Learning Curves

“OK, I admit it,” said Barry, one morning. “I’m loving the hell out of this.”

Barry with the dodger under construction

Barry peeks out around the dodger in a moment of whimsy.

I was so shocked by his statement, I would have fallen out of bed had that been possible. Fortunately, it’s not possible to fall out of the v-berth aboard Flutterby.

We were discussing his progress on our winter project, building a hard dodger and arch on which to mount our solar panels. Unlike most boat projects, it was not taking twice as long as he expected. It was taking Barry ten times as long as he expected, and when he made the statement in the v-berth, in early March, I saw no end in sight.

I was not enjoying the hell out of it. Five months of freezing my butt off, in a boat on land, with no car, six miles from the dying town of St. Marys, Georgia, had a completely different effect on me. I had slowly sunk into the depths of despair.

I asked Barry to explain to me what it was that he was loving so much, when all I saw was head-scratching, frustration, and outright failure. “Learning curves,” he said.

I laughed at his unintentional double entendre. The reason the dodger has taken ten times longer than expected is because instead of building a simple, squared-off shape out of marine plywood, we decided we wanted it curved, to match the shape of Flutterby. Most builders would have used fiberglass, which is what the boat is made of. Barry prefers working with wood, though. He opted to build it out of what he calls “tortured plywood.”

The bending jig for the dodger roof

The bending jig for the dodger roof

Becoming increasingly more animated, he explained how the process of learning how to bend and laminate plywood into complex three-dimensional shapes, how to fit them onto the deck of a boat, how to get maximum strength with the lightest materials, was forcing him to use his brain to learn amazing new things.

While I thought he was sitting at his computer, reading LOLCats and surfing Facebook, he was actually using his time to do high-level research and calculations.

“I was spending way too long doing trigonometry and numerical solutions to figure out bending curves and camber and calculating how much the plywood’s going to spring back after you torture it,” he explained. He went on to tell me what he really meant when he said “learning curves.”

“There’s this initial part of a learning curve where you really suck at it. It’s not very fun,” he told me. “It’s slow as hell, because I’m still learning this shit and I’m cracking plywood when I try to bend it…”

Sides of the dodger

What’s wrong with this picture? (hint: when you cut it in half, you don’t get two symmetrical pieces)

I remember the saddest day, in December. He’d spent weeks designing the sides and figuring out how to build them, and together, we spent a day laminating them together. When the epoxy kicked and he took his jig apart, he was almost in tears. We’d made two port sides and zero starboard sides. When he realized that neither of the port sides fit, I think he really was in tears.

Weeks later, we tried again. That time, the plywood cracked and the two sides ended up asymmetrical. He decided to use them anyway.
It was after he attached the asymmetrical sides to the front that he went bananas with trigonometry, trying to figure out how to build a curved top that looked symmetrical. Perfection was impossible, and he studied it for weeks, trying to figure out a compromise solution. He turned to websites about how to bend wood for ukeleles and guitars for answers.

“I have new respect for people who build musical instruments. If I played them, I could digress and waste years on this.” He admitted that his screen time had not all been productive; he’d spend some of it reading and dreaming about the wonderful woodworking tools he would like to have. He shook his head, saying, “I don’t need to have all those toys now. I just need to get this dodger done.”

“I’ve spent more time on this learning curve than I’ve spent fretting on the fact that the dodger is not quite perfect. I don’t know any way I could have gone about this without learning this stuff … but when I started it, I didn’t realize how much I had to learn.”

Measuring steam-bent plywood

Meps helps bend plywood using boiling water (boots and gloves left over from our 2005 trip to Alaska protected us from the boiling water)

Yikes! Did you think we were serious?


Yikes! Did you think we were serious? Time to say goodbye to the old header and subtitle.

Barry and I once knew a couple on a sailboat who set off cruising with a table saw chained to their mizzen mast. The boat was not complete, but after many years of building, it was seaworthy. They would finish their projects along the way.

That couple gave us a valuable word for our vocabulary: “Fernow.”  As in, “It’s good enough for now.” Fernows explain why we make do with things that are pinned instead of sewn, cardboard instead of wood, funky instead of nice. They are the temporary installations that we never intended to use for the next decade.

That’s the case for mepsnbarry.com. In 2003, Barry and I created a website for our friend Brian, and I wrote my very first blog post:

There once was a sailor named Brian
Fell in love with a vessel named Cayenne
From his home way up north
He boldly went forth
Now he’s bitchin’ and moanin’ and cryin’!

Barry and Brian and I chronicled our adventures aboard Cayenne in New Orleans and our cruise to Baltimore, much of it in limerick form. Fourteen months later, Limericks #48 and #49 tell the end of the story:

We’re tanned and our feet are like leather
We’ve seen lots of glorious weather
After 2000 miles
We’ve run out of smiles
We can sail, but we can’t live together.

So Margaret and Barry are blue
And Brian is looking for crew
When we reach our next port
Its time to abort
And figure out what else to do.

Tacky animated under construction image

Remember when fernow websites were full of these?

Suddenly, our writing was homeless, so we quickly launched Adventures With Meps ‘n’ Barry, using a cute but temporary design. The stylesheet had bugs. The layout was funky. The navigation was kludgy. It was a fernow.

Despite that, Adventures with Meps ‘n’ Barry is thriving. In a world where millions of blogs have been started and abandoned, where people have nothing better to blog about than blogging itself, Barry and I have something very, very special: Content. Eleven years of valuable, original content.

We have over 600 entries, with stories, photographs, videos, and hundreds of limericks. We have useful information about how to build a junk rig and how to write a birthday limerick. We have guest poems. We have so many recipes, we had to spin them off into their own website (FoodieGazette.com) in 2006.

These are not personal diary entries or trip reports. These are thought-provoking stories with meaning, stories about the people we met along the way. Some are touching, many are funny. Some are both. This is the material that inspired my book, Strangers Have the Best Candy.

I am reminded of a story about a woman who always wanted to play the violin, but at 60, she thought she was too old. When she turned 90, she expressed her regret, saying, “I would have played the violin for 30 years by now.”

I am deeply glad that I started writing like this when I did. In eleven years, I have refined my voice and found some wisdom along the way. Figuratively, I have been playing the violin.

Today, Barry and I have finally launched a redesigned mepsnbarry.com. Now it’s easier to find the wonderful wealth of material that is published here. Now it’s easier to comment, to share, to join the conversation. Now it’s easier to read it on your phone, something we never even imagined when we launched the site!

Round tuit

The best thing to replace a fernow

Fortunately, I never let the fernow stop me from writing, from compiling my limericks, stories, photos, and videos on a “blog.” They are all here. Today, you and your friends — heck, the whole world! — can enjoy them, because we finally got something to replace the fernow: A “round tuit.”

(By the way, you may notice something a little different about Barry in the cartoon at the top. He cut his long hair in 2005, the night before we set off on our epic Alaska-Yukon adventure.)

Turning the monster loose

When we launched this website, we created a monster.

We’d been writing for Brian Guptil’s site for about 8 months, while we worked on and then cruised his 44-foot Freedom sailboat, Cayenne. When we left Cayenne, Brian revamped his site, so we decided to launch our own. We wanted our loyal fans (both of them) to still have access to our essays and limericks. Besides, we simply enjoyed writing about our travels and adventures.

Around the same time, we uploaded my entire recipe collection, so I could look up my recipes anywhere we had an internet connection. And that’s the monster.

Anyone, anywhere in the world, could also look at my recipe collection. Soon I began to notice that people were hitting mepsnbarry.com when searching for TVP meatloaf, pumpkin chocolate chip cookies, or Brazilian cheese bread. There have been dozens of hits on Palak Ka Saag, which I’ve never even made, and Quentão, which I have.

So I started to feed the monster, capturing more recipes from friends, family, clippings, cookbooks, and other websites. I’d invent a new recipe, try it out on Barry, and then run to the computer to publish it as soon as he proclaimed it “Yummy.” Sometimes, a dish would grow cold while I happily photographed it from all angles.

Earlier this year, I started publishing articles about food, and I needed a name other than “Meps’ Recipes.” That’s when I came up with “The Foodie Gazette” name.

Some of the people who use my recipes seem to think I know something. They send me questions about how to make some dish from their childhood, or whether it’s safe to leave soaked dried mushrooms on the counter for several days. (heck if I know — depends on whether you live in Mississippi or Alaska!) I’m no home economist, I’m just a writer who likes to write about food.

Today, we’re going to turn the monster loose. We’re moving all the recipes and food articles to their own dedicated website: www.foodiegazette.com.

It’s still just Meps’ recipe collection. But it has a fancy new design, the articles are featured prominently, and there will be more useful cooking links and pages. Most importantly: The search function works!

Life is full of funny surprises. I thought I’d be traveling on a sailboat in the Caribbean right now, and instead, I’m launching a website about food. But I’m headed to Portugal to look at a boat for sale in less than a month, and while I’m there, I’m sure to be eating some great new foods. So stay tuned — both of you (grin) — and I’ll post adventures of both kinds, travel AND food, on both sites for you to enjoy.

Postscript: Speaking of monsters, the limericks on this website are another thing I can’t seem to control. I even have a category for limericks about food!

Why I'm afraid of Frankenstein

Sometime this evening, Barry will give birth to a monster. Its name: Frankenstein.

It’s time for a new computer, so after shopping around, he decided to build it himself. The good news is, we won’t have to share the computer any more. The bad news is, the size of the junk box will not be diminished, because he’s had to order all the parts.

My computer-geek’s junk box is a scary place. We used to have it at our house, and the contents spilled over and crept out to take over part of a room. There were the usual RS232 cables, 9-pin connectors, and grubby mousies and pads. I once counted eight CD-drives — not CD burners, but plain old 2X drives. Not a single one of them worked.

When we moved out of the house and got rid of our stuff, Barry had to clean out his junk box. Despite the fact that none of the stuff worked and most of it was five years out of date, he had an emotional time going through the box. One of his favorite SCSI converters became a Christmas ornament, because he couldn’t part with it.

The junk box only stayed empty for a year. Last year, he started accreting again. “I’m going to Paris,” said Mo, “Do you want to take anything from my junk box?” Barry’s eyes lit up, and the next thing I knew, we were carting home a free Gateway computer and a 10-port hub. When we got home, the Gateway wouldn’t boot.

Next, we ordered a wireless keyboard from the internet. I was excited about improving the laptop’s ergonomics: Look, Ma, I can sit all the way across the room and type! The problem? I type too fast. First, the keyboard would have a tantrum and start throwing words and letters around the screen. Then, if I didn’t slow down, the screen would go blank. The cheap keyboard had mis-sent some combination of keys, so Word deleted my entire document AND emptied the recycle bin. This sent me into a major tantrum, as I struggled to maintain my composure and not throw the offending piece of cheap Chinese hardware across the room at the offending laptop. Like an incontinent puppy, that keyboard was sent to the garage.

Last week, I decided to fire up our extra computer, a really, really old Mac laptop. I plugged it in and turned it on. Nothing happened. “No, no, don’t take me to the garage! Oh noooooo, Mr. Bill!” Out it went, into the junk box.

One reason this stuff accrues is that in Seattle, you have to pay to get rid of old computer parts. The lead content is so high, it’s against the law to put them in the garbage. I steadfastly refuse every freebie that comes my way for fiscal reasons, but Barry insists that some of the stuff will work and be useful. Someday.

Maybe someday is here: Barry’s expecting to build his new computer tonight. He’s calling it Frankenstein, and he plans to keep the cost low by building it himself.

I’m afraid of Frankenstein, myself. Not that I expect it to go on a rampage, rape, and pillage. I’m simply afraid that when it’s all done, the dreaded junk box will be bigger, not smaller. For me, the real monster is the ever-growing pile of computer junk.

The Wacky World of Wi-Fi

Last fall, Barry and I stopped in to see his best friend from high school, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. Mowgli has the most wonderful collection of toys, from old computers to new computers, music, videos, and books. He’s an expert on just about everything related to networking, so Barry asked him for a recommendation on which wi-fi card to buy. Rummaging around, Mowgli produced a little hunk of plastic and metal and handed it to Barry. In his usual low-key way, he told us it hadn’t worked right for him, so we could just have it.

I’d never seen one of these gizmos before. Every time I use it, it feels like a miracle.

In New Orleans, Brian took us to an internet cafe with wi-fi, where we could try it out. We sat at a table with tea and coffee, our laptops’ power cords plugged into the wall. The internet signal didn’t come from a wire, but through the air, from a spot near the ceiling. If I sat between the laptop and the transmitter on the ceiling, I was sure I could feel a little Google tickle, just below my right shoulder blade.

A few months later, we were anchored in the middle of the harbor at Wrightsville Beach. I don’t know what possessed Barry to put the card in the computer, but suddenly he announced that we had signal! He quickly took advantage of it, checking e-mail, updating our website. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished. We studied the houses on shore with binoculars, but there was no way of telling which house it came from.

When we took off in the Squid Wagon, Barry introduced me to a concept known as “war driving.” You fire up the laptop, put the wi-fi card in, and drive around, watching to see if there’s any signal. The only problem is that the place you find signal and the place you find parking aren’t usually the same place. The other problem is that the signal isn’t always right in your lap, where you want the laptop. Sometimes, you have to kind of stand on your head to find it, a process that involves holding the laptop over your head or propping the computer sideways with a lot of pillows. Reminds me of those cell phone commercials: Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?

At cozy Moose River Campground in Vermont. Mary had a little wi-fi transmitter in her living room window, mainly so she could take the laptop outside and work. That meant that from some of the campsites, you could access the internet without leaving your RV. Or, in our case, your picnic table. We got a lot of work done on the website there.

The weirdest place we got wi-fi signal was on the freeway, in Halifax. Barry was driving, and I was navigating through construction. I forgot the card was in. Suddenly, I heard that distinctive little chime, and I quickly downloaded our e-mail out of thin air. The traffic cleared up, we started going 60 kilometers per hour, and the signal disappeared.

By the time we’d been on the road for a month, it became commonplace for us to find wi-fi hotspots, park the van, and just sit inside. We’d take turns reading and writing to friends, and we’d post limericks and essays. Barry would always check his online comic strip, Sluggy Freelance. We’d read Google News to find out what was happening in the world.

Ottawa was one of these places. We parked on a quiet side street and spent hours updating the website, surfing, and taking Prussia for walks. Spokane wasn’t quite as pleasant. Despite the fact that there was free signal everywhere, provided by the city itself, our parking space was on a terribly noisy highway at rush hour. The light behind us would change and dozens of cars would zoom past, shaking the van. Grand Forks, North Dakota, was also strange — we found signal near the university, but then I became uncomfortable when I realized that we were being watched. I was certain those big burly college guys were going to come down and beat us up for stealing their Internet.

In St. John’s, Newfoundland, we were sitting in the parking lot of a small shopping mall, surfing the net for a few hours. A rented panel truck pulled into the lot near us, misjudged, and as we watched, creamed a small sedan parked there. That was enough surfing for me, time to get out of that parking lot!

So where am I right now, as I write this? Not parked on 10th Avenue across from the Ben and Jerry’s truck, that was yesterday. Not drinking apple-ginger juice at Victrola, the wi-fi-enabled cafe on 15th Avenue. That was a couple of weeks ago.

I’m sitting in the dining room of my own house, the one we own in Seattle. There are a few contortions necessary — last night, Barry was standing at the dining room window, holding the laptop on his shoulder and mousing with one hand. Today, I was able to rig a tall chair and two phone books to catch it. I doubt it’s the elderly hermit next door, or the lady on the corner who drives a black VW bug. But whoever you are, all I can say is, thanks!


It’s a wonderful thing to have a tiny little black box that contains most of the information you need on a regular basis. A database full of names and addresses, a directory full of treasured childhood photos, another one of recent photos, hundreds of recipes, and copies of every letter you’ve typed in the past 15 years. And that’s without even connecting it to the Internet.

But with all that comes a price: Dependency. When the thing doesn’t boot up, you are toast. Without your to-do list in Excel, what do you DO next? Without the address book in Access, how can you call anyone? Without Microsoft Streets and Trips, how can you plan a trip across the country?

Our laptop, known as Fooney, was one hot computer. Too hot. You couldn’t use it in your lap without practically suffering thigh-burns. Eventually, some inner part decided that it didn’t like Fooney’s tropical climate and gave up the ghost.

Even though all the data was backed up before sending it in for repairs, the 7-10 days for the repair are actually going to adversely affect our travel schedule. Hence Fooney’s new name, “Millstone.”

I think it’s time to try some old-fashioned, computer-free camping. Where life is simple and uncomplicated, and the only bugs are the ones in your food.