Monday, February 27, 2012

Working Away

We've been in New Zealand since mid-October. The original plan -- such as we plan anything any longer -- was to get DrC settled into work, the girls into school, and then I would begin the long slow process to rebuild my consulting business. When I say rebuild, it is perhaps an exaggeration. For most of my consulting life, I have made little or no attempt to be fully employed. Usually, I use contracting as a method to work part time at things I enjoy so that I can spend the rest of the time doing tasks I truly love. Whether it is raising babies, homeschooling little girls, or sailing big girls across oceans, I realize now that contracting has been for me a gateway to spending time with my children.

However, now my children do not really need me so much any longer. They need the love and the support, sure. They don't really need me to wipe their noses or pick up their toys. Granted, I didn't really ever spend much time wiping either noses or toys. I remember wiping a lot of asses, actually. Come on. You were thinking it. Someone needs to have the courage to stand up and say, "Children are about butt wiping." They are not cute or fluffy or particularly fun, especially not in those early years when the quantity of crap flowing out the back end is truly mind boggling. Seven straight years of diapers and look where it got us… ten straight years of high school girls. I am somehow failing to see how this can be interpreted as the golden statue for Lifetime Achievement in Diaper Pinning.

Yet, there they go. Strong, independent Jaime. Beautiful, talented Mera. Charming, clever Aeron. Little people all grown up into bright young ladies with not the slightest interest in whether or not I stay home as long as there are plenty of snacks in the bin when they get back to the boat after school. The adjustment to institutional school life is going much smoother this round. I don't know if this is because the schools are better, they learned a great deal about public schooling the first go in Pukekohe, they are more mature, or some combination of the above. We are only three weeks into the year, and they have already established patterns and connections which bode fair well to ensuring I never see them.

Jaime has perhaps the hardest road this year. A combination of senior year pressure and a failure to do anything strictly educational last year means that her academic load is fierce. To this she added water polo, a job, and a boy friend. Kids these days. I have no idea how she'll handle it. She might not. Look, I know it can be done. I did at least that much my junior and senior year. I just don't know if Jaime is the one to do it. My only contribution to the decision making process is to offer my support, rides to 5:30am practice, and a lesson on GTD should she choose to go ninja on her personal productivity. After that, we'll have to see what she is made of. Smart bet is she either takes me up on learning how to get organized or she selectively reduces her work load until she has the bandwidth to do it all well. The one extremely good sign is that her eyes are wide open, fully aware that she may have taken on too great a load.

While Mera's choices appear on the surface marginally less ambitious, she is something more of a perfectionist. She is enrolled in Y10 accelerate which as near as I can tell means that functionally she is a Year 11 taking her NCEA Level 1 college qualification courses this year. The academics are a larger work load than she is accustomed to. More importantly, she goes through school with an odd combination of sublime arrogance and complete lack of confidence. I can not fathom it. One minute, she's the smartest kid in the room and not afraid to let you know it. The next she is dithering and fussing and agnsting over the micro details of a paper due on Monday, fearful of tests and worried about how her teachers will respond to her presentations. The worry causes her to spend energy and time perfecting every assignment, perhaps well beyond what is strictly necessary. For extra curricular, she was cast as a Shark girl, plays badminton on the weekends, and… much to the entire family's delighted surprise… made some friends with whom she actually *gasp* does things. Our little Mera, hanging out uselessly at the mall eating bad food and browsing shops. We're so proud. Really. Sometimes we can convince her not to take her Kindle on these excursions. We all count this as a major step forward.

Aeron is no longer the baby of the family, but she does at least have the advantage of being the youngest and with thus the lightest pressure. Her middle school is only moderately challenging academically, so she is channeling her boundless energies elsewhere. Horrifying both her father and myself, she wants to take up netball. In our opinion, netball is what you get when you take cheerleaders, put them on the basketball court, and make it impossible for them to smash into one another or do anything even moderately interesting. On the other hand, it is a huge sport down here, and I suspect Aeron will prove outstanding. She's scrappy, strong, and highly athletic. She was voted her class captain last week. No surprise, really, with her empathy and charm she's a natural leader and politician. DrC and I are thoroughly underimpressed with her course of study so we're supplementing in the evenings with math and French. We'll see how she goes.
And then there is the good doctor. I was supposed to start work in January. Instead of working and starting the family down the path of putting money into accounts, I have spent the past two months either prepping for or recovering from surgery. As a result, our finances are worse than anemic. DrC stepped into the breach. He has been picking up extra shifts at every possible opportunity. When he isn't doing doctor stuff, he is scraping away -- sometimes quite literally -- at the back log of boat maintenance chores. It would be hard to be more impressed with this work ethic, diligence, and emotional strength. He is a good life partner in so many ways. It didn't take this experience to make me recognize it, but it never hurts to be reminded that I made an outstanding choice and am lucky to have him.

So that's it. While I've enjoyed some amazing professional experiences, I haven't worked full time since 2005. On ramping isn't going to be easy. On the other hand, I look like the sole slacker in a family of over-achievers. Might be time to remind these Congers where they got that hyper-activity, more is more, I-can-do-anything-better-than-you gene.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Friends of Friends

The crew of s/v Ceilydh is here in Auckland due to a completely unreasonable and absurd requirement of Australian immigration law. With very little forewarning, Evan, Diane, and Maia showed up on our transom looking for a place to stay while they sort out the kerfuffle. Unsurprisingly, they settled into our boat with grace, ease, and little disruption to our crew. Frankly, the best guests to have on a boat are fellow yachties. They know not to bring a lot of luggage and to immediately store the luggage out of the way. They never put toilet paper down the head, immediately start helping with boat chores, and when the time comes to leave the boat for the day, they don't leave the hatches open, the lights on, or their crap lying around. In fact, Ceilydh makes betters guests than my eldest daughter to whom I should probably secure everything she owns with a spring loaded, retractable tether.

The homeschool community routinely faces the question of socialization. Boat schoolers must address this issue to an even greater extent. How can we explain to land-based folk just how well socialized our children have become? Our children learn to play with kids of all ages, become instant play mates, enjoy the presence and company of adults. They can talk with anyone, share games and ideas regardless of age, race, or country of origin. Why did it not occur to me until tonight that the same processes that make my girls so capable -- such confident, well-spoken young people -- worked their magic on DrC and I as well?

Tonight as I watch Evan and Diane slip easily and comfortably into a group of Don Quixote's New Zealand friends, I recognize another truism of cruisers: We do well with strangers. Cruisers quite literally drift in and out of each others lives. We meet each other in one anchorage, have a dinner and sundowners, maybe go on a hike, and then we depart in different directions. It is a survival skill to become amiable, to take genuine interest in the lives of people known for less than a day. We learn how to be entertaining ourselves and in turn be diverted by newness, friendly and comfortable in a crowd of people formed of varying social strata, education, political or religious ideology. This isn't the artificial amiability of the politician, but rather a sincere adaptation to a transient social environment.

Just look at my husband. I remember the night years ago in Seattle when my good friend Wyatt looked at me over a glass of red and admitted, "I've known you for a long time. It's only now I think I understand why you married Dean." It took years for my husband to open up enough to let Wyatt know him, to reveal to someone outside our family the deeply sensitive, strong, and giving person inside. DrC has a wicked sense of humor, a keen and insightful intellect, and a wide ranging interest in the world. He is articulate, well read, and very current in his understanding of politics, economics, and society. But back in the day -- in those days before we become cruisers -- I was one of the only people in the world who knew this. He was shy, quiet, extremely private. At parties, he would functionally disappear, particularly in the presence of my loud, widely gesticulating, opinionated self. It was partially my fault, as I was unfortunately the obnoxious bore who would talk way too much, way too loudly, and with rarely a pause to listen. It was partially his fault, as he was a man who listened intently but almost never participated in the conversation.

Yet, here we are. I am settled on the couch listening to Deb tell me all about her broken leg. Moreover, I genuinely am interested; I am not just waiting until she takes a breath before I start in about me-me-me. Her story is actually a bit horrifying, a nasty break with lots of fits and starts in the healing process and the plot includes a great deal of morphine. My participation consists of a skill I learned from my husband, active and engaged listening, comments injected only to spur more revelations from Deb. It is such a pleasure to sit, sip my wine and listen to her voice, take inspiration from her strength both physical and emotional. In turn, DrC is actively engaged across the room sharing ideas about some dang thing with a man I know he's known for all of a half hour. His arms are waving, and he laughs at a comment while maintaining a running stream of dialog. We haven't switched places. I'm not silent, he's not loud and overwhelming, but we are also not the same people. Evan and Mark are sitting on the couch chatting about the performance characteristics of some old schooner Mark used to crew. Diane is giving Steve ideas how to get started in the travel writing business. My cruising friends have slipped seamlessly, effortlessly into this crowd of strangers. All four of us appear to be enjoying ourselves, and perhaps just as importantly give every appearance of providing interest, pleasure and mutual entertainment to the people with whom we interact.

"What about socialization?" The They of the world always ask.

"You mean ours, don't you?" I will now respond. DrC and I have finally completed our socialization, and for damn sure we didn't learn it in school. While DrC and I were out with our daughters on quiet anchorages and busy little port towns, our girls showed us what it means to be well socialized, highly functional members of society. I finally feel like a grown up.
Don Quixote and Ceilydh
Don Quixote and Ceilydh
by Toastfloats on Flickr

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Welcome Back

I am frequently asked, "How do you write so well? How does one create and maintain a successful blog? Where do the ideas come from? How do you get the words to flow?" This is perhaps the single commonality amongst every writer in the world, regardless of culture, creed, age, gender or language. We are all asked this question. If you write, particularly if you do so with any sort of success whatsoever, people who do not write want to know how you do it. They want the magic PowerPoint bullets which will transform them from a person with great ideas to a person who has written those great ideas down in a form that is entertaining, insightful, or compelling. Consistently, every author interviewed delivers a variation of the same response to this question: writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.

Writing -- whether it be scripts, music, blogs, novels, or science papers -- is work. If you do it for a living, you need to work even when the 10% chooses not to show up for the day. The problem is that while you can train diligence, inspiration is fickle. At times, the muse screams like a banshee, and a writer literally can not get the words down fast enough. Personally, I relate strongly with novelists who talk about characters who literally won't shut up, characters that have lives and notions of their own, characters that veer the story in a completely unexpected direction, characters that ruin the plot, characters that take over the book and require sequels ad nausea. In my case, articles oft times spring full grown into my head like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus. Other times, I'll start an article on one topic and an idea sends me spinning orthogonally in an entirely different direction. Good writers let this happen. A writer allows the organic flow of their creative self to take over the process. Editing, self-censorship, second thoughts all come later. The first trick is to let those ideas get out of your head, on to the page or into your music, let the fresh air blow through them and give them time to spread out. The 90% is spent cleaning up the resulting mess, paying bills, and answering fan mail.

Now if I were a professional writer (e.g. if you all PAID for these hundreds of thousands of words I've spilled over nearly six years), I would not have the luxury of failing to write for three weeks. Pretending professionalism, I have in the past queued up articles in advance of major life events just in case I could not or would not be able to post new content. It has been a point of pride, in fact, this ability to consistently deliver new material over an extended duration… A test, as it were, of my ability to masquerade as a columnist rather than as the technical writer and project management consultant I am in the Real World. However, the tumor and extensive plastic surgery required to patch me up derailed me completely. I just couldn't bring myself to do the 90% required to get articles onto the page and into the queue. Maybe my id is secretly both spiteful and incredibly vain and decided to make everyone else suffer while my face was reconstructed. Maybe facing my return to the paid work force, I was taking the first steps towards letting go of the Toast Floats project. Or, maybe I'm just lazy.

I marvel at the self-discipline of columnists and journalists who crank out articles year after year with the full knowledge that sometimes they are writing in complete absence of any interest or inspiration in their own work. The real giants in the field must somehow infuse their writing with freshness even in the presence of complete ennui, just as a Broadway actor must deliver a compelling and genuine performance even on the 100th night. Amateurs bloggers like myself, though, have the luxury of simply stopping when the 10% takes a flier. In my case, Inspiration took one look at the estimates for forehead flap surgery, told me to go to hell, and went on vacation. So lacking any self-discipline or any financial incentive or frankly even the faintest shame or remorse, I stopped.

In any case, yesterday I was at a wine festival with some of the best, warmest people in the world -- Ceilydh's Evan and Diane and Lauren of Pico -- and an article sprung full blown into my head. Another swam through my hind brain as I drifted off to sleep last night. A third smacked me literally between the eyes as my wonderful surgical nurse Susan was cleaning goo and scabs off my second nose this morning. Inspiration started whispering in my ear on the walk to the cafe. She took over as soon as I pulled up TextEdit. I started to write about the wine festival and instead this came out… these words you are reading now, written in a Starbuck's knock off in Remeura with an insanely expensive latte cooling on the table beside me.

Writers are compelled to write. The dirty little secret is that there are no PowerPoint bullets that can help you. If you don't write, you don't have to. If you write, you write because you have no choice.

Toast to Ms. Inspiration: Welcome back, babe. I missed you.