Happy Midwinter

Midwinter is always a special time, and this year – for some of us – especially so. Today is the tenth anniversary of our midwinter at Halley. Happily, it seems we must have had a good time as most are still eager to stay in contact, even if we’re not always that regular at it. Two of us now live in New Zealand and we just had a skype call with another seven who have gathered in Yorkshire (along with their families), and one who joined by skype from a north sea oil rig. Of the other eight, I still hear from three of them and I wouldn’t be surprised if the remaining five maintain contact in their own ways.

Some of the stories and memories are vivid, but others needed jogging. I was reminded of little things, like when we tried to make ketchup, got over-excited by our first storm (and told off by the base commander), when the girls got snowed-in the caboose, the smell of Nido (I was living quite happily without that recollection) and sound of squeaky snow under foot.

I loved the winter and I’d do it again if I could guarantee the same crowd, or similar, and the same base – which now no longer exists, and the same people in the larger project, and the same naivety (only allowed once). All those have changed. But the essence, I hope, is the same. The stars and aurora, sastrugi and fogbows, mirages and ever-lasting dawn…. when it eventually arrives. Those long, long shadows.

I don’t follow the blogs of people who are down there now, and I rarely follow stories of current Antarctic science or adventures. I like to keep my own untarnished, rose-tinted, memories sealed in a very precious, and only occasionally opened, box.

Everyone looked and sounded exactly the same. Despite the arrival of new partners and kids, houses and jobs, responsibilities various. At heart, we’re still the same people, and our Halley – as we knew it – is unchanged.

This week I am a bachelor

This week I am a bachelor. I live in a bachelor pad, I eat cold pizza for breakfast, and I even had my electricity cut off last night for [the bachelor] forgetting to pay a bill. I love it. I live in the heart of the city, it’s quicker to buy food than cook it, and to blow out any cobwebs you just crank up the amazing sound system. When I arrived there was half a bin bag forgetfully left on the kitchen counter and a warning note to not even consider opening the microwave door. The kitchen table is piled high with fish oil capsules, whey powder, and soy milk, and the corridor is a filing system for piles of esoteric papers on design and new media. There is also, of course, an enormous TV screen. I love it so much I want to become it, to live it. For the two weeks that I’m here at least.

Last week I was a grand dame. Proprietress of a large Wellington villa, enormous rambling gardens, four double bedrooms (each with en suite) plus a billiard room, lounge, dining hall, extensive kitchen with polished stainless steel double sink and draining area, mannequins, portraits, signed photos, budgies, cockateels and fruit trees multiple (lemon, lime, apple, feijoa and grapefruit). The winding staircase has an opulent red carpet that provides inspiration for flouncing down in long petticoats or inviting guests over just so that I can nonchalantly call down “come on in – I’m upstairs” in order to enjoy their wide eyes upon approach.

Previous to that, we had a gorgeous wee spot right on the beach. Right On The Beach. We’d wake up and jump in the sea before work, or even a cup of tea, and go to sleep to the sound of the ocean lapping. It was summer perfection. I caught the ferry to work and went for delicious coastal bike rides in the long summer evenings. It was a neighbourhood: the ferry driver knew my name and I borrowed a cooking pan from the house next door when they were out. The garage was full of bikes, kayaks, paddleboards, and wetsuits. Up the hill behind us was New Zealand bush that you could walk in for days without hitting a road.

In each place I’ve lived, I’ve lived it, I’ve loved it, and I’ve imagined making a life just like that. Until the next place comes along.

Since the end of 2011, I have lived in eleven different places and moved more than that (I returned to some of those locations a few times). Terms of condition varied from house-sitter to tenant, with several variations on house-guest/ lodger/ freeloader in between. In all cases the payment was more likely to be in the form of stories (Andy’s where? He’s doing what? You’re now working with who?!) than cash. We have many people to thank for keeping a roof over my head – and a base for Andy to return to when he was in town. Often returning to a different location each time. Home, we have always said, is where the other is, and sometimes where we sleep, but rarely restricted to one location. For the last year I’ve kept a range of clothes in the filing cabinet of my office mostly to pretend that I have an element of consistency and stability in my work-life at least. No-one appears to believe the myth.

There is a joy and freedom to being itinerant. The only burden is related to possessions: Buddhists have it right there. Packing, moving, cleaning, unpacking, never knowing where that thing is, losing crucial bits of paper, having a PO Box on the other side of town and two different storage units (one for the business, one for the boat). These things are boring and tiresome. Very. After a while they wear you down and then you’re Trapped. Trapped by your trappings. The trappings we’ve been trying to escape, to avoid, to be free of. The trappings of boring and conventional. But if you cave, they’ll grow. They’ll take over. Suddenly you will not only need a shelf, a table, a filing cabinet… but also a bed, a pan to cook with, some art for the walls, space for those things you love that have no purpose, a spare room, a shed…. And once you have those, then you can have anything you want: a rice cooker and a juicer, sharp knives, books, hundreds of books, music, more art, plates and chairs for lots of guests, glasses, bags, boxes, clothes, shoes…. hell, you might as well throw a pet in the mix. And the next thing you know, you have a house. So you might as well call it a home, make it a home. Enjoy having a home. Grow carrots and receive mail. Invite friends to stay – indefinitely. Fill cupboards with food and cook delicious meals. Know where you’re coming home to every day.

I have enjoyed living in other people’s spaces, especially when they’re away. And I’ve learnt a lot about how to keep a house. We think we know but really, where does that information come from? Like parenting – parents have no training, they just do what they think is right largely based on what their own parents did or did not do. So it is with houses. When I live in someone else’s house, I follow their rules. Some people rinse dishes before they go in the dishwasher, others don’t. Some people have special cleaning regimes and cloths for particular surfaces. Some just care about the plants being watered and pets being fed. Most like to have their bills paid on time.

So, the time has come. We’ve reached the end of this particular road. I have one more move left in me, for now. We’re buying a house. It will be my first somewhat long-term, non-parental, address since 2001 (a house in Canada that I lived in for almost three years). I don’t think Andy’s ever had one of those.

Surprisingly, the initiative for this came from Andy. Andy the itinerant. Andy the sailor. But if you look a bit deeper, there is a logic to that. I love living on our boat. I love it, genuinely. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass, but I still love it. I like what it says about us, and how it makes us live. Unfortunately, a boat can’t really be a boat if it’s also a house. I live and work in Wellington and, not unreasonably I feel, I like my home to be where I left it when I return at the end of a day. However, if your home is a boat, that puts huge restrictions on a boat’s inherent boatiness. And we don’t want to do that, so I say “no problem – the boat must be a boat, I’ll house-sit….” And somehow, not deliberately, I’ve ended up living more in other people’s houses, than in our own home. Our lovely boat.

Don’t get me wrong now: boats make wonderful homes if you can move with them. But now, while we’re committed to a single location, we’re going to see what it’s like to have a house. To have a base. And to release our boat to be a boat. And maybe, one day, we might even go sailing again…

2013 – nothing like a summary

Not a single post in 2013? What does that tell you? Well – maybe it was just more of a private year than others. And maybe we were re-creating ourselves……  And maybe our energy was being focused elsewhere. And maybe, well, maybe I just didn’t want to blog. Sometimes you don’t want to share your daily experiences, thoughts, and activities with the world-wide-web. And that’s ok too.

Without a doubt, the year was dominated with my Mum dying. And that’s so personal, and so hard, that I don’t want to say much more about it. But to not mention it would be like the way I meet people on the street – and they know – but they don’t say anything. And all I want them to say is “sorry to hear about your Mum”, so I can say back “thanks”. And then we move on. It doesn’t have to get any heavier than that. But it does need to be acknowledged.

We had highlights as well though, mostly around being in New Zealand and developing our lives here. Here are four:

1. Andy started a business: Aloft Alone – a system for safely climbing – and descending – your mast alone (“won’t let you down until you want it to”). It’s based on techniques used by climbers but with some extra thought put into application to a yacht’s mast. It was launched at the Auckland Boat Show…. the most interesting thing for me was how many women were excited about it: complete independence for them if they want to climb a mast, and no more need to either be winched up, or winch some else up, a mast!

2. I got a job as senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. I have found a partner-in-crime, Rebecca Priestley, and together we have established a new group called Science in Context – research, teaching, and talking about science. It’s fun. We have put together a suite of online undergraduate courses that explore some aspect of science and society, carry out research into science communication and history of science, and are involved in the development of various conferences, workshops, outreach activities, and events.

3. Andy and Baltazar joined the Oil Free Seas Flotilla, at the end of which he celebrated his 40th birthday:

 

4. And I had an opportunity to give a TEDx talk about Sailing, Tsunamis, and Climate Change:

 

Finally, we’ve just had a wonderful – and important – holiday with my family (brother, sister-in-law, and dad), and look forward to Andy’s parents visiting later this year. And who knows.. I might just feel like writing again.

Wishing you all a rich and rewarding 2014.

 

Mary Poppins

I have had a few Mary Poppins moments in my life – I remember them clearly. The wind changes and, as quickly as I arrived, I’m gone. New friends say “you’re leaving? for good? just like that?” like it’s somehow related to them. A rejection. Michael and Jane’s little faces when Mary leaves. But it’s not that at all. Bert – he knows they’ll meet again. And what a good time they’ll have when they do.

Last week I came home and knew. The wind had changed. All my furniture had gone, my kitchen equipment, the dining room table, and chairs, even the fridge. I sat in the middle of the now-large empty living room, on the floor, and knew. “I guess it’s time to Mary Poppins out of here”. And so I did.

The house has treated me well. Really well. The first time we’ve had a land-base for o so long. A place where we can welcome visitors, grow food, store (and accumulate) stuff comfortably, and listen to birdsong in the morning. A place that is in exactly the same state upon return as it was left. A place to call one’s own.

The work was fantastic too – and NZ IceFest a real success. Huge thanks to Antarctica New Zealand and Christchurch City Council Events for bringing me into the fold. It was a blast. Something for everyone: an immersive art installation, an ice rink, two bars, comedy, music, a magical-looking site, a kids programme, posh dinners and cocktail parties, an Air Force open day, and a science programme too. For my part (responsible for the science and outreach components), I’m pleased with what was delivered – over 100 “real Antarcticans” in a wide range of talks and discussions – about 30 in all – spread over a month. Topical debates, chat-show style interviews, timeless Antarctic Yarns, and the southernmost Café Scientifique, three times a week… all with really engaging speakers. And lots of positive feedback. I’ll write more about the festival, and post some pictures, anon. For a taster of events, you can listen to the IceFest podcasts thanks to Veronika Meduna at Radio New Zealand National.

Now, somehow, I’ve found myself in Wellington, on our boat, surrounded by bags. That’s where Mary Poppins pips me – she has that magical bottomless bag. You don’t see her packing and unpacking and agonizing over logistics of how to get boat, car, bike, bags, and people all to the same place, effortlessly, and with sanity in tact. She remains my hero though, and I strive to achieve her dizzy heights of boundless carefreeness, balanced by thrilling efficacy, in appropriate measure.

My next job has already begun, but I’m excited to launch myself into it properly. All sorts of projects around putting science in context, and conversations around science: University courses, public engagement activities, building networks,  tailored events, workshops, research and relevance… there are so many opportunities and ideas when you open that can that it’s both exciting and also a little scary. I thank the Faculty of Science at Victoria University of Wellington for not trying to put me in a box.

First, however, and most importantly, my parents are in the country and it’s time to go and spend some good, quality time together. That, without a doubt, is priority number one.

Conkers grow upside down

Who knew – conkers grow upside down.

It’s been a long time since I was in the garden. At all.
Occasionally I go out back to pick a lettuce leaf or two for my sandwich – and that’s always a joy – but that’s about my only reason to go out there. That, and to empty the compost bin: a weekly event. And it’s now far too cold to hang out washing on the line. This is Christchurch, in winter.

But today I went a-weedin. And what did I find there, amidst the jungle of green? That’s right – lettuces! And purple kale! And poppy plants. And I have no idea where the rhubarb has got to. And sprouted conkers.

Who knew – they grow upside down! I’m sure I was meant to pull them up (I’m reasonably confident that my landlord doesn’t want three fully grown horse chestnuts in his vegetable patch) but I just didn’t have the heart. Conker trees are dying all across the UK and I’m asked to willfully stop these ones from having a chance? I don’t the think we want them here (non-native species), so can I dig them up and post them home? Is New Zealand a repository of healthy conkers, like South Georgia is for healthy [Norwegian] reindeer?


I’m having a homealone day. Check out my teapot. Says it all. Drinking litres of hot lemon in an attempt to convince my body that I’m not gestating anything more than a sound dose of hypochondria.

It’s good to have a homealone day though – seems like an age since I had nothing planned and nowhere to be. Or do. Ever noticed how a head cold makes everything that mattered yesterday entirely unimportant today?

Andy and I have both been busily getting on with whatever we do with our days, and continuing to be in different places most of the time. But the good news is that he’s heading this way. This morning he and a mate set off in S/V Baltazar. They left the Bay of Islands (north of NZ) and are heading south.

As I was weeding I started daydreaming. How delicious it will be, when he’s here, to nonchalantly say, “honey, could you please go out back and pick some lettuce leaves for  dinner?” Like it’s the most normal thing in the world.