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.

Writing: Sludge and Frustration

I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.

First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.

Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.

Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.

Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.

So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.

But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.

So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.

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 crew mates, and I) sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay onto the ocean in a gale. Already in the bay itself there was 6-8 foot chop, and on this trip, one of the four sailors (a first timer 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 crew mate 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 strikes me when I take my first late watch, when the horizon is shrouded in black, and my eyes and inner ear cannot properly make sense of the several directions that my body is 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 watcher 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 crew mates, 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. And can admit that for the times 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 afterwards.

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)—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 PhD 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 ones mind. To forgo safety. To risk. But also to carry the responsibility for the lives on board. We are, truly, in this together, an 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.

My Destination

I had always shrugged off the idea of traveling to the Grand Canyon. I was one of those, “what’s the big deal about a big hole in the ground” skeptics. I was wrong. Of course I was wrong. The Grand Canyon is an amazement—and of course, I was properly amazed when I saw it—looking into two billion years of rock will do that, should do that. I realized that what I had held aside was not the geology or the landscape, but the travel. Why had I discounted my ability to be amazed by travel? I had done it all my life. Going, all kinds of going, even if so much of it has been more local—on this continent, in this country—has been part of me all my life.

When young, my family would take day trips—Sunday drives—through the Amish country in Pennsylvania. We got in the car and headed out Route 30. Or we would go to the West Chester airport and walk among the privately owned single prop planes. In the summer, we headed to Longwood Gardens for fountain shows. There were trips to nearby parks—I remember lakes with small patches of added sand for “beach.” We routinely drove to Long Island—heading up the New Jersey Turnpike past the refineries—to visit family. When I was ten, we headed to Maine, a day long drive with three boys and a dog. Once we began sailing, it did not take long to head to the British Virgin Islands—my first plane rides, and first swimming in warm Caribbean seas.

I loved airplanes and airports. Departures were invitations to new adventures. When I traveled with my family, I usually sat alone—the hazard or benefit of being an odd numbered group. I took my first plane flight alone when I went to Iowa to swim; I was 15. I traveled by train and bus alone all through my early adult life. I usually traveled to visit friends. However, I also went to cities to simply see them, to look at buildings, and camp in museums—visiting and revisiting works of art that held sway over my imagination.

I loved driving, and would sometimes eschew expedience for country roads, foregoing straight, broad, multi-laned ribbons for winding paths along mountain sides and down by river beds. Landscapes called to me as well as vaulted ceilings. Beauty was everywhere.

And, I loved walking. I hiked 500 miles when I was 12. As an adult, when I took myself to Maine, I would walk the beaches in Phippsburg, breaking up my study sojourns with hours long ambles. When I arrived in Bermuda, I walked off my sea legs with long walks and runs around the island, walking into local places, on roads no taxi or rented moped hazarded. Once, on a trip to NYC, I walked, in winter, from Soho to the Met, freezing along the way, but surrounded by shops and towers and people. When I spent a conference week in Portland, Oregon, I took a day off to wander to Portland Museum of Art to see Native American artifacts from the Pacific Northwest, and a painting by Clifford Stijl. Afterwards, I headed onto Powell’s Bookstore, then to the DeSchutes brewpub. All on foot.

There were trips under sail with my father and brothers. These were tests as well as trips. The ocean makes us foreign to ourselves, our bodies not made to be perpetually wet, and perpetually in motion—shaken and stirred. I have never been anywhere larger than surrounded by sky and ocean, never felt as alive, nor as alone.

This blog began with travel some four years ago—a trip to China, to a strange land to bring a stranger into my life. There are so many strange places yet to go—so many friends to visit—people I have not yet met, whose tables have an open seat waiting.

So, walking to the edge of the canyon should not have surprised me. I am sure that some snobbish impulse to avoid what millions of others had done informed my thought. But I am not like millions of others. I forget that sometimes. On purpose—as a bulwark against being a snob, against falling into the easy habit of travelers to simply bring myself wherever I go. I would rather be a stranger—not just to the place, but to myself, and welcome this new person into my already teeming life.

And so, finally, after one long ago missed opportunity, I am traveling to London. It is an easy enough first step to Europe. I wonder what I will find there, what old memories will rise up, what new experiences will awaken. And I wonder, who I will find there in among the histories and wanderings. Who will come home, amazed, this time? And what will happen if the wanderlust takes a firmer hold of me this time? How will that change me–or, rather, change me again. Eyes up, here I go.

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 Way Ahead

The way ahead is all clouds, and has been for almost a day.  Somewhere the sun rises, but the day that has dawned is just another shade of dark. From the horizon line straight to the stars, beyond the stars—defying reason and science as they rise as far as eternity—the clouds form a wall.  They neither block the way nor invite us to some hint of a narrow passage—this gap, this lightening in the darkened whole—they simply wait.

My father emerges from the cabin after checking the charts, and notes that the sky behind us is cloudless. “Too bad we aren’t headed that way,” he muses. He is an old sailor and has seen a thousand skies.  When I ask how this one compares, he shakes his head, “We’ll have to wait and see.” He looks at the sails, which bow out in a beautiful arc to transform the wind into perfect forward motion. “We’ll reef in the main at lunch.” I know that he hates to shorten the sails, especially when we are on a reach with the wind crossing us almost at beam, making an honest six and a half knots, but storms have knocked him down before and he will begrudge speed for caution.

When Ralph comes up for air after sleep, he asks, “What did the forecast say?”  The offshore marine forecast broadcast a few times during the day and the computer generated voice compiles findings with forecasts and locates weather events over undersea features: the Hudson Canyon, the Baltimore Canyon, the Hatteras Canyon.  All forecasts point to what our eyes already tell us; when storms come the radio is worthless.  Only during days of extended reckless calm does the radio offer anything like hope.  Somewhere out there must be some wisps of wind to wend us on our ways.  What we see ahead will turn us amphibian.  How fast it does so, and for how long, is a question for men who cling too hard to their most mammalian selves.

My father quietly calculated all night during our watch. He knows that not everyone possesses our raw stubbornness. Some people, even some sailors, are sensible.  The two other men who sail with us have enough experience and desire to head out on the ocean, but they have no need to hazard the dangerous thrills that awaken both my father and me. Because he is older and wiser than I am, and because it is his boat and his crew, he prepares to do the sensible thing: furl the sails and alter course.  “We are gentlemen sailors,” he acknowledges, resigned to doing the right thing.

I cannot help but think of this now, when clouds blot out another horizon.  My mother, who joined us on dry land in Bermuda, but would never set foot on a boat bent for open ocean, is in a hospital bed.  Doctors order tests to discover what has knocked her down. Answers dissolve in the face of symptoms.  If not this, then what has her down?  My brothers and I settle on this and that prognosis the same way meek sailors settle on forecasts.  But we are not meek sailors, we our father’s sons, and we know the way ahead is cloudy.

My father died when he slipped off the dock at a marina, hit his head, and went under the water.  He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for a decade, and we watched while he lost the physical ease that had buoyed him on his boats and made him the most reliable hand on board. He slowly changed from a gifted provocateur in conversation to a witness to his sons’ whip cracks of sarcasm and verbal retribution. He hated the stutter that came with his disease. He never told us that he was suffering, and never acknowledged his illness directly.  We knew because our mother kept us informed and because we witnessed him.

My mother hates the idea of loss of control with a greater and more public vehemence than my father ever displayed. She watched illness sap her husband, and before that saw her mother diminish over slow painful years. Fourteen years ago, she survived a harrowing encounter with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, living on her own, in a house she bought after my father died, she keeps a copy of Final Exit in her living room. She has set her limits.

I don’t think there is any other course ahead.  The future looms and the possibility of proceeding as gentleman sailors dwindles.  Maybe there will be time enough to furl the sails, and there may yet be some glorious sailing ahead, but the future will not brook a change of course.