The Pleasures of Inconvenience

By Douglas Bernon
July 27, 2000

For a number of years I began seeing some of my psychoanalytic patients at 5:30 am, which elicited from friends predictable jokes about my sanity. On other mornings I was at the local YMCA at that same hour to work out. My handball partners and I met there three times a week at precisely noon and played for the better part of two hours. There was always so much I wanted to cram into a day.

For most of my professional life, I required a daily diary that broke time — such a perfect verb and object combination — into 15-minute increments, so that I could conduct a 45-minute hour, 45 minutes to see the patient, and then 15 minutes to write up my notes and prepare for the next person. To help choreograph this dance, I had in my office a treasured old English clock, much like my own analyst had in his, which gently chimed eight notes on the quarter hour, sixteen on the half, twenty-four at quarter till, and a full measure at the top, plus the number of hours. My patients knew the sounds of the clock as their hour progressed, and most had grown to understand its reminders about the discipline life so often demands. Many talked about it in various ways, relating it often to the reality of life's finiteness. Some also commented that my clock said much about my need for order, too. If only they could see what havoc has become of my precious order.

Now that Bernadette and I have become full-time cruising sailors, time is different. There's less a.m. and p.m. and more a 24-hour day. And now my calendar is divided into weekly chunks, most of which have nothing written in them, but that doesn't matter because the pages are all covered with sticky notes that I mostly ignore or forget that I wrote. Increasingly, time feels larger and less broken, and sometimes that just drives me nuts. Amazingly, not everyone in my world is trotting along on my schedule, and Bernadette refuses to cooperate as well. Just today, the refrigerator repair-man who was supposed to have met me on the boat yesterday morning at 10 with a precious can of the nearly-extinct R-12 freon just called to say sorry, he'd try to be here sometime after lunch tomorrow or the next day.

There are fewer moments in any day when I actually need to know what time it is, save for tides, navigation and change of watch. And I've never found a clock necessary to cue me that it's meal-time. I know that I need to slow down. Twenty years ago, when I was trekking in Nepal, I only wore a watch because I needed to know when it was Tuesday, that being the day I took my anti-malarial pill. But ultimately I just said to hell with it and traded that time-piece for a very cool handmade brass bowl and spoon that I'm still lugging around. Now, I'm aspiring to be that guy again.

As Bernadette and I become accustomed to living on Ithaka and to having a summer of shake down cruises, with Newport as a base and the fall as a larger departure, the adjustments are many and curious. In our busy work lives we spent a good deal of money securing services that would otherwise eat up time. Our local dry cleaner, for instance, not only delivered our goods but just came on in through the vestibule and hung them up in the front-hall closet. Now, of course, I have essentially sworn off long pants and there's nothing left to dry clean. The laundromat, an old haven in previous traveling days, is again a regular haunt. It's also a place to read undisturbed and to watch a parade that for years I haven't been a part of but have again come to enjoy. Sometimes mesmerized by the tumbling dryer, I'm reminded that I'll be pretty lucky to get half my to-do list done on this or any other day, and that ultimately, who cares? A few minutes ago I got back from the local grocery store, having gone there to pick up some odds and ends and return quickly, but instead spent more than half the morning sitting outside on the brick ledge by the carts, talking with a new friend who'd just spent three months in Cuba. Time well spent.

Life on board is a series of often pleasant and sometimes frustrating time-consuming inconveniences in which one's being and doings are not so easily hidden by the services of others. Energy for all things electric is limited and consumed quickly. Same with water. A refrigerator is not a constantly cold space, and garbage can't be hidden in the garage while awaiting its curb-side destiny where some unknown person will make it magically disappear. The toilet system and holding tank require one to deal with one's hygiene (and each other's, for that matter) with an intimacy that far exceeds any desirable level of familiarity, and My Commodore laments my calamitous descent into joyful primitivism.

Now that we're living on a mooring when in Newport and on anchor when cruising New England this summer, trips to the chandleries and hardware store are less nonchalant and browsy, although the pleasure of such strolls remain. These journeys require more precise and complete lists, and I'm sure the guy for that job. Having sold my car, I'm either hoofing or pedaling my bike on these same-day repeat trips to West Marine and Newport Nautical Consignment. Surprising myself lately, I find that I'm stepping off my forced march, and taking the prettier route to travel there, which is by far the longer way.

Which is to say, I'm growing into a new skin of sorts. Such metamorphoses are difficult some days. Accustomed to thinking (and billing) in minutes, I'm no longer the keeper of my clock. Spoiled by a profession where people pretty much arrived at my door at agreed-upon times, but definitely left at agreed upon times (even if they'd arrived late!) now I mutter humbugs while waiting for the refrigerator repairman; or waiting to get our mail from the friend who is collecting it; or waiting for Bernadette to arrive back with the cell phone, or waiting endlessly for ordered parts to arrive for half-finished repair projects. Slowly, I'm learning the virtue of patience, an accomplishment my mother predicted was beyond the possible. (As I write, the cell phone just rang and the new solenoids we need for the windlass were not shipped as promised three days ago. Now, there's a shock.) We all deal so differently with waiting and with the time on our hands. I recall a friend of mine whose English grandmother employed a man to come in each week and wind her many clocks.

More than half a century of habits alter slowly, and Bernadette maintains that giving up control has never been what I'm known for. But, I'm slowing down to accommodate the realities of living outdoors, adjusting to a life that on good days moves around 5 miles an hour. I'm becoming, I hope, more respectful of time as mother nature has ordered it, not as I have tried to stuff it into a sausage. There were many comforts to having a schedule whose structure removed the need for frequent decisions about what to do next. But I like it better now. When I fall asleep exhausted on Ithaka, it's more from hours of physical activity than from the stress and fret of my professional world.

Several years ago, a friend at the Y broke both his ankles when he wasn't paying attention and tumbled off the treadmill, a droll accident of symbolic perfection. I find this the ideal warning.