Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Annie Played the Bucket Drum
Annie Played the Bucket Drum
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
The application read as follows:
“Looking for families eager to host Korean exchange students. Our program seeks typical Kiwi families with healthy, clean homes who provide room and board for our young children.”

There was a small payment associated with the job awarded to the successful candidate families, but hardly enough to provide any real temptation. Feeding another kid would easily eat up the tiny stipend. So that isn’t our excuse. I don’t know why we applied. In our application, we noted:

“We are eager to host a Korean exchange student. We are an atypical American family with a rental lovingly dubbed Chicken House, because it is about as healthy to live in as a garden shed and chickens routinely wander down the halls.”

We were a bit surprised when the program coordinator called to schedule an interview and house visit. We were dumbfounded when we were put on the short list to host a student. Honestly, the level of desperation required of the program coordinator to declare us a healthy, clean home is a bit worrisome. Nevertheless, the Conger crew was excited about being selected to host a student. We may not be typical Kiwis nor do we own a home to which you’d want to board your household pets let alone your middle school age child. Yet, we are good people, eager for new experiences.

About a month ago, our student Annie arrived. Annie is not her Korean name. As happens with many students who study a foreign language, she adopted an “English” name for use during class. She said she wanted us to call her Annie while she visited. Annie is 12 years old, and her family lives in Seoul, South Korea. She attends school with Mera during most of the day. Her afternoons are largely spent with her fellow exchange students in math and language classes. It seems that the regular school day is insufficient -- to which homeschool mum that I am, I can only empathize.

On the weekends, Saturday is free choice and Sunday is family day. Annie’s presence has broken us out of what was fast becoming a suburban weekend rut. We’ve returned to explorations of the greater Auckland area. We took Annie on a tramp through the bush, to the Auckland Museum, and to a symphony concert at the hall downtown. Weather permitting, we hope to go on the rope climbing course this weekend.

Annie has been great. She speaks and writes far better English than any exchange student we have ever hosted. As she got to know the family, she gradually relaxed and opened up to all of us. She has a nice smile when you can catch her doing it. She is shy and reticent to engage DrC and I, but Aeron and Mera have completely taken her under their collectively noisy, charming wings. They watch movies, play, and shop together. I love to see the connections forming, and I hope sincerely Annie leaves us with a positive image of both New Zealand and American families.

Our Annie
Our Annie
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
When I twittered about her arrival, not a few smart alecks commented on the craziness of the Conger family taking on yet one more thing in our lives. And I suppose it might seem that way, though Annie hasn’t been the slightest bit of extra work or effort. Maybe this is just an extension of a cruising attitude. We made an effort to host kids from other boats whenever possible to the point where the addition of one or two (or sometimes five or six) extra kids was normal. We became “That Boat” where folks could drop their kids, and our kids could host their friends. Annie is just now one in a long line of children we’ve let into our lives, our home and our hearts.

Do you hear me Isabel? Sam? Tim? Josh? Carolyn? Skylar? We miss you. Annie is no substitute. Come be an exchange student and move into our spare room. We’ll put you up any time, any place for as long as your parents will let us have you. We may not be clean or typical, but we are eager, friendly hosts.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Twiddling My Thumbs

Rotorua Station or Bathhouse?
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Commuting totally sucks. Well, commuting from one of end of the kitchen table to the end closer to the power outlet isn’t so bad. Commuting an hour and a half by train to the Auckland Central Business District (CBD) pretty much sucks donkey testicles.

New Zealand has made a very good faith effort to improve the commute through the provision of a very nice train. It’s clean, fairly priced, and generally on time. The rail line runs south all the way to Pukekohe. As I understand it, the line also runs out to western neighbors some considerable distance, as well as connecting to bus lines throughout the region. I don’t know if there are plans for expansion, but we can only assume so. The traffic here on the highway is just as bad (and in some places worse) than Seattle. Public transit options are the only long run solution to gridlock.

A surprising number of my fellow commuters are students. They shlep all the way from the outer suburbs and rural outlying regions into the city to attend decile 10 (high income) schools in the CBD such as Kings College and Auckland Grammar. I have trouble recognizing the motivation needed to stick a kid on a train for a 3 hour round trip commute just to get said offspring into a marginally better school. It seems to me that there are so many better ways a child could spend her time, the educational advantage lost with the time frittered away texting friends and watching the cows roll by every morning and evening. In that sentiment, DrC and I are clearly in the minority regardless of the country. Kiwi, American, or Aussie, all parents… or at least all Right Thinking Proper Parents… send their kids to the absolute best school available no matter the sacrifice.

My time is also too valuable to spend on this endless journey back and forth. Two hours a day sitting on my ass staring at the back of the head in front of me and listening to podcasts is going to drive me mad as beernuts and brie. I don’t mind the 15 minute walk on either end which can count towards my daily step goal. In fact, on the way home I’ve been rerouting for greater distance and increased difficulty just to make sure the exercise does me a bit of good. It’s only the train time that I feel needs to be booked end to end with something useful.

We Take History Seriously
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I’m tempted to write a book. As premature and ridiculous as it sounds, I think I’ll write a guide to cruising the South Pacific. Or I could write a steamy, sexually charged romance, though I’m thinking my seat mates idly peeking over my shoulder might report me to the authorities. There isn’t a science fiction story in me, though I love to read them, and I don’t even enjoy reading mysteries, let alone writing one. What I must avoid is buying a stand along computer game. For me, computer games are more addicting than a vanilla latte laced with nicotine and heroine. I somehow envision myself missing my stop even though both my starting and destination stations define the end points of the Southern Line.

I’ve got the weekend to sort this out. On Monday I resume the daily commute. Hopefully, inspiration will strike in the form of a fully realized plot or a perfectly imagined, mouth wateringly sexy hero. Otherwise, I’m doomed to a daily regime of 500 games of Spider Solitaire.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dinner at Chicken House

The Bakehouse Cafe
The Bakehouse Cafe
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“What’s that?” I ask looking at the serving bowl in the center of the table.

“Dinner,” replies my truculent eldest. Her posture screams, “Duh.”

I nod my head thoughtfully as though Jaime has revealed newly discovered deep profoundity. Inside I speculate that this exchange is her notion of revenge. For years my reply to the daily query, “What’s for dinner?” has been the terse and uninformative, “Food.” Turn about is fair play with the Conger crew.

Mera, however, is not quite so willing to play along. She peers into the bowl dubiously, “Are you sure?”

Jaime is put out, “Of course I’m sure. I made it.”

“Well there you go,” Aeron notes. “That’s the problem.”

True enough. Jaime does a lot of things incredibly well. She’s a mean dinghy racer, she can gut and clean fish, she knows how to solve for x and y and write a five paragraph essay. She can take the helm in bad weather, put on mascara without looking like raccoon (at least most of the time), and charm the socks off just about anyone any time anywhere. However, she cannot cook.

It might be more accurate to say that she cannot cook if anyone else is in the room. I once sat down to a surprisingly tasty meal of stuffed shells and spinach salad prepared by my eldest daughter. The secret ingredient, however, wasn’t herbs and spices or caramelized onions. It was the absence of sisters, parents, or good looking young men. Given a chance to focus, she can serve us up something edible.

I look across the table at Jaime’s friend Andrew, “This is your fault.” I point to the semi-raw chunks of broccoli and the pile of half burnt, half frozen dumplings. “You did this.”

Andrew throws up his hands, “I didn’t do anything! I told her…” His voice trails off at my glare. Andrew has spent enough time at Chicken House to know that that dog won’t hunt. He distracted Jaime, and now we’re all suffering the consequences.

DrC crunches down on a chunk of broccoli, “I think we need to take your phone away.” This is his generic answer to just about any problem with Jaime.

Jaime is immediately on the defensive, “It’s good. It’s just fine. It’s great!” She attempts to demonstrate this by manfully spearing a dumpling and sluicing it in what might be soy sauce and wasabi. She briskly bites it in half and chaws the glutinous mass. I admire that she neither winces nor do her eyes water. In a choked voice she gasps, “See. Great. Just eat it.”

We Love You Anyway, Jaime
We Love You Anyway, Jaime
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
There are probably very few meals easier to prepare than steamed dumplings and stir fry. Yet, I fear we must find dig deep into creative culinary chicanery to identify dishes commensurate with Jaime’s attention span. In the absence of a microwave, what we need is a magic wand that Jaime can just wave in a half-assed manner in the direction of the stove. I suggest, “Maybe next time we’ll have you do spaghetti, Jaime.”

Aeron shapes the pile of sodden rice on her plate into a gooey snow angel, “Maybe next time you’ll let her order pizza. She’s good with the phone.”

Friday, August 13, 2010

Zero to Eighty (Hours/Week)

Nice Hat
Nice Hat
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
For months I’ve been trying to get work. Freeloading off of DrC for five years is all very well, but eventually a girl has got to earn her bling. Since my bling consists of three children and an 11 meter cruising yacht, there is a lot of work to be done.

Getting work in New Zealand can be challenging. Fortunately, there are several fine web sites which offer solid recommendations and advice. I’ll tack a list of the ones I found most useful at the end of this article. I wish I could provide insightful tips over and above what you’ll find on those sites, but no. I made all the n00b mistakes you’d except and have only stumbled into work after trying in every possible way to sabotage my professional future.

First, let’s just start with the demographics. I’m an American female over the age of 40 with a Masters in Public Administration who hasn’t worked full time in nearly five years trying to get a job in the information technology sector during tough economic times. Just typing those words makes me snicker. IT is for young whipper snapper metro male engineers with a degree in some flavor of hard core geekery who listen to Massive Attack and pin up pictures of Felicia Day. Twenty years in the business notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine crafting a resume more unlikely to impress the New Zealand hiring managers.

Moreover, New Zealand is the Land of Certification. This country has a fondness for check boxes, degrees, and qualification certificates that borders on the persnickety. Even DrC had trouble here. In fact, to this day the Royal College of New Zealand isn’t entirely convinced that he is an ophthalmologist. Despite owning his own practice for over a decade, DrC’s qualifications are considered provisional; He is under the supervision of a qualified ophthalmologist for two years. For months, I couldn’t even make it past whatever passes for H.R. sorting ‘bots until I figured this out. It’s all about the Search Engine Optimization, baby.

Then, of course, we dropped the family one hour south of Auckland. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. No one in the family felt up to living in the city; Quiet, beautiful, bucolic Pukekohe felt like a safe harbor in rough seas . Now it feels like we’ve plunked ourselves down in the Bay of L.A. -- beautiful, bucolic and a ridiculously long ways from gainful employment. The nearly three hour round trip commute initially made me reluctant to apply for jobs in the central business district. It only took me six months to come to the stunningly obvious conclusion that no tech company worth its weight in routers would open an office any farther south than the airport.

Another classic mistake in which I indulged was to apply for jobs for which I was fully qualified. It is said that Auckland has the best educated taxi drivers in the world. This is probably not an exaggeration. People from all over the world are attempting to resettle in this country, not all of whom are fortunate enough to come in as we did with one member of the family already gainfully employed. Lawyers, aeronautical engineers and physicists all end up working wherever and however they can to keep the family fed and housed. A recommendation I arrogantly ignored for six months was to apply for entry level jobs in my target industry rather than to positions that are commensurate with my experience in my home country. It is a good idea to spend time getting to know New Zealand… and let Kiwis get to know you. After a year or so, you can start rapidly working your way back up to your former level of pay and responsibility.

Finally, I really thought I should get paid what I’m worth. However, New Zealand is notorious for its high cost of living and relatively low pay scale for professionals. “It’s the lifestyle, mate!” For immigrants like ourselves, consider this a positive, not a negative. The economic conditions mean that qualified, educated Kiwis flee their home country in search of higher paying jobs in Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. This leaves a lot of openings for off shore professionals that would otherwise be filled by the natives. You just have to be willing to work for a lot less than you’d expect elsewhere.

A Flood at Haku Falls
A Flood at Haku Falls
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Today, I start work for my first New Zealand client. It’s a pretty basic, four week contract updating existing user guides for a software release. It’ll be a good reintroduction to the daily grind, but it won’t last for so long that I and the family grow miserable from the insane demands on my time commuting. And one article a day per trip, I should finally be able to get back to a regular schedule on this column.

Now I just need to rediscover my sense of humor.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

When You Can't Sell, You Sail

Comrades in Drumming
Comrades in Drumming
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Don Quixote has now been for sale since the beginning of the year. The news on that front is pretty grim. It's not her fault, beautiful boat that she is. The problem is a combination of the horrible market and the horrible state of the banking industry. It is just about impossible to get a mortgage on an expensive boat, let alone a boat bobbing in foreign waters. So there you go. No sale for the sail.

In our case, simple mathematics tells us that if we can't sell her, we have to live on her. Why? Because to pay the mortgage, maintenance and insurance on Don Quixote is about the same as owning a standard suburban home and more than renting the same. We can't really afford to maintain two households. Don Quixote needs to be our home, or she needs to belong to someone else.

This is actually a rather interesting exercise in decision tree logic.

1) Can you sell the boat? YES | NO
- If yes, all the world is your oyster. Go have fun.
- If no, you must move aboard. Go to 2.

2) Can you live aboard without making money? YES | NO
- If yes, move back aboard and go cruising. Have fun. See you in a few years.
- If no, you must find a place to live aboard and make money. Go to 3.

3) Make a list of cities to which you can sail in the amount of time you have money left in the bank account and in which you can both live aboard and make more money:
San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Sydney, Brisbane, Auckland.

4) Branch each city and ask the following question: Do I wanna?
- If no, remove from list. Remember that saying no to some cities is politically dangerous with friends and family so be prepared to deal with the fallout.
- If yes, apply for jobs. Whichever city comes up with the best money/lifestyle choice, go there.

It feels like a bit of a rinse and repeat action with DrC once again applying for jobs abroad while I continue more or less in vain to find technical writing contracts which I can undertake from the deck of a boat any time any place. Those who play Brain Age and are on the sharps have already noticed that San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle got booted from the list since DrC is only applying for "jobs abroad." I'm afraid we are just not ready to go back to the United States. Part of me wonders if we'll ever be ready for the U.S. again since every time we're given the perfect opportunity to repent our wicked ways and return to American soil, we run screaming in the opposite direction. While this requires some introspection and probably a series of blog entries, navel gazing will have to wait.

Scenic Smell
Scenic Smell
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
There is a strong probability that DrC can renew his existing contract at a clinic near Auckland. We like this idea. It's simple, it's familiar, and it's almost a lock. But in this world of shaky economics and in the face of a dwindling supply of ready blunt in the Don Quixote bank account, "almost" is just not good enough. So we are also working to secure positions in Sydney, Brisbane, and possibly even in Samoa or the Cook Islands. All of these are attainable from the west coast of Mexico, all of these locations periodically hire American trained eye doctors, and in all of these places we can live and work on the boat. New Zealand is at the top of the list, however, mostly because our eldest child has reached that stage in life where she has a Plan of her own. This Plan is ambitious and would result in her being qualified to attend New Zealand universities before her family sails away again. And as painful as that separation is to contemplate, the strength, sanity and sheer ambition of this Plan is impressive and inspirational to the rest of the family and worthy of going a bit out of our way to enable.

Though, I'll grant you that another 2,200 miles south from Tonga is probably more than a "bit out of our way."

So as we fast approach our first spring Halloween (which is just Wrong, by the way), it is increasingly clear that s/v Don Quixote is going to join the Coconut Milk Run. Yesterday, I listed our boat with the Pacific Puddle Jumpers 2011. It's time to start ordering parts.