Saturday, March 31, 2007

Milk in the batter, milk in the batter

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...So since I became a stay-at-home dad while the wife works, the task has fallen to me to cook dinners most nights for the breadwinner. This has been an interesting challenge, as I am, I've learned, somewhere around remedial school level as a cook in life. There are a handful of things I can cook well - pizza from scratch probably the best, taught by my father – and, I find, an amazing amount of things I cannot really cook. Fending for myself post-college until Avril and I shacked up, Top Ramen, peanut butter, chicken nuggets and Shiner Bock beer were my four food groups.

But now I endeavor to provide meals for my wife - who, just to complicate matters, happens to be a vegetarian. (I'm not, but I don't eat much meat at home at all other than tuna.) These past few months, I'm trying to broaden my cooking beyond pot of pasta-or-beans and vegetables. And it's remarkable how one can get to age 35 without having cooked some of the basics. I also suffer from a handicap – a strangely undeveloped sense of taste. I'm just not really able to tell if what I'm cooking is very good, and I've never developed a particularly sensitive palate. Blame it on a childhood where I ate mostly mashed potatoes.

In any case, the cooking successes: made my first lasagna this week with portobello mushrooms, which got a resounding A+ from all concerned. I've also started to learn how to make a moderately good vegetarian curry, if I can refine the heat levels a bit more. I find I can do a good stir-fry (again, yeah, you think I'd have done this before now). Not so successful: You'd think soup would be quite easy, but my vegetable soup the other day turned into a kitchen-destroying, spinach-on-the-ceiling, colorful cursing ordeal that was only saved by wife Avril doing some last-minute tinkering when she got home. (A tip for next time: Don't double the amount of liquid used in a soup recipe without doubling everything else.)

What shall be my next triumph or waterloo? Will I attempt calzones or vegetarian biscuits and gravy? Will I discover a hidden Julia Child (or, far more frightening, an Emeril) inside me? Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hip hip hurray, ask me questions today

• Hurray for me, I finally got a paying freelance gig. Not that I'll be able to buy a new car or anything, but hey, it's ink in print and was fun to write. If there were more hours in the day I'd figure out how to write a little more these days... (Not that blogging isn't wonderful, but it doesn't pay the bills, does it?)

• Hurray for Peter, he's going to Playcenter now three days a week with me. Playcenter is a nifty NZ parent-run co-op kinda like kindergarten but not exactly, because there are no teachers and we parents run the session. Which is a lot of fun but also kinda exhausting at first, particularly if you give piggy-back rides to a half-dozen toddlers and then tow 7 of them around in a big firetruck for 20 minutes or so. Ackthpp.

• Hurray for you - I have no ideas about what else to write tonight, so instead, I'll do a Reader Q&A – if you have any questions you want to ask me, whether they be about life in NZ, being a stay-at-home bum, Peter's latest antics, what my favorite song right now is, go for it. Ask away in the comments and I shall reply in the next post. Hey, that's much easier than trying to write something myself!

OK, now I'm going to turn off the lights, turn on the iPod and groove to Neil Young's "Tonight's The Night" for a spell....

Monday, March 26, 2007

The New York Dolls, St. James, Auckland, 24/03/07

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...Holeee crap, I'm deaf. But it was worth it – legendary reunited glam/trash rockers The New York Dolls blew my mind Saturday night in their first-ever New Zealand show. It was way-cool, and one of the loudest concerts I've ever been to. My ears rang most of Saturday night and Sunday. It was the first concert I'd been to in NZ and my first since last summer's Alice Cooper blow-out, and it was great.

The Dolls are one of the icons of pre-punk rock, and their imprint can be seen everywhere from The Ramones to The Smiths to Guns & Roses. But it came at a cost – the Dolls flamed out faster than most bands, having recorded one unarguably classic album in 1973. (Their second was fittingly called "Too Much, Too Soon.") Three of the five founding members are now dead, but survivors David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain came back together in 2004 when huge fan Morrissey sought them out for a benefit. (The fantastic 2005 documentary "New York Doll," which I reviewed a while back, tells of the Dolls' rise and fall and rise again in fascinating fashion.)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSo anyway, most bands that are only 2/5ths of the original lineup might seem rather counterfeit, but hell, the Dolls rocked Auckland pretty well anyway in my humble opinion. Johansen, who looks kinda like Mick Jagger run over by a garbage truck, is a wiry, propulsive lead singer, equal parts preacher and prostitute. In his fifties, he's a lean and strutting frontman (and if you've never heard of the Dolls, you probably still know Johansen from his wacky novelty hit in the 1980s as Buster Poindexter, "Hot Hot Hot"). At the show, the diminutive Sylvain – who looks like a cross between AC/DC's Angus Young and Danny DeVito – also threw out some fiery guitar lines. And the other guys weren't bad either – that stage nearly combusted with some of the three-guitar attacks they launched. If anything, it was a little too loud, I nearly contracted tinnitus.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHighlights for me included their epic, jam-filled takes on classics "Trash" and "Jet Boy," a sly "Private World," and some of the excellent newer songs like "Dance Like A Monkey" and "We're All In Love." A lot of the audience – the vast majority of which were barely born when the Dolls had their first run – was lukewarm at first to the newer stuff, but the Dolls' comeback disc, the superbly titled "One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This," is a suitably crunchy and taut return to form for the band. And the Dolls thrashed so hard on some of the newer tunes I think even the poseurs were won over. One bummer – no "Frankenstein"! (A couple fuzzy cell-phone pics and set list for the show can be found over here, by the way. Hey, maybe that's the back of my head!)

For a band that put out their seminal work 30-plus years ago, there's still an edge to the Dolls. Their glam-rock stomp is no longer quite so threatening, but it's got a seen-it-all raffish charm. They're still authentic rock 'n' roll, not just a tribute act. Sad thing is, Tommy Lee's reality TV-shlock "rock" band Supernova played in Auckland the same night, and I bet they drew several times the crowd this show did. It was a decent crowd, but it wasn't as big as the Dolls deserved, either.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Ah, parenthood, the eternal signifier

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Amazing how a new haircut, a pair of jeans and a birthday can make your wee baby suddenly look like such a grown-up little man!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The best team-up of all time

...As shown to me by Rolling Stone, this is just far too cool not to post. I'd gladly buy an entire album of Johnny Cash/Sesame Street duets.

OK, so now it's autumn... I think

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWe've had an odd year – and my seasonal internal calendar is just now catching up. Daylight savings time ended this weekend down under, which means we're starting to ease into fall – cooler days, noticeably. And it's going to be our first winter in over a year. We left America last year at the start of autumn, sidestepping winter there for a decent summer down here. Two summers in a row was pretty sweet! It's still strange getting used to things like Christmas at the height of summer and Easter at the beginning of autumn.

Last weekend we went out north on our ongoing explorations of the Auckland area to the beach of Muriwai, which is about a half-hour northwest of the city and yet another of NZ's fine beaches – wide-open with black sand (it's usually black sand on the west, Australian coast and white on the eastern coast – don't ask me why). Also there was a stunning big Australian gannet bird colony just winding down the breeding season.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAt its height there can be thousands of birds there, and there were still a few hundred out there when we visited. (This guy's website has tons of cool info about gannets at Muriwai.) And there were some nifty rock formations. (Go to our Flickr page to see more photos than this.)

I'm readjusting my internal clocks to the notion that the nice warm days are winding down and the rainy season is about to begin. And realizing how expensive new warm clothes are here!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The reject department; or, the book you'll never read

So just for the heck of it, a couple months back I submitted a book pitch as part of the 33 1/3 music-lit series call for proposals. I figured I only had a slight chance of getting accepted as the last time they did this they had 100 proposals. Turns out I had an even slighter chance because this time they received 450 (ack!) proposals, and unfortunately, mine, to do a brief book on Peter Gabriel's "So," didn't make the cut.

I'm not particularly bitter about this, though, because in the world of book pitches failure is the rule, and compared to the qualifications of some who've written in this series (which I've written about many a time before), I'm pretty bush league. And while I was able to do a proposal, I did have some performance anxiety over actually doing an entire book on "So." I do still quite dig the series and their take on albums from the Beatles to the Beasties to Bowie to the Ramones.

But as the very graceful rejection e-mails began circulating a bunch of us "rejectees" started posting their un-accepted proposals on their blogs*, figuring heck, might as well have someone read 'em. So what the hey, I'll do the same here - I had fun trying to write this thing about one of my top 10 albums of all time, even if I look at it as a little more stilted and vague than I probably should've done it in hindsight. (Of course, you can second-guess this forever - do I suck? Or the editors just hate Peter Gabriel? Or maybe, the fact that I was 1 of 450 [again, yike!] just means the odds weren't in my favor).

Anyway, here's what I might've written if the gods had smiled my way (pitch edited a bit for length and extraneous details):

PETER GABRIEL'S SO - A 33 1/3 proposal by Nik Dirga

“So”?Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I’ve listened to Peter Gabriel’s “So” so many times that each beat feels imprinted in my DNA. In my freshman year of college, in a strange town in a new place, it was the album I turned to again and again; the comforting homilies of “In Your Eyes” and “Don’t Give Up,” the winking bravado of “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time,” the cathartic release of “Red Rain.” It’s an album I’d listen to without respite, trying to coax what felt like definite connections to my life from random phrases in the music. “So” feels vast and soaring yet very, very intimate.

It’s the sound of a man wrestling with himself, trying to find confidence in an uncertain world. “So” was a slick curiosity – an experimental artist’s bid for the mainstream, combining brassy top 40 pop with melancholy explorations of the self. Daniel Lanois’ glittering, dense production gave “So” a very 1980s polish, but it adorns a disc that’s intensely thoughtful, intellectually curious and still bears the imprint of Gabriel’s challenging early solo work. (Even the queen of 1980s art-rock, Laurie Anderson, makes a cameo on “So,” as if offering a benediction to Gabriel’s bid for superstardom.)

“So” was a turning point in Gabriel’s career from the mask-filled showmanship of his earlier work into a more introspective place. Banished was the paranoid dread of Gabriel’s first four albums. Instead, “So” asks questions, with yearning, anthemic pop-rock miles from the social statement of “Biko” or eerie Motown-meets-bedlam rant of “Shock The Monkey.”

Gabriel’s own experiences with therapy sessions for his failing marriage led him in this questing direction, away from the very British emotional repression of his youth and toward music as emotional statement, rather than just metaphorical play (see the worst excesses of Gabriel’s time as leader of the band Genesis for samples of this). “So” avoided banal obviousness, but Gabriel still strove to see clearly where he once layered myth and mystery.

The songs of “So” stay grounded in Gabriel’s own raspy, authoritative voice. He wants to win over the masses, find happiness and remain true to himself as he eyes the prize – or, as the sly oh-so-’80s satire of “Big Time” puts it, “My heaven will be a big heaven / and I will walk through the front door.”

Even the album cover celebrated this tentative openness – Gabriel’s face was clear and unmutilated for the first time in his work. In his eyes there’s a kind of hopeful fear, a desire for acceptance and calm. Despite firmly following his own muse, Gabriel wanted “So” to be a hit. It was, to the extent some fans claimed “So” stood for “sell out.” Gabriel called it “creation as therapy.”

The personal and the abstract mix fluidly, so a song like “In Your Eyes” can be seen as boy-meets-girl adoration or a greater paean to a higher being altogether. The poetry of Anne Sexton is an influence (“Mercy Street”), as are the harrowing psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram (“We Do What We’re Told”). “So” was crafted with a diamond precision, yet still allowed for improvisations like Youssou N’Dour’s legendary cameo on “In Your Eyes,” which came unplanned from a studio visit. I’d like to try and interview some of the musicians who played on “So,” including guitarist David Rhodes and drummer Manu Katché, about their memories of it.

But you can’t explore “So” without delving into the videos, which are an integral part of the experience. Gabriel’s music has always had a keenly imagined visual side – dating back to his elaborate stage shows and costumes with Genesis. His earlier solo videos were often impressionistic nightmares; in celebrating his playful side with “So” he broke through. “Sledgehammer” and “Big Time” became some of the medium’s most inescapable hits.

“Sledgehammer” was a delightfully lusty, subversive take on sex and boasting, and ably took the piss out of an entire medium. The sequel, “Big Time,” is an even more dazzling kaleidoscope of imagery. In the video-driven 1980s, Peter Gabriel’s visionary work stood at the peak, setting a standard that was rarely equaled. For a few minutes, artists like Gabriel seemed ready to truly transform music video into something more than addled performance videos and bikini-clad dancers.

I’d like to look more closely at the fusion of video and song in “So,” perhaps by talking with some of the producers behind the videos and examining the symbolism and subtext within them. And I might ask, do videos take away from the music itself? You can’t hear “Sledgehammer” without seeing the video in your head – and is that a good thing? Or was Gabriel anticipating the world of YouTube, iPods and mp3s with his fusion of sound and vision?

Gabriel’s career post-“So” has been all about taking music further – in his soundtrack work, pioneering multimedia presentations and extravagant touring shows. Unlike many artists, Gabriel didn’t capitalize on his biggest hit in the expected fashion – his follow-up to “So” was the esoteric, entirely instrumental world music soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and it was six years before his next proper pop album, “Us,” was released. He could’ve had the world after “Sledgehammer,” but turned to charity work, multimedia and founding his Real World label, becoming what’s been called an “experience designer.”

“So” as a personal totem in my own meandering life. “So” as a multimedia landmark in a trailblazing music career. “So” as a smash hit, with hugely creative videos that married popular success with avant-garde imagery. “So” as personal journey, hopes and fears given public airing.

“So” what? I’ll tell you more about what “So” means if you choose me to write this book.

(Pitch ends) Ah well - maybe someday I'll pitch another book for this series. So it goes!

*Just in case you're curious, here's a bunch of other proposals posted:
The Jesus And Mary Chain, "Psychocandy"
Jerry Lee Lewis, "Live At The Star Club, Hamburg"
Butthole Surfers, "Locust Abortion Technician"
Bonnie "Prince" Billy, "I See A Darkness"
Lou Reed, "Metal Machine Music"
Cheap Trick, "Dream Police"
The Dukes of Stratosphear (aka XTC), "Chips from the Chocolate Fireball"
Buffalo Springfield, "Buffalo Springfield Again"
Sufjan Stevens, "Illinoise"
Phish, "Hoist"
"Shaft" soundtrack

Update 3/21: Here's the final 20 or so of the books chosen, in case you were curious. Bummed to see I'm not on there of course, but am excited to see books about Big Star, Pavement, Elliott Smith and Public Enemy in the hopper. (And I must show my ignorance by saying who the hell is Israel Kamakawiwo'ole??)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Music: Takin' a ride with Shakey: Neil Young's Biography

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIf you ask me, Neil Young is perpetually cool. I went through a big Neil phase circa 1990-1994 or so, turned on by the epic, cranky "Rockin' In The Free World" single and the accompanying stellar album Freedom. Somewhere along the way I lost interest in picking up every new album of his as they came out and drifted on to other things — not that I stopped liking Neil Young, you understand. Now, thanks to a fine book, I'm back on the Neil Young kick again.

The 2002 book Shakey: Neil Young's Biography by Jimmy McDonough is an attempt to untangle the truth about Young – and it featured the cooperation of the very private star. Star cooperation often means a book that's been whitewashed into generic, applauding prose.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBut McDonough has crafted a book that belongs in the higher echelons of rock biographies – it's loose, sprawling, candid, overlong and over-opinionated, and it fits its subject perfectly. More than 10 years of work and a lot of heartbreak went into Shakey, and it shows. Through more than 800 pages, I was riveted. Those expecting a more conventional biography will be annoyed, but I think McDonough knew that Neil would confound any attempts to pin him down and adapted accordingly. Shakey acknowledges that no biography can capture every facet of a life, that there's always some myth and mystery in trying to retell someone's story. The result is a book that's as much about Neil Young as it is about trying to write a book about Neil Young.

McDonough casts himself prominently in the book as he trolls through Young's 40-year career, hunting down old friends, relatives and enemies. The book is also interspersed with lengthy, remarkably honest interviews with Young, who comes off as a cantankerous but often brilliant artist constantly trying to break the mold: "Rock and roll … that's where God and the devil shake hands – right there, heh heh heh."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketMcDonough captures the grit and contrary talents of Young, who's swerved from Sonic Youth roar to folksy campfire ballads to techno-drone rock in his lifetime. He paints Young as firmly following his muse no matter the consequences – including lost friends or a damaged career. Shakey offers a defining portrait of how albums like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Tonight's The Night, Zuma, Ragged Glory and more came to be.

Young's battles with polio, epilepsy and drugs, his having two children born with cerebral palsy, the failed relationships, battles with a record label that actually sued him over the content of his "uncommercial records" – it's all here. "It's a big wake. A lotta destruction behind me," says Young, who fully admits to being an "asshole" sometimes. Shakey is packed with great stories capturing the debauchery of '70s rock, and the casualties it left behind. In particular, his take on Crosby, Stills & Nash is devastating, like a coked-out version of Spinal Tap.

McDonough has a huge bias towards Young's sloppy, raw Crazy Horse material and is less invested in his other country, folk or more bizarre 1980s side roads. He's constantly boosting Young's work and making snide asides about other artists, particularly Young's rival/partner Stephen Stills. Of course, that slant of the author's can and does become tiresome. He's the kind of guy who will diss an acclaimed album like Freedom in favor of some obscure live bootleg recorded in the back of a pickup truck.

I'll admit, by the last 50 pages or so McDonough wears out his welcome, becoming more and more prominent in the narrative (he'd have us believe he helped steer Neil's career, even) and generally coming off as just another loudmouth know-it-all fan. Yet that same fanboy passion is what keeps Shakey hurtling along as a narrative that evokes the spirit of the artist's music more than many other rock biographies. It shakes all right, but it also rattles and rolls.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

In which my iPod does the writing for me

A meme, a meme, nicked from mean mean Roger Green (who's really not so mean):

So, here's how it works:
1. Open your library (iTunes, Winamp, Media Player, iPod, etc)
2. Put it on shuffle
3. Press play
4. For every question, type the song that's playing
5. When you go to a new question, press the next button
6. Don't lie and try to pretend you're cool...
7. When you're finished tag some other people to do it!

Right, since the iPod's up to 5200+ songs (and nearly full - ack!), I figured I'd give this a spin:
THE NIK DIRGA STORY (A Spike Lee/Martin Scorsese joint)
Opening credits: "Autumn Almanac," The Kinks. I didn't recognize the title of this one right out, but it's got a nice goofy Kinksy bounce to it ("Yes yes yes it's my autumn almanac") and I can see it setting up my movie life story as a kind of Peter Sellers/Woody Allen tragicomic deeply profound yet amusing epic. Or perhaps not so much. Either way, good track.
Waking up: "Heaven Sent," INXS. Hey, my iPod has a good sense of timing – a fuzzy up-tempo rocker from one of my fave '80s acts. Not profound, but peppy.
First day of school: "Heroin," Lou Reed. OK, I swear to god that's what the iPod picked, not me. Makes me wonder if Mount St. Mary's Catholic School was more out there than I recall back in 1976.
Falling in love: "Do Me Baby," Prince. *Choke* Good god. The iPod is conspiring to make me look foolish. Falsetto Prince doin' it about doin' it at his best, though.
First love song: "Lookin' For Jack," Colin Hay. Ah, I love this tune, melancholy and restless, acoustic and wistful.
Breaking up: "John Wayne Gacy, Jr," Sufjan Stevens. …Although really, "Looking For Jack" might be a more appropriate song than one about a serial killer for breaking up. Although this is an utterly beautiful, strangely empathetic tune if you haven't heard it.
Prom: "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out," The Smiths. Yeah, Morrissey's morose sadness pretty much sums up all my high school prom experiences - broke up with a girlfriend at one, had to watch my ex with a guy I disliked at another one. All in all I should've stayed home and worn black and listened to the Smiths. "And if a double decker bus crashes into us / to die by your side is such a heavenly way to die."
Mental Breakdown: "Subway Train," The New York Dolls. The Dolls rock. And you'll be hearing more about 'em on this blog real soon - I'm going to see their reunion tour March 24 in Auckland, whoo-hoo!
Driving: "Early Morning Cold Taxi," The Who. Hmmm, I can't remember ever having heard this song (on The Who Sell Out) until now. Curious.
Flashback: "Gone Daddy Gone," Gnarls Barkley. It's got a nice psychotic beat to it, don't it?
Getting back together: "Another Woman," Moby. Hmm, this trippy number might've been better for the breakup.
Wedding: "Keep On Runnin'," Cat Power. I've been listening to You Are Free a lot lately. However, this song is only appropriate for a wedding which ends with everyone dead or heartbroken, I think.
Birth of Child: "Danny Says," The Ramones. Would've been better if it were "Peter Says," innit?
Final Battle: "Keep Yourself Alive," Queen. Rawk. I'm fighting 723 CGI-generated zombie Nazi turtles, and I am going to win!
Death Scene: "Stop!" Erasure. Crap, the turtles got me. Whatever happened to Erasure, anyway? I'd rather "A Little Respect" if I had to have an Erasure tune playing while I died, though...
Funeral song: "Two Of Us," The Beatles. Yeah, I can see this being played at my funeral.
End Credits: "Instinct," Crowded House. Ahh... Fitting it ends with a Kiwi (well, Kiwi/Aussie) band, eh mate?

Tagged: I'd be quite interested in reading Greg Burgas' take if he wants it – do it!

Monday, March 12, 2007

The island spirit

So anyway, what with the fish and chips and BBC news and lollies and everyone calling you "mate," I forget we're in the South Pacific sometimes. Fortunately along comes an event like the Pasifika festival Saturday to clue me in on what is, believe or not, the biggest Polynesian city in the world. Auckland is home to zillions of ethnic minorities, which is quite a shock after living in lily-white West Coast towns for the last decade or so prior to coming here. In Oregon seeing someone not white was almost a shock (there was a sizable tribe of American Indians in the country but really, most of their members only had partial Indian blood). It's pretty cool living in a place where Asians, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Europeans, Maori and more commingle.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAnd wow, were there a lot of people at this thing. I've seen estimates of as many as 200,000 people - pretty impressive in a country of just 4 million! We came early enough that we left before it got too hot and overcrowded but had fun wandering around the park, which turned into a Pacific Islander Disneyland for the day, with seperate "lands" spotlighting the food, culture and music of places like Fiji, Niue, Tahiti, Kiribati, The Cook Islands and more. Admittedly, the food of some of the booths didn't inspire – unless raw fish that isn't sushi and taro (a goopy root) appeal to you. But there were excellent crafts everywhere (I bought a nifty handmade blank book), and the people-watching alone was fantastic – everything from men with facial tattoos and dreadlocks to nerdy white British guys to near-naked teenage girls (um, not that I noticed). A cool day.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Three things that have been
keeping me from blogging (besides the boy)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket1. Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger." I really love Antonioni's totally '60s experimental art-flick "Blow-Up," and have always meant to check out some of his other work. This 1975 film, long unavailable until a recent DVD release, mashes up Antonioni's European detachment and silence with the American allure of a young Jack Nicholson, and it's a pretty mesmerizing work. Nicholson, a jaded journalist, finds himself in a position to assume a dead man's identity, and give up everything in his life. What follows is an existential, bleak quest into one man's head that rarely takes expected paths. Like "Blow-Up," this is a film that loves observation – long patches go by without dialogue, the camera following one figure through the horizons of Morocco, Spain or Germany. There's a willingness to just let the camera linger that you simply don't see in today's films. It might bore the pants off of today's audiences, but I was in the right frame of mind and "The Passenger" cast a hypnotic spell on me as it explored the whole notion of identity. Antonioni asks the viewer to fill in the blank spaces, which makes his movies seem more participatory than passive. It was a real kick to see Nicholson so restrained in the days before he chewed up entire movie sets with his over-acting. Not all of it works – the love interest played by Maria Schneider struck me as blank-faced and unconvincing – but Nicholson is great as a man slowly losing his grip, and there's a sweeping lonely grandeur to it all.

2. "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby." From art films to the other extreme! Heck, I have a weakness for certain Will Ferrell movies (I can watch "Anchorman" infinitely), and this NASCAR spoof is a suprisingly sly satire of the South and the racin' circuit. In "Talladega Nights," Ferrell plays his typical clueless boob who experiences some glimpse of enlightenment, and he's amusing as always, but this one is beefed up by some stellar supporting work by John C. Reilly, Gary Cole and particularly "Borat" star Sacha Baron Cohen as – I love it – a gay French NASCAR superstar. Cohen's well on his way to being the new Peter Sellers, and nearly steals the movie out from Ferrell, no mean feat. This one might not quite be a timeless classic, but it had me cracking up many a time and was a lot funnier than I'd imagined. Plenty a one-liner to quote until I annoy everyone around me, and for some reason the sight of Will Ferrell freaking out and running around in his underwear never stops being funny to me. "I'm gonna come at you like a spider monkey!"

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket3. The books of David Mitchell. Mitchell is one of the more interesting writers I've come across lately, a kind of media-fried mix of Haruki Murakami, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem. Mitchell's sprawling imagination is a treat – he's equally at home in urban Japan as he is in rural England, and his work truly embraces global culture. I just finished reading both his second novel, "number9dream," and his latest, "Black Swan Green." "Dream" is a hugely ambitious tale of an orphan Japanese boy's search for his father, but it's shattered into pieces by the boy's vivid imagination, which frequently breaks into the main narrative so you are constantly asking what's real. "Green" is a more conventionally structured book of a British teen's coming of age in the early 1980s, written in an utterly convincing voice. Mitchell completely evokes what it's like to be 13 and confused, and his young hero's journey over the course of one chaotic year is bittersweet and truthful, reminding me of a bit more literary take on Adrian Mole. Mitchell's writing is inventive and constantly trying to find new perspectives. I'm getting ready to dive into the final novel of Mitchell's I haven't read, "Cloud Atlas," and am bummed to think that means I'll have burned through all of his work to date. Oh well!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Friday, March 2, 2007

Wherever you go, there you are

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingSix months, six months. It's been six months now since we pulled up stakes and left Oregon on the rambling journey that would eventually end us here in New Zealand. And yesterday, I got a letter in the mail approving me for NZ residency, which basically means I'm all but a citizen and don't get kicked out of the country next October. And free govt. health care! Hoo-hah! It wasn't really in doubt I'd be approved what with the kiwi wife and son but it could've been more difficult than it was.

Six months is a curious milestone – back before it all began, I'd tell myself that by "February or March" I'd be feeling normal again. Not so much. It's a far bigger shift than you'd think to give up much of your material possessions, quit your job and become a house-dad, move to another country and into your in-laws' house. Six months since I've worked - the longest gap since I was 16 or so!

We're optimistically planning the future -- which includes the far-out notion of sometime this year actually trying to buy a house of our own, which we'd kind of like to experience before we're 40. That would put some roots down, which is a pleasing notion when I haven't lived in the same place more than 4 1/2 years since I was 18. With the boy, now, we want to provide him some context and stability to grow up in.

None of this is particularly easy, idyllic as the idea of moving to New Zealand might sound and as much fun as much of it has been. There've been lingering bouts with unpredictable waves of depression on my part, times when I'm oddly nostalgic for everything about the past, not just my immediate last home, but all kinds of strange flashes of memory – the pines and rugged granite of my native Sierra Nevada; the dusty strip-mall laden outskirts of Modesto, Calif., where I briefly lived working for an extremely podunk newspaper; the red-brick towering dormitory of my freshman year at college in Mississippi, 11 floors of testosterone-filled male id run amok; my old buddy and roommate Kemble whom I've completely lost contact with the past couple years; the endless expanse of New Mexico highways which I've only driven through once. Nostalgic for things I did a year ago or twenty. Like a never-ending highlights reel.

I don't know what this never-ending flashback-a-rama means, whether it's just my beleaguered brain trying to catalog everything that happens to a person and make some sense of it. I tell myself (and indeed have been told by a couple people) that it's silly to be depressed sometimes about moving to New Zealand and getting to hang out with my 3-year-old son all day and I'm a whiny bastard. But if we could control what happens in our heads life would be perfect, wouldn't it?