Monday, April 15, 2013

Onboard with Gratitude

Gratitude Time

A former coworker I taught high school with had a truly tragic childhood, and in recent years, she has done a lot of traveling, writing, and healthy living from the inside out. Her writing has centered a lot on being grateful, so I’ve been catching the fever from her. There are a hundred ways to look at one’s life situation, and I try to see the positive aspects of my choice to raise my family on a sailboat, even on hard days. It's really not too hard...

Isolation can be very good!

  • I’m grateful that I don’t have to worry about bombs going off downtown.
  • I’m grateful that I can be grateful for things like strawberries. They’re so much sweeter when they’re scarce. You can’t imagine how my kids’ faces light up at the prospect of a mere peach.
  • I’m grateful that I can go days without touching land and weeks without riding in a car. For that matter, I’m grateful my kids don’t spend hours a day bored, commuting in a car. They’ve sailed hundreds more miles than they’ve driven (while sailing they can walk around, go to the bathroom, have meals, sleep in their beds, play with any of their toys, etc. without leaving home) and they know how to walk, ride a scooter, and politely refuse a ride. Still working on the 3 year-old’s swimming skills.
  • I’m grateful that I don’t have the temptation of cable tv, good shopping malls, or other useless drains on my time and money.
  • I'm grateful that when I see a beautiful sunset, it's not because it's laden with pollution. It's the real thing!!
  • Stars. Nothing like an isolated anchorage, surrounded by stars.
  • OK, OK, and I'm grateful for the app that tells me what I'm looking at when I point it at the sky! 
  • I’m grateful I don’t have to live near people who stink or disapprove of my life choices. I can always reset the anchor somewhere else.

Homeschooling rocks-- literally!

  • I’m grateful that when my kids have a question, they aren’t afraid to ask their teacher (me) or feel embarrassed by their classmates’ reactions (sisters can be very supportive).
  • I’m grateful when I know the answer, and proud to teach them that it’s OK if any of us is unsure or wrong at first. We aren’t afraid to “ask the googler.”
  • I'm grateful that my husband supports my efforts to raise and teach our kids instead of taking a lucrative job that might not promote happiness in the home. 
  • I’m grateful that I know other home school families who meet at the beach every week and have equally outlandish ideas about raising their children.  
  • I’m grateful I don’t have to drag myself and kids out of bed before 6:30, rush through breakfast, stress out about being late, dinghy in the rain, and so on and so on….
  • I’m grateful my kids aren’t learning obnoxious behavior from other kids on a daily basis.
  • I’m grateful that, since she has been learning at home, no one has told my older daughter she can’t learn a particular skill because she is too young, not ready, or not anything else. They are way too young to have their ambitions squashed!
  • I’m grateful that when we’re not too busy, we can go sailing, snorkeling, or hiking without the guilt of missing school. Some of our greatest academic feats occur after dinner or on weekends.
  • I’m grateful that on one seemingly unproductive day last week, I looked back and remembered that my kids learned how to fold sheets by watching and emulating the Dominican women of the Laundromat, and later that day a marine biologist swam up to us with a sea urchin in his hand and proceeded to give them a fun, interesting, and relevant lesson.

Off The Grid

  • I’m grateful that when power outages cripple the island’s homes and businesses, we’re sipping a cold drink while charging our phones.
  • I’m grateful that my kids know how to conserve water, turn off lights, only print what they really want, and so on. While it’s natural to want to give our children the world, it’s sometimes better when we can’t.
  • I’m grateful to not have to pay an outrageous local power bill. Homes and businesses all over are having their power turned off because they can’t pay the exorbitant bills.
  • I’m grateful that we have had the means to install a few solar panels and will be extra grateful when our wind generator is fixed.

My Captain

  • I’m grateful that I have a husband who hauls water via dinghy from the fuel dock to our boat every day and never once complains.
  • I'm grateful that he has always made home comforts aboard a priority for me.
  • I’m grateful for the way he steers the boat right up to a mooring with barely a hand signal from me up on the bow.
  • I’m grateful he bought the girls fishing poles and spends time on deck fishing with them.
  • I’m grateful that in new island situations, he has no problem grabbing our passports and finding the nearest grocery, laundry, and customs office.
  • I’m grateful for the thousands of boat worries he wears on his own shoulders because I’m not wise or helpful enough to know to worry about half of those things.

There are hundreds of other things I’m grateful for, but it's dark outside, I’m about to run out of laptop power, and I don’t want to put myself in a position where I’m tempted to become ungrateful. Goodnight, and I hope you, too, can find a few things in your life to be grateful for.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Going for The Gold-- I mean the Green!

I once sat at the work lunch table and listened while a coworker described her “colorful” uncle- -someone who made lunchtime chatter more interesting, but definitely someone you needed to keep your distance from in real life. Another coworker asked the niece, “Oh, does he live off the grid, too?” Hmm, what was that supposed to mean? I wondered. That only far-out weirdos live off the grid? Didn’t the same guy who put that question out there run our environmental club??

I know I’ve written about this topic before, but I have to say that one of the most attractive aspects of our lifestyle has to be living off the grid. Furthermore, I hope that in my lifetime I will get the chance to see the tables turned whereby more people in civilized countries live off the grid than on. When I think about how our bodies can heal themselves, how we have such a variety of available foods that nourish us, and how we have so many renewable resources available for us to use to make electricity for us, I feel downright spiritual! We have everything we need if we only use these things correctly, responsibly, and respectfully.

It seems like there almost needs to be some sort of true global energy crisis ($4-5 a gallon for gas isn’t enough of a crisis, apparently) before people are forced to look to other energy sources. How is it that after a hurricane the only people in the islands with clean bodies and ice in their drinks are the boaters? It’s because we’re too cheap to live at a marina, so we live on moorings or on the hook and have to use solar and wind to make our refrigerators and laptops work! So it’s a necessity, but it’s also a choice. Believe me, real live-aboard boaters often work and have savings like the rest of the world, but fixing anything on a boat is super expensive, so it’s hard to get ahead sometimes. I won’t bore you with those details. And I won’t delve into my disbelief at what people in the US Virgin Islands actually pay for their government-run energy source in their homes and places of work because it’s nothing short of appalling. 

I can’t pretend I don’t turn my boat’s engine on to get where I need to go when the wind doesn’t cooperate, nor will I say I don’t run an outboard engine off of my dinghy to get around. Of course I do those things, because barring accessible alternative fuels, it’s my reality right now. In the summer when we go to a marina’s slip, though, I’m seriously thinking about insisting we try to not use any shore power. Horrible as it sounds, I like microwave popcorn, real toasters, and flat-screen tvs. C’mon, who doesn’t? But just because I can have those things in my life, it doesn’t mean I have to, and that’s a critical difference in the way we as a consumer society live versus they way we can consciously choose to live. Everyone has a place to begin. It could be taking a shorter shower, only heating the room you are in, or being better about turning off the tv when you aren’t watching. 

Over the past year, we have had to be vigilant about our power consumption because our boat’s batteries were not holding a charge as well as they should have been. So that fabulous extra solar panel (see prior blog) hasn’t been doing that much for us, actually. And the wind generator has been broken all through the glorious, extended Christmas Winds this season. There have been (too numerous) days where we admittedly had to turn on the engine to charge up our batteries. It broke my heart from both from an environmental  point of view as well as from a mindset disruptor vehicle (kids got grumpy and I was shorter tempered, I think, with the engine running in place). 

Yesterday, all that changed, I think. We made it to Fajardo, PR where there is a state-side marine shop. Long story short, my husband swapped out our old batteries for new ones, hooked them up right away, and they are currently holding a fantastic charge!!  When the wind generator is fixed, we will be unstoppable! At least for our meager needs. And that’s the whole thing, really. If you can only afford 150-200 watts worth of solar panels, then live within your means. It won’t kill you or your kids.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Opti Sailing Lessons

One of the things that sometimes nags at me in the back of my mind when I think about raising our children in a relatively remote area is the idea that they won’t have enough opportunities to excel in a specific field like they would if we were located in a sizable US city. What if she’s meant to be the world’s greatest harpist, or ice skater? Who would train her?? I guess it’s because I grew up in a city with ample opportunities for sports and the arts, and I was fortunate enough to be supported to follow my interests that I worry about these things. Maybe every parent suspects her son or daughter could be destined for greatness—if only given the chance. I don’t know. I do recognize that I think my children are exceptional, and just knowing that I think that way helps me curb some of my, um, enthusiasm (a little, anyway). Hey, I love them, and I think you would like them, too.

But the good news is that I’ve started to look at things a little differently the last few days. For one thing, I think it’s more important to excel at being a human being above all else. To do that, you need happy parents who talk with you and listen to you and set reasonable boundaries. By spending a lot of time together, I feel like we’re able to help guide them in this way. This is the hope, anyway, and our live-aboard lifestyle gives us the proximity to be extremely involved in their personal development if we so choose.

The other thing is that those little Romanian girls are awesome gymnasts, not because Romanian girls are naturally better than other country’s girls at the sport of gymnastics but because the culture perhaps focuses a bit more on it than in other places, and they have serious coaches to support it. More surfers come from Hawaii, and more skiers come from Vermont. That’s just the way it goes, because the environment naturally lends itself to those types of activities. If you think about it, environment can add a lot of fuel to addiction, crime, academic success, anything really.  

So here we are in the Caribbean with a little girl who is interested in everything. Violin, soccer, ballet, art, swimming, languages, you name it, and she wants to be involved. Well at age 5, you’re crazy to try it all at once, as much as you may be tempted to. Finances and time aside, you don’t want the kid to burn out on things too quickly.

So back to the “natural environment” thing, swimming lessons make sense. Olympic swimmer? Probably not. Confident swimmer who has fun swimming with other kids and feels safe around safe water situations? Yes, oh yes! That’s our goal, and we’re pretty much there with Halina. Lessons are mainly for stroke development and time hanging with other kids. And it never really occurred to me much until recently, but sailing without Mom and Dad makes sense, too. We happened to meet this awesome woman who runs a new sailing school in Red Hook and organizes the brand new Montessori sailing team, so we talked to her, and despite Halina only weighing about 35 pounds, we all agreed she might do well with a couple private lessons to see if she would be a good fit for group lessons with the other kids after school.

We live on a sailboat and we actually go sailing all the time, so it makes sense that she should develop an understanding of the fundamentals of what it is we’re doing out on the water all day. And we don’t want her to feel like it’s a mandatory family activity she’s tagging along for. We want her to have her own sailing identity and appreciation for the sport. Having the instruction come from someone else is usually a good idea when teaching a loved one something that is near and dear to your heart. My husband brilliantly set me up with a nice, cute sailing instructor when I was starting out on purpose. Hey, motivation to please and not look like an idiot can sometimes go a long way when you’re trying to learn something! And I wasn’t about to argue with him or cry when I got frustrated. I don’t think there’s educational research to back this up, but just trust me on this one.

Anyway, Halina jumped up and down 500 times when we set the date for her first lesson. Her instructor was to be this nice 8th grade boy named Scott, the sailing school operator’s son.  He just got back from an international Opti competition in Florida where he ranked 23rd out of 250 sailors. Another friend’s seven year-old son had had a lesson with him and really liked it, so he came recommended. I had talked extensively with his mom, and she and I are on the same page in terms of education philosophy. She said that because Halina weighs so little and is only five, Scott would be in the boat with her the first lesson or so. Next, he would probably hang off the back (these are little Opti’s), and if she did alright by herself, she could join group lessons when they start later in January. Perfect! I’ll wait at least a couple days to push for Sailing Team membership and checking into the minimum age for national racing.

Wait! There, I did it. I AM one of those moms. And my husband is one of those dads, I have to say. Did I see a tear come to his eye when she hopped into the BVI-sponsored Opti named “Shrimp” and take off towards Vessup Beach? Did we not both about explode with delight when Scott said he’d never had a student catch on so quickly—or how about when Halina told us her favorite part of the lesson was “changing sides” (tacking,  honey, tacking!)? While I didn’t get into sailing til I started dating my husband some 12 years ago, he went to sailing camp with all the other local kids, so he grew up with it in his bones. I guess there’s something about seeing your kid do well with something that’s near and dear to you--especially when they really enjoy it, too. Halina had a ball out there. She listened, she looked comfortable, she had fun, she learned, and she felt like she accomplished something great. With all those good feelings running around, it’s easy to forget that there’s no harp instructor on the island.     

Friday, January 4, 2013

Toys and Other Amusements Aboard

Here’s a topic of interest people considering moving aboard with their kids or starting a family might think about: space and toys. Though it hasn’t always been the case for me, I have become somewhat of a minimalist. I’ve been known to pack one duffle bag for what became two years in Europe, a mini backpack and shoulder bag for two weeks in Italy, and so on. When I enter houses where kids live, my eyes widen with amazement with not just how many toys the kids have, but also with how, in a house with many, many rooms, the toys are allowed in all rooms of the house. It’s not a judgment, friends, it’s just different to me, and I am clearly in the minority.

If you’re thinking of living on a boat with kids, you might want to join my minority, as well. For one thing, it’s an absolute hazard to have legos lurking near the bottom of a dark companionway. Hard items not stowed properly under sail will themselves wind up sailing about the cabin. And when your dining seating doubles as your living seating (and possibly someone’s berth), you’ll end up having to shift those pesky plastic items around, anyway.

But the children….Yes, children need toys, and not just because they are fun. If you get the right ones, they can be great for their development, and they can teach how to play alone or in small groups (ie, give Mommy and Daddy a break). Toys without 100 pieces are great while underway and not busy learning about sailing, nature, or playing games such as 20 Questions or I-Spy. Once in a while I’ll read to the kids on passage, but I tend towards motion-sickness when reading and moving, so I usually save this for time at an anchorage.
So, yes, on a day to day basis, toys are an essential part of life, especially for small kids (ours are currently 3 and 5), so how does one safely manage it? Every family is different. Some go for electronic games and their kids have their own mini dvd players. Personally, I think that just about anything in moderation is OK-- it’s just a matter of what you feel moderation is. For us, we sometimes let the kids watch a (carefully chosen) dvd when the batteries are topped off and we need peace to have adult conversation or have both hands on a boat project. It’s not every day, so I don’t feel too bad about it. When they are engaged in stimulating activity, I’ve noticed that they don’t miss tv or videos for a second. iPads and whatnot are more or less in the same category to me because it’s all screen time, though I feel less guilty about one of them playing a learn-to-read game on my phone for ten minutes than I do having them watch some form of mindless entertainment. It’s all what parents feel comfortable with, and I think the key is to be deliberate in what you allow in or not.

Where we used to store canned goods and canvas under the dining area seats, we now have two compartments dedicated to the kids’ active amusement. Just today, while looking for something in the “toy bin,” I noticed that many of the items are puzzles. Our older daughter loves them, and the younger one is starting to like them and be able to do more of them, so we keep them pretty well stocked. In there are also Polly Pockets (little dolls with rubber clothing—just got one that has a snorkel , mask, and fins), a small castle, foam letter and number puzzles (takes the place of magnetic letters—though I do have a nice board that is chalk/magnetic on one side and dry erase on the other).  A small domino and checkers set are in there, as are the plastic dinosaur and elephant.  Next to this under-seat compartment is the “craft bin.” Here, I keep paints, rubber stamps, special paper, sticker books, extra markers and crayons, the chalk board, play dough, and craft or project items such as this jewelry making kit someone just gave us, paper bag hand puppet materials, and so on. In an ideal world, they would be comfortable lifting the seat cushions, moving the seat board, and digging in there for what they need. I keep prime items on top for when they get the urge, but I usually end up digging out what they are going to use, myself. The upside to that is this: “OK, I’ll be happy to get the castle out. Hand me the case with the Polly Pockets in it, please, and I’ll put it away when I get out the castle.” This way, only one toy set per child is out at a time, and it’s not as hard to monitor. It also helps kids focus on what they chose.

What gets tough is the volume of toy, especially around holidays. All I can say is pick wisely. Even though Grandma will likely ignore everything on your “suggested toys” list, providing something like that might help get her into the mindset of looking for small items that pack a punch. I was in a great preschool group where the parents got together once a week to discuss child development. Before the holidays, we all shared some of our favorite toys, so I got a lot of good ideas there. For example, big Lego sets might not be practical onboard, but Magnetiles might fulfill a similar need and take up less space. Similarly, we recent got a Lego/book set that fits in a large freezer bag and has 17 pieces that make 4 or 5 toys. Whenever we get a new puzzle or game that’s in a cardboard box, we replace the box with a ziplock bag. If necessary, I’ll cut out the cover or box’s picture and keep it in the baggie.

Books are also a big part of our life aboard. Our shelves were once stocked with all of our favorite grown-up books on boat maintenance, great novels to read one day, bird guides, and so on. We have pared down our own book collection, though, and tried to move to an e-reader for current books. Now, we keep a lot of children’s books on shelves where they can reach them themselves. I recently revamped the big shelf under the companionway steps also to feature a few dozen of our favorite books as well as their beginning reading book collection. They stay in place well with one bungie around them. I just have to be vigilant about closing the hatch when rain comes through—don’t want to soak the books! So far, this is working out well. Magazines and activity-oriented books such as Highlights and math workbooks are kept in a tote bag hanging on the small window handle in our older daughter’s room. They could be more accessible, so I’m going to have the think about that one. Hanging nearby is the doctor coat and “doctor supplies” (toy stethoscope and whatnot). They have a great time fixing the occasional boo-boo.  

Lately, we’re into card games, so we keep them, along with some crayons, in a small rack sort of thing under the magazine rack. The magazine rack has recently been transformed into the coloring book rack since our five year-old could color all day. The kids can pick these out themselves, easily. I realize it’s a fine line to walk: you want them to be able to pick things out themselves, but you don’t want total chaos, either. But hey, if your child has ever gone to school, they aren’t allowed to just pull things off of shelves and not clean up when they’re done, right? Home can be the same way, and on a boat it’s a total necessity. 

There are other ways to let them feel control over their environment. When we established their berths, we had them help put up stickers. Removable decals are a good option so that you can change as their interests change and not ruin your walls. We even had a purple painting session last year with our older one’s room, though I have to say it didn’t stick so well on the walls. 

So my best advice is to try to find as many ways as you can to both contain the chaos while at the same time allow the kids to have free access to stimulating toys and activity supplies. Please leave your comments if you have other ideas for good compact toys or how to store them!