Saturday, April 25, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: Up

I should have been born a bird, because I love being up in the air.  I like skyscrapers and mountain hikes, and in any boat situation, I'm usually the one volunteering to climb the mast.  On our own boat, we have a TopClimber, which allows either of us to go up unaided, although the other one often helps manage the secondary safety line.  Back in Annapolis we'd climb just for the fun of it.

Here's what "going up the mast" looks like on an ordinary sailboat in a marina

And the view from the top, from our marina in Annapolis

Now that we're hanging out with El Galeon, though, the scale of everything is magnified.  The Galeon is about 5 times the length of our boat, and the mast is more than twice as tall.  I had hoped to have pix from the crow's nest to include in this post, but I haven't made it to climb the rigging yet, my back is being funky. So instead I give you pix of my friends aboard.

This ship is huge!

Climbing up the rigging

There's a person in the crow's nest, can you see her? This is on my list for my next adventure as soon as my body permits.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: Too Many "Things"

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

Waaaaay too many grooming products! This is what I removed; enough to fill an entire liquor carton.

Dan's working on carpentry on El Galeon today, leaving me alone on the boat to write.  Or rather, to procrastinate doing any actual writing.  Remember I said before, when I was writing on the letter "D" that it was time to declutter and downsize again?  Well, I was so desperate to not write that instead, I decided to start that project by cleaning out the bathroom ("head").

We have, by boat standards, a great deal of storage space there in the head: one drawer the size of a shoebox, two narrow shelves, and a locker that could probably hold a case of wine.  I realize that by land standards, this doesn't sound like very much for two people.  But then, part of the benefit to me of living afloat is that our focus is turned away from the huge obsession with appearances that seemed so prevalent in our land lives.  We don't have complex grooming routines; in fact, we're almost obsessed with the opposite, with plainness, as I discovered when I realized I was becoming my historical alter-ego Seaspray. Thankfully we don't have medical issues requiring a lot of lotions, pills, or potions, either.  A toothbrush, a bar of soap, and a bottle of sunscreen ... what else could we possibly need? Yet somehow, those lockers are full.  How could we possibly have filled those lockers to capacity?  No, beyond capacity, all the way to stuffocation.

I boldly decided to find out, so I started by completely emptying the lockers.  There were a few things that were simply out of place -- I found a pair of earplugs, spare lead for a mechanical pencil, a wine bottle opener.  In a bathroom the size of a telephone booth?  How did that happen?  There were also some things that appeared excessive on the surface, but were legitimate back-stock.  Dan loves a particular sunscreen that we can only get on Aruba, so we bought a year's supply (4 bottles).

But then I got to "the rest of the story."  Seven half-used bottles of different kinds of hair products, including some that were specific to my long, chemically-straightened hair. Which I cut off and went short and natural, oh, in around 2013.  A dried-up tube of lipstick that I got when my friend Jenn was selling Mary Kay.  That was when we both lived in Michigan.  But we moved away in 2002, which means that lipstick is probably 15 years old! Numerous brands of bug spray, each with a different kind of active ingredient, from chemical DEET to organic lavendar oil and everything in between. Okay, that made a kind of sense, since as we travel there are different types of critters in different regions, but still -- enough is enough! Lots of toothbrushes.  We get new ones every time we go to the dentist, and apparently we haven't been changing them out as regularly as we should.

One thing I realized that was holding me back, was that with each item I was considering getting rid of, I was debating how to deal with it.  Was it really trash, or was it donation-worthy, or was it something we should put in storage for now, because we'd need it again in a different season or location?  You know all those organizing sites that tell you to approach a project like this with a bunch of labeled boxes -- keep, not sure, donate, mend, trash, etc?  That approach didn't work for me.  So I decoupled "do I still want this in the head now?" from "what should I do with it?" The first question has a simple yes/no answer, the second had many more options.  Indeed, once I had that insight, the work flew by.  Or maybe it was just that I really really didn't want to write?

When I was done, I had filled an entire box with things that didn't belong in the bathroom, or at least, our bathroom.  I categorized, and came up with a microcosm of all the reasons for clutter that apply anywhere, and on a much larger scale than just the bathroom:

  • Failed experiments: Things we tried and didn't like, but couldn't figure out what to do with the rest of the bottle. Throwing it away would be wasteful, but who would we give it away to?  For that matter, why would I give a friend something that I didn't think was wonderful?  Yuck.  If I'm going to give something to a friend, it should be the best of its kind that I know of, not the leftovers.  Guess these can go away.
  • Planning for every possible contingency: Things we needed once and might use again, however unlikely.  We're keeping them "just in case."  I found some extra packaged pre-moistened wash cloths that we used after Dan's brain surgery 9 years ago.  They might be helpful if we ever go into extreme water conservation mode, I guess.  Just in case.  Except they dried up, even through the packages.  And in 13 years of living aboard, we've never been that short of water.  Guess these can go away.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Things that reflected not who I actually am, but images of who I wish I was.  I'm just not the kind of person who will do a 5-step skin care routine twice a day every day.  Even if it makes my skin feel slightly better than soap, water, and an infrequent moisturizer, I'm just not structured enough to do the other. That expensive system just sits in its basket on the counter, gathering dust and looking at me reproachfully.  Guess these also, can go away.
  • Freebies and travel sizes: Free samples of heavily-scented laundry products?  Um, no thanks, I prefer the unsmelly versions.  So the other just sits, taking up space and stinking up the locker, until I "forget" the packet in some marina laundry room somewhere.  And for the rest of the single-serving size products?  You know, I get lots of these from random hotels or welcome packages, but I'm not really going to use some weird off-brand.  If we're just going on a short trip, I'll decant off small amounts of our favorite products into travel-size bottles to use.  Guess the freebies, too, can go away.

 My next goal is to use the same logic and insights I gained on my clothing locker, on the galley, a few other categories aboard, but not on books or tools -- you can never have too many books or tools!

Simple.  Yeah, this is more my style!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: S is for ...

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

There are so many things in this world that I really like that start with "S."

There are sunsets

We took the dinghy to get this photo of El Galeon docked at St Augustine City Marina, 21 April 2015

and sunrises

I will be forever grateful to our dog Mandy for many things, one of which was waking me up in time to see this sunrise, Northport, Michigan (our hailing port), summer 1999

and scuba diving

Aruba, February 2013. Photo by Manon Hautman.  

and sailing

Approaching Thomas Point Lighthouse, Annapolis, Maryland, September 2009

and souffles
(image and recipe from here)

and South Carolina

Wrought-iron gate, Charleston, SC, April 2010

and snow, especially when seen from inside a cozy cabin

(Image available for download from here)

(and sex, but I'm not posting a picture for that)

I don't like excessive structure (too confining) and at the other extreme, I don't like orchestrated surprises (too contrived).  In the middle ground is spontaneity, just being able to go with the flow and respond to cool opportunities as they happen.  But my favorite things of all that starts with S is synchronicity.  Sometimes things just work out. Dan and I "met cute" at the office water cooler (same building, different employers).  The life afloat seems a particularly good breeding ground for spontaneous connections. There are so many stories of cool cruiser friendships that happened because of the simple coincidence that two boats were in the same anchorage or marina at the same time.  We got hooked up with our whole crazy history career because we met Grace in the ship's store one afternoon, and with the Spanish galleon because we happened to be getting our mail at the same time as their then-events-manager.  It's fantastic to be in a port that a lot of people visit, we have learned to always keep a good supply of snacks for impromptu happy hours because distant friends show up unexpectedly fairly frequently on good-weather days during the spring and fall migration seasons -- a literal case of learning to expect the unexpected! 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: Red Red Wine ... Is Absolutely Fine!

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

(source: I found this image all over the internet, including here and here)

Nothing I like better than sitting in the cockpit drinking a glass of wine to celebrate the sunset. Unless it's drinking two glasses of wine, with friends.  Scary stories have been circulating recently about arsenic in inexpensive California wine.   The whole "crisis" encapsulates all my frustrations about working in application of science to public policy a decade ago.

Please don't buy into this wine scare silliness. This is such junk science.  There's so many things wrong with the story, I'm not sure where to start.  So I'll start with the most basic.

First, they are using the wrong standard.  The levels of arsenic that they are reporting as potentially problematic are based on drinking water standards. Those standards are calculated based on drinking the recommended 8 glasses of water per day, every day of your life, for 70 years. But that's water. It makes no sense to worry about arsenic at that level in wine, because we'd be talking about someone who drinks 3 bottles of wine (13 glasses!) Every.Single.Day. That's how much wine you'd have to drink for arsenic at the drinking water level to potentially hurt you. But of course if you're drinking 3 bottles of wine per day, you've got much bigger problems.  You'd die of cirrhosis of the liver long before you had problems from the arsenic!  Canada understands this; their standard for arsenic in wine is ten times the US drinking water  standard.  The concentration of arsenic in highest wine noted in the lawsuit is well below the Canadian standard.  In fact, it's only about half the Canadian.  The European standard for wine is even higher, twice the Canadian.  (source)

Second, there are other scientific problems. There are different forms of arsenic and their toxicity varies greatly.  "...most simple organic arsenic compounds (such as methyl and dimethyl compounds) are less toxic than the inorganic forms and that some complex organic arsenic compounds are virtually non-toxic..." (source) The articles about the lawsuit don't say which variety they have tested for, or whether they separated them at all.

"A large source of total arsenic comes from the food we eat. However, most of the arsenic in food is in an organic (carbon containing) form which is much less harmful than the inorganic arsenic found primarily in groundwater. Some foods also contain inorganic arsenic but the main exposure to inorganic arsenic is normally from consuming water." (source
I'm pretty sure grapes are a food, so presumably they have the less-dangerous organic form of arsenic in their juice, while the drinking water standard is set to protect against the more-dangerous inorganic form.  (edited to add: This article at least mentions the organic/inorganic distinction, but they don't quantify how much is inorganic except to say "unacceptable."  What does unacceptable mean? Unacceptable to who?  What is the actual concentration?  They should state it.  Unless they can't, because the number isn't scary enough.)

Third, another scientific problem is that there are many things we don't understand about arsenic metabolism.  We know that some populations are more sensitive than others. People in Bangladesh, and high in the Andes, drink water with arsenic concentrations one hundred times the US limit with no apparent ill effect. (source) This may be because of genetic predisposition on the part of these people, or a kind of adaptation as their bodies learned to deal with the arsenic, but either way it hints that it will be complicated to develop a single number for a standard to protect everyone.

Fourth, wine gets its flavors from the complex terrior, the climate and the chemistry of the soil the grapes grow in.  Which means if you plant the same grapes in a different place, you get a different wine. Arsenic occurs naturally in soil and water, more in some geologies than others.  (source) Then it gets taken up in the plants grown in that soil and watered with that water.  It's unjust to imply that the companies' sloppy (or nefarious!) practices are to blame for its presence in their product.  But it does make good media sales, to point to a villain.

Fifth, the guy filing the lawsuit is far from a disinterested party here.  He could gain financially by fomenting this scare...a lot.  He owns a food-testing company, so there's a major problem with conflict of interest there; my favorite article summing up the problem explains.  (source) One of my contacts in the wine industry stated that this guy who brought the suit has done this kind of thing before.  In fact I'm surprised he was even judged to have legal standing to file a suit, since neither he nor anyone else has ever proved, or even claimed, that they were actually harmed by arsenic in wine. (source)

And with all that, a lot of politics went into setting the US and state drinking water standards at the level they are. I was the person supervising the scientists who were doing to research to develop those standards back around 1998-2002, so I've got the inside scoop.  Bottom line: pour yourself a glass of (nice California red) wine and relax about this issue. Unless you've got some unusual sensitivity or underlying condition, this is not a problem, ever.

Blogging from A to Z: Q is for the Hardest Question

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

Someday, we'll have to reenter settled society.  But where?

What's next?

My friend Krysty Anne recently asked me if Dan and I ever talk about settling in the Caribbean or St. Augustine or Annapolis for good. "You make it sound like such a great place . . would that be a viable idea though?" she wondered.  She didn't realize it, but that was the hardest question she could have asked.

Moving off the boat, and settling in a house? Someday of course when we're old and feeble we will have to decrease our range, move ashore, but...  Even if it was a waterfront property with a spectacular view -- not that that is likely on our incomes -- and even though the idea of unlimited hot water and electricity, and no longer worrying about storms and weather is appealing, and even though having a car again would be convenient, and even though there are lots of opportunities that occur only because we've been in one place long enough to make the enabling connections, still the idea of picking just one place to live gives me chills.

You say "stability," I hear "confinement." You say "continuity," I hear "boredom." You say, "putting down roots," I hear "lockdown" and "chains."

We both love it here, but settling permanently anywhere, "swallowing the anchor" as we say, is just too scary a commitment.  We've found lots of good places, that we enjoy ... but no one place that we're sure is the best place.  We both feel way too young to settle!  Anywhere we are for an extended period, we look at each other and imagine being there long term, and watching the slow change of the seasons, and say, hmm, we're happy here, maybe this could be it.  But then, we start to wonder if there's something even better, just over the horizon, and new things to learn and see, new ways to be.

So, is that unwillingness to settle down a great bold character trait; or does it mask a restless failure to make a decision and commit to anything, and in the end we'd have nothing?  We've talked about getting a van or RV in addition to the boat, and as we get older being able to take some vacations inland.  Or house-sitting for people all over the world, traveling with just what fits in our backpacks? Someday, I might event want to a garden.  And a cat.  And a house with a white picket fence. I might want to go to the same grocery store every week, so I know where to find the mustard.  Routine.  And predictability.  Someday.  But that "someday" isn't something in our immediate future.  And for that, I'm glad.

Blogging from A to Z: Playing Pirate

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

"Bring me that horizon!"
At the helm of the H.M.S. Bounty, a few months before she sank off Cape Hatteras
I can't exactly explain how we ended up with these lockers full of period-accurate clothing, except to say my friend Grace was the first instigator.  From the first, we insisted on clothing that was historically plausible for "ordinary sailors" instead of flashy.  The cost to go that route, especially for the battle-ready swords, still makes me cringe.  At the same time, that extra investment yielded an appearance that has certainly opened doors to many unusual adventures for us.

We've talked about real historical pirates, men and women, and sixteenth-century navigation techniques, to schools and libraries.  We've posed for countless photos with tourists.  We've had opportunities as tour guides on historic tall ships, first an unexpected few days on the H.M.S. Bounty in Annapolis, and most recently the magnificent El Galeon docked here in St Augustine.  Most of all, we've met people we never would have met otherwise: crew members from the ships, new friends, and other historical and pirate reenactors.

Meeting namesake friend Jaye in Beaufort after we'd been facebook friends for years

I don’t really have a lot of qualms about being perceived as glorifying the bad guys. I learned from other historical-reenactor friends, you meet the kids where they are. Do what it takes to get their attention, get them hooked on history, and then use that as a springboard for the messages you really want to deliver. (at Croakerfest, Oriental, NC)

We even took our friends Mike and Lori to get their first pirate garb when they visited St Augustine

At the St Augustine pirate gathering, just a day after we arrived last November

More from the St Augustine gathering

Dressing two of our El Galeon friends in our garb for some fun times (photo by Teaira Marque) 
Photographer Teaira Marque looks better in my "lady" garb than I do.  Doesn't she look like she's eagerly anticipating some plunder?

My friend Grace started it all

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: O is for Open Ocean, Of Course

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

Our friends James and Ellen, crossing the Gulf Stream with us in 2009

When we moved away from Colorado to start on the path to living aboard a boat, I knew I'd miss the Rocky Mountains, and their changing moods, hourly it seemed, and the seasons.  I've written before about running out of words to describe the many shades of blue, and especially that blue, clear and pure in the Gulf Stream.  My collected pictures show greens and grays as well as blues, oranges of sunrise and sunset, dolphins and sea turtles.  Limited by the camera's inability to take night photos, I have no pictures except in my memories of shooting stars or phosphorescence.  Then again, I also have no pictures of rough seas or lightning storms; generally I was just too busy hanging on in those times to take photos! Do I still miss the mountains?  Absolutely!  But now I realize that if we left here, I'd miss the ocean more.

Motoring on a foggy autumn morning on the ICW

Anticipating a stormy night on the Atlantic off the coast of Delaware

Catching a photo of dolphins accompanying a sailboat in Florida

Quiet sunset in the Caribbean

A single sailboat heading out at dawn

Sunset at sea on my very first offshore overnight passage

Blogging from A to Z: November

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

November has always been my favorite month.  After the activity of summer and autumn, November for me is a time of snuggling down, quiet and reflective and cozy.  There's winter to look forward to, going slow and turning focus inward. There's the post-harvest celebration of Thanksgiving and family and friends, mugs of soup or stew.  And, okay, I'll admit it, anticipation of presents to come in December. ;)

Since we've started cruising, though, November just hasn't given me the same snuggly feeling.  Since we're always traveling in a bubble of 70 degree weather, moving north in the summer and south in the winter, we don't feel the rhythm of the seasons.  My bio-clock has seriously lost its calibration.  An unexpected -- although admittedly minor -- downside of being a snowbird.

What my Novembers look like now; stormy sky above and anchorage in Georgia

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Blogging from A to Z: M Is Also For Money

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

Well, if you're gonna dream, dream BIG! (image from here)
I've written before about our cost of living afloat.  We live pretty well on $2500 per month, not that that is a very challenging budget for two adults. But a few times, even with that seemingly generous budget, we've also put some big chunks on credit cards.  We're smart enough to know better, really! Surprisingly, smart people are even more likely than people of ordinary intelligence to fall into this trap, according to a recent article in the BBC.

It's not like we built that debt on high living.  Ever since getting out of grad school with $30K in credit card debt, we've had policies for what we're willing to go into debt for, and there are only 3 categories.

Health and Safety: Whether the car needs new snow tires, or Dan needs brain surgery, some things won't wait.  And we tended to interpret that definition broadly; new anchor chain and physical therapy both qualified.

Things that will increase in value: Our educations, and real estate, both fit in this category.

Truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences: In other words, things that couldn't be postponed. We flew to the Virgin Islands for the turn of the millenium, and flew to Aruba to see a total eclipse of the sun, the last of the 20th century.  When my mom was dying of cancer, I ran up insane phone bills talking to her every morning that I couldn't be there in person, as well as lots of frequent flyer miles between Denver and New York.  Weddings?  Grandchildren or godchildren being born?  Like the Mastercard commercial says, some memories are priceless.

Still, somehow, those not-paid-off balances have trickled up in the last year.  Combination of an unexpected huge expense to replace the whole-house air conditioning system in our rental house (In Phoenix, Arizona. At the beginning of summer.), and the extensive boat work we did in Oriental, NC, put us into the red.  Yesterday, April 15, when the rest of the US was lamenting income tax day, we saw our refund arrive electronically in our checking account.  Today, it went out again, along with a small debt-consolidation loan.  Looks like we're going to keep a low profile for a while until we're back in balance.  Um, unless some other once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes up?  That seems to happen often with the spontaneity of our life afloat!

Blogging from A to Z: Micro-Decisions

During April, I'm participating in the Blogging from A to Z challenge -- one alphabet-themed post per day, starting with A is for Aruba Aftermath and ending with Z is for ... I don't know yet what Z is for, I'll figure it out when I get there.

Too many choices, about things that aren't really important, are exhausting. (image from here)

Yesterday, in doing a roundup of my favorite posts from my first couple of years writing Life Afloat, I was reminded about the topic of wasting energy on decisions that ultimately make no difference in the grand scheme of things.  I called these "micro-decisions," and my examples were about too many varieties of mustard, and too many different coffee mugs in the cabinet, are detailed in a post called Plenty.*  Decisions take work and sap mental energy.

Now the concept of saving mental energy by limiting choices seems to be sweeping the Internet. It's the consistent theme of the Project333 clothing challenge, and of course armies have been telling their soldiers exactly what to wear for hundreds of years.  My own experiment with restricting myself to 33 items of clothing for 3 months was fun and insight-producing, but several recent articles have detailed people who have chosen to restrict their sartorial range is even more drastically.  My favorite of these is The Science of Simplicity: Why Successful People Wear the Same Thing Every Day; similar takes on the idea are here and here.  A less successful experiment, by a woman who wore the same outfit every day, serves as a way to fine-tune the uniform thesis.  Instead of a forgettable fade into the background look such as blue jeans and a black tee shirt, her outfit was beautiful, and memorable, which is what led to her problems.  The same would be true of mustard -- if you're only going to have one, make it a pleasant and subtle, not overly dramatic, flavor.  (The same idea -- that if you're only going to have one "x," make it unremarkable so it fits as many situations as possible -- is not, however, true of coffee mugs.  If I'm only going to have one ... I want it to be the biggest and best insulated thing I can wrap my hand around!)

So, this whole idea of living better by having fewer choices about unimportant stuff? It's a natural and mandatory side-effect of living on a boat.  We just don't have the space to make it otherwise!

* "Plenty" was first written for the newspaper April 12, 2010, and copied to this blog as an archive almost a year later when the newspaper changed their web format and old stories would otherwise be lost.  So, hey!  I had the idea first and I can prove it!* (Insert silly face icon here; I'm not really the first to have had this idea.)