why hello — thanks for stopping in!  browse around, make yourself at home, wander through as much or as little as you like.  if the lack of capitals offends you, i apologize — i would love to claim that i am an eagle, typing with my talons, but really i just choose not to use caps here.  i can when required, though — see ‘full tilt’ below, an article i wrote about life at sea.

about this site

the inkspot has had several incarnations, but the substance and main themes (see tabs above) have remained the same.   i often use this site as a stand-in travel-journal, but i also like to post about everyday life, excursions into new zealand nature, bugs, spiders and whatever else happens to grab me for a moment.  if you’d like pointers to some of my personal favorite posts, try these, about a local household spider; meeting a real, live kiwi; bathing in france and butchering the french language; a day trip to tallinn, estonia; esoteric squid science; marine life at the miami seaquarium; the joys of traveling through chicago; and/or a modest little post about an onerous research trip to hawaii.

at the moment you are likely to encounter some broken links and videos.  the inkspot moved over here to wordpress in september 2010 and i’m still sorting out the repairs — please bear with me!

about me

i’m a marine biologist/squid taxonomist/cephalopod systematist (depending how specific you want to get).  i also teach writing, and have taught german in previous lives.  i grew up in the US, and now live in new zealand with my kiwi husband, a large black cat and some freshwater fish.  i have way too many hobbies and often add new ones — my life will probably explode from excess hobbification someday, and little confetti-sized pieces of cameras, board games, craft supplies, camping gear and aerial circus apparatus will drift gently down over the rubble.

Full Tilt

Let me tell you a little about life on a ship.

Not the parts you usually think of the neatly coiled ropes and highly specialized knots with names like ‘Turk’s head’ and ‘one-handed bowline,’ the countless stars at night, the pods of dolphins frolicking in the bow wave, the inherent coolness of being able to bandy about terms like ‘fo’c’s’le’ and ‘reefer flat’ and understand that others who use them aren’t talking in secret code.  The knowledge that you are one of the few people on Earth who has actually done a night watch.  The unparalleled feeling of standing on the bow, wind whipping through your hair and nothing between you and the horizon, a secret treasured by a precious few people until Leonardo DiCaprio made it impossible to do so without feeling ridiculous.  No, although these are all integral and unforgettable parts of life at sea, there are also important parts that rarely get the consideration or publicity they deserve, not least to those contemplating their first extended voyage.  These are the parts I wish to share with you now.  They are little, everyday things that landlubbers take for granted.  They are things that I, once returned to dry land, will never take for granted again.

Perhaps the best approach is to walk you through a typical day’s routine, touching on the little mundane things that usually get left out of schedules.  OK.  You wake up to a gentle knock on your cabin door, and the voice of the person on 48am watch saying ‘Good morning, it’s 7.30.’  The voice says this not once, but as many times as necessary until you and the other three people in your 3x4m  cabin have all acknowledged that, yes, it is 7.30 and therefore time to stop rolling around in a horizontal position and begin rolling around in a vertical one.  You greet this announcement with one of two emotions: if you are new to the ship, and haven’t yet gotten used to the constant motion, or haven’t learned to bolster the sides of your mattress underneath so it creates a sleeping trough you can’t roll out of, you are relieved you can stop trying to sleep, or pretending to sleep, while listening to your cabin-mates’ infuriatingly relaxed breathing, and get up and try to do something else.  Or, if you have gotten the hang of sleeping at sea, you react with panic, because there are 24 other people on board this ship, and everyone except the sea-watchers is waking up right about now and realizing they have to go, as soon as possible, and BAD.  This creates a slight logistics problem there are generally three toilets (heads) aboard your ship, meaning one for about every eight people, but at present only two work, so that if you are unlucky last, and everyone before you takes two minutes you could be waiting more than 20 minutes.  No problem, it’s not as though you’re constantly moving, agitating your already bursting bladder.

Of course, to alleviate some of the head traffic, each cabin is equipped with a sink.  So if we move on to less pressing steps in the morning routine, we can stave off the urgent pangs from below and address other concerns.  You probably have morning mouth and will want to rinse.  Let me just warn you now that although your trusty water bottle, or other wide-mouthed drink container, may have been your best friend and constant companion on terra firma, it has been waiting all its plastic life for the chance it’s about to get.  The chance not only to send half its contents rushing down the sides of your jaw, but also, if you are foolish enough to drink in bed, to douse the sheets and sleeping bag sufficiently to make you strip the bunk, under the watchful eyes of your new cabin-mates, and mutter, stuffing the dripping linen into the laundry hamper, ‘it’s not what it looks like.’

Having toweled off, your next mission, if you are a contact lens wearer, is to render yourself visually acute – more of a mission than it may first appear.  First of all, in most dry-land lens-insertion situations, the fact that both hands are required is of little inconvenience.  On board, it means you must decide between holding on with one hand (remember, the floor is pitching back and forth over a range of about 30 degrees) and fumbling for your eye with the other, putting you at constant risk of poking yourself in the eye, with possible long-term effects, or surfing with your feet while you attempt to quickly and accurately deposit the lens on the front of your eyeball.  Remember also, one good lurch can (and will) send your forehead into the mirror and the lens into your ear.  It’s a fun and exciting fifteen minutes.

For those of you blessed with naturally good eyesight, we will proceed to oral hygiene, which has a surprisingly similar two-handed requirement.  Flossing can cause surprise amputations, while the seemingly simple process of squeezing toothpaste can cause the increasingly frustrated brusher to go through a week’s worth of T-shirts in under ten minutes.  Then, assuming you make it successfully to the spit-phase, being close enough to the sink to actually land your loogie in the vicinity of the drain also means you are close enough to get a good jab in the eye from the faucet.  Don’t laugh.  It’s hard to type when you have no depth perception.

Bravo, you have survived the first half-hour of your day.  You are beginning to get an inkling of what it actually means that your body will not be sitting, standing or lying on a completely stable surface for one second of the coming month.

The ascent of a steep stairway we will leave to the reader’s imagination, but consider, please, in the imagining, that at least once a day without fail you will also have to use this stairway (more of a ladder, really) immediately after it has been mopped and is therefore still wet.  More frequently, of course, if you have new sailors with delicate stomachs aboard.

At the top of the stairs, bruised and battered and clinging to the railing like a cat over a bathtub, you are ready to run the gauntlet of the ship’s main alleyway.  At any point during your rollicking stroll toward the mess, doors on either side (of which there are several, some very heavy, all of which swing outward) may fly open, so you’ve got to be quick.  If you meet someone coming the other way with a beverage or other open container of liquid, you may as well flee back to the comfort of the stairs, but more on this in a minute.

Upon entering the mess, you notice one thing immediately.  You have been told that your cabin, on the lowest deck and mid-ship, is one of the most stable places on board, and though you may have scoffed before, you realize with some amazement that this is true.  Standing in the doorway of the mess, you are looking up into the faces of the seated crew one second, and down into them the next.  Every surface is covered with a rubbery sheet of ‘elephant skin,’ much like the non-slip layers used to anchor rugs to wooden floors, and every loose item is either lashed in place or stored in a cubby or container so deep it can’t fall out.  Each roll of the ship causes a melodious shift of dishes, cutlery, and dry goods, first to port, then (about ten seconds later) to starboard.  You are surprised to discover that a cup of tea or coffee placed on a flat surface (coated with elephant skin, of course) actually stands its ground without spilling; however, your elation is short-lived when you attempt to add milk and are first frustrated by a dribble and then a gush that overflows your cup and sends you teetering into the galley for a wipe-up rag.  You also discover, when you lift the cup to take it to the table, or anywhere else, that it does much better on its own than under your tender ministrations and balancing attempts.  If you are lucky, you will drench only yourself; if you are unlucky, you will be introducing yourself to people with sentences that begin ‘Oh no, I’m really sorry!’

I myself was fortunate enough to take part in a mango-orange-juice double-header the other morning.  Standing at the toaster, waiting to catch the toast in the split second between its leap into the air and plummet to the floor, I was chatting with one of the crew, who had just poured herself a cup of juice, prudently filling only the bottom two-thirds of the cup.  ‘So,’ I was saying, ‘it was pretty rough last night.  Seems to have calmed down today, though.’  She was about to reply, no doubt with some similarly optimistic words (on land, weather is considered a boring topic, but at sea it means the difference being able to shower today or waiting until next week), when a terrific roll sent us both into an instinctive scrabble for something to cling to.  It also sent her juice over the counter, down my leg, and across the floor.  ‘Oh no,’ she began, ‘I’m really sorry…’  We set about mopping up, she reeling off a litany of words I was surprised to hear a non-native speaker emit with such feeling.  I, never one to learn from others’ mistakes when I could make them myself, decided the juice looked good (I don’t know what I was thinking nothing ever looks good dripping from a kitchen sponge) and poured myself a cup.  ‘See you later,’ I said, balancing the cup in one hand and a slab of toast smothered in Nutella in the other, intending to take both up to the relatively stable bridge and enjoy them in the morning sun.

Two steps down the hallway, the ship hit a wave.  And I mean a big wave.  The usual grab-for-the-railing-and-wait-it-out maneuver was nowhere near adequate for this baby.  Of course, I was trying to split my attention between saving my own skin and preventing Juice Catastrophe #2.  As you can guess, neither got the priority it deserved and both good intentions went straight off to somewhere hot in a handbasket.  ‘Oh no,’ I began out of habit.  Juice slopped over my wrist; my shoulder hit the wall and the toast disintegrated into a horrible sticky handful.  Just as I began to straighten up, thinking the worst was over, the ship heeled over about another 15 degrees.  Standing opposite the cleaning closet, I was perfectly aligned to shoot through the door and land safely against the wall.  There were just two problems.  One: the bottom of the doorway has a ledge to prevent liquid slopping in (or out).  Two: the human body, faced with the prospect of being propelled somewhere unexpected, tends to lash out and make a desperate grab for anything handy.  In this case, my right knee grabbed the side of the doorframe while my left foot was busy tripping over the ledge; juice went everywhere and my torso made it to the window while my legs were still in the kind of shock that you know will turn into a throbbing black-and-blue agony all too soon.  I gave a repeat performance of the words lately used in the mess, with a few extras added for emphasis when, in trying to reach the mop, I skidded across the juice (defying the laws of physics by being simultaneously sticky and slippery) and nearly sat in it.

The clean-up was prolonged and bitter, full of ginger movements and over-exaggerated care punctuated by the occasional glare of sheer hatred at my cup in the sink, bleeding its last pulp down the drain.  Having finished the floor, I sponged down my arm, shirt (the fourth for the day) and trousers, and dragged myself up to the bridge, attempting to pass through the door during another strong surge and catching my wrist between door and jamb.  The start of another beautiful day.

The other incomparable experience aboard a ship (although I’m sure the chef could add a few more to the list) is taking a shower.  ‘A shower?!’ you may cry, ‘what kind of luxury outfit is this, anyway?’  I suppose you should call it a fair-weather shower; rumour has it that on the last trans-oceanic voyage, the swell was so high that no one showered for ten days.  (So sorry to have missed out on that one… count me in for sure next time, guys…)  But even in fair weather, you are taking your life into your hands when you grab your shampoo and lock yourself in.  First of all, the shower and toilet are in the same room, approximately twice the size of a normal stand-up shower stall.  So when you venture in there for a good steamy cleansing session, you know that you are increasing the demand for the other working head on board by 100%, and should someone else happen to shower at the same time, you’d better pray that yours is the door that’s harder to unlock from the outside.  Fine, you’ve got your load of shower-guilt settled nicely on your shoulders.  Maybe it will help you balance, because between standing on wet tiles in bare feet (there is an anti-slip bath mat, but, let’s face it, when they designed the suckers on the bottom they weren’t intending them to function as grappling hooks at sea), and trying to clean yourself with one hand while hanging on to the wall-handle with the other, you need all the assistance you can get.  You know that one slip in the wrong direction will send you, naked and vulnerable in unusual places, skating at high speed toward the sink and toilet.  You also know that a grab for the handle with soapy hands could lead to a swift slippery collapse and a few broken fingers.  Additionally, someone who was probably on sea-watch overnight is sleeping on the other side of the wall, a flimsy few centimeters away, and if you are lucky they will only be lying awake cursing you softly, and if you are unlucky, you will wind up sharing a very wet bed with them for the brief mortifying moment before you throw yourself overboard in despair.

So you see, the phrase ‘adventure on the high seas’ is an accurate one.  It just entails a few more adventures than usually get brought to light.  There are amazing, life-changing experiences to be had, and there are those who are whole-heartedly devoted to this life and no other.  I admire those people, and in fact, as I begin to get the hang of this perpetual-motion existence, I am beginning to see the advantages it has over a life lived out entirely on the safe, stable haven of dry land.  At sea, for example, all food tastes extraordinarily good the constant exercise of just standing up and walking around puts your body into a state of total appreciation for anything you can get inside it instead of all over it.  You also begin to appreciate simple luxuries far beyond your capacity to do so on land weather calm enough to shower in (precarious though it may be) or, better still, to launder the toothpaste out of your T-shirts in, is cause for a celebration.  A pod of dolphins or a bright rainbow becomes the highlight of a long day.  (And rightly so how often do these things receive the appreciation they deserve in the bustle of everyday life?  Granted, a dolphin sighting on land would probably be cause for some stir.)

All in all, once you are used to it, going to sea is a surprisingly agreeable shift into a simpler, more relaxed life, and brings unexpected insight into the complexities of daily routines we take for granted.  Having found my sealegs, I am enjoying it more every day the salt spray, the soaring albatross, the cresting waves.  I can only imagine how beautiful it must all look to someone with perfect eyesight.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m sure my other contact is around here somewhere.