Balancing Acts

The end of February and the start of Lent have come and gone. 2020 feels like the quickest year I’ve ever lived. It was Chinese New Year barely after New Year’s Day. Before you knew it, it was Valentine’s Day. Soon it will be Easter. Does anyone else feel like 2020 is running faster than Usain Bolt? Or do years just accelerate as you grow older?

I’ve been keeping busy: with work, with making sure I have ambitious yet realistic plans for the rest of 2020, and with trying my best to maximize life in general. Certain activities have kept me balanced in the middle of all this.

Lent Resolutions

I wrote down the following resolutions for Lent:

  • Dietary change: resist junk food as best as you can. Eat more healthily and more plant-based foods.
  • No shopping, except for replacements and gifts. Books are excluded, but there’s no book currently on my wishlist anyway.

Note that neither point is excessive. It’s “resist […] as best as you can”, not “completely eliminate”. I’m using Lent not to deprive, but to balance. I’ve known for a long time that whenever I eat healthy, my body benefits – I feel good and have more energy. I’m also very aware that less healthy food tastes amazing and that it’s OK to have them – but don’t have them too often. During Lent, I just want to have them from time to time.

Same with shopping. I’ve had good self-control since I was a kid so I would never buy things I can’t afford. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t love shopping. I love clothes, jewelry, and beauty. I do think that I’ve accumulated a lot of new stuff over the past few years though. Lent provides a good time to slow down. Excess is never good for anyone. Just because you can buy it doesn’t mean you should, need to, or even want to.

(I hope this more balanced outlook can extend beyond Lent, but I reserve the right to indulge in something nice the day after Easter Sunday.)

Reading

Obviously, reading is always a comfort to turn to. I wanted to sink into something juicy, approaching guilty pleasure. Enter The Drowning King by Emily Holleman, a fictionalized account of the Ptolemaic dynasty upon and immediately after the death of Ptolemy XII the Piper, father of Cleopatra. If you know history, you know what that means – all the royal children start squabbling and scrambling for the throne. The novel is told in linear fashion, from the POVs of Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIII, 2 of Cleopatra’s younger siblings.

Question: is unicorn latte art a sign from the universe that one day you shall have a minimum value of USD 1 billion?

When my brother saw me reading The Drowning King, he said, “Haven’t you read every book about Cleopatra there is already?” I answered, “Yeah, probably.” Fun fact about me: I’ve been obsessed with Cleopatra ever since I was 7 and received a picture book on her life as a gift. Stacy Schiff’s 2010 biography was a disappointment to me as I knew its contents already. Even the title The Drowning King immediately pinpointed to me a major plot point the author would incorporate.

As a kid, my love was simple. Cleopatra was the first woman I encountered who was described as both powerful and womanly, and this duality was never judged in my picture book as something negative. I grew up in the era of the tomboy. I vividly remember the prominence of Hilary Clinton, Disney’s Mulan, and Tamora Pierce novels. I never begrudged this. In fact, as a young girl, I wished to have more masculine traits: better at sports, more visibly assertive, owning tougher edges. Yet I was always too girly for it to work. Cleopatra was the first figure I encountered who was presented as an ideal because of, not in spite of, her glamor and feminine appeal – not even necessarily because of physical beauty; many historians are unsure on whether she would fit conventional beauty standards.

As a grown up, I find it remarkable that her power and her femininity make up a whole, but each element is not dependent on the other. Without her seduction of Caesar and Antony, she’d still be powerful, rich, and intelligent. She was Queen of Egypt after all. Yet without her famed glamor and charm, she would not be the historical character who continues to fascinate us, more than 2 millenniums after her death.

I have finished reading The Drowning King and here are some thoughts:

  • It was exactly what I wanted: a fast-paced escapist read, though the pace became noticeably speedier during the novel’s second half. It was fine if a little jarring.
  • I’m not too fond of the POVs, which is understandable. I wanted more Cleopatra and this novel puts the focus elsewhere. This is Arsinoe’s story, so it was inevitable – even understandable – that she would be rendered more likeable and Cleopatra less likeable. Yet I found Arsinoe so lacking in charisma that whenever I got to her POV, I would think ‘I hope this is a short chapter.’ I enjoyed Ptolemy’s POV more, watching him flop about ineffectually is at least entertaining.
  • I’m surprised to read this portrayal of Cleopatra. She was rendered as capricious and a little random, when I consider her very pragmatic despite being a huge risk-taker. It could be caused by intentional narrative distance – this story isn’t told by Cleopatra, and her siblings are portrayed here as idealists, which would make Cleopatra incomprehensible from their perspective.
  • It amused me to see the impact of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire even here. A birthday was referred to as “name day”. Certain phrases like “japes” and “curdled lies” recall Westeros very strongly. Crass language regarding sex is spoken even by aristocrats – something I’m not sure is historically accurate. Surely the highborn would think coarse language beneath them.

Cooking & Baking

I get sporadic phases where I would want to cook all the time. The bug hit hard in February. It has dimmed but has not vanished – very helpful for my Lent resolution. Not all the food I prepared were healthy, but I enjoyed the process of making them. Some photographic evidence:

I love this idiot-proof chocolate cookie recipe by Ruby Tandoh. Over the years, I’ve changed the measurements a bit to suit my taste, but everything else remain the same. It’s what I make when I want to bake yet am too lazy to do anything strenuous or risk a failed experiment.

You know you’ve reached peak millennial when you have perfected avo toast. This version was avocado + lime juice + salt + spring onions + cherry tomatoes, topped with a sunny side up egg and more spring onions.

I made another version that was even lazier: mashed avo + feta cheese + lime juice. Pro tip: yes, you do need sourdough or an equivalent crusty bread – other breads can’t hold up the mashed avocado.

This is a curry based on one of Nigella Lawson’s older recipes. I can vouch that it tastes great and is easy to make. I even like it more as leftovers since the pumpkin continues to soften as it keeps and creates a thicker curry consistency. It’s listed as a Thai curry, but I was reminded of a regional dish called bubur Manado. As a fan of the cuisine (my grandmother is Manadonese), I’m very happy about this.

Color

The brutal rainfall brought unprecedented flooding to Jakarta on New Year’s Day. Flooding continued to regularly hit areas of the city in February. I’m very fortunate that I wasn’t much affected. Now that we’ve entered March, the skies are still gray and gloomy.

Gray skies are good motivators to read and cook, not so much when you need to go out and be productive. Adding some color livens up my mood. When you’re a girly girl, nothing is easier to lift the spirit than color and bling.

The lighting is too warm, but surely it shows my maximalist taste

I have accumulated a lot of jewelry. My biggest addiction is earrings. The more intricate, the more I love them. Earrings are one of the reasons why I’m trying to hit the brakes on spending. I just have so many now, and over the past week, it has been lovely to plunder my collection and rediscover the ones I already have rather than seeking new ones.

What I like about these hobbies are that they feel productive (and they are, to an extent). They provide ways to unwind but aren’t necessarily frivolous. In fact, I must be cautious not to let these activities take over the time and energy I need for actual work.

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