Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Living on a Boat

That is what my wife, Ann, and I do during the summers. Live on a boat. Hence, my entries will be few as computer time on board is sporadic. I’ll be writing this entry episodically and probably post it in stages, but I might as well start at the beginning, as life on the water is something that has significantly defined who we are.

My introduction to boating began in Sag Harbor near the end of Long Island where my family rented a cottage each year in a little section of cottages called Pine Neck, a block from the Noyac Bay, between the twin forks. As a kid, I thought this was the most exotic place in the entire world and to some degree, now nearly sixty years later, I still sometimes feel that is where I would like to live.

Sag Harbor itself was (and still is) a quaint, seaside New England town, an old whaling village, although now, it is also part of the upscale Hamptons, but the great attraction for us in the early to mid 1950’s was the Bay itself, going to the little beach on Long Beach Road each day. There was a food shack there where we could get greasy fries and a hot dog, listening to Teresa Brewer belt out I Don't Want a Ricochet Romance on the juke box, the refrains of “I can't live on ricochet romance, no, no not me; If you're gonna ricochet, baby, I'm gonna set you free” lingering in my mind long after the song ended.

At night we would go into the town of Sag Harbor itself to the one movie house (here Ann and Jonathan stand in front of the theatre when we visited Sag, some thirty years after I last saw a movie there) and maybe get some ice cream. What could be more heavenly for a kid? For me, it was to have a boat, one with an engine that I could use to explore the Bay. Shelter Island was not far away but I knew that if I could inveigle my father into renting a boat that destination would probably be off limits.

Postponing the rental of my childhood dream yacht (a row boat with a small outboard engine) was the appearance of Hurricane Carol that made landfall on Long Island on August 30, 1954 as it was nearing peak intensity, and close to high tide. Although our cottage was slightly elevated and a few hundred yards from the Bay, the first floor was deluged with water. As a kid it seemed exciting but it foreshadowed other hurricanes, Gloria in 1985, and others that would more seriously impact us Floridians later in our lives, Francis and Jean in 2005, and Wilma in 2006. Between those and some notable Nor’easters we’ve endured, I sometimes wonder why we still persist in living on the water itself.

Sag Harbor was my first introduction to boating on my own, my father finally allowing me to rent that little wooden rowboat with a tired Johnson outboard engine which seemed to break down as often as it ran. The boat reeked of fish, gasoline and oil. Many years later in our boating lives Ann and I revisited Sag, and found that same marina, and the same food shack.

With my father along to show me the ropes, it soon became apparent that an outboard engine was as foreign to him as it was to me. Once we got it started after repeated pulls of the cord, with the exhaust hanging around us in the heavy air, the thought also went through his mind that we might adventure over to Shelter Island, clearly visible in the bay but, in the slight chop, oh so far away that we had to finally turn back. After a few warnings about staying close to shore, I was allowed to take the boat out by myself, the thrill of which probably lay dormant, awaiting my adult life when it kicked in with a vengeance.

But Sag Harbor wasn’t my only initiation to boating. My father’s younger cousin, Bill, had, what at the time was considered the Cadillac of small boats, a 28 foot Chris Craft. The boat was berthed in New Rochelle and he and his wife invited our family out several times. This was high adventure to me, leaving the New Rochelle harbor and anchoring off of Sands Point, which is just across the Long Island Sound. We would swim off the boat and sometimes train our binoculars on Perry Como’s house at the point, hoping to see the crooner. There are some ironies to the experiences with Bill’s boat. He bought his boat at Rex Marine which is a short walk from the marina where we now dock our floating summer-home and where I am presently writing this entry. We coincidentally now own a Chris Craft ourselves, a 1987 Commander with a hull built by Uniflite (the firm that built the hull for WW II PT boats). Even our home in Florida is not far from Perry Como’s in Jupiter before he died a few years ago.

Because of Cousin Bill’s boat, my father thought that he, too, could become a sea captain and quite uncharacteristically, he impulsively bought an old 35’ Owens, not fully realizing the work it would demand and of course the expertise that is required to handle such a boat. His temperament was not well suited to boating and even worse, my mother hated the work. A Captain without a cooperative, even enthusiastic mate, is doomed to boat alone or very little.

Many years later at Block Island I found a sister ship, pictured here in the background.

Nonetheless, we had that boat for about two years, and my parents named it after my sister and myself, ‘BobaLynne’ which I thought was kind of clever. Here I can be seen pulling on a stern line when we were anchored off a beach. In the foreground, but very blurred, is my mother’s hand holding her cigarette. Both my parents smoked, incessantly. No wonder I took up smoking when I was 16, eventually quitting when I was 33.

The high/low point of the BobaLynne was an ambitious cruise up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie. My Uncle Phil had a summer home nearby so the idea was for my father and me to bring the boat there while my mother and sister drove up the car. We would stay at my Uncle’s home and explore the Hudson. Dad and I made it down the Sound through Hell’s Gate and stayed overnight at a marina at the base of the Tappan Zee bridge, that was still under construction. After leaving the marina, one of the old Ford truck engines in the Owens broke down and we struggled on one engine to Poughkeepsie. The boat was out of commission for the rest of our vacation and I no longer remember how we got it home. Suffice it to say, the boat was soon sold after that extremely frustrating experience.

The following year, as I remember, we returned to Sag Harbor, for the last time. Again, I was allowed to rent a boat during those last two weeks of August. My sister attended a camp nearby and here we are standing in front of her “Nisimaha” cabin, me with my crew cut.

To replace our Sag Harbor rental, we returned over the next few years to Uncle Phil’s summer home in Stanfordville, New York, an out of the way country place not far from Millbrook. I loved it there too, mainly because, I had my Remington slide action 22 caliber rifle which I was allowed to use to shoot targets in the valley below, until one of the bullets ricocheted off a rock and landed in someone’s living room a mile away. To this day I can’t understand how the bullet travelled so far, but that was the end of my shooting days.

Other activities there included a nearby lake (alas, no boating allowed), the pool in Millbrook, a walk to the general store in the broiling heat, a drive by Jimmy Cagney’s home, and the local movie theatre. I remember seeing The King and I there. Sometime in the late 70s or early 80s I was on the Washington Eastern Airlines shuttle and found myself seated next to Yul Brunner, the one and only King, no matter how many times the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical might be revived. He was reading Playboy but we struck up a conversation, mostly about the film version I had seen as a kid.

However, until my adult life, I was out of boating and I haven’t even begun the story of living on the boat which I’ll continue later.

Monday, July 21, 2008


Our younger son, Jonathan, is a traveler, while our older son’s avocation is that of a writer (see Chris’ Why am I a Writer at the end of http://lacunaemusing.blogspot.com/2008/03/words-do-this.html).

It is hard to believe Jonathan is now 31 and Chris is 43 as it seems like mere moments have passed between these two photographs, the first Jonathan looking up in admiration of his older brother in the early 1980’s and the other of me flanked by them just this last Xmas holiday.

This summer, between jobs in private equity, Jonathan decided to take a trip he's always dreamed about. Last week he flew to Brussels and then was on his way to Egypt, Giza and the Pyramids, Cairo, Jordan, Petra, Lebanon, Syria (Damascus), through Israel, Bulgaria, Turkey, onto Greece where he is boarding a boat for a cruise of the Greek Islands, then to India, Delhi, to Kathmandu in Nepal, and two weeks traveling by boat, bus, jeep, and yak all throughout the northern cities of India, Agra, etc., ultimately hiking through the Himalayas. Whew! Most of his travel is being done with frequent flyer miles, a backpack and, except for parts of India, on his own. Talk about Wanderlust!

I suppose this is indeed the time to undertake such an ambitious trip before the responsibilities of a new job and perhaps marriage and family intercede. I never had those options, although my work entailed a number of international trips and contacts. In fact, on some of those trips I would bring my wife, Ann, and Jonathan. One I think he found especially impressionable was a trip to Japan when he was only twelve. The Japanese library market sought our professional and scholarly books and so my travels occasionally brought me there and I became close to the Japanese booksellers, particularly our distributor. My Japanese host and the head of the distribution company, Mitsuo, admired Jonathan’s inquisitiveness and took him under his wing. We travelled with Mitsuo and his wife to a spa hotel northwest of Tokyo where Naruhito, the Crown Prince of Japan, had stayed. There on the eve of the 1990 New Year, we were treated to a special weekend where we were the only Westerners, sleeping on handcrafted tatami mats, eating traditional Japanese food. My host challenged me to guess the identity of the dinner appetizer – something that tasted like steak tartar to me. He laughed when he told me it was raw horsemeat, a delicacy in the region. Luckily, I had sufficient Sake to wash it down. Not so at breakfast that consisted of seafood, rice, and fermented foods. Jonathan ate adventurously.

The high point of the weekend was the spa. First indoors we had to bathe sitting on a small stool, using a bucket with water, soaking and scrubbing ourselves until clean. Then, with nothing but a bathrobe, we walked outside into the cold night air, with snow on the ground, disrobed, and plunged ourselves in the hot springs. A bamboo curtain separated the ladies from the men. We could talk to our wives but not peek. Jonathan took to this so naturally while I had to be coaxed into the hot pool, simply because the temperature difference was so great.

In fact in two short weeks, Jonathan was beginning to find himself around Tokyo with little difficulty, using public transportation, and we let him explore a little. Ann and I remember sitting in our hotel room at the New Otani Tokyo, after he had left to go to the Ginza to see the latest electronics, watching him from our 30th floor window, a little speck on the street, crossing a bridge to the underground. Amazing we thought (perhaps as much surprised by our permissiveness as by his courage).

So it is no wonder that as a student at Bates College, Jonathan choose to spend his junior year abroad, living in Kyoto with a host family, attending Doshisha University, immersing himself in Japanese. We visited him there and were favorably impressed by his rapidly developing language skills as he took us to Temples and local restaurants. Today he has a good working knowledge of the Japanese language and of course the culture. Immediately after college he again returned to Japan, initially with the thought of job searching there, but, having mastered Japanese, Jonathan was intent on learning more about Asia, particularly China, so he choose to teach English in Guanjo, China and in so doing, developed conversational abilities in Mandarin. Several years later he returned to China to complete his MBA, finishing his last semester at Beijing University. By this time, his Mandarin was as fluent as his Japanese.

While working at a major financial firm for several years, he planned his vacations for other points in the Far East, including Viet Nam and Cambodia, always choosing the more challenging trips to the leisurely ones. So it is no wonder that given this new two month window, he has planned a demanding itinerary.

A little more than ten years ago he turned 21. At that time I wrote him a letter which I still stand by today. It almost sounds prophetic.

Dear Jonathan,

Today you are 21. There were other watershed years, your 13th, your 18th, but, for some reason, this is the really big one -- at least from my perspective. Why? Maybe, symbolically, it marks the true demarcation between dependency and non-dependency and, therefore, has as much meaning to Mom and me as it does to you -- as you move away from our lives and into your own. In other words, your 21st is also a reflection on us and the roles we have played while you were growing up.

I feel a deep sense of sadness in one respect. I could have been a better parent, maybe had a better relationship with you. In my defense, though, the time, which I thought, was so timeless, suddenly disappeared and here we are at this moment. In my next life, maybe, I will be more conscious of time and how fleetingly, even suddenly, it passes. I held you in my arms one minute and the next we touch mostly in cyberspace.

But, enough about my perspective as the best thing about turning 21 is something you might not think about much: the future. In many respects I wish I could skip ahead for one moment and see your life when you are my age. The possibilities, the possibilities.... And, it's all about choices -- you'll have many more than we had but, still, you have to make the choices. These relate to not only career tracks but also ethical, behavioral, and life style choices. I am not going to sit here and say anything about what you should do but I will note that these choices are being made every day by you whether you are aware of them or not. The Gestalt of those choices is the person you will become and the life you will lead. May it be a happy and productive one.

It is only fitting, I think, that you are going off to Japan in a few days. What a start to becoming 21. Leaving the cocoon of your childhood and going out into the world. But, your Mom and I will always be there for you -- even after we are not there. May you always feel that love. I gave you a poem, once, by Robert Mazzacco. No doubt you read it quickly and it became one of those victims of the moment. I'll close this note quoting that poem. I could never say it any better and I admire the ability to say something so profound is such small space:

Family voices; you still can hear them,
ever so dimly, there in your own voice:
your father's voice, even your mother's voice.

The older we get
the more you'll hear them,
though no one else does.
Just as you still can see them, all over
your body, though, of course, no one else must:
family scars and family kisses.

- Robert Mazzacco

Monday, July 14, 2008

National Catastrophe Fund

When we relocated to the West Palm Beach area from Connecticut, it was with the knowledge that while the area was vulnerable to hurricanes, they didn’t seem to be more frequent than what we had been accustomed to in the northeast. (The last one to hit the West Palm Beach area before we moved was Hurricane David in 1979. Hurricane Gloria in 1985 was a worse storm in Connecticut.)

So with this false sense of security we retired to a home within a mile of the coast and were able to get relatively reasonably priced insurance. Since then our overall insurance costs have tripled, mostly because of the obsolete boundaries that determine the windstorm component, such as homes east of I95 being exponentially more vulnerable than those a stone’s throw to the west. While Hurricanes Charley and Wilma surely dispelled that myth, these artificial guidelines persist.

The recent tragic flooding in Iowa, not to mention the torrid tornado season, and wildfires in the west, underscore the need for a national catastrophe fund to more effectively deal with the economic consequences of these disasters, ones that seem to be more frequent, perhaps the consequence of global warming.

Such a fund combined with tax breaks, similar to the ones that were granted to victims of Katrina and Wilma, might mitigate unrestrained insurance costs, and the expenses that will surely do in victims of national disasters. Had we not poured more than a half a trillion dollars into an unnecessary war in Iraq, we could be a long way towards creating a national catastrophe fund, not to mention saving American lives.