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Monday, August 29, 2011

let them eat cake

It was my flatmate's engagement party on Saturday night, and we were all supposed to bring a dessert. So I decided to make an engagement ring cake!!! What a great way to procrastibake.

I started by making a buttercake from the Edmonds cake mix. I feel ashamed even admitting this because I don't usually like using packets for baking, but there's no denying it's a reliable and simple way to make a cake for decorating. (It's not half bad as far as taste goes, either.) If you are above packet mixes, try this recipe.

It's fairly easy to manipulate this kind of shape into an engagement ring, obviously:

The recipe I used for the icing was the Vienna Cream recipe:
125 g/4 oz butter at room temperature
1.5 cups icing sugar
2 T milk

Place butter in small bowl of an electric mixer and beat until it is as white as possible.
Gradually add about half the sifted icing sugar, beating constantly.
Add milk gradually.
Then gradually beat in the remaining icing sugar.
Mixture should be smooth and easy to spread with a spatula.

My flatmate's ring is white gold, with a sapphire in the middle and a diamond on each side of it. So it was easy enough colouring the icing for the stones - not so easy for the silver-coloured ring. I ended up choosing "gold" colouring for the ring, which turned out more yellow than gold. But never mind!

And then I made it more beautiful:

I felt pure happiness looking at my cake. I was also very proud when my cake was first choice for a number of children at the party.

Friday, August 19, 2011

survive history

Apparently, ASTONISHINGLY, the phrase "surviving history" did not originate with me. I've been playing on Google, originally because I'm so vain that I wanted to see where my blog appeared on the list of websites containing the phrase "surviving history"...

... except I don't think I ever found out. I got distracted by some of the intriguing entries that (deservedly) appeared well above me on the list.

Surviving History: Portraits from Vilna
This blog is about a project which is documenting the experiences of 10 Holocaust survivors in Lithuania. It talks about the exhibition currently touring outside Lithuania - read more about it here. It interviews survivors like Gita, and it talks about the problems they faced after the Holocaust and still face today. It talks about Lithuania's problems with anti-Semitism, Holocaust revision and the ultra-nationalists, and it discusses why this stuff still needs to be discussed. It links to info about other crimes against humanity around the world. Very impressive.

The Hebrew Bible Contains the Oldest Surviving History
Unfortunately you can't read the whole article unless you're a paid-up member, but the start of it is fascinating all the same. It challenges our perception of writing our own histories as an obvious thing to do across cultures. Interesting notion!

Surviving History: the TV show
Well, I don't know about you, but I didn't realise this show existed until now. History Channel crossed with Mythbusters, exploring the different ways humans have tortured or attacked or killed each other. Charming. Here is a clip about the history of hanging as a method of execution. I wish people didn't have to do this thing where they construct a safe, fake replica of something horrid from the past and claim to be finding out exactly "what it felt like". No. No, you don't. Hopefully you will never know what it feels like to be hanged or tortured or executed in any way.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

childish delight

You might remember I had a snow day last month. It was rather a lot of snow for Christchurch, and I thought that was it - turns out a rather large snowy cloud was heading this way from Antarctica and our whole country seems to be swearing they have seen snowflakes - no matter how far north or coastal they are.

It's not UNUSUAL for Christchurch to get snow in the winter but it is downright extraordinary for cities further north, like Wellington and Auckland.

Stephen Fry, who is currently in the country filming The Hobbit, put it like this on Twitter: "Wellington is beside itself with delight. Snow falling in the nation's capital for the first time for 35 years they tell me."
Then, later: "NZ has, bless it, gone officially mad. First snow in Auckland since the 30s. Children running along with open mouths to taste the flakes :)"

Basically the whole country is delighted. It may seem very strange to people from places with large annual snowfalls but it's really lovely to see the visible, childish joy that seems to be soaring around the country right now.

This lovely video was filmed in Wellington. Highly recommended.

we all fall down

Today is the last day for submissions for "We All Fall Down" - the theme for our September issue of Halfway Down the Stairs!

Submission instructions can be found here. I'd encourage you to submit, especially if you've got a poem or a nonfiction piece sitting unpublished. (We've accepted rather a lot of fantastic fiction so far, but would still love to be sent more, too!)

Friday, August 12, 2011

the Proust questionnaire

According to Vanity Fair (the magazine, not the novel):

The Proust Questionnaire has its origins in a parlor game popularized (though not devised) by Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that, in answering these questions, an individual reveals his or her true nature.

So, here I go. Opening myself up like a book to you.

 What is your idea of perfect happiness?

A wild location, sitting in front of a big window in a comfy armchair, a really gripping novel, a block of chocolate, really good coffee, a warm fire.

2.  What is your greatest fear?

Disappointing people.

3.  What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Over-analysing things.

4.  What is the trait you most deplore in others?

A lack of loyalty.

5.  Which living person do you most admire?

My dad.

6.  What is your greatest extravagance?


7.  What is your current state of mind?

A little bit frustrated with myself for being lazy this week.

8.  What do you consider the most overrated virtue?


9.  On what occasion do you lie?

When I'm uncomfortable! I tend to overcompensate.

10.  What do you most dislike about your appearance?

To be honest? I'd like to lose some weight!

11.  Which living person do you most despise?

... It took me a really long time to think of someone. I'm not sure I feel comfortable saying that about anyone. I do feel disgusted by Clayton Weatherston. A man from New Zealand who stabbed his ex-girlfriend 216 times and then tried to use the defence of provocation in court.

12.  What is the quality you most like in a man?

Physical: His voice and the way he speaks.
More abstract: Being understanding, having compassion.

13.  What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Good conversation, and not judgmental.

14.  Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

"Ummm.... yeah." My flatmate pointed out that I do this all the time, when I'm trying to remember what I was going to say and don't succeed. Now I can't stop noticing that I do it!

15.  What or who is the greatest love of your life?


16.  When and where were you happiest?

All the Christmas Days of my childhood - having all my siblings around (which was not normal), food, receiving presents, giving presents, long summery days, laxity about bedtimes, etc...

17.  Which talent would you most like to have?

Dancing. I have the misfortune of complete uncoordinatable feet. (Yes, I know that is not a word.)

18.  If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I would like to be more confident.

19.  What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Hmm. Finishing my MA, I suppose.

20.  If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

A bird of some kind.

21.  Where would you most like to live?

In the mountains by a lake.

22.  What is your most treasured possession?

The freedom to think and believe what I think and believe. The independence of my mind from manipulation or control. (Not that I believe I am entirely free of this, but I love that I don't have to think what the magazines tell me, or what the ads tell me, or what anyone tells me.) My equality with everyone around me, so that I can never grovel below someone or lord it over someone.

23.  What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?


24.  What is your favorite occupation?

Organising events, because this involves creativity/finding original ideas/brainstorming but also pleasant mindless work.

25.  What is your most marked characteristic?

... A tendency to want to discover things for myself rather than be told about them.

26.  What do you most value in your friends?

Time and effort.

27.  Who are your favorite writers?

Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Roald Dahl, Arthur Conan Doyle

28.  Who is your hero of fiction?

Jane Eyre

29.  Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Sophie Scholl

30.  Who are your heroes in real life?

My siblings

31.  What are your favorite names?


32.  What is it that you most dislike?

Cruelty, hypocrisy and selfishness

33.  What is your greatest regret?

Taking Calculus in my last year of high school.

34.  How would you like to die?

Not too old. Heroically! :)

35.  What is your motto?

I don't particularly like mottos, unless they're funny. They tend to over-simplify things. But at this particular moment in time I do like this:

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. - Colossians 3:12-14

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

picking sides

I wrote this blog post a while ago, and since then have been sitting on it for a while. I wasn't sure if it was a good idea to publish it because it's very ranty, and not exactly in the normal style of this blog. So be warned - it deals with controversial stuff, and I am clearly quite upset about some things. The boat may be rocked.

Let's make a deal. Just in case you read this and disagree, and just in case any comments get heated. I promise not to deal any differently with you than I normally would. I respect the people who read this blog, I respect that we have differences of opinion, and I will continue to read YOUR blogs with pleasure. I would love if you could continue to read mine without judging my normal blog posts by what you may disagree with in this one.


I am going through a phase of feeling completely cynical about politics. (I know it's not exactly abnormal.)

I've always seen myself as a left-winger. I generally like left-wing people who argue about things better than right-wing people who argue about things. I love the idea of a society that recognises the contribution of the working class to wealth. I really, really love that I live in a country with a public health system that tends to work and is available to everyone. I like that if I am ever in deep financial trouble I probably won't have to go and live on the street. I like unions.

I'm not a fan of the Right. It is so fixated on the economic rights of the individual that it tends to ignore the masses and their need to, you know, eat. Its theory is that, by allowing individuals to accrue unlimited wealth, society will be more generally wealthy as an inevitable result. It seems to assume that people with lots of money will automatically be charitably-minded, responsible people who are brimming over with integrity. Ha!

I still feel this way about these things.

However, I'm growing less and less convinced that either Left or Right or anyone in between or on the extremes has a clue how to cope with difficult problems. The centrist/right-wing party in charge at the moment hasn't exactly fixed anything in the last few years they've been in power (to be fair, they aren't responsible for the financial problems of the global economy). On the other hand, the Left is almost cartoonish, bleating the same old song - "Tax the rich!" And what? All our problems will be solved? Recently, the Labour Party leader claimed that he would raise the minimum wage and this in itself would create more jobs... really?! I'm not a right-winger but, even so, this does not exactly compute.

It also bugs me how the Left has a penchant for saying that if you're one of us you need to feel the same way about every single issue. A few left-wing blogs I've been following lately have told me that because I believe that abortion is a violation of human rights I am therefore a man, socially conservative, a supporter of the war in Iraq, and a member of the right wing. If it helps you to ignore my objections by persuading yourself of that... well, please enjoy your bubble.

I'm beginning to think that the Left, over the last century or so, has a major problem. We TALK in terms of the masses. Social justice for all. Human rights. But actually we're all about picking sides, demanding justice for our half and delivering oppression on the other.

Lenin and Stalin and the international Communist movement were very open about this. It was the working class versus the capitalist oppressors, and it was a class war. And so only the rights of the workers have any weight whatsoever, and everyone else can rot in the gulag or be liquidated in purges. Stalinist or Maoist or Leninist crimes have been well known for a long time now, and the non-Communist Left rightly dissociates itself from them. Heck, even the Communists do so.

All the same, the non-Communist Left falls into the same trap when it starts arguing that, because it feels intense sympathy for one particular group of individuals, it's okay to ignore the rights of other individuals.

To fall pregnant, when you don't want to be pregnant... I feel sad thinking about this. It would be horrible. I'm not sure how to emphasise this without coming across a little trite, but please believe that women in this position have my full sympathy.

However, this in itself is not a wildcard to ignore the humanity of an unborn child. Demanding an end to this sad situation through abortion is another symptom of this mentality of picking-sides. As long as justice is done on ONE side, then it's okay that a human life is taken on the other.

Would anyone seriously question the humanity of a foetus if it were not for the fact that they want to have the freedom to abort it if it appears at an inconvenient time? Or if it were not for the fact that the state would prefer not to spend money on a child with a birth defect, who needs extra care, education, and support?

To call that child a parasite is just as unjust as calling the children of the Russian Tsar parasites who deserved to be murdered. It's just as unfair as exiling to forced labour and probable death the children of a peasant who happened to own a cow and was therefore a "rich" kulak.

And to tell ME that it's none of my business if an individual or a society decides to take someone else's life from them is a statement that has been made by a string of evil tyrants. It should never be received unquestioningly.

It's easier to get away with arguing that a foetus is not a human, because you can't see this unborn child. You can argue that, because it's not "normal" or it looks different to us, it doesn't have human rights in the same way we do. It's also easy to persuade yourself that it's okay because none of the people taking part in the debate will ever be threatened with this kind of "termination" (a word that bears a frightening resemblance to "liquidation", in my opinion). We have all made it out of the uterus, and therefore we are safe from this particular threat.

What happens, though, when WE become inconvenient? When we are in a car crash and lose control of our bodies? When we become elderly, frail, senile? By explaining away the rights of the individual in one case, will we have weakened our support of human rights in all cases?

And are we really comfortable, in the modern world, with saying that the worth placed on an individual by society defines their right to live or die? Are we comfortable with saying that an individual who has Down's Syndrome should not have made it out of the womb? And why - because they're not normal? They don't fit in with the majority of people? They don't "contribute" to society? It's offensive, isn't it. And yet it's the constant implication.

Our system has made us believe that we have to choose one or the other. The rights of the woman or the rights of the baby. By picking one or the other, we are buying into a system that degrades both. We need to change the system. Make it value pregnant women, support them, provide them with financial and emotional help. Make it value the vulnerable of all ages. Zero tolerance for discrimination in the workplace or society at large for women who are pregnant. Et cetera.

The inevitable response to my objections is usually that, if I really cared about the foetus, I would care about the foetus post-birth. That OBVIOUSLY the majority of abortions in New Zealand and elsewhere are undergone for selfless reasons - because the pregnant woman knows she wouldn't be able to provide the right kind of life for her child.

Firstly, here we have again the assumption that I am a rabid right-winger and don't want to vote for governments that will provide support for single mothers or families who live in difficult situations. I am not that person. Actually, I will almost always vote Labour or even lefter.

Secondly, the obvious retort is that we would not use the same logic about other humans in society. We don't kill criminals who have not been reformed because they will probably cause suffering when they leave prison and have an unhappy life. We are horrified and angry when the lives of infants and small children are taken away from them, no matter what sort of economic circumstances or family situation they were affected by.

We believe these things because we've seen these people, we've talked to them, they've had a chance to talk to us. We want to live in a society that gives everyone a chance to make what they can of what they've been given.

We believe that life is a Good Thing, an opportunity, and no one should be able to take it away on behalf of someone else because they think someone else will be better off that way - what narrow-minded arrogance!

We just seem to forget this, when it happens to be an unborn human. Maybe it's because it would be too inconvenient. Maybe it's because we can't see them, and they look different to us. Whatever the reason, I've had enough of this convenient blindness.

Friday, August 5, 2011

joy in music

Cadbury's New Zealand branch recently brought out a new feel-good advertising campaign called "Share the Joy". The idea is, people sent in clips of noises of New Zealanders experiencing joy, and Cadbury and a famous guy used the clips to create a song. It's quite a cute idea, I suppose, and you can view it here if you want.

But though the video's sweet I find it doesn't quite succeed in making ME experience joy.

So I've been thinking recently about music that communicates joy in and of itself. I don't mean music with funny lyrics, or music about feel-good topics, but MUSIC that brings a smile to your face just through the way it manipulates rhythm or melody or harmonics.

And so here are some of my favourites. They will make you happier, or you can have your money back.

Ella Fitzgerald. And so here she is, with Mel Tormé, bringing a smile to the face of any one who's human, surely:

And if that wasn't enough for you, here she is, outright hilarious:

Now, who's heard of the Portsmouth Sinfonia? The only rule of admission was that you must not actually be a musician, or you must play an instrument unfamiliar to you. This awesome parody orchestra brought out several records and even toured! Here they are with Strauss' majestic "Also Sprach Zarathustra":

If you want more, I would highly, er, recommend their performance of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

This may be kind of weird, but the haka brings me joy. It's not really supposed to - the form they perform at the rugby is a war haka. It send chills running up and down my spine, but it also makes up for actually having to watch sports afterwards. And this particular haka, before an All Blacks vs Samoa game of rugby, is particularly awesome because both sides have a form of the haka, and they face each other off. Personally, I think the Maori haka is much scarier than the Samoan one. But I am slightly biased:

Stand By Me. It's a happy song. But it's even happier when played around the world by artists playing for change:

And because I'm obsessed with the tin whistle, I add this video. Feet tapping, heart smiling.

Then there's Shura Cherkassky, the pianist. I have never heard ANYONE match his rendition of the polka from Shostakovich's The Golden Age. They're too serious. He was very, very funny. He listened to the piece, instead of just performing it or showing off.

I couldn't find a full recording online but you can listen to it partially here. Otherwise, get hold of volume 3 of the collection of his encores.

Finally, there's Louis Armstrong, with "What a Wonderful World". There is a man who sings in the way the song wants him to.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

toads? in holes?

I love making toad in the hole. It's quite a ridiculous meal, and so it satisfies some childish instinct in me. And it is also so successful and fairly cheap depending on the type of sausages you buy and so delicious and it makes me feel like I'm English for the night and USUALLY the ingredients are close to hand - the only downside is that it seems to create a lot of dirty dishes.

I use Jamie Oliver's recipe - toad in the hole with onion gravy, mashed potatoes and greens.

You will need:
sunflower oil
8 sausages
4 sprigs rosemary
2 large red onions (but green onions will do just as well)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 knobs butter
6 T balsamic vinegar
1 vegetable stock cube or 1 tsp vegetable stock powder

For the batter:
185 mL milk
115 g plain flour
a pinch of salt
3 eggs

Mix the batter ingredients together and put them to one side.

Get a baking tin and put enough oil in that there is a thin layer over the whole container. Jamie recommends a whole centimetre deep but I don't find this much is necessary. Place this in the oven on its highest setting - about 240-250*C or 475*F.

When the oil is very hot, add your sausages. Keep your eye on them and allow them to colour until lightly golden.

About this time, start getting the potatoes ready to cook, in lots of boiling salted water, and make sure your onions etc are chopped. Instructions below the next paragraph on your onion gravy, which takes just over 20 minutes. I like to mash potatoes that still have their skins on, with some butter and milk.

Take the tin carefully out of the oven and pour your batter over the sausages. Throw the sprigs of rosemary into the batter. Place back in the oven, close the door, and leave it alone, the door closed, for at least 20 minutes, as Yorkshire pudding batter is sometimes temperamental. Remove when golden and crisp. Yum yum! Is this not the most ridiculous dish you ever saw?

Onion gravy: Fry the onions and garlic in the butter on a medium heat for about 5 minutes until translucent. I added a little bit of thyme. Add the balsamic vinegar and allow it to cook down by half. At this point, add the stock and a little bit of water. Allow to simmer for a few minutes. Yum yum! Great with both the toad in the hole and the potatoes.

This dish goes down SO WELL on a cold winter night.