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.

TV Spot: Mossad 101

Do you like NCIS?  Love a bit of James Bond?  Then you’ll adore Mossad 101.

Called HaMidrasha (or The Seminary) in Hebrew, the language in which it is predominantly filmed, Mossad 101 follows the selection process and training of a bunch of would-be Mossad agents.  They come from diverse backgrounds and have a variety of dark secrets – an Iranian man with a gambling problem, a secretive but beautiful Brazilian woman, and an Arab-hating French-Israeli extremist to name just three.

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Dramatically striding teachers and trainees.  

Trained by the enigmatic Yona Harari, played by Yehuda Levi, the course and the series get off to a very exciting start.  The trainees are at a course commencement party when armed men suddenly storm the beachhouse, sending them fleeing into the night.  They have to get to the Seminary, where the course will be taught, before their time runs out, without being arrested by police (unless, of course, you turn that into your strategy, as one of the trainees did).  Real bullets are flying, real injuries sustained, and the course commanders immediately get into conflict with each other.

In addition to the interesting missions and personal development of the trainees, we also learn about the fascinating backstory of Yona Harari, aka Kinder.  He used to date Abigail Lerman (Liron Vaisman), who is the course commander by the end of the episode.  She’s now having a fling with the Deputy of Mossad, Micha (Shai Avivi).  Kinder is the jealous possessive type with either a serious personality problem or just standard male entitlement warped beyond control by his life as a spy, so his behaviour degenerates to straight-up stalking within the first episode.  Micha becomes similarly problematic down the track, and the ground is set for jealous enmity between the two.

We also discover that Kinder has been assigned to the training course because a mission went wrong in Bulgaria, and it was his fault.  The oldest trainee, Doris, is the wife of a Mossad agent (Aaron) who died as a result.  As the series progresses, we get to Kinder doing a lot of stone-cold badassery, but we also see him obfuscating about what actually happened on that mission.  Eventually, all the remaining trainees get suspicious, and then the action really kicks off.  I won’t give you any more spoilers.

This is an enthralling show.  Each character is unique and fascinating (with the possible exception of the two American-Israeli brothers in the course, who are interesting but very similar to each other).  They all have some sort of secret that no one else knows.  Most interestingly, you cannot predict who will go and who will stay.  I thought one character was strong-willed, clever, interesting and fun, but they got eliminated relatively early.  Others I thought were sure to go made it to the end.  The show constantly keeps you guessing.

The show also puts viewers in a weird place about Kinder.  He is likeable, charming, funny and quite supportive of Abigail on one occasion when she is clearly having a hard time.   However, he is also possessive and manipulative in the extreme.  One moment you think he is an awful person; the next he kind of redeems himself.  In one way, it is realistic to show a handsome, charming man with such a dark side, because domestic violence can be perpetrated by handsome charming men with perhaps even greater ease than ugly, socially-awkward ones.  On the other hand, making Kinder so likeable seems almost like a way of excusing his awful behaviour, particularly with the way the show ends (watch it and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s too good for me to spoil it).  It is vaguely satisfying to see him get punched in the throat by Micha a few episodes in.

Kinder’s handsome face and stalker qualities aside, Mossad 101 has incredible pacing.  It’s not like 24, where I find myself constantly on the edge of my seat, but there are some incredibly tense moments.  The action keeps driving forward and, despite most episodes having a cathartic ending with a bit of room to breathe, curiosity drives you on to watch the next one.

If you like TV shows about agencies like NCIS or police dramas, but also enjoy reality tv with eliminations, but also want to watch a spy movie, Mossad 101 has something for you.  By its nature it can be graphic and cover some disturbing stuff, including testing the characters to break their own moral and religious codes in multiple ways, but it would be far less realistic without that.

I want more people to watch this show so I have more people to talk about it with!  So get yourself onto Netflix and binge Season 1 – Season 2 has just come out and it promises to be a cracker.

Have you watched this show?  What else on Netflix has you hooked right now?  Any foreign-language dramas?  Let me know in the comments!

TV Spot: The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2

Trigger warning for pretty much anything bad that could ever happen to a person.  Also spoilers for anyone who hasn’t completed Season 2 of the TV series.  In fact, this review won’t make much sense at all if you haven’t seen the series.

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood shortly before the first season of the Hulu television series aired on Netflix.  As soon as I’d finished the book, I binge-watched the tv series.  I probably should have thought that through a bit better, because watching and reading material that focuses so heavily on fertility, pregnancy, and women’s bodies may not be such a great idea when you are in the middle of an endo-flareup and people keep discussing infertility and pregnancy in relation to you.

For those who haven’t heard (somehow), The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about America after a civil war.  People stop having healthy babies and the far religious right sees this as a punishment for the moral failure, so they take over and institute a harsh regime with clear social classes, calling their new country Gilead.  Men can be Commanders (the elite, boss men), Guardians (the soldiers of the new regime), or Economen, the peasant class who do the manual labour.  Women (who aren’t allowed to read, write or drive) can be Wives (married to the Commanders), Aunts (older women who care for and enforce the rules on Handmaids), Marthas (the servant class who work for Commanders and Wives), or Econowives (the wives of the Economen).  Or, you can be a Handmaid.

Handmaids are based off the Old Testament story of Rachel and Leah, sisters who were both married to a man called Jacob.  It’s a particularly sad story to me, but I won’t go into that here.  Anyway, the two sisters get all hung up on having lots of babies for their husband so they can be the favourite wife, and both offer up their handmaids to sleep with him.  Jacob and the relevant wife can then consider any child of that union as their own.  In Gilead, infertile Wives and Commanders get their own Handmaid.  The Commanders have sex with the Handmaid while she lies in the Wife’s lap.  It’s bizarre, awful, and ritualised rape.  In Gilead, it’s considered totally fine, because it has Biblical precedent and babies are the most important thing ever.

The story follows a Handmaid called Offred (Handmaids are named after their Commanders – thus, Of[Commander’s Name].  Offred’s Commander is Fred, so she is called Of-fred.)  She is assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his Wife, Serena Joy.

I love the book.  It’s poetically written and really captures the despairing awfulness of Gilead without losing this tiny glimmer of hope and rebellion.  It ends on a real cliffhanger, too, but it’s not done in a frustrating way.  The first season of the TV show followed pretty closely to the book, although it expanded the backstory of the characters and we meet Offred’s husband.  His story gets followed a bit too, although personally I find it much less compelling than Offred’s story.  We get much more involved with other characters, such as Emily and Janine, two other Handmaids, both with extremely tragic story arcs.  The series overall captures the tone of the book extremely well and makes the whole thing really come alive.

The second season is a bit wack.

Don’t get me wrong, I still like it.  I love the agonised hope you feel rooting for the Handmaids, who have such overwhelming forces arrayed against them.  I enjoy the character development of Serena Joy, however frustrating it may be, and seeing what I assume will be the inevitable rebellion growing tiny roots.  I think that the development of Emily into a stony, angry killer who is still a bit confused and terrified is realistic and heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, the season also gets weirdly repetitive, and a lot of the decisions don’t make sense.  Offred escapes, then is recaptured, then escapes, then hands herself in, then escapes, but chooses not to leave Gilead.  Serena Joy flips between hating Offred with a passion, and getting along in a frenemy sort of way.  Most astoundingly, Janine and Emily, who begin the series labouring in the radioactive colonies, are returned to Gilead on the very flimsy excuse of a “Handmaid shortage.”  Desperate as Gilead may be for fertile women, I do not for a moment believe that they would bring back woman who, the previous season, murdered a Guardian, or the one who nearly committed a murder-suicide with Gilead’s most precious resource, babies.  I mean, I love the characters, and I adore this hard-core Emily that excuses and minimises nothing and has nothing to lose, but it makes no sense that they’d bring them back.

Some of the storylines are extremely frustrating, rather than unrealistic.  You can just tell that things with Nick’s child-bride, Eden, are not going to end well, and I spent the whole time just thinking, “Nick, show her just one ounce of love, please,” because I could plainly see that tragedy was looming otherwise.  And guess what?  Tragedy loomed very large.

Finally, the last episode is just far too convenient.  Emily literally gets away with murder, because she just happens to be landed with this Commander who is all sympathetic about that.  He’s a member of the group of men that manufactured and maintains the existing system.  How is he going to be ok with a Handmaid who kills another of its supports, let alone take on the risk of smuggling her out of the country and concealing the crime?  I don’t agree with the argument that he is just a good person.  A good person would not be in a position now to be a Commander, because he’d have spoken out against the regime when it first started, and that would have got him demoted AT BEST.  And this secret network of Marthas rising out of nowhere to replace Mayday?  I love it, but I don’t buy it.

I’m not even going to talk about Offred’s ludicrous cliff-hanger-making decision in the last minute.  What the actual heck.

I still love the overall feel of the series.  I’m still rooting for the Handmaids, I still want more of Moira, and I still want to see more of Serena Joy’s transformation (although I don’t think it is a redemptive transformation given that she only saw the shortcomings of the system when they personally effected her and hers).  However, I think I was largely carried through this season on a wave of nostalgia from Season 1, and hope for Season 3 (in which we had better see some Hunger Games-style rebellion with Canadian backing).  I didn’t not enjoy it, but I think it made some strange choices that just didn’t work.

What did you think of it?  Where do you think Season 3 is going?  Let me know in the comments!

TV Spot: Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits

It’s no secret that, if you’re sick a lot, Netflix is an almost invaluable tool.  One of my latest Netflix binges is “Churchill’s Secret Agents: The New Recruits.” It follows 14 people from very different backgrounds as they attempt to pass the training that would have let them into the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in World War II.

The SOE were Britain’s covert operations group during WWII.  They supported the French Resistance, conducted acts of sabotage, and generally engaged in bad-assery all over Nazi-occupied Europe.  Some of their most famous operatives include New Zealand-born Nancy Wake, aka the White Mouse, and Pearl Witherington, after whom my corgi is named.  One thing I love about the SOE is that it was not afraid to include women.  Women were taught exactly the same skills as the men, had to pass exactly the same training, and were sent out on the same dangerous operations.  Read more here about some of the brave men and women who served in the SOE, and their surprising backgrounds.

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Nancy Wake
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Pearl Witherington

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Netflix series consists of five episodes, each around 45 minutes long.  The 14 trainees are taught and assessed by three British Army officers as they learn to fire a pistol and a rifle, complete an assault course, sneak through forests dodging Nazis, pick locks, withstand interrogation, send and receive Morse code, and kill a man with their bare hands.  As each new challenge is introduced, viewers also learn a little bit about the SOE, its agents, and some of its operations.  The trainees dress, eat and act as if it were the 1940s throughout, including only having access to the wireless and 1940s newspapers at breakfast.  Like the original agents the trainees are of a mix of ages and backgrounds – there’s a mathematician, a paralegal, a real estate agent, a drama teacher and a former paratrooper, among others.  One Polish lady actually had family in the resistance during WWII, and her great-aunt was killed for her work against the Nazis.

Some of the trainees are clearly unsuited for the training, such as the lady in the first episode who won’t crawl under some barbed wire in the assault course because it will mess up her hair.  Others ace the assault course, including a gentleman with only one leg and a lady who is incredibly good at literally everything despite standing no taller than I did at age 10.

In addition to their success in the tasks set, the instructors pay close attention to the group dynamics and personalities, and aren’t afraid to fail people out who can’t adjust their personalities to the situation at hand.  Overconfidence is not appreciated any more than timidity.  Some trainees actually realise themselves that they are not up to the demands of the course, and bow out gracefully.

It is fascinating to see the trainees learn the different skills, and to hear them developing immense respect for the real SOE agents.  I really enjoyed the development of those who made it through, and confess to being surprised at some of them.  I won’t give away any spoilers about who does make it to the end, because it really is worth watching.  You wonder throughout, “Could I do this?  If I had been alive during the war, could I have done this?  Would I have been prepared to put my life on the line?” It does encourage you to engage in a bit of self-analysis as well as analysis of the people you are watching.

10/10 for this show.  Beautiful Scottish highlands, stately homes, an education and entertainment all at once.  It doesn’t take long to watch, and I definitely recommend it.  Just fast-forward the bit with the rats.  You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Nailed It: The Netflix Show for Bad Bakers

Do you love pinterest fails, french accents and cooking competitions?  Then Nailed It is probably for you.

Hosted by Nicole Byer, with chef Jacques Torres as head judge and a random guest judge (usually also a culinary expert but sometimes not), the show follows the same format each week.  Three enthusiastic but amateur American folks stroll onto the show and are asked to recreate a variety of professionally-made cakes.  There are two rounds.  The first one, “Baker’s Choice,” requires the contestants to choose one of three cakes, biscuits or other confection, to recreate.  We’ve seen emoji biscuits, lip-shaped cake pops and people-face cookies, and even a football grandstand made up of guacamole and various dippy bits.  Whoever wins Baker’s Choice gets a sparkly gold hat and some sort of fun kitchen thing, like a cake decorating kit, knife block or stand mixer.

Round two, “Nail It or Fail It,” really brings out the big guns.  All three contestants have to recreate the same cake, which is usually massively complex and heavily decorated.

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Source: https://www.tastingtable.com/culture/national/nailed-it-netflix-show

There’s been the above shark chomping down a diver, Rapunzel in her tower, a unicorn, a volcano, a hovering teapot pouring tea down into a cup, and even Donald Trump (highly recommend watching that episode if you ever wanted to know what Trump might look like if he was a zombie cake).  Some bakers do surprisingly well (although rarely well enough for it to not be funny), but most create horrifying nightmares.  The cakes are all tested on taste as well as appearance, and the winner of this round gets $10,000 and the allegedly soon-to-be-collectable Nailed It trophy.  Then everyone jumps in for a group selfie and we move on to binge-watch the next episode.

Delightfully, the show is not actually particularly judgey.  The panel isn’t scared to have a giggle at some of the disasters plated up for them (my favourite was one that looked quite good but had all the judges spitting it out because the contestant had muddled sugar and salt), but they are supportive of the contestants’ efforts and quick to point out what they have done well.  It seems like most contestants feel they actually learn something.

Nicole Byer and Jacques Torres work well together, with Byer’s rather sarcastic enthusiasm working well as a counterpoint to Torres’ quiet humour and to-die-for french accent.  Seriously, he says “buttercream” a million times on this show, and I could still listen to him say it a million more.  Torres also teaches Byer and the guest judge some tips and tricks whilst the contestants are working, which is helpful for viewers.

Overall, it is an incredibly fun show to watch, and with each episode only lasting half an hour it is a really nice way to have a quick moment to unwind and fill you with the lust for cake and biscuits.  10/10 would watch again.