The Ukelele, or ‘when we get it wrong’.

For Christmas 2019, I bought my eldest child a ukelele.

Money was tight. It usually is at this time of year for most families, but there are few freelance jobs in December (in our line of work), and the car needs a service and MOT here too – and on this occasion, a new timing belt. So I bought the Aldi ukelele on a whim when I saw it in store – there it was, the exact gift I had been looking for and under budget. It was even in a physical, real-life shop, so no packaging from a postal order to dispose of either.

Feeling rather clever, i stashed it under my bed and went on with the Christmas preparations. It was only on the 22nd when I took the ukelele out to tune it that I realised it was largely unplayable.

Let me be clear – the ukelele as a gift isn’t a problem. Its an ideal first instrument. Tuned to a chord, even strumming open strings sounds great – instant musicality. Its compact and light-weight which makes it easy for small people. You don’t need to read music to play – ukelele ‘tab’ music is accessible and easy. All in all, its a rock-solid way to introduce children to the creativity inherent in music.

The issue with this particular ukelele, is that the g-string couldn’t really be tuned without making it so loose as to be baggy.

So, with two days until the gift was due to be given, I called my brother and had him source a second ukelele online. This one cost £15 more, but the build quality was vastly superior, it came with a strap, case and tuner, and a small yet concise book of chords and tab to get a beginner started.

My eldest was absolutely delighted with the second ukelele, but this left the problem of what to do with the first. Initially, I planned to return it, but then I read this article. In short – most returned gifts are sent to landfill, and I absolutely didn’t want to be responsible for consigning a brand new object to oblivion.

In short, my haste, lack of research, and desire for a low price had left me with an item I couldn’t use, an overspend, and the responsibility of disposing of a brand new object – one that probably wasn’t constructed using best-practice to begin with.

I wanted to write about this for many reasons – but primarily, I wanted to show that everyone can and does make environmental mistakes. I spend my free time writing about how we can be kinder to the earth,  reading about waste reduction, and trying to use what I have creatively,  yet I fell prey to a tiny price tag during a tricky time of year.

It takes planning to avoid this kind of error, and planning takes time. If you’re working, have children, have other people in your care, or any combination of the above, then time is something of a luxury that most of us don’t have around Christmas. It’s easy to talk about shopping earlier in the year, or about making sure we take the time to do our best, but sometimes that either isn’t possible or one or two items fall through the net.

When this happens, it’s natural to want to berate yourself – to be cross about the avoidable error – but treat yourself the way you would treat a friend. Remind yourself that you were busy, that these things happen and that you’ll try harder next time. Then move on. If we begin attaching guilt and shame to the things we do which are less than ideal then it’s easy to lose the motivation to keep going.

In short – be kind to yourself this holiday season. None of us are perfect.

Preparing for Christmas

Last year, I did a really good job of reducing the waste our household creates over the festive period.

This year, I want to do even more!

To start with, I plan to continue my efforts to #CutTheWrap by using cloth bags for all of my family’s gifts. This will not only cut down on expenditure over the long term (never having to buy gift wrap again!) but it will also save me time – something that’s very presious in the winter months.

I will also continue to champion my low waste advent calendars, and try to gift as many eco-conscious books as I can.

But… what else can we do?

Over the coming weeks, I would like to talk a little bit about expectations, panic buying, and the need for research before gifting anything. I want to discuss whether it’s ever OK to ‘gift’ someone a library book, and what you can do instead of giving gifts.

These are all pretty big topics, so I’ll pause here for the time being and invite you all to ‘watch this space’ for what’s to come.

As ever, if you’ve got any suggestions about ways to make Christmas a less wasteful period of time, I would absolutely love to hear them – either here, or on Twitter.

 

Break.

I’m going to take a short break from blogging on here for a while.

It’s nothing serious – I’ve just been posting twice a week for over a year now and I need a chance to rest and recharge.

When I do come back, I think it’ll be a once-a-week sort of thing.

Thank you for reading along with me, for all the comments, and for all the ideas which have helped me to make my life more sustainable.

If you’re short of reading material in the meantime (unlikely, I know), you can check out some:
Amazing books – (I especially loved Oak and Ash and Thorn, but all of these are wonderful!)
This Simple Life – a wonderful blog about life in Spain.
Read, Learn, Live – another wonderful blog, that’s not about life in Spain.
Eco Family Life – a third wonderful blog about trying to reduce waste for a family.

There are all sorts of amazing resources out there – Jen Gale’s ‘Sustainable(ish)’ site and Rae Strauss’s ‘Zero Waste Week’ movement spring immediately to mind.

I hope you’ll join me again in a few weeks when I come back.

With much love.
Farn ❤

Digital decluttering

As an ever increasing amount of our time is spent online, it’s hard to imagine ways that we can make this greener. Happily, it is possible, free, and a relatively quick process. The following took me an afternoon.

  1. Go through your ‘promotions’ folder in your email inbox. Unsubscribe from everything. This serves you in two ways – it will reduce the amount of spam mail you receive and so free up valuable server space. It will also remove some of the temptation to over consume. If you need something new, chances are you’ll have a point of purchase in mind anyway, and if you’re purchasing online, a quick search for ‘Store Name + discount codes’ should show you any voucher you’re afraid of missing out on.
  2. Delete all of your ‘promotional’ and ‘social’ emails. Again, the data contained within these emails is stored somewhere. If you delete the things you’re never going to look at, you make the storage space available for other data and this in turn means that increasing amounts of storage isn’t necessary.
  3. Turn off notification emails on your social media. Facebook and Twitter really don’t need to email you every time people interact with you. This will keep your ‘social’ tab nice and empty, and mean you won’t spend as much time clearing it out in future.
  4. Switch your browser to Ecosia. I’ve spoken about this before, but basically it’s like Google, except the ad revenue you generate goes towards planting trees.
  5. If you’re in the UK, sign up to the Mailing Preference Service. Though not technically decluttering your life online, it’s worth doing as it stops unsolicited post to your address.
  6. In addition to the Mailing Preference Service, sign up to the Post Office’s own version. This is slightly more convoluted, but absolutely worth doing. It prevents such a huge amount of waste every year per household.

Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list – there are doubtless loads of other things you can do in order to keep your digital impact down.

Do you have any suggestions to add to the list? I would love to hear them! As ever, you can contact me here or on Twitter.

Rootbound by Alice Vincent

Rootbound: Rewilding a Life by Alice Vincent wasn’t a book that was on my radar, until the author tweeted a two star review, left by someone on Amazon.

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And on the strength of that, I bought two copies – one for me and one for a friend – because it’s everything I’m all about. Yay plants, EU, and feminism!

The book chronicles a calendar year in the life of the author. It begins with a break up – an event that’s echoed in a wider setting by the Brexit referendum results* – and ends with hope, made possible through green spaces within cities.

I think it’s a particularly timely book – a chronicle of the Millennial experience and a partial explanation as to why house plants are suddenly the only thing appearing on my Pinterest Feed…

Like Fowler, Vincent manages to write intimately without it feeling like an intrusion. There’s an underlying honesty to the work – an unapologetic, simultaneous acceptance and disdain for the way in which the Millennial generation has been expected to work and live. In general, I can draw a lot of comparisons between Hidden Nature and Rootbound – the discovery of a sense of self within the green space of a city seems to be a theme through both works.

I hope that it’s a theme we’re going to start seeing throughout our society.

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Throughout the book, Vincent chronicles the history of the plants she’s discussing – from nostalgic sweet peas, to the Victorian obsession with ferns, we learn about why we grow the things we grow and why the green spaces within cities look the way they do. Indeed, in many cases, we learn why they’re there at all. I particularly loved the section about parks. It gave me back some hope that people can – and historically have – come together to make a change for the good.

This is another book that isn’t strictly about environmentalism, but which I think is important to read. That restorative power of green spaces – chronicled so nicely in Oak and Ash and Thorn – is something that we all need and should be aspiring to find within our own lives. And like Fowler’s work, it shows that this can be achieved even within urban spaces.

Also, this experience has reminded me how important it is to be honest about the things we’re reviewing – this book wasn’t what the above reviewer wanted, but his honesty led me to it, and that’s brilliant.

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*(Wikipedia article linked to for those not in the UK)

An update on Fryer Soap

Any readers who have been with me for a while, might remember me having a go at making soap from fryer oil.

Buuut….

The oil never really lost the smell of food and though it did eventually lose the melted-toffee consistency in the drying process, it melted again in my soap bowl.

So, I tried a few different things with my second batch, and Oh My Goodness! What a difference it made!

One of the main issues with the soap was the smell. This time round, I filtered the oil the same as before, but then I left it in a bowl on the kitchen side for a week. I think ‘airing it out’ helped a lot, but I also heated it with some lavender flowers in then strained it again. I don’t know which of these things actually performed the magic of removed the smell but I don’t actually care! Chip stink was gone, and I was ready to go!

As I discussed previously, the first batch of soap had the texture of chewy toffee – not something I want from a soap! According to a book about soap making that I have, this was on account of a lower quality lye. So, to compensate, I took the quantity of lye that SoapCalc told me to use, and added 4g more. I just sort of guessed how much extra to add, because I’m not an exact cook and somehow, this just felt a bit like recipe fudging, rather than the science it actually is.

I also added a jar of coconut oil – this was primarily because I had it, don’t like cooking with it, and I wanted to use the jar for something else.

This time round, everything combined to make an absolutely perfect soap.  It smells clean, the texture is perfect, and it lathers wonderfully. I actually feel happy giving this as gifts. I’m so excited to try making some more – perhaps adding in some coffee grounds as an exfoliant, or some oats and camomile for a honey smell?

What are you favourite fragrances for soap? I’d love to try something a little different next time! As ever, you can contact me here, or on Twitter.

 

Food Waste – the less obvious kind

I’ve learnt so much this year from tending my garden. It has been a gift in so many ways.

I’ve learned to appreciate humble foods again, like peas and potatoes and courgettes (zucchini). These plants have nourished me in mind and body – tending them has given me so much joy.

But beetroot and garlic have educated me in a way I didn’t expect.

We talk a lot about food waste when it comes to environmentalism – a 2019 report stated that as much as a 10th of greenhouse gas pollution could be attributed to lost food.

When we think about food waste, we tend to think about images of loaves of bread, tossed whole and plastic-coated into the bin. We think of nets of mouldering Buy One Get One Free tangerines – unnecessary but desired for the fleeting moment they feel like a bargain.

We seldom think about carrot tops, or beetroot leaves, garlic stems and onion greens. These are all perfectly edible parts of commonly grown plants – why aren’t we eating more of them?

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It’s an incredibly frustrating dietary omission – effectively, by using these commonly discarded parts of plants, we’re growing two crops in one space. Take beetroot, for example – we’re growing both root veg and salad leaf. Or root veg and a spinach substitute.

Obviously, some things aren’t to everyone’s taste – carrot fronds really aren’t something I enjoy! – but when you can get packs of fancy ‘raw dog food’ made from cuts of meat people don’t eat, I don’t see why carrot greens can’t become a staple guinea pig food. It might mean customers buying fewer packs of salad to feed to a family pet…

But I digress. I am not a keeper of small rodents.

What I can do, is use this – somewhat simple, wholly unimpressive – revelation to better plan my own garden. I can prioritise foods which will feed me more than one crop.

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I’ve mentioned beetroot already – the fat root I pickled and the leaves I ate in salad and sliced thinly into curries. But I’ve used garlic too.

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I began by trimming off the leaves and slicing them, freezing them on baking sheets and then decanting into bags for use in place of spring onions in stir-fried dinners.

After this, I pulled the bulb from the earth and chopped back around half of the stem.

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I then infused some olive oil with the chopped stems, making a garlic oil for frying in. The bulbs went into the shed to dry. Though they won’t see us through winter alone, in combination with the greens and oil, they should go some of the way and certainly a lot longer than if I’d automatically discarded the greens.

There are all sorts of things we could be eating – arguably should be eating – which we discard. I would love to hear some of your examples of foods with multiple uses so that I can try to grow them in the coming year! You can let me know here, or on Twitter.

Draughts/checkers board DIY

Strategy games have become a big thing in our household, over the past few months. My youngest child, in particular, is a real lover of all things strategic.

Though my mum managed to find the mancala board my brother and I played with as children*, I couldn’t find a draughts/checkers set amongst things we already had.

Because of the pledge to buy nothing new, we started out by drawing a grid on paper and using random items from around the house as counters. This worked for a while, but when it became clear that the interest in patterns and strategy wasn’t going away, I wanted to make something a little more permanent and portable.

I don’t have any woodworking skills worth noting, but I can sew and knit, so the obvious solution was to create something using fabric/yarn.

I settled on fabric in the end, because it was quicker to run these squares through my sewing machine than it was to knit alternative shapes. It was also a really good way to use up some of my fabric scraps, rather than beginning a new ball of yarn. Of course, if you already have a checked blanket, you can forego this whole ‘step’ and just go find some counters.

I didn’t really measure anything out for this little patchwork rug – I just sort of made it up as I went along.

I started by finding a scrap of paper that was the width I want for each square. I folded at a 45 degree angle by bringing the left edge in line with the top edge.

I then cut this into a square along the bottom/right edge to create a template so that all of my squares were the same size.

After that, it was simply a case of sewing all of the squares together. I did the top by hand because it meant that I could chat to my parents while I worked and, as a result, the job got done quicker than if I’d waited to use the machine!

After I’d done that, I backed the top with a piece of an old sheet. All in all, this took a few hours of work and cost nothing. I used old buttons for counters.

Making this was actually quite interesting in a lot of ways. For a start, it made me think about the time spend in acquisition of things. For example, if one buys something from a physical store, it takes time to go there, select the item in question, pay for it and come home. Ordering things online takes even longer. If we can make-do with things we have in our possession already, we not only save ourselves money and precious resources, we also save time. And really, who doesn’t want a few more hours in the day?

I keep coming back to this – the concept of convenience sells, but surely it’s more convenient to use objects already in our homes than it is to source, fund and house new things? That saying about the plastic spoon springs to mind…

This little blanket has also made me think really hard about the things I give as ‘new baby’ gifts. In future, I’ll be making little checked quilts – 8×8 squares – with a large border. These can then go from being a cot blanket, to a play mat, to a draughts board – a gift that grows with the recipient. If I were really thinking ahead, I could make 32 small, easy, square bean-bags in the two opposing colours – I could fill them with different textured/scented fillings as sensory baby toys, but also stitch ‘p’ for ‘pawn’ or ‘q’ for ‘queen’ on one side so that when they’re no longer useful as said sensory toys, they could be used as draught counters when the blank side is showing, and chess counters when the letters are visible. On the back of the quilt, one could also sew different coloured, larger squares down the centre for a throwing game – bean bags in the furthest square get 10 points, those in the middle get 5 and those in the closest get 1 point, for example.

Cot blanket, play mat, sensory toys, bag toss, draughts, and chess – six uses for one gift.

This is the way we need to think about all the things we give – not just the initial moment of receipt, but also of how objects can be useful as time progresses. It’s certainly a lesson I’ll be taking with me, following this quick little project.

Have you ever tried making toys for children? I would love to hear what you’ve made. Contact me here, or on Twitter.

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*If you fancy trying out mancala, you don’t need a board. Anything you have to hand is totally fine. There’s archaeological evidence of it having been played with dips in sand and rounded pebbles – you can absolutely use bowls and Lego blocks, circles on paper and some dried beans, or glass beads and jam jars. The important part is the rules.

Back to School backpack

As I said in a previous post about school uniform, we really don’t need to buy brand new paraphernalia for our children at the start of every school year. I’m a great believer in using what’s at hand and ‘making do’.

That said, my youngest starts school this year. There is no pre-existing backpack, or pencil case, or gym bag. And looking at the things we used for nursery, I don’t feel like there’s a way we can repurpose them on this occasion. So, as I’m not going to buy anything new – as per my birthday pledge – I thought I would share the making process as I attempt a backpack.

There are so many reasons why it makes sense to craft your own items (if you have the ability to do so) and I would definitely encourage you to read many of the amazing works out there about why we should reject high-street fashion/supermarket retail if we can afford to – both Lauren Bravo’s book and Lucy Siegle‘s spring instantly to mind. Plastic fabrics, dyes, and awful work environments are just a handful of issues inherent in cheap, imported goods.* Second hand is a great middle ground if you can’t afford something ethically produced and eBay is full of high quality satchels which are no longer seeing any love.

However, as I’ve got a large fabric stash (mostly inherited) and the skills to make a basic bag, this seems like the most cost-effective, eco-friendly way for me to do this.

So, without further soap-boxing…

Step One – Select your fabric. 

I’ve touched before on the advantages of natural fibres, but I’d like to add here that you’re looking for something hard-wearing and duarble. School bags see a lot of punishment from day-to-day. Denim is an obvious choice, and most houses have an old pair of jeans or two which aren’t getting worn. If you’re going to use old clothes, selecting those with as few seams as possible gives you a lot of options as you’ll have larger areas of ‘uninterrupted’ cloth.

Step Two – Decide on your size.

In our case, school provides a book-bag, so this satchel will largely be used for a gym kit, water bottle and snack, so it doesn’t need to be huge. I think a good rule, is to think about the largest thing that will need carrying and then make your design just that little bit larger – around 2 inches on each side is usually a good shout.

Step 3 – Decide how you’re going to carry the bag

In some cases, a drawstring bag will be enough, especially for a gym kit. In which case, don’t make life more complicated than it needs to be and check out this tutorial. It does instruct you to overlock/serge the sides, but you can get around this by sewing a ‘French seam’ instead – tutorial here. For anything else, I would have said to just zig-zag over the raw fabric, or use some pinking shears, but for something that children are going to toss around at school every day, I really think that the seams need to be fray-proof for longevity. I didn’t actually do anything special for the outer layer of this particular bag, though, as it’s a plastic cloth which doesn’t fray. It was my table cloth for years so saw a lot of usage – I know how it’s going to stand up to punishment! – so I didn’t make more work for myself.

Step… I’m just going to start uploading pictures now. Wish me luck. 

To start with, I cut my fabric… I chose an old, plastic-coated tablecloth for this bag. Because longevity. And children. And I had it already.

I cut the same size of lining fabric too. This lining came from an old bed sheet – you can see it behind the garish periodic table above.

I folded the outer layer in half and sewed along the side and bottom.

Then I folded the bag in such a way that I could sew across the corners to make the base square. It’s difficult to explain it  but I hope the pictures help…

I did the same to the lining (check out those French seams!) and it might be a little clearer here…

I then inserted a zip into the top of the bag. The zip I had in my stash wasn’t quite long enough, so I added some denim scraps to either end…

I’m not sure if you can really see it in the picture above, but after I’d added the zip, I added a little strap with a popper on. If my child chooses not to fasten the strap, the bag has about another 5-6 inches of space. Not necessary just now, but hopefully this will last a while and might become relevant later…

This was actually pretty difficult to do because I’d already put the zip in, but it was possible and that’s the main thing!

I just hand stitched this big metal popper into place. It’s not glamorous as far as closures go, but it does the job.

Then I had a break for about 2 weeks while I figured out what to do with the straps. I wanted a backpack, but I’d already added the zip which made adding straps… less than ideal. I also didn’t really have the various buckles and clips to make the straps adjustable which isn’t really ‘future-proof’.

So I decided to be a bit… creative with the straps. I measured from my child’s waist to shoulder, multiplied this by two, then measured from shoulder to shoulder, and added these numbers together. I then doubled that number. This gave me the length of continuous fabric I needed for… whatever you’d call the contraption I’m rigging up.

I then sewed a second length of this strap fabric and stitched it across the back of the bag, with little gaps for the length of strap to pass through. Because I’d already sewn the zip in place, this process redefined my personal idea of hell.

For the sake of my sanity, I decided to hand-sew the rest of the bag…

Hand stitching is one of those things we’re conditioned to think of as too slow to be practical, but actually, for small and fiddly objects (like this bag!) it’s probably faster than trying to find a machine-friendly alternative. I used backstitch to make the straps really secure and always sew with a thimble – this really helps when you’re sewing heavy fabric like the plastic table-cloth. Also worth noting and contrary to what I used to think, using a thinner needle tends to be easier than a thick one on thick fabrics.

You can see from the pictures below that the straps can move between the two holes and the function of the bag can change from backpack to shoulder bag.

The shoulder strap will make is easy for me to carry when I inevitably get dumped with the bag after school, but the backpack position is perfect for small people…

All that remained was to fit the lining. Again, I chose to do this by hand for speed and ease. Sewing around the zip is just vastly easier this way.

Once I’d done that, all that was left was to turn the whole thing inside out and try it on the enthusiastic recipient…

I’m not going to lie – this does look… homemade. Our school is tiny and rural, and the children are sweet. They do pick on one another every so often but in such a small community, there are few places to hide so I’m not overly worried about my child being bullied for not having something ‘bought’. I do think, though, that this is something which you might want to consider if your children attend a bigger school or is a little older and part of a brand-conscious crowd.

There are ways to ensure that the bag looks as good as possible – all of them easy, some of them free.
– Measure everything carefully
– Press your seams as you go along
– Use the sharpest scissors you have access to
– Use a new sewing-machine needle for each project
– Use as high quality fabric as you can
– Make sure to sew in all loose threads (I think this makes the biggest difference).

I didn’t actually buy anything for this project – most of it came from my mother-in-law’s substantial stash – so it was really cheap. You could technically make it without the strap to fasten the top down, so you don’t necessarily even need the popper.

Have you tried making school supplies before? How did you get on?

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*There are, of course, arguments that we should continue to buy from these lower-priced places in order to prevent job-losses in overseas factories. I can absolutely see the reasoning behind this, and if this is where your moral compass is pointing you, then ‘you do you’ – crack on. If you do want change, though, you need to let the retail outlet you’re purchasing from know – drop them a Tweet, ask about how the garment workers are treated, and then don’t act as though the clothes you’ve bought are disposable. If enough brands are held accountable for the ethics of their products, then we might begin to see a change.

Depending on the point in time you’re reading this from, something like Lost Stock might be a good compromise. In short, due to the Covid pandemic, many UK retailers cancelled their orders leaving

Buy Nothing New – month 2 review!

This month was vastly easier than previous months as half of it was technically #PlasticFreeJuly.

The feeling of overwhelming responsibility for my things (which I’ve spoken about before) has abated somewhat, but that’s possibly because I’ve been distracted by actually mending said things. I’ve darned the elbow of a knitted sweater (which was second-hand anyway)…

I am SO pleased with this. It’s obvious in the picture, but in real life, it’s all but invisible now that the sweater has been washed and the wool has felted a little.

I’ve also reused elements from an unsalvageable hoodie to make a pair of jeans for my eldest child…

I used the hood drawstring for the waistband and the sleeve cuffs for the ankles. I even managed to rescue some of the cloth from the sleeves to make a smaller pair of trousers for my youngest child. I was especially pleased with this because it made a nice change to patching left knees – something I seem to spend my life doing as sharp kneecaps are apparently a genetic trait that my husband passed on.

This month, my purchase list is small. The fact that my car insurance was due probably helped a lot with this! Regardless:

  • I bought a comic book in the series that Husband is reading (second hand, of course!)
  • I bought three strangers a book, via the Big Green Bookshop‘s Wednesday event. I know these are new books, but it was a lovely thing to participate in and I got to share my favourite works with others this way. And at the moment, in a world which seems so very dark, it was nice to spread what little love I can.
  • I bought my eldest some second hand school trousers.
  • I bought a second hand Christmas gift on eBay. I’ve been looking for this particular item for ages now and as it came up on a saved search, I took the opportunity to buy it.
  • I bought a nail brush for after I’ve been working in the garden. Second hand isn’t really an option here so I bought new from Boobalou because it’s wooden.
  • I bought a digital knitting pattern from an indie designer. I’m going to use it in conjunction with some wooden peg dolls I already have, scrap yarn, and some champagne corks (for mushrooms) to make a fairy play set as a Christmas gift.

Are there any things I’ve wished I could buy?

  • Cotton wadding for a quilt… still. I mentioned it last time so I’ve set up a saved search on eBay and hopefully something will come up soon.
  • Fan merchandise for a game I love which is ridiculous, so I’m not doing it.
  • A set of silicone baking sheets in an attempt to reduce the quantity of baking paper I get through. I might still buy these – baking paper sort of comes under household goods, right?