Friday, November 16, 2007

...So by the way, we bought a house last week. We've been reluctant to publicize it all too much until everything is settled with the contracts and such ("we almost bought a house"), but now we're 99% set (just waiting for a final lawyer sign-off on a quibble about a few repairs). We are homeowners! Or rather, I should say,

We are homeowners!

Yeah, it all turned out fairly easy in the end – incredibly stressful of course, and spending far more money than I've probably spent the rest of my life put together, but in a month or two we will be the proud residents of our own 3-bedroom home with 2-car garage.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIt turned out this was a house we actually looked at in the early days of our real estate hunting, a month or two ago. In the meantime the market in Auckland has continued to stagnate, a bit like the US is right now but not quite as dramatic. We kept it on our list of "maybes" and returned to look at it last week now that we had a better idea of what we wanted. It had even had a nice little price drop in the meantime, and on a second look we really liked it. Fenced yard, quiet neighborhood, a bit of land which is a rarity in Auckland central, and in very nice shape with a good deal of space. And just 3km (a little less than two miles) from where I work!

Once you make a decision – "I want that" – the process suddenly gets mighty fast. We looked at the house Wednesday morning, and by Thursday afternoon the owners had accepted our offer after a bit of batting back and forth. Egad! The last week has been filled with zipping around (mostly by lovely wife) to make the final deals, get the place inspected, et cetera. We should go "unconditional" by Monday and be able to sit back and wait until we move into our own house for the first time since August 2006, and the first place we've owned, well... ever!

Now that we decided to buy a place, we've realized how we basically have no furniture to our names (having sold our Wal-Mart vintage fare in the US before we left). So we get to start shopping so we actually have something to put in our house! After saving a lot of money this past year, it's suddenly going to start going away real soon, ain't it?

Now that I've dropped our big news, I'm going to take a little blog break right now. My parents are visiting from the US for a few weeks so there's much time spent with them, my day job is absolutely full-out crazy busy, and there's much to do before we move into our future home in early January. See you soon!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Birthday greetings from ... Michael Palin!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketWell, not really, except that for my birthday outing last night Avril and I did get a chance to go out and enjoy a very fun talk by Michael Palin, my favorite ex-Monty Python and a fantastic documentary travel filmmaker. Palin was out promoting his new BBC series, "New Europe" and spoke over on Auckland's North Shore. We had great seats, just 5 rows from the stage.

Palin has done an excellent job re-imagining himself post-Python and "A Fish Called Wanda" with his travel docs and accompanying books – "Around The World In 80 Days," "Pole To Pole," "Full Circle," "Sahara" and "Himalaya." Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHis latest, "New Europe," takes a spin around the former eastern bloc countries and how they've changed in the past 20 years. Palin gave a great off-the-cuff 45-minute talk about his travels, digressing all over the place from his Python days to visits to the South and North Poles. We heard about nudist Albanian chefs, leeches in Estonia, falling off mountains in Italy, mines in Bosnia and his favorite movie role (the reluctant centurion in "Life Of Brian," curiously enough). As you might expect, it was all pretty hilarious, with Palin doing some excellent impressions of the people he's met in his travels. He also was interviewed and took some audience questions. I can't imagine too many other second acts in public life quite as cool as what Palin's been doing these last 20 years.

Great talk, great fun, and left with a head full of amazing journeys. Missed out on getting Palin to sign a just-purchased paperback of his "Diaries 1969-1979" which I've been wanting to read, as the line was a couple hundred people long, but I've never been huge on signed books anyway. The talk itself was great, and can't wait to see "New Europe" when it starts screening here next month.

Sunday, November 11, 2007


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...It's been a really crazy couple of weeks down under (more details on that forthcoming), so when I woke up this morning it took me like an hour to remember I'm another year older today. 36, egad, which has a weirdly lop-sided feel to it, leaning heavily toward 40 and beyond. In my head a good two-thirds of the time I still feel rather like a clueless 18-year-old still trying to figure out the way the world works, the sudden understanding and authority I expected to be here by now not quite in play.

Anyway. 36. An age I actually remember my parents being, which seemed incredibly god-like at that time. And as you can see, in 1973, fashion was at its height. 36. Whoa.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Walking through Winnipeg with the Weakerthans

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe winds of Canada blow wild and cold. At least, that's what I hear – I've never been to the depths of Manitoba, but after listening to the last few albums by the Weakerthans, I have a firm sense of place built up in my head. They make me feel like I've been there.

The Winnipeg band was forged in the fire of punk rock, with singer/lyricist John K. Samson coming from the band Propaghandi. He created The Weakerthans after looking for a less rigid form for his intricate songwriting. The Weakerthans combine a kind of country-tinged post-punk with sweeping storytelling that's like hearing a Raymond Carver story set to music.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketTheir fourth and latest album, Reunion Tour, doesn't break huge ground from their stunning last disc, 2003's Reconstruction Site. Instead it's merely lovely, warm and dense, another gem-filled tour of hooks and wry lyrics and better than 90 percent of the bands out there. It's full of telling details that evoke some of their fellow Winnipeg singer, Neil Young, but it's got a kind of humble awe all its own.

Samson's subject matter reveals his eye for the downtrodden and worn-out folk of life. The power-chord guitar rock of "Tournament of Hearts" is actually about the terminally uncool Canadian sport of curling – as the narrator at a curling match thinks of his lost love: "I slide right through the day, I'm always throwing hack weight." The gorgeous "Civil Twilight" pays ode to a worn-out bus driver lost in his thoughts: "My confusion-cornered commuters are cursing the cold away," goes another note-perfect couplet of lyrics.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe songs skirt the edge of pretentiousness – for instance, one song on both this album and the last are narrated by a cat named Virtute – but the nonchalant air of Samson's voice pulls this off, like a combination of Robyn Hitchcock, Wilco and an Elvis Costello who grew up on the Canadian prairies. Samson's work is intricately married to the Winnipeg surroundings, with local characters and legends all mythologized in his work.

Even that mysterious denizen of the north woods gets his own tune in "Bigfoot!," which features a sasquatch believer holding faith despite the mockery of his small town neighbors:
"I'll go through it all again
watch their doubtful smiles begin
When the visions that I see believe in me."

Perhaps my favorite song on Reunion Tour is the wistful "Sun In An Empty Room," a delicately drawn portrait of leaving a home behind that's inspired by an Edward Hopper painting:
"The black on our fingers smeared the ink on every door pulled shut /
Now that the last month's rent is scheming with the damage deposit."

Samson's lyrics offer rewards on repeated listens – it's worth the somewhat lengthy wait between Weakerthans albums (four discs in a decade; they haven't broken up, so I guess the Reunion Tour title is a bit of an in-joke). The Weakerthans provide surpassingly intelligent, yet hook-filled and accessible rock. They're a Canadian treasure worth searching for.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Big bang boom

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...One of the odder New Zealand institutions I've seen is that of Guy Fawkes Day, which, as "V For Vendetta" taught us all, "remember, remember, the fifth of November," commemorates a failed plot by a crazed Catholic activist to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the King of England back in 1605. Which somehow turned into a holiday where people blow up lots of fireworks, a kind of British version of July 4. Although considering the origins, it's kind of like having an Osama Bin Laden Day, when you think about it.

you say? Not that different from the ol' US of A's tradition every July 4 and New Year's, eh? Well, not quite. The fireworks they sell here are major caliber, the kind that shoot up in the air 50 feet and explode or make huge thudding booms. They're far larger than any fireworks I've seen for sale to civilians in the US in the several states I've lived in. And they are LOUD, ye god – the prime minister (who lives in our neighbourhood) was quoted as saying it "sounded like Afghanistan" which isn't too far-fetched, minus the bombings and death and what-not. It's all a bit over the top.

Worse still, people seem to hoard their fireworks so you don't just have one or two nights of fireworks, but local Beavis and Butthead-types will regularly blow a few off from now until February.

And of course you get accidents like this one. Or this one.

Yeah, I like the idea of Guy Fawkes, and the sight of all those fireworks from the top of Mt. Eden last year was truly an amazing canvas, but I have to fall on the side of those who say it's a little too extreme a celebration here for its own good. Particularly when you consider we're thousands of miles from Britain and well on the way to being a true republic one day anyway. I'd love to see 'em ban the fireworks sales and just put on a few public spectacular shows.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The great house-hunt update #1

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...So things are looking quite optimistic on the house front for us. No, we haven't found our dream home yet, but perhaps more importantly, we have the money lined up to do that. We met our mortgage broker the other day and now have what's know as "pre-approved financing" for a decent amount – more than I'd imagined we could get when we started looking, but still within our budget so repayments don't kill us. Hurray, we can go into debt! We've also gone to 20-25 open houses in the past month or so, and have considerably refined our views from "we need a place to live" to "we'd like a 3-bedroom standalone house with a bit of yard space in a quiet area" and we're focusing quite closely on one area of Auckland now. So that's good.

As our broker (still feels funny talking about "our broker") said, "Now you just have to go out and find that house!" Which is the most complicated part of all, I guess... We've seen probably 4-5 places we could imagine living in, although none of them were totally perfect and none probably will be. But heck, the idea of being in our own place again by the start of 2008 isn't looking too far-fetched these days at all...