What in the…?

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.

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In No Particular Order

Jacquie and I are going on a road trip. We’re bringing a GPS device. Like an iPad, its screen automatically changes orientation as you go from holding the device vertically to horizontally and back again. This way we’ll know exactly where we are as our car tumbles down the side of a cliff. So, I won’t be posting here for a while, especially if we tumble down the side of a cliff.

In the meantime…

 

 

Words that Wound and Other Yuletide Festivities

Christmas came early to our house this year.

It arrived way ahead of New Year’s Eve.

But not before St. Patrick’s Day stopped in for a beer just because it “happened to be in the neighborhood.”

This made Christmas very uncomfortable, of course, after their ugly fight at Thanksgiving.

They had exchanged…words that wound.

The flowers of the pohutukawa tree. The pohutukawa ("drenched with mist" in Maori) is sometimes referred to as the New Zealand Christmas Tree.

Now the two sat in the lounge for what seemed like an eternity of stilted, awkward conversation.

Christmas couldn’t take any more. It got up to leave, insisting it had a million “little chores” to do at home.

Which was all for the better, frankly, seeing how the holiday had caught me off guard.

I’d forgotten to get Jacquie a present.

It's beginning to look a lot like the Nihotupu track in the Waitakere Ranges. This stream feeds the Upper Nihotupu reservoir, part of Auckland's water system.

Jacquie handed me a small object wrapped in colorful paper, with a fussy little ribbon.

“What’s the occasion?” I said.

“Ha ha, Simon, you’re so funny,” she said. “You’re the funniest person in the world. I don’t know why people don’t walk up to you on the street and give you a million dollars and name their children after you. And you’re so nice and considerate and you never use words that wound. Open your present.”*

It was an iPod Nano (6th generation).

I was touched. But that was beside the point. I was moved. This was a surprising gift. I hadn’t owned a personal listening device in ages.

“Where’s the cassette go?” I said.

“––.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I know it takes CDs.”

The Upper Nihotupu reservoir has a capacity of 336,000,000 gallons. Dam, that's a lot of water. Here the liquid passes through a pipe, as you can see. I'd been carrying 0.079251616 gallons of what you see there until just before this picture was taken.**

The device, as it turned out, imposed a steep learning curve that taxed all my faculties.

After six hours of screaming, one sprained wrist, third-degree burns all about my face and torso, a torn ligament and 25 mg of Valerian, I finally managed to upload a single tune.

Caribbean Queen by Billy Ocean.

The situation was turning ugly.

I know what you're thinking. So I'm going to come out and say it to clear the air of...words that wound. This isn't a Hobbit hole, ok? That's just such a stupid, obvious joke. This is a damned tunnel. Alright? Just a tunnel. Not a nasty, dirty, wet tunnel, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy tunnel with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat. It's a tunnel that passes under the MAXX rail-bed and leads from the east side of Auckland Domain to Parnell (where the wankers dwell.) Hobbits use this tunnel to commute to work, and to sell drugs and sexual services to one another.

I called technical support.

I told them I was having trouble manipulating the controls on Nano’s little touch-screen.

“I see what the problem is, sir,” the tech support person said.

“You do?”

“Yes. Your fingers are the size of Hungarian sausages. Lay off the Ring Dings, if you can be bothered, and maybe in a few years you’ll be able to enjoy one of our fine products.”

I was going to yell at the tech support guy for using…words that wound.

But on second thought, he made a valid point as far as my physique was concerned.

You see, my Nano had gone missing for a while that day.

Jacquie and I looked everywhere. Things seemed hopeless. I tossed my head back in Joan of Arc fashion and just as I did that, the Nano popped out from a fold of adipose tissue between my second and third chin. We figured it must have slipped in there while I was eating a Ring Ding.

“You’re probably right,” I said. “Got any other helpful tidbits?”

“Yes,” the tech dude said. “Your blog is getting lame, bland and repetitive.”

“‘Getting’?”

“Bravo,” he said. “Well done. Didn’t see that one coming. Please, no more. I don’t want any part of it. That whole ‘Christmas came early this year’ bit as a segue into this Nano routine? Nuh-uh. Total crap.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.

A disused railroad siding in a layer of adipose tissue between Auckland Domain and Parnell, near the Hobbit tunnel. (Note Hobbit feces). "Look," I said to Jacquie. "It's the G train. Finally." Even the Nano tech dude would have to admit this was a very humorous comment because the G train is a subway line in New York notorious for long waits, unannounced disruptions, and mildly irritating graffiti featuring...words that wound. Thus the implication here is that the "G train " was so tardy in its arrival that the motorcar corroded to the level of decay (pictured), making for a whimsical moment of absurdist satire that sophisticated people on one-and-one-fifttieth continents can enjoy. Note the added layer of humor in the suggestion that a NYC subway line could be extended to NYC's near-antipode, which would be highly impractical even if it were technically doable.

I couldn’t think what else to say.

Tech dude’s cherished yuletide sentiments had wounded me in the sebaceous area between my second and third chins.

I threw my head back in pain, adding my trademark Joan of Arc flourish. A Nano shot out of my adipose folds, soaring through the air, smashing against a Ring Ding.

I was about to hang up on the tech dude when Jacquie furiously grabbed the phone out of my hand.

“I just wanted to say one thing to you,” she screamed. “Merry Christmas.”

Then she hung up.

Then she turned to me.

Then she screamed again.

Then she said “Well, do you have a gift for me?”

Traffic signs in New Zealand often provide confusing or self-contradicory information, resulting in hundreds of thousands of wounds and deaths, costing the nation a few hundred dollars in lost productivity every year. But sometimes you come across a traffic sign that is relatively clear. New Zealand's written driver's exam always has at least one question regarding what to do when approaching the sign pictured above.

As a matter of fact, I did have time to prepare something.

“Here you go honey,” I said.

I handed her an envelope.

She was getting all teary eyed.

She opened the envelope, pulled out a note I’d written, and read out loud.

“‘I.O.U. one fantastic gift,'” she said. She looked at me, astonished. “But that’s what you got me for my birthday.”

“Not exactly,” I said. “This time the note was written on toilet paper.”

Jacquie was disgusted. She used several “words that wound,” alluding to uncomfortable-sounding objects orienting themselves in time and space to my nether region.

Then she smelled the IOU toilet paper and gagged. “Is that brown ink or is that what I hope it isn’t?”

“I’ll never tell,” I said. “But I’ll say one thing: getting a Hobbit to take stool-softener and spell out a letter with his own excrement is not as difficult as everyone makes it out to be.”

This microscope is an inexplicable part of the penguin habitat exhibit at Kelly Tarlton's, a sort of combination aquarium, wildlife exhibit, children's museum and, at night, corporate event venue. My new employer held its Christmas party there.

Then the doorbell rang. It was the Apple tech guy.

“Would you please, please, end this stupid post now?” he said. “It’s terrible and nobody’s read this far because it’s Christmas and you’re already at like 1,250 words.”

They served a buffet dinner that included several kinds of meat.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

A segment of tentacle at Kelly Tarlton's has absolutely no friends. It's not attached to anyone. It just likes to hang out in formaldehyde.

“OK,” I said. “You’re right.”

“Thank you,” the tech guy said.

“Merry Christmas.”

Another fine specimen. Although it has nothing to do with this picture, Kelly Tarlton was the inventor of the underwater viewing tubule used by many modern aquariums.

* Quote taken verbatim.

**Because I pee’d in the reservoir.

One…Singularity Sensation

A Review of the Future

The New York Times ran a story last Friday about the venture-capitalist aspect of the Singularity. The article describes the Singularity as a time

when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.

…(when) human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.

The apparent contradiction that life in the Singularity is unpredictable yet it will surely improve the lot of humanity doesn’t evoke much cognitive dissonance among its zealous popularizers, like inventor/businessman Ray Kurzweil who seems to believe the application of science is always good, not the mixed-bag it really tends to be.

For example, one can argue that advances in medical and agricultural science have dramatically reduced suffering associated with starvation and illness. That’s good. One could also say that healthier people living longer thanks to better nutrition and medicine has contributed to overpopulation with all its attendant conflicts for finite resources and apparent irreconcilable differences with the environment. That one’s not so good. See? Mixed-bag.

So people who believe in the advent of a super-intelligence that will sweep away such complications ignore history, or maybe they assume that history doesn’t apply to them.

The latter possibility vexes me. The Times reports that Singularity University charges $15,000 for a nine-day course that “focuses on introducing entrepreneurs to promising technologies.” I don’t have a problem with elites charging other elites lots of money to develop new markets for innovative tchotchkes. But that high tuition made me wonder: how much am I going to have to shell out to get in on this Singularity action?

And will it even be worth it? Like, what if the Singularity comes up with a way of converting our consciousness into data and uploading that data onto some kind of gigantic iPod, except it’s called an iBod to avoid copyright infringement and instead of us carrying an iPod, the iBod will be carrying us?

And say the Singularity forgets to make the battery on this iBod very durable so that after a year or two, the whole iBod is fried? What happens to us? Do we die? If so, do we at least get a refund?

And what if our iBod dies after we’ve synced it up to our computers, which version of us will be us: the one that fried on the iBod or the one on your “Favorites” list on your computer that you like to play when you have people over for drinks?

And what if we’re the last person in line at the Singularity Store and by the time we get up to the counter, not only has the Singularity Store run out of iBods but everybody else, including the cashier, has already uploaded themselves onto their iBods? Who are we supposed to complain to? What are we supposed to do then? Read a book?

And what if only the very smart and very rich are able to upload themselves onto their own fancy expensive iBods? What is everyone else supposed to do then? With my brains, wealth and charm, I’d be lucky to get one-week summer-share on a Commodore 64.

As you can see if you’ve bothered reading this far, and I really don’t know why you would, that Times article had me quite worried. I wanted to evolve to the Singularity, but I wasn’t sure if I had enough money. There was only a couple dollar in my pocket. Perhaps if I made myself as smart as Ray Kurzweil, I would be allowed to progress to the Singularity. I had to go out and learn something.

An Education

That’s when Jacquie and I decided to visit Highwic, a historic site and one of New Zealand’s finest Gothic timber houses. This place was a real test of our cognitive abilities with lots of sly puzzles for us to solve.

For example, just beyond the cashier as you enter the house, you come across a table, a kind of tiny gift shop, part of which looked like this:

We almost passed this table without noticing the problem.

“Wait a minute,” Jacquie said. “Decoupage isn’t fun. It’s tedious and boring.”

“That has to be the answer.”

I was so excited I told the cashier who was markedly less impressed than I had been. She stared at me.

“It’s ok if you don’t understand,” I said. “Not everybody can progress to the Singularity.”

“Hey, I know where we can learn stuff,” Jacquie said. “Let’s go to the toilet.”

So we went to the toilet. We spent a lot of time there. Then we saw this sign posted on the actual toilet itself.

The sign says: You are welcome to use this bathroom for washing your hands and using the mirrors. The toilet must not be used under any circumstances. It is a heritage toilet, for display purposes only. Thank You

We were so proud of ourselves because even though we didn’t see the sign until later, we hadn’t used the heritage toilet anyway. We figured it out on our own.

“We’re two-for-two!” I said.

What we had more trouble figuring out though was how to work the heritage enema.

I hope there won't be any heritage enemas in the Singularity because no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't figure out how to use it. The bedpan, however, was a cinch.

At that point we decided to quit while we were ahead. We’d learned enough for one day. The future was still far off into the future, so there’d plenty more days to figure out how to use the heritage enema. In the meantime, we decided to enjoy the rest of Highwic.

Highwic was founded in 1862 as a private residence for Alfred Buckland, who started off as a farmer and rose the ranks of Pakeha society to become an even wealthier farmer. He had 21 children with two successive wives. The house stayed in the family until 1978 and the family stayed in the house until later that same year.

A closeup of the dollhouse. For some reason, I took about a dozen pictures of the dollhouse.

The doll house included an exact replica of the heritage bathroom.

The grounds include a fernery and a billiard house. Above is the billiard house now overgrown by ferns.

We were pooped by the end of our tour. The future was looking good. Our brains were brimming with lots of information. Highwic even inspired us with an idea to make our flat as homey as the one Alfred Buckland lived in.