Thursday, 17 April 2014

O is for The Oddbods


Today is a big day for me - I wrote this story a little while ago and only one person has seen it so far! I've had this idea bugging me for a long while though so one day in February, I just sat down and wrote it. It's a little raw and totally unedited but I'd like to get some honest opinions. I'm too close to it to tell if it's any good and I have no children around me to test it on either! It's probably a little long for a blog post but hey ho!

Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, lived a young girl called Lizzie. She had dark chestnut hair and big brown eyes and her nose was covered in freckles. By the end of most days, her hair looked like a birds nest and her fingernails were usually dirty and you could almost be sure that somewhere she would have a sticking plaster covering her latest cut or graze. Yup, Lizzie was a total tomboy and her favorite thing to do was to explore the fields and hedges behind her house at the edge of the village with her two best friends, Richard and Gareth.
Gareth was a year older than Lizzie and Richard, with bright new penny colored hair and almost as many freckles as Lizzie. He was quite tall for his age but chunky - good rugby player potential as Lizzie's Dad always said. Richard was the complete opposite of Gareth - a little short for his age and skinny as anything. With tight blonde curls and bright blue eyes, all the Mums said he looked like an angel but they didn't know him very well. If the happy trio ever got in big trouble, it was usually Richard's bright ideas that got them there!
On this particular day, the three had been out to the tiny piece of woodland about 2 fields away from home but for some reason, Richard and Gareth were in a mean mood and had run away from Lizzie, leaving her annoyed and alone in the woods. She wasn't scared though - these woods were one of her favorite places but she got bored on her own so she started to run home. It was nearly teatime anyway. 
Lizzie loved to run but today, she was a bit angry too so she was running hard and fast and not really watching where she was going when she slipped. She'd forgotten about the little stream at the edge of the woods and slid, bottom first, straight down the little riverbank into the icy cold water and landed with a thud and a huge splash! At first, she just sat there - kind of shocked by the fall & the icy cold splash, then she realised she'd caught her leg on a small branch and given herself a really bad scratch that was bleeding and staining her socks.
Crying a lot now, she got herself up the other side of the riverbank, looked around to check if there was anyone around and took her soaking wet shorts and socks off. She took her cardigan and did the buttons up and climbed into it so it was like a funny skirt then tied the arms around her waist to get them out of the way. Sitting down on a fallen tree, she tried to use a wet sock to clean the blood off her leg but it wouldn't stop. Totally fed up, she laid her head on her knees and cried. This day was supposed to be a fun day but the boys had spoilt everything, she thought to herself. 
Eventually her leg stopped bleeding and as it did, slowly her tears dried up too. She stayed there a bit longer, thinking what a horrible day it was and how nobody liked her, when she felt a little 'tap, tap, tap' on her arm. Startled, she looked up quickly but there was no-one there! She looked all around and just as she turned back, she caught a glimpse of movement near a big tree just ahead of her.
Now Lizzie had lived in the countryside all her life and she loved reading books about the birds and animals that lived there. What she was looking at was a bright green face with spiky green hair like grass and green eyes. She'd never seen any creatures like that in her book but she was certain it wasn't a human in fancy dress or anything, not by the speed at which it had disappeared after tapping her arm! 
Tired and fed up, she still started talking to it in the way that you would try to coax a strange cat to come and see you. Calmly and gently, she just kept talking, not really making much sense but she hoped the creature, whatever it was, would understand that she wouldn't hurt it.
After a few minutes, the creature came out from behind the tree and stood, just listening to Lizzie's voice, as if it was trying to understand. It cocked its head to one side, shrugged its big pointy shoulders and slowly crept forward. As it came nearer, Lizzie could see that it was holding something out to her. It was a big patch of fresh green moss. Puzzled, Lizzie asked the creature what that was for, shrugging and trying to act confused.
As she continued to talk to the creature, it moved more confidently toward her, still holding out the moss. Once it was close enough, this strange little being gently placed the moss on her scratched leg, took one of her hands and gestured for her to hold it there. As she did so, it took a giant leap and seemed to disappear away from her. Startled, she gave a little cry of 'oh!' but almost immediately, the creature was back, this time with some thin, supple reeds. Lizzie was a clever girl and realised the reeds were to tie the moss to her leg and gave the creature a big smile. Even though she was a total tomboy, her Mum had always told her she still had to be polite so she said thank you too.
The creature seemed to understand her gratitude and made a funny little head-bobbing movement - almost like a nod of 'yes'. She patted the tree trunk next to her, inviting the creature to come and sit down. It made that funny little movement again and jumped up onto the tree trunk. Even standing where she was sitting, it only just came up to her eye level. Now that it was closer, she could see that its skin was a bit shiny and its hair really did look like grass, all spiky and pointing in lots of different directions. 
It had weird shoulders, almost pointy as if the bones were protecting the sides of its head and she noticed that it only had two fingers and a thumb on each hand. As she was noticing these things, she realised the creature was looking at her in the same way. It seemed confused by how many fingers she had and where were her pointy shoulders?
She pointed to herself and said 'Lizzie' then pointed at the creature and then pointed at the creature and asked 'you?'. She repeated this a few times, not even sure the creature could talk but something made her think that it could. Maybe it was the way it was watching her so carefully as she spoke but it definitely seemed to understand some of her meaning. 
After a few minutes of asking, the creature finally opened its mouth and quietly but quite clearly said 'Benset'. Lizzie was overjoyed and clapped her hands excitedly! Benset did one of his amazing leaps and disappeared! Oops! She'd startled him away. She called his name and apologised, hoping that he did indeed understand her. Suddenly, there he was, right in front of her again. This time he startled her and as she jumped with surprise, she lost her balance and fell off the back of the tree trunk!
As she lay there, giggling to herself about how funny she must look wearing a cardigan as a skirt with her legs sticking up in the air and how weird this day was, Benset stood by her and reached out a hand to help her up. He was making a funny sound too and she realised that he was laughing as well. 
Once they were both sitting on the tree trunk again, Benset put his hand on hers and started talking. It was hard to understand him at first, he had such a quiet deep voice that she really had to listen hard. He explained that his people lived in these woods but hid whenever they heard human voices because humans were so loud and big. He'd been collecting fresh leaves for food for his family when he'd seen her fall and hurt herself so he'd gone to get moss to help her.
Lizzie asked why he wasn't afraid of her, she was human and very loud sometimes and Benset explained that he'd seen her and her friends here a lot and could see that they meant no harm. He'd always hidden though, just in case but he couldn't leave her hurt and alone, crying in the woods, so he'd decided to take a risk & approach her. 
Lizzie really was a nice young lady even under her tomboy shell and she knew that what he had done was way beyond risky for him. She was only 6 herself but she was already two times his size and could easily hurt him if she tried. She thanked him again and asked if he would come and say hello another time when she & her friends were in the woods.
Benset shook his head sadly - he couldn't take the risk - both boys were bigger than Lizzie and he had a family to protect. What if they did something silly and someone got hurt or even worse, what if human grown-ups found out and came to investigate? No, it was better that they keep this a secret and she not tell anyone. He explained that if grown ups came looking for him and his family, he would have to leave the woods and find a new home for them, away from humans and he liked it here. 
Slowly, Lizzie nodded and agreed - she was sure her father wouldn't hurt Benset or his family but it wasn't her place to decide to give away his secret. She also didn't think her Dad would believe her if she told him about the two foot tall, bright green creature with spiky grass hair that she had spent the afternoon talking to! 
Suddenly, Lizzie heard a noise in the distance - it was her Dad and when she heard barking, she realised how late in the day it was. Dad was walking their dog, Butch and was calling her name too. He must have been really worried when she hadn't come home with Richard and Gareth and it was just starting to get dark too! She turned to tell Benset that she had to go but he'd disappeared already. She called out quietly 'Benset, don't worry, I won't tell your secret and I'll come back to see you soon. Thank you again, my new friend'. 
She picked up her wet shorts and socks, slipped her cold feet into her wet shoes and started limping towards the sound of her Dad's voice. What an amazing afternoon, she thought to herself, smiling at the fresh memories of her new friend. When her Dad saw her at the edge of the woods, limping, carrying her clothes and wearing her cardigan like a funny skirt, he started to run toward her. She could tell he was worried, not angry as she called out that she was ok. His run slowed a little but not much. As he came close, he pulled her into his arms tightly and gave her such a big hug she thought her lungs would pop!
Butch was running around them like crazy, barking excitedly and tying them up in tangles in his leash. Laughing now that she was found, Dad leaned over to let Butch off his leash - Lizzie said sharply 'no, don't Dad' because she knew that the dog would be able to smell Benset & would chase him down like a rabbit. Dad looked at her quizzically but when she explained that she was tired, hurting and hungry & just wanted to go home, Dad nodded, swung her up onto his shoulders and turned away from the woods toward home. 
Just before they turned the corner, Lizzie twisted slightly to look back and wave, just in case Benset was watching. She promised herself that she would come back alone soon and maybe bring a little present for him. She hoped she would meet him again - it would be wonderful to find out more about this strange little creature with the odd body, she had so many questions to ask him! 
And that dear reader, is the story of how Lizzie met Benset and their adventures together began.

I hope you like it. I'd really, really like some opinions though - good or bad doesn't matter, I'd just like to hear what people think. Thank you in advance :)

Nev

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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

N is for Naughty But Nice!


Bit of a cheat post today as I've been flying solo at work this week but when you see the 'cheat', I'm sure you won't mind!

As if the photo above doesn't give the game away, today, I'm going to share my family recipe for scrummy chocolate brownies! It's a fairly easy method without too many ingredients but there are loads of ways to tweak it to your taste. I'll add some suggestions at the end.

Ingredients

200g (7oz) good quality plain/dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids is a good guide)
250g (9oz) butter (unsalted is best but not vital)
80g (3oz) cocoa powder
65g (2.5 oz) plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
360g (13oz) caster sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2-3 drops vanilla essence

Method

Preheat oven to 180C / 350F / Gas 4 and grease a 24cm (9inch) square baking tin (or line it with greaseproof or baking parchment - whichever is your preferred method).

Next, heat a pan of water, put a heatproof bowl over it and melt the chocolate slowly with the butter. Make sure the water isn't touching the bottom of the bowl or it may overheat & split the chocolate. Also be careful not to get any water in the chocolate mixture.

Sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder into another bowl then add the sugar and mix slightly. Once the chocolate and butter mixture is melted through, stir them to mix and then stir them gently into the flour mixture. Add the vanilla essence and eggs at this point and stir all ingredients together until you have a smooth, fairly liquid mixture. Pour into the prepared baking tin and pop in the oven.

Unlike an ordinary cake, we don't want this one to cook all the way through - brownies should still be slightly gooey on the inside so take them out of the oven at about 25 minutes cook time. Set on a wire rack to cool in the tin.

Once cooled, turn out the whole cake and cut into generous squares or slices, you can sift a little icing sugar (confectioners sugar) over the top if you want or leave them plain.

Optional Extras or Variations

Pecan & White Chocolate - add the chopped pecans and white chocolate chips to the mixed batter before pouring into tin - about 100g (4oz) of each.

Chocolate Orange - replace the dark chocolate with orange flavored chocolate - there are some good dark chocolate orange bars available now too. Also replace the vanilla essence with 1/2 teaspoon orange oil.

Cherry & Chopped Nuts - 75g (3oz) dried sour cherries and 50g (2oz) chopped mixed nuts - just stir them into the mixture before pouring into baking tin.

I love one of these brownies served warm with a scoop of vanilla icecream or a dollop of creme fraiche. This recipe makes between 15-20 servings, depending of course on how big your slices are. The brownies should keep well for up to 4 days in an airtight container but I bet that won't be a problem!




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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

M is for Making Money Online

Baffled!
I've been making a bit of money online for years - initially with ebay, just selling excess random stuff I'd collected over the years but then moving on to microstock photography sites, Etsy, Zazzle and of course, blogging. The beauty of some of these methods is the residual income - even though I haven't seriously submitted new photographs to my stock portfolios for about 3 years, I still get some income from them!

This post isn't a how-to post though, rather it's a query post about why the WoW community seem so resistant to making a bit of cash from blogging but are ok with the behaviour of some streamers and content producers. I'm not going to pretend to have any answers as it totally baffles me.

If there is drama in my Twitter feed it is usually one of two things - Blizzard's boy's club attitude/feminism or begging. I was very hesitant to put any adverts on my main blog due to the general attitude against them - especially ads for Gold Making Guides but I've read the ones I promote and I think they are pretty damn good for someone with more money than time. Yes, I agree with the naysayers that everything in them is available online for free but if your time is precious, sometimes the $15-$20 for a good guide will seem like a bargain if it saves you 20 hours (or more!) of searching for the information amongst the numerous blogs, streams, youtube videos and podcasts available now.

I, personally, don't have a Paypal Donate button on any of my blogs but I have no problem with those who do - it's up to the reader whether they want to donate or not, after all. What I and a few others call begging, is the incessant highlighting of the donate button, either via tweets or mentioning it in streams. More recently, there have been a few go fund me's popping up - some seem reasonable but others have been crazy it seems to me. I still think that if you are podcasting/streaming/blogging video games then you should fund it yourself or monetise in an unobtrusive way - it is your hobby after all!

There are people who say they want to make a career out of it and are streaming/Youtubing as a full time effort so why shouldn't they ask for donations. I say, put your content somewhere viewers have to pay for it and make it a business then! I would love to become a professional photographer but I have to fund it myself and do the work in my spare time. I don't put up a portfolio of free pictures or make a video slideshow and ask people for donations if they enjoyed it! No, I provide a product and a service and my customers give me money for it.

Why is streaming/videos any different? It's a product after all. I know you are up against 100's if not 1000's of other streamers/content creators who are doing it as a hobby and providing content for free but as a photographer, so am I! Every man and his dog has a mobile phone now that can take pictures and they all seem to think they can take photos good enough to put on their wall.

I've done Craft Fairs where bad watercolor sketches have outsold photography 10-1, not because the photography was bad but because customers who can't draw/paint know they can't but they all think they can take a photo! They disregard the fact of getting the models, makeup & hair people, locations etc or travelling to exotic places - oh no, they can get a great pic on the cellphone!

So there's my rant for this year - I don't rant often enough according to friends but it's there - it just takes a lot to get to critical mass and get publicly revealed! And if you are someone who asks for donations, please don't think this post is specifically about you - it's a general post - I'm not intending to attack anyone, I am seriously baffled by the resistance to gold guides and advertising but asking for donations repeatedly being ok.

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Monday, 14 April 2014

L is for Live Life!

Live Life!
Being true to my Welsh roots, today's post is a double L. Live Life is something I still need to learn to do well - I have good days when I live to the full but for quite a while now, I've just been a passenger, staring out at the world as it passes me by in a bit of a blur. I've been living for my trips to St Louis for a while now and the rest is just the necessary evil bits in between. I have to change that though, it's not good for me or my love.

I was off work for 4 years until last year and I rarely left the house. My life was lived on this box and screen we call a computer with people from all over the world. Oh, I loved a lot of it and it helped me come alive again but it still doesn't really count towards Living Life - at least, not in my head. The people are real, the voices in my headset are real but it's all a bit arm's length kind of stuff.

When I started this A to Z Challenge, it was just a way to make myself sit down and write but even over just 10 or 11 posts, I'm already feeling better. I thought I would stick to mainly gaming articles with a bit of life thrown in but actually, the topics I've been drawn to so far have been much more personal - stuff that is or has happened to me. Things I've found and want to talk about as well as explore further.

It seems so long ago that I wrote about Depression but that was only 7 posts ago but since then, I've written about Hope and Happiness, Ideas & Inspiration and now today, Live Life! I have so much more positive energy already that it's beginning to become a habit - and one I hope I can maintain!

Smell the Roses
Take time to smell the flowers, watch the birds or the clouds on a sunny day. Hold out a helping hand to a Mum strugggling with a pushchair or hold a door open for an old lady. Give a few pennies to a homeless person or a charity collector in the shopping area.

All these little things add up and if you let yourself soak them up and feel good about doing something positive, your next action will be more positive. It accumulates over time and you will feel better in yourself, you'll find yourself smiling at strangers as you pass or not having to force a smile at work when someone asks if you're ok - you will be!

I found the 100 Happy Days site via a Facebook friend the other day and although I know I won't manage 100 days, it's a great idea for anyone to try, especially if they feel a bit down after the long winter. I also picked up a book at the airport on one of my prior trips, called The Happiness Project which I finished reading before I landed at Heathrow. I've just lent it to a friend and colleague but as soon as she returns it, I'll be reading it again.

As Gretchen the author says - 'even the smallest changes can make a big difference'.


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Saturday, 12 April 2014

K is for Kenya

Kenyan Landscape
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to visit Kenya for a 7 night safari tour. We visited multiple game parks over the 7 days, often travelling across unmade roads and jiggling around in the van like jumping beans on a loudspeaker! It was definitely an experience although perhaps one that isn't for everyone!

For me though, watching the landscape, towns and tiny villages as we passed, gave me a better sense of the people and country than if I had flown from park to park. We had regular rest stops, often at dingy, dirty tourist trap Souvenir Shops but the locals are not silly! The bathroom facilities in these places are sparkling clean and smelled of bleach & pot pourri - all for the rich tourists passing through.

Lion Cub
The downside of these wonderful bathroom facilities was their placement - often at the rear of the souvenir shop and as a salesperson greeted you the moment you stepped inside, I always felt like I had to buy something.

The hardest part was haggling over price when all you really want to do is get to the bathroom! I hate haggling at the best of times so by about the 3rd day, we'd devised a cunning plan - one of us would keep them talking whilst the other would dash to the bathroom then we'd swap!

I'm one of those people who likes to talk to anyone though - I had no idea of the palpitations I was causing our driver as I stood, chatting to maybe 4 or 5 sales guys - all of them over 6 foot tall usually.

A family friend summed it up later when we told the story - 'She's not happy for the day until she's spoken to a stranger!' When I think about that, I realise that yes, I do stop & chat with almost anyone I come into contact with! I guess I'm one of those annoying people at the grocery store checkout who always has a few words to say to the cashier, slowing her down and driving you crazy in the line behind me!

Old Bull Elephant
Anyway, back to my Kenya safari - the best bit was the animals of course! As much as I love people, animals are also very high up in my list of loves and having just bought a new super duper camera especially for the trip, I went to town on taking photos at every opportunity. I filled all my memory cards and had to buy extras while I was there - that was an expensive lesson to learn! Always buy them at home where the prices are reasonable & take way more than you expect to use!

I came home with over 2000 photos but as many were taken whilst moving, that included many useless shots. I did end up with over 1500 decent pictures though, some of which I submitted to my microstock portfolios and a few in my Zazzle shop. The lion cub above is probably my favorite of the whole bunch though - he was only about 15 feet away from us and with a zoom lens, I managed to get this portrait of him.

If you'd like to read more or see more of my Kenyan images, I wrote an article over at Squidoo about my wonderful Kenyan Safari. I've also written a few other articles over there if you're curious!


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Friday, 11 April 2014

J is for Just Do It!


Following on from yesterday's post with the links to the articles on procrastination, I thought the Nike catchphrase was quite appropriate for today although as a confirmed faffer, actually getting stuff done is my biggest weakness!

I've been lucky enough over the years to have tried quite a few adventurous things. But then I'm not afraid of heights or have a fear of flying or drowning or anything like that so when it came to jumping off the top of a mountain or stepping over the edge of a 8 storey building, I did , in fact, just do it. It was the same with learning to scuba dive - I just did it with only one or two false starts on the whole breathing underwater thing.

However, achieving anything sensible on my to-do list seems to be beyond me most days. I had a meeting with my boss yesterday to organise my work for the next two weeks whilst she is on vacation. I mentioned the article about procrastination as part of the conversation and she agreed with me. I compared her to the Panic Monster which made her smile too but I was really pleased when she said she doesn't mind nagging me because she knows that when I do eventually do the job she's nagging me about, I'll do it really well!

I have to change though - it's stressful to have a list of things I want to do and to not be checking any of them off. They nag at me, driving the frustration ever deeper until at last, I throw something together in an attempt to check it off my list. I know in my heart, that I've not given it my best though so that then niggles at me.

Talking to my Dad today about this too and he said that he knows exactly what I mean. He has his own shiny distractions when he's trying to get stuff done but he's developed a self reward system over the years which helps him focus long enough to achieve things. It was quite an eye-opener for me to hear that he has similar problems. He's always been so active - involved in community stuff, sports clubs and even small scale local politics - but as he said to me, those were his distractions, his pleasures that helped him avoid digging the garden or decorating the house.

So when I get to work on Monday, I will print 'Just Do It' in a large font on a big piece of paper and stick it to the wall above my monitor at home. I also have to sit down and look hard at my to-do list - how much of it is really necessary and how much is important. Once I've pruned it, I'll pick one item and break it down further into manageable steps and that will be my new to-do list but with dates and schedules and deadlines built in. Just maybe, getting more organised will help!



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Thursday, 10 April 2014

I is for Ideas & Inspiration

Ideas & Inspirations
Just last week in my B is for Blogging post, I mentioned that I'm great on ideas but pretty bad at following through with them. Today's post is brought to you with a whole host of other ideas I have bubbling away in my crazy brain, most of which will probably never see the light of day!

Inspiration strikes me at odd times - it may be a song lyric, a photo, a tweet or just an overheard comment in the kitchen at work  but for a few hours or even days, that idea will bubble & percolate in my mind, sometimes at the front but most often at the back - just seeming to spring fairly well formed from the jumble of my consciousness.

This blog is one of those ideas that got a grip and actually came to life but it took maybe 3 months to get from my head to the internet! I never intended for it to become a main blog and always intended for it to be for occasional posts only. I think I gauged that pretty well, judging by my serious lack of regular posts - until this month at least!

I gather pages from magazines for food photo ideas as well as recipes. Great advertising images also find their way into my small pile and I have a virtual pile for Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest links that inspire me. Lately I've been thinking I should make myself a Tumblr account to keep everything in one place! Yes, I am seriously contemplating starting yet another blog type thing!

But one thing stops me getting going and today I followed a twitter link to a fantastic post - Why Procrastinators Procrastinate and as I was reading it, I was thinking -this guy knows me! In the follow up article How To Beat Procrastination, I think I found out why I have so many ideas!
"Procrastinators are great visionaries—they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built—but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built."
That is so familiar to me - I have loads of half started projects, I'm known in my family as someone who rarely finishes anything before moving on to the next fad but reading those two articles made me wonder if perhaps all my ideas and randomness springs from the desire to not actually do the tough stuff!

So my next to-do list has to include some of the steps the second article described - breakdown the larger ideas into smaller, less icky tasks. I'm going to try some of his suggestions - this A to Z Challenge is a perfect starting place too - I've never blogged every day before so if I can do this on 26 random topics even when I don't feel like writing then I can beat this procrastination thing. I hope, anyway :)

In the meantime, ideas will undoubtedly continue to sprout and I'll never know which ones are likely to come to life until the inspiration hits me & I get going!

Where do you get your ideas from? What or who inspires you to do what you do? Let us know in the comments below if you feel like sharing :)


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