Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Our house, in the middle of the street

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketNearly a year since we arrived, the whole Moving to New Zealand thing has been going pretty darned well, really -- Avril got a swell job just after we arrived, I got a fine job myself in my first week of looking, Peter is settled in and happy at daycare, we love the country and I can eat meat pies and fish and chips whenever I like -- all of it is done of course except for the final piece of the puzzle, a place to call our own. We've been relying on the amazingly grand hospitality of Avril's parents since we arrived, staying in an apartment built on the back of their house, but this was never meant to be more than a temporary fix in the expensive Auckland housing market.

And so we've begun the dreaded house hunt, for the very first time in our lives attempting to move from perpetual renters into bona fide property owners. It's pretty damned daunting, I must admit, and we've only just begun to dip our feet in the water by going to a few open houses and doing a lot of research. And I met with our banker today to get an idea what we can afford and freely admit I only understood about 40% of the conversation.

Pretty much everywhere we've lived the last decade – Lake Tahoe, Oregon, here – we've had the uncanny knack to move there just after the property market explodes in value. Auckland home prices have doubled in value several times over since the 1990s unfortunately, which severely limits our options. No sweeping sea views and matching guest house, in other words. But we're hopeful we can afford a decent townhouse or, fingers crossed, small standalone house, in one of Auckland's less ritzy suburbs but without a gang or crack dealer next door. We're making decent, if not spectacular money, and have next to no debt which is always good. And after getting shafted by our last landlords, we're well and truly sick of the renting thing. But there seems like a hell of a lot we don't know and the uncertainty of it all is creating one heaping helping of stress stew.

I imagine house-buying is like those other big things in life – marriage, having a kid, moving – in that it hopefully isn't quite as bad as you make it out to be in your head before doing it. Or maybe not. Is it worse?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Excuse me while I kiss the mattress

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...Egad, is that the time? So this week I began my new work schedule, which is on the one hand is grand because I'm now working only four days of the week, but which is bad because I'm now working four 10-hour shifts starting at 6 am. Which takes a little getting used to. I generally like working early rather than later (no 3-12 midnight morning paper shifts for me, thank you) but it's still been rather a shock to the system to get up at 5 am in the morning these days. I'm starting to adjust but the first week there's been a lot of yawning and excessive coffee consumption. It is swell to get off while it's still light (and the clockwork chirping of the tui birds lets us know it's nearly spring), and, the main reason for this schedule, it allows us to put Peter in day care less of the week. So if it gets me greyer and wrinklier (a 10-hour shift is a little like a mini-marathon I think) it's worth it in the end.

And of course New Zealand has gone mad for the Rugby World Cup right now and I've been doing a lot of work relating to that. I know about as much about rugby (and well, sports in general) as I do about Swedish tax systems, and so I admit I've had a lot of baffled moments as I try to sort out the difference between the scrum and the pitch and why the Wallabies and Springboks are such bastards. Which doesn't help when you're trying to edit copy about the game. (Which I realized to my utter astonishment lasts something like 40 days. Eat that, Super Bowl!) NZ is pretty sport-mad in general, even more than the US I think I'd say. Not all New Zealanders but Joe Kiwi (if there is such a person) is pretty well into the rugby and the cricket and so forth. I've never really been anti-sport, but neither have I been particularly into it ... too much time spent on books, music, comics and movies, and, oh yeah, family. But with American sport, you at least just sort of pick up some of it in the culture and I know the general workings of football and baseball and the like just through osmosis. However, rugby and the rest baffles me and I have to play catch-up just to get what I'd otherwise have picked up growing up here. I will say these players are sheer giants who put wimpy US football (with its padding and helmets) to shame. Never get between a 400-lb. Tongan and his ball. It's unhealthy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

It was eight years ago today...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...That some crazy kiwi married some wacko American journalist. A lot's changed since then - the manic toddler, the moving around America and then to New Zealand, a couple of cars, travels everywhere from Alaska to Mississippi, but it's all been grand indeed. This last year has maybe been the toughest yet to deal with and keep our sanity, but so far, we're still here. I haven't always been the best husband, but as Jules in Pulp Fiction put it, "I'm trying. I'm tryin' real hard to be a shepherd." By which I don't mean New Zealand sheep, honest. It's all pretty remarkable when you think it began with a random letter sent across an ocean in 1992 from a New Zealand gal looking for foreign pen-pals. Happy anniversary, sweetie!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Favorites #1: Actress, Song of the Week, Blog

In the interest of trying to keep this blog a valuable destination point in your Internetting experience, here's a new occasional feature I'll do just to tell you what I'm into right now (and really isn't that mostly what a blog is about?). Today's Favorites that I'm digging:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFAVORITE ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett has taken the crown from Nicole Kidman, who's almost always worth watching but who has the knack of picking some really crummy movies to waste her gifts in (Bewitched, The Invasion, The Human Stain, anyone?). Cate, on the other hand, is really taking on some extraordinarily varied roles lately, and this fall promises to be the winter of our Blanchett -- I'm dying to see her playing a version of Dylan in the wacky new Bob Dylan biopic, "I'm Not There," and quite intrigued to see her take on a sequel to the role that brought her stardom with "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." Most recently I watched "Notes On A Scandal" the other night, starring Cate as a ditzy young teacher who becomes involved in a parasitic relationship with a bitter colleague (an excellent Judi Dench). It reaffirmed my notion that Cate can play nearly anything -- a sex object in "Scandal," a wounded housewife in the otherwise overwrought "Babel," an elf queen in "Lord of the Rings," and that marvelous take on Katherine Hepburn that won her an Oscar in "The Aviator." (A role Kidman passed up, reportedly -- doh!) Blanchett brings an intelligence to her roles that's rarely calculating, a kind of gentle realism that obscures her remarkable talent a bit. I don't think of her as "flashy" or tabloid material, but as a serious actress who just happens to be rather gorgeous. As if we needed further evidence she's the queen bee of acting these days, she'll be in 2008's fantastically titled "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." No word on whether she's Indy's love interest or nemesis -- but personally, I'd love to see her take a crack at playing a villain. Heck, I might even have to root for her against Indiana Jones.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFAVORITE NEW BLOG DISCOVERY: Todd Klein is the niftiest letterer in comic books, perhaps best known for his work on Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Alan Moore's Americas Best Comics. And he like everyone else has a blog, which is a remarkably fun site for anyone interested in comics trivia and design. I flipped out like a monkey on crack over his amazing ongoing essay series Logo Studies, which dissects the genesis and varying appearance of iconic logos such as Superman and Batman over the decades. I know, I know, it's like a 10.8 on the Geek Scale, but Klein is a fascinating guide through the years showing how approaches to these iconic type designs have changed (and you're hearing this from a guy who watched an entire documentary on a type font not too long ago, so it's kinda up my alley). That sturdy "Superman" logo pretty much defines the character in letters alone, and it's been really nifty having Todd look at how these designs came to be. An excellent "behind the scenes" look at the comic industry that is quite different than the norm.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A quick dip into 'Mister Pip'

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"Mister Pip" is a haunting New Zealand book by Lloyd Jones that's being pipped (er, sorry) to win the Booker Prize next month. It's a brief but lingering read, a kind of combination of "Dead Poets Society" and "Hotel Rwanda" that pays homage to the mysterious power of storytelling. Set on a remote New Guinea island during a time of violent revolution in the early 1990s, it's the tale of village girl Matilda and the bond she forms with her eccentric schoolteacher, Mr. Watts, the last white man left on the island. With next to nothing in the way of resources, the ragged, exiled Mr. Watts tries to teach the children by reading his way through a copy of Charles Dickens' novel "Great Expectations." But the novel becomes a startling focal point in the battles between the army and the rebels and Matilda's entire world is drawn into the fight. Matilda comes to identify with Dickens' prodigal orphan Pip, despite them coming from two very different worlds.

The novel's biggest strength is how it undercuts dreamy reverie with startling bursts of real-life horror. Jones creates some finely drawn characters in his direct, toned prose, and he mostly manages to avoid the cliches inherent in the whole "kindly white gent educates the natives" plot. Jones genuinely probes at the clash between "native" and "white man" culture, and comes to interesting conclusions about it all. He makes Mr. Watts a haunted, flawed figure, particularly in a brilliant final act in the novel in which Matilda goes in search of the truth. Given the choice between a life of war and torture and one of fiction, which would you choose? A fine book and I certainly wouldn't be upset if it took home a big international honor on behalf of Kiwi lit.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Of newspapers, vampires and the Tardis

Random thoughts:

• Work, work, work, work. It's been good but extraordinarily busy these last couple of weeks as we constantly add new publications and magazines to the roster of those we're dealing with, which means learning whole new styles and designs pretty much every week. At some point by the end of the year it will settle down into more of a routine but until then, very hectic but mostly enjoyable. I've been busily designing many of the pages and sections in the NZ Herald, which is pretty nifty – a year ago I'd worried what I would do once I left my job in Oregon, but I've ended up working with the country's biggest newspaper and seeing my fingerprints in there daily. ("Whole lotta love for Zeppelin fans" – oh yeah, that's my headline, baby!). And next month it looks like I'll get to do a little traveling around NZ to some of the smaller regional newspapers we're also adding to the roster.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket• But when I haven't been working, I've been slaying. Vampire slaying, that is. One or two of you may recall way back before we emigrated I mentioned that I had never watched the famed "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" TV show before, and having sampled it, was determined to catch the entire 7 seasons worth of DVDs from start to finish. So how's that ambitious project going? Well, the wife and I have been zipping along renting DVDs in Buffy-land lately, due largely to the fact NZ Television's five or six channels have next to nothing to watch. We're about midway through Season 3, and it's been some of the best TV I've watched in eons. I missed "Buffy" first time 'round as by the time I noticed it the mythology seemed too daunting – and the main character was named Buffy, so I figured it was Beverly Hills 90210 with fangs. But really, as a zillion others have pointed out before me, "Buffy" has a rich subtext using horror as a metaphor for high school and life in general. The second season found the show settling into a wonderful groove combining angst, romance and monster-of-the-week kung fu with flair, and the great tragic Buffy/Angel love affair packs a real sting. Joss Whedon's characters are so great that I sometimes find the marquee violence and kung fu distracting to the quieter scenes. I can't wait to see what happens next (Spike came back in the latest one we watched – hurray!), and it's cool to know I've got 3 1/2 seasons to go. (The hard part is avoiding spoilers on the Internets about the future of Buffy.)

• And did I mention I've never ever watched "Dr. Who" before either? Well, not until last weekend... Yep, I'm a failure as a geek. The next obsession lurks ahead in the Tardis, I guess!

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Perfect Songs, Part XI

Right on, right on, here's another installment in my perpetual series of brief essays on songs I would deem "perfect," whatever that means to me. Songs that stick with you and keep circling about in your heads like bats at sunset. Songs that end up as mix-tape fodder (hey kids, remember tapes?). Here's three more to add to the list* (and I know, more Bob Dylan and Ryan Adams, but hey, it's what I've been listening to lately on the daily commute):

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket31. Bob Dylan, "Tombstone Blues." This song launches down the track like a locomotive on steroids and never looks back, conductor Dylan taking a gonzo tour of weird America, waving from the engine room. It's from the height of Bob's quest for that sound like "thin wild mercury," the abandonment of the gentler squawk of folk and appropriation of balls-out rock 'n' roll that resulted in his two best albums, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. "Tombstone Blues" is like the road map – locked into an unstoppable groove by guitarist Michael Bloomfield and the band, it's a tour of the wild psyche, surreal scraps of imagery hurtling by as fast as Dylan can spit them out. The hysterical bride in the penny arcade, John the Baptist, the reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse, Gypsy Davey and Cecil B. DeMille – it all rockets along and then collapses with Dylan's cruel, unforgiving line: "Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain / That could hold you dear lady from going insane / That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain / Of your useless and pointless knowledge." Full of more imagery in a mere five minutes or so than most artists manage in an entire career. "I'm in the kitchen / With the tombstone blues."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket32. John Lee Hooker, "Boogie Chillen." Covered in tape hiss, nothing but a guitar strumming along so starkly you can almost see the straining strings, it's like a voice from a time machine. You can hear his foot tapping to keep the beat, and imagine the dusty long-gone room it was recorded in. Hooker's 1948 iconic tune is right there at the birth of rock 'n' roll as we know it, a loose, ecstatic celebration of the joys of music. Hooker was working as a janitor to support himself, imagining the big time, and this tune features keenly observed little moments of the Detroit black community that lend it a kind of vibrant life. It's almost like he's making it up as he goes along – name-dropping the Henry Swing Club and the people of the streets. Still spontaneous and delightful 60 years on. "I heard papa tell mama, let that boy boogie-woogie / it's in him, and it got to come out."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket33. Ryan Adams, "Magnolia Mountain." I never really got into the Grateful Dead, but I can see their appeal. They're a tie-dyed take on the American dream, all optimism and groove and confidence. I don't hate 'em, but I never quite dug their scene, to use the lingo. So why should Ryan Adams' "Magnolia Mountain," a song crafted wholesale out of Deadhead ideas, ring so true with me? I guess it's a song that dreams wholeheartedly of the magic moment lurking, the sunshine around the corner – but the difference between the Dead and the Adams is that Adams' resigned, older-than-he-should-be voice tells us it's a beautiful scene that's never going to quite happen. Gorgeous imagery of bluebirds singing, love blooming counter with the repeated refrain of "Lie to me," and the dirty morning after. Musically, it's a fantastic song, full of soaring choruses and anthemic guitar. It's only when you eyeball it closer that you see the ache under every cliche, and that's what makes this Deadhead tribute so acute a summation of the promise and the impossibility of the American dream itself. Trippy, eh? "There ain't nothing but the truth up on the Magnolia Mountain/ Where nobody ever dies."

(*To recap: parts one, two, three, four; five; six; seven, eight, nine and egad, ten.)

Saturday, September 1, 2007

No worries, mate!

I've been diligently learning my kiwi slang this past year, all the "yonks" and "dags" and "hoons." It's best not to have a vacant expression when someone says something unknown to you. But the one saying that I've taken to with reckless abandon is "No worries, mate." I believe it deserves worldwide importation. It's such a marvelous one-size-fits-all saying, one I find shooting out of my mouth at every opportunity at work lately. Page layout changed with 10 minutes to deadline? "No worries, mate." Accidentally put the picture of Gandhi in the story about the serial killer from Liverpool? "No worries, mate." Coffee machine on fire? "No worries, mate." Actually, I really need to say it a bit less often.

What's marvelous about the saying is that it can take on whatever tone you want. It can signal can-do optimism, resigned bravado, or just take the place of "uh, dude" in California-speak. It's actually a little bit emblematic of the Down Under spirit, where whining is far less accepted than it is in the US, where few tasks are seen as impossible. I wouldn't call it "resignation" really but "no worries mate" implies that we'll do it, we'll have a bit of a laugh and won't whinge (kiwi for whine) too much in the process. Not a bad philosophy, really. "She'll be right!"

(Once again I refer to to the fine Kiwi Slang guide so you too can speak like a kiwi.)