Thursday, May 27, 2010

Le Plus Ce Change

Editor's Note: No pictures for awhile. Naturally, I left the camera sitting on the kitchen counter before I left New Zealand. Gah! So I'm just pulling up old pics of the girls I'm fond of and enjoy seeing again. My apologies.

Visiting Seattle is like returning to your high school a few years after graduation. Everything looks the same. The cafeteria still smells the same. Even the clothes styles are basically unchanged. Yet, all the faces are just slightly different, there is something new about the flip of hair, the length of pants, or something you just can't quite put your finger on. And no one recognizes you as you walk down the halls.

My days here are very full. In addition to meeting with my Seattle clients (including beating the pavements for new contracts), I divide my time between meals with good friends and mining boat and used book stores to get information on crossing the Pacific. DrC sent me with a long list of errands and tasks for our investment properties, and every day someone else emails and says, "Oo! You're here in Seattle! How about we get together?" It's an unexpectedly Sally Field moment (you like me! you really like me!) for which I have no earthly resistance. The long chats over pizza or pad thai or wine have been wonderful, each deeply satisfying in a slightly different way.

Friends are a gift which it has taken me nearly forty years to appreciate. I never thought much about the long term value of friendships, and I'm afraid as a result I was not a very good friend. It didn't seem worth the time or energy to cultivate a relationship after time or distance threw up what seemed an insurmountable barrier. It's fair to say I was lazy. However among the many other recognizable changes to Toast rev 2.0 (as my good friend Jim describes me now), there is a deep appreciation for the people in my life who have for many years devoted energy to our connection.

I recognized this change as Jim and I sipped and spoke over craft beer at Big Time Brewery a few days ago. We first chatted in Big Time many years ago, the first week Jim arrived in Seattle after moving from the mid-west. Contrasting Auckland, Seattle, and Columbus, Ohio, I could tell him honestly that his move involved greater cultural displacement than our own to New Zealand; As long as I live, I don't think I'll ever understand the middle part of this country. Jim has changed in ways both visible and spiritual. I've changed, too. Gad, I'm older. Yet, we haven't really changed at all. There we were still enjoying, listening, talking, even the spice of a bit of disagreement over some totally non-important topic was pleasant, slightly different and absolutely familiar.

I don't miss my friends, though. I don't have any wistful sense that this is our last conversation for a long long time. Maybe that's why I used to resist maintaining them. It used to be such work. Yet when I settle down with Greg or Jim or Wyatt or Ian, we are just continuing in Real Life an ongoing, time-shifted conversation in which we've been engaged for over a decade. I start to tell them about this or that bit of my life, but they already know and ask for more details. I get to see a new picture of Jim's son, but his face is well known to me. I could easily pick Jim's little one out of a crowd of kids his age.

There is an element to in-person contact that is no doubt missing in our online lives. Touching base on occasion and tipping a glass is important and very pleasurable. On the other hand, these are the people who monitor my daughters online, share with me their own life stories, and know I'll be there if they want to chat in the middle of the night… particularly now that their middle of the night is my afternoon.

I really like this new form of friendship. It's easier for me to manage, while remaining rich and full and satisfying. I might not get back to Seattle for another 3 years, and when I do these people might not be here any more. Which is okay, since I know I'll chat with them tomorrow anyway and every tomorrow thereafter.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Eating My Way Through Seattle

Jaime Arrives
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Sour dough bread from Grand Central with gorgonzola and grapes from Ballard Market
Pad Kee Mao in the International District
Latte and donuts at Top Pot
Hamburger, fries and shakes at Dick's Burgers
Another latte at the Fremont Cafe
Pizza and beer at Big Time Brewery

* * *
Okay, doing well so far. What am I missing? Salmon. SALMON! Copper River is running.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Take Off

Upward Bound
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Unfortunately, my first thought on lift off from Auckland International Airport -- after the obligatory paranoid counting slowly to ten as somewhere I'd assimilated the factoid or urban myth that 90% of all airline take off disasters are in the first 10 seconds -- that first thought was, "I don't want to be here." It's possible the countdown itself was not helpful, but at least it was habitual. With no deep dislike of flying and a love of travel and new experiences, the thought came as a surprise. The burn of incipient tears more so.

This wasn't the me of my youth. It isn't even the me of a mere decade ago. Frankly, I don't particularly like children. They are noisy, dirty, and they smell. Husbands are only marginally more useful. White picket fence maternal feelings are not precisely my style. Back in the day, a business trip was an excuse to escape the oddly leave-it-to-beaver life I had somehow backed into. I loved to climb on the plane with a good book and an open mind. It took considerable self-restraint not to gerrymander my business budgets to offer up more excuses to visit Canada, Europe, and various destinations in the United States.

Then 9/11 caught me out of place. I'm not saying that my experience was particularly unusual or traumatic. Everyone has a story for those hours and days. In my case, I was in Europe on business with a few colleagues. With flights closed over Europe and the United States, getting home was a challenging and chancy endeavor. The final itinerary routed me through to Vancouver, Canada from which I taxied and then walked across the border. I said to my mom as I climbed in the car that that was the last trip I'd be taking without the children for awhile.

And so it was. We left the girls on land for the Neah Bay to San Francisco run (a wholly unwarranted precaution, by the way) but otherwise, I haven't taken a trip without DrC and the girls in nine years. So it was a bit of surprise to feel such a strong sense of wrongness in doing so today. It could be that all the media-fed frenzy kept that feeling of isolation and desolation alive and well in the hind brain during the intervening decade.

I'm more inclined to think that the unease is instead a byproduct of the dramatic changes in the nature of my relationship with my intimate family over those same years. Ten years ago, we were very engaged by our professional lives and the process of creating a materially wonderful home. I had never spent even five, uninterrupted, consecutive days solo with the girls let alone the weeks we managed on our trip. We had never homeschooled or waited out a hurricane in a bathroom or wandered through the dwellings of ancient cliff dwellers. We just weren't nearly as close. Okay true, the girls were much smaller, much younger, and Aeron had roughly the conversational acumen of a Macaw parrot. But DrC and I were also not as close. We hadn't shared night watches or sold everything we owned or gone on walks together every morning, day after day, week after week.

I don't feel any sense of relief to be getting a few weeks without the kids. I'm not really looking forward to visiting my old stomping grounds in Seattle or Sacramento. And I am definitely anticipating with any sense of joy getting the boat ready for hurricane season down in La Paz. Without the girls and DrC, a big sense of savory has gone out of my sense of the next few weeks.

My job for the next 36 some odd hours while I make my torturous way up north is to focus on the really important reasons for this trip. I will be present in the moment when two very good friends commit to spending their lives together. I will get to drink red wine and frozen blueberries with Greg, cuddle Dulcinea (if she'll allow me), and have lunch with Jim. Checking on my mom in Sacramento is super important and very needed, and hopefully she'll be full of enough spit and vinegar that we can go to Orange Freeze. Several times.

But let's be honest. No amount of positive thinking is going to render the slogging effort in Mexican summer heat of prepping the boat for the season anything to be happy about. There's the power of positive thinking, and then there is sticking your head in the sand. Very very hot sand.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Age is Relative

An Afternoon in Kerikeri
An Afternoon in Kerikeri
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
While traveling in England and Scotland many years ago, my mother and I noted that, "In the United States, we think 100 years is a long time. In the UK, they think 100 miles is a long distance." This phrase encapsulated for us two features that stood out during our travels: people were routinely befuddled by how long she and I were willing to drive to see something, and we were routinely befuddled at how old everything was. Even the bars were 300 years old.

So I never thought I'd say it, but I feel like an old timer in New Zealand. Even by American standards, everything here is very young. During our trip to the Bay of Islands, we visited Kerikeri near Waitangi which boasts the "oldest stone building in New Zealand." Now given the otherwise very English feel to so much of this country -- crumpets, biscuits, scones and tea come to mind immediately -- we anticipated a truly old building. The Stone Store, however, was built in the 1830s. My best friends in Philadelphia lived in a house about 50 years older than that so it's hard for me to think of this quaint little store as the "oldest" anything. Perhaps the single most important treaty between the native people and the white settlers was signed at Waitangi in 1840 during the administration of U.S. President Martin Van Buren and just about when that Englishman forever changed architecture with the invention of the blue print. Even native culture here is young by American and Mexican standards. Last summer, we visited villages dating 2,500 to 3,000 years old in the American Southwest. We went to a museum in La Paz with artifacts dating nearly 20,000 years. The wane in which the Māori people arrived on the islands, however, are only about 1,000 years old. And while we still have a lot to learn and will continue to research, so far Mera's research suggests there is no evidence for humans coming down here any earlier.

Which makes New Zealand very young, and it makes me wonder what she'll be when she grows up. A modern industrialized nation with a relatively strong central, democratic government leaps onto the world stage essentially at the beginning of the Information Age. New Zealand is only now stretching her collective muscle towards being separate and distinct from her domineering imperial mother England, and her loud, brash physical neighbor Australia. It's fascinating listening to the conversation from the inside as New Zealanders debate how, why and when this country should differentiate its political voice on issues of global import. What does this country represent? What are its major sports? Its industrial specialties? When is New Zealand the "go to" country when you want a representative of a particular perspective on an environmental or economic or human rights issue?

I can't answer these questions, but what's probably more interesting is that I doubt there is an honest Kiwi in the entire country who can either. Fundamentally, New Zealand hasn't decided these questions yet for itself. This is a country that, while not in any danger of the violent overthrow of its government, nevertheless is seriously considering the adoption a new flag.* The current New Zealand flag is royal blue with the British Union jack in one corner and the Southern Cross. You can see why this flag is a bit problematic. Clearly, it's derivative. Pretty much all of us former Brit colonies have eventually chucked the Union Jack. There are several proposed flags, the most predominant being that of the United Tribes of New Zealand. It is white with a modified Southern Cross and the black and red bands common to Māori art. It's historical use during the Treaty of Waitangi to represent the tribes has made this the flag of choice for Māori. Others say ditch the entire colonial and tribal controversy and strike out in a whole new direction with a radical new look. Many flags have been proposed but the most popular seem to use as a central theme the silver fern leaf.

It's like rolling back time and getting a whiff of what it must have been like in the United States when these issues were discussed. And at the same time, this conversation is taking place in a time so economically, scientifically, and sociologically different that the discussion quite literally involves all four million Kiwis simultaneously rather than just a few white old men in major urban centers isolated from the opinions of the governed population.

I want to root for these people. Like the Chinese, they get to skip entire phases of industrialization. They get to pick and choose from global examples of what works and what doesn't work in finance, law, health care, and education. The population is small enough that a few people can change the entire country. At the same time, the population is small enough that God help them a few people can really screw things up. Management matters and particularly so in a country like New Zealand where they can't really afford to make major mistakes. When they make a major mistake -- for example in the 1980's someone screwed up absolutely royally regarding building codes -- the entire country suffers. I mean every single last person in the country, including my family, are going to have to deal with the fact that 25 years ago a lot of buildings were built to very crappy standards and are now quite literally falling down on our heads.

All of this interests my children not at all and my husband very little. I, however, find it fascinating and have been filling my ears with Kiwi news and social media. While the girls learn how to say 'whut ehva' and DrC relearns how to remove cataracts, I'm studying the political economy of the antipodes. And doing the laundry.

* Now before you get all smug and remind that the U.S. flag changed a mere 50 some odd years ago when Alaska and Hawaii were made states, it's probably more fair to say that the U.S. flag hasn't fundamentally changed in basic design since 1776 since all we've been doing is adding more and more stars.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Event Horizon

Mera On the Headlands
Mera On the Headlands
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I used to be really good at planning ahead. In fact, DrC and I were arguably so good at planning ahead that we had our life mapped out clear to 2050. This was 1990 and we were young, very much in love, and -- in retrospect -- pretty dumb. I know that the politically correct term to use for our dimwitted certainty of our future path is "naive", but in retrospect I think we were stupid combined with misguided. Also, naivety implies that our myopia was entirely a by-product of youth and inexperience. Now, I believe that planning for the future requires assumptions which are built into the entire economy and social fabric in which we were raised. Our minds were threaded with notions of what was right, appropriate, necessary, and inevitable which made it relatively effortless to plan ahead.

Somewhere along the line, however, DrC and I fell off the track. Now we can argue ad naseum whether that fall from grace was a bold step into a unique and exciting lifestyle or merely a juvenile collapse into poverty resulting from severe mid-life crises. It doesn't really matter, though. The point is that once you extract all the "you musts", "you shoulds", "you can'ts", and "you won'ts" from the vocabulary of your planning horizon, life looks very different. From where we sit right now, it is almost impossible to figure out what to do next.

As a project manager, this problem makes sense to me as a classic one of resource, time, and scope. In the bounded world of musts and cants, society defines our scope. We are provided from the cradle with a set of parameters that describe what it is possible for us to become, what is required of us to accomplish. The timeline is an actuarially defined life span ranging from 70 to 90 years. As a result, the only real variable we can apply individuality and imagination to is the resource of our personal intellectual and physical capital. By improving ourselves through education and effort, we can increase our scope. Through exercise and good eating, we might increase our time. As a resource, our labor and effort can theoretically improve the probability of achieving the project objective -- a well lived, successful life.

However, the unbounded life destroys the planning process in two directions: time and scope. First, those who step off the track often make a big and scary leap regarding the available time on this plane of existence. When interviewed, these people repeatedly express some variation of the theme: "We only have one life to live. I don't know how long it will be and I don't want to miss any of it." The leap into a boundless lifestyle often follows personal crisis: lost family member, near death experience, children growing up more rapidly then expected. The time to achieve the project objective therefore is no longer a set value in the equation, but rather a variable ranging from two weeks to seventy years.

So too does the scope change utterly once you step outside the box. If the project objective is a "well lived, successful life" then we must look much more closely at that phrase, defining it with considerably greater precision. "The unexamined life is not worth living," said Socrates. Examining your life, however, leads you inevitably to the consideration of "well lived." I would hold it as a truism that "well lived" must be a completely subjective criteria, each of us shading meaning and value to every aspect of our existence. We must balance the relative value of goods, people, pleasure, and family. This becomes an entire branch of philosophy so I won't continue further on this line of thought. Let's just say for the sake of this thread that when you reject the classic definitions of "well lived" and "successful" and start exploring all the many alternative ways to bound these criteria, suddenly scope becomes a much messier variable. It's not that I expect everyone to throw away "money and material wealth" and replace them with "fuzzy logic, family happiness and pretty sunsets." It's simply that without the boundaries, there is very little way to predict scope; It becomes more whimsical. Scope changes over time as you grow, modify your expectations and desires. It changes when new people come into your life and other people leave. There is no hope of setting it at a predictable value and managing time and resources accordingly. Instead, scope is in constant flux and must be revisited continually.

Now to bring this down to earth, we now have a project with an ill-defined and changing objective of unknown duration. In other words, our lives are basically like every software development project every undertaken. The only way these projects ever get done is to first get a strangle hold on the marketing department and make them define the scope… at least for this week… and second draw an arbitrary line in the sand to define the completion date. Which explains, to my mind, why agile programming techniques are so popular amongst the digital natives. Instead of creative planning horizons which extend to infinity, project managers force the entire organization to focus down, in and sharply on a short term objective which is attainable within the known variables of what marketing and sales want now and what we can actually get done with the resources we have on hand. And the shorter the time horizon, the easier it is to know what we're going to build.

Which brings us to my personal headache. I fired the old marketing department and told the Sales team to go to hell about four years ago. And while I really like the new team a lot better, their instructions to "don't worry, be happy" are a bit amorphous and not particularly helpful. As long as I don't try to figure out what to do a decade from now, we can concentrate our family resources on what we need to be happy this week, next month, possibly next year. True, the event horizon must include enough recognition of the future that we don't block ourselves from the 70 year program during which the Zombie Apocalypse is a high probability, while eating every day and taxes are an absolute certainty. But those slow inevitable movements in our lives are merely counter-punctual bass lines on the melody of daily events.

Today, we focus on incremental wins towards our long term, life objective of the well lived life. We're coming out of our "Move to New Zealand" scrum, so it's a good time to look at the backlog and figure out what to do next. I spent a few days living in the Product Planning mode of a decade before migraines beat me back to the weeds of our lives. I just can't handle looking out there very far for any substantial length of time. The girls are happy right now and loving life. DrC is happy right now, getting his medical skills back to polish and learning how to play guitar. It's enough for now to know that by our own measure, we are still highly successful people.
Not a Good Place for a Boat
Not a Good Place for a Boat
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Doing Less with More - Water

Topping Off
Topping Off
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Boat life taught many lessons in conservation, so I often wrote about how we could do more with less. Returning to land life in New Zealand has been a lesson in humility; It is ever so much harder to use less when surrounded in abundance. As I continue this series, I revisit the original posts with an eye towards applying boat lessons to land life.

In January 2008, I noodled on how to use less water. This seems a particularly good place to start our effort to translate boat lessons in conservation to land life as the North Island of New Zealand experienced a particularly severe drought this summer. In fact, many here say it is the driest summer and fall since World War II. Farmers are selling their cattle, their land, and their homes as the entire north country dries out. Roads are cracking and fields browning all around us. Late April brought some relief in the form of a series of squalls, but the papers tell us this rain is too little too late for many Kiwi ranchers.

For the Conger clan, however, clean potable water is everywhere. We are virtually swimming in opportunities to profligately pour it down the drain. We don't have to make it, water is super cheap at the tap and of excellent quality, and the country seems to lack the basic infrastructure and social capital to conserve this precious resource. Even in the midst of drought, fountains splash and fixtures leak in every public venue. Conserving water has never really been a high priority in traditionally wet New Zealand; It will take some time before they become accustomed to the notion that "water water everywhere" does not equal "endlessly renewable resource."

Our own contributions to water conservation at Chicken House are very modest and largely economically motivated. While water is not expensive, it is also not free. And as with so many of the resource lessons hard won on Don Quixote, we don't want to lose our good habits. So, here is what we are focusing on:

Dirt is Good - We remain diligent on the subject of dirt and poor personal hygiene. We like it. Look it up… bathing less frequently is actually good for your hair and skin as well as the environment. Pre-boat, we bathed daily -- showers in the morning for the adults, sometimes shared but always taken. Baths in the evenings for the children, always shared, sometimes really loud. On the boat, we'd go weeks... okay, that was probably gross. Back in civilization once more, we bathe twice a week. We make an exception for family members who complete a hard, sweaty workout which, among other things, provides additional incentive to exercise.

Don't Substitute - Don't use water to solve some other problem. For example, if the driveway is dirty, don't wash it down with a hose, sweep it. For us, the seduction is heat. The hot water heater in Chicken House is so hot, so deliciously gloriously hot, that it is tempting to shower daily, bathe nightly, soak in the kitchen sink and roll around in the washing machine. Heat is good. Recognizing that the passion for cleanliness is merely a misguided attempt to thaw out, we've redirected our attentions to other, cheaper and less resource intensive ways to stay warm. Fleece. I have a lot to say about fleece.

Fix Stuff - Everything in this country leaks. Certainly, everything in Chicken House leaks. We are slowly making our way through all the plumbing in an attempt to reduce the volume of lost water. I encourage every reader to do the same in their own home or apartment. It is truly astonishing the amount of water lost by households due to simple leaks in faucets, toilets, and outdoor fittings. We also make a point of reporting every leaky toilet and sink we come across. I don't know that this personal campaign of ours will have any immediate impact, but we have to start somewhere. I'm almost ready to go vigilante on the sinks at the park across the street.

Need Less - Of course, we continue to be parsimonious with water usage for laundry, dishes, household cleaning, and yard work. As with so many conservation "techniques", using less is really a question of getting your head around the fact that you need less. An example that comes to mind is our kitchen sink. We could fill it twice to the brim to do the dishes -- once to wash and once to rinse. However, unless we've dirtied every dish in the house, we need only fill it about a third or halfway to accomplish the same task. The rinse water also does double duty as all the water needed to wipe down the counters.

Jaime in the Falls
Jaime in the Falls
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Reuse - The previous example also demonstrates the "reuse" principle so profoundly important in the "reduce, reuse, recycle, renew" mantra. Few people do a good job of reuse of water, but there are easy ways to pour once, use twice with your water. In particular, bath water is basically an endless source of goodness as long as you don't let the kids wash their hair in it. Without all that added soap, the water can be used that evening or the next day for mopping, cleaning, presoaking laundry, and watering plants. It's just sitting there in the bath, ready to be scooped up.

* * *
I can't honestly say we're consuming anything like the incredibly low volume of 20 gallons a day which was our norm on Don Quixote. However, I do think we are probably maintaining at least half the consumption of the typical household… and hopefully less. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll just go do the dishes to thaw out my fingers.