Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Surprising Things You Need to Survive an Ice Storm with Three Teenage Boys

The library is closed. 

I survived the great Ice Storm of 2013 and so can you!

Icepocalypse 2013 arrived north of Dallas late Thursday night. I woke up to the sound of what I thought was gunfire. It turned out to be trees, breaking under the weight of ice half an inch thick. We still had power. I rolled over and went back to sleep. What? School was cancelled for the day. If you think I wasn't going to take advantage of not having to get three boys out the door, you're crazy.

Our backyard icicles.


The backyard was a popsicle when I looked outside our kitchen window Friday morning. Everything was encased in ice. The trees drooped. One of our peach trees still stood proudly, the other looked like a wilted house plant someone forgot to water. Our driveway, covered by arching limbs that provide shade, had become an icy tomb for my car. Limbs hung heavily, inches away from the car's roof. Other limbs had snapped, blocking the way. I wouldn't be going anywhere.

Happy Peach Tree

Sad Peach Tree

Can you see my car buried in there?

Those are icicles on the flag. Really.

The Redhead. The only one awake before noon.

I walked up and down our street, mug of coffee in hand, astonished at the number of ancient oaks that had split under the weight of ice.

Our street

One of my favorite trees right next door

It's a goner.

I tried to talk a neighbor out of driving to work and discovered that the rest of the street had been without power all night. I felt lucky. Neighbors came over and warmed up in our still cozy house. I made a pot of chili. Just as I finished, we lost power. I didn't feel so lucky.

Our three teenage boys had been wandering the street, busting up anything encased in ice. Seriously. I had to confiscate a baseball bat from The Redhead and explain that plastic and wood will shatter if you hit it in freezing temperatures. They tried sledding down a hill with the lid from an ice chest and cardboard boxes. It worked about as well as you might think. The Redhead and Thing 2 talked me into walking the few blocks downtown to buy sleds at the only store that was open: The Ski Shop. They were doing a brisk business selling all things winter while everything else was shuttered. I had no idea that, for $30.00, I was buying my sanity for the next 50 hours.

And that brings me to the things that became absolutely essential to surviving Icepocalypse 2013 with three teenage boys. I've listed them in order of importance.

1) Sleds

Worth every penny and the dangerous trek downtown over icy sidewalks, sleds saved me. The boys were completely entertained, flying down nearby hills on plastic saucers. They stayed out for hours with other kids from the street, leaving me to fret over how to keep the pipes from freezing as temperatures hovered a few degrees above single digits. Thing 1 made a modified snowboard by removing the wheels from his skateboard. Genius. They came home only when they were too cold to stand it any more and to eat. Which brings me to my next item.

2) Beans

I can't tell you how grateful I was for the cans of beans we had stocked in our pantry. We ate baked beans, black beans, and refried beans. We ate them in chili, with cut up hot dogs and cheese, and plain. They're easy to heat up (we had a gas stove that we could light with matches), allergy friendly, and filling. There were consequences as a result of our legume-exclusive diet that could not be avoided. It was worth it.

3) A Fireplace

I had forsaken our fireplace last winter because it didn't draw correctly and we got smoked out of our living room. It was a frivolous item in Texas, I had decided. We didn't really need it. I cleaned that sucker out this spring and threw away the bulky fire screen and log grate. I thought about decorating it with pillar candles. And now I was kicking myself.

It was our only source of heat, smoky or not. Aquaman had carefully stacked logs he'd collected on the side of the house in various places. They were covered in ice now and I didn't know if they'd burn. But I thought back to our days in Alaska where we heated our home with a wood stove. We had cords of wood stacked up outside and it was certainly exposed to the snow and ice there. So I went and dug under the top layer of wood and found dry logs and hauled them in. I opened the flue all the way, crumpled up old paper grocery sacks underneath the wood, and lit a match. It burned the paper and went out. The Redhead wandered in and get this - brought me a Duraflame log from his room. I'm not kidding. You never know what those boys have in their room. He said it was left over from a camping trip. A kind neighbor also brought me a bag of Pinon wood. We soon had a roaring fire, which I tried to sit in front of nonstop over the next two days that we were without power.

I am sorry for all the nasty things I said about you, Fireplace.

4) Books

When the power goes out and school is cancelled and your car is frozen and everything is closed and it's too dangerous to travel on the icy roads, you have a lot of free time. I used it to catch up on reading. It was quite pleasant under piles of blankets in front of the fire. I finished Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. At night, we all huddled as close to the fire as we could and I read aloud with a flashlight. It got dark by 5:30. After we ate our beans, there wasn't much else to do while we tried to stay warm. I am a huge proponent of reading aloud - not just to children - to everyone. Icepocalypse gave me a captive audience. We breezed through Lois Lowry's Gossamer, a lovely book. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are reading The Giver in their 7th grade English class so it was nice to read something else from the same author.

5) A Dog

Yellow Dog was in heaven. There were no cars going up and down our street and few people, so she was free to be off leash, pursuing boys on sleds. She was exhausted each night. The ice took a toll on her paws and nails, but she's recovering. She was more than willing to snuggle up with me in front of the fire and help keep me warm.

"I will keep you warm, my human."

Other things that were pretty nice to have? A gas stove, gas water heater, sleeping bags rated to -20F, awesome neighbors, batteries and matches, flashlights and candles, and a hand crank radio.

At the height of the storm, there were 250,000 people without power. So I was very glad to see this outside our door Saturday night:

The line truck. 

The power came back on and I jumped out from underneath the blankets and ran around blowing out candles and turning on lights. I was just about to start the dishwasher when it went out again. This was hard on the psyche. The thermostat in the hall read 35 degrees. That's right. Inside the house it was close to freezing.

I took a picture because I knew Aquaman wouldn't believe me.

You have power! For 10 minutes!

Thing 2 after power was restored and then cut off again.

We ended up in another heap in front of the fire, but I migrated to my bedroom with a sleeping bag. Sleeping inches away from teenagers full of beans is not ideal. Around midnight, friends out sledding showed up on our porch and insisted that we come stay with them. They had never lost power. I was cold. And tired. I gave in. I left the fire to die and faucets dripping and hoped for the best. I slept great at their house and had a hot shower the next morning. We went to check on our house Sunday at noon and found the power had just come back on.

We had survived. The boys said it was just as well that the power was back because it had warmed up enough that the sledding was no longer any good. Thing 2 plopped himself back in front of the xBox, Thing 1 in front of the laptop, and The Redhead in front of the iPad. Back to normal. School was cancelled again Monday. When Tuesday rolled around, I was willing to dig my car out of the ice to get them there for the two-hour delayed start. I didn't care how icy the roads still were - I was getting them back to school.  

I think it's safe to say that I have forgotten all my Alaska survival skills. It makes me a bit nostalgic, but also thankful that I no longer have to work so hard just to get through daily life. I don't even have the right gear anymore - no Sorel boots, no North Face jacket and pants, no proper socks and gloves. If I'm really honest with myself, I might admit that what I thought were my Alaska survival skills are really Aquaman's Alaska survival skills. He was stuck out on a shrimp boat while we were in Icemageddon, but I know if he had been landside, he would've excelled at keeping the fire going, wielding a chain saw to clear limbs, and holding his own sledding with the boys. Most importantly, he would've kept me warm.

Four days, three teenage boys, one dog, no power and no husband. That's one for the record books.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"All is Lost" was Lost on Me

Aquaman left on a shrimp boat today for a month or so. We all hope he'll be home in time for Christmas. Before he left, we rushed to see a movie that was high on our list.

I had high hopes for All is Lost, the film starring Robert Redford aboard a doomed sailboat. I must tell you that I can watch Robert Redford all day long. The Natural is one of my favorite movies - I even have the soundtrack. Don't even get me started on The Sting (also have the soundtrack), Out of Africa, The Way We Were, A River Runs Through It, Legal Eagles, Up Close & Personal - not to mention the films I only remember seeing as my folks watched them: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, The Great Gatsby, A Bridge Too Far and Downhill Racer. He is a Hollywood icon. Besides being easy on the eyes and a damn good actor, he is also the one to thank for the Sundance FilmFestival and the Sundance Channel. Oh, I almost forgot the Sundance Catalog. He's classy. Like I said, high hopes.

I - and Aquaman - along with The Redhead, Thing 1 and Thing 2 - were very disappointed. And here's why:

1) You don't even know the guy's name.

Seriously. It is never stated. They aren't kidding when they say he is the only actor in the movie. In the credits, he is simply listed as "Our Man."

2) There's no reason to care about this guy.

The film begins with "Our Man" reading a letter he has written - from whence the line "All is lost." comes. But we don't know who the letter is to. He's apologizing, but we don't know for what. Blech. We also don't know why in the hell he's out in the middle of the Indian Ocean, how long he's been there, where he came from, and where he's going to. I need these details, people. I need to know my character.

3) There's no backup handheld radio.

Here's where the fact that I'm married to a marine biologist probably began to ruin things for me. I see Aquaman charge his handheld radio before every trip on any kind of boat. I've been on a sailboat with him in Prince William Sound, Alaska, and while I know little to nothing about sailing, I do know enough to know that there is navigational equipment on board that very well could have been ruined by water pouring in when the sailboat is hit by a floating container, as is portrayed in the film. And I know enough to know that any sailor worth his salt would have a backup, battery-powered radio. Which leads me to my next point.


For the benefit of those of you who are not mariners nor married to one, you may not know what an EPIRB is. I'll enlighten you. It's an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon. Aquaman is REQUIRED to have one on him when he is offshore in his gig as a Fisheries Observer. These lifesavers interface with an international satellite system for search and rescue. Since 1982, they have become commonplace and you can get them at any store like West Marine (whose name was stickered across a pole used in the first 5 minutes of the movie. Great product placement.). An EPIRB can be activated manually, by a crash, or a sinking. Aquaman also had one as a Ski Patrol member in Alaska for Avalanche Search and Rescue and planes also have them. I only know what I've picked up just by being around coastal towns and extreme environments, and even I know the rudimentary basics of this. But here's a visual that explains things much better.

Illustration from the Coast Guard Compass, the official blog of the US Coast Guard.

An EPIRB transmits a signal with location data (because you're required by the FCC to register it) that is quickly transmitted to a national authority -  most commonly the Coast Guard. But even an unregistered beacon is better than no beacon. Not only are there EPIRBs for your person (like Aquaman has) but most vessels have one mounted that is automatically deployed with increased water pressure that would happen in a sinking. It is legally required on all US commercial fishing vessels, uninspected passenger vessels carrying more than 6 people and uninspected commercial vessels. So technically, "Our Man" didn't have to have one. But most, if not all, sailors setting off for the Indian Ocean alone would.

So here's where All is Lost lost me. There was no personal EPIRB nor vessel EPIRB and there was no explanation as to why.

5) The sextant he saved was useless for navigation when he finally pulled it out.

"Our Man" goes to great effort to save a mysterious package from his sinking sailboat that turns out to contain a beautiful, unused sextant. It is presumably a gift from someone - but "Our Man" only briefly looks at the card and sets it aside, leaving us still unsatisfied as to any human connection he may have. He also has a book, a guide to celestial navigation. Navigation is impossible at this point. He is floating on a life raft. He should have used the sextant and book in the first hour that he awoke to find his electronics destroyed aboard the Virginia Jean. All it can do for him at this point in the movie is make him aware of where he is drifting - which is into a shipping channel. He can't do anything about it. But he can at least keep an eye and ear out for huge ships that might spot him. Which he does. In my opinion, this should have been made clear. He is not navigating. He is merely determining his location - over which he has no control.

I won't spoil things for you by telling you the ending, not because I hope you'll go see the movie, but because I still love Robert Redford. I blame myself, you see. In regards to boat-y stuff, I just know too much - purely by osmosis. The life of the wife of a marine biologist. Sniff.

I will recommend another movie, also boat related (technically, a ship), that is excellent and based on a true story.

I adore Tom Hanks. I watch Castaway any time I'm flipping through channels and it is on. I can't even begin to list all of the movies he has been in that I love, but Apollo 13 and Philadelphia come to mind. I have loved him since Bosom Buddies. He is superb in this film. I love that it is based on the book written by the real Captain Phillips, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS and Dangerous Days at Sea. I don't know anything about pirates, and a dear friend of mine whose husband actually travels these seas as a ship's captain might be able to point out all kinds of Hollywood inaccuracies in this film like I just did in All is Lost, but somehow I doubt it. It is gripping and left me wondering when in the hell we will develop regulations that better protect the wheelhouse on huge ships.

Sadly, All is Lost wasn't my first disappointing experience with movies about the sea.

The first time I saw The Perfect Storm was in a movie theater in Anchorage. I loved it. It was riveting and also based on a true story and the excellent book by Sebastien Junger. Do I even need to go into my infatuation with Mark Wahlberg? I'll spare you. The second time I saw The Perfect Storm was in a makeshift theater in Cordova, Alaska - a small fishing village where we lived for eight years. The room was full of commercial fishermen. Real fishermen. And you should have heard them. "That never would've happened!" they shouted at the screen. "He would've had his survival suit on 20 minutes ago," they informed me out of the corners of their mouths. Inaccuracy after inaccuracy, so obvious to these fishermen, had been undetectable to me in the theater weeks before. But you know what? I still love that movie. You care about the characters and you're rooting for that little New England fishing village. I once heard Linda Greenlaw, the only female swordfish boat captain in the US who is portrayed in the movie by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, speak at a conference in Portland, Maine. She was wonderful to hear and has written numerous books about the sea.

Now I'm thinking it wasn't such a good idea to start talking about The Perfect Storm and other movies depicting the dangers at sea when Aquaman headed out into the Gulf of Mexico a few hours ago in rough seas.

I'll never learn.

Monday, October 14, 2013

The influence of a good man: Dr. Sammy Ray

The sad news that Dr. Sammy Ray had died reached me this afternoon. He was 94 years old, a long run for anyone. And yet my hand flew to my mouth and I gasped in surprise. I guess I just expected him to always be there.

We saw him a few summers ago at the grocery store in Galveston. He was using one of those machines to check his blood pressure. He saw Aquaman and recognized him from his time as a student at TAMUG. We didn't want to bother him, but he was glad to see us and we ended up talking to him for 30 minutes, us standing and him sitting on the bench of that blood pressure machine, cane in hand. Aquaman had some questions to ask him about oysters and the drought and water quality. Listening to him speak was like being in a library, flipping through books. I was humbled in his presence, hanging on his every word about the drought and what it meant for Texas, especially the coast. While I had come across Sammy Ray in my work with the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, I wasn't a former student like Aquaman, who still has the binder from his Aquamed class in 1990.

Yes. I said 1990.

That's Sammy Ray on the agenda - doing his thing.

Sammy Ray took the time to ask me about teaching and to tell me how important it was. He asked about Aquaman's new job and that led to another conversation about NOAA and the Fisheries Observer Program and then he told us both this:

"Find what you love to do and you'll never work another day in your life." 

It stuck with me. I wrote it down later. I've seen variations of it since, but it meant the most coming from him.

He was legendary on the Texas A&M at Galveston campus. Every time I saw him speak, he received standing ovations from the audience: conferences, meetings, lecture halls. He was brilliant, yes. But what set him apart was that he was approachable. No ivory tower syndrome there. He loved students and always found time to talk to them - to really talk to them, not just lecture. He so enjoyed his work every day that he never really retired, it was in his blood and his very being. It was who he was.

He left a legacy that our oldest son was introduced to this summer. Sammy Ray started SeaCamp, it was his baby and he nurtured it and helped it grow into what it is today. We saved and planned for a year in advance and got on the waiting list as soon as we could (Yep. There's a waiting list.) so that The Redhead could go to the session that focused on Marine Engineering.

Aquaman and I met aboard the Texas Clipper, part of TAMUG's Summer School at Sea program in the summer of 1989. Going back there with The Redhead was quite an experience.

The poster Prep Cadets were given in 1989.

With the anchor from the Texas Clipper in 2013.

Just like my dad before me, I made sure that letters arrived for The Redhead while he was there.

Of course I have Aggie stationery. Don't be ridiculous.

We didn't hear from him all week. We knew this was a good sign. When we picked him up, he was all smiles. He led us around the campus as if we'd never been there.

"There's the library," he pointed out.

"Um. Yeah. I worked there for a year," Aquaman told him.

"And there's the cafeteria," The Redhead added.

"I worked there, too," Aquaman explained.  "My dorm was that one over there and I had classes here and here," he said, pointing.

"Wow!" The Redhead had never been so interested. He continued his tour, telling us the things he had done that week. "So I really, really want to go here now," he told us. "For sure."

And that was the point - it's what Sammy Ray knew. If you got kids hooked by bringing them there and letting them learn and explore, they would stay engaged. If you encouraged their interests, it would pay off. Not just for them or you, but for the greater good.

During my time in Alaska, I learned that when a Tribal elder dies, people often say it's as if a library has burned down. All that knowledge - all the things done and seen - gone forever. It is a catastrophic loss and reason to mourn.

But in this case, because of a body of work and a lifetime dedicated to educating others, I don't think it's true. Sammy Ray may be gone, but his work will never be. That's the influence of a good man.

Well done, Sammy Ray. Well done.

Second generation Sea Aggie.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

I'm with the Band

If you don't have this album yet, go get it. 

My Junior year at boarding school, I was assigned a new roommate. We had never met before and yet we somehow instantly connected. After no time at all, we were inseparable. We stayed up late listening to music. I thought I was a music lover, but this girl - this girl - she introduced me to The Cure. She got me in the habit of falling asleep listening to music like Level 42 and Yaz and Tom Tom Club, Talking Heads and Suzanne Vega and Peter, Paul, and Mary. We would write down lyrics and obsess over their meanings and marvel at how in the world Robert Smith knew exactly how we felt at any moment in time. We would take our double cassette recorder jam boxes and splice together our favorite lines from favorite songs until it was a 30 minute collage of teenage angst. We made each other mix tapes - of course we did. She took me to my first concert at - get this - Madison Square Garden. The band was Squeeze, not that it mattered. How's that for a first concert experience?

We graduated the next year and I never saw her again. She went to college, I went to college. We talked on the phone once or twice. Then nothing until 2009 and Facebook. She could see bits and pieces of my life and I could see glimpses into hers. I wasn't sure what she'd ended up doing exactly, but I knew it was in the music business. She traveled a lot, touring with Lady GaGa, Madonna, Dave Matthews Band, Hootie & the Blowfish, Glee, and Dancing With the Stars. Her incredible knowledge of music looked like it had led her somewhere perfect for her.

We finally live near a major metroplex, so it worked out that her touring schedule this year brought her somewhere that we could actually meet up. Twenty-four years later.

She called me and left a message - her voice was lower than I remembered and she called me by my maiden name. It's kind of cool when someone does that. They knew you way back when. We met for lunch but barely ate because we couldn't stop talking. We had both been through things. Serious shit. And yet weirdly similar. It was as if no time had passed. We laughed at our ridiculously stupid younger selves. And I brought something:

High School Yearbook. 

Our yearbook from Junior year. Some of the pictures are pretty funny. Mostly because we had a lot of damn hair.

There we are. 2nd row center. Angie (l) and Me (r). Basketball.

Front row. Me (l) and Angie (r). Softball.

But here's the best part. She had signed my yearbook and it was basically a timeline of every cool thing we did that year. We read over it. Out loud. And remembered.

I dug out an old photo album and brought it along, too.

The time flew by. She was getting texts from the band and had stuff to do. She offered to set aside some tickets for me and the boys for the concert that night. Listening to her stories that afternoon, I realized just how accomplished she was in her career. She was the tour manager for major bands and she had worked hard to get there. It was so her. And while I have been to quite a few concerts in my day since my first experience at Madison Square Garden, I had never been with my children - who are now big ol' teenagers - and never had VIP access.

She met us behind the building with these:

The key to the city. For real. 
And another one.

Just for kicks.
We both realized that she had taken me to my first concert and was now taking my three boys to their first concert. How cool is that?

Second generation concert inductees.

I look ecstatic. Just another day at the office for Angie.

We got to walk around backstage before the opening band went on. We were treated like family. We had dinner sitting at the table next to the singer and bass player. They signed my album cover and photos and the guitar player's dad gave the boys signed guitar pics later.

It was too intimate to even think about taking a photo. We played it cool. We sat at a private table during the concert, next to another band member's grandparents. It was an amazing view.

Angie was able to sneak out and see us, which was awesome. But you know what was really, really, completely fantastic? To walk out of the VIP area, through the crowd, all the way up to the stage where big, burly guys are standing guard while saying, "Excuse me, excuse me," as I pushed past people looking annoyed and flashing my VIP badge and having the Security guy move aside and say, "Right this way, ma'am." That's the very definition of awesome. "Excuse me, but I'm with the band."

And this band. This band. If you don't have this album yet, go out and buy it immediately. It was released a little over a year ago and it has just exploded. Because it's musical genius, that's why. The first song I heard was "It's Time" and it's still my favorite. But "Demons" and "On Top of the World" have gotten under my skin. The whole album is terrific. Don't doubt me. And the icing on the cake? They're really nice guys.

The concert ended and we got to see all that goes in to breaking down a stage and loading things up. We walked out a back entrance where big buses were waiting for everything and everybody to drive all night to the next gig. There were fans waiting behind barriers, wondering who in the hell we were with the personal escort up close and personal where they were not allowed. It was delicious.

But re-connecting with someone who had been a very best friend when I was 16 and 17 meant even more. It is valuable to look back at where you've been to understand where you're going. Another friend of mine once told me that we are our truest selves at about 10 years old - before the world rushes in with its expectations and disappointments. So whatever you did that made you happy when you were 10? That's what you should be doing with your life. So to see that someone I had known and loved and lived with and shared so much with was doing exactly that was inspiring. And to have her encourage me in my writing and to remind me that it was what I had always wanted to do...Well, it's exactly what I needed.

Thanks, Angie, for helping me remember who I am.