Stompin' on the Terra

"And he said, 'Stomp upon the Terra.'" – Lord Buckley (via Hunter Thompson)

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Location: Plum Island, Massachusetts

26 May 2013

The St. Maarten-to-Bermuda Run 2013

The crew [from left]: David, me, Boogie, Jill, and Marlies with Kelly in front
It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Bermuda. After overnight showers and a cloudy, drizzly morning, the sun has broken through and it's simply gorgeous out. We're tied up at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club in Hamilton, where we arrived yesterday around lunchtime. And I'm sitting in the cabin of Pure, the 70-foot yacht on which I crewed to arrive on this beautiful island, about to do a recap of the journey north from St. Maarten.

And a wonderful journey it was, in a lot of ways. We left Simpson Bay around 10:30am on Sunday. Aboard Pure were my Dutch friends, Boogie and Marlies, skipper and co-skipper of the yacht, along with three other crew and me. The other members of the crew were a Brit named David and two Yanks: Kelly, from Florida, and Jill, a racer from Chicago. We were paired up into three watches: Boogie and David, Marlies and Kelly, and Jill and me. Pretty much everyone was on deck all day long on Sunday, with Jill and I taking the dinner watch at 6pm: we'd cook the evening meal for everyone and then do a three-hour watch from 6-9pm.

As is par for the course for me, spending time in the galley after having not been to sea for a long time, I wound up puking over the rail. And that second 12-hour period, from evening until the next morning, was not especially pleasant, including our second watch from 3-6am on Tuesday. But by lunch on that second day, I was back and settling into the rhythm of being at sea that I so love.

And despite feeling queasy, those overnight watches were sublime and set the tone for the trip. A waxing gibbous moon set right before our morning watch, giving us a dark sky for a bit before the sun appeared. Several shooting stars appeared, and Sagittarius, the Southern Cross and Scorpio made a magnificent march above the southern horizon. But what really stood out was the Milky Way, which arched across the sky in a shimmering ribbon of soft white glow. Being so far from the artificial glow of modern society, we were able to experience the night sky as our ancestors did, and it's no wonder why they were able to conjure up such magnificent tales to explain what they were seeing. It's a truly humbling experience to see a night sky like that.

What also made the first couple of days so nice was the actual sailing we were doing. Seas were a wee bit lumpy but we had winds in the high teens from the starboard beam, so we cruised right along at eight, nine and sometimes 10 knots. It was a joyful ride with a reef in the main and the headsail rolled away about halfway. Such a treat.

During the day the bright, hot sun baked skin and deck alike, but it cooled noticeably with each passing 24-hour period. By the time Wednesday rolled around, the air temperature was perfect 70s with a cooling breeze and the deck was cool on unshod feet.

A breeze it was, however, not a wind, and starting Tuesday we ran the engine to keep up the apparent wind and our speed en route. We could have sailed more but this was a delivery so concessions were made. It was a bit of a drag to motor, and also to have the generator running 24/7, but the resulting air conditioning, flush toilets and hot showers were a nice perk. Still, it's not what I consider sailing and not what I seek when I go to sea.

But those night watches made up for it. Monday-Tuesday night, Jill and I were on the 12midnight-3am watch and the ever-waxing moon obscured many of the fainter stars and the Milky Way, but once the moon set that river of light reappeared quickly.

The sunset watch on Wednesday, after we'd cooked and served chili con carne, Jill and I were treated to an amazing show in the western sky. Just after sunset, amid a stunning gradiant of red to orange to yellow to blue to purple to black, three bright pinpricks of light appeared just above the sea's surface. Jupiter, up highest, shone brightly while below and to its right Venus was as bright as Hollywood klieg light. And just below Venus and a bit more to the right, tiny Mercury emerged from the nuclear-red sky, an apparition that not many humans ever really see. The show wasn't limited to the west, however. High in the east, the nearly-full moon smiled on the ocean alongside Saturn.

All of which made for a smorgasbord of celestial objects for this would-be astronavigator to measure with his sextant. That's right: I pulled out an ancient instrument with which to measure the height of sky objects in order to determine my position on the Earth. I "shot" the sun each day, both at noon and at other times, and also took a shot of the Moon and Saturday and nearby star Arcturus on Wednesday. I'll run the math when I get home and I don't expect to be all that accurate, but to have the actual act of shooting the stars finally fall into place mentally and physically for me, well, that was a treat.

So the star geek in me was thrilled with the passage. And the pure sailing (no pun intended) portion of the trip was wonderful too. But it's a long journey (888 miles) and I knew Boogie would run the motor rather than slow down too much. So I settled into the watches looking for what excited me -- in this case, the night sky.

Jill, on the other hand, combined new-to-this-crew inexperience with her racer's tendency to continually trim the sails and further refine the settings on the boat. The problem on Pure is that almost all the winches were hydraulic, meaning they were quite loud when operated. So during one daytime watch she started trimming the mainsail a bit, hoping to glean one more fraction of a knot of speed out of the boat, only to have a groggy-eyed Boogie emerge from the cabin asking what was going on and remarking about how he'd been in a "deep, deep sleep." Chastened, Jill's tinkering eased after that.

Fortunately, the good times didn't end with our Thursday midday arrival in Bermuda. After a sporty tying-up effort -- stern-to in a fierce headwind and choppy seas -- we cleared customs, did a quick clean-up on board, and took in the small town of St. George's. And after a more extensive cleaning on Friday, we walked about a half-mile north of the harbor to a small beach at Tobacco Bay. What made the little indent in the coast so fun, in addition to the on-beach food stand/bar, was that it was Bermuda Day, a national holiday, so everyone on the beach was a local out celebrating the start of the summer season. Little kids stumbled around covered in sand, teens climbed up the rock at the head of the bay and jumped into the clear water, and two people who'd never met before started chatting and soon realized that they shared a great-grandmother.

Everyone was having a great time on a great day, and it culminated for me in a bit of snorkeling, something I haven't done in eons. The afternoon water was a bit murky but the parrot fish were as colorful as I remembered from my teen years, and the sea cucumbers were like funky blobs of goo on the ocean floor. An irridescently colored angel fish hid out beneath a waving sea fan and an assortment of colorful fish provided ever-changing eye candy. Another simple treat to be cherished on this adventure.

But our final destination was the city of Hamilton so we left St. George's Saturday morning and motored here in a couple of hours. Yesterday's focus for me was the Champions League football (soccer) match from Wembley, which we found in a sports bar on the waterfront. The place was packed for the match and true to form, I provided a lot of the off-screen excitement. As the action heated up in the second half, this Bayern Munchen fan got edgier and edgier, until the Bavarians broke through in the 60th minute. I exploded out of my chair in a shout (along with a lot of other fans, to be sure), but as I sat back down I missed my chair and went ass-over-teakettle, hitting the table, breaking my glass and spilling my Guinness all over the place. The booth behind me broke into uproarious laughter (after making sure I was OK) and I began cleaning up. As my buddy Dave McCusker says after every inevitable Luke-spilling incident: "It's a party." I'm sorry he wasn't there to see it; it was THAT catastrophic a mess.

Bayern won so I was happy and our crew (sans Kelly who flew back to Florida Saturday afternoon) went out for a bit of dinner. We enjoyed some really good pizza, only to relearn one lesson about Bermuda: it's REALLY expensive. After that, it was back to the boat and call it a night.

This morning was a laid-back affair. David and I wanted to stretch our legs a bit so we wandered around town, exploring Fort Hamilton which overlooks the harbor on one side with the Atlantic in view on the other. Boogie, Marlies and Jill took a bus to some naval shipyard park/museum. And then I settled in here to write this gibberish.

But now it's a stunning, sunny afternoon. Where things were sleepy this morning -- everyone was in church apparently -- the harbor and docks and streets are now bustling. And I'd like to do something bustling as well so I'm off to see what I can find. More on Bermuda to come…

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24 May 2013

Sailing in Another World

It's late morning on Thursday and we're about 18 miles out from Bermuda. We left Simpson Bay on St. Maarten in the Caribbean four days and a few minutes ago, and we should be into port by early afternoon. It's been a wonderful trip with beautiful weather, some great sailing and fabulous nighttime skies. But one thing it hasn't been is a sailing trip.

A sailing trip is one wherein the journey is the destination. The trip we're on is a delivery, wherein the destination is the destination. It's like being in another world from the one in which I reside: it's a world where money is no object.

For starters, the speed with which we've made the journey is due in no small part to the 600-horsepower diesel engine down below, and the gigantic fuel tanks this yacht carries. We sailed for the first two days of the trip, to be sure, with solid winds and a nice following current carrying us northward into the Atlantic proper. But once conditions got to the point where the wind wasn't lining up perfectly and we couldn't keep our course exactly where we wanted it, on came the engine to manufacture a more appropriate apparent wind and keep us rolling at more than nine knots (and oftentimes more than 10). And when the wind faded last night, the engine kept our speed up quite well, thank you very much.

In some ways, it's nice to have that option. In fact, it's nice in two ways. First, because if you are focused entirely on your destination it's nice to be able to get there as quickly as possible. But that's not why I sail, why I go to sea. For me, the journey is very much part and parcel of the destination. Being at the whim of wind and wave is one of the joys of heading out on a trip over the ocean. If I wanted to just get to a new place I'd hop on a plane. No, I couldn't carry all my toys with me and I wouldn't have a bed waiting for me when I got there -- which is apparently all the owners of this vessel, not here on the journey, want in a boat -- but I'd still BE in the new place. I suppose it makes sense, in that world that is foreign to me.

The other way it's nice to have that internal-combustion option isn't related to sailing: it's that if you can afford such a luxury, well, life in general would be a hell of a lot easier.

But it's not sailing. And it's why I've come to realize that this is likely my last such trip. I've enjoyed my time (more on that in a later post) and I've learned some new things (as I do every trip with my friends, Boogie and Marlies), but it's not why I go to sea. Yes, it's a (relatively) cheap way to see some new places, learn some new skills and build some time at sea, but it's still too expensive in terms of time and money, and skills and experience not gained, to be worthwhile. It's a shame to realize this because I've had some good times on these trips, but I do believe this is my final delivery (unless a point comes where someone is paying me to do one, but that's a long ways off).

I had a glimpse of this other world in Antigua in February. And this additional view has made it clear that I'm happy in my plain, old, money-is-an-object world, and I look forward to embracing life there. That's not to say I wouldn't mind winning the lottery…

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14 May 2013

Untold Stories

Springsteen asked, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true," but what happens to a story that doesn't get told? Surely it disappears, right? Evaporates like so much dew as the sun warms the morning. But the events of that story, the lessons, do they disappear too? And the person who lived the story, who dreamed it up and made it a reality, what happens to that person, after he or she has passed on, if the story doesn't get told?

I ask all of these questions because one of the great regrets I will take to my grave is that I never got my mother's stories down on paper. Mom, who lived an amazing, interesting life shaping a field that is the coin of the realm in modern-day America, had stories so riveting that award-winning authors and screenwriters offered to help her get them published. Mom always declined, saying that such privacies and privileges had been entrusted to her by her clients, by her place in her industry, and that she wouldn't betray that trust. I picked up where those writers left off, telling her that just letting people know what it was like to have worked with these famous people on such high-profile movies would suffice, that she wouldn't have to divulge any secrets and insider scoop.

In recent years, Mom had begun to lighten up a bit. I bought Dragon Dictate transcription software and we created her profile on this laptop. The plan was we'd talk for an hour or two and after a few months I'd have a pile of notes and quotes that I could edit into the book many had hoped she'd one day write.

We did one brief session where she recounted her early days in Brooklyn and Malverne, New York, but then she put me off a few times and I didn't press her. Months later, she warmed up a bit again and asked if we were going to resume talking but it never happened, not before she took her fall in October and the chance for us to ever talk again disappeared.

I find myself wracked with guilt over having let Mom take those stories with her. Many people have said I could talk to those my mother worked with and get a similar book, but it really wouldn't be the same. Who can I ask about what it was like to walk down Park Avenue with Marilyn Monroe for a photographer? Countless other similar tales are now gone, and though there are photos to illustrate the events, the faces on the film are mute and they keep their secrets to themselves.

And now I find myself once again facing the similar loss of equally amazing stories. As has been chronicled in this space, my father and I are currently on the outs, not talking, not really getting along at all. We are, to stay with Springsteen quotes, "too much of the same kind," it seems. But I've written before of my father's World War II service and how I believe it affected everything in his life to this day. Of how he is still in the Ardennes, almost 70 years later. I've written that seeing what he's gone through, what he's missed out on, is too high a price for anyone or any country to pay. And make no mistake about it: he saw some serious shit at a way-too-young age not to have suffered.

The tales of those experiences, and those of others like my father, shouldn't be lost to the mists of time. They should be enshrined so that hopefully we as a society can stop making the same mistake over and over and over again. And on a personal level, getting him to share those stories would hopefully give our family something we're still seeking: an answer to the question, "why?," that has pervaded the entirety of half a century.

My father also has some amazing stories to share that aren't focused on war. There aren't many people left of whom I can ask, "What was it like to drink with Hemingway in Cuba?," but my father is one such person. I've heard the story many times, but to get it on paper would preserve the tale for my nieces and their children and on down the line.

Maybe, as it turns out, I never was a very good journalist, because I don't know how to break through the wall to get to the great stories. I let Mom's stories get away and I don't know how to reach my father to save his stories. And that's a shame. Because we as human beings think in language, in words, in stories. And we as societies live in the exchange of that language, of those words, of those stories. If our stories don't get told and shared and passed down, do we really live?

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The Other Side of St. Martin/Maarten

Not a bad office, eh?
For the second time in just a couple of months, I find myself on the island of St. Martin. I use "Martin" as opposed to "Maarten" because for the first time in four visits I am staying on the French side of this split-in-two Caribbean jewel. I usually stay aboard a boat over on the Dutch side, the Sint Maarten side, with friends, and I will join them again shortly, but I wanted to experience a different side of this island. And by "side," I don't just mean nationality.

Over here, I'm staying in a small, comfortable cabana-style home befitting the tropics: stucco walls; high, framed ceilings; a veranda surrounded by a bushes exploding in red flowers, a few coconut palms, and a cactus or two thrown in for good measure. There's a breeze blowing from the sea below as I sit on that veranda, shirtless and wearing only shorts, typing and taking in a view from Tintamare to St. Barth over the colorful roofs of the village below. If I close my eyes and imagine having talent, a big barrel chest and a good, stiff drink in front me, this could almost be Cuba and I could almost be Hemingway in my own version of Finca Vigia. Alas, it's not and I'm not. But it's a damn good substitute.

A finch-sized version of a meadowlark just alighted on the bush beside me. It pains me to be so uninformed on the local flora and fauna, but that comes with time, I suppose. And it's time that seems to have been created just by taking a taxi over to this side of the island.

When I'm staying in the marina on the Dutch side, it's somewhat like being in a border town in Mexico: garish lights, lots of Americans and a whole lot more hustle and bustle. Over here, things slow way down, and not just because my school-level French is so atrocious. It's a resort over here as opposed to a town, so even the locals making a living on this side are doing so within the context of vacationland. Over in St. Maarten, it's business as usual in a town that just happens to be on a Caribbean island so there are scores of tourists wandering around. That, and I'm usually working with my friends on whatever yacht they're running at the time.

No surprises, then, that I prefer the vibe over here. Hard to believe I'd prefer sitting in the breeze looking out over where the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea meet to scrubbing the grime and barnacles off the bottom of an inflatable dinghy or sweating in the interior of the boat as I wipe antibacterial solution over all the walls.

This, too, shall pass. Tomorrow, as a matter of fact. I'll check out of this sleepy, hillside community with a view and taxi back over to the Dutch side of things. But no complaints. It will still be paradise and I'll still be tan and we'll still be preparing for a passage to Bermuda in a few days. La vie est belle.

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07 May 2013

The Coming Apart of an American Family

NOTE: There's a fair bit of navel-gazing in this post, folks, so if you're not into that, I'd probably wait for another day.

There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind
        -- Bruce Springsteen, "Independence Day"

To say that my father and I have had a strained relationship is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon a hole in the ground. It understates the situation more than a little bit and doesn't give it the nuance intra-family strife warrants. And I don't know that what my father and I have faced is really unique or even rare; there are countless stories in virtually every medium throughout history about the struggles fathers and sons have faced.

So why am I surprised at the way things have gone with my father in the wake of my mother's passing more than six months ago? The truth is: I'm not. But I am surprised at the depths we've reached. And it is those depths that have made me realize just how much my mother was the glue that held our family together.

How things were before I was born, I obviously have no idea. And the truth of the matter is that even in the years after I became (somewhat) conscious, I don't really know what kind of relationship my mother and father had. In the wake of her passing I saw photos of the two of them when they were younger, photos where the joy -- and dare I say it: love? -- just leaps off their faces and out of the images. And they were together for 47-plus years with nary a separation.

But I can remember some tough times too, including the trip we took -- my mother and we three kids -- to Nova Scotia sometime in the mid-'70s, a trip my father refused to go on at the last minute because he didn't like some woman who was going along with us. I can remember things being bad enough one year when Mom came to pick me up at prep school that I told her I wouldn't blame her if she left (and it was real enough that I can still vividly picture the scene: the location, the weather, everything). And heaven knows I didn't see a whole lot of passion or open displays of love between them. Hell, until he was laid up in the hospital last fall, I'd never heard my father utter the word "love" about anything -- his wife, his kids, the weather, a new car, the Red Sox.

So it was always a shock to me when Mom would fiercely defend both my father and their relationship against charges of lacking love and passion. Several years ago, after I'd had another dust-up with my father, I wrote a letter calling him out on a lot of the injustices I felt he'd done, and continued to do, to his family. I sent it to my mother first so she wouldn't get blindsided. She and I discussed the things in the letter and she never disputed any of them, but still she asked me not to send it, saying that she'd continue to work on Dad in her own way. I didn't send the letter, though I found it on the desktop of her computer last year.

And continue working in her own way she did. Mom had her own coping mechanisms throughout her life and she used them to, in Churchill's words, keep calm and carry on. Clearly, her work and her dedication to her career were her primary methods for staying sane and happy, particularly after all of her children had moved out. In her later years it was spending her time on the third floor of the Plum Island house, trading emails with friends and looking out over the ocean. But when needed, she always ventured down to the main areas of the home and into the lives of everyone in her family, always managing to keep the peace between several very headstrong individuals. Somehow, between the ocean view and the serenity and the games of computer solitaire and the emails with friends, she found enough calm amid the tumult of our family to radiate it outward and keep us all from coming to blows and even got us to coexist.

But now, with that glue in our lives gone, what Mom left behind seems to be coming apart. My father again provoked a letter out of me, and this time, with no Mom to filter the message, I delivered it. It exacerbated the already strained relationship my father and I had, to the point where at the time of this writing we haven't really spoken in more than three weeks. Mom may have been able to coexist with him in that house in such a situation but I can't and won't, so I've now begun three weeks of travel before I get out for good. My brother is in the midst of apparently profound financial and professional challenges and his already sporadic communication has dwindled. My sister and her family had to sell their home in Los Angeles not long after Mom died and are renting again. And I haven't had a steady "normal" job in three years and counting.

More importantly, there's nothing left to make us want to be together. Sure, we all love Plum Island, but it never really was the beach that drew us back there. It was Mom. Her grace and calm and love made Plum Island the place that it is. And she made my father's self-centered stubborness bearable. So with Mom's passing, our family seems to be splintering outward, hopefully like the stellar material formed in a supernova spins out to create new galaxies and stars and life, but I guess we'll have to wait and see about that.

I remember once asking my mother what it felt like to be the pinnacle of our family tree. She scoffed at the notion, always believing that her children and grandchildren and beyond would do great things. But think about it: she and my father were born and raised in the Great Depression. They accomplished and achieved so much in their time on this planet, way more than anything their children have done, without the blessing of a comfortable upbringing like the one my siblings and I enjoyed. And all three of us kids are well into middle age, so it's not like we can reinvent ourselves at this point and break new ground. We're pretty much rolling along with what we have.

One thing, the biggest thing, we no longer have is that quietly driving force, that gravity, that love that was our mother. Entropy has replaced gravity.

03 May 2013

Something's Gotta Change

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
    -- Amendment II, United States Constitution

Let's get a couple of facts out right from the get-go. One, I've owned guns. And two, I believe the U.S. Constitution is a special document.

Given those two items, I chose to leave my rifles and shotguns out west when I moved back to Massachusetts a couple of years ago. Why? Because I believed the gun rules in this state -- requiring a written test, fingerprinting and the like -- were onerous and contrary to the spirit of the Constitution. In fact, on numerous  occasions in the past I thought about joining the National Rifle Assocation and attempting to fight against those rules.

But this past December, a week before Christmas, the events in Newtown, Connecticut, affected me to such a degree that I shifted my beliefs. And now, four months removed from that awful tragedy, seeing, just a couple of weeks ago, the weakness on the part of our elected officials and the continued loathsome behavior on the part of the NRA and the often-asinine comments by people I know and sometimes respect, well, I felt like I wanted to add my voice to the din and contribute whatever I could to seeing such tragedies cease.

If you want to lose weight you have to change what you eat. That's just a fact. And if society wants to see school shootings end then society has to change what it's done in the past. And the reality is that in the wake of every tragic shooting, from the University of Texas tower in 1966 through Columbine and Virginia Tech and right up to Newtown, once all the bluster quieted we in the United States have done nothing. Nothing at all. And as Einstein pointed out, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

So with that in mind, and acting on Gandhi's exhortation that we be the change we want to see in the world, I've realized that if I want to see a different America -- an America where gun rampages are less likely to occur and the daily carnage wrought by guns is lessened -- then I have to change my outlook, my behavior. To that end, I now intend to go through the rigamarole required by the commonwealth in order to possess a firearm. I'm going to submit to the test and the fingerprinting, and I will do so willingly.

No, I don't think my actions or new gun laws will prevent all gun violence. That's a specious argument coughed up by the NRA and its lackeys to prevent any progress whatsoever on gun legislation from taking place. But I also don't believe that banning automatic weapons or requiring background checks or making people wait seven days to purchase a hand gun are a violation of the second amendment. If we're going to go by that guideline, let's limit all gun ownership to those who are members in good standing in a militia that is well-regulated…in other words: you have to be a member of something like the National Guard, administered and regulated by society. Hey, that's what the second amendment says.

OK, granted, that's pushing things. But I'm always amazed at how selectively pro-NRA people choose their arguments. They're against background checks because such checks criminalize legal, upstanding citizens. And yet, these are the same people who say that we shouldn't be against warrantless wiretaps and 24/7 surveillance cameras unless we have something to hide. So what's good for others isn't good for you, is that what you're saying?

As for those who argue about the second amendment being sacrosanct, well, consider these words of Thomas Jefferson:
"I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
And then have a look at this video. Anything?

That's why I'm changing my outlook on the gun laws here in Massachusetts, because if I want to require stricter gun laws then I need to accept that our current laws are inadequate and that those laws apply to me, a legal, upstanding citizen, too. If we can change our outlook on guns then maybe we can change the current, bleak outlook engendered by our gun-happy culture. And I'm going to do my part, however small, to help promote that change.