Monday, March 31, 2008

We Don't Need No Stinkin' (Electronic) Toys

A few weeks ago, the owner of a beautiful Norhaven powerboat in our marina ordered a minion over to dump every personal good onto the dock in the name of a remodel. The worth of this nautical trash was roughly that of the annual GDP of a mid-sized Caribbean island. Fortunately, the minion could not bear to see this haul simply dumped into the garbage and hauled off to a land fill. He asked and received permission to leave the entire lot next to the dumpster for a day to let the seagulls and liveaboards scavenge.

We carted off at least a thousand dollars worth of additional stuff to sink our boat. Among the prizes were a dozen really nice plastic containers, four fishing rods complete with reels, and two Canon Powershot cameras including one underwater case. For the girls, the biggest prize was two Nintendo Gameboys.

To put this treasure in perspective, it is important to note that the girls do not have any game boxes, cubes, computers, or hand helds. Our only computer games are of the Jump Start/Chessmaster variety. It's not that Dr C and I are morally, ethically or religiously opposed to video games. In fact, the girls and I played World of Warcraft for a year with the consistency and dedication of novitiates in a nunnery. While Aeron only managed a level 14 priest, Jaime was up in the 40s hunter and I had a mid-60 shaman before boredom set in.*

We simply do not have the money. We do not have the space. And, it turns out, we do not have the inclination. For two days, the girls did nothing but play with those Gameboys. Actually, they did one other thing – they argued over whose turn it was to play with the Gameboy since we only found two and mathematically it just wasn't working out.

And then the arguing stopped. In fact, the Gameboys stopped. They didn't stop functioning... I actually tested one to make sure. No, they simply stopped using them. One got kicked under a seat, the other was lost in Jaime's capacious purse. No one cared. Now, I'll occasionally see one of them pull out a pair of headphones and start messing around with a controller, but for the most part, the Gameboy phase is officially over.

Which totally justifies my refusal to buy these things. The girls have never grown out of the mode wherein the packaging has more entertainment value than the present.

The behavioral arc with television is roughly the same. The day they show up at their grandparents, it is impossible to extricate them from the TV. They are stuck to it like starfish to a dock piling, all eight arms wrapped around the device with super glue strength. You can pry off one long arm with a wrench and a champagne cork pop only to find all previously detached limbs whipping around the base with renewed force.

So I don't even try. Because after about 48 hours of this, the girls get bored. They drift out of the TV room with glazed eyes and drool on their chins, grab a handful of Oreo cookies, and disappear outside. For the rest of the visit, they may be found watching a Disney channel movie or Nic @ Nite for a few hours before bedtime, but largely the cable industry has lost its hold on my children.

Attack of the Thing
Attack of the Thing
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The power of electronic toys to take over the intellectual lives of our selves and our children can be broken – and broken permanently. Remove them from your life but do not make them forbidden. Simply don't buy them. Don't bring them into the house. When the kids get access, they will play for awhile with this otherwise inaccessible distraction. But video games, Disney reruns, and the Wii are simply not as fun as play. Nothing, in fact, is as fun as play.

And you can't really play with something that doesn't play back. We don' need no stinkin' electronic toys. Just give us the real thing, two hours of parental neglect, and a handful of like-minded kids. Welcome to the next level.

* Of course, all Horde. I'm surprised you'd have to ask.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

How Do You Spell Sisyphean?

Absorbed by Twain
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Every time I think we have done the last big thing, DrC schedules another weekend of slogging, blogging, flogging hard work. Last weekend, we had the pleasure of finally moving every last little bip and bob out of our commercial property. The tenant moves in March 28, and they are in a hurry to get us out of there.

"But I thought you'd already done that?" I hear you say.

So did I. But you're not done, I suspect, until someone else moves in. There appears to always be at least one more van load of trash to haul to the dump, 15 more boxes to put into storage, and B&B worth of furniture to give to Goodwill. It was a long long Easter involving very small quantities of chocolate and very large quantities of temper.

Ditto the house. This week, DrC has been finishing all the last bips and bobs at the house.

"But I thought you'd already done that?" you say.

So did I. Apparently, however, unfortunately, in any case, moreover... no.

Just no. Not done yet. But we have a tenant. They signed on the dotted line yesterday. And following my theory of you are not done until the tenant moves in, that means we'll be done in two weeks. In two weeks, we can not do anymore, because to do so would be to haul things out off through and betxixt the boxes of someone else.

To celebrate being done with other things -- and the arrival of spring -- I started the grand project to Make It White. Our boat looks like a flock of seagulls moved in and spent the winter eating blackberries and shitting compulsively while simultaneously staging a bar fight with the otters on the front deck. Which, come to think of it, is probably what actually happened. Unearthing the white hull from this multicolored crust of winter sludge is an unavoidable right of spring.

And Spring sprung this evening with another broken heater part and snow. Snow in March. Because we couldn't be any more excited about leaving, we needed to make sure that it snowed all the way through till the day we leave.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Questions from the Class - Connecting to the Internet

Question: In Episode 522 of the Daily Giz Wiz, Dick asks Leo, “Is she connecting to the Internet via satellite?” Leo and Dick speculate for a moment before Leo verbally throws up his hand and says, “That's a good question.”

Shooting the Marina
Shooting the Marina
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Answer: Yes, it is. Connecting to the Internet from a boat can be tricky. While the process gets easier and cheaper as technology advances, we still must deal with the challenge of connecting something land based to something floating around in the middle of nowhere. Even the most shore-fixated boat is rarely connected to anything more substantial than a dock cleat. How you get online depends on where you are and what you need to accomplish: On shore you do your bulk, multi-media transfers; In or near a marina you conduct daily business with short posts, blogs and overnight downloads; Out in the middle of nowhere you connect for safety reasons.

On Shore
– Cruisers are the ultimate road warriors when it comes to on shore connectivity. The crew of s/v Don Quixote grows increasingly adept at finding free wifi hot spots in the oddest spots. For example, did you know that you can sit outside of most Apple stores on a comfortable mall bench and mooch broadband? Starbuck's service is great now that all you have to do is purchase a latte. Of course, virtually every small coffee shop in the country now trumpets free wifi. Other great places to pull bits include: public libraries, rich homeowners with more money than security sense, and cool Internet hippies with “Hack the Planet!” and “All Your Base Are Belong to Mine” bumper stickers in their apartment window.

If you can't find it free, you can usually find some place to pay for broadband. McDonald's has their own network which means there is wifi access literally everywhere in the world; Unfortunately, it costs money, smells like old fry grease, and the children's screams can drop elk in their tracks. Most hotels have a net they'll let you use for a small fee, and you can always count on a copy place like FedExKinko's.*

“Internet cafe” is a redundant term in the U.S. where every cafe has Internet access. However, in other countries, this is precisely what you find – shops whose primary purpose is to offer broadband service. And “Oh... would you like a cerveza with that?” We've had little reason to seek out these types of establishments as we haven't yet ventured beyond the shores of the U.S. and Canada, but it's only a matter of time. We're very happy to hear the reports from other cruisers that these establishments are flourishing in every corner of the world.

In or Near a Marina – As with coffee shops, it has become standard for marinas to broadcast wireless service out over their harbor. Most subcontract to ISPs which provide coverage for a wide swath of coastline. For example, we currently subscribe to BBXpress broadcasting from most major and minor ports throughout Oregon, Washington, and southern British Columbia. You can subscribe daily, monthly or annually. They even have a reciprocity agreement with a provider down in California so it's not likely we'll need to look elsewhere until we cross into Mexico.

Using a marina service, it is a very good idea to invest in a card and/or antennae to extend your range and increase the power of your laptop card. We recently purchased an Edimax card from Urwifiguy. Look, you can clearly buy more powerful sets, run line up the mast, and make the whole thing bullet proof. I'd argue, though, that tech changes so fast you are probably better off buying a cheap, adequate set today and upgrading to another, better version in 18 months. You'll still spend less than the “marine hardened” brands.

Out In the Middle of Nowhere
– There are really expensive things you can do to get a high speed connection to the Internet while you're bobbing out in the middle of nowhere. These solutions are highly appropriate for the merchant marine, the military, and people with more money than god. They are not particularly useful or affordable for the rest of us. Moreover, spending the money isn't really necessary. Something like 95% of a cruiser's life is spent bobbing at an anchorage where a little elbow grease and a good war driving antennae will get you decent service from the comfort of your salon.

The Key to Good Communication
The Key to Good Communication
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
So for those odd passages and occasional times where you really must connect while out of reach of somebody else's wifi router, the solution is SSB, a Pactor modem, and a crappy piece of Windows software which hooks you up to AirMail. While the bandwidth is absolutely bad by modern standards (2200 kbps is a good day), the computer <=> modem <=> radio option works well enough to send and receive critical messages and to download weather data. We are just starting to use our rig, and the thing more or less makes me want to take out a hammer and go postal. The only method I've found to endure the limits of the WinLink software and glacial speed is to pull out a bottle of red wine and disappear into my cabin until the damn thing is done. We plan to use radio mail to send a daily position and status tweet to Twitter or Jaiku and otherwise pretend it doesn't exist.

There is also good news on the horizon for those who, like me, hate paying monopoly rates to SCS Pactor for their proprietary protocol. Open source alternatives to enable radio to Internet communication are beginning to spread. I am watching with great interest the growth of both Xastir and PKSMail. Someday, I may pitch this Pactor modem overboard and just get my Mac to cozy up directly to the SSB.

* * *
The bad old days of cruising families disappearing into the sunset ne'er to be heard from again are long gone. If you want to exchange tweets with friends and family, daily connectivity is within the reach of any moderately well heeled cruiser. And there is something to be said for sailing into harbor, grabbing a beer and a bowl of chips, and gorging on Diggnation, Wait Wait... and MacBreak Weekly all in a single sitting.

* Is there are more sad attempt at a merged logo than FedEx Kinko's anywhere in corporate America?

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Litany of Complaints

It's A Long Walk to Shore
It's a Long Walk to Shore
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Editor's Note: Thanks in advance to Tina for the quote that inspired this rant.

* * *

I believe I have mentioned that life on a boat is rarely convenient. There are no convenience stores around the block, Starbucks across the street, or groceries nearby. The head is too short and always very very cold to the ass of the newly awakened. The refrigerator is small, the oven is smaller, and the counter space is non-existent. Half the food is stored under the buttocks of your guests and the other half stashed willy nilly with the school supplies in the starboard hull.

But I think probably the most inconvenient bit about boat living is that you are always on a boat.

And a boat is like a paranoid lover -- needy, demanding and requiring constant attention. It can be oh dark thirty after a particularly memorable evening carousing with friends, but you must not neglect checking the anchor when the tide shifts. Someone has to get up and to verify that you aren't swinging into your neighbors, or worse, drifting out into the Pacific Ocean.

Don Quixote likes to ride strong winds at the dock, but before she withstands all that Mother Nature cares to blow over her, she insists on a thorough makeover. Dock lines, sail sheets, hatch covers, nails, hair, hemline. You can spend an hour just reassuring her that she looks good, ready to meet the in-laws Mr. and Mrs. Gale. Then after the relatives have passed, you spend at least twice that time coaxing her out of her funk and scrubbing the wave smutz off the foredeck.

Also, if you can believe this, you frequently can't leave the house when you live in a boat. Let's say you want to just go for a walk to cool off after a particularly heinous fight with your children or spouse. You grab your purse, keys, and glasses, only to be brought short by the two hundred or so yards of open water between you and the next solid object. Sure, you could drop the dinghy, install the outboard, start the cranky bitch, and motor over there... where you will then drag the 100-pound boat onto shore over the rocks after dunking your feet in freezing water and cutting at least one on a piece of broken shell. After which, I challenge you to find a sidewalk.

Here are a few other things that are inconvenient when you live on a boat: you can't get cable, snail mail, or reliable cell phone service. Nobody picks up the trash and there is no broadband service. There is no garage to put all the junk that doesn't fit in your house, no backyard shed for all the old tools and toys, and no attic in which to hide birthday gifts and offerings from Santa. And decorating the house for Christmas is tantamount to taking your life into your own hands as you get hauled up the 56' mast in a flimsy bosun's chair to string the lights.

But the single most inconvenient thing about living on a boat? You can't plan an ocean passage around your PMS.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Editor's Note: Written last fall which is why we were still in the basement.

“All you all right, Mom?” asks Jaime one morning. I'm standing in the middle of the chaos which is our basement. We've been living here off and on for about six months as we do final preparation on the catamaran. The basement sucks as a living space for five people, but the boat with a broken heater in snowy weather is the tiniest fraction worse, so here we are on a Tuesday morning amidst half packed boxes, piles of crap destined for freecycle, and stacks of school books awaiting transport to the boat.

And I can't move, face slightly panicked as I scan the room looking for something. “Um...”

Total blank. There's absolutely nothing in my head. I look at Jaime helplessly, “I'm looking for... uh...”

My eldest heaves a heavy sigh and starts digging through a pile of clean laundry, “We'll find it. Mera, Aeron! Come on. Mom's lost her iPod again.”

That's it! Galvanized, I plow through unpaid bills and dirty wine glasses on the computer table. Five minutes later, Aeron shouts triumphantly and pulls the little lost electronic soul from between the bed and the wall, “Found it!” Grinning one and all, we complete our packing and head off to school.

In the absence of my iPod, I can't move. I can't function. I can't think. It's like the little wheels in my brain are lubricated by the dulcet tones of Leo Laporte and the throbbing drums of Migra. Without my iPod, I wouldn't know where to get my news, how to speak Spanish, or what it's like to cruise the South Pacific.

I can't exercise. No music.

I can't drive. I might have to listen to my children.

I'm on my fourth MP3 player. The first was an iRiver – loved the device, hated the Windows-based interface. Media Player sucks and that's the kindest thing I can say about it. The second was an early iPod which I wore out. I broke the hard drive on the third before I realized that Toast + hard drive = disaster. This isn't really a surprise. The IT department at my last job used to give me the prototype laptops. They figured they'd get a full year of durability testing out of me in a single month. I'm hard on hardware. My latest Nano is nearing two years old and is doing well despite being lost nearly a dozen times and going through the washing machine twice.

But I keep buying the things, because I have a disease known as iPodalysis. iPodalysis occurs when a person who has dribbled NPR stories, talk radio, and music into their ears for at least three months is suddenly stripped of their little electronic buddy. Patients present with symptoms of stress, shortness of breath, shiftiness of the eyes, twitchy fingers, and compulsive licking of lips. Patients may complain of a ringing in their ears and be unable to pass basic mental health status checks. Differential diagnosis might reveal the patient is actually iRiveratic or Zunemazed, but these alternative interpretations are infrequent and rarely as severe.

Treat iPodalysis (as well as iRiveratic and Zunemazed) with an application of iPod touch or, in particularly severe presentations, an intravenous drip of iPhone. Preload the dose with Led Zeppelin, Flight of the Conchords, and Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me for best results. Once the patient regains basic function, you can often taper them gently back down to a video iPod or even all the way to a simple 2 GB Nano. No known cases have been able, however, to go even so far as a Shuffle before recurrence of symptoms.

Take away central heat, an oven big enough to bake nothing bigger than a game hen, and dry clothes, but do not EVER take away my iPod. Not if you want me to do anything.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Time is Running Out

Years ago we started this journey. So long ago that I fear that had I not blogged every minute of it, I might have long since forgotten why we're going. Years ago we started making the changes, selling the story, purging the crap, committing the resources, devoting the energy, caching the cliches. Yet, to date we haven't actually left. Try to imagine planning a trip downtown, getting dressed, brushing your hair, and then taking about 2 years to get to the bus stop. We've left everything behind, but we haven't actually gone anywhere.

For the longest time we've referred to our departure date as some years in the future. Then we started not long ago to refer to it as a few months in the future. Now it's just weeks. Nine of them. Which just isn't enough time to get everything done that must be done before we leave. Nine weeks is a whole lot less than 63 days, people. And even if it were a real 63 days it appears that every single damn one of those days is committed to something more important than getting our asses outta dodge. It's like there is a grand universal conspiracy to fill our time with all kinds of other drivel.

There are first aid courses and boater tests. I'm wiling to concede those might be relevant to our departure. But an Irish Dance competition? Two plays and an opera? A family school festival, a trip to California, another to northern Washington, and two birthday parties? For Gods Sake people, STOP INVITING US OUT.

However, I think that the most raw part of the entire deal is that now that we're leaving, we finally have a few really good reasons not to go. One of the most significant is the girls' adoption of Noey as their honorary uncle. I've known Noey for years as a professional colleague and a friend. Then last summer he started joining us every Thursday to sail in the Elliott Bay race series. This morphed as winter set in to a comfortable and regular every Sunday night dinner at either our boat or his house. We'd go over there more, but the girls leave fingerprints on his doorknobs and that gives him the heebie jeebies.

Then there are the many, many friendships we cemented during the last two years with the staff, parents, and students participating in the Seattle Homeschool Resource Center. Far from homeschooling proving the socialization wasteland prophesied by devotees of Real Schools, we have instead found a warm, generous, and eclectic community of truly fascinating people. Our relationships with these people bear no comparison to the casual, passing nod acquaintance we had with folks associated with our daughters' old school.

Dean is taking guitar classes with a teacher he really enjoys, I'm getting together regularly with friends. The girls are forever out on play dates or having people other. Our social calendar is full. FULL. I do not remember even having a social calendar in our old life. I remember working. Eating. Sleeping. Doing things my eldest pretends parents don't do despite the self-evident sobriquet "parent" which implies otherwise. That's it. We didn't have friends. In retrospect, that sounds so pathetic. Except the practicing to make more kids part.

Leaving in nine weeks is just an ugly thought at many levels: emotionally, functionally, organizationally. Nevertheless, we're going to do it anyway. We accidentally let the girls get a plant -- never a good sign in the cruising world for your odds on actually cutting the lines. But don't let that fool you. We are not going to back out.

And that is not the sound of chickens you hear.