Family, Designing a Wooden Overhead on a Sailboat, and Other Hard Things to Figure Out

12/2/19 Monday

Saturday was cold, sunny, almost no wind, with an outgoing tide. It was a perfect day for a long walk on the beach. Being a holiday weekend I got there early to beat the crowds, and to see what cool stuff the ocean decided to leave from the high tide overnight. I found agates, sea glass, a dead fish, and some kind of bronze ring about 8 inches in diameter. I saw a bald eagle and two ravens, which are just as cool. At one point some type of hawk flew past me so low to the ground I was looking down at it as it swooped by which was weird. I was wrong about the crowds, I didn’t come across another person on a three mile walk that took me four hours to complete. There was however a family that came my way – a doe, two fawns, and a buck. It seemed like they were headed somewhere important so I politely stepped out of the way to let them pass.

after-the-rain.org / Deer on Whidbey Island

This was the most picture perfect family I have seen lately and a tough moment to let go without some reflection. When I was a younger guy I never thought I would get married. I just had too much energy, too many things I wanted to do, and couldn’t imagine settling down. But eventually someone came along too beautiful and intriguing to say no to, and I jumped into the relationship with both feet, never looking back. That led to a house, a career, and a son, and I embraced my roles as a husband and father, supporter, broken toy fixer, tree house builder, money stresser abouter, family dog buryer. I did well and loved it, so much so that I ignored the signs of a crumbling relationship, hell bent on keeping the fantasy ideal alive at all costs. When it finally ended it did so like a bad car crash, and has forced me to re-examine my own concept what family even means.

Does family mean a husband, wife, and children? Should family be limited to those related to us? What about couples with no children? Single people? What about step brothers and sisters, about people who are adopted? Do close friends count? Close neighbors? Pets? What about the online community? The more I write and read the stories of others the more of a kinship I feel with the world at large. Perhaps we’re all one big family sharing our stories, laughing and arguing together at the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner table, united not by blood but by love and empathy. Family is what you make of it, everyone counts.

If Saturday was a day of vegging out and thinking too much, Sunday was the day to get shit done. I’m sick and tired of leaving a big boat project of mine unfinished, and this was a good time to get started. My particular boat was born in a southern California factory in the fall of 1978, small but stout and seaworthy. The Flicka 20 may be short and a bit heavyset, but she has a good attitude and is always up for an adventure. I think her big curvy hips are beautiful, and she is wearing her age with grace. However one part of the design does not do her justice. Although the cabin is simple and efficient and thoughtfully laid out, the ceiling she came with looked and fit like a big baggy t-shirt that gets slept in but never washed. It was a white vinyl liner tacked in place over foam insulation with staples that weren’t stainless or galvanized. The whole idea is ugly at best, traps moisture in the foam and can hide real issues like water leaks.

Last year I ripped it all out, threw out the moldy foam and pried all the rusty staples out one by one. It was like removing some kind of growth and we can all breathe easier now that it’s gone. There’s standing headroom and I can look up through the amazingly thick resin and see the 2″ x 2″ patchwork of balsa, which is light and surprisingly strong when laid on end. The great news is that the boat’s cabin top is not compromised with water damage, it’s clear and bright. I have rebedded all the cabin top fittings and replaced the hardware with new stainless, so now it’s time for a new overhead. It would be easier to put up another vinyl headliner but that’s still a lot of work, and the end result would just be more mold potential from condensation, plus it has the unsettling effect of looking like the inside of a coffin. I want to do the boat justice and build it out of wood planking. I want to see what that would look like on a rainy night, reflecting the flame of the gimballed brass lantern as the boat tosses and turns with the wind.

Most boat people are fans of exotic hardwoods, but I’m in love with what you find locally around here in the Northwest which is fir, hemlock, cedar, spruce, and maple. I’m going with clear vertical grain fir. I guess I could go on an on about this but the point is that the wood comes in straight strips, and there is not a straight line on the inside of that boat. It’s all curves and they aren’t even symmetrical from one side to the other. I know I can do this project but I don’t know if I can do it well. For someone who spent 3 days deciding where to put a bronze bottle opener, this whole thing is going to take me a while, not counting the months I’ve already spent trying to work it out in my head. On Sunday I managed to put up the supporting furring strips, but they’re too thick so I’ve lost most of the curve where the ceiling meets the rear bulkhead and I’m contemplating ripping it all out. It’s kind of like designing a puzzle with no edge pieces and trying to put it together on a concave ceiling in such a way that the end result accentuates the grace of the boat. Instead I’m worried it will look like it was designed and installed by a troop of drunk chimpanzees who had access to a chopsaw and a dremel. I guess I’ll think about it some more..

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I was starving after work today and too lazy to cook, so I went down the hill to the only market in town to see what they had in the hot case. I said hi to several people I knew, one of whom was Sara’s best friend. We talked for a few minutes, turns out our boys are hanging out together at her house as we speak. I happen to notice what the friend is buying at the store, and realize she’s probably shopping for food for my son’s dinner. Also she says she’s about to toss out some old things, one of which is a printer/scanner/copier which I happen to need, so she gives it to me out in the parking lot. There are lots of awkward moments like these, so many that I’m starting to get used to them. Maybe trying to figure things out is just trying too hard. My brain is tired so I take my veggie fried rice home and turn on Netflix.

The One That Got Away

11/29/19 Friday

It’s quiet and peaceful, candle lit, music playing, tummy full. The perfect time for writing. My boy was with me over Thanksgiving, and although we weren’t able to make it back to Tennessee for the big family gathering, we were able to visit Gramma here on the island. She cooked a good turkey dinner for us. I prepped some mashed potatoes, and Day whipped them up good with the mixer. No tension, no drama, just good conversation and good food. Day and I rode scooters down the hill out front like we’ve done so many times before, risking our necks with no helmets on those rickety old death traps.

Today was awesome as well – good coffee, OJ, cinnamon rolls and bacon for breakfast. We watched Battlebots, talked about dinosaurs, and had tickle wars. It was cold outside but sunny, so we grabbed the rods and went down to the marina to fish. We both landed a couple of nice rockfish, but then Day hooked into a monster. I looked over and saw his rod bent over double as the fish dove for the bottom. Unfortunately the drag was set too tight and the 6 lb test broke like a spider web.

after-the-rain.org / Boy fishing at marina

He was kind of upset, but I could tell he didn’t quite know what to think – I knew it was one of those “teachable moments”. All I could really do was put my arm around him, smile, and let him know that for better or for worse, from now on he would be hooked on fishin’ forever. Plus since his favorite lure was now gone, this would be a good excuse to go stock up on some new lures. Then we headed back home to warm up and eat peanut butter sandwiches.

I love my son and had a good visit with him, even if it was just for 50 hours. A few minutes ago Sara came over to pick him up, and now he is gone again. It was not a good transition, she was very upset from the git go, accusing me of taking things again; the word that comes to mind is “seething”. I won’t lie my heart rate did leap up, it was upsetting even if only for a few minutes. But I just handed her the child support check, told Day how much fun I had with him over the last two days, and walked him out to her car. I know I can’t control her emotions or how she reacts to anything, all I can do is keep moving forward and do the best I can for myself and my son. Her actions are bothering me less and less these days. This moving on thing is starting to build momentum. I guess sometimes it’s not so bad when the big one gets away.

By the way, today there was a Bristol Channel Cutter 28 tied up at the dock – jeez loueeze…

Crossing to the Other Side

11/24/19 Sunday

Time goes by, the days keep getting shorter, the air has been cold, damp, and windy. Raindrops fall like broken pieces of heaven, doing their best to wash away the warmth and pain of the summer. I turn inward and grab on to anything positive, which as usual is my son. He was with me this weekend, and time with him was good. We played games at the house, rode scooters to the arcade, watched tv, and took the ferry to the bustling world of the mainland to buy him some new clothes at Target. One of the highlights was on Saturday I clipped his finger and toenails while he played on his tablet. It was peaceful and relaxing, there was no rush, no words were spoken. I wonder if this is one of those things only a parent can understand.

The divorce situation staggers on, this week has been particularly challenging. The ex is refusing to let Day have some of his things over here while he’s with me. She tries to schedule events with him during my time. The transitions are tense. But something seems to be changing. Any one of these things would usually stress me out, but this week my blood pressure wasn’t quite as high, my chest didn’t hurt as bad, and I slept a little better than usual. The change isn’t with us, the change seems to be with me. It’s too early to tell for sure and I don’t want to jinx myself, but I think I’m starting to get over Sara.

after-the-rain.org / ferry to Whidbey Island

It’s been 8 months since mental illness almost took her life. The fallout from that has nearly taken mine. But we’re both still here, and have a lot to live for, even if we don’t have each other.

It was supposed to rain again today but didn’t. The sun came out and revealed once again how beautiful the Pacific Northwest can be, and how part of the magic of life is not always being able to know what’s around the corner. Sometimes I want to acknowledge my heartache, to grip it tightly and hold it close, because it’s all I have left of my marriage. But that’s over now and I’m coming to terms with that. I’m starting to wonder what sunny days might someday come into my life. It’s time to think more about the future. It’s time to think about moving on.

Of Boats and Men

11/17/19 Sunday

A couple of years ago I built a rowboat from a kit. The instructions said it should take about 80 hours. I figured it would take me 3 or 4 weeks if I put time into the project each day after work. I was wrong about that, I guess I was wrong about a lot of things. It took me 9 months from the time I opened the boxes in the garage, to the day I was able to load it into the back of the truck and drive down to the beach on a cold sunny Pacific Northwest winter’s day.

This had not been an easy project for me and my boy was there to see it all, from the epoxy disasters to the gleam of the rubrails after 7 coats of varnish. There were times when working on that boat was almost transcendental, a higher plane without thought or words, like creating a poem with your hands. There were other times when nothing went right, like measuring twice and still cutting pieces of wood too short, nearly cutting my fingertips off by trying to scarf joints with a chop saw, running out of chip brushes, sandpaper, clamps, on and on. But there finally came the day when it was ready, when I was ready. Day rode with me down to the beach where we could back down to the water’s edge. I invited Sara and she drove down to meet us for the launch. The 3 of us took the little blue boat out for a spin, and it was the happiest moment I can think of when we were all together.

after-the-rain.org / Toy boat

Why do men love boats? Why do we like to build things? Why do some of us take to the sea? These are questions that others have asked me, not that I have asked myself. I just know what I know, which is I love to create, to work with the elements of nature instead of against them, to feel my muscles burn while working halyards and sheets, to feel the sun on my skin out on the water.

Does this come from our parents? People we meet? What we learn on our own? As a father I look at my son and wonder what his passions will be. He plays near me while I work on the boat. We build toys together then they break then we fix them. He’s not a natural swimmer but he takes to the water. What will he learn from me? What will his children learn from him? I just know that I’m proud of him and will support him and his own interests as he grows older.

after-the-rain.org / Boy with toy boat

Surfing is like dancing on the waves, sailing is being in harmony with the wind, kayaking is being a part of the water as you move through it. Creating is an expression of the mind. It’s all about connection, about seeing yourself in the universe around you. When this is realized, the result is compassion for others. It’s cold and rainy outside today, and I’m curled up on a comfy couch with a hot cup of coffee. I won’t be building anything today, or working on any boats. Instead I’m going to call my Mom and Dad just to say hi – it’s the same exact thing.

“The river laughed, it laughed brightly and clearly at the old ferryman. Siddhartha stopped, he bent over the water, in order to hear even better, and he saw his face reflected in the quietly moving waters, and in this reflected face there was something, which reminded him, something he had forgotten, and as he thought about it, he found it: this face resembled another face, which he used to know and love and also fear. It resembled his father’s face, the Brahman.” – Hermann Hesse

after-the-rain.org / Rowboat on Puget Sound

2/25 – Talked to Sara once more today by phone, she sounds better than ever. I’m happy for her, to know she is now back in this world and will be ok. I feel utterly spent, crushed. In two days she’ll be home. (final log entry)

John Doe

11/15/19 Friday

Yesterday was was one of the toughest days yet. It started off well, I had my boy with me overnight which is one of the GAL’s new recommendations. It’s been great having him over, we get to read at night before bed, and I can wake him up in the morning, fix breakfast, make his lunch, his snack, fill up his water bottle, and drive him to school 5 minutes away. I walk him into class and say hi to the teacher and the other kids, it’s one of my favorite things to do. Walking out of school I ran into Sara who was coming in to volunteer in Day’s class. It was an awkward surprise and she looked a bit pissed and said something about she didn’t have enough jeans for him that fit even though I bought him 3 pairs of jeans at the beginning of the school year.

Little things like this set me off and when I got back home it was difficult to concentrate on work. The emails, instant messages , texts, and phone calls were flying and it was tough to keep up. My heart was beating fast and I took a break to lie down on the floor and try to calm down. It didn’t help as then all I could think about was that this weekend was going to be lonely as hell without Day, and I found myself hitting bottom fast. From my place on the floor I could see more and more emails coming in. I pictured the look on Sara’s face when we spoke at his school. I had to get back up and put all this behind me, but getting back up was harder than I thought – my chest hurt and it was hard to breathe. I got up and the pain got worse. It felt like my heart and lungs were about to burst. An hour later I was on my way to the doctor, and an hour after that I was on my way to the ER.

After 4 EKGs, a chest x-ray and blood draw, they found my heart and lungs were fine, I just had a “chest wall inflamation” which can be super painful but not harmful. The paperwork the doctor provided said the most common cause is emotional stress – go figure. After a steroid and some ibuprofin I was feeling better and ready to go. I drove by the old house to drop off Day’s toys, and he wanted me to stay to watch a show with him, one of his Bey Blade Burst Turbo episodes that we always have fun watching together. I let the family cat shred my hand as I tickled his tummy. I was feeling better, and all was good in the world except Sara kept asking me why there was an ad popping up for cough syrup on Day’s ipad. I was in no mood for that crap and now it was soon time to go.

One minute my doctor says the first EKG looks abnormal and sends me to the ER, the next minute I’m told I’m fine, the next I get to see my son, the next my ex wife is accusing me of something based off who knows what. Then I’m driving home, back to where the day all started. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m going to survive this, actually physically make it. But at least I made it through yesterday. If nothing else, it was a wake up call. Any day could be my last, it’s time for me to get my shit together and figure out where to go from here. I have an opportunity to start a new life, like a new man without a name.

This morning I felt even better, and as I sipped on a hot cup of coffee I sat and watched this little girl out the window, tip-toeing around munching on everyone’s plants. One day at a time – truth, goodness, beauty.

after-the-rain.org / Deer at the cottage

Winds of Change

11/10/19 Sunday

Not long before I put the boat up for winter, I took her for a final sail of the season. I felt clumsy on board, and it took way longer than it should have to get everything ready. As is my custom I pushed the boat out by end to help get the bow pointed where it should go, then jumped on and scrambled to the cockpit, shifted the mighty Tohatsu into forward and putted out of the marina. It was sunny with light winds from the south, that were expected to pick up later in the afternoon as it turned around to the north. As we passed the final buoy I raised and set both sails, cut the motor and pulled it up, set off on a starboard tack, took my shoes off and settled in at the tiller, and pointed toward Mount Baker.

The 90% working jib was up because it’s the only foresail I have, and it was having a hard time grabbing a hold of the light wind. I managed two tacks before the wind gave out completely. For some time I sat there cooking in the sun as the sails gave up, and I looked up to see the wind vane slowly spinning. I’ve read about sailors who’ve been becalmed for days on long ocean crossing voyages, but here we were 2 miles from Oak Harbor, and it just seemed ridiculous. To make matters worse we were drifting toward shore in the current, about one and a half knots. It was amazing how fast land was getting so close. Just before making the decision to drop and start the motor, I looked around for other boats, and instead saw the wind. It had finally switched around to the north and was steadily making it’s way down the harbor. When it hit the sails filled, the boat came to life and we were running out at 7 knots. It’s moments like these when the boat seems to be saying, “all right, we’re here , I’m ready – where do you want to go?” This is the moment that confirms my suspicion that I really just don’t like to go sailing for sailing’s sake. I want to get in this boat and go somewhere.

after-the-rain.org / sailing in Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island

The pieces of my family are in the middle of the guardian ad litem process. The GAL has interviewed me, interviewed Sara, visited her and Day at her place and visited Day and I at mine. I’m trying to get a feel for where this is going, what her recommendation will be for our final parenting plan. It’s too early to tell for sure though, there are still background checks and references to interview before she puts together a report. My instinct has me worried, I just don’t have a great feeling about it. Emotionally I’m scraping across the bottom these days. When I’m with my son it’s busy time and easy for me to be distracted by the joy and responsibilities with being a single dad, when he’s not with me I just withdraw into my heart, my vision blurs and sounds become muted, my sense of touch is dulled and food tastes different. To keep from going crazy I work out and stretch in the small space of my living room multiple times a day. I try to eat as well as I can and limit my drinking. If I let myself go physically I know I’m toast.

For now my boat is stripped and clean and ready for winter, the divorce process drags on and on, and I just try to be the best dad I can be here during the hardest time of my life. I hold on to the memories of my last visit with Day, of my last sail, of the last time I went to my favorite place on the island and gave myself to the sea, where in return the sea gave back tiny treasures to remind me that beauty never dies, that true compassion is the art of listening with your heart.

after-the-rain.org / agates and sea glass

2/24 – I don’t sleep much, just feel destroyed. Just to keep going requires conscious effort. I fix breakfast for me and Day, sausage patties, toast, milk and OJ. Afterward we go to he store to eat maple bars and look at magazines. All day I ache for Sara to call. She does but I don’t want to talk to her and try to end the conversation quickly. As soon as we hang up I wish she would call back.

Throughout the evening I keep coming back to the same thought – as the years have gone by, despite all the arguments, the leaving, the accusations, I realize that I have always loved her so much. The reason it hurts now is that I know she does not feel the same. We talk to each other by phone once more this evening. She sounds totally normal again, ready to come home. I hang up, tuck my son into bed, and try to crawl into a corner of my mind where no one can find me.

Taking a Walk

10/30/19 Wednesday

The days are starting to speed on by. The chill of morning extends through the day, the only noticeable warmth comes in the afternoon if the sun has been out. Each night we get frost if the sky is clear. The breeze carries the smell of the sea, of the neighbor’s farm, and now wood smoke. Leaves fall one after another covering the little back deck – gold , red, brown, yellow. The sheep in the neighbor’s field are more active, their woolly coats in full effect, marching from one end of their pasture to the other in a steady graze. Day and I fed them granny smith apples today. We are starting to recognize individual ones, some are all white, some brown, some almost black, some white with brown spots, a few lambs, and one big mac daddy ram. Day says the brown ones are the fluffiest.

after-the-rain.org / Beach rocks in Fall

The divorce proceedings ramble on, we’ve made headway on a guardian ad litem. I’ve met with her once so far for an introductory interview, and have now had a chance to state my case for why I think I should be able to see my son half the time. This is only the beginning of a long process, but it feels good to make some kind of progress. This person will have a major say in how the custody arrangement works out. It’s an important time, and I do my best to keep it together.

This interview was a couple of days ago around lunch time, and afterward I needed to return to work. Unfortunately my emotions were fried and I knew staring at a computer would was not going to work out. So instead I headed to my favorite beach to walk off the day and try to find something to fill my soul back up. Fortunately it was sunny and not windy, and being a weekday there was hardly anyone around. I clambered over kelp, driftwood, old growth logs as big around as my truck, pebbles and sand. I found two agates, a bald eagle feather and coyote tracks. A heron seemed to keep an eye on me for most of the walk. I would have stayed longer but the incoming tide was pushing me up to the bluffs and the only choice was either to leave now or stay longer and swim back. I looked out at the water, into the sun, into a shimmering carpet of sea sparkles. I love this place. On the drive home I think about my life, the divorce, our son, the sea, my dreams, and my boat.

after-the-rain.org / Blue Heron by the Salish Sea

2/23 – I get to see Sara again this evening. It will end up being our second and last visit. She’s doing well, better and better each day. The visit starts off ok, it’s good to see her. We’re in the cafeteria again. While she talks it reminds me of when we sit at home around the kitchen table, drink coffee and talk. The image is short-lived though. There is a cloud over this visit, and I come right out with it. “When you said you were unfaithful, was that true?” Her silent eyes tell me the answer I don’t want to hear. When she opens her mouth to say yes and explain it sounds like she is muffled, like I’m wearing headphones. My spine starts to tingle and suddenly I feel hot. I don’t want to hear anymore. I get up and walk out, walk out of a visit that I looked so forward to, walk out on someone I loved so much.

(That night) Nightmare – I’m hanging out with a group of men who I don’t know. I’m new to the group, I’m hoping they will accept me but I don’t know. Suddenly a guy next to me grabs my neck and starts choking me, hard. I try to fight him off but he is too strong. Everyone knows what is happening but do nothing to save me. I’m helpless, fading fast, I can’t breathe. I give in and go limp, resigned to my fate.