{ Under The Bluegums }

A personal blog with craft tutorials, reviews of books, films, and music, parenting advice, and opinions on society and politics.

December 31, 2015

10 Things To Do in 2016

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It's the end of 2015, already, and I know you haven't met at least one or all of those silly resolutions you made last year. I stopped making them long ago since I don't think I've ever kept to any of them.

But this year will be different. It is the year of 9 in numerology: a year of universal love, faith, and a completion of things to come. It is the year of the Fire Monkey, when every person on Earth is meant to meet some divine and profound inspiration into themselves and the world around them.

In line with these two predictions for 2016, I have made a list of 10 things you have to do this year:

1. Be kind. 

Think about what you say and how it will be interpreted before you say it. Think about the effect your words will have on others. Think about how your actions, vocal tone, and body language can emit negative undertones that bring negativity your way and inspire negativity in others.

2. Be grateful. 

No matter what you are without, you have much. Be grateful for what you have and, more importantly, who you have in your life. You never know when it will be too late to show your gratitude.

3. Tell your loved ones you love them.

If you're estranged for any reason, if you don't get along for any reason, if you forget to call because life is just life, a simple message of love is all someone may need to improve their mood for the day.

4. Send unexpected letters, notes or texts to those closest to you to share your love with them. 

Research has shown that unexpected messages from people you love instantly lift your mood.

5. Improve your posture. 

My posture is one of my worst problems. I hunch over without even thinking about it. I feel taller when I correct my posture but it becomes slouchy again within minutes. I hope to change that this year with some posture-improving yoga exercises, since good posture positively effects health, happiness, and self-confidence.

6. Listen to mainstream news less. 

The fact is that major news outlets are owned by individuals in the guises of corporations, so remember that when you watch coverage of any particular event. Many media outlets focus on the sensational with the specific aim of urging you to click on that link or tune into that report to make more advertising money. How is that trustworthy? If you want to know what's going on the world by watching the media, supplement this information with good research. Don't form opinions based on a single news report. It also makes you feel happier. After all, there is nothing you can do about most of it except pull out your hair. And that won't benefit anyone. Except advertising companies and corporates. They benefit, even when you're bald.

7. Read more books. 

I think this is something that appears on everyone's New Year's Resolution list. I haven't even met my target this year *blush* though I have accomplished things that cannot be measured. Firstly, books make you happy. Happiness makes you healthier. Reading makes your smarter, it makes you think for yourself. It teaches you to be alone, to enjoy being with yourself. It makes your more empathetic and increases your brain function. Tactile reading also helps your memory. So go ahead and challenge yourself to read books this year. Stick to it this time.

8. Don't become a lazy consumer. 

Read the labels of the products you consume and research items you're not certain about. Many cereals and crisps in South Africa are produced with products that contain genetically-modified organisms. Many items that are put into your food are only there to enhance flavour, so think about what it is that the food is lacking that it needs to be enhanced. Consider what inorganic ingredients in your soaps, dishwashing liquids, shampoos, and toiletries are doing to the environment. Recycle. Think about the animals you eat and make informed decisions about what you consume.

9. Laugh more. 

Do whatever you have to do to laugh more.

10. Appreciate your pets. 

If you don't have one yet, get one. Pets are always said to be the entry vehicle for those training to care for children later in life but everyone who has ever owned a pet know that every single one of them are your children and have significant other benefits aside from testing whether you'd at the very least keep a baby alive or not. Keeping pets welcomes lessons in responsibility, fear, regret, and empathy, lessons we all need in this day and age.

Here's to a 2016 that meets all your expectations, declines to meet those that won't suit you in the end, and gives you a reason to be happy every day!

{Image credit: By Magnus Johansson (HAPPY NEW YEAR!!) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons}

December 24, 2015

My Love-Hate Relationship with Christmas

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Like practically everyone else in the Western world, Christmas holds a strange position in my heart, a position of love and hate.

Traditionally, it is the time of year when family members have the chance to stay away from work, spend time at home, and just be with their family. That is why it is such a special time for the children, because having both parents around is a treat, especially when one does not see one of the parents as often.

This is why Christmas makes me feel warm and gooey inside - I remember holidays when my dad and I would spend all our time making paper models, or I would sit in the garage with him, hammering nails randomly into pieces of wood and calling it art, or just sit around and listen to music. It was also about spending time together as a family - not going anywhere in particular (we weren't the holidaying type) but just being with each other. Christmas was special because of this. Of course, the presents and the food were a part of it.

But this is where the hate part of my relationship with Christmas comes in. The presents and the food have completely overrun the entire concept of spending time with one's family. We need to work all year to deserve that performance bonus that will allow us to spend money on something big for everyone for Christmas and for a great feast, or pay off those mounting debts, and work no longer stops over Christmas. This means families spend all their Christmas time apart from each other anyway. This means the present has become the important part instead of the bonding that came with choosing and giving a special present to someone you love.

I understand the origins of the concept of gift-giving: it made sense back in the day when families lived far apart and only saw each other now and then. It even makes sense for Americans, who all seem to stay on the other side of the country. This would be the only time that these family members see each other, so a gift would be special and meaningful. It would also come from a place that may have different produce. Not so in this day and age, though: a Woolworths in Durban stocks exactly the same items that a Woolworths in Johannesburg stocks.

My point is that everyone seems to be caught up in the capitalist habit of buying everything. Disposing of everything. Racing towards the prize for biggest and best present of the year. No longer do children receive one truly meaningful present, but everything their hearts desire. I once knew a boy who would throw a tantrum if he received the same number or fewer presents than he had the year before. His parents literally had to ensure they purchased at least one more present for him, and if my memory serves me correctly, that one year he received 25 gifts. And that's just from his parents.

It's all about the stuff we get, the stuff we will likely never use, the stuff people think we want. It's not all about family any more. And family is the stuff we cannot do without.

So as I sit and grumble about Christmas, I am also gleefully admiring our Christmas tree and the pile of gifts under it and looking forward to the reactions on the faces of those who are receiving gifts from me this year. What might make this year special for me is Emma's joy as she celebrates the first Christmas she understands and thus might remember.

And with a torn and cynical heart, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! (And if you don't celebrate the holiday, just Happy Holidays to you!)

December 17, 2015

Movie Review || Star Wars - The Force Awakens

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It has finally arrived. The moment that all 'Star Wars' fans and self-appointed geeks have been waiting 10 years for: the film meant to redeem the childish and disappointing prequels to the legendary trilogy.

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is truly the signalling of the end of an era. Not only has the franchise been taken over and refreshed by Disney, but a star director has taken the helm. Not only will there be all-new characters to develop, but our old favourites from the original series are to return. While I was not lucky enough to receive tickets to the premiere on Tuesday night, I was amongst the first to watch the first official screening at 11am on Reconciliation Day. Beware, spoilers to follow.
The original 'Star Wars' trilogy is practically a cornerstone of my childhood. As soon as I was old enough to keep still long enough to watch the film with my dad, it was a regular re-occurrence. I was a teen when the prequels were out, and though already cynical about the word 'prequel', wanted to enjoy them so much that I did. Only after years of watching and rewatching, comparing and critiquing, did I have the the ability to recognise retrospectively that the movies were quite terrible, barring 'Revenge of the Sith' because this film had something the first two lacked: tragedy and character development, although just barely.

While geekdom groaned a collective objection of concern that the franchise would be ruined nine years after 'Revenge of the Sith' when the gigantic conglomerate that is Disney purchased the franchise, the hope mounted that the series would recieve the respectful creation it deserved, especially after the original cast members were enlisted for the film. This hope was clasped to the heart of every fan that entered cinemas showing the film yesterday.

The question remains, was this hope served well by 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'? Expectations were high and the cinema was filled with entire families, couples, friends, all eavesdropping on each other's conversations, which were all inevitably about 'Star Wars', the failure of the last three films, and the legend of the first three, and the hope and eagerness was almost stifling.

The audience whooped and clapped when the Lucasfilm logo eventually alighted on the screen, just as they did when 'Revenge of the Sith' screened, and a hush fell over us as everyone's hope focused straight ahead of them.

So what did I think of the film? I am pleased to say I was not disappointed. Nostalgia goes a long way in making a follow-up film popular. The first three films lacked this, with all-new worlds, all-new characters, all-new planets, and all-new technology. 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is chock-a-block full of nostalgia, from lonely desert scenes, sunset silhouettes, blown-up planets, a masked Sith, original characters, the Millennium Falcon, aliens drinking in taverns, crashed starships...

Overall, the film had an excellent balance of dialogue and humour, action, and character development, something I believe is most important in a good film. It also had tragedy (there is nothing like watching a character whom you have invested your emotions, interests, and conversation in follow a path they are likely never to return from) and mystery.

These things were starkly missing from at least the first two prequels, while 'Revenge of the Sith' improved in this department. 'The Phantom Menace' and 'Attack of the Clones' was filled with absurd statements meant to be witty and humorous but seemed to target the humor of children. The proliferation of CGI was an insult to the original franchise, which achieved so much with scale models and great filming and direction. They also failed in terms of character development (Anakin Skywalker, for example, always remained 'the little boy on Tattooine', throwing tempers because he could not have his way) and tragedy. And of course every mystery was explained away with too much detail about such things as midichlorians and the proliferation of political 'intrigue' was altogether too much for a fandom saturated with the war on terror.

In 'The Force Awakens', all these necessities occur in abundance. There is the tragic backstory of a young woman left on Jakku, of a stormtrooper pulled away from a family he will never see and forced into a life he never wanted. Families and lovers are torn apart by disappointment and murder, entire planets are destroyed, legends make way for new ones. There are the mysteries of Luke Skywalker's whereabouts, of the thirty years that has come between the last film ('The Return of the Jedi') and this one, of Rey's past and ancestry, of the new Sith leader, of the place Finn has in the story. Every major character grows through the film and we are left with a sense of the reality of the world we see on screen.

Meanwhile, the film did disappoint a little in terms of representation and diversity. While I think it is absolutely amazing that Rey is probably about to become Luke's apprentice and that a co-lead is a man of colour, there is still not enough representation, in my opinion. I know director JJ Abrams said he planned for girls to enjoy the film as much as the boys, and while there are many women seen in the film (such as freedom fighters and cockpit workers), the presence of Princess Leia is a given since she's not a new character and Rey is the only lead female. Maz Kanata's role is minor in comparison to Captain Phasma, and I really don't understand the hype around Gwendoline Christie's character being 'genderswapped' at all, since she could just as well have been a droid. I suppose that's the point though, that men and women are represented the same... That being said, not a single woman was objectified and sexualised, and that is a win!

Finn is the only man of colour throughout the entire film (that I saw), although I suppose you could throw the one set of smugglers chasing Han Solo into the mix to make the film seem more representative. I also enjoyed the fact that Finn and Rey's relationship is platonic (at least thus far - altogether too much film time is spent on building love relationships between men and women instead of friendships in the first trilogies).

Aside from this, I really, really enjoyed the film. Apart from appearances by the original cast members seeming a little 'cameo-ey', the story has come together very well, the humour resembled that of the original trilogy, the action was well-balanced with the quiet moments, and enough mystery has been thrown into the mix to inspire many a debate about how the story will progress from here on in.

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' is the film fans have been waiting for for thirty-two years. Now I look forward to reading all the books that detail the happenings of the last thirty years - they must have been interesting!

PS I really want one of those little BB-8 droids!