Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Science! Just Like Magic ... Except It's Real


Classic science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke is famously recorded as saying, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." And there's no other way to describe the gloriously elegant treatment that Dan received last Thursday (Dec 9) to resolve his hand tremours. 

See, we describe the tremour as a very very good "bad thing." Because 15 years ago when he had brain cancer he wasn't expected to live long enough for these to develop. So we're delighted to have encountered this.

The conventional approach involves a wire electrode implanted in the brain and a battery under the skin in the chest (think like a pacemaker), but his neurologist emphatically did not want any surgery that could be avoided. Focused Ultrasound is a new technology where hundreds of energy beams converge on a particular spot deep in the brain. Each beam alone is too weak to cause any damage, but where they intersect there is enough power to sear the spot causing the trouble. Non invasive, effective, and quick healing time. The linked article explains it pretty well; and here's a photo tour of Dan's experiences. 

We stayed the night before in a gloriously elegant old hotel in Baltimore, right near the hospital. Here's his last night of having hair (more on that later).

The hotel is the repurposed headquarters offices of the B and O Railroad. Obviously built to impress! 

Detail of a column at the hotel.

The day of the treatment started out with ... a haircut. Even a single hair could deflect one of the many energy beams that had to converge on that particular spot in the brain, so off it all came. Nurse Chris (who was excellent, competent, humorous, and calm) claimed that now they were twins. And this was an interesting, and very human moment: I had said I wasn't going to share any pictures of Dan being vulnerable. Chris disagreed -- "Sometimes these moments are also part of life. Don't pretend it's always only good." 

The renowned Dr. Eisenberg explains the frame that will hold Dan's head in place during the treatment. Dan’s case was extra complicated because they had to work around the previous brain cancer scars. Drs. Eisenberg and Fishman, mentioned in the article, were on his care team and said his case was a unique and enjoyable technical challenge because they could only use 800 or so of the 1000 beams due to that scarring. The amazing thing is that unlike the 50-60% reduction in tremour expected Dan is a whopping 80%! Overachiever! 

One measure of tremour is the ability (or lack thereof!) to trace a pen along a spiral maze without hitting the walls. Here's the "before."

The "after" is much improved; and he continued to improve after this!

With nurse Pamela's explicit permission, he was allowed a small glass of wine the next evening. Triumphantly, he was able to hold out his glass at arm's length for a toast. This is something he hadn't been able to do for years for fear of spilling.

Sweet friend Penny knitted this gorgeous hat for him when she learned they had had to shave his head in December. He said it warmed him twice - once from the thick soft wool, and again for the kind thoughts. 

And the ultimate proof -- able to hold a full coffee mug at arm's length without sloshing.

Friday, August 20, 2021

The Pandemic Pantry Part 2 -- the Actual Plan


In the restaurant industry they call it "PAR level" -- Periodic Automatic Replenishment (or "Replacement" or "Resupply" depending on who is writing the acronym). It's a pretty structured method of making sure you have enough food on hand to prepare the meals until your next reorder time, without going seriously under (missed sales and unhappy customers) or over (food spoilage and storage issues). I'm quite committed to the concept, having developed an informal version years ago when we had little money and less time, and built a computerized grocery list organized by the aisles in our grocery store with the number of boxes/cans to buy of each item, the Saturday after payday. Little did I know I was reinventing the wheel.

In suburbia, if you planned wrong and ran out of an ingredient, it's inconvenient. You might have to run out to the store unexpectedly, or pay more for it. Or you might have to change your planned meal to something else. When we were cruising, we bought what was available on the little islands, and the list was more like a general guideline or suggestion than an inventory. Exploring new food possibilities was part of the adventure, after all. But at sea, whether on our own little Cinderella or the mighty El Galeon, if you're out of food it's way more than just inconvenient -- there's no popping round to the grocery store when you're in the middle of the Atlantic! So keeping the storeroom ("gambuza" in Spanish) properly supplied was a much more rigid process.  

While we were in lockdown it was like trying to apply every aspect of pantry management, all at once. Like being at sea, our visits to the grocery store were very infrequent and limited. Like visiting small islands, not everything was in stock at all times, so we had to buy it when we found it, or improvise. We were trying to save money, and we wanted to cook extra-healthy to keep our immune systems up. Put it all together and it was ... a lot. 

But wait, wait, there's more! I had learned on the Galeon how distracting it is to have that little background buzz of "what shall we make for dinner" popping up every day around mid-afternoon -- until it was no longer there. When I was crew, dinner was whatever the cook decided, and when I was assistant chef, that was part of my actual job, not something I did in addition to my job. Well, during lockdown I just didn't have the mental bandwidth for complex meal planning. So I built a basic inventory list of about 40 core ingredients. (Drinks, snacks, spices, plus some pantry staples like oil and salt and flour, weren't included in the 40.) Meal planning became simply deciding 2 nights per week would be fish-based meals, 2 nights egg-cheese-dairy, 2 nights plant-based. We found 5 or more recipes for each category that could be made with our basic 40, and put our kitchen on autopilot for a while. Now, if you're good at math you noticed that I only accounted for 6 days. One day a week was "wildcard." Sometimes wildcard would be experimenting with something new, sometimes it would be takeout, sometimes it would be instant ramen noodles, sometimes it would be inspired by whatever looked good at the farmer's market. Just enough to keep it interesting, but not complicated. 

At the end of lockdown we had saved an impressive amount of money by not eating or drinking out, lost weight, and stayed sane and healthy. I'm posting the "Basic 40"list (feel free to copy but make it your own; remember, it's a suggestion, not a prescription!) and the titles of some of the meals that can be made. It's not a shopping list with quantities, instead it's what you want to have going into the week so you can make whatever meal you choose pretty spontaneously and know that everything you need is on hand. You take inventory before going to the grocery store, and just buy enough to bring the level of food in the pantry up to PAR. There's some seasonality; we use butternut squash in fall and winter and swap that out for cucumber in summertime; use fresh tomatoes and corn in summer instead of canned, granola instead of oatmeal, and use fresh spinach instead of frozen when it's available; it's pretty flexible. Still working on the actual recipes in fits and starts. Some are in metric and some are in English; some need to be scaled down from a quantity that will feed a crew of 25. Someday it will be a book, for now, it's just fun. 

(PAR for all = 1, except as noted; easily feeds two of us for a week no matter what we decide to eat)

garbanzo beans (2)
cannelini beans (2)
mandarin oranges (2)
chopped tomatoes (2)
tuna (2)
black olives (2)
green olives 
roasted red pepper 
green chilis
mushroom pieces

small pasta (corkscrews, macaroni)
couscous or quinoa
bread crumbs
protein powder
flour (2 c)
instant potato flakes
corn starch

green beans
cut butternut squash
cod (2 pcs)
salmon (2 pcs)

eggs (12)
block cheddar
tofu or chik'n (plant-based chicken substitute)
butter (2 sticks)
sliced almonds
yogurt (2)
cream or milk (or full-fat powdered milk) 

onion (2)
purple onion
bell pepper (2)
potato (1 lb)
bananas (8)

V-8 (4)
ginger lime ice (4)
BlackWing beer (4)
red wine (3)
cherry juice or concentrate

no dead birds boullion concentrate
coconut milk powder (3) or can
olive oil 
canola oil 
sherry vinegar
white vinegar
lemon juice
tomato paste tube
hot sauce

curry blend 
herbes de provence
fish blackening


smoothie with yogurt, banana, cherry juice, and protein powder
oatmeal (winter) or granola with yogurt (summer)

generally leftovers rolled in a tortilla, or a room-temperature salad (the "mixed" salads below are great for lunch) or tuna or egg salad, or cheese quesadilla; or veggies and couscous 


Basque scrambled eggs (or other egg-and-veggie skillet scramble)
Cheese or veggie omelet with green beans and sliced almonds
Crustless quiche (spinach and mushroom; tomato and peppers; whatever inspires)
Spanish tortilla 
Butternut squash mac-and-cheese

Fish cakes
Pasta with olives, tomato, onion and tuna
Blackened salmon with wilted spinach salad
Potaje bacalao (Spanish cod stew with potatoes and chickpeas)
Moqueca (Brazilian cod stew in a coconut milk sauce)
Lemony lentil and salmon salad*

VEGAN (some have a little crumble of cheese)
Bean soup, stew, or chili
African squash/peanut stew
Curry night -- chana masala or trini aloo, and saag paneer and basmati rice 
Stir fry with tofu and vegetables
Baked tofu Veracruzana or Caribbean jerk tofu
Chik'n and rice with vegetables
Bean and rice variations – Peruvian tacu-tacu, Mujeddrah (middle Eastern lentils, onions, and rice), red beans and rice, etc 
Spinach-feta-garbanzo pasta salad
Bean, mushroom, or lentil burgers

MIXED (hard-boiled eggs + tuna)
Papas alinas (marinated potato salad) with gazpacho*
Salade Nicoise
Traditional Spanish salad

pizza, dinner out, happy hour munchies with friends, ramen noodles, something from a can, the eggplant looked good at the farmers market so make pistou, etc. Tapas or Greek night – dolmas, olives, nuts, tzatziki*, spiced chickpeas, felafel, hummus. Breakfast burritos.

* Gazpacho, tzatziki, and lemony lentil salad also need cucumber; which is not on the basic 40 list. A  couple of soups, and the Spanish salad, also need a carrot; not on the basic 40 list. My favourite blend for stir fry includes red bell pepper, mushrooms, and tofu or chik'n (plant-based chicken) and also broccoli and zucchini (not on the basic 40 list)

Monday, August 16, 2021

When the Room is Complete Chaos (a step-by-step guide)

When the room looks like this ... 

... this is your tool kit!

Not directly boat-related, but the same approach that moved us from 3,000 square feet on land to a 33-foot sailboat I've found are helpful in other aspects of life. A couple of my land-based friends have been inundated/devastated/overwhelmed by a chaotic disaster of a room, and asked for help. 

 Not sure how to start? Here’s one approach designed to break down the "overwhelm." When you get right down to it, there are only 5 categories of things in a chaotic mess like the room above -- trash, dishes, laundry, things that belong somewhere else, things that have no home. 

So, pick up a big tote bag and a trash bag, and make 5 passes through the room. Each pass will require a bit more brain power, but by the time you get to the tougher ones your "decluttering" mental muscles will have been thoroughly flexed and ready for the challenge. 

The first step is the simplest. For #1, trash, just walk through the room picking up trash and putting it in the bag. Don't worry about anything else. No tough decisionmaking required. When you've gotten all the trash, put it out in the bin (or wherever trash goes where you are). 

Then, do #2, dishes. Walk through the room a second time. This time, pick up every dish or cup, bring it to the sink or dishwasher. Leave it there for now, you'll get back to it in a bit. We don't want to slow your momentum. 

Pass #3 is laundry. Go through the room a third time. Pick up the laundry, put it in the laundry bag/basket. Bring it to the washing machine if you have one in your house, or put it in the hall closet on it's way to the laundromat. The room by now is getting a bit better, yes? 

Time for #4, items that are out of place. Get your tote bag, walk through the room picking up the out of place items. Put them in the tote. Now, walk around the house emptying the tote and putting things in their proper places. 

Go back to the room for the last, and hardest, pass, #5, homeless things. Have you noticed that the first 3 steps were no-brainers? Then #4 needed a bit more thought? For this last step, we're going to seriously level up the decisionmaking. Take all the things that have no designated home, and put them in the tote. With them out of the way, the room should look somewhat orderly now. Congratulations! Pour yourself a cup of tea (or a glass of wine, we won't judge.) Now walk around the room with the tote bag full of homeless items in one hand and your cup in the other, define homes for the things you want to keep (whether in this room or elsewhere in the house), and put the rest by the door to donate at the next opportunity.

Congrats! You're done!

You earned this!

Saturday, July 10, 2021

The Ugliest Flip-Flops


WHY do I still have these? I got this pair of flip flops years ago, and I still have them though I never wear them. Let me tell you their story.

I got them with my friend M when we went to a launch party for a new brand of beer. The company had gone to considerable effort with the party, going so far as to close the street and truck in enough sand to make a "beach" party. (I'm not exactly sure why they did that when the real beach was just a couple of blocks away. Whatever.) The bands were excellent, there was tons of food and swag and free beer. The problem was that the beer was awful. M and I joked about how bad this beer was, it remains a running joke between us now even though she has since moved halfway around the world.  I won this pair of flip flops at that party. They are not comfortable. Really cheaply made, they don't fit right -- too long in the toes and too short in the heels. But they make up for being uncomfortable by being ugly. The soles are printed with the logo of that tasteless beer in gaudy colors. 

So, to summarize: I have flip flops I don't like, advertising a beer that I don't like, that I'm not at all sentimental about, taking up space in our storage. (Granted, they don't take a lot of space.) And I have much much better memories of friend M that I can call to mind whenever I want, photos and books and adventures we had together. So I really don't need these particular tangible reminders. Why, then, haven't they been thrown away?

Well, it's precisely because I can call M to mind whenever I want. But I have to actively decide to think about her. The ugly flip flops ambush my vision at totally random times and bring her up unexpectedly. Like she pops into my brain of her own volition, and says, "Hey, remember that time I brought the boys to your place and you went down the slide with them over and over again?" or "Remember when the Indonesian restaurant did a pop-up dinner in the middle of the mall?". Always a pleasant surprise. So that's why I still have those stupid ugly flip flops ... just for the randomness of it.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Tiny Space Storage Hack: Bolsters and Pillows That Are Really Stuff Sacks


In this small a space, we need to make every inch count. And now that we're living in the land of four seasons again, we need to store off-season clothing. Stashing it in a locker didn't work -- moisture led to mold led to ruin of my best coat. So we came up with this instead: keep them out in the open, in the air, and make them earn their keep by acting as cushions!

These "pillows" are 14 inches/35 cm square with simple button tab closures. They hold flat-folded bedsheets or towels.

This "bolster" holds my off season clothing. It's 10 inches/25 cm diameter and 19 inches/about 50 cm long. Built as a simple cylinder. It has a drawstring closure, visible in the next photo.

The innards of the "bolster." Pro tip: it's actually two bags, an inner and an outer, with a layer of batting in between to make it softer to lean against and smooth out the visual lumps from irregularly shaped clothing. The fabric that makes up the end is a lightweight ripstop nylon instead of the heavier fabric that makes up the rest of the bolster, to allow it to be tightly gathered by the drawstring without bunching.

Friday, April 2, 2021

A Tour of Our Boat (Expanded, Updated, and Talking a Bit About Storage)


Life on a sailboat! It's romantic, it's adventurous, and it's like a turtle -- very slow getting around, but when we finally get there, we have our home with us.

It's about as tiny as small-space living gets. For almost 20 years and 25,000 sea miles, we've lived on a smallish sailboat 10 meters/33 feet long. Our main living space is a single room a bit less than 3 meters x 4 meters or 9x12 feet - 10 square meters/100 square feet. The designer managed to tuck into that tiny area everything we need - a place to cook, a place to eat, a place to socialize, a place to sit and think, and a place to sleep, helped greatly by multipurpose furniture. Of course, everything is built in, and bolted down so it won't go flying if we're tossed about at sea. And storage, though some of that storage happens in weirdly-shaped or damp quirky lockers dictated by the shape of the hull. Living in such a tiny space, though, has certainly forced us to think hard about our relationship to our possessions! Here's a brief photo tour, and I'll be following it with a few posts about strategies and tricks we've come up with to make our material lives fit. 

Here's the forward half of the main living area, set in its ordinary daytime configuration. There is storage tucked everywhere, inside the table, under and behind the seats, as well as the black sliding door lockers that are visible.

If we're going to have friends over for dinner, the sides of the coffee table in the center fold out to make a big dining table.

Or we can pull out the cushions and make a cozy double bed. 

Looking in the other direction, here's the tiny galley. Even though it's small, it still has a stove, oven, fridge, two-basin sink. There's a dish cabinet over the sink, and two storage lockers behind the stove and the working counter. Lids on the counter lift up to access a fridge, freezer, and more storage. We also keep dry and canned goods in the locker behind the settee just outside of the galley on the far right of the photo. Bonus - everything is in arm's reach at all times, LOL! The stove is mounted so that it tilts and swings; always level even if we're underway. In addition to being space-efficient, the U-shape is very secure and keeps you from being tossed to the floor by waves while cooking.

Just across from the galley is the navigation station (a.k.a. my desk). Under the liftable lid are stored everything from the ship's log and nautical charts, to ordinary office supplies and checkbook. Stairs lead up and outside to the cockpit.

Here's one example of the hidden storage - my "file cabinet" inside the table. At various times in our 20 years here, these lockers have also held tools, spices, electronics, and games.

Tucked neatly into the bow of the boat is the v-berth where we normally sleep (again, with storage underneath). It's as wide as a king-size bed at the head, but our toes snuggle together at the point of the triangle. Because it completely spans the width of the boat, with those sides, we can't fall out of bed! Rails along the sides provide a bit more storage.

Here's a bit more of that storage rail that runs along to side of the bed. It's got a wooden lip to keep things from sliding off in a rough sea; we added the brass wire to secure books. We've got limited space for books, so we keep in hard copy mostly reference books; things we read linearly like novels go on the Kindle. 

Between the main cabin and the v-berth is a short hallway. On one side is our clothing lockers and dresser.

This is the inside of the largest locker. 10 hangers and 4 shelves. 

On the other side of the hallway is the bathroom ("head" in boatspeak). The sink faucet pulls out, and the entire room becomes a shower stall -- it's designed so it can get wet, and has a drain in the floor.

I'm standing outside of the bathroom to take this photo - this is all there is!

If the weather is even remotely nice, though, we spend most of our time outdoors in the cockpit. And here's how we like it best, filled with friends! The guy in the gold shirt on the tall helmsman's seat, is the one who taught us how to sail. And though you can't really tell it from the photo, each side bench is long enough to stretch out and sleep on. And once again, the seat covers lift up to provide storage underneath. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Nothing Gold Can Stay


A crew member in the rigging of Pride of Baltimore casts his shadow on the sail.
(Photo by David Sites, image edited to black-and-white by me)

In the rigging of the Nao Santa Maria, in 2019 when it was my turn --
the magic already fading to gray in my memory.

My mind is a little collage of quotes and images swirling, but all on a common theme. Nothing great lasts forever; the glory days inevitably end; longing to still be living them; and knowing they will never really exist again that way (if they were even ever real). Words like the Portuguese saudade and its Welsh cousin hidraeth that articulate this melancholy homesick longing for what is lost. Quotes like “Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened;” and “How lucky we are, to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard;” and the Robert Frost poem that this blog post is titled after, one of the first poems that I loved enough to memorize back in high school, and never forgot.

Pride of Baltimore tall ship came in to the Annapolis harbor for the weekend and we went down to watch. We knew there were no deck tours offered, due to Covid, but I thought maybe to tiptoe back into the tall ship circuit, chat with one of the crew from dockside and swap a few tales. How their cook almost lured ours away during reciprocal ship tours in Philadelphia because they had such a well appointed galley compared to ours; or seeing them anchored at sunset as we shared a safe harbor at Matane in Quebec awaiting Hurricane Dorian. 

But that was not to happen. We weren't visibly part of the tall ship community any more. To the crew on board we were just ordinary dockside passers-by in jeans and navy blue windbreakers gazing at the ship.  Not even enough eye contact for the crew onboard to realize that those jackets we wore bore the logos of fellow tall ships. The crew was busy, coiling lines, stitching sails, oiling leather. We know those jobs! We've been the ones climbing in the rigging, scrubbing the decks, and answering for the nth time the curious questions of the slightly-awed public on the docks. But those jobs were being done by someone else now, not us. Perhaps that's the way of anything you accomplish if you try for greatness. Eventually those golden days always end, the world goes on, and you're on the outside looking in.

A couple of old pirates, sharing confidences on the midnight watch
 (charcoal sketch by KC Cali)

Dan has been working at recasting our pirate characters' back stories for our new location and an English, rather than Spanish, heritage. So now these two characters were the ship's carpenter and the (cross-dressed, disguised) navigator on an English merchant ship that had been captured by the Spanish, and we worked aboard those Spanish ships for many years, and finally, in St Augustine, Florida, managed to leave, and make our way back to English territory in the Chesapeake. We made those characters “retired” pirates though, they are settling down and no longer dream of going back to the wild, high seas. Feels a bit melancholy to frame our characters in that context, and at the same time it gives us a platform for our Spanish cultural history explanations, and also is a story that makes sense of our ages – at 70 it's sort of ludicrous to portray a woman disguised as a young boy. Surprisingly, it also feels very comforting. A chapter is ending and it's time to turn the page and see how the next part of the story unfolds. It really was time ... better to retire while our former colleagues regret our departure than wait until they're relieved to be rid of us! But it still makes me more than a little sad; from here it's hard to imagine what that next chapter could possibly be, to rival the excitement of the previous one. Which is just exactly the point -- we've lucked into some incredible adventures, that deeply changed us, and the best way to honor them is to share those stories. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

Masks: Life Imitates Art

 I'm (weirdly) finding that other than the issue of my glasses fogging, I like masks. 

Sailboats, anchors, shooting stars, birds ... our masks express our personalities as much as they express our commitment to staying safe.

I have face-blindness. Not horribly bad, but enough so that it's difficult for me to immediately recognize people especially when they're out of their proper context – running into my doctor in the grocery store,  for example. I loved working for DoD – everyone had their name right on their uniform! And, typically, found it challenging when people were allowed to wear business casual to work on Fridays and the last two weeks of December.

So with everyone wearing masks and a little harder to recognize, my difficulty with faces is not so obvious. It's a great equalizer. And more; the masks themselves became a clue. My friend B. always wears a bright red mask and that makes it very easy for me to know it's her even when I can't see her face. I'm reminded of a science fiction story I read as a kid where everyone personalized their standard issue black and white space suit helmet so they could be recognized at a distance. Cheeky pink polka dots, or tiger stripes, or neon green, whatever, both practical and an expression of their personality. 

Life imitates art? Here we are in 2020 living that children's story. Very early in the lockdown we made ourselves a pair of masks by cutting up a pair of old tight-weave cotton pants. Then my wonderfully talented equaintance-turned-IRL-friend T. made us a set that are unique and reflect our interests. Now if I could just find that spaceship, I figure that living on Cinderella for 18+ years has given us lots of practice. 

These were made for a (tiny, socially distant) outdoor wedding. Decades from now, when the grandkids look at the wedding pictures, they'll be able to definitively date the event -- "That's so 2020!"

T. was really well-positioned to take this on; when she's not busy making face masks, T. does some incredible fabric art.