Of Dogs, Kids, and Things

It has been an incredibly busy 2 weeks here on our new adventure. It almost feels like a typical week in Seattle with work, kid activities, volunteer work, etc. Of course, a huge difference is the warm hot weather and the gorgeous views of the beach we have every day here.

Deb just finished a huge project with our friends Colleen and Kim – they pulled off a huge fundraiser, especially for this area. Deb mentioned it in Giving Back. The fundraiser benefited two great organizations here: Abriendo Mentes, an organization that helps school kids with after school activities such as learning English and working with computers, and Costa Rica Pet Care, an organization that helps spay and neuter street dogs here.

We held the event last night at El Oasis in Brasilito. Shelly, the manager graciously allowed us to use her restaurant on a Saturday night for the event. We had several awesome local bands playing, including Local Legends and Los Dos. There were about 150 people in attendance and we all had a rocking good time. With ticket sales, drinks, food, and raffle, it looks like we netted about $4200. It was an extremely successful event by all measures. It even did far better than several fundraisers I’ve seen in Seattle. I think one of the key reasons is that everyone here knows the two organizations and really appreciates their work. We had all of the food and drinks donated as well as the venue and the bands. That says a lot about the community we live in here. It was a ton of work, but really satisfying.

The fundraiser was just one of a few things going on. While Deb was working on the fundraiser a lot, I’ve been working on my class in Information Visualization at Universidad Veritas. Creating the course and material always takes a lot of time (Deb seems to think I get a bit obsessive!). When she and I taught at UW, we got to work together, but we were also working full time. Fortunately, this is my only “job” this time around. J

I’m averaging about 2.5 classes worth of content per week, so I should be ready in plenty of time for the start of class July 24 and still have time to put my conference talk together for the Interaction Design Summit here. I’ll have a few awesome friends in Seattle giving guest talks for parts of classes. Tableau Software has donated licenses for the whole class and we’ll also be using Microsoft’s new Power Map, so I hope the students have a blast.

There is also a small world event going in Brasil that has a big impact here. For our non-futbol friends, it’s called the World Cup. We’ve managed to carve out time to keep up with our 3 teams. The US is our first team, of course, and they have done well in game 1, but will have a lot of challenge with Portugal today. Brasil is always our favorite. We have so many wonderful ties to Brazil with friends and extended (au pair) families. This is a particularly exciting cup because it is in Brasil. We would have actually gone to Brasil if we hadn’t decided to live in Costa Rica for a year.

The most exciting news and fun so far though, is our Costa Rica team! Going into the Cup, they ended up in what everyone has called “el grupo del muerto” – the group of death. The group includes Costa Rica and 3 previous World Cup winners: Uruguay, Italy, and England. Costa Rica has pulled off two stunning upsets so far, first beating Uruguay and then beating Italy! I can’t tell you how incredible it is to be in a bar full of Ticos and gringos and watch Costa Rica win. Before the Cup, many of our Tico friends didn’t think Costa Rica had any chance. Now, they are all starting to believe. Watching this transition and the underdog story in Costa Rica is priceless. It’s will be one of our most memorable experiences here.

We have jerseys for our 3 teams. Hopefully, we won’t have to choose which to wear anytime soon since none of them will play each other – for a while at least. But hopefully it will happen. We’ll have a lot to root for.

Finally, Deb’s birthday was the 19th. We are having a little bonfire party for her tonight. Somehow I got it into my head two weeks ago that I wanted to paint a picture of her for her birthday. It’s been a loooooong two weeks. I hadn’t picked up a paint brush (for painting pictures) in almost 20 years, so I was a bit rusty. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I hid the painting in progress and all of my paints and brushes around the house so she couldn’t find them. I had to wait for her to go to bed to get everything out for the most part. It usually took me about 15 minutes to set up and another 15-20 minutes to tear down. Fortunately, as the fundraiser approached, she was out working on it for good chunks of time in the day and that helped. Aidan even helped by taking her to the beach one day.

As of the writing of this, she hasn’t seen it yet. I’ll surprise her soon. I hope she likes it. Here’s the initial drawing:

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And here’s the final painting (I need to take a picture outside with good light – I took this late at night with a flash):

While the last two weeks have been more of an exception to our time here, they feel oddly normal, possibly comfortable. Maybe I like having several things going on. More likely, I think I might unconsciously be preparing myself for the job hunt and return to Seattle ahead. It is coming much faster than we all think. Deb and I recently started pinging a few folks about possible opportunities and some things are starting pop up. Likely, we’ll have some big decisions ahead with work, staying at home, unschooling for the young adults, and maybe even where we live. For now, it’s nice to step back and just enjoy the time here while it lasts. We want to make every last minute count. 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.

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Day 50 of our new adventure in Costa Rica. It’s hard to believe it’s only been 50 days. In some ways, it feels like we have been here longer. In some ways, it still feels like a beginning, which it really is.

I’ve been writing down things over the last month or two that are different here compared at least to Seattle. Some are harder or more expensive. Some are easier, cheaper or better. I’m sure I will add more things as we go along but I thought it would be fun to share some of these, especially for those who are thinking about coming here for a trip or longer.

I’ll split the list in two and start with things that are better, easier, cheaper or just more exciting. A few caveats: these are coming from a former Seattleite, Chicagoan, and Californian who is living in a small town on the coast of Costa Rica, and not working. The comparison is clearly not “apples to apples”. And these are mine – I won’t speak here for Aidan, Vie or Debbie.

  • Sun
    I can’t even begin to say how energizing it is to see the sun and feel its warmth every day. Vitamin D is a wonderful thing too. I won’t belabor the point for our Seattle friends going through winter right now. 
  • Auto mechanics
    While cars and parts may be more expensive, auto mechanics are much cheaper. Tomás, our mechanic for Moose, is replacing shocks, engine valves, suspension struts, fixing all the electric windows, repairing the back door handle and adding new tires all for the price of about 3 hours (or less) labor in Seattle terms. It offsets the cost of owning a car a bit.
  • Produce (of the types that are available)
    On the up side, the types of produce you can find in Costa Rica are plentiful and cheap. We have a great local produce stand about 2 blocks away owned by Rafael. He’s such a nice guy and is always giving us a new interesting thing to try. One recent discovery – Peruvian cherries.
  • Futbol (soccer)
    Soccer on a grass field in the warm (OK, hot) sun at sunset playing with Ticos and learning their moves. In contrast, this last week it was 28 degrees at night when we would normally be playing soccer in Seattle. I don’t miss the rainy, cold, windy games (though I do miss our team immensely).
  • Medical professional access
    It is very easy to talk to your medical professionals here. We found great doctors. They gave us their email addresses so we can contact them through email if it was more convenient. What a concept! What is really surprising, though, is that they gave us their personal cell phone numbers as well.
  • No commute
    This one is low hanging fruit, I know, compared to Seattle and the Bay Area. While I loved my MINI Cooper Coupe, I don’t miss the quality time I spent with it every day in commute traffic in Seattle.
  • Beach volleyball
    I love beach volleyball. In Seattle, we had indoor volleyball, which was fun. We also had beach volley ball in a very cold indoor arena on imported sand. What can I say about getting back beach volleyball on a real beach in the sun. Like most activities here, though, you stop between 12 and 3 because the sand and the temperature are way too hot.
  • Speaking Spanish
    There is something very empowering about learning to speak another language. We are still working on fluency right now, but Deb and I have reasonable conversational skills. It’s been challenging at times, but very satisfying.
  • No American fast food
    The nearest American fast food chain is 90 minutes away in the closest big city, Liberia. No McDonalds, Burger King, Jack, KFC, etc. All the places here are local and we eat locally whenever we can. Of course, Vie does mourn the loss of access to Starbucks.
  • Soccer on TV
    It’s so great to see soccer on TV. Every night. And I don’t mean only during the World Cup on cable channels or the final World Cup matches on a major network. Almost every night we can choose from UEFA Champions or Europa league games, European premiere leagues, Mexican, South American, or Central American league games. The latter are usually live.
  • Not having to drive everywhere
    We only got a car to get to good surfing. Everything else – food, bars, grocery stores, the beach, yoga, soccer, haircuts, the doctor, etc. are all within walking or riding distance. We love not needing to burn gas every day.
  • Seeing Deb in her bikini every day
    This one is clearly personal, but I just had to list it. Life is good J
  • Surfing
    I never surfed in Washington. It was cold. More importantly, on northern Washington beaches you see trees thrown up on the shore from the surf, so that means as a surfer you’d be competing with trees! A more realistic comparison is snowboarding though. Surfing and snowboarding are nearly even. If I really had to pick one though, it would be surfing. Warm sun and warm ocean say it all. Oh yeah, and you can walk 10 feet to get a Margarita without having to take your equipment off compared to making it to a lodge on a ski slope.
  • Powdered Gatorade
    We do have powdered Gatorade in Seattle, but we had never tried it. We live by it here. Vie and I go through 6-7 bottles per day. Between the cost difference in powder vs. liquid and the fact that we grocery shop on bicycles, powdered Gatorade has become a necessity. One nice discovery is that you can make it a little sweeter. Sometime in the 2000’s I remember Gatorade tried out an “endurance” formula that was a bit sweeter and thicker. I loved it but they stopped producing it. I’m pretty sure was simply more concentrated and now we can make that ourselves.
  • Knowing a bunch of people in the area
    It is striking how quickly we have gotten to know a lot of people in our community. We walk down the street and see someone we know now and stop to chat. Whenever we go to one of our hangouts, like La Perla, The Shack, or Maxwell’s we know most of the folks there. It is a small community to be sure, but it is wonderful to have a community.
  • Pura Vida
    I’ll end with the most profound I think. Pura vida truly is a way of life here. It is one that we are loving every day. It’s difficult to describe just how completely different attitudes are here and how people approach life. Seattle and Silicon Valley, two places where I’ve lived a long time, tend to be very fast paced and intense. Yes, it can be exciting. It can also be complex, stressful, and overscheduled. I always felt behind no matter how much I got done. Time was a rare commodity and far too much of it seemed to be focused on work (including getting there and back). Going to and from places, we seemed to be focused on getting there; rarely saying “hi” to people and stopping to smell the roses. Even schooling is getting to be stressful and all-consuming.Here, everyone says “hi” to each other on the street (or “pura vida”). You get to know people quickly and easily. There is time to take time and smell the roses. One could argue that my comparison of my current and former lifestyle isn’t exactly fair, and it isn’t. But, I would argue that the “pura vida” attitude is that it is important to slow down and live life. It’s important to take the time. It’s important to enjoy doing things. It might be tough to make this work in a fast-paced, high-tech lifestyle, but I believe it is possible. I know “pura vida” is already having a welcome effect on me. And change is something to embrace.

Look for the List, part 2, coming soon.