Poised in the Boat

M.G. “Brad” Bradlee spent many a happy hour in boats in the wilderness.

I haven’t been able to summon the joie de vivre to write a blithe blog lately. I have my excuses, but who doesn’t?

Years ago when I considered it a lark to forge my own ‘get out of class’ notes, my mother never knew how often I signed her name to excuse my time wasting ways. She lost her ability to write notes or anything else more than twenty years ago. It took me a long time to learn that there’s really no time to waste.

When at last I awoke to the fact that we are all of us adrift on a sea of chance and doomed to sink beneath the waves one way or another, I still had three aging parental figures living out their final years on the East Coast. I decided to try to make up for lost time. We moved across the country and I began my campaign. What an idiot.

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to victory.” However, if you miss the boat, all your flailing will only attract sharks.

I knew I’d be getting back just in time for funeral season. But I was determined to make the best of it and give the parents I had left all the care and comfort I could manage.

It wasn’t enough. They died anyway. And here I am, trapped in a logjam of regret.

Well. I’ve been coping with the self-recrimination, etc., by attempting to: (a) be a better person; (b) forgive myself for failing at that; and (c) do better work. Option (c) is the only thing that seems to be helping so far. I’m writing a lot. And reading voraciously. In the process, I’m rereading a lot of the books that cast a kindlier light upon my soul through the years.

At the moment I’m mid-stream in Jerome K. Jerome’s brilliantly silly “Three Men In a Boat.” This slender novel was first published in 1889, and some of its language is dated. But the voice of the author is a marvel of deadpan humor, alternating with flights of philosophical observation. A welcome tonic against this age of violent intolerance in which we live.

The simple story gives an account of three young men, and a dog, who set out for a week’s vacation, rowing and towing on the Thames. As the friends begin to pack the boat, encountering the difficulties we all experience when trying to decide what to put in and what to leave out, there occurs this sample passage:

“Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed only with what you need — a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.”

In the last year of his life my wonderful father-in-law enjoyed the terrific true story of “The Boys in the Boat” by Daniel James Brown, which has been a bestseller for some time. The story of a group of young men who overcame daunting odds to compete in the Olympics just before World War II resonated with my father-in-law, who, like many of his generation, was a veteran whose life was changed forever by his war time service.

But long before he joined the service, my father-in-law had been a boy in a boat. His experiences as a young boy camping and boating in the woods of New England taught him to value self-reliance and simplicity, fairness and friendship, and trust.

I’m grateful that he lived long enough to share his wisdom with me. I’ve never been much of a sailor, but with the memory of his generous nature as my compass, I hope to stay poised when my own boat springs a leak.

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