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...

Sunday, October 8, 2006

Hey, vacation photos!

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...So thanks to the beauty of the Internet, I can bore you all with MegaTrek America 2006 photos without having to come into your home with a slide projector! Ain't the Internets amazing? I've uploaded a handful of pics over on Flickr so go check them out right here. You can see 'em a lot bigger than you can on here, and click on "view as slideshow" and why it's the next best thing to having me right there next to you, and probably less intimidating. I'm a scary guy.

(I would've put more pix up [Er, I shot 350 - yay digital!], but 40 is all they'd let me do for now, so you'll have to wait to see more of the beauty of Yellowstone and such exotic locations as Idaho Falls and Elko, Nevada.)

Saturday, October 7, 2006

LIFE: Staggering back to home base

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...Egad. Yeah, we're back, suffering from "road lag" after 21 epic days on the highways exploring the western half of this great land of ours before we move on out to New Zealand Oct. 23. (2 1/2 weeks away! Urk!)

But Mega-America Trek 2006 was a fantastic time indeed. I'll share highlights on and off here on the blog in coming days as we recuperate (and I'm working on setting up a Flickr account to show off many more pics). We saw everything from Santa Monica to Santa Fe to South Dakota.

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By the numbers:

States visited:
10 (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Nevada)

Miles driven: 5,523

National Parks visited:
11 (Joshua Tree National Park, Saguaro NP, White Sands National Monument, Petroglyph NM, Great Sand Dunes NP, Rocky Mountain NP, Jewel Cave NM, Mount Rushmore NM, Badlands NP, Devils Tower NM, Yellowstone NP)

Highest elevation:
Colorado's Independence Pass, 12,095 feet
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Longest drive: Wyoming. Least populated state, and man, does it feel like it.

Coolest things seen: Just to try and narrow it down to a top five - seeing saguaro cactus in Arizona that were a good 30 feet tall; the little-known City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico, an American stonehenge; driving over the dizzying Independence Pass; Mount Rushmore, far cooler than you'd imagine in real life; seeing an actual herd of bison at Yellowstone National Park... And zillions more.

Regrets, we had a few:
Didn't quite make it down to El Paso, Texas, which would've been fun; wasn't able to hook up with my pal Noah in Denver due to schedule conflicts; couldn't quite take in Grand Tetons National Park as well as Yellowstone.

Right - more when my brain has had a chance to decompress!

Monday, October 2, 2006

Where's Nik today?

Today I type from an internet cafe in Rapid City, South Dakota, where I popped in to check e-mail. We just got back from Badlands National Park which is indeed bad, as in bad-ass. (Sorry for the belabored pun. 3800 miles of driving will do that to a man.)

Today we saw a wild bison like 10 feet from our car. And he was mighty, mighty big.

And many many many prairie dogs. We're in the Great Plains.

Back to oblivion again. We're entering the final week of Mega America Trek 2006, and not driving 200-300 miles a day is starting to sound mighty nice indeed. Look for pics and more by the end of the week. Cheers!