...Yeah man, I'm back down under, after several groovy weeks in California. It was my second trip back for a visit since we emigrated in 2006, and it is always a bit strange trying to cram so much into two or three weeks. Not to mention rather exhausting being the single-dad with the 6-year-old boy while Mom stays in New Zealand. There's the meet-ups with old friends, wedged into everyone's busy schedules, where you get an hour or two to play speed catch-up of the last four (or even 20) years of your lives. There's trying to show your son all around the area you grew up in, trying to ensure quality time with the grandparents and the uncle, and trying to get some American-style shopping in there. Somewhere you also attempt to "relax" on this "vacation" some.
Highlights of this year's journey --
• The places that are etched in my mind from childhood and onwards, all wonderful to see again -- the high, dry foothills of the Sierra Nevada where I grew up; the sweeping lonely casino-filled vistas of Reno and Western Nevada, both tacky and epic western at the same time. The sweeping blue expanse of Lake Tahoe, where I spent much of the late 1990s, the grand granite-lined canyons of the Yuba River, the finest place in the world to while away a hot summer's day. And of course sweet San Francisco, which still has the same kinetic effect on me it did the first time I saw it back in the 1970s -- Coit Tower, North Beach, Chinatown, the giant Sutro Tower (the "monster tower" of my childhood), the candy-box spectacle of the houses stippled up and down the hills, the sweeping Golden Gate Bridge, foreboding Alcatraz hunched in the harbour -- I do love that place.
• The climate really knocked me for a loop, though. I'd forgotten that late September is peak allergy/pollen season and that, combined with the staggering dryness of the climate after being so used to humid New Zealand, left my sinuses feeling like a barometer the entire time. It's a shame I love an area yet hate the atmosphere.
• One thing that struck me is how battered and cynical the American "mood" seemed. A liberal like me thinks it's the hangover from 8 years of colossal failure by Bush and the impossible expectations laid on his successor. Far as I can figure the Tea Party folks are against nearly everything being done these days but I have yet to really figure out what they'd do about it or why they didn't speak out during the wild government expansion of the Bush years. It's nearly Election Day in the US and while I hope people aren't dense enough to give the party that screwed everything up for 8 years ANOTHER chance at the House or Senate, my feelings are that the American people just love being fooled by big promises and vague platitudes, from either side of the aisle. The failure of the two-party system -- if we don't like the guy in the White House, we'll just vote against EVERYTHING he proposes -- is manifest. While NZ politics are far from perfect, the minor parties here have a much stronger chance of actually getting their views shown and making a difference through coalition governments. In general politics here seem a bit less shrill, less polarized. I really am starting to fear the American system is terminally broken, no matter who's President.
• The recession that hadn't quite happened last time I visited in summer 2008 was in clear evidence -- vacant shops from Sacramento to Reno, several friends who've lost jobs/money in the past two years. The newspapers I once read have all shrunk into near-nothingness -- thanks to narrower "web widths" (reducing print costs) and staff cutbacks. I remember when the San Francisco Bay Guardian, say, was a thick monster of a free weekly tabloid you could kill a cat with, whereas the one I picked up last week was a wee thin thing. I know my industry is changing and it has to change, but it is a shame to see the newspaper so withered in size and influence.
• As always the sheer SCALE of everything in America dazzles after a few years away in a small, small country. Mega-malls the size of small New Zealand towns, spreading silently over the countryside that once contained nothing but fields; more big box stores than you ever imagined existed; giant cars everywhere. Theme restaurants that serve more food on a plate than one man can decently eat; a "large" cup of coffee that is at least twice the size of one you'd find down under. All of this exists in some form or another in NZ, of course, but just "less" of it.
* On the flip side of course is how cheap anything and everything seems in America compared to NZ -- as usual I stuffed my suitcases to the brim with things like books, CDs, toys, over-the-counter medicines and blue jeans, all far more costly down here. Found several wonderful things to jam in the bags such as the "Nuggets II" CD box set, a great "Art of Brian Bolland" coffee-table book I didn't even know existed, lots of awesome Beat literature at the wonderful City Lights Books in SF, and much, much more. It's a good thing we only get back to the US every couple of years as my wallet and bookshelves really couldn't handle more often.