Thursday, February 28, 2008

What? Again!?

It's time to purge.

This Has Got to Go
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
We've been here before. Most of you remember the Drizzle December 2007 purge during which we sorted everything in the basement into three piles: junk, move to boat, and put into storage. Going back in time, those of my long standing readers might remember the Agonizing April Move during which we ceded our house of many years to renters, and compressed ourselves into the aforementioned basement.

Actually, if you travel back into time, we add layers of stuff in a sort of reverse archaeological dig. Each wave of stuff-evisceration disgorged van loads of toys, appliances, clothes and books. Each time involved several trips to the dump, a full year's tax deduction allowance to Goodwill, and a flurry of freecycling. We purged in November 2006 because I was bored. We did it back in Fall of 2005 because we'd just bought the boat and it seemed like the thing to do. Then there is the mother of all purges following our memorable trip to Whidbey during which we decided we didn't like being rich and normal and would rather be poor and insane.

And each time, we felt like we had stripped ourselves down to the bare essentials. I raise my hand here and swear to all that is holy that I believed each and every time I had gotten rid of everything. All that was left was the absolute minimum required for comfort and happiness. Yet each successive spasm of reductionism was a new lesson in minimalism. Each time we managed to get rid of more... more!... MORE!! That seems so counterintuitive. How can a family who is trying to do more with less get rid of more? Because there is always more to get rid of even when you stop buying.

I present this as a cautionary tale to those who are considering any form of simplification. Whether you simply seek to organize your closet, undertake a GTD transformation, or you are attempting to wedge yourself on to a boat, my recommendation is to give yourself time. Your ability to reduce your perception of what you need is a gradual process. Each time you lighten your material load, you need to give yourself a few months to adjust. Then do it again. And again. And yet again.

It is not that this process gets easier. In fact, it is challenging each and every time. When you purge, you are truly vomiting up the detritus accumulated over a lifetime. Our relationship with our things is so tightly entwined with our sense of self and self worth that each time involves many hard decisions about priorities, needs, and wants. Moreover, it's a dirty, thankless job that uses muscles you'd forgotten existed and leaves you with broken nails, a short temper, and the desire to smack your spouse.

Yet, during the fifth wave, you will find that items you thought critical to your very existence as a human being during the first purge are now dross in the tidal wave of life, just so much crap filling the forward lockers and sinking the boat. What would have been impossible to dispense with a mere two years ago is now garbage. Absolute garbage. You question whether it's even worth taking to Salvation Army.

I realize that we may have reached something approaching the pinnacle of purging with our most recent efforts. The entire family is more methodical this time. We are, after all, experts at the process now. The girls are dumping roughly the fuel load for a small star in toys, pillows and stuffed animals. DrC actually sorted his tool chests, consolidated into one, and reduced the total weight of his equipment to something less than a compact car but greater than a full water tank. I offloaded books and computer equipment. I can't for the life of me figure out why I thought I'd need four laptops and a box of romance novels.

One satisfying byproduct of purging when you live on a boat is that you get immediate, visual gratification and confirmation of your efforts. We saw two inches of Don Quixote's beautiful sky blue water line this afternoon for the first time since December.

We must be just about ready to go.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Cheese Stands Alone

A Pile of Goats
A Pile of Goats
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
For Valentine's Day this year, Dr C got me a trip to Chehallis to attend a goat cheese making class. This may not sound particularly romantic, but after 20 years, I'm just glad he routinely remembers these little Hallmarkian niceties. In fact, he must have struggled to out due last year's stellar V-Day gift – a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Trophy Wife.”

I started making cheese last fall. We were all desperately seeking ideas for crafts to make for our Solstice gifts, and I stumbled on a cheese making kit. For several weeks, I explored the wonderful world of mozzarella. During my obsession phase, I made over a dozen batches, some of which were quite good. Others not so much.

Cheese making is a cross between cooking, alchemy and an exercise in bacterial faith. As with beer, you start with a startlingly short list of ingredients and straightforward, deceptively easy instructions. Then you spend the rest of your life trying to figure out where you screwed up. Unlike beer, even complete disasters can actually still be referred to as cheese. Cheese is a very forgiving food category.

So on Saturday, I drove down to central Washington to visit the Blue Rose Dairy and extend my fromage-ilogical skills to chévre. Chévre is apparently French for goat and refers to any cheese made out of goat milk. Oddly for the French, this makes no sense whatsoever. Feta would technically be a chévre, while a jack, Gouda or blue would also be a chévre if you used a goat instead of a cow as your teat of choice. However, chévre in stores appears to also refer specifically to a goat milk cheese with a creamy texture and a slightly sour flavor which you mix with herbs or fruit to make spreads. Think of a cross between cream cheese and sour cream with a grainier texture and then add 10% bonus flavor crystals just for the heck of it. This is what we learned how to make.

First, goat milk is not skanky. Bad feta may have made you think that “goat” is a pejorative term for cheese that smells like the inside of an old basketball shoe and tastes worse. Actually, goat milk tastes a lot like cow milk except somehow inexplicably yummier. Second, goats don't smell. This seems impossible, but I stood in a barn full of 100 some odd goats, and it smelled like turned earth and warm milk. The goats were clean, friendly, and basically harmless. I've stood in similarly equipped barns full of cows and debated whether I'd be killed first by the smell or some stupid bovine backing into me and crushing me flat.

Some goat facts:
* Did you know that a goat doe in her prime produces two gallons of milk per day? Holy cripes.
* Goat milk is healthier than cow milk.
* Like human milk, goat milk changes flavor based on what the goat eats. This explains so much.
* Goat meat is yummy.
* Goats make really good pack animals and can carry their weight plus about 10 percent.

Rhonda of Blue Rose Dairy
Rhonda of Blue Rose Dairy
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The day was a sterling success, not just because I spent a day without children, a paintbrush, or a tax accountant. The drive was beautiful, the weather glorious, and the creamy chévre we made during class astonishingly good. My favorite taste sensation was smearing it on crackers and drizzling honey over the top.

Today, I made my own batch of chévre. Unfortunately, it looks and tastes a lot more like yogurt. Back to the drawing board.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

TechTip: Getting Things Done

GTD Clouds
Original artwork by
Short Answer: If you're looking to be organized, whether to simplify your life or to get aboard a boat and cruise away, consider investing some time in Getting Things Done.

Long Story: About a year ago, I discovered David Allen and “Getting Things Done.” Basically, he's a productivity-guy, expensive-suit-that-HR-hires, vain-attempt-to-improve-management, guru guy. However, his ideas stand head and shoulders above the rest, and GTD is basically the credo of many in software and hardware development. At some point it seemed like all my friends were doing it, so I had to do it too. Like Facebook except more so. I'm just a follower, what can I say?

The magic of GTD is largely in the concepts of inbox zero and organizing your work into contexts and projects. Briefly, context is where you get something done. Project is a set of things you need to do with a specific, desired outcome. Next actions are tasks that take you incrementally towards completing a project. And inbox zero is the notion that you never have a pile in your life. No junk drawer, no stacked inbox, no long list of email messages. Everything that comes into your life is immediately converted into a project with a list of actions which you will complete in context. Then you stick the entire lot into your trusted system.

A trusted system is where you keep track of all your next actions. It's a to do list on steroids. It goes like this... the moment you think of something you need to do, you dump it into your trusted system. Your trusted system can be a notebook, a spreadsheet, Outlook, a wiki, or bunch of index cards stuck together with a clip (a.k.a. the Hipster PDA). The important thing is that you don't let that little bit of “I need to get this done” in your head. You put it down someplace where you know that thought will not get lost. My trusted system which stores every thought and action in my life is an application called iGTD. If you have a Mac you need to get a copy of this. Now. I'll wait.

So far, it's quite possible that GTD skates perilously close to meeting Ze Frank's criteria for “a small solvable task not identical but related to the thing that's being put off”. Certainly, to do lists are a creative way to get busy and productive without actually completing anything substantive. However, my favorite addictive method of procrastinating is composing pithy posts for this blog.

My to-do list currently includes sixteen contexts, one hundred sixty projects and nearly one thousand actions with many of them due in the next two months. It seems like a lot. In fact, I have this niggly suspicion that had I re-purposed the time I used to type in those thousand tasks to instead actually do one, I might be better off. Yet, breaking the list down it starts to look depressingly comprehensive and completely without stuff I could just throw overboard and ignore.

The antidepressants are helping, thank you very much, but the occasional panic attack is surely justified.

Roughly 20% of my tasks have to do with closing down my husband's business and making it go away forever. Another sizable proportion relates to renting the house. Many tasks are bucketed as Academy and constitute the ongoing grind which is keeping the girls busy and steadily progressing forward in their ability to read, write, and speak in soft, reasonable tones to people either older or bigger than themselves.

Then to make matters more interesting, my clients all decided this month that they need work done. Go figure. They couldn't wait until March or April. No, it all has to be done now. So tack on about thirty or forty tasks just get all that crap done. Granted, it builds the cruising kitty, but I'm beginning to really resent working for a living.

“But what about the boat?” you say. Well, I'm glad you asked. Of the total, only 20% get slotted as Boat Projects. Fortunately, I get to ignore most of those until spring. Other than the heater, there is no earthly reason I should care about whether or not the bimini is growing mold or the deck looks like two seagulls fought it out and then vomited crab guts and blackberry juice.

And the rest? Well, those really aren't mine. They belong to Dr C. Turns out that I am HIS trusted system.
Toast iGTD Sample
Toast iGTD Sample
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Doing More With Less - Soap

The boat teaches many lessons in conservation. This is the second in a series of posts about how we boaters do more with considerably less. The tips are valid for land based life as well, though, so hopefully folks can use some of these ideas.

* * *
Storm Drain Detective
Storm Drain Detective
Originally uploaded by City of Lodi.
Have you ever seen a street drain with a little fish painted next to it? The fish tells you that anything you pour down that drain goes directly to a natural, nautical environment, be it creek, river, lake, or ocean. The objective of the fish relief is to make you feel guilty about pouring paint, machine oil, and dish soap down the drain.

I suspect as a public policy, the fish are a failure. It is difficult for the average American to comprehend the connection between his driveway and a river nearly a mile away.

Living on the boat, it is considerably more difficult to ignore the connection between drain and fish. For one thing, every morning you can watch the toothpaste spit emerge from a thru hull and dribble down the side of your boat to float in lily pads of minty fresh goodness. Scrubbing down the boat during an average boring passage produces a wake of cheerfully bobbing soap bubbles while dishwashing at anchor results in a bathtub ring of food particles and bacon grease adhering to your hull like the ghosts of dinners past.

So guilt alone drove the family to consider how we could clean things without killing fish. Ultimately, it comes down to that old saw, “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

Dilute Everything – There is not a single soap product distributed anywhere that is not packaged in solutions that are a minimum of ten times stronger than required to do the job. Now the environmentally friendly packages such as Seventh Generation and Simple Green explicitly tell you this. It turns out, though, that the 1:10 ratio works for everything from window cleaner to hair conditioner.

In fact, there are products you can dilute at an even higher ratio. Ivory dish soap, for example, can be diluted in a ratio of roughly 1:30. We put about a half ounce in the bottom of a small bottle and fill it up with fresh water, returning the “source” to the storage locker.

Use Less – Even diluted, you are still using too much. Whenever you can, don't put the soap in water. Don't put it in a bucket or a sink. Instead, apply the soap directly to either the item being scrubbed or a scrubbing device. That little bottle of diluted dish soap lasts us for nearly two weeks through the simple expedient of never putting the soap on either the dishes or in the sink water. We apply it the sponge and can generally make it through an entire meal's worth of dishes with two small applications.

Use Something Else – Very dilute vinegar is a great cleanser. Salt water is surprisingly cleanifying. Elbow grease and fresh water do wonders.

Warm the Water – I have no idea why, but soaps like warm water. You probably know that dish soap positively FOAMS when it hits hot water. However, the same is true of shampoo, laundry soap, and toothpaste. It's hard to get used to brushing with warm water, but you can get much cleaner teeth with much less paste if you do so. For shampoo, foam it up in your hands with hot water before slapping it on your head.

Make Your Own – For Winter Solstice this year, Dr C made soap for all the ladies in his life. From this exercise, we learned a few very valuable things:
  1. Soap is easy to make.
  2. Triple the quantity of fragrance you think you need.
  3. Homemade soap is better for the environment than the store bought stuff since it's made of essential oil, lye, olive oil, and lard. That's it.
  4. The stuff feels absolutely great on the skin.
The fish don't mind a little lye and all the rest is just natural fats which break up quickly with no nasty by-products. This makes homemade soap a great way to bathe in any location where the water circulates regularly (e.g. larger lake, stream, ocean). There are some really good instructions at: down---to---earth: How to make cold pressed soap

Head of House
Fun With PhotoBooth
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Do Without – There are a lot of things we clean in the Real World which just stay dirty on the boat. It turns out that disinfecting everything is probably doing more harm than good in any case, creating nasty antibiotic- and disinfectant-resistant bacteria. There is no fear of that on our boat. I can't think of a single sanitary item on the entire vessel.

* * *

I think everyone should live for a week watching their every effluent, body fluid, and ounce of waste water float behind their home in sludgy, gray pools. It would take a very hard hearted or extraordinarily stupid person to fail get the hint. Soap is not good; it blows bubbles.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Business Objective

Head of House
Head of House
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I've had some truly amazing bosses over the years. Amazingly good, amazingly bad. The goods ones were teachers, mentors and friends. The good ones still show up on my transom occasionally asking me to set up the docs departments for their latest startup. This is not why they are good, mind you, though it helps my maintain my positive opinion when you supply a steady source of ready cash. Those bosses are good, because they recognize quality and grow it. They were never threatened by competence or surprised by ignorance. They adapted.

Over the years, I distilled what they taught me into a few short, useful phrases which I would chant to myself any time I felt like losing my patience, my temper, or my sanity. It took me nearly eight years with my children before I began to recognize the applicability of these “Best Practices” as a playbook for parenting. With very little imagination, you can treat your children as challenging employees and your spouse as a difficult but basically well-meaning boss. And don't go all feminist manifesto on me. I've always managed my managers at least as diligently as my staff, sometimes to greater result.

I offer these as a free, snap course in management (or parenting) technique:

Always We, Never I
– Whenever possible, kids need to feel that the entire family is suffering the slings and arrows of outraged choredom. We need to clean the laundry. We need to get our work done before we play. We must visit the grandparents, go to the homeschool resource center, scrub bird crap off the forward deck. While our family is in no way a democracy, building a sense of shared suffering, effort and camaraderie works better than the top-down, “get your chores and checks done or else!” approach.

Take the Blame, Share the Credit – I try to take the blame. I try to apologize when I lose my temper, fitch a pit and jump in it, break something. I do far better in the work environment, because at home I'm pretty much convinced it's always their fault. It's easier to apply the share the credit portion. Kids love praise. So do husbands. Generosity in recognizing their accomplishments, lauding the daily bits of progress on projects, school work, or cabin organization, yields powerful downstream results.

Only Yell When You're Alone – This could also be known as the “United Front” clause. Basically, support in public and reprimands in private. Oh man, I truly wish I had this sort of self-restraint with my children. It's something I need to work on. Everyone – every single member of the family – deserves your support and respect in public. All those conflicts and frustrations should be kept private. I'd even like to keep them from one another... take them up quietly in a rational, calm one-on-one fashion. Good luck with that. With three kids, I'm far more likely to be frustrated with the entire lot of them and blow up, spattering motherly vile in every direction. Just because I like these guidelines, does not mean I'm universally successful following them.

Manage Your Staff to Take Over Your Job
– Finally! A rule I apply to my children with complete success. My kids are quite bright bulbs on the Christmas tree of life. I have no doubt that they will be considerably more successful than their parents, particularly if you measure success in terms of happiness rather than goods. They are learning very early in life how to make the hard choices that Dr C and I did not grapple with until we had our now moderately infamous mid-life crisis.

A Job is Not Worth Your Sanity – My children are not the most important relationship in my life. My husband has that dubious responsibility. I figure I'll live with them for maybe 18 years, while I've already lived with Dr C for over 20. And he'll be around for at least another 50! On balance, they have to take a back seat to the needs of our marriage. Turns out, they're good with that.

Do Not Pad Your Budget – Let your boss deal with the fact that your resources never meet the needs or expectations of Sales and Marketing. I translate this in parenting terms as not pretending that your children are something that they are not. Work with what you have, not what you want to have. Got a pubescent monster? Put her on chocolate and Ibuprofin and confine her to her cabin. Got a 10–year-old who keeps forgetting her schoolwork? Set her up with daily backpack lists and pray she becomes an absent-minded professor. My children are not perfect. They are not the best, the most, the greatest, the -est-est anything. And the only way that becomes a problem is if I'm not satisfied with who and what they are. Even then, it's my problem, not theirs.

Butter Won't Melt
Butter Won't Melt
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Define the Business Objective – Part of homeschooling for us has been a very thorough reinvestigation of the basic business objective for education. It seems we spend a great deal of effort in 1) scoring high on standardized tests, 2)getting admitted to the best university, and 3)socializing children to work well with others. But what do children really need to succeed in this world? More importantly, what will our children need to succeed in the world 15 years from now when the economy and society have shifted due to changes in climate, technology, and social norms? I am increasingly certain that traditional school does not provide our children with any of the tools they are going to need in that dimly glimpsed future. Mind you, I am not sure that homeschooling does either. Boatschooling, on the other hand, will at least provide the girls with many of the skills necessary to survive in some post-apocalyptic, dystopian hell world. God help them.

* * *

Children manage their parents as much as we manage them. Someone, however, must get paid the big bucks to make the hard decisions and to call the staff meetings. In our family, I'm the project manager and Dr C is the CTO. It remains to be seen which of my girls will grow into our jobs and take over. At least we'll know that they are capable of doing so.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Story of the Three Laptops

Seattle Tourists
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
In November, a client signed me up to do a rather large project. I seriously attempted to price myself out of the market, but unfortunately, the client signed the contract anyway. This rendered the entire project too lucrative to reject. I set as a condition for the contract that they supply me with a Dell laptop. I love my Macintosh and I will never willingly invest in Windows based hardware again.

The first computer was a lovely, brand new beauty. It's sheer slickitude almost made up for its Wind-ugliness. I set to work the first day with a bad attitude, fast fingers, and a mission to earn at least a month's worth of cruising kitty. This spirit soured until Day 2 when I pulled out the laptop only to discover a thumbtack had worked it's way between the key board and the monitor. The LCD had a nice crunch in one corner and was bleeding black goo up into the rest of the screen.

The client was surprisingly sanguine about this issue. The laptop was a loaner and the thumbtack predated my use. It had been a deadly scorpion hiding in the toe of the laptop case, waiting to bite an unsuspecting Dell. The computer was dead, long live the computer.

The hard drive was swiftly moved to a new chassis. This laptop wasn't as nice but at that point, I wasn't about to complain. After all, I'd just destroyed a $1000 monitor. Unfortunately, the prior owner of this particular device apparently had a fondness for vanilla lattes and Cinnabons. The entire right hand was sticky and to get the O key to work I had to slam my ring finger down with a vicious, vehement strike of vengeance.

I slunk into the office, swearing up and down that the slick of coffee between K and L had nothing to do with me. Surprisingly, they believed me. Again, my hard drive was yanked from the gimped device and slid into yet another chassis. Oddly, the third iteration of my Dell client laptop was a bigun. The monitor was broad, the keys all worked, and there were no sharp pointy devices ready to sabotage my efforts lurking in the traveling case.

However, I underestimated the malicious power of the Boating Gods. Unloading the car a few days ago, my eldest slipped – an errant dock cleat reaching out and grabbing her foot, twisting it around, and spinning her. With a sense of horrible inevitability, I watched the laptop slip from her hands and splash into the dark chasm twixt doc and boat. Glub, glub, glub.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times and I'm thrust into the Inevitability of Threes. The Rule of Threes states unequivocally that when three things go wrong, you don't do it. Whatever it is, someone is trying to tell you something.

It's time for me to stop working, people. Stick a fork in me. I'm done.