Wednesday, 28 December 2011

It's that time of year again

I'm spending the Christmas/New Year period with my family down at Phillip Island. Mum, Dad and I arrived here during the afternoon on Christmas Day -- our first 'Christmas' spent at the island, even if Christmas lunch was a ham sandwich and Magnum icecream in the car, and dinner cold meat and salad. It's been a very low key Christmas for our family, particularly after last year's German extravaganza, but I've enjoyed it all the same.

Boxing Day heralded the arrival of my sister and her two boys, my nephews, aged 20 months and 3 years. Their presence here is both delight and distraction. Usually when I come down to the island my aim is to write, read, walk and go out for breakfast. In truth, I nearly announced a few days ago right here on this blog how I was going to do all these things, which have been neglected in the past couple of months (except the going out to breakfast part). A good thing I didn't, because I would yet again be eating my words. When two little boys are present, the days inevitably revolve around their eating and sleeping and entertainment. I love it, but it does mean adjusting my activities and expectations.

The break is nevertheless good timing for me. After nearly two months in a new job I was going a bit mental, and this has given me the chance to stop and catch my breath, if not all the other aforementioned activities . . . and in two more days I will have a car to make my life easier (more on that later).

As the new year approaches, I find myself in yet another new place. The transitional year of 2011 is over and my path seems fairly clear: make new job work for me, carve out writing time, keep fit and healthy. My aim this year will be to not let work consume me, to keep a healthy work-life balance, to write an entire novel. I'll be satisfied with that. I'm not going to make grand plans to get my bathroom renovation done (as I've been saying for about 5 years now) or fool myself that I'll finish all the books on my to-read pile. One novel written. That's the plan.

As always, I find it fascinating to look back over the past couple of years and remember my state of mind as one year faded and another dawned. A year ago, I was in Germany and contemplating quitting my job of ten years. Little did I know then that I'd enjoy nearly a year of leisure. The year before that, it was all about Trailwalker -- training and fundraising. Every year it's something different. There's always a common theme, though: write more, work less!

5 top highlights of 2011:
  • Quitting my job and taking a career break
  • Finishing the rewrite of that first novel (even if it proved to be bottom drawer material)
  • Inaugural MTC subscription
  • Weekly writing in the pub sessions
  • World Fantasy Convention, San Diego

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Blog Hole

I really haven't felt much like blogging over the past six weeks. I haven't felt like writing either. My muse has completely abandoned me.

As far as blogging goes, sometimes I can find interesting things to say about the most everyday things. Sometimes I feel driven to share and document things that happen, or things I think about, whether they're interesting or not!

Every so often I read back over this blog and marvel at June 2007 when I posted almost every day . . . I wrote a lot of fiction that month too. Back then the words bubbled out of me and whipping up a post was a breeze. I couldn't stop writing.

For some reason the regularity of my posting on this blog has been down this year. One might have thought I'd post more regularly with all the leisure time I've had. Ironic, huh. I think I slipped into a dreamy drift of days.

But the past six weeks (since I rejoined the workforce) have been different. I haven't wanted to write. I've had nothing to say. I've been exhausted and very time poor. Even when I've done something I might once have blogged about, I simply haven't been able to rouse the energy to put the words together. It's very sad. I feel like there's something missing.

My other blog has been neglected as well. All the words sucked into the great Blog Hole.

And so now I've resorted to stupid posts like this. Just for the sake of posting something. Pathetic!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Gotta love Earnest

Last week I saw Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company. This really is the most amazing play. It's so well plotted and scripted that even a children's production would have the audience on their feet. As one reviewer put it: The brilliance of the play is in the dialogue. I emphatically agree.

I enjoyed the MTC's production, particularly the staging, which utilised an enormous pop-up book that was opened by one of two marvellously funny-but-very-different butlers (played by Bob Hornery) to reveal each of three backdrops. Geoffrey Rush played Lady Bracknell in a more understated fashion than I expected, which in hindsight was probably a good thing!

I was really looking forward to seeing the play, which caps off my inaugural MTC season with friends, and it proved to be the perfect play to finish on. Light-hearted, hilarious, brilliant.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Why you might not want a cat

This morning: Stumbled out of bed to feed the devilcat at approx 5:30am. Stumbled back into bed.

Half an hour later: Dragged myself out of bed and . . . holy firetruck! DEAD RAT on the floor of my bedroom, right where I should have stepped on it. Intestines streaked across the floor.

Much gagging and screeching at devilcat. Nearly miss train owing to cleanup and disinfectant operations.

Just now: Cleaned up rat's blood from floor of my bedroom -- RIGHT NEXT TO MY BED -- where I didn't notice it this morning.

Resignation and revulsion.

Monday, 21 November 2011

In which Wendy Rule sings

Saturday night found me at the Caravan Music Club (Oakleigh RSL) to see Melbourne singer/songwriter, Wendy Rule. Whenever I go to a music gig, I always wonder why I don’t do it more often. Awesome music aside, in this particular case it might have had something to do with the fact that the intimate and cosy venue was local with easy street parking, or that the gig started early and was over by 11pm, or maybe that our seats came with a gingham-clothed table complete with candle and a glass of red. OK, we had to buy the wine (at RSL subsidised prices); but how civilised to sit back with glass in hand and listen?

And how we did listen.

I had not heard Wendy Rule before, and I enjoyed her music a lot. It’s an acoustic blend of folk, world and jazz (ish), delivered by a remarkable voice that is perfectly made for chanting (as she does) and which has the capacity to go amazingly deep. As I listened to Wendy sing, I imagined her testing out that voice as a child, figuring out what it could do, and composing music to suit. It’s a mighty instrument. She was accompanied by the dulcet tones of a cello, guitar and drums.

Wendy’s songs were heavily themed towards paganism, spiritual belief systems and classical mythology. She opened and closed with a chant designed to first close and lastly reopen the circle, singing tributes to the north, west, south and east. (I took the opportunity to pull out my new iPhone with compass app and check she had the directions right.) Then her various songs paid tribute to the likes of Venus, Artemis, Hecate, aspects of nature, the moon . . . My kinda stuff, really.

Wendy Rule would not be out of place at the Port Fairy Folk Festival (I bet she’s played there before) and it made me realise how much I’m going to miss going to that every year. I intend to keep an eye out for upcoming Caravan Music Club gigs and attend a little more often, particularly the folk-oriented performances. For a slick and far more accomplished review of Wendy’s gig, visit Jason’s review here. He’s a long time fan and knows stuff like the names of songs and albums.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Status update: How my life is like a children's dress-up box

My life is presently like a box into which I am trying to jam an entire lifetime of belongings. Imagine bulging sides, bursting seams, stuff hanging over the edges, other stuff abandoned and strewn haphazardly in a three metre radius.

It looks like a children's dress-up box after the hordes have abandoned it.

While on work-hiatus I fear my life expanded to fill the time available (Parkinson's Law?). Now I seem to have no time to do anything. Right now it's the end of the weekend and my to-do wish list is woefully incomplete.

The list of unread posts in my Google Reader is frightening . . . I haven't looked at (or even thought about) my novel WIP in weeks . . . I still need to research the best superannuation companies. And cars.

On the up side, my house is half clean, the washing is done, and I have enjoyed a final weekend of eating out before I launch into a LitenEasy campaign tomorrow.

Work. I knew I didn't have time for it.

Having said that, the new job is going well so far. The people seem nice and the company culture seems good. After two days of head spinning, I was productive for the final three days of my first week. But the commute on public transport is not good, with two trains and a bus the most reliable route. It's a lot of messing about, which hasn't been fun in the rain. And it's a lot of time that could be far more effectively utilised. I need to figure out how to fit in writing (daily) . . . and exercise. Therefore a car will be required . . . once I get the time to research which one.

Anyway, this is just a short update. At least I now have a smart-phone with which to stay in touch during the working day. (My Internet use at work is both restricted and monitored!) After a year of enjoying perpetual social media, I really don't think I can bear being cut-off from it all day. So a smart-phone was an essential aquisition for this weekend.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Something Borrowed

OK, I'm going to share something a little embarrassing. But it's also funny. And weird.

It all started on the flight to San Diego two weeks ago, when I watched the RomCom movie Something Borrowed. It's a perfect movie for a plane -- light, funny, happy ending . . . So at the end of the flight, after watching X-Men First Class and catching some zzzz's (on my three seats!), I watched Something Borrowed again.

I don't normally repeat-watch on a plane, but something about this movie really grabbed me. On the surface it's nothing special. Six years ago, Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) introduced her best friend Darcy (Kate Hudson) to Dex (Colin Egglesfield), Rachel's fellow law student, who she has a crush on but thinks he'd never be interested in her. Now Darcy and Dex are engaged, with Rachel the maid of honour, but an offhand remark from Rachel in which she admits having had a crush on Dex during law school, leads to Dex admitting similar feelings and the two end up having a guilty affair . . .

Not everyone agrees with me, but I like the chemistry between Rachel and Dex, and I love the setup, because it feels like something that could really happen. The moral dilemma is brilliant. Sleeping with your best friend's fiance is BAD BAD BAD (as is sleeping with your fiance's best friend), but somehow I'm really moved by the scenario of Rachel and Dex actually liking each other first, realising feelings they've buried but which have not gone away. Should they pretend nothing has happened? Should Dex marry Darcy, who he realises is the wrong woman? Should he break up with her without pursuing Rachel?

The story is made slightly more palatable by depicting Darcy as an obnoxious character, who cheats on Dex, but Rachel, essentially a good person, is still riven with guilt . . . and yet strives to win Dex for herself. There is no neat answer. Someone is always going to be hurt.

Anyway, I liked it. So on the return flight . . . after watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Larry Crowne . . . I watched Something Borrowed again.

And then, when I was passing JB HiFi and browsed the DVD section . . . yes, all right so I'm a tad obsessed. And I watched it again last Saturday night!

So now I've watched the movie four times in two weeks. And then (this is so embarrassing) I downloaded the original novel by Emily Giffin onto my kindle and I'm er . . . reading it. In my defence, it makes a good public transport read for my tedious commute to Brooklyn (more on that later).

I really cannot explain what it is, but there's something about this movie that won't let me go! Don't think too badly of me. And if you've seen it (or read it), let me know what you think!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Sightseeing in San Diego

San Diego Old Town
This year's work-free sabatical culminated last week with a short trip to San Diego to attend the World Fantasy Convention. It was an awesome trip. I'm blogging about the convention itself elsewhere, but I did have a couple of days at the end for a spot of sightseeing...

Last Monday I trekked off with some friends to the San Diego Zoo, reputedly one of the greatest in the world. It certainly is large and impressive, and we didn't manage to see everything. But I got the general idea!

Highlights for me were the Giant Pandas (putting on a show with their bamboo), the eagles (so massive, although in disturbingly small enclosures), the hummingbird aviary (tiny birds like giant insects)...
Giant Panda

I think that what the animals are doing determines how interesting they are, so I wasn't too inspired by the sleeping polar bear, or the sleeping hippo, or the lazy gorillas... But the otter that swam down the 'stream' was pretty cool!

The next day I was own my own and took the trolley two stops from the hotel/resort to San Diego Old Town, which is a sprawling tourist destination comprising craft shops and reconstructed buildings from the early days of the town. It reminded me of a low-key and free version of Sovereign Hill in Ballarat.

Shrine for Day of the Dead
Festivities at Old Town were heightened for the two-day Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican festival celebrated in San Diego, owing I suppose to its proximity. This meant numerous alters, beautifully decorated, to commemorate specific individuals (e.g. Frieda Kahlo and Marilyn Monroe). It also meant lots of food specials (mostly Mexican! I ate a lot of Mexican while in San Diego), and artisan demonstrations. I had a lovely chat with the blacksmith (who seemed very keen to recruit interested parties to the craft), and bought HEAPS of stuff from assorted shops to cart home!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Midnight in Paris (movie)

I went to see Midnight in Paris as part of the Girls' Night In fundraiser event, hosted by Curves Carnegie. It's the latest Woody Allen movie, and tells the story of successful Hollywood screenwriter Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), holidaying in Paris with his fiance and future in-laws -- but he would rather be working on his Great American Novel and dreams of living in the halcyon Parisian days of the 1920s.

What follows is part-fantasy and part-dream, as Gil encounters some fascinating new friends while strolling the streets of Montmartre (at midnight).

I really enjoyed this movie, perhaps because it was about a writer meeting his idols, and finding new inspiration and self-confidence. The first night of Gil's adventures is particularly marvellous and made me grin broadly. The Paris of dreams depicted in this movie -- a character all of its own, really -- is one every writer could envisage themself living in.

The other message in this movie, though, is to appreciate life as you know it. Many of the characters in this film are yearning for a life they cannot have, and it only makes them dissatisfied... Gil learns to live in the moment and follow his dreams. The style is typical Woody Allen whimsy, and Owen Wilson does it well.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Making new friends with Build-a-Bear

I only recently discovered the Build-a-Bear workshop. This is perhaps understandable, given the usual workshop demographic of 4 to 10 year olds, but . . . well . . . give me leave to be a child at heart.

It all started early this year when my youngest nephew was given a build-a-bear monkey by Nana for his first birthday. At this stage, I was still oblivious to the full significance of the gift, but several of us spent some time coming up with a suitable name for the new addition . . . now known as Sir Monkalot.

And then I was introduced to the shop at Southland, where . . . OMG . . . you can choose your own personal bear (or creature) and then fill it with love and stuffing (out of a massive fairy-floss-like machine) and then you can choose an outfit for your new friend to wear.

At this first visit, we purchased AFL colours for Sir Monkalot (it's a Pies household), and I completely fell in the love with the concept . . . Was I too old for a new friend?

Perhaps yes. So instead we decided to save it for when my nieces and nephew were to visit from Germany – which is now! So today we all traipsed down to Southland to visit the Build-a-Bear workshop.

The kids at first had no idea what was about to happen . . . they seemed a little perplexed at first . . . and then the fun to be had began to dawn on them. What followed was a classic display of personality as each child chose and bonded with their new friend.

First decision: choose a 'bear' from at least 20 options (as-yet-unstuffed). Number three (J, aged 5-1/2) was the most decisive. Within 30 seconds she had homed in on a fluffy pink bear, and declared she had already decided on a name. Number two (W, aged 6-1/2) took a few minutes longer, bouncing between a dinosaur and a dragon before finally settling on the monkey reasonably quickly. Number one (H, aged 8-1/2) had the hardest time choosing. She test-cuddled the 'camo' bear (in camouflage colours) and the dragon at least three times each, before suddenly discovering and settling on a different bear all-together – Champ bear.

Next came the heart ceremony. Each bear gets a soft red heart, infused with all the love of its new friend. The heart ceremony was a joy to witness, with each child hugging and rubbing and kissing and wishing and dancing and warming and energising the new heart. This was then slipped inside the new toy . . . then each toy was stuffed to the precise cuddle-ability – soft or firm – as requested. And test-cuddled before being sewn up – just to make sure!

New friends were then taken to the bathing station, and scrubbed clean. (Using a brush to fluff up their fur – no water was applied.)

Now to choose an outfit! Once again, Miss J took . . . perhaps one minute this time to come up with two choices: a glittering sequined purple ball gown and an elegant pink satin dress. The purple won, deemed exactly the right look for the newly named 'Rosie'.

Mr W's monkey – Mr Jack – first tried on a casual outfit of orange T-shirt and denim jeans, but ultimately preferred AFL colours (Bombers in this case).

As for Miss H, a tomboy, her criterion was 'unisex'. Being a swimmer, she first had her eye on a bear-sized wetsuit, complete with snorkle, flippers and mask. Hmm, quirky, but perhaps . . . There wasn't much in the way of unisex outfits, but to keep with the swimming theme, we did find some board shorts and a rashie in rather striking blue, green and yellow. Yess!

And then it was time to print birth certificates and – oh no! – now H had to come up with a name! The stress of making such an important decision (I totally understand this)! Some fast thinking and consultation with the bear-naming book eventually yielded the name 'Tex'.

So now three little children have three new friends – Tex, Mr Jack and Rosie – and I confess I'm a little envious! (One of these days I may just yield to temptation and return home with a cute bunny with floppy ears, called . . . ?!)

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Status update: What I will miss

This is my last week of no-holds-barred leisure. Next week I board a plane to San Diego for the World Fantasy Convention and following that I'm to start full-time work again.

Yes, I'm very pleased to report that The Awful Task is completed and I have accepted a position as 'marketing & communications specialist' with a global supply chain management/logistics company. It sounds like a diverse role, covering internal and external communications, and will allow me to leverage all the great skills I already have, while learning a whole lot of new ones.

I'm tentatively excited: it will be good to get some enforced structure back into my life, rev up my brain again, meet some new people and of course there's the small matter of dollars. Yet, for good and bad, it's the great unknown. I've met exactly three people in the company and haven't laid eyes on the everyday working environment. (Maybe my workstation will be the size of a pea and located outside the toilet. I have no idea.)

I've had such an awesome year. This coming Friday it will be exactly one year since I boarded a plane for Paris and commenced my 10-week trip through France, Spain, England and Germany. In the entire time since, I returned to work for exactly 3 weeks, a mere blip. To all intents and purposes, I've had an entire year without working. Never did I imagine this would be possible.

It's rather incredible -- and a little disconcerting -- how normal it feels to not work. I'm certainly not looking forward to having to compress all the things I've been doing into the spaces around this new job. I know that I've probably suffered from Parkinson's Law all year (work expands to fill the time available) but I am just so relaxed because of it. Going back to full-time work is going to completely shock my system.

This is what I'm going to miss:

Creative writing
This is the big one, obviously. One of my primary goals for this year was to focus on creative writing, from producing words to honing craft to engaging with the industry. I wanted to reconnect with myself as a writer of fiction, take myself more seriously. In finishing one novel, recognising its flaws, and embarking on another I feel that I'm on the way to achieving this. I might not have progressed the new novel as far as I'd have liked (the culprit being my usual tendency to rewrite), and I might still be a long way from publication, but I have moved forward and realigned my priorities. This has been an essential outcome.

But what's going to happen from here? Aside from the past couple of months when I was focusing on career stuff, I've been able to devote whole afternoons to creative writing on a regular basis. And it isn't just the time, it's the head-space. I know from experience that it's very hard to write at the end of the day after work. Most writers who work full-time utilise the early hours, and my experience of this has been positive. But it requires a LOT of discipline. This is something I'm going to have to figure out.

Social networking
I've spent a lot of this year social networking online. My daily ritual has been to follow breakfast with about an hour (or two) of checking email and facebook and sometimes twitter and sometimes reading blogs and links. There's usually something of interest to click across to.

Yes, OK, I shudder when I tally up the hours I must have spent doing this. And these are the activities that I'm going to have to scale back if I'm to get any writing done once I'm back to work.

In addition to the morning ritual, I've also had the leisure to monitor facebook (and twitter) all day and respond to topics of conversation as they come up. For someone at home without anyone else to talk to, these 'chats' have been brilliant fun. I love feeling connected to all my friends via facebook. It really is a virtual conversation sometimes. Somehow I doubt I'll be able to keep this up in a new job. (Not a very good look.)

My blogging time will invariably suffer as well. I've been trying not to spend too much time blogging during the prime daytime hours, but sometimes I give in to the urge. But blogging is something I've been fitting in for years now -- I'll just have to make sure it doesn't take precedence over my other writing.

Meeting friends/family in cafes
This is kind of self-explanatory, really. I've had a wonderful time meeting up with friends who either don't work or who work flexible hours. Some weeks I've had lunch out every day. I've been telling myself that I might as well enjoy the benefits of not working while I can. (What I won't miss is my expanding waistline as a result of all this decadence.)

I've also been able to meet my sister and my two nephews for coffee on an almost weekly basis. We descend upon the cafe like a bomb going off and they have to disinfect the table after we've left it, but it's been so amazing to have this regular time with the two little kids and their baby-cinos.

Writing in pubs and cafes
For most of this year, we've had a regular writing session in the Elsternwick hotel, mostly on Tuesday afternoons. We drank wine. We talked shop. We wrote. We ate chicken parma for $12. (Another reason for the expanding waistline.) It has been brilliant.

Even on my own, I've spent quite a few afternoons in local cafes with my computer, sometimes because I wanted to get away from the Internet (and social networking etc), sometimes because I just needed to get out of the house. Despite the whole 'writing in cafes' thing being a bit of a cliche, I've loved every minute of it. And found it surprisingly productive as well. The cafe staff know me quite well by now. I wonder if they will miss me?

There are heaps of other things I'll miss as well, even if it's just the freedom to be spontaneous -- to dash down to the shopping centre with my mum, or attend a random writing seminar.

Probably what's missing from this list is the ability to get projects done -- and that's because I haven't done any. Not one. I'm a little disgusted with myself, really. I was supposed at the very least to get my bathroom renovation happening. A large reason for my failure in this area is due to my not having a car. It's very hard to get out and make stuff happen when you can't get around very easily. But c'est la vie.

I will look back at this year with perhaps a little regret (for the things I didn't get done while I had the time), but mostly with a great deal of satisfaction for the opportunity to chill out with friends and family and with myself. Most importantly, I've reconnected with myself as a writer. I stated at the beginning of the year that 2011 was about taking control of my life (I even dubbed it 'the year of the writer'), and I feel as though I've done this.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

The heel that crippled me

I don't have much of a relationship with high-heeled shoes. I've never been a shoe junkie, I don't sigh with desire at the sight of the latest Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo. In fact, I'm rather astounded I even know what these are. . .

It's flats all the way with me -- and not those dainty little ballet flats you see some people wearing around the place. I like a shoe that I can walk in, stride out in, walk home from work in if I need to. Like Birkenstocks. Yeah, Birkenstocks are my thing (and some of them are quite smart these days).

Having said that, a few years ago I acquired a pair of Wonders wedge-heels that met all my comfort criteria -- rubber soles and a comfortable fit. I could walk properly in these heels, despite the fact they were about 10cm high (which is not really very high, but . . .), and they proved ideal for work. They're a bit old now, and not as comfortable, but I still drag them out from time-to-time.

But now there's a problem. I wore these shoes last Sunday and they crippled me. As soon as I arrived home and took them off, the ball of my left foot went into shock and I could barely walk.

These are shoes I've worn loads of times and they've been the most comfortable pair of 'heels' I've ever had. I've stood in exhibition halls for days on end. I even walked 4km in them once. So I was a little astounded at my foot's reaction.

I thought maybe it was cramp, that it would settle down and all would be back to normal the next morning, but alas this was not to be the case. I still couldn't put any weight on the ball of my foot, let alone push off. I could only put weight on the outside of the foot, making walking a tad tricky.

By Wednesday it was improved, but I was still hobbling so I decided to get a podiatrist to look at it. And it turns out that I have stretched the ligament that runs beneath my second toe. Just from wearing a shoe. There was no specific incident, no moment when I thought I'd pulled something. It's completely unfathomable.

Anyway, it's apparently not a serious injury, just damned inconvenient. I've been advised to avoid wearing heels for . . . well . . . ever (within reason). But I think this is just a podiatrist's blanket rule. Nonetheless, I'm happy to comply -- I more or less do anyway.

But the fact remains that there are some times when wearing a heel is the expected thing. And now that I know what I know -- which is that by rarely wearing heels I am more prone to this kind of injury -- it's going to make me really nervous next time.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Clybourne Park (MTC)

Clybourne Park, a play by Bruce Norris, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year, and I think I can see why. It's cleverly constructed and tackles the sticky subject of racial prejudice in a way that's both sobering and entertaining.

The plot
The first act takes place in 1959 Chicago, as a middle-aged 'white' couple prepare to move out of the house which holds sad memories surrounding the death of their son, a veteran of the Korean War. They are assisted by their 'black' housemaid, whose husband comes to collect her, and forestalled by the local priest and passive-aggressive neighbour (with pregnant deaf wife), who have discovered that the house has been bought by an African-American family. These so-called 'friends' try to bully the grieving couple into defaulting on the sale, on account it would lower the tone (and price) of the neighbourhood.

After the interval, Act 2 zooms forward to 2009, taking place in the same living room of the same house during planning negotiations among neighbours. This time, it's a young white couple moving into what has become a black residential area, and they want to demolish and rebuild. Only it turns out that the African-American couple they're negotiating with have ties to the family who originally bought the house in 1959... What starts off as real-estate and building plan wrangling degenerates into a racially founded conflict.

The big issues of community and racial conflict tackled in this play are well done and offer much food for thought. But, even though I felt the first act took a while to get going, it was the clever writing and construction that particularly appealed to me.

Inversion & irony
The same cast of seven actors tackle the roles in both acts, and Norris has made wonderful use of symmetry, inversion and irony in the dual casting:
- Grieving father Russ in Act 1 spends much of the act promising to drag down a trunk from the first floor (containing letters etc from his dead son), which he ultimately buries in the back yard; the same actor plays a tradie (Dan) digging a trench outside in Act 2, interrupting events in the living room, and ultimately digging up that same trunk and discovering the contents.
- Karl Lindner, the passive-aggressive neighbour, and his wife Betsy transform into the WASP couple (Steve and Lindsey) seeking to move into the neighbourhood . . . still pregnant. (Their lawyer in the second act turns out to be the daughter of their first incarnated couple.)
- The priest (Jim) in the first act is played by the same actor who plays the mediator in the second act . . . who turns out to be gay.
- The African-American couple in Act 1 (Francine the housemaid and her husband), who could never hope to live in such a house, metamorphose into the Act 2 couple (Lena and Kevin) making life difficult for the newcomers to their neighbourhood. In both acts they have 3 children. At the end of Act 1, the husband lays restraining hands on Russ, who shouts "don't you touch me!". This is inverted at the end of Act 2, when his alter-ego yells the same words.

A Raisin in the Sun
The other interesting fact about this play is that it's a response to the classic 1958 play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which was based on real-life events surrounding a black family's experiences in a Chicago neighbourhood. In fact, the African-American family who have bought the house in the first act of Clybourne Park is the Younger family, whose story is told in the earlier play. The minor character of Karl Lindner in 'Raisin' (the only white character) is the very same passive-aggressive neighbour in Act 1 of Clybourne Park, and has just come from his scene in 'Raisin' when he enters 'Clybourne'.

In this way, Clybourne Park hypothesises what might have led to the sale of a nice house in a white neighbourhood to an aspiring African-American family, and explores what might have ensued thereafter.

The MTC production of this play was directed by Peter Evans. I felt it took a while to get going, with the timing on the opening inane debate about the origins of the word 'neopolitan' a little rocky -- not to mention a bunch of awkward American accents. Then the priest (Luke Ryan) comes in to offer council to Russ (Greg Stone), but it's not until the entrance of the obnoxious Karl (Patrick Brammall) that things really start to get interesting. Brammall's Karl is certainly one of the most memorable characters, and Laura Gordon does a great job as his deaf wife. Alison Whyte ably plays Russ's wife Bev, with Zahra Newman as Francine the housemaid and Bert LaBonté as her husband.

The second act opens with most of the characters amid negotiations, and it took me quite a while to figure out why they were there and what all the individual roles were. Due to its contemporary setting, the scenario (conflict over building permits) was much easier to relate to, although it did degenerate into a bit of a slanging match. Everything came full circle, however, with the discovery of the buried chest -- although it could be argued that this and a final tacked-on 'ghost' scene were largely unnecessary.

Overall I enjoyed this play a great deal, despite its imperfections. There was certainly a lot in it for a writer to admire, plus plenty of entertainment value underpinned by serious themes. Here's a link to a more thorough and insightful review . . . (I think I've got some way to go in the theatre review stakes!).

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Crazy Stupid Love (movie)

Just saw Crazy Stupid Love. This is a movie that seems to have split the viewers, and I came down on the side of liking it. I found it laugh-out-loud funny and unpredictable, not your average rom-com at all.

Cal (Steve Carell) is moping in a bar trying to deal with his impending divorce, when womanising Jacob (Ryan Gosling) decides to take him in hand and give him a makeover -- in both appearance and personality. (Jacob declares that Cal needs to learn how to be a man again. He's become boring.) Carell branches out a little bit (including a fling with Marisa Tomei), but really wants his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) back. Jacob meanwhile meets Hannah (Emma Stone) who just might be his match... Also suffering the pangs of love are Cal's 13YO son Robbie, who has eyes for his 17YO babysitter Jessica, who in turn has a crush on Cal. (There's also a sideline with Emily and her work colleague, played by Kevin Bacon.)

It's definitely Cal's story, but the supporting storylines add complexity, are entertaining and entwine together in surprising ways. In fact, I would have liked more weight given to Jacob's part of the story -- he unfortunately fades out of the script in the last part of the film, and it's weaker for it.

But overall I enjoyed this movie a lot. Even if it is a little too long. There's a fabulous climactic moment, which you think is going to be the end, but then it all keeps going. The last little section doesn't quite live up to the rest of the movie, and leads into an ending that's overly sentimental (and a little bit controversial). I guess you can't have everything!

Monday, 3 October 2011

The Help (movie)

One minute everyone is talking about the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett . . . and the next minute it's a movie starring the suddenly ubiquitous Emma Stone. And, even if Margaret and David found the film lacks sufficient gravitas as warranted by the subject, it's still a film well worth seeing.

Set amid the 1960s civil rights movement in the USA, the story focuses on Skeeter, a young white woman from the 'in crowd', who decides to interview and write down the personal stories and day-to-day experiences of as many African American maids as she can convince to talk with her. Initially it's just two, Abileen and Minny, but ultimately she wins the trust of dozens, and the result is a book that takes society by storm.

It's hard to believe that as short a time ago as 1963, African Americans were treated with such discrimination -- and, as one of my friends pointed out after our viewing, the subject matter of The Help is relatively benign compared with much of what else went on. (The murders of black activist Medgar Evans and JFK are mentioned.) But the plight of the domestic servants serves to illustrate -- without all the violence -- just how inhumane some white people could be. The maids really were at the mercy of their employers, who could sack them with little provocation -- and ensure they would be unable to work again.

In addition to the obvious major theme of racial equality and civil rights, the story also explores the challenge of standing up for what you believe in, as Skeeter forges ahead with her project and is forced to realise how shallow and cruel (and weak) her erstwhile friends have become. Moreover, in this particular case, voicing equality sentiments was actually illegal, and could have resulted in severe repercussions for the maids who participated (if proven).

One criticism of the film has been that it's overly sentimental, filled with caricatures, rather than characters. I agree with this to an extent, although this may be derivative of the novel (I don't know). Certainly Skeeter, with her complete lack of prejudice and courage of her convictions, must have seemed too good to be be true to these women whose voices she made heard. And her 'friends' were also rather polarised in their nasty/vindictive/weak behaviour. Yet the character of the maid Abilileen had good depth and texture, and I rather enjoyed Allison Janney's role -- alternately comic and poignant -- as Skeeter's sick mother, desperate to find a husband for her daughter.

To sum up, I'm definitely glad to have seen it, because I think these are important issues and it never hurts to reflect on the dark shards of our past. But it doesn't leave me with a desire to read the book. It's not the style of novel I'm generally partial to, so I'm happy to have it presented to me as a film.

Friday, 30 September 2011

French toast

I'm a bit of a fan of french toast. I find it very difficult to resist. Inspired by today's meal, I thought I'd reflect on some of my favourite french toast experiences.

Today I sampled a rather decadent brioche french toast at one of my local haunts, Pound. Brioche as french toast? Mmmm, so naughty, but so yummy. It was served with vanilla infused ricotta and fresh banana. Alas, this was a special and not a regular menu item (possibly a good thing or I might never order anything else).

One of my most memorable french toasts was from years ago, served at a modest shopping centre cafe. A couple of slices of egg-soaked fried toast were accompanied by a generous serve of fresh fruit salad and drizzled in maple syrup. I keep wondering why more cafes don't offer this simple and relatively healthy version. I have been known to order a separate serve of fruit salad with my french toast in an attempt to recreate it...

And then there's the cinnamon toast with grilled peaches offered by Goat House. Alas, they've taken this off the menu, but I managed to order it a few times before this happened. Basically it was cinnamon sugar-coated french toast served with grilled peaches and double cream (except I substituted the cream for natural yoghurt). The first time I had it I declared it my favourite french toast ever.

Although I do prefer fresh fruit to accompany, quite a few places offer french toast with a fruit/berry warm stew/compote. Marmalade in East Brighton does a hugely generous serve with berries, and Saloop in Gardenvale does one with caramelised banana and walnuts. Both are delicious, although I find them a little on the sweet side.

There's obviously a trend here. French toast tends to come most often with fruit of some kind -- and I'm not complaining. But here's a diversion. A couple of months ago I sampled a rather elaborate concoction at Della Nonna QV in the city: french toast with bacon and banana and maple syrup... and fried eggs as well. Totally OTT and bad for you, but delicious.

But finally, one of my favourite french toasts of all time -- which is alas no longer available either -- is the challah french toast that used to be on the menu at Hopscotch in Elsternwick. This was totally savoury and awesome: french toast made from challah bread, served with smoked salmon, grilled/roasted cherry tomatoes and wilted spinach. Absolutely divine.

Friday, 23 September 2011

District 9 - frighteningly familiar

I watched District 9 last night, and OMG does it pack a punch. It's a movie I wanted to see when it was released (2009) but never got around to it, so I recorded it a couple of weeks ago when it was aired on TV.

This South African film is set in Johannesburg 20 years after around a million alien asylum seekers arrived from a distant planet in a broken-down mothership (that has remained suspended gloriously above the city). The authorities decide it's time to forcibly relocate these aliens (derogatorily referred to as 'prawns') from the slum-ghetto known as District 9, which has been their home for the past two decades, to a specially built facility 200km distant.

It's partially presented as a documentary, incorporating comments from 'experts' and live-to-camera addresses from the man assigned to oversee the eviction -- Wikus van de Merwe. This helps establish the scenario and history, but as the film progresses the doco style fades away (more or less) as events play out.

This film explores some serious topics -- racism, treatment of asylum seekers, exploitation of the helpless, greed and capitalism -- and it does it amazingly well. These are issues that we confront every day, and in Australia particularly the subject of asylum seekers is hotly debated. My heart went straight out to these aliens who are treated as less than human, don't seem particularly violent, are clearly from a far more advanced civilisation, and just want to survive -- or in the case of one rescue his people from deplorable living conditions.

I also really appreciated the way my opinion of Wikus swung around. His treatment of and attitude to the 'prawns' at the beginning is despicable, but then he becomes the victim of a government/corporate conspiracy/genetic experiment and I found myself sympathising with him. My sentiments continued to swing back and forth until the very end of the film.

District 9 is really worth watching, but I didn't find it an easy film to experience. It's violent with lots of gunfire and things getting chopped up, plus the terrible way in which humans treat these aliens is quite confronting. Perhaps the doco style made it harder to distance myself from it. It's so well done, with fantastic performances and effects, that it didn't feel like science fiction at all to me -- it felt frighteningly familiar.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

New cafe screens Metropolis

Found a new little cafe on Glenhuntly Rd today. Located along a stretch of road I don't often frequent, it's called Untitled and fronts an art studio (where they run classes) and an art supply store. It's only been open for four weeks.

The cafe itself is simple yet ultra-cool, offering awesome coffee (5 senses) and a silent movie experience -- Metropolis (sans music) was beamed onto one of the smooth white walls. Although the coffee is a little on the pricey side ($4.50 for a large flat white) and they don't have a full kitchen (meaning food is limited to soup, toasted pides and slices etc), I can see myself escaping here with baby computer for a change of writing scene... Not sure if it's open on the weekend though.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Status update - where I'm at

For most of this year I've relished the luxury of not having to work. It has given me time to relax, to write, to see friends, to spend time with family (especially my two young nephews), to exercise (but not, alas, to lose any weight). It's amazing how normal it feels to hang out (mostly) at home every day.

Some mornings (Tues, Thurs, Sat) I'm up early and off to the gym, other days it's considerably later when I drag myself out of bed. And I have other weekly rituals: Tuesday afternoons tend to involve writing in the pub; Wednesday mornings often include meeting my sister, her kids and usually my mum for coffee at Edna's Place; Fridays at 11am it's a walk along the beach with a friend, followed by lunch.

The rest of the time is filled up with other stuff: random lunch dates, shopping trips and outings, writing (and reading) blog posts . . . and, until the last couple of months, working on my latest novel project. (But you can probably see why I haven't got quite as much writing done as I planned - what with all the distractions.)

Unfortunately, my writing productivity has dropped off considerably in the past couple of months. "Protect your writing time," they say, and I thank every spiritual being under the sun for those Tuesday pub sessions, because without them I suspect I would have completely lost the plot (cliche and pun intended!). Tuesday afternoons are sacrosanct, but I am finding it increasingly hard to write outside of this session, no matter how determinedly I plan writing time into each day..

The Awful Task
The reason of course is the Awful Task of seeking gainful employment. I suspect it would not be such an awful task if a) I already had a job and could afford to wait until exactly the right job came up, b) I knew what exactly the right job was, c) it wasn't 10 years since I'd had to look for a job, d) I wasn't trying to transition careers more or less. Since all of these things apply, it's a total nightmare.

It's taken me a good two months to figure out what the hell I'm doing. I started out by consulting with a careers advisor . . . and while it was good to have some "therapy" I'm not sure it really achieved all that much. Then there was compiling the resume, which after 10 years was rather a task -- and remains an ongoing process as recruiters continue to offer suggestions as to how I should expand/improve it.

And then there's the process of convincing someone to employ you. Whether responding to advertised positions, talking directly to recruiters about what I'm interested in, or trying to network myself into a job, it's really hard.

The challenge for me is that my experience to-date is very "vertical" to use HR speak, which means I have a huge amount of experience and expertise in a relatively narrow field. Sure, I have transferable skills. Heaps of them. And I know that any organisation would be lucky to have me on their team.
But . . .


What I don't have is demonstrated experience (and in some cases knowledge) in all key selection criteria for the types of positions I think I'm interested at moving into. Employers are not interested in someone with the ability to learn core skills on the job. They want someone who already knows how to do the core skills. This is particularly the case with contract positions, which I've been investigating as a means of quickly gaining new skills (and some form of income stream). Fair enough, really.

This all leaves me in a not-fun place. Here am I with masses of ability and experience, lots to offer and no-one to appreciate it. I'm either too experienced (and expensive) for the generalist position that will allow me to diversify my skills while kicking butt on the other stuff, or not experienced enough in the areas that matter. I simply don't tick any of the boxes.

Now, I do not doubt that the right job is out there somewhere. But the process of finding it is mind-numbing and not a little soul-destroying -- and meanwhile I am seriously broke. My goal at the moment is to find something for the short term while I continue to look for something more suitable. (But even that is hard.) I am certainly considering a series of short courses to improve my knowledge in certain areas.

I am blogging all this for a few reasons: 

1) My well-meaning friends and family want to know where I'm at. They also want to help, want to give me pep talks. But I do not always want to talk about it. In fact I usually do NOT want to talk about it, because it makes me very grumpy. Nor do I always want to listen to advice, no matter how well-meaning. So please do not pepper me with public comments telling me what I should or should not do. But I thank you all for your continued support.

2) It's cathartic for me to write about it.

3) This blog is a record of my life milestones, and I want to be able to look back on this difficult period and appreciate that I got through it.

Final word
The upshot of all this is that I have little head space for writing my novel at the moment. I've been finding it impossible to focus, and instead have been grabbing hold of any little distraction (such as watching AFL games on TV I have zero interest in). Perhaps after downloading here today I finally have a clear-enough head . . . but then again I really should kick-off the Awful Task for this week.

I miss those weeks/months earlier in the year when I prioritised writing. Now my rhythm is all over the place and my creativity well is sucked dry.

But I have a habit of falling on my feet. This is merely part of my ten-year cycle of self reinvention and redefinition. I'm like a chrysalis, currently in my cocoon. When I emerge I will be transformed.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Invested in sport

Why do we get so invested in sport? When watching it, I mean. Were I blissfully unaware of the Davis Cup World Group play-off currently underway, I would be quite happy to hear the result and not get in too much of a lather about it; but because it's on the TV and I am watching it, it seems terribly important that Lleyton Hewitt wins the 5th and deciding rubber against Switzerland to get Australia back into the World Group (and hence able to play for the actual Davis Cup in 2012).

YESSSSS! (Lleyton breaks back to go two-all in the fourth set...)

My heart-beat is up and I'm holding my breath as Lleyton ("Australia's best Davis Cup player ever," say the commentators) slogs it out against Stanislas Wawrinka. The crowd is right into it. I wince as the ball hits the net cord.

Put any sport in front of me and I can't help picking a side or competitor to go for. But when I like and follow the sport, it's so much more intense. If it's live netball, and Australia or the Vixens are playing, I can't look away. During the recent World Netball Championship final, when Australia beat NZ in double extra time yet again, my entire body was scrunched up on the couch, frozen solid, fingernails in mouth. Winning that match meant everything at the time. Life and death important.

I mean, really. It's a bit ridiculous. I can kind of understand it when it's a case of national pride -- as with Davis Cup Tennis or Ashes Cricket or the World Netball Championships. But why do I go so nutty for the Vixens during the netball season -- and why do Melbournians go absolutely mental for their AFL team (whether or not they are watching it)?

And now Lleyton's match goes into the fifth set. Sigh.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Remembering nine-eleven

Today is all about the 10 year anniversary of the terrible events now broadly referred to as "nine-eleven". This is a date that will always be synonymous with terrorism and violence; the cracking of the world as we knew it.

Like many people, I remember it vividly. It was late evening. I was watching TV in bed (an episode of one of the Star Trek franchise I think) when Sandra Sully came onto the screen with the breaking news that a plane had just crashed into one of the World Trade Centre Buildings in New York. Replays were shown. At that point in time I (probably naively) assumed it was an accident, and I know I had absolutely no idea of the implications.

But the coverage continued and we all know what unfolded.

I recall watching in horror as the first tower collapsed in the background, while the talking head talked on -- a live-to-air disaster that the whole world watched before the reporter on screen was even aware it had happened. Seeing that collapse in real time packed a massive punch.

I remember waiting in dread for the second tower to fall. I remember seeing people jumping out of the windows and falling . . .

My parents were watching elsewhere in the house, and I think at some point I joined them. I must have gone to bed eventually, but it would have been hours later. At the time I didn't realise how much our world was going to change. It didn't occur to me that I was witnessing history. That came later. At the time it was confusion, panic and pandemonium.

I heard on the news last night that one firm lost all 650 of its employees that day -- out of nearly 3000 lives lost in total. And that includes all the fire-fighters and rescue-workers who died as well. The sheer scale of the devastation is still hard to get your head around.

But it's not just the number of deaths, because natural disasters and accidents can be just as devastating -- and have been in recent years. It's the impact the nine-eleven events had on the global psyche. The fear. The paranoia. The violence in retaliation.

On the news tonight they said it had been a "decade of war". That snagged my attention, because it's true. I find that depressing.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Rising Water

Just a very brief post about the MTC production of Tim Winton's play, Rising Water, which I saw a couple of weeks ago. It's set on the decks of three boats moored permanently side-by-side in a marina, where three loners live and hide out from the world -- while interacting abrasively with each other from their individual vessels. When a loudmouthed drunken English backpacker turns up and looks like falling in the water, Baxter's (John Howard) chivalrous spirit kicks in and he takes her onboard his dilapidated craft. She proves to be the catalyst for confrontation and the revelation of a scandal.

This one didn't really work for me. It was a little slow, and although it was easy enough to follow, the main themes never really coalesced into a cohesive whole. I was left bemused and unsure what was the point of it all. In the fortnight since I saw it, most of my other thoughts have dribbled away, leaving a feeling of vague dissatisfaction...

Sunday, 4 September 2011

A walk in the bush with vanilla slice

It is over a year since I completed the Melbourne Oxfam Trailwalker event with an intrepid group of friends, but some of us reunited today for a walk along a short section of the now-infamous 100km trail in the Dandenong Ranges.

We dusted off our trailrunners, loaded up our backpacks, prepared snack bags and hit Grant's Picnic Ground (Kallista) at the civilised time of 9:00am. And it was fabulous to get back out into the bush and relive some of the memories. We spent a great deal of time at Grant's over the months we were training, and became rather fond of their famous vanilla slices. So reliving that particular experience was high on our agenda -- so high in fact that we pre-purchased them for after our walk, just in case they ran out!

After some discussion, we decided not to do a car-shuffle in order to walk a complete stage, and instead walked out of Grant's for the first section of CP3-4 and then retraced our steps via the Sherbrooke Falls. This meant a shorter walk and less bother with logistics -- probably a good thing, since this was the first decent walk some of our group had done in a while. We were also joined by one of our original support crew, and it was lovely to share the trail and experiences with her.

We finished up with lunch in the picnic ground, and then into the tea rooms for a well-earned coffee and vanilla slice.Very yummy.

I was interested to note this week that the trail was changed for this year's event (and presumably future events) and no longer passes through Grant's Picnic Ground. I feel a little sad for all those walkers who are missing out on those vanilla slices during their training sessions!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Sweet bunnies in Watership Down

The recent book of the month for my reading group was Watership Down (published in 1972) by Richard Adams. I only read about 10% of it, so instead watched the 1978 animated film to gain the gist of the story. Turns out I wasn't the only one in the group, so our discussion was as much about the latter as the novel itself.

As far as the book goes, I enjoyed what I read, which covered the exodus of the rabbits from the warren (due to Fiver's prediction of doom) and the early part of their journey. Each short chapter deals with an obstacle or setback in their journey -- such as a river-crossing, or a near escape from a predator. Unusually for me, I rather enjoyed the omniscient viewpoint and dominant voice of the narrator/storyteller.

Watching the DVD was an interesting experience. The last time I watched it I was still in primary school, and the film scared me silly. I have these vivid memories of the vicious general rabbit and his nasty black minions, who chase the good guys through the fields and rip them to shreds when they are caught. My memories of these scenes are so horrific that I felt genuinely reluctant to re-watch the film (and I think it might have led to my not wanting to read the book, as well). Despite knowing logically that my 40-year-old self would not be scared, I was truly apprehensive to relive the experience.

Anyway, I forced myself to watch the movie, and of course it was nowhere near as violent and terrifying as I remembered. But I can definitely see why small children get frightened. The music in particular is very dramatic (in that corny 1970s way).

My adult take on the film is that it's a wee bit dated -- particularly in terms of the animation, which is almost too basic to be believed. And that "Bright Eyes" scene (sung by Art Garfunkle) -- where Fiver goes searching for his brother/leader-rabbit Hazel who's been shot in the leg by a local farmer -- is sooooooo corny.

Anyway, I gather the story of the film is pretty close to that of the book -- certainly the parts I read were. Although after reading the Wikipedia summary of the plot, it seems there are a few minor differences in the second half. This is where, having safely arrived at their new warren on Watership Down, the rabbits realise they have no female rabbits (doh!) and decide to seek some out. It involves initially negotiating (in the book) and then infiltrating a nearby warren (headed up by the evil General Woundwort) to steal away some of their females.

Overall, it's a simple story, so simple that many have gone searching for allegories in order to tease out deeper meaning. Maybe it's a political comment on styles of government -- contrasting the different leadership structure of the four warrens mentioned in the book. Others have identified religious symbolism. But apparently Adams intended none of this, saying it was just a story he made up during long car trips for his daughters.

Thus, at heart, it's a fairly basic and sweet "coming of age" story -- albeit with a fairly comprehensive rabbit mythology (told through folk tales) and vocabulary. My impression is that, despite the evil general and his minions, things happen a little too easily and conveniently for modern sensibilities. The main conflict is big and bold, but it's all too linear and predictable. Sweet bunnies aside, I'm afraid I don't really see what all the fuss is about.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Fitness mission - week 5

This is the final post in my "fitness mission/C25K" series. After some deliberation, I abandoned the C25K program last week on the grounds that it was making me grumpy. There were simply too many odds stacked up against me and I faltered. (Turns out that running does not make me feel better.) Having made the decision, which has been coming on for a couple of weeks, I feel as though a weight has lifted.

I am still going to Curves, however, and splurged on some funky new gym gear from lululemon. Gee, they have some lovely stuff. It could be the onset of a new addiction -- and the best thing is that every time you buy yourself a new workout top, the first thing you want to do is go to the gym! Does that make it bribery or a reward?

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Movie: Friends with Benefits

Been seeing quite a few movies lately! The latest was Friends with Benefits yesterday evening... This is a snappy RomCom starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. The opening scene is a ripper, and I also particularly enjoyed the first 10 minutes or so in which headhunter Jamie (Kunis) tries to talk online blog whiz Dylan (Timberlake) into taking the art director's job with GQ Magazine.

From here it's likable and easy enough to take, if predictable. The two leads are fine -- I daresay Mila Kunis will be the next flavour of the month. It presents a slightly different perspective on New York, which I liked; and Jenna Elfman as Dylan's sister, looking after their father as he slowly succumbs to Alzheimer's, gives a lovely performance.

Overall, though, the movie seemed a little lacking in depth and complexity, even for a RomCom. It moves through the various stages of their relationship in much the manner you'd expect (turning points on cue), making it seem formulaic. The subplots are too peripheral as well. Just not enough substance or heart for me. Entertaining enough for a single viewing, but not one I'll be seeking out again for a Friday DVD night.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Nature Direct - here's to healthy housework

Just a short post about Nature Direct (because I like to be thorough). This is a direct-selling organisation specialising in non-toxic, eco-friendly cleaning solutions.

One of the mandates of the company is to educate people about the nasty toxins some people spread around their homes, disguised as air-fresheners, insect spray or bathroom cleaners (to name a few). If you read the fine print or directions on many common products, you start to wonder why on earth you would use them. (I feel this way about bleach -- fume masks and tough gloves are recommended. Why would you put yourself through that?)

So it's not just about the environment -- it's about our health as well.

All Nature Direct products are pH-neutral and made from 100% natural ingredients. They are not expensive. My only complaint is that there are not enough options. At the moment you can get a heavy-duty cleaner (for bathrooms, kitchens etc), spray-and-wipe cleaner, glass cleaner, carpet/upholstery/prewash solution, and the 'EnviroMist' spray, which is a spray disinfectant. There is also the immensely wonderful EnviroAir, which bubbles away in the corner deodorising and cleansing the air circulated around a room. I think they could do with adding some dishwashing detergent as well as laundry detergent to the range.

I am still a pretty big Enjo user, but am now supplementing with some Nature Direct products. I just don't understand how anyone could use bleach et al after they've seen the alternative.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

A pared-back version of Jane Eyre

Another decade, another version of Jane Eyre, that oft-filmed eternal favourite. Starring Australian Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) as Jane, and German(!) Michael Fassbender as Rochester, this latest movie is a windswept, pared-back interpretation that still manages to capture most of the essential essence of the novel.

In my mind, it was always going to be difficult to surpass the 2006 BBC television series (starring Toby Stephens and Ruth Wilson) and I probably still prefer that version, largely owing to the more comprehensive treatment. There's a lot of essential dialogue missing in the new movie, and while I thought Wasikowska gave an impressive performance, I couldn't help wishing sometimes that she'd speak rather than use her amazingly expressive face.

Yet the script covers all the essential plot points, and utilises a creative adaptation to the structure of the story. By starting with Jane's flight from Thornfield Hall, the film opens with a mystery (if you don't know the story) and then cuts between this usually rather dull 'Rivers' section and Jane's equally dull childhood. I thought it worked really well. (The 2006 version adheres to a more conventional structure from the start, but interleaves the Rivers section with flashbacks to the passionate scenes between Jane and Rochester in the aftermath of the non-wedding. This works too.) I did notice that this film version decided to omit the ridiculous coincidence that Jane is related to the Rivers -- good job!

Of the other characters, I thought Jamie Bell as St John Rivers was OK, although not particularly memorable -- and Judi Dench was predictably brilliant as Mrs Fairfax, despite limited screen time. All the other characters were very pared back, but served their purpose. However, I did come away feeling that the Mason angle was underplayed and a tad too peripheral. Perhaps much of the story, abbreviated as it was, suffered from this. I don't think you get the same sense of Jane's total powerlessness and vulnerability as an orphaned and poor woman in this version, either.

Ultimately, my greatest lasting impression of the film is of the windswept moor and of course the Jane/Rochester love story. I've heard it said that this portrayal of Rochester is more severe than most, but it didn't overtly strike me that way. However, I did feel the impact of the contracted storyline in the development of their relationship.

Overall, if you're anywhere close to being a fan of Jane Eyre . . . or the Bronte sisters . . . or Gothic Romance in general, this film is definitely worth seeing. The cinematography is fabulous (I've read that many of the interior shots are filmed using candle-lighting) and the performances also. Even though it's possibly missing a few of the usual intricacies and depth of theme, at heart it's still a tremendous story.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Fitness mission - week 4

So another week of gym/Curves workouts and C25K walk/jogging, another week of feeling virtuous and vigorous.

I'm still really enjoying the gym workouts, especially the fact they ensure I'm out of bed and exercised, showered and breakfasted by 8:30am. The workouts themselves are fun and social, and in my view this is definitely the way to do exercise!

On the other hand, I'm still not much enjoying the jogging, especially since C25K week 4 was a huge step up from week 3. The program for week 4 consists of [3 min jog - 90s walk - 5 min jog - 2.5 min walk] X 2 sandwiched between the 5 minute warmup and warmdown walks. That final 5 min jog saw me shuffling along like Cliff Young in his gumboots.

I've only done two sessions of week 4 so far, because I substituted the 3rd session for a hill-training session instead. This morning saw me with a couple of friends in the Dandenong Ranges National Park on the popular 'Kokoda Memorial Trail', otherwise known as the 1000 steps. We climbed the steps twice (15-20 min each time) which was a good aerobic workout, oh yes indeedy! A lovely Spring-like morning too. I dug out my trailrunners for the first time since last April and gave them something to do.

I'll do the 3rd session of C25K week 4 tomorrow and assess whether I'm ready for week 5, which is another massive step up. Something tells me there's a good chance I'll stick with week 4 for now and move on to week 5 the following week.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Solar really shines

One of the things I find most irritating about much of the mainstream messaging on carbon and energy and why we should produce or use less of it, is the emphasis on money -- either commercial imperatives or 'cost to families'. Gah! Why the human race should consider that cutting down on carbon emissions in order to save the planet should necessarily be cheaper than polluting practices is beyond me.

But this is not going to be a rant about stupid attitudes to the Australian carbon tax (which I support) or other environmental issues; it's actually going to be about Ian McEwan's latest novel, Solar (2010), which comments on the decay (both global and personal) derived from human excesses, while exploring our immediate need for renewable energy.

Michael Beard is a nobel prize-winning physicist in his 50s, resting on his professional laurels as he chairs a centre for research into renewable energy. He is also experiencing the disintegration of his 5th marriage. The culmination of a marvellous first act, in which we also meet Beard's brilliant post-doc Tom Aldous and Beard's wife's disreputable lover Tarpin, sees Tom's notes about a theoretical revolutionary new solar energy technology fall into Beard's hands . . . The 2nd and 3rd acts take place five and then another four years later respectively, each one providing a snapshot of Beard en route to developing the technology into a commercial enterprise, until it all comes crashing down.

Beard is a thoroughly unlikable and extravagant protagonist. As a serial womaniser, his attitude to women is deplorable. He overindulges in food, getting fatter and fatter with each passing act, and shows signs of being an alcoholic. His ego overrules his professional ethics, and he is the master of rationalisation, self-delusion and self-denial. And, to top it all off, his motive for developing the solar technology is almost all pure self-interest -- both commercial and to restore his failing professional reputation. This all makes him the perfect allegory for the human race and our many vices. McEwan holds us up to the repellant Beard as a mirror and shows us just how much we have to answer for.

I enjoyed this novel immensely. It's the first McEwan novel I've read, and I understand he is renowned for his 'set pieces', which in Solar are laugh-out-loud funny. (Even when reading in a cafe!) This novel has in fact been described by many critics as a comedy, and, although I wouldn't have necessarily called it that, it does have a light touch. Certainly the character of Beard is simply too revolting to be believed.

I particularly liked the first act, which circles around through various events as Beard worries about his wife's affair, has an altercation with his wife's lover, fobs off the theories of Tom the post-doc, goes on a visit to the arctic to 'witness' global warming . . . and returns to the Climactic Event of the act that tightens all the slack strings into a neat bow and left me awe-struck. It is so skillfully done. All through the novel the writing is fabulous -- such brilliant descriptions and super-effective use of narrative action to convey exactly the right mood.

Usually I don't like novels where I can't relate to the characters at all, but in Solar the writing and storycraft is so skillfull that I was totally absorbed. Even the science sounds feasible. Interestingly, it seems other McEwan fans don't like this as much as his other books, so now I am really looking forward to reading some more of his works.