Hi Ho, Hi Ho, Or Why Are Those Dwarves Whistling?
By Douglas Bernon
October 13, 2000
N38 58.382 W76 28.984
Standing first in the fog and then in the sun one day last week, motoring up the windless Delaware, I had lots of time to think. For most of the day there was nothing to see but sailing instruments and various movies playing inside my head, so that's pretty much where I spent my time. When the fog lifted, the first thing I saw in the external world was the pinched-at-the-waist cement tower of a gargantuan, smoke-spewing New Jersey nuclear power plant. That this, for awhile, was our point to steer by seemed comically perverse, and kicked off inside me a long natter about how it is not to be working at a regular job. The life Bernadette and I are leading these days allows the leisure just to think about stuff, which I do not confuse with working for a living or making a contribution. It's tough to write about not working without sounding creepy. Part of the problem is that getting what you want is always a loss, too, because then you can't want it anymore.
A long time ago, and for a number of years, I treated in psychotherapy an intensely pained and terrific woman who was a monastic nun. I never fully got why she came to me in particular, but we humanized each other in surprising ways and taught ourselves a great deal. We were an odd pair but a good fit, and I'm grateful she granted me a glimpse into her life. One day I asked what it was she felt she did for a living. "Well, I do the laundry some days, and I think a lot, and I pray a lot, and I try really hard not to get too angry with the people I'm living with." I can't define what I do now any better than that, and I still find her statement eloquent.
It's strange not to go to the office every day. I started my first job, selling Christmas wrapping paper door-to-door, in the third grade and have pretty much been a worker bee ever since. If a job is something you do in the office and to make money, then I don't have a job. Where I struggle, I guess, is with just hanging out and doing boat stuff, learning about my new world and enjoying myself. Neurotic? Yes, I know. But aren't I supposed to be doing something constructive? What about early birds who get the worms and idle hands being devilish? There are a half-century of What-You-Ought-To-Be-Doing bromides pirouetting inside my head and enough guilt for a medium-sized village. Bob Putnam, a friend who pretty much retired early a couple of years ago, says the hardest thing he had to get used to was that his schedule became "an amorphous blob, full of stuff you think you should do, filled with things you want to do, and all of it taking a lot longer than you planned."
My father died when he was a year younger than I am now, and I wonder why I get to do all this when he didn't. Sure, writing these logs is a kind of job, but mostly they feel more like writing letters to friends. Maybe I've confused job with routine, or with quantity of payment. Mind you, I much enjoyed my work, but I REALLY LIKE not going into the office and I like not carrying my former responsibilities. But a professional position also provides some version of purpose, identity and prestige, and I miss that sometimes.
In a passage that highlighted some self-deluding aspects of my superficiality, Oscar Progresso, the main character in Mark Halprin's novel Memoir from Antproof Case, proclaims early on: "Though you may not be half as peculiar as I am, if you separate out your vanities and illusions, the petty titles to which you hold fast and by which you are defined, the abstract and insensible money in your accounts, your bogus theories, and your inane triumphs, what have you other than a body that, even if you're now as healthy as a roebuck, will eventually war against you ..."
Bernadette says that one of the things that can make me a pain on the boat (and elsewhere, too, I imagine) is that as a psychoanalyst, I became accustomed to an undeserved reverence for my opinions. Once people pay hard-earned cash to tell you their problems and treasure your imagined sagacity, a swelled head results, and that, she rightly asserts, is an ugly thing. For reasons that baffle me, Bernadette doesn't hang on my every opinion the way she claims my former patients did. Perhaps it would help if I charged her by the hour for my weightier thoughts. In contrast, the imposed-humility of my current work, which centers around boat maintenance and repairs, provides a cosmic antidote.
Here's a look at a typical "work" day on Ithaka. Two days ago, before we left the Magothy River to come the few miles down to Annapolis, I checked the charge and levels in the five batteries, splashed battery acid on my shirt and shorts, and burned my hands. Then I added some oil to the engine, dripped it on the carpet, tried to clean it up and made a mess, tightened the alternator belt and a half dozen hose clamps, ran the engine for awhile to charge the batteries, refilled the water tanks (a cleaner, more benign experience), and spent most of the rest of the day with my head in the starboard anchor locker, which is how you get to the guts of our anchor windlass. In theory, the windlass is the mule winch that's supposed to save your back by using electricity to haul up anchor chain and anchor while you just stand around with your foot on a button looking nautical. For the past several weeks our windlass has been inert — an ugly stump to trip over on the foredeck, silently mocking me as I pull up chain by hand.
In the Magothy River, we'd been tied to a dock at our friends' home at Mill Creek. Jim Ellis and Lori Ross probably are the most generous people on the planet, and she's surely one of the finest chefs. I'm not sure which of her many dishes I liked best, but I've narrowed it down to two: Gravlox marinated in brandy, and the chopped chicken livers that were even better than my grandmother Gangoo's. Their dog Charlie, a large, galumphing critter whose back end fishtails out of control as he rounds corners too quickly (sort of bad NASCAR with fur) entertained us endlessly. We were sorry to say goodbye to all three of them. We had to leave at 5:30 a.m. to catch the highest tide, as our six-foot draft settles in the mud there at all other times. We made it out, Bernadette on the bow with a zillion-watt beam of illumination to find the marks, and me at the wheel, hoping to keep us afloat, which I did ... for a little while. Just fifty yards from freedom into the deeper, safer mouth of the channel, I steered us aground in the soft mud, and not even the truth would set us free. With the tide now falling, our prospects for quick release ebbed in parallel time.
When the rest of the world got moving around eight, a powerboat from a local marina came by to help. With our main halyard attached to the stern of the Little Tug That Could and our 44-pound Bruce anchor kedging us off at the same time, we heeled Ithaka far enough over to spin us off the mud bar we'd climbed and into deeper water. Then we tied up at Peninsula Yacht Services. The mechanic and I lay on our bellies on the deck and together detached the rusty windlass motor, carried it to his shop, disassembled it and pulled out large shards of magnets that had shattered over time and the many small filings that had adhered to them. We pried loose and unfroze the gear, lubricated it, cleaned that puppy within an inch of its life, invoked some nautical mumbo-jumbo and, three hours later, lay on our bellies again and re-attached it. It doesn't have quite the power it once did (do any of us?), and it makes some grizzly crunching noises, but they're sweet music compared to its previous coma. Granted, without all its parts, it probably won't last for too long, but we're hoping it will hang in there until a replacement motor arrives from Simpson Lawrence (in England, naturally). It's not so bad really, and I learned a bunch about windlass motors. The next time I’ll be able do it all myself.
Then we boogied on out of the Magothy, into Chesapeake Bay, and on towards Annapolis, which was supposed to be a short jaunt, except that we were also boarded by the Coast Guard for an inspection on the way, but that's a tale for another time. Intending to arrive in Annapolis harbor by ten, we pulled in just before dinnertime — it had been quite a day.
My job feels like more than just boat maintenance, although that's a big piece of it. It's also about something much more ephemeral and important: about taking time to get to know myself and Bernadette in new, more intimate ways, which I'm very much enjoying; about sitting in the cockpit for sunsets — to be more fully alive in the moment, which is the antithesis of wishing that dead-time or deadlines would just pass. If this reeks of some meander into 1968-Baba-Ram-Dass territory, well, okay, but it's a sometimes confusing privilege not to "work for a living" for awhile. When someone else no longer controls the schedule, there’s less excuse for not living life fully, for failing to enjoy finite majesty, for not choosing what to do and for how long. It's the not-always-simple task of being conscious. It's different work, and takes some getting used to, but the bottom line is, I like it a lot.