Tomorrow I'm flying to Baltimore to help provision a sailboat on whose crew I will serve as the weakest link as we shush, bob and rock down the Chesapeake Bay, out into the Atlantic, across the Gulf Stream, down through the heart of the Saragasso Sea, all the way, if the keel and the mast stay put, to the British Virgin Island of Tortola.
Of a husband and father doing a thing like that—or a thing like, riding a motorcycle from Chicago to Nova Scotia and back, as I did last summer, or rambling around China as I did a few years ago, or riding a bicycle across Iowa as I plan to do next summer—there are only two things to assume: He's running from something, 0r he's one lucky bastard to have a work and family life that allows for such adventures.
Well, of course I'm running from something. Death, is its name.
I'm less comfortable with being lucky. (It scares me.)
So whenever I'm about to embark on my latest trip of a lifetime, I go through two machinations, with equal amounts of energy thust into private meditation and public proclamation.
First, I tell myself and everybody else that the trip is utterly psychologically necessary—nay, spiritually inevitable!—at this precise juncture in my life.
And then, probably because I sense everyone finds my Coming-of-Age-at-Forty-One narrative fairly asinine, I then try to minimize the appearance of irresponsibility by saying the trip is "for a story."
Like I'm friggin' Christiane Amanpour or something.
Usually, any story that involves a sailing or motorcycling or wind-unicycling magazine you've never heard of pays two hundred and fifty exciting dollars for five pages of copy with photographs, and A web video would be fantastic, man. You rock!
(Not that working for these kinds of publications doesn't have its other compensations. An editor at Sailing Magazine once told me to "put as much of yourself in the piece as possible, and write as long as you need." I said, "Why can't you work for The New York Times?" And the esteemed editor at Road Racing World thanked me for a fine profile of the last-place finisher in a vintage-motorcycle race in Alabama, but advised me, for future consideration: "Usually, we write about winners, not douchebags." That's what I call editorial guidance.)
On this trip—I'm one of a crew of four transporting my brother-in-law's 54-foot Hylas sailboat now that Hurricane Season's over; we'll be gone two weeks—sure, I'm open to personal transformation. But then, I'm open that every time I glimpse a full moon walking home from the tavern. After this trip, I'll be happy if I've read Light in August and finished this Joseph Mitchell book I'm really into.
And yes, I've sold a lengthy feature story to a sailing magazine, at the usual rate of pay. But it'll amount to little more than a reason to pay attention and take notes, and a 3,000-word thank-you note to my brother-in-law.
But on this trip, I'm just going.
I want to see Baltimore, where I've never been. I want to see the Chesapeake, from the Chesapeake. I want to sit by myself at the helm of a sailboat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night. (How many nights in my life have I slept in a dry bed in fear of the middle of the night in middle of the Atlantic Ocean? Every other night in my life except tonight, is the answer.) I want to survive the Saragasso Sea, dreaded since ancient times but more recently marketed as the Bermuda Triangle.
And with any luck, we'll get down to the Islands with a few days to kill before our flights back. I'm going to sit in the sun and read and drink and sleep and swim and read and drink and sleep and swim. (I'll speak only when I'm drinking and I'll eat while I'm reading.) I will not waste a moment wondering how it is I deserve this. I don't. I will also check my e-mail every whenever I'm a harbor, and won't treat the trip as something holy that could be stained by a couple of hours of laptop copywriting one braindead morning. It won't.
After tomorrow's Happy Hour Video ... I'll likely not be back at you until Monday, Nov. 15.
Unless something transformative happens that I feel compelled to tell you about sooner.
As I've always said, not all Republicans are dogs, but all dogs are Republicans. Wishing for nothing more than what they already have, dogs are conservative by nature. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's sort of touching.
But our puppy Charlie, I'm afraid, might actually be a Tea Partier.
He believes in very limited government. He acknowledges that of course the government needs to provide free food and water. But he definitely believes the government should not tell him what to chew on and where to poop.
When he thinks of books at all, it's not about reading them, but destroying them.
When he's angry, he barks. When he's scared, he barks. When he's sad, he barks. When he's happy he barks. And the only responsible thing to do when he barks, is ignore him in hopes he'll eventually stop and concern himself with something else.
I'll be glad when this election season is over, won't you?
I got a new wallet, and gave Scout my old one. Out of paper, she made herself a driver's license, a credit card, a bus pass and something with my name on it.
"So I'll always remember you," she said. "After you pass away."
(I told her that, in this household, we say "die." Why? "Because 'passed away' is for wimps.")
[The next morning, I told Scout I wanted to snooze a little while she ate breakfast. "Dad," she said, "in this house we don't say 'snooze.' We say, 'sleep.'"]
I've done only one purely evil thing in my life, and I did it with only a split second of thought.
During a round of golf at a fancy resort in Hilton Head, S.C., I missed a two-foot putt and, on my enraged way around the hole to tap in the come-backer, I spotted a tiny little red bug making his harmless way across the green.
I slammed my putter down on it, killing it. I was angry at a missed putt, so I killed something. I immediately went hot with shame and looked around to see if my playing partners saw what I did. The bug was so small, I don't think they did.
I'm still embarrassed to admit it.
But that's not how powerful people usually do harm, when they do.
One day several years ago—must have been awhile ago, because I was still smoking—I was hungover, and out of cigarettes.
I fumbled in my closet and found my cleanest dirty shorts. I stumbled down the stairs and ambled down the city sidewalk. It was a terribly bright summer morning, and I squinted and tried to herd random synapses into thoughts.
I took a step and felt a squish under my right foot, and a splatter on my left calf.
I looked down. I had stepped on a baby bird.
I had stepped on a fucking baby bird!
It was dead. There was nothing to do but continue to the gas station, calling myself names: You big stupid oaf. You reckless, addled monster. You drunken, clumsy giant.
"Yes, give me a pack of Marlboro Lights, please. And a book of matches."
For days and weeks, I told everyone that story, as a sort of serial confession. Everyone told me there was nothing I could have done. It was an accident. A baby bird on a sidewalk was going to die anyway. I probably even saved it an agonizing death.
That, to me, is how powerful people usually do their damage: by accident.
And how they get over it: quickly, and with the help of their powerful friends.
The point of these posts on power is that understanding power requires the same as understanding poverty—empathizing with it in every way we can.
One of the few things I wrote in college that I still stand behind is a line I wrote in a short story: "All people feel the same things. We just don't feel them at the same time."
People work for powerful people, vote for powerful people, reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of decisions powerful people make.
So understanding powerful people is a prerequisite for living wisely.
And the best way to understand powerful people is to understand how we deal with power, when we have it; and to admit that we do not always deal with it well.
The Murrays got a puppy. I'd like to introduce him, and then we'll talk about him.
Cute little fellow.
Yeah, yeah. Within the first week:
I had spent $1,000 on the dog and on Bullshit Sprays, Piss Pads, Special Baggies, Gourmet Food and Other Stuff That Dog Owners Didn't Need Until PetSmart Told Them They Needed®.
I had felt the warm ooze of Charlie's shit between my bare toes.
I had mopped up Charlie's piss maybe a dozen times.
Only a dozen, because I'd taken Charlie down the three flights of stairs probably 60 times.
I had bellowed "no" several hundred times.
I had lain awake for hours waiting for Charlie to stop barking from his cage. I can tell you that he barks at the rate of 62 times per minute.
Sleep deprived, I had gotten into an e-mail argument with Scout's Aunt Susy, who feels strongly that I should refer to the cage as a "kennel," because "cage sounds like the zoo." How does gulag grab you?
I had risen seven mornings before sunup to take Charlie out.
I had had a conversation about "buyer's remorse" with my wife. Tyranically but sincerely, I told her the thought, however natural, is simply unacceptable.
I had missed five workouts, unable to leave Charlie at the house to go running, unwilling to drag him down the sidewalk as I jogged. (Finally, I got over it, and now drag him down the sidewalk.)
My wife told me I need to be "strategic" about when I wrestle with him, "So he knows when it's OK to bite." I told her I didn't know what "strategic" meant in this context. She said, "Like, maybe just don't wrestle with him at all."
I had told Scout she mustn't run from Charlie when he nips at her. She continues to run from Charlie every time he nips at her. "I'm scared!"
(Oh, and don't think I don't know you're finding fault with my leadership already; I use the word "I" too much, and "we" too little. Well I'm running a three-ring circus here, and I don't have time to play tiddlywinks with everybody's ego.)
I have my strategies—for potty training, and less urgent forms of obedience—and I'm sticking to them, and demanding that everyone in the household sticks to them. But do I know they're going to work? No, and so I furtively check the websites of pet "experts" to see if they've got any other strategies that might work better.
I think I know how a CEO feels.
Helpless, put-upon, a little scared ... and sorry for himself.
And with absolutely no moral justification.
And if you think I'm some kind of ogre, you can go to hell. Or tune in tomorrow for the second part of "Speaking truth to power: talking to myself," and find out what an ogre really is.
I'm not sure if I'm running this series of Facebook status updates in order to expose the obnoxiousness of a Yankee fan, the childishness of a middle-aged sports fan or the agony of any fan whose baseball team is in the playoffs.
But here it is.
Oct. 10 Yanks sweep the Twins as predicted. Hughes was outstanding. The best team money can by buy is playing great defense. On to the next round. Probably the Texas Rangers.
Oct. 13 As predicted: Texas Rangers defeat the Tampa Rays. Now they play the best team money can buy. The Yanks will beat them 4 games to two.
Oct. 15 Tonight the NY Yankees cut the heart out of those chokers. ... No one has the Heart of the Yankees. Absolutely no one.
Oct. 16 Those Texas Chokers have never won anything. Today is another day and the best team $$$ can buy will win beat those chokers once again in game 2.
Oct. 16 Beautiful fall day in Westchester. Today is Yankee Pride Day. Wearing my Yankee attire.
Oct. 16 Not good for the Yankees today. They should have pitched Pettitte.
Oct. 20 CC pitches today at 4:07. Not much hope for the Yankees. If CC wins, we are still down 3-2 and go back to Texas.
Oct. 20 Finally, the best team $$$ can buy is kicking some Texas butt. Up 3-0. You never know in this series.
Oct. 20 Yanks up 5-0 over Texas. Amazing. This team is the best. Hopefully, we beat Texas today. Yesterday we should have beaten them also. Now we have to fly to Texas to win and go into the WS.
Oct. 20 Surprise. Suprise. The best team $$$ can buy is going back to Texas.
Oct. 22 Yankees go for the tie this evening. Expect the best from the best team $$$ can buy.
Oct. 23 Sad ending for the NY Yankees. Time to retool and get ready for 2011. Congrats to Texas. Beating the Yanks indicates they will get their first WS championship.
Oh, damn. Now I have to root against the Rangers too.
Stephen Fry, on language pedants:
"They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences, and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings. But do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it.
"They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe."
“Exhausted. From what I see, that’s how a lot of Democrats feel. They’ve turned silent, too, like people who witnessed a car crash and can’t talk anymore about the reasons for the accident or how many were injured. This election is more and more shaping up into a contest between the Exhausted and the ... Enraged.” —Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 25, 2010
(That was the quote of the day yesterday at PunditWire, a new group blog that's really got it going on; it's all speechwriters and ex-speechwriters, and it's pretty smart.)
Noonan, who usually writes better than she thinks, has misinterpreted the relative quiet on the left, I think. It's not exaustion.
It's the least fashionable, least common (and perhaps also least useful) political emotion there is.
I feel it, anyway.
Patience is what I felt the other day at a New York diner drinking coffee with an ex-Dem speechwriter and a current administration scribe. They chewed (and chewed) over whether Obama had or hadn't compromised too much on healthcare, should or shouldn't have focused first on jobs. These were very bright guys who watch this stuff closely and care deeply about it. I should have been interested. But, honestly, my mind wandered. Not believing I or anyone else can analyze this stuff in real time (or anything like it), I'm content to let things play out.
Patience is what I felt a couple days ago when a pal with whom I have argued about politics since the 1992 election sent me something to read about the administration "in case we ever get to the point where we can talk about Obama." Maybe I'll read what he sent, maybe I won't. But I don't believe President Obama is destroying the nation, and I don't want to talk with anyone who does believe that for at least two more years, and really not for another six. (Actually, 10 would give us some real breathing room. Let's make a date!)
And patience is what I feel—and often feel with reluctance, which contributes to my quiet—when gay friends point out that Obama ought to be bolder on DADT, when my hard-assed liberal friends say he's being a pussy about financial reform, and when most of my friends say that we ought to get our asses out of Afghanistan, and pronto. I agree with my friends on these issues. But I voted for President Obama. And I like President Obama. And I trust President Obama. And actually, so do most of my gay, hard-assed, anti-war friends. They're willing to wait too.
Until I actually witness Noonan's make-believe "car crash," or at least hear screeching tires, I'll wait, watchfully, to see what the administration can accomplish in some very difficult cirmumstances.
I think of Obama as a feller who thinks kind of like me—he likes reading, writing, cities, daughters, hoops and golf too!—only a lot better. (He's not a big drinker, but nobody's perfect; at least he smokes.) There's never been a president whose mind I thought I understood as well as I think I understand Obama's. During the rabid election year of 2008, I allowed that I'd probably hate him by now. But I don't. I still admire him.
I'm not saying my patience should be your patience. I've been in situations where I couldn't stand the boss and others thought the boss was OK. They saw my points, but they shrugged. What could they say? To them, he was an OK boss. They'd had worse, and this guy, they could deal with. Their patience was infuriating to me. But I didn't explain it away by saying they really were upset, but just too "exhausted" to complain.
My own quiet, and I suspect the quiet of many others: It's not exhaustion. It's patience.