Tag Archives: culture

The more things change…

So it’s been almost a year since I last updated this blog. I only realised it the other day when I started to think about maybe getting back into writing, and noticed that my last post was about Melbourne, which I visited in January 2010. It was somewhat horrifying  to realise that somehow a year had passed in which I didn’t manage to find the time to write anything (or at least to post anything. I had a few failed attempts littered here and there.)

It got me thinking about how easily time passes and slips away, and that it’s not even necessarily about what you prioritise, or at least what you want to prioritise. I know I managed to keep updated with whether RPattz and KStew are actually dating, and I carved out time to watch X Factor. When it comes down to it, is that what is more important to me than writing? I also only managed to read a handful of books last year, but I read my fair share of trashy magazines. I suppose sometimes it’s just easier to be lazy. It certainly takes less effort to watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians than to write a blog post.

The one good thing, or at least enlightening thing, about how I have not posted in almost a year, means that the ‘new year’ posts are close to the top. I was reading over one in which I lamented that my ‘just do it’ philosophy was obviously not being heeded to, that I needed to keep a diary, that I needed to be more organized, that I had started the 100 push-ups programme.

I was hit by how crushingly similar my aspirations are this year. I spent the 2nd of January scouring book and stationary shops in an attempt to find the perfect diary that would somehow manage to transform my life into one of efficiency and achievement; I had downloaded the 100 push-ups app onto my iPhone; I had tried to stop putting things off and just do them when I thought of it.

A lot of things have changed for me in the past year.  I’ve planned trips that I didn’t go on, and gone on ones that I didn’t plan, I’ve dabbled with cancer, I’ve been to a psychotherapist, I’ve said goodbye to my first proper job and wondered if I would ever find anything that suited me so well, I’ve managed to get a new job which has opened my eyes to a side of life that I never experienced and I’ve moved to the other side of the world.

And yet when the new year rolled around, I was still battling with the same issues I always was – that I’m not achieving my potential, that my body is not as thin as it should be, my hair not as long, my skin not as clear, that I still don’t have an idea of what it is I want my ‘career’ to be and that I’m still apparently unable to use a diary for more than a week at a time.

My hopes and dreams for a new year all seemed a bit futile in the face of such overwhelming evidence that my weaknesses remain the same, that my ability to overcome them is limited. Part of me wonders if maybe I should just throw away the diary and accept that, like a friend said to me recently, if something is important, you’ll do it. But at the same time, I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, and maybe it’s just in my nature to take the easy way out, to be a bit lazy, and maybe it’s also in my nature to want to struggle against that. I know in some ways I’m setting myself up to fail. That I will stop using that diary, that I will somehow end up watching a re-run of Everwood rather than going to the gym.

I went to a shambhala meditation group some time ago, (a component of my ideal self is that I would meditate daily, without my thoughts drifting off to consider whether I need a new pair of shoes). The teacher discussed the problematic nature of the idea of self-improvement and progress. I found this quite a difficult idea to wrestle with, as if we don’t want to improve or progress, then it seemed like giving up. But the teacher explained that what they were meaning was to interrogate the impulses behind that improvement. Is it negative or positive? Who are you trying to improve for and what are the true benefits?

While I don’t think I could just let go of feeling like I need to improve, I do think I probably need to switch my focus to what it is I have done right, what it is I have achieved, rather than focusing on what I haven’t, and how I need to do more. Maybe it’s about enhancing what is already there, rather than thinking about what I’m lacking or not doing right.

I may never change in the way I have strived to. In fact, I wonder if I would be recognizable to myself if I did. If I suddenly woke up tomorrow at 6am and meditated and went to the gym t and then practiced yoga and chatted easily to acquaintances and held the gaze of strangers and dressed my lithe body in fabulously minimalist chic attire, read some literary classic on the tube on the way to my as-yet-undetermined perfect job that is enjoyable, but also makes a difference to people’s lives, had cocktails with friends after work, a delicious meal with an intelligent man, who I was not intimidated by, and we have deep and meaningful conversation, I order the salmon, because healthy food is just so delicious and I don’t have dessert, because I’m not much of a sweet tooth, and I was on time for all my appointments and was not indecisive once.

Anyway, back to reality. Who knows whether life would be more satisfying if we were living out our perfect selves? That fantasy is just that, and in the end my weaknesses are as much a part of who I am as my strengths. And when I think of the good people I have in my life, and accept me for who I am (and maybe because of who I am) it serves as a reminder that maybe I’m OK if I never change.

Chances are, I’m 28, and this is what I’m like, but I think maybe I need to start enjoying the attempt at change, and to take pleasure in simple victories, like how I actually sat down and wrote this, rather than thinking about doing it, but reading my Twitter feed instead.

Rather than the goal of unattainable perfection, I think my goal for this year is just to live consciously, the exact meaning of which I’m still trying to work out, but it’s a phrase that keeps coming back to me when I think about this year and what I want it to be and how I want me to be, but that’s another blog post (hopefully!).

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Best of Melbourne

I went to Melbourne for five days recently. I’ve been to Melbourne a few times before and always enjoy it. It’s the type of city that’s fun to visit, but also has a feeling of liveability. There’s some places I love to visit, but I can’t envisage myself living there, or I don’t think living there would be all that great.

Funnily enough, while I still think that, this time that I visited Melbourne, while I still think it would be a fantastic city to live in, I can’t see myself living there right now. I thought that maybe on this trip I would feel that I’d ‘found my place in the world’, but I think my place must be a bit further a field at the moment. I’m definitely keeping Melbourne on my futures list, though.

Anyway, in no particular order, here’s some things I enjoyed when I was there and think you should check out if you get the chance.

Degraves Espresso. I can’t speak about the food at this cafe, as I just went for a pre-breakfast coffee (we got breakfast free at our hotel and I was being cheap), but the coffee was definitely good. So good that when I finished my first soy latte, I felt compelled to order another. Sitting there sipping your coffee and people-watching is one of those quintessentially Melbourne experiences, I think.

Retrostar Vintage. There’s a lot of good vintage shopping in Melbourne, but I found a lot of it quite expensive compared to K Rd prices in Auckland and it wasn’t that much better to warrant the prices. Retrostar definitely has a lot of stuff to choose from and it’s prices are pretty good. It’s a large warehouse-style building that has a huge amount of stock that’s worth a rummage through. I found a fabulous 1960s champagne lace-overlay dress for A$65.

Circa Vintage. I actually didn’t buy anything here, but I think it’s worth the trip out to Fitzroy. It has a small selection of clothes, but all well selected. This is somewhere if you’re lucky, and if you have the budget, you could pick up something truly special. And the shop itself just has a nice 1940s kind of vibe to it, old-fashioned music playing and the shop girl dressed in vintage attire while ironing some new acquisitions.

Little Cupcakes. This is in Degraves St (so goes perfectly with a coffee from Degraves Espresso). I had a mini mocha cupcake and my mum had a lamington cupcake. Both were devine. There are numerous other flavours, and you can get mini or regular-size versions. If I lived in Melbourne, this would be a weekly treat. Mmm.

AIX Cafe Crepierie Salon. This is in Centre Place, which is another little iconic piece of Melbourne. Surrounded by the tables and graffiti and shops and people walking past, this is tucked away, a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place. I went there in the afternoon after the lunch rush so I could get a table (there’s only about three), but it’s well worth finding the time. I had a sticky date crepe with caramel sauce and double cream. It’s as rich as it sounds, and was amazing for about three-quarters of it before I fell into a food-induced coma. There’s a large variety of options for those not as brave or stupid as I. The berries with yoghurt and rosewater sounded nice to me for next time. And there’s also a lot of savoury ones as well. Good value, delicious and filling.

Scarlette & Sly. This is also in Centre Place. It may be best to come here before eating a large crepe, as trying on clothes with a full stomach is never much fun, and I’m sure you’ll want to try something on. From what I understand, this shop stocks local Melbourne designers. I bought a great navy blazer here, something I’d been looking for for a long time, but hadn’t managed to find the right combination of relaxed and tailored, smart and casual. It was half price as well, so only $75, but it’s original price of $150 was pretty reasonable, I thought, for a well-made classic piece. It’s chain store prices, but not everyone is going to have it.

Finally, I didn’t get to do this, but I guess you have to leave something for next time – Rooftop Cinema at the top of Curtin House. And Cookie Bar & Restaurant downstairs is meant to have excellent cocktails, so I’m told.

And just because this is a Melbourne-themed post, this is one of my favourite blogs at the moment, Lady Melbourne.

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Now join hands, and with your hands your hearts

I’m going to a wedding tomorrow, which seems the perfect way to kick-off summer. While I personally have mixed feelings about the institution of marriage and whether it would be right for me, there isn’t much that I like better than going to a wedding. There are other events which can be fun and celebratory – birthdays, New Year’s – but a wedding is an event that is all about love, and that’s pretty cool. The idea of proclaiming your love and devotion and commitment in front of your closest friends and family is so simple and yet so powerful, and I think that feeling of love and happiness filters through to all the guests.

Some other cool things about weddings are you have a reason to wear a pretty dress,…

…the dancing…

…the beautiful flowers…

…Champagne and cake – what a perfect combination…

…and it always makes me feel positive and hopeful about love, if even just for a day.

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The blue river of truth: How Fiction Works

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That’s right, people, I can do a book review, because I finally finished a book!

I bought How Fiction Works by James Wood from Shakespeare & Co Booksellers on Broadway in New York City. My friend Kate and I stumbled upon it when going for a walk around the Village one night, and ended up spending ages there just looking at the amazing array of books.  It’s one of the best bookshops I’ve been to.

I love bookshops. They’re my happy place. Which is seems slightly absurd now, considering how little I read and the anxiety that causes me, but I find them such a calming place. When I was stressed out doing my masters thesis, the two places that I knew would bring me peace and calm was either making my then boyfriend drive me to the pet store so I could go and look at the puppies – they always made me forget my worries – or otherwise going to the University Bookshop. I could just wander around it for hours, looking at books, enjoying the quiet. Bookshops just feel like knowledge in a bottle. It’s all just sitting there waiting for you to drink it in.

There’s just something beautiful and familiar about a bookshop for me, and I’ve realized that I gravitate towards them when I travel. Thinking about my trip to New York and surrounds, we ended up in bookshops a lot – we ate dinner at a bookshop twice in Washington DC, we had coffee and cake at a bookshop in Boston each night we were there, we had coffee and cake in another bookshop in Georgetown. (It seems like there’s often eating involved with the books). And I can vividly remember spending a long time in a bookshop in Kota Kinabalu in Borneo when I was there. I’m heading to Blenheim this weekend and if it weren’t for the fact that I’m arriving after lunchtime on Saturday, and therefore outside of opening hours in Blenheim, I would head along to my favourite little bookshop there, just to wander amongst the books and see what they’re displaying and promoting as their recommended books of the moment.

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James Wood is widely considered to be one of, if not the best book critic of his generation. He currently writes for The New Yorker, and before that wrote for The New Republic. He is also a professor of English at Harvard University, so his credentials for explaining how fiction works are impeccable.

I really enjoyed how this book was set out. I’d read in some reviews that it made the argument of the book weaker, but to me it was one of the book’s strengths. It’s set out in large chapters, but within those there are shorter sections, and some of them are incredibly short, as in half a page. No doubt it’s because of my increasingly miniscule attention span that I enjoyed this set-up. It was like the book was cut into bite-size pieces. It was particularly helpful for a book of this nature, for while it’s certainly written for a popular audience, it is still quite literary and academic in nature, so with these short sections, you don’t get bogged down in terminology.

What I will take away from this book is not so much that I now know ‘how fiction works’ – although I do know more about the basic elements that go into fiction writing, styles of narrative etc – but the unadulterated joy that Wood takes in close reading.  This book made me excited to read again. It made me want to go back and reread some novelists that I love, like Zadie Smith or Michael Ondaatje, for their ability to just completely encapsulate the nature of a person in a few sentences or to describe the world in language so beautiful that it makes you look at it the mundane wonder.

There are some authors that just seem to have the ability to so perfectly explain something you have felt or someone you know or some characteristic of life.  Wood explains it thus “And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations.” (244)

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It’s that ability of fiction to make one sympathise with others, to understand their motivations and to see the world through different eyes that Wood posits is one the art form’s major strengths. He rages against the ‘contagion of moral niceness’ that sees readers and reviewers complain about being expected to identify with unsavoury characters, arguing that the very nature of literature encourages readers to move beyond their own experience and that this is a “moral and sympathetic education of its own kind”.

On the cover of the book, a Time reviewer is quoted saying ‘The pleasure of the book lies in watching Wood read.” That pleasure and enthusiasm Wood feels (he’s a liberal user of the exclamation mark) is infectious and it made me excited to read again, to revel in the beauty of language and to cherish that knowledge we gain from seeing ourselves and our world reflected in that blue river of truth.

 

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Delayed gratification: marshmallows and mind control

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One such morning last week I listened to a podcast of Kim Hill’s interview with psychologist Professor Walter Mischel of Columbia University on Radio New Zealand National.

Mischel is a distinguished researcher in the area of personality. In the 1960s he was one of the originators of what is often referred to as ‘the marshmallow test’. Children aged about four years old had one marshmallow (or some similarly delectable confection of their choice) placed in front of them and were told that they could either eat that one marshmallow straight away or they could wait to eat it, usually about 15 minutes, in which case they would be given another marshmallow.

The point of all this was to examine the children’s ability to delay gratification for a bigger reward. Mischel continued to study the children into adulthood, and discovered that those children who could delay gratification, waiting the 15 minutes so they could have two marshmallows, instead of immediately having one, have generally become more successful than those who couldn’t.

Now, Generation Y tends to be all about instant gratification. We don’t expect to have to wait for anything, be it a reply to an email, a promotion at work, or a new dress. We want it all and we want it now.

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So this idea of waiting for something, of not taking that instant gratification that is right in front of you, is something that is quite foreign for many of us.

It’s a skill I think that I was never particularly good at. I always remember as a child being given I would eat all my Easter eggs in one day. It would often shock me when I would go to a friend’s house and in, say, June, she would still have a half-eaten Easter egg in the fridge.

Or when I was flatting at university, one of my flatmates would buy a packet of Toffee Pops and it would last her weeks. She would just have one occasionally. I would sometimes try to imitate her, and it would go well for maybe a day, or maybe an hour, and then I would mow through half the packet.

That these examples are to do with food is pertinent, but it’s certainly not the only area in which I have sometimes showed a lack of self-control. Some things I like to chalk up to experience, such as with my student loan – you could get a maximum of $1000 to spend on books or study accessories, and I would always get the maximum as a boost to my spending money, as $1000 right now was far more appealing than that delayed gratification of smaller loan in a few years’ time.

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Self-control, will power, self-discipline, delayed gratification, whatever moniker you like to give it, is something I have been working hard at trying to develop, and over the past year I have definitely managed to become better in regard to both money and food.

In August last year, around the time of my uncle’s funeral, I had something of a watershed moment and realised that I really needed to get serious about losing weight. I have struggled with my weight my entire life, and I’m only now fully comprehending that I always will – it’s a lifelong battle for me in the way that sobriety is for an alcoholic. I had spent many months indulging in home baking and pastries from the caff at work, and this, combined with a very sedentary job, resulted in me packing even more kilos on to my already well-endowed frame.

It is now over a year since that time, and I have lost 16 kilos (it was 17, but through a lack of that much vaunted self-control, I’m now back up one kilo). While there are many elements that go into weight loss – just as there are many for weight gain – there is a necessarily strong emphasis on delayed gratification.

I always think of my auntie’s mantra of ‘minutes on the lips, months on the hips’. You can either have that instant gratification of eating that brownie, or those hot chips or that Danish pastry, or you can resist it for the bigger reward, some time in the future, of losing weight, fitting into your skinny jeans, being healthier, living longer, feeling better about yourself.

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I’ve also managed to develop some self-control with regard to my spending. I’ve always been someone who loves shopping, loves spending, loves the finer things in life. Saving was something I only did for a very specific, short-term goal, like going on holiday

When I decided to move to London, I knew I would need to save for a considerable length of time, and that required further developing of that self-control. In the end, I didn’t end up moving to London, but I have continued saving. The original reason for saving may have disappeared or changed, but that self-control I developed hasn’t.

In the National Radio interview, Prof Mischel explains that delayed gratification is something that can be learned or developed with the right strategies and help.

Mischel used the example of retesting some children who had initially been bad at delayed gratification, but that if those same children were given a strategy to help them – such as the researcher suggesting that they visualise the marshmallow inside a picture frame – they would often be far better at delaying. When asked why they didn’t eat the marshmallow in the retest, the children would say, ‘Well, you can’t eat a picture.’ Mischel explains that those people who manage to delay gratification in the marshmallow test did so by the simple art of distraction.

I think there’s a lot to take from this for my own struggles with self-control. So much of it is about trying to strategise, to visualise, to keep yourself distracted from temptation.

And it’s also something that, like most things, the more you do it, the better you get. It’s like with saving – when you first start, it’s so difficult, because you’re used to getting that instant gratification. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. In fact, it can even get to the point where it becomes difficult to spend money, even when you need to. I now weigh-up decisions a lot more carefully before I spend money or before I eat something indulgent, this has benefits, but it can become mentally taxing.

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There are some days when I decide that I’m going to get a piece of cake or something from the caff, but when I get there, I think about it so long that the desire passes – the moment for instant gratification has been and gone. Although I think the caff ladies must thing I’m slightly nutty, standing in front of the food cabinet silently deliberating the merits of a chocolate croissant.

I think developing my ability to delay gratification is definitely something that will help me with all aspects of my life. It just makes me slightly more contemplative about what my reasons are for doing something, for indulging, in whatever it may be. And that’s not to say I don’t indulge when it’s right (and sometimes when it’s wrong) like today I bought a $200 swimsuit. Gosh, writing that does make it seem indulgent. But I figured I deserved it. And I resisted buying a whole lot of other stuff, so we’ll call it even.

While I think the difference between how my weight loss in particular has gone is that other times I’ve tried to lose weight, it’s always been something that I’ve thought about being done over a short period of time – I just need an iron will for a few weeks or months and then I would get to where I want to be.

But that’s not really effecting change within my personality as I have done now. By doing it over a long period of time, I have actually changed my desires, changed my essential make-up, I think. So today when I decided that I should buy a chocolate bar, I ended up going into the dairy and looking at them, but really thought about whether I needed it, how I would feel without it, and I realised that I was fine without it. And so I walked home and tried on my bathing suit instead.

I’ve still got five kilos to lose to get to my goal weight, and still I think, ‘If I’m just really disciplined for the next few weeks or months, it will happen’ but it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know if I’ll find that discipline to really make it, as the last few kilos are the hardest, but I do feel like I have changed my relationship with food, and with money, and that I have more faith in my ability to ensure a better future for myself, because being able to practise delayed gratification has wide ramifications.

In fact, in an article on the marshmallow test in the New Yorker, Mischel explains, “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control. It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

The value of that goes beyond the ability to lose weight, to save money – it’s really about giving you control over your own reality.

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All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware

Sometimes it’s hard being an introvert in an extrovert world.

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This year I sort of ‘discovered’ that I’m an introvert. Of course, I have always been one, but it was only by reading the book The Introvert Advantage, this year that I actually realized that lots of those funny little quirks I saw in myself were in fact the natural characteristics of an introvert. It was like fully recognizing a part of myself for the first time. I guess it’s what Oprah would call an ‘Aha moment’.

I finally understood why I often felt reluctant to go to parties, even though I would often have a good time when I eventually pushed myself to go, and why I found them quite draining. I now knew it was perfectly normal, as an introvert, to prefer more intimate gatherings of friends where I could have deep and meaningful conversations as opposed to battling away at small talk with people I don’t know, and why I would often be happy to have weekends in the comfort of my own surrounds, reading books, watching DVDs.
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I had always just assumed I was maybe a bit antisocial, shy, slightly retarded. I would wonder what was wrong with me. My mum (an extrovert) would nag me about going out, or get concerned that I was a Ngaire No-Mates if I stayed home on the weekend. (I do have friends, Mum. Promise)

The Introvert Advantage explained how I was not socially retarded, (whew!) only introverted, and that a lot of the difficulties lay in the fact that only 25% of the population are introverts, and those skills that we generally tend to associate with extroverts – social butterfly, good at small talk, being a ‘people person’ – are thought of as desirable.

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I have to admit, though, that after reading the book, I’m not precisely sure what the introvert advantage actually is. That’s not to say there aren’t things introverts do well, or even do better than extroverts, such as forming deep and meaningful relationships, but I don’t see how it’s actually advantageous to be an introvert in a world geared toward extrovert success and where extrovert characteristics are the measuring stick for normality. But advantageous or not, the book definitely helped me understand myself more.

Anyway, I was reminded of some of the difficulties of being an introvert this week when I was invited at the last minute to an impromptu dinner out. I was kind of thrown by the invitation and had to really think about whether to accept or not, which is silly in some respects, as most of the people at it I knew well, but I wasn’t sure of that at the time. It annoyed me that I wasn’t the type of person who would just immediately say yes to something that was slightly out of my comfort zone, or that I felt better once I knew who was attending out of the people invited. I had to give myself a little pep talk about it, and even had a look online, googling ‘deciding on whether to go out for introverts’. It helped to go through the reasons I maybe didn’t want to or shouldn’t go, and also the reasons why I did want to and should go. It made it more of a logical decision. Anyway, the whole thing ended up in me deciding to go, and despite being apprehensive, I actually had a great time.

I was invited out for drinks on Friday night, again at the last minute, but ended up not going, which I also think was the right decision, as I only would have known one person there for sure and I was also really tired from going out for dinner and a movie the night before, which is not the best frame of mind for me to be going into a situation like that.

I think it’s been useful for me to be able to think about these things from a more measured and rational position, rather than just immediately reverting to my introvert nature and saying no, or completely ignoring my nature and saying yes to everything. It’s given me tools for really considering things, such as how much I’ve been out already, how much I’ve seen these people, how I’m feeling at the time, how important it is to the person who invited me that I go, what kind of social situation it is – is it a dinner, is it drinks, is it a party etc – as all of these things add to the stress of it. I know that I can end up isolating myself if I indulge my natural tendency to spend time alone too much. I can also become inflexible, and that was something that was really highlighted for me this week – the importance of allowing spontaneity into your life. I’m fine when things are planned in advance, as I guess I feel I have more control over it – I can plan for it; when it’s spontaneous, there’s less room for that, but beautiful things can come from spontaneous events.

The idea of spontaneous versus planned makes me think of a scene from one of my favourite movies of late, (500) Days of Summer. There’s a scene with a split-screen of Tom’s expectations versus reality of a party he’s going to at Summer’s apartment.

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That scene really spoke to me, as I’m someone who tends to run through possible scenarios or build expectations a lot, which can often be very different from the reality. With spontaneous events, there’s less time to build up expectations. You’re heading into something without expectation, which is so often the best way, as you’re more open to the endless possibilities that the evening could bring. So I’m hoping I can start to live life with a bit more spontaneity.

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Because no matter where you run, you just end up running into yourself

I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the weekend. It’s the first time I’ve seen it in years, and I think it may be even the first time I’ve seen it as a grown-up.

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It kind of amazed me how contemporary the themes still are, and it seemed like it would have been so daring and racy in 1961. I know we tend to think of the ‘60s as a time of daring, but the free love and riots and sexual revolution all seemed to be more at the end of the decade. 1961 sensibilities would not have been much different to those of the 1950s, I would imagine.

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It’s the kind of film that really still has something to say about the quest for identity and love and belonging and a woman’s place in the world and taking control of our own destiny.

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I also love Holly’s idea of the mean reds.

Holly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?

Paul: The mean reds? You mean, like, the blues?

Holly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

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And, of course, the style is immaculate, which doesn’t hurt, and continues to provide inspiration.

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