Sunday, 27 June 2010

The quest for life balance

'Life balance' must be one of the most elusive achievements on the planet. It's way more than a simple 'work versus relaxation' equation. It's about finding the time and discipline to do everything you need and want to do: housework, home maintenance, spending time with family, seeing friends, exercise, travel, indulging in pastimes, pursuing dreams.

All too often one or more of these get trampled by work (and the effects of work) or blatant procrastination. The fact is that working full-time can take a lot out of you, both in time and energy, and this can make it difficult to find time and energy for all the other things. Some will happen, others won't. Either way, it's frustrating.

I really admire people who take steps to reduce the impact full-time work can have on pursuing dreams. (These comments can of course be taken in the context of writing fiction!) Whether it's the decision to go part-time, change careers, start up a work-from-home business, or take a break from work entirely, these are people who believe in themselves and are not slaves to the dollar.

Being a published author in Australia (let alone an unpublished one) does not typically pay much, so invariably alternative incomes have to be scrounged and sacrifices have to be made. I was talking last night with one successful Australian author, who can now afford to write full-time, but only after seven years of eking out a living. Her advice to me was do it, make the commitment as soon as possible, because monetary commitments only increase as you get older. I'm just not that brave, or perhaps it's confidence in my own ability I'm lacking. Perhaps if I had a novel picked up, I would see things differently.

So for me it comes down to playing tetras with life-around-work and trying to make the best possible use of time and energy.

One conflict in particular is reading versus writing. Through various Internet paths, I came across bestfantasybooks.com today. This web site lists an abundance of books, plenty of which I haven't yet read. Sitting back and devouring would be so much easier than painstakingly creating. How am I ever going to find the time to read all these books, not to mention just as many non-fantasy novels, and write at the same time?

The question is moot. I will carry on trying to fit everything in: to minimise procrastination time (ie TV), to commit to a writing routine and try to squeeze in some of everything else. I fear, however, that if life balance is achieved it will be temporary at best, as some other thing is bound to emerge and topple the equilibrium.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Travel bug!

There haven't been too many words written this month. (Of the fictional kind, that is.) The truth is that travel plans have consumed most of my attention. They're starting to take shape as the various family members coordinate schedules. And, yes, going to the Alhambra!

Stage 1 of my big trip will be four weeks travelling with Intrepid from Paris to Barcelona, taking in the Loire Valley, Bordeaux and a good deal of Spain in the process. I'm really looking forward to it. In fact, my insides are skipping and every so often I find myself staring into space with a stupid smile on my face...

The plan is also to invest in a netbook computer so I can utilise plane and train trips with writing and blogging etc. I'm truly expecting to be inspired by all the amazing sights and tastes and sounds of Europe, and I want to be able to capture that. In fact, a netbook computer is evidently the must-have item of every traveller these days. Amazing how far the world has come since I first went to Europe in 1993, and spent all my free time writing diaries and post cards.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The longest night

This morning when I stepped outside for my stroll to the train station, I was greeted by thick, damp, predawn fog. It struck me as a most appropriate and atmospheric opening to midwinter's day. The gloom cast by the overhanging cloud held the dawn at bay far longer than it should have, so that the shortest day of the year felt even further truncated.

I have been witnessing the dawn from the train platform for the past few weeks now -- we have an excellent view in fact, since our platform is raised above the rooftops. We've seen many crimson blushes staining the eastern horizon, the display getting later and later with each passing morning, hurtling towards today.

Tomorrow will be no different. It's also the shortest day (all 9h32m30s of it) but unless there is a sister fog will undoubtedly feel less oppressive. So it's fairly safe to say that from here the days will dawn brighter and longer, as the sun commences its return. Meanwhile, we have the longest night tonight.

In other celestial news, there is evidently a partial eclipse of the moon coming up on Saturday night between 8:17 and 11:00pm. This is when the full moon is obscured by the shadow of the earth. How exciting.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The running thing

A side-effect of all that training for Trailwalker is that I'm now quite a lot fitter than I was before. Which is a good thing, because these days I find myself running for trains on a regular basis. I've even had the odd, quickly suppressed thought that I could take up running as a form of regular exercise.

I've never been much of a runner. It used to be that I was simply too unfit. But there's also been a second reason that continues to prevent me. I run like a girl. On my toes. Arms doing ... whatever. I've never forgotten being given the nickname 'twinkletoes' many years ago and it has made me extremely self-conscious about running. Whenever I try the heel-toe gait it feels really uncomfortable.

But I'm reading a book at the moment that undermines everything that is common knowledge about running. The author uses anecdotal evidence, interviews and personal experience to posit an argument for non-cushioned running shoes and running on the balls of the feet, instead of the heel-toe action. It calls into question many other podiatry ideals as well - particularly the use of orthotics.

The book is Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, and I will review it in detail when I've finished. But the section I was reading today on the train focused on the natural wonder of the foot arch, and questioned that if we wouldn't support an arch in engineering terms (it's unthinkable) then why would we support it in the foot? Basically, by wearing modern trainers (invented by Nike in the 70s) we are supposedly making our feet weak and causing injury.

It's fascinating stuff, and quite persuasive. What I found myself pondering this afternoon is that maybe it's OK for me to run on my toes, so to speak. Certainly this book seems to advocate running barefoot, with the heel never actually contacting the ground.

It also calls into question my addiction to wearing Birkenstocks. I'd hate to think my 7-odd pairs are bad for my feet!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

3DTV - it's all an illusion

I've spent the past two days immersed in the intricacies of 3DTV. It has swept in with World Cup fever and everyone is oh so excited about it. That is, unless you're really sceptical that it will ever take off, which many people are.

I'm not going to pass judgement on that, because it's early days yet, but I can tell you that it's a very interesting topic. For instance, these 3DTVs that are being sold in shops -- they actually display alternating left-eye right-eye images at a very fast speed (imperceptible to the human eye), and those dorky-but-expensive glasses block your vision in the 'wrong' eye in perfect synchronisation, courtesy of an IR transmitter on the TV. Then your brain assembles the illusion of the 3D image.

During the course of my research I've read comments from plenty of sceptics -- definitely the glasses are the biggest turn-off, so the technologists are going to have to do something about those. But I did chuckle at the man who complained that he spent $4K on a new 3D TV and 8 pairs of 'active shutter' glasses at $150 each, all to watch the State of Origin rugby match being broadcast in 3D as part of a current free-to-air trial, only to discover that the area he lived didn't get coverage from the trial. . .

It will be very interesting to see how/if 3DTV takes off over the coming years. On the subject of 3D images not requiring glasses, I can't help but wonder why they can't use the same or similar technology as the 'Magic Eye' images use? Or perhaps these are only possible because it's only dealing with shape. In any case, I do rather like them (and have a link to the site in my side bar if anyone is interested).

Friday, 11 June 2010

Where's the cafe culture?

I like visiting cafes. Around where I live, I know them all, but I have my favourites -- that (or those) with the best coffee, the best breakfasts, the best late afternoon 'lunch'.

I even had my favourites surrounding our former office in East St Kilda. There was the one where I could always find something for lunch, with enough variety to keep it interesting; there was the one where I got my coffee every morning; there was the one where I met my sister frequently, because it was easy to get the pram in (and the food was yummy too); and there were others for if/when I got bored of any of those!

They are all nice cafes, with good coffee, table service and delicious food. They have casual menus, with interesting combinations, and food you know is being cooked while you wait.

The CBD is an entirely different scenario. The CBD is not St Kilda, nor Elsternwick, or anything remotely resembling them. (And here was I thinking 'Melbourne' has a cafe culture.)

In the CBD there are (for the most part) two different types of 'cafe'. The first is what I would call a cafeteria -- glass cabinets/bay maries containing pre-prepared food, where you order from the counter, take a number on a spike to your table and wait. They look like a cafe on the outside. There's one I've seen that looks from the exterior like quite a nice restaurant. You're lured inside and then -- smack -- there's the skillfully disguised cabinets of cafeteria food.

I'm not saying these are necessarily bad -- after all, the CBD has a LOT of people to feed, and the vast majority don't want to sit down and pay for a cafe-style meal. These 'cafeterias' do a great job of providing economical food and a place to eat them in that isn't your desk. My main point (and provocation) is that it's often very hard to tell from the outside.

The other type of CBD cafe is the one that turns out to be rather an exclusive and highly priced restaurant!

I have been taking a fairly relaxed approach to all this, meeting friends and trying out places at random. It's been totally pot luck as to what I'll end up eating (and paying). But I admit I've been searching for that 'St Kilda' style cafe that does breakfast all day (in the CBD, they all finish breakfast at 11am) and has an interesting but not necessarily 3-course-meal style menu.

The closest I've discovered is the Cafenatics group of cafes. I walk past two as I drift down from Flinders Street station, and I grab my morning coffee from the one closest to work. Here at least they know my name, and have table service, and an interesting menu that is not quite St Kilda, but almost.

And the coffee is wonderful.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Alhambra awaits

This evening I opened the first page of my Western Europe Lonely Planet Guide to reveal 'the map' -- a colour physical map of the region in question with arrows and descriptive boxes pointing to selected highlights. And suddenly a bubble of excitement percolated up inside me and I've spent the past few hours feverishly turning the pages.

But how to decide where to go? The one place I know I'm going is Bonn (Germany) for the family Christmas celebration. But as I have long-service leave due in September, this represents the first opportunity for some good old fashioned travelling in a very long time. My plan is to go for about 10 weeks (if I can afford it!). The rest of Europe awaits!

One place I'm fairly certain will be included in my itinerary is the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. This place has been calling to me for many years, not least because of Guy Gavriel Kay's wonderful novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan.



Friday, 4 June 2010

It's all about eating

I'm not normally a fan of cooking TV shows; nor do I watch a lot of reality TV (although I am partial to the Amazing Race). But I have found myself tuning in to MasterChef from time to time this season. And it's not that I can't bear to miss it. Because I can. Nor is it in order to learn advanced cooking techniques. It's because of the food.

I am not someone who enjoys cooking. The thought of grinding, whipping, measuring 20 different ingredients into 5 different dishes and cooking through three different steps is not an appealing one. But I really love eating. And some (but definitely not all) of the dishes they cook on this show look amazing.

Take tonight's episode, for example. I didn't think much of the quail dolmades (particularly that pig's stomach lining they were wrapped in - yuck), but Matt Moran's Frangipane tart looked so amazing it really does tempt me get cooking. Tempt me, that is. There's no way I'll actually cook it . . .

So while aspiring chefs and amateur cooks are no doubt taking notes and trying things out in the kitchen, I'm taking note of which restaurants the celeb chefs hail from, so I can go eat the amazing things they cook! Another dessert I'm dying to try is Philippa Sibley's caramel parfait glace with salted peanut caramel and milk chocolate mousse (pictured). . . She's a pastry chef at a restaurant at Crown -- not too far from work . . .

Oh c'mon! Tell me that image doesn't have you salivating??

UPDATE 8 JUNE - And now I find that Philippa Sibley is coming to St Kilda to open a dessert bar. I am in heaven.