Saturday, December 31, 2011


Geraldine Cinema changed hands 18 months ago and it no longer seems to show the best movies. The flip side of this is that live bands now play there. Last night I saw the Shot Band with my parents. The band hail from Wellington, just like many of New Zealand's best singers and musicians. They were joined by some local acts including a young woman of about twenty who sang in a dark, almost medieval style. It was a good evening's entertainment, exceeding my expectations, and if anything the dilapidated old cinema added to the ambience. At just $15 each, it was exceptional value.

Last week we watched the Royal Variety Performance on telly. A real stand-out performer for me was Sam Wills, a mime artist known as The Boy With Tape On His Face. His act was simple but very clever at the same time, and showed me how some blokes of my age make a living. Not everyone applies on Seek for the privilege of pumping out pointless pieces of paper. I Googled him and was surprised to find that he was a Kiwi. Not only that but his performing career began in Timaru, just like Hayley Westenra who was also a Royal Variety performer. I know who I would rather see. The subject of Miss Westenra came up at work recently; we all agreed on one thing: none of us could stand her.

A few hours from now another year will have slipped by. I get on quite well with the head of our department at work but he's very much a product of last century. He's never quite sure what to call years in the modern era. He normally comes out with "two-eleven"; I can tell he longs for the simplicity of "eighty-two".

Two-eleven, or twenty-eleven as I call it, hasn't been a bad year but it took an unexpected path for me which was at times very stressful. My decision to take the Wellington job was without a doubt the toughest decision I've made in my life. For the first time ever I drew up a list of pros and cons of staying and going, assigning weights to the outcomes. It was a close race which staying won with a score of exactly nil. So I literally couldn't win. I recently learnt a new word - zugzwang - which describes a situation in chess where every possible move puts you in a hole, so to speak. My decision was a zugzwang - I was choosing between two undesirable options; I'd rather have stayed where I was. While waiting for my offer (or not), I had another interview with a company called One Path, aptly named because after ten minutes of the interview there was only one path I was interested in and it was marked Exit. In the end it was probably the possibility of regret (if I didn't take the job) that swayed my last-minute decision to accept.

My first six weeks or so in Wellington were tough. I was in a strange town where I didn't know anybody (I still don't really), in a job I basically didn't want. I was depressed so I saw the doctor who nearly doubled my Efexor intake. Things improved, but whether it was the drugs or just getting used to my new home I don't know. A real turning point was the trip I made to Auckland in July. It was great to catch up with Richard and some of the others at the autism group but I found Auckland a depressing place and was glad to get back.

I don't plan to be in my job twelve months from now but plans rarely work out. Getting up in the morning with precisely zero chance of doing anything meaningful in the coming day gets to me after a while. If my job wasn't supposed to have any meaning in the first place, I could handle that a lot better, but the fact that it's built up to be something of vital importance, and I just don't see it, makes me think there's even wrong with me than I originally thought. The whole corporate thing will always be a struggle for me. When it comes down to it, I've never been a team player, and the bigger the team the more difficult it becomes. I feel a sense of guilt when I compare myself to a teacher or a mental health worker or even an artist, who gives something to the world almost on a daily basis.

I'd love to feel that I was good at my job. I did get that feeling in my earthquake work. That boost to my self-esteem meant that I cared what I looked like when I left home in the mornings. I tried to look like me. In my current job I just try to look vaguely presentable, putting on the first shirt that I can find.

A year ago I'd never have imagined I'd be a property owner. I'm very glad I did it - I think my purchase was a sensible one - but I'm not excited about it as perhaps I should be. That word has been used by various relatives in the past week: "How exciting!", "You must be so excited to have bought a house!" But really I'm not. I'm relieved, I think I've made a good financial decision, and it will be "nice" to have my own space, but that's about it. It does bother me that excitement is an emotion largely consigned to the past. Is it the job or the drugs, or both?

Tonight we'll be going to the Caroline Bay Carnival for New Year's Eve. I'll probably be forced to sit through a concert with music from Barry Manilow or Daniel O'Donnell before throwing a few dollars at the chocolate wheel.

Friday, December 30, 2011


A few months ago my cousin said that Jan Cameron doesn't get enough credit for founding Kathmandu, a successful outdoor clothing company. I wholeheartedly agree with her. Walk down any Wellington street between April and November and you'll see that a big black Kathmandu puffer jacket is almost compulsory attire. You do see other brands but Kathmandu - who admittedly picked a excellent name, evoking images of trekking through the Himalayas - is clearly the dominant force. Their market penetration is impressive it must be said. And why does everyone need to dress like they're about to scale K2 anyway when it's a positively balmy 15 degrees?

Kathmandu have a BIG 60% OFF SALE! on right now. I'm actually not certain about that, but given that they have such a sale virtually all the time, and it is just after Christmas, it's a fairly safe assumption. They have a store almost opposite my office. I did pop in there once to see what I was missing. Big black jackets were reduced from $649.90 to $259.90, or something like that, but they were still well above what I was prepared to pay for them. I suppose most people are paying for the brand. That makes no sense to me. If I'm going to be a walking billboard for you, shouldn't you be paying me?

It's amazing how susceptible people are to advertising, branding, pricing, the shopping experience and everything that goes with that. I like to think I'm immune to branding but of course I'm not quite. I'd think twice before buying a Yang Song car, mainly because the brand name would be unknown to me so I wouldn't trust it. But I'm less susceptible than most and feel qualified enough to provide some anti-consumption tips:

1. If you think it's a rip-off at two hundred and something, the fact that it's reduced from six hundred and something doesn't make it any less of a rip-off.

2. If you have to buy A to get B free, then B isn't free at all.

3. It doesn't matter whether it's $39, $39.90 or $39.99. It's forty bucks.

4. Those ads where you can buy make-up "worth $250" for the special price of $50. If it was really worth $250 they wouldn't be selling it so cheaply.

5. There's nothing wrong with loyalty cards, so long as you don't change your spending patterns to pick up more points, which is of course what the shops are trying to get you to do.

6. Are you still at school? If so, it might be worth buying one or two brand-name items, if you (or your parents) can afford it, to fit in with the other kids. Otherwise be yourself and save some money.

After telling Mum I wanted to join a tramping club in the new year, you can imagine what she bought me for Christmas. Not one but two items from Krapmandu, sorry, Kathmandu: a thermal shirt and a lightweight waterproof jackety thing that folds up to occupy the same amount of space as your undies. Handy for trekking and despite my misgivings about the company I will wear them.


For the last few months I've been meaning to post some handy money-saving tips. Christmas - well, one Christmas present in particular, served to remind me of this. But in this post I'd like to write about my catch-up with Phil before it all slips from my mind. My next post will be on the subject of money-saving I promise.

Mum and Dad came into Timaru with me on Wednesday as I met up with Phil for lunch at a place called Zest. I'd much rather have gone on my own. He's back in Auckland, in his old job with the navy in Devonport after spells in Denmark and Dunedin. He'd like to move back to Dunedin. He studied at Otago and likes the Wellington-style bohemianism that exists in the city. At forty he'd quite like to buy a property but thinks he'd be throwing money away in Auckland even though he could put down a large chunk of the purchase price. He asked me for advice on real estate, as if I somehow had a clue. It made a nice change to talk about something other than job applications even if we're both far from thrilled about our current jobs. The story on the mini golf course also took a different twist this year. Instead of losing by a semi-respectable six shots, I was thrashed by fifteen.

When I'd said goodbye to Phil I got a text from Mum asking to meet in the Loop Road. This didn't make any sense to me - they can't be in a road - so I texted her back asking her to be more specific. I did eventually find my parents, and my aunt and uncle who they had since met up with, and they had a good laugh at my expense. "You know, in the car park, inside the Loop Road. Do you not know where the Loop Road is?" Oh I see. I guess the car park is technically in the road, but that's not how my brain works, and if you'd just let me go into town by myself you could have saved me all that hassle.

Yesterday we went south to Moeraki. Dad took a few photos of views to paint - his stock of paintings is depleted following his successful exhibition. Until yesterday I didn't know that a cormorant and a shag were the same thing. In Stephen Fry's book he recounts his time as a yound schoolmaster at an English boarding school where the dormitories were all named after seabirds. A particularly troublesome dorm was called Cormorant. It's just as well they didn't call it Shag.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A level-par Christmas

I survived Christmas. About a dozen of us turned up at Mum's sister's place. I had a sore tummy before we even started eating, so was glad when we eventually got away. Christmas Day is always stress-inducing for me even though I'm never involved in the cooking. Heaven knows how you're supposed to talk to all those relatives and concentrate on not overcooking the Brussels sprouts.

Mum and Dad bought me Stephen Fry's autobiography. He really is an amazing bloke. I watched a documentary a few years back about his bipolar disorder; he said he wouldn't be "normal" for all the tea in China. That wasn't the only present my parents bought me - I'll talk about the other one in my next post.

I played six holes of golf with Mum tonight. I did them in level par. That's my par which is twice the figure shown on the card. On the first hole I sunk a 20-footer for a bogey eleven. I did the rest in 7, 7, 10, 5 and 8, hitting just about every tree imaginable.

Tomorrow I'll be meeting Phil in Timaru, just like last year and the year before. We've been hopelessly out of touch in recent months so I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

No let-up for Christchurch

Just what Christchurch residents needed for Christmas: more quakes. They copped a bunch of them yesterday including a 5.8 and a 6.0. I was outside for the first of those, and didn't feel it, but I was in the living room with Mum and Dad for the second one which we certainly felt. I'd never felt a "proper" shake prior to this month but I'm now almost getting accustomed to them. I was lucky that I flew into Christchurch the night before.

Some good news for Dad - he has sold four more paintings at what has been a very successful exhibition for him in Timaru.

This morning I hit a tennis ball for the first time since April. Mum used to play a lot - this season she's joined the local club. This morning we knocked up for an hour at the Woodbury courts. I enjoyed it more than I imagined I would. We were both rusty - and Mum couldn't run down as many balls as she used to - but maybe I'll look at joining a club in Wellington next season. I remember playing - and losing - on those courts in '89 for St Joseph's, the school I briefly attended in Temuka.

We'll be off to church in half an hour. Dad and I only "do" church once a year. Tomorrow we're having Christmas dinner at my aunt's house in Timaru.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Today is the longest day. It's also the day my purchase went unconditional. There were no surprises in either the LIM or the builder's report, so I gave my solicitor the go-ahead. Tomorrow I'll hand over $35,000 as the initial deposit. I'll be able to move in on the 43rd day from today, which by my calculations is 2nd February. I guess I should be over the moon, but it still feels like a leap into the unknown.

I popped into Moore Wilson's for the first time last night. It's what you might call a "high-decile" supermarket which is why I'd never shopped there before. But the range of meats and cheeses on show there (that was the only section I visited) was mouth-watering - it felt like I was in Parma again. I bought a variety of cheeses as a Christmas present.

Every Tuesday I have a catch-up with my boss. He didn't mention exams this week, and I sure as hell wasn't going to. Maybe if I don't talk about them they'll go away.

The (staged?) outpouring of grief shown on TV following the "dear leader" Kim Jong Il's death would be laughable if it wasn't so scary. Millions are starving to death in that nuclear basket case.

I've never been able to solve the Rubik's cube. At least two of my cousins can. At the weekend I was at my cousin's house, getting nowhere with her cube. After half an hour I'd completed one side. I asked my cousin if she could finish it off, but what I'd done was no good because the colours of the edges weren't lined up. C'mon! That took me half an hour! She did solve it from my position but she prefers to start with white, not the blue that I started with.

Here's a flashback to 1992. Anyone remember Tasmin Archer's Sleeping Satellite? Great song, with quite deep and meaningful lyrics.

My next post will be from Geraldine.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What's wrong with me?

OK, I already know the answer. It's "a lot". But my biggest flaw is a complete inability to handle most social situations. My only real coping strategy is to take myself out of the situation entirely but sometimes that isn't possible. On Friday we had our staff Christmas party. It was during a work afternoon so I couldn't exactly just vanish into the sunset after we'd all eaten. The food was good but having to talk made it a lot less enjoyable. I hardly drank anything because I was babysitting my cousin's kids that evening, giving me a good excuse to miss the after-party. Four hours were more than enough for me. I'd have much preferred four hours stuck at an airport - yes there are lots of people at an airport but you don't have to talk to any of them and you can at least pass the time by reading a book or staring at all the Rolexes you'll never be able to afford. I just wish I could get something out of these sorts of events, or at least not find them hellish, but it's been this way for nearly twenty years.

The Auckland autism group had its Christmas party last Saturday. It would have been a far more enjoyable (and meaningful) occasion for me than the party I did attend the previous day. I was delighted that they introduced an annual Emma Foster Award to be given out to somebody who has shown a number of positive qualities such as courage, perseverance, initiative, helping others and helping the environment. Fittingly Richard won the inaugural award. I suggested to Jen Birch that they name something after Emma to ensure that she is never forgotten, and this is a wonderful way of doing just that.

I've still got plenty to do to ensure that my offer goes unconditional before Christmas. Some of that will depend on the council getting the LIM done on time (and that the results are all OK). Going unconditional pre-Christmas would enable me to can move in three weeks earlier than otherwise (and crucially before the lease on my current place expires). Then I'll have to finalise the terms of my mortgage, which is where the title of my blog really comes into its own.

On Wednesday I'll be going a meeting at the local tramping club with a woman from the autism group. Hopefully I'll get to see a bit more of Wellington (and the rest of NZ) in the new year while meeting people and burning a few calories (which I need to) at the same time.

I'm flying down to Christchurch (unfortunately I couldn't get a flight to Timaru) on Thursday evening. The break should do me good.

Edit: Kim Jong-Il isn't just ill, he's dead.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Here we go again

My offer on the flat was accepted on Monday evening. The vendors had come back to me at $358,000, eight grand above my initial offer. I then split the difference and they accepted. The haggle stage was quite painless. First and foremost, I just wanted to get it all sorted. Some people lose sight of that and instead of thinking "I'll try to buy this property at a reasonable price" they think "if move my bishop to this square then I'll back him into a corner and ... gotcha!" I wasn't in the mood for games, talking of which New Zealand dramatically beat Australia by seven runs in the Hobart test match that day.

Eleven turned up to the autism group. One of the older members wasn't feeling 100% and had to be taken home. This was our last meeting with the current facilitator who is moving to Auckland - she must be nuts! (Her husband has got a job up there, but still.) It's a shame to see her go, but if she gets involved in the autism scene in the Big Smoke she'll do an excellent job I'm sure. We made tentative plans for the group after Christmas - I'm hoping we can start meeting up socially outside the fortnightly sessions.

I should have been really happy after the third-of-a-million-dollar deal went through. But there are still several hurdles to negotiate and I've been bombarded by property-related phone calls and emails throughout my work days.

My mental state has been fragile since the weekend; yesterday it took a sharp nosedive. Work, life and everything became impossible. As for work itself, it was 2009 all over again. I locked myself in the loo and banged my head against the wall and the sink. I didn't hurt much at the time but I certainly felt it later. Work has definitely become trickier since my new boss arrived. Until then I was getting by, never really achieving anything but never letting that get me down. Work was just there. But my boss is very switched on and highly motivated at work, i.e. the exact opposite of me. The nuts and bolts of the job matter to him, and he expects them to matter to me, so I've been getting feelings of total inadequacy. Buying property, which makes staying in employment even more important, probably sent me over the edge.

I nearly didn't go to work today - I was going to take two days off including tomorrow's Christmas party - but I heaved myself out of bed eventually.

Putting any problems I might have into perspective, a journalist was murdered last weekend just yards from my work. He was a good man, just walking home after his night shift at Radio NZ. After a gruesome killing like this, I wonder whether bringing back the death penalty wouldn't be such a bad idea, if only you could guarantee that they get the right person. And there was I thinking I was safe in Wellington.

On a much lighter note, Birmingham play their eighth and probably final European match of the season, needing a miracle and the dodgy head-to-head rule to progress. But it's been fun.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

House-hunting - getting serious

It was nice to have Mum and Dad here for a few days. We got on well - in fact I've been getting on better with Mum than I've done for ages. My parents spent a fair bit of time eyeing up properties for me; I was very grateful for this because I'm pretty clueless in that regard. On Tuesday they took a look at an apartment I found a month ago (and was still up for grabs) and to my slight surprise they really liked it! It's five minutes walk from where I live now, on the other side of the Basin. The block of flats is hardly a thing of beauty. It was built in the late nineties and looks like a behind-the-goal football stand (which is sort of appropriate because it is right next to a sports ground, just for a different sport). But inside it's spacious and well looked after. It's got 2½ bedrooms on two floors with, to be honest, heaps of space for one person. Talking to my brother, he would definitely say it was a place he "wouldn't want to rattle around in". All the fittings are modern and it's been well maintained despite being tenanted for several years (I could take on tenants if I buy it). Its asking price had been reduced by $16,000 and on Friday I put in an offer for a further nine grand less. It's a complicated business, this whole house-buying thing. I really hope my offer is accepted, not because I'm emotionally wedded to the property but because I want to get it over and done with. If it falls through, there's one (possibly two) in Brooklyn that I'm interested in. Tomorrow is the big day when I expect to find out.

I've been in New Zealand eight years and two weeks and there's still plenty of stuff I haven't figured out yet. Like why all real estate agents, solicitors, insurance salesmen and mortgage brokers are ex-All Blacks. Or Black Caps. What is it about kicking a football that instantly makes you knowledgeable about financial products or legal matters? Precisely nothing, but of course in NZ being a highly successful international sportsman (or woman) elevates you to God-like status. What's more, people trust you. It's completely different in the UK where no-one in his right mind would buy a house from Wayne Rooney. Over there you've got an Etonocracy running the country; here you have an Allblackocracy. I don't know which is worse.

The house-buying process (at least I hope that's what it is) has in some ways been a nice distraction from my other big decision - whether to do more actuarial exams. My new boss is trying to twist my arm. I almost hope he could the whole hog and break it so I wouldn't be able to write the exam. It would feel like the ultimate backward step after the decision to quit my job two years ago. The thought of it - that there's no way out - has made me feel quite down today it must be said.

My boss is five years younger than me. He had told me he was 28. For some reason the subject of weight came up at work, and to show how many pounds he'd lost he dug out an old passport photo with a late January 1985 date of birth, making him 26. However he comes from China where you're considered to be one at birth and a year older at the turn of each Chinese year. He was born just before the turn of the year so by Chinese rules he is indeed 28 and will in fact turn 29 before his "real" 27th birthday (because it's an early start to the next Chinese new year). You get old quickly in China.

On Wednesday night (the night before my parents flew home) we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant on Majoribanks Street. I had beef noodles which were appetising without feeling full. We then played Scrabble again. I won but had far more than my fair share of good letters. Until the end, that is, when I had four I's on my rack. Mum and Dad both had an "I" each, and with no place to put them (no QI allowed in our game, folks) the game ended with only three of the nine I's having been played. I wonder if that's some kind of record. I should point out that Mum consistently took an age to put down a word - she's actually pretty competitive - and we didn't finish till after eleven. I must get an egg timer before we play next.

We had another quake on Thursday morning. A mere 4.2, it was certainly noticeable from my elevated position. I'd call what I experienced a "double wobble".

Bought the flat or fallen flat? I'll find out tomorrow.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Rock 'n' roll

Mum and Dad are staying with me for the third time in four months. They'd only just got off the plane on Saturday evening when we had to go a barbecue at my cousin's place. It was a long way from a party, but we had some unexpected rock 'n' roll as I felt my first ever proper earthquake. I was surprised by the loudness of it, and for a split second I thought it might turn into the big one. It was big enough for me anyway; as a wild guess I said it felt like a 5.8 - I overestimated by just 0.1 as it turned out.

We visited four open homes yesterday. Three of them were out of the question - one had a serious damp problem and you had to hold your nose. I'm eliminating lots of properties and not finding many suitable ones. Still, there are three currently in play.

The three of us played Scrabble last night. Mum is pretty good at Scrabble really - she's got a good brain and (not wanting to criticise) could make better use of it. I won a nail-biter by three points, 240 to 237. Those scores aren't bad for a three-player game involving none of those silly but useful two-letter non-words. Dad's 164 wasn't to be sneezed at either. Mum went first and got FoRAGER straight away for 64; I responded soon after with ENTRIES (lucky to have that combination) for 63.

I found this article (well, survey really) from the Guardian today. It paints a bleak picture of Britain's future, and probably the future of Western society as a whole. I've been thinking for a while about how technology is killing jobs. Check in your baggage at the airport, or even do your grocery shopping, and you'll see man increasingly being replaced by machine. Jobs are vanishing. "Get a job" is something you hear a lot, but when there are fewer and fewer jobs out there, what do you do? Find something you're good at and "create" a job yourself I guess.

I followed bits of a cricket match at the Basin yesterday. I could only really see the scoreboard from my flat, and there weren't many people in the stands, but the match was almost as close as last night's Scrabble - Wellington lost to Otago by six runs. By the way there's a flat for sale four floors above me in the same apartment block; that's one of the properties currently in play.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Family matters

Yesterday I caught up with perhaps my favourite cousin. She lives and works (as an accountant for one of the "big four") in Christchurch but had some kind of course or conference in Wellington. Tonight I've been babysitting for my other cousin - I enjoyed reading two chapters of James and the Giant Peach to Tim (son number two).

Mum and Dad are coming up on Saturday and will be staying five nights with me. They must really like Wellington! Dad has done surprisingly well at an exhibition in Timaru so they might be feeling quite flush when they get here. I'm really pleased for him - although they're in good financial shape, he still feels a certain amount of pressure to sell his work (some of which has been applied by Mum I think). I guess the only way he knows his paintings are appreciated is if people buy them. No doubt we'll look at some open homes on Sunday.

Unfortunately my football predictions came true. Blues were a bit unfortunate to lose 1-0 in Braga after being on top during most of the first half in which they missed a penalty. And to cap it all off, Brugge came back from 3-0 down with 17 minutes to go to win 4-3 in Slovenia. You couldn't make it up. Now Blues have to beat Maribor at St Andrews and hope that Braga somehow win in Bruges. Well, for Blues fans it's been blissful escapism from the grind of league football, and don't we all need to escape occasionally.