Friday, January 15, 2016

Wind & Waves - Body & Mind - Sailing

My mother told me that as a toddler I was afraid of feathers and road grader machines (huge/loud/destructive/yellow). Later, I came to be afraid of Hitler and Tojo (this is '30s and WWII '40s in rural Kansas and Oklahoma), and much more: Satan (blame church 3 times per week), snakes (rattlers), Mrs. Estes (principal of Garfield Grade School), and falling (climbed lots of trees--the only way to get much above 600 feet elevation in my part of Kansas!),  But two fears entailed mythic and prognostic dimensions that I couldn't have guessed then: wind and water.

I was born in Kansas in Dust Bowl days, and saw sky-high walls of dust that blotted out the sky as winds out of Colorado carried away the topsoil, fallen victim to ill-advised farming practices, and giving rise to artworks by the likes of Steinbeck, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Woody Guthrie. One of them stripped most of the paint off cars left out during a noisy orange noon twilight, with dust mounds forming indoors from minuscule cracks under doors. Then there were the tornadoes threatening every spring in those greenish black clouds and ceaseless lightning storms that seemed much more terrible than anything portrayed in Dorothy's Kansas/Oz.  (This terror was permanently imprinted in my psyche when I was rescued from a building totally destroyed by one of the strongest recorded storms of the mid-century, mid-country, which hit my church summer camp near Wichita in 1947, when I was eleven.)

These concrete threats of bodily harm from wind were paralleled by a much more abstract threat and fear: water.  There were, of course, local manifestations--the floods of the Verdigris River, which rose to a position only a couple hundred yards from our house on North Central Street, and inundated parts of the Sinclair Oil Refinery across the street.  But the floods were, for us, benign, quiet, an inconvenience for a couple weeks--a chance to pray for the farmers and gather canned goods for those flooded out.  I took swimming lessons, and liked the chlorine-inflected green water in the pool up by the airport, but paid only perfunctory attention to my parents' stories of drownings, cramps, and the dire consequences of waiting less than two hours after lunch to risk a few laps in the pool.

No, the real fear of water came abstractly--from church!  We learned that full-immersion baptism was a definite work of grace, as a testimony to our salvation and sanctification from God, via Jesus and the Jordan River.  Healing waters. Artesian wells.  Springs in the desert.  Nothing frightening in any of that--though some people in their frayed white clothing coughed and sputtered in alarming ways when lifted upright from the baptismal pool by the frail pastor--resurrection in a bug-eyed public ordeal. But the hymns and scriptures also carried a much, much darker message and threat: the stormy ocean, central trope of literally hundreds of Protestant hymns (perhaps attributable to the role played by ocean trade, militarism, and travel so essential to the management of the British Empire in its 19th century years of religious revivalist exportation.)

There I was, in 1944, an 8 year old worshiper in a hard pew over 500 miles from the nearest salt water beaches in Galveston, and some 1500 miles from oceans west and east, singing my heart out about the "mighty billows" of seas, lost mariners, struggling seamen, lights on the shore,  and so on.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy,
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

  • Let the lower lights be burning!
    Send a gleam across the wave!
    Some poor struggling, fainting seaman
    You may rescue, you may save.

Without TV, and forbidden by my church to attend movies, I had to imagine a disaster flick of my own, with credits to Treasure Island and The Book of Knowledge, casting myself in the role of heroic boy who saves the girl on the burning deck. In my nightmares I'd fall from the deck into the heaving water, feeling my lungs near bursting as I fought upward towards the lantern light, only to wake coughing like the newly baptized fat lady in the flowered dress.   The imagined fear of the sea was founded, enhanced, expanded, made cosmic, however, in every preacher's hell-fire sermon about damnation: being "Lost," in the sea of my sins, with Christ as my only hope for salvation.  Watery theology as thalassophobia.

By the obscure logic of the unconscious and its needs, you will not be surprised to hear that these twin terrors of my childhood, wind and water, gave birth in my late maturity to my passion for...sailing.  

Indulge me for a moment by imagining a Venn-like diagram of four overlapping/intersecting circles, then label the left and right circles "wind" and "water."  Label the upper circle "philosophy," and the lower one, "making/craft."  If you draw a small sailboat in the central space, you'll have a diagram to illustrate some points I want to make about sailing.  Sailing is for me a satisfying activity that merges philosophy/theory with physical work/praxis. At the same time it is the locus of my intersecting childhood fears (abstract fear of water, concrete fear of wind.)

No, this simplification will never do.  Sailing lives at the junction of so many of mankind's larger defining myths, relying, as it does, on two of Empedocles' four elements (earth, air, fire, water), that he considered the building blocks of all existence.

Sailing is ancient--much older than philosophy, mythically, as well as historically. Insert montage here of stone-age dugout canoes with animal hide sails, Egyptian boats with 30 positions for oars as well as sails, coastal trade ships plying the near-East in the 3rd millenium, BCE, and evidence of workable boats as long as 45,000 years ago.  It is no wonder, then, that every culture contributes to the mythological progeny of this basic techne: Noah and the Flood, Jonah and the Whale, Jesus and the Fishermen's storm, Moses in the Bullrushes boat and parting the Red Sea, the cosmogony of the Enuma Elish creation myth from Babylon (12th century BC), the great flood of the Gilgamesh, and, later, Odysseus's defining struggles with navigation, with departure and return, which provide an armature for substantial portions of western culture and self-definition.  

Leonard Cohen ("Suzanne") opines that "Jesus was a sailor /When he walked upon the water /And he spent a long time watching /From his lonely wooden tower /And when he knew for certain /Only drowning men could see him /He said 'All men will be sailors then /Until the sea shall free them.' "

Some back story: I have owned boats and sailed for something approaching 50 years.  Some were small--dinghies, a Hobie Cat, a PortaBote, inflatables, a little Chrysler daysailor, etc. Others were larger--a Southern Cross 31, a C&C Landfall 35 (Dalliance), and a Hallberg-Rassy Rasmus 35 (Chantey). and our current boat, a 36 year old Bristol 24 (Wayfarer). One, the Southern Cross (Thalia), was our home for the better part of a year and a half in 1991-93.  Ma femme, F., and I lived aboard on the slowest of cruises from Maine to the west coast of Florida and back, anchoring out almost every night, raising innumerable bridges on the Intracoastal Waterway, and sampling seafood restaurants and quiet gunkholes up many of the rivers of the Eastern seaboard.  We, like so many others, had read the classic texts by sailing couples and singlehanders: the Roths, the Pardeys, the Hiscocks, Chichester, Knox-Johnston, Slocum, Moitessier, Graham, Aebi, and other hardy mariners and admired adventurers.  Unlike those listed here, but like so many others with sailing ambitions, we finally never crossed oceans, nor ventured far from terra firma. We were fair-weather sailors, cautious, heading offshore only when it seemed safest and easiest to get to the next intended port.  Oh, there are stories--of groundings, unexpected fog, near collisions, alligators, difficult passages, and so on...but we were rarely in any danger, compared to any ordinary drive on the Interstate, and were always a bit relieved to get the anchor down, set, and think about plans for dinner, whether cooking afloat, or taking the dinghy and bikes ashore to a restaurant.  We gave up plans ten years later to repeat the entire adventure in a larger boat after getting less than 200 miles down the coast, motivated by horrible weather patterns (10" of rain in less than a week, and winds on the nose) along the coast to head home and take a land-based driving vacation to the American Far West (If you are interested in THAT failed seafaring story, my first blog from 2002 is still online. It includes long letters en route describing our (mis)adventures.  It can be found HERE. )

All of which is to say: I was, and still remain,  a lousy sailor.

Why?  There are many reasons: as with skiing, I didn't start early enough; being a teacher with a doctorate, I, perversely, avoided lessons; I never learned to trust the physics of sailing in those cases when my body was giving me messages of danger; I have a vivid imagination of unwanted consequences for errors in judgment, distracted perception, sloppy navigation, possible but unlikely scenarios, and so on.  But under it all there are the remnants of that FEAR derived from childhood religious, mythic, and traumatic elements.  It's all that wind and water. 

So I sail to test my fear a little, and to bring myself back to the center a bit, having taken to heart some lessons from the ancient Greeks.  I was always a questioning child with a head full of "Why?".  Lost in books, checked out by sixes from the Carnegie Public Library in Coffeyville, Kansas, it would have been easy to slip slowly into a life spent "in my head," in philosophy, theory, argument in the university--and at the bars. But growing up on a quasi-farm with chickens, gardens, a cow, rabbits, and possessing a body that seemed to find numerous wanted sensations in sports, sexual activity, and, most of all, making things, I never quite became the intellectual that I sometimes aspired to be. I liked the "How?" as much as the "Why?"  My childhood was full of activities like building my own darkroom using scrap wood, a light bulb, some leftover etched glass, and old fabric to kill the window light.  I made crystal set radios, using WWII surplus earphones to listen to programs coming in on frequencies determined by moving a "cat-whisker" wire around on a piece of mineral.  I built a transmitter and receiver and got my novice license as a "ham radio" operator so I could tap out code messages to other "hams" from around the world, who sent me their QSL cards to confirm contact by means of my little soldered together contraptions.  There were bird houses from my garage "shop," pole-vaulting stands and sand pit, chemistry experiments, soldered tin trinkets, lanyards, skate-wheel carts, crochet and knitting attempts, clay models for new car designs, and endless evenings of shooting hoops with a basketball goal hung on the garage until after dark.

In short, I always suspected that Aristophanes had a point in his satire of Socrates--and all sophists--in The Clouds, with its "Thinkery." and its ridicule of those who go about with their heads in the clouds.  I wanted my head to be occasionally in a real cloud--say, the fog of Casco Bay on a boat that I'd worked on, and coaxed into being as a sailing vehicle by my own physical work.  I wanted to test my ideas about sailing against the realities of the wind and sea, however mildly, and carefully undertaken.

I thought that if I persisted, I'd absorb all that I needed to improve.  I'd watch those 12-year-old kids in sailing prams racing on a cold windy day, popping up and down like whack-a-mole toys, ducking under the boom, hiking out on the leeward rail, effortlessly controlling a boat at the mercy of wind and water, and find myself wishing I'd grown up near an ocean.  These kids were sailors in their bones and instincts, feeling the boat's next move, anticipating the next tack, having absorbed the boat into their virtually expanded bodies, just as I feel how to "shoulder" my way into a tight parallel parking space without thought or calculation.   So, lacking the option of having a different childhood,  I tried to think my way into comfortable skill as a sailor: we read about boat characteristics, sail area to displacement ratios, righting moments of various rig choices, and I got to know our boats stem to stern by becoming more adept in plastics, electronics, plumbing, woodwork, electrical circuits, engine maintenance and repair, and the thousand little challenges of keeping a sailboat seaworthy, as it ages, corrodes, rusts, decays, delaminates, and wears out in the harsh environments of salt air, sea water, extremes of temperature, wind and water force stresses, and unexpected mechanical failures.  Here, I was much more in my element: my childhood of making things, fixing things, learning the "how" of  electronics, woodwork, sewing, and mechanical building gave me a confidence in boat maintenance that I did not have in actual sailing.  Sometimes it seems that my late-life career has been essentially buying good boats, making them a great deal better, and then selling them at a substantial loss!

But this self-mocking assessment overlooks some deeper channels of interpretations.  Why sailing?  Practically, it is suitable for my old, less agile, weaker body--but so are many other ostensibly pleasurable pursuits.  Rather, I think, it is the "poetry" of the thing. Sailing, like a lover's caress, passes over the skin of the sea, leaving no trace, but quietly transporting the participants into unexpected feelings and perceptions. It is the "right" speed for taking in the world.  Like leisurely bicycling, it is fast enough to avoid boredom, slow enough to notice a thousand details we'd miss at 50 mph. In my kind of sailing, there are no heroic ascents (I still hire someone younger and stronger if a bulb needs changing at the top of the mast.)  There is no "Protestant" mythology of  effort required to "deserve" the pleasure of the view--no hike up miles of rocky cliffs to see...other rocky cliffs, from a different angle, no agonizing, drug-assisted ascents as in the mountainous stages of the Tour de France.  There is no substantial risk of breaks, sprains, and concussions, as with skiing.  Unlike poker, fantasy sports, bridge, chess, and such, which entail no outdoor component--no mythic return to the rocking amniotic fluid of the womb--no connection to the deeper mythologies of human culture across the millenia--sailing takes me into nature as a partner and participant, of sorts.  It suits me.  

And it synthesizes that tension I earlier evoked in my imagined Venn diagram--it allows me to recognize myself at the juncture of what I've made and what I fear, what I think and what I do.  Mind and body, theory and praxis, wind and wave. Marx taught us that in the dialectic of Master and Slave, the slave is the ultimate winner: the Master owns the means of production, controls the vast powers of the State, buys the laws needed to keep control, and decides the agenda of the apparatus of control. But, by that very position of assumed superiority, in his lack of equals, his paltry cohort of power-holding moguls, rulers, and CEOs, he finds himself multiply alienated--from others and from his own identity.  He lives in fear of revolt from the superior numbers and strength of the mass of workers he controls. The Slave, on the other hand, does not live in fear of losing what he owns, and moreover, he possesses the keys and tools of all the engines of production. He is skilled.  He is the Maker, the Worker, the productive element of the social whole. And, best of all, he recognizes himself in what he makes, what he is capable of doing and being. Marx says that history is on the side of the workers.

Of course I mean this comparison as a rather silly and grandiose allegory, only.   In my little boat I am nothing approaching a mystical synthesis of human history and personal redemption.  I'm just a slightly nervous near-octogenarian in a plastic hull with a couple large fabric sails and a smile, as we're sailing off the mooring with my love coming back to the cockpit from the bobbing, tilting bow, an osprey there over her right shoulder high up under the quiet clouds. It is enough.