Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

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Location: Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, United States

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A millionaire changed my tire

Well, he wasn’t a millionaire at the time, but still …

Last Thursday, it was announced that the previous night’s $62.8 million Powerball lottery’s winning ticket had been sold in New Mexico, but details wouldn’t be released until after the winner came forward.

This morning, as I was driving to the marina to meet Tadpole for dockmaster duty, I was listening to the local radio station, and the news was exciting.

First, the winning ticket had been sold at a convenience store in Chama, one where I occasionally buy a ticket when the jackpot gets big – yeah, I know it’s an almost certain losing proposition, but, hey, I’m making a 78-cent donation to scholarships each time I buy a ticket, and the other 22 cents is the entertainment value of fantasizing what I’d do if I won.

Second, the winner was somebody in Los Ojos. That’s the official mailing address of Five O’Clock Somewhere. It’s not exactly big, so there was a good chance that the winner would be somebody I knew.

However, the radio station manager had promised the winner that he wouldn’t identify him by name until the official press conference at lottery headquarters in Albuquerque. I sat in my car on the point above the marina, listening to the radio, waiting … waiting … and the press conference got postponed … and postponed … and finally I gave up and went on down to the docks to join Tadpole on dockmaster duty. Not that there was much going on – the only people around were the people who preceded us as dockmasters and the people who, come Saturday, will be relieving us as dockmasters, and the winds were too stiff for their water-ballasted boats.

So as the day waned, I left Tadpole camped out on the point above the marina and came back to Five O’Clock Somewhere to look up the identity of the winner.

Just about exactly three years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, we had taken the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad on its opening weekend. When we got back to the Expedition in the parking lot, we discovered it had a flat tire. Pat had recently broken his wrist, and it was rigged up in a complicated splint structure, so we called for service. Felipe Piña showed up and changed our tire.

Now he’s gone from being the owner of a struggling auto-repair shop to being a multi-millionaire. We had met him only on that one occasion, but according to the friends and neighbors that the television news people interviewed, the Powerball jackpot couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. He was always willing to help people who needed it, always willing to go the extra mile.

He said he’s always had the dream of buying old cars and fixing them up. Now we may see some interesting wheels rolling through the Chama Valley.

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Moonflower

A rose is a rose is a rose, but for this flower, semantics matters



New Mexico has been greatly blessed with rain this spring. Normally, springtime means wind, more wind, harsh wind, and very little moisture. The winds suck everything dry. But this year, we have had rain in the springtime. Lots of rain.

When desert plants get rain, they make the most of it. Suddenly, a landscape that used to be desolate, like the dark side of the moon, bursts into bloom. In the Chihuahuan desert surrounding T or C, this spring has been spectacular. There are plants, such as the ocotillo, that look like dead sticks most of the time, but this year, they have leaves and blossoms. Agave, the plant from which tequila is made, is also known as the century plant because it supposedly sends up a thick stalk of blossoms only once every hundred years – that’s an exaggeration, but in reality, it stores up water for many years and then sends up a stalk when it gets sufficient moisture. This year, agaves all over T or C are sending up stalks, which grow as much as a foot a day.

Another plant that is teeming this year is the moonflower. In the desert, in the night, in the dark, these huge, trumpet-shaped blossoms seem to glow on their own, standing out from the shadows. They bloom at night, folding up tightly during the day so as not to lose moisture to the harsh sun. Daytime flowers are brightly colored, in order to attract the bees and hummingbirds and other creatures that pollinate them, but nighttime flowers are pale, ghostly white, so they will stand out for the nighttime pollinators. For smaller flowers, that means moths, but for the moonflower, bats do the job.

The moonflower goes by many names, and exploring those names gives a lesson in semantics – yes, all of those names refer to the same plant, datura candida, but each name carries a different connotation.

Moonflower: beautiful, ethereal, romantic. Carlos Santana composed an evocative sound picture that captures this image.

Sacred datura: a hallucinogenic plant used in Native American rituals. A shaman might use the plant to induce visions, but the practice is extremely dangerous – datura is a highly toxic alkaloid that is deadly even in very small doses.

Jimson weed: a term that completely ignores the beauty of the plant.

Nightshade: Yes, this term has the connotations that fit the nature of the plant. It’s beautiful, but it’s also deadly. It’s a thing of darkness, poisonous, but also, we can’t resist it.

Angel’s trumpet: I have to think that somebody composing cheerful garden catalogs has to be guilty of coming up with this name. Something that blooms in the dark of night, that is pollinated by bats, that is so seriously poisonous, can’t possibly have anything to do with angels.

The photo above comes from Kiernan Joliat, who has made her work available through a Creative Commons license. Here’s a link to Joliat’s original photo: Datura flower - pretty, but poisonous.

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Memorial Weekend, great sailing, and a lonely cat

We really racked up the miles, too

Last Thursday, we packed up, left provisions for Dulce, and headed north with Black Magic, stopping along the way to hand Tadpole off to his grandparents for some quality time in between other activities. We arrived at the lake late that night, dropped the boat off in the State Park parking lot, then headed to Five O’Clock Somewhere for a good night’s sleep.

Friday, we rigged and launched the boat, under cloudy skies that threatened rain. Pat also accepted delivery at the marina of a dump-truck load of gravel to apply to the trail leading down the hill to the marina, in order to make it more passable in wet weather, which we’ve had unseasonably much of lately. Not that we’re complaining too much; it means more water in the lakes.

Saturday was the start of the New Mexico Sailing Club racing season at Heron Lake with the Memorial Weekend Long Race – about seven miles, from the marina cove, up the Narrows, around the island at the center of the lake, and back down the Narrows to the marina cove. Three boats entered: In the A fleet were Black Magic and the Moore 24 Step Two, and in the B fleet was the Hunter 26 Highlander.

Conditions were extremely light, not the predicted 10 to 15 mph, but more like 3 to 5. Still, the two A fleet boats had an exciting tacking duel up the Narrows, with the lead changing many times.

By the time we reached the main body of the lake, Highlander was nowhere in sight. The wind went almost totally away. We split tacks, hoping to find the elusive puddles of wind, and each time the two boats came together, Black Magic was ahead of Step Two, but the amount of the lead was sometimes larger and sometimes smaller.

As we neared the island, the wind came in a little more – still light, but more steady. We put up the spinnaker – the first time Pat and I have flown it with just the two of us on the boat – and Black Magic took off, leaving Step Two far behind. About two-thirds of the way back to the Narrows, we passed Highlander, still tacking upwind and barely moving.

I’m hoping somebody got pictures of the finish; it was glorious. The sun came out, and we were flying down the Narrows with the spinnaker up, looking magnificent. Because there’s not much cove beyond the finishing line, we actually took the chute down before the finish, but still, we finished well ahead of Step Two. On corrected time, we beat her by 9 minutes and 59 seconds.

Highlander eventually gave up racing and motored back to the marina.

That night there was a spaghetti supper at the community center in Laguna Vista, and we made plans to help another sailor rig and launch his boat the next morning.

Sunday, we helped the friend launch, and then there was a potluck lunch, club meeting, and awards ceremony at the marina pavilion. Attendance was high, showing that the club is indeed coming back to life after the drought that grounded the marina for two years. Cherokee has a full round of summer series regattas planned, so we hope there will be some good attendance for the races.

After the meeting, we headed south, stopping in Albuquerque to pick up some things and feed Dulce, who was very glad to see us after three days’ absence. We had plenty of crunchies, but we were out of canned cat food, so she got albacore instead. Then we continued to T or C, where we needed to vacate the doublewide we’d been renting for the Rio Grande Sailing Club season. We stopped briefly by Dino’s place, where we learned that the lake had had some fairly stormy weather in the past few days.

Monday, we worked on packing up stuff to haul north in the Expedition and the utility trailer. Zorro came up to sail with us; when he saw that there was still some work to be done at the doublewide, he decided to head for the marina and set up the boat while we finished packing.

Just as we were finishing up, we got a call from Zorro. He had rigged his boat and set sail, planning to stay in the area of the lake near the marina and watch for us to arrive. However, he had been struck by a micro-burst that had sent the boat out of control, and while taking down the mainsail, he had lost it overboard and cut himself in the leg with the knife he was using to cut rigging. Under jib alone, he couldn’t even get back to the marina until the wind let up.

We met Zorro at the marina, and then we all went to a late lunch while waiting for the weather to settle. Finally the winds did calm a little, enough that with three people on the boat instead of just one, it was reasonable to go out.

The wind was still stiff, and a couple of times, we were hit by major gusts, so we had three hours of exciting sailing. Pat got a lot of practice on the jib (although at one point while trimming the sheet coming out of a tack, he accidentally slugged me in the mouth) and some on the spinnaker as well. As the sun sank in the west, the wind lightened, and Zorro gave us some lessons in strategy and timing at starts of races.

We got back to the marina just at sunset, and Zorro was pleased that the day, which had started so disastrously, ended up with such great sailing. He was so “up” from the experience that he even called us later, at nearly midnight, to rehash the day, including positive comments on Pat’s sailing, or at least more optimism about his ability to learn than has previously been the case.

When we got home, we found Dulce extremely glad to see us, and not just because it meant another serving of albacore. We have, in the past, left the cats alone for similar periods of time, but it has always been the two of them, so Dulce and Tres kept each other company. Now that Tres is no longer with us, Dulce is all alone. So she has been sticking very close to us, eager for affection and interaction.

In the long term, we may be looking into getting another cat to keep Dulce company, either a kitten that she can raise (the way she did with Tres), or an adult cat with a compatible personality. But with the three humans in the family busy going about seven or eight different directions at any given time, we can’t realistically introduce a new pet into the household at the moment. For now, we will be wanting to keep our absences short and making sure to leave a radio or TV going to keep Dulce company if we are going to be away for a day or more. For longer vacations, she will come with us if possible, or else she will get to stay with Grandma.

So … Wednesday, Tadpole and I will start to serve our term of duty as dockmasters at the Heron Lake marina – since the place is run by the sailing club, all slip tenants serve a half-week camping out either on a boat in the marina or on the point above the marina, to provide assistance to sailors and a measure of security. We’ll be borrowing my folks’ pop-up tent trailer to camp in (an Etchells doesn’t exactly have much living quarters). Since only one of us needs to be there at all times, the other will be staying at Five O’Clock Somewhere overnight – I’ll take the luxury living Wednesday and Thursday nights, and then Friday Tadpole goes back to Albuquerque to take his SAT college exam Saturday, and I will be in the camper at the point.

Pat, meanwhile, is going to be helping on race committee duty next weekend at a regional regatta in Colorado, so he’ll be coming to Five O’Clock Somewhere Thursday night, heading to Colorado Friday, coming back Sunday.

What this means for Dulce is that the place where she will have the most contact with her humans is at Five O’Clock Somewhere. So today (Tuesday), she and I came north. We’re now at the cabin, and she’s still in major sticking-close mode. When I’m in the living room, she’s on her cushion on the back of the sofa, right behind me. When I’m at the computer, she’s snoozing on top of the printer. Every so often, she snuggles up for an attention fix. So we’re getting some good quality time together.

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The trophy shop conspiracy

Highway robbery still happens, just not on the highways any more

One of the challenges facing a racing committee, especially in a smaller sailing club, is providing nice trophies, especially for the major events, without breaking the club’s budget. While most racing sailors would race just for the fun of it anyway, a trophy gives concrete recognition of their accomplishments.

This spring, Zorro, as race committee chair, surprised the Rio Grande Sailing Club’s new officers by spending an enormous amount on trophies – and yes, they were very nice trophies indeed, but the cost far exceeded the money the club took in for race entry fees.

So for the New Mexico Sailing Club’s racing season, Cherokee and I were determined to find a less expensive way to provide race participants with recognition. Last week, Tadpole, Pat and I hit hobby and discount shops to see what we could find.

The hobby shops were a real bonanza. We found wooden plaques that could be stained and finished, and decorative bits that could be glued on, to make trophies for the minor regattas. We found wooden model sailboats and nautical-themed clocks for less than half what the trophy shops charged. The biggest find was a tiled glass plate, identical to one that the trophy shop in El Paso had sold Zorro for $60, for a mere $10.

The one missing element from all of these items was some sort of label. All of the prizes from the trophy shop had either a small brass engraved plaque or a piece of plastic, similar to a flexible refrigerator magnet, with a brass-like finish and printed with a laser printer.

Surely it wouldn’t be hard, I figured, to find some of that plastic material, or small brass plates to which I could apply a clear label printed on the laser printer – maybe not as nice as engraving, but still pretty nice. The hunt was on. First, the hobby shops: Nope. They did have both brass and plastic plaques, but not blank ones, just ones that already said things like “Happy Birthday” and “Congratulations.” Next, the office supply places: Yes, they had the plastic plaques available, in the form of name badges, but available only if we ordered them with names printed on them. Home-improvement shops: Close – they didn’t have plain rectangular plates, but we found brass backing plates for drawer pulls. Still not a terribly workable idea, however.

So what we ended up doing was just using clear plastic mailing labels, printed on a laser printer, stuck directly on the trophy. This works nicely if the trophy is light-colored (such as the wooden plaques), but not so well on darker-colored objects (such as boat models) or multi-colored items (such as the glass mosaic plate). We’re still looking for better options – one of the club members has a friend who has the tools to do laser engraving, for example, and he might know where to get the little brass plates.

This brings us back around to why Zorro ended up spending so much money in the first place. The trophy shops seem to have a monopoly on the brass and brass-like plastic plaques, and they (or at least the one Zorro goes to in El Paso) don’t want to make labels and stick them onto items purchased elsewhere. Thus, the trophy shops can charge whatever they darn well please and get away with it. That’s a hardship for a small sailing club with a limited budget.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Programming note

I'm not dead yet

Yes, it may seem as if I've disappeared from the face of the earth, but really, I haven't. I have some stuff to say about last weekend's racing, and some other observations about the universe. The problem lately has been a lack of convergence between time to write and reliability of online connection.

Capsule of last weekend's racing: good wind Saturday, lousy wind early Sunday, changing to way lots of wind later in the day.

We did OK in the medium air, lousy in the light air, well in the heavier conditions. Zorro also did lousy in the light air, but very well in medium and heavy. Sutherland did well in light, OK in medium, quit in heavy. Applegal didn't show up. End result for the Etchells Fleet 31 Championship: Zorro first, Sutherland second, us third.

Now we're back up at Heron, working on generating a real racing schedule for the first time in four years. This weekend, it's the Memorial Weekend Fun Race. More on that, and our trophies, in an upcoming post.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

A grade is a grade is NOT a grade

More screwed-up policies in the public schools

This is another saga that makes me thankful I teach at a very well-run community college rather than in the public schools.

It all began with a senior in high school who flunked his English class, so he wouldn’t be able to graduate. His parents, one a former school board member and the other a current county councilor, pressured his English teacher to change his grade. She stood fast: The student had earned score of 59 percent on his assignments, and he needed at least 70 percent to pass.

The parents took the issue to the principal. The principal looked at the student’s records and upheld the teacher’s decision – the student hadn’t completed sufficient work to pass the class, and therefore the student didn’t have the requisite credits to graduate.

The parents then took their case to higher officials, who ordered the student’s F to be changed to a D so he could graduate, on the grounds that the parents hadn’t been given sufficient notice that their child was in danger of failing the class.

This is a very bad precedent. I will agree that the schools should be sure to inform parents when their children are falling behind; we have had the occasional very bad negative surprise – during his freshman year, Tadpole was assuring us everything was fine, when he wasn’t completing much work at all, and we didn’t learn about the problem until we got a report card (which the schools couldn’t afford postage to mail, so Tadpole was supposed to bring it home, and of course he “lost” it, so we had to have the school issue a duplicate that we got two weeks later).

BUT forcing the school to change the kid’s grade to something he didn’t earn, no matter how valid his parents’ complaint about notification, is just plain WRONG. OK, if the parents, in spite of being highly educated and connected, never learned that their child was failing his English class, well, yeah, the school system has shortcomings. If the kid didn’t do the work to pass the class, he shouldn’t be given a passing grade. Period. If the problem was that his parents didn’t get the right notification, I don’t see anything wrong with giving him an “incomplete” and letting him finish up the work in summer school.

The way this situation was handled is a lose-lose-lose proposition for everybody:

The school in question has been working hard to shed a reputation of being academically weak. The administration and teachers have been working on programs to improve student achievement and to reward students for excellence. Giving a failing student a grade he doesn’t deserve devalues everything that the hard-working students have earned. When a student from this school applies for a job or for college admission, the employer or admissions officer is going to see that this particular applicant is from the school where grades are based on parental influence rather than merit. So the student who actually earned a B+ average might not get recognized for it, and the employer or college admissions official might just toss the student’s application.

Teachers lose out big-time. In order to do our jobs, we, as teachers, must be able to grade students on the work they do. Yes, it is good to have an appeals system in case someone makes a grave mistake that needs correcting, but this particular situation didn’t involve a grave mistake. The teacher made a decision based on the student’s performance (or lack thereof) in class, and the teacher issued a grade. The teacher’s principal backed her up. While I teach in the community college rather than in the public schools, I face the same issues: I get students who believe (or whose parents believe) that since they have paid the tuition, they should automatically get the passing grade – it should be a money-back guarantee. A lot of them have a hard time with the concept that a college degree comes from doing academic work.

But now, if a teacher makes an academically sound decision to give a kid a flunking grade, that teacher might be in for extra heat. I wonder how many teachers, already stressed by the demands of the profession, might decide to avoid controversy by simply not flunking any students, no matter how much they deserve it.

Perhaps the biggest loser is the student at the heart of the matter. He has now learned that he can slack off and not complete tasks he has been requested to do. There will be no negative consequences. His parents will fix everything for him. That’s not going to be the case in the real world.

The teachers’ union has filed a grievance on behalf of the teacher in this case. I don’t always agree with what the union does, even if I am a member, but I’m totally behind this particular action.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What a Mother’s Day weekend

Sailing, more sailing, Etchells fleet evangelism, yet more sailing, bruises, more evangelism, more bruises

OK, here’s a quick quiz: What sort of Mother’s Day are you having if your offspring, sailing your boat, crashes into the boat you are sailing, at the start of the first race of a regatta?

Don’t try to answer that question just yet. Some explanation is in order.

This weekend was the weekend for two special races for the Rio Grande Sailing Club: the Joshua Slocum single-handed race, and the Jack-and-Jill his-and-hers two-person race (one male, one female; the tradition is that the female helms while the male is crew, but there were never formal written rules to that effect, so last year a lot of hard feelings were created when some of the competitors broke that tradition; this year, the rules have been written specifically to state that either person can helm).

For the Slocum, I’m still not experienced enough with the Etchells that I can single-hand, so I offered to allow Penzance, who has crewed both for me on Black Magic and for Applegal on her Etchells, and who has significant sailing experience on other sorts of boats, the opportunity to sail my boat. For the Jack-and-Jill, I arranged to sail with Zorro on Constellation.

Friday, Penzance and I drove down to the lake so he could get an intensive lesson on helming the Etchells. He has become interested in the boat, and he might be buying one for himself, so the chance to take the helm was especially appealing to him.

We got in some good practice at upwind sailing. When we got to the lake, the wind was extremely light, from the north. We set sail, barely making way, and after about two hours, we got to the race course area of the lake. By then, there were only a bit more than two hours of daylight left, so we turned south. So did the wind, so we were headed upwind again. There was one difference: Finally we actually had some significant wind, including some whitecapping. So Penzance got some really good experience sailing the boat upwind in brisk conditions, and the sail back to the marina was really fun.

The problem was that our training trip was upwind both ways, so he got no experience whatsoever in sailing downwind, and while I explained a lot about the specialized controls of the Etchells, such as the mast moving system, he got no experience actually practicing the moves.

Saturday for the Slocum, Pat and I were race committee, on board our MacGregor, Syzygy. There were four boats competing: Zorro on Constellation, Penzance on Black Magic, Dumbledore on the J/24 Kachina, and Cheech on the S-2 Cultural Infidel. Conditions were light, so light that Cheech eventually dropped out – there was no way a boat that big was going to move in that little wind. Penzance did reasonably well upwind, but his downwind performance showed the distinct lack of practice; he didn’t get the mast moved forward to project the spinnaker out away from the boat, and he had trouble with sheeting the chute in too tight. Zorro came in first, Dumbledore second, Penzance third. But he said he still had immense fun in the race, and he greatly enjoyed having the time on Black Magic; he is still very much interested in getting his own Etchells.

After the race, I hopped off the committee boat onto Zorro’s boat to sail back to the marina as a warm-up for the following day’s Jack-and-Jill race. I racked up a couple of bruises during the transfer, as Syzygy was at anchor and Constellation was moving, but I’ve discovered that a certain number of bruises just seem to come with the territory of sailing competitively.

Saturday evening, Dumbledore phoned with a request – Esther and Yoda were going to be sailing their J/24 Hot Flash in the Jack-and-Jill, but since that race was just for two people, Esther’s foredeck crew, Bonnie Blue, was looking for a partner to sail with, so she wouldn’t just be sitting on shore with binoculars. Dumbledore asked whether Tadpole might be available.

I had observed Bonnie Blue in action in previous regattas. She’s not very big, but she has the agility of a cat, and on the foredeck, it’s as if she has suction cups on the bottom of her feet, like a gecko – she just sticks there and doesn’t fall off. Not only did I offer to let her have Tadpole as crew; I also offered her Black Magic to sail on (Dumbledore had, I am sure, been planning to offer a boat of his). Sure, Tadpole was in the doghouse after the previous regatta, but part of that problem was family dynamics, which wouldn’t be an issue if someone other than family was on the boat. Plus I wanted Bonnie Blue to get a taste of the Etchells.

Sunday morning, the race field consisted of four boats: Constellation, Black Magic, Kachina, and Hot Flash. The first race did not start well. Conditions were very light, so the fleet was creeping toward the starting line. Zorro and I were on Constellation, on track to get to the line (eventually) somewhere close to the starting horn, but Tadpole and Bonnie Blue were upwind and came down on us. We had the right of way, and we hailed, but they kept coming down anyway, and they ended up not only pushing us off course but also colliding with us several times as there was nothing we could do to get out of the way. It really hurt to have to run into my own boat, but there was no choice. Tadpole did do a two-turns penalty, but Zorro and I ended up 100 yards behind the line at the start instead of at the line.

That put Zorro into a really bad mood, and the rest of the race didn’t improve it. The winds continued to be light and shifty, and almost purposefully cruel. What started as an upwind leg became downwind, and while Zorro was quicker to recognize that and get the spinnaker up than the rest of the fleet, we were also away from the rest of the fleet at that point. When the wind shifted, all of the rest of the fleet ended up in a line of wind, but Zorro and I were in a hole where there was not wind. Everybody else coasted past us, and we were just sitting there.

Toward the end of the first race, the wind came in, light but more steady – or at least, a little less unsteady. We ended up finishing third, ahead of Tadpole and Bonnie Blue. I was watching the jib telltales, and I was spotting the wind shifts, but not quickly enough for Zorro, who wanted me to see them as quickly as he did.

Even though the plan had been for me to drive the boat all day, after the first race, Zorro proposed that he take the helm for the rest of the day, and I agreed. I really didn’t feel like fighting about it.

The second race, we nailed the start, peeling one of the J/24s off on the starting pin, and we had a terrific first upwind leg. The winds increased, and I could spot the shifts in the wind so well that I could see a header and get the jib ready to tack even before Zorro called for it. Everything clicked, and we rounded the windward mark ahead of the rest of the fleet. Then we had a disastrous spinnaker set – in the previous race, we had taken the spinnaker down to starboard, but Zorro forgot that the pole and topping lift were on the other side of the jib, and then the chute itself was tangled up such that he had to sit down on the foredeck and straighten things out, and then something else snagged, so that by the time we finally had the spinnaker flying, we had lost a huge amount of time and Mother and Dumbledore had passed us in Kachina. That put Zorro right back into the rotten mood he’d been in before.

But when we got to the downwind mark, we were once again ahead of Kachina, and Zorro cheered up. We drew out our lead in the final upwind leg, and we finished far enough ahead of Kachina that we finished first (if modestly) on corrected time.

The third race, it was all Constellation, all the time. We got a great start, and there was never any question of who was in the lead. The wind was increasing, and the boat really took off. Zorro and I were in a groove, and I was able to anticipate when he was going to call a tack. We got out ahead of the rest of the boats, and we kept widening our lead. The interesting leg of that race was the downwind leg; the wind shifted so that we were headed almost directly toward the mark. Mother took off on the other gybe, and Esther sailed higher than she could have, given the increase in wind. Constellation rounded the mark well ahead of the rest of the fleet, and then second around the mark was Black Magic – even though Tadpole had never helmed her in a race before and Bonnie Blue hadn’t even set foot on an Etchells until that morning. When sailed well, Black Magic is very fast downwind, and Tadpole later reported that Bonnie Blue was especially handy with the spinnaker pole on sets and gybes and douses, working it with the precision of a baton twirler. They had no major spinnaker foul-ups all day. Tadpole didn’t point as high on the final upwind leg as the increased wind would have allowed, and Mother passed him, but he did stay ahead of Esther. Unfortunately, on corrected time, Esther beat him.

On the way back to the marina after the racing, Zorro commented that I seemed to be able to concentrate much better when I was on trim than when I was on helm. I’m not sure that’s completely true. I think what really made the difference was the wind conditions; the light, flaky air for the first race just plain frustrated me, and there were a few times Zorro himself had commented that he couldn’t tell what the wind was doing. When the wind did come up, I think I probably would have done all right even at the helm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily have been spotting the shifts as quickly or as instinctively as Zorro does. Still, the way things worked out, we did make a winning team.

Back at the marina, Bonnie Blue was really pumped up about having the experience on the Etchells. Even though she and Tadpole had come in last in all of the races, she had had a blast. She had been afraid that the Etchells would be a hard boat to sail on, and she was pleasantly surprised to find that the foredeck was so easy to work on, compared to the J/24. I know that her first allegiance is to Esther and Yoda, but I also know that any time they aren’t sailing, I want Bonnie Blue on my crew.

Sunday night as we drove back to Albuquerque, I counted up my injuries. Even though I had put on sunscreen, the intense sun Sunday during the races was enough to fry my face and arms – I had on long pants so my legs were safe from sun exposure. However, my legs faced another peril – bruising. By the time the weekend was over, I had more than a dozen bruises on my legs. Some of them, I can remember the impact that created them, but others, I have no clue about. I also had bruises on my arms, neck, shoulders, and back.

Anybody who thinks yacht racing is a genteel, laid-back sport that doesn’t involve major physical effort is seriously mistaken.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Get Well Pell Ell

Brewers unite to support one of their own

On recent visits to the Socorro Springs Brewing Company, I have noticed that one of the brews available has been something called Casey’s Get Well Pell Ell. There were signs indicating that this particular brew was a fund-raiser to help pay medical bills for someone named Casey Gwinn, but I didn’t pick up many details.

Thursday, the Albuquerque Journal had an article explaining the story behind the brew. Casey was the head brewer at Farmington’s Three Rivers Brewery, and he was struck by a massive stroke (at the age of 36) that has resulted in $200,000 and counting in medical bills, not covered by insurance. His business partners and his mother got together and created a recipe for a pale ale that would be exactly his taste, and they made the recipe available to other microbrewers. The idea is that all of the proceeds from this brew are to go toward Casey’s medical expenses. The name of the ale actually is a bit of humor based on Casey’s being a stickler for spelling.

As a grammarian and a beer lover, I must whole-heartedly support this effort. So far, microbreweries from across the country have produced Get Well Pell Ell in support of Casey’s recovery – the article in the Journal says that breweries from South Dakota to Hawaii are supporting the cause.

I’ve tried the brew, and it’s really good – hoppy, without being too bitter. If Casey’s mother and partners have accurately reflected his tastes, we want him to recover and get back to brewing.

Meanwhile, if you have a favorite brewpub, you might want to let the brewers know about this project. I would love to see Get Well Pell Ell in San Diego, for example, and it would be way cool if it showed up in Prague.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

My biggest mistake

Only some people have the privilege of learning from other people’s mistakes; the rest of us have to be the other people.

Tillerman has issued a challenge to his loyal readers: Write about your worst mistake or most embarrassing moment while sailing. Then read about others’ mistakes and engage in a discussion of how to avoid them.

I had a couple of episodes I thought about sharing, which I have already covered in this blog, such as the time I got clocked by the boom or trying to compete in a major regatta with crew recruited at the last minute. I even thought about the dismasting episode, but that doesn’t really count, since it wasn’t my boat, I wasn’t at the helm, and it didn’t really involve a mistake.

But I would have to say that the most catastrophic event was the day I punched a hole in the bow. We were relatively new to the boat, and Pat in particular was green as crew, and the conditions were stiffer than we probably should have been out in. A thunderstorm came up, and we were trying to come in to the dock, but we had trouble with major wind shifts and gusts. There was the additional problem of communication with the crew. I was making an approach to the dock, but I could see that we were coming in too fast, and so I yelled to the crew that we were gybing in order to come around again. Well, actually all I had time to yell was that we were gybing – there wasn’t time to explain why. The crew didn’t let out the sheets in time, and so we rammed the pier.

Normally, that wouldn’t have been so bad; Black Magic has a streamlined bow that usually just runs up on the pier and then slides back into the water. But we had the bad luck that there was a cleat at just that point. So we ended up with a hole in the bow, exactly the size and shape of a cleat.

Fortunately, the hole was above the water line. Fortunately, Tadpole and I learned that fiberglass repair isn’t too difficult. We even got a chance to undo some really awful fiberglass “repairs” that one or more previous owners of the boat had done.

Other things I learned from that incident: Don’t take the boat out if I don’t feel comfortable with conditions, no matter how much pressure I get from the crew to do otherwise. Have some sort of pre-arranged command for the crew that they can obey immediately without having to ask why first. And there’s just plain the whole idea of getting more skill in handling the boat, which I’ve been working on.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Let it snow

Time for indoor activities

Pat and I headed up to Five O’Clock Somewhere Friday evening, amid gathering clouds and blustery wind. This morning when we got up, snow was falling. It continued to fall off and on all day, and it’s predicted to snow some more overnight and Sunday.

Meanwhile, we recently got the Posey Sailing Tactics Simulator, which has the reputation for providing really good practice, especially in the absence of a high-speed Internet connection that would allow participation in such real-time simulations as Tacticat.

I started out with most of the settings average – skill level 7 on a scale of 1 to 15 (reflecting the level of competence of my competition), medium wind conditions (15-25 knots), some chop and tide to deal with, in Northeast Harbor, Maine. I was sailing a generic 25-foot keelboat, and I had the program set on what I would consider “fantasy” – that is, it assumes that the crew automatically responds to my every command. That’s definitely NOT like real life.

At first, I had some trouble with the controls, as they are not intuitive and they are awkward in that they involve both the keyboard and the mouse. I kept fouling other boats, since the keys that I thought were changing the course of the boat were, in fact, merely changing the direction of the point of view.

Once I got the controls figured out, however, I got a good start (right on the line at exactly the right time, but not as fast as I would have liked to have been going), and I did a horizon job on the fleet. So much for the idea of tactics – the only times I would even see the rest of the fleet were when I had just rounded a mark and they were all still coming the other direction.

My second race, I didn’t get such a good start. I was a little late to the line, although I did have good boat speed. I quickly got out ahead of most of the fleet, however, with one other boat a smidge ahead of me and another somewhat further ahead – I figured those were Zorro and Applegal. For most of the race, the boat ahead maintained its lead while I was dueling with the other. Then after rounding the final leeward mark (I lost some distance because I hadn’t figured in the tidal set sufficiently), I overtook the close boat. About halfway to the finish line, I took a chance on tacking away from the rest of the fleet and hoped the lift I found would be enough to compensate for the adverse tide, and it did. Once again, I won the race.

So at least for sailing in Maine, against average sailors, in moderate conditions, with a perfect crew, I do pretty well. I’ll have to try setting up the simulator for Elephant Butte or Heron lakes and see what happens then.

Meanwhile, there are still some flakes in the air outside, and Pat has built a fire in the fireplace. It’s time to take a break from the computer.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Life with the top down

A convertible – especially a small one – gives a totally new point of view

Now that my brother Jerry has returned to Prague, we’re keeping his car for him. The Miata that took him on his epic 2004 road trip and again on the just-completed mini-road trip is to be kept safely in our garage, sheltered from the elements.

Of course, cars need to be driven every so often, or else they deteriorate: The battery dies, the tires go flat (or worse, they sit in the same position for so long that they’re not round any more), the oil gets sludgy, and the gasoline goes stale. So Jerry instructed us to take it out and drive it every couple of weeks to keep it in top condition.

This afternoon we had an invitation from Bartender to go sailing with him on his Thistle at Cochiti Lake. Tadpole had a music lesson, so it was just Pat and me … and given that the Miata is the most fuel-efficient vehicle available, it was a no-brainer to take it to the lake. Sunscreen on, hats in place, top down, off we went. It was a breezy but sunny day, excellent weather for being in a convertible.

When we got to the lake, we discovered that it was more than just breezy; it was windy – too windy for a Thistle. The Etchells would have been wonderfully happy with this wind, but then the Etchells has a big slab of lead on the bottom of the boat to keep it upright. And Cochiti is so small that with the winds that were there today, the Etchells would have been to the other side of it in just a few minutes.

But the lightweight Thistle, with just a swing centerboard, would have been most uncomfortable in the stiff, gusty winds, and none of us was particularly eager to risk a capsize that would dump us in the water. So we bagged the idea of sailing, and Bartender returned to Santa Fe while we headed back to Albuquerque.

Still, the afternoon wasn’t a total waste. After all, we did get the car out to keep it happy. And we really enjoyed the top-down experience. The relationship between the occupant of the car and the world outside of the car becomes totally different.

Passing through the village of Peña Blanca, we could hear the sounds of cattle and sheep in their fields, kids playing basketball at the community center, grackles and magpies in the trees, and the rush of the water in the community irrigation ditch, or acequía, sounds that, in an enclosed car, even with the windows open, we would never have heard or would have heard only faintly.

Pickup trucks and large SUVs have really impressive suspension systems when they’re viewed from below.

It may seem silly to have the top down but the windows up, but at freeway speeds, having the windows up reduces the noise to the extent that, at least most of the time, it’s possible to have a conversation.

Toyota Corollas and Chevy Cavaliers are really big cars.

Even on the freeway, restaurants make their presence known by their aroma. Barbecue is especially notable in this regard; it can be detected a half-mile away.

Part of what made Jerry’s blog special when recounting his travels was his unique point of view about the places he traveled through. I now know that having the perfect vehicle – literally – was also part of that point of view.

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Poetry Corner: George Roger Waters

Yeah, again, I hear you ask, “Who?”

Tadpole and I have at least a little bit reconciled from our falling-out over the weekend. For one thing, even though teenagers and their parents are supposed to disagree over music, with neither understanding the other’s music, that’s not the case here. I’ve discovered that I like a lot of what he listens to, such as Green Day, Audioslave, Apocalyptica, Lawsuit, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Meanwhile, he likes the Scorpions, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd.

Right now, I believe about half of what he has on his iPod is Pink Floyd. When I graduated from high school, the album The Wall had just come out; our high school graduating class voted “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” to be the class song. It might seem ironic that a high school class that boasted 36 National Merit finalists (among 410 graduating seniors) should select a song that starts “We don’t need no education” as its class song. But if you look at the lyrics, you can see that what’s being protested isn’t really education; it’s the kind of so-called education that stifles critical thinking and creativity.

I try to encourage independent thinking in my students. Sure, at the level I’m working with, it’s important to deal with the basics, such as general organization of an essay, but I find the more advanced habits of thinking are also useful. If my students have an argument they care about and have put a lot of thought into, they write much better essays. Even the grammar becomes better, because they’re working on making their arguments rather than out-thinking themselves into changing a correct construction into something that just isn’t right.

Thanks to sing365.com for the lyrics.

Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
George Roger Waters

When we grew up and went to school, there were certain teachers who would hurt the children anyway they could
by pouring their derision upon anything we did
exposing any weakness however carefully hidden by the kids.

*You, Yes You, Stand Still Laddie!*

But in the town it was well known
When they got home at night their fat and psychopathic wives
Would thrash them within inches of their lives!

We don't need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

(A bunch of kids singing) We don't need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

Spoken:
"Wrong, Guess again!
Wrong, Guess again!
If you don't eat yer meat, you can't have any pudding.
How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat?
You! Yes, you behind the bikesheds, stand still laddie!"

[Sound of many TV's coming on, all on different channels]
"The Bulls are already out there"
Pink: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrgh!"
"This Roman Meal bakery thought you'd like to know."

(A bunch of kids singing) We don't need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

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