Tuesday, 30 March 2010

On the Edge - Richard Hammond

I am a relatively new recruit to the Top Gear phenomenon. I had previously thought of it as just another car show with little to hold my attention. Admittedly, I still find that the segments that keep the boys happy with minute details and specs of various high performance cars generally gloss over me. However, I have really come to enjoy the innovative challenges the team are sometimes thrown, and the banter/friendly rivalry between the presenters. Also, my sweetie and I really enjoyed Top Gear Live in Auckland last year. It's not just a show for the boys!

I remember hearing a few years ago that one of the Top Gear presenters had sustained a serious brain injury in a car crash while filming a segment for the show. I didn't know enough about the programme to know who it was but knew that he was married with a young family. Gulp. That's got to hurt.

On the Edge (2007) is the story of Richard Hammond, the events leading up to his spectacular crash while driving a jet car, and his remarkable full recovery in the weeks and months following. It's quite a story and was co-written with his wife, Mindy, who takes over once Richard is in a coma following the crash.

Hammond's writing style reminds me somewhat of a Jack Russell terrier: jumping around restlessly, skipping about the place, and all the while yapping frantically. Yet, some events are described in extraordinary amounts of detail, including the day of the fateful jet car crash in September 2006. After a few chapters, my concentration started to lapse and I wondered whether I'd make it through the rest of the book.

By contrast, Mindy's chapters were far more grounded and emotionally charged. She has openly and honestly described what she and her family went through during Richard's rehabilitation, bar the specific details of the medical treatments for his brain injury. She shares her frustration and devastation when Richard initially fails to recognise her or remember events from his present life (he's ok with the distant past), his angry and confused outbursts at the hospital when he tries to remove the plethora of medical equipment he is hooked up to, conversational loops that repeat almost endlessly, and the effects of his memory reverting to an almost childlike state, all the while trying to keep her young family out of the public eye and creating the time and space her husband needed to recuperate. It sounds like she's an amazing woman.

On the Edge is an interesting read for Top Gear fans or people who simply enjoy a good biography.

Here is Richard Hammond humorously introducing his biography:

Monday, 29 March 2010

1 year to go

Today is 29 March 2010 - just one year to go until I'm due to complete my 101 in 1001 project. Wow! My list tells me that I've completed 53 of my 101 activities. That's a little over half way, and with only one more year to go. However, looking at things a little closer I can see that some of my ongoing goals are right on track, others are easily achievable ... but there are a couple of big ones that I don't think I'll manage to tick off in one year's time.

Ongoing goals that I'm confident I will complete
  • #1: Read at least one book per month - loving this one
  • #7: Blog at least three times per week - most weeks
  • #12: Play the piano at least once a month - some months this one only just scrapes in
  • #44: Sort out/purge my teaching resources - I've started this
  • #45: Sort out/organise my MEd resources - this, too
  • #46: Organise recipes - ditto
  • #47: Digitally organise my song lyrics - and again
  • #48: Find something to be happy and thankful for each day - not easy some days, but it's how I'm trying to live my life
  • #100: Put aside $10 for each goal achieved - it's in my savings account. I just need to work out how to treat myself when I'm finished my list. :-)
Slightly bigger ongoing goals that I think will make it
  • #2: Complete two cross-stitch embroideries - I've finished one and am working on another
  • #19: Lose 12 kg - going ok (5/12 kg so far)
  • #31: Read a classic novel - I swear I'll finish Wuthering Heights one day. Ditto #67: Read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
  • #92: Learn how to play the ukulele - I've started!
Small goals that should be easy enough for me to complete
  • #8: Send flowers to someone
  • #10: Bake a carrot cake - just need a special occasion to bake this for
  • #22: Feed duckies - there's bread in the freezer. I just need to get out and find some hungry ducks! (Probably not so easy now that duck shooting season has started.)
  • #34: Blow bubbles on a sunny day
  • #36: Watch the sun set with someone special
  • #37: Swing on park swings
  • #54: Walk/dance in the rain
  • #61: Taste French champagne - we've got two bottles of it just sitting there ...
  • #73: Take a train ride - and I don't mean just a commuter train ride
  • #75: Cook a 3-course meal for someone
  • #76: Knit something - struggling to find a decent pattern that isn't a scarf and doesn't look really geeky
  • #82: Make home-made sushi
  • #89: Eat waffles for breakfast/brunch - once I find somewhere that has waffles on the menu
Medium-sized goals that I should be able to manage
  • #11: Visit Somes Island - would ideally combine with/extend #21: Take a boat trip
  • #13: Walk/cycle to the Pencarrow lighthouse and have a picnic - I'll leave this until next summer
  • #23: Fly a kite (does anyone have a kite I could borrow?)
  • #25: Go berry picking - probably best left for next spring/summer
  • #30: Relax in hot mineral pools - I'm thinking Taupo or Hanmer Springs (a mini-holiday?)
  • #38: Go to the zoo
  • #39: Host a brunch for friends
  • #40: Visit Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
  • #49: Go to the Scarecrow Festival in Gladstone - it's in November
  • #70: Host a girls’ craft session - anyone keen? 
  • #24, #98, #99: Buy artwork/prints - I was determined to wait until I have walls to put them on, but the order might now have to be reversed
Big(ish) goals that I'd really like to do but might be a struggle to organise
  • #9: Swim with dolphins
  • #17/#18: Get my new band (and website) going - this one's not entirely up to me, and I'm dependent on two others to help make it happen
  • #32: Add at least two more countries’ stamps to my passport - I've done one, but finances might mean the second one has to wait a while, unless I can find a cheap package deal to a Pacific Island.
  • #50: Ride in a hot air balloon
Goals I'd like to achieve but realistically don't think I'll make
  • #3: Buy a house - I didn't anticipate my financial situation being so dry in recent times, and it doesn't look to change just yet
  • #101 - possibly, but it's not entirely up to me. If it happens, you'll read about it here. ;-)
Do you have any lists you're working on? Is anyone else still with me on their own 101 in 1001 journey?

Friday, 26 March 2010

Anne Frank exhibition

"Writing a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me. Not only because I've never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl."
Anne Frank
It's a bit like blogging, really. ;-)

Like most teenage girls, I read The Diary of a Young Girl (1947) by Anne Frank when I was young and impressionable. The story generally needs no introduction; a Jewish family are forced to flee their home in Germany for Amsterdam, where they thought they might be safer as the political climate around them changed. However, after raids on other Jewish families during the Holocaust, they go into hiding in a secret annex behind their father's business premises, along with another family and an employee.

I went to see the Anne Frank exhibition on its final day at Te Papa on Wednesday. I thought I'd pop in and take a quick look around. It was crowded; no doubt there were many others, like me, who thought they had more time to get to it before realising that closing day had arrived all too soon. There was also a school group doing the rounds, and the little room became hot and stuffy. Lots of elbow shuffling going on!

The exhibition was mostly centred around a big timeline detailing the political events surrounding Hitler's rise and leading up to World War II. Running simultaneously to this was a timeline of events and occurrences in Anne Frank's family. The accompanying family photos are what made this exhibition noteworthy for me; these were ordinary, everyday people going about their lives: visits to the beach, birthday parties, school ... the photos were a rich, moving addition to an historical experience which never fails to touch me.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A Day in Pompeii

A Day in Pompeii is an exhibition showing at Te Papa until 25 April 2010. It chronicles the events of 24-25 August 79AD, when Pompeii and neighbouring town Herculaneum were destroyed and buried by a massive eruption from nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius in Italy. It is an impressive exhibition.

In 2002, I spent a month backpacking around Italy. I remember sitting on the train from Rome heading to Naples and attempting a disjointed conversation with a young Napolitani man sitting opposite me, he in broken English and me in very limited Italian. As we neared Napoli, he seemed keen on pointing out some passing landmarks, many of which I couldn't comprehend, but some I recognised. We started passing a mountain, and his commentary, accompanied by my increasingly confused facial expressions, went something like this: "montagna (mountain) ... Vesuvio (Vesuvius) ... boom!!" The elaborate arm gestures made this one clear: we were passing Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii was definitely on my list of places to visit while staying in Napoli, and I spent about half a day walking through the reconstructed and excavated streets of a town that existed nearly 2000 years ago. There were the usual town attractions: the forum, central meeting places, stately villas with grandiose names like House of the Faun etc. However, reality struck as I walked up towards the back of the town and went into the homes of the villagers, saw their bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms ... these were everyday people who lived just as we would have in those days, and not just some distant historical figures we read about in school.

Pompeii bakery
With trees and greenery growing in the streets and homes, it's almost like walking through any vacant town. For some reason, the town bakery also captured my attention, or perhaps it was the terrified expressions on the faces of the two plaster casts on display of people caught and buried alive in the lava. Again, these were real people and this was an incredibly moving experience. I later saw some of the original artifacts and frescos which were removed from Pompeii and are now on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

A Day in Pompeii attempts to recreate life at the height of the Roman Empire before the fateful events of that day. Everyday life wasn't too far different from parts of society today, with people eating takeaways, painting graffiti on walls and buildings, going to shops and bars, and even indulging in illegal gambling. The exhibition features interactive displays and 360 degree virtual tours of a typical house, the town itself, and various artifacts from the time. There was an area with several plaster casts of bodies in the positions they were found; this is haunting to experience. As we sat down to watch the short 3D video giving an impression of the effect of the eruption over 24 hours, I had to laugh as I heard a student behind me exclaime, "it's better than Avatar!"

If you're going to be in Wellington before 25 April, it's well worth checking out A Day in Pompeii.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Wellington Ukulele Summer Fiesta

Despite the best of intentions, my purple ukulele rarely made it out of its bag last year, and only for short stints when it saw daylight. Today, my purple ukulele and I went to the Wellington Ukulele Summer Fiesta at the Botanic Garden Sound Shell and joined a rainbow of colourful ukuleles for a strum and sing session in the sun.

I'd worried about how my grand total of six guitar chords learned years ago would hold up on my ukulele. No need to worry; the five songs chosen for the jam session very kindly only covered the absolute basics that even newbies like me could keep up with!

Even though I can no longer feel the tips of my fingertips on my left hand, I'm hooked! I was too far away from the stage to be the first there to win a spot prize of movie tickets for having a purple ukulele; maybe next time? I'm now looking for a regular beginner-friendly ukulele orchestra in Wellington to join. Goal #92: learn how to play the ukulele - I'm on my way!

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Dinner Spinner

I have just downloaded the coolest application onto my iPod touch. It's called Dinner Spinner and was released by one of my most often-referred to recipe sites, All recipes Australia New Zealand. There are both free and pro versions (guess which one this cheapskate has downloaded?), so iPhone users could even use it at the supermarket when umming and ahhing over what to cook for dinner that night! Once you've downloaded a particular recipe, you can save it as a favourite and even view it offline later.

The free version lets you choose from twelve different dish types (dinner, bbq, vegetarian, salad etc), thirteen basic ingredients (fruit, grain, lamb, chocolate, pasta etc), as well as cooking times. Simply 'spin' up your preferred combination and then view your matches.

Not sure what you're in the mood for? Fancy a surprise? Just shake your iPod touch/iPhone and let it choose a random selection for you to browse through. I can see that I'm going to have a lot of fun with this app. Buon appetito!

Monday, 8 March 2010

Mao's Last Dancer - Li Cunxin

I have come to love reading biographies. My reading habits nowadays usually see me alternate a fiction title with a biography or memoir of some sort. There are a few which have really stood out for me, even several years after reading them. Mao's Last Dancer (2003), by Li Cunxin, is one such title.

Li Cunxin was the sixth of seven boys born into a peasant family in rural China during the 1960s. He describes growing up in poverty in a home filled with love and support from his parents and brothers, but very little in the way of food or material possessions. Opportunities are few, but then, quite suddenly, Li is selected as a possible candidate for Madame Mao's Beijing Dance Academy. What initially appears to be a fairytale unfolds, although the path is not easy. Li makes it to the United States, a capitalist country he was brought up to feel sorry for, for a three-month stint with the Houston Ballet. Naturally, things are not how he was led to believe and a huge culture shock results.

The book was released this week as a movie in New Zealand. Like most books I have read that have been adapted into movies, I was a little tentative about going to see it, wondering if it could possibly live up to my expectations or my love for the book. On the whole, it was pretty good. Li's childhood had much greater prevalence in his book, and this was mostly referred to during the movie in the form of flashbacks. As was to be expected, the movie focused more on his time as a dancer, and many specific details about the Chinese communist regime were implied, rather than explained. The dancing throughout the film was spectacular and there was barely a dry eye in the theatre at one particularly emotional point (I won't give it away). Well worth checking out.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

How To Be Good - Nick Hornby

How To Be Good. It sounds like a recipe for life. Quite straight-forward, specific - just follow these basic instructions. No problem? Well, we all know it's not that simple. Nick Hornby's 2001 novel is equal parts satire, humour, observation, insight, and downright hilarity as it depicts philanthropy at its misguided best.

The novel centres around Katie, a doctor (ie already good), married to an angry man named David, and mother to two not-particularly likable kids. David's life is all about being angry. He eked a moderate living from writing a regularly newspaper column complaining about the world, the elderly, children, the unemployed, the employed ... everything. David's anger drives Katie to despair and, eventually, an affair (ie not good); all she wants is for her husband to stop being angry. Then, one day David meets DJ GoodNews, and suddenly he is angry no more. Just like that. And now Katie is not so sure she wants this new, anger-free David who is now going to save the world he used to despise so much.

At times painfully funny, peppered with an eccentric cast of characters, and saying the words we sometimes are dying to utter but know we just can't get away with ourselves.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Bubble bath

At Christmas time, I was spoiled by my sweetie who bought me a selection of bath ballistics from Lush, makers of the most divine range of handmade cosmetics, bath products, and soaps that look and smell good enough to eat. Seeing how I oohed and aahed over their gorgeous products while we had a few hours to kill in a shopping mall (not literally - obviously we didn't kill anyone), he found their main shop in town and chose some treats for me for Christmas.

It's rare that I have a bath for relaxation, but it's a luxury that I certainly enjoy. Tonight, with an empty house, a tired body, and three luxurious bath ballistics to choose from, it's time to tick off another 101 in 1001 activity: #43 - Have a bubble bath. Such a simple pleasure, yet one I've taken almost two years to do. Tonight's selection is called Lush Lil Pud (well, it was seasonal when he bought it). It smelled absolutely delicious and bubbled and fizzed all around me when I dropped it into the hot water. The photo (taken on my phone - excuse the quality) only looks half as cute as it did in real life.

Lil Lush Pud
Thanks, sweetie - you sure know how to make me feel good. :-) Now, my book and bed are calling ...

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Groundhog Day

I have recently joined the world of the public transport commuter, albeit temporarily, catching the bus after a few years of working from home and even more years driving to and from work each day. I'd forgotten just how much the wait at the bus stop could resemble Groundhog Day; after all, human beings are largely creatures of habit.

I am reminded of my years catching the bus to university. Each morning, the usual crowd would assemble, the bus would arrive, and the man whose house the bus stop was directly outside of would come running through his front door, clutching his wallet, looking for his bus pass, while simultaneously trying to put his jacket on and swallow the last of his breakfast. The driver would often wait for him, sometimes looking out the door and down his pathway for signs of life emerging from the front door. On the rare occasion he made it out before the bus arrived, we'd all quietly check our watches to see if the bus was late.

After only a few days at the bus stop, I have already begun to notice some patterns emerging and repeated behaviour. Here's what happens at my bus stop in the mornings:
  • The 7:31 am bus never comes before 7:40 am. However, when it does finally arrive, it takes a much faster route into the city (as I discovered this morning).
  • A police car pulls up parallel to the bus stop, then reverses into the adjacent driveway. I thought this was really strange the first time I saw it.
  • A man walks past the bus stop, looks at the people standing there, then continues down the street.
  • A teenage girl arrives, simultaneously glued to her cell phone and her iPod.
  • A woman arrives from the left as though she is entering a fashion show. She could easily have spent at least half an hour on her hair already.
  • Two women meet up from different directions and chat politely. They don't seem to know each other particularly well. Perhaps they work in the same building, and coincidentally catch the same bus there, so feel it necessary?
  • A middle-aged man drops off his wife and gives her a goodbye kiss.
  • A father drops off his teenage daughter, who has a cast on her broken leg and hobbles out of the car on crutches.
I expect it will be the same tomorrow. :-)