Sunday, 17 June 2018

Mr and Mrs Blackbird

I tried to make a dent in the overgrown privet hedge as soon as the weather stopped being vile, which this year was in April (and even then, not for long ...)
I only managed one session before the pair of blackbirds who nest in the hedge made their feelings clear. They were creating their nest, please could I stop and go away!

In early May, I was sure they were sitting, although I wasn't sure I heard chicks. Mr Blackbird has a particular call when he came back into the garden, a sort of 'Hi Honey, I'm home!' Then they seemed to spend time away from the nest and although I didn't see the young birds, it was as if each had one which they were feeding from the safety of the hedges. They also spent a lot of energy alarm-calling from the garden next door, and with my cats on their best behaviour, I knew it wasn't their fault.

Then it all went quiet. Mrs Blackbird came out of the hedge every so often, but there were several days where I didn't see or hear Mr Blackbird at all. Then last week I saw him with a beak stuffed full; he flew into the privet and swapped places with Mrs Blackbird. A little listening and observation confirmed they were feeding chicks.

Mrs Blackbird is the more confiding of the two. She's wary of the cats (quite right too!) but seems to realise that if I'm around, I'll warn them off.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been concentrating on the front garden, digging up all the grass and weeds (the bindweed is horrendous!), removing stones, glass, bits of plastic and so on, leaving freshly turned earth. Mrs Blackbird has noticed and has started to hold up progress and give me an excuse to sit down to rest more frequently as she pops down to inspect the recently dug areas. She gathers a beak full of grubs and worms, poops to lighten the load and then flits back over the house into the back garden. She also seems to have remembered that I am the distributor of dried mealworms, and occasionally just looks meaningfully at me until I toss a handful her way. She has started to come within a metre of me if I'm sitting and still, while I talk to her quietly.

Mrs Blackbird: So, where are the mealworms then?
 My blogging was interrupted earlier by Mrs Blackbird shouting/alarm calling. I strode out of the back door, demanding 'What's going on here?' whereupon Xena slunk guiltily from the patio area and Mrs Blackbird flew from the patio to the washing line, still shouting in alarm. Xena would not stay in, and my disapproval was enough to send her up to the end of the garden while I tossed a handful of mealworms down for Mrs B and looked at where she'd been. After a few minutes, a chick popped out of its hiding place behind the tool store and eyed me expectantly. Mrs B had evidently been using one of my first strawberries as baby food.

The cats are in, much to their disgust. A fresh round of alarm calls showed that the cats had gone to sit, all eyes, ears and whiskers, by the glass patio doors from the dining room, so I've had to shut that door as well. I'm hoping she has the sense to guide the chick to somewhere less obvious and accessible while she's left in peace to feed.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

D18 Dance Festival

This time last year, I was working on the Desert Rose contemporary belly dance veil fusion collaborative choreography. I really wanted the group to take it to Arts Care Gofal Celf's annual community dance showcase, but we had only scratched the surface of the work and would have been nothing like ready to show it, so I didn't apply for a slot.

I would have happily resurrected it for this year's showcase, D18, but two of the four dancers are no longer available, and it's the sort of piece where the patterns and cascades of repeated movements only show up with more than a few dancers.

In preparing the relaunched classes, I was working with a couple of Natacha Atlas tracks, in case any dancers wanted to learn some choreography, potentially performing it at the Cardigan Belly Dance Festival, first weekend in August. I asked for a slot at D18 this year in the hope that the classes might take off, and had arranged additional rehearsal time for anyone wanting to perform something quick and simple. And if no one wanted to perform, then I could do a solo and hopefully attract some attention to my classes.

The dance showcase is over a weekend at the Torch Theatre in Milford Haven, with morning workshops and afternoon shows. I skipped the Saturday (so much to do!) and I didn't go to the workshops (knees feeling fragile and complaining a bit after bouts of digging the garden), although I looked in on one where an agile man was apparently mimicking an insect travelling low across the floor. There is no way I could have attempted that!  During lunch in the cafe I saw a tech whom I knew from summer school, and found that we were on the main stage! I've only danced in the studio theatre before now. That being the case, I thought I had better go up to the auditorium to wait for a slot where I could orient myself on the stage.

The show was a fairly casual affair, with music handed in a little before hand, no tech run and some flexibility in the running order, handled really very well by the compere and technical team - only one or two small glitches. There were college groups and groups for dancers with learning disabilities, young children, professionals - a real mix, but largely contemporary and street dance, some of it really beautiful and technically skilled, some just sheer fun. I loved it!

I'd decided on a semi-improvised piece with veil to Soleil d'Egypte, reasoning that my usual baladi improvisation might be a little inaccessible for some of the audience. (As it turned out, there were a couple of people in the audience who had done belly dance and would have got it!)

I'm increasingly finding it difficult to warm up sufficiently to dance my best at haflas and the like and this was no exception. I went into a back corridor and ran through a good five-minute warm up, before putting my belt on and slipping into the wings during the piece before mine.

Then it was time. I felt quite small on the big stage. I'd given my camera to a member of the audience who agreed to record my piece, but I forgot to explain the zoom, so looked quite small on the film too. The bright 'sunlight' lighting bleached out features, and the camera struggled with the contrast, but the pic below was one of the better moments, although most of it has been cropped out.

dancer with veil swirling overhead
When you forget to explain the zoom function to the person kindly recording your piece with your camera ...

And then it was over! People seemed to enjoy it and I had random compliments afterwards, as well as a couple of enquiries for class details. One woman came to chat and explained that she was just visiting, had done some belly dance but had given it up and since we were more or less the same size (actually, she's nothing like as rotund as I am!) she had some costume to send me. I gave her a business card with my address, and a few days later, a gorgeous green and gold Egyptian-style overskirt/belt arrived. I'm so very touched by her generosity.

As for the piece, I was originally thinking of a class choreography without veils, but after dancing with one, have changed my mind. Now I need people in class ...! Or am I going to be repeating this solo at the Cardigan Belly Dance Festival in August?

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The word of the month begins with D ....

I've suddenly become totally dissatisfied and utterly fed up with my baggy body and frankly ridiculous belly. There. I've said written it. I'm not sure what happened; I still believe in body-positivity, but just feel that for me, enough is enough. Time for things to change, starting with my diet (again).

The last time I made major changes was in 2012-3, when I was awaiting an operation on my foot and the osteoarthritis in my knees was in full flare. I stopped eating meat, swapped a whole load of foods for lower fat, lower sugar versions, really concentrated on salads and seasonal, healthy eating. I did lose a little weight, despite times of frustration when I couldn't seem to shift the scales or get much done outside.

I kept a spreadsheet of the weight loss, and it shows I lost 8.3 kg in 2013. Mind you, half of that was in the last week, when I was ill. My habit of being ill before Christmas means that I start each recorded year at Yule a couple of kilos lighter than I might otherwise be, and then start the new calendar year having put a couple of kilos back on! Thus it was in January 2014, then, despite best intentions, things went sort of pear-shaped, before becoming positively more rotund with the stress of moving house in 2015. At the time I moved house, I was at my heaviest ever - all those take-outs and comfort-eating of chocolate!

I'm now 8 kilos lighter than I was 3 years ago, and 4 kilos lighter than at the start of this year. It's better than nothing, but too little, too slow! My weight bobs around like a cork. I lose 0.6, then 0.7, gain 0.9, lose 0.1. gain 0.4, lose 0.2, gain 0.6, lose 0.3 (bringing me back to where I started). Aaargh, pass me the chocolate ice-cream! Seriously though, it just means that my healthy eating is fine for maintaining my current weight, not losing it!

With a couple of friends now a shadow of their former selves and another couple singing the praises of the Keto Diet, I decided that some positive action was necessary. I remembered a conversation I had with someone years ago, about my craving for (addiction to?) carbohydrates. She suggested that my craving stemmed from an inability to process gluten properly. At the time, I didn't pay too much attention because I love bread and it doesn't cause me bloating, stomach pains, tiredness or any of the other symptoms usually quoted for gluten intolerance. Since then, I've discovered that it may be more to do with an inability to process carbohydrates effectively, so reducing my carbohydrate intake would certainly do no harm.

Rather out of character for me, I signed up for the 'Low Carb Program', endorsed by, mostly for the recipes and inspiration. I'm going to ease myself into this rather than charging headlong into their meal plans, as the vegetarian 40 day challenge involves eating an average of 3 eggs per day just in the first week, and shopping for over 70 items. I haven't costed it out precisely, but I'm pretty sure it would blow my budget to smithereens, not to mention the impact on the fuel bills (and time!) for all the extra cooking involved. Some things look tempting, so I'll begin to experiment and be a lot more mindful of the carbohydrate content and portion sizes.

It's good that the warmer weather is here and I can indulge in salads.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Back into moth recording

Late May, and while the weather is still a bit chilly due to cold winds, I noticed moths coming to lit windows and decided it was time to carry out one of my aims for the year: get back into moth recording. With my parents visiting, I hoped I might find something interesting for them to look at.

It turned out that there wasn't much in the trap when I got up at the crack of dawn. In some ways, this was a good thing; a big catch to work through would have taken a long time, especially as my identification skills are so rusty. On the other hand, the few moths here compared to the number and variety I had back on the farm is a bit depressing.

The results, in 2013 checklist order since I need to get back into good recording habits!

70.054 BF1727 Silver-ground Carpet Xanthorhoe montanata : 2
70.226 BF 1906 Brimstone Opisthograptis luteolata : 3
73.002 BF2449 Dark Spectacle Abrostola triplasia : 1
72.020 BF2060 White Ermine Spilosoma lubricipeda : 1
73.032 BF2425 Nut tree Tussock Colocasia coryli f. medionigra : 1
73.102 BF2302 Brown Rustic Rusina ferruginea: 2
73.329 BF2102 Flame Shoulder Ochropleura plecta : 5

23.5.18. 15 moths, 7 species.

I only realised I had a Dark Spectacle (rather than The Spectacle) when I looked at my photo and saw the cross-lines edged with reddish-brown. The moths I puzzled over were the Nut-tree Tussock and the Brown Rustic. The latter was because, after a late spring, could I really have Brown Rustics in late May when they normally appear from June? But the white marks on the leading edge of the wing and the cross-lines are the key and this male is quite fresh. I must look out the stones and slate I used to use for taking moth photos, although my thumbnail gives an idea of scale.

Brown Rustic Rusina ferruginea

As beautiful and accurate as Richard Lewington's illustrations are in the Field Guide, I don't think they do the Nut-tree Tussock justice, as it's much fluffier and more beautiful in real life. I thought I'd seen it before, but couldn't think what it was and initially looked at the Tussock moths, which are in a different family. The word 'tussock' niggled at me and a scan down the index and through the illustrations confirmed the identity of my lovely visitor.

Nut-tree Tussock Colocasia coyli f. medionigra
Having managed to ID everything (eventually), I feel less daunted by my rusty ID skills. Bring on the next session!

Friday, 13 April 2018

Belly Dance Classes Relaunched!

Since effectively stopping classes last September, I've been doing a lot of planning, soul-searching and casual market research. I thought I would record and share the results and planning process!

'I think I'm probably too old (this from a 30 year old and a 73 year old!)'
Too old at 30? But seriously, you are never too old. You can work gently and within your comfort zone, at your own pace, and sit down and rest if you need to, whatever your age. I try to provide inclusive classes, whether for age, shape/size/level of fitness, disability, or gender.

'I want a midweek, evening class.'
Only one respondent wanted a daytime class, most were working or otherwise occupied (volunteering, other activities) during the day. Fridays were too vulnerable to weekend plans and the desire to just get home and put feet up at the end of the week.

One respondent wanted a class which started early, so they could go from work, but most wanted to at least be able to go home and change. (The danger is, of course, that once home, it can be hard to motivate yourself to go back out again!)

'An hour's class is enough - an hour and a half can feel like too much.'
So all classes are now an hour long, with an option for extra rehearsal time after class for those who wish to perform.

'It shouldn't end late - I want/need to be home by 9.30.'
(Because I have caring responsibilities/need to be up for work the next morning)
So classes are 7.00-8.00 pm, rehearsals 8.00-9.00 pm.

'I don't want to have to travel far - preferably not more than 5 miles.'
('Because it adds to costs, and time away from home - a consideration if you have other things to get done, or caring responsibilities.')
The location of classes is an issue; they are best placed in the population centres; that is, towns, rather than out in the villages. That said, being in town is no guarantee of attendees, particularly with the competition from other activities for attendees and venues.
With Narberth's Bloomfield Centre an established venue for the Thursday class, and Hubberston and Hakin Community Centre newly available on Tuesdays for a Milford Haven-based class, the main issue was to find a place for the Haverfordwest Wednesday class.
I checked out a dozen venues (over a couple of months - it took 3 weeks just to discover the booking contact for one venue!), only to find that none were suitable; either they were booked, or booked until 8.00 pm (therefore only for a late class), or they were too expensive (including one where if you wanted a full hour's class, you would have to book and pay for the venue for two hours). Or there was no adjacent parking (I have a lot of clobber, including a heavy suitcase) and no safe access after dark between the hall and a 'remote' car park. In the end, I rebooked Spittal, which is a nice hall and reduces the distance for anyone coming from the Fishguard end. Those in Haverfordwest then have a choice - Spittal or Hubberston.

And there's always car-sharing to split travel costs ....
'I don't have transport.'
It's difficult when you don't know anyone, but there are potentially car shares available, including a couple of spaces in my car for Narberth and Spittal classes.

'I can't/don't want to have to commit to classes.'
('Because of health conditions, cash flow, shift working or other activities, caring responsibilities.')
I understand that (however much it creates difficulties for me as the provider). So don't feel you have to 'commit', but do make an effort to come when you can, and let me know when you can't. Simple.

'I don't want to pay for a block of classes in advance.'
('Because I can't afford it, or I know that I might not be able to make all of them, so will feel like I'm paying for nothing and not getting my money's worth.')
Talking to other teachers, having students pay for a block of classes in advance is a recommended way to get a bit of commitment and attendance at classes. But I have seen in practice that this doesn't necessarily work, (see the comment above).
I did some research into motivating students, but it was largely based around 'youth' type classes such as ballet, modern/jazz, street dance, where it's mostly the parents/guardians who are paying for the lessons, and incentives such as freebies and discounts work both for the students, who then want to come to class and provide the pester-power, and the payers.

I settled on having a drop-in rate of £5 for occasional attendees, and reduced rates per class for pre-paid cards for 6 or 12 classes. Yes, these are paid in advance, but the cards are flexible. They are for any of my Imago classes, in any of the three venues, and also for £5 increments towards Imago workshops. So you can go to two classes one week and none the next, then one the following week, whatever you want. You can split the card with one or more friends (though you'll have to decide who holds it). You need to remember to present them at the start of class. And they are valid for 6 months or at least until the end of July, depending on how classes go.
I've had a 'class card' system before, and it worked quite well, although I formerly also had cards for 24 and 36 classes, which weren't used. When I was looking for the old cards file to update it and print new ones, I found that my class rates have scarcely changed and the 6-class card price is the same as it was in 2011! What's not to love about that?

'I don't want a course, because if I miss a week I'll feel left behind.'

Okay, so no 'course'. The lesson plans will still include learning moves, drilling, follow-along or improvised dance, combinations and various props, but if you miss a week, it's no biggie. You'll still be building your dance skills, you can ask questions and request things to be covered in class. Just come and enjoy, week by week, whatever we're doing.

'I don't want to have to fill in a load of paperwork. Learning plans, induction tick lists? I'm here to dance!'
Some paperwork is necessary so that I have your details and can keep in touch if a class needs to be cancelled and to record who is there week by week. Otherwise, having a learning plan or a tick sheet for moves is up to you.

'I don't want to feel like I'm the only beginner.'
My classes have always been mixed level, as there have never been enough dancers to justify separate classes for beginners and improvers. I believe very firmly that everyone still does 'the basics' (you never really stop drilling isolations, hip circles, eights and undulations) but more experienced dancers will do them better and with frills on (layers, shimmies!).
With relaunched classes, there should be other beginners. Everyone is different and working at their own pace, finding some moves easy, others not so much. Perhaps bring a friend who is also a beginner?

'I want to join a class with several people already in it.'
This is a really difficult one. These are effectively new classes, and although I have had lots of enquiries and enthusiastic replies, it may still be the case that few people come. If it's not a course or block of classes which people have to commit to, then there are no guarantees how many people will turn up each week. If you're a little nervous, it's natural to want to lie low and hide at the back for a bit, or if you are dropping in for the social contact as well as some dancing, then finding you are one of three in a class could be enough to make you drop back out again.

The only solution to this is for people to come to class! Turn up for class, and bring a friend or two, the more the merrier!

While I was writing this, it occurred to me that much of it deals with reasons why people don't come to class. Hopefully the answers and solutions I've found will be reassuring and motivating, but it still leaves me with one question:

Why do I do this?
Because I love 'belly dance', in all its forms. I love the music and rhythms, and the way dance flows out as you let the music fill you. I love to teach. I love seeing frowns turn into grins as dancers discover what their bodies can do, or that others have the same issues. I love the energy and fun to be had from dancing in a group. I love the way that dance can dissolve barriers and reveal the truly beautiful souls of the dancers. I believe there are very few valid reasons not to dance and that, if you let it, it will transform your life.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Knee-high everyday socks

Last winter, I made a pair of socks while I was testing out my 'everyday' sock pattern, with my Mum in mind. She didn't know, but told me when I was fishing for present ideas that she didn't need any socks. Ah. Hmm.

She and my Dad visited at the start of December, and I gave her the socks anyway. They fitted perfectly and she was thrilled with them. So much so, that she asked if I could make a pair of knee-high socks too.

Well of course, my pleasure! I'd been looking for an excuse to use Drops Fabel Lavender Print (#904).
I started by using a Drops pattern as a reference for number of stitches around the cuff, but I can never get their gauge. I referred to a couple of other patterns and the suggested 84 stitches would stretch, but seemed a bit too tight. The decreases to shape the calf seemed a bit off too, and I got halfway down the first sock leg before I thought it really wasn't going to work, and frogged it. Time to do my own calculations and pattern, then!

Gauge and Calculations
My approximate gauge for 4 ply on 2.75 mm needles is 9 stitches and 12 rows to the inch/2.5 cm. I know for the foot and ankle, a 64 stitch sock will fit her more slender feet and ankles. So it would be a matter of calculating the starting number of stitches for the cuff and decreases to shape the calf down the ankle for a sock which would be comfortable on a 14.5" calf and 15" high (bearing in mind that widthways stretch reduces length.)

Working on the basis of rounding up the calf measurement for comfort (15"), multiply by 9 (stitches per inch) = 135 stitches.
Then decrease this by 25-30% for negative ease and adjust the result so it's divisible by 4 (for the k2, p2 rib cuff) = 92 or 96 stitches.
As I'd already rounded up, I cast on 92 stitches, distributing them 23 stitches on each of 4 needles.

16 rounds k2, p2 rib (starting with the heel needles, designated N1 and N2, which is my preferred way of working, even if it's not perhaps a good technique. If you work differently, pay attention to where you place your centre back decreases as they need to align with the centre of the heel.)

40 rounds straight stocking stitch.

Decreases to shape the leg are in sets of 8 rounds. Reset the round counter and/or place a removable marker in the first stitch of the next round, which is a 'round 1' decrease round.
N1: knit to last 3 stitches on the needle, ssk (or k2tog tbl), k1
N2: k1, k2tog, knit to end of needle
N3 and N4 have the 'shin' stitches - knit all stitches.
Rounds 2-8 - knit all.
There are a total of 14 sets of 8 rounds to decrease 28 stitches, taking the total from 92 to 64 stitches.

Check the length and knit straight stocking stitch until it's time to start the heel. I added another 12 rounds at 64 stitches.
My preference is for Cat Bordhi's Sweet Tomato heel. If you're working a heel flap, you may not need the extra rounds.

For the heel, I have half the total number of stitches (=32) on the first needle.
Slip the first stitch purlwise on the first row, to help avoid a hole, then (for this number of stitches) work 5 pairs of stitches either side of a central 12 stitches.
I work three 'wedges', knitting the instep stitches after each wedge, and keeping the stitch tension very tight as I go from one needle to the next.
After the right hand pairs of stitches have been worked in for the last wedge, finish the round.

The next round starts the rounds for the foot. Reset the counter and/or place a removable marker in the next stitch to count the rounds for the foot. For this size, a UK 7/7.5, I worked 74 rounds.

The next round is the start of the toe shaping. Reset the counter and/or place a removable marker in the next stitch.
I use a paired decrease shaping; ssk or k2tog tbl at the start of the sole and upper needle(s) and k2tog at the end of the sole and upper needle(s) on rounds 1, 5, 8, 11, 13, 15, 17 (all stitches are knitted on the other rounds) and then decrease every subsequent round until you have a total of 20 stitches left.
With 10 sole stitches on one needle and the 10 'upper' stitches on a second, kitchener stitch the toe.

Start your second sock. (I find this helps avoid second sock syndrome, especially as longer socks take longer to knit.)

Weave in ends, give them a first wash and block to even out any loopiness in the heel shaping and other decreases.

Despite my best efforts to create a matched pair, differences in the dye pattern of the yarn meant that there were differences at the toe end. Oh well, best laid plans and all that.

Note, these were designed not to be very tight and the feedback was that they fitted perfectly, warm and comfortable, just right!

No elastic to cut in, no seams to rub, just warm toes and legs on cold winter days and a bit of happiness!

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Building Work and Black-Headed Gulls

Over the past few (week)days, five earth moving machines have been hard at work in the field behind the house; two JCB tracked excavators with a site dumper each, and a different make of midi digger. There's also a telehandler parked, ready for the stacks of blocks, and insulated sheets, bags of sand and aggregate, and whatever else. The sounds of  revving engines as the dumpers try to get a grip, excavator drivers bouncing their buckets to remove the claggy soil and workmen shouting to make themselves heard echo and amplify off the surrounding houses. The excavators' yellow arms appear and disappear above the fence line, like strange, mechanical monsters.

Piles of topsoil have been deposited at this end of the field and the first footings are in for the new homes. I wonder how long it will take to build them?

I've heard some lapwing voices at night, and seen a small flock of 20-30 flying over, but not seen any in the fields as I have on previous years, even when it goes quiet on the weekends. The cats dislike the disturbance and don't stay out for long while there's work going on. I find it stressful too, and I know what's going on.

There are some visitors who don't mind at all. On Friday, I counted around 100 black-headed gulls taking advantage of the disturbed soil on the building-site field, with another 30 to 40 in a nearby field (where the horses are and where I would normally see the lapwings). Scanning through the gulls sitting in the field, I could see about a dozen herring gulls, their larger bodies punctuating the drift of black-headed gulls. The black-headed gulls on the building site seem fearless, pattering around in the furrows left by the dumpers and only  flapping out of their way at the last minute. The only bird to join the black-headed gulls around the working machinery was a pied wagtail. Even the robins, normally so bold and ready to take advantage of freshly turned soil, were nowhere to be seen.

Men and birds at work

The herring gulls prefer to wait until all is quiet on the building site, before they go to see what they can find. On the field in between, a few starlings, rooks and pairs of jackdaws pecked around in the grass.

Yesterday was a Saturday. No building work. Freezing cold with frequent icy showers on the northerly wind, the only bird I could see was Mr Blackbird sitting in the lilac. A glance out of the window just now showed several herring gulls, rooks, jackdaws and starlings on the fields, while a red kite wandered through the air above. Movement on the grass at the edges of the topsoil heaps caught my eye, and I saw three redwings pecking around - the first winter thrushes I've seen which haven't just flown over!

The clay soil doesn't drain well, and there's a scatter of puddles across the site, which the birds use for drinking water and baths. It's good to know that someone is benefiting from the noisy mess, however temporarily.