M/V Columbia

I have brushed my teeth in a lot of places. In all the bathrooms where I’ve lived, of course. I’ve also brushed them in parking lots, restaurants, hostels, hotels, trains, airports, campsites, friend’s houses, boy’s houses, sailboats, and most recently a 418-foot ferry to Alaska.
Boats add a unique element of rolling movement to your teeth brushing and typically offer limited water resources. It is just as refreshing and essential to brush your teeth aboard, though. And while the ferry is not at full capacity, I’m sure the other passengers and my travel partner do appreciate my efforts.
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Our accommodations on board are simply divine, but I can understand if not everyone thinks so. Instead of a (expensive and boring) cabin, we are sleeping on plastic lounge chairs in the solarium. Although not as grand as its name, the solarium brings beauty and practicality together. The beauty is from the passing scenery and fresh air flowing from the open aft (back) deck. The practicality is provided by its shelter and simplocity.
Tucked behind the upper decks, the solarium is protected on three sides, with a ceiling made up of hearty glass panels you can see the moon and stars through. The port and starboard walls are also made of these panels, letting the light and views stream through.
Our set up is a cross between camping and staying at a hostel. Our lounge chairs are surround by bags while we hunker down in layers, sandwiched between colorful sleeping pads and equally colorful sleeping bags.
The other passengers have varied setups, some similar to ours, others just a blanket or a whole tent. Those with a cabin or sleeping indoors come and enjoy the solarium for a time. When we first departed Bellingham, 90 degree temperatures on shore made the first few hours simply delightful on deck and every chair was filled.
Some travelers are eager to socialize, but I find myself polite at best, instead content with relaxing and catching up with my friend’s sister who I will be adventuring with all week.
Our dreams of a beer on the boat during sunset were shattered when we learned all the AMH cocktail lounges were shuttered last year. “An essential budgetary reduction” the bureacrats said. “An end to a long standing tradition essential for the traveling community”, bartenders responded. I agree with the latter and will blame my anti-social-ness on that.
Perhaps it’s hypocritical but I do enjoy listening to the other passengers converse. They take turns, sharing their destination, the objective of this trip, and their experiences in Alaska. More apparent than at the airport is the distinction between the tourists and those moving, who have either very little or quite a lot packed on board.
Roy, for example, is from Arkansas. He’s 64 and missing several front teeth with weathered skin and an appreciation for the simple life. After a lifetime spent in the backwoods of Arkansas, he’s heading to carve out a new life while he can. I’m learning that’s what retirement means for a lot of folks.
Roy is starting in Juneau but isnt sure where he’ll end up. He’d like to find a community, maybe trade his truck for a boat. He plans to take photos of nature and locals along the way. Roy is nice but lonely, which makes him more eager to chat than I. I wish him the best as he journeys forward and am sure he’ll find a good community up here.
“What’s next for you?” Roy asks, “Down in the 48?”
Without hesitation I say, “Oh, my life in Seattle.” A world away from here and unimaginable to him, where I have a job, a community, and a home.
We have 32 more hours to go and I’m still enthralled with enjoying this long-awaited journey.
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Read about reading

For the last couple of evenings, I have focused on reclaiming, reorganizing my life and personal work. Basically, I cleaned my desk.

However, when I clean my desk, drawers, and that one overflowing shelf, I rediscover a collection of thoughts, ideas, and memories. Some head straight into the recycling bin, others catch my attention.

Tonight, I found a printout of the following lecture by Neil Gaiman, an imaginative author and storyteller, that he delivered for the U.K. charity The Reading Agency in 2013.

When I found this lecture again, and I’m not sure how I first came across it, I paused my paper-shuffling and did exactly what Gaiman calls for, I read. And while you can watch/listen to the full video, I encourage taking the opportunity to read about reading.


“It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of member’s interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about thirty years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer.

But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British Citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten and eleven year olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end…

…that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a postliterate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading.

People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy giving them access to those books and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was R. L Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.

There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy.

(Also do not do what this author did when his eleven year old daughter was into R. L. Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s CARRIE, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved of Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

Discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books.

I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less and more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight year old.

But Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st Century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a word in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to fundamentally miss the point.

I think it has to do with nature of information.

Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

Libraries are places that people go for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, a place that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before the kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of, and gives every citizen equal access to, information. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are, quite literally, stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce. And while politicians blame the other party for these results, the truth is, we need to teach our children to read and to enjoy reading.

We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens.

I do not care – I do not believe it matters – whether these books are paper, or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.

But a book is also the content, and that’s important.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens: we have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children to read that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we’ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

The truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things. They daydreamed, they pondered, they made things that didn’t quite work, they described things that didn’t yet exist to people who laughed at them.

And then, in time, they succeeded. Political movements, personal movements, all began with people imagining another way of existing.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Don’t leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

Thank you for listening.”

 

GoodOmens
Goods Omens, a playful, poignant fantasy co-authored by Neil Gaiman that captured my attention and imagination.

Sources: The Guardian, Neil GaimanThe Reading Agency.

 

Recently Published – The Wiring Whisperer & The Top 10 Sailing Movies

The new year didn’t truly set in for me until mid-January. I’m a little behind, I guess!

A48-north-january-2016-covert the beginning of January my latest profile for 48° North, Dan Hopkins: The Wiring Whisperer, appeared in the January issue of the print magazine. A retired electrician and experienced liveaboard, Dan is a “guiding light” in his community helping new liveaboards safely update their electrical systems and install heat this winter.

It was such a pleasure speaking with Dan, his wife Irene, and the appreciative neighbors he has helped. I learned so much about marine electrical, boat ownership, and the camaraderie of the boating community.

Read The Wiring Whisperer here.

 

 

Mid-January was an especially exciting time; I began a new job! My big present this holiday season was being offered, and enthusiastically accepting, the position of Marketing and Advertising Coordinator with GeekWire, an online tech and business publication based in Seattle.

GeekWire logoMy transition kept me on my toes. I left my previous job one Friday and reported for duty at my new job the next Monday, the time has been flying ever since! In addition to working with members, assisting with events, coordinating advertising and more, I curate two weekly posts, GeekWire Calendar Picks and GeekWork Picks.

GeekWire boasts an amazing editorial team and covers a very diverse range of topics, be sure to check it out!

Lastly, this new year has brought an exciting new phase for a publication I’ve worked closely with for several years now. 48° North launched a new website with even more great content for the NW sailing community. Congratulations to the team at 48° North!

For the occasion, I explored what nautical entertainment had to offer and compiled my Top 10 Sailing Movies, check out Part 1 (10-6) here. A couple of my favorite new features are the Editor’s Picks and #TBT. Now you can enjoy even more of the magazine “By Sailors, For Sailors.” 

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Busy with The Borgen Project

I’m a pretty busy person. I keep finding tasks to fill my time and extra time that doesn’t exist, but I’m sure this isn’t surprising.

This winter my time has been filled by a very enlightening and challenging task and that is my role as a volunteer writer for The Borgen Project.

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What is The Borgen Project? 

What am I doing as a volunteer writer?

How can we help solve global poverty?

Here are a few answers!

An innovative, national campaign, The Borgen Project works with U.S. leaders to improve their response to the global poverty crisis. With one full-time staff member (founder Clint Borgen) and a group of highly motivated and organized volunteers across the country, The Borgen Project is making global poverty an American priority.

The Borgen Project is the definition of doing a lot with a little. Volunteers meet with U.S. leaders (298 meetings in 2014 with members of Congress and their staff) and mobilize citizens across the globe. They don’t want to be the only ones talking about global poverty, they want all of us to speak out too.

Since the beginning of November, I have called and emailed my Congressional representatives each week. Not only has this taught me how foreign aid, policy, and poverty are intertwined, but I’ve also felt empowered as a citizen.

In addition to advocacy efforts, The Borgen Project works to raise awareness about global poverty through The Borgen Project Blog and The Borgen Magazine. This is where I come in.

As a volunteer writer, I am contributing my time and writing skills to help raise awareness about global poverty issues. Over the past couple months, I have researched and written about a wide range of topics from the potential of hydroponic farming in Africa to decreasing cases of malaria in South American and more.

By the end of my time as a volunteer writer, I will have completed 39 articles and improved my writing skills to boot! In addition to writing, my goal is to fundraise at least $500 for the world’s poor and I know every penny will help The Borgen Project pursue its mission.

Not since studying International Studies at the University of Oregon have I felt so aware and inquisitive about the dynamics of globalization and development. I often considered issues such as global poverty too overwhelming to tackle. The Borgen Project’s focus makes me believe otherwise.

So please, take a wander around The Borgen Project website (this is a good place to start) and if you’re in Seattle come join me at Hilliard’s Brewing on Thursday, January 14th from 5:30-8:30 pm for my fundraising event “Beers for the Borgen Project.”B4BPHalfPageHere are all my published articles:

A Timeline of Rwandan Ethnic Conflict

Increasing Rural Electrification in the Pacific
Digital Financial Services Help Women Invest in Future
Increasing Food Production in Liberia After Ebola
How to Help Refugees and Displaced Populations
5 Global Poverty Infographics Show 2015 Progress
Kyrgyz Republic Forest Management and Poverty
EU Finances Program Tackling Poverty Reduction in Pakistan
Hydroponic Systems: Food Security in Developing Countries
Mozambique Entrepreneurs Change Lives with Bikes
New Innovative Cooking Stove Uses 50 Percent Less Fuels
Virtual Reality Films Provide Powerful Insights
3 Ways Startup Culture Impacts Nonprofits
Cholera Outbreak in Nepal Averted Following Earthquake
Green Growth in Morocco Takes Center Stage
Prevention of Malaria in South America See Cases Reduced
VillageReach Optimizes Healthcare Data Collection
5 Solar Powered Solutions for Refugees

 

Recently Published- The Deep End: A Dinghy Sailor Dives In

caraaboardgalinlacruz
Back from the Boat

I returned from French Polynesia just over two months ago and it feels more than an ocean away. Days at sea, meals at an angle, and delicious Tahitian fruit are no longer the norm. However, I do now enjoy regular showers, excellent coffee, and my own bed.

Kids at summer camp say it, adults with full time jobs think about it:”I want to sail around the world!” Even within the racing community, the dream of sailing into the sunset ignites a spark in the eye of novices, racers, and cruisers alike. It’s a crazy, life changing idea. What’s even crazier is that people do it, hundreds every year! This year I met some of these people and experienced a small but stirring part of that dream.

I feel lucky to share my experience through this 48 North article, it is always a pleasure to work with them and they put out a great publication for the sailing community. I also feel lucky to be reminded about my trip, especially as I settle back into life in Seattle. When I’m heading to work, bundling up for the rain, or grabbing a coffee I will remind myself, “Yeah, I did that!”

Check out the full article here, thanks for reading!

– Cara
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Don’t miss the complete digital edition of 48° North Magazine.

The Top Shelf: Part 1

Since I can’t reach the top shelf of my bookcase, this list actually includes titles from the second-from-the-top-shelf. However, for various reasons they have earned that spot, placed there with all the honor and distinction of a “top shelf” book. Over the past twenty years of literary experience my reading preferences have changed drastically, especially during ages 5 to 15 and again after university when I learned to read for fun again.

Currently, my “top shelf” is a place for books that make an impression on me. These books made me pause, consider what I had just read, and not just slide them in any ol’ place on the bookcase. They might be written in a style I aspire to or are so exceptional I can only dream about such an accomplishment. Sometimes they are just books I really, really enjoyed and probably will reread. Sometimes I am asked for book recommendations or like to share an obscure story I’ve read so even though these books are hanging out on the shelf, they are still very much on my mind.

For Part 1, here are five, all non-fiction, books that currently reside on my “top shelf”:

1.       The Voyage of the Rose City: An Adventure at Sea, by John Moynihanm Spiegel & Grau, 2011.

The Voyage of the Rose City

This book recounts Moynihan’s experiences when he leaves his private college and senator father behind and signs on as a deckhand on a cargo ship in 1980, visiting places many people would never dream of in a very unconventional way. A significant portion of the book is set on the ship which gives insight into what it would be like to spend months at a time at sea. The combination of a travel story and personal journey, including a hard look at the socioeconomic issues at hand, blend together beautifully and naturally. He not only wrote it well, he actually experienced it.

 

How I Found It: The Seattle Public Library. I read an article about cutting costs in which the author advised “consider the library your primary form of entertainment.” I took his advice and along the way found this book which I enjoyed so much I bought a copy.

2.       The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine, by Benjamin Wallace, Three Rivers Press Reprint Edition, 2009.The Billionaire's Vinegar

In a nutshell, this is a very curious story centered around a fake bottle of wine attributed to be Thomas Jefferson’s and sold at auction for the highest amount paid for a bottle of wine ever. Wallace establishes the context of this story very with the background of vintage wines and auction houses but maintains a literary narrative that keeps you absorbed until the end. The recurring role of Michael Broadbent, a Christie’s wine expert, incorporates a very intriguing, and mysterious character. With the benefit of retrospection Wallace gradually reveals how this bottle of wine fooled the greater vintage wine community.  I credit it with the majority of my knowledge to date about French wines.

How I Found It: My brother and then my father recommend this book, it came up over dinner I’m sure. My copy is the second or third in the family.

  1. The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries, by Marilyn Johnson; Harper Annotated Edition, 2006.

The Dead BeatJohnson’s collection about obituaries doesn’t follow a chronological narrative but makes a logical progression through the history of obituaries and the author’s personal experiences. After taking the reader to the heart of the obituary world at the Sixth Great Obituary Writers International Conference, Johnson builds on this experience with the more nuanced side of obituary appreciation.  I will never look at obituaries the same way again and indeed, I now actually look at them.

How I Found It: My parents. While my father is an avid non-fiction reader my mother, who holds down fiction for the family, also really enjoyed this book. I did take the book aboard a boat so now it is a slightly water stained, less formal copy.

4.       99 Drams of Whiskey: The Accidental Hedonist’s Quest for the Perfect Shot and the History of the Drink, by Kate Hopkins, St. Martin’s Press First Edition, 2009.

99 Drams of WhiskeyThis book brings together several things I love: Scotland, travel, whiskey, and history. In her book, Hopkins tours the major whiskey producing regions in Scotland, Ireland, the U.S. and Canada. Within this travel story she interweaves a well researched history of whiskey and shares her ever-growing knowledge about whiskey production. The travel narrative seems a very approachable way to delve into a dense topic such as whiskey. She basically has my dream job.

How I Found It: The Seattle Public Library wins again! A simple search of “whiskey” and “whisky” lead me to a niche section of the catalog. This book stood out as a narrative tale among reference books and didn’t disappoint.

 

5.       The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe, Picador Trade Paperback Edition, 2008.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestOne of the first nonfiction books I really enjoyed during my freshman year of college. I was also able to cite it in an academic paper about the 1960s counterculture movement. Wolfe’s book has fascinated me for some time now, both his style and story. His ability to draw you into an almost indescribable world and capture a pivotal moment in counterculture is mesmerizing. As he follows Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters the reader experiences something they never would otherwise. Wolfe’s journalistic influences and descriptions really enrich this book for me. (Fun Fact: I just started rereading it!)

How I Found It: When you are 18 and some “cool” older college boys tell you about this “sick” book they just read you might jump on board just like I did. These “cool” boys also taught me about longboarding on campus, introduced me to IPAs, and talked me through driving an F250 truck plus trailer on I-5. Not all of their ideas were great but I do appreciate them for turning me on to “tuning out.”

*All images from the Seattle Public Library catalog

Ksssh…

bottlecaps

Ksssh…

It’s a pretty good sound to accompany a pretty good feeling.

The bottle opener on the wall is constant, immobile, physical part of my apartment.

The beer in the fridge is temporary, transitory, and part of my life.

All the different brands, flavors, and types sometimes are forgettable but the routine of opening that bottle of beer is ingrained in my memory.

I reach down and grab a beer from my mostly empty fridge, which is either truly pitiful or truly youthful. It takes two steps to cross the tiny kitchen, one swing of my arm to hook the bottle cap’s righteous ridges under the immaculately designed silver arch. Just the slightest bit of pressure and Ksssh….the bottle cap drops.

Sometimes it falls right into the jar below, often times I have to pick it up and toss it in, another flick of the wrist in just the right direction. Today, I just let it fall. I’m moving today and everything has to get picked up in the end.

Instinctively the bottle smoothly rises from the opener at waist height to head height, as my lips eagerly accept the offering. It’s cold, hopefully. It’s flavorful, mostly. And it’s refreshing, nearly always.

Fridge. Beer. Opener. Drink.

In those four steps I can be like almost anybody. I am the beer bellied, sweat stained man going for another Bud he more than doesn’t need. I am the funky hippy chick with my organic brew and my favorite bottle cap tied into my dreads. I am the guy in the commercial, the generic looking one with lots of friends and the best looking beer in the world, I even come with my own sound effects. I am also me, comfortable drinking alone in my own apartment and living up to my twenty-something reputation.

When I take my first sip, I hold the bottle with such authority. We’re good friends and I’ve just slung my arm around his shoulder, this is how its meant to be. Just us sharing in the refreshment.

I lower the bottle and step through the doorway, and just like that, the spell is broken.

Once I step through the doorway I’m back in my room and trying to remember what I was going to do after I grabbed a beer. The events of that day and the plans of the coming week wash over me. Now this beer has become different than all those other beers. Timing, season, and context now define it, sometimes more so than taste and label.

But for a moment I’m just a person, cracking open a brewsky, taking a pause and enjoying the refreshment life has to offer.

Ksssh….