It's a Resolution, Baby!

52 Weeks. 52 New Year's Resolutions.

Week 50. Resolution 50. See The Nutcracker. December 24, 2010

Considering my level of coordination rivals that of a gangly, new-born deer attempting to walk upon a sheet of ice, you may find it surprising that I was once a ballet dancer.  For eight years I pirouetted, arabesqued, chasséd, demi pliéd and generally spoke much more French than I do now before the trials of life stripped my first passion away from me.  While I wasn’t a talented dancer by any means, I was certainly a committed one, studying six different types of dance that meant I spent more time in ballet shoes than any other form of footwear.  I was once even chosen to dance with the New Zealand Ballet as part of an ensemble but was swiftly kicked out for talking too much and subsequently received a much better character part.  I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

 

But, like the ugly duckling in reverse, I grew less graceful and more self conscious (and less talkative) as adolescence peeled me from my youthful abandon and my life as a dancer was over.

 

However, back then, such was my passion for music and dance that I consumed as much Grease, Annie, Can’t Stop the Music and Xanadu than was probably healthy for a young girl but somehow never managed to see the world’s most famous ballet, The Nutcracker.  Ironically I’ve probably actually danced IN The Nutcracker but was too busy backstage being caked in hairspray, make-up and tulle to have ever experienced the full shebang.  I always believed it was the tale of a bunch of Christmas toys getting up to mischief while their human playmates slept—Like ‘Toy Story: The Ballet’.  But it’s not like that at all as I found out when I finally attended the Queensland Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ at QPAC this Christmas.

 

The Nutcracker is based on a story adapted by Alexandre Dumas of ‘The Three Musketeers’ fame and is (unbelievably I know) about a nutcracker.  But like most good ballets, and operas too I imagine, the plot is tenuous at best and simply provides a hook to hang the dancing upon.  The ballet was originally performed in 1892 but proving unsuccessful was abandoned on the scrapheap.  This was evidenced in the film Fantasia (as mentioned in an earlier post) when the narrator introduces Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite by explaining that The Nutcracker ballet “wasn’t much of a success and nobody performs it nowadays.”  However merely four years after this infamous statement the San Francisco Ballet introduced The Nutcracker into the hearts of the public, forever cementing the ballet as a crucial component of the Christmas tradition the world over.

 

The Nutracker begins at a lavish Christmas party in the mansion of the Stahlbaum family.  Much to the delight of the children, their godfather, the dastardly toy-maker Herr Drosselmeyer, arrives to distribute presents, one of which is the infamous nutcracker.  After the party the youngest child, Clara, sneaks down to the parlour to check on the nutcracker but as the clock strikes midnight everything in the room grows and she is beset by a plague of mice.  The now alive nutcracker and his army of gingerbread men do battle with the Mouse King but quickly fall to his micey minions until Clara throws a slipper at them triumphantly winning the battle.  Who knew slippers could be such an effective weapon eh?

 

Up until this point the ballet makes a strange kind of sense but then the nutcracker inexplicably transforms into a prince and takes Clara to the Land of Snow for a dance.  Afterwards they visit the Land of Sweets where the Sugar Plum Fairy celebrates their victory with a selection of dances including the Spanish Dance, the Arabian Dance, the Russian Dance, the Chinese Dance, the Mirliton Dance (?) and the Waltz of the Flowers.  Then they all dance some more until Clara awakens back in the parlour of her mansion, the nutcracker cradled in her arms.  This nonsensical second act could be blamed upon that old chestnut, “it was all just a dream”.

 

While this is the official story, in the Queensland Ballet version of events, following Clara’s dance with the prince, it was her omnipresent godfather Drosselmeyer who accompanied her to the Land of the Sweets and their rapport was such that I couldn’t help continually questioning their bizarre relationship.

 

Perhaps we simply mixed up the dancers because our $55 nosebleed seats meant we were so far away and so high up that my fear of heights was distracting enough to make the experience an uncomfortable one.  I spent a lot of time thinking about how dance is the only activity humans participate in where a complex set of movements are repeated over and over, night after night.

 

(If your mind just wandered to the gutter, come back now please because we’re discussing ballet for chrissakes.)

 

Tchaikovsky’s stirring and timeless score was performed beautifully by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and the Queensland Ballet’s sets and lighting were lovely and spectacular respectively.  However as ballet was such a large part of my life for a time I still have a critical eye for dance and, while there were undoubtedly some stunning dances including the Snow Dance and the Arabian Dance, for the most part the performances and choreography were far from faultless.

 

An oddity of ballet which I’ve always found ridiculous is that you are required to clap so much that it’s a wonder your hands don’t perpetually meld together.  Not only are you expected to clap after every dance but at the end you generally clap for a good ten minutes as you applaud the ensemble, then each group of dancers, then individual dancers, then the ensemble again, then the director, the individual dancers again, the ensemble, and then, if you’re lucky, they might finally drop the curtain giving your blistered hands some peace.

 

Even though my time as a dancer is over there were certainly plenty of small, perfectly groomed girls in the audience for whom the dream continues or for whom, after seeing The Nutcracker the dream begins.

 

May your Christmases be merry and your godfathers not so creepy!

 

Week 49. Resolution 49. See U2. December 16, 2010

Remember when music was tangible?  Before iPods were all the rage you actively had to go to a shop and pay for an album in order to listen to a band or song that you liked.  The excitement you felt holding a freshly minted album in your hands was as much about the cover art and packaging as it was about the music.  A finely crafted album was savoured and played regularly—taking both the good with the bad.  (And AH-MAZING things like THIS were still possible!)

 

These days you merely have to visit the iTunes store to purchase a song of your choice.  While I love the convenience of paying only for the tracks that I want and having access to artists the local music store would be unlikely to stock, part of me misses the ritual and anticipation of hearing a new album for the very first time, and the second time, and third, and so on until I knew the words to every song.  Now our listening habits are more about variety than consistency and our love affair with our favourite albums has lost its passion.

 

Subsequently, my life no longer has a soundtrack.  For me, and you too I imagine, there are certain memories I can’t reflect on without remembering the music that accompanied them.  Whole portions of my life cannot be recalled without hearing The Pixies, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Radiohead, The Doors, Nick Cave, Death Cab For Cutie and so many, many more.  But now, for the most part, my more recent memories are silent.

 

One of the most prevalent bands to accompany my memories, at a time when I was first discovering the importance of music in my life, is U2.  Towards the later end of my high school years U2’s Achtung Baby was the soundtrack.  When I graduated high school and first discovered real independence U2’s Zooropa was the soundtrack.  These albums defined moments of my life.  And, even now looking back at U2’s discography I can’t help but feel nostalgic for my teenage years.  So when U2 toured the spectacle that was Popmart in 1998, a concert I couldn’t afford to attend because I was only a poor student, I swore to myself that one day I would see U2 live.

 

Admittedly, I haven’t thought much about U2 in the intervening years.  Like all bands that blaze too brightly for a time, there is undoubtedly an accompanying full from grace.  Love them or loathe them, they are still unquestionably the biggest band in the world even if, these days, people tend to laugh AT Bono and not with him which is odd considering his philanthropic work has genuinely made the world a better place.

 

Thirteen years later when U2’s 360 tour was announced I had graduated from a poor student to a poor adult and initially thought that perhaps my dream no longer had worth, but on learning of the $40 seats the part of me that once longed to see U2 began to burn a little brighter.  Although the ticket ended up being $6o with the inclusion of Ticketek’s ludicrous fees, it was still a steal to see the world’s biggest band tour the world’s largest stadium show and my excitement grew as the event edged ever closer.

 

Catching the free shuttle bus to the concert was an experience in itself.  The driver announced he’d play some music to get us into the mood before assaulting our eardrums with a snippet of the kitschiest version of ‘Wheels on the Bus’ I’ve ever heard.  This was quickly followed by the Chicken Dance, the driver’s cackling and the blaring of U2 at shattering levels.  It was an odd sensation staring out the tinted bus windows, listening to blisteringly loud U2 and watching office minions begin their journey home.

 

Never before have I seen such a diverse range of people at a gig, ranging from children to the middle aged and all manner of sorts in between, including the charming young lady who couldn’t keep her boobs in her top.  I heard a girl nearby comment that seeing U2 was on her bucket list and I realised I wasn’t alone in this desire.

 

The expansive set looked as if an alien from War of the Worlds had descended on Suncorp Stadium, laying dormant in wait for its masters to bring it to life.  The massive 360 screen in the belly of the craft counted down from ten minutes to zero before Jay-Z launched onto the stage to attempt to rouse the beast.   Jay-Z was an odd choice for a support, no doubt dividing the audience, but I was personally thrilled to hear favourites Roc Boys, Hard Knock Life and 99 Problems (no Death of Auto-Tune though?).  While our view of Jay-Z was predominantly blocked by the drum risers for his two kits and horn section, the screen provided enough coverage for us to appreciate his lively on-stage presence (he always seems so serious in interviews?)  Jay-Z SOUNDS exactly like I imagine living the glamorous life in New York FEELS and nowhere is that more evident than in Empire State of Mind which worked the crowd into an appreciative frenzy.

 

After a brief break, a Mexican wave and another countdown U2 entered the arena and sauntered along the walkway surrounding the stage to Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and the cheers of a manic crowd.  Their trademark jangly guitar sound was crystal clear (Jay-Z’s set had been a little murky) as they broke into the instrumental ‘Return of the Stingray Guitar’ followed by ‘Beautiful Day’.  The set was equally littered with old favourites as well as newer tracks that I hadn’t heard.  (The set list can be found here, although if you’d like to see a more comprehensive list including the dozens of snippets of covers included in the set, go here.)  I’m glad I hesitated about buying tickets as I was more impressed with the set list for the second night of the Brisbane show in comparison to the first.

 

Naturally the alien spacecraft opened up and revealed all its bells and whistles under U2’s careful touch.  Rotating bridges joined the stage to the circular walkway so the band members, wielding their instruments, could flounce back and forth to interact with the crowd at will, including their ageless drummer Larry Mullen Jr. who either walked about with a djembe or spun his drum kit around to face all angles.  But it was the age old trick of smoke and mirrors that produced the most interesting effects with light reflecting off the two mirror balls, one below the screen and one atop the spacecraft’s tower, spewing so much smoke that the fine night above was shrouded from view.

 

However the true star of the show was the expansive 360 degree screen that for the majority of the show sat at the top of the stage transmitting in four different directions a mix of vision of the band, pre-recorded video and overlaid effects.  The impeccable camera work and vision mixing continually reflected that of a well crafted video clip and was of the best live standard I’ve personally ever witnessed.  It was a great surprise when the individual hexagonal panels of the screen OPENED UP on hinges to spread the entire height of the stage with each panel displaying a different colour.  Having worked in the event and video industry I could fully appreciate how immensely impressive this was and how brain shattering difficult it would have been to conceive.  The screen then closed up again at the bottom of the stage with vision that travelled around the screen in a circular fashion.

 

The band itself performed a perfectly manicured set and I couldn’t help but muse on how remarkable it is that they’ve never broken up or had to replace a drummer or bassist.  Bono’s high energy antics wooed his minions as, at one moment, he serenaded a young girl plucked from the crowd, while the next he was swinging around atop the illuminated steering wheel shaped microphone which hung from the roof.

 

The band expressed their support for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi by inviting members of the Burma Campaign Australia and One, Bono’s own advocacy organisation, onto the stage with Amnesty International lanterns to form a ring of light around the stage  while U2 performed the song originally written for Suu Kyi in 2000, ‘Walk On’.

 

‘With or Without You’ ended the show while an incredible amount of crew pooled to dismantle the spacecraft the second U2 left the stage.  If only the thing really could fly.  Perhaps that’s the next tour.

 

While I can only touch on the many highlights of the night, further incredible facts can be found about the tour here, including their carbon emission offsets and the placement of the stage on Google Earth a week before each show.

 

The show solidified U2 as still being as relevant and important as ever and while they may never return to high rotation on my iPod they’ve successfully managed to give me yet another memory to savour for life.

 

Week 48. Resolution 48. Have Acupuncture. December 8, 2010

I was going to begin this post by saying ‘I’m scared of needles’ until I realised it’s just as superfluous as saying ‘I hate dentists’.  Show me someone who enjoys having long rods of bloodsucking metal shoved into their body parts and I’ll show you a psychopath. What I should really say is that I’ve never met a needle that didn’t cause me to faint.  Except once—but considering I was already in hospital for fainting, Murphy’s Law dictates that it was unlikely to happen again under the watchful eye of a medical specialist.

As a result ‘have acupuncture’ was never high on my list.  But as absolute necessity will overcome just about any fear, on discovering that acupuncture can be used to cure hay fever, the thought of a hay fever free life completely dulled my needle aversion.  That is, of course, until the day of my appointment when I came to my senses.  (Well, not all of my senses considering my sense of smell usually suffers under hay fever’s iron fist.)

To backtrack a little, I first discovered that acupuncture was used to treat rhinitis through someone’s posting of this link on Twitter.

As I’ve suffered the symptoms of hay fever since birth I’ve grown intolerant to most hay fever medication and so an itchy and sniffily nose has become like an old friend.  An old, incontinent friend who never shuts up.  As regular injections and medication sporting the warning ‘may cause drowsiness’ were my only remaining options I was certainly glad to consider an alternative.

Unfortunately acupuncture is generally one of those professions that has not yet harnessed the power of the webpage and as I’m one of those people who no longer uses telephones, finding an acupuncturist who treats respiratory problems was like trying to find a needle in a haystack (sorry).  It also seems that anyone can do a six month course and call themselves an acupuncturist which certainly doesn’t instil much faith in needlephobics. But a call-out on Twitter and Facebook (useful in so many ways) left me with a couple of recommendations and a quick phone call later (fine, I use the phone SOMETIMES, but begrudgingly) and I had myself an appointment.  Bonus—they also have a website, therapists with over ten years experience and were cheaper than others I’d found.

With my appointment looming I could think of only two things.  One—a story told by a friend who does acupuncture about the time a patient accidentally relieved herself while under treatment, and Two—NEEDLES!! NEEDLES!! NEEDLES!! NEEDLES!! NEEDLES!!

Good times.

But as chickening out is not part of the resolution code I simply had to ignore these incessant thoughts as much as possible and get on with the frightening task.

CUT TO:  INT. ACUPUNCTURIST TREATMENT ROOM – 2PM.

To kick off the consultation the therapist first talked to me about my symptoms, general health and explained the treatments she was going to use.  An unexpected fact that came out of this discussion is that it’s highly likely I have endometriosis which would affect my fertility should I ever want children.  Other than that, I liked the therapist instantly and found her laidback yet knowledgeable approach sent the last of my fears packing.  She then explained the principles of wind and fire making me realise I have absolutely no concept of how acupuncture works which I’m entirely comfortable with considering I’d likely find weaknesses to poke holes in (pun intended).

I jumped up onto the treatment table and prepared for the needle onslaught.  She used approximately 13 needles starting with feet and moving upwards to legs, hands and face.  Each needle is tapped into the pressure point and feels like a small pinch to the skin.  Nothing to fear at all.  I said as much and she responded that there was a time when people came for acupuncture literally quaking in their boots but these days it’s just so commonplace and the needles so fine that it’s really nothing to worry about.  And it isn’t.

The needles are left in for 20-30 minutes and at first feel like mosquito bites without the itch while they rest in your skin, but eventually the feeling goes away completely.  The only time I felt any pain was when a sudden movement of my foot made the needle bounce around.  The therapist explained that the majority of people tend to fall asleep while under treatment due to acupuncture’s relaxing effects, with most beginning to nod off after the second needle is placed into their skin.  But as someone who finds it difficult to relax and since I was all adrenalined up from the experience I simply stared at the ceiling, smiling to myself for tackling the resolution.  Afterwards her assistant removed the needles which felt like someone plucking a single hair from my skin.

The cost of the appointment was $70, of which my health fund will cover $33 and I was also given $22 worth of Chinese herbs to strengthen my immune system.  The therapist asked to see me in a week after which time I could continue weekly treatments if I so chose.

I’ve spent the time since drinking my wonderful concoction of curry flavoured dirt three times a day and hoping for the best.  I’ve suffered hay fever twice (both times it came on an hour before a shift at work – psychosomatic?) which meant I had to revert to taking my drug of choice, Cetirizine.  However, a week later and I suffered my third attack so badly that I booked my follow up appointment for the same day, despite the cries from my bank account.  This time I didn’t take any antihistamines and my symptoms were so intense that it made me realise exactly how effective my Cetirizine has been.

The therapist asked questions regarding my hay fever since my last appointment and upon discovering I’ve accidentally been taking too much of the Chinese herbs (I was given the wrong instructions) she laughed and said ‘no wonder it’s been working so well!’  Considering I was still getting hay fever this made me question HOW it’s been working so well and whether the acupuncture was just for show.  To my annoyance it meant I had to buy another bottle of herbs.  She reminded me that I should also be using a salt wash (where you pump a bottle of salted water through your nostrils to flush out any toxins) and so I picked up a kit on the way home.

The second application of needles was virtually painless until she put one into my face that must have been so close to a nerve that certain facial movements caused me a great amount of pain.  I spent the 30 minutes desperately wishing for it to be over.

Actually a hedgehog

When the assistant came to remove my needles she laughed hysterically when the one in my forehead refused to come out, commenting that she’d never seen it happen in all her 15 years of working there.  The brief vision of spending my life resembling a porcupine was not pleasant.

That evening my hay fever had become so debilitating that it was beginning to resemble a more serious ailment.  I later realised the likely reason for this particularly severe attack was because I’d managed to flick shampoo into my eye that morning and it had probably gotten into my sinuses.

Whether the treatment will be effective in the long term still remains to be seen but at least I now know the drill. (Oh sorry, that was a dentist joke.)

 

Week 47. Resolution 47. Try Pumpkin Pie. December 2, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — H-Ro @ 2:38 PM
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In America they have a holiday devoted to shopping.  Let me just repeat that.  A holiday.  Devoted to shopping.  Previously retailers disguised their spending spree special occasions under fancy names like Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day until one particularly clever (or lazy) marketing team decided to call a spade a spade and so Black Friday, the holiday devoted to shopping, was born.   The only company who seems to lose out on this particular consumerist celebration is Hallmark.  Oh.  Hang on.  What’s this?

 

That’s right.  A greeting card to apologise for your crazed Black Friday induced breakdown of Shopzilla proportions.  Oh America.  If countries were pop stars you would be Kanye West—bat shit crazy but still completely adorable.

 

Black Friday falls on the Friday after Thanksgiving and if there’s one thing I’M thankful for it’s that these American traditions have not yet permeated the rest of the western world.  However now that Christmas appears to begin in Australia at the start of November I wouldn’t be entirely against introducing Thanksgiving simply to stave off Christmas until its rightful place in December.

 

While Thanksgiving is a rough day for turkeys it’s a welcome day for leftover Halloween pumpkins or, sadly, PUMPKINS IN A CAN *shudder* since pumpkin pie is a staple of the Thanksgiving tradition.

 

If you ask me, pumpkin is the king of all the vegetables.  The Pumpking, if you will.  Sure it’s not as versatile as the trusty potato but it has much more personality.  Like Hamish to Andy or Jerry Lewis to Dean Martin.  You may feel inclined to tell me, as many have, that pumpkin is considered an inferior vegetable in certain countries, only fit for pigs.  But I’m here to tell you you’re wrong.  I did a Google search on this very myth and all I could find was this:  http://italianfood.about.com/b/2005/08/09/pumpkin-for-pigs.htm So let us never speak of it again and leave my beloved pumpkin alone.

 

I’ve consumed pumpkin in many forms – baked, roasted, steamed, boiled, pulped, souped, sconed, but oddly never in pie form and so when Thanskgiving rolls around every year I find myself wondering if I’m missing out on something truly wonderful.  Never again shall I wonder now that I’ve made my own and discovered the truth.

 

Finding a pumpkin pie recipe is a chore in itself since there are so many variations.  I ended up using an amalgamation of four different recipes.  Most recipes are unclear on what type of pumpkin to use so, having recently discovered that Jap pumpkin is far superior to Butternut after believing it to be the opposite for far too many years, I chose a big ol’ Jap pumpkin for mah pie.

 

First I started (using this recipe), by preparing ‘a stick’ of butter (which is 115 grams), cutting it into cubes and putting them into the freezer for roughly half an hour.  Apparently you want your butter to stay chunky in your pastry to get a nice flaky finish, hence the freezing.  I chose this recipe specifically because it didn’t use shortening (because I don’t really know what that is).

 

(Incidentally this is the only experience Australians have ever had with a stick of butter …)

 

Meanwhile I began preparing the pumpkin using this recipe which involved cutting the pumpkin into chunks, deseeding and depulping, and roasting for 45 minutes in a 180 degree oven.  While they were cooking I began on the pastry, using a food processor to combine the ingredients and adding ice cold water until the dough was coarse and crumbly.  I kneaded this into a four inch round disc, sprinkled it with flour and covered it in cling wrap before refrigerating for an hour.  When the pumpkin was done I waited for it to cool before scraping off the skin and using the food processor to liquefy it in batches.  (Ensure your pumpkin isn’t still hot or you may crack the bowl of your processor / blender).  The Jap pumpkin was enough for about six pumpkin pies so I froze the leftover puree.

When the pastry was nice and chilled I removed it from the fridge, letting it sit for ten minutes before preparing it using this recipe (from step 3) rolling and rotating the dough until it was big enough to cover my pie pan, transporting it by folding the dough into quarters making sure the point was in the middle of the pan and pressing the dough down to fit snugly.  I trimmed, tucked and squeezed the edges with my fingers to give a nice rippled effect before refrigerating it for 20 minutes.  I then pricked it all over with a fork, covered it in alfoil and refrigerated for a further 30 minutes.  I wish I could justify all this refrigerating but it’s simply what the recipe said to do.

 

Then I began to prepare the pie ingredients, combining the pureed pumpkin with spices, condensed milk, egg yolks and whipped egg whites using this recipe because of its stellar reviews.  I then baked the pie crust low in the oven on 200 degrees for 15 minutes with the alfoil, and ten minutes without it to make sure the pie crust didn’t go soggy.  The edges started to burn a little so I covered them with alfoil before adding the pie mixture and baking for 15 minutes.  I then prepared the streusel topping mixing together flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, butter and chopped pecans (the recipe calls for walnuts but I thought pecans might be tastier), combining until crumbly and sprinkling over the pie, cooking for a further 20 minutes or so.  I then jumped back to this recipe letting the pie sit for an hour once the middle wobbled like gelatine because it continues to cook on the bench (and stops your pastry from burning and your mixture from curdling).  Finally I prepared cream to finish (using this recipe) by whipping a cup of cream with a tablespoon of maple syrup.

 

WOULD YOU BELIEVE THAT… I didn’t like it.  I don’t think the recipe went wrong, although having never tasted it before I had nothing to compare it to, it was simply that I detest cinnamon and nutmeg.  Only the Americans could take something lovely and make it unnecessarily sweet and gross.   Mind you, I did have three pieces just to be sure.

 

My Mum liked it though, and my Aunt and Uncle said they liked it (but considering there’s still half a pie left in the fridge I’m a little dubious).  I just don’t think the Australian palate is familiar with heavily spiced cuisine.  I probably should have suspected as much considering Thanksgiving, unlike so many other American traditions, has thus far failed to reach our shores.

 

So thank you America, we’ll keep the pumpkin carving but the pies are all yours. Happy Thanksgiving!