Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fear and loathing on the campaign trail

Convention #1 done, convention #2 coming, some random political thoughts...

PhotobucketSarah Palin. Really? I dunno. Hey, I was born in Alaska, it's good to see the Far North represent, but honestly -- if a 44-year-old governor of a tiny-population state who's been in office only two years is his choice, John McCain and crew have automatically invalidated any attacks on Obama's "inexperience" for the rest of the campaign. Frankly, for a 72-year-old cancer survivor, this is a rather astonishingly glib choice to make. I have nothing against Palin (and like most of the country had barely heard of her), but her choice seems like a major pander, a "shock" pick that avoids substance in favour of quota-ism response to Hillary Clinton's supporters -- never mind that Palin and Clinton are almost diametrically opposite on every issue. Even among women Republicans I can think of several names - Elizabeth Dole, Olympia Snowe, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Christine Todd Whitman -- with more experience. Of course, most of those names are pro-choice, which the far-right wing holding McCain's leash couldn't abide. Is this a Quayle moment?

Joe Biden. I've always rather liked Joe, one of those old workhorse liberal senators who isn't ultra-flashy, but who is respected. I think he was a fantastic choice and unlike Palin, sends a message of seriousness. Years ago I read Richard Ben Cramer's great book on the 1988 campaign, "What It Takes," and Biden came across as one of the most interesting candidates that year, populist, relatively genuine and intellectually curious, combinations I always like. And God forbid, if anything happens to Obama, I easily believe Biden could be President.

PhotobucketObama's speech. Geezus pleezus, that was a lot of people. The man can deliver a speech, and this one nicely moved between his usual rousing idealism, attacks on the opposition and delivering concrete proposals. It's going to be awfully hard for McCain and crew to top this. At this point I'm optimistic (um, but I also was in 2000 and 2004, I admit). The only real way McCain and co. can win is through fear and loathing, as they sure can't win on policies. But maybe, maybe the American public is finally getting tired of slander in place of ideas. The Democratic tactic is going to be to tie Bush right around the so-called 'maverick's' neck until November, and that's a hard knot to undo. Frankly, I'm amazed at how bad McCain's campaign has been run so far. They've been schizophrenic, reactionary and snarky -- all out of the Rove playbook of course, but without the crisp discipline we saw in the last two Bush campaigns.

While I know which team I am pulling for, it is pretty remarkable that we've made it to the point where no matter what happens, we'll have a black president or a woman vice president for the very first time. I didn't see this happening for at least another 10 years. Here's what I wonder -- did the very fact that George Bush and Dick Cheney's presidency was such an unrelenting failure of ideas and governance create a climate that made choices outside the white, male box seem more plausible? Would Obama and Palin be viable choices if it weren't coming after 8 years of Bush/Cheney? What do you think?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Burning the Midnight Oil, 20 years on

PhotobucketIt's hard to remember what a breath of fresh air the music of Midnight Oil seemed like on the American Top 40 back in 1987, when the song "Beds are Burning" suddenly was everywhere. A fiery call to arms, with that catchy chorus "How can we dance when our earth is turning / How do we sleep when our beds are burning?" It had the drive of punk, the universality of pop, and a slithery exotic feel that stood out from the pack. It sure didn't sound like George Michael, you know?

With a blast of Australian heat and passion so intensely political that they made U2 look like amateurs, Midnight Oil tackled the environment, indigenous rights, and other causes with their ferocious anthems. To a world that associated Australia with Men at Work and koalas, it was a revelation. Their 1987 disc Diesel and Dust remains a classic, punk power pop mixed with Australian flavours, didgeridoo mashed with electric guitar. It's an antipodean answer to U2's The Joshua Tree.

PhotobucketI can't quite believe it's been 21 years since Diesel and Dust broke Midnight Oil to the world. A massive global hit, it's also an album that sounds nearly as fresh as it did the day it came out. A new Sony Legacy Edition CD/DVD set remasters the album with a bonus song, and a fascinating documentary about the band's tour of the Aboriginal Outback.

Front man Peter Garrett, over 6 feet tall and bald as Australia's monolith rock Uluru, was a stunning stage presence. I saw the Oils live back in the late 1980s, and they were a dynamo – I remember thinking at the time that frontman Garrett's herky-jerky dancing style was like watching a man who'd just been smacked in the spine by a sledgehammer. Garrett's frantic energy leapt off the stage.

The major bonus of this reissue is the DVD Blackfella/Whitefella, which follows Midnight Oil's 1986 tour of remote aboriginal settlements with the great Warumpi Band. This is an astounding historical document, packed with great Oils performances in juke joints, shanty towns and the outdoors. The film is light on narration, heavy on music and a look at aboriginal lives. The hinterlands tour showed the Australia that tourists rarely see, the harsh conditions many Aborigines live in.

"It was the most collectively exciting, eye-opening and ultimately saddening experience for us as a band," drummer Rob Hirst said. But out of the tour came the inspirations for the songs of Diesel and Dust, both an Australian love letter and angry rally against the country's injustices. It's not too much of a stretch to say that Midnight Oil helped contribute to the climate of reconciliation that led to the Australian government's extraordinary apology to Aborigines this year.

PhotobucketBlackfella/Whitefella is a great music road movie, a meeting of the cultures, a fine travel documentary and a real treasure. It's great to see it rescued from obscurity in this new album. Still, this package is a slightly disappointing as a "special edition." There's only one bonus track, the rare "Gunbarrel Highway." I was hungry for a little more – rare B-sides, live tracks maybe, a retrospective essay even.

Midnight Oil went on to release several more solid albums, but Diesel and its followup Blue Sky Mining were the peak of their global success. They put a spotlight on the kinds of issues rock rarely dealt with, even in the "Live Aid" and "We Are The World" era. The band broke up in 2002, but Garrett hasn't given up fighting for what he believes in – he turned to politics, and today is part of the ruling Labor government in Australia as the Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts. Midnight Oil may have hit the charts 20 years ago, but their impact still goes on today.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

I read the news today, oh boy...

PhotobucketI don't talk an awful lot about behind-the-scenes stuff in newspapers, well, because I work in them and it's easy to turn the wrong head. But if you've been paying the least bit of attention, it's hard not to notice it's kind of grim days to be in the newspaper industry, no matter where in the world you live... Layoffs and "right-sizing" have been the trend in the industry through much of the '00s.

If you read websites like Poynter, it's been job slash after job slash (sorry, "buyout packages"). Papers I know or have worked for have just been chopping staff left and right. The tally according to one web site: More than 8,000 jobs. Just yesterday, Fairfax Media which owns like half the papers in Australia/New Zealand, announced massive cuts. Y'know, in the name of synergy and stuff like that.

Websites like thrive off the frustration in the industry these days. I'm better than I used to be, but I still get angry myself. I remember one paper I worked at where over the course of about a year I went from having 7 employees in my newsroom to having 2 1/2 (one part-timer). It sucked, to be honest, and left me worn-out and bedraggled at the end. But newspapers have problems, and for the bean-counters, cuts are often the way to effect change. Not always the right way, but a way. The problem is when staff is cut but management doesn't change the amount of work to reflect that – bodies are eliminated, but you also need to rethink how you're delivering news when you have a "leaner, meaner" staff. Instead too often the mentality is "less people, same work," which inevitably results in "burned-out staff, crappy, error-ridden and uninspired newspapers."

I keep seeing things about few people under 40 read papers any more, and it's hard to disagree. Newspaper audiences often seem fossilized to be mostly the 50+ age group, and well, when they're gone...

Still, I like to think positive. I firmly believe we're in the middle of big changes in the newspaper industry. Newspapers are not dying, merely transforming. It's truly impossible to see a massive shift when you're in the middle of it, but I think this whole decade has been about newspapers mutating. We're "old school" media but when you get down to it, newspapers are at their core the best-reported, best-produced and most influential kind of media there is. All others tend to follow our lead, not overtake it. We're changing into something smaller and tighter, but hopefully also of value. But anyone who thinks newsrooms are going to operate like it's 1988 still are living in a dream world.

But y'know, for a field that's all about being 'Next," newspapers are often very conservative, and yes, slow. Smaller papers in particular will happily putter along with things like old crusty "Alley Oop" comics because they don't want to offend the older readers by dumping 'em. And papers big and small alike often tend to be run inefficiently, either with excess staff, overpaid "marquee" journalists or just plain mismanagement. Owners often just start chopping away randomly because they do see some of the inefficencies embedded in the system. It adds up to the kind of journalistic "perfect storm" we're seeing these days.

It's all made for a fearful time to be a journalist. I like to think my own job is fairly secure, partly because I am part of a company that's looking ahead and rethinking the traditional way things are done. But you never know. Journalism is at its height a noble calling, producing great thinkers, great inspiration and great headlines. But when it comes to newspapers, it's also a calling that's rather hobbled, heartsick and uncertain right now. We are better than TV, and the best of the Internet follows our lead, I firmly believe.

I want to stay in this industry, but I recognize that print 'n' ink is just part of what we do now. It's exciting times. It's also kind of scary ones.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Film for Every Year, Part I

Needed: Blog content. Solution: Meme! Saw this one floating around at Tom The Dog's nifty blog and the Onion AV Club, and thought I'd give it a shot.

The deal: You pick your favorite movie released during each year you've been alive. So let's give it a go. Source for all movie release data: Wikipedia, naturally. Here's part one, from the year of your humble scribe's birth in 1971 on up to 1985.

Favorite: A Clockwork Orange -- Stanley Kubrick at his glacial, eerie best, with a never-better performance by Malcolm McDowell. Still as disturbing today as it was nearly 40 (urk) years ago.
Runners-up: Harold and Maude, Escape From The Planet of the Apes
Still haven't seen and really should: McCabe and Mrs. Miller

Favorite: The Godfather -- The obvious choice, but who am I to argue with the mob?
Runners-up: Last Tango In Paris, Play It Again Sam

Favorite: Sleeper -- The best of Woody Allen's "funny" movies and while it's rather dated and silly now, I still have a soft spot for any movie with an Orgasmotron in it.
Runners-up: Westworld, Charlotte's Web (OK, I grew up on the cartoon)
Still haven't seen and really should: The Exorcist

Favorite: Young Frankenstein -- "That's Frankensteen!" Nearly every line a classic, and as a fan of the old Universal horror flicks I always liked this (slightly) better than Blazing Saddles.
Runners-up: Blazing Saddles, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation

Favorite: Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- For a movie that feels like it was slapped together for about $50, this sure holds up, doesn't it?
Runners-up: Rocky Horror Picture Show, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon, Picnic at Hanging Rock
Never liked quite as much as everyone else: Jaws

Favorite: The Man Who Fell To Earth -- I wrote about this one a few years back, and think it's a hugely underrated, trippy gem. Every time I watch it, I find a little more hidden inside. And it's got David Bowie's all-time best film role.
Runners-Up: Taxi Driver, Silver Streak, Rocky
Still haven't seen and really should: Network

Favorite: Tie: Star Wars and Annie Hall -- I know, two more different movies you could not imagine, but I can't choose between. Star Wars is Star Wars, and lit up a whole world of fantasy for me, but Annie Hall was just as important for me in illuminating the so-called 'real world' and the tricky realms of life between men and women. Honestly, I couldn't tell you which one I liked more of the two, but they're both stone-cold classics I've pretty much memorized.
Runners-up: Eraserhead
Never liked as much as everyone else: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Still haven't seen and really should: Saturday Night Fever


Favorite: Superman: The Motion Picture -- Forget Jackman, Downey, Bale or Ledger -- thirty years on, Christopher Reeve is still the best superhero casting ever. I slightly like the more action-packed sequel more (ZOD!!!) but the original is still one terrific adventure, and the one every comic book movie since has reached to equal.
Runners-up: Dawn of the Dead, Animal House, Days of Heaven, Gates of Heaven
Still haven't seen and really should: The Deer Hunter


Favorite: The Jerk -- Sentimental favorite for me. As stupid comedies go, it's pretty darned smart.
Runners-Up: Alien, Apocalypse Now, Manhattan, Monty Python's Life of Brian

Favorite: The Empire Strikes Back -- A given.
Runners-Up: 9 to 5 (I know, it ain't cool, but I always rather liked this loopy satire), Airplane!
Never liked as much as everyone else: The Blues Brothers

Favorite: Tie: Superman II and Raiders of the Lost Ark - "General Zod, would you care to step outside?" I will never if I live a million years get to deliver a line half as cool as that.
Runners-Up: The Evil Dead, Time Bandits

Favorite: The Thing -- This has slowly become canonized in the years since its original underwhelming reception (in the year of E.T., arm-chomping slime things weren't going to win out). It really is an amazingly effective horror movie, with an ending that's still as chilling as they come. Gory as hell but all the goop and blood is mere window-dressing for the existential hell lurking beneath.
Runners-Up: Rocky III, Star Trek II, Blade Runner

Favorite: Return of the Jedi -- Sure, weakest of the first trilogy, but still, Leia in a bikini trumps Ewok weakness, know what I mean?
Runners-Up: A Christmas Story, The Right Stuff, Zelig
Still haven't seen and really should: Scarface, but the whole gangsta rap hipster quotient has kinda turned me off of it.


Favorite: Ghostbusters -- A bit dated now, but as great as big-budget New York City-set 1980s sci-fi comedies ever got. And Bill Murray at the top of his game. Very nearly beaten by Spinal Tap, though, but Tap has Fran Drescher which automatically knocks anything down a notch.
Runners-Up: The Terminator, 1984, This is Spinal Tap, Sixteen Candles
Never liked as much as everyone else: Beverly Hills Cop

Favorite: Pee Wee's Big Adventure -- It's creepy and kooky and odd, but also one hell of a lot of fun and not quite like anything else. Tim Burton's wild ride starts here. And Pee Wee Herman's ride pretty much started and finished.
Runners-Up: Rocky IV, Back to the Future, Witness, Better Off Dead, My Life As A Dog, Return to Oz, Weird Science. ...I was 14 in 1985 and apparently every movie that came out that year I loved as a kid, hence the explosion of flicks this year. They ain't all great cinema, but man, I had some great times at the movies this year.
Still haven't seen and really should: Rambo, First Blood Part II
Never liked as much as everyone else: The Goonies. Sorry, Internet!

Next: 1986-2008

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What a wonderful capitalist society

...Yeah, so, getting ready for the inevitable return to the routines of work, day care, et cetera until my next glorious vacation sometime.... in 2009. Gah.

PhotobucketBut at least I have plenty of reading to keep me company. I didn't exaggerate when I say I spent much money in the land of the free and the home of the brave. I managed to stuff more than 40 books and a dozen or two CDs/DVDs into our suitcases, which all just barely fell below the 23kg/50 lb. weight limit. I kind of feel like I just binged at the falafel shop, all bloated and dazed, and I am not allowed to buy new books until Christmas. But I did manage to complete some of my graphic novel paperback series, including Mike Mignola's Hellboy, John Byrne's Fantastic Four Visionaries series and one of my personal favorites, Warren Ellis's acidic and raw journalist-in-the-cyberpunk-future saga, "Transmetropolitan." I also stocked up on books by everyone from Cormac McCarthy to Nabokov to Stephen King to Richard Dawkins. If anyone needs me, until it's summer here, I'll be reading.

Other random notes:
"Tropic Thunder" is easily the funniest movie I've seen this year, a great, absurd satire of Hollywood and war movies. It also reminded me that Robert Downey Jr. is the most awesome actor on the planet right now. Who else could pull off an Australian Oscar winner lost 'in character' as a black Vietnam soldier? Downey is so danged funny he blasts co-stars like Ben Stiller and Jack Black off the screen. Between this and the 180-degrees different turn in "Iron Man," 2008 shows it's time to give this man a real Oscar, stat!

• New favorite album of 2008 so far: The Hold Steady, "Stay Positive." It's a buoyant, hook-filled stew of bar-band rock meets Hüsker Dü/Clash punk fury, and frontman Craig Finn's droll delivery and shrewd songwriting makes him feel something like the second coming of Elvis Costello. An absolute stunner of a record with red-hot one-liners everywhere in these tales of dreamers, druggies and dudes: "Me and my friends are like the drums on 'Lust for Life.'" Who wouldn't want friends like that?

Friday, August 22, 2008

The return: What I missed (and didn't) about the US of A

Photobucket...Whew, I just flew 10,000 kilometers and man are my arms tired. The boy and I had an excellent 2 1/2 weeks in sunny California, visiting family and friends and enjoying the blast furnace of 38C/100F heat after a very wet and chilly New Zealand winter so far. It was strange coming back to my homeland after nearly two years away, and seeing what had changed and what hadn't. It's not like I was gone long enough for huge differences, but I did have certain things hit me with more force than others.

Things I missed about the US (besides the obvious family/friends/hometown stuff, that is):
Huge sprawling consumer society, the cheap goods. New Zealand is a little more expensive place to live. Certain things are more pricey than others – books, as I've said many a time before, come to mind. But geez, just about everything seems dirt-cheap in the US after a few years away – I picked up a bevy of new shirts/shorts/jeans for the wardrobe for less than $100. Admittedly I'm not a flashy fashionista and Target stores are high-end to me, but still, not bad!

Friendly faces. Now, New Zealanders aren't rude by any means, but they are a bit more reserved than Americans as a rule, I find. Sure, it's a cliche, but if I'm walking by myself on a big empty sidewalk and pass someone, I find it's nice to at least say "Hello" or smile a bit, acknowledge the other person's existence for a millisecond. But when I do that in New Zealand, it usually is ignored. In the US, unless you're a really surly teenager, it's just kind of expected (unless you're in New York City I guess). Ditto with the behind-the-counter retail drones, who in America get the idea of "customer service" hammered into their heads and usually greet you with a bit of warmth, which sometimes is nowhere to be found in NZ retail. Is it sincere? Probably not, but heck, I still don't mind it.

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Sure, terrible for you, but come on -- peanut butter + chocolate. Yumm.

* New Zealand is beautiful, true, but so is California. The dry parched yellow hills of the Sacramento valley aren't much to look at, I admit, but the lovely foothills where I grew up, the infinite blue of Lake Tahoe, the granite epic scale of the Sierra Nevada and Donner Summit, the twisty, crowded charm of San Francisco – well, I love these places and always will.

• Breakfast cereal. They have it here, of course, but it's rather absurdly expensive to buy a box of American-style cereal so we gave it up in favor of oatmeal and Weet-Bix. But I do love a fine bowl of Crispix or Special K now and again.

• The San Francisco Chronicle. I always liked that paper. Jon Carroll rules!

The Yuba River, quite possibly the best place on earth to while away August days with your boy, basking in ice-cold mountain water with big old granite boulders everywhere. And at one awesome pool a friend and I hiked to, we had foot-long trout zipping around utterly fearless mere inches from our swimming selves. Ahhh.

Jason's Restaurant right on the shore at Lake Tahoe. Man do they do a good burger and fries.

American microbrew beers, mostly impossible to find down here. NZ/Aussie ones are good too, but ahh, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale!

Things I didn't miss:

• Huge sprawling consumer society, the down side – too much of everything, really. Yeah, when I first got to New Zealand the smaller scale of shopping took getting used to, but now I generally don't mind it (except for the costs of certain items). But the sheer sprawling over-abundance in America of the shopping culture is just amazing. While it has its plusses, it also frequently surges into just "too much" of everything. The area around Sacramento has exploded in the last 20 years or so, particularly around Roseville, with city-sized shopping plazas and malls that are just kind of staggering in their scale, chewing away the landscape. Is it all really necessary, I kept wondering. I went into a Rite-Aid drug store and looked for some Tylenol to stock up on and stared in awe at the endless display of a good 100 varieties and brands of painkillers (compared to 20 or so in NZ). An entire aisle was taken up for Tylenol/Advil/Aspirin and all their varieties. Including flavored ones. Vanilla Tylenol they have now. Not chewable pills, mind you, but ones you just swallow. Repeat: Vanilla. Flavored. Tylenol. Really, do you wonder why other countries sometimes make fun of the US?

Hot is nice when you've been cold, but 100-degree F days in the Sacramento valley, really, are a bit much. I do have to admit New Zealand, where it rarely gets above about 85F, is a little more my speed in summertime.

America's health care "system." After two years of NZ's relatively smooth "socialist medicine," the utterly broken nature of American health care seems even more backward. Peter had a nasty runny nose for the first week of the visit, the kind of thing I wouldn't have thought twice about taking him to a doctor in New Zealand about. But in the US, uninsured (although we had travel insurance), a quick clinic visit would've run at least $150-$200 (vs. about $20 total in NZ). Fortunately Peter's nose cleared and we didn't have to think about it again, but man, what a reminder of how insane it is to have to constantly consider cost vs. medical needs in America. And I doubt it'll be fixed anytime soon.

Gigantic gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. Ye gods, they're huge. (And note to Americans: Complaining a lot about gas prices of $4/gallon when other countries, er, like New Zealand, pay about $8 a gallon just comes off as whiny.)

American money. Man, it's just so boring looking. And get rid of the pennies already!

Drivers who have no idea what a turn signal is. Funny thing I noted about New Zealand (which has about the same proportion of bad/good drivers as most places), even the really awful drivers use turn signals to indicate they're cutting you off. Seeing someone NOT use one is rather a shock, but it happens all the time in the U.S.

Fat people. I know it's a cliche, but yep, an awful lot of Americans are quite grossly obese, and I kept seeing their bouncy flesh at county fairs, swimming holes, etc. There are overweight people in NZ too, but pound for pound (har har) they seem to be much more common back home still.

• American TV . New Zealanders generally only have 7-8 TV channels (unless they get costly satellite TV) which is just shockingly deprived to most Americans when they hear about it. There's no "cable" here. But after browsing Mom and Dad's 200-channels setup I remembered quickly how little there actually is worth watching on television. Sure, I liked that the kid-cartoon channels allowed me to get a Peter break at any time of day, and I loved watching "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" again, but really, it's still 200 channels and just not much on to me. ("The Daily Show" does air here but past my bedtime usually.) All I really need my TV for is "Doctor Who," "30 Rock" and "Lost," anyway.

More on the trek soon, and regular content to recommence as well!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

"From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters"

...And so we're off, leaving this interminable Auckland rain behind! I plan on taking an actual vacation while we're back in the USA which probably includes no blog posting, so see you in a few weeks!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

So what do you think?

PhotobucketAs the boy and I get ready to leave for California, our first trip back to the "mainland" in nearly two years, I'm already bracing myself for being asked by pretty much every old friend and acquaintance "what I think of New Zealand." And I'm still trying to figure out the best possible answer. People don't really want to hear a lengthy essay when they ask these things, after all, but I kind of want to just avoid saying, "um, it's great!" Or maybe I could just go for the joke, y'know, "full of hobbits" or somesuch. Whatever I've learned in my time in New Zealand can't really be summed up in a quote or two, I guess. I do miss a lot about America and am really eager to catch up, but I also quite like it here, too.

The funny thing about living in a foreign country is how normal it all seems after a while. (This is probably a lot more true for a country like this that also mostly speaks English, though.) Life in its mundane rhythms is pretty much life wherever you are and everything seems normal enough eventually. Doesn't every place have people speaking Maori on the television and Vegemite on the store shelves? Flax bushes and torrential fast-moving weather systems and rugby are all everyday things, right?

Anyway – it has been a generally very good two years here, although, as I've whinged (another Kiwism) on the blog before, it's also been rather tough going sometimes – as it is for anyone 6,000 miles away from all they've known, as it was for my wife when she moved to a foreign country a decade ago.

The place you live is where you live and some days I actually forget entirely for hours at a time I'm not in Oregon anymore. You get good days when the sun shines over Auckland's volcanic cones and the beaches are shining with new sand and surf, you also get bad days where it's wet and grey and wet and drafty and wet (which has been most of July, unfortunately). I wish we had explored New Zealand itself more the last couple years, but the whole raising a preschool kid/getting jobs/buying a house has kept us pretty close to Auckland (which, as any Kiwi worth their salt will tell you, is really not "New Zealand" precisely).

But if you're one of the lucky few who sees me on our trip, don't expect sound bites – I'm still working it all out myself, mate! (And yes, I'm more likely to call you "mate" than "dude" – I just like the sound of it better, really.)