Signs of life

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You wouldn’t know it from the freezing rain and brief snow flurry we’re having today in Canberra, but spring she is a-coming. While we scurry about, rugged up and gritting our teeth in wind that blows straight off the ski fields, the first flowers and blossoms of the season are up and out, a welcome reminder that soon we will be warm again! So here are a few pictures to brighten your week.

A cascade of golden wattle:

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More wattle, this time a delicate creamy froth:

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A bright cyclamen surprise in an unloved part of the garden:

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A tree-load of blossom:

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A some jonquils to scent the room as you warm your toes by the fire:

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Hang in there!

No

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I said no this week. A big no. A serious, this-can’t-go-on no. I was terrified of saying it. I still don’t know what the outcome will be in the long term. In the short term I know it’s made people angry. In the medium term I expect I’ll be treated with kid gloves because, by my saying no to one thing, people will expect me to say no to other things. They won’t get it. They’ll think I’m being precious. It’ll take them a while to realise that I’m saying no to only one thing. But I mean it.

I was taught to say yes. I was brought up to always be helpful, to always do the right thing.  I’ve learned in middle age that you have to be careful about always being helpful because you can end up burned out. I’ve beaten myself up for not always being helpful when I should have been, but sometimes it would have been to my detriment and hindsight showed that I did the right thing by not helping.

I was taught not to make a fuss. I was taught to respect and slightly fear authority. In my working life this has meant that I’ve always been seen as reliable and hardworking, someone who will keep going and do whatever is asked of them even when it’s too much. I spent the past two years doing that and it really was too much. It almost broke me. So when I started a new job I was ecstatic because I was looking forward to leading a more normal life. Silly me.

My new job turned out to be two jobs in one, working for two different bosses in two different buildings, doing two different things. Still I was optimistic. “They’ll have a plan,” I thought. “They wouldn’t have created the job if it wasn’t going to work.” Then I realised that not only was it two different jobs in two different buildings but they both had to happen at the same time.

I don’t know about you, but I usually credit people with having a certain amount of awareness, of being able to see a situation for what it is. In this case I was being too generous because the lack of awareness that each party had about the requirements of the other was stunning. People were concerned only about their own patch. Bugger everybody else. Plus, I discovered I’d walked into a minefield of office politics.

I pointed to the elephant in the room, but everyone pretended it wasn’t there. “Give it some time,” they said. “It’s early days.” So I buzzed like a blue-arsed fly between jobs, lying awake at night wondering how I could get everything done, and because I was doing that people thought it was working okay. A few months on, I went to one of my bosses to talk about it. She could see how run ragged I was, so we came up with a plan and we took it to the other boss.

He said no. He had the authority to do that. It was partly to do with office politics. He wanted a quiet life. My mental health was expendable. So we modified the plan and I limped on until 2.30 am last Friday when I knew I couldn’t go to work that day. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Monday morning found me dressed for work, standing in my kitchen with my lunchtime sandwich in my hand, weeping. Again I’d been awake since the small hours, trying to figure out what to do.

So I said no. I wrote a calm, clear and reasonable email to my workplace. I offered a solution, but I was firm in saying no to any version of the current situation. Then I took the week off. It cost me a lot emotionally to do that. Perhaps it cost me a lot professionally too. I don’t know yet. What I do know is that, even if you’ve been brought up to be helpful, reliable and nice to others, it should never be at the cost of your own mental health. Although it might make you feel sick to do it, and although it might change everything, sometimes you just have to stand your ground and say one small word. No.

 

Creative inspiration

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I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past two weekends in the country, both of which involved good conversation, goofy dogs, lots of space, and many small, quiet pretty things to look at. Last weekend there was a bonus wombat, fat and blinking as I turned on the outside light one night. And on both weekends an excellent book came my way that inspired much creative thinking.

She Sheds was this weekend’s book. Oooh, I’d love a shed, somewhere to spread out all my creative projects and leave them spread out—no tidying up because you need to use the dining room table or because someone’s coming over and you don’t want them to see your work in progress. This book has sheds galore: potting shed, art studio, writer’s retreat, summer house. It has modern, old, up-cycled, reclaimed, frilly and plain sheds. You name it, they’re in there. There are vignettes on each shed’s owner. It’s lovely to see how people’s personalities have influenced their shed design and decor. There are even tips on how to build your own, including lessons learned from other people’s uh-oh moments.

I’ve been coveting other people’s sheds for a while. My parents have a patched-up old one with leadlight windows and corrugated iron walls that’s full of gardening equipment and spiders. I saw a beautiful one in a magazine, made of recycled timber, with one enormous wall of old windows. It was gasp worthy. There’s something similar in She Sheds. Kate and family at Foxs Lane recently built a greenhouse/shed that looks good enough to live in. And Swedish designer Gudrun Sjoden has a perfect little summer house full of colours and textures. What about you? Do you have a shed or a studio where you create, make or grow things? Do you wish you had one?

Here’s the second book that fell into my lap:

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I was given it by a friend who understands my frustration with the way the 9-5ish life of full-time work gets in the way of innovation and creative thinking. It’s SO inspiring to read the words of women of all ages and creative talents. I love the pictures in this book but I love the words even more. Here are some quotes from some of these fabulous women:

“Know fear, and honour it. When you feel fear, that’s when you are growing.” (Dominique Browning, author and activist.)

“I think the world needs more people with hobbies … the effects of incorporating activities and experiences in our lives that bring us joy can be incredibly beneficial to our sense of pride and happiness.” (Jasika Nicol, actor and maker.)

“Nobody knows better what you’re capable of than you. Trust yourself. Trust your ideas.” (Tina Roth Eisenberg, graphic designer and entrepreneur.)

The women in this book talk about what they’re most proud of, what inspires them, what lessons they’ve learned, what they do when they’re in a rut. There are a few themes that seem to come up again and again throughout the book:

  • Go with your gut. Trust your instinct.
  • Connect with other creative people. Put yourself out there. Share your work.
  • If you’re stuck, go outside. Go for a walk. Walk aimlessly. Look around.
  • Be willing to be bad at something and keep going with it.

My favourite quote of all comes from Debbie Millman, writer, artist, educator and radio host. When asked what success means to her, she said this:

“I think success is a practice, sort of like love or happiness.”

I love that one because it sums up a basic human failing: we keep forgetting that we have to put in the effort. We have to work at being happy, creative, loving, successful. I find that really inspiring. I hope you do too.

 

 

 

Migraine

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There’s been a bit of a blogging hiatus here at small, quiet, pretty because: migraine. It’s a strange and fascinating phenomenon, the migraine, in all its many forms. My grandma had the vomity type. My mum has the type that makes you take a tablet every day of your life. I have the type with an aura, visual disturbances, and it happens so infrequently that it catches me unaware and I wonder what’s happening.

I was staring at a page on my computer screen at work and suddenly I realised that some words were missing, particularly in the middle of my vision. “That’s it,” I thought, “I’ve got macular degeneration despite a lifetime of eating masses of vegetables and not smoking and going to bed early like a good girl.” I looked away from the screen, out of the window, and all seemed as it should be except for some wobbly bits. Then I looked over at my co-workers and they had only half a face. Then I knew what was happening: “Aha! Migraine!” (When I told my boss that half her face was missing she said it was probably an improvement!)

Oliver Sacks wrote a brilliant book on migraine. It’s a long time since I read it, and I must read it again. One thing I really liked was that it had drawings of the visual disturbances and hallucinations that migraine aura sufferers experience, and one of them was spot on for me. I see a line of dancing prisms with rainbows glinting in them. They move around my eyes and disturb my vision because, while I can see all the colours of the rainbow shining through them, I can’t see anything else in that spot. It’s hard to put into words how weird and beautiful that is at the same time.

The first time I had a migraine aura, when I was at university, I was walking across a park in Sydney and suddenly the grass was made of winking, sparkling jewels and I felt that I’d seen eternity. I didn’t know what I was experiencing then because it wasn’t followed by a headache. I just thought I’d had some sort of hallucination but it was so gorgeous that it didn’t bother me. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I got a headache straight after the aura and realised that I was now officially a migraineur.

The aura tells you it’s time to take action before the headache kicks in because, boy, when that headache comes, it’s all over. I took some headache tablets and drank some coffee and went to lie in the sick bay at work with a blanket over my head. It kind of worked. I’ve had a minor headache ever since but it’s one I can live with. While I was lying with a blanket over my head, I thought about how much of life is screen based. My whole job is screen based. I communicate with people via a smartphone. I watch TV, not a lot, but little and often. The light from screens is so intense when you’re migrainey and light sensitive. It’s like looking into the sun all the time.

Over the following week, I worked on through the headache. I did neck exercises and gentle yoga and didn’t watch TV. And I thought about creating a different kind of life: moving somewhere where I didn’t have a mortgage and didn’t have to work in a screen-based job. I thought about a life of making things and growing things. I thought about trading in my smartphone for an old style phone without a glowing screen. I’m going to keep thinking about that life. It really does call to me.

I’ll sign off now. That’s enough screen time. Oh, and by the way, the photo is from the Design Museum in Denmark. If anyone knows how to make light beautiful, it’s the Danes.

 

 

Patience, focus, repetition

 

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“Get up off the mat,” the saying goes. “I get knocked down, but I get up again,” goes the song. Well, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice: get up when you’re ready, get up when it suits you, and get up slowly. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, particularly in relation to yoga but also in relation to life in general, and it seems to me that there are three significant elements to getting up off the mat or achieving anything worthwhile: patience, focus and repetition. And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you can probably get along fine for quite a while without the focus part, because patience and repetition by themselves can work wonders.

Almost two years ago I started studying yoga. My stress levels were so high that I was worried about becoming a heart attack/stroke candidate and I realised SOMETHING had to be done, fast. It turns out I was wrong about the fast bit. I signed up for a yoga teacher training course thinking I could knock it over in a couple of months. I conveniently forgot that I hadn’t done yoga seriously for ages and that I’d spent way too many years sitting down in front of a computer. I very soon found out that I’d lost a fair bit of flexibility and, more to the point, a huge amount of confidence.

I fell over in standing poses. My body hurt everywhere. I cried whenever I did any kind of open-hearted pose. My back was so sore that I had to hold on to a chair to get down to the floor and then I wondered if I’d be able to get up again. I got really frustrated and angry with myself. I compared myself to other people and despaired of ever being good enough or any good at all. Eventually I had to make a choice: quit or surrender and accept that I could only do certain things. I chose to be patient.

A friend bought me a book called Serenity Yin Yoga, by Magdalena Mecweld. The book itself is a thing of beauty but the type of yoga in it—yin yoga—changed everything. Magdalena describes yin yoga as “unbearably nice or nicely unbearable” and she’s spot on. You do all the poses on the floor, you hold them for three to five minutes and you don’t have to get up off the mat.  At first, in some poses, you think you’ll never be able to make it to one minute, let alone three or five, but you can and you do. It involves cushions and bolsters and just learning to relax.

I bought the app. That might seem like no big deal to you, but until then I wasn’t an app person and this app made me see the point of apps! It was the best 10 bucks I ever spent. When I was working away from home, sleeping in the office and in hotels, I always took the time to do some yin yoga, with Magdalena’s lilting Swedish voice laughingly reminding me: “You’re going to be in this position for just a few minutes, not your whole life,” and “Is there any tension left? Can you let go of it?”

I did mainly yin yoga for a year and a half. It was pretty much all I could do. I just couldn’t get up off the mat. I repeated the poses over and over. I gave up any idea of teaching traditional yoga but I learned what yoga really was: a discipline with so many more benefits than I could ever have imagined. It’s not about being super-flexible and wearing lycra and wowing people with your backbends. It’s not about other people at all. It’s about you, about observing yourself, about getting to know your mind and your body and accepting them, whatever state they’re in.

The patience and repetition paid off. Just recently I started doing yoga standing up and found I had muscle strength and flexibility and confidence. I tried advanced arm balances and almost achieved some of them. I laughed when I fell over. I seek out open-hearted poses now because I love them. I’ve always hated salute to the sodding sun but now I do it regularly and have a grudging respect for it. I’ll probably never look graceful doing it, but I admit that it’s a complete exercise for all parts of the body and I’m willing to keep doing it just to see what happens.

And here’s where the focus part comes in. It seems to me that, if you’re patient and keep practising over and over and over again, eventually your focus turns to what you’re doing and you let go of all the other distractions. You give it your full attention. You become fascinated by the possibilities. You enjoy what used to be a chore. You delight in small things and see them for the huge achievements that they really are.

I’ve been talking about yoga here, but obviously this applies to anything, to everything. Practise a little patience. Follow it up with truckloads of repetition and smile to yourself when focus turns up. Because that’s when things get really interesting.

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Frost and sunshine

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Outside my window was a morning so beautiful I had no choice but to go out in it. Thick frost on the ground, a pale blue sky above. Great swathes of fog below the Bullen Range, making the hills to the north appear as islands in swirling water. My feet crunched along the frozen track through two fields of adorably chunky, woolly-coated cows. Some of them followed my progress with their liquid, long-lashed eyes. Some of them just kept eating, blowing out steamy breath on the frozen grass. Miss Number 6 (so her ear tag told me) was especially interested and posed for several photos before going back to her breakfast.

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I took the track I didn’t know, behind the hills. I was heading for the Murrumbidgee River, way off in the distance—who knows how far—hidden by a bank of thick fog.

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The temperature was still some way below zero, but as I walked through the valley the sun began to appear over the crest of the ridge, making the frosted trees sparkle. The world around me was cold and crunchy and glittering. Young roos with tiny joeys in their pouches hopped away, while the older males stared me down.

There was not a person in sight. I had space to think, and I thought about how a rip tide swept my life out to sea a few years ago and how it took so long to swim back in. This week, finally, I felt like I was back on dry land, with the wonderful news that someone dear to me is in the clear. For once, that bastard cancer didn’t win. Stable employment, a home, health: these are precious things we think of as our right, yet they can all disappear in an instant. I know I’ll never take them for granted again.

The fog from the river began to roll towards me, so I turned for home and started to run along the valley track. The air was so cold, the breath sharp in my lungs, but it was exhilarating and magical at the same time. On the way back I saw a man with two border collies walking high up on the hill, where there was no path but where the sun was shining, and I smiled to myself because I’d been following the path down in the valley when I could have taken the less travelled route and walked in sunshine the whole time.

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I got chills. And mondegreens.

 

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Hmm, I seem to have the mid-winter blahs. How are you doing? At first glance, there’s no real reason for it. I actually do like winter and the heating’s fixed and I have my puffy jacket, but the blahs have definitely descended. I was going to write a Taking Stock post from July to July and I think that’s what triggered it. I looked back to last July and went “Holy [expletive deleted]!” when I realised how many major life challenges had happened in the past year. So I decided not to write that post in case it made the blahs worse.

Instead, I thought I might write about a farting masseuse in Bali (true story) but I just couldn’t make it as funny as it actually was. Then I decided I needed to get out in the fresh air. Inspired by Edie’s blog, I decided that now is the time to conquer my irrational fear of running outside. I downloaded the couch to 5K app and I bought a belt thingy to hold my phone and keys and I was all set. But when you go to work just as the sun’s coming up and you get home just before it goes to bed and it’s minus four degrees in the morning (MINUS four, people!) you can find all sorts of excuses not to go outside.

So, before this starts sounding like the diary of Ms Deputy Downer, here’s something I remembered to cheer myself up: mondegreens. That’s what you call it when you get the lyrics of a song wrong. For example, you know that song “Gypsies, tramps and thieves” by Cher? I always do a mondegreen on that. Even though I know it can’t be the right lyrics, I always sing, “I was born as a rabbit in a travelling show.” Then I start laughing because the idea of Cher as a rabbit is pretty funny. (Real lyrics: “I was born in the wagon of a travelling show”.)

My sister and I used to love Simple Minds and we’d always sing, “Promised you a miracle, guinea pigs are beauty things.” Which they are. They’re very cute. But I don’t think that’s what Jim Kerr was singing! When I was a little girl I thought the lyrics to “You sexy thing” by Hot Chocolate were: “I’ll be needing milko”. Because they were making hot chocolate, right?! Anyway, mondegreens are a global phenomenon and here are a few that always make me snort:

  • I got shoes, they’re made of plywood (I got chills, they’re multiplying)—from Grease
  • I’ll never be your big St Bernard (beast of burden)—Rolling Stones
  • Oooh, ooh, ooh, better watch out for the string bean (skin deep…because that makes much more sense!)— The Stranglers
  • Save the whale, save the whale, save the whale (sail away)—Enya
  • Rocket man, burning all the trees I’ve ever known (burning out his fuse up here alone)—Elton John
  • Alex the seal (aww, cuter than the real lyrics: our lips are sealed)—Go-Gos

And I just learned a great new one from this website:

  • I just wanna extradite your kids (I just want your extra time and your kiss)—Prince

And with that, I’m off to make dinner. But oooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, better watch out for the string bean! What are your fave mondegreens?

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Raindrops on roses and…

 

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Are you busy? Of course you are. Everyone is. It’s a thing. Are you sooo busy that your head is spinning and you’re talking too fast and you’re running on empty and you’re just hanging on until the time when, hopefully not too far off, you can stop and catch your breath? Well, can I stop you now? Just for five minutes. Maybe not even that long.

Make yourself a cuppa or sit in a café and buy a coffee. Get a pen and a piece of paper (ooh, how old school!) or use a serviette. You’re going to make a list. It’s not a to-do list. This is a fun list. Put everything else in your head aside and write a list of things you like. Anything that pops into your head. No, it’s not a dumb idea. It’ll make you feel better. It’s a mini break for your brain. In absolutely no order at all, here’s mine:

Reflected sunsets.

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King parrots.

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A bucket of strong tea.

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Roses with a smell.

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Wide open spaces.

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Dogs. All dogs. Any dog. They crack me up.

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Wooden floors. Wooden walls. Funky architecture using wood.

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The colour green.

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Holidays to the back of beyond.

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Beetles (the bugs, not the cars, although I like those too). Large rambling gardens. Old notebooks with long forgotten jottings that surprise you. A vegie patch you can make dinner out of. Home-made food. Windows that face north. A three-day weekend (better still, a sneaky day off in the middle of the week).  Soft rain. Old sheds…

Uh-oh, time’s up! But do you feel a bit less busy? I hope so. The best part about this list is that, once you start it, you want to come back to it. And it never ends.

 

Puffy jackets, presents and pretzels

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This misty morning, quite early, I put on my puffy jacket and went to the Arboretum for a wintry walk with some friends. It wasn’t quite as wintry as the scene in the tile above, but the fog was a real pea souper (as my mum would say) and for a lot of the time we didn’t really know where we were going because we couldn’t see any landmarks. It was the first outing of the puffy jacket this winter. I do love winter, despite complaining about it sometimes, and I especially love my puffy jacket. It’s like walking around in a super-insulated yet stylish sleeping bag that repels all cold and damp. We all had the wrong shoes on, so our feet were soon soaked and freezing, but our puffy jackets kept our hearts warm.

These friends did me an enormous favour recently. They helped me make a very hard decision that improved my situation and theirs but was at the same time heartbreaking. Despite the help they’d already given me, today they gave me presents as well. I was really overwhelmed by their kindness. When I got home, the fog was starting to lift. I decided to change my plans for the day and get rid of all the “shoulds”. There was freelance work that should have been started. There was an assignment that should have been finished. There was a garden that should have been weeded. There were cupboards that should have been sorted out. There was ironing that should have been done. And on it went.

I chucked all the shoulds out of the window and opened my presents instead.

Are these not the nicest presents to receive on a foggy public holiday when you’ve got a bit too much on your plate and you decide not to tackle any of it?! The HoneyBee Wrap smells amazing and I’m very excited about using it. I was thinking only last night how good it would be to get rid of as much plastic as possible in my life. I keep hearing about how much plastic is in the oceans and the soil, and how much is ingested by animals and us. So how good it is to make a start on a plastic-reduced life by using beeswax wrapping.

The cookbook is full of really interesting and slightly challenging recipes. There’s a lot of fermenting, which I know is good for us, but I find it a scary concept. No doubt there’ll be a few failures before I get that right. For tonight’s dinner I’m going to make the rather less scary and extremely delicious sounding sweet potato latke with goats cheese cream, sautéed spinach and poached egg. And next on the list is vanilla, date and tahini salted caramels. Drool!

But before that there’s proper relaxing to do. Inside, the boots are drying by the fire. The pretzels (gluten free!) are in the bowl. The coffee’s made. There’s a book to be read. Outside, the rosellas are chiming like bells in the silver birches and the white-winged choughs are kicking up the fallen leaves and foraging for insects. I hope you’re having a good, slow day too. The shoulds can wait.

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Carbs and spices

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At the exact moment that winter arrived, my heating broke. Obviously this was happening to people all over Canberra, as every heater-fixing business was booked up for a fortnight. Luckily I had a week off and could escape to the coast, where it was 10 degrees warmer, but I came home to a minus 5 degrees Celsius morning and a house that was teeth-chatteringly cold.

While I waited for the day the heating wizard was booked to come, I decided there was nothing for it but to wrap up in a blanket and cook hot, spicy, carbolicious food. If you’re warm on the inside, you’re warm on the outside, right? And slaving over a hot stove warms you up too. Just make sure the blanky doesn’t get too close to the hotplates …

Here are my two tummy-warming faves from this week. These dishes together would serve three quite generously. They’re gluten-free. You can mess around with the quantities and spices to suit your taste. I was channelling Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot) so I went for maximum spice. (Note to self: best not to take photos while curry is steaming hot.)

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Green rice with paneer

  • 1/2 cup basmati rice (or use 1 cup if you want a milder curry)
  • 200g block of paneer cheese
  • 1/2 cup raw cashews
  • 1 bunch English spinach or kale or Tuscan kale or silverbeet (I used Tuscan kale)
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 tomatoes or 8 cherry tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons ground coriander
  • 2 teaspoons paprika (or 1 teaspoon if you want a milder curry)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 dessert spoons of coconut sugar (or soft brown sugar or palm sugar—whatever you have)
  • olive oil

Cut the paneer into 1cm cubes and shallow fry it in a splash of olive oil until lightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside. Shallow fry the cashews in the same pan until lightly browned. (Keep an eye on them as they can catch and burn easily.) Remove any tough stalks from the kale or spinach and chop the leaves roughly. Chop the tomatoes into smallish chunks.

In a large saucepan heat the cumin seeds, mustard seeds and sugar in another splash of oil until the seeds start to pop. (Just a couple of minutes, if you’ve got the heat up.) Add the rest of the spices, the rice, the tomatoes and the spinach and give it all a good stir. Pour in just enough water to cover the mixture. If you’ve used a full cup of rice, you’ll need about two cups of water. Half a cup of rice needs only one cup of water. Stir it all again then put the lid on and turn the heat down to a low simmer. Leave it to cook, covered, for about 15 minutes.

Next, squeeze the lemon and add the juice to the pan. Give everything another stir. Test the rice to see if it’s still slightly chewy. (If the curry is sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a splash or two of water.) At this point, if you have an electric cooktop you can turn it off and leave the mixture to steam with the lid on for another five minutes or so until the rice is cooked through. Last but not least, stir the paneer and cashews through the cooked rice and spinach. The combination of tastes and textures in this dish is sublime. Serve with a dollop of plain yoghurt on top and with a side of garam masala spuds if you’re going for the full carb experience.

Garam masala spuds

  • five medium potatoes, scrubbed or peeled and chopped into 2cm-ish pieces
  • 2 teaspoons garam masala
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes (1/4 teaspoon if you want it milder)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • glug of olive oil

Put the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with water and bring to the boil. Cook until tender. Drain then put back in the pan and shake them around to fluff the edges. This will make them crispier. In a frying pan heat the glug of oil and add the spices and potatoes. Cook over a high heat and shake the pan frequently so that everything gets coated in oil and spice. When the potatoes are crispy and well-coated, they’re ready!

By now you should be warm enough not to notice that the heater’s broken. Bon appetit!

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