April Gratitude

Another month has passed astonishingly fast, and it’s that time again – a monthly gratitude post.

Not going to lie, April has been super hard, and so finding things to be grateful about has been trickier than usual.  I haven’t really had any spectacular lows, but it’s felt like I’ve been in a constant slump.  I’ve had a number of sick days, and had a really bad experience with my last Prostap injection (a painful infection at the injection site and ongoing struggles with the side-effects).  The ongoing pressure of the adenomyosis and the general malaise and lack of hope that comes with chronic pain has been exceptionally hard to deal with.

However, I made a commitment to be more grateful and positive this year, and these posts force me to consider the good things in my life, so let’s go.

1)  Easter

Close-up Photo of Bunny Plush Toy
Image description: a grey felted rabbit holding a pink felted egg with white spots.  It is standing on a next on a wooden board and there are some white flowers next to it.  

I wrote about what Easter means to me as a chronically ill Christian, so I hope I’m not cheating by mentioning it again.  There are plenty of reasons to be grateful for it, though.  A four-day weekend (followed shortly by ANZAC Day), lots of chocolate, and, of course, the celebration of Jesus’ sacrifice that means an afterlife in paradise.  That’s always good.

2)  Girl’s night

I got a chance to spend the evening with my four best girls.  We are a diverse group in both personalities and backgrounds, but we still have plenty in common – enough that we have stayed friends for ten years during the most turbulent times of our lives.  Perhaps our greatest commonality is our love of great food, which we ate at tonne of.  One of this fabulous group is from Bangladesh, and boy, does her mum create the most amazing feasts ever.  I could LIVE off her dahl.  Her spinach is mind-blowingly good.  She is single-handedly responsible for making me like cauliflower.

Sure, it was incredibly high FODMAP and I was in agony the next day, and I accidentally ate a chilli, but it was entirely worth it.  And now I’m craving her spinach.  Damn it.

Also, the chance to see my four wonderful best friends is always so good.  Everyone should have that friend or group of friends that they love and trust and always feel incredibly happy to see, even when life is hard or you don’t want to socialise.  This is that group.  There is no feeling in the world like spending time with my girls.

3)  ANZAC Day

Red Petaled Flower in Macro Photography
Image Description: a red poppy on a field of grey grass.

I may be pretty anti-violence, but I am not against people standing up to invaders.  I can also appreciate the courage, heroism and comradeship displayed by the ANZACS and the other soldiers of WW1.  Can you imagine how terrifying it would be to suddenly see a tank coming over the horizon in a war where cavalry with swords were still in common usage?  Can you imagine the mud, the blood, the terror, the cold in winter and the searing heat in summer, the disease, the privation and the utter uncertainty?  I don’t think war is something to celebrate, but the qualities of the soldiers who fought are, and their deaths should be remembered and commemorated.  I am grateful for what they did to ensure that we won the war.

4) An income

In the last month I’ve seen a lot of articles and the like on the difficulties of people with chronic illnesses who also have to deal with a low income or poverty.  This one in particular tugged at my heartstrings.  Australia has a good social security system compared to some countries, but as a lawyer I heard a lot of stories about people struggling with bureaucracy and a lack of understanding of the nuances of their condition.  I am incredibly grateful that I don’t have to battle for Centrelink, or try and live on the amount dispensed.  A stable income, having enough left in your pay after the necessities to save or give to charity – these are privileges that cannot be underestimated.

5)  Changing leaves

Landscape Photography of Trees
Image description: a tree with golden and green leaves shades a green field to the left and a brown path to the right.  The path has red and gold trees on the right that form a sort of tunnel.  Glimpses of bright blue sky are visible at the top of the image.  

As I wrote last month, I love autumn.  I’m enjoying the cooler weather still, although I’m not thrilled with some of the very cold mornings.  What I am loving this month is the beautiful autumn colours as the leaves change from green to shades of gold and red.  Some of the older suburbs with the European trees are just incredibly beautiful in autumn.  It was a particularly big shock for me when I took a week off sick at work to go from driving down the street my office is on and seeing it go from a green tunnel to suddenly almost bare, with the road covered in golden drifts of leaves.  I also really love the smell of autumn leaves as they break down.  It’s so earthy and rich.

6) Fitness 

During April I took advantage of a Fernwood sale and bought myself a membership with some personal training.  My PT, Emily, is really fun and works me within my limits, but doesn’t let me slack off.  I’m really exciting to be getting my fitness back on track, and have been taking on some additional exercise as well (I swam a kilometre for fun the other day!).  I’m doing almost an hour of warm-up before my sessions, and it is really, really relaxing for the brain.  I can just focus on my body and making it work.  It’s great mindfulness.

I also really enjoy feeling exhausted and sore for a good reason, as opposed to just feeling exhausted and sore because disease.  It’s satisfying and makes me feel proud of my achievements.  I’m not losing any obvious weight (thanks menopause!) but I am feeling my muscles harden up and I have a little bitty line on my biceps that looks like it could be a muscle.

7) Vegan smoked salmon

Since going vegan, people often ask me if I miss meat.   Generally speaking, no.  Sure, I enjoyed bacon and rissoles, but I never really got excited about steaks or chicken.  I genuinely do enjoy the taste and texture of fake meats better in 99% of cases.  However, I loved fish.  I definitely didn’t give up eating fish because I hated the taste.  Gardein Fishless Fillets filled a big gap for me, but I really, really missed smoked salmon.  Thankfully, the Cruelty Free Shop has started carrying Sophie’s Kitchen Vegan Smoked Salmon.  It’s not a perfect replica but it is very close and soooo tasty.  I had so many slices of toast with Tofutti cream cheese and some chives.  Heaven.  Happy little vegan.

8) Macaron adventures

Three Assorted Flavor Breads
Image description: three macarons in a pile.  The bottom is cream, the middle is pink and the top is brown.  

Disclaimer: the macarons in the picture above are not mine.  Mine only vaguely resembled macarons.

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Image description: macarons with the insides exploded out.
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Image description: a slightly less exploded macaron.  

 

Pictured above: attempts one and two.  They tasted fine.  I’ve never tasted macarons before, vegan or otherwise, so I have no point of reference, but these were nice, with a light marzipan flavour.  I definitely need to have another crack and try and get them better, but I think eventually I’ll get it.

I baked them with my sister and it was a bit of a giggle.  It took us HOURS and she managed to turn our sugar syrup into a solid rock, but I enjoyed it, even if it was incredibly frustrating to put in all that work and just get explosions.

This is the recipe I used.  On my second batch I turned the oven down to 250F and it worked much better.  I’ll keep playing and let you know if I ever manage it.

9) Love Nikki

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Image description: a pink-haired anime girl with flowers.  She has pale skin and brown eyes and is smiling.  She is the titular character in the game Love Nikki,  

If you play mobile games with pop-up ads you have probably seen some for Love Nikki.  It’s basically like Pokemon but for fashion.  Your character, Nikki, is inexplicably transported to another world with her cat, Momo, and ends up in a bunch of styling contests.  The game has a bunch of content and paying players definitely have a big advantage, but even my cheap self who just plays the free version can get heaps out of it.

It may seem like a silly thing to be grateful for, but it’s another thing I can do for fun when I’m really sick and stuck in bed.  Apps are great for the chronically ill.  Plus, I really like anime and pretty clothes, so this ticks all the boxes.  Let me know in the comments if you’d like a more in-depth review.

10) Sex Education

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I don’t mean the school lessons – mine were patchy and weird at best.  Highlights included being told repeatedly to just “keep your pants on!” in a strong US accent, and pictures of diseased genitalia.  That’s a Christian school vs a public school for you, I suppose.  Both freakish and not particular useful, just in very different ways.

What I am actually referring to is the Netflix show, Sex Education, starring Asa Butterfield (you may recognise him as the titular character of Ender’s Game).  Whilst this show does have more sex scenes than I really want to see (probably unsurprising, given the name), it also deals really, really well with some very real issues – poverty, abandonment, over-protective parents, divorce, sexual trauma, abortion, vaginismus, slut-shaming, parental pressure, revenge porn, stigma against virginity, stalking, drugs, homosexuality (both repressed and flambouyant) and the attendant prejudice and danger, and a raft of others.  The characters are engaging – some are deeply loveable, some are deeply tragic, and it is just incredibly well-written.  If you don’t mind a whole bunch of nudity and want a show that really tugs the heart-strings, this is a good one for you.  I was hooked.  I am not kidding when I say I laughed, I cried, and I determined to teach my hypothetical future children strong lessons about their self-worth and ensure that they get proper sex education.

App Review: Stylebook

I may be coming across as intensely shallow with my recent posts about hair and makeup and my previous post on fashion.  Well, I am shallow, so that’s fine.  I like pretty things and I have no shame in that.  Mock if you will.  Anyway, as part of maintaining a life of prettiness, I like to keep organised (my mother will scoff at that but there is a method to my madness, I swear).  I could do that through my bullet journal, which is how I organise most of my life, but for hair, makeup and clothes, I like to use the amazing Stylebook app.

I was first introduced to this app by my friend the Vintage Barbie.  If you like vintage-y style you will love her blog.  Go and follow it.  Anyway, she got me hooked on this app and there has been no going back.

Stylebook currently costs $5.99 of the Australian dollars on the App Store.  It’s not available on Android, alas.  Normally, I’m not a fan of paying for apps, but I make an exception for this one.

I won’t go into a breakdown of how to use the app, because Vintage Barbie covers it beautifully and I’d just be duplicating her excellent explanation.  What I want to talk about is why I love it.

Although Stylebook is an absolute pain to set up, particularly if you have a lot of clothes, it is incredibly easy to use once you have it completed.  It’s also really useful and totally customisable.  For example, although the app is intended to be used for clothes and accessories, I have added in my makeup, perfume and hairstyles.

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I do not agree with the concept “too many lipsticks”.  

This lets me pick what lipstick I want to match with an outfit without having to rummage through my obscenely large collection to pick a colour.  It also inspires me to try different hairstyles by picking them ahead of time instead of just leaving it to its own devices (or throwing it into a hasty ponytail on court days).  I’ve just pulled screenshots from my favourite Youtube tutorials or Pinterest and wacked them into my Hairstyles section.

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You can see one of my favourite styles, the Candyfloss Bun, up there in the left column.  

The biggest pro of Stylebook, as far as I’m concerned, is that it shows me a) what I’m not wearing very much and b) what I’m not getting good cost-per-wear out of.  That’s super valuable in terms of curating my wardrobe, because it forces me to take a good look at the items in question.  If they are things that it makes sense not to wear often and to have a high cost-per-wear (for example, my wedding dress, which is the only floor-length gown I own and I’ve only worn twice) then I don’t mind it remaining in that category.

Image result for review casino dress lilac
Did I get married in Review?  Yes, yes I did.

However, if it is a more casual item, then there is no excuse for it to be hanging around if I’m not wearing it regularly, and that’s a sign to me that I should be selling it on or donating it.  I’m a really goal-orientated person, so if I set myself the goal of getting something out of my “only worn once” list, then by golly I will do it, whether by making myself wear it more often or getting rid of it and deleting it from the app.

It also helps me when I’m shopping, which is something I’ve been better at not doing this year but still really enjoy.  I have a rule that I’ll only buy something if it goes with at least three other things in my wardrobe (unless it is a dress or something for a special occasion).  With Stylebook, I can pull out my phone and check through my other clothes and go yes, it goes with these three things, so I can buy it.  I don’t have to waste valuable brain real estate on committing my current clothing stash to memory just to pick new items – my entire wardrobe is there in my hand.  For example, I just bought the Betty Bloom skirt from Review during their recent 30% of sale items promotion.

Image result for review betty bloom skirt
Did I need another floral pencil skirt?  Probably not, but it is nice and long, which is hard to pass up for me.  Also, it was really, really on sale.  Never pay full price.  Words to live by.

Pulling out my app I can see that it will go with these four tops at least.

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Yes, they are all Review, and yes, I have a problem.  From left to right, the ivroy Royce, the Moore top, the Tasha top and the Isadora jumper.  None of them are the current season, but if you want to try and find them I recommend the Review Buy Swap Swell page on facebook.  It’s a goldmine.  

It’s not only going to go with a fair few things, but this means I know I can work it for both cold and hot weather.  I know I have others it will go with as well.

This app is also great for keeping track of my clothes.  Like everyone, I have pieces that I wear more often than others, and I tend to know where they are.  Pieces I love less sometimes go missing and I won’t immediately notice.  Stylebook reminds me of their existence so I go hunting for them and recover them from the back of drawers or the bottom of the laundry bin.

I also can’t get past the peace of mind it gives me to know what I am wearing in advance.  I check out my roster for the coming week, figure out what is happening on each day and select appropriate clothes.  For instance, on an office-only day in summer I would like to wear my lovely Veronika Maine culottes, but judges will look at me askance if I wear those to court, so I’ll pick a pencil skirt or dress trousers for those days instead.  If I’m having a flare-up, it also lets me plan soft, comfy clothes for the week so I know that I will be presentable with minimal effort and maximum comfort.  It also lets me challenge myself – for example, to celebrate spring I am wearing a floral every day through the month of September and aiming not repeat the floral item.  So far I have managed every day.  Last October, it was a dress every day for Frocktober.

Finally, this app is incredibly useful for packing.  I’m a massive overpacker for holidays despite being able to be totally frugal on bushwalks and hikes.   Using Stylebook I can create a little capsule wardrobe for wherever I’m headed and plan my outfits in advance based on my activities.  This helps me make sure that everything I pack goes with everything else and I don’t have any single-use items, except for special occasions.  I’m going to the UK next month, so I’ll post a packing list before I leave.

In conclusion, Stylebook is great and I have a lot of Review.  I do have a lot of Veronika Maine and Cue too, but because they don’t name their pieces the way Review does it’s really hard to find old stock photos so they don’t get added to Stylebook as much.   Anyway, for me this app has been totally worth the money as I use it on a daily basis and it helps me make more informed choices about what I buy and sell.

Do you have Stylebook?  Are you an Android user with an alternative you love?  Any other great fashion apps I should check out?  Let me know in the comments.

App Review: Forge of Empires

Once again, I’m about as far away from reviewing new and cutting edge as you can get, because Forge of Empires has been a thing since 2012.  I started playing in 2016 because I was sick as you can get with a monster flare-up post-surgery, and I have yet to lose interest to this day (actually quite an achievement for my attention span).  Personally, I’m always on the look-out that will keep me entertained during flare-ups, in doctors’ waiting rooms, in the emergency room, etc, without requiring too much mental capacity.  This fits the bill exactly.

I should say that Forge of Empires is also playable on the desktop, and that does give you access to slightly more features.  However, I like the app interface better and have other games I’d rather be playing on the computer.  My personal view is that this game just works better as an app.

I initially met Forge of Empires through one of those annoying pop-ups that kept happening in another ad.  I think I went, “FINE!” and downloaded it to see if it would shut the thing up.  Then I started playing and I take back my initial annoyance.  FoE just wanted me to know that it could make my life more fun.

A nifty little world-builder by InnoGames, FoE lets you craft an empire however it most suits you – combat, trade, or going it alone.  You can play in worlds from Arvahall to Rugnir.  I’m in Brisgard, Dinegu (still not sure how you’re supposed to pronounce that – let me know your thoughts in the comments) and Griefental.  Worlds with names at the beginning of alphabet (Arvahall, Brisgard, Cirgard etc) are older than those at the end Mount Killmore, Odhrovar etc), and usually have more advanced players in them.  This makes you a tiny fish in a huge pond, but also lets you access the experience and assistance of top players if you join a good guild.  I’ll talk about guilds in a minute.

You start in the Stone Age, but the brief tutorial will quickly take you into the Bronze Age.  In each age you get shiny new buildings, technology and troops.  My three empires are currently in the Late Middle Ages (Dinegu), the Colonial Age (Brisgard), and the Progressive Era (Griefental).  You also get new territories to conquer on the world map, which in no way at all resembles our earth.  No sir.  That’s definitely not America I just conquered.  Nope.

As you progress you will also gain blueprints that will let you build Great Buildings.  These are rather attractive replicas of famous landmarks past and present, such as the Lighthouse of Alexandria, Alcatraz, and Hong Kong’s Innovation Tower.  These all give you different rewards.

Now, I talked earlier about the different ways to grow your city.  You can, if you like, focus entirely on the military aspect of things, study the combat system and create dozens of troops, ruthlessly attacking and plundering your neighbours.  Personally, I’m not a fan of the combat system and find this a relatively inefficient way of gaining resources (not that I leave my neighbours entirely in peace).  If I want to play a proper combat game of this sort, you’ll find me in Age of Empires or Total War.

You can go solo in this game, not joining any guilds and having allegiance to nobody.  I was that way for a little while, but personally, I find the benefits of a guild too good to resist.  A guild gives you a group chat where you can trade goods, help each other upgrade your Great Buildings, and most importantly, get help and advice.  Learning from your own mistakes is good and all, but I would prefer to learn from other peoples’.  It also gives you access to some of the more fun parts of the game, such as the Guild Expedition, where you have to either fight or solve a sort a little puzzle to get through the jungle and on to great rewards.  It is a weekly event and some guilds get really into it.  The more wins a guild gets, the more power they get and the more benefits they can pass on to members.

There are five main resources in the game – supplies, coin, goods, forge points and diamonds.  Coins and supplies let you build buildings and produce goods.  Goods let you trade for things in guild expeditions and the world map.  Forge points let you research tech and upgrade Great Buildings.  Diamonds let you build super-duper buildings, heal troops faster, buy blueprints for Great Buildings, and generally just buy your way to an easier time.  You can buy them with real money, made easier by the fact that the rest of FoE is free.  I am a cheapskate who refuses to spend money on apps, so I just hang about til I win them in the Guild Expedition or in the quests that are constantly popping up.  I have about 600 without having spent money on them.

The thing I like about FoE is that you can play it at your own pace as well as in your own way.  Sure, you can set your buildings to produce things every 5 minutes if you want.  However, if you are at work or just as lazy as me, you can set them for an hour, 4 hours, a day or, in some buildings, 2 days, so you don’t have to be constantly keeping tabs.

Personally, I think it is really cool to see your city getting better and better, and to meet the competing demands of population vs happiness, or goods production vs the supplies you need to make them.   Constant quests give you a reason to keep playing, and guilds make it a fun and supportive environment.

Do you play FoE?  Drop your name and neighbourhood in the comments so we can be friends!  I’m QueenAthenae.  I’d love to hear other people’s experiences with this app, and whether you prefer desktop or device!

App Review: Sleep Cycle

I wish I was being paid for this review.  I’m not.

One of the most horrible sounds of the modern world is the noise of a really harsh alarm going off early in the morning.  It’s a cruel and unforgiving noise that heralds a difficult, unwelcome task; starting another day.  That’s why I used to set my alarm to nice, soft noises. Unfortunately, even they used to protrude into my sleep with a certain jarring nastiness, so I tried something else entirely: Sleep Cycle.

Sleep Cycle is an app available through Google Play or the App Store.  iPhone and Android users can both download it.  It is completely free to get and use, but comes with the option to pay for a premium subscription (about $30 per year) and get more features.  Back when I got it, no subscription was required, just a one-off payment, so I have the premium version at a much lower cost.

Sleep Cycle is based on the way we, well, sleep in cycles.  We move between light sleep, slow-wave sleep and REM state.

In slow-wave sleep we are deeply asleep.  This period is crucial to physical healing after injury or sickness, and vital in memory formation.  We are more likely to remember dreams that we have in the slow-wave state than in REM, and sleep-walking and sleep-eating occurs during this period.

In REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement, our eyeballs will move rapidly and we will have vivid and more chaotic dreams.  Most dreams occur during the REM state.

A cycle of light –> slow wave –> occurs roughly every 90 minutes.  Sleep Cycle uses an accelerometre and microphone to monitor your movements throughout the night and track them on a little graph.

In some ways, the app works like any other alarm.  You tell it when you want to wake up, and you will be woken up more or less at that time.

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If I want to be woken at 7:15 at the latest, Sleep Cycle will analyse my sleep between 7 and 7:15 and pick the best time to wake me.  

What makes it different is that Sleep Cycle will then analyse your sleep for a period of time just before that alarm time (the default is 30 minutes but I have mine set to 15), and, when it thinks you are as close to waking as you’re going to get, it goes off.  The theory goes that, by waking when you are closest to consciousness, you will be less tired and grumpy.  A normal alarm will wake you whether you are ready to be woken or not and doesn’t care if you don’t like it.  Sleep Cycle will gently nudge you awake with music that starts super quietly and gradually gets louder, to bring you gently out of your slumbers.  It’s a much nicer way to wake up.

And yes, you can snooze it, but science says you shouldn’t.

In addition to the gentleness of being woken like this, I also like Sleep Cycle for its statistics.  I love a good graph.

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According to Sleep Cycle, this was the best sleep I ever had.  You can see the little peaks are happening roughly every 90 minutes, like they should.  

Sleep Cycle plots your sleep movements throughout the night and graphs how close you are to waking at any given point.  It tells you the hours you spent in bed, its estimation of your sleep quality from 1-100, and how many minutes you snored.  It also has a step counter, which is really not that accurate, particularly if you don’t carry your phone with you everywhere (I don’t).

On the picture above, you will see a note that says “Woke up” with a little white face next to it.  That meant I felt “meh” when I woke – neither bad nor good.  You’ll also see my heart-rate when I woke just under that.

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My worst night ever, apparently.  Despite going to bed at a sensible time, I was tossing and turning for most of the night and only got into slow-wave sleep once, around 4:30am.

As you can see, in this picture, those options aren’t there.  Those are some of the differences between free and premium.

On the free version, you can measure sleep, get the cool graphs, have all the nice alarm tones, and hit snooze.  On the premium version, you can also enter notes, such as whether you drank tea or coffee, if you worked out, and if your day was stressful.  You get the mood on wake-up.  iPhones (sorry, Android users), also get heart-rate measuring, weather tracking (and analysis of the effect of weather on your sleep), and integration with Philips Hue lights, if you have any.

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According to this, eating late and drinking tea are good for my sleep and coffee and stress are bad for it.  I also apparently sleep best in light showers.  

For me, it was worth getting premium at whatever low cost I got it for back in 2015 or 2016, whenever it was.  Now, with the subscription, I probably wouldn’t bother – the important stuff is all free.  The extras are cool, but I don’t think they are entirely accurate (drinking caffeinated tea gives me a better sleep?).  If you have money to burn and are really interested in sleep analytics, go for it, but I don’t think there is a huge amount of point for the average person who just wants an alarm with a bit extra.

So, go forth, download the free version, and see what your sleep looks like!

Do you have a preferred way of waking up?  Do you disagree and think Premium Sleep Cycle is worth the money?  Let me know in the comments.