dsc_0018We recently celebrated my youngest’s 21st birthday.  I’ve already written about 21st birthdays in New Zealand, about how they’re meant to be a time of affirmation for the past and a “we believe in you” moment for the future.  Meg’s birthday was all that and more.

For weeks leading up to the party I was trying to organise in my head what I would say when it came time for speeches. There were plenty of stories to tell but in the end I wanted to share how thankful I am.  That her birth coincided with our move to New Zealand.  That our completed family has been blessed with 21 years of love, laughter and so many happy memories with the family and friends who came to celebrate with us on the night.  I looked at my strong, loving and confident daughter and saw reflected in her the love and support provided to us all.

Milestones offer an opportunity to reflect on our past, and it’s essential we do it with kind eyes.  No-one’s life is perfect and it’s important to acknowledge the challenges as well as the successes.  Our memories provide the foundation for hope in the future.

Happy 21st birthday to my darling daughter and happy 21st anniversary to our family life in New Zealand.

US Democracy 2016


Over the last 21 years that I’ve lived in New Zealand I’m always asked my opinion about the current US election.  I try to explain how vast the US is, by land mass and population. The range of ethnic and religious groups living in different geographies of topography and climate with their unique beliefs and customs creates huge challenges when assembling an inclusive central government. The best US government will be one that celebrates that diversity as the main principle of a strong democracy.  That principle has been lacking in US politics for decades.

I know I’m an idealist but I’d like to think I’m also realistic when looking at issues.  One of the reasons I became a social studies teacher is because I believe so passionately in informed choice for those of us lucky enough to live in democracies.  But in 2016 I am struggling to find realistic optimism in the current US elections.

In New Zealand we have a system of democracy called MMP which stands for Mixed Member Proportional.  On Election Day we have two votes, one for a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent our district, and one for a party that we support to lead the government. For example:  I may vote for a Maori Party candidate here in Northland because s/he best represents our area but my party vote may be for the larger and older Labour Party to lead the government.  It’s a very effective way of balancing local choice with national interests.


Most democracies practice what is called First Past the Post (FPP), essentially whoever gains the most votes leads the government.  Time and history have proven that this leads to a predominantly two party system.  You need numbers to win and smaller parties won’t be able to have a say unless they’re a part of a larger machine.

What’s wrong with this?

For me, the biggest concern is that each of the two major parties have a broad range of values and beliefs in their party members.  A liberal party can have members with extreme Green leanings and a conservative party can have members with extreme religious beliefs. I may support either parties for their more centrist policies but I have to accept their more extreme members as part of the deal.

With MMP coalitions are formed where the larger parties have to negotiate with smaller parties to form the government.  Political negotiations are more transparent and I can see quite clearly what the ruling party is willing to compromise on, or not.  I can vote for a major party if I’m happy with everything they represent or I can vote for a smaller party in the hopes they become part of a coalition with the ruling party.

A few elections ago I was concerned about indigenous Maori rights being compromised. The Maori party had not yet been part of any coalition and the current co-leaders were people I respected.  It was the perfect time to see how they would act as part of the government so I cast my party vote for them.  I have been more than happy with their measured and proactive work as part of the last two governments.

It is not a perfect system.  There are parties with only 1 or a small handful of members who become part of the coalition and behave as though they represent more than a single digit percentage of the general electorate.   Their power expands or contracts depending on the leading party.

Imagine if New Zealand’s system were applied to the current US election.

Instead of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz having to give way to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each would represent parties with clear agendas who would have to negotiate to share power through a coalition.  The American public would be able to vote for the party who fully represented their values.  A government would be formed where those parties would have to learn to work together to represent the broad–and diverse–beliefs  of a country noted for its diversity.

In 2016 I see a country I love at its most divided.  Family and friends talk of voting against a candidate rather than for one.  Racism, bigotry, sexism and mono-culture are embraced and exalted.  And the only way to be considered for the Presidency is through entrenched connections and deep financial pockets.

I wish you all the best.

NZ 2016 Rio Olympians


New Zealand performed its best Olympic medal outcome at the 2016 Rio Games. It was an exceptional event for us with 18 medals won; 4 gold, 9 silver and 5 bronze.  The maths nerd in me worked out the stats compared to the top three medal earners of the USA, China and Great Britain.  The US has a population of roughly 320 million people and won 120 medals, or 1 medal per 2.7 million people.  China’s population of 1.4 billion will always challenge the stats as their 70 medals equated to 1 per 20 million people.  Great Britain has 64 million people and won 67 medals, or 1 per 955 000.

The population of New Zealand is just under 2.5 million so our 18 medals gives us an admirable 1 per 250 000 proud Kiwis.  What many people won’t realise is how those statistics reflect the challenge athletes face in gaining funding to participate in Olympic games.  The smaller the ratio of medals to population, the greater the financial burden per head.  As well, many of our participants were members of teams, not individual events; men and women’s hockey and rugby sevens, equestrian and sculls.

What I love about the Olympics is how athletes represent so much about the culture of their home countries.  For New Zealand, water sports such as sailing and rowing reflect our ties to the waters that flow through and around our island nation.  Hockey, rugby and equestrian events reflect strong participation in team sports and the outdoors.

Perhaps our proudest moment and one that touched the world was the behaviour of runners Nikki Hamblin (NZ) and Abbey D’Agostino (US). Both tumbled to the ground after colliding in the Women’s 5000 meter race. D’Agostino encouraged Hamblin to get up with her and finish the race.  While both continued running, Hamblin regularly stopped and supported an injured D’Agostino to finish the race even though it meant neither would qualify for the final.  She has been presented with the International Fair Play Committee Award for Rio 2016 and is being considered for the Pierre de Coubertin award for sportsmanship, awarded only 17 times in the whole of Olympic history.

The hashtag for these Olympic Games is #betheinspiration and I can think of no athlete who deserves it more than Nikki Hamblin.  And I have no doubt that she and our other athletes will inspire the fair but competitive next generation of New Zealand Olympians.


Mowing Fun

I thought briefly about posting my mowing outfit but then realised many of you wouldn’t recognise me outside of my usual glamorous apparel.  It has been nearly two months since the ground has dried out enough to mow the lawns.  Winters may be mild here in the Far North, but they are wet and with clay soil it gets very squishy underfoot.

Starting with the push mower I tackled inside the pool fence.  It became very apparent that the ground was still soft enough to register my footprints and the tyre tracks from the mower.  I couldn’t do anything about the boot prints but made a point of trying to keep the tyre tracks even since we’ll probably be looking at them for another month.

I have to admit I love the ride-on mower.  It is just so fast and I was embarrassingly happy watching the fountain of grass clippings shoot out from underneath the blades as I tackled the larger yard.  The grass yesterday was so long and wet underneath that I had to think carefully about how to throw the clippings so they didn’t wind up in soggy piles around the place.  While the chickens love scratching through them, there are only so many piles 16 chickens can get through on 5 acres of lawn.

Today I’m hoping the last two sections around the citrus trees and front driveway are suitably dry.  A friend came by last month to add to our burn pile (note photo #1 between the palms) and got stuck, even with his 4-wheel drive.

However, it is mid-August and spring is definitely here.  The days are getting longer and I put my first washing on the outside line to dry. It won’t be long before having to mow the lawns twice a week takes the edge of the fun of using the ride-on.  At least over summer the pool provides a welcome reward when the job is done.

Winter Beauty


I had just slipped my feet into my gumboots after looking through old photos with my father-in-law when I caught sight of his magnolia tree.  I stood, stunned, as the dark grey backdrop of clouds drifted away to reveal a bright blue winter’s sky framing the masses of pink flowers.

After two decades in New Zealand you’d think I’d get used to plants flowering year round. In the depths of winter in Northland each month continues to bring on splashes of colour. Port Wine magnolias are particularly stunning in that the flowers appear before the leaves and are varying degrees of fuchsia, white or a combination of the two.

Daffodils and jonquils are also in flower.  I consider it a gift that my favourite flower blooms in time for my birthday.  As an August baby, my birthdays normally involved pool parties to combat the heat and humidity that defined peak northern hemisphere summers.  Even in the ‘Winterless North’ of Kerikeri swimming is not an option unless it’s in the spa pool set at a steaming 38C.

It might be winter but we have blood oranges just finishing their season and navels and tangerines are keeping us dosed up in vitamin C.  Kereru, or NZ wood pigeons, and tui are everywhere, gorging themselves on winter blooms and berries.

Friends here ask if I miss anything about living in Alaska and I do.  I miss the northern lights, moose walking through town, spotting bears (from a distance!), and ravens and eagles soaring overhead.  While the flora and fauna might be different there is one thing both places have in common:  a shared joy in noticing these seasonal gifts of nature.  In Alaska when you stepped outside wrapped in a blanket to watch the northern lights you were joining neighbours doing the same.  Phones would ring and the local radio station would announce a moose and calf strolling along 4th Avenue.

Here we notice and comment on the proliferation of flowers and fruit at work, on our daily walks, over the supermarket trolley or in gifts of bagged citrus from trees too laden for one family to use.  I love having a garden, orchard and free range chickens that provide for us year round.  We have seasonal changes but it’s hard to beat five months of summer and very short winters.

Now if only we could sort out the mosquitoes…



Life in a Small Town

Playcentre (4)

I live in a town that is small enough to always run into someone you know but not so small you know everyone you run into.  It’s a handy way to catch up with friends I used to see regularly at school events. Nowadays I rely on chats over a shopping trolley at the grocery store.

My youngest will be celebrating her 21st birthday in January.  We’re already organising invites as the summer weekends will fill quickly with other 21st celebrations.  When my son turned 21 there were eight other parties within weeks of each other.

In New Zealand your 21st birthday is a big deal.  Not because you can drink like in the US (the drinking age here is 18), but as an opportunity to recognise an important transition point in young people’s lives.

Growing up in a small town is filled with mixed blessings.  Kids are surrounded by adults who love and care about them like second parents.  Birthdays, school assemblies, performances, camping at the beach and sports days, we’re there, cheering them on. We’re also there as they navigate their way to adulthood; from temper tantrums and negotiating friendships to first loves, alcohol and possibly drugs.  While it’s a supportive environment it can also feel like a fishbowl where everyone knows your business.

By the time many kids reach 21 the balance on these feelings shifts. Many have moved away for work or to attend university in one of our larger cities.  They quickly learn that looking after yourself is harder on your own.  Coming home for a regular dose of cuddles, meals that take longer than 2 minutes to cook and long chats over a hot drink become a priority.  They are also welcomed around town with delighted hugs and questions about how life is going for them away from home.

There is an old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ A 21st birthday celebration is a chance for a young person to recognise the village that has helped raise them.  A slideshow of photos makes visible those moments of joy and laughter shared with others in the room.  Speeches are given by family and friends, many with humour but all with love.  The birthday girl/boy gets to bask in and be grateful for the love and support that has nurtured them and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives.

It’s an important and I would argue critical step for young people. We live in a world that offers endless opportunities alongside many challenges.  At 21, what greater gift can we give young people than a reminder of all that they have in their lives, the qualities they hold personally and faith that with both they will succeed in their dreams?

Happy Birthday! With love.


The Immortal Way

On the final day of the Auckland Writer’s Festival Meg came with me to two talks.  The first was Jean Christophe Rufin (above), doctor and co-founder of Medicins Sans Frontiers who spoke about his experiences on El Camino de Santiago. Hundreds of thousands of people walk old pilgrimage trails from a range of starting points that all end at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  For many it is still a pilgrimage, an opportunity to honour a loved one who has died, celebrate overcoming a life-threatening disease, or simply to allow an opportunity to reflect on life.

El Camino de Santiago

Dr. Rufin used it as a transition from his appointment as French Ambassador to Senegal to resettling into normal life.  He was a charming speaker; self-effacing and thoughtful with a touch of humour when sharing his experiences.  Life as an ambassador had been busy with many social events and he was used to being looked after by staff who catered to his every need.  Once home he had to organise his own entertainment as well as meals, clothing and even driving his own car.  The austerity and physical challenges of El Camino appealed as a way of facilitating a return to life away from the embassy.

He didn’t consider himself a pilgrim when he started.  Very quickly he realised that life on the walk revolved around two points:  your feet and la mochila (your backpack).  Blisters, callouses, aches and pains determined how far you could walk on any given day.  He couldn’t stress enough how all consuming the care of your feet absorbs you at the beginning of the walk.

La mochila for him became symbolic of the weight of his fears. As the journey progressed decisions were made on a regular basis about what was most important to still carry.  For some, having plenty of wet weather gear reflected their fear of being wet.  For others, water (thirst), books (boredom), journals (remembering) and other items reflected their priorities and these changed as time passed.  It became a way of quickly getting to know others on the track by what they carried and how large or small their bag was.

What resonated with Meg and me was the time the walk allowed you to learn about yourself. Our lives are so busy that we seldom have the luxury of quiet time to reflect on where we are and how we feel about our lives.  The art of mindfulness is popular at the moment. Concentrating on what we are doing without distraction is important but for many today those moments can only be measured in minutes, perhaps an hour if you’re lucky.  El Camino allows a different opportunity of mindfulness by stepping away from all that is familiar in our lives; routines, people, places and things. But the time frame for this is in days, weeks and months, not minutes.

It is a journey that is intensely personal and Dr. Rufin explained that he felt in the end that he had become a pilgrim, it was impossible not to.  There are connections with others along the way but in the end it is about you.  He shared a sweet story about seeing the end of the trail in the distance.  There was a big Spaniard almost 100 metres ahead of him, and while they were aware of each other throughout the day, they walked a matching pace so their distance apart remained constant. The Spaniard stopped just before the line marking the end of the walk, waited for him, and together they held hands and jumped across together.  It was an intimate moment of shared joy, an acknowledgement of an experience that was similar but unique to each.

Not many people can afford the time and expense of walking for two months.  But we can try to push opportunities for mindfulness into hours and days rather than minutes.  I wish Dr. Rufin had had more time to talk about his transition into ‘normal’ life.  Often the greatest challenge is moving forward with insights we gain from reflective time.

It may be cliche but his story was apt:  it’s about the journey, not the destination.



Beach Tiki Tour


A tiki tour is the name given for a drive with a general idea of where you’re headed but with flexibility about changing where you go and how you get there.  Phil and I are early risers; by 7 am we were on our way south to Warkworth, just north of Auckland, to pick up a piece of equipment purchased last week.  By 9 am our pick up was accomplished and we headed east from Warkworth with plenty of time to explore the coastline.

Matakana was our first stop.  Originally a sleepy farming community, over the last ten years it has transformed into a trendy holiday escape for Aucklanders who appreciate art, music, fine wines and great food.  We were a day too late to enjoy the renowned Saturday market, but enjoyed a quiet wander through town before discovering a short bush walk along the river that ended at a restaurant and patisserie.  We indulged in a couple of pastries and a loaf of Turkish bread to share later in the day and resumed our trip east.



Water from this fountain comes from the local stream that meanders through the village. It’s a clever way of keeping people aware of the health of the waterways throughout the year.












After a brief stop to admire the Leigh wharf we continued to the Goat Island Marine Reserve.  It’s a beautiful spot with clear waters, tidal pools, fascinating rock sculptures and extensive views north and east.  There were three separate groups of students preparing to scuba dive when we arrived.  Auckland University has a marine studies centre that provides an excellent research facility to monitor the ecological impact the reserve is having in the region. Goat Island Marine Reserve

From the edge of the rocks we could see snapper, sting rays and parore but the glare made it impossible to capture them in clear photos.  Little Barrier Island was visible to the east and the view north encompassed the Poor Knights and Hen and Chickens Islands plus the sweep of land out to Whangarei Heads.

We left with definite plans to return over summer with snorkels to further explore this magical spot.

(left) Phil’s degree in geology came in handy to explain the weathered conglomerate rocks sculpted into magnificent shapes.

(right) We could hear the native tui’s excited song 100 metres before we discovered the source!

Our final stop was Pakiri Beach, 20 minutes north of Goat Island.  The white silica sands stretched to distant points north and south creating an idyllic beach.  We quickly discovered the tide line was covered in a treasure trove of every sort of shell.  I was particularly excited to find two intact sand dollars as I’ve never seen them at any other beaches in New Zealand. A playful dalmatian with energy to spare adopted us for the duration of our stay. His owners were no where to be found but were likely the local holiday park owners.

In addition to tent sites the holiday park offers a range of beautiful cabins to rent that overlook the beach.  We added them to the growing list of things to do over the summer.

Pakiri Beach Holiday Park

While we didn’t stop at any further beaches, we drove through Mangawhai, Waipu Cove and Waipu Beach as potential future holiday stays.  We are so spoiled in Northland that it’s easy to limit ourselves to a handful of stunning local beaches.  Our Sunday drives are reminders to sometimes take a detour, stop along the way, and to embrace the journey as well as the destination.



Don’t Wait for the Weather


Phil and I took a drive on Sunday to Mangonui to share salt and pepper calamari and a piece of blue cod with chips.

The weather was dodgy (we’d driven through rain and low-lying cloud on the way up) but we decided to walk from the fish and chip shop to Rangikapiti Pa.  Phil had never been and I was keen to show him ever since Barb and I had visited a few months ago.

Half an hour later, a little puffed but warm and dry, we arrived at the top. It was worth the effort.





RangikapitiPa (9)The trig station, listing lines of latitude and longitude plus height above sea level.

RangikapitiPa (2)The view towards Mangonui township and harbour.

RangikapitiPa (5)Out to sea we could see boats returning from early morning fishing trips and a group of yachts heading out for a race.

RangikapitiPa (7)In the distance is the Karikari Peninsula which includes Tokerau Beach, Whatuwhiwhi and Matai Bay where we camp in the summer.  You can just make out Mt. Camel to the right.

RangikapitiPa (4)Coopers Beach at high tide.  We’ll have to save that walk for another day.

RangikapitiPa (11)Our selfies seem to work better using Phil’s long arms!



Helene Wong is a writer, actor, director and film critic who was born in New Zealand from Chinese immigrant parents.  Her recent book, “Being Chinese:  A New Zealander’s Story” made her a natural choice to present the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writer’s Festival.  She discussed the dichotomy of being both part of this place but also set apart.

New Zealand is considered a multi-cultural society whose core identity is a bi-cultural mix of Maori and Pakeha (British, Irish and Scottish colonial ancestry).  Our location in the South Pacific accounts for the large numbers of Pacific Island, Indian, Indonesian, SE Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrant populations. Colonial ties also explain the large numbers of immigrants from the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa,

The core of Helene Wong’s talk focused on how we look on the outside as opposed to who we are on the inside.  As a Chinese woman she has dealt regularly with other people’s stereotypes.  She played a funny but cringe-worthy film clip on the experiences of three actresses applying for t.v. roles.  Each was from a different Asian country but all were seen simply as “Asian” and expected to either know martial arts or to react unemotionally (‘Asian’?!) in stressful situations.

Helene’s parents set aside their Chinese heritage in order to ensure their children grew up identifying as Kiwis.  They succeeded in their goal but only to a certain point.  There was no getting around the fact that they still looked Chinese on the outside even if they felt like Kiwis on the inside.  It was only as an adult that she began to reconnect with her Chinese heritage.   She shared a moving story of visiting her father’s birthplace in China where she was told, “This is your home,” by villagers.

Helene helped organise the ‘Banana’ Conference with other Chinese New Zealanders who were interested in reconnecting with their cultural heritage.  It was their humorous way of identifying the sense of being yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

She also discussed the rising levels of xenophobia not only in New Zealand but globally.  It is not a new phenomena.  Historically, large movements of immigrants have resulted from the need for cheap labour, wars, famine or simply to maintain stable population numbers as a balance to emigration.  While most people enjoy cultural diversity, there can be a fear of cultural invasion, otherwise referred to as ‘inv-Asian’.


The session resonated with me on many levels.  I immigrated to Zealand almost 22 years ago.  I look Pakeha but as soon as I speak my accent gives me away as American.  My friends and colleagues tend to overlook or downplay this fact.  I’ve lost track of the number of conversations about the US or Americans that have been halted mid-sentence with the comment, “But we don’t mean you, you’re not really American.”

It is a challenge facing millions of people today.  As an immigrant, how do you retain those parts of your past that reflect your values today?  Each year, my family hosts a Thanksgiving party that has grown in excess of 100 family members and friends.  They have fully embraced this holiday that values the universal theme of giving thanks for all that we have in our lives.  I cook American recipes handed down by family members, and at Christmas I am renowned for my over the top tree and lights that are a little out of place in what is now a summer holiday.

I attend Waitangi and Anzac Day services, have learned to cook scones and pavlova, and understand and support our national rugby and cricket teams.  Every year we dress up for an afternoon tea to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.  Cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and other treats are washed down with cups of tea on the good china.   That is not a typical Kiwi tradition, but it is ours.

If it was a question of getting used to new foods, clothing and celebrations it would be simple. However, today immigration poses huge challenges.   How do you tackle the differences in values and morals of immigrant groups that might view women’s rights, sexual orientation or protecting the environment in significantly different ways to the culture where they settle?  This is of particular concern in practicing democracies where citizens elect their politicians.  It is sensible to question what impact voters with different values could have on government decision-making and legislation.

Helene Wong finished by challenging the audience to speak up rather than remain silent when witnessing the hate speech of xenophobia.   Kiwis are traditionally non-confrontational but she questioned, “Is this who we are?  Who we want to be?”  She pointed out the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. as symptomatic of the frustration and fear that can result from unchallenged bigotry. When there is no more room for discussion or differences of opinion democracy falters.

"We hate everyone!!!"
“We hate everyone!!!”


life in New Zealand is never boring