Stuff Part 2

We have returned from our new adventure and have been settling in to our new (rental) place here in Seattle after our wonderful year away with our young adults. A year ago in October I wrote about “stuff” – specifically how we sold most of our stuff and how, while it was initially hard, it was also very freeing. As I reflect on our holidays this year, I realize how different all of our perspectives (still) are on “stuff.”

To begin, and for a little context, when we went to Costa Rica, we radically reduced the amount of stuff we brought to just a few suitcases each, and much of it was technology. When we spent 5 weeks backpacking in Europe, we reduced even further to one carry-on size suitcase each with everything we would need to wear for any occasion. We all got used to wearing the same things most of the time. Not a lot has actually changed now that we are back in Seattle and that actually surprised us.

When we first arrived I went and got several of the very few boxes of clothes, shoes, etc. that we had in storage. We picked out what we needed – mostly cold weather gear as you might imagine! – and I ended up returning much of it. Even though we sold most of our clothes and other stuff, we still found that we kept more than we really needed. And we are all happy not having a large closet of clothes. It’s just one of several lasting changes we’ve gone through as a result of our travels.

We decided not to return to our house in Seattle. We had some good friends as renters in our house and they were interested in staying. In a sort of “karmic pay it forward”, we rented the house of some friends who decided to travel around the world with their kids for a year. We are now out in a small rural town called Fall City and we love the simplicity (and the commute could be a lot worse). Simpler seems to be working for us.

Christmas itself was also a very different affair for us. Like many folks we know, our past Christmas holidays have been filled with Christmas trees, lights, ornaments, and lots of presents as well as good food, family time and fun experiences. This year we kept the latter three.

It’s not that we have become anti-Christmas per se – it’s just that things matter differently to us. For example, we didn’t have ornaments and so as a family we decided that we also didn’t need a tree. It seemed odd to us to just cut down a tree and buy it to sit empty in our house.

We all saw lot of holiday shopping at the several mile long “strip mall” near us in Issaquah. We saw all of the stressed, often frantic, and sometimes rude shoppers. It just didn’t feel right to us.

We decided that we weren’t going to get a bunch of “stuff” as presents. We bought less and made more. And what we did get focused more on experiences – as has our entire last year – than on the “stuff” itself.

I had mentioned that Nev and Aidan had become interested in this “physical” fantasy gamed called Warhammer while we were in Firenze (Florence). The pieces all tend to be really expensive so instead of buying a large battle board, I built them one out of wood and insulation foam and then painted them. (Don’t worry Gretchen & Rodrigo. These have felt on the bottom.)

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These boards are 2’x2’ and so of course I had to build a piece of “furniture” to keep them safe 🙂  Meanwhile, Deb spent many hours painting the small Warhammer figures for them.

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This all gave Nev and Aidan the ability to play a live game with each other – and have many fun experiences. We also bought two new family games so we could spend more time together playing games. We still had the 3 we brought to Costa Rica and it was time to add just a little diversity!

Nev created some art for each of us. The pictures Nev gave Deb and I are priceless. He captured both of us so well.

deb andy xmas drawing 2

deb andy xmas drawing 1

When we shared presents, they were fewer and much more meaningful. And we focused much of our time hanging out and playing games together. It’s likely to be one of our more memorable Christmas’s.

When I was at Teague, I did some research on travelers and one of the most poignant quotes I heard was “Travel changes you.” It is certainly true in our case. It often takes Deb and I stepping back a moment sometimes to see how much we’ve changed. Not needing a lot of “stuff” is just one of many. I’ll probably write about a few of the other ways that I see that we’ve changed in other posts.

Frankly, I wasn’t really sure whether I’d keep writing this blog. After all, we are no longer abroad in Costa Rica, nor traveling, and it’s likely that Nev and Aidan will be attending some form of school in the coming months (though very alternative forms). But what I realize is that despite the fact that we are indeed back and that I’ll be starting a job soon, we are still very much “intentionally off path” thanks to our wonderful experiences together this past year. And being “off path”, in the middle of so many here in Seattle who are “on the path”, feels pretty invigorating. We’re not sure what this year will bring, but we are sure it will continue to be different for all of us. Pura vida.

Portaventura

Between Barcelona and Seville on our new adventure we took an unplanned little side trip to the “Disneyland” of Spain, Portaventura (or “door to adventure”). It was a great unwinder for the young adults from history, cities, and a lot of travelling. It was also Halloween time and so we had some added fun.

Portaventura is about a 90 minute train ride from Barcelona. We stayed at hotel in the theme park and got to ride attractions both the entire day we arrived and some of the next. It’s a little like Disneyland, except that there are fewer characters and they are all from the 30s (and in public domain I expect), such as Woody Woodpecker and Betty Boop.

Unlike Disneyland, it has some pretty extreme rides. It has the tallest rollercoaster (and longest drop) in Europe: Shambhala. It used to be in the world but the US created some taller ones since 2012. It also has the fastest (read more G-forces) roller coaster (Furius Baco) and the highest freefall drop in a water park slide.

Shambhala

Shambhala

Nev in Shambhala

Nev in Shambhala

Shambhala & Dragon Khan Panorama

Shambhala & Dragon Khan Panorama

Shambhala

Furius Baco

Furius Baco

Furius Baco

Park access was included in the hotel price, but we opted for some additional “express passes”. Unlike Disneyland again, these passes essentially let you go right to the front of the line. On any ride. I highly recommend these! They saved a lot of 90 minute waits.

While we were saved from 90 minute waits on the rides, the Halloween attractions were immune to the time distortion effects of the express passes. Nev and I waited 2 hours for the REC passage exhibit. REC is a really scary movie by a Spanish director which the US copied and named Quarantine. This scary attraction was based on the movie.

The attraction was fun and a tiny bit scary. I love things like this as inspiration for our own Halloween parties!

That evening Aidan and I went to see La Selva de Mieda (“haunted forest”). We started in line at 9:30 with a wait time of an hour. 3 hours later we finished. The attraction was awesome and took about 10 minutes to walk through, but boy, 3 hours in line was a lot. I had to exhaust every one of my creative parenting ideas to keep Aidan tranquilo. We probably would have left the line but the line was very clever (or insidious depending on your point of view). About every 30 minutes there was a single line stretch around a bend where yet another “hidden” set of line switchbacks waited. So, you could never really gauge how long the line was.

In the end we had a great time and it was great having some focused fun Aidan time. We were exhausted, and sore, at the end and the memories of the scary ride lines will certainly continue to haunt me J

While we were in line, and while Nev retired early, Deb had full access to the park and she was in roller coaster heaven.

Foot of Shambhala

Foot of Shambhala

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Tea Cups - Sort Of

Tea Cups – Sort Of

Tataki Splash

Tataki Splash

More Fun

The food at Portaventura was surprisingly good – at least based on our expectations set by American theme parks, including Disneyland. There was also a distinct reduced presence of endless sugary foods compared to US theme parks.

With the express passes we covered all of the things we wanted to do. Many times. And much more. In the end, a good time was had by all. Now we are on a train to the third part of our European adventure: Seville. The young adults have studied Seville a bit and so are expecting some great Flamenco dancing, food, and castles. They don’t know about the barber yet! 🙂 Pura vida.

Plans and Updates

Time flies by quickly on our new adventure. It feels like I just blinked and May is already gone! We’ve been doing a lot of travelling and visiting as I’ve mentioned in the last few posts. At the same time, we’ve been continuing to unschool and have some fun updates. Deb and I have also started planning our return. True to our nature, our “return” may take some unorthodox twists.

But first, I have to describe our most amazing boat trip. We had some good friends (and our young adults’ god parents) visit recently. We saw them in Nosara and then they came to stay with us for a few days. While here, we wanted to go on a catamaran cruise. It is off-season here now and when we booked, we were the only four on the boat (Aidan and Vie did not seem to be interested). When we went on the trip, there were still only the four of us and so we had this whole amazing boat to ourselves! It was a magical experience. I think I took about 100 photos of Deb.

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Deb at sunset. One of my favorites.

Our last unschooling updates were just before Vie and I left for SakuraCon in Seattle. Since then we’ve had a few changes, including getting used to calling Vie by the nickname “Nev.” It is short for “Never”, which, I think, has to be the perfect nickname for a 13 year-old going on 16. J

“Nev” and I had started working on a video game project for unschooling. We were going to actually build Body Defenders, the video game I prototyped in grad school in which you play the immune system defending the body against germs. We started out using Gamestar Mechanic, a fabulous site for teaching core game design and mechanics to young adults without overly focusing on either coding or visual design. Our original goal was to use this as a “warm-up” to solidify our game design skills before moving to a more robust game engine like Construct 2*.

As we got into the project, Nev realized video game design wasn’t really the “thing.” Perhaps I was projecting my interest or perhaps the path was a little too much too fast. We got far enough in where I did a fun little game in Gamestar Mechanic called A Germ’s Journey so I could learn the tools. You can actually go there and play it (I will put the link out once Gamestar Mechanic approves it for publishing). Aidan was my avid play-tester. I think it was more fun for me than Nev though.

Nev switched again but this time to something where we see some strong passion: writing. I saw Nev writing for hours at and on the way home from SakuraCon. It was an interest many years ago and it seems Nev has rediscovered it. Deb and I are excited because we see real interest. Nev is working now on the elements of good creative writing. Combined with the skills Nev is honing in illustration, we could see a path to a graphic novel in the future. There is a short story in progress, but we can’t see it quite yet. Meanwhile, check out one of Nev’s latest illustrations for Mother’s Day:

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Nev’s Mother’s Day card

Aidan has continued swimming on the Country Day swim team and has enjoyed that a lot. He is starting to get a swimmer’s build but hasn’t quite gotten the competitive attitude yet. Swim season is ending soon and we’ll need to find a new activity for him.

Meanwhile, Deb and I added a project on history and religion. Aidan had been asking about world religions and so this was a good “teaching moment.” We let Nev and Aidan choose an event, time, or country to study more deeply. They had each covered a few topics in various school years, but had not covered much breadth. Nev chose the American Revolution and Aidan chose the Crusades, which was a good mix of history and religion.

Deb architected this unschooling project really well. There are, of course, readings which we help the young adults find and some guiding questions on each topic. She also brought in some movies such as Kingdom of Heaven, The Patriot and The Crossing. We let Nev and Aidan also find and try some video games that are based in the era. We were a little more limited there and didn’t find anything of note. We also wanted them to look for their own material so they get a good feel of the diverse points of view on any history subject.

We are a few weeks in and they are starting to work on their final “deliverable”; a presentation on their subject with a point of view. They can make it as multimedia rich as they want and this gets them looking at art images, broadening their exposure more. They only have to present to us, but that skill, along with developing good skills in how you communicate are key. Aidan has had a lot more experience with this from University Cooperative School but Nev had virtually none.

Along the way, we’ve had some good discussions about war, points of view, “good” and “bad” guys and a number of other higher level themes that translate to today’s events. We can’t wait to see what they do in their presentations.

I was going to start work on the next project after history – namely math and science. We wanted to start that less popular subject with some history of math and science to provide some good context and not just start with math equations. Deb is picking that up as I got a bit “distracted” with another project.

Ana Domb Krauskopf, the director of the interaction design program at University Veritas, asked me to teach a class there in August. This was the school where I gave an evening talk back in February. Ana also asked me to speak at her Experience Design Summit also in August. She came out for a “brain spa” day with Deb and I where we brainstormed the class, other speakers for the Summit, and possibly doing an executive workshop in 2015.

My world just got a whole lot busier overnight. The class will be Visual Language and the Representation of Complex Information. Essentially it is about information visualization, a core component of interaction design. Fortunately, I have done a lot of industry work in this area across several different companies. It is a lot of work to pull a new class together but I (and Deb when I can grab some of her time) will have a lot of fun.

The evening program class is 4 weeks in August. I will do the Tuesday class remotely and then take the bus to San Jose to be there in person for the Thursday and Saturday classes. I’ve already met the group of talented and diverse students and am really excited to see what they can do.

Finally, we are also starting to plan our return. Originally, we expected to come back to Seattle in October…and we still are. Prior to that though, we are looking into jumping to Spain for several weeks. September and October here on the coast of Costa Rica are very rainy and are the deep part of the off-season. Many people we know will be away and many businesses close during these months; i.e., it is pretty dead.

Deb, in another of her creative moments, thought we could leave Costa Rica early and move to Spain for a few weeks. September is a great time to be in Spain and we already know the language, at least reasonably well. Mostly.

We are hoping to excite the young adults with some castle visits and some “living history.” Aidan can learn a new cuisine along his cooking path. Most importantly, we can use this precious time we have even more effectively. We will be out exploring vs. arguing with reasons for staying indoors. The plan is brilliant. We have a number of logistics to work out though, along with everything else. And now, time is feeling very short.

Time is an interesting thing. A year, for example, seems a long time, and indeed, it can be. It can also be very short. We’ve found routine here and things to fill our time, punctuated by the occasional, magical experience. I think though that I, at least, and perhaps all of us to a degree, take for granted where we are and what we are doing. Perhaps it has ceased being novel.

I know Aidan and Nev can’t wait to go back – to varying degrees. Neither are really taking advantage of this opportunity as much as we would have liked. Every person I’ve spoken to who lived in another country growing up look back at it as a rare, life-changing experience. However, most said that at the time, they too, wanted to go “home.”

If only we could have the foresight of many years from now when we are in the here and now. What would we do (have done) differently? I think about that almost every day now, not wanting to miss an opportunity here – especially getting to know my young adults better. And yet, still, I find that I could do better.

At some point we will need to return to work and our pre-adventure lives. One thing will be different, at least for me. I will have a different perspective on what I do with time. And that perspective extends to work, what we do, who we spend time with, where we live, and almost everything else. “Passing time” is now an abhorrent phrase. There are so, so many things to experience. Fortunately, we still have a lot of “time” left here. Hopefully, we will all put it to good use. Pura vida.

* As a postscript on game engines, we are really in a period of time similar to the desktop publishing revolution, which I lived through. When desktop publishing tools came out, it made this skill accessible to far more people and non-designers started using them and did some amazing (and some horrible) things. Now, we have a number of excellent game engines available to help develop full video games. I looked at nine of them, narrowing to three. The range was from simple tools for kids, like Scratch, to robust tools like Unity 3D which was used for a number of professional games. I had chosen Construct 2 as a good balance between simple and accessible, and power and customization. I found two good overviews of these tools in case you are interested: 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games and the more basic Tools for Binning Game Developers.

Stuff

We had our great estate sale this weekend where we sold most of our “stuff”. It was certainly the biggest step in uprooting in preparation for our new adventure – one we had been preparing for for a few months. We sold all of our furniture and about three quarters of everything we owned. It was as big of an endeavor as it was an enlightening experience.

The process started with building a storage area within our garage to store the stuff we wanted to keep. It was mostly our decorations for our big Halloween party along with Seattle type gear and clothes, a few mattresses, TV, etc.

Everything else included almost all the furniture, 97 boxes of densely packed stuff, and a bunch of clothes. We originally didn’t expect to sell everything, but then we learned that to rent the house, we’d have a better chance if it was unfurnished. So we took the leap and sold all of our stuff – with some help from Jon and his great crew at Ballard Estate Services. It certainly reduced our complexity.

Packing the first few boxes was hard, but it got a lot easier as it went. I saw a lot of stuff I had not seen in years (in some cases decades). Things like my thousand or so D&D miniatures from the 70s. Or two rare Czechoslovakian egg-shaped liqueur sets from my grandmother that I have never used. Many things brought back memories of course, but I didn’t feel wed to any of this “stuff”. We had downsized and gotten rid of stuff before in moves and spring cleaning, but never like this. My rule became “if I hadn’t seen or used it in years, it wasn’t really anything I needed.”

That rule extended to digital “stuff” too. I tend to be a digital pack rat, saving everything for decades across all forms of ancient media like optical drive discs and zip drive discs. That all went. All my graduate design projects and papers, including my thesis project. While I had kept the media readers too, I couldn’t connect them to modern computers so they all just sat in a box waiting for the day when I would have so much free time that I could go back and transfer all that stuff to modern media. That day never came, fortunately, and so it all went as well.

Surprisingly, Deb and the kids did well with this divesting activity too. As a family we tend to favor experiences over things, I think, which is a good thing given what we are doing.

The estate sale itself was an odd thing even though we only saw the beginning and end. The beginning as in people lining up at 7:30 in the morning, signing a list to get in first when it opened at 9:00. The end as in the people hanging around after the sale was over, still rooting around the leftovers. We found that there is a very unique subculture of people who thrive on estate sales. Who knew? In the end, most things sold – including our entire pantry of food, much of it partially consumed! Some, surprisingly, did not. I’m sure they will all end up in other people’s fine collections of stuff.

What I realized through this effort is that my stuff doesn’t define me. It may give a clue about who I am, but these clues may be just as misleading (like the liqueur sets) as they are accurate. The stories I tell people aren’t usually about my stuff; they are about people we’ve met, or things we’ve done, or places we’ve gone.

It’s all just stuff. At least, that’s how I’ve come to think of it. I know it’s different for different folks. But, if I focus too much on collecting this stuff, I’ll be dwelling in the past. It will tie me down and keep me from doing something really new and adventurous.

We are taking (relatively) few things with us to Costa Rica. Everything really needs to earn its place. When we come back, I expect we’ll come back with some incredible life experiences and stories and new friends. Maybe we’ll get more “stuff” 🙂 .

Postscript

The results are in. We had about 400 people come through over 3 days. The total from our estate sale is $4886.

It was a bit shocking to see that the sum total of most of our stuff is so low. In fairness, many of the pricier/specialty items (like those liqueur sets) didn’t sell. That isn’t surprising since it’s unlikely that the “right” collector for something like that would happen to appear at our particular estate sale. So, we can expect maybe $1000-$2000 more.

One of the more interesting tidbits from the estate sale folks is that people evidently were willing to pay more for partially consumed food (e.g., half a box of pasta) than a CD or DVD.

Things aren’t ever as valuable as we believe them to be (unless, I suppose, you carefully put each thing on eBay and find your perfect buyer somewhere in the digiverse but who has time for that?). I’m glad we are focused on experiences. The value of (most of) the contents of our house – $4800. The value of the experience of living in a foreign country for a year with our kids at this time in their lives – priceless.