Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fire bad? Fire good!

I built a fire tonight.

It doesn't sound like much, but as I sit here writing this and the fire is roaring in the woodburner I can't help but feel a huge sense of pride and not a little amount of relief. I'm a suburban kid, mostly. Starting a fire wasn't something that was done often---at least not intentionally.

We're finding that having a fire burning in the woodburner downstairs does a pretty good job at heating the entire living room and our bedroom to a nice toasty "I can feel my legs!" temperature that's preferable to the feet-in-ice-blocks sort of temperature that things seem to settle into naturally. As a consequence, we're going through a lot of wood. So far it's been the occasional bag of logs from Warehouse when they have them but more often than not it's been bags of pine blocks picked up at any one of a half dozen places that sell them. Woolworth's, Countdown, Warehouse, New World, several nearby dairies---it's all the same. A big bag of pine blocks that look like ends and scraps from construction jobs where odd bits of rough wood from building house frames were swept into a heap and scooped into bags.

Joanne just put in our first order for a wood delivery from a local woodery. I'm not sure that's a real word. A bunch of companies will deliver wood in various forms and types and combinations to suit your wood needs. Our order is going to be pine and gum. Pine being the fast-burning easy-to-light stuff and gum (eucalyptus, for those in the States) being the slow-burning hard-to-light variety that keeps the fire burning longer. Presumably this wood will be more of the rustic split-logs type and not urban-sprawl-scraps.

Joanne builds the fires. She puts some newspaper and kindling in, lights it and POOF! There's a fire. Periodically she has to open the glass door of the woodburner and blow gently at it to coax it to burn hotter and it usually responds with a FOOM! and a beautiful blaze emerges from the wood like it really wanted to get out all along and she was just clearing the way. She's done this a bit before, and she knows a thing or two about a thing or two.

Joanne is out tonight with some girl friends, and I'm here with the sleeping kids "holding down the fort." I like the phrase because it implies that I'm doing some kind of crucial and official sentry duty that requires a grown man to sit on a couch in his underwear with a computer on his lap.

So knowing how much she likes the fires and knowing how much she hates the feet-in-ice-blocks feeling, I thought it might be nice to whip up a fire and let it blaze away while I settle into a good fort down-holding scenario in slippers and with or without pants. I spent a good hour plying the pine blocks with every fire-building trick I had---rearranging them, tucking newspaper under them, around them, on top of them. I built teepees of kindling, card-houses of two-by-four chunks. I shoveled ashes, I cleared airflow pathways. I went through probably a Sunday edition of the newspaper. In the end, I'm pretty sure it was the swearing at the charred pile of blocks that eventually turned the tide of battle and got a self-sustaining fire going.

When the fire finally caught, it was thanks to a teepee of kindling under which I'd in turn sacrificed three separate wadded up newspaper pages, letting each one have ample time to burn down. This tepee sat in a mire of half-burned newspaper ash, clumps of charcoal from failed kindling attempts and tightly-wadded and only partially singed sausages of newspaper from a doomed strategy that was discarded pretty early on in the process.

As of right this minute, it appears that the sausages eventually went up, as did the sort of tossed salad of weekend news magazine pages that burned slowly but colorfully before unwadding themselves somehow and going out cold against the floor of the fire tiles.

It was about the time that I'd given up on the magazine pages that I think my dad would have slammed the woodburner shut in a cloud of profanity. He'd have then emerged from the garage a minute later wild-eyed and with gas can in hand commending himself for his ingenuity in a tone loud enough for everyone to hear and in a way that preempted any skeptical comments from the onlookers. I was determined to see my smoldering pile of carbon past this point and not give in to chemistry so easily as the previous generation of mostly-suburban fire-building wannabes.

And it was worth it. I'm very proud of my fire, and I'm feeding it, tending it and cooing over it like I would a cranky infant placed under my care. At times it fixes my gaze and I stare dreamily into it. And I'm just starting to feel my legs again.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Rain, rain and more rain. Oy.

I know you summer sunbathers back home will find it very hard to believe, but it's winter down here. And if any of you remember that crazy New Years' storm from a couple of years ago, you may have at least a small idea of what we're dealing with here.

It is winter in Wellington. And that means rain. Lots and lots of it. Big huge deluges with some hail and high winds thrown in just for fun. The ground is completely saturated. Heading out to the backyard to clip some rosemary for the evening meal yesterday, my feet squooshed and splashed with every step across the lawn and I felt like I was walking on a very wet sponge.

Just to recall, this is our second winter in a row. When we left in March, the last of the Northern California winter rains had just ceased, and things were slowly starting to wake up. And then when we arrived here, we had a few days of Indian summer (I know they have a name for that here, hmmm) before winter hit us and settled in for a stay.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I'm definitely feeling seasonally-affected. When the sun finally shone for a few hours today, it was all I could do not to stretch out on a rock and sun myself like a lizard. But now the sun has gone, and, alas, the wind is blowing in another storm. I've put my wool sweater back on and I've got my hot cup of tea next to me. Time to close the drapes, light a fire in the woodburner and settle in for some more winter.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Big 4-0

Happy Birthday, Steve!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sunday, July 20, 2008

To Sheep Perchance To Dream

It was in a tiny little rural Hamlet (sorry, sorry) that we spent our scrimped-and-saved vacation pennies. We eschewed more obvious winter vacation spots (I've got to start using the word "holiday" for "vacation" one of these days) such as Rotorua and its hot springs or Whakapapa and its powdery ski slopes. Both are drivable North Island destinations that could have fit in our budget but were likely to be infested with tourists. Neither of us wanted a "tourist," um, holiday at all. What we really wanted to was to time travel a bit to earlier more formative days and try to understand what makes this place what it is. Turns out that it's sheep.

Well, at least in part.

Here I'll quote some statistics just to put a few things in perspective. Sheep outnumber humans in New Zealand 12-to-1. I was originally told "there are more sheep than people in New Zealand" by a few New Zealand savvy individuals before we left, but that doesn't quite put a fine enough point on it. A dozen for every bloke and blokette in the place.

Sheep arrived with Captain Cook (who, I still imagine, looks a bit like Captain Crunch) in 1773---only a scant few years before our own Founding Fathers signed our Declaration of Independence and gave the big middle finger to the Queen. It was for the Queen that the honorable Captain originally landed on these shores putting it on European maps and guaranteeing future boatloads of Britons, sheep, pigs, guns and infectious diseases which were met with varying levels of enthusiasm by the already well-established Maori population. Cook gained world renown for the incredible skill with which he explored, charted and recorded previously unknown parts of Australasia and the Pacific Islands for which he was eventually boiled and roasted in our own US state of Hawaii some years later.

But back to sheep.

The first sheep here were Merino sheep which are prized for their very fine wool. Today Romney and Perendale sheep are the most numerous. New Zealand is the largest exporter of "strong" wool in the world. And meat has supplanted wool as the largest reason to raise sheep in the first place. Yummy, yummy meat.

Where we stayed, at Sharika Farm, they had flocks of sheep with Romney, Perendale and Suffolk blood. The black-faced sheep in the pictures are of Suffolk lineage--originally from Wales--and the white-faced sheep are Romney from Kent in Southeast England where they've been raised since the Middle Ages.

Perendales are Romneys mixed with another breed, Cheviot, at New Zealand's own Massey University by a man named Peren. Sir Geoffrey Peren selectively bred them over many generations as hardy sheep that could handle the steep hills and produce favorable wool. Massey U is in Palmerston North---a pretty sizable and modern town we drove through on our way back home.

You can ignore the goat in the above picture. She thinks she's a sheep and she's really really convinced. Her name is Nina. See how confidently she strides alongside her fellow sheep?

About every six months the wool gets long enough to shear and the sheep get rounded up for a morning haircut. We were lucky that we were there when a few dozen ready to go and Andrew loaded them into a sort of corral/barn/shearing building, donned his leather shearing slippers (they help grip the ground and help him keep his balance when shearing and look a bit like high top moccasins) and let 'er rip.

The shears were a sturdy mechanical device. Not at all like my electric beard trimmer. They connected to a driveshaft with a flexible elbow joint which itself connected via an elbow joint to a rotating steel spindle dangling from the roof of the shearing shed. I'm guessing some kind of electric motor was responsible for spinning the shaft which drove the shears, but it was hidden out of sight and was only heard from--not seen. A rope dangled from the ceiling as well, and it was used to turn the shearing device on and off between sheep.

Andrew would wade into the pen, select one of the young rams seemingly at random and grab it around the midsection and drag it backwards through a sort of anti-sheep airlock that separated the pen from the shearing platform. Once he had the sheep assuming the position, he'd pick up the shears, yank the rope and get down to business.

Sheep shearing is an incredibly physical undertaking. I never really gave much thought to how the whole thing went down, really. I kind of assumed it'd be like a veterinarian's examination of a sick pet. You put the sheep up on the table, pull out the shears and bzzzzt bzzzzt bzzzzt, done. I figured the shearing part was where all the technique was... the speed and angle of the shears, the order of wooly strips to remove and so forth. It's not. It's in maintaining a firm and unyielding command of the sheep and manipulating its body in the right ways at the right times to position it where it needs to be.

Here Andrew had the head secured between his knees, the haunches pinched between his heels, his left hand in the crook of the rear leg pressing down to force the knee to extend and the shears buzzing quickly along the inside of the leg. He took command of the sheep in such a way that the sheep had no option but to relax. It knew in its tiny walnut-sized sheep brain that struggling was futile and that while it was scared, it was at least feeling somewhat supported and stable if not completely comfortable.

This is where the skill is. This is where the learn-by-doing and the years of experience come in. This is the reason Andrew is able to live in Italy or Wales or Scotland for months at a time on the dime of the company that hires expert shearers from overseas.

Sheryl stood next to Andrew with a large paddle and pushed wool into piles. It was this job that Zoe took over for a half dozen sheep and that Sheryl took back when the girls had left to talk through the fence to the horses towards the end of the shearing. I'd distracted Sheryl from her job by talking to her about horseback riding and some of the wool began to pile up. I had several seconds to snap this picture before she pushed the wool into the pile. The morning sun had risen and was streaming in through the shed.

You can see one sheep's worth of wool, ready for lifting into the bin and my Blunnie peeking in from the lower left corner of the frame as I sat on a large bale of already-processed wool.

As the wool piled up it'd get lifted into the bin for compression and baling. The girls were very handy with the compression part.

It was a tremendous privilege to be included in this whole ritual. It was a very intimate look at something that's been occurring in New Zealand for hundreds of years in much the same way as we witnessed it. It was just another morning down on the farm, but one with four outsiders feeling very much on the inside that day.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Farmstay Holiday

(if you're wanting to take the time to read the captions and get a better look at the pics you can click on the slideshow)

If you read Steve's last post, you'll know that over the weekend we visited the home farm of Andrew and Sheryl Hulena from Sharika Farm. They own a sheep and cattle farm near Porangahau, situated on beautiful Hawke's Bay. We stayed Saturday and Sunday nights and had what felt like a very authentic farm experience.

We were the first guests to visit under their new endeavor appealing to holiday-goers and tourists. Until this point it was a working holiday scheme, where people, usually young backpackers, exchanged farmwork for room and board. Andrew said he considered taking out a mortgage on the farm and fixing up the accomodations to be more "flash" but ultimately decided to leave it as is for now. I was glad for that decision, as it made us feel more like we were actually living there and not just tourists. We had a simple but comfortable room in what was once probably a shed or a garage, adjacent to the house.

The girls were in heaven from the start. When we arrived, the sun was setting and Sheryl was holding and preparing to bottle feed an abandoned baby goat she found in the pasture while riding her horse. The girls were in awe. They got to watch its first clumsy bottle feeding as Sheryl squeezed the milk from the bottle and coaxed it to swallow. By the time we left, it had gotten the hang of it and was greedily sucking and gulping and practically pulling the bottle from their hands.

Each morning began with the feeding of the animals. There was grain for the chooks, kitchen scraps for Sally Bacon, the newly aquired young pig, hay for the cows in the field, a concoction Sheryl worked up for her horses, and, breakfast cereals, tea and toast for the four extra animals visiting that weekend.

Andrew, an experienced sheep shearer, had recently returned from three months in Italy making the rounds as a sheep-shearing gun-for-hire. We were lucky enough to get to see the expert in action, as he had rounded up 30 male lambs that needed shearing. We even got to help a little, with Zoe working the paddle that swept away the wool from the tummy and the rump into one pile, a lower grade of wool, and the bulk of the wool, a higher grade, into another pile. It was fluffy and soft and to our delight, still warm from the sheep. Then Haley gathered it up in her arms and lifted it into a large wooden crate lined with a bag that would be compressed and eventually stitched up to form a huge rectangular bale of wool. Both girls had fits of giggles standing in the bag pressing down the wool with their feet.

Around 10:30am things stopped for morning tea. Sheryl made delicious scones served with thick slabs of butter and Arataki honey that they receive each year as a thank you for allowing the bee hives to be placed in their pastures. The weather was perfect and we sat in the sun in back of the house listening to the sounds of birds and sheep.

Some of the activities that you will see if you look at the photo album include: at trip to one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen, just half a mile and within view of the farm; the girls collecting beautiful brown eggs which we would ultimately enjoy for our breakfast; long walks out into the pasture to check on the progress of a large group of very pregnant ewes and one tiny lamb born that morning; watching Tasha the sheepdog expertly round-up and move herds of sheep from one pasture to another; walking in the thick mud along the river and skipping rocks; riding the back of the four-wheeler out to the pasture to bring hay to the cows; grooming and riding horses for the girls; hearty farm suppers of venison pie, roasted lamb, silverbeets, parsleyed carrots, and homemade mash with gravy; and lots of conversation on everything from farming practices to world politics and the differences and commonalities between U.S. and Kiwi culture.

Nothing had been sanitized or dressed-up for our benefit. We experienced mud and poop and animals behaving like animals. The girls experienced the whole circle of life from the newly born lamb in the field to the meat on our plates. The weather was perfect, our hosts were friendly and accommodating, and we left feeling like we'd had a truly unique experience in a very beautiful place.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Holiday Roads

We had to laugh when the road ended at a barn. But it wasn't the giddy pink-cheeked laughter of rollicking fun. It wasn't the forced nervous laughter of polite embarassment. It lay somewhere between a laugh of exasperation and a wild-eyed laugh of madness.

Our road surface had downgraded twice already and what we were driving on when we reached Annedale was not really even a road---just mud-ruts covered with gravel and neglect. Annedale was, for what we were able to tell, pretty much just a collection of several farm houses along a winding dirt road slung over some very green and in most other situations no doubt extremely lovely hills.

Google tells me that the road is called "Te Mai Road" though there were no markers or signs indicating this. I found on this map here where I think we ended up.

We found ourselves there after a series of missed turns while heading down Route 52 out of Wellington towards our weekend accomodations at Sharika Farmstay. It was our first time outside of Wellington since arriving in NZ, and a trip we'd been saving up for since we got here. Like many trips out into the unknown, we departed with songs in our hearts and a buzz of excitement in the car and we arrived with near-total exhaustion and a sense of profound relief.

I was navigator during our trip. Though I think Joanne may disagree.

Our first mistake was to miss Route 52 entirely the first time we went through Masterton. By "our" here I mean "my" since I was the one with the fanciful bit of terrestrial illustration called the AA 2008 Taranaki, Lower North Island & Wellington Visitor Guide open on my lap. We entered Masterton on SH 2, blew past our turn off and continued on SH 2 until we were overcome by the creeping sense that "...this doesn't look right." It took us a good five minutes for it to build to the point that one of us said something. I think it was Joanne.

We back-tracked to Masterton, answering a barrage of questions from the back seat about why we were turning the car around in the middle of the country and, mindful of the poorly marked turnoff and scrutinizing every sign, turned down a completely new completely wrong road and charged forth with confidence.

We'd been so successful at Carterton, the previous small town, in sidetracking out to Stonehenge Aotearoa to have a look at the curious rural reconstruction of the famous druidic astrological timekeeping monument or sacrifical virgin amphitheatre or whatever it was that the proto-Britons had laboriously constructed near Salisbury thousands and thousands of years ago. We had strayed off the highway, failed to actually visit the monument (it has hours) and returned to our path with such simple ease that I was feeling pretty confident in our ability to bush-whack our way through the NZ countryside by the time we'd reached Masterton.

Our second missed turn took us to Tinui, a small, charming out-of-the-way place that we were actually very happy to have discovered. After only two missed turns it was still pretty early in the day and Tinui fell into the category of "happy accident" when we rolled up on sort of makeshift gift-shop and museum and borrowed their skeleton key to open the old schoolhouse which had been converted into an outbuilding bathroom. We took lots of pictures. They had tons of artifacts from earlier times---the war, the running of telephone lines, early farmsteads and sheep stations. It was all fascinating stuff and Tinui deserves at least a post of its own some day.

The third, and biggest mistake, and one which I have to take the most responsibility for since it was a plan which I'd not only suggested in the first place but also lobbied for strongly, was that rather than back-track to Masterton and The Known World and try again to reach Route 52 (the third time is, after all, the charm) I proposed we push on through Tinui and meet up with Route 52 a little farther along at Alfredton. The road to get from Tinui to Alfredton didn't seem much different on the map than other roads around the area, so how bad could it be? I just hated the idea of backtracking again---heading in the generally desireable direction of north and east seemed preferable to me and after some discussion we headed out.

Now, to the credit of the AA 2008 Taranaki, Lower North Island & Wellington Visitor Guide the nice fat highway that we had originally been driving on--SH 2--was demarcated with a thick red line and the two lane road that we'd turned down to mistakenly head towards Tinui was a thinner orange line. They were definitely different types of roads. The road that I'd lobbied successfully to take from Tinui to Alfredton was mostly of this thin orange type except for a segment that was thinner yet, and yellow. We discovered later when I actually looked at the map key that this meant "unsealed road." What was lacking, however, in this description was a parenthetical indication following it saying "(never under any circumstances try to go here)" or "(WARNING: max speed 10 kph)" or "(traversal may vibrate your eyeballs loose)" or "(takes 5 years off your car.)" Unfortunately we had to discover these things ourselves.

So that brings us back to the Barn at the End of the Road. I can tell you that the bags of road trip candy were out and sweets were being distributed as we crept back up the muddy gravel looking for the turnoff we'd missed. We eventually found a sign "Annedale - No Exit" that seemingly hadn't been there before and made a right on a road that indicated Alfredton. It wasn't for at least ten minutes on that road that anyone was comfortable that the "...I don't think this looks right" feeling was going to subside completely. We took the increasing prevalence of road signs to be an indication that we were on the right track but it wasn't until the unsealed road gave way to actual blacktop that anyone felt much relief.

When the sound of tires crunching on gravel at 15 kph was replaced by the sound of tires singing on asphalt at 100 kph we were still not ready to talk about the experience of the previous hour and a half, though coils of tension were starting to unwind a little. By the time we rolled into the farm we'd resigned ourselves to our generalized road-weariness and felt tremendous relief that things were where they were supposed to be and all was right in the world.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Scattered Bits on Thursday Night

1. Marmite: not a fan.

I'm not sure if it was deliberately invented or discovered at the bottom of a jar as the remains of evaporation, but trust me: this is not food.

2. There's a "look" among young women in New Zealand that Joanne and I have identified. We see it with fair regularity. I mean this in the fashion sense of a "look" as in "five hot new looks for the spring season!" A "look" as something that women deliberately shoot for by careful wardrobe selection and makeup application. This look is probably best described as post-Laugh-In-era Goldie Hawn after accidentally receiving a basketball to the face.

3. "Epic" is epic. Use "epic" for "awesome" or "cool" in your sentences and you'll fit right in.

4. When refilling a prescription, going up to the counter and saying, "I need to refill my prescription" will throw the druggist for a loop. You'll get a puzzled look, a pause, and "Do you mean you need a repeat?"

5. When buying deodorant at the chemist today, I asked the young lady "can you tell me where the deodorant is?" and when she asked "for you?" and I responded "yes, but it's not that I don't smell good already." She didn't laugh. I have no idea if I crossed a line somewhere with that. Maybe she was still bitter about the whole "refill/repeat" thing.

6. The deodorant scent is called "Marine." I think back home this would be "ocean breeze" or "seafoam" or something like that, but "Marine" for me conjures up images of hull waterproofing paint, kelp at low tide and nose-broken drill sergeants in olive drab. None of these images are what the manufacturer is hoping for, I'm certain. There's some kind of ocean-related non-nautical-influenced, non-military interpretation that my mind doesn't alight upon as readily as the marketers had hoped.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Meat Golems

This weekend we got a weekly dose of Netball thanks to Zoe's Ngaio Sapphires and our first full dose of the New Zealand All Blacks thanks to a time-delayed television broadcast of their Tri-Nations opener Test Match with the Springboks of South Africa---the number one ranked Rugby Union team. The All Blacks are USUALLY the number one ranked Rugby League team. It was a home game here in Wellington.

I can't pretend to understand Rugby yet.

The All Blacks were as successful in their contest as the Ngaio Sapphires weren't. Zoe's team, coming fresh from two back to back victories (a winning streak in the sense that a streak is more than one consecutive victories,) ran headlong into an unyielding Johnsonville Year 5 team.

My wish from the previous week---that Zoe see more action at Goal Keep---was granted, and the J-ville girls kept the ball inside the Ngaio half court more or less the whole game. I didn't catch the score, but I distinctly remember Haley stomping her foot and screaming "Aaaahhh!!!" in exasperation at least three times.

Zoe eventually started to see that preventing the other team's Goal Shoot from getting the ball and knocking it away, plucking it from the air or smacking it towards her teammates were all working to the Sapphires' benefit. Towards the end of the game we were proud to see Zoe sending the ball out of the Ngaio goal area with confidence.

In the end the Sapphires lost, but Zoe got some good hands-on time as Goal Keep that included actual play and not shivering and wiggling her legs in the cold while all the action happened at the other end of the court.

The All Blacks, however, trounced the number one ranked Springboks. It was fun to watch. They're an impressive array of thick men who mete out and absorb tremendous physical punishment in nearly equal measures. It was the first time Joanne and I watched a whole game, and I found it to be absolutely captivating---because of its newness but also its intensity.

At one point Joanne turned to me and said "it's like they formed them out of minced meat" and I agreed.

"They're like Meat Golems."

I'm pretty sure any one of them could crush my skull between opposing palms, though they're not monsters with Human-Growth-Hormone-induced gaps between maxillary central incisors and Lyle Alzado-like brow ridges and hints of gorilla-like parietal crests. They're attractive men who look healthy and strong. And---towards the end of the game---covered in blood. Both their own and others'.

Watching a game is a little like watching a soccer game where the participants lost patience with the whole "don't touch the ball" concept and just said, "dammit, just give me that thing" and started passing it around. It's pretty much ninety minutes of continuous activity punctuated with a periodic scrum. At the point the official says "engage" when calling the "touch... touch... ...engage!" of the scrum you can see a shockwave move across the backs and shoulders of the web of interlocked bodies. The sense of power is enormous.

I can see why the sport is popular here. It's brutal, but it's extremely honest. It's just a bunch of guys and a ball on the grass for an hour and a half.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

First Weekend of Winter Break

The School Calendar here is very different than I'm used to.

As a school kid growing up in Michigan and Ohio, life had a yearly heartbeat. There was a big heart-muscle contraction in September when the school doors opened for business, welcoming us all back into our new classrooms with our tanned faces and skinned knees, and the corresponding heart-muscle relaxation as the doors burst open in late May or early June disgorging us again, squirrelly and ebullient with the plans and possibilities of three full months of nearly unfettered freedom.

The school year had two phases for me.

There was the Christmas-Is-Coming phase, dotted with happy family holidays amid progressively decreasing ambient temperatures and culminating in the New Year's celebration which meant a lot of merry glass tinkling and hopeful wishes and plenty of time sliding around in the snowy outside on probably-dangerous metal devices recently freed from their festive paper wrappings or discovered in the garage wrapped in a big red bow.

Then there was the Slow-Thawing-Into-Summer phase with less numerous, less regular and less festive holidays and breaks (Valentine's Day? Easter?) during which anticipation of the next summer's break would begin to crest. Memorial Day would hit at around the time when I'd pretty much given up all intention to study and had fully taken to longing stares out open windows at the gorgeous sunny weather outside. The Memorial Day Family Trip would be a kind of dry run for Summer Fun. It was gratifying to get a taste of what was to come, but knowing that we'd be returning to school after the long weekend tended to hang overhead like ominous dark clouds.

Down here in the Down Under the Down Under, they arrange things much differently. Term 1 starts the school year at the start of the new year, and Term 4 ends the school year, at the end of the year.

School starts on Feb 4th. At the end of summer break.

Term 1 starts on February 4th and goes to April 18th.
Followed by 16 days of vacation.
Term 2 starts on May 5th and goes to July 4th.
Followed by 16 days of vacation.
Term 3 starts on July 21st and goes to September 26th.
Followed by 16 days of vacation.
Term 4 starts on October 13th and goes to December 19th.
Followed by 56 days of vacation.

We're just at the end of Term 2, on the two-weeks-and-change before Term 3.

Gone is the three-months-of-freedom that I knew as a kid. Though in fairness, my girls have never had a full three months back in the States. The school year there ends later and begins earlier than it used to when I was a tot. This is probably because of the fashionable misapprehension that kids today have more to learn and should thus be at it longer every year.

Also of note here is that the "couple-days-here-couple-days-there" approach is gone. Where I took my school breaks scattershot through the year with a full week dedicated to "spring break," I only got a two week chunk at Christmastime (which seemed fitting given I needed some free time to lose, break, melt, and destroy many small plastic pieces and to sustain cuts and various abrasions from my year's haul of attic-bound child fantasy fodder---the ideas of which I'd clung to so tenaciously and about which I'd regaled my parents so mercilessly---from the previous year) here there are two week chunks occurring with regularity.

As a parent, I prefer this as it means that we can take our children out and see the country a bit and still have plenty of lazing-about "vacation from the vacation" time before school kicks into gear again for the next term.

Probably the biggest difference evident (and one not yet experienced first hand by any of us) is that Christmas Break and Summer Break are one and the same.

At 56 days, it's a long Christmas break, but a short summer break. And unwrapping a pair of Snow Skis that Santa brought makes much less sense than unwrapping a pair of Water Skis. And those long days indoors playing with a brand new slot car set in front of a roaring wood fire while watching big downy flakes through frosted windows are to be replaced by outdoorsy afternoons at the neighborhood pool sporting overly-colorful plastic guns with large tanks strapped to them at improbable places.

The actual winter break (what's just starting up now) is a very different beast for Zoe and Haley than it ever was for me. It's a couple weeks of trying to stay warm with no Christmas or holiday ritual of any kind before school resumes again.

I hope they have fun, and can make it all the way to the years' end when they get the Big Payoff. I hope it's worth waiting all year for.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Independence Day

Today is the 4th of July. On the way to school the girls and I recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang America the Beautiful, which I have always preferred to the more somber National Anthem. I got choked up, of course, and teary. It feels weird to walk around, having a normal day, privately aware of what is a major holiday back home.

I've never felt more American than I do living abroad. It is one of my most defining characteristics here, and an inevitable part of every conversation I have when I meet someone. In experiencing New Zealand culture and attempting to define it, I am simultaneously defining what it is for me to be American.

When I first got here, I felt very apologetic about being American. I felt the need to apologize for the way the world seems to be going down the tubes, in large part because of decisions Americans have made. But slowly creeping in is a sense of pride.

For all the criticisms that can be made of America, people are also in awe of it. There is so much America right here in little New Zealand, but I don't think people even know how much of is borrowed. American culture, because it is so vast and prolific, has seeped in to every nook and cranny from the movies and music, to the magazines (Obama was on the cover of the TV Guide in the checkout lane the other day) and nightly tv shows and news. I get to watch the Daily Show and Lehrer Hour on a nightly basis if I choose.

While so much of popular culture, at least, I find to be rubbish, and makes me cringe to think that my home country is being judged by it, there must be something to it if it can survive in translation across borders and cultures. There is something universal in the American experience that everyone can appreciate and relate to.

So I'm getting used to saying I'm American without cringing and not hoping to get by as a Canuck, like we used to joke about doing. In part it's because I know it's just one part of me, and in part because I think people, if only on a subconscious level, know that for all it's faults, and despite the George Bush(s), Americans are well-meaning. We are hard-working, we stand up for justice, and we don't take "no" for an answer. So Happy Birthday, America, from sea to shining sea!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Land of the Long Pink Cloud

Today after school the girls and I watched a storm come moving in in long, foggy, white shafts against the mountain the other side of the Ngaio gorge from us. Like idiots, we stood there and watched it blowing towards us instead of running for cover like the more sensible people around us were doing. We were awestruck. And wet.

It rained violently (I wish I had another word for rain here-this was so much wetter than rain) for the next hour and a half. Then, just as the sun was setting, the clouds broke. A strip of brilliant blue streaked the horizon and we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I've ever seen. I tried really hard to capture it, but alas, this sky required a much better picture-taker with a much wider lens.

The Maori name for New Zealand is Aoteroa, which means "Land of the Long White Cloud." It is skies like this one that demonstrate why those people so long ago named it as such. What a beautiful sky it is.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Friday marks the end of Term 2 at the girls' school. Reports (report cards) will be sent home. Then we will enjoy a full two weeks off (school holidays) before the beginning of Term 3 on July 21st. Having a full term of the Kiwi education system under our belts, it made me reflect and appreciate the many differences between the two school systems, both for the girls and for myself.

For starters, the school day begins at 9am here. It started at 8:30 at home, and you wouldn't think that 30 minutes would make such a huge difference, but it does. I used to do morning playground supervision at our old school, so we had to be there at 8:10. To drive to school in morning traffic, park, and walk in it took us 20-25 minutes. Getting ready for school used to be a scramble, where I often felt like I was yelling at my kids to hurry up all morning, then trying to make it up to them by listening to music or being silly in the car all the while driving as fast as I could to get there in time.

Now, we have a leisurely 10 minute walk to school. Sometimes we freeze. Sometimes we get rained on. But we always get good exercise, fresh air, and 10 peaceful minutes to be together before we go our separate ways and begin our days. Our walks to and from school are my favorite times of my day and when it's just too wet out (think horizontal sheets of rain and hurricane winds) and I have to drive us, my mornings just don't feel the same.

Once inside school, there are even more differences. For one, back at home much of my girls' work was done in workbooks. They had several colorful workbooks for the various subjects, and the girls did a lot of filling in the blanks. Here, at the beginning of the year, we went school supply shopping and purchased several blank notebooks of varying layouts, as proscribed to us by their teachers.

At my conference with Haley's teacher, we purused these notebooks, viewing page after page of Haley's writing, both words and numbers. I don't think I have ever seen this much of my children's writing all in one place. Her teacher said she asked Haley early on if it was done this way at school and Haley said no, they had workbooks. She seemed very surprised at this, and put the question to me as if surely Haley had been mistaken.

I like this way of doing things. For one, I think it's less wasteful of resources. Don't get me wrong, I don't think they do it this way because it's cheaper and they couldn't afford to make workbooks for each child. As Haley's teacher pointed out, having the children write out the problems for themselves gives them further opportunity to practice their writing. Another benefit is that it is not standardized, so the work can easily be adjusted to the needs of the individual child, or small groups of children. Haley's class is a mix of ages and levels, as young as age 7, and as old as 9 and ranging in levels.

Something else that has changed our lives indubitably, has to be the homework. If you know me at all, you know my on-going frustration and discontent for the way we did this at our old school. Like I've said before, I love our old school, and miss it very much. But this is an area where education in America is really getting it wrong. The homework here is technically non-compulsive. That said, the expectation is that the student will read at home daily, and memorize their hand-picked, personalized list of spelling words. And unlike at home, if you spell a word incorrectly at the end of the week, guess what? It's going on your list for the week after. This is something so simple that has boggled my mind for years. In all my girls' years at school in the States, only one teacher ever did any retraining after the test to make sure that the student ultimately learned to spell ALL the words on their list.

The homework situation here has completely changed our lives. Homework is not a drudgery. The girls have a variety of games and puzzles to choose from to learn their spelling words or practice their maths. They don't feel defeated or crushed under the weight of a mountain of work they have to do at the end of an already long day at school. And amazingly, my girls seem to be doing much harder maths and spelling than at home and performing better on their tests. The whole system here has made for a much more harmonious home. The girls have time to cook with me every night, or do artwork or read. And at the end of our meals, we all do the dishes together, a chore I never would have dreamed of having them do at home because I felt so sorry for them and they needed a much deserved break after all the homework they had done.

I just looked back and realized this has become a monster post, and I haven't even gotten to what the changes in school have meant for me. Very quickly, I'll let you know that they do not need all the volunteers here that we needed at home. Teachers get aides if they need them, and there is actually funding for this. When I've volunteered for things here, I've actually been turned down because there were so many offers! This means I have way too much time on my hands. So, for this next term, I will start as a teacher's aide at the school, assisting a 7-year old boy in the classroom next to Haley's. This job will fit into our lives perfectly as I will work during the school day and be off for school holidays. It should be a challenging new experience for me. Wish me luck!