Thursday, December 7, 2017

Revitalizing in dark times

Feels like a million years have passed since I last posted here, in a whole lot of ways. I had a bad bout of back trouble after an ill-advised skating session at a rink in Queenstown, which meant I had to limit my time sitting at the computer (or doing anything else fun or useful) until I got my back calmed down. For a long time I was trying to fix it myself with stretching and such, but after several weeks of pain I broke down and went to a physical therapist in Wanaka. She did dry needling to force the knotted muscles to release, and holy hell did that work miracles. No more pain, and I've got my full range of movement back, hooray!

Next time I won't wait so long to go. I was worried that it would cost a lot to see a PT here in New Zealand, since as a foreign visitor, I can't enroll in the public health system. Yet even paying full price, the cost was half of what therapists in Colorado charge. More evidence of just how crazy and broken the US system really is.

I was raised in a super-conservative family, and even as I slowly grew disillusioned with that conservatism, for many years I still believed the rants and dire warnings I'd always heard from US folks about socialized health care. Long wait times, bad doctors, no choices, substandard care, oh, the horror. Then I married an Australian, and my assumptions began to crumble upon hearing his quite different experience of a universal health care system. Especially when contrasted with US friends burning through their life savings to pay for treatments for chronic and/or major illness, despite having "good" insurance. My experience in NZ so far with the great spectre of socialized medicine is reminiscent of this conservative woman who moved to Canada and was shocked by how much better a universal health care system works for everyone. Hey, Americans: we're getting shafted. There is a better way. You deserve to enjoy it along with the rest of the first world. 

Yet in this current political climate, I fear the US won't be heading anywhere near that better way for a long time. I don't say this lightly: I am genuinely terrified of what's happening back home. The normalization of corruption and hatred, the refusal to believe or even consider objective facts, the erosion of democratic processes, the ever-more-flagrant disrespect for rule of law...I keep thinking of this chilling passage from Milton Mayer's book about 1930s Germany. A condensed version:

"Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse... But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked...But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D. And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you...The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves..."

Yeah. On the up side, I know many people are fighting the slide toward fascism, and fighting hard with all the tools our democracy provides, everything from votes to calls to lawsuits to protests. Many honorable people yet remain in government service; I pray that the tide can still be turned. I know it's equally important to fight despair, lest we lose all chance of recovering.

And so I find that good books of any stripe are all the more important to me. I desperately need the mental revitalization (and infusion of hope and determination) that reading a great story can provide. It makes me think of the St. Patrick's rune from Madeleine L'Engle's A Swiftly Tilting Planet: "...all these I place between me and the powers of darkness."

If you're looking for more good reads to put between you and darkness, I've got some suggestions. You may recall the Readers of the Lost Arc series I've been doing on under-read books at Lady Business. The last post just went up, so now all four parts of the series are available:

To that I would add two recently published books that really lifted my spirits lately:

  • Maggie Stiefvater's All the Crooked Saints, a lyrical magical realist tale of darkness and miracles and forgiveness set in the southeastern Colorado desert. 
  • Kari Maaren's Weave a Circle Round, a YA fantasy full of sharp insights, wild imagination, complex time travel, and quirky, warm-hearted humor in the style of Diana Wynne Jones. 
For those like me who take further comfort from nature's beauty, I can also point you to pics I've been sharing on twitter of New Zealand's amazing wilds: beaches, glaciers, waterfalls, snowy mountains, and rainbows

May you find new sources of strength in this time of darkness. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

What I've Been Doing Instead of Posting on this Blog

Believe it or not, I haven't been spending ALL my time here in New Zealand like this:

Charging down a slope at Treble Cone
Or this:

Hiking up to Treble Cone summit
Or even this:

Enjoying a gorgeous winter's day with my husband and son on the shore of Lake Hawea
Some days I actually sit my ass down in a chair and write. Admittedly, it's hard when the view from my window looks like this:

Getting up early doesn't help me focus, because the sunrises look like this:

Staying up late doesn't help either, since there's a chance of seeing the aurora australis, plus the stars are absolutely incredible. (Sorry, no star pics to show off. My camera isn't good enough to manage long exposures. But for the first time in my life, I've wanted to take up astral photography, because holy CRAP, you can see zillions of stars here thanks to very little light pollution. I didn't know such views were possible except on 14,000-ft peaks like Mt. Whitney. But here, you can see the Milky Way glowing bright amid a whole universe of crystal-clear stars right from your back porch.

ANYway, back to talking about writing. Yes, it is happening! Just, you know, with a lot of interruptions. (Not all fun ones, I admit. Even in New Zealand, I can't look away from all the craziness going on back in the US, from hurricanes to political horrorshows. What's at stake is too important to ignore.)

But I'm plugging through a first draft of a totally new novel, the one with the coral atolls and sea magic and spies. Plus I'm working on revising the Cara novella, since I had this great idea for how to make the action more engaging and the climax much more exciting. The only drawback is that I have to rewrite a bunch of the early scenes and rework some side characters. The result will be worth the effort, I feel. (But boy do I wish I were the sort of writer who had all the great ideas *before* writing an entire draft of the story. Ah well.)

Also, I took a little time out to write up a post explaining why everybody should read veteran fantasy author Barbara Hambly, for r/Fantasy's series on under-appreciated veteran authors. If you've never read her work before, then head on over to see what you've been missing out on! She's written in so many genres that she's got something for everyone.

Speaking of great books, Curtis Craddock's wonderful novel An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is finally out in the world, hooray! If you've enjoyed my Shattered Sigil series, Curt's one of the critiquers whose keen eye for flaws helped me make my final drafts a thousand times better than my first. He also drew the beautiful maps for Labyrinth of Flame's illustrated edition, because he's disgustingly talented in art as well as writing. But I'm not recommending his book because of all he's done for mine. Even if I didn't know him at all, I'd want anybody who's seeking fun, hopeful fantasy rather than bleak/grimdark to jump on this read.

Mathematician princess Isabelle is a wonderful protagonist, clever and logical and constantly curious about the world. Jean-Claude the aging musketeer is likewise a delight, thanks to his wry, sarcastic humor. Plus the magic is so inventive, and the villain so imaginatively creepy, and the action rollicking, and honestly I could just rave about the story for ages but I'll stop here.

If you're looking for more great reads, check out the recently-released 2017 r/Fantasy Under-read and Underrated list, which has many excellent lesser-known books on it. (Including Whitefire Crossing, which has held steady in the #2 spot ever since the first list was done in 2014, how cool is that!)

Also, for those seeking books with LGBT+ content, Canadian author Krista Ball has put together an excellent spreadsheet database containing 278 SFF books/series, marked out by what type of characters the book contains (gay, lesbian, bi, trans, asexual, etc, and whether they are major or minor, or later in the series, etc).

That's all the news for now. Back to the mountains I go...

 Looking north from shore of Lake Hawea

View of Lake Wanaka from Treble Cone

Black Peak (left) and Mt. Aspiring (center background)

Friday, July 14, 2017

10 Things I Learned in my First 10 Days in New Zealand

We made it! All the way to Lake Hawea, New Zealand. Every bit of effort and stress and bureaucratic hoops involved in getting here feels 100% worth it looking at views like this:

View from our rental house. I've got my eye on the peak to the left--looks like quite an interesting climb.
The Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa, means "Land of the Long White Cloud." I'd say that's accurate!
Lake Wanaka, which is another huge lake about 15 min drive away. The town of Wanaka is the main hub of the immediate region, and has all the shops (and tourists).
We didn't head to Hawea right away upon arriving in NZ. First we spent a little over a week in Christchurch, during which we opened bank accounts, bought a used car, switched over cell phones, and tried to handle all the minutiae of setting up a temporary new life in another country. This process wasn't always easy, so I thought I'd share some of the lessons we learned:

1. Friends are worth more than gold

Okay, likely you know this already. Yet I can't emphasize enough what a difference it made to have a friend hosting us during our "landing week" in Christchurch. My eternal gratitude goes to New Zealand author Helen Lowe, who opened her home to the three of us, patiently drove us around town and provided all manner of helpful advice, plus organized a fun get-together with local SFF writers and fed us many wonderful home-cooked meals. (Helen is not only an excellent writer but a terrific cook. Speaking of her writing, if you like epic fantasy and you haven't read her Wall of Night series, you really, really should. I've talked before here about why I love the books, and the series remains one of my favorite currently-running sagas. While we were staying with Helen, I felt tremendously glad for her help and yet regretful that we were taking her away from working on the next installment. I'm so eager to read what happens that I'd hate to be the cause for even the smallest of delays!)

Helen and I enjoying a wintry beach walk in Christchurch
2. Changing a Verizon phone over is NOT as easy as swapping a sim card

I must have read a hundred times in travel articles that switching your phone over to a local provider is as easy as putting in a new sim card.

HA HA HA no. Or at least, not with a Verizon phone. I dutifully made sure before leaving the US that my Samsung S5 was not "locked" by Verizon (i.e. that the phone would accept a new sim card). So when we got to Christchurch, we compared plans from NZ providers, selected one, and bought new sim cards. My husband also got a new phone, since his was pretty old and he'd never liked it anyway. His setup went fine. Mine did not.

Turns out you not only have to swap the sim, you have to dig deep into your phone's settings and change the preferred network type and enter a bunch of new APN info and make all kinds of other adjustments, all of which I had to figure out myself with the help of a lot of google searching. Even after all that, my phone still spits out constant warnings that I'm not using a Verizon sim card and keeps trying to reset back to its old settings. It's so annoying that I'm teetering on the edge of breaking down and buying a new phone.

3. Food in New Zealand is expensive, but the treats are very tasty.

I'd braced for the high food costs before arriving, but still, it's a bit of a sticker shock when lunch in a mall food court costs $50 NZD for 2 adults and a kid. (Burgers + fries + drinks + one ice cream.) We'll be cutting way, waaaaaaay back on eating out, and budgeting our grocery shopping very carefully. This is pretty darn hard when so many tasty treats are on offer. Everything from butter chicken pies to cheese scones to tuna-salad-and-cucumber sushi rolls (why can't you find tuna salad sushi in US stores?). Don't get me started on the actual desserts. As a fan of caramel and white chocolate, the shelves hold far too many temptations like this:

4. New Zealanders are a laid-back crew, but bureaucracy is taken seriously

Individually speaking, New Zealanders seem pretty laissez-faire when it comes to matters of payment. When I arranged to rent a house in the town of Lake Hawea, I was startled when I asked how much the owner would need for a deposit, and she told me there was no need for a deposit or signed paperwork, we'd just work out payment once we moved in. We've had similar experiences with other services (like firewood delivery). "Oh, just send me the money when you have a chance." (Payments here are made by bank account transfer, not checks.) People seem a lot more trusting of each other, which is a refreshing change.

Yet when you encounter bureaucracy, it can be quite rigid. For instance, when we went to open our bank account, the bank required proof of an address (either in the US or here), and the proof had to be a bank statement or utility bill. I dutifully handed over a copy of our joint account statement showing our names and Colorado address. But in Colorado we do all our banking at a credit union, and apparently credit union statements aren't accepted, only BANK statements. What about a mortgage statement? Nope. 401K? Nope. Our utility bills are almost all in my name with my husband as a secondary, which means his name often doesn't show on the statement. I was beginning to panic over how in the world I could provide proof, until I managed to dig up a City of Boulder water bill that showed both of our names along with our address. Whew!

5. The playgrounds are as awesome as the scenery

Even tiny towns can have some pretty nifty play structures. My husband theorizes this is because NZ, much like his home country of Australia, doesn't have a lot of personal injury lawyers. Our son's favorite playground so far is the Margaret Mahy playground in Christchurch (first suggested to us by the ever-awesome Helen Lowe). The park features trampolines, rope structures, massive slides and seesaws, a zipline, and an extensive "water engineering" play area.

Now that's a slide
In the US, water features are often turned off in winter. Not so here. (I suppose because it doesn't get cold enough for the pipes to freeze solid?) In the dead of winter, with temps hovering not far above freezing, kids were still happily playing with water features. Many of the kids wore shorts. Some of them were barefoot. I thought as a Coloradan used to blizzards and freezing windchills that I was tough, but clearly I have a ways to go to match a Kiwi.

6. Buying a car: timing is everything

When buying a used car, negotiate first on price before you get an inspection done. (We did this the wrong way around. Oops.) Also, don't expect to get anything car-related done on a weekend. Dealerships may be open, but registration offices, mechanics, and parts stores are usually not. We finally finished negotiating to buy a car on a Friday. We'd planned to leave Christchurch the next day. But we couldn't leave, because the car was an import and had to be registered, which couldn't happen until Monday. Thankfully Helen and her partner Andrew were kind enough to let us extend our stay with them at the last minute (this, after already imposing on them for a whole week).

7. Snow chains aren't just a quaint memory from the past

When I first moved to Colorado, I remember marching into a tire store and asking to buy chains. The guy at the counter looked at me like I was crazy. "Chains? You don't need those. We don't even sell them. If a road gets so bad you'd need chains on a passenger car, the state closes it."

He was right. In twenty two years of driving mountain roads in Colorado in winter, I never used or needed chains, even in near-blizzard conditions. Colorado's famously dry & fluffy powder packs down into a surface that provides decent traction; ice, especially black ice, is relatively rare. Plus, an army of snowplows crawls over the highways 24/7, plowing and sanding and dumping antifreeze. All you need is a decent amount of tread on your tires, and you're set, especially if you have a Subaru.

Not so in NZ! Driving the passes in winter, you're required to carry chains, even if your car is an Outback or even some huge honking 4WD off-road monster. And you may well have to use the chains. NZ snow tends toward the icy variety, and their plows may only work the road once a day (often first thing in the morning).

Ice on the road. No problem on flat ground like this, not so fun on a steep windy pass
Also, some of the ski field roads (such as the road to Treble Cone) are crazy steep with no asphalt, no guardrails, no room to pass, and a hell of a long drop off the edge.

Road to Treble Cone ski area. We are riding the bus because then I can enjoy the scenery instead of keeping white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel
So for the first time in my life, I own a set of chains. Haven't had to use them yet, but at least we're ready.

8. There's an art to tending a woodburning stove (we're still learning it!)

Most NZ houses don't have central gas-furnace-based heating. You keep warm in winter the old-school way, by burning wood in a cast-iron stove. In Christchurch, Helen instructed us in the art of lighting a fire in the woodburner (use newspaper, paraffin fire starter, and kindling) as well as other tips and tricks (you can clean the glass of the door by spitting on a paper towel, getting some ash on it, and scrubbing). The part we're still learning is how to manage wood and damper (the sliding control on the vent to the outside) such that we stay warm without burning through our entire firewood supply too quickly.

Time for another log for the fire
 I admit I'm a little ambivalent about the woodburning thing. It's kinda nice to have a fire on chilly winter nights. Yet the smoke haze from whole neighborhoods of houses burning wood is quite noticeable already in mountain valleys. As NZ's population grows ever larger, I have to wonder if the pollution will get to smog-awful levels. (Helen told us that Christchurch has quite strict rules about types of stoves and how to use them, in an effort to combat the pollution issue. Out here in the Wanaka area, I don't think they have such regulations yet, but looks to me like they'll need them soon.)

9. Even not-so-scenic NZ routes are still pretty damn scenic 

When we drove from Christchurch to Lake Hawea, we had a choice of routes. The shortest goes through Tekapo near Mt. Cook (NZ's highest peak), and over Lindis Pass, and is said to be gorgeously scenic. However, wintry weather was forecast for our traveling days, and we didn't want to risk the pass and roads being closed, which happens often in snowy weather.

So instead, we took the "Pig Root", driving down the coast to Palmerston and then heading inland toward Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Reading up on this route before leaving, I found many discussions online that disparaged the scenery compared to the Tekapo/Lindis Pass route. I felt kind of downhearted that we apparently would miss out on all the good views.

I shouldn't have worried. I'm not sure NZ has any non-scenic routes.

Yeah, not scenic at all
These mountains aren't scenic either. That's why I couldn't take my eyes off them.

This section of the drive actually reminded me quite a bit of northern Colorado

Somewhere near Cromwell
Heading toward Wanaka and Lake Hawea

10. Don't be in a hurry to get anywhere

Because you might get stuck behind an entire house being trucked along the road.

House-truck inching over a bridge. My favorite part is the car with the "House Ahead" sign on it. In case you didn't notice the GIANT HOUSE. The pic is a bit deceiving--there is no room to pass on the other side of the road. The house took up the entire road. Cars coming the opposite way had to pull off into ditches and wait. 
Creeping along behind this house added an extra hour to our drive between Oamaru and Lake Hawea. It was actually kind of fascinating to watch the truck driver negotiate the windy road. (The truckbed had hydraulic stabilizers to keep the house flat as the truck inched around banked curves.) But man, I was glad we'd allowed plenty of time for the drive.

Besides, you need time to enjoy all that scenery.

Lake Wanaka
Anyway, there you have it! The first ten lessons we've learned, out of what will doubtless be many more. Next I might do a post on some of the differences between NZ and CO skiing...but I'll get in a few more days on the slopes first. Gotta make sure I know what I'm talking about, right?

Skiing at Treble Cone

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The slow route to New Zealand

I left Boulder way back on June 4, but I'm still not quiiiiiiite to New Zealand. (Almost there! We leave Sydney for Christchurch tomorrow.) Instead of charging straight for our new digs, we've been taking the slow but beautiful route, stopping over in Hawaii and then visiting my in-laws in Australia.

The Hawaii stopover was for two reasons. The first was jetlag mitigation: Hawaii is exactly halfway in effective time difference between Colorado and Australia, and I have learned from years of Australia visits that spending even one night at a halfway time zone is tremendously helpful in dealing with brutal jetlag. Especially if you're traveling with a kid. (Last time we returned straight from Sydney to Boulder, it took my son weeks to stop waking up from 2-4am every night, despite my best efforts to wear him out & reset his sleep schedule. WEEKS.)

The second reason: it's Hawaii! My son is very into volcanoes at the moment, so he was particularly excited for the chance to see Kilauea in action. Therefore we chose to stop for a week on the Big Island and visit Volcanoes National Park, plus enjoy some excellent snorkeling. (One day I plan to visit Kauai--I would love to hike the Na Pali coast--but that can wait until the kiddo is a bit older.)

We've had a lovely time, both in Hawaii and in Sydney. It's a strange sensation, having wonderful experiences even as I check the news and struggle with an avalanche of helplessness and outrage and sadness. ("Don't check the news," some might say, but I feel informed action is so vital these days that I cannot simply turn my back.) The beauty I see in reefs and bushland strikes all the more keenly to my heart, knowing that such ecosystems may not survive much longer. Yet I take heart in seeing my son ask how we can save and protect them.

So on that note, here's some of what we've seen and enjoyed on our journey toward New Zealand:

Sunset from Keauhou, Hawaii
Snorkeling at Kealakekua Bay
Pod of spinner dolphins at Kealakekua Bay
Giant manta ray behind our snorkeling boat--we did the famous night snorkeling with rays trip, and wow, it was worth every penny. When we were in the water, the rays would come within inches of us as they fed on the plankton drawn to the boat's lights. It was amazing to watch these gentle giants swooping in lazy flips and balletic turns at such close range. 
Southeast coast of the Big Island, windswept and wild
Punalu'u black sand beach, home to numerous sea turtles
Sea turtle entering the waves at Punalu'u
Lava in Kilauea's main crater. The pic doesn't do it justice--it was fountaining in constant motion, very cool to watch.

Lava at the Pu'u O'o vent, as seen from the air. We splurged for a helicopter ride. It was cool to get the aerial view, but I'm not entirely convinced the cost was worth it, given that the flight time is so short (about 45 min). Next time I might be more inclined to try the hike/bike ride out to view the lava entering the ocean at night. (Didn't do that this time because it was quite a long distance and I wasn't sure the kiddo would enjoy such a long hike given there's little to see until you reach the viewpoint.)

Aerial view of lava entering the ocean
Waves at Laupahoehoe park, which was one of my favorite spots on the Big Island's eastern side

Another view of Laupahoehoe

Waimea Bay on Oahu--we spent a lovely afternoon here with fellow author Kate Elliott, before flying onward to Sydney

Hanging out with Kate beside a tasty taco truck. (The finger is my son's; he needs a little more practice taking pictures)

Darling Harbor in Sydney

Morning in the Blue Mountains. I love hearing the kookaburras chortle their maniacal laughter. (I'm serious. It's really cool.)
First waterfall of the day while hiking the National Pass/Valley of the Waters loop

Cliff view 

One of the many waterfalls we passed

Another enticing waterfall

Last light on the Ruined Castle rock formation (right at center of photo)

Winter light on the Three Sisters

We got to meet up with photographer & SFF reviewer Paul Weimer, who was on his very first trip to Australia and New Zealand courtesy of the Down Under Fan Fund
And now, onward to new adventures...