Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

And then in 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from them shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.

Failure, Self-recrimination, and Advice in Much Ado About Nothing (and other places)

One of the joys of reading Shakespeare is finding small moments that are only (only!) tangentially connected to the play—as if Shakespeare was trying to overpack his plays with wisdom. One such moment happens in Much Ado About Nothing, when Leonato’s brother, Antonio, attempts to advise his brother. Antonio knows that his brother is grief-stricken, and wants to assuage that grief with wisdom. He offers this: “If you go on thus, you will kill yourself,/ And ’tis not wisdom thus to second grief/ Against yourself.”

Leonato responds with a diatribe against the advice:

I pray thee, cease thy counsel,

Which falls into mine ears as profitless

As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel,

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear…

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk

With candle-wasters, bring him yet to me,

And I of him will gather patience.

But there is no such man. For, brother, men

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief

Which they themselves not feel, but tasting it,

Their counsel turns to passion, which before

Would give preceptial med’cine to rage,

Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,

Charm ache with air and agony with words.

No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience

To those that wring under the load of sorrow,

But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency

To be so moral when he shall endure

The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.

My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

Later Antonio will suggest: “Yet bend not all the harm upon yourself./ Make those that do offend you suffer too”; and Leonato agrees to this course—grief will give way to anger and action.

All in all, Leonato hits on the failure of most advice to do anything like good. Can words “[c]harm ache,” or are they just “air”? And what will mend agony?

My father rarely swore. I recall two incidents of “fuck”—once while he was driving, and once when we were getting hammered by a boom made too dangerous by inattentive helmsmanship. Swearing on the ocean was easy for some, but not for him, because he was happier on the his sailboat than anywhere else. Of course there were often far from pleasant days and nights spent under sail. Instead of offering anodyne comment, or suggesting that better days were ahead (we were, after all, headed to Bermuda and at least one evening of perpetual dark n’ stormy’s), we would pronounce, “This is shitty.” That was as far as he would go under duress—save the one time when we were in specific danger—and it summed up the the awfulness of a third day of rain and misbegotten wind as well as anything.

I recognize that we were under sail, and therefore about as far from genuine grief as can be imagined, but soaked, misdirected, and cranky will approximate. We had the advantage, as Leonato said to “endure the like” all together. How often do we experience grief together, and just suffer with each other? How often do we witness those in grief, and feel compelled to offer wisdom—and recoil in shock when our solace is returned with scorn?

Leonato responds in this vein. His grief is exacerbated by his initial response to his daughter, when he excoriates her after Claudio wrongly heaps shame on her. His grief is doubled by the knowledge of his failure of faith in his daughter. Antonio’s final advice points his self-despite toward the men who caused his fault.

And this is a special sort of grief—a pain we lade on ourselves. How many of us can easily confront our failures? Not our foibles—we populate the empty air with “my bad’s.” But genuine failures? Only those who have can offer us solace. Shakespeare offers us this in Leonato’s rejoinder to Antonio.

Lessons from Sailing: Patience and Course

We gathered a twice a day to listen to the nautical forecast, usually in the cockpit, but when the weather was execrable, in the cabin. For days on the ocean it was the only external information we had, and the computerized voice that intoned the zones and conditions annoyed and entranced us. My father never explained which particular slice of the forecast we should heed. If there was one, it was his secret. We did get a general sense: the information could reveal a significant change from the forecast with which we headed onto the ocean. For the most part, the weather we encountered was weather we could see.

Besides, what did the weather matter? We were going into it one way or the other. If something sudden arose—and in a storm, wind and rain could change direction in a moment—we had one rule: change course. At 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, Saturday afternoon’s destination could wait. That lesson only took one stern delivery.

I think I became an atheist on the ocean, or at least a pragmatist. If there is a god, it answered my prayers for relief with a simple, “You put yourself out here, jackass. You are going to have to get through it on your own.” At the same time I learned to believe in and respect a power much larger than my desire. Only a fool raises a fist against the weather or the ocean and then dares an impossible course. We had our foolish moments. On particularly bad days, my father would simply decree, “This is shitty.” If it was, we sailed through it.

In this way, we learned a sensible passivity on the ocean. Our single dare was the initial impulse: sail. After that we trimmed sails, corrected course, vomited, slept poorly, ran the engine through flat days, cursed the diesel odor, and gloried. We were sailors.

Every so often, the moment called for essential courage: tying down loose sheets at the bow while the boat bucked through night storm. I could hold onto nothing while grabbing the clew of the working jib and the sheet (line) that whipped back and forth, having worked itself loose. “You get that,” my father said, in a tacit admission that his Parkinson’s Disease would prevent him from ever again wandering forward in less than pleasant conditions. “It’s shitty, but we have to get that.” He didn’t even need to add that proviso. I had hooked my tether to the line that ran from bow to stern and was scrambling ahead—cursing, as is one’s right, and scrambling.

One learns not to wish for courageous opportunities. Danger is not a reward, even if it frees the soul from, what? complacency? On the ocean, complacency is death.

I knew about my father’s illness because, on the ocean, every limit will be tested, but it is essential to acknowledge those limits. You do not ask a first time sailor to take the helm in a gale, nor do you ask uncertain hands to tie a bowline. Few are those who ask for something hot to eat and a place at the helm in any weather. And my father’s illness was a limit–he wanted, desperately, to be the one who managed every danger; after all, he was our father. When he could not, we had to know it, and keep him safe.

Even while waiting on the ocean, one never stops being on alert, ready to absorb the next challenge—and boredom (bored in a week? Bah!) must be one of those challenges. But, who gets bored between the sun, the sky, and the endless blue?

Still, I wonder about the lesson—prepare and wait. It is easy to forget that while I waited, I was on board a 36’ sailboat that made steady and infernal forward motion—through all kinds of placid and idiotic weather. Yes, wait, be patient, but for the love of all that’s right, keep going. Even if the pace is a mere 6 knots, keep going. Even if a storm causes a momentary reversal, there is a destination, perhaps on the other side of the world. Keep going. And be prepared for what comes. It is, it will.

Risking it all

It is difficult to explain the existential risk that the writer—at least this writer—undertakes when working. It is tantamount to this:

One time we (my father, two crewmates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. A gale is wind at 40 knots. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first-time sailor) had slipped into his bunk clutching his life jacket, stricken with an indomitable case of seasickness. We were sailing short-handed into stupid weather.

For the next four days we sailed in 30-50 knot winds, in a sea that was more like a protracted set of sand dunes, the water whipped by the wind into twelve-foot peaks that barely seemed to move. They were moving though, faster than we were in our 36-foot sailboat. The ship sailed up and down these wet rolling hills, making ragged progress toward our goal: Bermuda.

Sensible men would have waited, but for all my father’s strengths (long-range planning, and in the moment decisiveness among them), he had a stubbornness that did not waver. Once he had a plan, he stuck to it. Later in life, this supported him as he battled with Parkinson’s Disease. He suffered with the adaptations the illness forced on him, but refused to be stopped. In the end this led to his death. On this trip, his drive took us into an ocean that would challenge us.

I should also note that when I point to a crewmate who became seasick, I do not cast aspersions. I get seasick, and had each time I had sailed on the ocean before this. It always struck me when I took my first late watch, when the horizon was shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear could not properly make sense of the several directions that my body was moving. It is an ugly sickness, driving the guts empty in rebellion until there is nothing left but bile. I never missed my turns at the helm because of it. The nausea would strike, and I would turn my head, and do what I needed. I did not eat or drink while it was on me, and it passed, for me it did, and after 36 hours.

On this trip, in this ocean, I was entirely spared. All my other crewmates, even my father, were struck. In retrospect perhaps the swell of the sea was so distinct and regular, that the three-way (pitch, yaw, and roll) motion did not take grip of me. Or perhaps the danger created a necessary clarity. As with all retrospect, I cannot be sure.

After four days, we finally passed into the fringe of whatever had driven the gale. In a matter of hours, the wind created new swell patterns. Around midnight, the sea that had been a reasonable set of rolling hills, turned, and became more like waves breaking over an invisible reef or sand bar. 18-20 foot waves rose and broke, all headed in one direction. They are called following seas, which means the breakers were rising behind us, and rolling toward us. They were moving faster than we were and lifted our boat to each peak, at which point our boat would slide down the front of the breaker like a sailboard.

That sounds easy enough, but as the boat fell down the surface of each wave, it carved a path driven by gravity and the force of the wave it was riding. Its path down the wave became, temporarily and repeatedly, unmanageable. Pushed by wind, pushed by water, pulled by gravity, the rudder merely suggested a direction. And yet, when at the helm, every suggestion made a difference. Caught at the top of a breaker, the boat could easily go sideways and roll over. Sliding down the side of the breakers, it could turn too sharply and roll over.

A sailboat is not a surfboard.

My father and I took the helm when the sea turned. We held it in half-hour turns, and it was exhausting work that required dense and specific attention. And, we were exhausted after the previous days of sail. Usually, in harsh conditions, one man took the wheel, and the other took refuge propped against the cabin in the leeward side of the cockpit, using the cabin as a wall against the constant water that broke over the windward gunwale. In this case, as we planed down the sides of the swells, the leeward gunwale cut into the water, and the water rushed into the cockpit. This added a new threat. The boat could be capsized, swamped with water if the helmsmen was not attentive. And, because no attention was enough, at the very least, we were soaked, the water pooling in our yellow foul weather gear, which was not designed for repeated submersion.

At 4 in the morning my father looked at me and said, “I can’t do it anymore. I’m going to send another crew member up, but you cannot let him take the helm until the sea settles down. You have to sail until then. The boat is yours.”

I brought a waterproof Walkman on these trips. While I took the helm that night, I listened to an array of the loudest songs I had: Dinosaur Jr’s “I Know You’re Out There,” Medicine’s “One More,” and Sonic Youth’s “Sugar Kane.” Nothing was loud enough. Nothing matched the ocean or my attention. Nothing matched my awareness of what might happen, or when my father relented, what had happened.

I sailed. Every time I turned the wheel, I felt like I was making a decision that could imperil the lives of all of us. We would go down fast, without time to throw the life raft overboard. It would happen in an instant. We were at sea—tempest-tossed as Shakespeare wrote. The end would come quickly. Each time I turned the wheel, each millimeter I moved it to port or starboard, I felt as if I was making a decision for speed and forward motion. It felt, again, as the bard wrote, giddy. Not happy, and not drunk—although I felt as drunk as I could be—drunk with sailing, with water, and with wind—but transported out of my mind, beyond all thought, and into every thought possible. I sailed as I never had before, as I would always want to sail afterward.

Friends ask me if I have been sailing in the years since my father’s death. I have not. But even before he died, I knew that I would not—not because of fear or seasickness (an anti-vertigo drug helped allay that)—but because I had done something then that I would never replicate. Not on the ocean. I have sought it ever since.

I do not know what has ever led me back to safety. I know that what calls me is not simply mastery (I have a Ph.D. in English, I have some level of mastery there), but the exhilaration of being over the edge of control and into the realm of the impossible. To be the captain, which I became that night. Sometimes, too often, I have exercised the caution I faulted my father for lacking. I have stayed controlled, almost too calm. In some measure, this is because I feel a lack of control and a lack of mastery around me. Even the experts profess a quietness or steadfastness, when sometimes what is needed is to go out of one’s mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, and must all go out of our minds, together.

I have over-prepared, or tried to know, to tame the ideas in my head, worried that they were unintelligible, or that they were somehow too strange. I feel myself now, at the top of the breaking wave again. And look down into the night sea. This way. Now. Down. For life.

Losing the Path—How a writer can get lost

Along the way, I lost the true path. So many of these past posts have been about finding my way back to the right road—to my purpose, to writing, and to love. Like the Italian poet, I am perhaps a little attuned to an inspiring force—a Beatrice, if you will—and so as writing has come back into my life, I have found inspiration as well. But the path is writing, and I blundered off.

Dante begins The Inferno:

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself

In dark woods, the right road lost. To tell

About those woods is hard–so tangled and rough

And savage that thinking of it now, I feel

The old fear stirring: death is hardly more bitter.

And yet, to treat the good I found there as well

I’ll tell what I saw, though how I came to enter

I cannot well say, being so full of sleep

Whatever moment it was I began to blunder

Off the true path.

Of course we ask, “Why? How?” For each of us who blundered off, the cause of our blundering was specific. Perhaps there are similarities. Here are mine.

Some of my challenge is surely due to some odd predisposition against the kind of selfish drive that must accompany the purposeful and durable impulse to write—or do anything. I recall when I was twelve or thirteen and we were electing pack leaders in my Boy Scout troop. I was nominated, and I did not vote for myself. I did not do that because I had been taught, always and hard, to think of others first, to not be selfish. I had two younger brothers—and not just younger, smaller—and was expected to make way for them, to not impose myself. Whether the overall message came from my parents, from teachers, or from some other source, I cannot say. When the time came for me to vote for a pack leader, part of being a leader, so I thought, was making the generous and considerate move. It was an early lesson.

My life in the world has set me against those who are primarily selfish. I see selfishness everywhere—the thousand daily infractions of an overarching ethical code. Be strong. Do more than your share. Tell the truth. Be kind. I do not understand behaviors that subvert those rules, and when I have broken them, or come close to breaking them, I have borne that certain weight. At some point on a dating site, there was a question, “Do you know the worst thing you have ever done?” I know the ten worst things. One was yelling at a boy with a physical disability to not block the stairs going into school. It is far from the worst. I work to balance the ledger.

I have framed the writing life, my writing life, as a calling. While that is a powerful vision of writing, a calling has its drawbacks, even dangers (see “The Dangers of a Calling“). It means that our work is not about or for us, but for something outside us, and this can lead those who live within this frame, to sacrifice, even sacrificing what is at the heart of that calling. Somewhere along the line, we must learn to be ferocious, obsessive even, about our purposes. This, and nothing else. No matter what.

Beyond that, there are many other roads, especially when one is in the dark—whether suffering through a bout of creative disconnection (no stories!), or suffering through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (the daily bits of life and love)—and a wrong road can seem very much like a right road. There are so many opportunities for success, and routes that promise fulfillment. The greatest dangers to purpose are not dissolution and waste; they are “almost purposeful” fulfillment. How hard to turn away from success (or the road to success) as a leader, as a teacher, as a father, as a spouse. Who would not want all these successes in his life? I am writing about me, so the male pronoun is appropriate here; I imagine that a “she” or a “they” would have the same kind of struggle.

One of the attractions of success across a broad range of fields is the push to be well-rounded. How many times was passion curtailed because it was deemed too obsessional, too blinding to a balanced life. From early on in my life, I was strongly encouraged to be conversant in several fields of study. To understand science, math, history, and, English. To be a scholar athlete. To be well-informed about the news of the day (not just local, parochial news, but in the world as well, and not just news about proto-historical events, but arts, sports, business, everything). To play a number of sports. Always more. The monomania to do the 10,000 hours of practice was seen as ungentlemanly. Me, the last amateur, breezily succeeding, breezily failing, breezily letting life slide past.

Purpose was nearly antithetical to my life. And I have paid for that. Midway on our life’s journey, I reclaim the right road. I leave these markers for you, and for me. Follow.

Paying Attention

When I am out walking with my daughter I have one, simple repeated lesson: pay attention. Crossing a street? Pay attention. Walking past a flower bed? Pay attention. Meeting people? Pay attention. It is the cornerstone. I point out when I fail, as she does: Pay attention, daddy. Did you look? Did you see me? Two eyes seem like slim equipment for the work of days.

As a teacher, the central lesson is a finely tuned attention. The study of literature is a proving grounds for giving attention its fullest due. Words, images, sound. The unpacking of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Joyce Carol Oates’s stories, or a passage from Joyce’s impossible novel relies on the attention one gives and the knowledge one brings. All the knowledge in the world is wasted if one does not look outward and pay attention.

When I write, I also pay attention—it is a balance between inward and outward attention—letting the still, strong voice inside reflect on the outward world. I try to write about what I see, what I learn, what surprises me—almost all outside of me. When I venture within, I hope to turn the same sharp vision within—seeing myself as if on a journey, as if I was foreign and strange—as I must be, even to myself.

But those are only three roles I play in life: father, teacher, writer. I am also a friend, and enjoy paying attention to my friends’ likes and dislikes, their peculiar fascinations and passions. We tend to have similar interests—we are, after all, friends. And I know that my friends pay attention to me—that they appreciate my odd vision.

There is one other role—and it is at once the easiest and most difficult. I love paying attention to the person I love. I love learning the stories that comprise a life, listening to the dreams of possible futures, and discovering the intricacies of another’s heart. All this is so easy—I could listen and learn for a lifetime—I feel like all else is practice for this.

The hard part is having someone pay attention to me. First, allowing someone to see me, all my flaws and strengths. That is, almost, easily assuaged by repeated kindnesses—I have learned to accept being loved.

Harder is accepting when someone misses something. When my daughter stumbles into a crosswalk, head tilted toward phone, there is a quick check—pay attention. When a student misses the meaning of the image: “star to every wandering bark,” I can quickly point out that Shakespeare is punnier and more ribald than serious young students give credit. When I make a mistake in an early draft, I can edit. And I can accept my friends “misses” easily—chalking it up to our simple flawed and generous humanity.

But, with love. Perhaps because it is only then—when I love romantically—that I feel most vulnerable. I sometimes become all but selfless—loving most and desiring least, as if true love could enable a perfect kind of detachment. So much for flawed and generous humanity—I must be perfect. Jeff Tweedy sings, “No loves as random as God’s love”—this random indiscriminate, impossibly generous love. Shakespeare calls it “lascivious grace”—unimaginable to those who walk upon the ground, and yet, the only ideal.

And yet, the hope, beyond hope, that someone is paying attention. One of the great joys of love—and of life—is feeling recognized, not simply on someone else’s terms (This is how you are like me! This is how you complete me!), but on your own terms (You showed me… You taught me… You amazed me… You surprised me… You changed me…). Isn’t this how we feel love, when we are at our best? Isn’t this how we want to be loved?

I share little details, bits and pieces, and listen and wait. What is she paying attention to? Through what screen does she see me? I expect hesitantly, trying not to overburden possibility with my hair-shirted set of (non-)expectations. And then, after sharing a story, a glimpse, a piece by Dinesen, some recollection of a journey, she travels away and returns with a small blue jar filled with water from two seas. I know there will be misses, but I also know I have been seen. And this makes all the difference. This is how.

Late Night (Happiness part 2)

A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving of 2014, I moved into the attic in my family’s home. Things had fallen apart in my marriage, in spite of the trip we had taken to China to bring home a daughter in the previous May. We knew. My wife stopped wearing her wedding ring—not making any formal fuss about it. Cataclysms had intervened to help clarify our struggle, and so, as sad as it was, we began the process of unraveling.

The universe was ready for change. Stephen Colbert stepped down from the Colbert Report, which had lasted just a tick shorter than our marriage. Craig Ferguson walked away from his gig. And then the two seismic shifts: Jon Stewart would leave the Daily Show and David Letterman would exit late night television after 33 years. Is it strange that I gauge my life according to who is performing a monologue on late night television? Perhaps.

I started watching comedians late at night with my father, who was a Carson devotee. My dad would take a nap after dinner—short, maybe 20 minutes in his chair in the den—before watching television or reading until the news and then the Tonight Show. He would stay up until Carson finished at 1 am (later only until 12:30 am). My mother absented the scene well before 11.

My dad was a reasonably well-informed man, coming home each night with a copy of Philadelphia’s evening newspaper—The Bulletin. We did not watch much nightly news—my mother was not interested in the ugliness. Strangely, she has become a avid listener of talk radio and NPR, but not then. In the 60s and early 70s the Vietnam War hung like a grizzly threat over her sons, and so, no news except for what we read.

I learned to pay attention to the news both by scrambling through the Bulletin and Time Magazine, which came every week. For a few years my father changed the name on the subscription to those of my brothers and I, whether for the savings or to delight us, I do not know. As much as any other reason, I knew I had to follow the daily news to keep up with Carson’s monologues. Without knowing the daily facts, the jokes fell flat.

In 1982, the year I graduated from college, Letterman took over what had been a fairly straight talk show slot. Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow had ended NBC’s programming. Snyder was as hip as could be imagined at the time, smoking a cigarette and asking pointedly bemused questions. Letterman rolled in on a wave of calculated whimsy and sarcasm. He was a genial wiseass—smart enough to host Fran Leibovitz, foolish enough to wear a suit of Alka-seltzer tablets into a dunk tank. While Carson chuckled at the world, Letterman was in perpetual eye roll. “These people are idiots,” he seemed to say, “And if we aren’t careful, we are too.”

Somehow, the line between “the joke’s on them” (the politicians, the hypocrites, the too-big-for-their-own-britches), and “the joke’s on us” got thinner and thinner. When Letterman jumped to CBS in 1993, the eyebrows raised response to the woman who said, “They’re not going to put this on CBS, I’m sure,” admitted that he—and we—were getting away with something.

I didn’t watch lots of Letterman after a while. For years I did not own a television—a sacrilege, I know. I started watching Jon Stewart, and then Stephen Colbert, and by then, the comedy of “the joke’s on us” landed too close to home. Letterman never stopped being a smartass—as if that is ever a choice—but the times I did stop by, he seemed gentler, weathered, and maybe perplexed.

When he left in 2015, it marked the end of my Second, and maybe Third Act. From graduation from Swarthmore to graduate school at Binghamton, from adjunct teaching to secondary ed teaching, from occasional church goer to religious professional, from single, to committed cohabitation, to marriage, and finally to separation and divorce. I still watch late night comedians, but now they function almost only as an antidote to the news. Please, someone make light of the daily made-up facts. Maybe that will end when the current administration leaves, and maybe a sequel to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros will have everyone gleefully turning back into humans.

On May 20th, 2015, I sat in my condominium watching an end, and knew something had changed. Everything. Me included.

Wrestling with ambivalence

jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel

My younger daughter randomly pronounces “I’ll miss you, papa,” or “I’ll miss you, daddy.” We could be doing anything: folding laundry, driving to the store, watching a video about geysers. It tears me apart every time.

My daughter stays with me three nights a week, which has been the arrangement with my ex-wife for the three years we have lived apart. We live blocks from each other, so I have seen my daughter between times as well. In a few weeks, I will move three hours away, and our comfortable schedule will change. We will spend weeks and months together throughout the year, and manage weekends, but I will not be the nearly daily presence I am now.

So why move? Why tear the central chamber of my heart to shreds? I don’t see myself as a horribly selfish man, which kind of negates the entire, “I’m doing this to be happy” argument—or belies it. Maybe I am a selfish man.  Wear that feather in your cap for a bit, and feel how heavy the crown really gets.

“You can’t let yourself think that way,” I will be, have been, told. And that’s fine, but when Socrates trots out “The unexamined life is not worth living,” this is the kind of thing one is meant to examine—not every sandy beach in the Caribbean or every dive bar in Baltimore.  Saddle up for self-examination, or get off the trail.  And yeah, keep your eye on the trail, greenhorn. See them rocks over there?  That’s ambivalence, and we’re here to fill your packs with it.  Get digging!

So many things—too many things? –pull in opposite directions.  Half of life seems a paradox, and the other half I just can’t make my mind up about which direction it’s headed. And I don’t simply throw my hands up and say, “Oh well.” I wrestle, intently, with the angel of ambivalence.  In “The Waking” Theodore Roethke states, “This shaking keeps me steady.” Damn right.

I don’t hold with those who don’t engage ambivalence—being of two minds about things.  People who insist “you’re either with me or you’re against me” give me a serious pain. People who say such things and then claim, “It’s okay if we disagree,” help me find my way to the exit tout suite. You cannot claim an absolute and then say it doesn’t matter—or vice versa. Be afraid of those who claim an open mind while harboring a stone heart.

I cannot claim that this is an easy path. I think a reasonable amount of comfort and privilege makes it possible. I have walked away from the comfortable certainty of doctrine, in large part, because I felt that a life without doctrine would be neither dark nor disastrous.  I knew that the monsters hidden in the chaos were as deeply entrenched within the staunchly defended halls. Beowulf never had to go far beyond the mead hall to find adversaries as deadly as Grendel.

While I understood what Obama was getting at when he talked about economic insecurity driving people to cling, I knew that there were plenty of secure people who traffic in certainties and verities.  Maybe that’s what helped make them secure. Or maybe there’s something else at work—a digression for another time.

As for me, now, this decision, to leave my secure and certain life, has immediate repercussions. I may have reasons, and good ones, to move.  But I know that I am unwinding the steadiest relationship in my life for uncertainty.  Of course, it is not as uncertain—my daughter and I have a firm bond.  And a happier father will, in the end, be a better father. Or so I hope. Nonetheless I make this move with a serving of ambivalence, and perhaps, that will be enough to keep us steady.

The Captain’s Way

Over twenty-five years ago I started sailing on the ocean with my father. We would leave the Chesapeake Bay in the last week of May and spend five or six days out of sight of land on the way to Bermuda. Some days the weather was lovely. I read The Pickwick Papers on deck during my first trip, lying on the cabin roof in generous sun and a steady breeze. Some days the rain found every gap in the foul weather gear, and every inch of skin wrinkled to a puckered wet mess. There were days when no wind blew, and the foul diesel exhaust clung to the boat like regret, and days when the wind blew too hard to unfurl the smallest triangle of sail.

On every trip save three I got seasick—a miserable thirty-six hours of retching that began during my first 2 am watch on the ocean and ended when the store of yellow bile in my guts was exhausted and my inner ears adjusted to the six-way surprises of pitch, roll, and yaw. If I think hard enough about it, I can churn my stomach while standing on dry land. I chewed ginger, which was tarry and vile. I applied scopolamine patches, which gave me marvelous hallucinations that I used to unlock characters in stories. I went without, which guaranteed predictable suffering. Finally, I settled on an anti-vertigo drug that wrapped my head in gauze but staved off illness.  Only once, when we sailed out onto the ocean in a full gale, and the seas peaked into a landscape of rolling hills, did I avoid either remedy or illness.

I miss sailing.  I miss fighting through unpredictability. I miss sailing upwards of seven knots. I miss storm clouds lit by the night sky. I miss encounters with thousand strong pods of dolphins.  I miss standing watches with my father.

My father rarely complained about anything when we were on the ocean.  He called the weather “shitty” on a few occasions. He swore at the crew once, which has lived down in family lore; “Blanket the fucking jib” has outlived him. He knew that the greatest frustrations on the ocean were not weather, or even illness. He suffered with Parkinson’s Disease when I sailed with him, and except for the times he sent me forward to tie down a loose sail or hold the helm through a storm, he did not express regret about his condition, about what he could no longer do.

He knew that the hardest part of sailing was the proximity of four men on board. It was after I complained about some dreary antics of one of our crew mates that he told me how important variety was.  “If everyone was an orange, life would be boring,” he advised.  He brought his sons to the ocean with him because he knew we would not misbehave.  We laughed. We passed over contretemps with humor; he was the only one who would swear at anyone. He was the captain. But even after swearing, there was time for a scotch and laughter. We may not have all been oranges, but we shared an approach that kept us on course.

I know the world is bigger than a thirty-six-foot sailboat, and so the need to behave well does not always assert itself. People say and do things that would raise the captain’s voice. I realize, as my father must have years ago, that not all families abide with humor, that many live by other means. Years of working with people in school and church have taught me that people bring a variety of approaches to challenge, and that my father’s way is rare. I have also learned that for some, humor is not a balm as it was for us. For some contention and control provide the well-worn ground that makes the world, if not safe, then predictable. And for some, there is safety in that.

I think I gave up on safety a long time ago.  Sailing will do that to you.  You learn to prepare for the unimaginable, and to gird yourself with an attitude that can adapt. In the last weeks of May, I feel the old tug, and miss my father. I long to sail in his affable company again.