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.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Conan the Barbarian

Earlier this week, I somehow found myself rocking up to the Jam Factory to see a preview screening of the latest Conan the Barbarian movie in order to review it for Festivale Online Magazine.

Part of my brain told me that of course I should go see it, because it's a fantasy movie, and that's my thing. Sure, the previews made it look a bit mindless with a lame plot, but there was still the possibility that it might have hidden depths not shown in the previews. Failing that, at least it would be visually spectacular . . . (It does star Jason Momoa, after all.)

At least I didn't pay to see the movie. In addition to being mindless with a lame plot (the previews didn't lie, after all), it's also really violent and there's not much depth to any of the characters. Not even the visuals made up for it -- unlike the breathtaking world brought to life in the TV series Game of Thrones, Conan's world is bleak and underwhelming. However, to quote myself, I did think Jason Momoa was "muscularly spectacular".

Here's my full review at Festivale, and my thoughts are probably best summarised in the sixth paragraph: I think my biggest disappointment is the lack of sophistication and subtlety. Here was a chance for the filmmakers to completely subvert expectation, to explore the inner complexities of Conan, his world and the other key players; but instead we are treated to a hackneyed and clich├ęd rendition of the evil overlord, the innocent-yet-feisty girl, the battle-hardened ‘hero’.

I should qualify my views by stating that I've had no other exposure to the "legend" that is Conan, so am really judging this film in isolation. I just don't get why a filmmaker would resort to remaking Conan the Barbarian, when there is so much intelligent and insightful modern fantasy around. A wasted opportunity in my view.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

C25K - week 3 - Curves 1.0

This week my exercise regimen stepped up a notch . . . three walk/runs for the C25K program and three workouts at Curves gym. Rest day on Sunday -- and OMG do I need it!

The C25K routine (week 3) involved: 5 min warmup walk - [90s jog - 90s recovery walk - 3min jog - 3min recovery walk] X2 - 5 min cooldown walk.

Surprisingly I found that a 3 min jog, although insanely hard, was not twice as hard as a 90s jog. The weather was cooler too, so I didn't get quite so hot and bothered. I completed the program along the canal and through the park on Mon, Wed, Fri . . . It took an extra special effort to get out on Friday afternoon, because my 'usual' morning timeslot was substituted for a regular walk-along-the-beach with a friend.

I'm still having to fool myself into 'going for a walk to see how I go', but of course sheer determination and obstinacy -- once I'm out there -- takes care of the rest. But I'm seriously not looking forward to week 4, which seems to be an enormous step up in difficulty.

The new Curves endeavour, on the other hand, is a more attractive proposition for several reasons: 1) It's companionable/social, 2) There is no 'out' because I'm getting picked up at 6:40am, 3) It doesn't involve a public exhibition, 4) I actually find muscle workouts easier and more enjoyable.

I feel the Curves workouts complement the more aerobic C25K workouts really well. Even better, they're making me get out of bed at a far more acceptable hour . . . so I can utilise more of my day. (Conversely, the thought of a walk/run serves to keep me in bed.) Our Curves days are Tues, Thurs and Sat, leaving no room for deviations in the C25K schedule!

I certainly believe I deserve my rest day after all that activity, and feel much better for having done it. My next quest is to get my eating habits under control to see whether I can shake off a few kg while I'm at it!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Loco Coffee

Loco Coffee in Elsternwick is my goto place for coffee, all-day-brekky and afternoon writing retreat. It's a funky little cafe with an eclectic mix of timber tables (old desks and kitchen tables -- round, square and oblong) and grungy old chairs. The scuffed-up brown linoleum floor means it doesn't get too noisy, and instead the place hums with comfortable chatter, the clink of china and the incessant grinding of beans.

There are so many things to like about this cafe. The service is fabulous -- within 30 seconds of me/us taking a table, someone has brought water, menu and taken a coffee order. Then coffee is usually on the table within a few minutes. Frankly, what happens after that doesn't much matter, but the good service keeps coming . . . and they never annoy you before you're ready.

But it's obviously not merely the service that maintains Loco's very loyal customer base. Its flagship offering is the coffee, which is consistently fabulous (and sold separately). I think it's the best on Glenhuntly Rd. They're renowned for their lovely latte art too -- some of their baristas create gorgeous little faces in the foam.

The brekkies are also excellent. Over the years I've tried many of them, although there are a few I keep coming back to. Usually it's poached eggs of some description for me -- a recent delicious addition to the menu is the 'combit', featuring poached eggs on pesto, olives, avocado and roasted cherry tomatoes -- but I recently tried the bircher muesli and every so often I order the french toast. Even when I go for lunch, I tend to order one of the all-day brekkies.

Loco is also a great place to spend an hour or so with a coffee and my baby computer -- particularly in the afternoons when the crowd slacks off a bit. I've been known to do this on the weekends, but have been able to enjoy the experience more often midweek while I've been off work. Somehow, writing in cafes is productive for me.

And, since Loco is opposite Coles, I sometimes take my book/kindle with me for a coffee before I go shopping. (Any excuse for a Loco coffee!)

Loco would definitely be one of the cafes I frequent the most -- now you know why. [And I've just discovered that the owners have started up a new cafe in the Melbourne CBD. It's called Manchester Press, at 8 Rankins Lane, Melbourne (off Little Burke St). I better check it out!]

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Flourless orange and almond cake

Oranges. Not something I usually eat, let alone buy. But I'm getting three a fortnight with my Aussie Farmers Direct box, and they're starting to accumulate. There are only so many I can slip into a fruit salad. (And I'm not really into orange juice . . .)

And so here's a classic example of how my AFD box is making me try new things. In an attempt to use up some oranges, I seized upon their emailed recipe for a flourless orange cake and decided to make one for the reading group meeting I hosted a few days ago.

I love flourless orange and almond cake and will often order it in a cafe. But the recipes all say you have to boil up oranges in water for two hours before you can do anything, which has always sounded like far too much effort. In hindsight, this is crazy. I've made plenty more complicated cakes and desserts than this. But for some reason it was a stumbling block. Go figure. All you need to be is organised enough to boil up the oranges far enough ahead so they can cool down. I did mine the day before and slapped them in the fridge.

And once your oranges are done, you throw everything else in a bowl (or food processor) and bamix them. Then into the oven and cook. How easy is that? The first one I made for the other night was so successful that I've made another one for my writing group crit meeting today.

The best thing about this recipe is that you can fool yourself into thinking it's healthy -- aside from the sugar. Think eggs, almonds and oranges. No oil of any kind. There is quite a deal of sugar, but for a cake it's positively saintly!

I can't seem to find the recipe on the AFD web site, so I'll reproduce it here.

Flourless Navel Orange Cake (serves 10-12)

2 oranges (medium sized Aussie navels)
6 eggs, beaten
250g sugar
200g almond meal
1 tsp baking powder
Icing sugar (to dust cake)

Boil oranges (skin on) for two hours in a pan with lid on, keeping water topped up.
Remove and allow oranges to cool, cut open and remove any pips, chop roughly.
Preheat oven to 160-180 deg (fan assisted oven) and grease/flour a 20cm cake tin.
Place all ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth (or hand blend).
Pour mixture into tin and bake for 50mins - 1 hour.
Cake is cooked when inserted knife comes out clean.
Allow to cool, turn out of tin and dust with icing sugar when cool.
Serve with cream.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

C25K - week 2

Another week down in my mission for physical self-improvement. It's been an unseasonably warm week, up to 23 degrees in the middle of a Melbourne winter, but very pleasant for getting out and about. A bit warm for running though, I must say.

The C25K week 2 program is as follows: Brisk five-minute warmup walk. Then alternate 90 seconds of jogging and two minutes of walking for a total of 20 minutes. This is how it went down . . .

Day 1 (Tuesday): OMG whose idea was this? I CAN'T do it. How could running 90s be so hard? At least it's a lovely sunny day and there aren't as many hills on the other side of the highway in Brighton. Maybe I should go back to the week 1 schedule?

Day 2 (Thursday): Woke up feeling ordinary -- lethargic and headachy, blah. Had I not already a social walk scheduled for Friday, I suspect I would have deferred this ordeal, but instead I rehydrated, ate, imbibed coffee, procrastinated for another hour and then made myself do it. Adjusted my route again for the better -- and I completed the program!

Day 3 (Saturday): No brekky date scheduled so decided to get the ordeal over and done with. Once again took the pleasant route along the canal and through the park. Got through the walk/run, but am now daunted by the thought of the week 3 program. It just keeps getting harder . . .

I have to say I'm not really enjoying this, and not merely because it's hard. I don't like exerting myself in public. I don't want to see people -- or people to see me -- because I am invariably heaving and spluttering and red-faced and dripping with sweat. I also have a dodgy running style and feel quite self-conscious about it. For the moment, I persevere, because I rather like having done it. But I so do not understand people becoming addicted to running.

I used to think it seemed a shame to workout indoors in a gym when you could instead get outside in the fresh air. Now I think the confinement and isolation of a gym (to some extent) has its time and place. You can hide away in there with your sweat and your pain! A friend and I are going to sign up for the Curves 6-week deal on Tuesday, and I will try to juggle the two fitness programs and see how it goes.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Two fruit, three veg... and then some

Today I received my fourth fruit and vegetable crate from Aussie Farmers Direct. Every fortnight a mystery box appears as if by magic on my doorstep (I never hear the delivery van, even when I'm home). I haul it inside and lift the lid, and discover what luscious fresh produce lies within . . . And then I have to figure out what I'm going to do with it!

The first week's box was by far the most challenging: a whole cabbage, brussel sprouts, a fennel and celery (among other things). None of which I would ever buy. Since then the contents have been a little more in my line -- lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and potatoes every time, some fresh herbs . . . this week I have mushrooms, silver beet and baby spinach too. Not to mention fruit -- oranges, apples, pears, mandarins, kiwi fruit and I've even had an entire cantaloupe and pineapple.

I embarked on AFD in order to improve the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables I eat. It's a radical step for me, who doesn't like cooking much, and it will be interesting to see if I can keep up with cooking and eating all the food when I start working again. I've already had to offload some lettuce, carrots and potatoes, because they just keep accumulating!

But overall I'm really enjoying it. It's forcing me to eat a more diverse range of foods -- which was another objective -- and the quality of the produce is really good. I've become a bit of an AFD evangelist actually.