies (loved them all, but Thor and The Avengers are definitely the best.)

The whole experience spring-boarded me into a light flirtation with Vikings in general. The mythology is more interesting than most (alright, I admit it, I find 90% of mythology absolutely tedious; including judeo-Christian) and a short while later I had my own rune kit. (Did I mention the bit where I have a problem with getting obsessed?)

I have this rather unlikely fantasy of putting together a signature steampunk-viking outfit, but to make it work I am first trying to get my strength and fitness levels up. The reason I’m responding to those valkyrie images is, of course, because of the strength on display.

T is for… travel

The letter TThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

Travelling is a great thing to do, and I encourage everybody young-and-old, rich-and-poor, to travel as much as they can.

Luckily, travel is one of those things that you can do in many different ways.

  • You can hike or cycle your way across continents, wild camping or staying in cheap B&Bs.
  • You can buy or rent a caravan and do long road-trips for the cost of your camp site.
  • You can choose to avoid tourist traps and instead seek out local treasures.
  • You can go on cruises, stopping in at various places for a quick experience of a new culture.
  • You can volunteer for organisations such as Raleigh International.
  • You can find a job  in another country (camp sites, nanny positions and bar work are often all good for temporary visas)
  • You can become a caretaker for houses when the owners are away on holiday.
  • You can become a digital nomad.
  • You can practise travel hacking to get cheap flights.
  • You can go on organised tours and safaris.
  • You can rent an apartment or villa in another country.
  • You can stay in a luxury hotel.

Statue in the city of York, EnglandIf I’m going far away, staying for a long time is the easiest way to make up for the cost of the plane ticket. When in University I took advantage of our student exchange program to spend six months in Ohio – one of the best experiences of my life.

Once you have a job (with limited holiday time) travel becomes a huge luxury. Seeking out jobs that give sabbaticals is good (my current one gives a sabbatical every five years) or you can ask for unpaid leave. Sadly, many people are not in a position to do this. It irritates me that, whilst on the one hand we have two and a half million unemployed people, on the other hand we have people working incredibly long hours with very few breaks. It seems obvious to me that a solution is to provide more flexible/shorter working hours… and hire more people!

Oh well.

How do you manage to travel — even with other commitments? And what are the best places you’ve visited?

My travelling plans

Towards the end of 2013 I’ll be starting the process of emigrating to the United States (my partner is a US Citizen).

Before then I am hoping to visit Holland for one final european trip.

Once firmly established in the states I’ll be visiting lots of different people (I hope!) and also taking some time to explore Canada. My grandparents lived in Canada for about four years, and my Uncle was born there so I have a (slightly tenuous) connection with the country. We’ll also be spending some time in the Bahamas as my partner’s parents have a time-share that we are allowed to use occasionally. That should probably keep my happy for 2014 at least 😉

I have held a long burning ambition to visit Japan since I was around 15 years old. I even started learning Japanese at one point, and had about a dozen Japanese pen-friends. This is one of my ‘bucket-list’ goals, but when I do go… I want to go properly. Spend a good month there at least, and visit many places.

R is for… Recipes

The letter RThis post is part of the A-Z Challenge blogging challenge.

I love cooking! I would do far more of it if I didn’t have… you know, a full-time job and a business and a novel to write. I’ve already shared one of my own recipes for Jumbalya. Today, however, I am going to highlight a few recipes that have been posted by other participants in the A-Z Challenge.

A is for … Applesauce Ice-cream (holy crap that sounds amazing!). Every single A-Z Post on this blog is about ice-cream. That alone deserves an ovation, frankly.

B is for … Brussel sprouts with balsamic glaze. Yup, our often misunderstood little green sprouty vegetables of awesome complete with a delectable sounding glaze. This recipe looks like an easy way to spice up a veggie side!

C is for … cauliflowers and cherries. Not in the same recipe, sadly, but here are two ingredients jazzed up by this talented food blogger 🙂

D is for … dill. Specifically carrot, dill and white bean salad. Not an A-Z blogger, but one of my favourite recipe blogs. I had to share.

E is for … eggplant rollatini. Okay, so I’m not advocating an extreme raw food diet. But replacing a few of our meals with high-raw versions is a great way to get more veggies/fruits in and feel more awesome. This recipe is an tasty way to start.

F is for … fennel. I first discovered fennel when it turned up in a veg box. Since then, I’ve discovered this vegetable also makes a rather lovely tea. If you’ve yet to discover the delights of fennel, this post will help you out.

G is for … goat-cheese baked potato. I’m always looking for healthy fast dinner options. This looks like one of those.

H is for … hummus! I adore hummus, and luckily it’s one of the few things my other half also loves. I like falafel in pitta bread with hummus. Yum. This blog has a great recipe for a basic, tasty hummus.

I is for … indian cuisine. If you’ve never tried it, you probably should. This A-Z blogger introduces some basics and shares a recipe for butter chicken.

J is for … Jalapeno! (Damn straight it is!). Spicy looking Cornbread Crusted Chicken with Jalapeno Popper Sauce recipe over on this A-Z blog!

K is for … kiwi fruit and kale. In short, we should all eat more kale.

L is for … Lemons. Yes, one of the best ingredients, it acts a bit like salt in savoury dishes (boosting flavour). Anyway, 9 ways to use a lemon here, great for when you’ve got half of one left over.

M is for … macaroni & cheese. I basically live on pasta. Mac & cheese is one of my favourite ways to make it.

N is for … Naughty & Nice. A rather lovely looking cappuccino coffee cake recipe from friend and co-blogger Louise!

O is for … olive oil. This post talks a bit about olive oil and why it’s awesome, and then sends you on to a recipe for homemade pizza dough. Anything that involves pizza should be shared.

P is for … peppermint ice-cream! More ice-cream recipes, but I had to highlight this one. I love peppermint and this ice-cream sounds refreshing and cooling.

Q is for … Quince paste! Yes, an oddity you may never have heard of, but which sounds delicious.

Yikes! That’s a lot of cooking I suddenly feel like doing. How about you – do you have a favourite recipe you would like to share in the comments?


O is for… one week (low sugar challenge)

The letter OThis post is part of the A-Z Blogging Challenge.

Yes folks. In the same month I write a post about the evils of dieting, and how important food is, I’m now writing a post about restricting a food group.

Bear with me.

First, ‘sugar’ is actually a misnomer. What we call sugar covers a range of different substances and combinations of substances. Here is an article with more information than you ever wanted to know about different types of sugar. It may be possible to cut all of these out, but it would be difficult and pretty stupid. Our cells require sugar to function, particularly our brain. Don’t deprive the brain of sugar! It will only end badly.

However, because sugar is required and we need a fair amount of it, we evolved to love sugar. And, in their attempts to make a profit, food companies have been adding more and more sugar to various foods and drinks. Eating this kind of food results in major energy spikes that are not really utilised in a sedentary lifestyle.

(Disclaimer: I am not a food expert, and I pretty much failed biology. I am keeping things lose here because I don’t really understand the science. I encourage you to read other articles as well.)

After the high, you crash, for various complex reasons relating to insulin. Some types of super-sweet sugar (e.g. high fructose corn syrup) also does other things, like turning off the feeling of being full. You can enter an addictive cycle of sugar spiking. Eventually you might end up with type-2 diabetes.

So much for that.

I’ve been slowly hooking into a sugar cycle over the past couple of years. Dessert used to be a treat; now it’s standard. I dump sugar on my porridge, buy a muffin to have with my lunch, and consume ice-cream at the end of the day. Alongside that, I stopped walking to and from work (around 6 miles a day) after I moved, with the result that all of that sugar-fuel is effectively just clogging me up and making me irritable.

So I have decided to take a step towards better health as it were, by ditching the ultra-sweet refined-sugar loaded desserts. Anything with added sugar is out. Natural sugar is a-okay (remember: sugar is essential!)

Low-sugar challenge – today’s tally:

Breakfast: organic energy drink (fruit juice + caffeine basically)
Lunch: Gammon, roast potatoes, parsnip and peas
Dinner: Chicken and dumpling stew
Pudding: A microwaved baked apple, vaguely based on this recipe. It was pretty good, but I think oven baked (or stewed?) would be tastier.

I’ll keep a tally over the next week… and a summary of the week at about the ‘U’ mark.

Got any naturally sweet recipes? One thing I’m expecting to find helpful is liquorice tea, which is super sweet!