Another ode to Aotearoa/New Zealand, I suppose

On Wednesday, I’m heading off for the Museums and the Web conference in San Diego, presenting a paper I wrote about forum structure and design for museum websites. As a person who studies and teaches (among other things–generalist here) media and rhetoric, I’m intrigued–and often horrified–by the ways people interact with sites and each other in online forums. The world of newspaper comments–the logical evolution of printed letters to the editor–has gotten a lot of scholarly attention, and I’m trying to use the best suggestions from that realm in analyzing online interactions with museums.

And this all started with a visit on a rainy weekend to New Plymouth’s Puke Ariki museum in the spring of 2010. My family had hoped to hike on and around Mt. Taranaki, but the short museum visit we were going to squeeze in around outdoorsy activities turned into a luxurious day spent wandering around Puke Ariki and taking in the stunning “Taranaki Wars” exhibit. Once we were back home in Hamilton, our Aotearoa/New Zealand base, I kept returning to the museum’s website to read further about the exhibit and digest some of the museum’s other online offerings. A curated display of visitor comments about the “Taranaki Wars” exhibit started my wheels spinning, and a paper presentation back home that fall at the International Digital Media and Arts Association conference turned into a paper in the New Zealand Journal of Media Studies and the research led to the paper I’m presenting at the conference next week.

I couldn’t be happier about where my interests have converged. I grew up near Chicago, and though my trips to the city’s Art Institute, Field Museum, Museum of Science and Industry, and Oriental Institute were frequent, they never got old. I simply love museums, and have always been the kind of museum-goer who reads every bit of accompanying text, stays for a long time before each piece, and tries, on the spot, to commit new information to memory. I love art and culture museums, science museums, and museums of the strange: I lived in Houston for a while, and Jefferson Davis McKissack’s The Orange Show taught me to appreciate folk art. While in Houston, I visited the Menil Collection constantly. I can’t think of a trip I’ve made that hasn’t included museum visits. Museums rank highly in my earliest memories, and I still remember how important I felt when my parents’ Field Museum membership got us to the head of the line at the King Tut exhibit in 1977.

But my museum-going changed utterly when I became a parent, a bit later than most, and, at first, I wasn’t at all happy about it. Oh, I love children’s museums, and I of course feel very strongly that my kids should go to all sorts of cultural institutions, but the way they use museums and the way I was accustomed to using them were, to my dismay, in direct conflict. I wanted them to stand still and listen as I read exhibit labels, and they weren’t buying it. They preferred to whiz around the museum spaces, pushing buttons and becoming intrigued by water fountains and balconies and grand staircases instead of, well, what I was looking at. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, they were interested in the fact that they had to remove their shoes before entering the marae exhibits at museums there, and spent as much time inspecting the variety of visitors’ shoes as they did tukutuku panels and Māori ancestral carvings inside the structures. Once, after being told we were moving on to the next building at Auckland’s wonderful Museum of Transportation and Technology, my daughter turned around and made a desperate dash to push every button and twirl every gear in the room we were leaving, mindlessly interacting while I wanted to hurry up and go learn about aviation pioneers.

My kids are smart, and now that my daughter can read at 5, they’re both literate, and they’re fairly civilized, but even so, their less than solemn behavior on our recent visit to the opening of a collection of Arnold Newman’s portraits at the college’s art gallery left me feeling like quite the curmudgeon; I’m sure my memories of my own childhood include well-polished fabrications involving my solemn worship before the George Seurat masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. But the re-seeing they’ve forced me to perform has coincided with an area of study that I’m not at all curmudgeonly about, and I’m finally ready to think about how people who are not me interact with museums.

I’ve been teaching communications-related courses since 1994, and of course that means I’ve followed and adapted to the online news revolution. I’ve become a disciple of media scholars who preach “digital first,” and I admit to having little patience with those who wish to turn back the clock to a golden age of print journalism. I’m excited about how newsgathering and reporting are becoming more democratic, more participatory. And, when I started thinking about museums and the Web, about museums and participatory culture overall, I realized that I was a big old dinosaur for thinking that all museum visitors should act the way I do. And I decided that my way of doing things had cut me off from a great many participatory activities that my children naturally loved.

So I didn’t feel like I was missing the rest of the museum last summer as my children built little sculptures and screen printed posters in the workshop at the Andy Warhol Museum. (I was actually pretty happy to hide in the basement after their rambunctious behavior in the Silver Clouds room anyway.) I read Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum and soon found myself hungry for news of innovative strategies that appealed to a diverse museum audience. Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse and New Heritage: New Media and Cultural Heritage became my foundational texts, reading late at night after grading papers on journalism or British Literature. I poured over papers from previous Museums and the Web conferences, and can hardly believe my good fortune at the prospect of being a part of the one this year.

My time in Aotearoa/New Zealand is clearly the spark for bringing together disparate threads of my interests and experiences. I’m investigating online museum forums because of Puke Ariki; I’m investigating Pacific oral literatures because of how Māori literary studies dovetails with what I know of debates regarding the composition of Beowulf; I’m satisfying my extra-disciplinary fascination with geology after living in one of the most dynamic landscapes on Earth. I’m grateful the country worked so much magic on me.

(Links to come–I have more papers to grade!)

Published in: on April 7, 2012 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

What is my heart still doing there?

What is it about A/NZ that makes two Americans on a sunny winter day in Pennsylvania greet each other with “Kia ora”? The other day, I ran into one of the students who went on the study abroad trip with me, and we basically had a conversation about yearning and absence—except not in so many words. “Huh. Miss it.” “Wish I could go back.” That sort of thing. And I asked him, “What if we’d gone to Perugia?” The students who went to Perugia, Berlin, Maastricht all vow to return, all carry within them the discovery and delight of place and culture. Are we simply attached to the place we went because, well, we went there?

I had a colleague who did a Fulbright in a former Soviet bloc country a few years ago. When he got back, he couldn’t stop talking about it and relating every little thing to his time there. Frankly, I found it baffling. He was back now, wasn’t he? So why was he still there in his head?

I know better now. I’m going to try to figure out just why A/NZ still casts a spell over me. I check the NZ Herald website daily; I get a Māori word a day emailed to me. Of course I’ll return—but when? When can I move my entire family back? Our semester abroad was a lucky intersection of timing—I was study abroad director for the trip and my husband was on sabbatical; my children were too young perhaps to mind being moved away from the familiar and the routine. How could I devise a way for all four of us to return before too long? While on long tramps there, I promised my kids I’d keep fit over the next ten years so that when we went back, they wouldn’t have to wait for me the way I would often have to wait for them. Can I keep that promise?

We went for a walk in a wooded park near our house in Pennsylvania yesterday. “This is like hiking in New Zealand!” Mira said. Except it wasn’t. I was wearing the hiking boots I’d gotten there almost two years ago, but otherwise—no. No tui songs, no silver ferns, no glacier-studded mountains in the distance. No gas and steam rising from fumaroles, no green and yellow Department of Conservation signs pointing the way, no postcard racks at the gift shop in town to spin through  just in case our photos weren’t good enough.

Was it the country? Perhaps: it’s the landscape, it’s the culture, it’s the sense of fear and shock I felt during Pike River, the Canterbury quakes, the Rena spill, even though I wasn’t there anymore. Was it me? It’s the friendships I made. It’s the way I saw my students fold themselves into their transplanted lives there. Was it me and the precise moment in my life I went—the months leading up to my 50th birthday?

I didn’t think I’d be so invested. Now I can’t imagine not feeling connected forever.

Published in: on February 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

Organizing my brain

I recently switched to Chrome from Firefox, mainly because I couldn’t get Firefox 5 to get me to my Google Calendar, and it’s getting close to the start of the school year. Once I imported my bookmarks, I had to admit that they were in a terrible, random mess, and that I’d done a horrible job over the last year or so, not just of editing and deleting when necessary, but of categorizing my collection of folders. So I spent yesterday morning re-naming and moving and deleting, putting together folders for sites I’ll use in each course this fall and trying to make research/interest area folders more organized. I mined through the various sites, looking for similarities and coherence, trying out and rejecting groupings. My generalist academic position means that journalism, rhetoric, literature, and new media understandably account for the multiple overlaps that made it difficult to create distinctions, but I was struck by how much my work and what I pay attention to, academically and casually, has been influenced by my short six months in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The country gave me literature, history, art, and culture in abundance, and gave me two new areas of interest: how museums, particularly ones that present narratives of indigenous populations, can use social media to moderate intelligent and constructive debate over pressing cultural issues, and how oral cultures and their literatures change forever once an outside culture arrives and textualizes the indigenous language and starts recording the wealth of the culture’s literary, historical, geographical, geologic, and spiritual histories. A/NZ complicated my categorization process—but this isn’t a complaint, it’s a thank you.

Published in: on August 18, 2011 at 9:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Visiting a nuclear plant in Illinois in 1979

In March 1979, I was a freshman in college in Illinois. I saw The China Syndrome the day before the accident at Three Mile Island. A few days later, I made an appointment to talk to the public relations guy at the Dresden nuclear plant in Morris, Illinois, and dragged my boyfriend out there with me; we were the only visitors there. The p.r. guy was really nice, answered lots of questions, and was pretty honest with me about the questions he wrestled with before taking the job–and on the morning after TMI happened. We weren’t allowed anywhere near the reactor building; we met in the visitor center, and could see the rest of the plant from the parking lot.

In the center, I looked at diagrams that were nearly identical to the ones I’d seen in the movie and on the news from Pennsylvania, and I tried really hard to understand everything. Of course I couldn’t, but my visit to that power plant has always been part of my own TMI story. And now I live just a little over 20 miles from TMI. The first time I saw the very familiar cooling towers was when I flew into Harrisburg International Airport for my job interview at LVC. Fifteen years after the accident, I got ready to move to Pennsylvania, and my wonderful dad reassured me, saying that TMI had to be the safest nuclear plant in the country. Still, I have to admit it freaked me out when I learned that my new Yellow Pages had detailed evacuation route information next to the sections for zip codes and municipal phone numbers.

I know at least one friend whose family is from Middletown, and I know that lots of Pennsylvania families have TMI accident stories that engrossed me when I moved out here.  I guess there’s always one’s self and the past to contemplate when current news and emotions are too overwhelming to process.

Published in: on March 14, 2011 at 11:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s not just me

Last night, Mira found her school notebook from her Hamilton kindy, and happily declared, “Ko Mira ahau!”, which is “I am Mira” in Te Reo Māori. We sat down and looked at the pages, full of detailed learning updates by her teachers, photos of Mira and her classmates, and Mira’s beautiful artwork. She looked at the photos of her class trip to Auckland’s Butterfly Creek, and tried to remember all of her friends’ names.

Conor was looking sad this morning, and I asked him what was wrong.

“Remember when we were in New Zealand, and I missed home? I loved where we were, but I had this big hole that wouldn’t go away,” he said. “Well, now I have a hole where New Zealand should be.”

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  

Of fragility

I completely understand why Cantabrians are focused on restoring some of the heritage buildings destroyed in the earthquake, and I share others’ dismay over the possibility that a rebuilt Christchurch will be architecturally unrecognizable. The grey stone of the Cathedral, the Museum, and the Provincial Council Buildings came from local Canterbury quarries; the buildings emerged in the early days of the English colonization of the islands. For residents and tourists alike, these buildings gave life to this “most English” of New Zealand’s cities. The word “iconic” has been used over and over in coverage of the 6.3 earthquake of 22 February 2011, and it’s more than appropriate; these buildings, for many, connect them to their ancestors and give meaning to their ancestors’ struggles to establish lives far away from England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. By virtue of my own ethnic heritage, these New Zealanders are my cousins, however distant, and the stories of families coming to the American continent remind me of stories I heard in New Zealand about these settlers from the British islands.

However, it saddens me to see that the reverence for old things, for ancestral memories, and for the importance of making the past a living part of the present, all of which I approve as a foreigner who fell in love with New Zealand, exists in some citizens’ minds only as far as European New Zealand history extends. One of the first news stories I read after arriving last year concerned a rock, or kohatu, sacred to Māori that was dynamited by a water company on Wednesday, 10 March 2010. The rock, named Te Rongomai o Te Karaka, was two stories high and the water company was in talks with local people and governmental authorities to divert their work around the rock. At some point, talks broke down and the company went ahead and destroyed the rock, much to the surprise and anger of its defenders who had been on site to protect it and had to witness the explosion.

In a Māori Party press release, Māori Party MP Tariana Turia said, “This was a cold-hearted decision.” She explained the rock’s history, saying, “Te Rogomai o Te Karaka was a waahi tapu. Its name represented the journey of the hapu in days gone by and it had rongoa never found anywhere else. I am extremely sad that it has been treated with such disrespect.”

Loosely translated, waahi (or wāhi) tapu refers to a site that has spiritual and cultural significance for Māori; such sites are often tied to historical and spiritual narratives and may contain both natural and human-made objects. The New Zealand government recognizes specific areas as waahi tapu, and local governments follow codes and rules governing land use around these sites. “Rongoa” refers to traditional herbal medicine and the plants associated with the traditions. “Hapu” refers to a large extended family or sub-tribe; it is a smaller division of an iwi, or a larger group of people bound by common ancestors. Māori in the region regarded the rock as powerful and were devastated to lose it; making the destruction even crueller was the recognition by many that the company simply could have gone around it. The story merited a few lines in the media, a few belittling anti-Māori comments on a radio talk show, and then disappeared.

I read this story in the early days of attending class with my study abroad students; they were enrolled in a course on Māori history, language, and culture. I became friends with our instructor, lecturer and graduate student Thea King, who taught under Sandy Morrison, Senior Lecturer in the Māori and Pacific Development department at the University of Waikato. For the course, I read Ranginui Walker’s powerful history of the encounter between Māori and European culture, Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou: Struggle Without End. I tried to understand the difference between the narrative intended for visitor consumption of a peaceful bicultural balance, unique in the world, between colonizer and colonized and the much less peaceful narrative that Walker’s book and many other sources continually fight to tell.

My first response to hearing of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka’s sad end was that it made no sense—partly because I wanted to believe in the first narrative and partly because of how readily I’d absorbed New Zealand’s image as clean and green, always prepared to defend its breathtakingly beautiful natural places. But in the context of other stories, attitudes and incidents I came to encounter during my semester in the country, the disregard for the declaration of waahi tapu and the Māori people’s sadness became just another retelling of a story too often repeated in that most beautiful of countries.

New Zealand is just as fragile as it is beautiful, and I have a deep reverence for those New Zealanders, both Māori, Pakeha (non-Māori New Zealanders of European heritage), and people from many other lands, who strive to earn the country’s clean and green image. But reminders of its fragility is all around as the country’s scientists and conservationists work to monitor its restless crust and preserve its strange and acutely threatened wildlife. My family watched with a group of other tourists as Oamaru’s resident little blue penguin population returned from the sea to take up their evening’s rest in a protected area; the parade of the world’s smallest penguins up the rocky shore amazed and delighted us. And then a hush fell over the crowd as someone spied a dark shadow lurking beyond the penguin burrows, stealthily approaching the tired swimmers. The center’s biologist took off after the shadow, and soon we could see a mammal, long and fast, defying gravity in a climb up the sheer cliff that looked over the penguin’s beach. The biologist later explained that it was someone’s pet cat, and that she’d chased it away before. Little blue penguins and flightless birds like the kiwi, takehē, and extinct moa evolved on these islands without mammalian predators, and the country funds research, species management, and reserve lands in order to preserve these threatened symbols of the islands’ history.

No less fragile is the land itself, a country torn apart daily by the forces of two tectonic plates. When I first arrived in New Zealand, I bookmarked the website for GeoNet, New Zealand’s earthquake monitoring agency, and I was amazed to see how often indeed the islands and the surrounding ocean were hit by moderate earthquakes. Many seemed to occur deep in Fiordland, an already-fractured zone of the southwestern South Island, where only one road carries travelers from the small town of Te Anua to Milford Sound. GeoNet’s website allows visitors to generate spreadsheets, and a rectangle I drew roughly encompassing this area reveals a list of 1,211 measurable quakes during the nearly six months I lived in New Zealand, one of magnitude 5 and at least five others of magnitudes over 4. White Island, a volcanic peak just 48 km off the coast of the North Island in the Bay of Plenty, continually erupts, throwing off steam, gases, and sometimes lava. You can look at it online. The peak that is visible is actually the top of a large undersea mountain, and what lies unseen is a good symbol for the known and unknown forces acting at depth on the breakaway islands, which are believed to have separated from the supercontinent Gondwana roughly 100 million years ago.

When I think about the land, the wildlife, the plants, and the people of Aotearoa/New Zealand, I can’t help but think about the threats they all face; the earthquake emphasized how painful and real those threats can prove to be. To love what’s fragile is to guard against its destruction, whether it’s a building, a landscape, a rock, a nation, a culture, or a person. In the face of so much fragility, we’ve seen New Zealanders refuse to give up, to refuse to imagine a life without symbols of their heritage and their ancestors, especially in the last two weeks. My wish is for all New Zealanders, and indeed all inhabitants of this restless planet, to resist fragility in the face of all destructive forces. Cultural memories and the places that honor them won’t be with us forever, no matter what we do. And yet—cherishing the present means honoring the past, no matter how cruel the future promises to be.

To read more about the destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka, see these blog entries by New Zealanders who have taught me much about their home:

mars 2 earth:

Reading the Maps:

Bowally Road:

Published in: on March 6, 2011 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Thoughts on Christchurch

UPDATE: The NZ media is reporting that there were no bodies found in the Cathedral rubble today. What wonderful news, and so unexpected! I’ll leave my blog post as it is; there are still so many to mourn. But I’m delighted to read this!

We tramped along dirt paths, across wooden walkways, and over stone and boulder-strewn hills, taking breaks frequently enough to let 3-year-old Mira catch her breath and ease her little legs. Both my children were, after more than 3 months in New Zealand, used to our long tramps and I was proud of their fortitude. To our east loomed Mt. Ngauruhoe, and further south, Mt. Ruapehu. A book I’d checked out of the library chronicled the 1996 Ruapehu eruption; a guidebook on the trail we’d begun at Mangatepopo mentioned that Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1954. With two children under ten and no camping equipment, we’d mapped out a modest walk about 6 km, all told, getting reasonably close to the base of Ngauruhoe and turning around when the path began rising up the mountain’s slope. As it was, the tramp took hours, and we wandered along the Mangatepopo Stream, taking photos of the mountain, its neighbors, mountain flowers, lichen, and rough, jagged rocks lying in heaps—the basalt of earlier lava flows and boulders thrown outward from the earth who knows how many years before. We photographed a helpful green NZ Department of Conservation sign in front of a frozen pile of porous rock; it read simply “Edge of Lava Flow.”

New Zealand and geology became wedded in my imagination a long time before our time in the country began. Six months before we left for our semester in Hamilton, I took my kids to visit friends in Pittsburgh, and we enthusiastically headed over to the Carnegie Science Museum to spend a hot and steamy July afternoon wandering its halls. We ended up at the Earthquake Café, a platform decorated with a diner booth: padded seating on each side of a formica table. Along the wall, a set of buttons invited visitors to select a historic earthquake. Pushing a button set the entire platform in motion, and we had to hold onto little Mira to keep from her from being thrown to the floor. The first historic earthquake on the list was the New Zealand Arthur’s Pass quake of 1994, and, while we sampled all three selections, hanging onto the table for the New Zealand one seemed like preparation for our upcoming trip. (Later, I learned that the inspiration for the exhibit in Pittsburgh was a similar exhibit in a Christchurch museum. And we visited a museum in Auckland that also had an Earthquake Café.) I grew up in the Midwest, where we all vaguely dreaded the unlikely possibility that the New Madrid fault would rupture further during our lifetimes. My family took a vacation to Yellowstone when I was a teenager, and when a significant quake hit, we were in a rumbly area of the park near geysers and bubbling pools of mud and chemicals and never felt it. I was a little disappointed, in the way that someone with no sense at all can be.

On our tramp near Ngauruhoe, as I took pictures of the peak framed by large nearby boulders, I became increasingly uneasy. The old volcanic rocks, dug in and weathered, rested alongside the relatively newer ones, geologically speaking, that might have landed in the last few centuries or even decades. I looked around at the valley around us, and my eyes traveled to the ridge of hills opposite the mountain. That ridge was dotted with volcanic rocks, but at least it rose up above the landscape—and might provide a safe area if rocks and lava were to flow down the sides of Ngauruhoe. I began devising useless exit strategies and even pointed them out to my children. I think Ken was worried I’d scare Conor and Mira, or maybe he was just being his pragmatic mathematician self when he shook his head at me. Once I’d decided that I needed a plan, though, the idea was impossible to abandon, and I spent the rest of our hike imagining escape routes that led away from mountain. For the entire rest of the time we hiked and stayed in Tongariro National Park, I was obsessed with the thought of what, if anything, was happening deep below our feet.

That was in May 2010; earlier, in February of that year, that kind of dread didn’t accompany me as we rode the Christchurch Gondola up Mt. Cavendish. After we arrived at the top, we hiked and looked out over the Banks Peninsula, created millions of years before by the action of two long-extinct volcanoes. Several times, while traveling along the foothills of the Southern Alps and while going through Arthur’s Pass, once in a car and once on a train, I thought about the forces that had created those mountains, but more as an academic exercise, reviewing what I’d read about tourlesse greywacke, Haast schist, uplift, erosion, and millions of years of planetary history. Christchurch, nestled next to the sea on the flat Canterbury plain, didn’t scare me; its volcanoes were dead, the North Island’s active volcanoes were far away, and the South Island’s mountainous, active spine was far to its west.

I didn’t think about plate tectonics in April, either, when we returned to Christchurch and chose to explore the city’s iconic Cathedral, not even when we decided to go up in the church’s tower. We paid our fee, went through a thick door, and began our ascent up the narrow stone stairs. Fairly near the top, another family, just ahead of us the whole way, gave up, and we moved over so they could squeeze down past us, red-faced and panting. At the top, still indoors, I took a photo of Conor looking pleased with himself, as we all were, resting on the railing of the landing. Then, stepping out onto the tower balconies, we took pictures of the view and of each other. Below, several people had gathered to watch a midday game of chess on the square’s enormous chess board; not far away, little children lined up to bungee jump on a scaled-down but still thrilling and towering apparatus. On the other side of the chess board, a big blue mobile sign counted down the weeks, days, hours, and minutes before the Rugby World Cup 2011 in Christchurch. We looked around for a long time, and my sporadic fear of heights never kicked in, protected as we were by iron bars, thick masonry, and wire mesh. We’d felt more precarious standing on the glass floor of Auckland’s Sky Tower, simply because we could see nothing below us but the distant pavement. Hand-cut stone and thick iron rivets secured our perch, and we only left the tower, and the Cathedral at all, because the kids were getting hungry for lunch.

Our New Zealand odyssey finally ended, sadly, and we’d been home in Pennsylvania for two months when the Sept. 4 2010 earthquake sent people into the streets of Christchurch. As the news spread round the world, my Kiwi friend Maxine wrote to me on Facebook, celebrating two remarkable things: no one had been killed and the Cathedral was unscathed. A few days later, I gave Mira an ABC book about New Zealand for her birthday, and we read over and over that E is for earthquakes. The book told us, “New Zealand has some of the strictest laws in the world about how houses can be built.” Other books about New Zealand found their way into our house; I ordered copies of some of the books I’d read while living there and bought still more as I shifted my course of study and research to embrace the culture and landscape I couldn’t leave behind permanently. I wrote a paper about a museum exhibition in New Plymouth; I studied grant applications; I bookmarked web pages about immigration; I began studying Te Reo Māori. And when the one year anniversary of our departure rolled around on January 26, I began noting on each and every day what I’d been doing, writing, and thinking about a year before in New Zealand.

On Monday, February 21, a little after 7 p.m. EST, I was chatting with my mother on the phone and idly flipping through the TVNZ app on my iPod. My iPod, iPad, and Android cell are all loaded up with New Zealand apps–media, webcams, and touristy guides I can’t bear to delete. I check out the sunrise over Lake Tekapo, the weather in Hamilton, and the headlines in New Zealand as often as I check Facebook, Annville weather, or The New York Times. What I saw on the screen that night made my heart sink.

“Oh, my god,” I told my mother. “There’s been another big earthquake in Christchurch.” Having spent a lifetime calming me down, my mother automatically said something reassuring; knowing that my attention was irrevocably shifted to news from the other side of the world, she said goodbye. Soon I was burrowing into #eqnz Twitter feeds, GeoNet shake maps, and every blog and media outlet I could think of. And the news just kept getting worse.

Every day since, I’ve looked at the photos I took during three trips to Christchurch. The best ones feature my children: on the gondola, nestled against an enormous tree or a colorful spray of blossoms at the Botanical Gardens, in a Jordanian restaurant eating lentil soup and bread, in the parking lot of our hotel petting the host’s Burmese cat. My maternal eye paused occasionally to frame something grand that didn’t include them; overwhelmed by the art and architecture of the Cathedral, I focused my camera on the Memorial Mural near the baptismal font, glorious stained glass windows, the Polynesian Chapel, and The Tukutuku Panels. Soon, though, the photos move back to my children, and there they are, standing together on the tower balcony with Cathedral Square and the rest of the city sprawled out behind them.

It’s that photo of Conor and Mira that I go back to again and again. That tower, as everyone knows, isn’t there anymore. The tourists who were standing where we were, only at a different point in time, are dead, lost in an unbelievably huge pile of the very stone and iron that made me feel safe. I look at the news photos and one sentence invades my thoughts: I had my kids up there.

However reckless I felt tramping on the Tongariro Crossing in the shadows of volcanoes, I hadn’t felt the same while climbing a colonial-era structure in an earthquake-prone city. Every decision I’ve made in the last 11 years has been designed to protect my children. People want to think that love and prudence and reason keeps those they love alive. But now my heart breaks because I know that the power of love and prudence and reason is only an illusion; people who loved their children no less than I love mine lost them that day, in the tower, in shops, in homes. The photo of my children reproaches me—not because I had them up there, not because I took risks I didn’t know existed—but because I thought later, I had my kids up there. I feel ashamed of myself; I was not protected, just lucky. But that luck is blind and dumb, because weightless chance amounts to nothing. I mourn our doubles, our fellow travelers separated from us only by time, the ones who, like us, didn’t turn back, but headed up and up.

Kia kaha, Otautahi.

Published in: on March 3, 2011 at 10:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Digital housekeeping

As of today, I’m no longer following on Twitter various NZ wine companies and Air NZ’s Grabaseat program for cheap fares between NZ cities. I’ve moved all of my NZ apps to the last page of my iPod directory–so it will take a tiny bit of swiping effort to get to media and travel apps that I don’t need anymore  but can’t bear to delete.  My laptop browser still has two gigantic bookmark folders, full of everything from NZ media sites to art sites to geology sites to travel sites to cultural and literary sites to random pretty pictures of places in New Zealand. Can’t lose those yet, either.

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 12:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s good to be back

And yet, I really, really miss Aotearoa/New Zealand. I think I’ll keep the blog title the way it is; calling A/NZ home is a bit dramatic, but living there so happily for nearly six months makes me want to consider Hamilton a kind of home. I miss the landscape, the people, the quality of life–the Indian takeaway down the street, Namaste Kitchen; the mild chaos of the Pac-N-Save supermarket; the big blue Waikato River; the Asian market near the Warehouse; and Hell Pizza (high pizza praise from a Chicago girl). I miss roundabouts and our Subaru Impreza. I miss the lovely visiting faculty home, its pink flower bushes in the back and front yards, and the friendly black-and-white dog who came to work with the university landscaper. I miss the Kiwi accent and Conor’s great 80s haircut. I miss the mountains, the volcanoes, the gorges, the ocean. I’ll be back.

Published in: on August 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Of Illusions

Once I landed in New Zealand, I marveled over how close I was, or how close I seemed to be, to the continent of Antarctica. New Zealand is home to penguin species, and some tour companies here advertise Antarctic cruises and flyovers. Looking at the inflatable globe I bought the kids to bring with us, I was further encouraged to think of New Zealand as isolated, which it is, but breathtakingly south. We traveled to Bluff, a town on the southern coast of the South Island, a few days ago, and gazed out over the water toward Stewart Island, the small island at the bottom of the two main islands, and I felt close to the South Pole. From what I understand about climate, I know that New Zealand’s is temperate partly due to ocean temperatures; but I’d been reading this as an anomaly given its placement—it’s so near Antarctica!

Except it’s not. And somehow, despite months now of pouring over maps, studying geology and tectonic plates, and trying to understand New Zealand and Pacific weather, I only corrected my impression slowly. Checking out Antarctic cruises, I discovered that the tip of South America is a much better departure point, its ships taking fewer days to reach Antarctica . I learned why the west side of NZ’s Southern Alps is drenched in precipitation while the other side of the island tends to drought; it’s because of the “Roaring Forties,” the latitudinal zone that brings vast amounts of moisture in it strong winds. The number 40 unsettled me briefly; shouldn’t it be higher? And then I forgot about it. But finally two bits of information concerning antipodes, the point directly opposite one’s position on the globe, have revealed how biased my earlier impressions were of something as seemingly static and factual as distance between points

My friends Lori and Alberto were in New Zealand a few years ago, and mentioned to me that New Zealand was the antipodes of Spain, Alberto’s home country, and I filed the information away but didn’t process it except to enjoy another reason they loved NZ so much. Then I saw a reference to the nearby Antipodes Islands, and discovered that it was so named because it was approximately located on the other side of the earth from London. Thoughts of imperial gazes flitted through my mind, overtaken by seeing pretty green Antipodes Islands Parakeets, the biggest parakeets in the world, at the Hamilton Zoo.

Finally, I came upon a clever map that put an end to my misconceptions. I’ve been thinking a lot about maps, and on one spin through the World Wide Web, I went looking for an antipodes generator, just because I know one was probably out there. This particular map overlays the outline of the continents in two colors, revealing the few parts of the earth’s land that aren’t directly across the globe from water. And, although I’d already heard it from Lori and Alberto, I discovered—in a sense that finally pulled Antarctica still far, far away from me—that Spain is the antipodes of New Zealand. (

Another map I found generates the exact latitude and longitude of one point’s antipodes. ( Sitting here in Hamilton, I’m at the point directly across from a spot of land just a bit southeast of Córdoba. But the thing is, I have never in my life thought of Spain as remotely near the Arctic, which it ought to be if I’m so close to the Antarctic. I’ve been to Spain, in the Northern Hemisphere summer, and it’s hot. Spain, so far, is missing the ash cloud from the Iceland volcano that is spreading across Northern Europe. Thoughts of Spain on the map leads me to thoughts of the Mediterranean and then the Equator, at least in my broadly generalizing mind, which I’ve had to change.

So now, in my imagination, New Zealand has scooted up, taking its rightful place not all that close to the South Pole. I’m the closest I’ve ever been to Antarctica, true, but I guess before now, the closest I’ve been is Mexico, which is saying a lot and nothing at the same time. (The antipodes of Cancun, by the way, is out in the Indian Ocean.) And though there never was a problem with the maps I was looking at before, I feel as though I’ve discovered a solution, even though nothing was really solved.

So what forces made me initially pull New Zealand down, closer to the pole than it really is? Well, probably the words “down” and “up” offer some clues. Familiar but important observations about cultural domination remind me that the up-down orientation of the globe comes courtesy of a restless, exploring, and acquiring Europe and its centuries of conquest. You might argue that people in certain parts of the Northern Hemisphere feel centered, marginalizing everything and everyone farther south, and I’m part of that self-centering cultural heritage. I can’t deny that my culture’s foundational view of the globe became mine, but I resist—I know how to read a map, and I’m not feeling particularly colonizing or imperialistic myself! And still, I have to accept that my earliest conception of the globe zeroed in on my hemisphere, my country, leaving a great deal of the world and its people out of sight. Europe and big parts of Asia and Africa were out of view, but a spin of the globe revealed them to be basically where I was, resting visually above the Equator. Everything else, when I had the globe tilted toward me, the North Pole in view, was down, and away, and remote. Yes, it’s a matter of culture, but it’s also a matter of geometry—and my culture privileged the top half of the sphere. (See some re-imagined maps of the world here:; these maps, reversing the North and South Hemispheres, actually make me think of the usual map as top-heavy with land! Yes, I know about the volume of water—and the other illusions that fool us.)

Another reason the Southern Hemisphere has challenged me, in a geographical sense, lies with the anti-intuitive reality of a globe not evenly distributed with land masses. Early European explorers and cartographers speculated about the elusive Southern Continent, another part of the world balancing out the map of the known world. Those bold enough to conceive of a globe, and a globe containing lands they had yet to set eyes on, imagined vast amounts of land surface in the Southern Hemisphere. Toby Lester, in his book The Fourth Part of the World, tell the story of the tantalizing first map to show America as a southern land mass, drawn by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller and partly based on letters from Amerigo Vespucci. In the Boston Globe, Toby Lester writes, “It was the southness, not the westness, of the New World that made him, like other Europeans, feel that something remarkable had been discovered across the Atlantic” ( As it turns out, though, remarkable though it is, the Southern Hemisphere’s total land mass size pales in comparison to that of the Northern Hemisphere. Indeed, the Northern Hemisphere’s land to water ratio is 1:1.5, while the ratio for the Southern Hemisphere is 1:4 ( Lining up recognizable landmarks as reference points is simply easier in the Northern Hemisphere; looking over the vast quantities of water in the Southern Hemisphere, I was inclined to telescope distances, bringing New Zealand and Antarctica closer together.

As a land-lubber who throws up on ships, and a native Midwesterner, I mark distance more accurately when thinking about land than I do while thinking about sea. That, and my tilted, culturally encouraged view of the globe, probably are what encouraged me to ignore other evidence and think of New Zealand as skirting the shores of Antarctica.

Maybe I should just blame the penguins.

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 11:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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