Putting infrastructure in place now for retirement #1.

The quest to make The Best House in Melbourne as schmicko as possible for when Old Lady Frogdancer pulls the pin on full-time work has reached another stage. Previously, I had the backyard paved with beautiful reclaimed bricks, all fully grouted in so that Old Lady Frogdancer won’t break a hip bending down to pull out a weed. I’ve installed wicking garden beds to save on her water bills and to make sure her organic veggies stand the best chance of surviving in a drought, and the permanent plants such as asparagus and apple trees have been planted, so that the old girl won’t go hungry.

One of the neighbours stopped and asked me about how much the bricks cost. He’s a builder and he got all of his from work. He said he paved a similar area for around $150. Mine cost astronomically higher than that. I should have been a builder instead of going into teaching!

The question is – do I finish the backyard by putting a roof over the lower part and creating a huge outdoor room, or do I finish the paving by getting the sides of the house done?

The roof would be more fun…

… but when I was talking to my new neighbours the decision was pretty much made for me.

Early on in the life of this blog, I wrote about the nightmare of a house that was being built beside us. You can quickly skim through the post here. Three years after the build began, the owners have finally moved in. They’re a young family, with 4 kids under 4, (they went for baby number 3 and got twins instead), and two dogs.

The dogs sound like bad news for my pack. They’re staffies and, according to my neighbour, they hate little dogs. He suggested replacing the fence with one that’s as high as we’re allowed to go to stop his dog from jumping over it to get mine. I suggested digging down to put wire so that my stupid dogs wouldn’t dig their way under.  I’m not rapt with the sound of these dogs, as my 3 wouldn’t stand a chance if it came to a fight. The Cavaliers only have half their teeth left and Scout is only 3 inches tall.

Thankfully, the neighbour is just as keen as I am to make a secure fence. As he said, “I don’t want my dogs being put down.” So we’re both on the same page with keeping our animals safe and definitely apart.

So along with the fence, I’m putting paving all down the sideway right up to the fence. There’s no way anyone can dig their way through a brick path, no matter how determined they might be. Old Lady Frogdancer will have a weed-free life and Poppy, Jeff and Scout will live to a ripe old age. As will Old Lady Frogdancer, of course!

The landscaper began work a few days ago and has already had to book a plumber to unblock a pipe we need for drainage. I’m consoling myself with the thought that I can deal with the problem much better now than if I was old and retired. Suddenly, the fact I have a job and a regular wage is a comforting thought!

When I lived in the old house, I gradually put in a food forest with an eye to feeding us all in the years to come. When my plans changed and I sold that house, I knew that someday, I’d like to do that again. I enjoyed the fresh produce, as well as the ‘science experiments’ of gardening, where you try this idea and that idea and see how it works.

Currently, with just under 2 hours a day being snatched by my commute, I don’t have a lot of time to spend on a garden. But that’s ok. I’m slowly setting it up by building the solid infrastructure and then over the next few years I’ll play around with it, slowly building up the soil so when Old Lady Frogdancer retires, it’ll all be there, ready to go.

The new fence will cost $1,200. The next stage of the landscaping work has been initially costed at 10K, but the plumber and the installation of a watering system for the non-wicking beds will probably send that amount skywards. I’m thinking I’ll probably get him to use any unused bricks to put a border at ground level around the lawn near the fence lines, so that a lawn mower can run over the bricks and the grass will be kept under control. More dollars, but it should make Ryan23’s life easier, and when she’s all alone in the house after the boys leave, Old Lady Frogdancer will be able to mow her lawn without a care in the world.

On the face of it, it’s all a huge amount of money to spend. But, as usual, I’m looking at the long view. The current fence is falling apart. The new one will last at least 20 years. The paving will last forever. I really like to do a job properly once and then not have to do it again. (That’s why I hate housework.)

My goals in retirement are to travel and to potter around at home doing anything I feel like doing. I have absolutely no desire to have a ‘side hustle’ in retirement, though I may work part-time in teaching as I get closer to it. Once I finally reach my FI number – I’m parking my fat behind on the couch and doing whatever I want to do.

So in the short term, this project is extravagant. But in the long term, it fits in with setting up my house to be exactly what I want for retirement. I also quite like the idea that I got the boring stuff done first – now I can save up and get the fun stuff, like the roof, outdoor furniture, outdoor lighting etc.

Here’s the first part of the new fence. I’m loving it. It’s very tall and very new. It’s nice to have a checklist of things that I want to have done by the time I retire, and it’s a good feeling to be able to tick one item off is a good feeling.

By the end of this week, the paving on both sides of the house will be done and that’ll be another tick off the list. Sadly though, the money I put aside from the sale of the old house to attend to the backyard will be gone, so I’ll be cash-flowing the rest of the projects. By retirement, my goal is to have my house totally ready to house me and mine for the next few years without a thing to be done to it – all the little niggling jobs will have been taken care of while I still have a wage flowing in.

My plan is to cashflow while leaving my investments to burble along contentedly without me. Though if the stockmarket takes a sharp dive, that plan may change.

Ahhhh, life! You never know what’s going to happen. You wouldn’t be dead for quids, hey?

 

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Guest post about my past…

I’m such a doofus sometimes! I forgot to let you know about a guest post I did for XRAYVSN.

He’s got a thing going on his blog about how divorce affects FI and he asked me to write something about my experiences. My divorce was over 20 years ago when Evan22 was 11 months old and Tom26 was 6 years old. The other two boys were somewhere in between. Hey, you have 4 children in 5 years and their details tend to get a little fuzzy…

There’s a list of questions participants can choose from so I told my story while weaving my way through. I have to say, it all seems like ancient history now but it was interesting to go back and revisit Frogdancer Jones when she was so scared to leave the marriage and strike out on her own with the 4 small boys. I wish I could go back in time and tell her that it was all going to work out fine.

Here’s the link to go and read it.

 

Who do you choose as your teachers?

Being a teacher is a funny thing at times. Our job is to basically impart the knowledge that’s in our heads to those of the kids’, while showing them how to discover things on their own and also, while we’re at it, to impart a lifelong love of learning.

All in 48-minute chunks of time. Too easy.

I’m currently teaching my year 9 English students how to do comparative writing. It’s a fairly demanding task, where they select 2 short stories that deal with a certain theme,(Relationships, Personal Growth or Change), and they write an essay on how each story examines the theme through 3 of these lenses: setting, characterisation, meaning or the authors’ choices in the language they used.

The kids need to compare the two stories in each paragraph – there’s no easy-peasy look at one story in the first paragraph, then the second story in the second paragraph and then one final paragraph comparing the two. Oh no! Each of the three paragraphs has the two stories in them, comparing a lens through which the theme is explored.

It’s a leap for 15-year-olds to do this and some of them are panicking. Their exam is in a week.

Explaining how to do something new is a bit like sifting flour. You have to work at it a bit until all the flour is through the holes. During the first explanation of how to write this task, a certain percentage of the kids ‘got ‘it. They may be kids who are already ahead of the game in my subject. Often, they’re the kids who process information in a similar way that I do, so my way of explaining meshes with how they already think and so it makes sense.

The next time I ran through how to do this task, I tried to do it a bit differently. I used words and phrases that I hadn’t used the first time, and this, plus the repetition of the concepts, meant that more kids understood how to write it.

This left the stragglers. The kids who either choose not to listen because they don’t want to do it, the chronic procrastinators or the kids who are genuinely wanting to do well but they simply can’t seem to grasp how to put this essay together.

With these kids in mind, I typed up 5 of the best comparative essays year 9 kids have written and I let my current classes read them. Some kids need a concrete example of what to do before they feel confident in giving something a go for themselves.

Sometimes you learn best by observing how other people do it. Sometimes, the best way to learn is by doing, as I wrote about in this post about my students learning to dance. Learning about how to handle money is exactly the same.

Am I the only one, or did everyone’s feed reader explode with new blogs when you first found the FI blogging niche? For around eight years I was into knitting, gardening, humorous and quilting blogs, but within a couple of months, it was all MONEY! THE 4% RULE! F.U. MONEY! RETIRE EARLY!

I was reading everything I could lay my hands on. I was like a human sponge, soaking up every post into my brain that I could. At first, it was all new and exciting, particularly for someone as afraid of numbers as I am.

But then, after a few months, the bones of the material began to be a bit repetitive. After all, there’s only so many times you can read, “Lower your expenses, spend less than you earn and invest the surplus wisely” before you realise that you’ve heard this message before.

However, that’s not really the whole story, is it? If the simplicity of the message is all that people need, we could probably read “The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement” and never need to read another thing. It was written in 2012, for heaven’s sake! Why are there so many bloggers out there that have sprung up in the years between then and now?

It’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s not just a simple matter of laying out the information and expecting people to instantly understand and immediately begin to apply the concepts. If that was true then there’d be about 7 blog posts about FI/RE and they’d exist in perpetuity.

It’s the storyteller that makes the difference. It’s that magical moment when someone reads a post that resonates with them and the concept becomes clear. It’s even more powerful when the post prods someone into action.

The thing is – this connection happens between all kinds of different people. It’s not a ‘one size fits all’.

There’s an FI blogger (who shall remain nameless) who’s huge in this niche. People love them and billions (probably) of people read them every day. Lord knows I’ve tried but I can’t get into them. Does that make their writing less valid? Of course not! It just means that the way they write doesn’t hit a chord within me. It doesn’t affect them at all and it doesn’t affect me. I just tiptoed silently away and chose to read other people who DO resonate with me.

The core actions of the FI movement are so simple. There’s really nothing to them. Quite frankly, they’re boring. It’s when people weave them through the accounts of their lives and explain and teach what they’ve done that it all becomes interesting.

Some people like everything laid out in front of them – total transparency with income, outgoings, investment decisions and debt. Slide a post with a spreadsheet and multiple graphs in front of them and they’ll gurgle with joy.

Others are more caught up with lists. A blog post with a title like “The 4 essential points for getting out of debt” and they’ll click onto it faster than a politician’s promise on election day. Some people love to tick things off a mental checklist.

Other people are more tied to the narrative. Humans are hard-wired to like stories and some people prefer to see the FI concepts in action, with bloggers sharing their personal stories of how they used (or abused) the concepts in their own lives. Read a blog like this for long enough and you’ll start to feel a relationship with the writer. You follow along with the stories they share about their lives and maybe feel, “If s/he can do it, so can I!”

The point is – there’s such a smorgasbörd of options for people to partake from. There’s a wealth of information all stemming from the 3 key steps:

1. Cut your expenses.

2. Spend less than you earn.

3. Invest the surplus wisely.

Exactly like my poor little year 9’s grappling with their comparison essays, we all arrive on this learning path to FI with key skills to grasp. The skills to master in our financial lives are different with everyone, but the key to success is to find the material that is packaged in a way that speaks to you and then run with it.

If I had to name 3 FI blogs that, when I see them pop up in my feed reader I click on them instantly, they’d be The Escape Artist; jlcollinsnh and Lifelong Shuffle. They speak numbers and investing and all that dry stuff in ways that I enjoy reading – it’s like taking medicine with a lolly chaser to take the bad taste away.

Just wondering. I’ve named 3 blogs. What would yours be?

 

 

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #3.

Long-term readers of my blog, all three of you, will no doubt remember the posts I wrote about the concept of Geoarbitrage, the first one explaining the concept, while the second one talks about how the Frogdancer family tweaked that concept to suit our situation. Well, when I say ‘family’, I really mean me. I’ve run this house as a benevolent dictatorship for the last 21 years, so once I made the decision the boys had to go along with me. Part of the perks of being single.

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #1. Talks about what ‘geoarbitrage’ is and how it’s slightly different in the southern hemisphere.

Geoarbitrage: all the cool kids are doing it #2. How I took the information in #1 and acted on it to find The Best House In Melbourne.

Time’s gone by and yesterday was the auction of the right-hand-side townhouse. These were the ones that the property developer and I had designed, so I was incredibly keen to see what this one, (the larger one), went for.

(Behind the wall containing the ovens is a butler’s pantry. I suggested that the architect put one in. I’d love one, but this is the closest I’ll ever get to owning one!)

Here’s the web page for the property, for those unfamiliar with the Australian/Melbourne housing market. It runs through the stats and shows photos and the plan. I know I always like to have a look through and I thought you might like it too.

A bit of background – I sold this property with my original house on it + the fully approved plans for these townhouses, in mid-2017 for 1.7 million dollars. It seemed like a hugely inflated price to me, but seeing as I wasn’t the one paying for it, I took it and ran.

Turns out that I sold at the peak of the market. ‘Fortunate Frogdancer’ strikes again! Since then the property market in Melbourne and Sydney has softened by around 8%, particularly after the government brought in laws restricting overseas buyers from purchasing property. Apparently, too many off-shore Chinese buyers were ‘land banking’ here, pushing prices up and making it harder for first home buyers to get into the market.

These townhouses were designed for multi-generational family living with the Chinese market in mind, as many families bring the grandparents over for 6 months at a time. Hence each house has 2 main bedroom areas. Heck, we even had the plans feng shuied!

So I went to the auction with intense interest. Did I make the right decision to sell before the build, or would I have been better off to suffer through the process of building, (and the extra 15 months of bridging finance at 3K/month) to sell at auction?

It’s not often you get to have a ‘sliding doors’ moment, where you get to see what would have happened had you made a different decision. How lucky am I?

I got there just as the auction was starting. I thought I’d have to park a couple of streets away, but no. I got a park right around the corner. When I walked onto my old street, there were very few people there. Not even many neighbours, which surprised me.

The auction started. No one raised their hand. The auctioneer kept talking, then after a minute or two, he put in a vendor bid of 1.525 million. (A vendor bid is when the owners of the property put in a bid to get an auction started. It has to be declared openly by the auctioneer.)

No one put up their hand. The auctioneer went in to confer with the owners. I was standing with my previous next-door neighbour and he said, “The trouble is, in a market like this anyone who’s selling HAS to sell, because why would you put something on the market now when prices are falling? The buyers know this and they’re looking for bargains.”

The townhouse was passed in at 1.525 million dollars. No doubt over the next week or two it’ll sell in private negotiations, but by gum! I’m so thankful I sold when I did. Imagine the stress?

I hope that the builders end up making a decent profit. They’ve done a great job – the house looks amazing. But I can’t help feeling relieved. Frogdancer Jones read up about finances, investing and FIRE for 4 years before making an educated, yet still risky, move to secure the finances of her family.

Looks like she made the right decision.

(The backyard is as deep as my chicken run used to be. I feel sorry for any little kids who’ll move in. The entire building is literally 5 times the size of my little weatherboard house that used to stand here. The whole suburb is morphing into properties like this one.)

I’ll keep you posted when I find out what it eventually sells for.

8 gift ideas when you’re buying for a frugal person.

Ok, I admit it. I’m a frugal person. I hate to waste money on fripperies, and I hate seeing my loved ones do the same. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like Christmas presents!!

Christmas is my favourite time of the year. When my marriage broke up, back in the day, I split the holidays with my ex-husband. He had Easter (his family gives WAY more chocolate than mine does) and I had Christmas. I love the plotting and planning, the hiding away to wrap presents, the sneaky questions aimed at ferreting out just what someone would like to be given – I love it all.

But here’s the thing – we all want to minimise the presents that miss the mark with the recipient and we want to increase our chances of seeing a genuine smile on the face of someone you love when they see the present you bought them. Here are some gift ideas for that frugal someone in your life.

1. Buy things they’ll use every day.

My third son, Ryan23, is a student. He doesn’t have much money to spend, so when I was inconsiderate enough to have a birthday recently, he had to come up with the goods. Instead of buying something splashy and expensive, he came up with some brilliant little gifts. The first one is the soap that you see above. His friend has a small side-hustle making and selling soap. He remembered the days when I used to make our own soap, plus he knows me well. I shower every day. He bought two ‘cakes’ of soap for me.

I loved this gift! In fact, I loved it so much that I raced out and made some more soap of my own. It satisfies so many things – each morning I pick it up and smile because it makes me think of my son. It’s hand-crafted soap, which is so much better for the skin, so I feel pampered. It will get used up, instead of becoming clutter.

And – it was free!

2. Buy little luxuries that they’ll use that they wouldn’t buy for themselves.

My second son, David25, loves to think of gifts to spoil people. For my birthday, he hopped online and looked for “most popular lip gloss”. He also gave me a black evening bag, because I’ve bought season tickets to the Melbourne Theatre Company and he also gave me a luxurious cocoa butter body creme.

I don’t really use body lotion, but hey! Skin is skin, right? I looked at the ingredients and thought that they sounded like night moisturiser. So I started using it, thinking that if my skin flared up I’d go back to my usual moisturiser. Two months later the tube is nearly used up, my skin looks youthful and dewy and neither David25’s money or mine has been wasted. Again, it won’t cause clutter around the place and I get to use products that I would never have bought for myself. It’s special.

3. Craft/hobby supplies.

This is an area where you should probably enlist the recipient’s help, but it could be worth it. Nothing would be better than someone saying, “I know you like knitting/board games/quilting/woodwork… what could I buy you that you’d love to work with?”

Trust me – there’s always something that a frugal hobbyist has eyed off and said to themselves, “That looks so nice, but I’d better not buy it.” It could be a gorgeous little pair of scissors for snipping threads – a frugal person will look at it, love it but then say, “But I already have a serviceable pair of scissors for that. I don’t actually NEED them.”

It might be something that they can actually get their hands on, such as a skein of yarn hand-dyed in Peru that is as soft as butter and costs more than your beloved frugalist thinks they should pay for themselves. But as a gift? They’ll think of you and treasure each moment they knit and then wear the item.

If they don’t want to say anything, because they’re worried about you spending too much on them, that’s when vouchers become your friends. Again – use their frugality as a weapon to get them to treat themselves. They may not dream of spending $50 in one hit at the craft store, but when the money has already been spent? They’ll march into that store and make sure not to waste a single penny of YOUR money.

4. Go in partnership with a frugal craft person.

I just thought of this one, but it’d be THE BEST. I’m always knitting or quilting something for the boys. Years ago, back when Tom26 was Tom16, I said to him that I was going to make him a quilt. He insisted on going to Spotlight with me to choose the fabrics. It was the best afternoon! We wandered around, with him choosing the prints that he liked – golf, guitars, The Beatles, and others that I can’t remember. We had such a great time, then he took a keen interest in the design and hung over me when I had sewing days while I was putting it together.

Ten years later, it’s still on his bed. He loves it.

Why not ask the frugal craftist in your life to make something for you, then go shopping with them for whatever they need to make it with and you pay for it? That is the gift for them… and the gift for you is the actual thing that’s created. Your frugalist gets to have the fun of making it, which is what they enjoy, with the certainty that what they’re creating will be wanted and cherished. That’s a lovely feeling to have as you’re making something for someone else, believe me.

5. Buy or make them something edible.

Check on their likes and dislikes first – anyone giving me anything made with bananas wouldn’t like the dry retching that would go on after I unwrapped it!!

But an avid cook would probably like a couple of bottles of infused oil to play with, or some truffles or some home-made vanilla essence. Someone who’s a coffee drinker might like a couple of small bags of exotic coffee blends to try. Tea drinkers would love some gourmet tea blends and there are so many to choose from.

If you happen to be the good cook, then the whole world opens up for you. David25’s girlfriend, Izzy, brought around a plate of home-made chocolates as a gift from her mother for Christmas. I was mortified at first – I’d been out-Christmassed by a woman I hadn’t met yet! – but that feeling quickly passed as David25, Izzy and I settled in to watch a movie and eat the chocolates. They were delicious and made what would have been an ordinary occasion into something a bit special. Look, it’s nearly a year later and I haven’t forgotten them, (and just between you and me, I’m hoping that she does it again this year…)

6. Experiences make memorable gifts.

One of the best Christmas gifts I ever had was when I was still doing my side-hustle as a Thermomix Group Leader. Our branch manager took us out for Christmas and we did a Foodies walking tour around the laneways in Melbourne. I wouldn’t actually class myself as a ‘foodie’, but it was so much fun!

We were led to little bakeries, chocolate shops, an Indian café that looked like nothing from the outside but had the most delicious Indian food in Melbourne. We went to another place in Chinatown to sample the roast duck and we ended up in a tiny grocery store opposite the State Parliament that had a cheese cave in the basement and also sold the best ice cream I think I’ve ever tasted.

Would I – the self-proclaimed frugalist- ever take myself on a walking tour like this? Never in a million years. Do I still remember it to this day? Absolutely.

7. Look at their interests, then think a little outside the box.

My oldest son, Tom26, has done this for the last two Christmases. He knows I’m addicted to reading, and he’s always been one to put a lot of thought and care into his gift-giving. What he’s been doing is looking up which novels have won awards in the year gone by, then he buys a couple of them and gives them to me.

It’s such a great idea! I don’t tend to buy many books, because I’m such a quick reader that a novel usually lasts me a day or two, which adds up pretty quickly at $30 a pop. The popular books are usually always booked from the library, so with Tom26’s gifts, I’ve been able to read some fabulous books that I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten around to read for ages, if ever.

Look at your own frugalist and see how you might tweak this idea for their interests.

8. Use your creativity to solve a problem your frugalist has.

Ryan23 didn’t just give me soap for my birthday. He also solved a problem for me. See this chart with the real-life names artfully coloured in? It eliminated a problem in our household that was really bugging me.

I live with 2 adult children. We all have our own lives to lead and we’re in and out of the house all the time. It’s all good. But when dinnertime approaches and I don’t know how many I’m catering for, it makes me antsy. I don’t want to create a huge meal and have only myself there to eat it, or, what’s worse, when no one tells me they’re going to be home and then 2 seconds after I dish up a meal for myself, they bound through the door and start looking through the fridge. It’s annoying and really inefficient.

I think Ryan23 got sick of the texts I’d send at around 5 PM saying, “You home for dinner?” He made this chart out of things that were hanging around the place. The boys just click a bulldog clip onto the nights they’re going to be home for dinner. I come home and can see at a glance how many people are eating here and I can cook (or better yet, make one of them cook) for the correct amount of people. If there’s a last-minute change they text me.

I absolutely love it. It cost Ryan23 nothing to put it together – just a few minutes of his time. I’m now no longer harassing the boys about their plans and it makes our lives that little bit easier.

So there you have it! 8 ideas to chew over when buying for that difficult but loveable frugal person in your life. Practical gifts that won’t create needless clutter are the ones to be looking out for. If you tailor your gifts along these lines, your frugal loved one will SO appreciate the thought that went into your gift.

And they’ll definitely notice the thought. How do I know?  Because being frugal means being able to pay attention to details. They’ll love that you noticed the little things about them that others maybe haven’t.

And this will make for the very merriest of Christmases!

Retire? But what will you DO all day?

A few days ago Millionaires Unveiled released a podcast I recorded with them. When I was talking with the hosts, part of the conversation was to do about my goal of retiring earlier than the norm. One of my friends IRL asked me the question in the title – which gave me the idea for this post. I can understand where she was coming from; work takes up huge chunks of everyone’s days.  So I grabbed my phone and walked around, snapping pics of things that I think will make the time in retirement slip by very peacefully.

I’m a big believer in little projects.

See the maple tree in the middle of this photo? One of the things I want to do is to make a garden on my front verandah. I’m in no hurry – I visualise terracotta and deep blue pots with a mix of ornamental, edible and flowers that I’ll gradually accumulate. Last week my sister asked me to go to a market with her. I saw a red maple for the backyard and bought it, then went back the next week to pick up this green one. When I look at it through the lounge room windows as I’m sitting here on the couch, it looks lush and green and relaxing. This will be a project that will take me years to complete, probably, and every season I’ll be swapping out flowers for different colours and looks. It’ll make me happy every time I arrive home.

Also, do you see the 3 tiny succulents in the pot on the right-hand side? Remember them – they’ll be coming back later. That right-hand pot holds my bay tree. I bought it 15 years ago when it was a tiny sprig, planted it in the pot and it’s been giving me fresh bay leaves for cooking ever since. That was a little project that’s worked pretty darned well.

Not all projects are lush, green, tree-hugging ones. I was at home on Melbourne Cup Day, when I discovered that I have a water feature in my front yard. Look at the size of the hole in the guttering! I’m so unobservant – I had no idea. Part of the joys of being a homeowner is that you have to run around and do the boring jobs that need doing around the place, as well as the fun ones.

At the moment I feel like I’m never home. My commute is nearly an hour each way and I work full-time. But when I retire, I’ll have time to tick off all the things I want to get down around the house. I’m really looking forward to having The Best House In Melbourne be totally tailored to how I want to live. There are advantages to being single…

So many things in this photo!! Anyone who creates something will never be bored. I finished this scarf for Izzy, David25’s girlfriend. They’ve been going out for 18 months and they still seem very fond of each other, so I thought it must be time to invest in a hand-made item for her birthday. It took about a month to knit.

See the china cabinet in the background? It’s full of family curios and, more importantly, things I’ve brought back from my travels. There’s the Babushka dolls from Lincoln, the twig from the actual apple tree that Isaac Newton was sitting under when he worked out what gravity was, the wooden acorn that was carved from an oak tree that Jane Asten herself planted, the Delft owl sheltering her babies under her wings that I bought over the canal from the Anne Frank house and so many more.

Above the china cabinet are the Staffordshire dogs from England that my dear friend Scott organised for me, a hand-drawn copy of an ancient North Korean painting that I bought in the art gallery in the centre of Pyongyang, a chest from Singapore and, just out of frame, a print of ‘The Cavalier’s Friends’ – which every breeder of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels has somewhere in their home.

I fully intend to keep travelling all over the place. I’ll always have dogs. The things in the china cabinet and elsewhere around the house will be added to as time goes on. Old Lady Frogdancer will be surrounded by beautiful and quirky things from all over the world. She’s going to have the BEST decor!

I just finished reading this book. It’s a good one. There’s a pink speaker that I picked up in Beijing that I take around with me that I listen to podcasts with. My laptop is here. There’s a wealth of entertainment and information right there – most of it free. As long as there are libraries, bookshops and the internet in the world – I’ll never have time dragging on my hands.

Another set of projects. The pebbles on the ground will soon be replaced by brick paving, which means no more weeds. The bougainvilia is waiting to be planted outside my kitchen window. Every time I put the kettle on or walk to the sink to start cooking I’ll see a mass of flowers. Every year it’ll get bigger and bigger. I know that it’ll make me smile.

There’s also a more practical project, with the worm farm just behind it. I’m collecting ‘worm wee’ to put on my plants. Free fertiliser!

Here’s another project that Future Frogdancer will be so glad I’ve started. An asparagus patch. This is the first year they’ve come up, so I can’t touch them. Next year, I might take a spear or two, but basically, you’re meant to leave them alone to grow and develop. The third year – open slather!!! For the next 20 years or so.

I’m a big believer in having things to look forward to.

Remember those tiny succulents? They’ll end up here, next to my project to see if the lavender bushes will bring bees to fertilise my apple trees. I decided I wanted the steps up to the veggie patch to be lined with terracotta pots. I’m in no hurry to fill them. Some will be permanent plantings, others will be seasonal flowers. Every few months there’ll be a different look I’ll be POTtering around with.

There’s always conundrums to solve, as well, and that’ll never change. When I redesigned the backyard, I had soil brought in for the veggie beds. Turns out that it’s pretty ordinary and my seedlings are all turning yellow. Here is a row of tromboncino zucchinis that I planted in a bed that I’d previously dug in coffee grounds and crushed up eggshells. See how they get worse as they go along?

I hadn’t quite reached the end of the bed with the coffee grounds. Now I know that adding them is clearly something that the plants love, which probably means that I’ll have to swap from Shiraz to coffee to keep the supply up! Sleep is for the weak, anyway…

Improving the soil will take time. Hopefully, by the time I pull the pin from work, I’ll have made the veggie garden a fertile oasis that Old Lady Frogdancer can make the most of.

Another project that will keep me busy. One day this will also have brick paving, a new fence and (maybe) a collection of fuschias. They don’t like the sun, so being on the south side of the house they’ll enjoy the shade. Or maybe it’ll be something else. So many options! (When I retire), so much time!

Another experiment! There’s always something to do to keep your mind busy.

As part of the “Improve The Soil” push, I bought 6 tiny worm farms to sit on the surface of the garden beds. They have holes in the bottom, the theory being that the worms move into the farm to eat, then move out to move their way around the soil and gradually improve it. Trouble is, these farms are meant to be put in the shade. What I’ve decided to do is to plant bean seeds around the outside of them, so that when the summer temperatures reach 40C or more, the plants should shade the worm farms and protect any worms stupid enough to still be inside the farms from being boiled alive.

So far, so good. The Lazy Housewife beans are growing and the worms appear to be going ok. After Christmas is when we’ll see the hot weather and by then the bean plants should be covering the outside. We’ll see if it’s a brilliant idea or a bit of a fizzer.

Tomatoes on the Rapunzel cherry tomato plant. David25 gave it to me as part of my birthday present. Gifts like this will continue for as long as Old Lady Frogdancer can continue to totter up to the garden beds.

Sometimes projects and experiments don’t work. But sometimes they do. Apples! The lavender bushes bring all the bees to my yard.

Sometimes, like my friend, I wonder if retiring early will mean days filled with tedium. But with all these little things at my fingertips, along with the theatre, art galleries, travel, friends and family… I think my days will slip by very contentedly.

Roll on retirement!

Lessons from Literature 7: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

I first read this novel when I was 15 or 16. We had driven up to the Gold Coast to see my Dad’s parents for Christmas. Grandpa told me I could borrow anything from the bookshelves to read and I wanted to take something down to the beach with me while I sunbaked.

I’ll never forget the horror of reading about life in the bitter cold and privation of a Soviet gulag while I was in the burning sun, eating icy poles and swimming in the sea when I got too hot. The contrast made the novel even more terrifying, if that’s possible.

Solzhenitsyn was actually a prisoner in a gulag in the 1940’s and 50’s, so this account is totally authentic. Even as a teenage girl in the 70’s I could feel it. This novel, while dealing with a setting and situation worlds away from our lives in the modern-day West, still has echoes and lessons that we can take away with us.

If you haven’t read it – do yourself a favour and pick it up. It’s a slim volume. It’s worth it for the last 2 sentences alone.

  • “The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five o’clock as always. Time to get up.”

Doesn’t that sound exactly like the alarm feels on a weekday morning? Mine normally goes at 5:30 – I didn’t realise until I read this that I get a sleep-in compared to the gulag! I’ll feel slightly better now.

  • “Shukhov never overslept. He was always up at the call. That way he had an hour and a half all to himself before work parade – time for a man who knew his way around to earn a bit on the side.”

Honestly, if this doesn’t make you feel guilty for not having the time for a side-hustle, nothing will! Shukhov carefully manages his time and uses every scrap of time that he has to himself as productively as he can.

  • “The commandant set great store by that order. Nobody dared argue with him. The warders grabbed lone wanderers, took down their numbers, hauled them off to the jailhouse – but in the end, the order was ditched. Quietly, as so many loudmouthed orders are.”

Anyone who has had to work under an incompetent or impulsive manager would know all about this one.

  • “Apart from sleep an old lag can call his life his own only for ten minutes at breakfast time, five at lunchtime, and five more at suppertime.”

Of course, life isn’t exactly like this on a work day, but honestly – doesn’t the job take up a HUGE portion of the day?

  • “Amazing how time flew when you were working. He’d often noticed that days in the camp rolled by before you knew it. Yet your sentence stood still, the time you had to serve never got any less. “

I don’t think this needs any elaboration…

  • “But when the camp suddenly needed a bricklayer – Shukhov thought he might as well be one. If you can do two things with your hands, you’ll soon pick up another ten.”

Here, Shukhov shows the value of flexibility and being willing to step outside the box and learn new skills. He gets slightly more food as a skilled worker and he also keeps his mind active – both things that will vastly improve his chances of survival in the camp.

  • “Easy money had no weight: you didn’t feel you’d earned it. What you get for a song you won’t have for long, the old folks used to say, and they were right. “

Lottery winners anyone? How many times do you hear that within 4 years a huge proportion of them are financially worse off than when they bought the winning ticket? A similar thing seems to happen with generational wealth – if a person/couple builds enormous wealth, it’s rare for their grandchildren to still be wealthy.

  • “But even after eight years on general duties he was no scrounger, and as time went by, he was more and more determined not to be.”

This is one of many times in the novel where we see that Shukhov’s sense of self is hugely important to him and is at the heart of how he continues to survive. He has some ethics and standards that he refuses to give up, while others have been left by the wayside. We all know people who seem to live for their job and appear to have very little in their lives left over for other things. These are the people who crumble when, for whatever reason, their career is taken away from them. Shukhov isn’t one of these people.

  • “He could barely stand, the Captain, but he kept on going. Shukhov had an old horse like that at home once. He took good care of that old horse, but he worked himself to death. And then they skinned the hide off him.”

This quote follows on from the other in the way that some people give their all for their jobs, believing themselves indispensable. And yet – when they eventually leave, there’s always someone to replace them. That last sentence is brutal – I don’t believe I work for a business like this but I’ve heard plenty of horror stories that make me believe that there are companies around who drain every last thing that they can from their workers.

  • “In jail and in the camps Shukhov had lost the habit of scheming how he was going to feed his family from day to day or year to year. The bosses did all his thinking for him, and that somehow made life easier. But what would it be like when he got out? “

This made me think about how daunting people find the thought of not having a regular pay packet coming in any more once they hit retirement. This leads to the ‘one more year’ syndrome, where people are financially set for retirement but quite bring themselves to turn off the wages tap and start to draw down from their portfolios.

  • “Your foreman matters more than anything else in a prison camp: a good one gives you a new lease on life, a bad one can land you six feet under. “

The horrifying thing about ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is that, while we might say this metaphorically, he means it literally.

  • “The belly is an ungrateful wretch, it never remembers past favours, it always wants more tomorrow.”

THIS IS THE BEST QUOTE! I’ve never forgotten it and it’s helped me so much when I’ve ever had to deal with ephemeral little wants and indulgences that I might enjoy at the moment, but I’d completely forget about a day or two later. I don’t know how many chips, snacks and other little things it has saved me from buying.

The very best thing about reading is that, while most books fade away after you’ve finished them, some stay with you forever. ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ is one that you’ll never forget.