Posts Tagged ‘comedy of life’

I like to think of myself as a person not unduly swayed by advertising. I’ve always been pretty good at tuning out jingles and conscientiously forgetting slogans, and timeslipped television is a blessing to me because yes, I am the kind of person who records a live show to watch with just enough lag to fast-forward through the ads. If I have to watch something live, I am quick to hit the mute button and studiously look away from the screen. I don’t want to give that stuff space in my brain if I can help it – it’s crowded enough in there already,

But sometimes, when I go shopping, I will admit to breaking down and buying something entirely for the label. Almost invariably, it’s something I want to share with the Beloved, and yes, I can tell a garbled story of “it was so silly! It said …” but proof is better, and the actual item – undeserving of purchase as it may have been – is funnier. The ludicrousness of Extract of Cashmere toilet paper had to be seen (experienced?) to be believed. So, for a small cost, I trundle home with the occasional oddity, idiocy, or curiosity. I think of it as equivalent to a cat delicately depositing a mouse at the feet of an honored giftee°.

In recent weeks I’ve brought home a couple of ‘mice’. The first is a classic mouse – idiocy of eye-watering greatness:

In fairness, it’s quite good shampoo. For hair. I might even buy it again. But it’s not that amazing, and I’m still thinking of suing them, in view of my confidence being stubbornly unimproved.

The next mouse is more in the oddity category. It’s this coffee tin, which I’ve been perplexed by for a while now:

What are they trying to say with this? My theory is that along with the sustainability and small producer buzzwords, it seems to be trying to attract the middle-aged, middle-class ex-pinko-liberal market share by drawing more than one might reasonably expect on the iconography of protest and revolution. What else is that Spanish ¡ doing, if not cueing up a bit of ¡No pasaran! glamor?  And the hands? I had to look a few times before I noticed the coffee grains flowing through the fists of the noble worker… Could they possibly be trying to stir up some associations in the pre-frontal cortex of the aforementioned ageing lefties, or am I to believe that they designed this button-pushing canister entirely by accident? So, ¡Viva la revolucion! and meanwhile, wake up and smell the coffee.

Note:  the coffee is also good, and – for once – appropriately ground for our stovetop machine. I might even buy this again too.

The third mouse was brought home merely because I found it beautiful. Sometimes that happens. (Also, I was curious, but that was pure bonus.)

This is something called black vinegar. I got it in the Korean/Japanese shop I occasionally go into for sushi supplies (and, almost invariably, come out of with a dose of unidentifiable randomness, just like this). It is pungent, aromatic, and, luckily, delicious when used sparingly in salad dressings.

So, that’s three out of three for serendipity. Maybe I should buy things for the label more often?

° When presented with an actual mouse, by an actual cat, I find it hard to know what the correct response should be. Mine, which involves a dustpan and brush and the swiftest possible removal, seems somehow churlish: I know I do not like it when the Beloved fails to show sufficient appreciation of the ‘mice’ I bring him.

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Having enjoyed the annual wonder of the bluebell woods again, with this year’s display being particularly impressive (is ‘spectacular’ too histrionic a term for such an understated miracle?), and despite having taken approximately a million photographs (or, at least, enough to fill my camera’s memory card, which I believe is a first, in a fairly futile attempt to capture the ‘far-as-the-eye-can-see’ quality of the scene), I had originally decided not to share (mostly out of deference to Sylvia, who is quite possibly still experiencing icy blasts, sub-zero temperatures, and horizontal snow, and partly because I did share a couple of years ago).

Then I read, on someone else’s blog, that 90% of the world’s bluebells are to be found in British woods, and relented. I have no idea if that information is accurate, and no real notion of how I would research its authenticity, so it is presented to you – with a health warning – in rather the way my old therapist used to preface anything dubious she wished to say (but from which she also wished to distance herself), with the formula, “as my old therapist, who was a Very Old Frenchwoman, used to say to me…”. My own therapist was a charming American in Paris:  imagine the New Yorker made flesh. I went to her in grief, after my mother died, and stayed to be nursed through the final illness of my marriage. I stopped going when our session had morphed into a series of unsustainbly expensive chats over tea. Several years later I met the Beloved, and he introduced me to the New Yorker, which I recognised immediately as V-. made ink.

But back to the bluebells. I don’t know if 90% of them are in our native woods, but certainly, they are worth celebrating, and photographing, and sharing as widely as possible, and all the more so if most of the world is missing out.

Anyway, we grasped the moment, seized the day like champions, and indulged in some general-purpose cavorting and frolicking. Some tree-clambering was attempted by some members of the party (with attendant rescuing occasionally required by other, taller members of the party), and remarkably few bluebells were harmed in the process.


Also, we had the woods entirely to ourselves and while I’m sorry more people weren’t out enjoying them, I was also moved, and grateful for our luck. We had been blessed, in our modern, busy world, with a brief, quiet miracle of timeless – and entirely unpurchasable – perfection.

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For me, it’s a fine art; for Oscar, a way of life.

I think I’ve gotten pretty well over any catnapping guilt I used to have (his people are so resolutely undeserving. And rude.) Now, if I were to cut a cat flap in my back door (which, hypothetically, I might briefly have considered), that might be another matter. I probably would feel a twinge if I were to do a thing like that.

However, as the autumn draws in, and we light the fire every evening, he’s been doing a lot more of this. Meanwhile, I’ve been fairy busy. On which, more soon.

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I want to start by saying that I have pretty high regard for the standards of the John Lewis Partnership, the eponymous department store chain and the Waitrose supermarket division. I think its goods are generally of superior quality; its ethics are less lamentable than most large-scale retailers; and the somewhat cooperative model of ownership warms the cockles of my little red heart. Staff seem happy; suppliers (at least, those I know from my local farmers’ market) have nothing but good words for the company.

When a spiffy Waitrose opened up in my town exactly two years ago, it improved my life more than I care to admit. Shopping went from being a terrible chore of agonised decisions over the least-worst option (mostly to do with the constant tug of the much cheaper own-brand pushing small-scale independent producers off the shelves and my desire not to contribute to the hegemony of the supermarket giants by buying it), conducted in poor lighting, concluded by the insult of an outrageously long wait to be checked out by a surly, incompetent, abject specimen of human misery, the whole horror topped and tailed by a battle to cram my rather small vehicle into a parking space of churlishly mean proportions and slide myself in and out between the SUVs on either side.

In contrast, the local Waitrose is an oasis of wide-aisled, naturally-lit calm, filled with high quality produce sold by seemingly happy, friendly people (tellingly, after two years, staff turnover has been very low, and they still all seem happy and engaged. You might think it odd that Vladimir Putin – or is it Daniel Craig? – appears to have a second job in  a supermarket, but honestly, if you’d seen my local Waitrose, you wouldn’t be quite that surprised. I’m a little scared of him, frankly, but everyone else is certainly very friendly. And Vladimir probably just doesn’t have a naturally warm demeanor. But I digress).  Anyway, generally Waitrose is a joy (although I deplore the shocking tendency to insane over-packaging). If there is a queue of more than two people, they open another checkout. Really. Why, even the parking is a joy. I have never once had to breathe in before slithering between my car and an encroaching SUV. Mostly though, I feel comfortable in the belief that they have not consistently and relentlessly squeezed everyone along the supply chain until the pips squeaked in search of an extra penny of profit, and that one way and another, the food I bring home may cost me a tiny bit more, but that overall, my retail pound is spent in a way that creates the best ‘value’ for the greatest number compared to any of the other  local supermarkets.

All that said, I expect certain standards from John Lewis, including a degree of honesty. So I can’t explain how horrified I was by what I saw in there the other day. It should have been funny, and would have been if it hadn’t been so outrageously cynical. Anyway, they seem to have introduced a new range of luxury toilet paper. Now, let’s leave aside the environmental impact of luxury toilet paper, because I can see that if people want to buy it, they might quite reasonably want to sell it. Still, I’m struggling with this concept.

Extract of what? In the interest of fairness, I should point out that there are two other varieties – extract of jojoba, and extract of aloe vera, both of which are plants, and I can see how one might derive ‘extract’ of these. But what in heaven’s name, might ‘extract of cashmere’ actually be? Has someone waved a goat over the vat of paper pulp? Have they distilled goat pee and added a little of that to the mix? Is someone playing with test tubes of goat DNA? My mind is officially boggled. Insofar as ‘cashmere’ is a protein fiber, I don’t see how you can ‘extract’ from it in any meaningful way. (I might be wrong. I’m not a chemist.) If there is actual cashmere fiber in there, why doesn’t it just say “with cashmere”? Why is the packaging completely silent on the details? Why is there no actual amount of any goaty goodness referred to among the ‘ingredients’? Maybe because, whatever this mystery extract is, it’s present in some homeopathic-type amount? Naturally, if you are reading this because you are a knitter, spinner, or otherwise crafty fiber-lover (and I’d say the chances are high), you are aware of how wonderful cashmere can be. And how a small amount, like, oh, I don’t know, one or two percent, wouldn’t really make that much difference to the handle of a yarn. So, assuming that it’s not ludicrous (big assumption, but let’s be kind here) to want to wipe your bottom with cashmere paper, how much cashmere would be needed for you to feel it anyway? All I know is, whatever number you came up with, if there were that amount, it would most certainly be mentioned on the label. In the meantime, I think that they are just using the word ‘cashmere’ to trigger connotations of luxury and softness. Which is fine, but please, ‘extract of cashmere’? I suggest it should be renamed, in the interests of honesty. Maybe ‘extract of claptrap’, ‘extract of bunkum’ or the more thematically appropriate ‘extract of pisstaking’, ‘extract of bullshit’ or ‘extract of  marketing crap’.

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Sometimes you read a label for information, and you get information you weren’t quite expecting. I’m not thinking here of the expensive organic conditioner in my bathroom that proudly reassures me that along with parabens, it ‘contains no grapefruit seed extract’. I like to think of myself as a reasonably aware consumer, but this was a new one to me. I have got it straight that parabens are a no-no (just don’t ask me why, exactly), but given a zero-sum equation between grapefruit seed extract and beta glucan (which it boasts that it does contain), I wouldn’t have been able to guess which was meant to be the elixir of life, and which the scary poison from which to run screaming. So, you live and learn. Or not (delete as applicable).

No, I’m thinking about the hobby horse I just bought for a five-year-old’s birthday present. A perfectly nice-looking traditional toy, or so I thought, until I read the label. I’ll admit it: this one has me even more thoroughly foxed. I’m perplexed, and here’s why –

Explanations on a postcard, please.

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That’s not-my-cat, sleeping on the sofa, looking as if he were at home.
I call that cat a wonder, now. The placing of a feeding bowl,
Worked cunningly a year, and there he lies.

His people did not pass the test of pet-worthiness, in the end, and so, while I haven’t stolen Oscar, I have been less concerned about the proprieties of subverting his affections. I used to feel bad about feeding him, and refrained from doing so except on very rare occasions, as a very special treat, when I had something suitable that I would otherwise be throwing away. Then, I met his people and while I’m not going to indulge in a tempting ‘they-deserve-to-be-hanged’ rant, and I’m not going to tell the whole sorry tale, I do now feel able to admit that shortly after meeting them I lost my moral squeamishness with regard to them, and happily moved on to a somewhat Machiavellian strategy of enticing him with little treats on fairly rare occasions, but just often enough to keep him interested.  This is known in psychology as a [positive reinforcement] variable ratio schedule, and it’s the most lethally addictive pattern of behavior reinforcement known to Man. Or beast. It’s what keeps gamblers at the slot machines, and Oscar at my door. The fact that my fridge released delights only infrequently only makes the whole thing more devious.

Of course, as Oscar appears only intermittently, and sometimes makes himself scarce for considerable periods (which may or may not coincide with episodes of building work here), it is possible that he is also doling out his presence to me on a similarly variable ratio schedule, and I have to admit that he may have outsmarted me. After all, I did buy actual official cat treats a couple of weeks back, and yesterday, I think I finally showed my soft underbelly: he got a second dish, so that he can have a wee dram of milk with his overpriced gourmet cat snacks.

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I like to think I have mine straight:

tea kettle, pasta pot, dye pot, dye pot

Perhaps it would be better if I didn’t mention that the food is in the small pot in front, and the giant next to the kettle is the single most expensive pan in the kitchen (even shading out the awesome le Creuset monster I recently screwed up my courage to buying).

Oh, and then, there’s the coffee-making equipment on the other side of the kitchen. Because coffee is important too.

In fact, when we recently redid the kitchen, one of the major challenges was to rehouse the coffee pot family from the back of the stove. I’m pleased to say they seem to have adapted happily enough to the internal windowsill looking into the glass/utility room.

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The other day, I had a conversation with a friend, which went more or less as follows:

Friend: Oh, just by the bye, never ever knit from hand-dyed wool without alternating skeins. Ever. Even if they come from the same dyelot. You will end up looking foolish and you will regret it. Not ‘might’, ‘will’. Just thought I’d mention that while I think of it.

Me: Ah, thank you. I sure hope you’re wrong because I’m doing guess what? just now! And I’m not alternating skeins because they come from the same dyelot and they looked OK to me when I put them together and I think I’m getting away with it. They still look fine, and now I’m nearly finished the project. Lucky me.

Friend: Sorry to have bothered you. I’ll keep my advice to myself in future.

Me: Well, it might be useful advice for next time. How exactly would one alternate skeins, if one were inclined to do that?

So, firstly I’d like to point out two things. One, I have a transcript of this conversation, because it happened by email, but I’m paraphrasing to spare the blushes of the party who happened to be oh-so-terribly wrong. (You don’t know who that is yet, because I’m doing such a great job of keeping you in suspense). Two, I was very happy to have the advice, and interested in the technique for future reference. Not being arrogant, merely hubristic.

Cut to the chase.

I can live with it. Of course I can. My options are pretty limited at this stage, frankly, such that, if those skeins were any more different I would be calling the effect stripes and living with it. I admit defeat. In my defence, and for the purposes of Not Making the Same Mistake Twice, I must hasten to disclose that the rather staggering and heartbreaking dissimilarity is only discernable in good natural light. Which, it being February in a dark and gloomy part of the Northern hemisphere, is a commodity in such remarkably short supply that I knit for two weeks without any inkling something was amiss. In other words, I didn’t have a clue until yesterday, when I actually took the project into the living room and sat by the window for a few minutes as I multitasked puzzle supervision and owl knitting.

The moral of the story is simple: I urge you – for the love of God, don’t try to match yarn by artificial light. And above all, never ever knit from hand-dyed wool without alternating skeins. Ever. Even if they come from the same dyelot.

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I went to the supermarket this morning, laying in with all the good things I can’t get at the local farmers’ market. Such as fruit. And, er, crisps, and cotton face wipes, and washing powder. And random, irresistible bargains from the fresh food aisles, which is a modern, urban version of hunter-gathering or seasonal eating. If in doubt about what tonight’s dinner should consist of, pick up whatever happens to be lying around accessorized in a nice red ‘reduced’ label. Tip: this is a policy best employed in an upmarket supermarket such as the one I frequent (and yes, sadly I do not use the term ‘frequent’ loosely, despite my predilection for the farmers’ market), where the produce is always of the finest and freshest, and the discounts of the very deepest.

Occasionally it gets absurd. I have seen spokes of perfectly ripe brie sold off for 10p (around 15¢) and a couple of weeks ago snagged some delicious mince pies for 29p, and a huge pot of brandy cream (which is, by the way, still fresh at the time of writing, a fact that terrifies me somewhat) for 10p. I’ve had an entire salmon for £5, and fillet steak for about that much per kilo. It is merely a matter of keeping a sharp eye out, and being flexible about the shopping list. The down-side is that on the rare times when I’ve had to do an entire full-price shop, I feel rather more aggrieved than is entirely justified.

So today, I think I hit the ultimate in absurd discounts. Due to the rather strange practice in the UK of selling most fruit and veg pre-packaged (my inner French housewife is not impressed by this babying), it seems to acquire a legal requirement for a ‘best before’ label. Or do I mean a ‘sell by’ label? Or even a ‘use by’ label? All these have different meanings in law, which remains largely opaque to the consumer, and instead of providing the useful health-and-safety guidance that the legislators doubtless intended, mostly just leads to mountains of food being discarded by the supermarkets. I am going to restrain myself from going on a very tempting major rant about this (for fear of striking terror into the heart of all three and a bit readers of this poor blog, and showing at least a minimum of respect for their boredom thresholds). At least my supermarket discounts so sharply because they really, clearly do prefer to sell it than throw it out. But either way, once it hits its appointed day of doom, it must go.

So I present you with Exhibit A:

Yes, folks. You are looking at still green ‘home-ripening’ bananas. That are officially past it.( And therefore half price.)

To which I say, frankly, that’s bonkers.

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I tend to comparison-shop for my weather forecast. I look at three, and choose to believe the best of them. I have a weak but fond hope that I can influence weather by a mixture of brazen outfacing (dress for the weather you hope for, not the weather you realistically have/expect*) and studious politeness (rain, rain, go away; come again another day, please. Thank you).

Since I started comparing the three forecasts, I have been amused by three things. One, how often there is sunshine – tomorrow, or the day after. Always. Never today. Two, how rarely they agree with one another, even vaguely. Three, how many times they manage to be internally inconsistent. I’m fond of: today’s high 16º, current conditions 17º.

So there we go, a plethora of forecasts, mostly gloomy and all wrong. Until today. At last, a forecast that I felt perfectly summed up the weather experience: in fact it summed up the entire damned summer.

today's weather

*Many, of not most British people do this, especially when it comes to wearing summer clothes in the official summer monthsregardless of the actual conditions. I am a wimp, so it’s only ever a strategy of desperation for me.

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