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.

The Captain

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My father would have been 82 today. I have been thinking much about him recently, and not only because of the recent addition to my family. I am giving a sermon at my church in a week about the things I learned about being a father from my father.

My dad was reluctant to pass on the secrets of fatherhood. In part this may have been a result of his life with his father–we pass down intentionally or not the raising we received. In part it may have been his general willingness to let us, his sons, figure things out for ourselves, even something as meticulously specific as blanketing the jib (ask my brother about that). In part fatherhood may have well remained a secret to him, even late in life when we were his children and no longer children.

Is there a secret? I suspect my father had some sense of one, and that it guided him the way that stars and winds and currents guided him on the ocean. But he was never one to get mystical about that secret; he happily took up the GPS and autopilot when they became available. His choices were practical and methodical and willful. I think his vision of the big secret was equally practical.

Nonetheless, he liked schmaltzy movies, as well as acerbic humor. He enjoyed the fellowship forged in extraordinary ventures. Something in him bristled against the vagaries of weather and the capriciousness of emotion. Whatever was mystical to him was grounded in a belief that right should triumph, that wit was sufficient armor against nonsense, and that sheer determination not only could, but should lead the way through the various chaotic episodes of life.

So, even though he knew that before heading out to the ocean, he should be able to take apart and repair the Diesel engine “just in case,” he also knew that at some point the ship might fail and that the only thing that would save the voyage was singular, capable, heroic action on the part of a sailor. He had the sense to know that when he could not be that sailor, he found those who could rise to the challenge, and he gladly called on their best when the occasion demanded.

Is that a reasonable thing for a father to expect? Is it possible to teach dogged, determined, and day-to-day heroism? Or does it come from within, or from some other, stranger “without”? Even if he knew those answers, he would have remained reticent (on this matter at least); he would have let us figure it out.

The Schedule of Life at Home

Those of you who know me know I lead a fairly busy life. I work 3 part time jobs, none of which is really part time. I have 7 day work weeks, and this makes me, by all accounts, fairly normal in the working world.

I enjoyed the time in China getting my daughter, in large part, because I was not working (or only working a very small amount), and I had scads of time to spend with my family. My only limits were sleep related during the initial bout of jet lag.

Now, at home, I am back of the world of work commitments. I went to work within 24 hours of arriving back at home. Jet lag would have to wait for days when I could afford a satchel full of half hour naps while my circadian clock got back on track.

I cannot say that my work schedule is fully appreciated by those with whom I live. Work often gets in the way of spontaneous outbursts of family activities, and if I beg off for prior (paid) commitments, I get more than a little of the hairy eyeball. I understand why, and I desperately wish for more time.

However, the paycheck helps the family world go around too. Our China expenses reached well beyond 30 thousand dollars, and that doesn’t even fully take into account the money we had spent on the previous plan that fell through when the adoption agreement between Vietnam and the United States four years ago. Yes, a small chunk of that will come back to us when we do taxes next year. Nonetheless, money does not buy happiness, it only opens the door to the park. Happiness comes when you play inside.

So, I look forward to a few months in the summer, when I get to be Superdad. And while I bemoan the current situation, I plan for some time in the park–as much as I can get.

Alex, I’ll take “The Other Challenge Is” for a million

Just to be clear, focus number one is on the new daughter, but a fairly immediate if secondary focus is on daughter number one (Katherine), and a somewhat more distant focus is on the family dynamic (baba-mama-jei jei-mei mei).

Shi Hui is kind of a catalyst for change in the family. And when I write “catalyst,” perhaps I should venture into hyperbole. Shi Hui is a little like the lit stick of dynamite one throws into, well, pick your destination of choice. We may have known that in advance, in fact I think at least the adults were pretty clear about the explosive possibilities of adoption. But (metaphor shift), like any journey, the destination does not preclude twists, turns, and several bumps in the road.

One thing is for certain–any twists, turns, or gaping pot holes are coming into sharper relief. Is this bad or good? Well, like weather on a journey, it is neither good nor bad. Weather just is. Try telling that to a 13 year old though. Her nose is firmly placed in the instagramic world of tragic teenage hyperbole. Almost anything has the possibility of being the worst ever (However, any joke about bodily functions stands a fair chance of being the funniest ever). It is a journey. We are away from home. And the weather, quite frankly, has had us cooped up more than we would like.

Of course I am a deep well of calm. Hahahahahahahaha. I like to think that I have the occasional self awareness of my faults (not enough awareness for those I am traveling with, who keep me well informed in case I have forgotten). It is a journey.

Older

I will never have another moment in my life quite like the one when Shi Hui shot out of the waiting room looked at me, shouted “Papa!” and threw herself into my arms.

We had sent pictures of our family that were put into a scrapbook ages ago (or so it seems), and it clearly had become a cherished object to our daughter to be. After the initial exuberance, which only devolved into secondary exuberance, she showed us our photos, pointing at them that at each of us in turn. “Papa!” “Mama!” “Jei Jei!” She knew us well.

And now a word on the joy of adopting an older child. He or she will know you in a way that a younger child will not. Shi Hui claimed us when she bounded out to greet us. Not only was she ours, we were very much hers, and she left no doubt about it.