Love Reigns O’er Rivers

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The Illinois and Mississippi Rivers converge at and sometimes over a tiny river town that bills itself as the Key West of the Midwest (KWMw). Nearly 20 years ago we celebrated our Silver Wedding Anniversary with close friends aboard a 40’ catamaran in Key West. Yesterday, the four of us aboard their boat, River Dancer docked for the weekend in Grafton (KWMw) shared a toast to “love so strong it thrives for a lifetime”. We celebrated a young couple who, oblivious to misty rain, said their vows in a woodland atop the rivers’ confluence.

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Hand in hand now and ’til forever.

The ceremony took place at Lovers Leap high above Pere Marquette Park. Viewed during the winter when trees are bare – the view is spectacular. Spring’s lush foliage obscures the vista and creates quiet spot where a leap would be more like a tripping off a street curb or playing on a backyard slip ‘n slide. As far as a wedding venue goes – it’s perfect. We should keep our focus on the bride and groom, they on each other, and not on the scenery.

All minds wander a bit during wedding ceremonies. Mine drifted to the namesake of our venue, Pere Marquette, a 17th century Jesuit who set out from north of Wisconsin to find the mouth of the Mississippi. Rumor had it the Mississippi bit the sea somewhere in southern California. With God in his heart, a map maker for companionship, and a paddle in callused hands, Marquette toiled southbound with the current. Just about the time his butt fused with the canoe he learned of irritable Spaniards occupying southern river territory. He accepted local lore that the big river blessed the sea in the Gulf not the Pacific, wisely reversed course and headed back north. Marquette wrote in his journal about a gigantic, horrific creature, a Piasa Bird, he saw boldly painted on the granite bluffs that glowered over the river just south of KWMw.The image was pockmarked with spears and arrows but endured.

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Piasa Bird North Alton Wikipedia

The mythical Piasa Bird is an iconic figure that graces many a pub and gift nook along the Great River Road. It’s been repainted over the ages to befuddle tourists not besotted by the continuous loop of Jimmy Buffet wannabes. The Piasa Bird, in my imagination, not the original native artists’, is symbolic of advice for newlyweds. Beginning with it’s head – which should be kept on straight when entering into a lifelong commitment – the creature resembles a bird –dream to fly free – to walk the earth and swim in the sea. The Piasa has the horns of a deer – be gentle and blend with nature. Red eyes – if you bear children there will be sleepless nights. A tiger’s beard – it takes willpower and courage to forge two lives into one union. (Fish) scales – with happiness comes change and transformation. And finally, a long reptile’s tail – love may be eternal – but life is certainly not – decide when it is right to fight or take flight.

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Mother & Father of the Bride, Doug & Donna “Love is gentle, Love is Kind.”

The Illinois is narrow, serene river that presents all of its possessions to the Messipi – the “Great Water.” Two streams blend at Illinois Mile Marker 0 and never stop flowing as one body toward their final destination. Yesterday two young lovers leaped into the vast and uncharted seas of marriage. May the spirit of the Piasa Bird and loving support of family and friends ensure that they live mostly happily ever after.

Congratulations Kari & Shane

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Ride, Sally, Ride

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Who’s That Sailing On a Tin Can? Photo by NASA

There are still 26 days until the Solstice but yesterday we jumped the season, cast off the dock lines, and sailed Ex Libris into summer.   We would never have left the dock without the help of our dock mates who have far more mechanical skills, tools, and how to fix anything experience, than we’ll ever know. It’s not that we’re dumb, as one pal explained to our daughter, it’s just that we know that by admitting what we don’t know (about fixing boats) – friends who know what to do are happy to help – and ready to set sail as soon as it’s fixed.

I like to think of myself as a confident, competent captain. I can navigate, steer, trim sails, scrub decks, sand and stain teak, and cook. Big whoop. Can I rewire the radio and troubleshoot a dead battery? Nope. Fix the hot water heater? Nada. Change the oil – yeah, maybe – if someone would show me how – but there’s no rush here. Does that keep me dock bound? No. I’ve got friends with skills, I’ve got boats, and I can sail.

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I don’t look like Anne Bonny in my dreams. Not much. Photo via Wikipedia

I fantasize being a brave, challenging woman of the sea like the pirate, Anne Bonney – a fierce hell-cat of a sailor. Legend has it she drank like a man and pissed like a woman – perhaps a tribute to her tumultuous romance with Captain Jack. BTW –her last words to him when he went to the gallows, were “if you’d fought like a man you’d need not be hanged like a dog.” Johnny Depp wept.

When I wanted to become a sailor – I began with a little boats on small ponds and learned by doing. My learning curve included regular and unexpected capsizing. Two-foot-itis keep me trading up until now – with a big boat on a big river. We have friends who have sailed out of the river and into the bigger waters beyond. Other women more honorable than pirates dream of sailing to the stars. One of them, Sally Ride, was born the same year as me. Dr. Ride worked her butt off and despite the “no balls no sit in the rocket” attitude of the time, she became the first woman NASA allowed to sail off-planet. She retired her astronaut status the 80’s and rode out her time as a physicist inspiring girls to dream like Einstein and create the future through science.

Einstein said we are all related to and by time. Anne’s been gone for over 200 years – Sally just three. Whether dreaming of being free at sea or sailing on a comet’s tail – young girls and their grannies are bound through time with child bearing pirates and lady astronauts. Time on boats is well spent and often best savored in the company of good friends – especially the ones with skills.

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Being a STEM Geek is something young girls can do. Dream big. RIP Sally Ride – that lady had skills. Photo by NASA.

Ground Sea

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Pathway through the dunes to Indian Rocks Beach. Can this last forever?

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Sea change. IRB. The Nest.

Today there is merely a hint of a warm southwest breeze moving in off the Gulf, the sky is brilliantly blue and I must squint to see the surf breaking beneath the glare. Despite the calm, the sea is a churning caldron.  Large breakers relentlessly pound the shore. Pathways of bubbles perpendicular to the beach signify dangerous rip currents. The sea is angry, the winds are calm, and the sun is not interested in playing referee. The few boats heaving through the sea leave twisting wakes. Why such a rough sea on such a nice day? Sometimes we can’t see the storm. It’s raging beyond the horizon. Only the ground sea carries its wrath to shore.

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Life in the dunes. Hunkering down a’fore the storm on IRB.

I don’t have a boat here – I’m beach bound. I understand the concept of a ground sea and enjoy monitoring the weather on my iPhone while at the same time sensing a slight chill in the air and a faint taste of salt on my lips. Time passes. The horizon seems to blur. Color fades from the sky and cloud roll in. The sea ages, turning gray and cantankerous. My lip balm feels gritty. The sky slaps rain onto on sea and winds flatten the waves. The surf beats its fists on the shore and rips back out to sea. Daylight is extinguished. The storm arrives unbidden but not unexpected.

Even the most idyllic places where wind and water co-exist there is always some sort of violent weather just beyond the horizon or a day away. People can drown in relationships that mirror a ground sea. When communication fails, trust wanes and fury trumps reconciliation. It’s easy to be distracted by what we yearn to see and simply ignore a wicked rough sea. Perhaps the saying, “life’s a beach” is a warning that those who stay set in the bliss of a beach for too long are bound to get blown, burned, soaked, and parched. Walk the beach, sail the sea, surf the waves, fly a kite. Keep moving. This too shall pass.

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Gray is the day. Wet on IRB.

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Beach path, The Nest on Indian Rocks Beach

Normal is relative and over rated. What’s a normal boat look like? While you’re at it, show me a typical beach. I expect unique responses – from Hobie Cats to the sliver of sand at Mavericks in Half Moon Bay. Normal boats and beaches span a wide spectrum – the way each color of a rainbow has its own identity and right of being.

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South Denpasar,Bali Beach and Boats JAL

What’s a normal person like? Psychologists decided that like boats and beaches people can be judged on what is deemed as normal and typical. They set up a scale that ranges behaviors by factors such as social deficits and strengths (easy to get along with to PITA), clarity of communication (clear to garbled), interests (boats and swamp pluff), repetitive motion (ex., swimming and finger tapping), and sensory issues (loves to be wet or no contact with water).

We show an interest by engaging with it regularly or collecting a whole bunch of it. When someone’s focus seems is fixated to the point it becomes a defining character trait others may question whether or not the interest is healthy and normal. People can be critical of others and judge their habits as indicators of weirdness.

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If the shoe fits…

I was a geeky kid who hiked alone through swamps, creeks, fields and harbors collecting stuff to look at under my microscope. I collected books to read and stack up in my room should the need to read them again arise as predictably as a neap tide. By middle age, collecting boats was more interesting than merely collecting books about boats. As the economy prospered my interest flourished and sails, paddles, engines, ropes, and anchors accumulated.

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Blue Hues on the Block Island Ferry JAL

I needed to tame my passion for the sea with something requiring less space, maintenance, and annual property taxes. I thought about my youth spent toting a butterfly net and knapsack stuffed with collection jars trudging through the shallow waters of Long Island Sound. I saw myself in the same footwear year in and out – brown, scuffed, sloppy and soggy Topsiders. My tickets to the sea held ten toes, two feet and a prayer to be invited on somebody’s boat. I showed up uninvited at yacht clubs and marinas but was never turned away. Topsiders were calling cards, proof of membership among groups whose social calendar centered on tides and waterlines. Who else would wear grungy leather shoes with white rubber soles in an era of Go Go boots and ballet flats?

Somewhere along the spectrum of normal is a tiny speck for people who temper their constant desire to be on the water by slipping into a pair of deck shoes. That’s my sweet spot on the rainbow. I wear them for play and work – because I can. Topsiders aren’t particularly comfortable shoes. Their weak arch support is balanced with a tenacious grip on wet decks that prevents a lot of painful slips and injuries. Security creates the feeling of comfort.

IMG_5968Some professional women strut their stuff with Tory Burch. I’m confident in my Sperrys. I accessorize the crisp lines of Brooks Brothers pinstripes with color appropriate Topsiders. My collection spans a rainbow of colors that match my quirks and wardrobe.

Obviously, anyone with a tight grasp of normal is going to find me pushing the envelop at either end of the spectrum. Knowing this makes me sensitive to and appreciative of; off-the-bubble nerds, gentle souls, misunderstood leaders, idiosyncratic neighbors, students of all ages, and interesting yet atypical people. I fit with some and not well with others.

That’s okay. The only things that I collect more obsessively than Topsiders are words. I line Jeri@Ragtime-1them up, left to right, in all kinds of combinations of consonants, vowels, verbs and nouns. I’ve just arranged 587 words for no better reason than to mull over the notion that normal is found at every point on the spectrum of human behavior. Why do I like Topsiders so much? Because collecting lots of shoes to wear on boats is a whole lot less expensive and more normal than collecting lots of boats to match with shoes.

Undertow

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Cairn @ Narragansett Beach. Never eternal, sometimes monumental.

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Carribean exhaling Jost Van Dyke @ The Soggy Dollar

Every wave has an undertow. Bodies of water breathe. When the sea exhales waves break and spew phlegm onto beaches. Oceans meet land and release energy in the spirit of a Zen master. Water wants only to flow. When freed from the sea it stretches until its forward energy is depleted. It is recaptured and commanded to retreat or be evaporated by the sun. Undertows form currents that lick low and slink steadily towards offshore. Undertows suck sand away from one’s feet. They extend silky invitations to follow into deeper water and relish pleasures secreted deep beyond the surf zone.

Undertows are unsettling. They aren’t dangerous like rip currents that highjack swimmers and hold them hostage until they sink beneath frothing waves. Rips are wicked – life threatening, maritime thugs who snatch breathless, unsuspecting swimmers into the darkness below sun dappled waves.  Undertows are temptations -like people who pull others into situations beyond their comfort zones.

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Surf line far from a shore that was underwater just a couple of hours earlier. Narragansett RI

Rogue waves are worse than rips. Twenty years ago we went to the America’s Cups races in San Diego. It was early February when the Pacific coastal waters boast of enormous, rough and unpredictable wave action. We went beach walking on a blustery afternoon. The surf was frigid, confused, and angry. Wave crests towered above the pier  and roared louder than a herd of jet engines. We stayed far from the waterline away from the breakers’ icy spray. Wind burned and chilled, I turned my back on the sea and headed further up shore. A silent wall of water broached my reverie. It slipped ahead of my feet its force buckled my knees and knocked me face forward beneath the surface. Startled, legs akimbo, arms flailing, sand and water penetrated every orifice.

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What lies beneath the undertow?

The water disappeared as mysteriously as it had overtaken me -swiftly and silently. I retched salt water, spit out gritty sand, raked seaweed from my hair, and snorted gray foam. People higher up the beach described a monster wave that broke and pushed a surge of deep water far up the beach before sucking everything into its clutch.

Never turn your back to the ocean. We were lucky – later that week, the coach of the Chargers’ daughter was not. She and her brother were out on the coastal rocks scattering their Mom’s ashes when a rogue struck them off guard and dragged her soul to eternity.

Maybe maturity is staying clear of rips and rogues whose company is worse than being alone. It’s only a beach if there is water. I don’t mind being tempted beyond my comfort zone – that’s where adventures are born and wonder is raised. Like the sea; breathe out, breathe in – it’s not a beach vacation until you get wet.

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Gone with the Flow

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Anchor Yankers Island Island Closing. JAL

Imagine doing something just for the sake of doing it. You’re in the zone. You are going with the flow. Time fades and your entire being gets into whatever it is you are doing. The moment is prized and you hardly notice that your body and mind are stretched to their limits. The flow is you.

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DW’s idea of a river dance. Port Charles to AYI.

Saturday I hitched a ride up river on our friend DW’s power boat. I arrived at the harbor and found him on the dock, relaxed as he savored a hot tumbler of coffee. When I apologized for being a couple of minutes late he grinned, “We’re on River Time.”

His 24’ Cobia stirred up a mess of Chinese carp before pointing upstream, getting down on plane and ripping through the current. The shoreline was ablaze with orange, crimson, and golden foliage. The channel shined beneath the low-slung sun as a purloined trove of Cartier’s finest diamonds.

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Pavillion @ Anchor Yankers End of a Season. JAL

Time like a river flows. Boats allow us to flow with time in ways that can’t be measured by Rolexes. Watching a bald eagle soar above the river for just a few moments is a vision that can endure in memory over a lifetime. Being with the flow resets our heads to moments in life when age is irrelevant. Age is trumped by the joyful sensation of being alive. The past is left in our wake the future lies at the bow. We float with Now. Regardless of the number of candles on the last cake – being on the water resets our internal sense of time. We are forever young.

Our cruise back to port was brief as the boat bit into the groove and sped down the channel. My mind absorbed the crisp fall air, glare of the sun, and brilliant foliage reflected off the calmer waters. My knees flexed to absorb the shock of crossing over wakes. Crows dug their feet into the creases of my eyes and lips as I squinted and grinned into the wind. Water, land, wind, and sun were transformed into a memory that will last longer then the time yet to pass between laying up for winter and next year’s boating season.

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Ralph, Jeri, Big G Last Sail of 2014 on Ex Libris

Shallow Up

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Our Lady of the River @ Portage Des Sioux from Palisades Yacht Club – erected as a “Thank You for Not Flooding the Whole Town in 1950”

Rivers, lakes, and oceans have some places where the water is deep and others that aren’t. Boaters put a premium on knowing the difference. When the bottom unexpectedly meets a hull the results can be catastrophic, so boaters seek water that’s relatively deep. Novice swimmers (regardless of their height) tend to do the opposite and feel more secure when they can touch bottom.

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My (in the) River Home during 2013 spring flood – parking and grassy area to Palisades’ harbor

We can get into real trouble in water whether it’s over our heads or beneath the keel and propeller. Depths vary between the spots where water kisses dry land and the deep abyss where living things take it upon themselves to light their way.

People are not just made mostly of water – they tend to act like deep or shallow ends. We all know at least one philosopher savant who makes simple things complex and often drowns us with details ad nauseam. We grow exhausted fighting the current of drawn out discussions that appear to have little meaning to anyone past the first drink and no end in sight. Then there are our easy breezy pals who never dive deep into any conversation. These easy chatters bring a light chop to dialogue that carries us through the next round. Somewhere in between are the acquaintances that are much like uncharted waters. We’re not sure whether their cups are half full or empty – and don’t really care. Not knowing the details makes navigating some relationships really interesting.

I know people who think, “I’m really not all that deep – what you see is what you get.” That’s a misleading statement. You can’t always tell what lies beneath by what the surface looks like. This season the river has gone from flood (more than12’ feet below our boat in the harbor slip) to the lowest levels (3’9” beneath us on Saturday) many of us have ever seen. Take for example the Mississippi River last weekend. We set sail on our friend’s sailboat, Mariah. As we prepared to leave the dock, numerous sailors warned that there was less than a yard of water at the mouth of the harbor. Our skipper affirmed that he had a retractable centerboard and we’d only draw about two feet of water beneath the hull. Sure enough – out we went into the river channel.

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“Frankly, Scarlett – it is a dam.” @ The Lady of the River’s feet – fall 2014

It was a beautiful day for sailing – steady 10 knot winds from the north. We headed back with big grins and wary eyes ahead looking out for the rock dam that extends from the Lady of the River across the slough (a skinny channel set apart from the main river by a series of islands). We knew almost exactly what lied beneath – but not how far the lie went. The golden autumn sun was setting low in perfect alignment with the slough and the wind was at our bow. We had to squint to read the current as it swirled the energized, dancing waves in a chaotic rhythm. We saw the line of whirlpools and white caps that signaled shallow depths – but the river unexpectedly went shallow under quieter water. With a sickening series of thuds the centerboard rammed the dam and had a rocky ride over its crest.

Bent centerboards don’t retract back into their kangaroo pockets beneath the hull. A harbor mouth that was “deep enough” a couple hours earlier – was a greedy sucker that swallowed the centerboard and held the boat solid in it’s jaws. We were stuck. Drama ensued with a tow by the harbor master, sheepish nods to the naysayers who warned us to stay tucked in our slips, and a certain sense of satisfaction that we really did have a great sail while everyone else busied themselves ashore. Rather than wreck the day with deep analysis of what went wrong – we all sort of shallowed up. Our small community offered to help fix the boat and get the skipper back on the water ASAP.

Of course – the river’s going to have to rise up and lift Mariah off the bottom. Then our conversation will be deep enough to be interesting and shallow to the extent we keep our mood afloat.

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Sky above goes up forever, river below keeps on burnin’. Alton bluffs seen from Portage des Sioux. 10/19/14

Pirates of a Certain Age

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Rags Raised

Our second son is an attorney who specializes in elder law. He often counsels families on fine details of Granny and Pawpaw’s estate planning. The grandparents are often in their 90s, the kids in their 70s, and grandkids in their 50s. He says the 90s are a hot time in life – most folks got the math down pretty good and know a thing or two about saving for rainy days. They’ve got enough stashed away to give the great grandkids more than just good advice.

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Chicken Sheet

I spent the weekend surrounded by other grandparents and two of our own grand kids. We whiled away Saturday aboard the Ex Libris, our sailboat, playing pirates on the Mississippi with a rowdy band of grandparents. There were a dozen other boats flying Jolly Rogers, flinging rubber chickens, and drenching opposing crews with water cannons. All of the scally wags were in proper attire and the letter right between Q and S (if I hear it one more time I’ll scream) was yelled more times than a hip-hop rapper can drop the F bomb.

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Big G Won a Cutlass for Best Pirate Costume

When I was a kid during the middle of the last century it was politically correct to play cowboys and Indians. Our six shooters were filled with bright red rolls of caps. The pungent aroma of burnt power was one of the best smells of childhood, followed by a fresh can of Play Doh and the sugary scent of a slender slab of bubble gum that came free with baseball cards. We built forts in the woods and played baseball in back yards with out any adults tending to our super egos. If someone cheated he or she was summarily chased, caught, and pummeled.  Although the rules of any game changed depending on who’s house it was played – it was a given that somebody would break the rules. Wondering who and when was part of the fun. Getting away with breaking the rules and winning was pure ecstasy.

By middle age the smell of a new car pretty much topped burnt caps and our weekends were consumed watching our kids play games. They were very organized games with referees and red cards that could eject a player who broke the rules or a parent who dropped an F bomb (rather than the letter right smack between Q and S) right out of the park.

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Cap’n Bloody Bruce’s Boat

But during all that time there was one toy that was ageless. A boat. Whether it has an engine, paddles, oars, or sails, a boat is simply one of the best toys ever invented. Boats enable people to play on or in water, dance with waves, float a dream, and drift way.   Donning a pirate hat, slipping into a worn pair of Top Siders, and raising the main sail piques the same imagination we had as kids. Pirates get to break the rules all the time! It’s their job to play dirty and Cheat! Grandpas leer at nauti-wenches and are rewarded with a sly wink and a soaking shot of river blasted from a PVC water cannon. Flasks of personal choice poison are quaffed and by day’s end the booty is surrendered.

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Pirate by Day Grandma by Night

Boats bring forth one of the best scents of the good life – water. Playing pirates allows anybody to break the rules and play make believe on real boats. Eventually, I’ll have to sit down with my heirs and plan for rainy days when we can no longer float our boat. But thinking of Randy at work today – I am pretty confident that being only in his mid 30’s he is not expecting to inherit a boat for another quarter of a century. Who knows whether playing pirates today will be thought of tomorrow as yet another politically incorrect game of a generation who simply never grew up? Who cares? We got to keep the rubber chicken as a souvenir and I passed on my foam cutlass to our oldest granddaughter. Heck, maybe I’ll make her the captain someday and break the rules of inheritance etiquette. Argggghhhhh.

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Nice Heir