Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Take That Job

Seconds Before Wipe Out
Seconds Before Wipe Out
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
My husband and I have been singularly fortunate in our employment timing. We left the United States just as the economy began to unravel, and we have largely been able to avoid the very real angst and frustration that resulted. Friends and family struggled to keep it together, find work, pay the mortgage, keep going, adjust to the new conditions, while we cruised in our bubble of semi-retired self-indulgence. So it is with a wry understanding of how lucky we've been to date that I begin my whine about getting a job in New Zealand.

Let us first state the obvious -- I am not whinging about getting a job. I am obviously whinging about not getting a job. Here is Toast pitching a tantrum and stamping her feet because nobody wants to fork over large amounts of money for the privilege of hiring an immigrant, female Yank with weak recent employment history in a difficult, tight market. Stamp stamp stamp…. why not?! Stamp stamp stamp…. really… why not?! Of course, the obvious answer to that question is that I'm an immigrant, female Yank with weak recent employment history in a country which doesn't have an enormous technology sector to start and which is further beaten down by the global economic melt down. Moreover, I know not a single soul locally who can, in a feat of professional nepotism, leap me over otherwise qualified Kiwis to pull me into the fold.

Even if I could find a sugar daddy with the perfect job, the family engages in a collective gasp of horror at the thought of mommy leaving the house at 6:00 AM every morning to shlep for an hour into the central business district, returning at approximately lights out. Let me give you an example of how spoiled the family has become. In a fit of frustration last week, I walked into a local Curves franchise and applied as a coach. I didn't even ask what it paid. I'm just so sick of sitting in Chicken House emailing resumes into /dev/null I was ready to do anything. I was hired right there on the spot. Four days a week, 2 to 6.

DrC and the girls pitched a fit. "No. You can't do that, Mum!" cried the girls. "Really, Toast. The hours are just not going to work," said DrC.

Oh for cripies sakes, people. Cut me a break… So back to Curves I went and reluctantly told the owner that the family had vetoed the job. She was surprisingly gracious and put me on the short list to receive a call when a morning shift opens up… though I got the impression that would be at approximately the same moment as pigs flew out of the prime minister's ass. So now in addition to: not in the central business district, part time, and not involving medical experimentation, I have to add the restriction "only between the hours of 8 AM and 3 PM." At this rate, I will absolutely never find work in New Zealand.

"Do you think I'll ever get a job?" I moan to DrC.

"Well…," he temporizes. This question probably bears a strong similarity to the perennial minefield surrounding, "Do I look fat in this?"

The difference between positivism and optimism is as follows: Optimists assume that good things will happen. Positivists assume they always know what is going to happen. "I am positive I am not going to find a job." I'm stepping to the plate, accepting reality, skipping the grief and denial phases entirely, and getting into mad and whatever the hell happens next. "This just isn't going to work. Or I'm not going to work. Whatever."

"Um…" DrC's waxing particularly articulate this morning.

"I'm done with this shit," I declare with another vicious wave of positivist thinking. "Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse means we are flexible!" DrC winces. "Adaptable!" I'm getting louder. "Ready to do whatever it takes!!"

DrC covers his ear with one hand to protect it from my strongly positive thinking, "So…"
Always Helpful
Always Helpful
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

"So I'm done. I'm going to get a job answering phones four hours a day so I don't go out of my flippin' mind stuck in Chicken House, and I'll spend the rest of my time working on that d* book."

"What d* book?"

"The d* book everyone keeps telling me to write." With this declaration, I spin the van into a parking spot and practically push him out the door, "Go to work. I've got stuff to do."

Bemused, DrC climbs out of the van, his parting blessing, "You know I'll love you no matter what you decide."

Muttering, I zoom off, "You're d* right you love me no matter what, or I wouldn't be here in the Antipodes baking cookies and dropping my man off at the Kiss and Ride…"

Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Our Own Words

Memory Picture
Memory Picture
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Today, we delivered our impact statement to the Pukekohe Police. The judge uses these statements during the sentencing phase. The thieves who took our stuff have been in jail now for a few weeks. The judge gets to decide based on what they've done and how it impacted us how long they will stay there. The court asked me to have the girls and DrC write their own statements.
It made me very mad to know someone had stolen important things that only affected me. -- Aeron Conger (9)
* * *
The burglary was very upsetting to my wife and children. We were still living out of our suit cases, having a hard time finding a place to live. The house smelled like cat piss and we weren't sure we could live here. The burglary was like someone telling us "We don't want you here." We thought our neighbors might have done it, until the thieves were caught.

Financially, we will recover, since we have property insurance. It will be a big pain in the ---- having to deal with the insurance company and keep track of everything we purchase for the next 12 months. My wife has spent many hours dealing with these issues already.

Petty thieves deserve to be punished, because their crimes are, most likely, not of necessity but of opportunity. Stealing is easier than earning an honest wage yet it causes immense emotions and societal harm. It alters our way of life on a fundamental level and changes the way we view our neighbors and fellow man. -- Dean Conger (45)
* * *
This theft hurt me personally, because many of the things that were stolen had no commercial value, but they had memorable value. They were a piece of my life. The most important stuff I owned was the stuff that was stolen and not returned. I was also hurt by the complete lack of respect that someone showed. I don't know how this could be justified. -- Jaime Conger (14)
* * *
Our family moved to New Zealand in mid-February. We pared everything we owned down to ten suitcases, seven of which were taken in the robbery. I want you to imagine that you distilled your life to just a few bags and that 70% of everything you owned was then taken from you. This was a financial loss, certainly. It was a more devastating personal loss to all of us as things we valued very much were taken.

Financially, we will recover from our insurance company roughly two thirds of our total estimated replacement cost loss of $X,000 USD ($Y,000 NZD). The difference is primarily due to depreciation on the high value electronics, medical equipment and marine equipment that were in the bags. Another large fraction of the unrecouped loss comes from a single item: a folio containing business, educational, medical, and recreational software which the insurance firm will not recover. The irony is that the majority of the recreational disks are not actually functional in New Zealand. We also lost no small amount of accumulated data on the external hard drives which will take years to recover. We had copied all our movies and music on to those hard drives so that we might leave the original disks in the States. The work effort represented is a dead loss.

Emotionally, the issue is more challenging. After two years in Mexico, it was strange to feel that we were considerably less safe in New Zealand… a country reknown for its low crime and corruption rates. I think immediately after the theft, we all just wanted to go back to Baja where we would feel safer. Gradually we are pulling out of that and beginning to enjoy ourselves again. However, the entire incident dramatically shook our confidence. I must stress that the actions of the Pukekohe Police -- their consideration, respect, and diligence -- have materially helped the entire family in this recovery process.

Personally, the hardest moment for me was walking into the garage where our things were found. Everything of monetary value had, of course, already been taken elsewhere -- sold or traded, who knows. But there in the garage were so many precious bits of our lives. And they had thrown these bits -- diaries, pictures, souvenirs, children's clothing, letters and mementos and homemade jewelry and gifts -- into the trash. My daughters' most precious possessions were mixed with dirty rags, empty soda bottles and food wrappers. It made me cry then and it makes cry now to type it. Our lives meant absolutely NOTHING to these people. They felt NOTHING when they treated us like garbage. It is hard to have even the slightest empathy or sympathy or respect for someone whose values are so distorted that they miss the most obvious value of such things.

Immediately after this happened, Mera and Aeron agreed that the punishment for a crime such as this one would be to take the most valuable, precious and important thing the thief owns and burn it. Just burn it. But when they got some of those things back, they came to me… separately… and said no. Don't do that. Because no matter how bad the thieves were, we can not be that cruel. It just hurts too much to lose something that important. I will defer to my daughters on this point, and leave the notion of justice to someone considerably more objective than myself. Personally, I feel far more Mama Bear and mean. -- Karen Toast Conger (42)

* * *
It felt like an earthquake. The stable thought you get that no one is bad or evil and nothing bad will happen gets shaken up and destroyed. I thought that like an earthquake as well, it is sudden and quick, but takes days or even months to heal. But it also reminded me that our possessions are not our family. They don't matter nearly as much as my Mom or Dad or my sisters. Still, it was a constant burr in my side afterwards, remembering all the useful, important, silly, or just normal stuff that were now gone forever. The things that probably hurt the most were my diaries and my Mom's life-time jewelry. By some miracle, the thieves missed the jewelry and were caught by the police, so once I got my diaries back, everything else didn't matter too much any more. But I can still remember turning into a waterworks, Mom trying to pull it together, our empty, run-down house, and the question that usually comes at times like that. Why? -- Mera Conger (11)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Be A Tidy Kiwi

Okay, What Kind?
Okay, What Kind?
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
As we clean up the breakfast dishes, my youngest admonishes me, "Be a tidy Kiwi, Mum."

First off… Mum? Second, what am I doing wrong now?

Aaron points at the pile of detritus from our meal making -- packaging plastic and paper, bits of vegetable ends. Rather than scooping them all into the rubbish bin, she shows me how to separate the bits into their appropriate recycling bins outside the campground kitchen.

I like to think of our family as environmentally aware. We are conscientious and do what we can to reduce our foot print on this planet. However, we are learning important lessons from New Zealand. This is a country in the grip of a recycling rage. A parallel -- and I believe largely unrelated -- movement involves removing every scrap of litter from every surface in every outdoor space throughout both islands. For these tasks, the Kiwis enlist an army of school children who are indoctrinated from birth to carefully sort their trash and are organized into brigades on a weekly basis to clean town, park, playground, street, and highway. After years of seeing the casually discarded and ubiquitous trash which mars every corner of Mexico, the absence of even so much as cigarette butts and bottle tops on the verge of highways is somewhat disconcerting.

Paradoxically to outsiders, the New Zealand opinion of its own environmental record appears highly critical… and perhaps with good reason. When the Pakehas came to this country, they found a land covered by dense forests of totara, kauri, and fern beneath which lay some of the most fertile ground in the world. So like good, white colonists on every continent, they leveled the place. It is very hard to find any of the original, native forests anywhere. As I said, this pattern is not so unusual. Look at the East coast of the United States, for example. I think what makes it harder for New Zealanders, however, is that this happened so recently. Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers can at least pretend it's not their fault -- those forests were largely gone before we hit the Civil War. We can't be responsible for something that happened 200 years ago… can we? But we on the Western coast of the United States can be more sympathetic to Pakehas who have pictures of their grandparents cutting down giant 3,000 year old kauri trees. There just isn't enough distance between the destruction of our old growth forests and our modern, environmental sensitivity. Short of planting out every cattle range and sheep grazing hill, there appears little to be done to recapture the islands as they existed 100 years ago, let alone 1,000 years ago before the fairly destructive arrival of the Maori wane.

Instead, it feels as though New Zealand is channeling its not inconsiderable energy into keeping everything very clean. This country has, without any exception or qualification, the cleanest toilets in the world. Okay, maybe the Japanese are cleaner… though maybe not. I find the signs on Japanese toilets so baffling I'm never sure I'm using them correctly. In parks, there are special dog-shaped trash cans into which you are instructed to put dog poo. One the of the most highly touted tourist attractions and number 86 on the Kiwi's Must See 101 list is the Hundertwasser public toilets in Kawakawa. The towns and countryside are littered with the high-tech and fancy toilets which Seattle debated for years. Every toilet we've visited is antiseptically clean with no graffiti other than a confetti of government signs encouraging hand washing, counter wiping, and self-policing of rubbish.

My tidy Kiwi kids are already infected with this passion for cleanliness… for the most part. Jaime's bed area still looks like a tornado hit it, and the girls routinely drape wet towels, stinky socks, and dubiously clean clothing on every surface of the house unless I yell at them. Repeatedly. Constantly. Repetitively. Redundantly. Again and again. So they haven't completely adopted the New Zealand passion for cleanliness inside, but they have absorbed the message for the outside world. Slowly but surely, they are transforming the overgrown lawn and beds of Chicken House, replacing the weeds with edible landscaping in the form of winter greens, beans, and clover.

They are also starting to sound strange. "Do I really need this lecture from you, girls?"

*snort* "Wut eh vuh, mum..."

Friday, April 09, 2010

School Versus Learning

High Tech Training
High Tech Training
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
"Mum, I need you to get me more math," Aeron informs me as she slides her backpack off and on to the kitchen table with a thud. The girls have been in the Pukekohe schools for three weeks. This afternoon's flood of noisy children into my peaceful job hunting and insurance-haranguing day is becoming quite routine.

"More math." This isn't really so much a question as a moderately dumbfounded repetition of her words.

"Yes," she informs me cheerfully as she helps herself to milk and cookies. "We're not really doing much math. Those algebra things were cool. More of those."

I confess that living in Chicken House with the girls in school has temporarily slipped me into a June Cleaver mode. I bake cookies, pies, or cake pretty much every day. Of course, part of the motivation is that the house is freezing cold, there is no central heat, and baking appears to be the only source of warmth legitimately possible during the day unless I'm ready to concede defeat and start living in a steamy bathtub eating chocolates and reading Harlequin romances. Absently, I mutter to my youngest, "Only two."

She knows this means two cookies and reluctantly puts one back, "Some science would be good, too."

"Okay, more math and some science. I can do that." At this point, Mera enters the kitchen, and she too immediately heads for the after school nod to suburban domesticity.

"Mom?" Mera asks in her I-want-to-say-something-but-I'm-afraid-you'll-get-upset voice.

Hmm. What now? My youngest wants me to do school after school. What can possibly go wrong now? "Yes, Mera."

"Mom, Mrs. Guise says I need to be accelerated in the accelerated class." Mera's voice is a combination of concern at my response and a vain attempt to suppress pride. She's been in Mrs Guise's accelerated class for one week after getting bumped out of the "normals" due to performing so far out of expectation on her qualifying math and reading tests that her school isn't really quite sure what she's capable of. "I'd like to do some more studying at home."

"Of course you do." Of course you do! Right. I muse, "I thought we were done homeschooling."

"Um… if it's okay with you, I'd like to do some history and science. The maths at school are okay, but they don't do any science really. And I think that not doing history in intermediate school is just wrong, don't you?" Mera is indignant. She is coming out of her modesty shell and pointing out the inadequacies of the curriculum set for an entire nation of people.

I scrub my face, "Well…" I know at this point I should be defending the school system, but we're having a bit of a problem. Can you really tell your kids they are wrong if they want to learn more than they are being offered? Chewing my lip I think for a moment, "Girls have I got this straight? You want me to get you more math, science and history to do after school."

Aeron explains to me, "Yeah. See, we'll just flip our day, okay? We'll play at school and then we'll do school at home. Okay?" Done with her cookies and apparently done with explaining how she's going to organize her day, Aeron disappears around the corner. Mera shrugs, smiles at me, nods her head and leaves as well, her voice trailing behind her as the kitchen door flaps back and forth, "That'll work!"

My Kiwi Kids
My Kiwi Kids
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
That'll work. I guess more importantly, Mom will work and Dad will work and when we're done working we'll come home and be teacher. Homeschool families, beware. We made a big mistake. We taught our children to enjoy learning. Now they go to school where it's very fun but completely inadequate intellectually. So my want to play "school" for six hours with all their new Kiwi friends then come home and learn something. I can't imagine how long this bizarre state of affairs will last. I also am pretty sure it would be a good idea to not tell Mrs Guise and Mrs Almond -- not to mention any of their new girl friends -- that school is about as challenging as a construction paper project.

So until and unless this love of learning wears off, I must now add to our daily to do list: more math, some science, and history. So much for the cookies... time to get to work.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Step 5 - Find a Place to Live

Chicken House
Chicken House
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Two weeks of poking around all the neighborhoods near Auckland left the entire family frustrated, exhausted and irritable. All the advice provided by all those lovely people familiar with Auckland was sound and interesting and helpful... if we were moving directly here from Seattle. Blockhouse Bay is similar to West Seattle. Howick is similar to Issaquah. Ponsonby reminds me strongly of Capital Hill. It's all good. We recognize it. Had we moved here directly from Seattle and our busy lives there, it would be perfect. 

But we didn't. Betwixt here and there are years of living on a boat, living small, and ... perhaps more importantly... living away from city life. Every time we would point the car north towards the city, shoulders would hunch and snippy comments resound from the back. So on a lark one day, we turned the car south to the country. We drove away from Auckland and away from our house hunt, escaping into the surrounding farmland and rural communities. We weren't looking for a place to live so much as quiet, sunshine, and fresh air.

After a half hour, we arrived in a town called Pukekohe which is about 20 minutes south of DrC's office and about 40 minutes south of Auckland proper. Now, like all the other neighborhoods we've visited, Pukekohe is a mirror world parallel of a community with which we were familiar when we lived in Washington. Like the equally unpronounceable Puyallup, Pukekohe is a rural town, the county seat of a predominantly agricultural district. The primary schools are sharply divided between those on the right side of the tracks (in this case the south side of town) and those on the wrong side. However, the town is too small to maintain that separation at the Intermediate and College levels where the decile drops to middle ranges reflect the fact that absolutely everyone in town goes to the same schools. The box stores have been relegated to one road out of sight. The center of town includes a city hall, incredibly large and lush parks, and all the major schools backed up against each other. 

Pookies -- as incredibly enough these people call themselves -- pride themselves on not really being a part of Auckland. However, Pukekohe is the fastest growing urban area in New Zealand. The schools have nearly doubled over the last decade resulting in facilities with many new buildings and all new computer, science, art, and music equipment. It's about half Pakehas and half mixed other. As part of our walk about town, we visited all three of the schools the girls would attend. At the intermediate, the principal and his wife went of their way to spend time talking with us and answer our questions. With no transition and all but perfect unity, we immediately started driving by all the available rental properties. Something about the town, the quiet, the charming prettiness of main street, and the fact that the sidewalks completely and utterly rolled up on Sunday afternoon appealed at a bone deep level.

The girls and I fell in love with Chicken House. Chicken House is about two blocks from the town center on the edge of the main park in the south part of town and when we drove by the first time, someone's domestic chickens were snacking in the front yard. It looks like a funky little chopped up Victorian era working class house with a backyard, a front yard, and three odd little outbuildings. Which is exactly what it is inside plus a whole skanky tangle of cat piss laced carpet. The layout is higgledy piggedly, haphazard in the way that only old houses with parlors and solars can be. Despite the smell, the family fell in love and threw in our lottery ticket with the realtor.

We got back to our hotel room a little dazed with what we'd done. In four hours, we had completely upended our housing hunt, shifting from an apartment in the city to a bizarre little house with chickens in the country. Everywhere in Auckland you can see the water or boats. In Pookie, we could live for months and never see a body of water larger than the bird bath in the back yard. But the vibe and the need were so strong that the family stopped looking north entirely; We canceled all our appointments to look at properties near the city.

When the broker called the next morning and said the house was ours, cheers broke out. Cruising is about going where you want when you want, about not being tied to a convention that says, "Do this because you're supposed to…" Apparently, what we want is to again send our lives careening off at an angle completely orthogonal to all our prior experience. None of us have ever lived in the country before. In Pookie, we're likely to sample lots of other new experiences: small town life, raising chickens, growing veggies in the back yard, drying our clothes on a line, and walking to school.

I might even try baking cookies for the kids when they get home from school. I draw the line at wearing a June Cleaver skirt, however.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Step 4 - Start Work

Trust Me, I'm Your Doctor
Trust Me, I'm Your Doctor
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I woke up this morning unaccountably depressed. It was a bone deep feeling coming off a restless night and punctuated by a low grade headache.

I suspect two causes. The first resulted from of all things an earthquake nearly 3, 000 miles away. Yesterday was a full day of drama for our boating friends. The tsunami generated by the Chilean earthquake rolled out from the coastline and echoed across the Pacific from Japan to New Zealand, Mexico to Australia. While it fortunately wasn't a destructive tsunami as these things go, it was not a non-deal for those in the boating community along Pacific Mexico. If you need to see just how you can be screwed by something as "small" as a meter tidal wave, visit my good friend Behan's blog. Another fellow cruiser, Dennis of Dulci Vida, touched bottom in Barra Navidad where cleats were sprung left and right at the marina. Folks all up and down the coast were chattering on email, news groups, and Facebook.

I can only imagine the VHF traffic on nets in La Paz, Puerto Vallarta, and Manzanillo… but I can imagine. I know the voices and the types of raging arguments that must have taken place regarding where to put the boats and what to do. There would be gloom and doomers and naysayers. The whole day would have been full of chit chat, smart aleck comments and updates from those with 3G access to the news services. And it hurt a little to be land bound, eleven stories up in the middle of an urban center out of sight and out of touch with the cruising community.

The second probable cause of my dreary mood this morning was that today was DrC's first day of work. He was hired as a general ophthalmologist for a county health system in Manukau. Manukau is just south of Auckland. The clinic is shiny new with great, modern equipment, a friendly staff, and more advanced pathology than a doctor in training could possibly desire. We're making money finally. DrC is getting his medical credentials all spiffied up while simultaneously expanding his knowledge in key, growing medical areas. It's all good, right?

But it isn't really. We're coming off of years of spending all day every day with each other. As wrong as it is to say so, today felt like an epic fail... like somehow I'd managed to fail my husband and the girls by letting things get to this point where we had to feed Daddy toast and yogurt, make him a sack lunch, and send him to an office. 

So I didn't get off to the greatest start today. However, I made a vow -- quite literally months ago -- that when DrC started working, the girls and I started working even if school and my own job were weeks or even months in our future. We had a long list of tasks to complete by end of day. School, of course, as well as errands consumed most of our time. We also cleaned house and exercise. DrC actually only worked till 2 so he joined us for our afternoon adventure to look at possible places to live. The day got easier as we got moving. By spending every minute following DrC's axiom to "Use your time wisely", I pushed through the heavy sense of loss and wrongness and worked to find a new balance in our new life.

This is only a foreshadow of the dip I'll no doubt experience the Monday morning I wake up and send the entire lot of them off to school and work. I absolutely refuse to cry at just typing it. While there is simply no sense or bandwidth or purpose in trying to find a job before I've got the family settled, work is going to have to be part of my day as soon thereafter as I can possibly arrange. My family is growing up and excited with their new roles. I want new toys and new people, too, if only to serve as distraction.