Can’t

I wanted to talk about one of my least favorite words today – can’t. It’s such a small, seemingly harmless word. We use it all the time. And yet, it can be an incredibly debilitating word. It’s one of those words – like fail and hate – that we adults, sadly, teach our kids. It can be a dream killer. It’s also one of those words that directly gets in the way of change.

Can’t and I go way back. I’ve heard this word a lot in my life, though thankfully almost never from my parents. “You can’t get into Stanford.” “You can’t get a graduate Biology degree without doing ‘wet’ biology.” “You can’t get an internship at Microsoft your first year here [in a graduate design program].” (In fairness, the latter was an example of can’t’s close relative, you won’t be able to. And so on. These were all statements from folks like high school principals, department chairs, and deans.

Fortunately, can’t is a word that has the power to motivate me beyond almost any other. I’ve never accepted the power of its hold. It’s something I’d like to help our young adults learn. Like many people though, I need to do a better job myself using it.

There are really two ways to look at can’t. One is with the meaning you are not able to. It’s the dangerous one I point to above. The other is I don’t want you to. For example, “You can’t go out until your homework is done.”

I have to admit that I use the latter form fairly often. The problem with this is that it gets the word can’t into frequent use. Even in this context, I think I tend to overuse it. If I truly want to treat my young adults as adults, I should let them have the choice about when they do their homework, right? We try to do this as much as possible with Aidan and Nev. It mostly works. Mostly.

It’s the first version of can’t though that really irks me. If you watch most younger kids, they seem to have an immunity to can’t. They’ll keep trying something until they figure it out. Sure, there’s frustration at times. But I don’t think that the frustration stems from an innate belief that the kids truly would not be able to do what they are trying. They just want it to happen quickly, but that’s another story.

If someone else, especially an adult, tells them that they can’t do it, that’s where can’t can become disempowering. In a way, it gives someone permission to stop trying and give up. And then they start using can’t themselves and come to believe that they really can’t do something. What an insidious cycle.

I started thinking about can’t recently because I’ve been hearing it a lot at work. Too much. We are going through a transition involving a lot of necessary change. As I mentioned in my last post, most people really dislike change. That’s when I started realizing the broader impact of can’t.

When people start saying that they can’t do something, they (perhaps unintentionally) give others permission to not try. And when you are collectively going through a process of difficult change, can’t makes it easy to not try. It helps people resist change. And that can be infectious.

Conversely, I didn’t hear can’t very much in the startups I worked in, at least not in terms of our ability to do something. In fact, if it wasn’t possible to do something, we’d often just find a different way. Startups are the children of the corporate world. Anything is possible. Somewhere along the line, established companies, like many adults, seem to lose that.

Change needs a fertile environment of the possible, much like startups. Can’t gets in the way. You don’t hear dreamers and visionaries using the word very much.

The destructive power of can’t on the process of change is a newly-found realization for me. Maybe change can be helped along a bit with the elimination of a single word. I’ll give it a try. It’s a nicely “off path” strategy. Pura vida.

Change

At the very beginning of our adventure I wrote about complexity and change: when there is a lot of complexity involved in something, it’s hard to change. As we’ve gone through our transition from our Costa Rican adventure back to Seattle, and as I’ve started working for a company that is itself in transition, I’ve thought about change (a lot) and how to think about it. It’s a bit fitting that I return to that subject now as I transition the blog from the way we were “intentionally off path” before and the way we are “intentionally off path” now. If you noticed, this is the first post where I didn’t start with a sentence that snuck in a link to “our new adventure.” Change is good. But not everyone thinks so.

Perhaps because my brain is back in a more creative, problem-solving space every day now, I started thinking about how to categorize change. It worked in my noodling on engagement so I figured I’d try that again. The model is really simple. It’s a triangle – ironically, the most stable of shapes. And here, I’m looking at how people approach change.

change triangle

The Ridiculously Simple Triangle of Change

Resisting Change

People generally don’t like change and resist it. I see it all of the time in what I do. Change can be scary. Change takes effort. And it sometimes takes knowledge I don’t have. It’s easier to just stay the same. It’s safer not to change. It’s comfortable and safe. What happens if… And so on.

Is it any wonder why three of the biggest causes of stress involve major change – a new job or loss of one, a marriage or divorce, and moving? For many people, these don’t come around that often. Even if you are “practiced” in change, they can be very difficult. Often in these cases, though, what adds to the stress is that these changes may not be choices fully under one’s control.

Even when change would be extremely beneficial, some of us still resist it. It explains things like people staying in dead-end jobs they dislike, or abusive relationships. It might even explain the pattern of Italian men who still want to live with their mothers well into their thirties (52% according to one report). Sometimes, a well-known, familiar, if very unsatisfying situation is far less scary than what might be “out there”.

Even if we resist change, many of us will change if the alternative of staying where we are, in our view, is much worse. The metaphor that comes up in business a lot is the “burning platform.” It’s a situation ‒ a crisis ‒ that is so scary that it forces change.

The origin of this story, as I learned in writing this, came from Daryl Connor. There was a tragic oil platform fire in 1988. People who were on that platform had to essentially choose certain death on the platform or choose possible death by jumping into the freezing water. It’s been used a lot to describe situations where a company’s business situation is so dire that it must embrace change. As an example, you might remember Stephen Elop’s email to Nokia employees after he moved there from Microsoft and had to turn around the failing business.

The burning platform situation is a bit extreme, but it does highlight just how wed we can be to things remaining the same. I find it ironic that we as human beings, arguably the most adaptable of species, resist change so often. I think it’s because we are out of practice – but more on that in a bit.

Trying Change

The middle layer of the triangle brings up an interesting conundrum. Is “trying something new” a way of embracing change? I think so. I’m talking about human behavior here, so I do think it applies. After all, some of us go to the same stores and restaurants every time. Others of us actually like to try something new every now and again.

It boils down to the same situation: the “tried and true,” safe choice or the new, unknown, and perhaps scary, one. The basic behavior is fundamentally similar whether the situation is dramatically important or much lighter.

I find it compelling that children try new things constantly. That’s one of the ways they learn, whether it’s trying a new food or a big scary trick at a skateboard park (not that that‘s ever happened!) Kids also aren’t familiar with the concept of “failure” – until we adults teach it to them. You’re just trying stuff and sometimes it’s better and sometimes not.

This experimental attitude that is fundamental to kids sadly seems to get lost somewhere on our journey to adulthood. And like many things about our bodies, when we don’t keep something in shape through practice, well, it gets a little flabby. Somewhere along the way we reduce our appetite for taking risks and trying new things. Things that could lead to change.

Risk is indeed at the heart of change. Years ago I read a fascinating article about researchers using the TV game show Deal or No Deal to study economics (thanks to the Internet, I actually found it again here). In this worldwide show, contestants start with nothing and then choose among many suitcases, each of which has money. Each round, they can choose to stay with what they have, or trade for a different one. When people have nothing, they take risks. Then, when they have a lot to lose, they don’t. The same behavior that got them the money in the first place makes them very conservative and cautious. The researchers had a perfect “sandbox” for studying and explaining why we often make the choices we do.

As we get older, we do have a lot more to risk. Our appetite for risk, and for change, goes down sharply. We stop taking bigger risks and we stop making big changes, even though we might continue to take and make smaller ones. We “settle in”. But, this is something that we can change through a little practice. With apologies to Nev and Aidan (because they hear this a lot), to get good at something, you need to practice.

And when you practice change a good deal, the top layer of the triangle isn’t so daunting.

Seeking Change

As I think about change, “seeking change” isn’t about being satisfied with trying new things or embracing change when you need to. It’s a mindset. And it’s one shared by most kids. In my view, it’s a worthy state to achieve.

There is an element of constant exploration at this level of change. For any early explorer, whether the very early people who confronted a boundless ocean to see what’s across it to the brave folks who embrace “the final frontier” of space, exploration, by its very nature, is at peace with change.

Kids, too, seem to be in a constant exploratory state. It’s in their nature. It’s one of many things I think we can learn from them.

I’m not advocating that we all make major life-changing decisions every day. I am suggesting that developing a comfortable relationship with change has a number of advantages. One of the best in my mind is that it keeps us open to differences and learning new things. And that is something our world needs a lot more of.

I have heard a lot of people, inside and outside of business, use the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” as a rationale not to do something – often something that might lead to change. I never liked that phrase. It is so…static. Permanent. I work in innovation and that phrase pretty much kills the soul of innovation. More than anything, it set’s the bar of acceptability at “not broken.” There is so much more beyond that.

And looking at this simple triangle model, the way to get there is pretty straightforward. Start in the middle and try something new. Practice. Rinse and repeat. It does get easier.

This might sound a little too simplistic coming from someone who along with his family left everything and spent a year in another country. But it wasn’t always this easy.

Many years ago I worked at Stanford after graduation. I was married (the first time). I felt stuck in a relationship that wasn’t working but had a great job. I even turned down some pretty nice jobs because I enjoyed just going out and playing soccer at lunch most days. It was easy. I was settling. I didn’t want to change what had become very comfortable. I was open-minded to change, but not motivated.

Then, my marriage ended and I decided to move halfway across the country, quit my job, and go to graduate school. I met my soul mate and proposed 7 weeks later. Perhaps it was my “burning platform.” I’ve never looked back and now have a more fulfilling life than I ever could have imagined.

In the succeeding years, Deb and I “practiced” change a good deal. And it got easier. It was one of the big reasons we wanted to take the young adults to Costa Rica. Change isn’t something to be afraid of.

Now, in many ways, things seem to be settling into our pre-Costa Rica life again. Most of the big changes have been made. I’m not worried about becoming complacent though. We all, I think, have emerged from our adventure with a more flexible mindset about things. The more I think about it, the more I see change built into much of what we do over the next year and beyond. There are so many things to try and explore. It’s almost like we were kids again. Pura vida.

Transitions

Change has certainly been something constant while on our new adventure in Costa Rica. Now that we are back, we are experiencing lots of change in the transitions each of us is going through as we “readjust” to routine and life here in Seattle. After what we’ve experienced though, change itself is easier for all of us and very exciting. That was a key benefit we hoped that Aidan and Nev got from our experience. I’m not sure though if they realize how differently they – actually all of us – approach things now.

I started my transition back in August really. That’s when I started reaching out to folks and looking for a new job. I had a pretty firm set of things I was and was not looking for in my ideal new job. Perhaps that’s why has taken several months to find my place.

Leaving for a year, and especially having the opportunity to spend so much time with my family, made me think hard about what type of job I wanted to have that would take me away from them for so many hours a day. Deb and I had the luxury of spending all of our time together. We love working on things together. That’s why it’s a big deal for me to transition back to seeing co-workers for more hours per day in many cases than Deb.

I didn’t feel compelled to return to any sort of “ladder climb” in a company. I could have managed a large team again, but I wanted something different. Ideally I wanted to find a place where I could be more “hands on.” I wanted to do something that had benefit beyond corporate success. So I took a position as an “individual contributor” in a company and industry that will get me right back to my roots in helping to evolve education.

A year or more ago I probably would have worried a bit about taking a “step down” from a bigger position and title. Not now. I feel solidly centered on how I want to spend the precious time I have. For me it’s about the “why”, not the “what” or “how much.” And I expect this ride to be even more thrilling than the previous things I’ve had the privilege of doing.

Deb is choosing not to return to the corporate world for now. True to her nature, she has a wild idea about want she wants to do next. That transition is far more in her nature and will include being out in nature a lot more. Deb is not ready to talk about it yet here in more detail. It will take some explaining to do, hopefully in a future post.

Nev has decided to go to back to public (high) school – but not just any high school. Nev enjoyed home schooling and was doing well. As we mentioned awhile back, a large public middle school was a nightmare for Nev with all of the posturing, bullying, cliques, and stress. We were a little surprised about the interest in going back to a public school, but this one could not be more fitting for Nev.

Nova is indeed a Seattle public school but it is very alternative. When we first drove up for a visit, we saw a bunch of students in the parking lot and a lot of diverse hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. This was clearly a place where people felt comfortable being who they were and Nev said that it felt like “home.”

But Nova is not alternative because of the students. Rather, I think it simply attracts more alternative students. Nova is run more like a college where you choose your classes and everyone’s schedule may be different. They have some incredibly interesting and non-mainstream classes like Experimental Animation, Feminism and Fashion, and Naked Truth on Stereotypes. Students and faculty work together to make the school a very open and accepting forum for ideas and place for people. And the teachers are as refreshing as the students.

Transitioning from a year in Costa Rica being homeschooled to even an alternative high school will be a big transition, but Nev is ready and excited.

Aidan, as usual, is open to everything and excited about trying new things. He and Deb are attending a home school cooperative program Mondays and Fridays where different parents teach different classes and where Aidan can meet some new friends. That leaves lots of time for doing some activities Aidan and Deb work out. It’s a bit different approach to unschooling, but it will be a fun, new adventure for Aidan.

The most interesting thing to me about our transition back isn’t what we each are doing; it’s how our general perspectives have changed, especially Aidan and Nev’s. We are living much more simply. We don’t need much “stuff.” The young adults are taking on much more responsibility. And change is something we take in stride pretty easily.

I expect that all of this didn’t simply come from living in Costa Rica. Some of it would have happened naturally, I’m sure. I think our experience though may have hastened and facilitated much of it.

We each have our own work, school, and life transitions back to the world we knew. On the surface, they seem fairly normal compared to our previous year. But they are all very definitely, and very intentionally, “off-path”. I hope our off-path perspectives don’t dim as we return to reality. I don’t expect they ever will, though, and that’s a good thing. Pura vida.

The Road Home and Stuff

I can’t believe the first stage of our new adventure is already coming to an end so soon. A short 10 months after we left Seattle for Costa Rica we will be leaving and on to our next, shorter, adventure. We are already actively planning and packing even while we continue our adventure here. The return trip is much easier in many respects, but harder in some.

I noted that it was only the end of stage 1. As I mentioned earlier, we decided to leave early since we are heading into (technically we are already in) low and rainy season. It’s low, but not rainy. Still, many places are starting to close and many friends are moving back to their home countries until November. So, we are switching operations to Europe. We are “trading” our last two months in Costa Rica for about 5 weeks in Spain, France and Italy.

In stage 2, I return to California and my parents’ house for a visit for two weeks while Deb stays in Costa Rica with the dogs. The dogs have to wait until Sept. 15th to travel due to the heat. Deb returns on the 17th and we head to Spain on the 21st, starting our final stage, stage 3.

Deb is hard at work developing a loose itinerary for us all. We know we land in Barcelona, Spain and leave from Florence, Italy. Everything else is pretty open. We know we want to hit a few small towns in France on the way to Italy. We plan to visit Cordoba in Spain for the castles and Orvieto in Italy for the incredible church there that hosts the works of Luca Signorelli (an incredibly talented Renaissance painter, like Michelangelo, but with a penchant for depicting the apocalypse and scenes from hell). The Catholic Church relegated him to this church on a large butte. We will also definitely visit Rome; Deb and I are going to Gladiator Camp. We did invite the young adults, but sadly, no takers there. Deb will certainly be “badass!”

As Deb does the planning, I’ve been doing the packing and finishing up my class(es). We have also both been studying and working towards our Advanced Diving Certification. Never a dull moment.

On the class front, I got asked to add another class on Prototyping to my schedule. It is a two day workshop over two weeks of elapsed time. It’s been a lot of fun to put together but it’s also been a ton of work in the middle of everything. Fortunately, it works with my current schedule in San Jose – I teach Information Visualization Thursday evening and Saturday morning and then Prototyping Friday evening. I and my class usually head out for food and drinks after one or both classes so it’s been a lot of fun.

Just to brag about my students a bit, they just turned in an assignment to create an information visualization on some aspect of the World Cup and I was blown away by the quality of the thinking and the execution. These folks all have day jobs, mostly in high-tech, and then they take night classes several days a week. In just about a week they created some visualizations that in many cases are on par with work I’ve seen on the NY Times.com site (they are well known for their excellence in information visualization). More importantly, they have focused on some really interesting stories and insights from the Cup, such as why Brazil lost so badly(!), why Costa Rica did so well despite the fact that their FIFA statistics are not stellar and how Costa Rica used passing as a super power. I’m super proud and excited to see what they’ve done so far. Here’s a quick example:

ITAvsCRC

Costa Rica’s Secret Combinations, Mauricio Varela

In between trips to San Jose, I have been starting to pack. Fortunately, and here I reveal my inner geek, I created a big spreadsheet when we first came down itemizing everything in our 6 carry-on bags and 6 stowed bags to facilitate staging and packing. That makes it very easy to do everything in reverse. Mostly.

restaging

Re-Staging

In our two trips back, we returned here with some additional things. We added some “stuff” while we were here, most of which we won’t be bringing back, and of course some things didn’t last through our adventure. We mostly leave with the same number of bags and items. It’s interesting to see what made it and what didn’t.

First off, we have to account for additional things we brought back from the US. This includes paints, paintbrushes, and other material to paint Deb’s painting. I brought back additional technology, mostly for the young adults to make videos which they never did. Deb has all the material she got for her home made lip balms, deodorants, etc. – something she will continue to do when we return, so those all go back.

In the spirit of reducing “stuff”, we actually did not get much down here and what we did get will likely stay – being given away or sold. We will sell Fanta (our truck), our bikes, TV and a few other things. We will find good homes for the blender, crock pot, boogie board, hammock, yoga mats, printer, and sand-castle-making supplies. We used all of those things regularly but won’t need them or can’t get them home.

Very few things that we got here make the return cut list. Deb got a few hand-made bikinis. Those are coming back. They were also excellent purchases. I’ll leave them to your imagination. We’ll take our diving instruction materials back, along with Deb’s painting (which will likely be an adventure on its own). And of course, our newest family member “M and M”. That’s about it. It’s nice to maintain our low volume of stuff.

What is fascinating to me is what won’t make it back and what didn’t get used. We’ve been here almost a year and we really brought minimal supplies. Looking at where we are now, it is really clear to me what we truly need and what we don’t

The young adults have grown, especially Aidan. We are throwing away or giving away almost all of his clothes and shoes. The poor guy has no shoes that still fit – not that he needed them here! Likewise, Nev has a bunch of stuff that doesn’t fit. They, along with all of us, are getting rid of a number of clothes that we have simply worn through wearing them so much over the course of the last year. These include most of our swim suits, flip flops and t-shirts.

Then there is the technology. It’s been a hard year on our tech. Fortunately, I made sure we had redundancy in key areas. We’ve gone through four computer mice(!), three headsets/headphones, two digital pens, one Bluetooth music player, one keyboard, one tablet and a large number of recharging cables. Deb’s Mac and my parts of my tablet are on their way out as well. Kudos to all the smart phones, (Nokia, Apple, Samsung), Kindles, Xbox, and the Dell laptop which, despite heavy use all are no worse for wear.

In terms of what didn’t get used, there are many things. It’s good food for thought for others doing this (and we now know several!). We brought too many clothes and shoes. I brought several nice clothes anticipating that I might have to return to do some consulting. That was fortunate because I use them when I teach class, but I still brought too many short sleeve collared shirts. I found that black Armani t-shirts are versatile and great for going out here. I’d say that I could have cut my clothing by 2/3 and not noticed. In fairness, though, some of these things we didn’t use in Costa Rica we will use in Europe.

We didn’t use our nice Sony camera as much as we should have; it was just too big to easily take everywhere despite the nice pictures it takes. We are getting a smaller one for Europe so we actually use it. Likewise, we just started using the GoPro for diving but before that had not used it much. We didn’t watch any of the movies I brought on DVD and didn’t play most of the Xbox games we brought. And sadly, I never got a chance to use my volleyball.

Up until when I was asked to do a class on prototyping I would have added all of the backup drives I brought to this list. I had brought them more for safety but had not used them until I needed some key material for the class and then they became invaluable.

Almost everything else was used and used frequently, particularly cooking items, the very few board games and the large monitor (which was truly indispensible for my classes).

Of course, we didn’t come here to get “stuff” to bring back. Rather, we came for experiences and adventure, and we certainly got a lot – almost everything we hoped for. We all (mostly) learned a new language. We learned yoga and surfing. I got to play soccer in another country. We learned to dive. We got to explore the rain forest, the volcanoes, the jungle, and the beaches. We got to see (and in some cases live with) wildlife that we had never seen before. We got to have sunrise meditations and sunset cruises. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to teach in an exciting new University program. Deb got a chance to give back and work for a kids’ organization and help organize a fundraiser. We got to appreciate another culture and make lots of new friends, some of whom have become as close as family. We got to help our young adults unschool and learned a lot about ourselves in that process. We got to spend lots of time together as a family. That’s the “stuff” life is made of.

And that’s just stage 1 of our adventure. Stay tuned for more. Pura Vida.

PS: At least one of us (Nev) got to really appreciate Seattle’s cold weather!

Homecoming

It has been almost 6 months since we began our new adventure. This last week Vie and I travelled back to Seattle so that Vie and some friends could attend Sakura-Con, a large anime convention in Seattle. It was my first time back to Seattle in a while and I thought I’d share some thoughts.

We arrived on a Friday and I immediately sent Vie to Utah to meet up with friends for a few days. A few of them would be coming back with Vie to Sakura-Con, but that gave me a few days on my own in Seattle. Fortunately, several good friends took me in for little mini-stays!

Everyone I’ve seen has asked me what it is like. Some things are the same and some are different as you might expect, Just going through the airport to the taxis was very familiar for example. I had travelled so much that this actually felt very comfortable. It really didn’t hit me that I was in Seattle after an extended time.

It was very strange wearing shoes and pants. I hadn’t done that in months. Of course, I had several long hours on the plane and a long layover in Miami to get used to those. At least, I saw a welcome site in Miami!

WP_000539

Haagen Dazs in Miami

I immediately welcomed the sun in Seattle. I expected rain and cold (and I did get it a few days), but the weather was gorgeous when we arrived. It was about 50 degrees colder to be sure, but the sun made up for it. It will sound strange, but the sun in Seattle when it is out feels stronger and more intense than Costa Rica, despite temperatures there in the high 90’s. I love that intensity. It’s as if the sun, when out, wants to make up for lost time. I can be warm in Seattle in any temperature if I am in the sun.

WP_000541

The sun in the yard of our house

Unfortunately, not all my time was in the sun, even when it was outside. I was constantly cold everywhere, even with layers. In Costa Rica, I had gotten used to taking a cold shower or a dip in the pool to cool off. It felt refreshing stepping back into the heat. Here, I quickly remembered at a visceral body level that you take showers to warm up and then immediately feel cold when you get out.

It did rain a few days before it got sunny again. The rain came just in time for soccer 🙂 One nice thing though about the rain here in Seattle is that you get stunning rainbows:

WP_000549

Rainbow over downtown

I have yet to see a rainbow in Costa Rica. Given what I said about the sun, even if I do, I bet they won’t compare to Seattle.

The traffic here was another unexpected surprise. I drove in this traffic for a lot of years, but I quickly got used to two lane roads everywhere in Costa Rica, even to the capital. Traffic happens when they work on the road or a cow is crossing. I came out of the Seattle airport and immediately hit commuter traffic for an hour. The immensity of it was awesome: 10 lanes of bumper to bumper traffic on I-5 at one point. When I went to pick up Vie and company Thursday evening, I had to leave at 4:30 and it took almost 50 minutes to just hit the freeway. I don’t miss this at all. And the cows are awfully cute to watch – more so than (understandably) grumpy commuters.

I did get to drive our small MINI Cooper Coupe though and that was a welcome change from Mooseand Fanta. It was small, fast, and new. The first thing I did was turn on the heated seats! It’s one advantage to living in a cooler environment. I just wish I had those heated seats while I was sitting in the Convention Center for days!

Watching people here was fun, even before Sakura-Con. Both on the weekend and the weekdays, everyone always seemed to be rushing from somewhere to somewhere. I remember that. In fact, I had a long list of errands and activities myself for the days preceding the conference and I fell back into that rushing pace. I spent a lot of time between errands figuring out how long it would take to get somewhere, etc. It struck me at one point that I never do that in Costa Rica.

I was also pleasantly surprised about the people. I’ve written about how small Playa Flamingo and Playa Potrero are and how we seem to know most folks when we walk in a restaurant or pub. Seattle is a lot bigger of course, but 3 times since I have been here I just happened to bump into someone I knew unexpectedly. Maybe Seattle isn’t so small after all. I had to laugh at one point when I was walking down the street and heard “Hey, I thought you were in Costa Rica!” It was great catching up with those with whom I could, both planned and unexpected. There never seems to be enough time for that. It did make me savor every moment. I knew it would be a good while before I saw the particular person again. With everyone, it really didn’t feel like I had been gone; we picked right up as if I had not.

Eating and drinking was fun. One of the things I was really missing was good, strong, dark, heavy beer – like this:

WP_000548

Scottish Oil Drum Ale at 74th St. Ale House

I also get a choice of wine here in restaurants beyond (the same) Merlot and Cab, both of which are refrigerated in Costa Rica. I was really looking forward to the food. At times it was absolutely awesome, like the chicken pot pie at the Daily Grill and the mac and cheese at this place in the U-District. At times, it was hideous. Vie and I had inedible pasta the night we stayed at an airport hotel and breakfast at the Best Western Executive Inn was horrible. Breakfast at the Tilikum Café more than made up for it though.

Soccer was a lot of fun but pretty surreal. It’s been about 95 degrees in Costa Rica. The games are pretty slow, actually. There’s a lot of shooting from midfield and short, fancy footwork followed by passing and resting. Here, it was cold and rainy. There was little fancy footwork and lot of running, which I like. It was great playing with my old team, and very comfortable. In Costa Rica, I tend to be the only “gringo” and everyone speaks only Spanish. They are also all men. It was refreshing to play co-ed again. Women make the game more balanced.

Now, about this Convention. Imagine 3000 people, most of whom are dressed up, raging through the convention center. About half seem to be under 21.

WP_000562

 

lobby sakuracon

tired

Sakura-Con

The costumes (“cosplay”) were absolutely incredible. There was eye-candy everywhere. Most were anime-related. I saw armies of folks from Attack on Titan, Homestuck, Pokemon and more. There were a number of video game characters as well, from Super Mario Brothers to some stunning cosplayers from Halo and Borderlands. Super heroes abounded as well just like Comic-Con, but they tended to hang out with much cooler anime characters. I saw a particularly forlorn Thor trying to talk with some very attractive women cosplayers from Hetalia. The poor guy was out of his league on so many levels. I even saw several “bronies.” The best Cosplay I saw? An absolutely perfectly-crafted Master Chief with bunny ears worn by a woman. The workmanship was incredible.

Vie and friends Avery and Kam had several Cosplay costumes – per day. There was day and night attire and even pajamas one night. Sometimes the costume changes were quick, sometimes long, and sometimes painful (one particular cosplay for Vie involved contact lenses – see below). They were are home-made and awesome. The three of them worked months in preparation for this.

cosplayers

Vie, Kam and Avery at Sakura-Con

Since the teens were over 12, I didn’t have to follow them around as in previous years – at least 15 back of course 🙂 This year, I just had to be in the building. I found a table in the café here where I sat for 10-14 hours a day, not including time when I was wandering around the Con. I saw a ton of costumes I would love to see Deb in, many for sale, but we don’t need more stuffright now. Besides, it’s more fun to make them anyway. Look for Debbie as Cortana on a future Halloween (if I can convince her).

Despite the cold inside the Convention Center (I was shivering Friday night), I had a blast. I got a good start on our Body Defenders video game (more on that soon). I watched a few terrible zombie movies. I know that sounds bad and expected, but if I watch romantic comedies, I usually miss Deb even more. I caught up and leaped ahead in my Spanish on Duolingo. I snuck out a few times for meals close by with friends. I read a book. I wrote two blog posts.

Mostly, though, I had a long period of time to think about things. We Cargiles are very lucky to have an opportunity to live for a year in Costa Rica. Coming back to Seattle reinforces that for me. When people asked if it was what we expected and wanted, I usually said “yes”, and “no.” Both are true at times. It’s the nature of a journey, an adventure where you don’t have the end planned. Where we left with one possibility about returning, we now have many, many more. Getting free from a day to day routine here really makes almost anything seem possible, and that’s a very powerful feeling – one that was harder in coming when we were here working and living on a regular basis.

Who knows what’s next? We have a long time yet to work that out. Meanwhile, even after only 10 days, I am missing many things in Costa Rica, especially Deb. Maybe our nature is to constantly miss what we don’t have. But, I don’t miss pura vida. I think I brought some here. At least, I think I brought the perspective of enjoying every minute with what you have and really appreciating things. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that to the same degree the last time I was here.

I hope this experience is giving the young adults the chance to experience the change I’m feeling. Change is good. Feeling comfortable with change is priceless. Pura vida!

Addresses in Costa Rica

In our new adventure in Costa Rica, we’ve discovered several interesting things about Costa Rican culture. In some previous posts I wrote about some things that were better here in Costa Rica and also some things that were not as great. One big difference that I haven’t talked about yet is addresses. The way mailing addresses are handled here is unique – at least to me in all my worldwide travels. They make for some very interesting unintended consequences.

Here is our street address in Playa Potrero:

Del Bar La Perla
200 metros sur y 300 metros este
en la esquina de Avenida Cuatro y Calle Mango
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Here’s the translation for those of you who don’t speak Spanish:

From the bar La Perla
200 meters south and 300 meters east
at the corner of 4th Avenue and Mango Street
Surfside Estates, Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

You can see a few key features right away. There is no house number. It uses a landmark for reference (the bar La Perla in this case). It provides distances from the landmark almost like a pirate map. And most subtly, it doesn’t fully differentiate the address from other addresses that might also fit the directional criteria. It does, however, seem to work here. Mail gets delivered. Mostly.

Before I get deeper into some interesting things about addresses here, you might think that these sorts of addresses are primarily in the outer or lower population areas. That’s not the case. This last week I gave a colloquium at the Interaction Design Department at University Veritas in San Jose. I stayed at a cute little pensione-style hotel called Casa Voltaire. Here is its address:

De la Casa Italia
50 al este y 75 al norte.
Calle sin salida. Avenida 8 y calle 31,
San José, Costa Rica.

Or:

From the Casa Italia
50 to the east and 75 to the north.
Dead-end street. 8th Avenue and 31st Street,
San José, Costa Rica.

This particular address was interesting in that it was indeed at the end of a dead-end street, along with 6-7 others, including one other pensione. Fortunately, there was a sign out front so you could differentiate it from the 6-7 other buildings with the same address.

I didn’t survey many addresses in San Jose, but the ones I did – my pensione, the Interaction Design School, the restaurant where I ate, the hotel where I caught my bus – all had addresses like this. According to locals, it works this way throughout San Jose and elsewhere in Costa Rica.

These addresses may seem a bit challenging as is. However, add to it the fact that at least in most of the small towns in the Guanacaste area where we live, there are no street signs. We have nothing around us that would tell you where Calle Mango or Avenida 8 are, except a GPS (which few locals have).

Imagine being a mailperson here. You’d have to have an incredible amount of knowledge of the town. You could probably double as a tour guide.

There are some fun, interesting, and possibly frustrating implications in an address system like this, not the least of which is that you learn quickly how long measurements in meters are (for our metrically-challenged American friends).

For example, most addresses seem to rely on a landmark. Well, what’s the landmark’s address then? Or, do they “daisy chain” landmark addresses? Is the La Perla bar a certain distance from, say, the Super Wendy grocery store? It turns out that in most of the cases I’ve seen the answer is “no.” La Perla’s address is:

Calle principal,
Playa Potrero, Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Basically, this tells you that La Perla is on the “main street” running through Playa Potrero. You’d have to know where on main street.

Another interesting thing we’ve seen is how people “augment” the system. Our Spanish teacher, Ivette, for example, brilliantly has people put her phone number at the bottom of her address. There are several houses that have the same address as hers. I can imagine folks adding “blue house” or other additions to their addresses. If we actually used ours for mail I would.

Consider what might be a very frustrating event if your local landmark changed its name or just went away. If La Perla changed their name, it would affect a large number of street addresses in Surfside. As in the U.S. these addresses are in all your legal documents as well as address books of friends, etc. If your address changes here, you need to get a new title for your car and that involves a lawyer. It’s very good incentive to keep the local landmark places thriving.

This system evidently grew out of the agrarian nature of Costa Rica and the fact that many cities are small. It is pure “Tico.” I think it says something incredibly powerful about small towns and tight-knit communities. Everyone seems to know everyone and people don’t tend to move around much. I’m sure if they did, the mailperson would be able to give them the history of their place.

Of course, there are downsides to living in a small town. Everyone does indeed seem to know your business. But then again, if you are a visitor in town trying to find a friend’s address, you may just find that people here can direct you. It’s a stark contrast for us compared to Seattle where few people seem to want to know their neighbors. It’s also a charming reminder of why people form communities in the first place. We are social creatures after all.

I understand that Costa Rica is now moving toward real street addresses. The two towns of Moravia and Coronado have evidently completed the transformation. San Jose is starting the process by getting street signs up. Can you imagine what it will be like to transform a city that large?

Playa Potrero will likely be far down the list and that’s okay with us. Addresses are just one of the odder endearing qualities of this place. I’m sure there are a few expats here who get frustrated with all of this. I think we are with the locals, though. It’s just one more aspect of “pura vida.” I know there are a lot of us who can use more of that. Pura Vida!

Supply Run

One of the more interesting questions we’ve pondered in our three months on our new adventure is “what did we forget” or “what should we have brought but didn’t.” We’ve added to that along the way with “what do we need from the US.” We have actually been keeping a list of those things and this last week Deb returned from a week in Seattle (for work) and brought most of those back. We thought it would be fun to share what we couldn’t live without.

At the top of my list was a solution to my “rose” problem. I had written before about how I could not find a red rose here in Costa Rica anywhere. I had been getting Deb one every week for 18+ years. I looked at all the wonderful ideas people had but none worked well enough. I tried looking for the guaria moria – the national flower of Costa Rica – as a substitute to get her, but no luck finding those either. I tried to make an origami rose. I really did. I looked on sites for step-by-step instructions, YouTube videos how to do it, etc. In the end they were all pretty hideous. Then I ran out of large origami paper. I could find digital replacements but, well, that was too easy and not terribly meaningful.

I found my answer in an “infinite rose.” Technology comes to the rescue. An infinite rose is a long-stemmed red rose picked at its peak and preserved with glycerine. I ordered one and had it waiting for Deb as a surprise. It had a bit of trouble with all the bouncing on the trip back, but it made it back, mostly, and now sites in our sunny Costa Rica home!

infinite rose

Cooking tools were a big category of items that we learned that we needed. We brought a few essentials such as my really nice knife, but we came up short on a bunch of things such as a microplane, good salt and pepper grinders, an ice cream scoop, a whisk, ramekins, an apron, and a mortar and pestle. Why the latter? Sometimes we can find the odd spices we need here but they are not ground. Sometimes we have to make our own blends such as Chinese 5 spice blend. I am tired of using a flat rock and a round rock from our yard. Really. We had all of these in storage and Deb got to go sort through boxes to get them.

We also had to get a bunch more technology to support the young adults in their unschooling. Some of it was pretty exotic. For example, Aidan and Vie want to create videos for YouTube showing how they play various parts of a video game on Xbox. To capture that sort of feed, you need a game capture device like the Roxio Game Capture HD Pro. Of course we also needed to get several cables to go with it and a 3 terabyte hard disk since they will be capturing and editing video. Add to that some replacement headsets, Xbox batteries and charger, headset splitter and talkback cables, printer cartridges and you get the picture. As I mentioned in Differences Part 2, you generally can’t find these types of things here, especially anything having to do with Xbox – at least where we are.

There were some other things that Deb brought back that were very hard to get here or very expensive. These included new windshield wiper blades for Moose and Revolution flea and tick control medicine and collars for the dogs. I needed some deodorant that doesn’t have the aluminum chlorohydrate, which is hard to find for some reason. Vie needed some new shoes (Vans) and mostly what we have a selection of here is flip flops. There were some odd house items that we could not find even in the big DIY store, such as those small rubber bumpers you put inside cabinet doors to make them not bang. Try describing those in Spanish! We also needed some cup hooks to hold up tube lighting under our counter cabinets to get rid of all the darkness in the kitchen.

We also had a category of guilty pleasures. These are things that we missed. We would have loved to have brought back a whole case of Jolly Roger Christmas Ale but it would be a tough fit. Instead, Deb brought things like a set of Cards Against Humanity, Brazilian cachaca, jelly beans, Nutella, our Sorry game, and Diva Coffee. I know, we are in Costa Rica and there is some fabulous coffee here…but the roast is not nearly as dark and intense as what we liked in Seattle.

Aidan and Vie had to get their gummy worm fix. They did not just have Deb bring back a few packages. Instead, they had her bring back the world’s largest gummy worm. I kid you not. It is more than 2 feet long, 3 pounds, and 4000 calories. Here’s a picture from Vat19 where we got it.

gummy worm

Now imagine Deb going through security at the airport with this thing, wrapped in plastic, in her luggage!

There were a number of things Deb brought back for friends here – things they could not easily, or cheaply, get here either. Some of these were expected. They were things like power drills, large computer microphones (tech), and a yoga mat.

She also brought back some lacrosse balls for Abriendo Mentes, a local non-profit working with locals in the areas of education and employment. They sponsor kids’ lacrosse here through Lacrosse the Borders.

The most surprising thing she brought back for friends was really nice sheets. Evidently, good ones here are very hard to find, even in Hotel supply stores, and very expensive if you can find them.

In all, we sent over 30 different packages to our friend Wendy’s house, where Deb was staying. Most were from Amazon (you have to love two day shipping). They formed a really nice stack up of presents for Deb to pack up. Even after buying (yet) another suitcase, she couldn’t fit everything. On the chopping block were good tequila, more cachaca, and lots of creams and moisturizers for Deb. They were all too heavy. Deb really sacrificed the most with her creams.

The good news is that I and Vie get to go back in April for a week for SakuraCon. Vie will bring an arsenal of costumes (many made here with the sewing machine we brought!). We can bring down the left items as well as possibly more things we discover that we need in the next few months – though other than parts for Moose, I can’t imagine what new needs we’ll have. I really don’t want to be accumulating more stuff 🙂

Pura Vida!