Monday, July 21, 2014

life's a beach and then you die

I’ve never been addicted to any substances, unless you count food, in which case I’ve been in a shaky kind of recovery for thirteen years. But without belittling actual chemical dependence, I think I have an addictive personality. AK is the opposite—she can go to bed at a different time every night, and her only bad habits have more to do with a lack of good habits.

I, on the other hand, can practically feel my brain latch onto a thing—whether it’s a substance or a behavior or a thought—and go, Hey, this could be a good one! Let’s definitely eat ALL the potato chips. Let’s definitely Google ONE MORE DISEASE. The simultaneous feeling of surrender and control is intoxicating. Literally, if I understand how serotonin and dopamine work, which I quite possibly do not.

The past four years have been dramatic, and sometimes it takes me by surprise. Who me? The kid who lived in the same house for eighteen years and whose parents watched TV from exactly 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night? Other times I wonder if I’m addicted to having major tumult at three month intervals.

Maybe that’s just another way of trying to control the narrative—if I’m bringing the drama, I can stop it. If I’m to blame, I can save myself.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I desperately want to stay cancer-free and adopt a kid or two and save the drama for the characters in the books I should be writing. On a day-to-day basis, I ascribe to Liz Lemon’s philosophy that the one universal human desire is to be left alone to eat a sandwich. I want my life to be calm so I can eat a sandwich.

God, I miss this show.
And yet if life is a big churning ocean, and I am a reluctant surfer—still bruised and shark-nibbled from learning how to stand up on my board—if this is the metaphor we’re working with…I have come to crave the waves. It’s not that I like them. But my body has learned how to go into a certain mode: core tensed, knees bent. And the body so easily mistakes the familiar for the good. That’s kind of what addiction is, at its heart. Sickening and exhilarating.

But there’s a more positive way to look at it too. Today my therapist reminded me that anxiety serves a purpose (he didn’t say what, but from an evolutionary standpoint, it probably has to do with staying away from bears). Mine goes haywire at times, and at other times I think I’ve conquered it. When I discover I haven’t, I get mad at myself. But I guess it’s not just pathology. It’s life.

Not a Beyonce kinda surfboard, you pervs.
At my last all-clear cancer check-up, in April, I thought: Awesome, now it’s time to get back into the thick of living before I start worrying about the next one. (Now that it’s July, I think I am already worrying a little bit.) My sense wasn’t so much that I had a smooth-sailing future, but that I needed to get back on my board and ride as many waves as I could.

It may not be totally irrelevant that despite growing up in a beach town, I’ve always been a crappy swimmer and afraid of the ocean. I’m an urban, inland kinda girl. But it’s like I’ve moved to the beach and there’s no turning back. I’ve acquired a taste for salt. But fuck, I hate how much sand is in my swimsuit.

Monday, July 07, 2014

power to the tail car

When I was in grad school we did some reading about the theory of the carnivalesque, which basically says that people in power let the peasants get a little crazy now and then to blow off steam and prevent a real revolution. Back in the day, that meant villages would host carnivals where the king would dress up as a commoner and commoners could parade around like kings. The next day they would return to their regularly scheduled program of oppression and plague.

Without going into spoiler-level detail, I think this is the idea behind Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong’s thriller about a train car loaded with the few survivors of a failed global warming fix that has left Earth frozen and uninhabitable. As you might imagine, things on the train are a little tense. Especially because the “tail car” passengers live in filth and poverty, while the folks at the front of the train spend their time going to raves and knitting in orange groves. The government mouthpiece for the train’s mysterious leader, Mr. Wilford, is a deliciously awkward Tilda Swinton. She assures them that everyone has a preordained place in the natural balance of things.

Pay no attention to our bloody visitors, children.
As you also might imagine, a scrappy group of the downtrodden decides to overthrow the one percent. Chris Evans is their predictably reluctant leader. When he mumbles his protestations, I wanted to join him—Octavia Spencer was standing nearby, and she seemed like a much more interesting choice. So are Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko, father-daughter genius-outlaws (the story doesn’t waste their talent as much as it does Spencer’s).

I realize I’m making it sound like a silly movie, but it’s actually pretty great. Each car of the train is a visual design jewel. The tail car is very Jacob Riis, with its rags and bunk beds, while Mr. Wilford’s car is kind of Deco/Eames. In between there are the aforementioned orange groves, a creepy Wilford-worshipping classroom that made me think the movie was at least in part a North Korea allegory, and a sparkling walk-through aquarium. A lot of the movie feels like a nonsensical but vivid dream. A lot of it is stomach-turningly violent. I couldn’t quite decide if it was overkill, or necessary, or if I’m turning soft. I mean, how many limbs do you need to see hacked off to make a point? The world may never know.

Sure, she looks like an elementary school secretary, but she'll chop your arm off.
In addition to the carnivalesque reading and the North Korea reading, you can also look at the train as a traditional, linear plot. People move along it, each car connecting, but things get really interesting only when you bust out. It’s worth hanging in through the dreary/violent middle cars to get to the good stuff.

Friday, July 04, 2014

good books by two ‘mericans, a new zealander and an indian-british-‘merican

Happy 4th, y’all! What I have learned so far from my morning spent dodging the heat and internetting in bed is that “#merica”/“#murica” is a thing. Blink and you’ll miss a meme.

At the risk of being un-‘merican, one of my favorite books these past months was by a New Zealander. But don’t worry, I’ll eat some freedom fries to make up for it.

My May and June reading log: 

Cover of Wake. The book is as good as the cover.
Wake by Elizabeth Knox: One of the strangest and most human stories I've read in a while, this novel starts out like a zombie book (why are the residents of this New Zealand spa town gnawing each other's faces off??) and takes a turn for the existential. Elizabeth Knox is a genius at manipulating point of view, creating a story with a relaxed pace that is somehow also full of twists. The invisible monster wreaking havoc on the survivors of the initial massacre literally feeds off human misery, which is basically how evil works: hurt begets hurt, war begets war.

So what are a bunch of ordinary, peace-loving survivors to do? Bury the dead. Feed themselves. Care for each other. This is not, thankfully, a novel of heroes or even big heroic acts (though there are a couple). This is a novel in which the park ranger continues to look after her endangered birds, and the 14-year-old longs to return to his world of video games. The rules of Knox's world are somewhat ambiguous, but don't worry, things are *sort of* explained. Like all the books I love, Wake is about life, is about everything; and it does what it does with simple but sparkling language. Wake will stay with me a long time.

Losing Touch by Sandra Hunter: Great book! Long review here!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: I think I'm onto Gillian Flynn's formula: murder mystery + recent cultural history + cool abandoned places. I'm in. Dark Places is still my favorite, but Gone Girl ups the twists and turns in its portrait of a couple trying to outwit each other. It's sort of an examination of gender roles and coupledom and the media, but it doesn't have a lot that's profound to say on these topics. Still, I genuinely admire Flynn for her ambition--I can only imagine the number of 3" x 5" cards taped to her wall to plot this stuff, all while giving language and character the respect they deserve.

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: One of the characters in this ensemble novel is the son of a folksinger whose big hit was a song called "The Wind Will Carry Us Apart." As one of the other characters points out, that lyric doesn't actually make any sense. And yet this story--which follows a group of artsy (if not always genuinely talented) summer camp friends over the course of decades--is essentially about how the wind (i.e., time) carries people apart and together in ways that don't always make much sense. In its own unflashy way, this is an experimental novel, butting up against the idea that fate is fated, or even the result of the choices we make. This is a novel where the guy with AIDS lives, and the healthy guy dies. Because life, if you live long enough, is full of surprises. I find that encouraging, especially on days when my doom seems laid out before me. It's not a perfect novel. Michael Cunningham and Zadie Smith and Lorrie Moore have done what Wolitzer does with more beautiful, sublime strokes. And I wasn't always sure what warranted a scene or why. But the characters became real to me, and interesting.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

thoughts of the day

1. my health and fitness app may have a few things in common with the fictional mean god in my head

Good morning, internet. I have been counting the minutes till this morning for about two weeks now. We spent last weekend on a short, lovely trip to the Bay Area for our friend Mikko’s dance party—sort of a fortieth birthday party, sort of a mini summer camp, sort of a party to tell all his friends and family members how much he loved them (a small piece of me was like, Is this the part where Mikko tells us he has an incurable disease? Luckily, there was no such part).

Everybody dance now. NOW!
Mikko, Chris and AK dance so good they're blurry.
We also got to see Pedro and Stephen’s new West Oakland flat. We’re so sad that they’re not in L.A. anymore, but at least they were courteous enough to move to the one city where ninety percent of our non-L.A. friends seem to have congregated. I love me some one-stop shopping.

West Oakland walk with Sugar the sweetheart pit bull.
But we left for Oakland right after work last Friday, and returned right before work Monday, and I DO NOT DO WELL with so little downtime. Tuesday night I had a little OCD meltdown, in which I became certain that my thoughts could determine the future: Wasn’t it true that I was ungrateful for my health and good fortune? Didn’t my continued grouchiness about lack-of-baby mean Fictional Mean God* would punish me by not getting me a baby? Shouldn’t I stop caring about a baby, so that I could get a baby? (Fictional Mean God is, apparently, easily tricked.)

Friday I drank a smoothie that was mostly half-and-half and ate too many potato chips and cookies at a free concert at the Levitt Pavilion, and even if you show relative restraint by not eating the whole bag, your health and fitness app will still tell you that you’re a thousand calories over what you should be eating.

Throughout the week I exchanged hyper-sensitive emails with my hyper-sensitive bff. We totally sensitived-out on each other.

Every night I self-soothed with My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, which is a pretty awesome show about a culture whose main tenet (according to the show) is dressing like a trashy whore in order to demonstrate your uber-virginity.

I live in the Venn diagram between this and RuPaul's Drag Race.
At no time did I write a lick of fiction. I felt my soul erode accordingly.

So that was my week.

2. i’m resisting the temptation to make a list of resolutions for my second year after cancer treatment, because it would be all the same shit anyway

It’s been exactly one year since I finished cancer treatment. The year has sped by, as years do once you’re over thirty. Sometimes I feel like, That’s so weird that I had cancer that one time. Other times it feels defining—a distinct before and after point. I feel like Homeboy wouldn’t make nearly as much sense to me if I hadn’t gone through what I’ve gone through in the past four years. I’m glad I work there because it makes my internal change external and more permanent.

Last night co-worker Kendra’s boyfriend Rob was pondering what he might say if he was called upon to share a Thought of the Day, which is how Homeboy kicks off each morning—with a mini sermon from a staff member. He had a lot of the same questions that I would have had as an early-thirties youngster like him: How am I supposed to have anything important to say to people who’ve had much harder lives than I have?

He used the words “us” and “them,” not unkindly.

Employment Services Director Jose gives his Thought of the Day. This guy always has me scrambling for my notebook.
Homeboy’s whole point is that there is no us and them. Yes, some people have had way more than their fair share of struggle, and it’s affected their lives in major ways. The idea isn’t to put a blanket “we’re all the same inside!” band-aid on real injustice. It’s more to understand that experience shapes us all, and we can help each other to have more good experiences and fewer shitty ones by naming and honoring struggle, and moving forward with humor and grace (or at least awkward grace).

Even among white, middle-class, educated staff members, there are those who know what it’s like to scrape the bottom of their purse for stray cocaine dust.** Or have a parent they will never, ever please. Or just (“just”) get super depressed and lose all hope.

Sometimes I think the “us” is people who get trauma and the “them” is people who don’t, even though I should know better.

Sometimes I get mad at myself for not being where I should be—there have been chocolate binges this year, even though I thought I was beyond them, although they’ve been fewer; there hasn’t been a baby or a completed third draft of my YA novel.

Sometimes I am almost able to just be. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to keep trying.

*I mean, I think Mean God is fictional, created by the dark forces in my head. I believe in Love God, if not his-her power or inclination to reward me for my goodness.

**I don’t know if that’s literally true; I borrowed the image from the amazing poet Allison Benis White. But we have more than a few proud (by which I mean humble) AA/NA folks in our ranks.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

nervous systems: a review of sandra hunter's losing touch

Lovely cover, lovely book.
Sandra Hunter’s Losing Touch is a quiet book that unfolds as life does—in lonely moments and poignant ones; matters of life and death are written in cups of tea, mechanical beds and long distance phone calls. Nevertheless, Hunter’s first novel began as something of a thriller for me, because something is wrong with protagonist Arjun Kulkani’s leg, and he has good reason to believe it could be a type of motor neuron disease, his family’s genetic curse (British doctors initially dismiss the immigrant’s self-diagnosis, because they believe a disease that’s common in India must be the result of some third-world problem that could not manifest in England).

As a hypochondriac whose fears have, on occasion, proven right, I was filled with dread on Arjun’s behalf. Each chapter is named for a symptom: “Reduced Deep Tendon Reflexes” or “Weakness of the Facial and Tongue Muscles.” Like any slow, degenerative illness, the cruelty of Arjun’s disease is that, in some ways, he is kept alive to witness his own death. This loss of physical self echoes the loss of cultural self he experienced when he immigrated to England (his wife and children strive for Britishness while he fantasizes about women in saris). And that loss of self echoes the trauma he experienced as an abused child, although we learn little about his early years.

He never used to consult any part of himself when he stood or walked or picked up a squash racquet. I’m not myself today. If part of him vanishes, then part of the intrinsic who-he-is also vanishes. Who is left? He listens to his body. He learns how to wait.

Although Hunter is most certainly concerned with these questions of selfhood, what makes Losing Touch unique is the latter part of Arjun’s narrative—the listening and waiting. Hunter alternates between Arjun’s point of view and his wife Sunila’s. Neither is a “likeable” hero. Arjun is prone to anger, and even when he tries to behave lovingly toward his baffling children, he comes across stern and critical, making for some of the novel’s most heartbreaking moments and reminding us that true love is the ability to triumph over our blundering inability to communicate. Sunila can be rigid herself, as well as dogmatic and materialistic.

We all hope that tragedy will bring out the best in us, and the contrast between Arjun’s fantasy and the strained reality of his family life will hit close to home for most readers, I imagine. “And for a moment it’s possible to see it: they are the family with someone who falls down,” Arjun thinks. “Then they pick him up and they all laugh about it, lovingly. And they carry on. Everything is normal again.”

It’s hard to be “normal again” when you never were—when you already felt out of place and broken. And yet this is not the story of Arjun’s desperate downward spiral or his triumph over adversity. It is not the story of a marriage lost and then found, or just lost. Life, Hunter seems to know, is largely a matter of sticking around to see what happens; of surrendering control because you have no other choice, but finding fleeting wisdom, empathy and pleasure in its wake.

Hunter’s background is in short fiction, and each chapter is simultaneously a vignette and a summary. As such, the language is spare and carefully crafted, the epiphanies small and glimmering. The downside of this style is a feeling of waiting for the story to start—but perhaps this is intentional. How much of life do we fritter away worrying about the future or reliving the past?

As I learned during my own rendezvous with illness, the “living in the present” mantra espoused by countless gurus, self-help books and internet memes is, in fact, the only way to avoid being crushed by anxiety and sorrow. I always thought that if I mastered it (which is not to say that I have), I would feel as free and joy-filled as a girl in yogurt ad, driving her convertible and laughing and eating yogurt. But the reward for such Zen-ish triumph is rarely soaring freedom, as Arjun in his humbled body knows. It’s simply living.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

new zealand travel journal 6/9/14: too messy for theory

We’re back at the airport in Nadi, Fiji, where the guys in aloha shirts playing calypso guitar are giving me flashbacks to last week’s blues. It’s hot, crowded and dirty—there are random chip canisters and plastic plates scattered about, and the lighting and the signage have the aura of cheapness, yet nothing here is actually cheap. I just paid six Fiji dollars (however much that is) for my third-choice flavor of melted ice cream.

So yeah, we’re ready to be home, although after my Huka Falls meltdown, I did manage to pull it together again. AK was sweet to me, told me the turbulent blue and white water was like our feelings—she was jokey but touched by her own metaphor and the bigness of nature all around us.

AK in the backseat with her Dramamine, Cheryl with her schnoz, Emily at the wheel.
We drove back to Auckland through the cow-speckled countryside. AK slept in the backseat and Emily and I talked about the comforts of history.

“It’s all stories,” she said. “That’s a kind old-fashioned way of looking at it, but all the people who want to see history through the lens of theory—I don’t know, it’s just too messy.”

Emily was in the middle of one of those are-we-dating-or-just-friends scenarios with a guy she knows, and it was causing her to have some obsessive, looping thoughts that were, she said, reminiscent of her fourteen-year-old self. I told her I got it, I really did. That her battle and mine wasn’t to accumulate enough evidence of a good outcome (though the evidence was real, and there), but to stay in the present. Whatever and however that was done.

This is my foot in the crosswalk.

These are the bubbles in my pink wine.

As I told AK (next to me on the blue-carpeted slab at the Nadi airport), I know my job as a human is to learn to sit in the discomfort. And just because it’s my job doesn’t mean I’ll get paid with a baby. AK probably thinks I’d do anything for a baby, but honestly, a not-small part of me would love a text from Zoey saying they’ve found someone else. Then I could move forward with my self-pity, which can be so comforting.

new zealand travel journal 6/8/14: waterworks

The saddest selfie ever!
It’s our last full day in NZ. Right now we’re at Huka Falls, a highway-wide river whose white and pale-blue rapids generate fifteen percent of NZ’s power. And I’m the idiot who’s on a park bench journaling and crying because of all the baby stuff, and lack thereof, we have to go back to tomorrow. AK and I talked about it in the hotel a little bit this morning—poor Emily. We talked about AK’s dislike of Zoey and Jim’s tactics and my feeling that my calling in life is to weather heartbreak, and the absurd romanticism of that idea.

The shitty thing about open adoption, and the reason I will never be poly-amorous, is that it’s not enough for two people to be on solid ground, to love each other and to have worked through our shit. Three or four people have to be there at the same time. And it pisses me off, endlessly, that what’s good enough for other people isn’t good enough when I do it.

new zealand travel journal 6/7/14: two days with the volcano gods

1. spaaaahhh

After we all finished our travel journaling Thursday night at the Irish pub, we kept talking, and Rachel came up again. I asked Emily how, exactly, that year had shaped her. She was living in Moscow, Idaho, and teaching in Pullman, Washington, a place she hated, and Rachel’s death simply but vividly underscored the fact that life is too short to waste. She didn’t want to fuck around, but she was also kind of trapped.

A coworker who had also lost a good friend told her: “This kind of experience gives you a clarity not everyone has access to. But it fades—the challenge is to keep it close to you and let it inform your life.”

So Emily bided her time and went to therapy and the gym, and made herself the kind of person who would be ready to take full advantage of better things when they come along. I want to let the whole baby/cancer experience inform my life the same way. I don’t have the luxury of dreaming my life will be perfect and waiting until then to enjoy myself. I do have the luxury of an opportunity to leave my old perfectionist thinking behind.

We spent the first part of yesterday at the Polynesian Spa, where an arthritic priest had once been cured of his aches and pains by the sulfuric water bubbling up on the edge of the lake. Ever since then, the spot has drawn tourists in its various incarnations. The present-day pools sat next to the ones from the 1930s, lined with sand-colored brick and full of swirling, filmy water. It was the most vacationy stretch of our vacation. Warm water and reading! Emily found a guy to talk Scandinavian history with.

Happy feet.

Happy rest of me.
At the Rotorua Museum, we watched an amazing twenty-minute film about the history of the area, from its mythic Polynesian origins to the nineteenth century tourism boom to present-day Maori-white-folk harmony. The story made so little narrative sense (why is that hotel maid smiling at that bellhop, when we’ll never see either of them again except as crushed bodies after the 1886 volcanic eruption?) that you knew it had to be based on fact.

And the special effects! 3-D animated volcano god, SHAKING STAR TOURS SEATS during the eruption. The grant proposal that had made this possible typed itself across my brain: By using state of the art technology to tell traditional stories, the proposed film will engage young viewers and aid them in connecting to their history in an interactive, multimedia format.

Tudor architecture, island sky.
The museum, a sprawling Tudor mansion, was the site of another nineteenth-century bathhouse, and it was full of cabinet-of-curiosities nooks and crannies. A network of pipes in the cement crawl space reminded me of Seattle’s underground city tour. Old photos of people getting “treatments” made me 1) happy to live now, 2) think about the fine lines between medicine and masochism, and 3) want to write a story about the collision of cultures and the long strange history of tourism, using the 1886 hotel collapse as a rather heavy-handed metaphor for said collision.

2. poi vey

The other main exhibit, about Maori history (they sailed over in canoes just six hundred years before the white people) paved the way for our evening activity: a tour of Tamaki Maori Village—kind of like the living museum we visited in Sarawak—complete with a haka, the traditional war dance made famous by the NZ national rugby team, and a hangi feast. The dance was badass: all percussion and bug eyes and spear-spinning. The campiness was palpable—our tour bus driver (who’d gone to the International I Can’t Heeeear You School of Tour Guiding) drafted a reluctant but polite Frenchman named Hashid as our “chief.”

Maori dancers: Those are not chillaxin' hukilau hands.
There was some fun/painful audience participation. One of our co-participants was a loud woman from Louisiana, who, upon volunteering to learn to spin the poi (a rock on a string, now played by a ball of foam) announced she was going to “represent for America!”

Woman on right is presenting for America. I'm on the left, representing for Los Angeles.
But the food, slow-steamed in the ground, was fantastic. The little gold potatoes tasted like smoky heaven.

Today we drove to Lake Taupo, stopping half way at Orakei Korako, an island in the middle of a different lake. It was a mini Jurassic Park, with bubbling sulfur springs, geysers, silica deposits like blankets of snow, a cave full of turquoise water and pinwheel-shaped palm trees. And yet cows grazed on rolling green hills across the lake. This whole place is like England + Hawaii.

This snow will boil you.

Mountains in the mist.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

new zealand travel journal 6/5/14: like wild, but shorter

1. rock, mud, logs and europeans

Here is my mini-mini version of Wild (probably—I still haven’t read it. But I want/plan to!). A grueling two-day hike is like every life journey: If you could see what you were getting into, you probably wouldn’t sign up for it, but in the end you’re glad you did it.

We rented a car (left side of the road—I was happy to be a backseat passenger) and drove through the sheep and cattle pastures of the NZ countryside. NZ is a big dairy exporter, and these cows look much happier than the ones you see on the side of the 5 freeway in smelly Hanford, California. These cows gambol.

Happy as cows in spring.
From the little town of Thames, we turned off into the parkland of the Coromandel Peninsula and began our backpacking journey through the ferny forest. It seemed one part NorCal, one part tropical rainforest. We went up, up, up, taking turns wearing Emily’s too-big backpack, whose straps dug into my collarbone.

Doing something physical and faraway always makes worries fade. You also have plenty of time with your thoughts. I thought of Zoey on bed rest and how lucky we were to be able-bodied in NZ. It’s rare that I feel lucky next to any pregnant woman, so maybe that is the profound though I worked my way to on that long hike. But mostly the trip wasn’t that profound. No crying. An escape, but a subtle one. Maybe that means my life is actually okay right now?

I'm smiling because I'm still wearing the small backpack.
There were a couple of those Indiana Jones bridges, but they were sturdy, and not too high up, so not scary. There were stone steps carved into the mountain for pack horses, from when the forest was a logging camp back in the late 1800s through the 1920s. Imagining living out here, dirty and aching and poor, for six months at a stretch, is another thing that will remind you that life, historically, has been hard.

The "hut."
We arrived at the Pinnacles Hut, where we’d booked beds, exactly two minutes before sunset. It was a tidy building that ran on solar power and had two big dorm rooms lined with bunk beds. Stepping into that room, my heart sank a little. I wasn’t going to be warm until I crawled into bed hours later.

So I was pleasantly surprised to walk into the dining room, where there was a coal fire going and several dinners steaming up the room. There was a middle aged Australian couple, a funny thirty-ish German couple named Kat and Matt, and a young Dutch woman named Irene.

Later we were joined by Pete, the hut warden, who showed us slides (actual slides!) of the camp’s logging days: photo after photo of ragged men in front of kauri logs the circumference of Emily’s living room. Thousand-year-old trees felled and shoved down the mountain in various haphazard, inefficient ways (screeching down train tracks, crashing through dams).

Irene and AK.
In the morning, we took the fifty-minute hike to the tip-top—the pinnacle, I guess—of the Pinnacles with Matt, Kat and Irene. We felt light and free without our packs, but it was still a climb: first stairs, then ladders, then metal rungs drilled into the rock. There was lots of vegetation, though, so it never got too scary—you could fall and smash your head easily enough, but it would have been difficult to fall off the cliff. From the platform at the top, we could see the mist rolling through the valleys, and the ocean on the other side of the peninsula.

I need to stop carrying a Fossil purse on hikes if I want to look like a true mountaineer.
The guy at REI in L.A. had said this area was spooky, something about ghosts in the mountains, although he may have been speaking about NZ as a whole, or just Lord of the Rings. Emily said Japanese folklore was full of mountain ghosts, mostly scorned women “which speaks to women’s role in society and men’s guilt.”

I love traveling with a historian. Whenever things got dull, I could basically be like, “Emily, tell me a story.” She knows about NZ, Japan, Mormons, socialists (Marxist and Christian English subtypes) and much more.

The original log ride.
Then it was back down the mountain via the Billy Goat Track. It was longer and muddier—we were practically sliding down a mud trench at one point—but with bits of old trestles and views for which overused words like “spectacular” and “breathtaking” were made. You peek through the bush and suddenly you’re on a cliffside looking out over a waterfall and steep, steep, tree-covered mountains. An American scene amped up a notch and more vertical.

Emily's fancy camera would do this scene justice.
The last hour was naturally the longest; I have never wanted to see a parking lot so badly. My toes slammed into the front of my boots. The backpack strap pinched a nerve in my left arm, a fact Old Cheryl would have found alarming.

We landed, tired and cold and hungry and dirty, in Thames, where we had steak and fish and chips, respectively, at a sort-of-Indian restaurant. (My new fitness app said I’d burned something like 1,200 calories, so if ever there was a time to eat fish and chips, it seemed like now.)

2. adventure hub

This morning we bummed around Auckland in our creaky bodies. We went to the nicest souvenir shop ever, Pauanesia, site of stuffed kiwis made from salvaged fabric and handmade tropical textiles and expertly curated jewelry from local artists. The woman who owned the shop talked about the kiwis like they were her little buddies and wrapped everything in colorful tissue and stickers.

One part store, one part art gallery.

Textile porn.
We bought a handmade stuffed bird rattle for the future, hoped-for Baby Ykleinra. I’d love it to be for Zoey and Jim’s twins. But maybe there will be a baby after that. We’re pretty much the opposite of that couple who buys tons of baby stuff the minute a kid becomes a glimmer in their eyes—I barely let myself even look at baby clothes if I’m not shopping for a friend’s kid. But for once this toy wasn’t going to be for a friend’s kid. Buying it was like building a little totem of hope.

Emily drove us to Rotorua, two hours south, where we are now. It seems like a kind of adventure hub, with all kinds of manmade joyrides to fill up your free time between nature-based adventures. We keep joking about Zorb, a human-sized hamster ball you can roll in down a hill, and Wet Zorb, which is the aforementioned + water. The main draw is the geothermal pools; the whole town smells like sulfur, but in a comforting, spa-like way.

Paella in Polynesia.
We unpacked at Crash Palace, our graffiti-art-decorated hostel, and went straight to the Night Market. It’s a farmer’s market more than a night market like the ones in Hong Kong or Singapore. A girl with a guitar played ‘90s songs and made me want to cry with aimless gratitude. There was manduka honey, mussel fritters, kebab, Chinese dumplings and a sort of empty Mexican food booth selling what my mom always called chili-mac. (The friendly front desk guy at Crash Palace called his Chihuahua mix, Puddles, a “dirty little Mexican.” “It’s a compliment, Puddles,” I told the dog.)

AK and Old Jemaine (who was really nice and is rocking the gray!).
AK befriended a T-shirt vendor we nicknamed Old Jemaine, after Flight of the Conchords. We finished the night (it feels so much later than it is) drinking Irish coffee at an empty-ish pub.

new zealand travel journal 6/2/14: like vancouver, but shorter

1. emily 2.0

Today was our chill-in-Auckland, get-used-to-the-time-difference day. Emily loves it here and is sick of Pullman, Washington, where she lives and teaches. Immediately we could see the happiness roll off of her—not annoying giddiness, but true, hard-won happiness. I think she’s sort of declared Auckland her safe space, where only good things happen, like I have with our house (this started when I used to get home from work and it was too late in the day for doctors to call with bad news), except a bigger, cooler version.

Emily is a good role model for this week. She dresses like an older, updated version of Daria, in jewel tones, perfectly fitted down jackets and arty T-shirts. Her apartment is spare but charming. A kiwi made from salvaged fabric perches on the back of her couch. A small tag on his gray foot says his name is Sean Finnegan.

Sean's brethren in a shop window.
After AK and Emily’s friend Rachel died, Emily found herself a therapist who helped her stop catastrophizing, and we had a good conversation about being on the other side of trauma. She showed us the two tattoos she’d gotten above each shoulder blade: a tiger for Rachel and a plum-colored, abstract flower.

2. a country weighted

Then it was off to explore Auckland—Emily is the perfect tour guide because she loves history and knows good, cheap-but-tasty places to eat.

What I learned: A third of Auckland’s four-million-person population lives here, a country weighted in one spot. It looks like a diverse city, with pink-cheeked English people and a good amount of Maori folks (they fared better than most indigenous peoples, Emily said), lots of people from Asia, some Southeast Asian Muslims, Fijians and people who seem entirely miscellaneous to my clueless gaze, like the little trio of thin-faced, dark-skinned men with Jewfros I saw at a shop, chatting in an unidentifiable language.

The part of the city we saw looked a little like Vancouver, with yachts parked next to modern apartment buildings made of ocean-colored glass (but shorter than those in Vancouver).

Winter sunset.
Carrot salad at Vic's Park Cafe. By the end of the trip, I was mostly living off chocolate.
We ate at Vic’s Park CafĂ©, then skipped the zoo in favor of a nice indoor film festival, where we watched a docudrama (a form that always takes a little acclimating to—and it was kind of funny because the New Zealand M.O. seems so undramatic) called Erebus: Operation Overdue. It told the story of a 1979 plane crash in Antarctica from the POV of the eleven Auckland cops who cleaned up the bodies scattered in the ashy snow. It was partly about a cover-up by the government, partly about PTSD. Everyone interviewed remembered their gloves smelling like melted human grease.

In L.A., the Q&A is always about some dude asking what kind of camera the filmmaker used, so he can show off that he totally knows that kind of camera. In L.A., I could happily live the rest of my life without ever seeing another Q&aA.

But in Auckland, it quickly became clear that this plane crash was 9/11 or a Holocaust—the even that everyone is sick of processing and which no one is over processing. And because New Zealand is such a small country, it seemed like half the audience had been personally involved in one way or another. Even the guy who was adamant that there was no cover-up praised the filmmaker’s work. It seems like a polite town, too.

The heroines of this travel journal.
A few more shops, a little more wandering and we finished the night with oysters and sushi on the waterfront at Soul. Next we’re off to a two-day camping trip in the Pinnacles.