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05

Nov

I’ve been thinking about closed groups and hazing, because of the news about the Miami Dolphins and a lineman terrorizing a second-year lineman. The Miami Dolphins, while a select group, and closed off from the rest of us, are not a fraternity. It’s a collection of players of a game, people making a paycheck. What happened in Miami wasn’t hazing. It was terrorizing.

I have a friend who’s a big city firefighter. He told me similar tales of what he’d had to undergo as a probationary firefighter, when you can still be let go for any reason, i.e. when you can’t fight back. The vile things said to him, the less-than-human status he was assigned, the humiliations and degrading tasks. Never being allowed to sleep. Pails of water heaved onto him as he catnapped. Being made to work while others slept, to do all the cleanup after meals and to have his wife’s looks critiqued, his honor questioned, and the worst names in the world snarled in his ear. He was disgusted and thoroughly disillusioned. Again, not a fraternity. But a place that now had entrenched bad behavior that would not let it go because THEY’D had to undergo it and they’d be damned if the people coming after didn’t have to undergo it too. Hazing is a virus.

A fraternity isn’t a paycheck, though. It’s extraneous. You can decide to pledge or not, It’s no skin off anyone’s nose if you don’t.

I think I know why people join fraternities. You see the composite portraits going back a hundred years of serious-faced young men staring back at you in suits. The mounted deer with the necktie and mortarboard lends a certain gravity to a paneled room. The brothers trot out the names of famous alumni: astronauts, presidents, Supreme court justices, governors, entrepreneurs, war heroes. If I join this group, you think to yourself, I have only to show my fraternity ring to the right guy at NASA and I’m on the next shuttle, or I’ll get to clerk for a justice while the rest of my cronies play Grand Theft Auto. It never really does play out that way. Years from now one of your fraternity brothers will own a trash-hauling company and you - now chief procurement officer at XYZ Corp. will give him the nod over cheaper, hungrier less-well connected and better companies, screwing your company and yourself in the bargain. That’s as glamorous as it gets. Oh, and the awkward life-insurance sales pitch lunches. I must admit those are amazing.

You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I was once a member of an august fraternity. Many of my friends, when reaching man’s estate, were given bids by a chapter of a national fraternity during our freshman year, as was I, but they accepted and I didn’t.

I had the idea that college was an unknown quantity and was determined not to flunk out. I still had to work a certain number of hours per week to make ends meet and I had no idea how much time I could give away. I told the nice fraternity boys this, and they praised me and accepted my explanation without rancor. But there was about me now a bit of “the one that got away” at a time of shrinking fraternity memberships. 

Once my friends got in, I was always invited to fraternity functions and it might be said that I enjoyed all the benefits of membership without any dues or pledging. I got a bid every semester and every semester I asked myself why I’d ever want to pay for the cow. By junior year I relented. The sales talk had become more refined. We look on you as a brother. Don’t you want to be our brother? You’re not a freeloader, we know that. Etc., etc.

Here, I told myself, were ideal conditions. I was a social peer with all the brothers, was practically a pet of the fraternity, and I was older and less in awe of things. I could handle this. Privately, people told me they’d grease the skids for me and it’d be a doddle. I signed my bid and passed it in. The One That Got Away had been landed.

You will not be surprised to learn that it was not a doddle. Certain brothers, some younger than me, took a perverse delight in provoking discomfort or hardship in someone they never could have got the upper hand with otherwise. The worst ones were those who had themselves been picked on during their pledging. Outside the fraternity they were all fun & friendship, but within they took on a Captain Bly sort of ruthlessness.  Their aspects changed. I lost friends, meaning that I tossed friendships over the side because who does these things to a friend?

I won’t go into detail about what kind of hazing took place, firstly because this isn’t a sob story, secondly because I knew, to a degree, what I was getting into beforehand, and thirdly, because things had been much worse in the past. But yes, we were made to drink to excess, we were kidnapped and dropped off in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with empty pockets in the time before cell phones, and we were sent out on outrageous, unlawful or degrading errands, all with the rallying cry of “weeding out the weak” and “brotherly bonding.” What absolute bilge!

My own response in the inferno was to overdo things. When we were sent out to steal signs in the middle of the night, we stole the college’s sign and dropped it in the middle of the fraternity house to looks of terror and astonishment. Had the police instituted inquiries, the fraternity could easily have been shut down. If I am at risk, I wanted them to know, so are you.

Not all of pledging was like that. For the most part, a pledge is buried in detail and minutiae. His appearance had to be just so. He had to carry about ten things on him at all times. He had to be able to break a dollar morning, noon and night. If a brother asked him to break a dollar, another brother stood behind him to make the same request and then issued demerits to the hapless pledge who only started the day with four quarters. Every week you had to have a tete a tete with every brother and ask him to sign your pledge book. He would, if he were so disposed, ask you to do something bigger for him. It was like standing in a cloud of mosquitoes all semester long.

There were only a few times that I felt things had collectively crossed the line - the human dignity line - and when people wring their hands about NFL hazing or other groups doing it, and ask aloud “Where is the line?” - like there’s no way to tell these things - I will tell you: when you affect the dignity of another person and hold him up to ridicule or scorn or expose him to danger. Reasons for doing so are invalid, whatever they are, if all he wanted in the first place was to be was part of a group.

I will say this: probably half the brotherhood regretted every aspect of overseeing pledging except the ritual fun nights that were pure socializing. But they kept their mouths shut and only offered private sympathy.

Early in the pledging process, the fraternity assigned every pledge a “big brother.” Mine had been a high school chum of mine. He was a benign force during pledging, usually absent because of his newfound interest in evangelical Christianity. He was always off meeting with likeminded people and rarely came to parties or fraternity rituals. He did attend initiation night, however, the one with the paddling. I looked on aghast as the pledge whacked the big brother (with the handmade and decorated paddle) and then the big brother returned the favor. Some of these whacks looked like they might destroy the pants. My big brother drew me aside. “I’m not into this crap,” he said, quietly. “But most of the brothers are. I’ll make you a deal. If you give me a light one - you have to do a big windup to fool the brothers - I’ll do the same for you.” Then this man of God, whom I’d known man and boy, this Child of Peace, I say, held out his hand. I shook it eagerly. When it was our turn, I took a few practice swings, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the brothers. The sound of the air bending around the paddle  as I windmilled it was impressive. I backed up a few steps as my big brother held his ankles and took a flying run, pulling back with my wrist at the end and landing an ineffectual tap on his fanny. He lurched forward, complicit in the shadow play. As you may be able to guess from this buildup, when I handed him the paddle he knocked me into next week. When I asked him about it after, he shrugged, grinned, and said his big brother had tricked him in the same manner.

Sometimes, when I look back, I’m ashamed of myself for not having quit the pledge process. Other times I clap myself on the back for trudging through and getting to the other side. When I did get in I provoked the ire of the hidebound elements in the brotherhood by not making the pledges do a damned thing in my name. If they were supposed to get my signature, I gave them permission to sign on my behalf.  When the weekly horsetrading took place, I’d suggest we meet for coffee at the pledge’s leisure and when there gave advice, asked after his people, told him something of myself, then shook hands warmly at cup’s end.

You can never be someone’s brother if you treat him with contempt. Later, when he gets in, you might forgive him his earlier second-class status, but he’ll never quite forgive you for making him endure it.

I’ve been thinking about closed groups and hazing, because of the news about the Miami Dolphins and a lineman terrorizing a second-year lineman. The Miami Dolphins, while a select group, and closed off from the rest of us, are not a fraternity. It’s a collection of players of a game, people making a paycheck. What happened in Miami wasn’t hazing. It was terrorizing.

I have a friend who’s a big city firefighter. He told me similar tales of what he’d had to undergo as a probationary firefighter, when you can still be let go for any reason, i.e. when you can’t fight back. The vile things said to him, the less-than-human status he was assigned, the humiliations and degrading tasks. Never being allowed to sleep. Pails of water heaved onto him as he catnapped. Being made to work while others slept, to do all the cleanup after meals and to have his wife’s looks critiqued, his honor questioned, and the worst names in the world snarled in his ear. He was disgusted and thoroughly disillusioned. Again, not a fraternity. But a place that now had entrenched bad behavior that would not let it go because THEY’D had to undergo it and they’d be damned if the people coming after didn’t have to undergo it too. Hazing is a virus.

A fraternity isn’t a paycheck, though. It’s extraneous. You can decide to pledge or not, It’s no skin off anyone’s nose if you don’t.

I think I know why people join fraternities. You see the composite portraits going back a hundred years of serious-faced young men staring back at you in suits. The mounted deer with the necktie and mortarboard lends a certain gravity to a paneled room. The brothers trot out the names of famous alumni: astronauts, presidents, Supreme court justices, governors, entrepreneurs, war heroes. If I join this group, you think to yourself, I have only to show my fraternity ring to the right guy at NASA and I’m on the next shuttle, or I’ll get to clerk for a justice while the rest of my cronies play Grand Theft Auto. It never really does play out that way. Years from now one of your fraternity brothers will own a trash-hauling company and you - now chief procurement officer at XYZ Corp. will give him the nod over cheaper, hungrier less-well connected and better companies, screwing your company and yourself in the bargain. That’s as glamorous as it gets. Oh, and the awkward life-insurance sales pitch lunches. I must admit those are amazing.

You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I was once a member of an august fraternity. Many of my friends, when reaching man’s estate, were given bids by a chapter of a national fraternity during our freshman year, as was I, but they accepted and I didn’t.

I had the idea that college was an unknown quantity and was determined not to flunk out. I still had to work a certain number of hours per week to make ends meet and I had no idea how much time I could give away. I told the nice fraternity boys this, and they praised me and accepted my explanation without rancor. But there was about me now a bit of “the one that got away” at a time of shrinking fraternity memberships.

Once my friends got in, I was always invited to fraternity functions and it might be said that I enjoyed all the benefits of membership without any dues or pledging. I got a bid every semester and every semester I asked myself why I’d ever want to pay for the cow. By junior year I relented. The sales talk had become more refined. We look on you as a brother. Don’t you want to be our brother? You’re not a freeloader, we know that. Etc., etc.

Here, I told myself, were ideal conditions. I was a social peer with all the brothers, was practically a pet of the fraternity, and I was older and less in awe of things. I could handle this. Privately, people told me they’d grease the skids for me and it’d be a doddle. I signed my bid and passed it in. The One That Got Away had been landed.

You will not be surprised to learn that it was not a doddle. Certain brothers, some younger than me, took a perverse delight in provoking discomfort or hardship in someone they never could have got the upper hand with otherwise. The worst ones were those who had themselves been picked on during their pledging. Outside the fraternity they were all fun & friendship, but within they took on a Captain Bly sort of ruthlessness. Their aspects changed. I lost friends, meaning that I tossed friendships over the side because who does these things to a friend?

I won’t go into detail about what kind of hazing took place, firstly because this isn’t a sob story, secondly because I knew, to a degree, what I was getting into beforehand, and thirdly, because things had been much worse in the past. But yes, we were made to drink to excess, we were kidnapped and dropped off in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with empty pockets in the time before cell phones, and we were sent out on outrageous, unlawful or degrading errands, all with the rallying cry of “weeding out the weak” and “brotherly bonding.” What absolute bilge!

My own response in the inferno was to overdo things. When we were sent out to steal signs in the middle of the night, we stole the college’s sign and dropped it in the middle of the fraternity house to looks of terror and astonishment. Had the police instituted inquiries, the fraternity could easily have been shut down. If I am at risk, I wanted them to know, so are you.

Not all of pledging was like that. For the most part, a pledge is buried in detail and minutiae. His appearance had to be just so. He had to carry about ten things on him at all times. He had to be able to break a dollar morning, noon and night. If a brother asked him to break a dollar, another brother stood behind him to make the same request and then issued demerits to the hapless pledge who only started the day with four quarters. Every week you had to have a tete a tete with every brother and ask him to sign your pledge book. He would, if he were so disposed, ask you to do something bigger for him. It was like standing in a cloud of mosquitoes all semester long.

There were only a few times that I felt things had collectively crossed the line - the human dignity line - and when people wring their hands about NFL hazing or other groups doing it, and ask aloud “Where is the line?” - like there’s no way to tell these things - I will tell you: when you affect the dignity of another person and hold him up to ridicule or scorn or expose him to danger. Reasons for doing so are invalid, whatever they are, if all he wanted in the first place was to be was part of a group.

I will say this: probably half the brotherhood regretted every aspect of overseeing pledging except the ritual fun nights that were pure socializing. But they kept their mouths shut and only offered private sympathy.

Early in the pledging process, the fraternity assigned every pledge a “big brother.” Mine had been a high school chum of mine. He was a benign force during pledging, usually absent because of his newfound interest in evangelical Christianity. He was always off meeting with likeminded people and rarely came to parties or fraternity rituals. He did attend initiation night, however, the one with the paddling. I looked on aghast as the pledge whacked the big brother (with the handmade and decorated paddle) and then the big brother returned the favor. Some of these whacks looked like they might destroy the pants. My big brother drew me aside. “I’m not into this crap,” he said, quietly. “But most of the brothers are. I’ll make you a deal. If you give me a light one - you have to do a big windup to fool the brothers - I’ll do the same for you.” Then this man of God, whom I’d known man and boy, this Child of Peace, I say, held out his hand. I shook it eagerly. When it was our turn, I took a few practice swings, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the brothers. The sound of the air bending around the paddle as I windmilled it was impressive. I backed up a few steps as my big brother held his ankles and took a flying run, pulling back with my wrist at the end and landing an ineffectual tap on his fanny. He lurched forward, complicit in the shadow play. As you may be able to guess from this buildup, when I handed him the paddle he knocked me into next week. When I asked him about it after, he shrugged, grinned, and said his big brother had tricked him in the same manner.

Sometimes, when I look back, I’m ashamed of myself for not having quit the pledge process. Other times I clap myself on the back for trudging through and getting to the other side. When I did get in I provoked the ire of the hidebound elements in the brotherhood by not making the pledges do a damned thing in my name. If they were supposed to get my signature, I gave them permission to sign on my behalf. When the weekly horsetrading took place, I’d suggest we meet for coffee at the pledge’s leisure and when there gave advice, asked after his people, told him something of myself, then shook hands warmly at cup’s end.

You can never be someone’s brother if you treat him with contempt. Later, when he gets in, you might forgive him his earlier second-class status, but he’ll never quite forgive you for making him endure it.

16

Oct

Yesterday was the anniversary of P. G. Wodehouse’s birthday. I’ve tried, privately, to tell people what this man’s writing means to me, and the miracle is that some of them have gotten past the excited gibbering to actually give him a try. They are always well-rewarded.

It never ceases to amaze me that Wodehouse isn’t taught in schools.  He never was and probably never will be. He’s subversive, you see. I would definitely send a son to a school where the headmaster announced in advance that only Wodehouse will be taught in English classes.

I wanted to be a serious writer when I was a young man. I wanted to sit in cafes with a marble notebook and a wooden pencil and a pen knife and an itchy woolen turtleneck and a martyr’s haircut and grind out carbon-hard stories about human sadness and the ravages of fate and all that nonsense. “Frightful bilge,” is what one of Wodehouse’s characters would have called it and he would have been right. These fiction johnnies in my pantheon didn’t laugh very much when they pushed their typewriters aside for the day and bit the top off a whiskey bottle.

So I read and I read and I read and I “honed my craft” and “worked my metier” and I “whittled my pencil” as the saying goes and a fat lot of good it did me. I did come to see words through a prism when in this trance-like state and could categorize them like grades of diamonds and if I was hard pressed could write like that again. But I don’t want to.

Because one hard summer, hard weather-wise, hard life-wise, hard everything-else-wise, I picked up one of Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” books and nothing has been the same since. During that summer - the kind of season I’ve seen buckle stronger men than myself - I skipped the weeks away laughing, reading almost all the “Jeeves” books in one go. I faced the days with a light heart.

People medicate themselves all the time. They take prescription drugs, they take non-prescription drugs, they drink, they get high. They over-do. The mood must be altered. I agree.

In reading these “Jeeves” books and, later, the “Blandings Castle” books, I placed my mood squarely in the care of Wodehouse, turned it over to him entirely, and his dosage was perfect. For in these books are savage aunts, prescient valets, lady novelists, inappropriate marriage material in the form of barmaids and chorus girls and women who want to “mold” men, country houses, milk trains, telegrams, rugby-playing vicars, cement-headed police constables, aggressive dogs, swans, fat pig competitions, silver collectors, French chefs, idle friends, and plots that read like double helixes and finish as neatly as stage musicals (something Wodehouse also wrote for).

The calendar is fixed in time, somewhere around 1907, and that means the mores, slang and codes of conduct are fixed too. It’s pre-World War I, A Time Before Sadness, when there were still feudal relationships between people and their servants, where golf was played, cars were a new development, and high tea was served on the lawn and cocktails were served in the drawing room before formal dinner. A forest primeval compared to the England we know today.

Okay, I hear you saying. So what? It’s got nothing to do with me. Well…as a lifelong student of comedy I can tell you the jokes haven’t aged a bit, regardless of the by-gone setting. The mix-ups are hilarious. The characters are bumptious, quick to heap abuse, and to become mistakenly affianced to the worst possible candidates. Schemes are constantly made to put hearts back together, to break them up, to steal priceless objects. None of them go as planned. Throughout are light-handed references to classical literature.

In every one of these books there’s someone who operates outside the scheme of things, a ringer, either morally, as in Uncle Fred (aka Uncle Dynamite) or Galahad (Gally) Threepwood, or because of a superior intelligence, a la Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s valet. They push the plot along. They fix things and they break them. They make the books go.

I altered my mood that summer. Did I ever. I came through what might have been seen as an ordeal-filled time with a bright smile and laughter was heard in the house all the hot summer long.  I had no need of a rope to be thrown over the rafters, nor a pill, nor a pipe nor a bottle. I was in a haze of continual delight, of thrilling to the language. I rely on these books, year in and year out, to ward off what pre-psychiatrists called “the black dog.” They really do work.

I’ve since decided that I’d like to write like that. And in the years after, I’ve abandoned the gravel-chewing writing of yore and really thrown myself into what I now feel is certainly its equal.  P. G. Wodehouse didn’t win any Nobel Prizes, but in my opinion he should have won them all, for in making the world happier and more endurable, he was a true master.

Yesterday was the anniversary of P. G. Wodehouse’s birthday. I’ve tried, privately, to tell people what this man’s writing means to me, and the miracle is that some of them have gotten past the excited gibbering to actually give him a try. They are always well-rewarded.

It never ceases to amaze me that Wodehouse isn’t taught in schools. He never was and probably never will be. He’s subversive, you see. I would definitely send a son to a school where the headmaster announced in advance that only Wodehouse will be taught in English classes.

I wanted to be a serious writer when I was a young man. I wanted to sit in cafes with a marble notebook and a wooden pencil and a pen knife and an itchy woolen turtleneck and a martyr’s haircut and grind out carbon-hard stories about human sadness and the ravages of fate and all that nonsense. “Frightful bilge,” is what one of Wodehouse’s characters would have called it and he would have been right. These fiction johnnies in my pantheon didn’t laugh very much when they pushed their typewriters aside for the day and bit the top off a whiskey bottle.

So I read and I read and I read and I “honed my craft” and “worked my metier” and I “whittled my pencil” as the saying goes and a fat lot of good it did me. I did come to see words through a prism when in this trance-like state and could categorize them like grades of diamonds and if I was hard pressed could write like that again. But I don’t want to.

Because one hard summer, hard weather-wise, hard life-wise, hard everything-else-wise, I picked up one of Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” books and nothing has been the same since. During that summer - the kind of season I’ve seen buckle stronger men than myself - I skipped the weeks away laughing, reading almost all the “Jeeves” books in one go. I faced the days with a light heart.

People medicate themselves all the time. They take prescription drugs, they take non-prescription drugs, they drink, they get high. They over-do. The mood must be altered. I agree.

In reading these “Jeeves” books and, later, the “Blandings Castle” books, I placed my mood squarely in the care of Wodehouse, turned it over to him entirely, and his dosage was perfect. For in these books are savage aunts, prescient valets, lady novelists, inappropriate marriage material in the form of barmaids and chorus girls and women who want to “mold” men, country houses, milk trains, telegrams, rugby-playing vicars, cement-headed police constables, aggressive dogs, swans, fat pig competitions, silver collectors, French chefs, idle friends, and plots that read like double helixes and finish as neatly as stage musicals (something Wodehouse also wrote for).

The calendar is fixed in time, somewhere around 1907, and that means the mores, slang and codes of conduct are fixed too. It’s pre-World War I, A Time Before Sadness, when there were still feudal relationships between people and their servants, where golf was played, cars were a new development, and high tea was served on the lawn and cocktails were served in the drawing room before formal dinner. A forest primeval compared to the England we know today.

Okay, I hear you saying. So what? It’s got nothing to do with me. Well…as a lifelong student of comedy I can tell you the jokes haven’t aged a bit, regardless of the by-gone setting. The mix-ups are hilarious. The characters are bumptious, quick to heap abuse, and to become mistakenly affianced to the worst possible candidates. Schemes are constantly made to put hearts back together, to break them up, to steal priceless objects. None of them go as planned. Throughout are light-handed references to classical literature.

In every one of these books there’s someone who operates outside the scheme of things, a ringer, either morally, as in Uncle Fred (aka Uncle Dynamite) or Galahad (Gally) Threepwood, or because of a superior intelligence, a la Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s valet. They push the plot along. They fix things and they break them. They make the books go.

I altered my mood that summer. Did I ever. I came through what might have been seen as an ordeal-filled time with a bright smile and laughter was heard in the house all the hot summer long. I had no need of a rope to be thrown over the rafters, nor a pill, nor a pipe nor a bottle. I was in a haze of continual delight, of thrilling to the language. I rely on these books, year in and year out, to ward off what pre-psychiatrists called “the black dog.” They really do work.

I’ve since decided that I’d like to write like that. And in the years after, I’ve abandoned the gravel-chewing writing of yore and really thrown myself into what I now feel is certainly its equal. P. G. Wodehouse didn’t win any Nobel Prizes, but in my opinion he should have won them all, for in making the world happier and more endurable, he was a true master.

10

Oct

A postscript to yesterday’s paean to Patrick O’Brian’s historical fiction, meant only for the truly curious:

There are excellent reference materials in print and on the internet for explanations of everything that baffles, and there are excellent map books dedicated to the series, too. Dean King’s “A Sea of Words” was the first of these to appear, and it had the added bonus of a particularly strong essay by my late friend Worth Estes about the true state of medicine at the end of the eighteenth century. O’Brian did not feel that this cottage industry of books written about his books was worth his time.

I have since found Beatson & James’ histories of the Royal Navy for my shelf. They are what O’Brian himself had on his shelf.

There are several literary allusions scattered throughout the books. If you miss them, it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment, but if you catch them, it certainly adds. I remember hearing a man say he was reading one of the books aloud to his wife, a graduate student of English. “That’s Catullus,” the man’s wife said, absently. “No, it’s Patrick O’Brian,” the man said. “I know that,” his wife said. “But he’s writing in the style of Catullus.”

Oh.

I had none of these things except my own atlases and a two-volume OED, but later O’Brian’s publisher in the United States, W.W. Norton, started a LISTSERV and it proved to be a fantastic clearinghouse for questions, explanations and essays on the books.  Several people from that group went on to write their own books springing from the series, including a cookbook. A LISTSERV, for you younger set, was the cutting edge in social media at the time. You emailed a question to the email address of the LISTSERV, and it immediately spit out your question to everyone else who subscribed to the list. If anyone felt moved to answer you, they emailed the list and the answer went out to everyone. There were ship captains, marine biologists, the author of “The Age of Fighting Sail,” doctors and people from all walks of life. There was no flaming.

Also, here’s David Mamet on the books, far better than my superficial praise: http://www.nytimes.com/library/books/011700mamet-writing.html

You will find people online who will help with any questions, and there are archives of these things but, again, you don’t really need it unless you wish to expand your understanding of individual subjects found in the books, which is infectious. Dueling! Suet puddings! Beetles! South Seas dialects! Names of sails! 

I wrote the first fan letter of my life to Patrick O’Brian, while he was still alive and hard at it. I never got a response, but was rewarded with seeing my last name assigned to a minor character in the very next book in the series, which I’ve always thought is much better than a letter.

A postscript to yesterday’s paean to Patrick O’Brian’s historical fiction, meant only for the truly curious:

There are excellent reference materials in print and on the internet for explanations of everything that baffles, and there are excellent map books dedicated to the series, too. Dean King’s “A Sea of Words” was the first of these to appear, and it had the added bonus of a particularly strong essay by my late friend Worth Estes about the true state of medicine at the end of the eighteenth century. O’Brian did not feel that this cottage industry of books written about his books was worth his time.

I have since found Beatson & James’ histories of the Royal Navy for my shelf. They are what O’Brian himself had on his shelf.

There are several literary allusions scattered throughout the books. If you miss them, it doesn’t take away from the enjoyment, but if you catch them, it certainly adds. I remember hearing a man say he was reading one of the books aloud to his wife, a graduate student of English. “That’s Catullus,” the man’s wife said, absently. “No, it’s Patrick O’Brian,” the man said. “I know that,” his wife said. “But he’s writing in the style of Catullus.”

Oh.

I had none of these things except my own atlases and a two-volume OED, but later O’Brian’s publisher in the United States, W.W. Norton, started a LISTSERV and it proved to be a fantastic clearinghouse for questions, explanations and essays on the books. Several people from that group went on to write their own books springing from the series, including a cookbook. A LISTSERV, for you younger set, was the cutting edge in social media at the time. You emailed a question to the email address of the LISTSERV, and it immediately spit out your question to everyone else who subscribed to the list. If anyone felt moved to answer you, they emailed the list and the answer went out to everyone. There were ship captains, marine biologists, the author of “The Age of Fighting Sail,” doctors and people from all walks of life. There was no flaming.

Also, here’s David Mamet on the books, far better than my superficial praise: http://www.nytimes.com/library/books/011700mamet-writing.html

You will find people online who will help with any questions, and there are archives of these things but, again, you don’t really need it unless you wish to expand your understanding of individual subjects found in the books, which is infectious. Dueling! Suet puddings! Beetles! South Seas dialects! Names of sails!

I wrote the first fan letter of my life to Patrick O’Brian, while he was still alive and hard at it. I never got a response, but was rewarded with seeing my last name assigned to a minor character in the very next book in the series, which I’ve always thought is much better than a letter.

09

Oct

Some people will tell you the Illuminati exist, that they are a layer of us within us and all around us, an invisible hand that directs the motions of the world unbeknownst to the rest of us. These people are morons, of course, because this is the blabbiest of all possible worlds and something like that’d be leaked immediately.

Those gazillionaires & wank-tankers that gather in Switzerland over New Years? Wannabes. Dreamers. Ineffectual noddies. Chumps.

But I don’t mind telling you I belong to one of these semi-secret societies. “Poor tradecraft,” you say. But stay. Scenario: You get dragged along to a cocktail party, you don’t know anyone, you take your glass and drift away from the center and tip your head sideways to read titles on the shelves, usually the most dispiriting thing you can do because most people don’t read - did you know that? - and a shocking percentage of those that do read absolute trash. Anyway, your head is tilted, some not bad first editions, some Wodehouse, some Surtees, Jane Austen. Wait. What’s this? There they are. Oh, my God. I’ve found another one. The host sidles up, a wry smile on his face, one that could mean anything. Knowing looks are exchanged. We are now fast friends and always will be. One will say “Off hats!” or mention the death of Barrett Bonden and the other will nod sadly.

What are the books? Do you care? Coming into this kind of information is a curse as well as a blessing. I don’t mind telling you. I’ve made several converts, and doubtless my host in the previous paragraph has too, even though he’s a composite of several hosts.  They’re what’s known collectively as “The Aubrey-Maturin Novels” written by Patrick O’Brian, stretching over twenty volumes.  That sounds like a lot of work, I hear you thinking. Well…yes and no. If you don’t like to read, or are very limited in what you will read, or if you’re intimidated by a whole universe populated with people who speak a kind of antique English with plenty of jargon, who do things that are completely out of your sphere of experience, then maybe they aren’t for you.

But if you have a sense of humor, if you’re intrigued by people living in a far different social construct from your own, doing real jobs you will never be able to fully comprehend, and who are living in their present and experiencing their world to the fullest, then you may want to give the series a try.  The books have been called many things, like a chronicle of the Napoleonic Era’s naval wars, say, or spy novels, or Austen-like books, for instance, and they are invariably all those and whatever other labels you can slap on them, but what they are - to me, anyway - are the timeline of a deep and extraordinary friendship between two very different men that begins in the first few pages with an immediate and acid dislike.

For men (and by “men” I mean “me” and probably everyone else) have a hard time making long-lasting meaningful friendships. Superficial friendships we have by the score, but of the real, honest, Damon & Pythias stuff we have often smelled the cup but rarely have we drunk of it. The blossoming of a true friendship is fascinating.

As the unlikely friendship in the books weaves through time, it’s tested to the fullest by competition, by mistrust, by the physical world, by war, by love, by pride, by stubbornness, by addiction and by secrecy. The men couldn’t be more different socially, physically, mentally, temperamentally, and so on.  When the books begin, Aubrey is an officer in the Royal Navy. Maturin is a penniless physician.

Should you decide to take the plunge, you’ll become conversationally fluent in the history of Western Europe two hundred years ago, ship-handling, nascent surgical techniques, spy organizations, botany, Arab Africa, birds, duets for cello and violin, religious sects, whaling, piracy, Amazons, verbal abuse, and on and on. You will come to love certain characters and see the humanity present in the ones you don’t like, you will laugh heartily at mix-ups, turns of phrase, and jokes and you will turn your face from the page and squint through sodden eyes when the characters you’ve come to care very much for experience terrible pain or sadness, or even when they die.

Patrick O’Brian does not relate the books as if you were a moron or even an average book-buyer. He regales you. He assumes you are as interested in these subjects as he, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He discards conventions of historical novel writing. A huge sea battle looms, the tension builds, and then the next chapter begins with the captain writing his stilted, formal report of it. You are aware of being in the presence of an extraordinary polymathic intelligence, a tender-hearted empathetic,yet reticent, man. This will happen very few times in your reading career.

"Pass. I saw that movie," you may say. Well…you did and you didn’t. The movie was based a little on the first book and a lot on a much later book. What the movie really does is insert you into their world and introduce you to some of the characters, and it does it very well (I think). But don’t let having seen the movie sway you from reading the books, unless you really didn’t enjoy it.

"Twenty plus books - forget it," I can hear some of you saying. Well…that’s a funny thing. What many people do when they get to the end of the series is start over from the beginning. I know I did. The world of the books is so large, so encompassing, so vivid, and so enjoyable and entertaining, that you dread reading anything else that will result in a one-dimensional literary experience. It’s a legitimate worry, trust me. I’ve read the series in its entirety twice, and - here’s another way to approach it - a few more times as audiobooks.  There are different versions of these books available as unabridged audiobooks, all well-liked, but I particularly endorse the series as read by Patrick Tull. He has an excellent, companiable way about him, and he takes his time and sets up the jokes - did I tell you that there are whole chapters that are set-ups for a single joke? - easily and with a charming sense of fun.  He does the individual voices with great care. His theatrical, older man’s narration, ultimately, is one of the wonders of my world. If you played the books as you cooked dinner, or shaved, or drove in the car, or commuted on a train, you’d finish them in no time.

I don’t know if the first book sets the hook far enough to grab most readers. I advise people to commit to reading the first three: “Master and Commander,” “Post Captain” and “HMS Surprise.” If you can read these three and walk away, then do so. But I suspect a majority will continue.

And pass into this secret society of ours. We happy few.

The question when you finish might be: “Do I start over at the beginning?”  My answer is “I don’t know. But tell a friend.”

Some people will tell you the Illuminati exist, that they are a layer of us within us and all around us, an invisible hand that directs the motions of the world unbeknownst to the rest of us. These people are morons, of course, because this is the blabbiest of all possible worlds and something like that’d be leaked immediately.

Those gazillionaires & wank-tankers that gather in Switzerland over New Years? Wannabes. Dreamers. Ineffectual noddies. Chumps.

But I don’t mind telling you I belong to one of these semi-secret societies. “Poor tradecraft,” you say. But stay. Scenario: You get dragged along to a cocktail party, you don’t know anyone, you take your glass and drift away from the center and tip your head sideways to read titles on the shelves, usually the most dispiriting thing you can do because most people don’t read - did you know that? - and a shocking percentage of those that do read absolute trash. Anyway, your head is tilted, some not bad first editions, some Wodehouse, some Surtees, Jane Austen. Wait. What’s this? There they are. Oh, my God. I’ve found another one. The host sidles up, a wry smile on his face, one that could mean anything. Knowing looks are exchanged. We are now fast friends and always will be. One will say “Off hats!” or mention the death of Barrett Bonden and the other will nod sadly.

What are the books? Do you care? Coming into this kind of information is a curse as well as a blessing. I don’t mind telling you. I’ve made several converts, and doubtless my host in the previous paragraph has too, even though he’s a composite of several hosts. They’re what’s known collectively as “The Aubrey-Maturin Novels” written by Patrick O’Brian, stretching over twenty volumes. That sounds like a lot of work, I hear you thinking. Well…yes and no. If you don’t like to read, or are very limited in what you will read, or if you’re intimidated by a whole universe populated with people who speak a kind of antique English with plenty of jargon, who do things that are completely out of your sphere of experience, then maybe they aren’t for you.

But if you have a sense of humor, if you’re intrigued by people living in a far different social construct from your own, doing real jobs you will never be able to fully comprehend, and who are living in their present and experiencing their world to the fullest, then you may want to give the series a try. The books have been called many things, like a chronicle of the Napoleonic Era’s naval wars, say, or spy novels, or Austen-like books, for instance, and they are invariably all those and whatever other labels you can slap on them, but what they are - to me, anyway - are the timeline of a deep and extraordinary friendship between two very different men that begins in the first few pages with an immediate and acid dislike.

For men (and by “men” I mean “me” and probably everyone else) have a hard time making long-lasting meaningful friendships. Superficial friendships we have by the score, but of the real, honest, Damon & Pythias stuff we have often smelled the cup but rarely have we drunk of it. The blossoming of a true friendship is fascinating.

As the unlikely friendship in the books weaves through time, it’s tested to the fullest by competition, by mistrust, by the physical world, by war, by love, by pride, by stubbornness, by addiction and by secrecy. The men couldn’t be more different socially, physically, mentally, temperamentally, and so on. When the books begin, Aubrey is an officer in the Royal Navy. Maturin is a penniless physician.

Should you decide to take the plunge, you’ll become conversationally fluent in the history of Western Europe two hundred years ago, ship-handling, nascent surgical techniques, spy organizations, botany, Arab Africa, birds, duets for cello and violin, religious sects, whaling, piracy, Amazons, verbal abuse, and on and on. You will come to love certain characters and see the humanity present in the ones you don’t like, you will laugh heartily at mix-ups, turns of phrase, and jokes and you will turn your face from the page and squint through sodden eyes when the characters you’ve come to care very much for experience terrible pain or sadness, or even when they die.

Patrick O’Brian does not relate the books as if you were a moron or even an average book-buyer. He regales you. He assumes you are as interested in these subjects as he, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He discards conventions of historical novel writing. A huge sea battle looms, the tension builds, and then the next chapter begins with the captain writing his stilted, formal report of it. You are aware of being in the presence of an extraordinary polymathic intelligence, a tender-hearted empathetic,yet reticent, man. This will happen very few times in your reading career.

"Pass. I saw that movie," you may say. Well…you did and you didn’t. The movie was based a little on the first book and a lot on a much later book. What the movie really does is insert you into their world and introduce you to some of the characters, and it does it very well (I think). But don’t let having seen the movie sway you from reading the books, unless you really didn’t enjoy it.

"Twenty plus books - forget it," I can hear some of you saying. Well…that’s a funny thing. What many people do when they get to the end of the series is start over from the beginning. I know I did. The world of the books is so large, so encompassing, so vivid, and so enjoyable and entertaining, that you dread reading anything else that will result in a one-dimensional literary experience. It’s a legitimate worry, trust me. I’ve read the series in its entirety twice, and - here’s another way to approach it - a few more times as audiobooks. There are different versions of these books available as unabridged audiobooks, all well-liked, but I particularly endorse the series as read by Patrick Tull. He has an excellent, companiable way about him, and he takes his time and sets up the jokes - did I tell you that there are whole chapters that are set-ups for a single joke? - easily and with a charming sense of fun. He does the individual voices with great care. His theatrical, older man’s narration, ultimately, is one of the wonders of my world. If you played the books as you cooked dinner, or shaved, or drove in the car, or commuted on a train, you’d finish them in no time.

I don’t know if the first book sets the hook far enough to grab most readers. I advise people to commit to reading the first three: “Master and Commander,” “Post Captain” and “HMS Surprise.” If you can read these three and walk away, then do so. But I suspect a majority will continue.

And pass into this secret society of ours. We happy few.

The question when you finish might be: “Do I start over at the beginning?” My answer is “I don’t know. But tell a friend.”

02

Oct

One day, you’re president of the Building & Loan, and the next, you’re staring over a vast moonscape representing all you’ve lost. The lessons are enormous. Value what you have when you have it. Nothing is forever. Love is the most important thing in the world. Every single person can make a huge difference. Richness is  rightly defined by relationships.

I’ve never met Kathryn Fiore (above), just like I’ve never met you. But in the short amount of  time I’ve followed her, I’ve come to really value her and appreciate her spirit and humor. Okay, sure, “just like you.” Kathryn is an actress, a pretty fine comic actress actually, one you’ve surely seen on tv, and she ran into a pretty serious hiccup when delivering her baby, Alice, at the end of May. She hemorrhaged immediately after the birth, went into septic shock, had total organ failure and blood clots formed in her hands as a result of the septicemia, bringing on gangrene.

This is everyone’s birthing nightmare. This is the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms. Lay your head on the table and bawl your eyes out. This was bad. Very, very bad.

What is amazing and wonderful is that Kathryn lived. Modern treatments, modern medicine, hyperbaric chambers, physical and occupational therapies, etc., have brought her back from the ultimate brink to someone who can go home and be with her husband Gabriel and her brand new baby.

But the problems with her organs and her hands remain. Gangrene is a serious problem. She’ll require multiple surgeries to get at it and to try to save her hands. Her husband started a fundraising page to help defray the costs of these surgeries. The love and patience that comes out of his writing there is amazing to read.

You or I might kick an ottoman and scream at the sky, but he knows, like the best mountaineers describing their climbs, that “a good one is a live one.”

So far, over a thousand people have donated. A thousand people! It gladdens my heart to think of it. 

But it’s only 62% of the way, alas. There is so much to be done, even though so much has already been done. All these costly surgeries are looming.

Won’t you send a few bucks to Kathryn’s medical cost defrayment fund? And, if you can’t at this time, will you send her a message of support? I’ve sent my haircut money for the next year and will gladly go shaggy for such a good reason.

Here’s the page. Read it if only for the loving updates.

https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/qmg2/kathryn-and-alice-support-fund

One day, you’re president of the Building & Loan, and the next, you’re staring over a vast moonscape representing all you’ve lost. The lessons are enormous. Value what you have when you have it. Nothing is forever. Love is the most important thing in the world. Every single person can make a huge difference. Richness is rightly defined by relationships.

I’ve never met Kathryn Fiore (above), just like I’ve never met you. But in the short amount of time I’ve followed her, I’ve come to really value her and appreciate her spirit and humor. Okay, sure, “just like you.” Kathryn is an actress, a pretty fine comic actress actually, one you’ve surely seen on tv, and she ran into a pretty serious hiccup when delivering her baby, Alice, at the end of May. She hemorrhaged immediately after the birth, went into septic shock, had total organ failure and blood clots formed in her hands as a result of the septicemia, bringing on gangrene.

This is everyone’s birthing nightmare. This is the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms. Lay your head on the table and bawl your eyes out. This was bad. Very, very bad.

What is amazing and wonderful is that Kathryn lived. Modern treatments, modern medicine, hyperbaric chambers, physical and occupational therapies, etc., have brought her back from the ultimate brink to someone who can go home and be with her husband Gabriel and her brand new baby.

But the problems with her organs and her hands remain. Gangrene is a serious problem. She’ll require multiple surgeries to get at it and to try to save her hands. Her husband started a fundraising page to help defray the costs of these surgeries. The love and patience that comes out of his writing there is amazing to read.

You or I might kick an ottoman and scream at the sky, but he knows, like the best mountaineers describing their climbs, that “a good one is a live one.”

So far, over a thousand people have donated. A thousand people! It gladdens my heart to think of it.

But it’s only 62% of the way, alas. There is so much to be done, even though so much has already been done. All these costly surgeries are looming.

Won’t you send a few bucks to Kathryn’s medical cost defrayment fund? And, if you can’t at this time, will you send her a message of support? I’ve sent my haircut money for the next year and will gladly go shaggy for such a good reason.

Here’s the page. Read it if only for the loving updates.

https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/qmg2/kathryn-and-alice-support-fund

26

Sep

We had to read our poems aloud in college, desks pulled into a giant feel-bad circle, and then we were required to critique them. Someone who didn’t like you, or viewed you as a threat to their hierarchy in the class was sure to chime in with something uncharitable, like the second appearance of a word (Dammit!) or a weak rhyme or how the poem was just like whichever famous poem you’d unconsciously cribbed from. But without the motivation of politics or enmity, sometimes people did thoughtfully discuss the poems, albeit untechnically.  The professor, an ageing hippie with long white hair, would nod knowingly throughout, probably because he was very high and, as such, no good to man nor beast.  When the class ultimately began to get away from him early in the semester, he came up with the ultimate lasso: no one was allowed to use the word “flow” to describe a poem ever again. Class discussion waned by 90%. It was then, as he sought to fill the empty spaces, that we learned how little he thought of our efforts and how unhappily he viewed his lot.

We had to read our poems aloud in college, desks pulled into a giant feel-bad circle, and then we were required to critique them. Someone who didn’t like you, or viewed you as a threat to their hierarchy in the class was sure to chime in with something uncharitable, like the second appearance of a word (Dammit!) or a weak rhyme or how the poem was just like whichever famous poem you’d unconsciously cribbed from. But without the motivation of politics or enmity, sometimes people did thoughtfully discuss the poems, albeit untechnically. The professor, an ageing hippie with long white hair, would nod knowingly throughout, probably because he was very high and, as such, no good to man nor beast. When the class ultimately began to get away from him early in the semester, he came up with the ultimate lasso: no one was allowed to use the word “flow” to describe a poem ever again. Class discussion waned by 90%. It was then, as he sought to fill the empty spaces, that we learned how little he thought of our efforts and how unhappily he viewed his lot.

15

Sep

In two separate stories facing each other in yesterday’s newspaper come these related tidbits. From the first, a review of a book about Jorge Luis Borges’ lectures on English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires, comes the story of Caedmon, “a tuneless, illiterate shepherd who, in the seventh century was visited by an angel in a dream, then woke to become the greatest poet of his age. When he died, he left behind, Borges says, ‘some mediocre verses - I’ve read them - and a beautiful legend…This is part of a literary tradition that seems to be deeply rooted in England: the tradition of versifying in one’s sleep.’”

Then this, from a review of Bill Janovitz’ “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones”: Regarding the making of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965), “the indelible riff that opens the song came to Mr. Richards one night as he slept; he recorded it and went back to sleep, his snores audible on the tape.”

In two separate stories facing each other in yesterday’s newspaper come these related tidbits. From the first, a review of a book about Jorge Luis Borges’ lectures on English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires, comes the story of Caedmon, “a tuneless, illiterate shepherd who, in the seventh century was visited by an angel in a dream, then woke to become the greatest poet of his age. When he died, he left behind, Borges says, ‘some mediocre verses - I’ve read them - and a beautiful legend…This is part of a literary tradition that seems to be deeply rooted in England: the tradition of versifying in one’s sleep.’”

Then this, from a review of Bill Janovitz’ “Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones”: Regarding the making of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (1965), “the indelible riff that opens the song came to Mr. Richards one night as he slept; he recorded it and went back to sleep, his snores audible on the tape.”

11

Sep

I don’t think I’ve written about September 11th before.

I’m driving someone to the airport today and it occurs to me I’ve never written about September 11th. Nothing’s going to happen, I tell myself. And nothing will.

I wasn’t in New York on September 11th, I didn’t lose a loved one, and it’s all been written. Millions and millions and millions of words. Talk about that day and you can get put in your place very quickly. A cousin, a classmate, a dear friend, a wife. Gone. You only saw it unfold on tv. They live it every day. That’s okay. I don’t need to put myself at the center. Even at a few removes it was, and remains, pretty painful.

Premature death is a theft, a taking, a hole in the fuselage of life.  You try to keep flying but the cabin pressure is gone. You spin and spin and the ground rushes up to meet you.

Lift someone out of the photos and never put them back. What do the others do? How do they go on?

I’ve come to know some of the people immediately affected in the years since. We don’t talk about it. The brave, optimistic, worn faces of spouses left behind. Carrying on. Placing one foot in front of the other. The smiles of children that exactly mirror the smiles of dead mothers and dead fathers is almost too much to bear. If we can’t wrap our minds around it, how can they?

But they do. They live. They remarry. They raise the kids. They try to smooth out the warping, and oftentimes it works. They hover a bit, it must be admitted, but that’s okay. We hover over their kids, too, the orphans of Fate. Have a thought for such people today. They’re keeping inside, avoiding the television, only taking calls from relations, putting on brave faces for the kids. Breakfast for dinner.

I don’t think I’ve written about September 11th before.

I’m driving someone to the airport today and it occurs to me I’ve never written about September 11th. Nothing’s going to happen, I tell myself. And nothing will.

I wasn’t in New York on September 11th, I didn’t lose a loved one, and it’s all been written. Millions and millions and millions of words. Talk about that day and you can get put in your place very quickly. A cousin, a classmate, a dear friend, a wife. Gone. You only saw it unfold on tv. They live it every day. That’s okay. I don’t need to put myself at the center. Even at a few removes it was, and remains, pretty painful.

Premature death is a theft, a taking, a hole in the fuselage of life. You try to keep flying but the cabin pressure is gone. You spin and spin and the ground rushes up to meet you.

Lift someone out of the photos and never put them back. What do the others do? How do they go on?

I’ve come to know some of the people immediately affected in the years since. We don’t talk about it. The brave, optimistic, worn faces of spouses left behind. Carrying on. Placing one foot in front of the other. The smiles of children that exactly mirror the smiles of dead mothers and dead fathers is almost too much to bear. If we can’t wrap our minds around it, how can they?

But they do. They live. They remarry. They raise the kids. They try to smooth out the warping, and oftentimes it works. They hover a bit, it must be admitted, but that’s okay. We hover over their kids, too, the orphans of Fate. Have a thought for such people today. They’re keeping inside, avoiding the television, only taking calls from relations, putting on brave faces for the kids. Breakfast for dinner.

14

Aug

There’s an eternity of waiting for an impact you know is going to happen. It’s only a split-second, really, but the mind can eat an awful lot of fear in a thousandth of a second. In my case, it was an ocean wave a good deal smaller than the one above, but still a big, mean, powerful storm surge wave with a lot of energy and a lot of water breaking on the shore at full force. Not a surfing wave and not a boogie-boarding wave and most definitely not a body-surfing wave.  A diving-under wave. 

Only, I thought I might float over this one. On my back. I do it all the time. There’s a moment when you float over a wave - you have to hit it much earlier than its curl - when the very top of the wave engulfs you, slaps a bunch of water into your face as it passes under you. I thought that was happening to me now, only I didn’t emerge. I’d misjudged my timing. In that exact instant the brain that is essentially a computing machine takes stock while every gland that can manage it starts tossing adrenaline and other crazy chemicals into the furnace. I remember it perfectly. I was amazed. The brain said, in this fraction of a fraction of time, “Impact coming. Body traveling backwards fully extended. Head, neck and spine completely vulnerable. Nothing to do but assess the damage afterward. Oh, and if you remember, get out of the kill zone, because you only have a few seconds before the next wave.” All this information was delivered with me buried deep in several tons of water, eyes closed, about to drop with the force of a million sledgehammers.

There’s something reassuring about having Spock around in an emergency. He’d thrown up his hands, sure, but he also said he’d be there on the other side. He’d know what to do.

The hit came with a shocking force, at a spot between the temple and the eye. An electric jolt seemed to run through me and I felt it go out somewhere in my back. A tremendous blow, more than I’ve ever received before. Then I was in what wave-frolickers the world ‘round call “the washing machine.” I knew that I’d only be in about five feet of water and I’d managed, somehow, not to let the air out of my lungs in the initial smash. I probably owe that bit of good luck to Spock’s calm. When the fury of the wave and the spin cycle settled, I was kneeling in three feet of water and my head was just above the foam. Water surged past me toward the next wave, which I could only philosophically register. I made to push up off the sand to stand and found that my arms and legs would not do as they were told. This, I realized, is very bad.

Luckily a fellow swimmer had seen me go over the falls, which is another delightfully morbid surfing term (see the picture above), and had thoughtfully moved back to see how I’d fared

"Help me up," I said in an urgent, probably pleading voice. He thrashed through the water to me and quickly said we had no choice but to be hit by this wave and to hang on. I caught a breath and then we were both washed under and pushed up the beach a bit. He shielded me from the brunt of it and never let me go. When it passed, he caught me under the arms and hoisted me. I managed to push up very weakly and with some difficulty he got me out of the water. After a few steps on dry sand, I was able to walk on my own, albeit unsteadily.

People ran to me. “I’m all right,” I said. The Spock inside me was going over the systems, looking for leaks in the bulkheads, checking for vulnerabilities, overheats, breaks. Both hands had an advanced pins-and-needles sensation bordering on feeling like I was passing them slowly over fire. I flexed my fingers, which didn’t make it go away. I didn’t realize it, but my face was covered in blood. Looks of disgust and concern. Somebody told me I looked very cool, obviously trying to buck me up. Someone else pressed a towel against my face and held it out again for me to see. Sopping red. I looked down. Blood had flowed down onto my chest. How had I not noticed it? The opening sequence of the Bond films had trained me to expect to see through a descending filter of red. That never happened. “The blood’s coming out of your pores,” someone said wonderingly.

The voice in my brain located the problem after a few minutes of sitting hunched over stoically: it was my neck, or maybe my back. The loss of feeling in my hands, which hadn’t lessened much, helped me with my conclusion. Discs somewhere along my spine had compressed with great force.

"It’s not my head," I said feebly, getting to my feet and alarming everyone. "It’s my neck." I kept flexing my fingers and shaking them.

"But you can walk," I said to myself. Ice was produced from a cooler for my face and I put some on my neck. "That’s something."

That really is something.

It’s two weeks later. The face has healed completely. It never did bruise up, strangely. But I’m still amazingly, terrifically sore. I can’t sleep on my left side, and no position is pain-free. The range of motion is okay, but painful when I turn to look to either side.

I’ve been in an accident, I tell myself. I went over the falls. I could easily have been killed, I tell myself. My spinal cord could have severed right then, right there. I could have drowned in the wash. 

But I didn’t. I still don’t know why. I wonder about it all the time. But I am so very, very grateful. And I don’t mind the soreness at all.

There’s an eternity of waiting for an impact you know is going to happen. It’s only a split-second, really, but the mind can eat an awful lot of fear in a thousandth of a second. In my case, it was an ocean wave a good deal smaller than the one above, but still a big, mean, powerful storm surge wave with a lot of energy and a lot of water breaking on the shore at full force. Not a surfing wave and not a boogie-boarding wave and most definitely not a body-surfing wave. A diving-under wave.

Only, I thought I might float over this one. On my back. I do it all the time. There’s a moment when you float over a wave - you have to hit it much earlier than its curl - when the very top of the wave engulfs you, slaps a bunch of water into your face as it passes under you. I thought that was happening to me now, only I didn’t emerge. I’d misjudged my timing. In that exact instant the brain that is essentially a computing machine takes stock while every gland that can manage it starts tossing adrenaline and other crazy chemicals into the furnace. I remember it perfectly. I was amazed. The brain said, in this fraction of a fraction of time, “Impact coming. Body traveling backwards fully extended. Head, neck and spine completely vulnerable. Nothing to do but assess the damage afterward. Oh, and if you remember, get out of the kill zone, because you only have a few seconds before the next wave.” All this information was delivered with me buried deep in several tons of water, eyes closed, about to drop with the force of a million sledgehammers.

There’s something reassuring about having Spock around in an emergency. He’d thrown up his hands, sure, but he also said he’d be there on the other side. He’d know what to do.

The hit came with a shocking force, at a spot between the temple and the eye. An electric jolt seemed to run through me and I felt it go out somewhere in my back. A tremendous blow, more than I’ve ever received before. Then I was in what wave-frolickers the world ‘round call “the washing machine.” I knew that I’d only be in about five feet of water and I’d managed, somehow, not to let the air out of my lungs in the initial smash. I probably owe that bit of good luck to Spock’s calm. When the fury of the wave and the spin cycle settled, I was kneeling in three feet of water and my head was just above the foam. Water surged past me toward the next wave, which I could only philosophically register. I made to push up off the sand to stand and found that my arms and legs would not do as they were told. This, I realized, is very bad.

Luckily a fellow swimmer had seen me go over the falls, which is another delightfully morbid surfing term (see the picture above), and had thoughtfully moved back to see how I’d fared

"Help me up," I said in an urgent, probably pleading voice. He thrashed through the water to me and quickly said we had no choice but to be hit by this wave and to hang on. I caught a breath and then we were both washed under and pushed up the beach a bit. He shielded me from the brunt of it and never let me go. When it passed, he caught me under the arms and hoisted me. I managed to push up very weakly and with some difficulty he got me out of the water. After a few steps on dry sand, I was able to walk on my own, albeit unsteadily.

People ran to me. “I’m all right,” I said. The Spock inside me was going over the systems, looking for leaks in the bulkheads, checking for vulnerabilities, overheats, breaks. Both hands had an advanced pins-and-needles sensation bordering on feeling like I was passing them slowly over fire. I flexed my fingers, which didn’t make it go away. I didn’t realize it, but my face was covered in blood. Looks of disgust and concern. Somebody told me I looked very cool, obviously trying to buck me up. Someone else pressed a towel against my face and held it out again for me to see. Sopping red. I looked down. Blood had flowed down onto my chest. How had I not noticed it? The opening sequence of the Bond films had trained me to expect to see through a descending filter of red. That never happened. “The blood’s coming out of your pores,” someone said wonderingly.

The voice in my brain located the problem after a few minutes of sitting hunched over stoically: it was my neck, or maybe my back. The loss of feeling in my hands, which hadn’t lessened much, helped me with my conclusion. Discs somewhere along my spine had compressed with great force.

"It’s not my head," I said feebly, getting to my feet and alarming everyone. "It’s my neck." I kept flexing my fingers and shaking them.

"But you can walk," I said to myself. Ice was produced from a cooler for my face and I put some on my neck. "That’s something."

That really is something.

It’s two weeks later. The face has healed completely. It never did bruise up, strangely. But I’m still amazingly, terrifically sore. I can’t sleep on my left side, and no position is pain-free. The range of motion is okay, but painful when I turn to look to either side.

I’ve been in an accident, I tell myself. I went over the falls. I could easily have been killed, I tell myself. My spinal cord could have severed right then, right there. I could have drowned in the wash.

But I didn’t. I still don’t know why. I wonder about it all the time. But I am so very, very grateful. And I don’t mind the soreness at all.

10

Jun

Today at the checkout, there was a new bagger (not the man pictured above). He was a young man with special needs. Beside him stood what is called an “employment trainer,” an older man. At first I thought he was just a lonely duffer who couldn’t leave the cashier after paying because he hadn’t spoken to anyone in a very long time. He talked incessantly and distracted the cashier as she scanned my food. Then I noticed that the bagger was wearing a safety helmet, like you’d wear for rafting or rock climbing. Aha, I thought, and put two and two together.

When a large juice was being rung up, the cashier asked me if I wanted it to be bagged. It had a handle, so I said no.

"Don’t bag the juice," she said, turning to the young man. He had his head down, bagging items as they came down the belt. He seemed to be keeping up.

"How much do you want to bet he didn’t hear you?" said the trainer, laughing.

"Oh, yuh," said the cashier, exhibiting a cruel smile. "How much you want a million dollars?"

The old man thought this was funny. So did she. She bared her filmy teeth in pleasure.

"We’ll find out when he gets to the juice," he said. "I think he’s ignoring us."

When he got to the juice, the bagger slipped it into a bag.

"No!" said the old man, waving a hand over it. "He doesn’t want it in the bag!"

The young man stopped. If he wasn’t deaf, he was very much hearing-impaired. He didn’t look at the man’s face.

"Not in the bag!" said the older man, loudly. "He doesn’t want it in the bag!" If he had spoken to me like that, I would have struck him.

The young man took it out of the bag and put it in the cart as it was without changing his expression.

"I told you he wouldn’t know it."

"Yuh," said the cashier. The two of them reveled in their vast stores of intelligence, in their many gifts.

"You’ll want to watch this on corners," said the older man as I took the handle of the cart after paying. "Things might slide out of the bottom."

I looked down. The cart had been meticulously packed and the bags had been sorted with heavy items on the bottom and more fragile ones on top. I looked past him to the bagger who felt my gaze upon him and after a few moments turned to me.

"Thank you," I mouthed, dropping my right hand from my chin down to my left hand. He smiled.

Today at the checkout, there was a new bagger (not the man pictured above). He was a young man with special needs. Beside him stood what is called an “employment trainer,” an older man. At first I thought he was just a lonely duffer who couldn’t leave the cashier after paying because he hadn’t spoken to anyone in a very long time. He talked incessantly and distracted the cashier as she scanned my food. Then I noticed that the bagger was wearing a safety helmet, like you’d wear for rafting or rock climbing. Aha, I thought, and put two and two together.

When a large juice was being rung up, the cashier asked me if I wanted it to be bagged. It had a handle, so I said no.

"Don’t bag the juice," she said, turning to the young man. He had his head down, bagging items as they came down the belt. He seemed to be keeping up.

"How much do you want to bet he didn’t hear you?" said the trainer, laughing.

"Oh, yuh," said the cashier, exhibiting a cruel smile. "How much you want a million dollars?"

The old man thought this was funny. So did she. She bared her filmy teeth in pleasure.

"We’ll find out when he gets to the juice," he said. "I think he’s ignoring us."

When he got to the juice, the bagger slipped it into a bag.

"No!" said the old man, waving a hand over it. "He doesn’t want it in the bag!"

The young man stopped. If he wasn’t deaf, he was very much hearing-impaired. He didn’t look at the man’s face.

"Not in the bag!" said the older man, loudly. "He doesn’t want it in the bag!" If he had spoken to me like that, I would have struck him.

The young man took it out of the bag and put it in the cart as it was without changing his expression.

"I told you he wouldn’t know it."

"Yuh," said the cashier. The two of them reveled in their vast stores of intelligence, in their many gifts.

"You’ll want to watch this on corners," said the older man as I took the handle of the cart after paying. "Things might slide out of the bottom."

I looked down. The cart had been meticulously packed and the bags had been sorted with heavy items on the bottom and more fragile ones on top. I looked past him to the bagger who felt my gaze upon him and after a few moments turned to me.

"Thank you," I mouthed, dropping my right hand from my chin down to my left hand. He smiled.