Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy new year!

Traditionally New Year's Eve has been disappointing for me. Many's the time I've sat drinking beer with my dad and wondering where the party was. One New Year's Eve, I was robbed. And this time last year I'm pretty sure I was having a cry in a darkened bedroom, while a Chapel Hill house party and the televised fireworks raged on without me. So on balance a long swim, a barbeque with my parents and starting the new year writing isn't such a bad lot. (Though I must question SBS' programming of an old Leonard Cohen concert - don't they think those of us watching television on New Year's Eve are depressed enough already?)

This time of year always brings reflection. What have I achieved? Where to next? Fond memories and rueful regrets unspool. Highs and lows are weighed against each other, and the impulse to make lists rears its finicky head. One thing you can expect as this blog resumes regular service is my list of favourite albums of the year.

The ultimate for list-makers is new years resolutions. And for we perfectionists, it's a dangerous time. So tempting to set impossible targets, which in turn are hastily abandoned as soon as the slightest thing goes wrong to sully that glorious blank new calendar. It always reminds me of a Cathy cartoon where she's keeping a new journal but on the second day of the new year is forced to give it up. "Ack! I wrote in blue pen instead of black! Everything is ruined!"

Looking back on my resolutions for 2010, I actually did well on every count. "More time with old friends; Less flaking; More bike riding; Less days lost to the hangover void; More photography; Less TV; More road trips; Less unfinished books; More music; Less unfinished sudoku; More writing; More new recipes; More random kissing; More learning." The virtues of realistic goal setting, I guess!

But then again, I am currently homeless, unemployed, and quite a ways financially from meeting my goal of moving back to New York to work. Failures seem more dramatic at this time of year too, and after a few weeks living back with my parents I'm beginning to understand why people say "you can't go home again". Surely I'm too old to be living with my folks, doing seasonal work? There's a ten year highschool reunion approaching after all. My mother is right to ask what I'm doing with my life.

Perhaps it's wrong or just lazy to trust that things will work themselves out - with hard work and good intentions, of course. But surely one's unfettered 20s are the time to revel in the luxury of leaving some things to chance, living on the road and leaving time to have adventures? Having spent my first days back in this house sorting through childhood diaries and schoolbooks, and being confronted with what a shy, confused, lonely kid I was, it feels like something of an achievement to now feel so comfortable and indeed inspired by the chaotic prospect of living on the other side of the world.

One of the things I still have in common with that kid though, along with a mile-wide romantic streak and a tendency to make terrible jokes at inappropriate times, is the urge to write. So this is my resolution for 2011. To write every day. Especially the days when I don't feel like it. Because as that wise man Albus Dumbledore once said, there comes a time when you must choose between what is right and what is easy. Maybe that choice is what separates adults from children. So I'll keep writing. I hope you find something you like, here and there. But right now I just hope you're reading this sometime in January, possibly hungover, having had a blast of a New Year's Eve. I hope 2011 brings you stuff you've been dreaming of - and stuff you didn't even realise you wanted.

And for good measure I'm keen to keep going on all 2010's resolutions - new recipes, oodles of live music, bike adventures, laughs with friends, roadtrips... All except the random kissing. It was fun while it lasted, but I plan to collect on a belated new year's kiss a few weeks from now. And I have no doubt it will be worth the wait.

Happy new year! xx

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Punch drunk love

Boxing Day is such a random holiday, of the fabulous kind that Australia specialises in. You’d be hard pressed to find an Aussie that can explain the origins of Boxing Day, but we will argue to the death its necessity as a public holiday.

Oddly enough even the internet, usually quick to provide any number of definitive answers to indefinable questions, won’t be drawn on the etymological sources of Boxing Day. It seems likely to have something to do with Christmas season charity – possibly the Church of England’s practice of cracking open boxes of alms collected throughout advent, and distributing the contents to the poor on the day after Christmas. Or it could be a reference to the tradition of rich folks giving a little gift (“box”) often of money to their servants after Christmas.

So nothing at all to do with pugilism then. And yet ‘Boxing Day’ always sends me into a reverie soundtracked by my favourite Cat Power song. Soaring and swooning on strings lifted from “Moon River”, the title track from her 2006 album The Greatest is a sweetly crushing song of defeat.

Just those two words, “The Greatest”, are enough to conjure black-and-white newsreel memories of that most famous of boxers, Muhammed Ali. And while Chan Marshall’s song may be more generally about failed dreams, the very arrangement reels in circles like a punch-drunk old prizefighter. What is that brushed snare if not the shuffling of old feet in soft leather on canvas?
Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the flood
Stars of night turned you to dust...
Once I wanted to be the greatest
Two fists of solid rock
With brains that could explain any feeling
A natural companion song is Ben Folds Five’s “Boxing”, from their self-titled debut album over ten years earlier. The songs’ similarities are surely no coincidence, with Folds’ song told directly in Ali’s voice as he considers retiring from the sport. The “Howard” he addresses is, according to Wikipedia, a famous sports announcer known for commentating the era’s boxing matches, Howard Cosell. Weariness seems to come naturally to Folds, and his words need little embellishment:

Howard, the strangest things happen lately when I
Take a good swing at all my dreams they pivot and slip
I drop my fists and they’re back, laughing
Howard, now my intention’s become
Not to lose what I’ve won
Ambition has given way to desperation and I
I’ve lost the fight from my eyes
In both these songs the boxer is a battered metaphor for the toll time takes on us. The knocks taken in stride in youth can send one reeling in old age. Thwarted ambitions puncture youthful invincibility, leaving frail forms shadowboxing at fears. Both songs question whether there’s a loss of dignity in not knowing when to bow out of the fight. Quite the opposite of Mr Thomas’ urging to not go gentle but “rage, rage against the dying of the light”. The age old question of rock & roll, the words Neil Young sang and Kurt Cobain quoted in his suicide note – is it better to burn out or to fade away?

But back to the boxer. Inevitably he winds up just past his prime but chasing that one last big win. Whether driven by pride, love, revenge or material need/greed, it’s a trope we all know well. After all the build-up, the trash-talk, the weighing of odds and the warnings of doctors... it all boils down to a man and his opponent on a square of roped-off canvas. Sweating under spotlights, despite the hoopla outside those ropes, all that matters is the two men within. Flesh and bone and skin. Who can deliver – and who can take – the most punishment?

Not that the talk surrounding the fight, and particularly the fighters, isn’t important. More than most sports, boxing embraces narrative, elevates characters and thrives on invention and reinvention. In any other arena, could Cassius Clay have floated fully formed from his chrysalis to become Muhammed Ali? Ben Folds cleverly considers how Ali might feel about all his machismo many years later, even working in a pun on his original name:
Howard, now I confess
I’m scared and lonely and tired
They seem to think I’m made of clay
Another day, I’m not cut out for this
I just know what to say, I say
Boxing’s been good to me, Howard
Now I’m told, ‘You’re growing old’
The whole time we knew
A couple of years I’d be through
Has boxing been good to you?
That centrality of narrative – both organic and manipulated – explains why boxing movies work so well. From Rocky to Million Dollar Baby, the arc never really changes; boxing movies are nearly as formulaic as dance movies. Because here is a skill that transcends class or money or opportunity. The result of a fight is indubitable, and it can’t be purchased. Not in an ideal world, anyway. So this most primal pursuit can be a means for a man, or a woman, to pull himself up from humble origins with little more than some self-belief and hard work.

Closer to home, Boxing Day is really just about one thing: the reassuring drone of cricket taking the edge off your Christmas hangover. After today, the Aussies are stunned on their bums on the canvas, with little cartoon Ashes urns circling their punch-drunk heads. Let’s hope they’re not out for the count just yet.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


If you like the look of photographs that use tilt-shift and macro lenses, but have no budget for expensive gear, here's a little trick you can try on your DSLR. It's called "freelensing", which sounds vaguely dirty and/or drug related, and does risk getting dust and moisture into your camera body so be careful!

Basically you detach your lens from the camera body and tilt/move it away. It gives you lots of control over how your shot is focused, but also brings into play uncontrollable factors like light leaks. It's a bit of fun anyway, here are a couple of shots I've been playing around with this afternoon....

Definitely need some more practice! There's a good visual tutorial and some explanations here on Luke Roberts' site. And you can see some examples of incredible shots people have created using this technique on Gizmodo, here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Climber

Her virtues have been the subject of previous accolades here, but I really am bursting with pride at the amazing job my sister has landed straight after graduating from uni. It's not luck; she worked really hard to reach this point. Nor should we be suprised - her talents have always been easy to spot.

Case in point, the real reason for the breaking of a blogging silence. I give you, my sister, the poetic prodigy - and one of her finest works, just unearthed from the piles of debris in our shared childhood bedroom in St George. I believe it dates to around 1998.

The Climber

I’m an expert tree climber
I’ve climbed every tree there is, that is except
The tree in my back yard
That to climb is rather hard.
All my goals lie in that tree
And the ultimate wish for me
Would be to climb that tree!
I’ve wanted to climb it since I was three,
That rotten rascal of a tree.
And though I try with all my might,
It always seems to win the fight!
One day on November 2nd
The tree seemed more and more to beckon me to climb the far apart branches,
Although I didn’t have many chances.
I ventured up in my teddy socks and climbing shoes,
(I’m going to win not lose)
And navy T-shirt and shorts
(This is like climbing the playground fort)
Apart from that I was rather bare
Except of course for my PINK underwear!
Still on the ground I jumped as high as I thought I could,
And to my amazement felt solid wood!
I reached up high for the next branch.
“At last,” I thought, “I’ve got a chance!”
Although that chance was rather slim
I hung on for dear life to that limb
So that’s how i got to the top of the tree
Just the branches, leaves, trunk and me!
When suddenly at the tip top
I thought that I ought to stop
I moved around to find a place to rest,
I thought to myself this is the BEST!
But I felt uncomfortable, I felt stiff,
It got me thinking – what if?
Undoing mum’s knots that are safe as locks,
I pull off my favourite teddy bear socks.
As I lie there longer and longer,
My courage is getting stronger and stronger!
The heat is IMMENSE!
But no offense!
I think what the heck,
I feel the tight collar crawling up my neck
And, oh, I am so cool,
But I feel like a fool.
In my singlet pink,
Oh, I need a DRINK
And then.....

My toes are curling,
I’m losing my grip,
I’m feeling wobbly,
I’m starting to slip.
My shorts are caught
The denim starts to rip,
A stick catches my zipper,
And Zziipppppp!
I’ve been dacked by a tree!!
Yes, you heard correctly, yes, ME!
I climb down that mongrel tree
As fast as my legs can carry me
I run flat across the back yard
I run as hard as hard as hard,
I don’t care about the neighbours staring
I just care about what I’m wearing.
I am practically bare
Except of course for my PINK UNDERWEAR!!


Does anyone else think this would make for an exceptional children's book?