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Sailing alone

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[1972]: Right after I graduated from high school my father moved our family from the east coast of Florida to the Florida panhandle. We lived in the little town of Gulf Breeze, a suburb of Pensacola. I enrolled at Pensacola Junior College. I did well enough in my classes when I was able to concentrate on them, but unfortunately my attentions and my focus fluctuated quite a bit. I variously considered majoring in art, philosophy, music, and math. I felt scattered out in all directions and I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. Some days I just wanted to sit and read books–nothing that was relevant to the classes I should have been studying for unfortunately–and do nothing else. I spent a lot of time in the college library browsing their collections at random and reading bits and pieces of anything that looked strange and interesting, especially in philosophy, religion, literature, psychology, and art.

My father bought a small sailboat and gave my brother and me some rudimentary instructions on how to sail it. Our house was close to the Santa Rosa Sound, a huge long body of water that is part of a long inland waterway that parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes my brother and I sailed together on the Sound but I preferred sailing by myself. For years I had had an instinctive compulsion for wandering alone, but now it had expanded out onto the water. When I was on the sailboat I was wandering free, still following my old instinct to go farther, to always be trying to escape from wherever I was.

Sometimes when sailing the boat, if conditions were just right, I slipped unexpectedly into a state of mind that I could only describe as a state of extraordinary naturalness. At such a time I felt clearly focused (something indeed unusual for me, a perennial scatterbrain) but relaxed, and at the same time keenly aware of every nuance of the wind and the water’s movement through my contact with the mainsail sheet and the tiller. I felt poised and balanced in the middle of my life, as if I had always been there like that, sitting on the edge of the cockpit with the sheet wrapped around my wrist and my other hand holding the tiller. I felt synchronized with the world around me, instead of my mind either lagging a little behind it or impatiently pushing ahead of it, as was my wont. For this brief time I suffered no anxieties and no self-hatred, and harbored no false ideas about myself. In fact I had no ideas about myself at all.

I would come to remember those moments sometimes much later in my life when I was going through periods of great difficulty and emotional anguish (usually self-inflicted, I admit). I would remember that it was possible to find in myself authentic peace and strength. I knew it, because I had experienced it for myself on that boat. It was a tiny sliver of hope that helped to keep me going during some of the dark times of my life.

Moving east

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[1969]: When I was sixteen my father moved our family from southern California to the east coast of Florida, ostensibly because he felt that southern California had become intolerably overcrowded. And perhaps it was, but the more basic problem as I came to see later was that he was fundamentally dissatisfied with any place in which he lived. There was an ideal place he held within his mind, the place where he really belonged and in which everything would be good for him. Southern California was not it. Perhaps Florida would be it.

We settled in a small house halfway between Cocoa and Titusville, on the east coast near the Kennedy Space Center where my father had gotten an engineering job. I was not happy about the move, about having to leave what few friends I had to go somewhere where I knew no one. I felt lost in a strange place that I wasn’t sure I belonged in.

Our house was small and modest but comfortable. But for me the best thing it about it was that it was within walking distance of the Indian River. The Indian River, despite the name, is not a river at all but a huge long lagoon. It separates the mainland, where we lived, from the long strip of barrier island where the space center and the beaches were. As often as I could I walked down to the Indian River. It became my refuge. I spent a lot of time walking up and down its shore, to no purpose other than to see the water and the sky and to be walking.

Sometimes there would be a launch of a rocket from the space center across the Indian River, and I would walk down to the edge of the water to see it. There would usually be a crowd of people gathered there to watch. To view the launch seemed to bring my confused life into some type of focus then, if only very briefly. I went from being mostly aimless in a strange place to having a momentary sense of clarity and of energy. For a moment, watching the liftoff, I became that energy. Go, go, go, a voice inside me said.

The psychic

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I met JoEllen at Help Line, a volunteer telephone crisis-counseling service in Pensacola when I was a young volunteer there, and she was another of the volunteers. I didn’t know her very well but she seemed likable enough. She was in her 50s, a genial and gentle person with a direct, penetrating gaze. She was unpretentious and had a whimsical sense of humor. She also had a reputation as a psychic. She herself didn’t make a big deal out of her supposed psychic ability, and in fact very rarely mentioned it, but other people at Help Line believed that she had such ability. Actually no one else made a very big deal out of it either, everyone acted like it was just one of the things that was characteristic of her, one of many things such as being a good golfer or having exceptional taste in clothes.

Every once in a while, sometimes at a Help Line party, JoEllen would agree to do psychic readings for whomever wanted one. At such times she would dress up in a gypsy sort of costume, but the costume was intended in a whimsical spirit and she didn’t really take herself all that seriously. At one of these events, a Help Line party at the home of one of the volunteers, I had JoEllen do a psychic reading for me. I think it was at the suggestion of one of my Help Line friends, I’m sure I was too shy to initiate it myself.

JoEllen was in a back room sitting on a cushion. She was dressed in some kind of robe and had her hair tied up in a red scarf and had many copper and silver bracelets all over both forearms that made tinkling sounds when she moved. She invited me to sit on a cushion in front of her. She was relaxed and confident as if sitting on that cushion in that little room was the most natural place in all the world for her to be. She sat quietly in front of me with her hands in her lap for what seemed a long time, though it was probably only a couple of minutes. Her face assumed an expression of thoughtful concentration. Then she spoke.

As best I can recall this is the gist of what she said. “You are very unusual.” She paused, seeming to search for the best way to formulate her thoughts. “What I am sensing is an unusual spirit, the spirit of a person whose heart is committed to a higher world, a person who has the soul of a monk or a priest.” She paused again, apparently in great concentration and searching for the right words. “But a monk or a priest who is not afraid of getting messy and who has decided, for whatever reason, to live an un-monklike and un-priestlike life among ordinary people.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of this. JoEllen didn’t really know me very well, and yet there was something about what she said that struck a very deep chord in me and gave me an uncanny feeling of recognition. Was it because I wanted to be the kind of person she described? Or was it because I was afraid of being such a person? I wasn’t sure.

A little discussion between friends

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Many years ago I worked as part of a small civilian computer-support group within a Naval station in Panama City, Florida. I was a programmer and Rodney was the other programmer in the group. We occupied adjoining cubicles in a group office. Rodney was of a far more conservative frame of mind than I was but I respected him and we were on a friendly basis for the most part.

One day he was sitting at his desk and, during a period of casual chitchat in the office he said something to the effect that when the U. S. Supreme Court prevented schools from having classroom prayers in public schools this was the start of a long process of moral decay for the whole country. I of course being of a much more liberal outlook and having a sometimes unfortunate tendency to spontaneously blurt out whatever is on my mind, immediately replied with a comment disagreeing with him, and attempting to point out the flaw in his reasoning. He replied to my reply, and I replied to him, a little more insistently and a little more forcefully.

Normally it was my habit to avoid getting involved in such useless arguments with other people no matter how strongly I disagreed with them, but for some reason something about this discussion set me off that day, and I stubbornly refused to back down. We both gradually escalated our argument and it went on and on, to the point where it became a very heated shouting match. Our boss Gary left his desk and walked out of the room, shaking his head and muttering in disgust. We screamed at each other for well over an hour, with Gary a couple of times sticking his head into the door to yell at us, “Would you guys shut the hell up?!” But Rodney and I ignored him and continued our verbal fisticuffs. It was like we were both locked into some kind of deadly embrace from which we were unable to extricate ourselves. We just couldn’t stop yelling at each other.

Finally after almost two hours of this crap our argumentation started to run out of energy. I think we were both just getting tired. The argument eventually ran its course and we just sat there looking at each other, not having anything further to say. One of the Navy technicians came in and asked us if we could help him set up some computer equipment for some diving equipment tests they were planning to do. Rodney and I both got up from our desks and went out. We spent the next couple of hours working together on this little project. We worked well together and as we worked neither of us said anything about the huge altercation we had just had in our office.

Afterward as we were walking back one of the techs asked us, “What was that ruckus going on in your office earlier this afternoon? We could hear it all over the building.” I replied, “Nah, it was nothing.”

Walk with me

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Many years ago I was living in Pensacola, working as a programmer, 32 years old and about to get married for the first time. My fiance Diana was a brilliant and creative divorced woman with three kids. I had met her while we were both volunteer telephone crisis counselors at the local community mental health center. When we had first started dating I had felt a close and engaging rapport with Diana, but over the course of our courtship I started to feel things getting occasionally strange and disturbing.

Diana had occasional attacks of acute anxiety and depression that had no cause that I could see. I felt frustrated and helpless at such times, at a loss as to what I could do to help her. Sometimes she would be sunk into such profound despair that it actually scared me. At these times she would sometimes blame her depression and anxiety on her job, which was tedious and stupid for sure but then most people probably work at tedious and stupid jobs, so why couldn’t she just get over it? Sometimes she blamed, with a great deal amount of accompanying anger, these deep dark moods on her kids. I found this to be disturbing because I thought this blaming of the kids was completely unwarranted and furthermore no mother should have such hostility toward her own kids.

But Diana could also be charming, warm, witty, and full of enthusiasm. Everyone who met her liked her. I was probably the only one who knew of the other aspect of her personality, the strange dark depths of her. I kept expecting that she would eventually relax and that, being the intelligent person she was, she would eventually see that there was nothing for her to be angry or fearful about, and so just let go of the anger and the depression and the fear. But Diana’s episodes continued. We had agreed to marry, but I was gradually developing some misgivings about it. I felt a great sense of responsibility and commitment to Diana. I couldn’t abandon her. Yet I had the growing feeling that I might very well be heading into a very difficult relationship. I was committed, I felt that it wasn’t possible for me to change the path I was on. I was like a train on a track heading toward something that might or might not turn out to be a disaster.

A few days before Diana and I were to be married, I called a woman a knew named Leah, a friend and fellow volunteer from the crisis counseling service. I asked her if she would take a walk with me. It was early spring and the weather was clear, cool and very windy. We met in downtown Pensacola and walked down South Palafox Street down to the pier that goes out over Pensacola Bay. I can’t remember now what Leah and I talked about but I think it was probably nothing of any great importance. I was very anxious about my relationship with Diana and the upcoming marriage but I don’t think I talked about that. What I remember most was a beautiful day of brilliant sunshine, and the winds whipping up whitecaps in the bay as we walked, and pelicans hovering in the wind over the pier, and that for a little while I was in the presence of someone who cared about me and respected me, and I have never forgotten that even after my marriage and the later divorce and the many other relationships and breakups, all through the years.

To the north

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February 1995: I was living in Panama City, Florida and working in the defense contracting industry, which I despised. But after many months of seeking I finally got a job offer that was NOT in the defense biz, in another city. The city was Ithaca, New York. When I told my father, a lifelong devotee of warm places and a hater of cold weather, that I planned to move up north to Ithaca he was at first incredulous, assuming that this was yet another of my crazy impulsive ideas and that I would eventually come to my senses and drop the idea of moving north. But I didn’t drop the idea, and I started making moving plans. When my father eventually saw that I was really serious about it he reluctantly agreed to help me move.

On a cold (well, cold for northern Florida anyway) and sunny day we headed out onto the highway heading north, driving a rented moving van full of my meager belongings and towing my car. My father and I took turns driving. We drove ten hours the first day. We talked little during the long drive, but then we never did have a lot to talk about. He just stared ahead of him at the road with an air of quiet resignation. I supposed that he must have been wondering how he had managed to raise such a crazy son, a son so demonstrably devoid of “common sense.” Why can’t you be like me? He never said it in such words but it was clear from all of my experience with him throughout my life that this was the gist of his relationship with me, his eldest son.  Why can’t you be like me, exactly like me? 

We stopped at a motel in Charlotte, North Carolina the first night.  We bought a six pack of beer and split it between the two of us in the motel room.  The next morning we were up and out on the road early, driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The world rushing past the truck windows started to seem fluid and intangible to me.  Just colors and shapes in motion.  Images of sad small towns, poor and lost-looking places for the most part.  This is America, I thought, a country of poor and lost places.  Maybe it doesn’t matter much where one chooses to live.

I started to become aware of the cold.  I felt that it was a new and different world that I was entering, a world of cold and snow, a world where people were in thrall to the changing of the seasons.  Crossing into Pennsylvania we started to see patches of snow on the ground.  We drove on I-81 through an ice fog, passing several cars that had slid off the road into the ditches.  I got off the highway with a great sense of relief (my nerves being somewhat shaky after my first experience of driving on icy roads) in a small town and found a motel, and we drank another six pack in the room.  We still didn’t have much to talk about.

The next day we crossed into New York state and went on up to Ithaca.  We returned the van and drove in my car to a hotel.  The next morning I drove my father to the bus station so he could take the bus back to his home in Seagrove Beach, Florida.  It started snowing as we were on our way to the bus station.  He muttered and griped abut the snow as we walked into the station.  I saw him off on the bus.

Several months later, in the summer, he drove back to Ithaca and I got a chance to take him around and show him how beautiful the countryside is in the summer.  I recall taking him on hiking trails and showing him spectacular waterfalls, gorges, forests, lakes, rivers, and valleys.  I think he was impressed, in spite of himself.  I think he realized that this really was a good place to live after all.  He stayed a few days and drove back to Florida.  That was the last time I ever saw him.  The times I tried to call him he would usually be drunk and so I became reluctant to call him.  A year later, in the middle of summer, he died of a heart attack.  He would be eternally in summer from then on.

Misadventure in Mexico

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Back in 1994 I was working as a programmer/analyst in the defense contracting industry in Panama City Florida and for a variety of reasons I was getting desperate to get out of the defense business.  I started looking about for job opportunities all over the country and I was willing to consider almost any job as long as it wasn’t in defense contracting.  A guy contacted me who had seen my resume and was interested.  He was head of the testing department for a major company (I’d rather not say which one) that manufactured electronic circuit boards, and whose main manufacturing plant was located in Reynosa, Mexico.  Reynosa is located just across the Rio Grande from McAllen Texas.  I talked with the testing manager on the phone.  He wanted to bring me out to their plant for an interview.  I said I would do it.  He arranged for a plane ticket for me from Panama City to McAllen.

I got to the Panama City airport and the first problem I noticed was that there was no Continental terminal at that airport.  My flight was supposed to be on Continental.  I checked with an agent for another airline who checked my flight number and told me that I was booked on a flight from Panama City Canal Zone to McAllen, not from Panama City Florida!  So I went home and called my contact and told him the problem.  He did some checking and found that their travel agent had in fact screwed up and made the airline booking from the wrong city.  He arranged for the correct booking and I went back to the airport and flew to McAllen.  I was picked up at the airport and taken to a hotel.  I was supposed to be picked up next morning at 6:30 AM to be driven across the border to the plant for a day-long round of interviews with various people at the plant.

Next morning the day started off badly because the hotel’s restaurant didn’t open for breakfast until 7:00 and I had to be ready to be picked up at 6:30, so I missed breakfast.  Missing breakfast is usually kind of bad for me because, due to my quirky metabolism, I have to eat fairly regularly or else I don’t feel right at all.  If I go for a few hours without eating I get very dizzy and fuzzy-headed.  So anyway I’m picked up by the testing manager in a little van and we go on to the company’s McAllen offices and I’m greeted by one of the managers who asks me, “So you brought your birth certificate, right?”  Uh, no.  I did not know I needed to bring my birth certificate.  He said that I was told I needed to bring my birth certificate for the security check at the border crossing.  I was certain I’d been told no such thing but I didn’t want to get into an argument with the guy.  I tried to be tactful in my response but made it clear that I had no birth certificate because I didn’t know one was needed.  He sighed and shook his head and said, OK maybe we will be alright without it.

We went around in this van picking up the various American managers who live in McAllen and who work at the plant in Reynosa.  They were all middle-aged white guys.  They struck me as all being rather sophomoric and boorish.  This initial impression was confirmed as we continued on and they made a lot of racist and sexist jokes about all the Mexican women who we passed along the way.  I was thinking, these bozos are the managers of the plant?  They talked like frat boys at a keg party.

At the plant I was interviewed by the head plant manager, the testing manager, and several other managers, basically all of the jerks who I rode over in the van with.  The management team consisted of about 9 guys, and all but one of these managers was from the USA.  None of them, except the one manager who was a Mexican, impressed me as having much intelligence.  Then the testing manager told me he wanted me to meet with the testing engineering team he was in charge of, although he warned me that those guys were “not very smart” and “almost useless.”  I met with the test engineers, all of whom were Mexicans.  Contrary to the manager’s pessimistic assessment, I found all of these Mexican engineers to be smart and knowledgeable.  They were also very clear communicators and did a great job of explaining to me how the automated testing of the circuit boards worked.  I got the impression that it was the testing manager himself who was out of touch with what was going on (he certainly didn’t seem very technically knowledgeable himself).  The engineers who worked for him seemed like they knew what they were doing.

Lunch time came and went and no one offered me anything for lunch.  By afternoon I was definitely feeling dizzy from the lack of food and it was getting harder for me to think clearly.  We toured the factory floor, where a couple of thousand young Mexican women (no men worked on the factory floor for some reason) worked on assembly lines.  We met and talked with some other people.  I’m not sure that I was fully conscious of who I was meeting with.  Things started to get very hazy for me.  I was losing track of where I was.  It took all of the concentration I could summon just to stand, walk, talk and do other ordinary movements.  I was so dizzy I had no idea what I was saying to people and I just hoped I was saying things that were somewhat coherent.  Finally at the end of the day the group got back in the van and drove back to McAllen.  The testing manager took me out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant.  I got something to eat just in time because I thought I might actually keel over if I went any longer without food.  Over dinner it became clear that he wanted to hire me.  He sensed I was reluctant and tried to talk up the job opportunity.  I was non-committal.

When I finally got back home I was left with a bad feeling about the whole experience.  This was mainly because of the appalling arrogance, stupidity and bigotry of all of the American managers I’d encountered.   There were approximately 3,000 people working in that plant, all but about 8 of whom were Mexicans.  And those 8 men were the top-level management of the plant, and they were all fools.  It also did not speak well of them that nobody seemed the least bit concerned that I had to go almost a whole day without eating anything and that I was in some distress on that account.

And from a more existential point of view I was bothered by the fact that this company’s plant is in Reynosa at all, because of course the only reason it’s south of the Rio Grande instead of north of it is because they can get away with paying the workers a lot less money there.  Which implies that the Mexicans are somehow worth less than the Americans, and this implication bothers me.  I know that from a practical point of view, locating this plant in Mexico is probably a very good thing for the Mexicans because it brings a lot of additional job opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have, but on an impractical, idealistic level I’m still bothered by America’s longstanding assumption that Mexicans are worth less than we are.

I declined the job offer, and a year later I found myself in Ithaca, New York, which is another story.