The holidays are over, I’m back at work, it’s a whole new year. When I was a kid I thought about how far away 2020 seemed to be. I knew then that by now I’d be 47 years old, which to a kid is ancient. To make it worse my dad, who is from Tennessee and is as country as country gets, uses 47 to describe anything that means “a lot of” – like “son c’mere quick, there must be 47 turkeys down at the pond!” or “hell no I’m not drivin’ to Nashville, I swear everyday they put in 47 new stoplights!” etc etc. Well 2020 is here and 47 is here. To kids I probably do seem ancient, but I still feel healthy and strong, maybe just a bit more cautious than I used to be.
When I hear other guys around my age talk, it’s often about where they are at this point in their lives, like they never thought they’d be doing this or doing that, or thought they’d have more money, a bigger house, more kids, less kids, whatever. I never really thought about it that way though. I’ve always enjoyed being right where I’m at, appreciating the people and moments around me, flowing with the current of life without expectation. Like they say the past is gone and the future never gets here, the only time is now. With that perspective the magic of life reveals itself in waves, beauty is appreciated, the mundane becomes extraordinary, each moment is a gift.
I hope one day I can look back at this divorce that I’m going through as some kind of gift, but in general it has felt more like a kick in the stomach. It’s been hard, but I try to keep a positive attitude and not let myself get too down about it. One thing that’s interesting is that it has forced me to go through all my crap. Most everything of monetary value will go to my soon to be ex wife, but I still have a good amount of personal things that have stacked up over the years, which tends to happen if you’re sentimental like me. Cards, photos, gifts, souvenirs – what to keep, what to throw away? I go through it all and relive every memory. I want to hang on to it, I want to throw everything away and start new. In the end most of it gets tossed, but I save some of the best things I have, especially the photos, enough to fill a small plastic tub but no more.
It feels good to let things go. The older I get the less things I want. People mean more, experience means more. Material possessions can become a prison. These are the easiest to get rid of. But I think even sentimental possessions can become emotional baggage. What are these old cards and photos? I wonder if these memories are the building blocks of my identity, or if it’s the other way around. Who am I? A construction manager? A traveler, a teacher, mountaineer, sailor, surfer, husband, father? Am I a big fat loser who works too hard and just lives in the past? These days it seems like the answer is just another one of those magical moments that is always gradually revealing itself, like a blooming flower or a sunrise. The answer is I’m just me, someone who loves and takes care of my son and those around me the best I can. I guess I’ll always have passions, but they don’t define me. Little by little I let go of the old, making room for the new.
I dropped Day off at school yesterday morning and I’m feeling kind of low. This weekend will be his time with Sara. I miss him constantly but am able to function better these days, and besides I have stuff to do, like trying to simplify my life, and tending to an old boat that hopefully hasn’t snapped her dock lines in all the wind we’ve been having lately. I guess in a way I’m kind of looking forward to my time this weekend. My time, my chance to play my new role as a man with no role, my chance to live life without an identity imposed by others, or even myself. Happy new year to you and to me..
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.
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 of 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.
On the second and final sunny day of the week, I went to the boat. I need to start finishing out the ceiling, I need to add fuel stabilizer to the tank and run it through the motor, prep the dock lines for winter storms, and half a dozen other things. I brought a truck load of tools and supplies to do most of this but instead I just sit there on the starboard settee, doing nothing, looking around. Not much has changed here since I moved off the boat. Everything that I didn’t take with me then is still here, right where I left it. Moving around stirs up dust, fine particles of who knows what floating aimlessly through sunbeams streaming in through the portholes. It smells musty. I go up top and sit in the cockpit. The wind is super light this afternoon, and the air takes on that golden haze as the sun finds its lower path across the sky. I need to get busy. Not sure where to start, I decide to do something nice for the boat. I never finished painting the small rectangular step that sits on the cabin top but under the mast plate. I tore this thing apart when I completely gutted and rebuilt the compression arch, reglassed it, sealed and primered it. The very last step is the easiest but as usual I was taking my sweet time finishing this project. But no more, I grabbed a can of Interlux Brightside off-white, some tape and a brush. Slowly, with care and thoughtfulness I applied this last coat, taking my time, feeling my way around the mast, smoothing out ridges, wiping up the edges the same way you lick around an ice cream cone to prevent drips. It’s nice to take care of something again.
There must be a chill in the air today. My shoulder facing the sun is warm, the shady one is cold. I quickly clean up and go below. I sit down and look around again. It’s not the greatest feeling though and I’m having a hard time putting my finger on why. I used to look so forward to coming here, this was my place, my place to be me, to get away. To get away. I think about it some more and understand. Now I know why I feel this way – there is a lot of pain here. Every inch of this boat has a story, a memory, and a lot of those memories have to do with just surviving that pain. But there’s a strange comfort in this realization, and even more strange I already know what I need to do now.
I start with taking the cushions off the boat, one by one. I remove each cover, these will be taken back and washed. Next everything that’s not attached comes off the boat. All the locker lids get removed and cleaned. All loose dirt gets brushed up and vacuumed out. What’s left gets a warm wash down, saving the best for last. I refill the sprayer with hot water and orange citrus bilge cleaner. I give all the boat’s private areas a good sudzy bath, with a nice wipe down to finish. I leave all the lockers open, bilge exposed, windows, hatch, and companionway wide open. By this point we’ve both had a good cleansing and need to air out. I head up top to find the last of the sun.
And here comes Paul, a dock buddy putting into his slip nearby on one of five boats he has here at the marina. He’s a friendly Santa Claus looking guy who loves boats even more than I do. We chat for quite a while about this and that, and he really gets me going with info that there is an old Nor’star Flicka for sale cheap, that’s been sitting in some guy’s barn up in Granite Falls. After a while he gets a call from his wife, and he’s gotta go. He sounds happy she called. It stings a little. I walk over to my boat and begin to button her up. For the second time today I know what needs to be done here – the next time I come out to the boat, it will be time to go sailing.
2/22 – I call Sara while waiting to pick up Day after school. She sounds fine and in good spirits. It feels like we’re out of crisis mode now, like the explosion is over. She’s alive, physically ok, and is starting to sound like her old self again. I’m sure she’ll be released before too long, maybe another week? I wonder what that will be like. I find myself starting to dwell on some of the things she said in the hospital before. Does she remember saying she was unfaithful? When she gets home neither one of us will be able to handle any kind of serious argument. But bringing it up while she’s here at the hospital seems wrong too. I don’t know what to do, and it all just starts to eat me up inside.
One more day in the boatyard. One more coat of wax on the hull. Then another coat. My arms feel like jello, sunburned and sore. But I know the rains are coming and I need to make the most of my time here. Monday we’ll be launching the boat. Tuesday my son and I will fly to Tennessee to visit my Dad’s side of the family. When we come back school will start. I finish with the wax, clean up my mess, load up my tools. Leaning against the truck, I let the sun’s final rays soak into my skin, look at the boat, look out to sea. The water sparkles across the bay and I feel warm and satisfied.
It’s time to wrap this project up and move on. It’s a quiet Sunday, and I’m thankful the yard owner gave me the gate combo to come in and finish my work. I lock up the gate and begin the drive toward Sara’s to pick up Day. Whidbey Island is long and skinny and there’s one highway that runs the length of it. The road winds like a river, twisting and turning back on itself, rarely straight, rarely flat. One moment you look east and see Saratoga Passage, the next moment west to Admiralty Inlet. On a cloudy day your bearings easily become confused. On a sunny day it’s not a problem, the sun commands its presence across the sky as the big star of the show. Today it’s not hard to tell where west is, the sun fights its evening descent like a death throe. A slow motion explosion behind the clouds, so dramatic people pull over to watch, including me.
The colors twist and turn with the clouds, the shade of the douglas fir turns black. The view changes with imperceptible slowness, but no two moments are the same. Slow days but fast years. The concept of time is baffling, is it a constant as measured by a clock? Is it relative to the beholder? I’m nostalgic and sentimental. I think about the past, about growing older, about people around me growing older. Some say there is no such thing as the past or future, only now. Some compare time to a river, others think of it as a cycle. I once heard about a tribe of people in the amazon that communicates with a complex system of clicks, whistles, and hums. Their language has no past or future tense. They write nothing, there is no preserved art. When there is no more use for an item or a concept, it no longer exists. I struggle to put the past into perspective. When the dream of the past is shattered, is it tragic? Is it an opportunity, even liberating? Sometimes the pain inside is wrenching, like the dying struggle of the sun before me. Sometimes I get a glimpse of hope, of optimism. I push these feelings aside, get back in the truck, and try to focus on the present.
These days I may live in an inclusive community of socialist progressive liberal baby boomers, where the entire island is one big safe space, but that’s not where I come from. I was born and raised in rural Tennessee, where guys drove lifted trucks or modified cars with terrible gas mileage. We drove fast and tested our skills with the police, usually prevailing but not always. We liked to fish and hunt and did our very best to impress the hottest girls we could find, and sometimes the not so hot. I grew up in a place where we all dreamed of one day getting out, of escaping to a place that was more exciting, had more opportunity. I was able to do that, by going to college, getting a degree in teaching and mathematics. I moved out to California (where my Mom is from), then to Japan, back to California, then up to Seattle. I never looked back, with one job leading to the next, more and more money. I thought about friends back home, struggling to find work in construction, trimming trees, managing restaurants. Why would I ever want to go back?
I wake up at 4 am, scoop up Day and put him in the truck. A drive to the ferry, then to off site parking in Seattle, then a shuttle bus to the airport. 5 hours later we’re in Tennessee, at the airport car rental counter. They’re out of compacts, I get a minivan. The girl at the counter is pretty and friendly, she is from the same town where I went to high school. She is a student at the college I attended. She is good with Day and asks him what he is looking forward to doing when we get to my Dad’s. “I wanna catch a catfish in PawPaw’s pond” he says. The girl smiles at him then looks at me. I am absolutely smitten and do my best to stumble through the paperwork. We quickly turn and go, with me thinking of the witty things I should have said at the counter.
It’s hot and humid, but a thunderstorm is brewing, the wind picks up, and the temp drops to absolutely wonderful. Day has the window all the way down as we drive the car out of the airport, down the interstate, down the highway, down the driveway to PawPaw and Mama Sherry’s.
It’s full summer in the country. Cicadas, crickets, frogs, lightnin’ bugs. Giant moths, snakes, turtles, and the scariest looking spiders you’ve ever seen. Falling asleep with the window open to the night noises outside is dreamy and quick. It’s good to see family, my dad and stepmom already know what I’m going through, I don’t really have to explain anything. It’s comforting just being here. The next day is a breakfast of sausage (patties of course not links), biscuits, fruit, and the best scrambled eggs ever. Day just about eats ’til he pops. Dad is wearing dark sunglasses now, sensitive to sunlight. I notice his hands trembling when he lifts his coffee cup.
Soon it’s too hot for Day and I to take, so it’s off to go swim. I know a place nearby where a tiny country road goes through a creek, no bridge. There’s a small pool next to where the road goes through, where a tree leans over. A rope swing hangs from that tree, and Day goes to town, it’s his first time on a rope swing at a country swimmin’ hole. We swing and swim, swing and swim.
Several days pass, and I feel so at home. I wonder what it would be like to live here again. We fish every day. My boy doesn’t get his catfish but lands a 3 pound bass. I help Mama Sherry with an endless to-do list. In the mornings we feed the birds and have coffee on the deck. On Friday night we all load up in the minivan and drive to my old high school for a football game, to watch my stepbrother’s son as punter on the varsity team. His name is Hunter. He boots one, but it’s a good run back, he smears the return guy, the guy gets up and has words, Hunter walks away, someone shoves him in the back, someone shoves the shover, and in 2 seconds it’s a brawl. Players are ejected, the fans hoot and howl. Our team wins by a narrow margin and the game is over. After the game we all go down and say hi, his sweetheart is already there by his side, concerned about him but she can’t stop smiling. After we catch up, they drive off in his 25 year old F150 with mud tires.
Soon it’s almost time to go, and my parents struggle to ask the obvious questions about the divorce, where I’m living now, about the custody battle. I answer the best I can, trying to stay positive, but today I feel defeated, not yet ready to return to work, to school, to heavy decisions. The next morning we pack up in a rush and say goodbyes too quickly. By the following evening I’m back on the island, alone again after dropping off Day at Sara’s. On the drive back to Langley I’m suddenly amazed at the sunset, and pull over at the exact spot where I took the picture before we left. There are no vibrant colors now, just a surprise appearance of the sun before it quickly dissolves into a mass of gray. It occurs to me that this sunset is just as beautiful as the last, just different. I try to draw some sort of similarity to my own situation – is life just as beautiful and worthwhile when you’re heartbroken? It’s hard to fight back the tears tonight. I close my eyes and think about Tennessee, about swinging on the rope swing, about growing up. I think about what my Dad must have felt like when he and my Mom split up. I should give him a call tomorrow.
2/18 – Nightmares
1) Day and I are on a ferry. A large helicopter appears, hovers overhead, tries to land on top of the boat, tries to take us all away. The ferry captain is able to secure the boat but the helicopter won’t leave. It tries again and again to take away the people. I grab Day and fall to the deck, clutching him tightly. The noise and wind from the rotor are terrible and only getting worse, but I hold strong as the helicopter gets closer and closer.
2) Day and I are on the couch at night watching tv. Out of nowhere Sara appears at the window, a wild crazy look in her eyes. She looks at us with suspicion. She bursts through the window with superhuman speed and power like a demon. She’s wild, excited, eyes wide open, non-blinking, I think she is on drugs. Her face is ashy and gray. She looks wildly at me, then at Day, then back at me, a terrible smile on her face. She sees that Day and I were just sitting there, watching tv. She has a horrible realization that something is wrong, wrong with her. She is still smiling like a crazed zombie, but she is changing. Her face turns purple, her lips blue, she starts gasping. She is dying in front of me, I realize it’s an overdose. I wake up yelling over and over “Oh Momma, Oh Momma”. I’m terrified and try not to fall back asleep.
I like a cold beer at the end of a hard day but I’m no alky. Sometimes weed can be relaxing and fun but I’m no smoker. Taking a calculated risk with money doesn’t bother me but forget gambling. But there seems to be one thing (other than coffee) where I have a real problem, and that’s boats. I don’t really understand why but it must be something to do with taking my favorite element – water, and combining it with something graceful and curvy. Take this boat for example, a Pearson Triton 28′.
To most people this boat looks like an old gray sailboat, quietly weathering away in the boatyard of broken dreams. But look at that sheer line, that low freeboard. She’s so sleek, elegant, and graceful that Carl Alberg must have designed the high goofy cabin top just to keep people from coveting his boats just a little too much. Being around this beauty distracts me from my own baby, and I need to get back to work.
Fall comes quickly in the Pacific Northwest, by late August you’re just one cold front away from fall, which around here is basically pre-winter. Rain crushes your topside work, and as the temp starts to consistently drop below 50 degrees you can forget about epoxy and adhesives. So while others are out enjoying the cruisiest month of the year with fine sailing and sunset drinks in the cockpit, I’m freaking out about all that needs to be done before winter sets in and exposes the projects I’ve neglected to complete this year. Job #1 is bottom paint. I’ve never done it, but know it takes days, money, and organization. Just finding the right bottom paint is a pain. But I do my research, and choose a new quality paint that is compatible with the old. Day rides with me to the boat store to pick it up, which goes great until he asks me how much it costs. There’s no way to justify spending $300 for a gallon of paint to pretty much anyone, least of all a nine year old. He quickly figures out what kind and how many toys that would buy him, and I find myself stammering to explain my purchase, muttering words like quality and copper. I can see they’re not making much of an impact, and even admire his reasoning, his innocent yet powerful understanding that boats can cost lots of money.
I push out the thoughts of how much I’m spending on this job, not just the paint but the rollers, brushes, trays, Tyvek suit, respirator, sanding disks, rags, and of course the haul out (and relaunch) fee. It’s really not that hard to get over, because I’ve already come to terms with my obsession, I know I’m hopeless with this boat. Why is that? Why do grown men give everything they have – time, labor, money to an inanimate object that floats on water? I don’t really know why, I’m sure it has something to do with the feminine nature of boats. I do understand that part, if you don’t then here are just a few of the many similarities: Like women, boats cost money. They require time. They will put up with an amazing amount of your crap and mistakes as long as you love them, and prove at least once in a while that you have the best intentions. If you take care of them, they will take care of you when you feel all is lost. They will provide safety and comfort when you’re scared shitless, because they are stronger and more resilient. She will stand steady and firm against the abuses of a stormy world, while you lay cowering in your bunk below. But if she feels neglected, if you don’t show attention to her most minor of ailments, she will turn indifferent toward your suffering, leaving you to sort out a dire situation on your own.
But for me there’s something more, something my soon to be ex-wife never understood, probably because I lacked the communication skills to actually tell her: This boat, my boat, this 1978 Pacific Seacraft Flicka 20, is now 41 years old, just a few years younger than me. She is showing her age, with cracking gelcoat, leaky windows, and highly questionable chainplates. Her backbone – the compression arch – was compromised with moisture, and I’m pretty sure she keeps on keepin’ on with a slight twist in her hull. Someone at some point in time didn’t take proper care of this boat. Someone who comes by the dock once in a while told me I’d be better off giving her away to a crackhead. But I think she can be saved. Just because someone is getting older doesn’t mean they should be written off. Just because somebody wasn’t cared for properly doesn’t mean they can’t overcome the past and succeed in this world. I think I can fix her. I think I can fix me.
After three long days of hard work, the painting is done, but I find it hard to leave the boatyard. I plop down on the tailgate, dig a cold beer out of the cooler, sit back and just take in those beautiful curves. The fading light draws pink and blue shadows across the beauty in front of me. I guess there are quite a few things that test my self control – beauty, grace, elegance. If I felt this way about drugs they would call me an addict. Some might call me a hopeless romantic. I guess these days I just think of myself as a big fat mess.
2/18 – Not much crying, but the paranoia is off the charts and the accusations are flying. She calls me early in the morning, says they want to move her to a different room, but that is where she will be killed. She says all of her belongings are going to be taken away and burned. She says she knows people are on facebook saying her organs will fail. She says she was unfaithful to me but I already know all about it from facebook. Things feel cold to the touch, then hot. People on tv are saying bad things about her. Over the phone I can hear hospital staff entering the room, telling her to hang up the phone. She refuses, pleads for help, tells me to call 911. I hear her screaming No!! No!! then the phone goes dead.
Later in the day I’m allowed to speak to her again. She sounds worn out and confused. I need to see her and ask to talk with a nurse. But I get nowhere, so I drive two hours to the hospital anyway. Here I’m told she is still on unit restriction, still not cleared from suicide watch. Plus she hasn’t signed the release paperwork for her doctor to share status information to me about her condition. She’s too scared of everyone to give her consent to anyone to do anything. I do find out though that she will be on prolonged restriction due to her fighting back against the hospital staff when they tried to move her to a new ward. It took 6 people to hold her down to a gurney where she could be restrained with straps and medicated. She is scratched and bruised and her finger is bloodied from where they forcibly removed her wedding ring. I think my visitation was denied because they didn’t want me to see her injuries. I talk to her by phone as I drive back home. She understands I came and tried to see her. She says she will reconsider signing the release of information paperwork then hangs up. It’s a long winding road back down the island, and the word unfaithful is planted in my mind, but I can’t process it. Instead the image of her fighting back in the hospital keeps playing through my head. Amazingly after all that has happened today, all I really feel right now is proud.