Cool Behaviour

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Are you cool? Am I cool? Are they cool? 

Last night I invited my friend Justin – a Kiwi back from his other home Edmonton – to join me at Q for “Cool Behaviour”. We were ushered into the cosy, warm space that is the Vault … to a table at the front. Uh-oh. My heart skipped a beat at the possibility of having to do the dreaded audience participation stuff. This, before it even started. I distracted myself with the bright thought that Justin was seated in a more convenient spot to be picked. Ha!

With no due warning the play commenced and two bold, quirky, beautiful “Doctors of Cool” burst out on the stage, and there was no time to retreat … to consider an ‘out’. We may not have signed up for it, but we were in. We were enrolled – as students, guinea pigs, dare I say disciples! – at the School of Cool.

For a brief and glorious hour, comedy duo Ava Diakhaby and Frith Horan charmed, chided, humoured and enlightened us through multiple genius acts – with energetic song, dance, rap and more.

I laughed more than I expected to, I had so much fun!

Justin wished to award it “five stars”. I think back to a certain sea of Doritos stars I saw scattered across a dark surface last night, and indeed I feel like showering both Ava and Frith with stars.

Are we cool? Are we even close? Why yes, now that we’ve walked out those doors changed people … I think we are.

Producer: Alice Kirker
Stars: Frith Horan (Actor/Writer; Mating in Captivity, Album Party), Ava Diakhaby (Actor/Writer; Flaps, ATC’s Boys)
Dates: 22-24 February, 8:45pm
Venue: Q Theatre Vault, 305 Queen St, Auckland
Ticket $: $18-$22 (service fees may apply)
Bookings: here or phone 09 309 9771
More info
Auckland Fringe
Image © Q Theatre website
This post has also been published on NZ Entertainment Podcast.

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Charming weekend in Hawkes Bay

Rhythm is born in all of us.
~ Ginger Rogers

Last Thursday, J and I flew down to Napier for the annual Art Deco Festival. J’s first time; my third. As individuals we are both happy travellers – as a couple we are learning to allow our separate interests to mingle and create experiences which delight us.

While J can never say yes quick enough to salty sand and water, my tummy is the one I think of satisfying, more so than any Vitamin D deficiencies. He loves films; I love farmers’ markets. He poses, unabashed, for the camera. I am still learning not to apologise before asking if someone can take a photo for us … and not to hurry J when he is taking a photo of me, because I get shy holding a pose in public. He is a relaxed person and puts people around him at ease. I work hard to relax … and when I don’t I too often make the mistake of working harder still >.<

But we’ve always, since our first short trip away together, travelled well together. Through him I go on more walks, swims and adventures – through me he eats and travels more and has an increasing capacity for spicy food.

Over the weekend, we had just about the perfect combination of activities for both of us. We stayed at an Airbnb retreat in Te Awanga, about 25 driving minutes away from Napier – at a cosy pad where we could hear the rolling waves from the beach just behind us. It wasn’t an ideal swimmers’ beach but was lovely to spend the first part of a morning there.

We watched sparkling vintage cars roll by …

ate some scrumptious food

danced to live music with a beautiful crowd …

savoured some visual feasts …

visited the one and only Hawkes Bay Farmers’ Market

took in the sights at Te Mata Peak

and certainly a highlight was meeting with the lovely Fiona whose writing inspires me; and her family, in her dream home! It was a wonderful evening for J and me both.

We also went Deco shopping, watched a special screening of the delightful and humorous 1937 film “Shall We Dance”, and had a bit of down time just chillin’, which we both needed.

:-) Till we meet again, charming Hawkes Bay, stay sunny, strong and wonderful.

treehousekitchen – a book

I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.
~ Cheryl Strayed

At some point, one of my dreams morphed into fear.

The child who had penned an earnest letter to a publisher overseas, who had felt a secret glow of pride at having her essays published in her school’s book of “model essays” – found herself trembling at the laptop, sitting by the bin … shredding journals by hand.

Once upon a time I saved up my words and felt sure I was destined to be an author. Praise felt like confirmation of what I already knew. Later on I still wrote, but I also loved the relief of discarding records of my truest thoughts. Not caring felt bad, but easier than caring.

Every so often, as I tried to make sense of things I could not articulate, I would try to inspire myself to ‘work on something creative’. Something light … not too close to the hurting parts of my heart.

I thought I would write a cookbook. Easy – it would be about something I enjoyed, but not something that required too much of ‘me’. After all, whenever someone asked me if I had thought of writing a cookbook, the idea would excite me. Whenever I wrote down things to work on, ‘cookbook’ made the list.

I would get excited, write earnestly for a while, filing photos by category to accompany my words. Then difficult emotions would resurface, and inertia. I would write, edit, and sigh in exasperation at my useless, overworked sentences.

Ego … pride … sigh.

I marvelled at the ways of the heart. So pure, yet deceitful, too.

I discovered the crippling power of anxiety, discontent and looking back at the past.

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One afternoon, last week or the week before? – I lay down the weight on my shoulders.

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I clicked my way to Zno (who, by the way, print fabulous photo books and deliver promptly). I found a folder on my computer in which I had stuffed various full-size photos from my blogging adventures / more recent cooking experiments.

I clicked and dragged. Within an afternoon, I had pages of complete layouts. Just images – no words. I showed two friends the online sample.

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Thankfully, Cathy suggested that I could “sprinkle a few words or comments across the pages like chocolate drops on a trifle”. :-)

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So I did. I let go of the desire to impress. I just had fun. I clicked “Save” and ordered five copies.

They arrived on Monday morning this week.

They are by no means complex or impressive works of art, or the most wonderful food book ever published.

But when I flip through the pages, I remember many good moments. And my body feels as light as meringue.

That’s good enough for me.

[UPDATE: you can order one, and receive a bonus with it – click here to find out more!]

Courage, caution: shaken, not stirred

My grandma was hardy and tough, bold enough to sneak out in the evenings to attend night classes in a time and place where girls were not granted education rights. Solid enough to blink back tears at the age of nine when her father hit her on the head for not cooking the porridge perfectly. Zany enough to catch a live cockroach in her hand and fling it out of the window while my grandpa and I looked on, glad it wasn’t us doing the disgusting deed. Plucky enough to stop live crabs from getting away from her in the kitchen sink, and to turn them into a delicious dinner for us all.

She was also sharp and full of common sense, forward-thinking and clever. She could taste a dish at a restaurant and quickly work out how to reproduce it at home; she had a solid memory; she was skilled in all aspects of homemaking; she wore bright red lipstick and modern outfits and travelled with ease; she once cooked for 80 people, to celebrate my grandpa’s birthday.

She was a woman with both charm and a startling temper which could descend on you without warning. She loved working with her hands – cooking for her family, always putting meals on the table no matter who was in or out that night; sewing pyjamas for us; smacking me when I got unruly; brushing my hair and braiding it. She made food to take to the temple as offerings for the gods. She loved to play mah-jong with friends and family. She rarely sat still, except in the afternoons when she sometimes took a short nap, or in the evenings when her favourite sitcoms were playing on TV.

Notions of what it meant to be a wife and mother drove her, work and duties were ingrained into her daily routine. Strongly anchored to that love was a sense of fear and needing to protect us from any harm. Growing up as a child under the roof of a father who loved boys but not girls, into a young woman living amidst the horrors of war during the Japanese Occupation, to a woman who had ambition but not the opportunity to do more beyond marry and have children … she was one of many women in her time who relied on marriage as a means of survival, as she had no education or way to make a living. Her children were her everything. Her love was both warm and assuring, and smothering.

Though she never said this to me, I eventually came to suspect that her world was an unsettling one, where the most we could do was control how things went at home and be morally upright so we might be spared punishment from the gods. She worked hard to do the right thing in every situation, to make all the right offerings at the temple, to pray to the gods for protection for our family.

With her lips she cautioned me against the many dangers of the world. Don’t walk outside alone at night. Don’t catch a cold in the rain. No jumping off that seat, it’s too high. Eat your rice, or each grain left on your plate will become a pimple on your husband’s face. Be careful, don’t mess with a man before you get married, or you may get pregnant and he will leave you. She told me stories of her past, she hoped I would have a better life and be able to help look after her when she got old.

From her I learned that it was good to be beautiful, but not to be too beautiful or a man might take advantage of you. It was important, as a girl, to marry not just for love, but for practicality. It was vital to always look after yourself, as no one else might. It was good to help others, but not too much in case your family was left with not enough.

Towards the end of her life illness and disappointment had worn her down; fear had come in the way of her once ringing laughter, and I was afraid of her bitterness and anger. I found myself feeling irrationally angry with a woman I once loved inviting over to our place to ‘sleepover’ in my room; whose tickles once made early mornings bearable; whose meals I always looked forward to with anticipation.

* * *

In the course of working on a book, I found myself tracing love’s story, love’s journey, love’s lessons … I found myself remembering my grandma. Early days. Late days. Times in the kitchen when she’d lovingly chase me out so she could fry food in hot oil for dinner. Times in the lounge when she’d talk and I’d wriggle out of her arms, tired of hearing a story *again*.

I found myself smiling and crying as I wrote the above … recalling moments in which it was easy to feel love for her, and moments when it was really tough to even like her.

But that is family, and love. So simple and yet sometimes so complex when you are that close to someone. Sometimes the love you share with someone brings you warm fuzzies. Sometimes it brings hurt and makes you mad. Sometimes it makes you question … makes you think about who you want to be. 

I love her so very much, and on many days I miss her. 

Recently I started (again) to write my book.

It was not the book I had wanted to write last year – the one that would be fun, informative, practical, light and delicious. It has not been all that comfortable and effortless to write, as I had thought it should be.

Today, my eyes brimmed with tears as I typed. And still – the words flowed freer than they have in months. My words are light and dark. There are good moments and there are shadows. No one is an angel in my script, not even the first woman I revered as a child. Grief is allowed. So is joy.

I have allowed imperfections room to dance on paper, and by extension I have been able to allow wonderful things room to shine too. By allowing sadness a moment of its own to express what it wishes to say, I find myself happier at the end of the sentence.

This is unexpectedly easier than trying to write a 100% cheerful, picture-perfect essay. I feel lighter writing with the vulnerable, yet freeing feel of surrender powering my writing.

 

No Ordinary Sheila

In times like these, it feels especially poignant reflecting on the merits of a ‘well-lived life’. This phrase may bring to mind the notion of achievements people find notable or remarkable. But while achievements count for something, they are not everything. There is something to be said for going on mini adventures, creating stuff, staying healthy, enjoying ordinary moments, finishing what one sets out to do, having close relationships … the things that make life not just enjoyable, but purposeful! There is so much to be said about people who truly LIVE, not just survive.

Adventurer, cyclist, sailor, writer, wife to Gilbert, friend (including to famed NZ writer Janet Frame), Sheila Natusch did not just dip her toes gingerly into the ever-changing waters of life. She brushed against life, dove into it, cycled through its meandering pathways, and truly savoured it.

As I watched the (well-made) film on her life, aptly entitled “No Ordinary Sheila”, I felt warmly invited to slow down and reconsider my notions of a good life. Aside from Sheila’s remarkable dedication to and skills in studying, documenting and illustrating natural history, many other activities she pursued are not out of reach for most people. Anyone can put some walking shoes on and hike up an unfamiliar trail, spend some moments admiring a beautiful bird, or start working on a personal project just for fun.

Anyone can appreciate the little moments which make for an imperfect, immersive, wonderful life.

An altogether warm, charming, true-to-life documentary which left me feeling a sense of loss at the end as I read that Sheila had passed away in August this year. A beautiful life worth celebrating.

No Ordinary Sheila was first launched in the New Zealand International Film Festival 2017, and screened between 3rd August and 24th September. It will be released in cinemas around New Zealand from Thursday, 19th October. For more details, click here.

Image via Hugh Macdonald Film

This post has also been published on Big Screen NZ.

Kátya Kabanová

NZ Opera’s Kátya Kabanová opens appealingly with mystery. The lovely Kátya (Dina Kuznetsova) appears in soft pink, pretty and delicate beneath a blanket of stars. An aura of childlike wonder surrounds the scene – I feel as if I am gazing at a moving scene in a picture book. A jolly science teacher praises the beauty of the river while a servant, unimpressed, disagrees. I lean back into my seat, enjoying the beautiful set and costumes, and being taken back in time.

The lyrical novel begins. Set in 1950s America, everyone is suited, booted and coiffed – the set similarly constructed to paint a picture of order and grace: religious symbols in the tidy house, a bleach-white picket fence, pruned trees, a high-flying American flag. It is Sunday, church day. At the conclusion of the service, the lawn is awash with bows and smiles.

Polite and perfect settings soon juxtapose strongly with emerging, unregulated emotions. It seems that a religious morning has done nothing to soothe the spirits of a conflicted husband, a domineering mother, a fiery adopted sister, a lonely woman, a cantankerous uncle, and a man trapped by his uncle’s demands and his hopeless love for a married woman. The river to me becomes a visual representation of the changing temperaments of the human soul – surging with secrets, calm one moment and stormy the next.

As always I loved the visual and musical feast that I have come to associate with NZ Opera’s commitment to excellence. Though set in 1950s America, there are many themes and threads which are relatable in any time – most of all the universal emotional experience that we, being human, undoubtably share. Terse, lyrical outbursts by the individualistic Leoš Janáček carry the character-driven plot forward as we follow Kátya’s footsteps through a journey of inner struggle and courage.

Though Kátya Kabanová is the New Zealand Opera’s final offering for 2017, it is by no means one that should be overlooked. The performances of the cast are bold, heartfelt and haunting. The 1950s in the USA certainly marked a time when men ruled both the workplace and the home but seldom their mothers. Kátya Kabanová is a moving example of how at times that formula could go so tragically wrong. Patrick Nolan, the director, and Genevieve Blanchett, the production designer, seem to have taken particular care to make sure that this notion was not lost on we, the audience.

Although a tragedy, which has been compared to Romeo and Juliet, Kátya Kabanová does provide enough by way of individual performances, breathtaking lighting and set designs to leave us with a satisfying smile at the end of it all. Over and above those, there are outstanding performances by Wyn Davies [conductor] and The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, as well as a spectacular audio-visual presentation which helped keep the suspended reality of Leoš Janáček’s vision and story completely alive and forbearing.

Kátya Kabanová has three more performances in Auckland this month before the production moves to Wellington’s St James Theatre for four dates from 7 October. For more details, see NZ Opera website.

Saturday, 16 September, 2017 – ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

Written with Jarred Tito

This post has also been published on Libel.

Image © NZ Opera via Facebook.