New Zealand, Part 2(b): South Island, continued

Here is the third and final part of our New Zealand adventure, covering the remainder of our time on the South Island. Check out parts one and two if you haven’t already.

The Catlins

The Catlins

From Te Anau, our next stop was an area called The Catlins, in the far south of the South Island. Al and I had both been looking forward to The Catlins, but it turned out to be one of my least favorite parts of the trip. It’s not that the scenery in The Catlins isn’t impressive — it is! very! — but the weather was so utterly hideous that it was hard for me to enjoy it. I grew up in Michigan and I thought I knew from variable weather, but The Catlins was a whole new ballgame. Within seconds, we’d watch the sky turn from sunny to ominous gray and then start to rain, which would then progress into hail, and then snow, and then back again, over and over. The entire day that we drove through The Catlins, we were barraged with a mix of rain, hail, and snow, punctuated by brief moments of sunshine. Even when the sun was out, though, it was still bitterly cold (hence the snow flurries), and I spent a lot of time sitting in the van with the heater on full blast while Al would hop out to take photos, and then rush back in.

My view from the van as Al took pictures

My view from the van as Al took pictures

It was also really windy, so driving along the treacherous, winding coastal roads often felt perilous, as our van rocked back and forth with each gust of wind.

Sure was windy!

Sure was windy!

2014-10-02 22.32.12

 

We stayed at a campsite that was sort of in the middle of nowhere (like most things in The Catlins, I guess) and no-frills. Let me assure you that getting up to use the (unheated) facilities in the middle of a rainstorm was not awesome. Neither was being passively aggressively told off by some lady in a giant RV in the morning for making too much noise while opening my van door to go to the bathroom at midnight. (EXCUSE ME FOR BEING PREGNANT, LADY. Sheesh.) Anyway, we did see some really cool stuff in The Catlins, like Slope Point (the southernmost point in NZ), and we had a really good meal on the road (at the Beachhouse Cafe in Riverton), but I was ready to be done with the whole area after a day or so of crazy weather.

It was necessary to bundle up.

It was necessary to bundle up.

We fled The Catlins for Dunedin, known by Kiwis as “the Edinburgh of the South.” Dunedin, at first glance, is sort of unremarkable, especially compared with the in-your-face scenery along the west coast of the South Island that we passed through to get there. But it’s sneakily charming in an understated, Scottish way. Al and I didn’t get up to much in Dunedin other than a bit of sightseeing and eating, but it was a pleasant, low-key stop for us. In town, we visited the Otago Settlers’ Museum, which turned out to be really interesting. Dunedin was settled by Scots, and the city still retains a strong sense of Scottish heritage (hence, Al noted that everyone in Dunedin looked like they could have been related to him). At the Settlers’ Museum, they had a room where you could put on Scottish settlers’ outfits and pose in front of a backdrop. Al’s picture was pretty authentic.

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

After Dunedin, we drove north toward Christchurch, but we made a few stops along the way, including in Oamaru, the steampunk capital of NZ. Steampunk is, according to Wikipedia, a “sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” Oamaru lends itself well to being a steampunk center since its main street is lined with limestone buildings from the 19th century, giving the whole place a Victorian feel. Oamaru seems to have embraced the Victorian/steampunk theme wholeheartedly; there’s even a steampunk-themed playground. We checked out Steampunk HQ, a weird and fairly creepy museum stuffed with odd bits of machinery and art, blending Victorian era technology and the macabre.

He has a license to operate this.

He has a license to operate this.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

Steampunk HQ light show

Steampunk HQ light show

The day we visited Oamaru happened to be Al’s birthday, so we stopped in a Victorian-style hotel for a beer (for Al) and a flat white (for me), and browsed through some of the little artists’ shops along the main street. We also popped into the Whitestone Cheese Company to taste some of the local delights. We demolished a full cheese board as a snack (don’t judge us) and then got on the road to Christchurch.

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Christchurch was devastated by a series of huge earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and is still rebuilding. I think because of this, Al and I had a hard time getting a feel for the city, much of which is still under scaffolding. Part of the problem, too, was that it was raining for most of the time we were there, and a lot of the activities we had read about in our trusty Lonely Planet guide were outdoors. To wait out the rain, we went to the movies (Gone Girl) and by the time we emerged, the weather had cleared, so we strolled around Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. It must be a sign of how old and boring we’ve become, but Al and I do love a nice botanic garden. This one reminded us a lot of Cambridge (UK), which is intentional, since Christchurch was settled by the English (The Canterbury Association, in fact) and was designed to mimic an English city. Like any good English city, Christchurch had some good Indian food, so Al and I celebrated his birthday eating delicious curry and naan at a restaurant called Himalayas.

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Our last pit-stop on the South Island before catching the ferry back to Wellington was Kaikoura, a beautiful spot known for whale (and other wildlife) watching. We parked our van next to a roadside seafood barbecue place, ate some scallops and chowder, and then checked out the seals that were hanging around on the rocks. The seals seemed unfazed by the fact that there were people right there, snapping photos and gawping at them.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Al and a seal

Al and a seal

After taking our seal photos, we loaded into the van and headed back to Picton to catch the ferry to the North Island. I was sad to leave the South Island; we had seen so many incredible things there. One of the things that struck Al and me most about driving around New Zealand — especially the South Island — was the fact that you could pull off to the side of the road almost anywhere and see something breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the things we saw from our van window weren’t listed in our guide or on any map; there’s just too much to see in New Zealand to even begin to list all of it. The whole country is bursting with hidden treasures. For example, on our way out of Dunedin, we pulled off in a little town called Waitati to get a coffee and try whitebait, a local delicacy (it was okay).

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

We’d pulled over not because we’d read about Waitati anywhere, but because I had seen a sign on the side of the road for a Sunday market, and figured it’d be as good a place as any to stop and get a flat white. At the little market, as we were drinking our coffees and eating our whitebait sandwich on white bread, we were approached by a kind of wacky looking lady who smelled strongly of patchouli. She wanted to tell us about the Greenpeace campaign she was working on to stop offshore oil drilling in New Zealand. We listened politely as she told us about her campaign and then she began telling us about Waitati and its alternative culture (which includes a local “pirate queen“). She also mentioned that just down the road, there was a beach where blue penguins roosted. She assured us that no tourists knew about the beach and we should check it out. So, we drove down a couple of winding roads, following the signs to Doctor’s Point, and ended up at this beautiful, empty beach.

Doctor's Point, Waitati

Doctor’s Point, Waitati

We didn’t end up seeing any penguins (the tide was up and it was hard to get to their nesting area), but the place was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else there. Al and I agreed that if this beach had been in any other country, it would have been written up as a must-see destination, but the fact is, NZ is lousy with tiny, untouched beaches. All you have to do is wander a little and you’ll find them.

Doctor's Point - Al is the little speck in the distance

Doctor’s Point – Al is the little speck in the distance

Overall, Al and I agreed that New Zealand was one of our best trips ever. It had its highs (scenery! penguins! seals!) and its lows (being pregnant in a van with no toilet! hail!), but what good trip doesn’t? We will always remember our pre-baby adventure in NZ fondly. I’m so glad we went and I recommend it strongly to anyone else who’s thinking of taking a great adventure.

 

(Photography) book review: Your Family in Pictures, by Me Ra Koh

Me Ra Koh’s Your Family in Pictures came to me a bit prematurely, as it’s designed to teach you to take beautiful photos of your kids, and I won’t have an (external to my body) kid until early February (or thereabouts). But I figured it couldn’t hurt to read and absorb some of Koh’s advice before busting out my camera when Baby Green gets here.

koh

 

In the preface to her book, Koh explains that her “passion has always been to empower women — especially moms” by teaching them how to confidently photograph their children. Her book’s goal, she says, is to empower you, the reader, to “capture your family’s story, regardless of how technically versed or unversed you may be.” Well, consider me unversed. Despite taking not one but two photography classes in high school, in which I bought a clunky used camera and learned to develop actual film in an actual dark room — I nonetheless feel intimidated by the idea of Photography as an art (or worse, a science) that must be learned and mastered. Whenever I see people wrangling big, fancy cameras with lots of functions and buttons and lenses, I feel exhausted by the very idea of what they must have gone through to learn how to use such machines. This attitude hasn’t stopped me from taking tons of photos over the years, of course; it’s just that I’ve never taken the time (at least since high school) to learn anything about photographic technique because it’s just seemed like such a hassle. So, I approached Koh’s book with a bit of trepidation but also some hope that perhaps it could teach me to get over myself and learn some photographic technique, already.

The book is organized into seven sections: first, Setting Yourself Up For Success, followed by Developing A Photographer’s Eye, and then five themed chapters: Everyday Life, Holidays, Family Portraits, Tweens & Teens, and Family Vacations & Travel. I read the Setting Yourself Up For Success chapter first, figuring it would contain the most basic, practical advice. I was right. Koh gets right into things by explaining what types of light work best for photographing kids, with practical ideas like shooting against white kitchen counters or using sheer curtains as a backdrop. She then lists more tips that seem doable and non-intimidating, including several on how to get your family in the mood to be photographed. She also lists her top ten times to take candid family photos (including eating ice cream and quiet play). After reading this chapter, I already began to feel like I had some ideas about how to get a good, well-lit shot of my future kid eating ice cream.

I was most interested in Koh’s tips on developing one’s photographic eye. I think I have a decent eye for composition but I could always use more help, so I was pleased to find that she lists lots of practical tips and tricks for discovering shape, color, line, and texture. These tips include looking for a single “pop” of color to “heighten drama” in a shot, and taking note of man-made and naturally occurring leading lines to help frame photos. She also mentions The Rule of Thirds, which means framing the subject in the far left or right third of the photograph “to add more emotion, drama, anticipation.” Makes sense.

The rest of the book consists of Koh’s “recipes” for various shots, including a sunset silhouette of the family, Saturday morning playtime, and a self-portrait of mom. I really love how these recipes walk the reader step-by-step through setting up the shot and choosing the appropriate camera setting (Koh gives settings both for point-and-shoot and DSLR cameras). The steps break down the shots into manageable chunks and make them seem easily achievable. When I finally have a child to photograph, I can imagine myself flipping through this book, choosing a “recipe,” and taking great photos.

I recommend Koh’s book to any parent who feel intimidated by the idea of learning all of the settings on her camera but still wants to take professional looking shots of her kids. The book is more geared toward people with kids who are mobile (so, not newborns) but a lot of Koh’s advice seems applicable to baby photography, as well. I’ll let you know how it turns out in a few months!

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

New Zealand, Part 2(a): South Island

As promised, here’s the report on the second part of our New Zealand adventure (part one is here), in which we explored the South Island in our trusty camper van. Since we saw so much in the South Island, I decided to break this post into two pieces, so as not to overwhelm. New Zealand can overwhelm.

Al and I had heard before we came to New Zealand that the South Island was where the really impressive scenery was, but I don’t think we appreciated how beautiful — and varied, and, in some cases, extreme — it would be before we saw it with our own eyes. Although we didn’t travel through all of the North Island, and I’ve heard that the northern part of the North Island is spectacular, Al and I both agreed that the South Island was, overall, way more interesting. If you only have a week to spend in NZ, spend it on the South Island; I promise you won’t regret it.

Not bad, NZ.

Not bad, NZ.

After taking the ferry from Wellington, we started off in Blenheim, which is situated right in the heart of Marlborough, one of NZ’s best known wine regions. Blenheim, like most wine country towns, is pleasant and peaceful. Even the low-fuss campsite where we stayed was charming, with wandering sheep and rolling hills. But the main reason one comes to Blenheim, of course, is not for the scenery or the sheep, but for the wine tasting. Given the whole pregnancy thing that’s been happening, I played the designated driver for the day and ferried Al from winery to winery. I took sips of the wines and got an idea of what Marlborough has to offer (mainly, good aromatic whites, especially pinot gris, plus their famous, grassy sauvignon blanc, which is not my favorite but sure is distinctive), while Al got nice ‘n boozy and had a grand old time. I occupied myself by drinking a lot of flat whites (which, I’m convinced, are 99% milk and 1% actual coffee, which means it’s okay to have ten of them). To punctuate the wine tasting, we also had a great lunch at a pretty restaurant called Rock Ferry.

Blenheim

Blenheim

The entire next day we spent driving from Blenheim to Franz Josef, home of an eponymous glacier. Along the way we stopped in Punakaiki to look at the pancake rocks and blowholes.

Pancake rocks

Pancake rocks

Rainbow over a blowhole

Rainbow over a blowhole

In Franz Josef, in the morning, we took a hike out to view the glacier (you can’t get on the glacier except via helicopter), took some photos, and then got on the road to go to Queenstown.

Glacier in the background

Glacier in the background

Driving into Queenstown, Al and I were treated to one of the most stunning natural views either of us has ever seen (and keep in mind that Al’s been to LITERALLY a hundred countries, so that’s really saying something).

This doesn't adequately capture Queenstown.

This doesn’t adequately capture Queenstown. Like, at all.

Neither does this.

Neither does this.

Or this.

Or this.

The town is nestled among several ranges of mountains and is situated along a bright blue, lightning bolt-shaped lake (Lake Wakatipu), which makes for some truly breathtaking views. The town itself reminded me of a cross between South Lake Tahoe and Vail — cute and touristy. Queenstown is known for its scenery and for its outdoor (including adventure) sports. Again, being a preggo, I took a hard pass on the adventure sports, but I did go on some lovely runs along the lake (while Al did stuff like careening down a hill in a wooden cart — to each his own). We also ate some fantastic Thai food in town at the oddly named At Thai. Al claims his pad thai was the best he’s had in his life (and we spent three weeks in Thailand, so this is not faint praise).

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Also spotted while running

Also spotted while running

On our second day in Queenstown, we did some more wine tasting (okay, Al did most of it) in Gibbston, located in the Central Otago wine region. Central Otago is known for its pinot noir, which, to an American palate, tastes nothing like pinot noir. It’s fruity and jammy and not really my cup of tea/wine, but Kiwis seem very proud of it, so Al and I were diplomatic in our comments. After tasting at a few wineries, we drove to an adorable little historical town called Arrowtown for dinner. Arrowtown used to be a gold mining town and was home to a population of Chinese immigrants who showed up to work in the mines. Today there’s a historic Chinese settlement with preserved buildings from the mining days, in which Al took many goofy pictures.

2014-09-30 00.41.58

We ate dinner outdoors at a tapas place called La Rumbla, and it was delicious.

La Rumbla

La Rumbla

Our next stop after Queenstown was Te Anau, a town situated on Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island. I really liked Te Anau; it was quiet and peaceful and, as an added bonus, our campsite had two lambs on the premises (and you could feed them with bottles!).

Te Anau

Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Al makes a friend

Al makes a friend

 

On our first day in Te Anau, we took a boat out on the lake to go see the Te Anau glowworm caves. Looking at the glowworms involved walking through a series of dark, dank caves filled with dripping and rushing water, then boarding some little boats and being rowed slowly though the pitch dark while peering up at the glowworms clinging to the cave ceiling above. Glowworms (AKA arachnocampa luminosa) are really beautiful in the dark — they look like a starry sky — but, as we learned during the presentation afterwards, they’re actually pretty gross. For one thing, they’re a species of “fungus gnat.” Try to think of something grosser than that. I dare you. They’re also cannibals who eat each other whole. Plus, they look super gross up close. I’m just telling you.

On Lake Te Anau

On Lake Te Anau

Roadside lunch

Roadside lunch

On our second day in Te Anau, we drove to Milford Sound, a huge fjord within the appropriately named Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is supposedly NZ’s most popular tourist attraction, mostly because the scenery within the fjord — waterfalls, glacial peaks, wildlife — is so spectacular. Unfortunately, the weather in Milford Sound is almost always heinous, and the day we went was no exception. We took a two-hour cruise around the fjord and it rained the entire time, plus it was windy, which caused the boat to rock, which caused me to clutch my flat white and grimace stoically out the window while Al went outside and took photos. Here’s what I’m learning about myself as I get older: boats aren’t my thing. In fact, pretty much every time I go on a boat, I end up regretting it. I inevitably feel seasick, and scared, and spend the entire time wishing the boat would just stop moving, already, which it never does. But despite all of this, I don’t regret taking the Milford Sound cruise, because we got to see two rare crested penguins just hanging out on the shore, plus a bunch of fat sea lions lolling on the rocks.

View from boat, Milford Sound

View from boat, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

On the rainy and windy van ride back to Te Anau, we encountered another example of NZ fauna: the kea, a marauding parrot known for eating the rubber off of car tires and windshields. The keas we saw walked out onto the road where traffic was stopped and peered quizzically up at the cars and trucks, as if scoping out the best opportunity for rubber snacking. Luckily, our van escaped unscathed.

Kea

Kea – look at that beak!

More on the rest of our South Island odyssey in the next post!

New Zealand, Part 1: North Island

As much as I hate the term “babymoon” as a term to describe a last-hurrah vacation taken before the arrival of a baby, I very much like the idea of it. And given that Al and I love to travel, it seemed obvious that we needed to do something kind of ambitious for our Last Big Trip Before Baby. After much brainstorming, we decided on New Zealand, mostly because it’s so far away, we couldn’t imagine doing it with a child in tow, and also because it sounded so awesome. I mean, anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings movies knows that NZ does not scrimp on impressive scenery, and if that’s not enough to convince you, try resisting the charms of the NZ tourism campaign posters from Flight of the Conchords!

Red Beach, Auckland

Red Beach, Auckland – one of the first glimpses I got of NZ

On September 20, we embarked on our three week odyssey to NZ, and it ended up being one of our most unique, fun trips ever. Three weeks is a long trip, and we saw a LOT of stuff, so I will break my post into two manageable chunks: the North Island and the South Island.

We flew into Auckland (via Los Angeles and then Fiji, oof), where Al’s cousins Will and Gil picked us up from the airport. They moved from Scotland to NZ five years ago and live in a lovely, airy house in the far north of the city, in an area called Whangaparaoa. We stayed with them for a few days, adjusting to the radical time change (17 hours!) and eating home-cooked meals. We also checked out pretty Waiheke Island, a short (but pricey) ferry ride away from downtown Auckland and home to a bunch of fancy wineries and olive groves.

Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island

After a few days in Auckland, we were ready to pick up our transport for the rest of the trip: a camper van! When we showed up at the van rental place, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Al and I were both expecting to be shown to our huge, fully outfitted RV, in which we’d cruise around NZ like passengers on a luxury yacht, buffered from all the troubles and inconveniences faced by the lowly likes of common car travelers. I imagined laughing down at people in cars from my perch inside my Ashton Kutcher-style Windstar, where I’d drink artesian bottled water straight from my mini-fridge and flip channels on my satellite TV as Al drove. Never mind that the price quote we got for our entire three-week van rental was $500; I had convinced myself, against all reason, that we were going to be traveling around New Zealand like RV royalty.

Imagine my shock when we were shown to our camper van, which was, in fact, just a regular old van. There was no TV, no reading nook, no bathroom. In other words, it was not at all what I had envisioned in my completely unrealistic fantasy. I was especially disappointed by the fact that our van did not have a bathroom, since, as a preggo, I have to use the facilities approximately every three minutes. But I tried not to seem as horrified as I was as we loaded our giant suitcases into our tiny, wheeled home and drove uncertainly away, trying to remember to keep to the left. Overall, the van worked out fine. Was it the most comfortable place to sleep, change clothes, and sometimes eat? No. But I did learn how to cook eggs on a camp stove situated inside a vehicle, and that’s a (probably dangerous) skill that’ll last me a lifetime.

Our van!

Our van!

Our first stop after Auckland was Tongariro National Park, famous for its skiing and its views of Mt. Ngauruhoe, or, as it’s more widely known, MOUNT DOOM. We got to our campground in the evening, cooked a meal in the community kitchen, and went to sleep. The next morning, we went on a two-hour hike to look at some nearby waterfalls and ogle Mt. Doom in all its glory. It was pretty impressive. Then we packed up the van and headed to our next destination, Wellington.

Wellington waterfront

Wellington waterfront

Wellington is the political capital of NZ, and is famous for its nightlife, food, and blistering winds. Something about Wellington’s position on the mouth of the Cook Strait makes it particularly susceptible to gale-force winds, and we nearly got our faces blown off while we were there. After we arrived, we ventured downtown, ate dinner at a Malaysian place, and checked out a craft beer bar, where Al sampled some of the local delights. The next morning, I went running along the waterfront and admired the views and Victorian houses, which give the place a San Francisco-esque feel, and then Al and I checked out the Te Papa Tongarewa museum and the cool public art down by the waterfront.

In Wellington

In Wellington

(From Wellington, we hopped on a ferry that would take us across the Cook Strait to the South Island. I’ll cover our adventures on the amazing South Island in another post, but for now, let me pick up again a few weeks into the trip, when we arrived back on the North Island via ferry.)

When we got back from our exploits on the South Island, we drove from the ferry in Wellington straight to Rotorua, a city known for its geothermal activity: hot springs, boiling mud pools, and geysers. Because of hydrogen sulphide emissions, the whole joint smells like eggs. Weirdly, Al and I both enjoyed the eggy scent of Rotorua. (Another sign it’s probably good that we’re married.)

2014-10-09 10.59.47

Kuirau Park, Rotorua

2014-10-09 11.04.28-1

Anyway, being the cheapskates we are (or at least, have become since finding out we’re having a kid), we decided to do Rotorua the free way, and check out a local public park, Kuirau Park, which has its own mud pools and bubbling lakes, rather than shelling out money for one of the expensive geothermal parks. We wandered around the park with to-go coffees in hand and checked out the boiling mud pools and free public foot baths. Al actually stuck his feet in the foot bath, but I, fearing foot-and-mouth disease, kept my shoes on.

Al, looking like he's really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

Al, looking like he’s really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

After seeing enough boiling mud to feel like we had done Rotorua properly, we got on the road back to Auckland. But along the way, we stopped at Hobbiton, where you can go on a tour of the preserved set of Hobbiton and The Shire from the Lord of the Rings movies. Of course, being us, we didn’t feel like paying $150 for the tour, so we got a bite to eat at The Shire’s Rest cafe, took a photo with the Hobbiton sign, and then left. I mean, a lot of New Zealand looks pretty much like The Shire (rolling green hills, sheep, blue skies), so I feel like we got the idea. I am kind of bummed I didn’t get to step foot in a hobbit hole, but as I told Al, I would rather spend my money on New Zealand merino wool than on a tour of a movie set. Hey, I have my priorities straight.

We came, we saw, we left.

We came, we saw, we left.

We had one full day left in Auckland before our flight, and we used it to go shopping for yarn (okay, that was just me) and to check out the Auckland Zoo. Our main goal at the zoo was to see a morepork (a small owl native to New Zealand and Tasmania) because we had become mildly obsessed with moreporks over the course of our three weeks in New Zealand. Why, you ask? First of all, the word “morepork” is awesome and I want to say it all the time. Second of all, moreporks are adorable, and everyone knows it. We even drove through an area of New Zealand in which the regional government had adopted a morepork-based PSA campaign, in which a cartoon morepork named RuRu (which is the Maori word for the owl) warns drivers to be careful in a variety of situations, including fog, rain, and snow. We thought it was so cute we stopped to take a photo of a sign explaining the campaign.

2014-10-09 12.09.34

Anyway, we were really jazzed on moreporks and wanted to see one at the zoo, but unfortunately, they’re nocturnal, and it was impossible to see anything in the zoo’s nocturnal exhibit (since it was, you know, pitch dark). We did see the outline of a kiwi bird poking around in the dark, we think, but that was about it in terms of nocturnal bird sightings. On the upside, we saw some seals and shags (cormorants) and blue penguins, so at least we got to view some native NZ animals. I still hope I get to see a real morepork some day. A girl can dream.

Stay tuned for a post on our adventures on the incredible South Island!

 

The big news

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog, although it’s not been for lack of things to say. On the contrary, my silence has sprung from being overwhelmed with just how much has been happening. That’s not a complaint; there has just been a LOT going on, and I haven’t had time until now to sit down and record it for posterity. For one thing, Al and I bought our first house! Then, four days after we moved in, we took off for a three-week trip to New Zealand! Oh, and also, I’m 24 weeks pregnant!

So yeah, there’s been a lot of stuff going on.

I will be blogging about our new house soon, I promise, and about our awesome NZ odyssey. But for now, let’s talk just a little about that the BIGGEST news, our pending bundle of joy, a girl, scheduled to arrive on February 3, 2015.

Official preggo

Official preggo bathroom selfie

Expecting a baby is, in a word, insane. Insane in the membrane, if I may expand my feelings into four words. Getting pregnant is a perfectly reasonable thing for Al and me to do, as thirty-something married people, but it still feels slightly crazy, as if we’re doing something completely outrageous and possibly illegal. I keep waiting for someone in a suit to knock on my door and tell me my parenting permit has been preemptively revoked, since, let’s be real, I still don’t know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff, and who am I to be raising another human? But I suppose all parents-to-be must feel like they’re not ready, and might never be ready, to be put in charge of a whole other person’s entire upbringing. In fact, I’d be kind of suspicious of any expectant parent who wasn’t a little freaked out by the vastness of the responsibility she’s suddenly facing down. I mean, in forty weeks, you go from a person who only has to worry about getting herself up in the morning (and maybe making sure her partner gets up, too) to a person who is responsible for keeping another (completely helpless) person ALIVE. The magnitude of that change is staggering, if you think about it long enough. So I tend not to.

This may sound obvious, but what keeps occurring to me is that deciding to have a kid is the most extreme thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve moved abroad by myself, I’ve quit my stable, lucrative job in favor of a career with little money and lots of uncertainty, I’ve gotten married, I’ve hitchhiked without a cell phone, and I’ve eaten suspicious street food in a variety of developing countries — but this pregnancy thing poses a whole new level of risk and challenge. I’m hoping that all the cliches about parenting being the greatest adventure and most wonderful gift are all true, but if they’re not, there’s not too much I can do about it now. I’m in this thing!

Clearly, I don’t have anything particularly new or insightful to say on the subject of pending parenthood, although I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll be sharing more thoughts on it as the Big Day approaches. For now, I just wanted to share the news that I am gestating a new person in my body (WHICH IS SO WEIRD, RIGHT?) and am feeling pretty psyched about it. Everything’s going fine, physically (I might write a little post on pregnancy itself at some point, too), and pretty well mentally, too. So, that’s that. Stay tuned for updates on New Zealand, home ownership, and life in general!

Book review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

I picked up Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs after seeing it at a beachside bookstore near my parents’ condo in Delaware. Despite where I purchased it, this book is definitely not what one could fairly label a “beach read.” It’s not light, or frothy, or inconsequential. It’s a book that makes you think, and makes you squirm. It’s suspenseful, despite being rather light on plot. It’s extremely well written. In other words, it’s well worth your time (even if you are reading it on the beach).

the-woman-upstairs_original

The titular “woman upstairs” in the story is Nora Eldridge, a single woman in her late-thirties (when the story begins) who teaches third grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nora’s life, when the story picks up, is consumed primarily by her duties as a teacher and daughter. She teaches, and when she’s not teaching, she’s visiting and taking care of her elderly father, who lives nearby. Although Nora went to art school, she’s long ago given up on pursuing art as a career, and instead makes art when she has time in the extra bedroom of her apartment. Everything changes for Nora, though, when a new student, Reza Shahid, enters her third grade classroom, and she soon becomes emotionally entangled with him and his family.

The Shahids have just moved to Cambridge from Paris and are attractive, glamorous, and worldly. Reza is an adorable scamp with beautiful gray eyes. Reza’s father, Skandar, is an academic who specializes in the ethics of history, and his mother, Sirena, is a professional artist who makes large, fanciful installations. Nora finds herself charmed by Reza, attracted to Skandar, and drawn like a magnet to Sirena. As the school year progresses, Nora becomes more and more involved with the Shahids: she begins to share studio space with Sirena (and consequently resumes thinking of herself as a real artist), she babysits Reza, she goes on long, winding walks with Skandar. Nora’s involvement with the Shahids shapes every aspect of her life, and animates her days. During the year she spends in the Shahids’ presence, Nora is the happiest she’s ever been, and when they move back to Paris, she feels lost. And later, she discovers a deep betrayal by the Shahids that leads her to question everything about her relationship with them.

The Woman Upstairs is interesting in that not a lot happens, plot-wise, but yet the story is hyper-engaging. This is a pretty neat trick for an author to pull off. Messud manages to build tension by layering small events on top of one another and diving deep into Nora’s inner thoughts and feelings as these seemingly mundane events unfold. Nora helps Sirena with her installation. She discusses Lebanese politics with Skandar. She tucks Reza into bed. On the surface, these might seem like commonplace interactions (albeit perhaps a bit inappropriate given that Nora is Reza’s teacher), but for Nora, these quotidien developments feel weighted with import. Messud builds Nora’s story in such a way that each interaction Nora shares with one of the Shahids contributes to a growing sense of unease, as we, the readers, wait for the other shoe to drop. And drop the other shoe does, quite spectacularly, late in the book.

What makes this book compulsively readable is Messud’s handling of Nora’s tangle of emotions — infatuation, anger, envy, jealousy, sadness — as the story progresses. As the narrator, Nora offers us a kind of double perspective, since she’s telling her own story with several years’ remove on the events. That is, while she can still relay the intense emotions and desires she experienced during her year with the Shahids, it seems she can also offer occasional glimpses of hard, cold perspective on the matter. But it becomes clear as the story unfolds that Nora is still very much caught up in her year with the Shahids, even many years later (and there’s good reason for that, as we learn). Messud allows Nora to tell her story in such an intimate way that her revelations often become uncomfortable for the reader. We’re both wrapped up in Nora’s private psychodrama and are able to step outside of it and see, quite clearly, how disastrously things are going to end for her. This is probably why it didn’t bother me that I was able to spot the development that would later drive a wedge between Nora and the Shahids as soon as it happened.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for those in the market for a masterfully written psychological drama. Check out what The New York Times had to say, too.

Moosehead Lake

Last week, Al and I went on a week-long vacation to Maine to hang out with Al’s dad, step-mom, and youngest brother (plus two of his brother’s friends, plus two border collies). Al’s dad and step-mom live in Bangor, so we flew into Bangor and then drove with them up to Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest lake.

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

We stayed in Greenville, on the southern side of the lake, in a beautiful cabin that Al’s parents rented. Even with seven people and two dogs in residence, it didn’t feel crowded, because the cabin was so spacious and comfortable. It also had a private dock and wonderful views of the lake.

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Although the only things I wanted to accomplish during my vacation were reading, sleeping, and eating, we ended up doing a lot of other cool stuff during our week at the lake. I went running every day and spotted some cool wildlife (a woodchuck, two snakes, assorted bunnies); I accompanied Al and his dad to a local golf course one day to watch them play nine holes; we went moose spotting (and saw two moose/meese — more on that in a second); I bought a floaty lounge chair, made Al blow it up for me, and then spent an entire afternoon reading while floating on the lake; I played many exciting rounds of contract whist with the family; and I even allowed Al to convince me to go out on the lake in a kayak.

IMG_7786One of the highlights of the trip was seeing my first moose! One evening, Al’s dad took us to an area about 20 miles from our cabin known for moose spotting, and we camped out there for several hours, straining our eyes for any signs of moose. Moose like swampy, wet areas, and they generally come out between five and seven PM, according to local wisdom. Thus, we got to the suitably swampy moose-sighting area at five and stayed until 6:30, but spotted nary a moose. Disappointed, we all packed back into the mini-van and headed for home. Then, on the way home, we spotted a moose crossing the road in front of us, which was exciting enough on its own, and then, a few minutes later, we came upon a young moose grazing just feet from the road. Other people had stopped their cars to take photos, so we followed suit and got out to ogle the moose. My father-in-law (who’s a registered Maine Guide, so I trust his judgment) estimates that this moose is about a year old. I got a couple of short (but pretty good) videos. Here’s a 15-second one:

So that was pretty awesome! It’s hard to get more quintessentially Maine than seeing a moose on the side of the road. Apart from the moose, this vacation was great because it was so relaxing. I spent a lot of time knitting, hanging out with family, playing cards, reading (I polished off Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land and most of M.E. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath), playing with the dogs, and admiring the scenery.

Ruby the Border Collie

My morning coffee and book on the deck

Now that’s what I call a sunset, Volume XI

Enjoying the fabulous sunset

When the week was over, I was sad to leave. It’s always hard to go back to real life after stepping away from your obligations almost entirely for a week. But it sure was great to recharge with family in an idyllic setting like Moosehead Lake. There’s something good for the soul about floating on one’s back on a lake with a book. I should really do it more often.

Book review: Confessions of a Sociopath, by M.E. Thomas

It seems to me that recently, sociopaths have been enjoying a bit of time in the pop culture limelight. I was first turned on to the sociopath craze a few years ago when I listened to this This American Life episode, which was inspired by British journalist Jon Ronson’s excellent book of the same name, The Psychopath Test. After Al and I read The Psychopath Test, we both entered into a phase in which we frequently diagnosed people around us with sociopathy. We still do this occasionally, but it was a lot easier to sociopath-spot when I worked at a corporate law firm (a word on that later). But, having spent the last almost two years working for myself and choosing to surround myself with primarily non-sociopaths (aka “empaths”), I had sort of forgotten about sociopaths. Then, I received M.E. Thomas’s book, Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, and was reminded, once again, of those pesky psychopaths wandering among us.

COAS image

Confessions of a Sociopath, as the title suggests, is a memoir written by a self-proclaimed (and supposedly clinically diagnosed) sociopath. M.E. Thomas is a pseudonym, but it didn’t take the internet long to figure out that the author of this book is actually (most probably) a woman named Jamie Rebecca Lund, a former law professor at St. Mary’s School of Law in Texas and then, before she was “outed” as a sociopath and subsequently fired, BYU. Lund didn’t help to keep her identity secret when she went on Dr. Phil in a bad wig and talked openly about her sociopathy (a move that led some to question whether she was in fact a sociopath or merely a narcissist). Indeed, in the paperback edition of her book, Thomas/Lund acknowledges that she has been “outed” and has lost her job as a law professor. All of this is to say that it’s unclear whether Thomas is actually a sociopath or merely an attention seeker who observed sociopathy’s rise in the zeitgeist and decided to cash in on it. As I read the book, it was impossible for me to decide one way or the other, so I decided to take Thomas at her word and assume that she is, in fact, a sociopath.

For those who haven’t done much reading on sociopathy, sociopaths (a term usually used interchangeably with the more loaded “psychopaths”) are people who suffer from a personality disorder that renders them unable to feel empathy and/or tap into a conscience. They know right from wrong, but they don’t feel right from wrong. Some sociopaths turn out to be violent criminals; others end up being wildly successful in business, law, medicine, and other fields in which the typical traits of sociopathy (ruthlessness, manipulation, charm, risk-taking, and lack of empathy) are advantageous. Thomas is one of the latter, a sociopath who has succeeded in her chosen field (law), has never been arrested, and who claims to live a full and happy life filled with friends and family. She attributes her success in large part to her strict Mormon upbringing, arguing that adherence to a set of external values (in this case, the ones set by her church) has helped keep her on the straight and narrow. Even though she doesn’t feel moral outrage, guilt, or compassion, she nonetheless adheres to the rules set by the church because they make sense, and they keep her in line.

Thomas divides the book into nine chapters, each of which discusses a different facet of sociopathy, which she backs up both with research and with anecdotes from her own life. She discusses, among other things, how sociopaths experience emotion, the impact of family life and upbringing on steering young sociopaths toward good or evil, how a sociopath might interact with an external moral or ethical code, and what sociopaths are like in romantic relationships. To me, the most interesting discussions were the ones focusing on Thomas’s religion (she remains a practicing Mormon) and her experience working in the law, particularly in corporate law (also known as BigLaw, a realm with which I am intimately familiar).

In explaining how she balances being a sociopath with being a Mormon, Thomas writes that because Mormons believe that “we are all sons and daughters of a loving God who only wants our eternal progression and happiness,” and that because all beings have the potential for salvation, she has concluded that only her actions matter, “not [her] emotional deficits, not [her] ruthless thoughts, and not [her] nefarious motivations.” She explains that Mormonism is “especially well suited” to her needs, “because its rules and standards are very explicit,” and following them has always helped her to blend in with everyone else. She argues that her lack of guilt is not a hindrance in practicing her religion; she says she follows the tenets of Mormonism simply because they tend to be rational and lead to good outcomes. “Rather than feeling a moral certainty about the rightness of the church and its articles of faith, my affiliation with the church makes sense to me in the language of efficiency,” she writes.

However, rather than following the letter of the church’s law, Thomas bends or interprets the rules as she sees fit. For example, she writes that the church only explicitly bans “pre-marital relations,” and she has interpreted this to mean that she can enjoy a full sex life, presumably as long as she refrains from intercourse (although this is not made explicit). In another chapter, she discusses her fluid sexuality and many sexual conquests of both men and women. So, it’s unclear to me how she squares her sexual behavior with the Mormon church’s rules, particularly when she claims to believe that only her actions matter with regard to her eventual salvation. Then again, Thomas is explicit about her reasons for being Mormon: it’s about efficiency, and getting ahead. So maybe these questions don’t matter to her that much.

Thomas’s discussion of her success as a lawyer was not surprising to me. In fact, it brought back a lot of memories from my time working in BigLaw, when I saw a lot of people seemingly devoid of empathy not only survive but thrive. Thomas’s observations about law school were also interesting:

Some of the most amoral and manipulative people I met in my life I knew in law school — rats who gamed the system with little regard for others at a level of meticulousness baffling even to me. They calculated every event or encounter to optimize their advantage, even when the advantages were so trivial as to mean having a slightly better breakfast. Many of them seemed capable of committing massacre, grand theft, or real destruction, had a sufficient motivating desire struck them to do so.

Thomas/Lund went to University of Chicago law school; my experience at Harvard was somewhat different. Most law students at Harvard are not manipulative, scheming rats, but are instead socially stunted, hyper-intelligent, neurotic head-cases. But there were some of the sociopathic schemers that Thomas describes in my class; they were just far fewer in number than the harmless nerds. Where I encountered the real sociopaths was at my law firm job. There’s a reason for this, Thomas argues; sociopathy actually helps lawyers to succeed:

The stereotypes about the bloodlessness of lawyers are true, at least about the good ones. Sympathy makes for bad lawyering, bad advocacy, and bad rule-making. … Working the slippery knot between right and wrong to my advantage is not only personally satisfying but has the additional benefit of being good lawyering…. And like all sociopaths, lawyers recognize the self-interest that hides in every heart, ferreting out the hidden motivations and dirty secrets that underlie criminal acts.

Reading the book made me glad, for the zillionth time, that I no longer practice law, and that my interactions with people like Thomas are consequently much reduced. By the end of the book, I was tired of her self-aggrandizing tone and stories of her own ruthlessness and seductiveness. Much of Thomas’s discussion of the study of sociopathy, particularly how it plays out in her professional and personal life, was interesting, but some of her anecdotes and conclusions struck me as inflated, as if she was trying too hard to prove her own sociopathy. Part of the problem with reading a firsthand account of sociopathy, it turns out, is that you have to listen to a sociopath drone on about herself for 300 pages.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to those who are interested in sociopaths and want to hear a firsthand account from a self-diagnosed (but possibly lying) sociopath, but wouldn’t recommend it if you’ve already read The Psychopath Test, a superior and more entertaining book, in my estimation.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Book review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Many people had mentioned Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to me before I read it. I had planning on reading it for what felt like a long time. And when I finally did get around to it, I wondered what had taken me so long to start. Once I picked up Americanah, I found that I could not put it down. It offered that rare combination of excellent writing, absorbing storytelling, and challenging content. Now, normally, I don’t read novels to be challenged, necessarily. I don’t go to any trouble to seek out books — particularly novels — that I think will make me feel uncomfortable. But Americanah often did make me feel uncomfortable, and it did challenge me. And I loved it.

americanah

The novel follows its protagonist, smart and pretty Ifemelu, from Lagos to the East Coast of the United States and then back again, tracing her struggles and triumphs as she adjusts first to life in the United States and then to life in a changed Nigeria. Americanah (the title is taken from a Nigerian slang term for a Nigerian who has gone abroad and become Americanized) is about love, race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia. The love story happens between Ifem and her high school and early university boyfriend, contemplative, handsome Obinze. Ifem and Obinze’s stories intersect, separate, and then intersect again, across decades and continents, until Ifem makes the fateful decision to leave her comfortable American life (and black American boyfriend) and return to Nigeria.

The race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia aspects of the story are drawn in vivid detail as Ifem negotiates her life in the United States, first as a struggling international undergraduate student at a Philadelphia college, later as a successful race blogger, and finally as a disaffected fellow at Princeton. As Ifemelu is beginning to navigate her radically different life in the U.S., Obinze also departs Nigeria for the UK, where he works illegally and tries to land a green card marriage with an EU citizen before being deported. He then builds a highly successful life for himself back in Lagos, including marriage and a child.

Ifem and Obinze’s experiences abroad and back home, and the challenges they encounter as Nigerians in America and the UK, are parallel stories of people grappling with identity — racial, national, and individual — while seeking fulfillment and connections with people who don’t necessarily understand or empathize with those challenges. For Ifem, these struggles play out as she enters into relationships with Americans — both black and non-black — and tries to reconcile her identity as a Nigerian with her new identity as a black person in America. Some of the book’s most trenchant observations — and it is packed full of them — come as Ifemelu, a person who never considered herself black before leaving Nigeria, encounters America’s specific, prickly brand of racial politics. One of my favorite little scenes is when Ifemelu first arrives in Philadelphia and goes shopping with her high school friend Ginika, who has lived in the US much longer than she has. Two girls are working in the store: one black, and one white. The white girl helps Ginika.

At the checkout, the blond cashier asked, ‘Did anybody help you?’

‘Yes,’ Ginika said.

‘Chelcy or Jennifer?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name.’ Ginika looked around, to point at her helper, but both young woman had disappeared into the fitting rooms at the back.

‘Was it the one with the long hair?’ the cashier asked.

‘Well, both of them had long hair.’

‘The one with dark hair?’

Both of them had dark hair.

Ginika smiled and looked at the cashier and the cashier smiled and looked at her computer screen, and two damp seconds crawled past before she cheerfully said, ‘It’s okay, I’ll figure it out later and make sure she gets her commission.’

As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, ‘I was waiting for her to ask, “Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?” Why didn’t she just ask “Was it the black girl or the white girl?”‘

Ginika laughed. ‘Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.’

There are also plenty of sharp observations about the lives of Nigerians abroad, and the way they interact with each other. At one point, Ifemelu, by now a fellow at Princeton, is waiting in line for a taxi and anticipates the driver’s nationality with some trepidation.

Ifemelu joined the taxi line outside the station. She hoped her driver would not be a Nigerian, because he, once he heard her accent, would either be aggressively eager to tell her that he had a master’s degree, the taxi was a second job, and his daughter was on the dean’s list at Rutgers; or he would drive in sullen silence, giving her change and ignoring her ‘thank you,’ all the time nursing humiliation, that this fellow Nigerian, a small girl at that, who perhaps was a nurse of an accountant or even a doctor, was looking down on him. Nigerian taxi drivers in America were all convinced that they really were not taxi drivers. 

As Ifemelu becomes more familiar with the concept of race in America, she starts a blog in which she anonymously doles out observations from the perspective of a non-American black. One of those posts is titled ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness.’ As an American non-black myself, I found this post fascinating and challenging. For example, in the post, Ifemelu counsels the American non-black reader thusly:

Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews there is also the possibility of envy — they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews — and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy — they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.

When Ifemelu heads back to Lagos, however, she shudders her race blog and instead begins to blog about social issues in Nigeria. As she carves out a life for herself in a city that she once understood well, but in which she now feels a bit alien, she reconnects with Obinze, and their love story — complicated and fractured as it is — resumes. The resumption of their story feels both satisfying and frustrating, and the resolution (no spoilers!) is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Just like life.

I really loved this book. I want to read more of Adichie’s writing right away, and I highly recommend you do the same. In case you’re interested, here is an interview with Adichie on NPR.

My podcasting debut

As many of you know, I’m a contributor to the fantastic TV humor and criticism website, Previously.TV, which is home to the Extra Hot Great podcast. I was honored to be this week’s guest on the podcast, in which we discussed important topics such as The Bachelorette finale, the nineties-ness of Felicity, Season 1, what’s good on TV right now (my pick was PBS’s gross and fascinating Sex in the Wild), and much more!

It was so fun being on the podcast, and once I got over the revulsion of listening to the sound of my own voice, I was even able to listen to it and enjoy it!

If you’d like to check it out, it’s available for streaming and/or download here.