Carpe Diem

June 1, 2010

I stopped by my local home center today to buy yet another package of 50 grit sandpaper for the belt sander. While contemplating the selection, a helpful employee asked me how I was doing (“fine”) and if I needed any help (“No, thanks”). But then he caught me off guard with his third question. “So, what are you working on today?”

I don’t generally reveal to strangers that I am building a boat. It seems a bit eccentric to talk about rudders and coamings when everyone around me is thinking about gutter spouts, leaky faucets, and weedy lawns. I worry that I might look like the alien in District 9, explaining how I’m going to return to the mother ship in my homemade craft.

This was the dream. It's taking me a long time to get there, but I'm finally on my way.

But, as I say, he caught me off guard, so with only a small hesitation in my voice I told him that I was building a sailboat.

Instead of recoiling in fear, he smiled broadly and got a wistful look. “Really? he said with genuine interest. “I’d like to build a boat but…” And here he inserted a couple of predictable reasons why such a thing would be impossible.

The conversation ended abruptly when a lady walked up wanting his advice on wood filler. But I ambled away thinking about how I’m not so crazy after all. The only thing that separates me from millions of other people is that I am actually building my boat. I’m doing something that many people (well, guys, mostly) want to do—but don’t ever do.

I don’t feel particularly brave or adventurous. I chide myself for not being a risk taker and my wife tells me that I dress too conservatively. But for some reason, I broke through the usual barriers (internal and external) that blocked me for thirty years from starting this particular project. And now, at last, I’m having a blast. I may complain in this blog about how long it takes to build a boat and how frustrating it is to solve small problems, but the truth is that I’m having a great time and I don’t regret my decision to undertake the project. It’s time consuming, but not very hard.

So why, I wonder, do so many people sit on the sidelines and not follow their own dreams? Why do so many boats exist only in the imaginations of armchair sailors? Why are so many African safaris only completed in front of television sets? Why does a whole life pass without at least trying what, in our hearts, we most want to do?

Yes, yes, there are many good and fully legitimate excuses for inaction. Like most people, I’m not rich, I have to work, I have a mortgage, I have kids. But I’m not convinced that these are the real reasons. Forces of inertia, conventionality, and fear might be the largest hurdles, even if they only exist in our minds. It’s hard to go against the current. It takes real bravery to be even slightly different from the people around us.

But when we do break away from our day-to-day lives, we often find that the fears are unwarranted and the rewards are real. Like a muscle, bravery grows with practice and gives us the strength to try new things.

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In some ways, my boat building adventure actually began when my wife and I took our three small children to Mexico for a couple of years. Before leaving, people told us that it was dangerous and that our children would be warped. We went anyway, and found that the naysayers were wrong. The children were happy and we felt completely safe.

And once there, we also found fellow expatriates who were living amazingly adventurous lives. Some had been traveling for years—Fiji to New Zealand; Ecuador to Africa. A few also had children (who appeared happy and well adjusted). Suddenly, we were the conventional and boring people because all we did was drive to Mexico and rent a small house. But by entering this particular world of globetrotting expats, our sense of possibility widened further. We talk boldly of completing even bigger and better adventures. The world grew larger, the barriers smaller.

One day I fell into conversation with an American retiree who was wintering in Mexico. Back home, he had a sailboat, which he sailed around Florida and the Caribbean. I admitted to him my life-long fantasy of building my own boat and undertaking a similar adventure, but explained that this was now impossible because I had three small kids. I expected the man to give me a nod of agreement, but instead of commiserating, he starting telling me all about the liveaboard kids he saw in Caribbean ports, and painted pictures of children swinging happily from the rigging and playing games along the shore. Then he started telling me about the kind of boat I should get.

This had never happened before. Back in the States, people either stared blankly when I talked about my dreams or readily agreed that it wasn’t a realistic plan. Here, in the mountains of Mexico, I found a guy who treated my dream as both reasonable and doable. Finally, I saw that the only person keeping me off the water was myself. That very day, I Googled “boat building” and discovered the Glen-L catalog and several other popular boating Web sites.

We returned home a year later and it took a few more years to build up the commitment and courage to buy my plans for the Pocket Cruiser, which I discuss in some of my earliest postings. This boat isn’t big enough for a family cruise to the Caribbean, but, for now, I don’t mind. It’s enough to start with a tiny act of rebellion. Step by step, I gain courage, find people who will support my ideas, and learn the necessary skills. This takes me to my next challenge, and then the next.

This is one thing I have learned about life: Small acts of bravery lead to larger acts of bravery. If I can build a boat, what else can I do? Maybe I really can sail it down the Chesapeake. Maybe I can go the Bahamas. Maybe I don’t need a house in suburbia. Maybe—who knows?—I can live a very different life. By taking a small sideways step and trying something new, we enter whole new worlds. Incrementally, we can become the people we want to be.

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We all have our challenges and our own rebellions. Maybe, for you, boat building is not brave or rebellious. But in my world, it is. I grew up in a family that prized intellectual achievement. The talents of artists and craftsmen, while praised, were not part of my family’s DNA. So I stayed on the established path and even entered my father’s line of work (education policy). For many years, I thought it was my calling because I was successful. I methodically accumulated all the trapping of middle class respectability.

Yet I never felt the kind of passion my father had for his work, nor did I feel at ease in my suburban life. My father believed he was changing the world; I didn’t. My father liked to come home from a long day in the office and mow the lawn; I hate mowing the lawn. So why did I work in education? Why did I have a lawn? It finally dawned on me that I was unhappy because I was trying to live my father’s life, not my own. I did not have this revelation until after my father’s death. Only in hindsight could I see how completely (in a fully loving and well intentioned way) he had orchestrated my life, and how easily I had followed along, assuming I would have his passion and his zest for life simply by doing what he did.

In the mid 1980s, Robin Williams starred in a popular movie called The Dead Poets Society. In the movie Williams, who plays an unconventional yet inspiring teacher (the only kind of teacher ever portrayed in Hollywood movies), admonishes his students with the phrase, “Carpe diem!”—Seize the day! My father loved this phrase. It expressed his belief in taking action, a commitment to making a difference in the world. “Carpe diem!” He was ejaculate at the dinner table when talking about a plan to make schools better.

In contrast, I found the phrase confusing and somewhat irritating. “What does it mean to ‘seize the day?’” I asked my father. Does it mean that I should work twice as hard at my job?—That I should stay in the office till dark and not come home until the kids are in bed? Or does it mean that I call in sick and take the kids to the park because it’s more important to smell the roses? Or does it mean that I quit my job, abandon the family, travel to India and work with Mother Theresa? It’s an empty, pointless exhortation, I said, when you don’t know what you want, or want more than one thing. My father thought this was a novel idea. He never felt uncertain or conflicted.

I tell this story because I feel, at last—at the age of 45–that I am seizing the day. I don’t yet know where it will all end since ultimate goal of my life is not to build this little boat or even to spend a week on the Chesapeake. But I feel I am heading in the right direction because I feel whole and happy when I work on the boat and when I think about the opportunities it will create in the future. From these small steps, I am gaining the skills and, even more importantly, the courage to finally be the person I want to be. I am hoping to one day say “carpe diem” and know what it means.

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In Defense of Hobbies

August 12, 2009

As a boy, I had the usual career goals: fireman, policeman, and—for the longest time—airline pilot. All that faded quickly enough, but unlike most young people, I never really came up with an alternative plan. As a young teenager, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “retired.” It was good for a laugh, but most people didn’t realize that I was serious. I really did want to skip midlife and head straight to the pension.

I'm not making a dime doing this. Is that OK?

I'm not making a dime doing this. Is that OK?

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t lazy, nor did I lack ambition. I had lots of interests, lots of passions, many dreams and plans. And that was the problem. I didn’t want to do just one thing, or be just one kind of person. I wanted to do a little bit of everything: paint, read, travel, build interesting things out of wood, plant a garden, study nature, learn a foreign language, write.

Individually, each interest could lead to a job. I could be a horticulturalist, since I liked to garden. I could be a naturalist, since I liked to be outside. But I didn’t want to pick one activity to the exclusion of all others. Instead, I wanted to dabble in all of my interests. And since full-time dabbling is the allowable pass-time of the retired, I decided that I wanted to be old.

Later, as young man, I modified my career aspirations slightly. After studying European history I wanted to be a renaissance man—someone who had the wealth and resources needed to simply pursue my multiple passions, wherever they might lead. I also wanted to live in an era when there was room for people to make a name for themselves in many different disciplines. Michelangelo could be an inventor and a great artist; Benjamin Franklin could be a diplomat, printer, and scientist. Thomas Jefferson—one of my early heroes—was a brilliant writer and a gifted architect. All three men were allowed to cross boundaries of knowledge with impunity and make contributions to each. I could see myself as their contemporary, pottering about my English manor—inspecting interesting horticultural specimens in the morning, practicing the violin in the afternoon, writing a treatise on democracy by candlelight.

But since “renaissance man” is not a recognized occupation in the twenty-first century, I played by the rules, earned a series of university degrees and established a respectable place in society as a writer. It’s not a bad way to make a living. I often worry about finding enough work, but I relish the autonomy. I can travel when I please and work when it’s most convenient. Since I don’t commute, attend departmental meetings, or engage in idle chatter in hallways, I work more efficiently and have more free time.

But, to the detriment of my emotional health, I never really abandoned my preference for dabbling. I’m 45 years old—fully credentialed, completed settled, utterly respectable in nearly every way—and I still believe in the value of fun, leisure and creative exploration. I don’t mean lying around eating bon-bons and watching the Guiding Light. I’m talking about traveling the world with my children, learning to paint in oils, hiking the Appalachian Trail, becoming something more than a marginally competent musician—things that, in their own way, require hard work and discipline. I could do this happily and productively for the rest of my life.

But I can hardly admit to these fantasies without appearing like an eccentric or aspiring dilettante. Those of us in the American middle class (and most Americans believe they are middle class) are conditioned to think of themselves first and foremost as workers. Employment is the coin of the realm; the more we work and the more we appear to suffer because of it, the more virtuous we appear.

This fixation with employment is understandable if we were only worried about the practical need to earn a living. But modern society has given work a much higher and more symbolic role. Jobs (which are more commonly called “careers”) are not only sources of necessary income, but all-encompassing sources of personal identity: “I am a doctor;” “I am a teacher.” People don’t do work, they are work. It defines our place in society. It defines us. A person without a career is almost without an identity.

Worse still, careerism assumes that most people can be only one thing—a scientist or an artist; an astronaut or a poet. There is no room for multiple identities. In fact, we are conditioned to look at people who cross boundaries with suspicion. Hyphenated identities are flaky. There is some tolerance for midlife career changes, but they are often pursued under duress (the factory job goes away, for example), and are allowed only after new credentials are earned. We are “retrained” (probably in computers) and placed on a new track, just as limiting and exclusive as the one before.

In a career-oriented society, uncompensated passions and talents are given the slightly dismissive label of “hobbies.” They are allowed, but treated like a piece of parsley on a plate served with the dinner entree —a colorful garnish that livens the presentation, but doesn’t add anything to the main course and is, in the end, disposable. In this context, my boat is assumed to be of no great importance to my happiness or my identity. It is simply how I fill time when I run out of work.

Some people feel completely fulfilled by their jobs. My father, I think, was one of these lucky few. He lived a rich and full life within the boundaries of his profession and believed with total certainty that he was doing something of great importance. With this role model, I grew up feeling that there was something wrong with me for not feeling utterly fulfilled by my career, for not being absolutely sure that I was making the world a better place. I wondered why the son of a university chancellor and presidential appointee wanted to knock off early on a Friday afternoon to work in the garden. Was my DNA a few molecules short? I knew how to play the part of the committed professional, but I always felt like a fraud.

But I think it’s also safe to say that most people have dreams that don’t fit into their workaday lives. David Heineman, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder, told me recently that he wished he could live at least one hundred different lives simultaneously. One would be a painter, one would be a musician, another would build boats. What a relief it was to hear someone else say, almost word for word, what I have said for years.

I don’t know why we maintain the fiction of careerism. Instead of looking at the narrowness of our economic lives and calling a spade a spade, we only redouble our efforts to secure happiness by finding a new and better career. If we are unhappy, we’re told it’s only because we’re in the wrong profession. But I wonder if we might be happier if we simply admit that a career is, in the end, just a job and that while jobs can be (and should be) rewarding and useful, they need not define who we are. Plenty of societies, both past and present, understand this fact well enough and live happier and richer lives as a result.

Like most people, I need to work and, quite frankly, I’ll probably need to work for many years to come. But that doesn’t mean that I am obligated to work more than necessary or simply think of myself as “a worker.” Maybe I can’t be a true renaissance man, but I can realize that work pursued for pleasure is no less important or meaningful than work completed for money. At this moment, my boat is as important to me as anything I do in my office. And a good day is when I not only spend some time “earning a living” but also have the free time to glue some stringers, play my guitar, hang out with my kids, talk with my wife, and read a good book. In other words, be a complete person.


Fantasy Meets Reality

March 23, 2009

For most of my life, sailing was simply a fantasy and in its service I compiled a thick album of enticing mental snapshots: There I am at the tiller, squinting into the wind as I skillfully navigate the open seas; that’s me in a paneled cabin, wearing my Shetland wool sweater while reading a book by the light of a kerosene lamp; and here I am anchored off a tropical island, barefoot and shirtless. My, how tan and muscled I look!

But there is a huge gap between these fantasies and my reality. I am neither single, nor footloose. I have a wife and three wonderful children. I love them and they love me. I intuitively knew that a remote tropical island, one possibly inhabited by young women in grass skirts, is no place for a responsible father and devoted husband.

So I tried to imagine us all on a boat, heading to an equally exotic, if unspecified, destination. But do my children actually want to participate in my fantasy? And even if they did, could I build a boat able to safely and comfortably transport a family of five and, probably, our two cats besides?

The whole project was ready to collapse under the weight of its difficulty and absurdity. Herman Melville could dream of “naked houris” and “carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters” as his whaling ship approached the Marquesas. But he didn’t have a family and he didn’t build his boat. I needed to face reality.

Let’s start with the obvious: No matter how exciting it is to envision a distant and tropical destination, my desire to “sail away” can not mean going to the ends of the earth. I have neither the skill nor resources needed to chart a course for the South Pacific, or even the Caribbean. Not yet anyway. Nor can I impose this adventure on my family. My oldest son is enthusiastic, but he’s fifteen and not especially reliable; boats are nice, but cute girls come first. He would cheerfully feed me to the sharks if it got him a step closer to his fem du jour. Meanwhile, our twins, both twelve, have little more than what can be best called a “polite interest” in the project. They would miss their friends; they would bicker; they would be bored.

Finally, it’s also obvious I don’t yet have the skills needed to build a boat big enough for the whole crew. And even if I did have the skills, I don’t have the time needed to build a larger boat. I read enough boat build blogs to know that plenty of competent builders spend years building even modest sailing craft. A thirty or forty foot cruiser would probably keep me occupied into and possibly through my retirement.

I started to pull back from my fanciful visions. If Bora Bora is off the itinerary, what can I do? The most clear-eyed and responsible thing for a novice boat builder is to construct a small daysailer, tow it to the local lake, and take the family out for a pleasant spin. At the end of the day, we all go home. I head to the office and the kids go to school.

But, no, that’s much too tame. Sailing away implies a journey, an adventure, and possibly a small hint of danger. So between the boring and the unobtainable, I settled on a plan that seems fully doable for the mildly adventurous family man: I would build a small cruiser, one large enough for all to enjoy on a summer afternoon, with sleeping space for two. The specific goal is to sail the boat down the full length of the Chesapeake Bay—my old backyard–with a willing child, if possible. It’s a trip that can be completed (I’m guessing) in a week or two.

I’m not blazing a trail; plenty of inexperienced sailors make this journey. But it is completely new for me, full of novel experiences, from reading charts and watching the weather, to anchoring for the night and cooking an evening meal over an alcohol stove. And if successfully accomplished, it will help me plan my next step. Maybe I’ll find my calling and start building an even bigger boat; maybe I’ll realize that some dreams are better left unfulfilled. In either case, the journey will be a success even if I walk away from the boat on the outskirts of Norfolk.


Why Build?

March 20, 2009

In our late 20’s and early 30’s my wife and I lived in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a stone’s throw from the Chester River, in a town steeped in the sailing culture. Ironically, we didn’t spend any time on the water during our seven years near the Chesapeake Bay. Our children were young and we had no desire to take babies and toddlers on a sailboat. But I was able to observe yachters from Annapolis and other marinas on the “western shore.”

There are many skilled and dedicated sailors in the Chesapeake Bay, but there is also an odor of pretension. Sailboats can be—and too often are—another way to establish status; for some, they are little more than nautical BMW’s—teak and brass confections intended to make visible the owner’s financial success.

So I know perfectly well that my plan to build a small and simple boat from materials easily found at the local lumberyard makes me vulnerable to ridicule. I don’t expect to be warmly embraced by yachting class as I waddle through the bays of the eastern seaboard in an overgrown plywood box.

But I’m a contrarian by nature, and I have never felt the need to compete in the status game. Fairly or unfairly, I decided long ago that ostentatious displays of wealth indicate superficiality, misplaced values and an unbecoming degree of insecurity.

Instead of money, I most admire skills. I reserve my respect for those who have nurtured the creative impulse and can invent things beauty and utility. My interests are wide ranging, although I have particular fascination with the more obscure arts–from bookbinding, letterpress printing, and calligraphy to home brewing, winemaking, and quilting. I admire my wife’s skill as a seamstress and I study the work of skilled carpenters. I especially admire those skilled in my own chosen profession of writing, as well as my hobbies of gardening and woodworking.

Being able to build a modest house and sew a simple shirt or dress is a far greater achievement than being able to buy a mansion or the latest Paris fashions. Why? Because even the most crudely made structure or garment is a creative act. It is a demonstration of a real (or emerging) skill, an engaged mind and originality. It is bringing something new into the world, rather than eating up what is already there.

For better or worse, my life follows my values. Most of our furniture is homemade—from kitchen cabinets to the dining room table. Our salad greens come from a greenhouse of my own design; my beer is home brewed; our music is from my guitar and my wife’s piano. My office is in a building built by hand from foundation to roof. I don’t profess great talent in all (or any) of these activities. There are better brewers, better carpenters, more skillful gardeners and vastly superior musicians. But that’s not my concern. Each skill is adequate for our needs and brings pleasure. Indeed, the lack of perfection is a certain source of pride. Small errors and imperfections bring personality to even the most mundane object. Even years later, I read gouges and gaps like stories in a diary, recalling the events of their manufacture.

All this leads me to the conclusion that it is nobler to build a boat than to buy a boat and, as an extension of this philosophy, any homebuilt boat is better than any manufactured boat. It’s not a concession, but an added benefit. It is a display of my values and an integral part of the sailing experience.


In Which I Justify My Obsession

March 19, 2009

I don’t know exactly why boat building became one of my life goals, but I can guess.

The seeds of this dream were certainly planted in childhood when my family owned a cabin on a small lake in upstate New York. We lived there almost full time for several summers and I, in turn, practically lived on the small sailboat we kept tied to the dock. I was young—between eight and eleven—but my parents either had enough faith in my skills or faith in the lake’s small size to let me go out on my own and explore. Wet with spray, sunburned, my shaggy 70’s hair bleached by the sun, I plied the waters of Round Lake for hours at a time.

I was never taught to sail; like all children who master a skill, it came though simple practice until it formed an intuitive understanding. I learned how to find a breeze on a still day (look for ripples), I knew how to get the most speed (tighten the sail and adjust the rudder until–snap!–it felt like the boat was suddenly being pulled by a race car), and I knew how to slide into a the dock with the precision of a train pulling alongside a platform at Penn Station. In an emergency, when the boat threatened to capsize, I knew to relinquish dignity and let go of the sail. Not once did I go overboard.

On land, I was as powerless as any ten-year-old, but on water I was in control of my fate and in control of the elements. I was strong and competent—more competent than the adults around me. My father also liked to sail, but he was a busy professional and rarely went out. When he did, I watched with expert eyes and marveled at his awkwardness. He could drive a car and do important things in an office, but he flopped around the lake like a drunken duck, becalmed one minute, nearly capsizing the next. I didn’t think less of him for it, but it heightened my own sense of competence.

A few years later we moved and stopped visiting the cabin. I became a teenager and rarely thought of the water, but I never fully lost my sense of fellowship with wind and water. On a few occasions I was able to go out into other lakes and bays and found that, with small practice, the old skills returned. My feelings of power and freedom were less intense, but the sense of excitement remained.

It seems easy enough to conclude that I want to recover a small measure of the freedom I experienced as a young sailor. While I am an adult with the power and autonomy of an adult, day-to-day life lacks the purity and empowerment I felt as a small boy on small boat in a small lake. It is not at all surprising that I look back to my childhood for guidance and inspiration.

Still, I am not the first man to contemplate his age and then look to the sea. I wonder, if fact, if there is a single man who has not—at least briefly—considered sailing as an escape from the disappointments and indignities of everyday life. We work so hard to pay the bills, raise the kids, mow the grass, and clean the gutters. No one can fault our steadiness and sense of responsibility as we wake up, dress, and get ready for another day. But in a quiet moment of reflection—or perhaps during a surge or anger and frustration—we see a glimpse of something different: an exotic port, a quiet bay, a boat responding to our expert hands. We feel the pull of adventure and a delicious repudiation of traffic jams, business meetings, office memos, dirty laundry, and conventionality. The bonds are cut and we are free.

There are many ways to escape—on a bike, in a plane, in a Winnebago. But none so fully symbolize independence as a sailboat. A motor home drives down a highway, follows the flow of traffic on predetermined routes and under the eye of state troopers with radar guns. It needs gas and, if it breaks down, the attention of an authorized mechanic. Planes can take us to foreign lands, but we are shoehorned into tiny seats and subjected to countless indignities by the airline industry and the TSA. We pay for every bag, every peanut, and treated like criminals at security check points. No romance here; we are many years past the golden age of flight when we could pack our Samsonite suitcase, grab a passport, and “jet” to foreign lands.

Only sailboats allow us the fantasy of true freedom and self sufficiency. We can stock our cabin with food for weeks at a time–and even pull dinner from the sea. Our power comes from the wind, and that doesn’t cost a dime. Outside of harbors and channels, we set our own course—north, south, east or west and no one can tell us otherwise. The sea isn’t lawless, to be sure, but once we are on the water and, especially, in the open seas, we are as free as we can be in the modern age.

And then there is the romance of literature. From Homer’s Odyssey to semi-autobiographical novels of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, I quickly learned to associate sailing with drama and exotic lands. Conrad was my favorite; he made me feel the thrum of a riverboat engine as it crawled through the greasy waters of an African river in the Heart of Darkness. As a teenager, I hacked through the dense prose and murky symbolism so that I could stand at the captain’s side steaming in the Belgian Congo.

Of course there was also danger, and in modern sea tales, these dangers and mishaps often take center stage. The Perfect Storm, published in 1997, is entirely about a doomed fishing trawler. The author wasn’t aboard as the ship goes down (obviously…), but this doesn’t prevent him from speculating in graphic detail what it is like to spend the last few minutes of life drowning in the cold North Sea. If I had read too many books like this at an impressionable age, I probably would have little interest in sailing. Plus, I really hate how the book’s title became a hackneyed cliché.

But the old writers were refreshingly matter of fact about capsizing, sinking, and the other day-to-day catastrophes of a sailor’s life. They were able to make such events exciting, but not too alarming. Indeed, many of the first person accounts are so blasé in their discussion of dangers and disasters, it’s almost possible to miss them the first time around. “I had been nearly twenty years a shipmaster when I quit her deck on the coast of Brazil, where she was wrecked,” wrote Joseph Slocum in the first pages of his classic tale, Sailing Alone Around the World. “My home voyage to New York with my family was made in the canoe Liberdade, without accident.” I read this, started to move on, then paused. Wait, did he just say that he was wrecked in Brazil, and then sailed home—to the United States–in a canoe, with his family?

Indeed he did. But it was the style of the day, it seems, to manfully accept these sorts of inconveniences. In such books it’s pro forma to say that the storm they just survived made them feel “a bit anxious” even as they explain that the very same storm sank a much larger ship “with all hands.” It might be bluster and lies, but it gives armchair sailors hope that they, too, will be able to stare down a storm and do just the right thing and the right moment to avert disaster. Skill and luck will save the day and provide a good yarn for the telling.

Sedated by the steely calm of the writers, I was able to focus, instead, on the writer’s descriptions of transcendent beauty, which are presented with spare but often elegant prose. Taciturn sailors of an earlier age can be remarkably effusive when they talk of their boats. Once Slocum sets sail, he had this to say about the first days at the helm of the Spray:

“Waves dancing joyously across Massachusetts Bay met her coming out of the harbor to dash them into myriads of sparkling gems that hung about her at every surge. The day was perfect, the sunlight clear and strong. Every particle of water thrown into the air became a gem, and the Spray, bounding ahead, snatched necklace after necklace from the sea, and as often threw them away. We have all seen miniature rainbows about a ship’s prow, but the Spray flung out a bow of her own that day, such as I had never seen before.”

It’s words like these, combined with childhood memories, adult dissatisfactions, and restless dreams that shook me out of inaction. It’s a mix of fiction and fantasy, I know, and wholly irresponsible for a man of my age of standing, I’m sure. But at least you now know that there is at least one person in this world who is less rational than you, which must be of some comfort in these troubled times.


In Which I Decide to Build a Boat and Sail Away

March 19, 2009

How long have I talked about building a boat and sailing away? I know I dreamed about it in college. During my sophomore year I told my girlfriend (now my wife) that I wanted to sail down the Intercoastal Waterway in a homemade craft. She was not very enthusiastic. Allergic to fish, she was suspicious of everything related to fish, include seven tenths of the earth’s surface. Also, she grew up in Iowa, which limited her maritime experiences. Her lack of enthusiasm dampened my enthusiasm.

But the fantasy quietly persisted, especially when I was most dissatisfied with my life. When I grew bored with my career and tired of domestic hassles—failing septic systems, weedy gardens—I placed myself on a sleek sailing craft, far from shore, with nothing but a small bunk and a compass pointing south. At those moments, I felt powerfully drawn to the dream and would spend hours looking at boat plans on the Internet and eavesdropping on boat building forums.

But my bouts of self pity were short lived, so the fantasy would fade. Busy with children, I had no time for sailing through my 30’s. With three little children, it was hard enough simply getting out the door in the morning. A major outing involved getting everyone to the local playground without a tantrum.

Strange things started happening to me once I hit middle age. A week after my fortieth birthday, I started studying classical guitar. I had no master plan; I just found a teacher and started practicing arpeggios. That fully occupied my free time for a couple of years, but then, a few weeks after my forty-second birthday, and entirely out of character, I started swimming laps at the local YMCA. Again, I don’t remember making any announcements or resolutions; I just bought a Speedo and got in the water.

I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I see now that I was taking action on long, and long dormant, checklist of experiences that I wanted to have and skills I wanted to develop before I died. They were always there, but at midlife I unconsciously realized that it was either now or never. Music? Check. Physical fitness? Check.

Sensing a trend, I watched carefully when I hit forty-three, wondering what I would do next. But the year passed uneventfully. Still, I knew that something big was brewing. By the time I hit forty-four I felt positively pregnant with midlife agitation. I was going to do something dramatic, I could just tell.

My August birthday passed; autumn came, then winter. The economy was getting worse and my energies were focused on my work as a writer. I took every job I could find, worrying that each would be the last. I was tired, overworked, yet vaguely bored. I floated some “let’s move abroad” balloons, but they went nowhere. We had lived in Mexico for a couple of years when the kids were young, but now, as teenagers, they have no interest in travel. I was stuck here, in this life, and there was nothing I could do about it.

In January, we took a vacation to Florida and somewhere around St. Augustine I found myself staring at all the pretty sailboats bobbing in a marina. I saw myself on one of these boats, I saw the horizon, I pictured a sunset. I lost myself in reverie for several minute before shaking my head and sensibly moving on. I didn’t need a boat, I told myself. Boats are big, expensive, and entirely impractical. I didn’t even know how to sail anything larger than a Sunfish. It’s important to know the difference between fantasies and reality.

We drove home and life moved on. And then, one day in February, I woke up and knew, with complete certainty, that I needed a boat. It was the next item on my checklist, and it could not be denied. Not only that, I had to build my boat. I needed to fulfill the complete fantasy—building, launching, sailing away. That’s all I knew, but it ended a lifetime of procrastination.