Musical Interlude

A Midlife Crisis Holiday

The world is in flux. A revolutionary wave of anti-government protest has spread from Tunisia to Egypt, threatening to overturn the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak, a long-time ally of the United States. With all this going on, there are probably a million questions swirling through your mind.

Like, you must be wondering, “How was Simon’s vacation? Did he enjoy himself? Did he bring enough changes of underwear? Or any underwear? Did he maintain an appropriate level of dental hygiene or did he ‘let caution fly to the wind?'”

The answers to these questions go back to early January, as I despaired at the prospect of my impending birthday. Like a physician conducting a colorectal exam, I gaped into the geriatric abyss, and there beheld the unsavory vision of my incipient dotage.

I had to face the music. In a few days, I would turn 40. This was no laughing matter.

Jacquie observed my flagging spirits and proposed we take a trip as a momentary distraction from the disgusting march of time. Our kitchen table was covered instantly with South Pacific travel brochures. They enticed us to balmy tropical paradises. But none was suitable to my advanced state of decay, nor my special dietary requirements. The travel literature before us made few references to coral reef access ramps, no early-bird specials of which to speak. But Jacquie would not be daunted.

Jacquie suggested––after an irritating 20-minute song-and-dance review of The Sound of Music––that I was having a midlife crisis and a midlife crisis called for a road trip.

“Midlife crisis,” I said. “Pshah.”

The phrase smacked to me of man-boys stricken by mortal terror making fools of themselves with women half their age in a futile attempt to deny their burgeoning sexual irrelevance. The idea didn’t sit well with me.

But then I realized that this condition didn’t apply to me thanks to my peculiar genetic inheritance. Given my lumpy, misshapen Irish potato head and my humongous sesame-seed bagel-nose, the fact of the matter is I was never sexually relevant. Crisis averted!

“Still,” I said with a sheepish grin, “there’s one stereotype I’d like to live up to, especially if we’re taking a road trip.”

“What’s that?” Jacquie said.

“Can I blow our life-savings on a really awesome car?”

Jacquie agreed, and so the next day, I got up very early, went straight to the car dealership and recklessly purchased a 2002 Honda Civic Hatchback.

With tinted windows.

And we were on our way.

We were driven by wanderlust down the Forgotten World Highway, a 155 km stretch of mostly paved road wending through rugged pasture land and lush valleys.

We stopped for lunch in the famous-in-New Zealand town of Whangamomona, which declared itself a republic years ago (read about it here). At the Hotel, I ordered a green salad, which arrived covered in ketchup; the town’s efforts to project itself as a colorful tourist attraction had surely paid off.

“This is the best midlife crisis ever,” I said.

I liked Whangamomona. I was sad to see that the hotel was for sale, among other signs that this tiny republic was struggling through hard times. Maybe it was too remote. Maybe other tourists don’t take truck with ketchup salad. Whatever the reason, Whangamomona was getting to be a downer. We had to leave before our wanderlust turned to Weltschmerz.

We drove to the end of the highway, through the hideous town of Stratford.

Then we drove as fast as we could up to Dawson Falls on the slopes of Mt. Taranaki where Jacquie and I had booked several nights at the Dawson Falls Romantic Hotel.


We went on several hikes around  Mt. Taranaki. We intended to enjoy my midlife crisis in the peace and seclusion of our romantic hotel. But we were not alone.

Three British septuagenarians checked in soon after us. We could tell they were British from their baleens. There was one male and two females. The females were curious beasts that did not fear swimming and splashing with humans after finishing their plankton suppers (Which Jacquie and I thought were quite overpriced.)

The British tourists’ attempts to communicate with us, however, were hampered by their cumbersome teeth, forcing them to rely heavily on a combination of clicks, whistles and bodily gestures, as is common among the British. We enjoyed, nevertheless, a polite, if superficial conversation about our respective itineraries.

We later bid our new British friends good night. But as we repaired to our room, we could hear them talking about us in speculative tones.

“What a lovely couple,” one of the ladies said. “And I don’t care how old and decrepit they seem to be. If two consenting adults have functioning units, why shouldn’t they experience pleasurable friction on occasion?”

Needless to say, we soured on the romantic hotel and we left under cover of darkness. We had to keep moving. We had to feel the invigoration of our powerful Honda Civic thrumming under our loins. We drove. We drove hard. Toward Wellington. We didn’t speak at all and we stopped only once to visit the Taranaki Pioneer Village because Lonely Planet said it was “creepy.”

What’s creepy about that? It’s just the human life cycle, done up in mannequins. Life, death, bank loan applications, bad moustaches and wooden meat: Taranaki Pioneer Village was, I realized, an exact replica of my own life. And seeing this taught me something. It made me think how lucky I was not to have to work at the Taranaki Pioneer Village; how fortunate I was to have been born in a time when I could get into my high-performance Honda Civic and drive away from such an awful place at great speed. And as we left, I turned to look back on Pioneer Village one last time.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for teaching me such a great lesson, you stiff, awkward, silent, life-like people.”

“No worries,” said one of the ticket-takers at the entrance. “And you come back any time.”

“Maybe I will,” I said. I pursed my lips, squinted my eyes and nodded deliberately, knowingly. “Maybe I will.”

The ticket taker smiled. A beam of light seemed to shine from her face. I turned to leave. Then I turned back a half-second later and said, “Psyche. I’m never coming back here. What are you fucking kidding me?”

Then we drove off. Me and Jacquie. We headed down south to Wellington and by the time we checked into the hotel there, the malaise of my midlife crisis had begun to lift.

We spent a lot of time in Wellington, eating in cafes and restaurants on Cuba Street, checking out the Te Papa Museum and seeing a rare Kiwi bird up close in the highly valuable Zealandia sanctuary and exhibit.

(Plenty more pictures, but I’m bored by now. Maybe another post. Stay tuned)

We saw a lot and though I was beginning to get used to being 40, I had the strangest sensation walking around Wellington that something still wasn’t right about my life.

Learning my AC/DC’s

Last night I went to the Horse and Trap to hang out with 40 people I don’t know. We’re all good friends, I’m guessing. I can’t figure why else we would meet once a month to have discussions that are entirely over my head. (Unless it has something to do with beer.)

Yesterday, for instance, we talked about neuroplasticity, which generally refers to the brain’s inclination to develop, reinforce or lose neural pathways over time. The status of those 100 trillion synaptic connections in the average brain depends on environmental and other factors ranging from the salubrious effects of continuous learning to the euphoric effects of continuously sniffing magic markers. Which just goes to show how unfair life can be.

Anyway, I found the discussion fascinating.

“Whoa!” I shouted. “One hundred trillion neural connections? You have got to be joshing me. A trillion isn’t even a real number. You must mean a ‘gazillion.'”

Some of my friends at this point gently corrected my mistake. They invited me to the front of the room where they shaved my head and trepanned me with a corkscrew in order to see what a net loss of neural connections actually looked like in a living specimen.

Then they gave me a cookie.

“Now give me a chicken kebab,” I said.

Instead of giving me a chicken kebab, my friends lifted me by the elbows and carried me off until I found myself face-to-face with the street.

They had totally missed the point I was trying to make. I wanted a chicken kebab. And I wanted one even more after they kicked me out of the pub because, like so many millions of other people, nothing whets my appetite for middle eastern food quite like the taste of asphalt.

So I ran to Kebab Stop Takeaways at the corner of Mount Eden and Valley Roads, a middle eastern joint that in all seriousness makes the best chicken kebab on a pita that I’ve had in a long time.

“Gimme one,” I said.

“We’re closed, sir,” the Kebab Stop Takeaways man said.

“But it’s 9:30 in the evening.”

New Zealand's operating hours are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday. Please leave all off-hour deliveries with Australia.

“Yes, and I was supposed to close a half-hour ago.”

I suddenly had an unfamiliar experience. My brain was getting bigger.

“Hey,” I said. “Either my hat is on too tight or I must be learning something.”

“I don’t care,” the Kebab Stop Takeaways man said. Then he pulled down his shutter.

But it was true. My brain was getting bigger and all because I learned something new: New Zealand keeps business hours.

In thinking over the ramifications of my new insight, I suddenly felt sorry for travelers who landed at Auckland International Airport on a Saturday morning only to be asked by immigration officials to come back the following Monday during regular business hours.

But then I also felt a little confused because while the Kebab shop and all the other places on Mount Eden Road had closed up for the night, I could hear a foul voice on the wind.

“What is that awful sound?” I said.

Then my brain got even bigger yet as I remembered that AC/DC was scheduled to give a concert in Western Springs at that time. At last, after 30-something years and 20 albums, this rock-n-roll combo had finally found New Zealand on Google maps and decided to bring its special brand of entertainment to give Auckland’s pensioners a sound to snap their fingers to. It puzzled me why AC/DC was playing on one  random Thursday in February, but then I figured it must have been Neil Finn’s night off.

Well, exhausted after the cookie rush faded and tuckered out by the rapid expansion of my neocortex due to all my figuring things out, I went home. I crawled into bed. But that dreadful noise continued.

So I lifted my window and threw down a shoe, knocking Brian Johnson’s famous scally off his head.

“Hey, you septuagenarians, knock it off,” I screamed. “New Zealand is closed.”

The band instantly began playing an acoustic version of Highway to Hell which pretty much ended the show.

I was finally able to fall asleep. I felt a little bad when I woke up this morning for showing off my new knowledge the way I did. But when you’re as smart as I am, do you ever really have a choice in the matter?

The Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Above: Smoking Cathedral Rock, viewed from the south.

I’ve been taking a few days off to work on another project. I’ll be posting something new here eventually. In the meantime, enjoy this music video I made featuring the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, a truly spectacular place about three hours southeast of Auckland. I plan to write more about our visit there because it really was one of the most beautiful places Jacquie and I had ever seen.

Above: One of a few silicate deposit terraces.

It Ought Not’ve Happened That Way

I was going to write an entry featuring the top ten most popular Basement Life posts of 2009. But considering Basement Life only has six posts to speak of so far, I was a afraid that I’d be caught a few candidates short.

Then I thought, why not just fabricate a few entries to make it seem like Basement Life has been around since December 1999. I had some good ideas, too. There was going to be one where Jacquie and I went out to Rangitoto, the volcano in the harbor that’s now a park with hiking trails and park rangers. Rangitoto used to be overrun with various invasive species. Then the government cracked down and shipped all the destructive buggers to Australia, which never turns away an invasive species if it can help it.

My entry was going to begin in the Fuller Ferry terminal where we saw a sign that read, “Following pest eradication on Rangitoto Island and Motutapu, please help to ensure the islands stay pest free. Check your bags and shoes for seeds, dirt, insects, mice and rats before traveling to the islands.” Jacquie couldn’t believe the new restrictions. She never travels anywhere without a mouse or a rat in her shoe. When she complained to the ferryman, he just folded his arms and shook his head.

“Ma’am,” he said. “Like the sign says, please remove all rodents from your bags and shoes.”

“Fascists!” Jacquie screamed. But seeing that people were staring at her, she ultimately emptied her shoes of several mice and rats and we were able to board the ferry and visit Rangitoto where we had a wonderful time.

So, that was the caliber of material I wanted to doctor in order to give the impression that this blog has been around forever. But in order to come up with a decade’s worth of material, I calculated that I would have needed at least ten years to create the material. That was time I just did not have to spare.

So I started writing a song. And I’d like to share it with you. It’s kind of an anthem to the last ten years, the good old Oughts.  The song is really terrible and the recording is even worse. So if you listen to it and you don’t like it, take heart this New Years that things can only get better once you turn off the music.

Unfortunately, I can’t upload mp3 files yet because I’m too cheap to pay for the privilege. So if you’re curious please follow the link (it takes a few seconds to download) and now without further ado, Broken Caravan, an anthem to the oughts.

Good night everybody and happy new year