Monday, February 23, 2015

Back And Bigger Than Ever

Harold Dubilier. Colossus.
Once, last year, in a wrong-for-so-many-reasons escapade, Dad decided he needed to prove his independence and vitality. At age 89, in a condition that could be called road-blind, he snuck out of the condo, which had become his prison -- because in America a car and the ability to drive is a condition of independence -- and drove the mile and a half to the supermarket. He shopped. For what didn’t matter, least of all to him as long as he had proof of his conquest. Upon returning to the condo, he announced to his wife, “I have my balls back.”

She was furious. When I heard of the incident, I was amused and compassionately dismayed. After a long struggle to survive his second bout of cancer, he felt his horizon claustrophobically constricting. Yet what a selfishly dangerous thing to do. Understandable. Not excusable.

Shortly after that ride, he was beset with the shingles, leaving half his face lame and his head painfully pulsing with nerve inflammation. He was reduced to a walker because his inner ear scattered the beads of balance all around his skull. This slammed the door shut on his independence and the condo. At least he had the means to afford taxi rides to the supermarket. Determined, he engaged in physical therapy of all manner, including chewing gum to exercise the muscles of his face. To everyone’s surprised, he recovered quickly and almost completely.

We suggested a tricycle now that he was able to venture out again on his own. It was dismissed. Perhaps a man of self-determined horizons chooses his own timing. Or perhaps riding a tricycle when you’re in your 80s seems like a concession, while doing so in your 90s is a statement. This month, he bought the tricycle.

Before departing Vermont to visit him in Florida, I was given a list of particular fishing gear to bring down. His favorite pole. His 40-something-year-old leather-sheathed pliers. The tackle box with the jigging lures. “Don’t forget the scaler and the reels.”

For a week, the residents and staff at the condo watched Harold as he dragged his tricycle, step by shuffled step, up the incline out of the garage, mounted it in deliberate movements, and peddled around the parking lot.

First, you ride around the parking lot. Then you cast off to fetch the fishing pier.
He and I spent days discussing the best route for the mile-long trip to the fishing pier. Since he can’t see well, there was the option of asking the guards at the condo gate to help him across the fast-paced Route A1A; a concession he would have to make in this exercise of will. But with me coming along on this first outing, concessions did not have to be made. Even the voyage’s magnitude didn’t have to be acknowledged. This was just an outing of father and son to the fishing pier. For this reconnaissance mission, we left sans gear.

The short of the half-hour biking trip itself to the pier is this: I have never felt so worried since my daughter swung amid the structures of playgrounds. The curved entrance into the condo garage put him in a blind spot to oncoming cars. The drivers who slowed behind us waiting to pass were perhaps patient, but in my mind were as menacing as the looks of grown men watching my daughter at the playground. I wanted to freeze time and motion until Dad was safely at the pier.

But that’s not what voyages are about. Dad was not simply visiting the pier. By now we understand he was engaging in challenge. Pure and simple, for its own sake. Every time we cast off, while we hope for fair winds, what we talk about later are the times we overcame the opposition of obstacles, potential failure and ultimately, ourselves.

His adrenaline of accomplishing this achievement became quickly evident as we walked out onto the fishing pier.

Dad immediately started acquiring local knowledge: bait and methods.
We came upon a woman whose pole was bent and she was struggling to reel in. “I can’t,” she said as we approached. “Help her,” said Dad, and already he was taking charge. I took her pole and noticed the pull was steady and firm. This wasn’t a fish. She had snagged something on the bottom. “You have to slack the line,” Dad said. “Show her how to slack the line.” The pole was back in the lady’s hands and my Dad’s insistence invading her comfort. “You have to slack. More, more! All the way! You have to jiggle it, schussel it!”

The woman in the white shirt is the one struggling with the snagged line.
We moved on and next he came upon an unattended pole.

“There could have been 20 fish nibbling on that line and he never would know it.”

To an embarrassment that made me walk away, he started working the line, jigging it. Luckily he stopped before the owner returned.

Then the fishing talk began. He asked what people were catching. What kind of bait? As is typical with fishing personas, answers were given offhand and monosyllabically. When one man mumbled something and walked off to tend to another line, Dad pursued him and told him he had to answer louder since he couldn’t hear. The Demand. Not just of answers, but attention.

We speculated on how Dad could raise his fish the 20- or 30-feet onto the pier. Of course the fish HE would catch would be so large it couldn’t be reeled up like all the others were. He wondered if he could lead the fish, while still in the water, all the way along the pier back to the beach.

“If you get one on the line, I’m sure anyone here would be happy to help you get it up,” I had said a few times to the response of silence. I should have known he had heard me fine the first time.

When he asked one burley and surly fisherman how a large fish could be gotten up, the man gruffed: “There're plenty of kids around here who will help you.”

We walked away and it didn’t take three steps before Dad leaned into me with, “I don’t want no damn help.”

Back at the ticket booth to the pier he played his usual games, asking the clerk if he could be granted permission to take his tricycle onto the pier since he had a handicapped permit. Special Dispensation: the privilege of the privileged. She would check with city rules and call him the next day. As we walked away, he leaned into me with, “I’ll have to ask my doctor to give me a handicapped pass.”

I have had mixed feelings about this blog post and so delayed posting it. I’ve been ruminating.

It is all quite charming to see an aging man assert his vitality. Not too long ago, Dad was referred to as the colossus. Ever since then that moniker has swirled within me, sometimes forming a question mark, sometimes constricting my heart. What is now charming and admirable was once egocentric and conniving. In certain broad strokes, I see the pirate in me mirrored in him. In my own life, I have worked hard to discern between assertion and selfishness. His traits could have killed a young child on a bicycle during that trip to the supermarket.

Dad and I have had epic battles. During those times I directly confronted his self-absorbed campaign through life. At other times, I have marveled at the generosity, both emotionally and financially he bestows. How is it that everyone who meets this individualist is charmed by him?

I can’t derive it. I can’t grasp it. I ruminate.

But let’s tack back towards voyaging, for that’s what Dad’s excursion to the pier was: A mini-voyage. It embodied all the challenges and rewards of a transatlantic. Most importantly: uncertainty.

That I can grasp. That, at the age of 90, I admire. That comprises a colossus.

After two bouts with cancer in the last seven years and downed by shingles for almost a year, he’s back. And yes, Dad, you got your balls back. Bigger than ever.

Next time, with a big one in the basket.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Another Mini-Library

My daughter's mini-library set up while moving into a new room.
While we are on the matter of spontaneous libraries: I was tidying up my computer files yesterday and came across the above photograph from September of last year when my daughter Zoe moved in with me for a few months before casting off on her voyage to Germany. The photograph shows the books she set up by her bedside. It is just so reflective of her. I love it. I can look at each book and see that part of her personality. Particularly moving for me, is the worn edition of The Phantom Tollbooth. It is a present I gave to Zoe. Long having lost its jacket, and somewhere along the line (but how?) stained with ink, it has become fragile in spine, but still is so strong in its seminal influence on me. I read the book five times between the ages of being able to read and, say, about 15. I don’t know if I can say that of any other book.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Books Aboard

My accidental, yet representative, mini-libary I acquired in Germany.

Ever since an encounter last year, I have been contemplating the power of books. In particular, I have been wondering about book collections or let’s call them spontaneous mini-libraries.

As boaters, that’s what we have: Sure, we take a few choice volumes from our library before casting off, but then what we add becomes more chance than choice. Some from exchange libraries in marinas, some from the bookstore we come across, one from the sailing couple in the last port. The whole library might only comprise, say, a dozen books.

In a story I am writing, the protagonist finds a sailboat that has been lost to his family for over a decade, and on which he has not set foot in 30 years. He happens upon his family’s long lost boat by chance. It has had been abandoned after a grounding 10 years earlier and as he comes to the boat, it is being sold as junk.

In one scene he looks at the books left on a shelf in the cabin. The books are from his German uncle who last owned the boat. So I name a handful of the books. In contrast to real-life mini-libraries, in a novel, nothing the author writes should be coincidental. The books say something about who the uncle is. Perhaps even a bit about the whole line of the family. So I wondered: Who comprises his canon? Who did the uncle surround himself with literarily? Which of his books would give us, as readers, as sense of his inspirations and beliefs?

In the novel, I can make it all quite tidy. Only the books relevant to his character are shown. But in real life, our bookshelves, and in particular our boat bookshelves are much more haphazard. We don’t “design” our collection and yet, they still reflect our character. They are quirkier than our libraries at home. They are more like moods or weather. Changeable.

I have just returned from spending about two months in Germany. As I was packing up my belongings for my return to America, I looked at my mini-library. I had picked out three of these books from home before the trip and came by the rest “en voyage.”  As I looked at this line-up, I recognized the constellation of a triangle: 1) The encounter last year which involved my mini-library on Phoenix back then. 2) The scene in my novel. 3) My Leipzig collection.

What did this collection say about me? I wrote about that for this post, but I’m not including it. It’s seems too self-absorbed. All I really wanted to do was mention this matter so perhaps you will take some delight at looking at your own shelf and see if you can derive meaning from it, as perhaps from a disjointed dream.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

If Words Are Waves, My Mind Must Be The Ship

We had sailed three-quarters of the way across the Atlantic in my 33-foot sailboat, when my first mate said to me, “Mathias, this is a fantastic voyage you are on. You don’t know how your life will unfold from now on. Once you’re on a voyage, you don’t know where it will take you or how long it will last.”

I politely acknowledged his attempt to glorify the trip my wife and I had begun, but inside I dismissed his comments as naive. I had planned this voyage carefully. I knew our route, perhaps not the specific ports, but more or less the order of countries. I knew we would return in two years. I knew we would settle back into my house which I was renting out in the meantime, and we would pursue the job prospects we had lined up for our return.

How naive.

Our boat burned and sank. The tragedy turned our two-year trip to three. Our marriage ended. The income prospects have not panned out. I haven’t returned to my house. And I am still voyaging.

As much as I have always encouraged people to take the risk of casting off, my experiences would make anyone think twice.

While my heart still holds look-out in the crow’s nest for home and hearth, my mind has gotten used to standing watch on this journey deeper and deeper into myself. The year of 2014 has been one of the most significant of my life. I returned to land and began wandering through my old assumptions of self and life.

I flew to Germany mid-December to visit with my three siblings. I was accompanied by my daughter who is choosing to spend the next phase of her life here. The eve before returning to America, I postponed and found a one-room flat to rent. I don’t know exactly what prompted me to take this sudden turn. At some point, you navigate by instinct. I rented a Spartan room and began writing. Every day I wrote. I had already written a non-fiction book about my voyage, but this writing was the beginning of a novel.

Writing a novel is hard work. I dare say it’s harder than being on a sailing voyage. But both are similar in that the greatest challenges and richest rewards are inside your head.

But here’s a difference between crossing the ocean and writing a novel: When I cast off for my transatlantic passage, I was confident that I would accomplish the feat. In fact, I can say that of every major achievement in my life, I was sure beforehand that I would accomplish it. I knew I could run a weekly newspaper. I knew I could run a factory well.

What I didn’t know -- and still don’t -- is if I can produce a good novel. I find myself, of late, oddly motivated by attempting something I am unsure I can achieve to my own satisfaction.

That is a whole new type of voyage.

Yes, there is a boat in the book. The book is about one man’s relationship to a boat, and, by association, an examination of humans’ relationships to the things we create. I attempt to write only about the former in such a way that the latter will be inferred.

But there is a corresponding voyage I have been undertaking since the decision to postpone my return to America: That one is into myself.

I have never lived as

(I am excluding periods of time where I lived by myself, but I was constantly on the search for gratification or affirmation from women.) I have always depended on the love of a woman. Without going into too much confessional diatribe, this dependency has led to all manner of problems.

What is love? What is expectation? Can one engage in one without the other? What is self? To what extent does my “self” depend on the expectation of love from another?

Can I live without that expectation?

Can I live for, and love, just my ... self?

It is a fascinating voyage to be on while writing a book about a man who makes a promise to dedicate his life to his boat.

In the meantime, I am working on starting a maritime appreciation program. I am on the search for a traditional sailing vessel that I can get certified for passengers and then impart my love of ship and sea to others.

I will keep you posted.

In the meantime, here are some photos from my stay here in Leipzig and Germany in general.

I live on the third floor of this building in the Erdmannstrasse.
The owners bought it from the Communist city government and did a nice job of restoring it.
My one-room flat with a twin bed. Just enough room for me and my imagination.
Just about every day, I go for walks in the endless parks. I think of my novel. I think of letting go. I think of embracing.
There is a lot of graffiti in Leipzig. At first I hated it and the city because of it. Now I see through the graffiti and see the beauty of the city; much, I suppose, like a parent seeing through the rebellion of a teenager right through to the confusing identity struggling to emerge.
This river through Leipzig reminds me of the Charles in Boston. I walk across it every time I walk to downtown.
Since this is, after all, a sailing blog, lest you think I have been neglecting boats, I visited the Rhodes Chesapeake 33, which my brother (shown) has owned for close to two decades and which he is currently renovating in Köln.
It's worth clicking on this one to enlarge it. I also visited my old friend, the Rhein and watched barges plow through its formidable current.
During a visit to Hamburg, my brother-in-law and I took our beloved walk to one of the largest harbors in the world.
Leipzig: I cannot yet articulate all that I have learned from you but I know I will be contemplating your lessons for a long, long time to come.