Monday, December 31, 2007

Only a Test

Bringing Back the Sun
Originally uploaded by relentlesstoil
who happens to be one of my best friends
in the world and whose art is
routinely an inspiration.
At night the mast resonates in the wind, humming atonally and sending irregular shudders through the boat. We can feel the squalls as they howl up from the south spitting cold breath on the deck and the bimini. The girls coined a new term for this form of precipitation: slain. Slain is snow and rain and sleet. It is miserably cold and disgustingly wet. It doesn't stick to make pretty white landscapes yet we can see the big fat squishy flakes fall to the water as we stare disconsolately out the salon window.

Santa brought the girls scooters this year. Santa is out of his effing mind. Those girls are like minions of Evil Knievel (may he rest in peace) zooming through the elegant, high brow marina with little consideration for friend, foe, or fauna. I swear we would have long since been kicked out of the marina except no one is here in the dead of winter.

Winter in a marina that – for the most part – prohibits liveaboards is a very quiet neighborhood. When a gale blows up from the Pacific, you'll see a small percentage of owners pop over for a half hour to check lines and fenders. But for the most part, we have acres of million-dollar boats, a five-star restaurant, and the attention of all the marina staff to ourselves. I am occasionally tempted to sneak over to the nearest Nordic powerboat, fire up the genset, kick back with my feet up drinking brandy toddies while watching the HD-TV wide screen. It's the guilty dream of those who live on the other side of the tracks.

This winter is a test, I suspect, of our fortitude and our stubbornness. All by ourselves in a sea of much more comfortable housing, we are developing an esprit of mutual admiration in the face of deep deprivation. Dr C and I are both still working in a last push to plump the cruising kitty before the weather breaks. With the spring, our income trickles to a dribble while our sails take us northwards, following migrating birds and the string of broadband wireless, marina hot spots which speckle the cost.

I grow plumper each week, even if the cruising kitty fails to make marked progress. Double-time work plus homeschool and holidays combine to make Toast a very fat girl. One item of household gear that I shed, however, was the scale, so I have not the slightest clue whether this feeling of fattitude is merely a product of a fudge-crazed, mascarpone riddled mind or a true indicator of increased girth. Ultimately, it matters not since the sensation of adding a seal-like layer of blubber seems so appropro of our current lifestyle, I have trouble mustering the outrage to get myself out into the harsh weather to get some exercise. Along with t-shirts, time to relax, and dry sheets, fitness awaits the spring.

This purgatory in which we find ourselves of our own making is halfway between our old life and our new one, and following some karmic law has all of the disadvantages of both and apparently none of the advantages. It is no longer enough to softly chant “May May may may May” as I clutch my coat around me on a arduous round trip to the shore head. I have graduated to a calendar thoughtfully donated to the cause by a local chandlery and am now crossing the days off each night with a somewhat vicious snap of the wrist.

It is a test, this winter. And I always do well on tests.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Cold Day in Don Quixote

You Know It's Bad
You Know It's Bad
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I have learned so much more respect for our pioneer ancestors. It always seemed so implausible to me that you could arrive in the Pacific Northwest and literally freeze to death in the winter. After all, it never freezes here. So how is it done? Well, let me tell you.

One very creative way to freeze to death in the Pacific Northwest in the winter is to move on to a friggin’ sailboat in the middle of winter and bob around in 40-degree water with the wind whipping by at 40 knots. Let us compound the problem by killing the heater. Twice. Since the “fix” costs $300, after the second breakdown we pretty much had to make a decision between freezing and eating.

We chose to freeze.

What I learned this winter is how you can completely and utterly do without traditional heat sources.

Back in the good old days when we were rich and normal, we had a house with central heat. The furnace would kick on in mid-October and grind away until mid-May. We felt oh so self-righteous when we took the Global Challenge and turned our thermostat down to 68 Fahrenheit. It was chilly enough that people remarked on it when they visited the house. But on the whole, 65 to 68 was quite pleasant as long as you wore a sweater – or as is more common in Seattle, a fleece pullover. We would snuggle beneath an Ikea throw on the couch, watching our movies, sipping red wine (box, of course) and munching on microwave popcorn, replete and smug in the knowledge that our thermostatic sacrifice was helping to ensure a future for our children.

Let's contrast this to our current state. When we stepped onto the boat this evening, the gauge read 44 degrees. Through the creative use of halogen lights, a kerosene lantern and baking cookies, we've raised the temperature in the salon to a balmy 59.

Unfortunately, heat rises. This ensures that any heat we generate making dinner and eating it in the light of our own personal sun lamp does not make it down into the cabins. As I type in the master cabin, my breath is frosting and floating to the ceiling to condense on the hatch cover and slide down the walls. The principle source of heat in here is the adapter for my laptop charger. Never have I more appreciated the fact that Apple chargers are roughly hot enough to fry eggs. We're using it as a bed warmer to ward off frostbite.

Yet, we are not actually all that uncomfortable. I think, in fact, that were it not for all the condensation, I could actually live this way pretty much indefinitely. I can assure you unequivocally that our future land-based house will never have a winter temperature setting higher than 60. There are tricks to living in the cold that you learn quickly or run away from this life screaming.

Pretend Like It's Warm
– There are lots of ways to make your boat look warm even when it is not. Believe it or not, our mammalian brains are truly stupid enough to buy this nonsense. If you fill the boat with a warm glowing ambiance, your dumb ass brain registers the color and flicker as a radiant camp fire and makes you believe it's warmer than the thermostat actually reads. It helps, by the way, to turn the thermostat around so that you can't see it. Again, the human brain is surprisingly stupid. If you don't know it's 44 degrees, maybe it's 50.
Think positive.

To create that warm radiant glow, I recommend BeanPod candles. Get one with a nice campfire sounding name like Cedar Chest or Evergreen. Put one of these beauties in the center of the table. Then surround yourself in cheap tea candles from Ikea. Put them absolutely everywhere. They do not generate heat. You just think they do.

Cook РNormally, I find cooking on the boat a bit of a chore. There are only two burners, virtually no counter space, and the oven has two temperatures now that Dr C has ditzed with it: off and nuclear. However, cooking generates two absolutely critical byproducts: heat and odor. Your boat is not a very big place, and simmering soup or chili for half an hour, boiling a pot of tea, or baking a lasagna can actually heat the boat all by itself. Also, the aromas of roasting meat, saut̩ing onions and garlic, and baking chocolate chip cookies do wonders for encouraging the hind brain to think warm and happy thoughts.

Kerosene Lanterns – These are absolutely great on a boat. A kerosene lantern produces a truly astonishing amount of light. It’s also hot. HOT. Our lantern can take the salon from 45 to 55 in 20 minutes. I recommend purchasing these from the Amish catalog. Believe it or not, despite their complete repudiation of electricity, the Amish are served by a fine web site. Okay, this seems totally oxymoronic, but I recognize now that this site must do a really good side business in idiots like us.

Halogen Lights – Ironically, everyone on my catamaran list is yackity yacking about how to swap out all these halogen bulbs in all the fixtures on the boat with more efficient LED. The halogens are the second largest consumer of electricity on the Lagoon catamarans. Swapping them for the more parsimonious LED’s makes for more light at considerably less electrical cost. If you live someplace cold, however, don't do it. The halogens easily increase the temperature of the cabins by five degrees.

Ultimately, what it takes to live on a cold boat is the willingness to be cold. It's really that simple. If you stop taking heat for granted and treat it for the incredible and expensive resource it truly is, you will find the nights endurable and the days at the office pure pleasure.
Challenging the Cold
Challenging the Cold
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas with the Congers

For our last land-based holiday season for who knows how long, we drove all our worldly goods down to my parents in California. My dad lives with my step mom in a lovely, updated cabin at the base of Squaw Valley Ski Resort. Their idea of retirement strikes me as a little slice of heaven: he works security in the winter and as a golf host during the summer while she caters and works at a lodge restaurant. They work as many hours as makes them happy, don't work when they don't feel like it, and get to know everyone in their community as the well established, well-liked locals they truly are.

So for my first video entry on this blog, a small, unedited bit of my boat girls on the ski slopes. I freely admit this is a test -- just a test -- of the emergency video blogging system. In the event of a real vlog, I'll do a considerably better job of making it interesting to more than the children's grandparents.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Some Things Are Easier Than Others

Three years ago I was landed gentry. We owned a ten acre parcel of wooded beauty on Vashon Island. Actually, the bank owned it but we were on the right path towards gentrydom. Dr C had a vision – a dream really – to build a house in the woods. We went so far as to mortgage our souls and start looking for an architect.

The dirty little secret is that I loathed it. I loathed everything about Vashon, from the endless waits in the ferry line to the miserable slog up and down the cliff to get to the beach. The neighbors were snotty little pissants, and the regulatory climate for building in King County is about as restrictive as those traditionally reserved for historical monuments and archaeological digs. All along, I understood that enabling Dr C in this particular fantasy would result in a balance of labor something like this: Dr C would visit the construction site every weekend to invest his sweat and toil in nailing something or stringing an electrical line or digging a post hole. I would spend all day every day for nine months on site as a combination project manager/general contractor to ensure we didn't get our financial asses handed to us on a platter.

I hated the very idea of living in the woods. The property had lousy cell phone access and no Internet connectivity. A raccoon ate my macaw and a deer ate all my roses and peach trees. And one fine winter, a tree fell on our palatial two-room tent. I hate trees.

Then Dr C decided to sail away. Is it any surprise I leaped at the opportunity? The first words out of my mouth were something like, “Okay, Dean, but you get one dream, not two. You get the house in the woods or the boat. Which is it?” He wanted the boat. Praise be.

And Away We Go
And Away We Go
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Which found me several months later sitting on the beach of our property two days before the closing, waxing wistfully nostalgic for the death of all our construction plans. The sun was setting, turning the waters of Colvos Passage to burnished bronze and warming the air with the smells of cedar and crushed ferns. My children were in the woods, building fantasmagorical fairy palaces in the salal, their imprecations to do this or say that merging with the soft shush of the tide pulling tiny crabs and pebbles back into the Sound. For a brief moment, I came perilously close to regretting our decision.

At which point a 40' Beneteau sailing on a close reach up the passage, mostly riding the northbound tide in the light wind, brought me to my senses. Instead of owning one beach, I now owned a million. Instead of enjoying this single land-bound sunset, I would be spend many years witnessing the daily spectacle from the deck of my floating home. Instead of giving something up, we would multiply this single experience to infinity times five.

Most importantly, there are no raccoons on a boat. Some things are easier to give up than others.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Reenforcing the Lesson

It took exactly 72 hours before I was able to put my newly minted American Red Cross First Aid and Adult CPR card to use.* The story goes like this...

The time has come to store all our worldly goods that can not, will not, or should not go with us on into our cruising life. There are a few antiques, some personal momentos, some old, analog pictures, CDs and video, and a metric buttload of useless ophthalmology books that DrC insists on keeping.

So on Tuesday, we rented a UHaul (do not do that, just don't... story later) and literally tossed everything we would like to continue to own into the back of a long truck. Then we poured ourselves and the children, literally drenched and dripping from a steady, miserable rain, into the truck and our van and drove to California. My mother has agreed to house our goods in garage-like splendor for however long it takes for us to come to our senses.

After dumping everything on her, we schlep over to the Chevron/UHaul/Carl's Junior/... to turn in the truck before heading through a blinding snow storm up to my dad's place in Tahoe. At the drop off point, the girls and DrC witness a nasty argument in the parking lot between two women. The battle escalates, culminating in one of the women clocking the other across the jaw with a cell phone.

DrC decides both of them are idiots and proceeds inside to turn in the truck.

Jaime and I, on the other hand, spring into well trained action. We get the victim inside where I proceed to tell everyone what to do. If I do say so myself -- and I must since only reluctantly will DrC attest to the facts of this situation -- I handled myself very well for a pushy, recently minted graduate of the American Red Cross First Aid and Adult CPR course.

I checked the victim. Scruffy, noisy, dirty, and bleeding all over frickin everywhere. I ordered one totally catatonic witness to call 911. I ordered a second nitwit in a Carl's Jr uniform to get me a bag of ice and a stack of napkins, a third to get me a pair of food service gloves and a final bystander to stand at the door and keep an eye on the assailant while we waited for the cops to show up.

Then I cared for the victim in a rather brusque albeit remotely polite way by slapping a stack of napkins and an icepack on the wound, asking for particulars, making sure she was coherent and not hurt anywhere else and altogether behaving like a model of First Aid Citizenship.

Ten minutes later, the cops and an EMT show up, ask me a few questions, and then tell me that I'm done. Go away. So I did that "wait until someone smarter and more experienced than you shows up" bit.

Call it karma, the fates, God, or the Lords of Cosmic Jest, but there is no way you could have planned a better training scenario had you been an instructional designer with the task, "Write exercise to verify that student didn't fall asleep during the bloody wound section of the class." It was like a field test. The only thing that would have made it better was if one of the catatonic witnesses had collapsed in a heart attack and I had to administer CPR. Though "better" is a slippery word in this context, I'll grant you.

At least Jaime was impressed.

* The card itself is now at the bottom of Elliott Bay along with my wallet, a set of keys, and a $163 million winning lotto ticket. I only know that the ticket is a winning ticket because of Murphy's Law, of course, but I am nevertheless convinced with a degree of certainty that borders on obsessive.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Step 1: Check Call Care

Jaime Meets Manny
Jaime Meets Manny
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Jaime and I are now proud owners of that valuable bit of information: if someone has a heart attack, check them out, call 911, and render what care and assistance you can until someone smarter than you shows up. It may seem obvious to the point of idiocy, but perhaps there are a sizable fraction of folk for whom this needs to be said. Moreover, Adult CPR and First Aid is the first and most basic course required to learn how to navigate the intimidating world of taking care of folks on a boat. So even though I've got clients breathing down the back of my neck, we are moving all our furniture to California tomorrow, and Santa hasn't gone shopping yet, Jaime and I spent the weekend at an American Red Cross course.

The best part of the experience was seeing Jaime so engaged. I'm not saying she wasn't bored at times. Frankly, our teacher displayed all the personality of a wet cod left for three days on transom in a snow storm. I'm also not saying she was the star of the class. I was, however, quite impressed with her attention span and willingness to participate in the hands on activities.

Readers one and all, if you have not already taken your first aid and CPR course, I strongly encourage you to do so. Not only is this class the gateway drug to more advanced and potent coursework, it is useful to anyone and everyone who lives with other people as well as hermits who conveniently break accessible limbs or choke on something amenable to self-inflicted Hymlich maneuvers.

In all seriousness, it does give you lots of information which will make you more useful in your next global climate change induced natural disaster. You also can not really do much better than the American Red Cross first aid kits unless you have a doctor handy to tell you what additional to buy. Four and a half stars.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Homeschool Curriculum

Any homeschooler will tell you that one of the chief advantages to teaching your children yourself is that you as a family get to decide what is important to learn. Never mind national standards, the state curriculum, or the care and feeding of 4th graders.

Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
And please god throw away What Every Second Grader Should Know. I know the authors mean well, but those books are comparable to What to Expect the First Year. Before you have a child, you read the book religiously and think it's an instruction manual similar to the user guide accompanying your DVD player. After you've survived a year with the first kid, the instructions make no sense whatsoever. What's that saying? With the first you boil the bottles, with the second you rinse them, with the third you just check to make sure nothing is stuck to the bottom.

On the other hand, maybe you will have a typical, average, normal second grader... or fourth grader or nth grader. Surely there is at least one child out there that actually knows all the appropriate things for a 3rd grader – no more but no less. The rest of them are more like mine, I suspect, all over the academic map.

I have a 7-year-old taking high school Shakespearean drama whose handwriting skates perilously close to illegible. My eldest T.A.s in virtually all of her classes and volunteered for a pet store for nearly a year, but does language mechanics exercises only when forced to at the point of a gun and gets the answers correct only through the laws of statistical probability. Come to think of it, her printing is pretty lousy, too. Maybe it's the teacher's fault. I haven't written anything down in nearly a decade. And Mera? She's a class all by herself. Actually, she's three or four classes since her academic ability stretches from 3th to 9th depending on the subject.

But unless you educate your children via the most radical unschooling path, eventually you join the rest of us -- we all have to answer that question, “What do I teach next?” For the most part, the question solves itself as your children dive down a literary, scientific, artistic, or historical rat hole. What you do next is to stand back like the tutu girl in a magic show and unobtrusively hand your magician tools, colored handkerchiefs, and small domesticated animals while he or she awes and delights the crowd. Then you pack up all the props and costumes and move on to the next show.

Sometimes, however, this process needs a nudge. Or a shove. Or maybe you just need to push your child off the cliff. I believe the unschoolers call this process “strewing,” an activity which sees you littering your home or boat with things that might happen to tweak the child's interest back into the learning process. You might drop a magazine on a table or add a book to the library shelf. There are email messages with interesting links, trips to craft shops and hardware stores, or a walk in the woods with a jeweler's loupe and a notebook. The process is elegant in its simplicity and in the gentle, almost noble manner in which it brings out the eager learner in your child.

And this is where I depart from the radical unschoolers, because I just don't have the patience for strewing. When the girls run out of things to do and start whining at me like “regular” schoolers two weeks into summer that they have nothing to do and are “bored, bored, bored”, I pull out the state curriculum and tell them it's time to learn World History.

I think of World History as the bully club of strewing. Where subtly fails you, a large book entitled America: Revolution the Present or World Geography and You do wonders for inspiring your children to more seriously take their education into their own hands.

The Girls Visit the Farm
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Your best bet, however, is Ancient Civilizations. It even sounds good. The title rolls on the tongue. As you riffle through the pages, you are tantalized with images of pyramids, cave drawings, and photos of half naked statues. Art History is pretty good for the sheer number of naked people, but Ancient Civilizations one ups it with all the funky jewelry and depictions of human sacrifice. I challenge any child to make it past the Minoan section without diving down another academic mining pit. And if your kid isn't completely captivated... well, never mind. Let her go play in traffic while you reacquaint yourself with the marvelous folly that is the human race.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Interlude for a Cold

It doesn't get better on this boat. As of December 1, we are officially moved aboard full time on our Catamaran With No Heat. To celebrate, it snowed all afternoon and the temperature plummeted to 27 last night. I have a post-release head cold which has settled into the back of my throat and makes swallowing a three step exercise: think about swallowing, swallow, wish I had spit up instead.

Post-release aches and pains are a tradition in the software/hardware world I come from .You work your puttola off for a few months, each day getting progressively more stressful as achieving the release objectives becomes increasingly unlikely. The hours get longer, the pressures get higher, and the bugs get more intractable until the day of the release. On that fine day you build the damn thing one more time and throw it up online, releasing it to a vulnerable, patient and unsuspecting public. Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon, a low grade head ache starts to take hold. By the time the product is out the door, everyone in the room wants nothing more than 72 hours of sleep, hot Theraflu, and a back rub.

Instead we go drinking. This is what the family did Friday evening. We've been prepping for the practice closing since January 2005 but somehow there were still approximately five million things to do on that one day. All day Friday, I put out fires, fed people, and assisted in the transport of 10,000 folders. I can assure you that the move was not HIPAA compliant. We just tossed the patient records into boxes and the boxes into a van and shlepped them from one building to another.

I asked DrC Thursday if he was releived to finally see his last patient as a solo practioner. He admitted, “I'm a slow learner. I don't feel any different.” And I didn't either until Friday night. As I strolled out of the back door, letting it slam behind me with a satisfying thud, I felt like someone had lifted a zebra off my shoulders. Maybe an entire herd of zebras. I still have a two really enormous elephants, mind you: collecting the money from all the patients DrC has seen over the last six months and selling everything we own. But it felt good. It felt big.

And Saturday, it felt like those zebras had thrown one last party before their departure because my body was beaten. I ached in every bone, sinew, and nerve ending. I spent the majority of the day curled in a fetal ball in my cabin nearly buried in blankets and with only my nose popped into the sub zero air. DrC was tremendously nuturing. He made Noregian leek and potato soup, and administered hot tea, analgesics, and crusty sour dough bread at regular intervals. He also discovered the secret to really amazing hot chocolate is a bar of the real stuff, sugar free vanilla syrup and a half cube of butter. I love this man.

The World On Its Head
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.