Friday, December 28, 2007

Christmas: Home Alone

During the holidays this year, I found that I wasn't feeling as melancholy as last year. I knew my mom was arriving in one week, I'd just spent 2 weeks in the US with all the family in November, and Carlin and Kristen had been here for 2 weeks. So I wasn't pining for my family too much, and our holidays turned out to be quite enjoyable:

On Christmas Eve, it was so hot that we eventually decided to go to the neighbourhood beach for a picnic. We lolled on our beach blanket, read books, and ate dinner. There weren't too many people there. The sun was shining, but there was a breeze off the water. It was perfect. Still, it seems surreal to say that we were at the beach on Christmas Eve!

On Christmas Day, we went to church and sang in the choir. The children's sermon was called Chocolate Christmas! This is my kind of church. Our friends at church made sure we had someplace to go for Christmas dinner (we did) and wished us a happy holiday.

At home, Curt and I opened presents. He got me an iPod, which I'd fancied so I could listen to music while I run on the treadmill at school every day after work. The other students in the gym often have a boombox blaring, but let's face it, I'm too old to want to listen to rap or whatever they've chosen. I'm also so old that I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to use the darn contraption. It didn't help that the only directions that came in the box were in Chinese. No English. On the plus side, there were a few helpful diagrams ... with Chinese captions. Good Lord. (eventually I found some English instructions on Apple's website)

My present to Curt was a new patio umbrella because ours was broken in 2 places. He spends a LOT of hours on the deck and I thought he should have a better umbrella, but he didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with the current one even though ...
1) The up and down mechanism broke soon after we bought it, and it had to be held in the up position with an army of hose clamps. Hence, it always stayed up.
2) Then there was a windstorm (remember, it was eternally open, so it caught the wind like a sail) which caused it to shear off at the table height. Curt's solution for this was to scour the neighbourhood on the day of the annual Inorganic Rubbish Pick-Up (people can put out old sofas, broken washing machines and piles of junk to be taken to the rubbish tip) until he found a silver pipe that was just the right diameter. It looked like it had been a shower curtain rod in its former life. He attached the ex-shower curtain rod to the what was left of the umbrella pole, and voila! Just like new.
Clearly, Curt has embraced the Kiwi mentality that anything can be fixed with a bit of ingenuity and some Number 8 Wire.
Note: in early January, the old umbrella broke a third time, so he relented and started using his new one instead.

After opening presents - there were only two presents so it didn't take very long - we went to my friend Lucy's house for Christmas dinner. She had graciously invited us to her family gathering, which included her husband and two kids, her mum, her in-laws, and a brother-in-law with his family. We arrived in time for the tail end of family gift exchange, and Lucy's two children proceeded to show me all the terrific presents they'd received.

I also accompanied her two kids as they played Christmas carols on piano, appointing myself in charge of the left hand/bass part. Best of all, Lucy and I played some flute duets. We had only recently discovered that we both played flute and both bemoaned the lack of opportunities to play, so we'd decided that a family Christmas gathering would be the perfect excuse to inflict our mediocre musicianship on others. Luckily, the audience was filled with holiday spirit and generously tolerant of us.

Although the good times and good conversation meant more to me than good food, I must affirm that there were indeed heaps of good food. Lucy's a wonderful cook and an elegant hostess - a Kiwi Martha Stewart. There were 6 dishes and 4 desserts, all exquisitely prepared and presented. I especially feasted on the shortbread cookie sandwiches with strawberries and cream in the middle. Heavenly.

We felt privileged to be included in their family Christmas, and it was the ideal way to celebrate the holiday thanks to Lucy, Grant, Emma, Liam, Oma, and all the Powells.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Because of the International Date Line, my four sons wouldn't be celebrating Christmas in America until the next day. So on December 26 (Auckland time), I called the boys. Boone was the only one at the designated Christmas headquarters (Grandma's house) and he was a bit under the weather, so he was not very talkative. Apparently, he'd had a cold for a few days, but went there for Christmas dinner anyway. After chatting with Boone, I got to talk to my brother a little, too. But I found that I wasn't as stoic as I'd felt yesterday. I was on the verge of tears. Next, I tried calling Nolan (who had already come and gone from Grandma's) but he didn't answer. I tried calling Austin (who was celebrating Christmas in Missouri with Jonna's family) but he didn't answer either. I tried calling Carlin (who was celebrating Christmas in Phoenix with Kristen's family) ... no answer. I left messages. Then I went ahead and cried. Just for a minute.
Remember what I said about not pining for my family? I lied.

Christmas Letter 2007

December 2007

Merry Christmas once again from New Zealand. We’ve been here for 2 years now, and continue to be energized by the experience of living overseas. Often, a highlight for me involves learning a new word (skive: to sneak away for the weekend), new pronunciation (zebra = ZEBB-ra), new custom (US graduation ceremony vs. NZ prizegiving ceremony), or new saying (we haven’t seen you in donkey’s years). We’ve got good jobs, a nice house, great friends, and we’re living on an island in the South Pacific. It’s not a bad life. The only thing missing is having family nearby, but as you will see below, we were fortunate to have experienced plenty of highlights with family this year.

First Highlight of 2007: spending a week in Sydney last January, including being there for New Years Eve fireworks over the iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House, a memorable event in a magnificent setting. In September, we also went to Melbourne to celebrate Curt’s birthday. (One of the benefits of moving to the opposite hemisphere is the opportunity to explore a different quadrant of the world, and we’re certainly trying to take advantage of that whenever we can!)

Lowlight/Highlight: A week after our return from Sydney, my dad died which was not unexpected, but difficult nonetheless. I flew back to Bellingham to spend time with my family, and Curt was able to arrive later for the memorial service. During our visit, there were lots of tears and lots of laughter, wonderful food and wonderful music. My favorite part was having sleepovers with each of the boys – talking through the night, reminiscing, and crying. I was especially grateful to be able to spend time with my two brothers (see photo) and my mom, who has just the right balance of inner strength, yet welcomes comfort and support. Even though a death in the family is painful, it’s still a highlight being surrounded by those who know you best and love you anyway.

Mini-highlight: On the way home from the US to NZ, we stopped in Fiji for three days for some rest and relaxation. There had been a military coup a few months earlier, so tourism had declined and we were the only guests at the hotel. (Don’t worry, a Fiji-style coup is pretty laid back) Anyway, we had the beach and the pool to ourselves. It was the perfect way to recover from an emotional and busy month.

Higher-light (and a not-so-highlight): In March, Nolan and his girlfriend Erica came to visit us for two months in New Zealand, after graduating from college (he in philosophy and French; she in environmental science). We showed them around our fair city, and even celebrated my 50th birthday while they were here with a big party. In addition, they traveled around on their own for part of the time, including volunteering at a kiwi bird conservation site for a week. We also spent a few weeks together traveling around the South Island where we swam with the dolphins which was exciting, although I managed to get seasick on the boat. That part was not one of my highlights.

Higher-er-light: In November, we went to Phoenix for Carlin & Kristen’s wedding. Kristen had bravely met the ENTIRE family at my dad’s memorial in January, so we already knew her and loved her and are pleased to welcome her into our crazy family. I’ve needed a daughter for 27 years and am thrilled to finally have a daughter-in-law! Besides, her name fits perfectly with our Curtin/Megan/Austin/Nolan/Carlin/Byron naming pattern. It must have been destiny.

In Phoenix, we reveled in all the wedding excitement with the extended family. Carlin had selected all three of his brothers to be his Best Men, and they were strikingly handsome in their tuxedos. This was my first experience as mother of the groom and I was gushy (of course), emotional (naturally), and cried (obviously) at the wedding. Perhaps I will get better at it with practice.

Grand Highlight: After the wedding, Austin & his girlfriend Jonna, Nolan & Erica, and Boone joined us for a grand road trip to the Grand Canyon. (Carlin and Kristen were on their honeymoon) Curt and I had lived in America for five decades, and had never been to the Grand Canyon, and all I can say is: Wow! Besides being amazed at the grandness of it all, we had a grand time hanging out together.

Higher-est-light: We arrived back in New Zealand just in time for Carlin and Kristen’s arrival. Yes, after spending a week of their honeymoon in Fiji, they spent the next two weeks with us in NZ. We tried to pack in as much sightseeing as we could: Kristen and I especially liked feeding the chubby lambs at Sheepworld. Carlin and Curt learned how to dance part of the Maori war dance called the haka (they tried to look appropriately ferocious). We feel fortunate that we had this precious time with the newlyweds, generating memories together.

Everyday highlights: Besides all the traveling and special occasions, we treasure our daily life in New Zealand. Curt still likes being a dam engineer and his company is starting to realize how lucky they are to have him. I adore working as a librarian, but have also started teaching again. I had one English class last term, and will have three more in 2008, which suits me just fine. My friends at work are particularly good at patiently educating me in unfamiliar Kiwi-isms. Our church friends have been very good to us, too, and we especially enjoy singing in the choir. We’ve also had the opportunity to sing with a few additional groups, such as accompanying a symphony concert, and participating in an outdoor festival mega-choir of 350 voices. On a frivolous note, I was tickled to meet the Prime Minister in April at a war memorial service at which our choir performed. It’s reassuringly quaint that New Zealand is the kind of country where you can cross paths with the leader of the nation, and strike up a conversation while her two (!) security men hover inoffensively nearby.

Overall family highlights: Boone, 22 (#4) is now living in Bellingham, starting a new job as the youth leader at church, a natural progression after all those years of church camp. Carlin, 24 (#3) and Kristen both graduated from college in May, and are embarking on new careers – he as a valet manager at a fancy resort in Phoenix, she as an elementary teacher. Nolan, 25 (#2) and Erica are also in Bellingham, working at jobs they are passionate about. Austin, 27 (#1) and Jonna are in Bellingham too, going to school, working, and enjoying their life together. They all spend lots of time at Grandma’s house, where they get gourmet home-cooked food and the chance to visit my brother and his family who now live there with my mom. Happily, I will also get the chance to spend time with my mom in January, when she arrives in New Zealand to spend six weeks with us.

As you can see, everyone is well-settled in their lives, including us. As I look back on 2007, I can’t help but feel extraordinarily privileged that we’ve had so many incredible highlights in our life. For you in 2008, we hope your lowlights will be minor, and your highlights will be many.

Megan & Curt Davidson

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Prizegiving vs. Graduation

I went to my first prizegiving ceremony at Diocesan. It was the end of the school year and 200 of our Year 13 girls had completed their secondary studies. In American tradition, there would be a ceremony marking this occasion, called Graduation. But In New Zealand, there is no such ceremony for secondary schools. Instead, there is Prizegiving.

The basic purpose of Prizegiving is to announce all the students who had won scholarships or awards of any sort. At Diocesan's Prizegiving, girls who achieved 95% or above in all their classes earned awards, as well as 90% awards and 85% awards. Usually, they received certificates, but sometimes there was a gift included with the more specialised awards like Best Art Student. Actually, those specialised awards were not called Best Art Student - they were called The (insert wealthy family's name here) Memorial Cup for Excellence in Art, funded by an endowment from a Dio donor.

The most alien part to me was that in NZ, there was no recognition for every Year 13 girl who had completed her studies. In contrast, during an American graduation ceremony (see photo on the left), the principal would read all 200 names one by one, and each student would come up to the stage to receive their diploma and a handshake. In the U.S., winning a university scholarship or a prize for the best science project would be announced in the school newspaper, or maybe the local newspaper, but not at the graduation ceremony.

On this day at Diocesan's Prizegiving, all the teachers processed into the gym, wearing gowns and collars signifying their degrees. We wore full academic regalia, including different colour hoods or collars to represent different departments (minus the mortarboard hats). But the graduating Kiwi students did not wear gowns, unlike the U.S. where the students would've been the ones parading in, wearing gowns and mortarboards with tassels.

At Diocesan, like every NZ college (=high school), the most anticipated moment is finding out which girl has been named Dux, the top scholar of the school. There is also a second-place title, called Proxime Accessit. In America, the top scholar would be called Valedictorian, but she would know ahead of time that she won, and she would have to give a speech at the graduation ceremony.

Besides prizes for the Y13 girls, there are even prizes awarded to the Year 12 and Year 11 girls. While their prizes are not university scholarships, they were awarded things like 95%, etc., and also a few specialised subject awards.  

Diocesan's prizegiving was held during the school day, so every student from Y11, 12 and 13 attended in uniform. whereas American graduation ceremonies are usually held in the evening or on the weekend, so the younger students' attendance is not compulsory.

There are some similarities, however.
• In both countries, there are "inspirational" speeches about how you have your whole future ahead of you, yadda, yadda, yadda.
• Both countries play Pomp and Circumstance during the processional.
• Both versions are held in large venues with lots of parents present, taking lots of pictures.

In America, graduating from high school is an important rite of passage;  it's seen as the beginning of one's adult life.  On the other hand, in NZ - since some students leave school at age 16 with a Level 1 certificate, others leave at 17 with Level 2, and the final group leaves at age 18 with Level 3 - being 18 and finishing a Level 3 certificate isn't the same benchmark in life that it is in the US.  

American teenagers also look forward to a big graduation party after the graduation ceremony. This is usually sponsored by a parent organisation and may involve going to a few different activities (like disco/go karts/video arcade) lasting all night. In theory, the parent group ensures that it is an alcohol-free event, but in reality some may get smuggled in. There did not seem to be a similar all-school party after Dioesan's Prizegiving - it was 3:00 p.m, after all.

I can't really say if either system is better than the other. At first, I felt a little sorry for the Y13 girls because they didn't have a special ceremony marking their completion. But they have other traditions instead: a Leaver's Dinner and a formal Ball (to which their parents were invited!), and they seem to be content with that.

One other similarity I found - both Graduations and Prizegivings are basically pretty boring to sit through.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Act III : Finale

On Sunday, Carlin and Kristen came to church with us and he played viola for 2 songs - one with the choir and one with just the organist. The choir muddled through their parts due to lack of practice, but the viola part sounded lovely and everybody appreciated him.

After Curt made French Toast (Kristen's favourite) for brunch, we went to the Viva Voce concert, a 24-voice a cappella choir conducted by a man from our church. Curt has sung with this group a few times, whenever they need some extra basses and we always enjoy their performances. This time, their concert was being held at St. Matthew-in-the-city, an elaborate stone cathedral with gorgeous acoustics. The setting was beautiful and the music was exquisite, as always.

When we got home, Carlin and Kristen helped put up the Christmas tree and decorate it. Carlin got to explain to Kristen the story behind the ornaments, and tell her various tales of Christmases over the years. Carlin also read his favourite Christmas picture book to Kristen, "Red Ranger Came Calling," about a boy who asked Santa for a Buck Tweed Two-Speed Crime-Stopper Star-Hopper bike, but instead of a Tweed bike, he got a treed bike. The story ends with a photograph of an actual treed bike - a bike stuck in a tree 50 years ago on Vashon Island in Washington State, and the tree trunk has grown around it - the inspiration for the book. Red Ranger is only one of the many Christmas picture books our family has collected over the years. The other favourite is "The Poky Little Puppy's First Christmas," especially when Austin would read it aloud, using silly voices. Ah, Christmas time. It can evoke such strong memories.

This year, it was only December 2 when we put up the tree, but since we wouldn't have any family here on December 25, we decided to have our little Christmas celebration a bit early. So I got out the Christmas dishes and the Christmas tablecloth and everything. We lit the advent candles and Carlin said a blessing before we ate which (of course) made me cry because they were going to have to leave the next day. After dinner, we opened our presents from each other and they had found us a perfect lawn ornament of a pukeko whom I have since named Nigel. I love pukekos because they have huge feet and walk like they're wearing clown shoes, which I find positively endearing. 

Their last day in NZ was a Monday so Curt and I had to go back to work, while Carlin and Kristen stayed home for a quiet, relaxing time (no sightseeing) and tried to fit everything back into their suitcases. Carlin surprised me by showing up at work for morning tea one last time, which made me cry (of course). What a sweetie. Later that afternoon, Curt and I took Carlin and Kristen to the airport where I finally had to say good bye, and yes, I cried.

Besides being able to spend this time with Carlin, it was especially good for me to share the last 2 weeks with my new daughter-in-law (whom I barely knew before the wedding) because now we had a stronger bond, shared memories, and connections. I never had any reservations about Carlin's choice as his bride because my boys have always had good taste in women and I've always loved their girlfriends. But after having spent some time with them, I'm even more convinced that he picked the right person. Welcome to the family, Kristen!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Act II, Scene 3: citybound and southbound

On Thursday, I took Carlin and Kristen to the aquarium, called Kelly Tarlton's.  First, we got to see a scuba diver hand feeding the fish in Underwater World.  She was getting mobbed by all the fish and turtles, and I'm sure it made her feel quite popular.  There was also a Stingray Encounter with a diver feeding the huge stingrays as they moved elegantly through the water.  Their wingspan was about 6 feet!  But our favourite part was the penguins.  We rode the little snow vehicle through the penguin exhibit 3 times, watching them swim and dive and twirl in the water.  There were even baby penguins recently hatched, all fluffy and cute, and you could see them hiding under their parent, occasionally sticking out a webbed foot or a grey head.  Strangely, there were about 100 girls from my school there, on a class trip with their science teachers. It seems I can't escape school even when I'm not there.

On Friday, I went to the Auckland Zoo with Carlin and Kristen ... and about 100 students from my school. Yes, there was another class trip courtesy of the science department. Yesterday, the Year 9 girls went to the aquarium, and today the Year 8 girls went to the zoo. What are the odds? Mostly, I tried to be incognito, either wearing sunglasses or hiding under an umbrella, depending on the weather at the moment. But at each place, a few girls noticed me "Look, there's the libarry lady!" or "Hey, isn't that the libarrian?" (What I want to know is: why can't they pronounce library correctly?)

Besides girls in Diocesan school uniforms, there were plenty of exotic animals at the zoo. Seals played and wrestled while sea lions whooshed through the water. The kangaroos were disappointingly lazy, but the emu came right up to us. A mama spider monkey clung onto her baby while scolding a mischievous teenage monkey who wouldn't obey. A peacock was showing off his feathers. Carlin especially like Janie, the last of the Tea Party gorillas. Apparently, back in the 1950s, the zoo used to dress up 4 gorillas in frilly dresses and they would have a tea party for the crowd. Janie is the last one alive, and she is pretty old but still entertaining as she searches for her food, hidden in various containers around her enclosure. We also saw rhinos and hippos and lions and tigers and cheetahs. Sadly, we never were able to locate the (nocturnal) kiwi bird in its dark exhibit. We learned two new Scrabble words while we were there, but I've forgotten one of them already: spronk is what the springboks do when they jump straight up in the air as if their legs were pogo sticks. And the other new word was ???

After the zoo, we went to Newmarket for lunch where - you guessed it - I saw 2 more Diocesan students and one Diocesan teacher. I think they're tailing me. Or stalking me.

Next, I dragged Carlin and Kristen to the Auckland Museum for a short visit. I really wanted them to experience the volcano exhibit, where you sit in a living room and watch a volcano erupt a few hundred metres offshore from Mission Bay. We also briefly walked through the Maori and Pacific Island exhibits, marvelling at the giant waka and the ornate marae. After seeing a few bugs (wetas) and birds (giant moa), we were exhausted. It had been a long day. I wouldn't recommend going to the zoo AND the museum in the same day. On the plus side, I didn't see a single Diocesan student while at the museum. Whew.

Once we arrived home at about 4:00, we immediately started packing for a road trip to Rotorua. Unfortunately, the traffic did not cooperate and we didn't arrive in Rotorua until 9:30. During the drive, Kristen and Carlin played Scrabble in the back seat until Kristen started getting carsick, so she and I switched places and I took over her Scrabble game. I lost badly, but kept everyone entertained which was my real objective. Even Kristen forgot about feeling icky and laughed a few times.

Along the way, we stopped for coffee at a little place in the middle of nowhere and saw the most curious mail boxes. Apparently, this cafe served as the local post office, and each local resident had a post box. This in itself doesn't seem overly curious until you look closely at their numbering system. It went
like this: 1 2 3 4 5 35 38 42 44 43 11 12 31 14 15 16 17 18 19 20. Hmmm. To add further confusion, there was a small piece of tape on box #43 that said 10. We debated the possible origin of their numbering system while drinking our coffee and, unable to come up with any reasonable explanation, moved on.

The next morning in Rotorua, we went to Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre and geothermal site. Curt and I had been there once before, a few weeks after we landed in NZ, almost two years ago.  The Maori performance was still the best part - I volunteered to do the hongi with the welcomer lady because I was the only tourist who knew what a hongi was (it's a nose-to-nose greeting). The guy doing the fierce welcome this time wasn't as fierce as the last time we were here. But the dancing and singing was great. They even invited ladies from the audience up to the stage to learn bits of the poi dance, so Kristen and I volunteered to make fools of ourselves. We twirled little white balls on their strings and tried to remember out steps at the same time, not entirely successfully. Then they invited men on to the stage to learn the haka, and Curt and Carlin gave it a go. Curt tried to be especially ferocious. After the Maori performance, we went to see the bubbling mud and the geysers. Carlin was happy when the geyser finally erupted.

Before leaving Rotorua, we had a picnic lunch at the lakefront, and walked over to an amazing church decorated with Maori carvings all over the walls and the altar and the pews. In the courtyard outside the church, we could also feel the thermal energy below our feet pushing up the pavement and discolouring the concrete.

On the way home to Auckland from Rotorua, we stopped at Hamilton Gardens and saw 4 weddings going on there! It's a popular location, obviously, for wedding pictures. Carlin and Kristen liked the Italian Garden best while I liked the Herb Garden, and Curt liked the Sustainable Garden with heaps of cool ideas.

For the last hour in the car, we played word games like G-H-O-S-T and I kept them entertained again. I kept trying to use the letter Z just because I like saying zed. We finally got home at about 8:00, and stayed up even later playing Taboo next. I haven't played Taboo in 10 years probably but I was always really good at it which infuriated Curt, who was never very good at it. That explains why we haven't played in 10 years, I guess. I have this theory that women are better at Taboo because they have more connectors in their brains from the right side to the left side. They are able to think more creatively while men tend to think linearly. In Taboo, thinking linearly is clearly a disadvantage. We played the women against the men. Need I tell you who won?

Lastly, we looked at photo albums. I had spent 6 weeks compiling 10 years' worth of memories and I needed to show them to someone so Carlin and Kristen were the lucky winners. They were good sports about it. Plus, Memory Lane is a fun place to be.

Well. It had been a busy week and an even busier weekend. But their time with us in NZ was almost over, for they were flying home to America in just 2 short days.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Act II, Scene 2: northbound

1. We decided to head north this weekend, to an area called Bay of Islands.
2. It decided to rain all day.
3. Kristen and I decided we wanted to stop at Sheep World, a tourist place just outside Auckland where you can watch them shear sheep, etc. Curt and Carlin weren't nearly as enamoured with chubby sheep as Kristen and I were, but they agreed to come along anyway. Besides the sheep shearing demonstration, we got to pet the sheep, feed them pellets and feed milk bottles to the lambs. They guy giving the show was admittedly corny, but we (Kristen and I) loved it anyway. The place also had talented sheep dogs who demonstrated their skill. In addition, they had goats, donkeys, rabbits, ducks, alpacas and even deer. While living in Bellingham, we used to see deer in our yard once or twice a year, but we were never able to pet them. Here, Carlin finally got to feel its velvety head.  The only bad part about our visit to Sheep World was that it decided to rain the whole time (see #2 above).  

We got back in the car to drive for a few hours, then decided to stop at the famous toilets in Kawakawa. Yes, they have the most famous toilets in the world (so they say). It was designed by Hundertwasser, an Austrian artist who lived in New Zealand for his last 30 years, and he designed these public toilets for his tiny little town. It's colourfully spectacular, with a grass roof, ceramic mosaic tiles, cobblestone flooring and a (live) tree. Kawakawa's toilets were a perfect potty stop.

We arrived in Paihia in the Bay of Islands a few hours later and spent some time wandering through the town, looking at souvenir shops and hoping to find a wool sweater for Carlin (we'd bought Nolan a wool sweater while he was here, so Carlin wanted one too). Ate traditional Kiwi fish & chips for dinner and played Scrabble in the hotel room. I can't remember for sure, but I'd guess that Curt won.

SUNDAY - Curt made French toast for breakfast before Carlin and Kristen went on their dolphin cruise. We'd been swimming with the dolphins with Nolan & Erica but if you recall, I had been seasick on the dolphin boat and therefore not very keen for a repeat performance. We sent them on the boat without us. They got to see dolphins playing and romping, but regrettably they weren't allowed to swim with them because there were baby dolphins present, and conservation laws prohibit people being in the water with the babies. Still, it was an exciting experience for them. Meanwhile, Curt and I went to see Haruru Falls, read the paper, and I took a L-O-N-G nap, getting sunburned in the process.

We packed up and left Paihia, heading back to Auckland. After a few hours' drive, we stopped at a deserted beach for a brief pit stop but ended up staying 3 hours! It was so vast and blue and pristine and perfect that we decided to change into our togs (swimsuits). I ran down the beach, went in the ocean and got knocked down by the waves a few times, feeling about ten years old. Carlin laughed at me. Curt walked along the sand, collecting shells to embellish his elaborate sand castle masterpiece. Except for a bit more sunburn, it was truly idyllic - peaceful, sunny and golden. Aaahh. The only strange thing that marred our enjoyment a tiny bit was an old man riding a quad bike up and down the beach ... naked. We couldn't really figure out if he was patrolling the beach, or if he just like riding around naked. A strange incident, in an otherwise great weekend.

On Monday, Curt and I regrettably had to go back to work, and Carlin & Kristen excitedly headed to a bach (vacation home) on the Coromandel peninsula, generously loaned by our neighbours.  They would get a few well-deserved days to themselves (they were on their honeymoon, after all). 

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Act II, Scene 1: The newlyweds arrive

MONDAY - Carlin & Kristen arrived to spend the next 2 weeks with us. On their first night in NZ, we took them for a drive to the neighbourhood beach and on the way back, I gave Carlin his first driving lesson for driving on the left. It always sounds scarier than it is; people usually get the hang of it within a few days. He did fine.

TUESDAY - Curt and I had to go to work today so we sent the intrepid travellers off to explore Auckland on their own. They even put gas in my car and did the grocery shopping! I think I'm going to like having them around.

That evening, we took them to One Tree Hill for a great view of Auckland from sea to sea. New Zealand is so narrow at this spot that you can see both east and west coasts. Kristen especially liked the sheep who eat the grass on One Tree Hill (instead of using lawnmowers). We stopped at a fence and tried to entice a sheep near us, but it wasn't interested.

Back at the house, they played Scrabble while I marked papers. Curt won the Scrabble game, of course. Poor Kristen didn't realise she was marrying into a ruthless Scrabble family.

WEDNESDAY - Carlin & Kristen came to my school today for morning teatime to meet my colleagues. Then they went to Newmarket to shop (it's the ritzy shopping area), and finally they met Curt for a picnic lunch. He took them to Winter Garden, a beautiful setting in the the huge domain (park) near his office.

I've been feeling a little lost at work concerning my English class, not knowing what they did while I was gone, or what I'm supposed to be teaching them now that I'm back. Since I only teach one class, I'm often out of the loop. Well today, I got a bombshell. The head of the English Dept came to the library to see me and asked how I was doing. "You do know that reports (report cards) are due tomorrow morning, don't you?" What? I had no idea. Somehow, I thought Dec 6 was the due date for reports. Oh my. I started entering scores right away, but knew it would take me HOURS.

On top of that, I got a call from the HR guy at my school. I had applied for a job as a Social Studies teacher on Monday, and they wanted to interview me. This was good news ... but the interview was the following day, and I had to prepare a sample lesson plan. It looked like I was going to be up all night.

I would've preferred to skip choir practice and work on my reports, but Carlin was coming to practice a song with the choir so I felt I should be there. I was the one who got him roped into this in the first place. The poor guy. His own mother had talked him into performing with the choir on viola while he was here on his honeymoon. I am shameless. In my defence, I was imagining a simple hymn where he could just pick out a nice harmony line, but our director chose a longer and far more complicated song which Carlin would have to practice. (The choir was going to need lots of practice, too) At least Carlin and Kristen got to meet some of the choir folk who have been so good to us, and they were all pleased to hear him play.

Back at the house, I was madly writing reports while Carlin and Kristen played a "friendly game" of Scrabble (read: not always friendly). Eventually, everyone went to bed except me. I stayed up till 1:00 a.m. finishing stupid reports, and preparing for my job interview the next day. At least I wouldn't have to go to work the following day. I was taking it off because it was American Thanksgiving. I'd been hoping to do some sightseeing with Carlin and Kristen, but instead I would be going to a job interview ... and shopping and cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

Prepared a few dishes for the Thanksgiving feast that morning before I went to the job interview at 11:00. It seemed to go pretty well. I think it was more than a courtesy interview, at least. They were impressed with the student work samples I brought, including the packet of instructions all laid out for the kids - timeline, grading rubric, parent signature, etc. They liked my IT skills, too. Fingers crossed.

On the way home, I stopped at the grocery store for more turkey day supplies, but still couldn't find pumpkin pie or Durkee's French Fried Onion Rings, a necessary ingredient for the traditional Green Bean Casserole (Carlin's favourite). Eventually found a recipe to make my own french fried onion rings which was amazingly easy! As for pumpkin pie ... I decided to skip it. I don't even like pumpkin pie so I wasn't inclined to make one from scratch. Sent Carlin and Kristen to the store to buy an alternative dessert. They wisely chose something chocolate.

Made the usual turkey, stuffing, etc. but added a bit of Kiwi culture by using kumara as the sweet potato dish. When Curt got home, he started the tates and gravy. Mmmm. My favourite part. Kristen and Carlin put extra leaves in the dining room table, for we had invited our neighbours over for an authentic American Thanksgiving.

Our neighbours, Bruce and Annette and their two boys Sam (8) and Nick (6) arrived in time for some traditional pre-dinner Thanksgiving colouring: Carlin taught the boys how to make an outline of their hand and turn it into a turkey. They were suitably impressed and created some masterpieces of their own. Sam was also impressed when Carlin played a few songs on the piano for him. Sam had recently started taking piano lessons, and it was fun for him to see how years of practice could pay off. He even fetched some of his music and played for us. Sam and Nick also kept busy playing with our giant tub of Legos. It was nice to see that little boys of this generation are still enthralled with Legos, like my boys were. We explained the background of the Thanksgiving holiday to everyone, how the Pilgrims would've all starved to death their first year without help from the Indians, etc. And of course, we ate too much. But it sure was good.

After dinner, we all needed to go for a walk and burn off some of those calories, so Bruce and Annette grabbed their dog and we all went to a nearby parkland. Carlin threw the tennis ball for the dog, a golden retriever who reminded us of Duffy, the dog he'd grown up with. The little boys chased each other and ran off steam, while the adults enjoyed the conversation and the serene setting. It was a perfect way to end a lovely day.

Last year, we didn't do anything on Thanksgiving; it was just another day at work for us. So this year it was nice to have Carlin and Kristen here, and it was a prefect excuse to put on a big Thanksgiving dinner. And inviting our friends to be a part of our American holiday made it even more special.

FRIDAY - Went to work at 7:30 and got a call from the HR guy at 8:00 offerring me the Social Studies job! The Humanities Dept loved me, apparently. I was applying for a part-time position, but they wanted to know if I would take the full-time position instead. I had been hoping to teach part-time and still work in the library part-time, but had recently found out that I wouldn't be allowed to, unfortunately. After agonising indecision, I eventually decided to teach part-time: 4 classes of Social Studies and 1 class of English. But no more library, which was sad. Initially, I was a little angry that I wasn't allowed to stay in the library part-time, but I had to remind myself of all the recent whistleblower drama I had been caught up in. I was being given an opportunity to get away from that craziness and into a higher-paying job. I should be happy! Plus it felt so good that someone wanted me. 

Meanwhile, back to reality: It was getting close to the end of the school year and there were lots of special events around the school. Somehow, an English teacher forgot to come teach her class in the library 6th period. Her girls were all there, but there was no teacher. Yikes. Barbara and I did our best to manage the orphan class and run the library simultaneously. In addition, our library boss had been home sick most of the week and was not at school to teach her class, also 6th period. Unfortunately, she forgot to tell the appropriate person to secure a reliever (substitute teacher). About 20 minutes into the period, we got a frantic call at the library. Where was the Library Manager who was supposed to be teaching her class? Do we know what her class was meant to be doing? Where is the video they should be watching? So I hustled the video up to the classroom, only to find absolute pandemonium: One girl had covered her face with stickers (and couldn't see) and had two pairs of pink knickers on her head. Yes, underpants. The rest of the class was - as you can imagine - out of control. Good Lord. I removed the knicker-headed girl from the room, did my best I'm-really-mad-and-I-mean-it voice to settle the class, and turned on the movie, Romeo and Juliet. At least the knickers were clean.

At home that night I had heaps to report : the job offer, 2 unattended classes, and the girl with knickers on her head. Carlin and Kristen had heaps to report, too: They'd taken the train downtown all by themselves, shopped at the outdoor market, took the ferry to Devonport, and had fish & chips for lunch.

Carlin and I had an important conversation later that night. We stayed up late (too late) talking about my feelings that I was "losing him." Part of my sadness came from the fact that he and Kristen would be living in Phoenix, 1200 miles away from Bellingham where all our family gatherings would be. Whenever Curt and I fly back to America, Bellingham would be the logical destination ... but Carlin wouldn't be there. I hardly had any right to blame him, though because we're the ones who moved 7,000 miles away to the other side of the world. Still.  It's hard to let go, I guess.


Intermission lasted 48 hours:

We returned home to Auckland at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, did heaps of laundry, and took quite a few naps. Beautiful, sunny day. Good to be home.

Went to church Sunday morning and sang in the choir. Everyone was glad to see us. Then took another nap.

Monday morning - had to go back to work. It was good to see my little friends who hang out in the library every morning. They call themselves the "library slaves." They fight over who gets to feed the fish, plus I've taught them to fill up the copy machines with paper, collect books from the returns slot, and turn on the search station computers. They are my groupies. Well, they were positively ecstatic to see I had returned. They RAN in and nearly knocked me down with their big hugs. It's nice to be loved. My class was equally happy to see me again. They stood up and cheered when I entered the classroom.

I left work early to pick up Carlin and Kristen at the airport! They'd been in Fiji for their honeymoon for a week, and were now going to spend 2 weeks with us.

Intermission was over.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Act I, Scene 3: Grand Canyon

It was time for a road trip.
We were off to the Grand Canyon with Austin+Jonna, Nolan+Erica, and Boone. (Carlin+Kristen were away on their honeymoon) I said a teary goodbye to my mom and 2 brothers. At least I would be seeing my mom in January in NZ for 6 weeks!

Seven adults and 7 adults' luggage was a lot to cram into the rental mini-van. If only somebody hadn't bought so much chocolate chips and other American purchases while they were here. I tried to call Jolynn's house to see if we could leave some suitcases with her for a few days, but it turned out that the number I was dialing was Carlin's! Oops. I hung up as soon as I heard his voice message. I'm pretty sure I wasn't supposed to call the groom at 9 a.m. on the day after the wedding. The boys got enormous comedy mileage out of my blunder, making jokes that I can't repeat in this blog.

We're off. Saguaro cactus everywhere. Nolan was feeling carsick within the first hour. We stopped and changed places. Was he really sick or was it a ruse to get the front seat? Hmmm. Throughout the trip, there was incessant competition for who sat where. It was just like when they were littler and they'd shout "shotgun" to claim the front seat. Actually, we had assigned seats in our family van (with name tags) because I got fed up with them fighting over the seats every time we went somewhere. Some things never change.

We stopped again in Flagstaff for lunch. Nolan mocked Erica during the entire trip because her pronunciation of Flagstaff sounded more like "FLAYG-staff." She poked him frequently in retaliation. Luckily, she's good-natured about his ribbing. This was our first family vacation that included girlfriends, but Erica and Jonna have been a part of the family for so many years now, that it seemed natural. Those poor girls - I wouldn't blame them if they didn't want to be associated with our family ever again after being subjected to multiple discussions about poop. The boys seemed to bring it up in every conversation during the 5 hour drive. Who raised these kids?

Arrived at Grand Canyon. WOW. Took many photos. Walked along the rim and hiked down a little bit. Took many pictures. Here's one of Boone looking over the edge. Don't lean too far! Watched the sunset. Took many pictures. Bought many souvenirs. Went to a pizza place for dinner, then back to the lodge to play cards. I lost many times, but always seemed to have a pair of fours. Why? Carlin called during an airport layover on their way to the honeymoon resort in Fiji. He sounded a little sad that he was missing a big card game on a big family vacation. I tried to convince him that no, we're not really having any fun. Alas, the hoopla from the beer-drinking brothers in the background exposed the truth.

The next morning, Nolan accused Austin of plugging up the toilet in Nolan's room. Austin denied it, saying he saw it go down successfully. Why was he using Nolan's toilet anyway? (probably because he didn't want to stink up his own room) Will this never end?

Explored the Grand Canyon some more. Took more pictures. Drove to Flaygstaff for lunch provisions, then on to Walnut Canyon, to see some Indian cliff dwellings, holes in a sheer cliff wall. How did the Sinagua Indians get from their houses/caves down to the creek for water? And how did they get up the cliff to their crops above? It was all pretty cool, but going up 204 steps back to the top of the canyon (at this altitude) was tiring. I wouldn't last a week in this tribe.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we drove to Meteor Crater next. It's a big crater in the middle of the desert, and it's been used in a few movies. We thought it might be kinda cool to see it, but upon arrival, we discovered that they charge $15/person (guess who would have to pay). So we turned around and left. We're just not interested in paying $105 to see a hole in the ground.

Our next destination was Sedona, an artsy town that claims to have vortexes of positive energy. I guess it's quite a mecca for the New Age, crystal-worshipping type of people. One of our favorite pastimes was to argue about the correct way to pluralize vortex: shouldn't it be vortices? But the Sedona information all said vortexes. The most vocal advocate for the proper plural (vortices) was the same boy who used to insist that, since the plural of octopus was octopi, the plural of bus was bi. MmmHmm. Being the English teacher in the car, I'd like to think that my opinion would be the last word on the subject, and my verdict was: isn't there anything else to talk about?

Besides arguing about grammar rules, Curt and I liked the galleries and artsy shops, and we finally found a bomb! As I've explained before, we have a collection of black pottery that we call our bomb collection due to the shape and color. We like to buy a bomb on every trip, and had been in America for 10 days so far without any success ... until we got to Sedona. Once we'd found a bomb, our trip seemed complete, so we went next door to a chocolate shop to celebrate. Hooray!

That evening, we went to a Mexican restaurant for one last family dinner. The food was excellent and the portions were HUGE! Curt and I ordered a Margarita to share, but I drank most of it. I only drink once or twice a year, so it was really out of character for me. The boys, however, drink a lot more than me. After dinner, we went back to our condo for another card game and more drinking. Eventually, they ran out of beer. Curt and I refused to drive them across the street to buy more, and they were too lazy to walk so they had to do without. Poor boys. Curt and I went to bed at 10:30 but the card game was still going on for quite a while. See, they CAN have fun without beer.

The next morning, Curt made tates, eggies, and snausage for breakfast, a family tradition. But before we left, there had to be one final climactic plunger episode: Boone plugged the upstairs toilet, and was plunging vigorously. Jonna came running out of the downstairs bathroom, screaming that there was water pouring from above. (The upstairs bathroom was located directly above the downstairs bathroom.) Hmmm. Did Boone's plunging rupture a pipe? Poor Jonna was (justifiably) not amused that water was dripping onto her toothbrush, hairbrush, shampoo, etc. Eww. We checked out of the hotel, reported the "leak" and hit the road.

On our way out of town, we were determined to experience some of the alleged positive energy Sedona promoted. So we followed a map to a vortex and climbed to the top of the hill as indicated. There was a curious collection of stones part way up, as if someone had constructed a mini altar to Fred Flintstone. At the top, there was an exquisite view of the Red Rocks surrounding Sedona... and a few people meditating in the lotus position... and a sign asking everyone to respect the integrity of the site ... but no positive energy that I could feel. No doubt my cynicism was preventing me from experiencing the full power of the vortex. What a crock.

After a few more hours on the road and a picnic lunch, it was time to deliver our charges to the Mesa airport. Not surprisingly, I cried. Not surprisingly, Curt consoled me by saying " As much as I love them, they really are a pain in the ass." Which made me laugh.

Curt and I had one more day to spend in Phoenix before our flight to NZ, so we decided to go see a few more Frank Lloyd Wright buildings: we admired the Biltmore Hotel and lingered there for hours, marveling once again at his genius for design motifs and his attention to detail, then we stopped at ASU campus to see his round auditorium which was also magnificient.

Finally, we re-packed our suitcases (too many chocolate chips in one bag made it overweight), caught a plane and spent the next 18 hours in various stages of discomfort or boredom.

It was a great trip. Obviously the best part was being able to see the boys and my mom and my brothers. Plus the wedding festivities were special. Curt and I had exactly the right amount of time together just the two of us vs. being surrounded by relatives. As a bonus, we had two weeks off work to spend in sunny weather with a lot of time at the pool. It doesn't get much better than that. The only downside is that we had to go back to work Monday morning.