Sunday, June 28, 2009

Of camels, backs and the real cost of $20

My apartment life has been interesting. It was the bed on which I rested in emotional convalescence; it has been my base for travel; it has been the first place that felt really like my own. It always had another side to it though: the landlord.

When I first met her, I remember she just kept on talking; she seemed fine and that was a factor in my immediate choice in living here. But things panned out differently: from acceptable to bad and from bad to worse. It has all seemed so needless. She is very houseproud and seems to have found it hard to leave this place in the hands of lesser creatures. I'd say that she is naturally that way and feels an obligation to her parents to keep the flat in mint condition, and this obligation means using any means at all to achieve it. She is duplicitous; she lies: both black and white. Without going into the details, we confronted her about her excessive interference with the flat; she relented. For about six months there has only been a few moments of irritation. She still hasn't fitted a blind for one of my windows (I've been using cardboard to block out a street-light for almost a year!). She said she would but it never happened. Apparently she is planning a wedding, which makes it perhaps understandable, even if she has long been putting expectations of us without fulfilling her own responsibilities.

Thus we come to yesterday afternoon: I was informed that my rent would increase by $20 from August 10 due to "an increase in the market rent" (I was sceptical but, yes, apparently rents have increased, year-on-year, by between 5-10% on average apparently). I knew then that my time here was up. My falling income was already making the existing rent excessively taxing. Upon informing my flatmate of the rise, astonishingly I discovered that the market rise seems to have only applied to the street-facing room: mine. More astonishing was my flatmate's response: she gave her two-week notice to the landlord today. She had had an offer of a room at a friend's place and the certainty of my departure (we are good flatmate buddies) and the landlord's general conduct meant that she shouldn't turn down that offer. It is rather depressing that my landlord stooped to this weird tactic. I have spoken rather abruptly to her in the past (in immense frustration) and it has probably led to this, I'm thinking. Strangely ironic, though, was that it led to the good flatmate to give notice (The landlord doesn't have much of a problem with her). And I am a good tenant, and in terms of the common area, I'm a clean-freak (most of the time): If she wanted to keep the place tidy, she is shooting herself in the foot. It most of all is annoying.

Over the New Year I had thought through three likely paths for the year: (1) My business prospers in the face of adversity; (2) My business is somewhat affected, so I put effort into finding new clients, develop my writing skills and travel; (3) My business is heavily affected and I go on an ambitious trip to the United Kingdom and Europe, head back through Asia to work for between six months and two years before returning home. I've had my head on the second route without any ardent desire to cross the threshold into the third. My heart was not moved by the prospect of travel. When I received that e-mail though, I was moved: I could picture myself off. I'm not sure yet, but this weekend has been a great push. It can be a launch pad for a brand new course. All for the want of $20 a week.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hidden highs

There are very few aspects of teaching that I don't enjoy. One of the ones I do enjoy immensely is just pronouncing words, preferrably multistress words, to model them for students: anXIety, eVENT, COMF'table. In my line of work, you can say them once, repeat them with exaggeration and drama. A single bugbear word can be several minutes of a lesson, first of all modelling the pronunciation with specific directions for tongue, tooth and lip locations; once mastering it, the student should next practice it in the context of a sentence, because producing a sentence takes some attention away from pronunciation - and pronunciation in real life has to be done with a lot of competing thoughts; and then they need to be monitoring themselves in speech to be aware if their accuracy has slipped. All of this entails a lot of repetition.

One of the recurring mysteries is how certain words can be so hard to say for some. ACcess, for one, is bothering one of my highly able students. He can say each syllable well, but together he either says: AXis or exCESS. When he stresses the first syllable, the vowel on the second automatically reduces; when he makes sure he says the correct vowel on the second, he instinctively stresses the second syllable, reducing the first. It does his mind in while I just get my kick from saying: ACcess, ACcess, ACcess.

There is also the mystery, constantly posed by another student, of how he is pronouncing what he is pronouncing. A common word like "that", he somehow mixes the "th" with "l" producing both sounds simultaneously. Usually mispronounced phonemes (sound units) are somewhere on a continuum of sound, like ten and -tain (from "maintain"). But there is virtually no continuum of sound between "th" and "l". I cannot replicate the sound (I may have once, but have no idea how I did it), yet he does it naturally when not monitoring the exact position of his tongue.

Of course, it's not always my students' pronunciation that can cause wonder; my own baffles me and others too. As stated in a blog sometime ago, my exuberant reading of difficult books in my youth caused me to create my own pronunciations for words I rarely heard. While teaching a few weeks back in the home of a friend, I defined a word my student, his wife, found: "AWry, that's when things don't go according to plan." The friend emerged from the kitchen cocking his head to one side to see this unfamilar word, before saying: aWRY. So much for the clouds of wonder that make an "infallible" teacher. "whilst" has also been mispronounced in a lesson by me.

Yesterday I borrowed a book I thought I must read: 100 words that everyone mispronounces. Here are the ones I have discovered that I fail at: niche, gnocchi, concupiscence, desultory, cadre, cache, lingerie, harass. (Of course, many of these have several "accepted" pronunciations which have to be considered correct.) While reading it though, I found one of my youthful pronunciations was in fact correct: BANal can have a first syllable stress!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Music reviews

Prior to this famine, my economic boom funded a lot of uncharacteristically expansive spending. One particular area for my extravagance was music. And though the party is indeed over, I’m still merrily continuing this indulgence. Listening to music has always been enjoyable, usually with a taste for the esoteric, dark or extreme. Here, I’ll review a few of my recent purchases:

Portishead, Third

Until this purchase, I only possessed one single, burnt, live album. Paradoxically, it is one of my favourites. My penchant for dark music is deep and the lead singer, Beth Gibson, must have had extraordinary pain in her life, for what else could she be channelling when she sings? If it is all a pretence, then she is simply extraordinary. And if it be from a truly dark vein of her being, then we should all buy the records for her psychotherapy.

Though Portishead, admittedly, doesn’t have that much variety in tone (only one song is any from the respite of intense blues, purples and greys: a ukulele song in the middle!), they innovate constantly and texture each song further and further; deeper and deeper. The sound is rich and you can feel yourself easily getting lost in it.

Bristol is their hometown; and should I go to the United Kingdom, I’d have to do a pilgrimage there. Massive Attack and Tricky, whom I adore, both originate there. A lot of the music of all three has an underlying bleakness and austerity. Opening the Third CD case, the tone is minimal with an electric dark blue tinting an urban scene with powerlines draping across. The picture on the back shows Beth, seemingly overwrought with sadness, microphone in hand, while her bandmates are at their instruments at their stations completely unaffected.

Overall, it is a darkly beautiful album. For me, it is one song too long; even I have my limits and the last song was probably the song that was most similar to their previous work, and broke from direly true to drearily despairing. I might just have to get their other two albums, though.

The Eels, Hombre Lobo

The Eels are a favourite of mine, and one of the musicians that I boast almost every recording. Much of the music has an autobiographical tendency and as such comes through as some of the most genuine, touching music you’ll ever hear. I was a little disappointed for the record and happy for him: there seems to be no more demons for him to exorcise and the album seems to be just him having fun and making music. It disappoints me in that without the emotional depths of the other albums, it leaves the music to speak for itself; and the music isn’t that original. It sounds like his previous work or him imitating other singers. There are a couple of songs which have sustained themselves through repeated listens, but others urge me to skip them. And it is not that they’re anything bad, just that they don’t inspire the listen to listen any closer.

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear was one of the two bands that I heard on the terrifically good Australian radio station, Triple-R, that compelled me to buy. The song I heard was what I’d only call abstract folk, a folkish sound and instruments yet the vocalist set about being an instrument veering close to incoherence and sometimes singing in a fragile yet crisp clear words. The album I bought, at the brilliant Polyester Records on Brunswick no less, was Yellow House, thus named as it was recorded in a yellow house. My first listens were difficult, I recall; but then after returning home and properly listening to it unlocked a door to wonder. It had such a rich sound! The complete set of lyrics are written on the centre of the CD case, showing that the words are few, but repeated, rhythmically and with permutation. It was true listening music. The timing of their second release was perfect: I would buy anything from them.

Veckatimest, incidentally the name of the town they recorded in, on first listen disappointed me. They had discarded the folk sound of Yellow House completely in favour of more modern rock instrumentation. But the ethos remained the same: the voice is the richest instrument of all, winding its way through the sound and bursting through with sparks and, occasionally, ferocity. The lead singer is more audible but the songs are just as theatrical and non-standard. It is the perfect accompaniment to a winter’s day on the couch, in a sun beam.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Celestial Sights

Winter is a day away bringing the dark so much sooner and so much deeper; the moon has waned to a sliver; and from the eastern dawning horizon, Matariki (Pleiades, known in Chinese as 昴星团) has again reappeared. and there I was by the obelisk this morning to see it.

It was by a whim that I was there on One Tree Hill. A few nights ago I had had a sudden desire to go to the Stardome for their show and finally got there last night. Upon exiting, I picked up a pamphlet saying that the Matariki Breakfast was on the 20th. I made enquiries and only mid-question did it dawn on me that that date fell today (i.e., the following day). Coincidence alone is enough for me so I booked it, slept and burst out of bed at 5:20am to head to One Tree Hill.

The night sky this morning was beautifully clear. More surprising was the arrangement: Venus and Mars clustered together; Mercury near Aldebaran lining up Matariki; Jupiter overhead beaming brightly. In other words, beyond just being a great day to spot the eponymous constellation, it was a brilliant day to look at planets and the sky. The group of 80 plus people were quite sociable and I chatted with lots of people and even made a friend. My $30 purchase of secondhand binoculars the previous day was well worth it as I spotted Matariki early and got to enjoy it as well as share around my lenses.

Another burst of astronomical yearning is again upon me. I have been looking at telescopes in shops again. And I'm very close to buying one. I was glad to get the binoculars even though they are a little out of focus when using both eyepieces at stars. (I use one eyepiece for the stars.) The binoculars have also fed into my nature-obsession too, being of particular use at Ambury Regional Park yesterday.

Winter Solstice and Matariki signposted a huge change to my life last year, so this weekend will be a time for contemplation.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Distinction award

It is now customary for me to drink coffee rather than tea in cafes. It is not just that my palate has finally learnt to savour the bitterness of coffee, but the sheer disgust I have in paying the same amount for what is often a Twinnings tea bag in a cup (the sheer gall of it!). Aside from the tea cafes, there are, however, a few cafes that exceed expectation. One of these is Maggie Scott café on the Upper Reaches of Dominion Road (near Burgerfuel).

I sent myself there today, away from my usual writing haunt, upon espying a new tea brand, Tea Drop, which had a blend I hadn’t encountered: Lavender Grey tea. So I ordered, sat down and set up. My tea came over in a tea set but with the best arrangement I’d seen in a standard cafe: a tea cup and saucer; a 2 cup tea pot of hot water; and a tiny square saucer upon which a tagged silk tea bag sat. The latter is the distinguishing point: a tea aficionado rarely wants their tea to overbrew, and a little saucer is what is often desired for the spent bag or tea-leaf cradle.

It wasn’t perfect though: the Lavender Grey was pleasant, but not outstanding; they had a radio playing in the background; the china was unadventurous. But in terms of surpassing all other cafes on a single point, it does achieve a distinction.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Time and space

I've never had a problem with time: time is my blood; space, however, has always strained my imagination, whether it be judging gaps in traffic, whether it would be throwing small objects into bins or filling bags. After driving along the Summit road of the Port Hills in Christchurch on Sunday afternoon, boarding a plane and then resting at home that evening, I again scratch my head over the matter of space.