Sunday, December 31, 2006

The year that was - adios, 2006

...Wow, I flee from the outside world for a week at the beach and come back to find James Brown, Gerald Ford and Saddam Hussein have all kicked it. Strangeness. Makes me wish I still worked in a newsroom.

My first New Zealand Christmas was a good one, though, and my kiwi in-laws did a fine job making me feel at home, complete with Christmas turkey, "crackers," and apple martinis and croquet on the lawn (ah, summertime...).

We've only 8 or so hours to go in 2006 here down under, where we're the first place in the world to welcome the New Year (which means we're always ahead of our time). OK, the remote Chatham Islands (part of NZ) just east of here are actually the very first place to see 2007, like 45 minutes ahead of us, but then we're next.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSo it's time to take stock a bit and look back at the last 12 months. It's definitely not one of those years where I lean back and think, man, I haven't done anything with my life this year. If anything, there's been a little too much change sometimes, but hey, "it's an adventure," right?

Things I accomplished in 2006:
• Moved 6,000 miles to a foreign country, which we've been threatening to do ever since Avril and I got married in 1999... And somehow we kept our sanity and marriage intact during this past year. Left Oregon after 4 1/2 excellent years, sold most of our possessions, quit my newspaper job and entered the realm of vagabond layabout-slash-stay-at-home-dad. Avril returned to the work force and we sold one Subaru and bought another. Yeah, that's enough for 10 years, let alone just one!
• Embarked on our swell Mega-America Trek 2006 between leaving Oregon and leaving America, visiting 10 states, traveling 5,500 miles and seeing tons of old pals, amazing sights and wide-open spaces along the way.
• Self published a surprisingly affordable little book collecting most of my newspaper columns from the past 10 years or so which everyone who loves me really should own.
• Watched our little Peter really turn from a milk bottle-suckin', diaper-wearin', babbling toddler into a "real boy," one who'll be 3 years old (ack!) in just a couple months' time.
• Saw the most excellent Richard Thompson in concert for his "1000 years of Popular Music" show.
• Interviewed the rockin' Alice Cooper (and saw his fab, freaky show) and blues legend Charlie Musselwhite.
• Comics superstar Jeff Parker gave me my first actual appearance in a comic book – of course, I'm a henchman who gets stomped on by The Hulk, but so it goes...
• Caught up with lots of old friends this year, and was especially happy to stumble across the old high school girlfriend I hadn't seen in 16 years (all praise Google), meet her husband and kid and generally feel really old but glad we caught back up before I fled American shores...

The downers:
• Said good-bye to a lot of "stuff" and places this year, but the hardest was giving up my lovely little Kudzu cat whom I'd owned for nearly 12 years since she was an animal shelter kitten. Good buddy Christian and family took 'er in, but it doesn't take away how much I miss the danged little fuzzball.
• Had exceedingly unpleasant minor male-type surgery back in January which I won't go into much detail about, only to note that I hope to never have to wear a catheter again. Eurgh.
• Accepted the grim reality that my hairline is indeed receding at a ridiculously fast pace (I look at photos from just a year ago and I weep, baldly). On the other hand, I grew a decent beard for the first time in my life to kind of make up for it. Well, it's all hair.

As for '07, who knows what it holds? We have to remind ourselves that we're still very much "in progress" on this whole life-changing migration thing. I have yet to find some kind of work, probably part-time, Peter's got to get day care, we really do need to move out of my in-laws' house and stop imposing on them before too long, and the million other things that go with "starting over" again in a foreign land... But so far, it's all gone better than we'd hoped. I just have to remind myself of that when the days are gray and I get a bit homesick for the land of 80-channel TV, cheap CDs and long road trips through the desert. Happy 2007 to you and yours!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Merry hiatus, ho ho ho

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...So it's almost our first Christmas in New Zealand, and it's been interesting to compare and contrast. It's early summer here, of course, which throws one off a bit seasonally. NZ by and large also isn't a very religious country (only 40% or so identify themselves as Christian compared to like 85% in the States), so that gives the holiday a generally different tenor.

The big diff, though, is that the whole freakin' country apparently shuts down for the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year's. MUCH more so than in the workaholic U.S. -- where I've often had to work Christmas Eve. It sounds like the majority of offices close at least the entirety of Christmas week, some for two weeks. My wife gets all next week off, for instance. Even small newspapers and magazines cease publication! It tends to be when a lot of folks take their summer holidays. This of course is in a country where there'll soon be four weeks of state-mandated vacation time a year for employees (and many employees use the Christmas time as part of that vacation break). Yeah, it's a little different here.

So fitting the vibe I too am taking a break -- we're off to spend time with family and then the beach next week and I'll resume posting sometime after the holidays. Merry Christmas, and see you in 2007!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Year in review: Favorite books of 2006

I'm a readin' fool, as most anyone who knows me will attest. According to my somewhat obsessive reading list, I read a total of 101 books this year through today (not including graphic novels). Once again I just didn't read a lot of fiction – only 28 of these books were fiction, the rest nonfiction of some sort, heavy on the biography, history and pop culture. (Of the nonfiction, um, 7 of those are books on Bob Dylan, which is really a little depressing when you think about it)

In no particular order or pattern, here's a handful of the books I dug the most. Most were published in hardback or paperback this past year, or close enough to count. It's my rules! Ask me in a week, it might be an entirely different list.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey" by Candice Millard - I'm a Teddy Roosevelt nut, eager to swallow up books on the man I consider the last truly epic president, a larger-than-life cowboy, environmentalist, adventurer and politician. This great book looks at TR's final journey, an exploration of the unknown jungles of the Amazon with a small crew of like-minded gutsy travelers. Jungle attacks, disease, death and disaster lurk around every turn. Wonderfully researched and with Millard's vivid writing you can almost taste the malaria (use that on a jacket quote!). Utterly unimaginable to picture our current president doing anything like this, of course, but fantastic true-life derring-do even if you hate politics.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting" by Brett Milano (2003) - Yeah, when it came to piling up all my CDs for the recent trans-global move, I started to worry I was becoming "that guy" – the one whose house is taken over by his insane collection. Needn't have worried. In this blissfully readable homage to obsessive geek-dom, Milano looks at vinyl and music hoarders from around the world, coming up with glorious how-far-will-this-guy-go stories (would you pay $2,000 – twice? – for an obscure 45 single?) and a nice insight into what makes the "High Fidelity" types among us click. As for me, I'm nowhere near as bad as I thought.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade Of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas," by Chuck Klosterman - I loves me the Chuck K., and this hefty collection of his snarky magazine interviews, critical essays and more from the pages of Spin, Esquire and the like is a great bowl of pop culture stew. Highlights include his surreal interview with a half-naked Britney Spears, a journey to Val Kilmer's New Mexico hideaway, a refreshingly relaxed chat with Jeff Tweedy and a trip to a Morrissey convention filled with Latino Moz fans. If you're the kind of person who spends time thinking about who the best candidate for the fifth (and seventh, and tenth) Beatle would be, give it a whirl. It's all breezy good junk culture fun, a nice follow-up to his previous collection, "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs." Pair it with "Vinyl Junkies" and geek out.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006," by Joyce Carol Oates - A massive collection of 40 years of short stories by one of the modern masters of the form, diamond-sharp prose about unpredictable horror, lust and despair coming into the lives of everyday people. Oates moves easily from suburban angst to rural tragedy, capable of rendering tales in a down-home first-person candor or with a polished, omniscient sheen. I was new to Oates upon reading this, and now I'm a convert to her sinister power, a cousin to writers like Flannery O'Connor and Patricia Highsmith. (Full review here.)

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"Cell" by Stephen King – There are those who say King peaked back in the '80s, but while this isn't exactly "It, Part II," it's a swell little piece of modern-day cyber-paranoia, about a plague that affects all cell phone users and turns them into raving psychotics. Yeah, another end-of-the-world saga, but "Cell" is nice and tense, unsettling and brief enough not to wear out its welcome. And it scared me, which takes a little work even for the best of King to do. (Full review here.)

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer" by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin - This Pulitzer prize winning biography is like watching the American dream - and nightmare - in action. Oppenheimer, of course, brought us the atomic bomb, but went from American hero to near-traitor during the communism scare of the 1950s. Physics and politics don't sound like the most exciting read, but the authors really bring the haughty, brilliant and dreamy Oppenheimer to life, which makes his hubris and fall that much more tragic. Great, spellbinding biography.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific" by J. Maarten Troost (2004) - Ever wonder what it'd be like to live on a gorgeous South Pacific island? Not really all that great, according to Troost, who writes a hilarious travelogue of his years on the flyspeck islands of Kiribati, with a wit and sly insight that makes you feel like you've gone yourself. The realities of life on an island barely the size of some strip malls come to life here, as well as the gentle charms of island life. Fine travel writing in the vein of Tim Cahill or Bill Bryson, with a ramshackle charm all its own.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

More deep thoughts

The best album to get your 3-year-old some exercise when it's been raining the last two days straight and you're contemplating toddler-cide? They Might Be Giants, "Flood." Try not to dance like an idiot to "Birdhouse In Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", etc. After six songs of flailing about madly, Peter sat down and said, "I very tired. We just listen now."

Over at BlogCritics, watch me wrestle The Who, Bob Dylan and more into a lengthy essay on two more swell books in the 33 1/3 music-lit series. Read it right here.

Two entries in one day! I'm hardcore.

Deep thoughts

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSo we watched the animated movie "Cars" (which Peter had to see three times over the course of the weekend), and it was your typically beautiful-looking Pixar computer-created 'toon. Still, for some reason, something about it bugged me a bit, kept me from liking it as much as say, "Toy Story" or "The Incredibles." And that's the central concept – a world populated apparently entirely by animated cars, planes and trucks, who zip around on the roads, live in car-sized houses, guzzle down fuel, and so forth. Their world basically looks exactly like ours, except it's cars. And so my mind began to wander, and I realized the world of "Cars" must have come about when the cars overthrew the humans, undoubtedly slaughtering them all or consigning them to slavery. Which is why their world is so much like ours - they've adapted the remains of the dead human civilization to their own needs. It's like "Maximum Overdrive," Part II. Sure, they're cute and have googly eyes and stuff, but after the third viewing of "Cars" this weekend, I saw the darker side, man.

Machines - brrr.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Year in Review: My Top 5 CDs of 2006

Man, I bought a lot of music this year, but I didn't seem to buy a lot of music from this year. I went through my well-documented Bob Dylan and The Who phases, gathering up frantically my holes in their discography like I was a squirrel on crack hunting nuts. Yeah, I became one of them demented folk what listens to all the music from before they were born. But what I did buy that came out this year, I really dug. Here's my favorite CDs of this year in no particular order:

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBob Dylan, Modern Times – Speaking of the man, here's the one in which Robert Zimmerman is possessed by the spirit of an 80-year-old black bluesman from Mississippi, and comes out with a creaky, jaunty near-masterpiece. Dylan's 2001 CD "Love and Theft" got lots of love, but I never quite adored it; but this one has a bounce and gait that have had it on constant rotation all fall. At 65, Dylan recaptures some of the playfulness of his youth — this isn't his most profound work – but he still views the world from a wizened perspective. And heck, it was his first #1 record since the '70s and Dylan even starred in an iPod commercial. A wink-filled ode to America's past without being too retro, it's a gem.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe Decemberists, The Crane Wife — Based on a Japanese folk tale … wait, wait, don't leave. The Decemberists might be one of the most literary bands going, but they've got a sure sense of melody and storytelling, and use this folk tale of a 'crane wife' as a springboard for some wonderful music. It's kind of like early Genesis and Yes meets Elvis Costello, with a timeless, ancient feel. The Decemberists love to sing songs about sea voyages, lost lovers and dying promises, and this sprawling album aims higher than any of their previous work. There's enough on this record to chew on for weeks, which is kind of what I love about it – that and the songs often possess a staggering beauty. It's the kind of thing that could collapse into pretentious wankery like most prog-rock bands did, but frontman Colin Meloy brings a real intelligence and charm to it all.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingTom Petty, Highway Companion — The perfect disc for listening to while zipping around the interstate for 5,500 miles this past September and October, "Saving Grace" and "Square One" playing in gentle harmonies as the New Mexico sunset came down over unknown fields. It's not cutting edge, but it's beautiful pop music. Petty regains his songwriting mojo for a wistful, restless, memory-soaked album that is his best since 1994's "Wildflowers." Introspective and rootsy, it's one of Petty's warmest records. Full review here.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingNeko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood — This Northwest chanteuse has been bubbling away on the fringes of country, pop and rock for a few years, and is a member of the swell New Pornographers. With her latest solo album, Neko breaks through and becomes the modern Patsy Cline. Her gorgeously lonesome wail of a voice highlights strange, surreal and impressionistic tunes that simmer and sway. It's a moody, brooding album, one that takes a few listens to cast its spell fully, but once you fall into it, "Fox Confessor" seems like a postcard from a shadowy neo-country world. And it certainly doesn't hurt that she's a glamorous redhead, a species I have a certain weakness for.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingTV On The Radio, Return to Cookie Mountain — Somewhere between noise and melody, TV On The Radio hang out. If anything, the raucous clatter and moans of this second album was even less accessible than their first. But the machine-meets-tribal rhythms of this sound is daring, original stuff, given its blessing here by a cameo appearance by David Bowie himself. The cuisinart of sound in "I Was A Lover," the anthemic boom of "Wolf Like Me," the Pixies-meets-Motown slam of "Let The Devil In" — this is a band that takes chances and makes them work. Full review here.

Runners-up: Just barely missing the top five, Elvis Costello and Allan Toussaint, "The River In Reverse," Cat Power, "The Greatest," Tom Waits, "Orphans" (which probably would be on the top half of the list but it's a box set with some older material, y'know); Johnny Cash, "American V," Jolie Holland, "Springtime Will Kill You," Heartless Bastards, "All This Time," Gnarls Barkley, "St. Elsewhere."

Weakest hits: Everclear, Welcome To The Drama Club. Man, what happened to this band? "Sparkle and Fade" was one of my favorite albums of the '90s, but with every passing year frontman Art Alexakis sounds more and more like a parody of himself. With only Alexakis from previous albums fronting a group of newcomers, "Drama Club" sounds like leftover angst that no longer sounds fresh at all.

* For about a zillion other top music lists, go check out the swell mega-list Largehearted Boy has painstakingly assembled! Hours of list reading if you're like me and a nut for these year-end things.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Assorted linkbloggery

Wow, we move to this side of the world and Australia bursts into flames and Fiji has (yet another) coup. Can the rise of Sauron be next?

So we had our first New Zealand camping trip this weekend, to the gorgeous little peninsula of Tawharanui about 80km north of Auckland. Being New Zealand, it rained on us much of Saturday but the weather here is such that if you don't like it, wait 10 minutes and it'll be completely different, so there were some nice spells, and Sunday was utterly gorgeous. There's approximately eleventy-billion beaches in New Zealand to explore so that will keep us busy for many weekends. Go check out some photos over at my Flickr page!

...Very strange to see that for the second time in a year a family got lost in the woods of Oregon not too far from where we used to live. The tragic tale of the James Kim family seemed to be top news everywhere I looked on US web sites last week. It was odd to see our former home of Oregon once again take center stage – the road they were stranded on, this very remote quasi-highway between the coast and Grants Pass, was the same exact road Avril and I drove on a little more than a year ago (our account of it was told here). Where James Kim died was just an hour or so south of Roseburg. I remember thinking at the time we drove on that curvy, curvy little road how easy it could be to get lost there – and that was in September, well before the snows. For many folks it's pretty inconceivable that you can get lost, lost for good, in modern America - but there's still a lot of remote places out there.

Over on BlogCritics you can find two swell reviews I've done recently that I haven't posted here -- go henceforth and read!
"LoudQUIETLoud: A Film About The Pixies," a swell documentary covering the band's 2004 reunion tour.
"33 1/3: Nirvana's In Utero" by Gillian G. Gaar is a nifty pocket-sized look at the grunge band's finest hour, in my humble opinion. Check it out!

Friday, December 8, 2006

Review: "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut"

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThere have been a lot of great comic book movies in the past decade, yet for me, I think my favorite will always be 1980's "Superman II." The gripping confrontation between Superman and the evil General Zod blew me away at age 9, and I still think in its combination of epic action and heartfelt characterization, "Superman II" outshines many of the comic movies in the years since.

Yet for a long time, fans of the movie have known that the finished film was just the tip of the iceberg and that an entirely different version of the movie lurked out there, unseen. Now, thanks to the miracles of DVD, "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" lives, 26 years after the original movie's release.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingDonner was the director of the great "Superman: The Movie," but a series of arguments with the film's producers led him to be fired midway through filming "Superman II" (which was being made simultaneously with the first movie). A new director, Richard Lester, was hired and much of "Superman II" was filmed from scratch. The final release was still a great movie, but Lester added a notably campier feeling than Donner had in the reverent "Superman I," and fans of Donner always wanted to see his version (pieces of which appeared in TV airings of the movie over the years).

In a pretty amazing bit of resurrection, Donner's film has been dug out of the vaults, and pieced together with some of Lester's cut and a few digital additions to create an entirely new movie. "Superman II: The Donner Cut" is a fascinating piece of alternate history, more or less the same movie as "Superman II" but with a quite different tone. It boasts a new beginning and opening, and tons of new footage – only about 25 percent or so of Lester's cut remains, to keep the story coherent.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingGone are lots of the slapstick moments "A Hard Day's Night" director Lester added, silly sight gags and goofy one-liners, and they aren't really missed. The general feeling is a more serious movie – General Zod (the wonderfully sinister Terence Stamp) and crew are just that much darker (one marvelous added moment shows Zod picking up a discarded machine gun during the White House siege, and with a playful evil grin, using it himself on the soldiers).

While it's become hip for some folks to diss Lester's cut, it's still the one I grew up with and I love it, even the silly bits. I could live with never seeing some of the lamer moments – Superman's "super cellophane shield throwing"? – but even so, it's got a grand epic, polished scope to it that "The Donner Cut" lacks a little.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOne of the big perks of "The Donner Cut is that it restores a good 15 minutes of footage featuring Marlon Brando as Superman's father Jor-El. I was never a huge fan of Brando's mannered, sort of comatose performance in "Superman: The Movie," but oddly, his work for "Superman II" is much better. "The Donner Cut" replaces the bland Susannah York as Superman's mother to use Brando as intended. The entire sequence where Superman gives up his powers to be with Lois and then seeks them back to fight Zod is terrific here – I always hated how in the original cut that despite being told he could never regain his powers, Superman apparently regained them easily offscreen. Here, he pays a real and brutal cost for his choices, and the moral dilemma Superman faces is much richer.

It's a fanboy nitpick, though, but one moment I can't forgive is "The Donner Cut" cutting out my single favorite line from the original cut – a re-powered Superman, bristling with suave confidence, confronting Zod outside the Daily Planet building with the line, "General Zod, would you care to step outside?" – and replacing it with an idiotic one-liner about freedom of the press. The final battle shown here also suffers a bit from poorly patched-together special effects.

The ending of "Superman II" in any form has never quite worked – Superman apparently kisses Lois Lane into some kind of "super amnesia" so she forgets his secret identity? – but in my eyes, "The Donner Cut" ending is worse, basically lifting the ending of "Superman I" off and grafting it on here, so Superman turns back time and creates the ultimate deus ex machina. It's a cheat that I didn't like when it appeared in "Superman I" – and in both versions of "Superman II," the ending is a flaw that mars the movie. The best choice, of course, would have been to simply keep Lois Lane aware of Superman's identity and go on from there.

I don't know if I prefer Donner's cut to Lester's – in the form it's in here, it's really not quite a finished movie. The editing is choppy and the musical score doesn't always synch well with what's onscreen. One pivotal new sequence, the one where Lois finally confirms Clark Kent is Superman, was actually pieced together from an old screen test, but it still works quite well and features marvelous acting by Reeve and Kidder. Rounding out the disc are a commentary with Donner, a short featurette explaining how this cut came to be (seeing crate after crate filled with stored film gives an idea what an amazing chore this was), and a few more deleted scenes.

For anyone who's a diehard fan of "Superman II" this cut is certainly worth seeing, but perhaps less as a replacement than as a kind of supplement to the more famous version.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Things that are different here, Part 2

The language in New Zealand, of course, is the same down under but kinda different in a parallel universe sort of way... Stuff like the "bach" (vacation home) I mentioned in my previous post. A lot of it has British roots, but there's also quite a lot of Maori influence and various other linguistic twists and turns.

Just a few of the many phrases I'm getting used to uttering so I don't utterly stick out 'round here:
courgettes = zucchini
capsicum = peppers
whanau = Maori for "extended family" basically
pakeha = a non-Maori New Zealander
petrol = gas
lolly = candy
torch = flashlight
jandals = flip-flop sandals
whinge = to whine

"Punter" is a word I'm still trying to exactly define. You hear people called "punters" a lot and it's a vaguely dirty sounding word but actually apparently it's kind of colloquial version of customers (i.e. "Lot of punters in the bar tonight eh?") and has roots in gambling.

There's a particularly great guide online here -- it includes swear words, kids! There are some slang there I and my wife have never actually heard anybody utter but I am eager to work into my daily conversation:
my arse is a red cabbage: expression of confidence, as in 'if he can do that, my arse is a red cabbage'
sammy short of a picnic: brick short of a load, a bit thick or crazy
you think you're a flowerpot because you've got a hole in your bum: you love yourself

Say one of these to your co-workers today! G'day, mates!

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Day at the races

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
So yesterday we went out to the family beach house at Karekare for the annual beach races there. I've mentioned Karekare before, this gorgeous vast black sand beach surrounded by huge greenery-covered rocky mountain cliffs -- about 45 minutes from Auckland, it's where the opening scenes of Kiwi director Jane Campion's "The Piano" were filmed. Anyway, every year they have these big horse races which draw hundreds of people out to see them. It was that rarity for New Zealand, a crystal-clear cloudless sunny day (in December - still getting used to the temperature swap). Trying to take pictures of horses running by, I discovered horses can run a lot faster than I can manage to take a decent picture, but I got one shot (above) that I rather liked.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingPeter and his cousin played on the black sand beach for hours and hours, Peter getting sticky black sand in pretty much every orifice you could imagine.

Whereupon he wore himself out, passed out in the car on the drive back and spent the next 14 hours out like a light. So in other words, it was pretty much a perfect day for all!

Friday, December 1, 2006

Ramblin' man: Five for Friday

...Two weeks of this stay-at-home dad routine and frankly I feel a bit like my adult brain is dissolving into something the consistency of the oatmeal with brown sugar Peter so loves to eat... Play-Doh, Bob Builder, motorbikes and big trucks, building blanket houses and occasional time-outs, these are the things I know of now.

In any event, to post something, I shall be lazy and steal entirely from Lefty (mentioned twice in two posts! but he did declare me his #6 musical guru after all) to post my Top Ten of the Week, things I have seen/done/heard this week I do like. Except I'll only do five because I'm half-assed in that fashion.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting1. Tom Waits, "Orphans" CD Box set. Wow, this is the mother lode, 54 songs, three CDs of Waits-ian roar, rattle and hoot distilled into distinctive albums – "Brawlers," "Bawlers" and "Bastards," each catering to a unique side of Waits' sound. It's an utterly gorgeous looking set, combining rarities and covers with a whole moose-load of new tunes. Anyone who's a fan of Waits' weird world should grab this. I'm just barely digging in to it, but so far the blown-engine stomps of "Brawlers" are particularly fine soundtracks for your own personal emotionally shattered 3 a.m. car journey. Or as Waits himself puts it, "What’s Orphans? I don’t know. Orphans is a dead-end kid driving a coffin with big tires across the Ohio River wearing welding goggles and a wifebeater with a lit firecracker in his ear." Awesome.

2. Borat: "Very niiiiice." Yep, Sacha Baron Cohen's pseudo-documentarian romp finally opened in New Zealand last week and I got to check it out and pretty much loved it, like I figured I would. (The image of one unseemly scene is forever seared on my retinas, though - you know which one I mean if you've seen it. Wrestling. Brrr.) Classic comedy by a man who might well be the new Peter Sellers. The character of Borat's an amazing piece of acting when you think about it, and the movie's the kind of comedy that makes you cringe a little bit while you laugh your head off.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting3. The Who, "Live At Leeds" CD. Inspired by viewing the balls-out awesome rock documentary "The Kids Are Alright" on the tube the other week, I've gotten truly into the gods of Mod rock lately and am filling out the holes in my CD collection by them. This album is a fantastic souvenir of The Who at their early '70s peak, pounding along through an immense set-list full of interesting twists and turns (a highlight being a clattering 15-minute take on "My Generation"!). The sound on the disc I got is fantastically clear – you can practically hear the sweat fly off Keith Moon's drumsticks, and Entwistle's bass thrums with a beefy brawn. Glad I've finally hepped in to what has to be one of the best live albums I own.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting4. Peepshow #14. Poor sad bastard Joe Matt has finally released a new issue of his autobiographical comic book, after something like a five-year hiatus... which, if you believe his story this issue, he's basically spent, um, shaking hands with little Elvis, if you get my grip. As indulgent and navel-gazing as a comic can get, this long-delayed issue is still pretty fascinating. Matt almost deconstructs the now-tired genre of autobio comics, trying to break out of his cycle of porn, lust and apathy. His cartooning remains fluid and expressive, even if his character barely leaves his room this issue. It ain't a purty read, but it's a highly interesting one if only to see how low you can go – I only hope Matt's next work has a little more light and hope in it, since in his "real" life he's apparently gone on to break out of his Toronto rut and move to California.

5. Re-reading one of my favorite novel series, Patricia Highsmith's "Ripley" stories, starting with "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and on through the next four books. Highsmith does an amazing job showing the birth and life of Tom Ripley, an amoral, but extremely civilized, psychopath, a kind of non-cannibal Hannibal Lecter who never gets caught. Highsmith's cool, controlled and nonjudgmental prose makes these suspense novels bite with a literary kick. Re-reading the first novel is particularly interesting to see young, confused Tom Ripley murder his way to something resembling happiness as he discovers who he really is. In the later books, an older Tom develops into a cruel and psychotic mystery of a man. The "Ripley" books are still chilling nearly 40 years after they were written. Check 'em out if you like smart suspense that's a few notches up from Tom Clancy or Dean Koontz.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Music: Rockin' out to some music lit

...So I've been on a big rock history book-reading kick lately. I know the old saw that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," but what can I say, I dig reading words about music and lately books about tunes, the people who make them and the ideas behind them have been constant reading for me. The Auckland Library has a pretty awesome selection so I've been regularly raiding their music aisles for books I've always meant to read. Here's some of what's been passing through:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock," by Nik Cohn. This 1968 tome (revised somewhat in 1972) is called the granddaddy of modern rock criticism, written, to my envious chagrin, by Cohn at the pup's age of 22. It's basically the entire history of rock 'n' roll from Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock" to the death of Jimi Hendrix, of 15 or so years where rock soared in scope and imagination. Cohn was there for a lot of it, one of the first "rock journalists," and "Awop" (I ain't writing that whole title again) is a kind of love letter and farewell to it all, written as Cohn imagined himself burned out by rock and moving on. It's smooth, sexy writing, with lots of great little turns of phrase. I don't always agree with Cohn, who's cool to the Beatles and Dylan (!!!) while sticking up for Little Richard. Is "Awop" dated? Definitely. Cohn froze music in 1972 and felt that the end was nigh, that pop would only flourish if it were directed to teen angst and didn't get wrapped up in its own pretensions. It's hardly encyclopedic, because although Cohn tries to cram in as many names as possible he often relegates entire careers to a few sentences. Yet all that didn't bother me too much, because "Awop" is so obviously an artifact of its time, and Cohn's authorial voice is so relaxed and chatty. He's sometimes arrogant, often irreverent, but never really condescending, even when he disses The Beatles. Most importantly, Cohn was one of the first to really take rock seriously as the idea for a subject of a book. There's an entire industry of such tomes today, but nearly 40 years ago, it was unheard of. "Awop" is a groundbreaker that's still worth paging through today.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting"Deep Blues: A Musical And Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta" by Robert Palmer is one of those books I've always meant to read – an examination of the Mississippi "Delta Blues," where it came from and who it influenced, and a look at the lives of characters like Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and many more. I spent seven years down in North Mississippi at college and it took me until the final years of my stay to develop a real appreciation for the blues (thanks mostly to Oxford-based Fat Possum Records and such icons as the late R.L. Burnside). Anyway, "Deep Blues" is a fascinating piece of musical archaeology, taking a look at the truths behind the myths of the blues. We all know Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads to earn his musical talent, but what was the man really like? Palmer actually got to sit down and talk with many of the blue icons featured here before they died, including Muddy Waters, so the history here feels alive and vivid. (One of the men featured in the book, Robert Lockwood Jr., died just last week at the age of 91.) You've got harrowing tales of plantation existence, how music became an escape for some, and how the Delta blues ended up migrating to Chicago. Palmer traces the blues back to its African roots, then brings it right on up to its mutation into rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. "Deep Blues" evokes the mystery and strange menace of the blues and that's a welcome antidote to the notion that they began with Eric Clapton.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
"Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics," edited by Jim DeRogatis and Carmél Carrillo. Blogger Lefty recommended this one recently so I checked it out – the conceit here basically being that it's an entire book of negative reviews of allegedly classic albums, from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." DeRogatis assembled a lineup of writers to pick an album they consider overrated and tell us why. It's a nifty idea, even if it doesn't always work. "The point isn't necessarily to change your thinking about a work that you adore, but to prod you to consider anew why you admire that work," DeRogatis writes in his introduction. At the very least, "Kill Your Idols" gives you a lot to chew on. The best essays are the ones where the authors levy solid musical knowledge in their thoughts, and might even be fans of the artist's other work – Fred Mills is a big Neil Young admirer, but disdains Young's hit album "Harvest," and gives pretty good rationale for why he thinks it's a "meandering, unfocused affair." Some are wickedly funny, such as the cruelly biting evisceration of The Doors (an act I admit I can't really stand myself) and Jim Morrison's "lounge tune sophomore poetry." A few too many of the essays take the lazy stance that rock can't strive to be "art" and still rock, which I don't agree with myself, that rock has to be messy and raw to matter. And some are just written with such overwhelming bile toward the artist that they're hard to respond to. If the thesis of your argument is that the artist "just sucks," then sorry, I'm not really following along with your wisdom. Still, "Kill Your Idols" is a pretty breezy read that is enjoyable if you don't take the opinions therein as gospel, which after all, is kind of the point. If you can't handle dissenting opinions to your own, skip it, though!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Diary of a stay-at-home Dad, week one

So we're at the Friday of my first week as Mr. Mom, boldly sacrificing the world of deadlines, coffee and, y'know, working to stay at home with my 2 3/4-year-old son whilst darling wife resumes life in the Kiwi workforce. Can a former editor become a doting dad? Can I handle the notion of not working for a few months until I get my New Zealand sea legs (and we adjust to the notion of some kind of day care)?

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAny notion caring for a rambunctious toddler isn't work is of course nonsense. For the past couple years, I think Avril had the harder job. That said, it hasn't been the perfect week, but it's been pretty good. Peter is a little befuddled by the absence of his mama, who's been a constant presence in his young life till now. He's acted out a little (worst offenses: ripping pages out of a brand new library book and biting his cousin on the toe. Argggggh), but is starting to settle down and not asking "where mama?" every five minutes. He apparently is under the impression she works at the post office, because he says, "she a mailman now."

The best part is watching the baby turning into a boy; he's nearly through with the nasty bizness of toilet training, having sped through the last two weeks of hardcore action from using a mini-john to now using the real grown-up toilet, and not having an accident all week. And he now wears BIG BOY underpants! (Seen above) Yeah, I'm at the point in life where I'm excited by a mess-free bowel movement. I am so domesticated.

While Peter has never been a napper – or much of a sleeper – he's taken to it this week, napping 3 of the last 4 days. I rock. Our routine is usually some kind of expedition in the morning, then lunch, then maybe a trip to another playground or something in the afternoon. One of the awesome things about Auckland is there's parks everywhere – at least a half-dozen within close walking distance of here, and we usually have the car during the day if we want to venture further.

P's an incredibly active, and if I may say so, smart kid, which is sometimes to his detriment – he gets so hyped up and overworked that it's hard to bring him down sometime. I'm wondering if he'll always be like this and end up some BASE-jumping windsurfing adrenaline junkie, or if he's going to mellow with age. So much of the challenge is coming up with ways to entertain him.

The big thing for me is realizing how lucky I am to get this time with P, rather than champing at the bit to work again or explore more. Writing and the journalism life does get in the blood, after all, so part of me worries I'm wasting time, that I need more than occasional freelancing or blogging to satisfy me.

But then Peter runs up and gives me an unsolicited hug, and all's cool for a little longer.

Happy Thanksgiving, all you American-types!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Music: The "new" Beatles CD, "Love"

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAre The Beatles holy writ? Is remixing and "mashing up" their original tunes heresy? Some Beatle-fans are looking at the new release of The Beatles "Love" CD with trepidation. The surviving two Beatles had little to do with it other than approving it, and it was mostly assembled by Giles Martin, the son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, with some consultation from his father. Commissioned as the soundtrack to a Cirque du Soleil stage show, it's being billed as the first authorized Beatles remix project.

Purists shouldn't fear — "Love" hardly destroys the Beatles' songs. But in the end, nice as it is, "Love" is basically a slick gimmick lacking any real message besides, "doesn't it sound cool that we can do this?" Perhaps you just had to be at the stage show.

First off, the songs on "Love" do sound bloody wonderful, crisply reworked and remastered (there's also an even spiffier audio DVD mix of the album with 5.1 surround sound and stereo available, which I haven't heard). There's a fullness to it that makes the sounds leap from the speakers. When "Revolution" kicks in, the proto-metal snarl of guitars and screams will just about knock your head off with its clarity. It's miles above any other previous Beatles CD releases.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingBut most of the mashups lack any real potency. It's a kick, at first, to hear shreds of the assault of "I Want You" splashing together with fragments of "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite," or to hear "Sun King" turned eerily inside-out for the backwards track "Gnik Nus." Some tracks are gorgeous, like the "Strawberry Fields Forever" that blends stripped-down demo into a slowly building crescendo, tossing in elements of "Penny Lane," "Piggies" and "Hello Goodbye."

But too many others are like "Eleanor Rigby," or "A Day In The Life," nearly the same as the old version, or a failure like "Octopus's Garden," grafted with an awful patch from "Goodnight" that turns it into a lounge track. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" features a new elegant and subdued string score background added by Sir George Martin himself, but as much as I admire Martin's work, "Weeps" version 2.0 has more than a whiff of Musak to it.

I really was hoping "Love" would go further. If anything, it's too reverent, too conservative in its approach.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAnd as many music buffs will tell you, this is hardly the first time something like this has been attempted. There's the famous Grey Album, an illegal bootleg DJ Danger Mouse (now of Gnarls Barkley) did back in 2004 surgically lifting vocals from Jay-Z's Black Album and adding a flurry of chopped-up bits from The Beatles White Album as backing tracks. A whole parade of similar underground "mashups" followed, from "The Black and Blue Album" (Jay-Z and Weezer) to the "Slack Album" (Jay-Z and Pavement).

While few of these were particularly interesting except as experiments, some were remarkable recreations. The Grey Album crushed The Beatles down to their component DNA, pulverizing song fragments until they were utterly remade – which might offend purists, but resulted in some dazzlingly creative listening. Other Internet mixers have put their own stamp on The Beatles' raw material. (There's a nifty complete reworking of "Revolver" floating around on the Internet using samples from a variety of artists that is quite playful fun.)

And that might be the singular problem with "Love" for me – it's just not revolutionary enough, when we've been shown there's so much more you can do. Adding a drum flourish from "The End" to "Get Back" doesn't fundamentally make you view the song in a new light. Ideally, a mashup shows you a facet of the song you've never imagined, like a prism in the sun, rather than just evoking memories of the original tunes.

"Love" doesn't desecrate what the Beatles did; really, the noble intent is to celebrate their talents. But it also really adds nothing new to the legend, other than showing us how fine the Beatles catalog will sound whenever it's all completely remastered to the highest potential. That makes it feel like a movie trailer, a tease for the extra cash we Beatle-fans will be asked to shell out in 2008 or whenever. I can't imagine repeat listening being very rewarding, unlike the original albums.

"Love" is a clip-and-save kaleidoscope of greatest hits and a novel stage show soundtrack, but little more than that in the long run.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Mount Eden

...So for about a month now (!), we've been living here in the Auckland district of Mount Eden, just away from downtown. Its name comes from the massive volcanic cone that dominates the area (also known as Maungawhau), now a park and once upon a time a Maori pa or fortress. It's about 600-700 feet tall and the highest point in Auckland, so needless to say one of the fun things to do is hike up to the top of it and get a sprawling 360-degree panorama of Auckland. I didn't get a nice photo of what the cone looks like from afar but why, here's one right here.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
If you're lucky, you'll see the famous Mt. Eden cows up there, a herd that wanders around there and I guess are looked over by the city. It definitely adds to the rural/urban feel of Auckland to look over a view of skyscrapers while avoiding a cow chewing cud.
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Because it was once a volcano, Mt. Eden is actually a huge grass-filled crater now, which makes for a cool sight. (It's forbidden to walk down there now to keep erosion under control.)
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
From the top you can see the entire city, the harbor and ocean inlets, and on clear days out to the Coromandel Peninsula. You can also see our neighborhood, above, although we'll be damned if we can quite pick out the exact location of my in-laws' house. If you ever visit us down here in the antipodes, we'll be sure to take you up Mt. Eden.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The latest from Aotearoa

...Yeah, I'm a slacker about blogging lately. Sorry about that. Delayed cultural shock setting in and so forth.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn any case, the big news from this week is that wife Avril has gotten a job. Hurrah! She starts Monday as an applications officer with the New Zealand Real Estate Licensing Board, which basically means she'll be handling all licensing for real estate agents throughout the country. Pretty cool and excellent salary. Not too bad for just over 3 weeks in country!

What all this means is that I get to be "Mr. Mom" for a while and take care of 2 3/4-year-old Peter probably at least until after the New Year, when I want to really start looking for some part-time journalism work. (In the meantime, I hope to try some freelancing.) But at the same time we don't want to put Peter in day care full time if we can help it so part-time is probably all I'm looking at for now.

Father/son bonding, here I come!

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Happy Birthday To Me

...Well, if you're in New Zealand, anyway, where it's already the 11th. Otherwise you have to wait hours yet! ...Anyway, 35 is halfway to 70, which is a bit depressing because in theory I could be middle-aged now if the genetic cards aren't lucky. Urk. Of course I'd prefer if I don't reach the midspan of my life until, say, 52 or so.

But at least things have changed quite a lot in the past year which is always one of the benchmarks you use for a birthday - I'm in a new country, jobless and uncertain of what's ahead. On the down side, I'm jobless in a strange country and uncertain of what lies ahead. To quote Steve Zissou, "it's an adventure."

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Chortle chortle chortle

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...My god, I leave America and the Democrats win Congress, Rumsfeld is axed and Britney Spears is finally back on the market! It's madness, I tell you, madness! ...It's been curious watching this election from across the pond and voting via fax as an absentee voter (although the corrupt toad in my home congressional district squeaked by with re-election despite the Democratic tide). Thanks to the Internets of course I can soak up all the media babble I wish, from CNN's Political Ticker to the Post's Media Notes, so it's not like I have to wait for the next steamship for news of the homeland.

But here in the local paper it's interesting because most of their international coverage is picked up from British papers like The Independent and Guardian, which needless to say are not particular fans of the current administration. There's a strong anti-Bush current to most stories, which tend to begin with lines like, "Leaving a thin trail of green slime behind him, U.S. President Bush oozed his way to the podium Wednesday..."

'Tis strange to watch it all happening overseas, and to finally feel like some of the Bush cowboy diplomacy methodology has been rebuked but not to be there to enjoy it. Ah well. At least hopefully I won't get quite as many complaints about "your" President from kiwis when they find out I'm an American. Trust me, GW Bush is about as popular as testicular cancer with 99% of the New Zealanders I've ever met.

Anyway, beside surfing the web we've actually been quite busy this week with milestones – (1. Finishing up the boy's long-delayed ooky toilet training (which went on hold most of September and October due to our traveling and difficulties of going diaper-free during that time); (2. The wife is diligently job-hunting here in Auckland; and ...

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting(3. We bought a new car! After several days of canvassing used-car lots and auto fairs we signed on the dotted line to buy a nice little 1997 Subaru Legacy wagon which we pick up tomorrow. I do love my Subarus and they're quite popular here. Curiously enough our car has actually spent most of its life in Japan - most used cars here are imported from the land of the rising sun, which is a bit dodgy but the way it goes, and it is kind of cool to have a car that used to zip around Tokyo or something. We'll cross our fingers that we didn't get ripped off and not have to impose upon my father-in-law to be our taxi cab quite so often as we explore the daring challenges of Auckland traffic. On the other side of the road. Eep.

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Random Self-Promotion

Quick post to thank Dave Hitt for kindly reviewing my book of scribblings, Spatula Forum: Greatest Hits on his blog! 'Tis my first actual review of sorts. Dave examines the mystery that is Nik, diving deep into the Nik-ness and discovering that I am in fact an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum slathered in tasty honey mustard. Anyway, thanks to Dave for the kind words, and go hence and grab a copy o' my book if you haven't!

Saturday, November 4, 2006

NEW ZEALAND: Fireworks for Halloween

ITEM! So Halloween is one of those holidays that's been imported over here but is kind of only half-celebrated right now - many of the older generation see it as crass "begging for lollies" and yet another American cultural invasion, the younger generation is just, "woo hoo, free candy!" But we didn't celebrate it here as we were too exhausted and didn't want to buy candy so we turned off the light, barricaded ourselves in the back of the house and ignored the few door rings. They did have the ultra-cool sounding Auckland Zombie Walk downtown but it was past Peter's bedtime and you know how it is...

But a holiday they do celebrate here is Guy Fawkes Day, which is Sunday. It's a curious day celebrating a failed 1605 terrorist plot to blow up the British Parliament (most of you probably know it best from the "V For Vendetta" movie -- "Remember, remember, the fifth of November"). Basically these days it's an excuse to light up lots of fireworks. And much like July 4 back in the States, people don't just use their sparklers on the holiday, so for the past week or so we've heard a miniature volley of explosions at night. Ka-boom! So we shall climb the mountain near our house Saturday night (when most of the celebrations are held this year) and watch Auckland light up.

ITEM! Finally got around to posting more photos to Flickr of our MegaAmerica Trek and a couple more (I reached my free bandwidth limit last month and was too cheap to pay for more). So if you'd like to see some sexy photos of Yellowstone, head on over. I'll eventually post a few New Zealand pics too once we get around to taking some.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

BOOKS: 'Awake In The Dark' with Roger Ebert

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingCan you be America's most well-known movie critic, a television star and household name, and still be kind of underrated? If you're Roger Ebert, quite possibly. The man who added "thumbs up" to the vocabulary is so famous that it's easy to forget that he's also an eloquent, accessible and continually insightful critic. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1975, the first film critic to win that honor. Yet when you think Ebert, you might just think, "oh yeah, the thumb guy."

The excellent new compendium, Awake In The Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, serves as a fine way to remind us that Ebert is, first and foremost, a gifted writer. A survey of his 40 years in the business of loving and explaining movies, it's essential reading for anyone who likes film. Besides dozens of his reviews, it also includes interviews, "think pieces" and a fascinating series of debates on the future of film criticism between Ebert and TIME magazine's Richard Corliss. Movie reviews include a look at each of his favorite films from 1967 to 2005, sections on documentaries, foreign films and "overlooked" movies.

Ebert makes it look easy. Avoiding cruelty and cynicism, his best pieces always feel as if he's having a conversation with the reader, rather than lecturing them. Some of the strongest writing in Awake In The Dark is a look inside Ebert's thoughts on the nature of film. "A movie is not about what it is about," he writes. "It is about how it is about it." His celebrity may overshadow what a fine teacher he is.

From blockbusters to unknown curios, Ebert treats them all fairly, asking only that they don't condescend to us. I recall his startling choice for best movie of 1998, an obscure science-fiction film called Dark City by Alex Proyas, which zipped in and out of theaters in a flash. His review illuminated this dazzling movie for me – "created and imagined as a new visual place for us to inhabit," he wrote – and I promptly hunted it out on DVD. Turning you on to something you hadn't imagined existed is perhaps the finest pinnacle of the critic's art.

What exudes from Ebert's work is love. Unlike some critics, you get the feeling he genuinely loves movies, and always goes in hoping to be entertained, rather than angling for how to impress his readers or score points with venom. When he hates a film, you can sense his true disappointment. When he loves a movie, he's its firm champion for life – "I never get to the end of its mystery," he writes of Errol Morris' cult documentary about pet cemeteries, Gates of Heaven, one of his favorite films.

His bittersweet closing essay, written as he battled life-threatening cancer in 2004, is a testament to powerful allure of movies, of "healing in their glow" as he writes. Ebert's Movie Yearbook series, collecting all of his reviews for a given year or two, also make for grand reading and offer far more depth than most movie guides, but Awake In The Dark does the job of establishing Ebert's legacy and giving one critic's perspective of 40 years of startling changes and evolution in the picture show.

I know I've discovered many an excellent filmmaker through Ebert's raves – Kurosawa, Herzog, Altman, for instance. I don't always agree with him, of course. That's not the point. But I'm always interested in what he's got to say. Here's hoping Awake In The Dark is both a stirring summation and a prelude to a career that's still got many a movie ahead of it.

Monday, October 30, 2006

NEW ZEALAND: Things that are different, Part I

...The start of an ongoing series of notes 'n' notions as your humble American correspondent continues adapting to kiwi life down here in the antipodes...

1. The metric system - I really wish I'd paid more attention in second grade. OK, I'm pretty good with kilometers and centimeters, but need remedial work on kilograms (I hopped on a scale the other day to learn I weighed just 87, a remarkable 100-lb. or so weight loss in a month, or so I deluded myself). And don't get me started on liters, hectares and ha'pennies.

2. That whole driving-on-the-left thing isn't as bad as you would think to get used to - I've done it before in visits, but doing it in Auckland traffic whenever we get a car will be daunting - but as a pedestrian, it's a little tricky to try and remember. Look right, then left, as opposed to what I've done the last 35 years. And in general it seems (my kiwi wife agrees) drivers here are less willing to give way to walkers, and there's less of the whole "pedestrian always has right of way" philosophy. Step carefully.

3. Dollar coins, two-dollar coins, smallest "paper" money (it actually feels more like a silky plastic, and very hard to tear) is $5. Smallest coin is now 10 cents which means stores do the curious thing of "rounding" your purchase up or down since items are still marked in sums less than 10 cents ($4.95, for example). Which is kind of odd, but makes sense... how many zillions of pennies do you have lurking in your drawers, anyway?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

LIFE: We have landed

AUCKLAND, New Zealand – ...And here we are. After our third (!) 13-hour flight of the year, we showed up in Auckland bleary and dazed Wednesday morning our time, somehow stuffing 12 bags of luggage (approximately 450 lbs.) into a friend's Subaru, collapsing into a heap at our new home for now, the apartment on the back of my in-laws' house.

It'll take a while for it to kick in that we're not on another mere vacation down here - that I actually have to get out and have a life here, that we soon need a car, jobs and a place of our own in no particular order.

But I ate fish and chips for dinner the other night, watched kids practicing cricket in a city park yesterday, and hear the sound of unfamiliar birds in the morning and see the panorama of greenery and colorful spring flowers everywhere. So it's all good, and as they say here, "no worries, mate!" And we're off!

Monday, October 23, 2006

LIFE: Destination: New Zealand

vag‧a‧bond  /ˈvag-uh-bond/
1. wandering from place to place without any settled home; nomadic: a vagabond tribe.
2. leading an unsettled or carefree life.
3. disreputable; worthless; shiftless.
4. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a vagabond: vagabond habits.
5. having an uncertain or irregular course or direction: a vagabond voyage.

Yeah, I've been feeling that way... well, for months now, really. Feels like we've been moving to New Zealand for years now. And really, we have, since we decided way back in August 2005 that this was what we wanted to do next. Been shipping our stuff since January; cleared out our house in July, moved out in August. Tomorrow, finally, we're off, flying out of San Francisco into the abyss. It's been a long time coming... Nearly seven weeks since we pulled out of Oregon, I quit my job and we started down the long road. Lots of time to freak out.

Still, I'm glad I didn't decide to quit work Friday and fly to New Zealand on a Monday, allowing for this relaxed time to say goodbye to my homeland for a while. The last two months or so have been great - we had our America MegaTrek, saw many sweeping vistas and epic sights, I got to spend a ton more time with Peter than I did when I was working, and was able to catch up with many an old friend. It's been a fine interlude, but real life is lurking in the sidelines as our savings account shrinks and we realize that yes, one of us really should start working again soon. New Zealand will be an excellent transformative experience for us, and great to be closer to family there, but it also really means that daily life gets back in gear after weeks of being ... well, vagabonds. If not vagrants.

What happens next, I really don't know. We rely on the kindness of my in-laws to start (much like we've relied on the kindness of my parents as home base since early September). Theoretically, we'll find new jobs and eventually get our own place and hop on the great merry-go-round of life again, except this time I'll be deep in the antipodes and after nearly 9 years I'll be the one with the foreign accent in this marriage.

The rest is unknown --- and while it's scary as hell (there's been many a sleepless night lately), it's also kind of invigorating. I'm not sure what form this blog will take in New Zealand, but I hope to keep posting something, even if it's just a bewildered cranky American expatriate's take on a strange new world.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you in the next hemisphere.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

LIFE: Ode to a Subaru

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWe sold our car today, we did,
For a decent price, not underbid.
Bought her brand new in '99,
And 94 thousand miles on, still pretty fine.
Took her from Mexico to Canada and more,
Not to mention many trips to the grocery store.
Other than oil changes and checkups frequent,
The car caused no problems for us, not even a dent.
I'll miss my faithful Subaru as we fly south, depleted,
Guess we'll get a new car there — hope we don't get cheated.

... Fare thee well, brave chariot! Sad to leave you behind, but glad to get this whole car-selling process behind us. And I swear I won't put any more bad poetry on here. Yeesh.

Speaking of writing, a reminder to any procrastinators out there that my own little tome, Spatula Forum: Greatest Hits 1994-2004, is still available to purchase over at Two hundred-plus pages of newspaper column goodness from my former career, all in a glorious easy-to-read format. It'll amuse, bemuse and confuse. It'll do your dishes and wax your car! (If you have one)

All this for a mere $12 plus shipping (remember, when you order be sure to look closely at shipping options, for some reason Lulu defaults to the most expensive one but you can change it easily to the cheaper shipping). Order now, I won't keep this in print forever. And I need to buy a new car!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

COMICS: Digging into "The Marvel Encyclopedia"

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingEver find yourself with a nagging need to know just how much the Hulk weighs, or where the first appearance of Wolverine was? Sure, you can flip through stacks of comic books to find out – or, you can turn to the handy new reference guide, The Marvel Encyclopedia from DK Publishing. It's a sprawling, ambitious if a bit flawed look at the colorful world of Marvel Comics stars from the Abomination to Zzzax.

This encyclopedia follows on the heels of the fine DC Comics Encyclopedia published in 2004. The detail here is less than you'll find in Marvel's similar Official Handbook publications, which tend to get into the utter minutiae of characters, but most of the summaries are more than enough to get a feel for the characters. This is more of a coffee-table keepsake, featuring brief looks at dozens of heroes, villains and allies from Marvel Comics' lengthy history. Vital statistics, origins and first appearances are all mentioned, and, as a devoted Marvel fanboy since 1982 myself, just about every character I could think of is mentioned somewhere in here.

The volume boasts the same stellar production values as most DK publications. Plenty of art from 40 years of Marvel Comics is used, with a crisp, elegant design that is information-packed but rarely cluttered. Major characters like Spider-Man or Daredevil receive full-page spreads, while hundreds of others are also covered in shorter entries. A handsome cover by Frank Cho rounds out the package.

Some fans of course will nitpick over the selection of characters – while I couldn't find any glaring omissions, with thousands of Marvel comics to choose from, I'm sure someone's favorite hero or villain didn't make the cut. The overall scope is pretty impressive, though. Besides your Thor and Hulk, you've got literally dozens of obscurities, such as Spider-Man's old landlady Mrs. Muggins or the 1950s hero 3-D Man. An effort is made to also mention spin-off Marvel productions such as the Ultimate lines and the Squadron Supreme universes.

It's a gorgeous looking book, but unfortunately, once you dive into reading it, some less-than-stellar proofreading keeps The Marvel Encyclopedia from being perfect. I wouldn't expect a publication with thousands of factoids in it to be utterly flawless, but there's a little too much sloppy editing for a $40 publication. I admit I'm going in with a little more information on comic history than some readers might. But die-hard comics fans, who do like the nitpicking, are also the most likely audience for a book like this. One would think the editors – which include longtime Marvel writer/editor Tom DeFalco – would be aware of the need for accuracy. The quite similar DC Comics Encyclopedia seemed much sharper in comparison.

Certain elementary mistakes like sentences ending in mid-word or having blank entries for height and weight on a character shouldn't have made it into the final product. Venerable Spider-Man foes The Sinister Six didn't make their first appearance in a 1987 issue of Uncanny X-Men, and the villain Empath doesn't have Captain America's powers – just some of the errors I spotted on a casual read. Some of the entries don't seem anywhere near up to date, such as Emma Frost's entry not mentioning she joined the X-Men years ago, while other entries are current enough to include last year's "House of M" crossover. Other entries even have incorrect pictures. None of these errors totally ruin the book, but it is dismaying to have it mar such an otherwise quality publication. Was this book rushed into stores too fast, maybe?

Perhaps these errors will be corrected in a future printing. Nevertheless, for anyone who grew up reading and loving Marvel Comics, this is as good of a one-volume encyclopedia as I've seen, although nitpickers should be aware it's not perfect. It's still far better than a 2002 attempt published by Marvel that was riddled with even more omissions and errors. In this version, there's hundreds of entries that are fine and more than enough comic memories to while away many a night on. Maybe next go-'round they'll get it even closer to correct.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

LIFE: If you're going to San Francisco...

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...So, befitting our second-to-last weekend in America, we hightailed it down to scenic San Francisco this weekend to visit my old high school buddy John and his wife. As always, it was excellent to visit the City, which we used to head to all the time when we lived in California but have barely been to in the last five years since we had moved to Oregon. We hit the Exploratorium, SF's great interactive science museum where Peter was specifically encouraged to push as many buttons as possible, ate lunch in Chinatown, shopped for books in North Beach's City Lights Books, and saw the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in fog, so I figure we satisfied our touristy needs. I love San Francisco, although I could never imagine living there (too pricey).

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt was most excellent to catch up with my old pal John, whom I haven't seen much of the past 5 years other than occasional meetings on holidays. He's a super-successful San Francisco lawyer now (I mean, they can afford to have a HOUSE in the City!) and it's great to see him doing well.

I've been in this weird time-warp lately, ever since we left Oregon last month. I've had the good fortune to catch up with several friends from my high school days, some on our cross-country trek and meeting up with others up here in Nevada City. The Nevada Union class of 1990 seems a terribly long time ago now (close to 20 years, egad!), but somehow I've managed to keep up with the people who mattered most to me. We're grayer-haired, larger or balding or something, but mostly doing OK. I even had the surreal but truly terrific experience of seeing my old high school girlfriend and her family... I hadn't seen her in 16 years! It's excellent to find that you still have some commonalities and hints of friendship with people from so long ago in your life, that you haven't totally grown apart despite the years, even if you don't hang out every day.

I keep feeling a bit like I'm still in high school myself - unemployed, living with my parents at the moment, about to head off on a faraway odyssey... although this time, it's not college, it's emigration.

So I guess I'm getting ready to start the "new chapter" when we fly out to New Zealand a week from today, saying farewells to people I might not see for a very long time indeed. This week the final frenzied push begins. We're trying to sell the spunky Subaru before we go (cheap!), as well as some last-minute box shipping, freaking out, bill-paying and of course truly monumental packing for the plane flight (we're not only taking our full allotment of 6 suitcases and 3 carry-on bags, we're going to try to bring a few excess bags as well).

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOf course, if it all goes badly in New Zealand, we can always come back to San Francisco, where it turns out Toddler Peter Dirga actually owns a restaurant there – I know, where does a 2 1/2-year-old find the time, I ask you?

Friday, October 13, 2006

MUSIC: The Perfect Songs, Part VII

Really, I meant to do this a little more often (I last did it in May, you say?!) but I am in the midst of being unemployed, moving 6,000 miles away and taking epic road trips after all. And chasing around a willful toddler. Anyway, here's another installment of songs that make it onto my personal mix CD for a desert island, songs that I never tire of no matter how many times I hear there. As always, my view, nobody else's, I may have terrible taste and so forth. Continuing the count with today's special "all 1990s version":

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting19. "Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinead O'Connor. Great pipes, crazy mind – that pretty much sums up my view of O'Connor, who blazed like a comet through the early 1990s with two great albums, then kind of dissolved into a muddle of controversy and half-hearted albums. This one song was the mega-hit that gave her stardom, but yet its hushed intimacy and unfettered honesty still are startling nearly 20 years on. When too many pop breakup songs these days sound like they were recorded by "American Idol" robots in a factory somewhere, there's still something sincere about Sinead's cover of this Prince song, in her voice breaks and fragile demeanor. It's a tough song to listen to because it reminds me of a different time and place, but then again all the good songs do, don't they? "It's been seven hours and fifteen days..."

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting20. "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," Elvis Costello. Admittedly, this is an obscure choice, hardly one of Costello's best-known songs and from one of his less-regarded albums, 1991's "Mighty Like A Rose." Yet there's something in this kaleidoscopic romp of a tune that really spoke to me back in '91, when I was a spastic college freshman. With this album EC tried every style of music he could in a frenzied wall of sound, from baroque Beach Boys pop to hushed ballads to fuzz-drenched rants. It may not be his best CD, but it's perhaps his most adventurous. This tune closes out the album, and it's a beautiful lament about the passing of time and keeping a little bit of hope in the face of it. It begins as a song of a fairy-tale girl in a castle, but Costello abruptly parts the curtains to take center stage – "Well you can laugh at this sentimental story / but in time you'll have to make amends" – before ducking back behind the scenes to continue his thoughts. Backed by a merry-go-round of calliope and accordion sounds, it's like the closing anthem at the end of a carnival, bittersweet and searching for truth. Dissonant and unbalanced, but yet heartfelt, it's the song of how things are never as they were. "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain / I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again."

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting21. "Heart-Shaped Box," Nirvana. Nirvana are kind of in a funny place in music history, I think. They were underrated, overrated, just plain "rated," and now it's still not quite clear what their music's legacy is – does the sad fate of Kurt Cobain still color how we think about the music? We critics love 'em, but does Joe Public still? Heck if I know. All I know is that even when Mr. Cobain was still with us, this jagged barbed-wire tangle of a love song was a favorite of mine – with its angular chords, shout-and-response chorus, and some of Cobain's darkest lyrics ever ("I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black"). With a title like "Heart-Shaped Box," it might be a typical love song, but Cobain's burning intensity nearly sears a hole right through the music. It's still a riveting testimony of self-destructive obsession, of a love so deep it's nearly indistinguishable from hate. It is, of course, a story of lost potential too. Aren't they all? "Hey! Wait! I've got a new complaint / Forever in debt to your priceless advice."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

LIFE: Two weeks! TWO WEEKS!!

...Yeah, we fly out two weeks from today. Suddenly everything's going at light speed. To quote "Almost Famous," "It's all happening!" I suppose we're actually in a kind of zen calm right now, but it's underlaid by general freaking out. We've "done" most of what we're supposed to do, all our paperwork is in order, and now we're just sorting out loose ends (like the $&*! idiots at our Roseburg phone company who haven't canceled our account yet despite being told TWICE in AUGUST to do so and who sent us a $70 bill the other day). We still have to sell the car but can't really do that until next week. Mostly spending quality time with family and friends and soaking up the Northern California pines and dust and granite so it will last me a few years.

One symptom of my impending leaving the country is that I keep buying stuff because it's cheaper over here than it will be there. Which of course gives us more stuff to deal with getting over there. But I had to get the new "Awake In The Dark: The Best Of Roger Ebert", because Ebert is (in my book) the finest and yet most oddly underrated movie critic working these days and it's a swell compendium of his work. And of course there's a new box set of Tom Waits work coming out real soon which I crave with a junkie's longing.

And oh jeez, why is it that Haruki Murakami, Richard Ford and Bill Bryson ALL have to have brand new books coming out right about now? Sigh. I know my frantic must-get-this-before-we-go syndrome is just one way of dealing with the fact I'll soon be 6,000 miles from the beating heart of pop culture's shores, but geez, books and CDs are expensive in New Zealand. Ah well. If you love me, send Amazon credit. Two weeks, two weeks...