The past year of lockdowns included the memory of “I Got You, Babe” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OyBSrBqogPY playing on a cheap bedside alarm clock on Ground Hog’s Day. Then along came the shots that were heard but not felt by all ‘round the world. Color me lucky, like my Irish forbearers. Due to an abundance of acquired birthday candles, I’ll celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with a second shot.
Opening numbers begin the march toward a performance’s finale – whether grand or humble – they set the tone for what follows. Tennyson saw weeding the past as, “the old order changeth yielding place to the new”. The old Roman calendar kicked off the new year with March, by honoring Mars, the god of war. Romans evidently believed prosperous years were won with spirited conflict and juicy battles. We’ve spent a year under siege, battling mortality and wrestling with morality. I’ve had it with this existential duel and enlisted with warriors in a campaign to defeat a viral enemy. I’m not gonna waste my shot regretting what we couldn’t do for the past year or refusing to make peace with people whose beliefs I do not share. I’m aiming to work for things I believe and playing nice with others. Like Hamilton, I’d like to create a legacy of fortitude and passion.
Today we sprang forward and left behind a bear of a winter. When our son was a wee lad he observed, “you know its spring when it smells like worms outside.” Whether March crowns with a lamb or lion, spring will commence with the Full Worm Moon. After a long winter burrowed deep into our homes let’s wiggle our way through spring out in the open and take a few chances with birds. Aim to make the best of the bears, lions, lambs, and worms in your life. Or as my dear Irish Mom (who we laid to rest on a St. Patrick’s Day) would wish, “May your troubles be less and your blessings be more, And nothing but happiness come through your door.”
I dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist. I figured by my adulthood guys like John Glenn would be able to do more than just orbit the earth – astronauts, women like Sally Ride – would be headed for Mars. I was unduly influenced by the Jetsons, “B grade” outer space science fiction, and Miss Donadio, my kick-a¶• 7th grade science teacher. To prepare for off-planet employment, I turned part of the basement, next to my art studio, into a chemistry and biology lab. My parents were exceedingly tolerant of paint splats and searing odors of weird chemical compounds that were not inhaled or ingested. Another facet of preparing for space exploration was discovering stuff in local swamps and shorelines within reach of my bicycle. It was the 60’s when parents believed that kids should stay outside until the streetlights and adolescent hormones turned on.
Eventually my hormones kicked in and art won me over around the same time boating in general and sailing in particular allowed me to disengage from terra firma. Plotting courses, navigating new waters, timing adventures with the tidal cycles are small sips of my big dream of stepping through the door of a tin can to float around with Major Tom.
When it came to astrophysics, I didn’t have the grit required to cross out of my comfort zone and pass advanced theoretical mathematics. Then again, I didn’t have the raw talent or maturity to endure critiques and become an artist. Science and art became casual interests rather than careers. But tomorrow, I will listen to Bowie’s Major Tom and Sir Elton John’s Rocketman while watching in real time the harrowing seven minute landing of NASA’s Mars Rover, Perseverance.
The 21st century is a wondrous time for humankind. There’s a half a foot of snow in the cockpit of my sailboat that’s snug in her winter’s berth. That’s as it should be at this northern latitude. I’ve no need to sail anywhere on earth this cold winter’s day because tomorrow I am going to virtually sail off planet. With a laptop for a nav station, the course set and on autopilot, I’ll monitor the traffic patterns of five missions from Earth orbiting Mars while Perseverance jockeys for the finish line. Wouldn’t it be incredible if we learn that there is life on Mars? What if we living on the big blue marble next door are not alone? Join me on this solar sailing venture. https://mars.nasa.gov/explore/mars-now/
By using this link we’ll have the same view as NASA’s astrophysicists when Perseverance makes land fall 33 million miles from her home port. You don’t need to pass trigonometry to experience space flight after all. But, Miss Donadio was right about one thing; learning about how the myriad of interwoven complexities of science work within our universe is one of the most beautiful experiences of a lifetime.
Supply chains are supposed to be efficient and economical, not like last year’s flow of face masks, hand sanitizers. and toilet paper. That chain busted at the same time Dr. Fauci advised; cover your mouth, wash your hands, and mind your own business. The crisis could be abated by staying put and keeping your distance until the plague passed or a vaccine arrived. The world waited for the wellerman to come.
Prior to 2020 thinking about toilet paper was something left best to weird Mr. Whipple who scolded customers for squeezing the Charmin. My thoughts were limited to stocking the boat with fast dissolving toilet paper and hoping George would learn to swap out the empty tube for a new roll. Life is often amusing and frequently confusing. None of us dreamed that we’d soon mask up, get in line and pray Mr. Whipple had left a meager supply of off brand, cheek chaffing tissue. With over 7 trillion bare butts on planet Earth, toilet paper was a commodity in short supply. There were few supply ships able to deliver. And so we waited for the wellerman to bring us sugar, tea plus rum and T P.
Now it’s ’21, the virus has come of age. Ear worms have pushed away from 2020 Hip Hop (WAP) and dirges (I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry) to 19th century sea shanties. Makes sense. The virus left many feeling as bereft as an old salt a’top the crows nest on midnight watch. Folks know better than to grab babies or old ladies to sing them Hip Hop, fearing, God forbid, they discern the lyrics. Brother Love’s Traveling Show is currently led by a young Scotsman who brings us together with sea shanties. We know the words and can carry the tunes with Quint and Hooper aboard the ill-fated Orca. These are shaggy dog tales of early morning drunken sailors, seamen like Joe who hauled away, and a beach boy and his grandfather aboard the Sloop John B. Today’s top sea shanty crashing the ‘Net is about whalers aboard the Billy of Tea. There’s whale toggled to their harpoons that’s drags the ship for longer than the endless song as the crew waits for a supply ship (wellerman).
It’s the song of this dreary season. We’ve stockpiled enough crap traps and loo rolls to wipe away a zillion dingleberrys. The supply chain is still Kinked and we’re still waiting for a couple shots, not in a glass, in the arm. Whether the cargo aboard our wellerman is sung by Pfizer, Moderna, or that Euro-indie group Astra Zenica, I’m going to sing it like sailor Joe. He saw black clouds rising and bellowed, “Away haul away, we’ll hope for better weather. Away. Ho! We’ll haul away together!”
The Billy of Tea is still chasing the whale. When the wellerman comes, with a tot of sugar and rum for the tea, the crew will take their leave and go. I’m eager to leave harbor and set sail again. Until then, “we’ll haul away together, we’ll haul away, Joe.”
Welcome 2021. The millennium is now old enough to legally purchase and consume alcohol. I hope it heeds the Roman comic Plautus’ view that, “moderation in all things is the best policy.” I’m taking a Goldilocks approach to the new year and will avoid things too hot or too cold. We’ve had enough of too hard or too soft views on government and health care. It might seem that the calendar has outrun 2020 but it’s doubtful that our collective vision is as blurry as it was a year ago. It’s clear to see that an abundance of hope is always accompanied by a profusion of fear.
I was one of the few social science teachers in the 70s that was not named Coach. One of the ongoing themes was to help students understand George Santayana’s missive, “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” The kids were quick to inform me that in all of their dozen or so years on Earth they hadn’t done anything except to grow up. They protested the notion that were they doomed by the mistakes of thousands of years of millions of old people. I challenged them to learn from history and avoid the penalty. Forgetting or ignoring important things that happen over time around the world doesn’t mean the consequences will brighten the present and may well blight the future. These young people were on the cusp of changing the world for better and worse, and as we saw over time, for good. The goal of my rift was to get them to read their textbooks, newspapers, and anything they chose past the written driver’s exam. I was that teacher who believed Descartes nailed it when he mused, “reading good books is like conversations with the finest minds of the past.” I fervently believed that youth write the future page by page over their lifetimes.
Those high school students are now in their 60s. I’m in contact with two of them. Leslie retired very young as a genetic engineer and sailed the Pacific for decades. Jessica retired from the business world and moved back home to her farming community. The three of us have reached an age that’s partially defined by crisis competence. We’ve lived long enough to recognize the destructive power of a creeping crisis; a situation foreshadowed by a series of events that decision makers don’t view as part of a pattern. Mostly, our personal creeping crises are the consequence of believing our bodies last forever even if we don’t heed our physician’s advice eat, drink, and exercise in moderation. That’s somewhat challenging in the midst of a sudden, universal crisis such as the Covid 19 pandemic where we’re more isolated and closer to the kitchen.
It’s tempting drive through the year without looking back. Fact is, in order to drive safely, you’ve got to check the rear view mirror. People can’t see exactly what’s behind as the mirror warns, “Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear”. A photo taken 22,200 miles above the earth foreshadows the effects of rapid climate changes. The smoke of millions of burning trees, ignited by a record heat wave in the Pacific northwest, sailed the jet stream and dimmed the sun above New England. Global smoke shadows beckon a strange new world. Being crisis competent means knowing that the damage done will get worse the longer it’s ignored. Blacking out the lessons of ’20 will bring forth a wicked hangover for ’21.
Obsessing on what’s behind when the vehicle is in Drive could cause your headlights to merge with someone else’s brake lights. Read the signs and pay attention to what you see while remembering what you’ve learned. Have confidence that having survived a challenging year you’ve grown enough competence to survive and thrive this new year. Think first decide next. Let hope tip the scales towards optimism.
Winter crossed the starting line last night. Shiver ye timbers – stoke up the hearth – we’ve set course to sail through the seas-on of very long nights. Many folks think of winter as the doldrums of the year; a monotonous period of waiting for warm spring breezes to fill our sails. That’s not the best approach to this Winter Solstice. We’ve been stuck in irons for far too long to diddle away the next dozen weeks.
Time and distance are relative. It’s somehow fitting that the longest year in memory, not counting pregnancies and freshman classes, is a leap year. It’s been 800 years since Jupiter got close enough snag Saturn’s rings. Back then, here on Earth, Emperor Phillip founded the University of Paris to offer a liberal education while Genghis Kahn was tweaking the recipe for gunpower. Blue and red medieval pennants rallied rival troops with promises of eternal glory. If we jump back another 800 years we find ourselves marking the first Julian calendar. It too was a leap year (400 AD) when we could settle by the fire to read the Roman physician, Caelius Aurelianus’ best seller, Concerning Acute and Chronic Illness. The world was ripe with contradictions and possibilities for changing our ways.
The contrasting forces of nature are best explained through stories. Take for example the Roman myths behind the two seemingly merged bright spots in last night’s Solstice sky. Saturn and Jupiter were Greek/Roman gods who had eternity to wax and wane together. It’s no coincidence that their namesake planets never come closer than 456 million miles of each other while humming Cats in the Cradle. According to legend, so it’s probably not fake news, Saturn was exiled from Mount Olympus. Something about eating his own kids irked the people. Fortunately, most Romans lusted to be Greek-like. They welcomed the great god Saturn. And so it came to be that Saturn wisely ruled the Roman Empire during an age of peace and prosperity. With no wars to fight or babies to eat he had plenty of time to dabble with viticulture, the art of grape production. It’s unlikely that Saturn ever shared a bottle of red with Genghis Kahn though because he was devoted to ridding Rome of barbaric customs like sacking and pillaging. Saturn had reset his moral compass, a millennium later he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities by the University of Paris.
Then, by Jove, along came Jupiter, Roman god of heavens and sky, ruler of laws and social order. Jupiter was an enormous god so it’s no surprise that the hugest planet in our solar system is his namesake. Jupiter’s mother saved him from his father’s heinous habit of devouring his sons at birth. Eventually, Jupiter overthrew his father, a gentle ruler but a down right scary pater familias, and reigned supreme over the universe. Who’s his Daddy?
Saturn. The son wanted to be just like his Dad who unfortunately was busy making wine and had no time to play. To this day their relationship ebbs and flows as young, mighty Jupiter briskly circles the sun once every 12 years and his old man shuffles along making the circumnavigation in 29 years. It’s hard for a kid to be that patient waiting to get together, so Jupiter makes off with his dozens of moons while Saturn lags behind and spins his rings. Every 800 years they have a family reunion and sample Saturn’s vintage wine.
If a Father who rules the sky with peace and his son, known for a jolly, optimistic world view, are able to spend eternity apart but together, we can endure a dark season of social distancing. This Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday – that’s Jupiter’s day when he makes a cheery toast to his father. Take a moment to raise a glass as the father and son climb the heavens. It’s okay to call it the Christmas Star of 2020. Christmas is the day the Son will light the way for our next circle around the sun.
Plagues and the boredom that accompanies surviving them are not new to humankind. They are as old as Angela Landsberry warbling Beauty and the Beast. Take a lesson from the famed plague of 1347 that sacked Europe. It immigrated through the toe of Italy’s boot. The plague entered port aboard a dozen ships returning from a multi-national sales gathering in the Black Sea. Most of the crews were dead but the fleas and rats aboard gave the trip Five Stars on Yelp for its incredible all day buffet. The root cause of Europe’s deadly pestilence was the stowaway germ, Yersina pestis. Over the next five centuries, despite bloodletting, boil splitting, vinegar baths, and donating old clothing to the less fortunate, the germ ebbed and flowed wreaking death on 20 million folks.
The Bubonic Plague was persistent. Fortunately, back in Sicily in the port of Ragusa (“the slab” – or “losagna” in Italian) where the stowaway Yersina petis first made landfall, local officials declared mandatory social distancing for all sailors entering the port city of Ragusa. Crews and masters alike were not allowed to de-board for 40 days (in Italian – “quarantine”)
Quarantines spurred a novel coastal Italian cuisine consisting of spicy tomato sauce (ragu) layered between slabs of pasta and cheese. Losagna became a quarantine staple. Sailors who survived were allowed to mingle with the local ladies if they could say no to the question, “Ya seen a pestis?”. They may have left behind a few love bugs but the plague itself was abated. The Prince of Sicily declared Wednesdays as “spaghetti day” (a tradition still followed today by descendants of Anthony Martignetti de Norte Boston) to honor the boon to the local economy.
Spinning a hyperbole on history helps to explain why yearning for a hot slab of lasagna at Sunday dinner is actually triggered by a subconscious awareness that we’re going to get through this together. DNA holds a secret code for remembering things that make us feel better. Wellness is beckoned when we recall memories of being in a noisy kitchen crammed with family and friends. The yeasty scent of freshly baked bread reminds us of a favorite quilt on a winter’s eve. Tastebuds Tango as bites of melted cheese nestled between steamy layers of briny pasta glide down our throats. We share a misty moment of gratitude for the freedom to gather, hug, and plan our next voyages.
Raise a glass to the day when all the rats and their nasty little fleas have left the sinking ships and be thankful that Boat US towed us safely back to home port.
These are the day dreams of the dog days of August. It’s a tale as old as time.
Over the past six months, regardless of whether we spend our days on bodies of water, deserts, or mountain ranges, many crew members aboard the great ship Earth have been keeping a weather eye open. We’ve seen red skies at dawn and have been warned. Lots of folks are seriously under the weather in the midst of a raging tempest that’s not bound to the winds nor soothed by the sun. Some of us live in states that battened down the hatches, pulled up the gangplank, and quarantined those who were not already aboard before the downpour. It seems we’ve boarded a ship bound for Drakes Passage and are enduring the century’s roughest sea passage.
Rather than spend my summer days being wary of lurking sharks (certain portends of death for superstitious sailors of old) I’ve been enjoying vivid coastal sunsets. Most days end with the sun hemorrhaging ruby rays into the crimson sea. These red skies are sailors’ delights.
Weather is the Jay Gatsby of Earth’s atmosphere. It moves from West to East where life seems more dazzling. Each day ends with sunlight being scattered by tiny bits of dust as high pressure sinks the air. Red skies at sunset forecast that morning will bear no bad weather and threaten tomorrow. Each sunset finds us on the cusp of a new chapter in our lives.
Given the risks of sailing and the fact that for most of maritime history sailors couldn’t swim, and all boats leaked, “goodbye” is a word not to be uttered upon a ship. My grandkids and I always sing goodnight to the sunshine and thank it for a really great day. I never fall asleep without hoping for another great day. I know the color of the sky can’t promise a safe passage through any day or night. The best I can do, just in case dawn is born by red skies, is whisper a prayer for fair winds and following seas and hope these blessings are shared by you.
Note: We are all rounding the Horn this summer. It’s a scary time for whether you look off the port or starboard rails, it’s clear we’ve not left this maelstrom a’stern. Scott Berstein is a Narragansett local, who I believe winter’s-over as a teacher. I found his posts on the local Face Book groups for Narragansett and South Kingstown.Scott set up a challenge to capture “perfect” sunset and sunrise venues in southern Rhode Island. His photos are posted at the beginning and end of each of these summer days. I can’t thank him enough for bringing forth hope and peace, and the promise of “carpe diem.”.
Fireworks blazing in the night sky on the 4th of July, not the longest day of the year, are the starting shots that herald the arrival of American summertime. Let the games of summer begin! Summer reigns great power over the imagination as we all contemplate all of the things we are free to do.
Coming of age a couple of miles from Long Island Sound, each summer brought forth a new sense of independence. When the birthday candles reached double digits, my parents brought forth the first rules of freedom; “get outside early, drink from the hose, don’t hurt your siblings, be back in time to wash your hands for dinner.” Freedom to go to the beach unsupervised by parents required passing obligatory early morning Red Cross swim lessons. They were always scheduled for before the fourth of July during the first week of high tide (frigid but clean water) and finished the following week at dead low tide. The swim test was at low tide when the water was warmer but smelled like Sulphur and rotting fish. I was informed by our biology teacher that this distinct, obnoxious tidal scent was due to sex pheromones produced by seaweed eggs to attract sperm. A few years later I understood that bikinis served the same purpose.
Transforming from a teen to a young adult brought forth the understanding that if my passion for playing with boats was to endure, I’d have to learn to take care of myself, my boat, and everyone else aboard. I accepted the notion that the freedom to explore coastlines came with the burden of responsibility for my decisions. Reading the skies and listening to weather forecasts do not ensure a calm day on the water. Being careful was part of being responsible. If either of those traits were absent, my decisions could jeopardize the crew’s wellbeing. Playing it safe on the water seemed to be a small cost of freedom. I violated the rule once (as most youth do), sauntered into harm’s way, and nearly drowned behind a sloop pirated from a friend’s parents.
This 4th of July is different. There are no fireworks scheduled in coastal communities. Yet the spirit of freedom burns brightly as star spangled buntings are hoisted and flags wave jauntily in the sea breeze. There is an undercurrent though that is binding some folks together while tearing others apart. Wearing sunscreen is an option. Wearing a mask inside public places is not an option. I don’t know the odds of getting skin cancer compared to spreading the virus. I do believe communal liberty depends on respecting and caring for others. The poet Kahlil Gibran, whose poetry guided me through teen angst-ridden summers that smelled like Johnson’s Baby Oil and Noxema, said it best, “let there be spaces in your togetherness.” Let the love for independence and community be like “a moving sea between your souls.”
A lot of things that we think matter a lot turn out to be worthless. During this pandemic I’ve spent substantial time reflecting on what holds value and what is just a Sweet Fanny Adams. Another Fanny, this one from Broadway, sang, “people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” Those are the people who will always remember Spring 2020 as a bleak and lonely season. Regardless of the plight of humanity, the earth continued to spin on its axis, days grew longer, and boating season returned. People who need boats are the second luckiest people.
Joshua Slocum was a self-sufficient 19th century sailor who circumvented the globe alone. His life partner was his boat, Spray. He found people were like Sweet Fanny Adams, they were insignificant, except to buy his book. While Slocum was obsessed with single-handed sailing, I prefer Noah’s two by two plan for crew on the Ark. I can’t do with both hands what Slocum did with a pinky finger. Sometimes it takes four or six hands to keep Ex Libris afloat.
This past weekend I filled my tanks with fresh water and was startled to note that the head (bathroom) floor had quite a bit of water that seemed to be coming up from the shower drain. I wiped it up and found that it wasn’t a trickle of tinkle. The water was clear and odorless. The last time we found water dripping in the head was on a New Years Eve when our boat was taking on river water. This puddle did not resemble melted yellow snow.
Fully embracing the “many hands less work” theory, I hailed our good friend, a retired Naval engineer who spent his career working with nuclear submarine engines. I fretted that we could sink from the sink, after all water drains from the sink into the river so what’s to stop the reverse? Joe troubleshooted how sink water could appear on the floor of a different cabin. He taught me how to check sea cocks and blow out clogs from a drain. Heady stuff that appeared to quell the leak. We kept to our plan to socially distance our two boats overnight on a quiet slough off the Mississippi. I relaxed knowing a guy who spent most of his career under water wasn’t concerned about puddles in my head.
We dropped anchor. I sopped up another pint of water and tried to remember the first prayer on a rosary chain. After a fine meal on deck, George went below to use the head and shortly called up, “I fixed the leak!” The submariner and I were baffled. George, who is a damn fine first mate is not noted for his acuity for fixing things at sea or on land. Beaming a broad smile, he tossed me a nearly empty gallon water jug kept in the bathroom on a low shelf that we use to flush the head. It was dented and had a small bottom crack. Only a couple of ounces of water remained at the bottom of the jug. He had fixed the leak.
The next day, George and the submariner took a smoko. That’s an old naval term for a taking a break from all seaman duties. They savored a couple of expensive cigars together (appropriately distanced) and spoke quietly about the many things men do at sea and with boats. Some, like engines that won’t kick over are serious. Others, such as distilled water jug floods are not. We were glad to be in the company of a Navy sailor on this Memorial Day weekend. He recalled another sailor who advised; the first thing to do on a boat is raise the flag. The last thing is to take it down, fold it respectfully, and store it until the next time. It’s good to honor our troops, past and present whose heroics big and small are never Sweet Fanny Adams. Life is more than luck. Few of us can make it single handed. We need people like them to keep people like us safe.
 An old Royal Navy saying referring to the content of tinned meat rations that were considered worthless. It’s a twisted tale born of a tragedy but kept for something.
Sink or Float is a simple game best played with young kids. I prefer playing it riverside or alongshore but it can be played in a bucket, a bowl, sink, or tub (skip the toilet). Just add water. Players gather up things, twigs, bits of asphalt, younger siblings to toss in the water. The object of the game is to guess whether each bit of stuff will sink or float. Stones can skip but then they sink. It’s an easy game unless you are new to the world, as children are, and the laws of gravity aren’t obvious. There are a lot of surprises in the realm of sinking and floating stuff.
And then there is hope. It can’t be seen on shore or picked up to toss in a pond, but it is real. Hope, by its nature, floats, like boats are built to do. There has been a lot of fuss during this pandemic over the question of whether or not we are all in the same boat. The answer is, no. First, the loosest of social gathering policies sets 10 as the top limit for touchable togetherness. Second, unless you’re escaping Cuba, a crew that big needs a decent size boat and a captain with a hefty wallet. This means an awful lot of people, and many who can’t swim, are struggling to stay afloat.
Anyone who has ever simply messed about in boats holds tightly to the notion that it’s better to float than to sink. Charles Dickens wrote that while hope may well float, it’s like a buoy that can’t be steered. You must keep wishing you’ll stay afloat while knowing that the wind and current may or may not bring you to where you want to be.
Unlike the game of Sink or Float, where science wins, wishing on a star and hoping for the best, is proof that our inner child still holds fast to the belief that life doesn’t play fair. That little kid who stays down deep within our aging bodies knows for sure that hope floats and wishes come true. In fact, they are as real as dreams and strong as boats that sail the seas. Hope floats because we believe it floats. Disbelief sinks our spirts to deep despair.
I’d rather have faith in hope than to swallow the anchor. To do the later would mean giving up the sea and retiring to a landlocked boat-less life. I’m using hope to keep my head above these turbulent seas where getting splashed can sink me to the bottom. So, if you come to our dock and ask for permission to come aboard, unless you’re willing to mask up and keep a safe distance, don’t be offended if we shake our heads but not your hands and sail off alone. I’m hoping that this talisman will protect you, me, and all we love until the tide changes and we cruise safer waters together.