Monday, December 27, 2010

Social Media Mom

The Boy Harem
The Boy Harem
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The bed vibrates as a text arrives on my phone. Stop txtn! Itz creepy. This is immediately followed by the considerably more polite and grammatically impressive: Thanks MrsC. We appreciate the ride.

I text Daniel back No worries D. See you tomorrow. To my daughter, Only creepy in your own mind, sick child of mine.

The bed vibrates because of my increasing deafness. The only way I can tell I'm receiving messages now is if I put my electronic toys on maximum buzz. The dispute between my daughter and myself, however, is more difficult to explain. The source of our friction isn't Daniel; The problem is my expertise with basic forms of social media.

My presence on Facebook and Twitter, Google Buzz and Digg, is a difficult for my eldest daughter to reconcile with parental image and expectations. Sometimes I'm convinced that she'd have an easier time envisioning her father and I engaged in a scenario worth of Kink.com than accept that her mother might have more online cred than the average half-assed teenager. It strains belief that her friends not only actively accept me into their FB community but welcome my texts, posts, and tags.

For the most part, I find the endless drivel of Jaime's circle of friends hardly worth the time it takes to load into my browser. The stream of content builds a classic picture of teenage angst, drama, and stupid shit. The pictures are inevitably cringe-worthy, the spelling and grammar non-existent, and then comments insipid when not simply mean. And yet I participate willingly.

Y YYY mom u so makes me madd get off!!!

Okay, yeah. So I have two motivations for being so in your face about Facebook. The first is parental: what I know might avoid hurting Jaime. These kids lay themselves wide open in ways that our generation never did. The down side is that the information is there for the harvesting of bullies, advertising and government agencies alike. The upside is that there are no secrets: no secret parties with booze and drugs, no secret enemies, no secret targets of anti-fag hate rhetoric. Oh yeah... parties, enemies, and targets of hate speech... no secrets. When a kid is in danger or just being an asshole, I call them on it. When a post goes online from a kid skipping school, I show up at the Bakehouse and rip him a new one. When Jaime is late returning from a party, I get the address and go grab her and Ash to bring them home.

Make me

I'm a big fan of letting your kids get on Facebook and let it all hang out. It makes it super easy to step up to the adult plate and participate in their lives. Of course, you have to speak their cant, step willingly into their world, and not preach. You have to be a role model of sense and acceptance, strength, good ideas, and alternatives. I'm not that paragon, but I strive for it. And if posting a cross-link to the ItGetsBetterProject pisses off one of these kids' parents, I'm not sure I give a rat's ass as long as it reaches one of Jaime's wide circle and spreads some positivity.

A bed in the lounge creaks, the reason obvious moments later as Jaime storms into the room to extract the cell phone from my hands. “Stop texting my friends, Mum. It's just.... stalker-y.”

I smile up at my daughter, “Love you, babe.”

Jaime stomps self-righteously out of the room, “No texting after 10, Mom.” The door slams shut on, “Love you too.”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Yule!

My Blonde Girlsfriends
My Blonde Girlsfriends
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
This year, DrC and I have slipped gently, easily and comfortably into skeptism. Fortunately, skeptics can also be pagans as long as we don't actually have to believe in the Good Fairy, Mother Nature, or Any Other Capitalized Deity -- except, of course, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We got to this point through a gentle but relentless campaign on the part of DrC's father in the realm of physics combined with beer... specifically Skeptics in the Pub. Through a friend (Steve) of a friend (alien), we met like-minded folk and starting thinking. Thinking is dangerous. Not thinking is also dangerous.

I love to mis-quote Einstein.

So in addition to the other wacky notions such as preparing for the pending zombie apocalypse, getting rid of all our stuff, and letting children play unsupervised on the deck of a boat, you can now add "ignoring the entire holiday season" to the list of Conger family transgressions on normal. We signalled our new conviction that Christmas is a waste of time, money, and emotional energy by getting in the van and driving off for three weeks. Turns out that in New Zealand, this is not a particularly radical notion. When Christmas and New Year fall gobsmack in the middle of summer, spending the two week holiday on the beach is pretty standard. I think DrC has us hiking up a mountain or repelling into a cave or something on Christmas Day. I had to remind him that the tour operators might be taking the day off.. you know... just for the heck of it? But turns out, not so much. Kiwis are pretty practical. Or they also agree that the reason for the season is to make money, a universal commercial consensus that appears to know no borders.

Before you go all "bah humbug" and presume to equate cynism with skepticism, I assure you that the Conger family plans to enjoy ourselves. Once again, we all made each other gifts to exchange on Yule as well as gathered little items for our Santa stocking stuffer extravaganza. DrC made soap this year, I made candy and rollagon organizers, Mera made pou (Maori dance balls), Aeron customized journals, and Jaime made designer t-shirts. I can't say we enjoy this process... inevitably Grandma Sue finishes in August, Mera in October, Aeron in November, DrC two weeks before Solstice, Toast the day before, and Jaime three weeks later. It's pretty stressful, to be honest. The competition. The pressure. The distilled sense of Obligation. On the other hand, it's only once a year. If this is what it takes to get the good doctor to make more soap, I think we're all willing to sacrifice.

Making Soap
Making Soap
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
This year's soap offering is oatmeal honey. Stuff smells fantastic and foams up nicely. Unfortunately, there is a bit too much oatmeal so it sort of falls apart when you use it. You have to gather it up and squish it back together again then set it on a dry spot in the shower until the next time. Soap -- With Instructions. For the first time, the soap is vegetarian made of canola oil rather than the usual lard. And as always, the only animals tested in the development process were our girls; They survived.

The stockings are hung
In the trailer with care
Stuffed with good candy
The children won't share
And wouldn't you know
The Congers are happy
Without all those trappings
Absent the sappy
We eat and we play
We hike and we swim
We drink large pint glasses
Filled up to the brim
And together each day
We thank fortune and fate
For the keys they have given us
To the happiness gate.


Enjoy the Holidays!

~ Toast

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Communication on the High Seas (Part I)

“You can get Internet in the middle of the Pacific? No way!?” – Typical reaction when I post from the ocean

Give Em Sh* Mom!
Give Em Sh* Mom!
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Yes way. And at the same time, no... not really.

In a series of articles, I plan to discuss at length the various means that boats in general and Don Quixote in particular communicate with the rest of the world. We'll start this series with radios, in particular, the VHF.

Don Quixote is equipped with two forms of radio communication: VHF and SSB. VHF (Very High Frequency) radio is used for relatively short-range voice communication. It is used by local emergency services, for example, within a municipality. Essentially, VHF is good only for line of sight, though every once in awhile weather conditions will refract signal to our radio from up to 100 miles away.

We use the VHF primarily to communicate with our fellow cruisers and occasionally with naval authorities or other types of ocean travelers such as the big ass floating hotel about to run us down in the middle of the night. Somewhat illegally, we also use the VHF ship-to-shore with the hand held whenever we send crew off the boat and on to the dry. This leads me to a few recommendations for those preparing to cruise:

Security Measure – Do not stint on a good quality, high-powered VHF radio. If you can't tell someone your boat is sinking, you're going to be in a whole lot of water with nothing to hold on to and no one coming to your rescue.

Social Impact - The VHF is the cruiser party line. I don't mean beer and silliness, though there is some of that too. I'm suggesting that without a really good radio you will be completely cut off from the people who are your best resource for advice, assistance, and companionship.

Mirror to Helm - Make sure you can at least hear your VHF at the helm. If you can, put a radio at the helm as well as down below... and if you can only have one, the helm station is more important. When you are about to be run over by an asshat weekender, you don't want to release the helm to run below to yell at him over the VHF.

Handhelds - I recommend one or more handheld VHF radios. Walkie-talkies work, but they do not work nearly as well. I know that at $100 plus a pop, it may seem extravagant. I can't tell you, though, how many times we wished for more than the one we have. The scenario is mostly one of the family splitting up in town or on remote islands. DrC heads off to rummage for hardware, Toast to find the markets, the girls to locate ice cream and entertainment venues. Reliable communication is a boon in these situations.

Radio Protocol - Teach everyone on the boat to master the VHF. One afternoon up in Desolation Sound we listened helplessly over the VHF as the Canadian Coast Guard tried to talk sense into a woman whose husband was disabled – perhaps with a heart condition, hard to tell. It wasn't voyeurism, we literally had no choice. We were underway and so required to leave our radio on the dedicated marine channel... and she literally had no idea how to change channels. I didn't know whether to feel sorry for her or shake both her and her husband until their teeth rattled. She had no idea how to operate the boat or the radio, read the GPS, or describe her vessel. Don't do that to your crew. Even underage crew can become radio experts. Aeron was running net control down in Zihau at age 7.

Family Channel - However, this scenario of everyone in the crew with and on the radio leads to another tip, the family channel. The VHF spectrum in the nautical world consists of roughly 30 channels accessible for receive and transmit by most marine radios. Of those, no small fraction are dedicated to a specific, single purpose. For example, in virtually all U.S. waters Ch. 16 is used exclusively by nautical authorities and for ship-to-ship hails. A private yacht monitors Ch. 16 but rarely uses it except to signal intentions to nearby vessels and to hail authorities or other boats. On establishing contact with another boat, you must immediately switch channels. Authorities will direct you to another channel, but it's a good idea to have a number in mind in advance when calling your own crew. There are two reasons for this: First, getting both parties to actually hear a number on a busy channel can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Second, you might not want the entire anchorage following you and your spouse as you switch channels to argue about what to have for dinner that night. The girls, in particular, attracted lurkers... benign, loving and friendly fellow cruisers who just enjoyed their piping voices and ridiculous requests as we'd head off to another channel to discuss whether or not they could have their third ice cream for the day. Agree in advance that the family always switches to 72 or 68 or ... pick your channel. Program it into your radios as a favorite. Then when you hail family, just say, “Switch to the usual” and off you go. Pick a channel way up there out of the way of most local traffic.

* * *

One of our greatest pleasures in Mexico was watching the kids – ours and those from other boats – blossom into radio experts. VHF protocol teaches us all how to respect and listen, choose our words carefully, and communicate clearly and precisely. Use your radio as a teaching tool and trust that you'll never regret spending the extra money on this particular piece of equipment.

The Girls on the Net
The Girls on the Net
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Back in Back

Daddy's Birthday
Daddy's Birthday
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
It is possible that we have found someone who knows what is wrong with my back. Those who have followed me through the years no doubt remember that periodically I am stricken by horrible back spasms. These can leave me incapacitated for days, even weeks. Muscle relaxants have little effect. When the pain is extreme and refuses to succumb to quantities of wine and pills which would otherwise stop an elephant, DrC puts me on steroidals until the whole things stops hurting.

Now, I'm going to take some time to natter like an old woman about what's wrong with me. I promise I'll do something more interesting in my next article. You can go if you want.

A few months ago, the way in which I experienced the pain changed. Like a frog being slowly boiled, it took me a very long time to realize that I was becoming progressively less mobile. Small spasms in the back were gradually replaced by soreness first in the buttocks on the right side, then a sciatica-like pain radiating down the outside of the right thigh, then a gradual spreading of aches and pains to the entire back, neck, shoulders and down both legs. By the time DrC got back from a trip to the States to noodle with other doctors, I was grim, upset, and on the edge of tears almost constantly.

Now let me just say right up front that marrying a doctor is really probably the unhealthiest thing I could have ever done. Tailors' children have no clothes. Cobblers' children have no shoes. Contractors' families live with torn apart kitchens, and doctors' wives get not the slightest bit of sympathy ever. For the most part, we're also not allowed to succumb in the throws of chronic pain to trips to palliative and reassuring folks like acupuncturists, homeopaths, or chiropractors. It's all so science-y with DrC. Never mind a really great experience I had back in my college days with an acupuncturist in Berkeley, now everything has to be done Right.

Life is a compromise. Despite my strong desire to have pins, crystals, voodoo chants and chicken blood, or any other damn thing that would make the pain stop, DrC insisted that we go about this rationally. We tried an MRI with no enlightenment. A muscular problem in DrC's mind implied the need for a muscular expert. Since we have no medical insurance to speak of, we decided to start with the optometrists of the muscular-skeletal world: physio-therapy.

So off I trooped to Pukekohe Physio, doctor husband in tow to see if we could figure out why I couldn't actually troop any more. Gimpy me limped in. Again, it would lovely to and say I walked out a changed woman. Perhaps that actually would have happened if DrC had let me go to the medium on the same block. But no. Instead, I limped back out with a sheet full of exercises and a really promising explanation of what might have happened to get me to the state I am in.

As usual, it's all Jaime's fault.

No seriously. It starts with the first baby.... and the third. We'll let Aeron share the blame. I was supremely lazy after having children, and never actually took my body back from the butchers that sliced me in half. The muscles along my abdomen can't be called muscles any longer. In fact, I'm not sure what you would call this nerveless, flaccid, floppy goo. My big TIP to preggers and post-preggers women is to do ab-work non-stop for years after you make babies. If I'd done that, I'd probably be in a lot better state with respect to my back. Basically, no matter how careful I am to bend the knees and pick things up with my core, I'm actually always always always just using my back muscles.

Problem 1: No abdominal muscles puts huge strain on the back.

Solution 1: Two whole sheets of abdominal/core strengthening exercises prescribed at minimum of three times daily.

Then I fell off the boat in 2008. It's a good story, funny at the time when I thought the long term injury was to my pride. How wrong I was. In landing on the swim ladder, I probably jammed the top end of the thigh bone into the big round disk bit of the pelvis. There are a lot of big words the PT and DrC were throwing around. I just watched her play with her plastic spine and hip model where the joint meets. It made perfect sense. The nerves all run through there. It's not a back problem per se, it's a joint problem. Yeah, sure, there is probably a weakness in one of those lower disks, but the real problem – the problem that isn't healing – is the damage in that leg-pelvis area.

Problem 2: Injury of some sort causing pinched nerves and pain in hip joint.

Solution 2: Stretches to loosen the surrounding muscles and reduce the overall inflammation.

Auckland Botanical Gardens
Auckland Botanical Gardens
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
So that was nearly six weeks ago. The first few days of the stretch-strengthen routines were hellish. Things got so much worse. But tonight, for the first time, the entire set of movements and exercises felt good. Sure there was still stretchy hurt and a few of the old style twinges, but as I sit here and type, I do not feel the constant dull pinching pain down lower back, through the butt and along the leg. It's a huge difference and a huge relief. I'm optimist for the first time that this might work. Someday, I might be without these discomforts and feel like I own me again.

I think still would have preferred the pins over all this … eewww... exercise.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Good Crew

It Was His Idea
It Was His Idea
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I wouldn't say that DrC and I are experts at being crew or hiring crew. We've taken on a few, volunteered ourselves on occasion. We've read numerous accounts and spent hours and hours drinking beer with both captains and crews. Over time we've developed a laundry list of attributes and behaviors which we believe make “good crew.” I'd like to offer these to readers of my blog as a starting point for a discussion. For those in particular with experience on either side, let me know what you'd add or change about this list.

A lot of being good crew is about being a courteous guest. It is also about being a competent, contributing employee. Crewing on someone else's boat can open opportunities to learn, travel, and expand your understanding of the cruising life. It is not, however, an easy role to undertake. Here are our thoughts:

Pack Light – Add-on crew doesn't live on the boat. As a result, your stuff is extra, and it will be hard to wedge into existing lockers which are chock-o-block with stuffed owned by the owner's family. Ideally, all you bring with you can fit into a single duffle which you can comfortably fit on your bunk … even when you are yourself lying in that bunk. A small day pack with your electronic toys (e.g. laptop, iPod, books) is also acceptable if it too can fit on the bunk and do double-duty as a pillow.

Be Prepared – Like a Boy Scout, assume responsibility for your own gear. From foulies and life jacket to iPod/laptop chargers and reading material, supply it yourself. Ask the captain in advance regarding linens (towels, bedding), fishing gear, and items. Personally, I'd also take my own GPS, charting tools, handheld VHF, and personal EPIRB since no boat can have too many redundant safety and communication systems.

Food Issues – It is really amazing how many captain-crew relationships die on the issue of food. Set expectations between you and the captain regarding your dietary requirements, food preparation, and clean up responsibilities before you leave the first port and the last grocery store. The more open-minded and less picky an eater you are, the better. And while you shouldn't expect surf-and-turf with fine cabernets every night, you should be fed well. At minimum, crew and captain should eat from the same trough – and yes, we have heard of boats with the captain drinking the expensive chardonnay and the crew expected to survive on reconstituted gatorade drink mix. If you have special, specific dietary requirements, it is your responsibility to be up front in advance. For some items such as your favorite salad dressing, salsa, or tea, bring your own. Someday remind me to explain to you why I must have rice cakes during night helm watches.

Set Expectations in Advance – The pre-negotiation required for food can and should be extended to just about every boat issue. In particular, make sure you understand what the captain expects regarding watch schedules and boat maintenance. You don't want to learn two days out of port that the captain plans to sand down and revarnish the teak deck during your voyage... and you've been volunteered to do the work.

You Are a Consultant – I have a rule as a consultant which I believe applies well to being a crew member. You are on the boat because you know stuff and can do things. In exchange for your labor and expertise, you are “paid” in room, board, transportation, and sometimes even money. If you believe a captain is making a mistake and you have experience and advise to offer, it is your responsibility to do so. Once. However, if the captain chooses to ignore you and your life is not in any danger, keep your mouth shut. Captains need to break things; It's part of their learning process as both sailors and managers. The title captain – like manager, director, vice president, team lead, or doctor – does not confer infallibility, but for most newbies, it feels like it should. Only after breaking something expensive and/or inconvenient do most newly minted authority figures understand that nothing magical happened to transform them when their title changed.

When to Mutiny – On the other hand, no matter how valuable the lesson is to your manager, a captain doesn't have the right to break crew in the process. This isn't the British Navy in the 1700's. No, a boat in the middle of the ocean isn't a democracy. But if your life is in danger and your captain is a royal flaming idiot, you have the right to mutiny. We read about these accounts in sailing magazines, online, and in books. Sometimes, you really have no other choice. While I don't want to blame the victim, my recommendation here is not get on a boat with a captain whose expertise is considerably below your own AND the captain appears to be completely disinterested in taking your recommendations in serious conditions. Hard to figure that out in advance; Try anyway.

Take the Drugs – If you have any tendency to nausea, start taking Meclazine a day before you board. Keep taking it until I tell you to stop. If you start to feel gimpy, take the drugs immediately. Do not use the trip as an opportunity to experiment with holistic herbs, naturopathic patches, acupressure bands, or tantric chants. Unless you know that one or more of these work on you already, save them for your own boat. You have the right to drive your own family nuts, but you have a responsibility on someone else's boat to not vomit on the cabin sole if you can possibly avoid it.

Pitch In – As crew, you should help whenever and where ever you can. Show up prior to departure ready to assist with loading and provisioning. Contribute to cooking, K.P. and boat maintenance during the journey. Don't leave the boat on arrival until the boat is clean and buttoned down tight. Your contributions will ease relations between you and the rest of the crew. More practically, it'll give you something to do and an opportunity to see that the work is done carefully and correctly the first time.

Our New Electric Guitar
Our New Electric Guitar
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Entertain – Find some way to contribute to the social well-being of your boat as well. Do you play an instrument? Sing? Tell stories? You could bring cards or small, lightweight games such as Yahtzee, chess or mancala. Be generous with the use of the media – music, books, or movies – that you packed. Maybe no one will take you up on your social offers, but the offers nevertheless indicate your desire and willingness to be a part of the lives your fellow travelers.

* * *

Now your turn. What would you add, remove or change about this list?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Mera is Our Academic Super Star

I can and will write about this later... something all retrospective and interesting about homeschooling versus public school in New Zealand. Reflections on our year here. Today, I just have to say, GO MERA! Your Mom and Dad are Very very VERY proud and impressed with your accomplishments.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Hidden Side - A Clothing Allowance

Ta Da!
Ta Da!
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“You have to buy new shoes,” I flatly inform my eldest as I stare at the wreckage of what used to be a lovely pair of black Keds.

Jaime wails, “Nooooo!! There are only two weeks left...” Her voice trails off at my frown.

“Yes,” I pick up her leg and poke my finger through the gaping hole in the bottom of her shoe. She writhes, struggles, and laughs as I mercilessly tickle her toes. “But these are not even technically shoes any more. The very definition of the word 'shoe' is violated by these objects.”

I'd like everyone reading this blog to now stop and subscribe to Freakonomics Radio, a podcast on the “hidden side of everything.” Stephen Dubner and his co-author Steven Levitt explore how economics so frequently results in unexpected outcomes due to the vagaries of human motivation. Their books Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics are must reads. The “law of unintended consequences” is particularly important in public policy, a hobby for which I actually have a graduate degree. When you craft a rule or law or tax, you want to get a specific outcome. However, strangely enough humans will often thwart the objective through some strange reasoning of their own. An example I'm particularly fond of is football helmets which paradoxically increase the severity of brain injuries in high school players by converting the head into a weapon and conferring a sensation of invulnerability to already immortal teenage youth.

Another story I enjoy is that of the economics professor using his children expermientally. His first attempt to potty train his eldest daughter had mixed results. She quickly learned that every time she could reliably produce an ounce of urine in the potty, she would get a candy. As a result, she developed phenomenally good bladder control to the point where she could pump out an ounce of pee every 20 minutes with clocklike precision. Undaunted by this somewhat dodgy result from his first attempt, the professor engaged the same child in an effort to potty train his son several years later. The reward was a candy every time she could successfully get her brother to use the potty. This time, his eldest was more sophisticated. She immediately mastered the basic concept of “what goes in must come out”.

Based on these anecdotal results, I suppose DrC and I should have predicted Jaime's shoes (and Aeron's stained shirts and Mera's shredded skirts) had we thought out our plans more carefully in the light of the professor's experience. But we didn't. Four years ago, we instituted a Clothing Allowance. We estimated our expenditure on clothes for each child, divided by twelve, and began to deposit the money directly into their personal bank accounts on the first of the month. We simultaneously vowed to never buy another article of clothing for any of the children ever again.

One happy, expected and successful result was a dramatic improvement in our mental well being in the check out line at major retail outlets. No more begging for this cute shirt or that colorful pair of socks as we made our way out of Costco with muffins, meat, and batteries. When a package of Dora panties appeared in the cart, a simple, “Okay, that'll be $9 from your account,” would result in their immediate return to the display counter without even so much as a whimper. I was delighted.

In point of fact, nothing appeared on the check out counter. Ever. The girls started shopping at the Salvation Army and Value Village. They haunted yard sales and descended like vultures on the bags of used clothes that appeared at the homeschool resource center. Aeron benefited from her sisters' hand-me-downs while Jaime started acquisitively eying my footwear and her father's sweats. Months passed, seasons changed, and the girls' attire slowly dissolved while their bank accounts grew.

Finally, one day they announced that they wanted to withdraw major sums of money from their accounts. We were visiting their grandmother in the States at the time, and the girls wanted to visit Costco. Secretly, their father and I were relieved. FINALLY, the girls were ready to replace their now completely destroyed wardrobes. Costco shirts, socks, panties, shorts and shoes would be perfect. If we were clever, we might even talk them into getting a sweat shirt or jacket. I pulled out the cash, passed it around, and piled them into the car inwardly pleased with the results of our economic experiment. The feeling of euphoria, however, was premature and woefully misplaced as two laptops and an iTouch appeared on the counter as we checked out.

“What?...WHAT?!” No clothes? No shoes? No cute little jacket?! I was incredulous.

Mera asked worriedly, “We have enough, right? I did the tax math...” her voice trailed off as I glared at her.

“Yes. You have enough.” Grimly, I waited out transactions. Bitten on the ass by my own cleverness, I marched out of Costco trailed by three children in see-through t-shirts, ragged hems, and holey socks lost in a discussion of what freeware to download first to their new toys.

Haka Face
Haka Face
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Fast forward a year to this afternoon in Pukekohe and Jaime's disgraceful footwear. I am going to lose this argument; Jaime is saving for an iPad. Therefore, I have two choices: I can capitulate to her blackmail and “gift” my eldest daughter with a new pair of shoes, or I can put up with a call from her homeroom teacher every day for two weeks until school gets out. No doubt, in the United States we would be reported to Child Protective Services for child neglect. In New Zealand where shoes are not just optional but in elementary school actually forbidden from the classroom, the phone calls are extent of the harassment.

I drop Jaime's foot with a thud and throw up my hands, “Fine. Fine! I'll turn off my cell phone for two weeks.”

Friday, December 03, 2010

Registering for International Service and Rescue

SSB Station
SSB Station
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
UPDATE 7/12/2010: Incorporate comments from readers.
Virtually every country on the globe with navigable waterways has a maritime search and rescue service of some sort. Larger nations with highly capable navies and marine services offer considerable protection and support to the vessels traveling in and near their waters. An important part of preparing yourself for cruising is to enable your vessel to communicate automatically to these services, particularly in emergency situations.

First, a few acronyms and definitions:

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) – A designation under the GMDSS “primarily intended to initiate ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship radiotelephone and MF/HF radiotelex calls. DSC calls can also be made to individual stations, groups of stations, or "all stations" in one's radio range.”[1]

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – The United States federal agency responsible for registering and maintaining radio communication licenses.

FCC Registration Number (FRN) – A unique number used by the FCC to identify license holders. This abbreviation is used synonmously as the username on the FCC web site. The idea is that a single FRN can be used to register multiple radio operators and devices. If you already have a HAM and/or operator license, you probably were prompted to register with the FCC. At that time, you would have been assigned an FRN. If not, the first step is to go to register on the FCC web site and obtain an FRN.

Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) -- “An internationally agreed-upon set of safety procedures, types of equipment, and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships, boats and aircraft.”[2] While small craft are not required to maintain radio equipment capable of participating in the GMDSS, it is a very good idea to do so anyway. Most SSB radios include DSC capacity which enables them to participate in the GMDSS.

Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) – “A series of nine digits which are sent in digital form over a radio frequency channel in order to uniquely identify ship stations, ship earth stations, coast stations, coast earth stations, and group calls.”[3] For US flagged vessels, you can register with a third-party such as BoatUS for an MMSI valid for coastal waters in the United States. However, you must register with the FCC when taking your vessel outside U.S. waters.

SA – When you register a wireless device with the FCC, you must select a radio service type. An SSB radio on a recreational vessel is considered a Maritime Mobile device of the category “SA – Ship Recreational or Voluntarily Equipped”. According to the FCC “Smaller ships used for recreation (e.g., sailing, diving, sport fishing, fishing, water skiing) are not required to have radio stations installed but they may be so equipped by choice. These ships are known as "voluntary ships" because they are not required by treaty or statute to carry a radio but voluntarily fit some of the same equipment used by compulsory ships.”[4]

Universal Licensing System (ULS) – An online tool maintained by the FCC for the purpose of using “any PC with Internet access to research, manage, renew, and pay any applicable fees for your wireless licenses through a password-protected account.”[5] The FCC site is, to be blunt, very poorly organized. Use this link to go directly to the ULS home page. Typical of most cruisers, Don Quixote's ULS account includes: the captain's radio operator license, our HAM and SSB call signs, and our international MMSI.

The two principle methods used by cruisers to communicate distress automatically are an EPIRB and the emergency signal issued by an SSB radio. An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is a dedicated device which broadcasts a maritime distress signal. As of February 1, 2009, all EPIRBs carried by U.S. flagged vessels must transmit at 406 MHz, as satellites no longer receive transmissions at 121.5 MHz. BoatUS provides an excellent guide to how an EPIRB functions. A single side band (SSB) radio can transmit a digital signal call. Both of categories of device communicate with the Cospas-Sarsat satellite monitoring system. The system is monitored both domestically and internationally by maritime rescue services.

To take full advantage of publicly available search and rescue services, you must register your emergency beacon and obtain an MMSI. EPIRB and SSBs broadcast a the MMSI to the satellite monitoring system. Since in an emergency, you might not be able to follow up these signals with a call to explain who you are, how many passengers are on your vessel, and what you look like on the water, you must register your devices in advance with this information. In many countries, you can register your device domestically for free. If you plan to spend a long period of time in a single country, it is a good idea to do the research to identify and register with these agencies. For example, in the U.S. you can register your beacon with BoatUS. In New Zealand, you can't register a U.S. device, but you can contact them and they will “keep an eye open” for your beacon. The agency is the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). I envision this as “a guy” with a stack of email messages next to a radio receiver. It sounds ricky ticky, but the RCCNZ is reknowned for saving people and boats; So however they do it, the system works.

Mera Monitoring the Net
Mera Monitoring the Net
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Unfortunately, registering with individual countries does not provide you with comprehensive, global coverage. Vessels which travel in international waters must also contact their domestic communications agency to register for an international MMSI number. Obtaining an international MMSI number ensures that your vessel is included in the International Search and Rescue database. The theory is that this database is maintained throughout the world. If you happen to have an emergency in the Tasmin Sea, both Australia and New Zealand will be able to know from your EPIRB or SSB signal the name and size of your vessel, your emergency land-based contacts, your emergency equipment, and the number of passengers routinely onboard.

The process of registering your emergency devices is fraught with the usual challenges and frustrations associated with government agencies. Everything that follows from this point applies to U.S. flagged vessels only. Readers with vessels flagged in other countries must do the research for their domestic requirements.

Steps to Register Your Emergency Beacon

1. Gather the following:
- FRN username and password – If you do not already have one, go to the ULS home page and register.
- Credit card
- EPIRB identification number – This number can be found on the side of an EPRIB device.
- A computer with a connection to the Internet and either Internet Explorer or Firefox web browser

2. Browse to the ULS home page and log in with your FRN and password.

3. Apply for a new license. As of the time of this writing, the link to apply for a new license is found in the left column.

4. Complete the form as prompted. Note that your vessel is a category SA radio service, you do not already have an MMSI (even if you've registered for a free one with a local service such as BoatUS or RCCNZ). The objective is to associate a new MMSI with your existing EPIRB and ensure that it is registered in the International Search and Rescue database.

5. Pay for the application. As of November 2010, the fee for registration is $160USD.

6. Monitor the ULS until your application is approved. Then print the resulting license. This process can take 10 days to 3 weeks. In our case, it took two weeks.

[1]"Global Maritime Distress Safety System: DSC." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.
[2]"Global Maritime Distress Safety System." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.
[3]"Maritime Mobile Service Identity." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .
[4]"FCC: Wireless Services: Ship Radio Stations: About." FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .
[5]"FCC Universal Licensing System (ULS): About ULS: Getting Started." FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It Gets Boring

No, I'm Border
No, I'm Border
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Research research research. Write write write. As the post on ditch kits a week ago ably demonstrated, our focus is narrowing down on preparing for the Puddle Jump. I can not stress strongly enough to my non-cruising friends and family how very much DrC and I are aware that we are "taking it to the next level." It's a big ocean. Some bits of the trip are ugly. We get it.

We really really get it. So much so that we've doing some pretty heavy research on topics we've largely been able to fudge in the past when we were traveling along the coast line. Granted, certain planning myopia was just stupid (e.g. pathetic ditch kits), but a lot of it was simply unnecessary. For example, why worry about climbing the mast to keep a reef and coral head watch when there are neither reefs nor coral heads?

The results of our research are interesting to another set of the readership of this blog, our fellow cruisers. Many of them are providing the raw data that inform my posts while others are preparing for their own cruises. A very special few are getting ready to Puddle Jump with us next year and will no doubt be reassured that Don Quixote is planning on taking care of herself. Mostly.

So anticipate the periodic posting of incredibly dull articles. The next one in the queue, for example, is on the exciting topic of registering beacons for international search and rescue services. Try not to fall asleep... or better just delete it in bound. I'll tag all these as "Coconut Milk Run" and "techtip" if you want to do some agressive filtering.

Cruisers, all of these technical articles BEG for your input. I may Write Confident (which is somehow analogous to the infamous "Fly Casual"), but DrC and I are fully aware we are missing bits. We received some very useful input on the ditch kit post. Keep the outstanding information coming! We need it, we appreciate it.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dance Class at the Civic Centre

Go Away
Go Away
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Her hands frame her face then glide two inches over her breasts and then her butt, "Crown, beautiful, beautiful." This graceful movement is made to the somewhat Arabic sounding rhythm blasting from a boom box at the front of the room.

I'm in bellydancing class.

My attempt to mimic the movement is not nearly so graceful, though I like to think it's improved since my first effort at this step. It's been 7 weeks, and I have just about reached the point where I can move my hips completely independently of my shoulders. My shimmy no longer looks like a palsied octogenarian trying to get her pants down to go potty. And I've definitely figured out how to make my boobs jump up without moving my knees. You'd be surprised how resistant the boobs and the knees are to disassociating their movements.

I don't think it is possible to imagine a group of women more unlikely to bellydance. We are none of us spring chickens. We range from clearly overweight to just merely pie-laden, and the majority are dressed in loose shirts and forgiving dark sweat pants. There are no real dancers present. We're just a bunch of worker-bees, office drones, mothers and grandmothers.

Yet, our instructor Angie somehow makes this motley crowd beautiful. It's not that she is particularly stunning herself. She isn't. She's a tall, rather average looking woman with no lean figure herself. What saves Angie is that she knows how to move. Moreover, when she moves she believes she is beautiful, and it shows in very gesture and step.

It's incredibly inspiring.

I want to move like that, look like that. More importantly perhaps is that I want to feel like that. I want to lift my head and arms and glide around in the Princess walk like I own this room. I'd like to shimmy so that everything jiggles and gain the discrete control over the muscles in my core that enables a bellydancer to push her nipples straight at you without curving her back or poking out her butt. In short, I want to feel sexy.

DrC believes that bellydancing is a specifically female dance. Unlike ballet or jazz or ballroom, there is no room for the male physique or macho sensibility here in bellydancing world. Every pose and combination appears specifically designed to highlight the beauty of the female form, feminine movement.

What I should have known and seems blindingly obvious to me now is that beautiful, sexy women are made, not born. Take a slightly overweight former cruiser and teach her how to rotate her hips just so, lift the chin, tuck in the butt, smoothly jiggle, shimmy and quiver, and you've got something special. And it doesn't really matter whether or not you, the onlooker, agree with me that I am a beautiful sexy goddess. All that matters is I feel wonderful and beautiful when I hear the bangles on my skirt clash and see the fringe swirl as I turn. I feel special.

During this epiphany, Angie has moved on. We are now strutting around in a large circle, shoulders thrusting aggressively forward in a Goddess Walk -- unlike the pretty, sly and delicate Princess glide, this is a power move. We hold our heads high, breasts up, toe-heel, arms gracefully extended holding imaginary golden eggs. My egg is made of crystal, and there is a glowing green jewel in the center.

Of course it is. If I want to be a jewel toting Goddess in my mind, well that's precisely what I am. It's my imagination. Look at me strut!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Preparing for Disaster

Captain Potential
Captain Potential
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“Opinions are like -holes; Everyone has one. Unfortunately, not so true of ditch kits.” – Toast in a really bad mood after reading a million and one forum entries on the subject

If you are like most cruising sailors, you've made a completely half-assed job of putting together a ditch kit. I believe that the reason most of us do not have really good, well thought out ditch bags is that we are in a collective state of denial. After all, you are not going to need it. Like making a will, a ditch kit acknowledges mortality, puts straight in your face the depressing fact that life is fleeting and boats are friable.

And I confess, while we travelled the coasts of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, our ditch kit was pathetic. Oh we had one... at least we weren't that bad. However, it is true that the kit was neither well thought out nor was it particularly accessible. Had we needed to abandon ship, it is not clear to me that anything about that kit would have saved our lives. We also suffer from the fact-based, catamaran delusion that our boat won't sink. Another interesting trade off in the monohull/multihull debate is that catamarans are considerably less likely to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Most have positive flotation and are even more stable upside-down than right-side up. The situations in which it makes sense to abandon a catamaran rather than just attach yourself to it and ride out whatever broke the boat in the first place are limited to two: your vessel interacts with something super hard that breaks the entire thing into its constituent parts (e.g. a reef or cargo container) or the boat is on fire.

But those two catastrophes can and do happen to catamarans just as they do to multihulls, and it is a foolish crew who does not prepare for the ditch scenario. Even coastal cruisers are not safe from the need to have an emergency ditch plan. Witness the terrible events of the Baja Ha Ha 2009 during which a boat literally swept down the front of a wave and landed on a whale. The whale didn't like it, and the boat sank 5 minutes later. Sank. No more boat. Really. SANK.

This time, the crew of Don Quixote plans to go out with a well-thought out, easily accessible ditch kit and an emergency plan. There is the “abandon ship” option, and there is the far more likely “foundered and/or upside-down” option. We need to have equipment, survival gear, and communications systems figured out in advance. Over the years, we have individually read many accounts of emergency situations and preparedness plans. We have all sorts of ideas. I also made a foray on the Internet to see what the hive mind recommends. Two hours later, my head hurts, my stomach is growling, and I feel considerably less informed than when I started.

One quote that really made me think I found on Boatsafe.com: “While it may come as a surprise to some, by now most boaters realize that the survival equipment stocked in most life rafts, even rafts designed to meet SOLAS requirements, is often inadequate, sometimes woefully so. In many cases not only is the selection and quantity a problem, but the quality of the equipment and supplies is also less than desirable.” Wonderful. So right out of the gate, let us assume that we all need to build a survival bag, even if the boat is equipped with a “fully stocked” life raft. Also, there is duplication between what goes in a ditch kit, and equipment you need to have on the boat ready for regular use. For example, you need to have a handheld VHF and life jackets... but you use these all the time. Part of the “ditch kit” strategy needs to be a plan to gather these disparate bits and get them off the vessel with the crew.

Before I launch into the specifics, my personal editorial team for practical posts like this of s/v Totem and s/v Third Day came back with some questions I'd like to preemptively address:

Are you going to have a life raft or use your dingy as a life raft?”

This is going to probably generate angst, anger, and F.U.D. We are not going with a life raft. I don't think I've ever said this about a blog entry before but... please don't comment on this particular choice (all other comments still welcome!). You'll stir a raging debate that is likely to spiral downward quickly and irrevocably. All I am going to say is that we came to this decision not for financial reasons. Mr. Salty of s/v Totem reminded us to get our survival suits in order. I like to think we would have thought of that eventually, but full credit to our far more experienced friend for getting us moving early on the issue.

“Why would you even bother with a ditch kit if you don't have a life raft? Is it that much more helpful when you're sitting on an upside down hull?”

Yes, it is that much more helpful if you are upside down. In a turtle situation, everything you own is upside down, tossed like hell's breakfast, and mostly in water destroyed – particularly food stores and fresh water. However, if you have a ditch kit, you have all your emergency gear in a single place (accessible from either the topside or when inverted), it is in a dry bag, and it can be taken as a unit outside the boat if you plan to shelter between the hulls on the trampoline for all or part of the time.

As usual, the place that had the best, cleanest, and easiest to understand list was found on Wikipedia. From this and reading a dog-awful number of bickering forum posts, we've decided on the following:

Dedicated Kit – We will prepare a large dry bag with the following dedicated items. This kit will be stored either in the helm locker or in the aft, moulded inset between the transoms. Both areas are highly accessible when the boat is overturned or from a floating craft next to the boat. What goes in the dedicated kit:
- Survival suits
- Small emergency medical kit
- Compass
- Flares, mirror, and smoke signal
- Solar powered AM/FM radio
- Emergency high-calorie rations and/or hard bread
- Fishing kit
- Rainwater collection equipment
- Seawater desalination kit
- Water
- Hatchet and knife
- Waterproof flashlight
- Heaving line
- Rope ladder
- Small sea anchor
- Bailer
- Manual bilge pump
- Bucket
- Water proof matches
- Marine whistle
- Zinc oxide
- Tarp
- Deck of cards
- Paper and water proof pencil (log book)
- Copies of passports, visas, and boat paperwork
- Secondary credit card (the one we don't normally use but is a valid account)

Stored at Navigation Station/Helm – The items that must come with us if we ditch that we use regularly are going to be stored at the helm, in the helm locker or at the navigation table.
- Life jackets
- EPIRB
- SPOT personal messenger (Yes, I know it doesn't work in the middle of the Pacific.)
- Flares
- Solar powered lantern (We use this as a boom, anchor-light. If you don't, put it in the dedicated kit).
- VHF handheld
- GPS handheld
- Boat hook
- Celestial navigation equipment
- 2 5-gallon water jugs
- Doctor's medical bag

Emergency Plan – We have been very successful training the Don Quixote crew on emergency roles. Depending on the type of emergency, each person has a specific series of tasks. If someone is unavailable for their assignment, we know who is to take their place. For example, when there is a Man Overboard, Aeron's responsibility is to stand on the deck and point to the victim, never ever taking her eyes off the victim. She might be the only reason we are able to back track and find someone who has gone overboard. If she -is- the victim or otherwise unavailable, Mera takes her place... and so on. We will develop “Abandon Ship” and “Pitch Poled” assignments and responsibilities and then regularly drill the crew as we have historically done for MOB, fire, and navigational hazard emergencies.

From the Bottom Up
From the Bottom Up
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Lamintated Checklists – From s/v Capaz, we learned of the wonders of lamination. They make checklists, inventories, and radio scripts, laminate these instruction cards and place them near the radio and in emergency kits. This is brilliant and deserves an entire, well thought out article of its own that I'll tackle next week. For now, it's just on my list to review the Capaz list, update for Don Quixote needs, and include in the ditch kit(s).

Ditch Kits Plural – Another by-product of research was the notion of individual kits. These are small dry bags with individual water and food, emergency gear, and personal items. The hall mark of several survival accounts I've read is an individual escaping a sinking vessel where other crew and the principle ditch kit and/or life raft is lost, but the individual had their own, much smaller bag of gear which prove instrumental in their own survival.

* * *

Additions, suggestions, and deletions welcome! What do you have in your ditch kit?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

You Are Such a Druggie

You Little Devil
You Little Devil
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I suspect the following dialogue between myself and the attendant at the local Liddil's will only make sense to a Kiwi.

* * *

Toast: Is this a drug store?

Man (indignant): No. Absolutely not. It's a chemist.

Toast (looking around at the makeup,vitamins, over the counter pharmaceuticals, not to mention the busy professionals bottling pills behind the counter): Hunh. Okay. Chemist. Right. A new word. Got any hydrogen peroxide?

Man (even more indignant): No. It's illegal.

Toast (startled): Really? You're kidding. Why?

Man: It is a key component in making drugs.

Toast: Wow. I didn't know that. We use it for road rash.

Man: Road rash? Is that a drug?

Toast (laughs): Uh no. You know... a scrape, like rubbing your knee on a road.

Man (looking a bit relieved): Ah.... no. No … road... rash... We do have plasters.

Toast: Huh? For walls?

Man: No. For wounds.

Toast: Plasters. Okay. So no hydrogen peroxide. How about sudafed?

Man: Sue duh fed? What's that?

Toast: Pseudoephedrine.

Man (immediately returning to state of offense and suspicion): Do you make pee?

Toast: Of course I make pee. All the plumbing works fine. What does that have to do with it?

Man (moving to push some magic button behind the counter): No pee. PEE! The drug?

Toast: People take pee? What?! What on earth does this have to do with my cold?

Man: A cold?

Toast: Well... yes. Why else would I need pseudoephedrine?

Man (now equally confused): To make pee?

Toast: It's a diuretic? I didn't know that! No, I just need to clear up my sinuses. I've got a cold. Need a decongestant. I usually take either pseudoephedrine or guaifenesin.

Toast Explaining the FSM
Toast Explaining the FSM
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Man (enlightened and reaching behind the counter for a package): Oooohh! Of course! We have that in combination. Here you go.

Toast (reads the package and gasps): Fenfen! Holy cow! This stuff is illegal!

Man (baffled): Why?

Toast: Teenage girls OD on this stuff, pop it like candy as a diet drug. Hot damn! How much will you sell me? Fantastic for colds.

Man (reluctantly): Well... it's available over the counter, but we have to be sure you aren't using it to make pee...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Burning Guy

Guy Fawkes Day
Guy Fawkes Day
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
It turns out that one reason Halloween in New Zealand is so unsuccessful is that it immediately proceeds a far more important annual ritual: Guy Fawkes Day. If you are like me – an ignorant, unlettered American – you have probably never heard of Guy Fawkes. Or maybe you have, though in passing as you tried to decipher the messaging of that oddly fascinating Wachoswki movie V for Vendetta.
“Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.”
Apparently, it's not just the poet...no one knows a reason to forget this event. Certainly not the British or any of the residents of their commonwealth countries. Even after watching V for Vendetta – maybe because of that movie – it wasn't clear to me that Guy was The First Guy... the Guy who created the word 'guy.' Nor was it clear to me that he attempted to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. And it absolutely never occurred to my historically shallow American sensibilities that the English would still be blowing stuff up over four hundred years later to commemorate the thwarting of the Gun Powder Plot. Yes, as baffling as it seems, the English are still so pissed off at Guy, that they have been burning him in effigy for four centuries. Talk about holding a grudge.

It's obvious why Kiwi's celebrate this holiday; It's a great excuse to drink a lot and blow shit up. Falling as it does at the beginning of the summer season, it's the ideal opportunity to kick off the holidays and the start of tramping season, vacations, and the pending consumptive Christmas extravaganza... with a bang, as it were. Everyone troops off to the nearest park or stadium at about five in the evening armed with chilly-bins, pavlovas, piss, lollies, sizzlers, and pies, children, chairs and grandparents. Some even haul out a couch. Then everyone nibbles and sips for hours while the bands play, the singers sing, the dancers dance, the kapa haka groups stomp and pound and the teenagers strut their teenage stuff. At dark, the stadium lights are doused and the fireworks begin.

Sunny Girls
Sunny Girls
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
New Zealanders see no reason to burn Guy, though. At least we didn't see a bonfire in Pukekohe. We spent the holiday this year with an Irish history teacher who was full of all sorts of interesting quotes and historical trivia. He noted that in his home country, bonfires are pretty much an essential component of the Guy Fawkes Holiday celebrations. But then again, unlike New Zealand, it is cold in the U.K. on November 5. Standing around the bonfire prevents spectators from freezing to death while waiting for the fireworks. Apparently, the tradition of burning a guy has been expanded in the U.K. to include the burning of just about any disliked public figure. There's a great quote in Wikipedia: “Effigies of other notable figures who have become targets for the public's ire, such as Paul Kruger and Margaret Thatcher, have also found their way onto the bonfires.” I admit to being highly tempted by the opportunity to burn in effigy a few public figures that have earned my own personal animus during the past year.

After the fireworks were over, slightly sunburnt, stuffed with food and good company, we trooped over to our friends' house and got quietly soused while the kids played Wii. The entire experience was like a Fourth of July celebration without the jingoism and Sousa marches and the addition of a haka and a rugby team autographing posters in the in-field. Just a word of advice to Americans moving to the antipodes – buy your fireworks in November if you plan on celebrating the “real fourth.” They don't sell them here in the winter.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Not Charlotte

Spider Solitaire
Spider Solitaire
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
It started months ago. A small spider took up residence in the corner of the kitchen window next to the stove. I don't know why we didn't remove it. DrC didn't, the girls would never think to do so, and I just shrugged and probably thought it was someone else's (e.g. the Man's) problem. Even small, she was very black and very spider-like.

I can pinpoint the date that I decided I liked her and wanted to keep her. It was the morning I was standing semi-comatose, warming my hands over the stove as the espresso brewed and noted that she had caught three ants in the night. Any ally in our ongoing war against the Chicken House Ants is welcome. I poured myself a latte, toasted the newest member of the family, and went to work.

This is not the first time the Conger clan has hosted a spider. We used to watch with fascination as spiders would build elaborate webs between the newell posts on the front porch of our West Seattle home. The dew would dust these complicated constructions and provide an endless source of fractal entertainment throughout the fall. The side yard played host on multiple occasions to the million scattered mobile flying dots of spider egg bursts. Every single spider invasion – whether in the lifelines in Canada or in the plants on the dining room table in Philadelphia – has been a source of pleasure, interest, and education for my husband, myself, and now our children.

Honestly, the only spider scare we've ever experienced was a truly notable and hysterically funny encounter between Jaime and a 13 cm spider in the Karangahake Gorge a few months go. I can't remember the last time the entire family laughed so hard as when Jaime came bursting out of that cave screaming and kareening down the trail at high speed with her hair on fire. Even she found the whole thing amusing after we finally caught up with her, calmed her down, reassured her that there were no signs of spiders anywhere on or near her and most particularly not in her hair. You could almost say that we're a pro-spider family.

So she – our latest spider neighbor – settled in for the winter. But this spider isn't exactly a neighbor, now is she? Living in the kitchen, she's more like a quiet roommate. A quiet, growing roommate. We've watched her shed her skin, like a lobster, several times now. Our little spider has grown to nearly an inch now. Yesterday, she caught a horse fly, the day before an enormous moth. Her web stretches over the entire corner of the window – about a square foot. Mera witnessed the fly capture. It blundered into the web in one corner. Mera was doing the dishes and paused to watch our girl dash over, sedate the fly before it ripped the web apart, wrap it up, and drag it into the center of her lair. Short of an Animal Planet video, I'm not certain how Mera could have been treated to a better visual experience of spider dining.

Red Plastic Ones
Red Plastic Ones
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
DrC and I are waiting, I believe, on reproduction. I don't know why, but we're working under the operating assumption that our room mate is a girl. We've been trying to figure out how she'd get preggers, actually. There are no signs of little boy spiders anywhere near by. And if she's a he, he's not getting out there to spread the spider “word” and father a dynasty. So this strategy of “settling into the corner of a window in a house in Pukekohe” might prove an evolutionary dead end. What we're hoping, though, is that before establishing residence in the highly target rich environment of the Chicken House kitchen, there was an encounter between our room mate and another spider which is going to result ultimately in a big spider egg sack.

It also possible that she is just going to keep growing until Jaime freaks out and insists that “Either that spider goes, or I do.” And while I can understand her recent spider-paranoia given her caving experience, I'm going miss her. It's been nice having Jaime around all these years.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Halloween in Pukekohe

Zombie on the Prowl
Zombie on the Prowl
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Hands on hips, I inform the Kiwi youngsters gathered on my porch, “Not without a costume. You can't have Aeron until you get a costume.”

Panic ensues. These are friends of Jaime's. They already know due to my very explicit instructions in a series of Facebook posts that they can not trick-or-treat without a small child. Teenagers are simply not acceptable at the door unless they are escorting a young one. At their age, free lollies require work. And as an American, I have the Halloween Knowledge to enforce this dictum. This is why they have presented themselves on my back door step on a sunny warm evening at the end of October. They are here to collect Aeron – their token small child.

If ever there were an evening less Halloween-y, this would be it. Spring arrived only two weeks ago here in Pukekohe. It feels like it might be a very short one, transitioning immediately into the lovely, warm, incredibly blue summer we remember from our first month in this country. A warm floral breeze wafts gently through the house clearing out the musty odors of winter. It's almost nine and the sun is just beginning to descend on a yard engulfed in riotous spring growth, the grass almost up to our knees. We've thrown open absolutely every window and door in the house to the outside noises of children, birds, and happy dogs.

“What are we going to do?” they ask me. Fortunately, Chicken House is prepared with DrC's costume, leftover face paints, and a whole lot of ratty clothing. Leading the way, Jaime and the boys troop into the bathroom to prepare for the night.

It took research to figure out how we could signal that our house was open to the trick-or-treating phenomena. Not all houses in New Zealand participate. Halloween has not really taken off here in anything like the way it has in the United States. I imagine that the churches inveigh against this most pagan of pagan holidays while at the same time the anti-materialist Greens go on about its American, imperialist consumerism. So not all homes, not all children participate in Halloween. Those who do can not simply put jack-o-lanterns in the yard to signal their willingness to dispense treats. Thing 1) Pumpkins here are green, not orange... which is awkward looking at best. Thing 2) It's daylight... lighting a pumpkin looks ridiculous and doesn't show up from a distance. In New Zealand, you put black and orange balloons on your letterbox which wave gaily in the spring breeze in about as non-threatening a fashion as it is possible to imagine. It looks like we're throwing a birthday party.

“Mrs. C, are we done yet?” the boys have donned some ratty clothes and put on eye makeup. One of them found a plastic monster mask and a black cape. I've seen these kids with “piss and cigies”, hanging out with friends already lost to weed, drink, and dropping out. But tonight, they are in my world where teenagers can have fun without resorting to adult things; they belong to silly costumes, running around in the streets, and candy without a beer, egg, or cigarette in sight. “Almost, gentlemen. A little more paint...” Jaime pulls them back to the mirror as I head into the kitchen to fill the lolly bowl.

This year, the family variously attended five seasonally themed events. Only one of the events came even close to the real spirit of Halloween and that was the afternoon barbie hosted by some friends of ours downtown. I lay this at the feet of Siouxie and Steven who have a circular of well-travelled friends, no small number of whom are from the U.S., U.K. and Australia. Everyone present wore great costumes, the food was fantastic and the conversation brisk, smart and enjoyable. It helps that the two are both university types, their circle of friends truly bright and interesting people, and that Steve has a really nice barbie. Still, standing in my black devil costume on the porch with a chill pear cider, I realized I had to move inside or get a sunburn. New Zealand is so much like Washington state that moments like these – where it's the same but different – leave me disoriented. I couldn't help but contrast this experience with the years during which I had to find clever ways to hide thermals and sweats underneath the girls costumes.

Hula Girl - Costume Change #2
Hula Girl - Costume Change #2
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
A bullet-riddled zombie and a monster emerge with my sexy, purple-winged eldest daughter and present for inspection and approval. I look down at my prize princess, “Do you approve, my lady?”

Aeron nods eagerly, the smile splitting her brightly decorated face. She is the center of attention, purpose, and fun this evening. For once in her life, being Jaime's youngest sister is conferring enormous advantage, “I approve!”

Sighs of relief and relaxing of shoulders on the cusp of manhood, bags come out, and a practice chorus of “trick-or-treat” as I pass out chocolates and wave the kids on their way. I call out, “Happy Halloween!” as they disappear down the street, little boys just one more time on this night of Halloween and lollies.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Here's the Pitch

The Peaks We Didn't Climb
The Peaks We Didn't Climb
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I slam the book down on the table, frustrated beyond measure. "This is no good. I can't figure out what the hell they mean."

DrC mumbles something supportive but wholly incoherent.

There is the sound of stataco typing as I bang away at the laptop for a few minutes punctuated periodically by, "Yes... yes!... YES!!!"

Now DrC looks up. In retrospect, I suppose my vocalizations were suspiciously similar to something more interesting to DrC than immigration regulations. "You okay?"

I nod vigoursly and start copying and pasting like a mad fiend. "Two '10 jumpers blogged it."

DrC's eyes narrow as he parses this out, "Two of the boats puddle jumping this year wrote about the immigration requirements in their blogs."

"Uh huh."

"But how do you know it's true?" he asks.

This stops me absolutely cold. After 20 years, there are few moments in which I feel that my husband and I are not in sync. Even rarer are there times where I feel the man is living on a completley different plant. And now, here in this little kitchen in suburban New Zealand, existence shimmers like a Scobby retrospective into two distinctive planes of existence. In one, research is conducted in libraries and with government agencies. Academics and intellectuals ponder the evidence, write their results, and dispense their knowledge in academic journals and printed books.

And then there is where I live.

In the world I live in, the wisdom of the crowds is almost inevitably better than the research of any individual. This is the world of Wikipedia, Yelp, Facebook, Digg, slash dot and Twitter. This is a place where when I want a Word template for product planning, I can simply ask the hivemind, and four arrive within the hour in my inbox. Now that doesn't mean the crowd is always right. The crowd can make monumental errors; lolcats comes to mind. It also doesn't mean that you should take as writ that everything you read on Wikipedia is correct. It's not. We all know that. However, I'd take a Wiki entry over most static books as a starting point. Start poking the referenced resources at the bottom of the entry, and now you're getting to some serious solid research.

I'd also take a blog entry from a fellow cruiser over a 10 year old cruising guide. Every time.

It's not the author's fault. I find the whole concept of cruising guide authorship challenging at best. Even if the area about which you are writing is your favorite haunting ground, there is no practical way to visit each marina and anchorage every year to update the book. For parts of the world that are practical to visit only as a way point on a much longer, non-replicable journey, such as crossing the South Pacific or transiting the Panama Canal, there is no way at all that the author can maintain the accuracy of the content. Sure, the charts may stay essentially the same. Information about the facilities, paperwork, or local ameneties are too fluid to maintain.

This is why I have been monitoring with such glee the introduction of tools such as Active Captain and Wikitravel. I really want these efforts to succeed. There are, however, two problems with these resources:

* South Pacific - So far, no one has really started contributing to the South Pacific part of the map. Since this is where we are going, I feel like we're stuffed.

* Portability - Neither company/project has come up with a way to copy the entire database down to a local laptop, let alone print the relevant bits. Cruisers halfway across the Pacific have lousy Internet access.

So here I am, pouring over the three "must have" cruising guides for our Puddle Jump, and at least once every 10 minutes I slam them down on the table and retreat to Google. And when I can't get my question answered by the experts, I find that Quest or Tenaya or Ken and Cathy answered it. Browsing the blogs of this year's jumpers, I'm able to answer even the most changeable, challenging questions. All it requires is hours and hours of browsing, reading, trolling, and googling. And a constant connection to the Internet.

"What the hell are we going to do when we get there? No Internet." I've leaped past explaining to my husband his ludditic handicap; Twenty years has at least taught me that much.

"Write a book."

Recursive Photo Editing
Recursive Photo Editing
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I do not groan when he says this. It is stupid and the trees are weeping, but I do not groan. I just point out that, "It, too, will be obsolete the instant I write it."

And at that moment, my lover redeems himself and proves why I used his genetic code to make the girls, "Well, put it online. Give it to next year's folks to maintain."

Wow. That could work. I could crowd source it. I could make it interactive. It could have a user forum and downloadable pages and people could print it using an on demand printer if I put into a PDF format and I could add links and there would be amazon affiliate links and a twitter feed and a faceboscr.a.bajkafd.cvja....*cough*

So rather than do anything useful for the rest of the day, I do what every good social media wonk does, I go buy the domain.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Packing It On

It's the Angle
It's the Angle
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
As much as I'd rather talk about provisioning and packing the boat, first we must detour into the wonder which is my weight. For those not interested in female whinging about modern standards of beauty and the horrors of Kiwi pies, stop here. I'll see you next week.

For those still with me, history is in order.

First, I got fat. Babies do that to a woman unless she has either made a pact with the devil, is seriously self-obsessed bordering on anorexic, or both. Real women get fat. The "baby will eat it off you" breastfeeding myth is delusional. What happens is that if you are a normal, living, breathing human being, this phrase simply justifies the wholesale consumption of peanut butter laden Ritz crackers, malted chocolate milk shakes, and weekly trips to the nearest cheesesteak vendor.

Then, I got skinny. Well, not precisely skinny, but I did manage to shed 20 pounds in 20 months while cruising. I have a lot of theories about this phenomena, some of which involve power boat wakes and the alignment of stars. I calculate that if I stayed on the boat another decade or so I would have eventually physiologically regressed to my salad days when I was sexy, skinny, and slutty. (Honesty compels me to admit that I was not particularly sexy and so slutty was challenging at best.) But my heart was in the right place! and so was my butt, both boobs and the roll in the middle. In fact, there was no roll in the middle going by the title waist or any less dignified sobriquet such as jelly roll, love handle, tummy, or baby bump.

Screw the baby bump.

Then, I moved to New Zealand and got fat. God damn Kiwis make miraculous bread. They fry absolutely everything that isn't nailed down and a few things that are. They drink like fishes, and, similar to hobbits, they indulge in both a morning AND afternoon tea as well as elevenses and the midnight trip to the dairy for crisps and lollies. If it isn't fried, they wrap it in incredibly tasty puffed pastry and bake it. This country welcomes chefs from around the globe who dish up dim sum and curries, pad thai, sushi, crepes, bratwurst, tapas, and pho. The only two types of cuisine you can not find in Auckland are Italian and Mexican. For some reason, Italian and Mexican food is all crap... mostly because the Kiwis can not grow a decent tomato and so simply eliminate them from the menu. Need I remind you that tomato is one of the trifecta (tomato/onion/garlic) at the root of all good Italian and Mexican cooking?

They fry hot dogs. What the hell? When sausages are not deep fried, they are split open and liberally frosted with cheesy mashed potatoes. The entire country is a coronary waiting to happen. It is a sad fact that New Zealanders are as fat as Americans and Mexicans. The islanders living here are in the worst state as it's not clear their metabolism was ever designed for a carbohydrate rich environment. I have met wonderfully friendly people who are literally square. I've never seen anything quite like it, people as wide as they are tall.

Cruisers aren't meant to return to land. In six months I've gained 12 pounds. In case you are doing the math, that's two steps forward for one step back. Such progress! Never mind cleaning out the lockers and reducing the rummage on the boat; I'll drop Don Quixote down an inch on her water line all by myself. On the down side, I won't be able to wedge myself into my wet suit. On the up side, we can use me as a fender.

Of course, the solution to this problem is a diet, because that always works, right? Right!? A diet. Ugh. I got into this place, because walking down the street in Pukekohe is like navigating a mine field laced with glazed, chocolate covered fat clusters sprinkled with deep-fried, marinated lamb crumbles. The smell of baking bread, frying meat, seasoned this and spicy that is impossible. Those clever bastards pipe the kitchen exhaust out to the sidewalk, lace it with some ABBA or Billy Joel, and just wait for nature to take over.

It Could Be the Food
It Could Be the Food
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I filled my backpack full of carrots and celery last week. This didn't do a bit of good. The bottom of the bag looked like a compost heap by the end of the week. I am certain I gained two pounds in protest of the indignity of carrying it. The solution may be to stop carrying my wallet. If I don't have any money, I can't buy anything baked, fried, glazed or marinated.

But really, the solution is to get back on the boat and sail as far from the bakehouses of New Zealand as I can remove myself.