Sunday, 28 December 2008

Finnigan, Begin Again

It's happening again.
Christmas is past, the New Year is approaching and I am being blinded by the endless possibilities of a fresh annual slate and drawn on by the siren song of 'this time...'.
Is it completely insane to admit that I'm addicted to New Year's Resolutions?

I get the same way about a new year as I do about fresh stationery.
All pristine and new with so much potential.
It could be filled with something interesting and beautiful or the most horrendous scribble.
Just like your year could be full of fresh, fascinating things or just another round of same old, same old.
And if you don't start things off right straight from the get go there's always a temptation to give up and try again next year. When things might be perfect.

This rush of manic wide-eyed enthusiasm and philosophising may be due to the fact that I spent the best part of the last two days sleeping late and then lolling around reading a book by Jeremy Clarkson and eating a block of dark chocolate with lovely crunchy bits of coffee beans throughout.
I generally spend this part of the year sleeping late, lolling around and reading a book of some description.
And now here I am hopped up on two types of caffeine and British sarcasm and making ten point plans on how I'm going to change the world - or at least my little bit of it - for the better and how this time it'll all work out exactly as per spec.

The trouble with these giddy visions of future perfection and adventure is that I am like a kid who has just chugged an entire bottle of red cordial concentrate when it comes to actually taking up these plans.
I am so excited I want to do everything.
All at once.
At the same time.
And can't prioritise.
And in fairly short order I get frustrated with myself and my failure to learn how to do twelve things at once and integrate them into my habitual daily schedule which I should also have fundamentally altered and have to spend a week watching a mish-mash of Stargate Atlantis, Invader Zim and West Wing or similar until I have calmed down, and then I keep going another week or two until I've gone a bit wrong and wash up convinced I am a transplanetary mercenary politician. With a pet robot.

I know there is little I can do to stop myself from going off on these delusional planning sprees but this year I'm going to try to limit Actual Resolutions to a couple of key items and put Idealised If I Have Time/Become Magic Resolutions to one side to do later or intermittently.

And as few things are more helpful in spurring me into action than the possibility of virtual public embarrassment mine resolutions are as follows:
  • Resolution the First: Take Italian Classes
    My Italian has slumped into a mumbling shambling heap and started to slowly disintegrate since I stopped practising so it's time for a little bit of 'you paid for this, you'd better damn learn something' incentive. The glow from my classroom nostalgia and new stationery penchant will last until exactly the first time I am asked to contribute in class or hand in a homework assignment at which point my procrastination nostalgia will try to take over but the hell with me. I am a spoiled brat and will not indulge myself in that behaviour. Much.
  • Resolution the Second: Get First Aid Certification
    I've been thinking about this one for ages and if anything ever goes wrong and I'm first on the scene, if I or someone I love is involved in an accident or if - God Forbid - the zombies rise, knowing basic first aid would be very useful.
  • Resolution the Third: Take Up The Guitar
    Well, at least try. I haven't really had a crack at any real (as in not electronic or fake assed) musical instruments since music classes stopped being mandatory in high school and always wish I had done. I haven't the rhthym to warrant buying a drum kit (though I would secretly love to), had a mutual break up with keyboards/pianos that was totally mutual in my youth and have wanted to try the guitar but avoided it just in case I was crap at it which is a very mature and clever way to act indeed.
So there we go.
Three goals for 2009.
And by avoiding grandiose proclamations using words like 'fluent', 'life saving genius god-child' or 'virtuoso' I should actually have a chance.

That's that done.
Now if you'll excuse me this chocolate isn't going to eat itself and Mr Clarkson has some very intriguing opinions to raise on the nature of, well, just about everything.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Time For The Deprogramming. And Maybe Some Pudding.

Ah, and here we are again at the end of the year where going anywhere that has even one shop in the vicinity can either be a terrifying fight for survival or a hilarious macabre dance of consumerism depending on your outlook at the time.

In case you can’t tell, I’ve been trying to do my Christmas shopping and at this time more than any other it becomes apparent that the retail/service industry has broken me.

Put me in front of a counter and I can’t help but smile and be perky at people. Even when I’m the one ordering or paying for something. Stupid goddamn coffee-slave brainwashing!

I could be wearing black from head to toe, my most fun-time hair-do and my favourite jewellery and the moment I go to buy something I lose all my street cred, if I ever had any, which I suspect I didn’t.

I don’t know whether it was this train of thought that led me to take the route I did through the city but as I was bravely elbowing and eye-gouging my way through the Christmas shopping crowds this fine week I happened to GBH my way past an old workplace.

It took almost a block for the sign I had read to click and then I had to turn around and shin scrape my way back to read it again.

The place was shutting down and was going out in a blaze of ‘everything must go’ glory. My nostalgia had a brief stoush with my bitterness before I wandered inside to have a lookie-lou.

I hadn’t worked there for two years and none of my old co-workers were there so I got to wander around pretending to be a regular customer and feeling strangely uncomfortable, like I was about to be caught doing something wrong. Probably because I was going about taking dodgy and surreptitious photos of the place and hoping I didn’t look as guilty as I felt, like a fetishist who hopes nobody will notice they’re taking pictures of peoples’ elbows.

I wasn't by the way. Taking photos of peoples' elbows. I was just taking pictures of the store. I mean there's nothing wrong with elbows, they're very useful and functional, I just don't find them of particular interest... I'm sorry, I've gotten off-topic.

Once I’d finished playing at being a very badly trained spy I headed back out into the hurly burly with my reminiscing gland unfortunately kicked into full effect.
I’d left that job to bum around Europe for five months, I hadn’t gone back for a lovely array of reasons.

  1. The owners seemed nice enough until you realised that they thought it was completely acceptable to use the most offensive racial slurs in everyday conversation. Only in the company of appropriately pale people of course, taking it for granted that anyone in that category would agree with them by default and operating under the theory that “it’s not racism if they don’t hear you calling them names”.
  2. You were expected to be perkier than Richard Simmons, faster than The Flash and have a deep and abiding bond with each of your customers without actually talking with them for too long. This insistence continued despite the fear and consternation that this combined behaviour inspired in patrons.
  3. I was not willing to drink the kool-aid. I can accept a certain level of ‘above and beyond-ing’ in jobs that have a ladder to climb or might form a ‘career path’ or even in a job where you are genuinely matey with your employers and are doing a favour but for a hospitality job with no prospects of promotion I was not willing to put in hours upon hours of unpaid overtime in the name of pitching in or team spirit.

So as I re-entered the stream of consumers being battered from one side of the city to the other and spent a rather surprising amount of time standing in queues that coiled their way through the entirety of some stores I was looking at things slightly differently.

I was looking for the people acting contrary to their normal behaviour due to the orders of their overlords. I was looking for the people who were just realising that the co-worker they thought was kind of cool when they first met is actually a complete tool with a thin veneer of interesting. I was looking for surrogate me’s and trying to work out whether I missed the life they were still living, having shuffled into office-land.

Funny thing is I do kind of miss it, not that particular workplace but general things: the crazy hours you kept, the almost hallucinatory state you might be in at the end of a split shift (or a week of them), the people, the music, the relaxed dress code.

But not the sheer insanity of working during the Christmas period, Jesus God no.

I don’t miss it enough to go back to that.

Instead I will just try to be as pleasant and patient and efficient as possible when I get to the register - in an attempt to lessen the suffering of the person trapped there by even a small degree - and resist the programmed urge to be manically perky at them.

Nobody needs that at the best of times let alone at this time.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Cooking With Ricochet: How To Make Kourabiethe Biscuits

Makes about 40 biscuits.

250 grams* butter
2 cups of icing sugar
1 egg
2 teaspoons of vanilla essence
1/2 cup of toasted almonds
2 and 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon of backing powder
Whole cloves or or ground cloves or ground cinnamon

  1. Whilst staring out the window at your neighbourhood being lashed by an overly enthusiastic rain storm, decide that you want to make biscuits and spend 10 minutes trying to remember where you hid the mixing bowl.
  2. Gather your ingredients, utensils and measuring bits and bobs and find the biscuit trays whilst you're at it. Marvel as the rain manages to get even heavier.
  3. Pre-heat your gas oven** to 160 degrees Celsius*** and put some baking paper onto the biscuit trays.
  4. Sift the icing sugar into a mixing bowl, pop the chopped or slivered almonds under the grill and go to give the butter a quick zap in the microwave to make it more compliant if it is straight from the fridge.
  5. Come racing back into the kitchen and quickly pull the almond slivers out from underneath the griller before they go from toasted to charcoal.
  6. Cream the butter and icing sugar together.
  7. Blink stupidly as the power goes out and you are plunged into complete darkness, except for the gentle glow coming from your pre-heating gas oven****.
  8. Bump around the place for a bit locating that torch you are sure you bought a while ago and the candles for your oil burner. Light a bunch of candles, turn on the torch and stick it under your bra strap***** so that it is pointing at the mixing bowl.
  9. Add the egg and vanilla essence and beat well, tilting your shoulders every now and then to redirect the torch beam from the mixing bowl to the recipe.
  10. Add the almonds and stir through.
  11. Read the direction to sift the flour and baking powder twice. Remember that you are using your only mixing bowl. Sift the flour and baking powder into a saucepan, and then into another saucepan.
  12. Mix the flour lightly into butter mixture and knead until smooth. Almost drop the torch into the dough.
  13. Take pieces of dough the size of walnuts and shape. You can either just roll them into a ball and flatten them with a fork or roll them into a tube/cylinder shape and then curve them into a crescent.
  14. Press a clove into the top of each biscuit, or one on each half of the crescent, or sprinkle ground cloves or ground cinnamon over them instead. Drop some of the cloves in the darkness for standing on barefoot later.
  15. Put the biscuits in the oven to bake for about 30 minutes. Realise that your mobile phone battery is almost flat and it cannot be used as a time keeping device, that your alarm clock is not on as there is no electricity, that you still haven't bought yourself a new watch despite regularly declaring that you are going to since last April then wonder if you are going to have to count to 1800 before remembering that you have a wall clock that runs on those old-fangled batteries. Hazard a guess as to how long all this intellectual reckoning took and then take note of the time.
  16. When you go to take them out of the oven the biscuits will have puffed up a bit and will still seem soft but will dry out as they cool. As long as they aren't shiny and smooth but lightly dry looking when you take them out they should be OK. If you leave them in until they 'seem' cooked they will be harder, crunchy and more biscotti-like when they cool. So whatever you prefer.
  17. Allow them to cool, remove the cloves and then dust them with icing sugar so that everybody can experience the joy of dropping icing sugar down the front of their shirt whilst they're eating them.
  18. Treat yourself to a celebratory biscuit and a cup of tea/coffee/cocoa/whiskey made by boiling water on your gas stove-top****** or a glass of whatever takes your fancy. Congratulate yourself on having freed yourself from the shackles of electricity dependence. Decide this must have been what it was like in the old country back in the day, despite the fact that the people in the old country back in the day probably didn't do damn fool things like try to bake in the dark. If you don't have an old country or can't remember which one it is, the first country that pops into your head at this point is now your 'old country'. No you can't swap, it's too late, birthrights are like that. Raise a glass/mug/bottle/whatever to your possibly newly acquired heritage and feel smug.
  19. Blink stupidly as the power comes back on and you realise that you are standing in the middle of your kitchen with a shirt front that is a sweetly flavoured constellation of icing sugar and crumbs with a torch jammed in your bra strap.
  20. Abandon your new found self-sufficiency in the face of adversity and disdain for electricity and check if there's anything good on TV/put on some music/fire up your Tesla coil. Whilst eating a biscuit.

*A little over half a pound, 0.55 pounds according to the internet.
**Yes, fine, the recipe does work with electric ovens as well but this is important in this instance, trust me.
***320 degrees Fahrenheit
****See? I told you it was important.
*****If you don't have a bra strap you could stick it into the neck of your shirt or your mouth or something.
******If you haven't got a gas cooking range by this point I really can't help. Oh and you needn't heat the whiskey unless you want to make yourself a Hot Toddy.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Mother? Is That You?

Hi Internets, how's it going?

Well NaNoWriMo is over, sleep is once again plentiful and my co-workers have stopped backing away from me and muttering cryptic things about crazy eyes.

I won't lie to you Internets, I didn't make it this year.

My word count topped out at 21 099 but I'm not disappointed, I learned a lot getting that far.

Last year's plot was a very by-the-seat-of-the-pants plan-as-you-go affair so as long as I could keep thinking of one more thing for my characters to do each day, I could keep them moving forwards and I ended up with the 50 000+ word count and a passable story.

This year I decided to try come up with a storyline to follow, got a little bit ambitious and the learning began.

Lesson the First: A Plan Is A Beautiful Thing (or If You Are Going To Base Your Story Within A Complex And Esoteric System Or World Of Any Kind, You Should Probably Have An Idea Of How The Whole Thing Works)

I started off with an idea of how I wanted things to run and was pootling along but every few pages I would have to stop and have a huge brainstorming session as the plot turned out to be very very heavily intertwined with how my exciting and strange situation actually worked. I couldn't just mock it up and keep going because the 'reality' of the situation was intrinsic to what was going on. It would have been like a murder mystery where none of the clues fit together and when you re-read it you realised that there must be more than one killer but no one actually died and also the characters had all swapped names midway. And the continuity was shot to hell.

Lesson the Second: Priorities Are Not Just For Self-Help Junkies (or If You Have Suddenly Realised That You Have This Situation On Your Hands You Should Stop, Sacrifice A Day To Putting Together A Framework And Go On From There)

I was so caught up in the 'must achieve word count' rush that I figured I could just nut it out as I went along. I was able to refine it slowly, with much revisioning as I worked out the bits that didn't work or didn't make sense once they'd been fleshed out, but what with the refining and the slow going without a clear picture of where I was going it was more difficult to tap into those type-til-your-eyeballs-feel-like-overfried-eggs bouts which are so helpful during NaNo. If I'd sacrificed a day or even two I might have had a clearer run at it. Maybe not, but I might give it a try next time and see how it pans out.

Lesson the Third: Your Characters Are On To You (or If You Don't Know What You're Doing Your Characters Will Get Short-Tempered)

Along with my having a crack at having a real plot, I had a bit more of a go at building characters and trying to have more complete back stories and characteristics that came through slowly in a structured fashion. It's hard. I've heard some writers say that it can be easier to get the bare bones of the story down and then go back and insert and flesh out different characteristics or plot points or backtrack to plant the red herrings and I definitely think that is the way to go after trying to get it all down from the start. Especially as for me I was still meeting my characters as each sentence wandered onto the screen. My characters got a bit tetchy at the underwhelming pace things seemed to be moving at, this created some useful and interesting tension that I'm planning to keep in, I like them when they're all cranked up.

There were a lot of other lessons to do with the juggling of work and sleep and writing and remembering to eat but those are just the lessons I've been told you learn every year doing NaNo. Like getting all nostalgic about going camping until you're out bush again and being handed the toilet diggin' shovel and slapping at the mosquitoes swarming your face and then you remember last time... And yet it's still fun.

I have ended up with page upon page of 'world-building' notes and even though I am exhaustipated I'm actually excited to continue with this one beyond NaNo.
I want to finish telling this story and find out what happens. And I could certainly use the practice.