Saturday, October 18, 2008

The changing of the guard

This post is political in nature and is not intended to offend.  It is intended, however, to add to the reasons for everyone to vote in this General Election, whether you agree with the content or not.  I speak only for myself here, despite the fact that this is a family blog, and would enjoy hearing what our family and friends have to say on the topic.  

With the elections within spitting distance I can't help but think about the reasons for why I'm voting from so far away.  Part of this is due to my bone-deep frustration with what the Bush administration has done to America's rights to privacy, intellectual legacy and respect in the global community.  After all, it is still and always will be home for me.  The biggest reason for expatriates to vote, I have found, is to protect what's left of America's reputation and place within the world.

I very much still feel American.  I bargain hunt, appreciate my TV shows on a familial level and hold freedom of speech deep at heart.  (I and a Canadian co-worker just successfully dismantled the office Swear Box, an evil contraption meant to punish those who swore in the office by taking their money in amounts linked to the severity of the swear word.  People should be able to shout at the permanently busted copy machine, damnit, without the propriety police judging them.)  Most of all, I'm beginning to understand a fundamental truth that seems to have become lost on many an American official and citizen: America is and always will be one member within the wider global community.  Her actions are felt across broad expanses of water and her inaction has the same ability to offend as a person on the street has for not helping an accident victim.  America is a part of the world, and because I feel like a part of the world all the way down here in little 'ol New Zealand, I feel an obligation to make my voice and experience count in every way I can.  Mahatma Gandhi had it right when he said to "be the change you want to see in the world."  This is all very fine and well for individuals but it goes for nations as well.

When we first moved down here the first question my students always asked was, "Did you vote for President Bush?"  The middle-school kids were mostly curious; high schoolers tended to frost their words with a bit more indignation.  Most adult Kiwis avoided this pointed and personal question, rather opting for variations on what Americans thought about what Bush Co. Ltd. were doing to Iraq.  We had plenty of interesting conversations but nonetheless felt a bit tired and battered by the end of our first 6 months here.  This social/political grilling wasn't what we signed up for when we moved here, nor was it what we were prepared to endure for the duration of our time here.  Our only recourse was to sigh and develop a handful of strategies for changing the conversation.  Only once did I play the political refugee card; it felt hollow and cheap, so I didn't touch it again.

Perhaps we've blended in or we now have a consistent social circle, but these questions seem to have changed in the last year or so.  It feels like the rest of the world has realised that Bush Co. Ltd. will close up shop and another President will move into his place.  There seems to be less quiet bitterness about things and a curiosity and optimism that things will change.  We are frequently asked what we think of the candidates. When asked who we are voting for, and we say "Obama/Biden", people nod and relax a little...and then they ask if Palin is for real.  We nod, and then they shake their heads.  And I don't feel the guilt that I felt at this time nearly three years ago.  Kiwi's don't despise these candidates the way that they despise Bush, although they are more leery of the McCain/Palin ticket than of the other candidates.  This hatred that the current administration seems to have drawn out of people gets spit out on us expats indirectly and it's rather tiring.

It never ceases to disappoint me that Kiwis are more curious about us than America is of the rest of the world.  With any luck, the next President will encourage people to cross American borders by making border security more humane; maybe my co-workers won't complain so much about having to take a longer route back to the UK through Singapore because they refuse to be insulted by the TSA again.  Maybe the Kyoto Protocol will gain traction with lawmakers as a positive thing, and diplomacy and inter-national conversation will take top priority. 

This is why I am submitting an Overseas ballot.  Not because I hope to live in the US in the future, or because my family still lives there and I want a better place for them to live.  I vote because American policies are having a direct effect on our community down here in NZ.  Just the other day there was a story in the New Zealand Herald about Kiwi troops that are being targeted by militants in a relatively quiet area in Afghanistan.  There aren't any complaints about Kiwi soldiers doing their part to help communities overseas; there are conversations, though, about when they will be able to come home and get on with things, as they say.  Kiwis don't like treading water.

This weekend we are sending our ballots to the Missoula County Elections Office, as that was the last place we voted, and we wear our bumper stickers with pride.  And we're planning on staying up November 5th in the hopes of seeing competent leadership return to the White House.

Friday, October 17, 2008

How to sled on a volcano

About a month ago I was talking to my friend Sarah and we decided that we missed snow.  She's originally from New York and is having the same problem that Peter and I have: winter just doesn't feel like winter down here.   Since winter was coming to a close we decided to go find snow, since it will never snow in Auckland.  Ever.  This is how you go about sledding on the north island of New Zealand, much of which is technically in the subtropics and mostly sits close to sea level.

Step 1: Find some snow.
The central plateau in the centre of the North Island and has a couple of free-standing active volcanoes that accumulate snow during the winter.  They're beautiful, steep, free of fences and trees (a must-have if you're used to sledding in Montana) and the snow is deep enough to cover the rocks.  This last requirement is one of my biggies, as I now have a deformed tailbone thanks to a poorly chosen sledding run when I was a kid.  Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park has all of these required elements. Yes, this is where they shot the Mordor scenes for Lord of the Rings.  The volcano on the left is Mt Doom, also known as Mt Ngauruhoe to us locals.  Just had to get that out of the way.  And no, we didn't see any orcs, just tourists.

Step 2: Be prepared to drive.
Unfortunately, the closest sledding mountain sits about a 4-hour drive south of Auckland.  We wanted maximum quality time on the slopes, so we packed up our gear in the van and took off Friday after work.  This wasn't a bad idea, as the weather report predicted the first rain-free weekend for 8 weeks.  This was a bad idea, though, because everyone and their dogs were heading out of town for the rain-free weekend, too.  Auckland traffic is notoriously slow and prone to clogs, so be sure to have an iPod and an iTrip.  If you can manage it, get stuck behind a camper van with a 12 year old boy in the back who is prone to exhibitionism.  This helps to pass the time.

Step 3: Find someplace to stay with a fireplace in the lobby.
After a few phone calls before we took off we found what probably were the last two rooms in the neighbouring township of National Park.  There was plenty of parking by the time we rolled in at 11:30 pm.  One room was tiny with a train-sized bathroom but came with the standard-issue water kettle, cups and tea/instant coffee set; the toilet paper holder fell off the wall upon first use but was of otherwise of impeccable design.  

The second room was a dorm room with a train-sized bathroom and came with the standard-issue drunken youngsters who try to climb into bed with you at 1:30 in the morning.  They were drunk enough to be harmless, so Sarah had an easy enough time kicking one of them into submission and, subsequently, his own bed. Have I mentioned that Sarah and Mark are freakishly nice friends for giving us the private room?

Needless to say, the fireplace in the lobby, nestled comfortably between the bar and a coffee cart, made the stay for us.  

Step 4: Find some snow pants, gloves, sleds and sun cream.

Most of the businesses in National Park cater to people like us: they know enough about frolicking in the snow to be inclined to get the proper gear, but don't use the stuff enough to actually own it.  A super-waxed toboggan, snow pants and gloves will cost you a grand total of $40, which is the price of dinner for two out if you don't get something to drink.  Not a bad deal.  The people who worked at the particular shop we visited were friendly ski bums who came from all over, including Canada and the US.  Don't worry about having to rent stuff when you want to play in the snow here.  You'll be well looked after and will be given the best and most waxed sleds they have.  Do slather on the sun cream frequently.  If you think goggle face is bad in the US, try sledding under that hole in the ozone.  And wear your sun glasses.

Step 5: Make sure you fit in by looking cool and cruising the lift areas.  Carry your sled with pride.

After a shuttle ride up to the lifts because the only parking was down below the snow line, we were ready to go.  The reception area close to the shuttle drop-off swept past the building where you could buy lift tickets and rent gear if you didn't already have it.  This is also where you stock up on ego, so we got a little before getting to the snow.  One must strut if one expects to be taken seriously.

Step 6: Stake out your own place on the mountain.

Whether you have to climb up the mountain under the lift because you're too tough to buy a pass, or you get forced off of the groomed sledding hill by paramedics dragging the corpses of tourists away, find some open space.  This will allow you to establish your dominance on the mountain and practice your more daring tricks.  Sarah and I are working our way up to the Women's Doubles Tobogganing event for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.  Mark is the king of the spinning descent and Peter proved to have ultimate control.  We clearly still had what it took even after all of this time.

Step 7: Avoid the guy on the ski-bike; his cronies look like paramedic bait.

Step 8: Stop for martinis at a chateau reminiscent of The Shining.  

Just don't visit room 237.  Go back to your backpackers (hostel) and dry your boots and feet out by the fire.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Hobbies gained, hobbies lost

Ok.  If we have any readers left out on the interwebs you will have recognised that our blog is now being updated quarterly.  I think I'm ok with that; Peter has given up all hope of ever getting back on the horse.  So it goes.  Looking through the last few posts an update is in order.

Tiki tour through the south island.  I am remiss in posting any photos of this very trip.  While we've been looking through them regularly and enjoying them with friends here in town, I haven't shared them or their accompanying stories with the family.  They'll be going up this week.  I promise.  Again.

The Great Career Shift of 2008.  Peter's still plugging away.  He's signed up to take the GRE here in Auckland later this month, has selected his references, notified his employer and chosen his preferred programs.  Applications are downloaded and will be mailed out within the next month or so.  I am now a GRE vocabulary tutor when I come home, which is much more interesting than the vocabulary work I get to do at work.

The sinking island of lost hobbies: Part 1.  After joining up with a samba group I had to admit to owning a few unpleasant personality traits.  Firstly, I'm still a bit of a music snob.  Playing music with people who can't read music lends itself really well to jamming (assuming that they are amenable to jamming), but it also makes practices very tedious.  The only real way to learn a piece is by the call and response method, which slows the process to a crawl.  I like to have my music in little black dot form and need to know that the people I play with practice their stuff at home as much as I do.  We also never had enough members to cover all of the parts.  This left gaping holes in the instrumentation that grated on my ear.  If the other members were willing to branch out and play some other stuff that used the voices we did have, that would be one thing, but our band leader had his heart set on samba.  And so our partial-band played on.

Secondly, I'm too cheap and undedicated to buy my own surdo primera.  Our practice space was in a 3 metre by 2 metre unit in a storage facility in the city.  Consequently, we had a handy place to stash all of our drum equipment.  My area of expertise became the surdo primera, the lowest base drum that has a standard nylon head covered with a layer of leather and is played with one mallet and various hand-dampening techniques.  It requires a good steady rhythm and is quite fun, if a little tedious and non-pyrotechnic in character.  The sucker is huge and expensive and I wasn't prepared to buy my own.  Consequently, I couldn't practice at home and couldn't make it into the practice space to practice during the week.  Hence I wasn't progressing quickly and got bored with the whole thing.

Ultimately I had to admit that I'm a sucker for melody that can be played by individual instruments.  The group was fun and the people interesting but I have to have more tones to play with other than dampened, undampened and rim.  I was happiest playing the auxiliary percussion parts but couldn't do this much as we never had enough members to cover the foundational voices.

So I am now an ex-samba band member.  Instead, I practice my guitar regularly now and have moved into scale and classical style work.  I suck at this point but my stamina is improving and know the notes of the first 4 frets.  It's wonderfully satisfying.

The sinking island of lost hobbies: Part 2.  Peter's bike now sports a shiny new back wheel, cleaned and streamlined gears and a new chain.  It does not have a front wheel because, to our knowledge, New Zealand only imports the size we need once every 6 weeks, and then only orders 2 at a time before selling them to other people before we have a chance to get to the shop...even though we had ordered them in the first place.  It's all been an interesting and frustrating look into an import economy.  Peter has a co-worker who sells unicycles and unicycle accessories who has ordered a wheel for him.  We've been waiting nearly 6 weeks now for his dealer to get it to him.  So it goes.

He's made another batch of beer in the meantime.  It's looking pretty good and should only be a few weeks before its finished.

The daily grind.  Peter's still feeling unchallenged and uninterested at work.  Not much has changed, alas, and he's really jonesing to just move on already.

That 5 week flurry of work that I predicted in the last blog entry turned into a 10 week slog that only ended last week.  I had no idea just what I was walking into when I signed up to teach in both of the curriculum pathways here at our school.  It's been infinitely interesting and worthwhile, without a doubt.  I thought it would likely entail a larger grading load around exam time and that's it.  What I didn't plan for was the school breaking out the exam schedules into two different sessions, 4 weeks apart, for each of the curriculum pathways.  This means ramp-up and exam grading for one group, then a follow-up ramp-up to prepare for their big end of year exit exam that is set much earlier than the others.  During this follow-up ramp-up, the other classes are ramping-up for their practice exams.  After the first flurry of essays and exams (4 essays for each student), I am now not only working on follow-up essays but another flurry of exams (4 essays per student, again, but for more students).  The grading just didn't stop because the kids now have to put all of these things they've learned into practice.  A lot.  I have never worked so hard in my life.

The current stated of affairs.  I am now half-way through our two week long term break.  Last week entailed lying on the couch reading Bill Bryson's take on going back to the US, with periodic forays into the city to have lunch with friends and shop for cheap books (always a challenge here, the land of the $35 paperback).  Today I'm heading out to pick up a planter box that I bought for a steal on Trademe, NZ's version of eBay.  The goal is to have the herb garden planted and some jalapenos in dirt by the end of the week.  I'm still trying to source some cheap pots to put tomatoes in and get some dirt back under my fingernails.  

To combat stress in our last term of the year I've joined a gym.  It worked well for the last three weeks of last term.  I wasn't sleeping well there for a while and started to get very surly around the office.  I'll keep it up until I don't need it anymore, i.e. come summer break.  By then I should have a better idea of what to expect next year and will be able to better deal with things.  I had to bail on the Aikido club at school.  This didn't have as much to do with time as comfort levels.  The guy running the class integrated a lot of jujitsu into the course, which I'm not comfortable enough with to be practising with young people.  That and there's quite a bit of ground grappling in this combined style, which I'm not comfortable with because it's a boy's school.  It was interesting while it lasted, though.  Man am I ever looking forward to having a dojo close to home at some point in the future.

We have done a few fun things here and there over the last few months, like sledding on a volcano and having dinner with French hippies and learning how to make Japanese food.  As I said earlier, more to come.  I promise.  Again.