Friday, December 31, 2010

Last post of the decade

As 2010 draws to a close, I am enjoying a rare few minutes of tranquility. Amazing, considering that we have a house-full right now.

At work, we got the all-clear to finish early this afternoon. These three days between Christmas and New Year are always a blessed opportunity to take time out from the usual pressing demands.

This is now the third year in a row that I've used the time to focus my thoughts on the essentials of my role as a manager, with a view to regaining control of my own time. In past years, all the good intentions evaporated early January in a flurry of new issues, new projects, and the clinging baggage of last year's loose ends.

This year will be different! Now I've roped in other managers and my boss to help me keep focused, and to help work out whether I am going mad trying to do other people's jobs for them, or whether maybe there really should be two of me.

But that was earlier.

Now I'm home. The family are home. Ali's parents are still with us until next week, and we have to make room for our friend Bob, visiting from up-island for New Year. So my desk and laptop have temporarily migrated from the end room (my "office" and general store and rubbish dump) downstairs into our bedroom, so we can set up the foldaway bed.

I am sitting here in the warmth of the wood stove, listening to conversations upstairs. The kids are outside playing while the sunshine lasts. No arguments! Bliss! Bob, who is a keen musician, is giving Matthew's keyboard a try out. It is lovely to hear music permeating the house.

Soon we will be on our way to a party at the nearby Recreation Centre. Swimming and skating, water slide and hot tub await, followed by music and fireworks.

But the best bit is, when I post this, I know I will be sharing my experience with some new friends scattered across the globe. This blogging experiment is probably the biggest surprise of the year for me, and I am amazed at the people I've made contact with in just a few short months.

So, to all those of you who have added a new dimension to my life, I wish you all best wishes for 2011.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

My CPU needs an upgrade

Once upon a time, in the days when most home computers required a soldering iron and hours of patience to assemble, a fresh-faced and hairy-headed Botanist reported for duty at his first job as a programmer.

In those days, we shared three terminals between the whole department and you had to book time to use them. And you soon learned which times of the week were good to get work done, and which were not. During the latter times, the mainframe had regular batch jobs to process and the CPU's time was split many ways. You could sit at the terminal, type a command and go make a cup of tea before you got a response.

The machine hadn't died, it just had very little time to devote to any one task and it took a long time to make any progress.

That's a bit how I feel.

When I added the "Words and pictures" page to the blog (link above), Jean Davis observed that I had several projects to keep me busy. True, I have several novels in various states of completion, but I have to come clean here. They are mostly gathering electronic dust waiting for a slice of my time.

The only writing project active right now is Ghosts of Innocence, and even then work on the novel itself is limited while I try to keep up with critiques. I have at least managed to knock out a few critiques over the holidays, and I hope to post more chapters soon.

Another long-neglected project vying for attention is the pirate ship. I took advantage of a dry and bright day today to get back to some of the finishing touches before I can put that to rest.

Finishing touches include: Finishing off and painting the windows at the stern; adding and painting gun port hatches; planking out the rest of the hull at the stern; adding lanterns to the tops of the stern posts; finishing off the rigging (waiting for the builders store to have the right rope back in stock); adding halyards for flags; adding a rope ladder over the bow; and finding or making a wheel.


Just to complicate matters, my visual arts neurons have been twitching lately. Putting that "Words and pictures" page together, and adding some of my old paintings to the mix, got me thinking about taking up painting again.

Oh no! I remember all too clearly just how time-consuming that used to be! If I pick up a paintbrush again I am sure that will put paid to any prospect of revising Ghosts by the end of 2011.

I think I need an upgrade...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas

This can be a tough time of year, with the expectations it brings of happiness, gifts, and time with family. These are things that not everyone can enjoy, as I have been reminded over the last week in trawling the blogs of my blogging friends. So, whatever Christmas looked like for you this year, I hope it was at least safe and warm, physically and spiritually.

We had a lazy Christmas day. We prepared the turkey the evening before and set the oven timer. This has become one of the things that marks Christmas day for me, now, waking up to the aroma of cooking percolating through the house.

Santa Claus visited during the night, and the kids woke us up just before 7am.

We have Ali's parents visiting from Bristol, and they are in no hurry in the mornings so it was mid-morning before everyone was breakfasted, dressed, and ready to sit down and exchange gifts. There were phone calls to family the other side of the Atlantic, and, in between times, Ali and I pottered in the kitchen preparing dinner. Because it was all so spread out, it was not rushed and didn't feel like a lot of work. We served up turkey, sausages, mashed and roast potatoes, and assorted vegetables.

The rest of the day was an unstructured meandering of movies and grazing on leftovers. Because everyone was happy to be left to their own devices, it was a relaxed and undemanding afternoon and evening, which suits me just fine.

So, please tell, how was it for you?

On a different subject, you may notice that I've now added links between the header and the posts. I wanted a separate page to describe my work in progress, which I'll update from time to time as things change. That is the "Words and pictures" link - I buried a few painting in there amongst the descriptions of novels.

I don't know if those page posts show up in the blogger dashboard. If they do, I apologise for the flood of edits. It took me a few tries to get it right. I also had to tinker a lot with the appearance of the links above, and in the end resorted to creating them manually because I couldn't get them to show up properly using the standard template tools. Oh well, it was a learning experience.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Be Jolly By Golly

Today is Melissa and Jen's festive blogfest.

So, here are the things Melissa and Jen are asking for...

Pictures of decorations

Here is our Christmas tree, expertly decorated by Ali.

Because we don't do a huge amount of decorating, other than the tree, here's a couple of shots from the lighted truck parade that wound through Victoria at the start of December. Sorry they are a bit out of focus, the trucks were moving at quite a pace and difficult to catch properly in the dark. These are the best I was able to pick out from a series of shots taken during the twenty minutes or so that the trucks streamed past, horns tooting.

Favourite holiday treats

Along with the traditional turkey dinner, we always make an effort to liven things up with some out-of-the-ordinary veggies. I recently posted a couple of recipes here.

Afterwards, a special treat with leftover turkey is a creamy turkey curry. Recipe here.

But the real seasonal treat, very British (I think) but not something that seems to have taken hold this side of the pond, is Christmas pudding. This is a very rich, dark, steamed pudding.

I'll transcribe and post the full recipe another time, but, in brief, it consists of a large quantity of dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, etc.) plus breadcrumbs, suet, sugar, and flour, all mixed together, poured into pudding basins, and steamed for hours. We add moisture by soaking the fruit in brandy beforehand. Puddings are best made months before they are needed, because they mature over time. The one we'll have this Christmas is the last of a batch made over a year ago. In January, once the seasonal hullabaloo is over, we'll get on with another batch ready for next Christmas.

The pudding is steamed again to heat it up ready for eating, and is served with cream and brandy butter.

Favourite holiday drink

Because we put so much effort into food, I don't have a drink recipe to offer. We are quite happy with beer and wine. For special occasions, however, our sparkly tipple of choice is an Australian Seaview Brut. There are a couple of bottles in the fridge ready and waiting...

Now, visit everyone else in the blogfest

See the list of entries on Melissa or Jen's blogs.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The mail man cometh

I know it's the season of glad tidings an' all, but as a rule you don't generally count official missives from government departments in that category.

Well, here at the Bald Patch we do like to buck trends. We've recently had not just one, but two entirely unconnected pieces of joy thrown into our world.

First off, we applied (back in the summer) for a special tax credit.

One thing to get used to over here is knowing how to find your way around the tax system. Not (I add, in haste) to milk or subvert the system. I despised the way the welfare state I saw at work in Guernsey and the UK laid itself bare to shirkers and spongers, appearing to reward idleness and punish those in genuine need.

The Canadian tax system is a complex beast, with all sorts of credits designed to alleviate unfortunate circumstances and reward things like giving to charity, or using public transport. There's vast amounts of helpful guides on the official web sites to steer you around the system. To me, it all appears very open and welcoming, just rather big. But it is your responsibility to understand and apply for what you are entitled to in the way of credits. It makes a big difference!

Anyway, we received a letter a few weeks ago advising that we were indeed eligible for this credit. There were instructions for reapplying in a few years when the current entitlement expired, but it was all a bit light on what to do next. I shrugged, and assumed there would be a line to fill in on next year's tax return to make it all happen.

Imagine the unbounded joy last week when another letter appeared, which explained that this would be included automatically in the universal child tax benefit payments that we were already receiving. Better still, there was a very useful cheque for the back payments, which has helped enormously at this expensive time of year.

Then yesterday we checked the mail and found an envelope from Immigration Canada, acknowledging receipt of our application (back in August) and explaining the next steps in the process. There is the immigration guide, which contains information for the written test.

Given the long processing times, we are still many months away from becoming citizens, but this is an important first step in confirming that we are finally on the road.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Whatever-you-want curry

I remember promising a curry recipe a few weeks ago. Here is not one, not two, but hundreds of recipes all in one go. This is more of a recipe recipe, a formula for creating a variety of dishes.

Yes, I do use a recipe book sometimes, when I want a specific dish such as a tikka, balti, rogon josh, or coriander chicken, but most of the time I just use this base recipe and decide how spicy or creamy I want to make it. And because each time is different, each time is an adventure.

So, as usual, this post pays little more than lip service to a standard recipe format, and because of the inherent flexibility, what little lip service there is will be fleeting indeed. I've listed ingredients (some mandatory, many optional) in groups to go with the different stages of preparation. I think the overall method is far more important than getting too anal over ingredients.


Vegetable oil.

Onions, plus optional additions such as ginger, chillis, and garlic.

Spices: powdered cumin, coriander, curry powder, and (my secret weapon) a teaspoon of Nina Patak's hot curry paste. You can also mix things up by adding an off-the-shelf sauce or paste such as butter chicken.

Meat: whatever you want. I usually use chicken or prawns, occasionally lamb. You can also add tinned chickpeas either instead of, or as well as, meat. Or vegetables, of course. I don't do vegetable curries often so I almost didn't think to mention that.

Sauce: one or more of the following: chopped tomatoes, cream, coconut milk.

Finishing touches (all optional): ground almonds, chopped coriander (cilantro). And anything else you associate with curries.


Ha Ha Hahahahaha!

Oh, OK then, but these are just guidelines to get started. The fun is in varying and experimenting for yourself.

So, for enough for 2 or 3 portions, you want...

1 medium onion, chopped. If you're adding other stuff, then anything up to 1" cube of ginger (finely chopped), 1 or 2 chillis (seeded, unless you like it hot, and chopped), 1 or 2 cloves of garlic (finely chopped).

A generous teaspoon of the dry spices. The hot curry paste is my secret addition to just about everything, even when I'm using a ready-made sauce or following a recipe. This is what adds the heat and its own flavour. Use with care.

Meat: whatever you need to feed yourself with!

Usually 1 tomato. More if that is all I'm using for liquid, less (or none) if I'm going for really creamy. This bit is really just a balancing act, with the idea of ending up with enough liquid to avoid the sauce drying out and sticking. It's surprising how much liquid a tomato will add when it mushes down.


Heat the oil in a large pan, and fry the onions (and other ingredients in that group, except for garlic). This should be done long and slow, so the onions soften and turn golden. I usually let them cook slowly for about 15 minutes.

If using garlic, add that when the onion is almost ready otherwise it can burn.

Add the spices, and stir in well.

Add the meat. Stir until coated with spices and fry on a high heat until it changes colour.

One exception to this method: if I'm doing prawns, I leave them out and carry on with cooking the sauce, and then add them about 10 minutes from the end to avoid overcooking them.

Another exception (with Christmas approaching): if you are currying already-cooked meat, like, say, just for the sake of argument, leftover turkey, add that near the end too, just so it heats through. I curried turkey left over from Thanksgiving in a very creamy sauce. Delicious!

If using tomatoes, make a gap in the centre of the pan and add them. Turn the heat down low and let them mush down (stirring occasionally) for about 15 minutes.

This stage needs watching carefully, because you don't want the dish to dry out and start catching on the bottom of the pan. This will depend on many factors such as the ingredients you use and how good your pan is. The trick is to keep stirring and separating food from the bottom of the pan so it doesn't get a chance to catch. You should have some liquid from the tomatoes very quickly to help things along. If you think it looks dry, and a few spoonfuls of water to help things along.

Stir in the remaining liquid ingredients (if used), and let the whole dish simmer on a low heat until the meat is cooked through.

This stage is very forgiving. You can finish off as soon as the meat is cooked if you're in a hurry, or you can do it long and slow. You can even take it off the heat and let it stand for hours before resuming cooking. Just make sure you stir the ingredients together again when you raise the heat again, and add more liquid if it looks like drying out.

Finally, if the sauce needs thickening, stir in a handful of ground almonds.

Garnish with chopped coriander, sliced hard-boiled eggs, sliced tomato, cucumber, whatever, depending on what takes your liking and how fancy you want to make it.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Sounds like a bit of fun

But only if you're a writer!

Blogger friend Elena Solodow is hosting a blogfest through January to celebrate her 100th blog post. The idea is to write a single sentence of 100 words, and post it on your blog some time during January.

100 words? That's as long as some whole essays I used to write at school. No, I didn't get on very well with writing in those days.

And it goes so much against all the accepted rules of good writing. I just recently critiqued a story where one of the common themes was finding ways to chop long sentences into more digestible chunks. Even the longest example I could find, one which left me breathless by the end, only weighed in at 66 words.

My first attempt was way short, at 49 words, so I have a long way to go. This is going to be an interesting challege! Thank you Elena.

See full details on her blog.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why I don't read much these days

If I carve my writing-related activities into writing (including revising), critiquing, blogging, and reading, I find I usually have time for maybe one-and-a-half of these in any given week. But not much more than that.

In the last two weeks, I've managed a reasonable amount of critiquing, a bit of revising to get my next chapter ready for Critique Circle, and read a novel. So I think I've been doing quite well.

Apart from the blog neglect, for which I apologise.

But, to get back to the point of the title, no, the reason for not reading much these days is not lack of time.

I got this book from the library. It is a fairly recently-written prequel to one of the classic greats of sci-fi. I was looking forward to more of the magic that entranced me many years ago.


Infodump! my inner editor kept screaming at me. Show, don't tell. Clunky sentence structure. There were whole paragraphs that could do with serious tightening up. Stop beating the point to death and get on with the freakin' story!

The story didn't seem to start until about a third of the way into the book. Most of the early chapters felt like a history lecture. Some of the details that should have added depth to the story seemed either contrived or comically amateurish, lacking the finesse of the original work. The climax felt a bit Deus ex Machina.

When I finished, I realised there were loose ends unaccounted for. That, on it's own, is not too much of a problem. A few ambiguous threads leave room for sequels, but they should be at least closed off in some way, not just abandoned mid-flow never to resurface. Worse, there was a whole plot line that was utterly disconnected from the story.

If this story had gone through any of the critiquing groups I've belonged to, it wouldn't have lasted five minutes. It would have been shredded mercilessly.

But this was a professional, published novel.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the read. Just not as much as I'd anticipated. Also I enjoyed it more for that fact that it revealed how we arrived at the start of the sci-fi classic of my boyhood, than for the story itself.

This is why I don't read too much these days.
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