Monthly Archives: September 2011

What’s your favourite part of your day?

Straightforward question: what’s your favourite part of your day? As in, which moment or segment of your daily routine do you enjoy and look forward to the most?

I ask because I’m just getting used to having a regular workday routine again after two months of unemployment. It occurred to me that I have a favourite part of each weekday: the last five minutes of my walk to work.

You might think this is strange. Shouldn’t the impending eight and a half hours stuck typing at a desk fill me with a growing dread?

The reason why it doesn’t is because for those five minutes, I am walking along Wellington waterfront. The waterfront is one of the best things about living in Wellington: it’s clean, attractive, full of interesting developments (like Te Papa or The Boatshed) and it looks out over a stunningly beautiful body of water, Wellington Harbour. The suburbs of Mt Victoria and Hataitai rise in staggered chunks past one end of the waterfront parade, and you can see the Rimutaka Hills in the distance, often shrouded in cloud. Beyond the Rimutakas, to the east, the sun rises higher and higher.

I love this part of my day because for these five minutes, I am more in the moment than at any other time. It’s easy to feel clear-headed when confronted with a view that is spellbinding in a different way every single morning. Those clouds over the Rimutakas, for example, might be wispy cirrus streaked by the Wellington wind or a cumulonimbus threatening storms later in the day. They might be absent altogether, casting surrounding buildings in the fresh yellowish light of the morning sun and filling the harbour with the deep blue of the skies.

The harbour is the main attraction, of course. I struggle to take my eyes off it, noting the patches of water which are calm, for whatever reason, while the rest chops and undulates. I like it best on overcast days when the morning sun illuminates the water through the clouds, transforming it into a silvery, shimmering sheen.

I walk close to the edge. A test of my ever-palpable appel du vide. That’s another good way of staying anchored in the present moment. Sometimes I stop for a couple of minutes and observe as many aspects of the scene as possible, then try to draw them together in a single frame in my head in an effort to take onelasting mental photograph.

My five minutes are up when I reach The Boatshed. I reluctantly turn inland towards my office, leaving the waterfront (and water) behind me. I go with an increased appreciation for the gifts I have in life. My eyesight, for example, is terrible – I’ve needed glasses for years – but I’m still visually capable enough to take in the wonder of the morning scene.

I’d always wanted to live in Wellington. Now that I do, those five minutes each morning are enough to make whatever time I spend here completely worthwhile.

So, how about you? What’s your favourite part of your day? Is it watching people on the train? Or maybe the moment your head hits the pillow at the end of the day? Comment/blog away…

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In praise of Roger Ebert

'Life Itself' by Roger Ebert, on release this week

“But now it’s getting late, which means he has his own work to do. Chaz heads off to bed. Millie, for the moment, hasn’t been seized by night terrors, and the brownstone is quiet and nearly dark. Just the lamp is lit beside his chair. He leans back. He streams Radio Caroline — the formerly pirate radio station — and he begins to write. Everything fades out but the words. They appear quickly. Perfect sentences, artful sentences, illuminating sentences come out of him at a ridiculous, enviable pace, his fingers sometimes struggling to keep up.”
-‘Roger Ebert: The Essential Man’, by Chris Jones, Esquire, March 2010

Roger Ebert, more than anyone else, is the reason why I wanted to be a writer. I think most of us have an initial reference point from whence our passions arose, like a car enthusiast’s formative obsession with the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible or a young swimmer watching Michael Phelps sweep eight golds at the Olympics. I write because I have always written, since I was a small child, but I take my inspiration from Ebert above all others. His writing is honest, principled, informative and articulate, always entertaining, never boring.

When I first started this blog on Blogspot back in 2004, it was to practise writing film reviews, and I said in the first entry (since deleted, time wasn’t kind to those words) that I hoped I would one day be Ebert. I hadn’t actually been reading him for very long at that point – maybe a year or so at most – but he’d already become the standard to which I aspired, for reasons I’ll attempt to put into words further down the page. It was my plan to write reviews of most of the films I saw in an effort to get better at watching them, but my bigger hope was that I would at least become a better writer, if not a successful one.

Over time I’ve written less and less about film, and taken on a wide range of other writing influences. To my great surprise, it is India that has given me the inspiration, impetus and support to be a bit more successful as a writer, and not film. However, I’ve continued to read Ebert – who in fact has also written less and less about film, proportionally at least. In addition to the weekly film reviews he’s been filing regularly for over 40 years, and the other writing he’s compiled in the form of interviews, features and books, Ebert now has a blog, too. He writes on many subjects besides film, most of them aspects of his colourful life Every entry is a joy to savour. The blog was the main reason behind his winning the 2010 Webby Award for Person of the Year – not only for the quality of the blog entries he posts but also for the quality and depth in the comments he receives, which are sometimes even more fascinating than the entries themselves.

The definition of a good writer is elusive, and likely subjective. The standard of one’s readers, like the myriad folks who comment on Ebert’s blog, might be a pretty good one. But a definition that appeals to me is this: a good writer articulates thoughts in ways the reader might not have arrived at on their own. Even if they are thoughts with which the reader strongly disagrees, the writing itself can still be compelling in the hands of a vivid wordsmith. Take, for example, Arundhati Roy’s work in recent years, which can be as misguided as it is literary. On the other hand, saying what a lot of people are thinking can be even harder; one has to work the words on the page into a form that somehow impacts on a reader who agrees with them before he or she even reads them.

With Ebert, whether I completely disagree with him, completely agree or am ambivalent (I usually agree), there is always something new to discover in his words. Perhaps some film fact I never knew, or the name of a new actor to watch; most often, it is the sentences themselves that offer the greatest delight. They frequently surprise me, flicking a ‘how did he do that?’ switch in my head.

I find Ebert’s words returning to me at unexpected moments as a way of articulating what I see before me, or to offer something of value to a conversation with someone else. Ebert’s words are often so tightly formed that they sometimes seem to have always existed, like he plucked them from the sky and set them before me. And his words become part of me even as I read them.

After decades of getting those words in small chunks (though nowadays, with his blog and Twitter and Facebook etc, those chunks arrive more frequently), now we have Roger Ebert’s memoir ‘Life Itself’. Thousands upon thousands of those words, all arriving at once, and I am certain they will be just as much a joy. Thank you, Mr Ebert, for being such an inspiration.

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Book Review: ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ by Sharell Cook

'Henna for the Broken-Hearted' by Sharell Cook, 2011 (Pan Macmillan)

One of my first Inside the Bloggers Studio interviewees was Sharell Cook of ‘Diary of a White Indian Housewife’. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Sharell and her husband in Mumbai and even more lucky to count them both as friends.

It’s as a friend that I write this post full of pride for Sharell, because she is finally a published author. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ hit the shelves in Australia a week or so ago, and it’s great to see Sharell’s straightforwardly elegant prose gracing the pages of a real live book, not just on the computer screen. And while I’ll refer to her in the first person throughout this review (we are on first name terms, after all), I won’t be biased. Well, not too biased. I hope.

The book is closely tied to the blog Sharell has written for the past few years. ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ tells her story of making an unexpected transition from Australia to India, finding love and a chief purpose in life – writing – along the way. It all sounds very ‘Eat Pray Love’, especially with a title like ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’, but this book is much better written, more informative and more resonant than Elizabeth Gilbert’s me-me-me-memoir. The title even makes sense once you read the introduction, linking the slow reveal of henna designs as they are painted to the unfurling of meaning in one’s own life.

The book follows Sharell through heartbreak in Australia, volunteer work in Kolkata, falling in love with an Indian man and – after some eye-opening experiences in the beach town of Varkala and Himalayan village Manali – eventually settling in Mumbai as an Indian housewife. If you’ve been following Sharell’s blog for a long time, a lot of this will sound quite familiar, but the facts are presented in ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ in a longer and more cohesive form. Rather than coming across as a series of connected vignettes, the book actually feels a book, as in a single story that we follow from the first page to the last.

However, an interesting sense I get from the book is that rather than having a traditional ‘ending’, ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ gives a clear sense that Sharell’s life went on beyond the confines of its pages. We’re dropped into Sharell’s life for a few years, privy to a period of incredible upheaval, but we know that the end is not actually The End. Sharell makes no claim to understand everything about India, married life, or even about herself, and we can feel that the learning continues after the last page. I, for one, will be clamouring for a sequel.

What ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’ really offers, though, is an honest new voice. I’ve always found Sharell to write on just about any subject with fundamental truth and honesty, but without compromising on elegance. I think that’s what sets the book apart from most transitional stories. There are no attempts to trick the reader by writing floridly around a point; instead, Sharell tells it exactly like it happened, warts and all, and she does so in a way that illuminates the deeper truths behind her experiences – truths many of us will be able to relate to. In her honesty, Sharell transcends simply narrating her own experience and speaks to all of us.

Probably the strongest section of the book is when Sharell is slowly getting to grips with Kolkata and falling in love with her husband-to-be. Their courtship is incredibly sweet and romantic, a real-life fairytale, but tempered with the reality of Sharell’s freshly broken heart and the more immediate challenge of dealing with daily life in India. She gives a good sense of what it feels like to drop yourself in such a foreign environment, and what the adaptation process is like. It’s slow, and there’s no single ‘eureka’ moment of understanding. If you put your mind to it, though, there are many small understandings along the way, each adding to a slowly growing knowledge and understanding of one’s surroundings. This is what happens to Sharell the longer she spends in India, and it’s what happened to me too.

On the other hand, I do have a criticism: the book is too short. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m pandering, but there were often moments where I wanted more detail about a particular event, like some of her experiences in Varkala and Manali. Still, the book is about a transformative process over a number of years, not so much the small details. Cramming those years into 300 pages without losing all sense of perspective is an admirable feat, and anyway, there are plenty of small details to flesh out the story and make it more real.

I recommend ‘Henna for the Broken-Hearted’. It certainly isn’t for everyone, particularly folks who have no interest in India or in alternative healing therapies (which also feature at certain points of the book). However, those with an interest in transitional stories, cross-cultural experiences and the essence of true love – and figuring what that means – will find it fascinating.

Congratulations, Sharell. Here’s to many more!

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