Two Lines

(From my memoir-in-progress on fatherhood. Some material in this chapter also appears in The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder.)

Two lines.

She thought she saw two lines, but wasn’t sure. So she brought the plastic stick, still glistening with urine, over to the bed. The second line was faint, but I definitely saw something.

“Put it this way,” I said. “How mad would you be if you didn’t want to be pregnant and you saw that line, even if it was faint?”

She agreed.

The next day, she repeated the whole process, and the second line was darker. Our second anniversary present to each other, was that we would have a baby.

We watched and listened as the baby grew inside of her. The nurse would smear KY jelly all over a microphone-like instrument and rub it around between Kirstin’s navel and pubic bone. The nurse would stare at the wall, as if that helped her to listen, and then, there it would be. Woosh-woosh, woosh-woosh, woosh-woosh. The heartbeat. She’d freeze in that spot, and Kirstin and I would exchange grins of disbelief.

When it was time for the sonogram, she’d flip on the video monitor, pop in the videotape that we’d bring with us each time, and begin swirling the sensor around on her stomach. The grainy black and white kaleidoscope would swirl and finally come to rest on something that looked like a lima bean. And right in the middle of the bean was a throbbing grain of sand, looking like a pulsar in some far-away galaxy. His, or her, beating heart.

That was him … or her. We didn’t know the sex and chose not to find out. But we hated to just call it “It” over and over. And so we came up with working titles. It started as “Bryo,” then became “Cletus the Fetus,” before settling into “Chou-chou,” (shoo-shoo) which Kirstin, the erstwhile French major, said meant “little cabbage.”

Had we been able to see images before seven weeks — and someday soon surely people will — we might have seen how the baby, or, as nurses universally called him, simply “Baby,” looks in the very beginning. (Nurses say, “Baby’s in this position,” and “Baby’s active today!” For me, it’s “the baby.” “Baby” was the protagonist in Dirty Dancing. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner of a uterus!”)

Pregnant couples learn to mark time in weeks. Forty weeks was the goal, though Baby is considered fully cooked anywhere from two weeks early to two weeks late.

From periodic sonograms, we could see someone growing inside Kirstin, something on its face so miraculous and bizarre that nobody would believe it if it didn’t happen 490,000 times a day all over the world.

The first round showed a bean. The second showed a clear split between the body and the relatively enormous head, as big as the body. After this, we followed along week by week in Kirstin’s old biology textbook. Now the arm buds and leg buds were sprouting out of the torso. The dark spots were eyes. For the first two months, had we been able to monitor it every day, we would have seen something different. Some new, enormously vital and complex body system was taking shape on a daily basis. On Tuesday the baby grew kidneys; Wednesday the lungs were forming; Thursday the digestive tract was differentiating and pulling inside of the rib cage. This week, all of the bones of the hand are formed, in the very same configuration they will remain for the next eighty years.

Knowing all this, we scrutinized Kirstin’s diet and activities. No caffeine. No NutriSweet. No ibuprofen. No antibiotics. No pumping gasoline. Swimming was okay, but not jogging. No mowing. And her longtime goal of skydiving was right out. Nothing was allowed that we even suspected might throw off this amazing unfoldment of life and its layered and interlocking systems.

Throughout its development, there are striking similarities between a human fetus and the fetuses of animals down the evolutionary ladder. For instance, our fetus resembles the fetus of a shark, complete with gills (Shark Week!), then resembles the fetus of a pig, and later resembles the fetus of a monkey and finally an ape, covered in hair called lanugo. This observation by others spawned a theory of gestation known as ontology recapitulating phylogeny.

In the early months, with a clear image, it is hard not to notice the tail. I briefly wondered if I had sired a sea monkey and how this would play out when it came time to start dating. But Chou-Chou soon grew into his or her tail, and my worries were for naught.

In the meantime we attended classes, which struck me as so quaintly human. Dogs and cats did not seem to need hand-outs and instructions on how to have their young. Yet we felt we did. In fact, we went through not one course but two: the Bradley Method, which was for hardcore granola couples who wished to keep things as natural as possible, and the Lamaze classes sponsored and required by the hospital. It was the last day of class and Kirstin had left early to make it to her baby shower on time. I vowed to stay behind and pick up as many more details of child birthing and rearing as I could. “Where’s the justice,” I thought. “She’s at a party unwrapping presents, and I’m here holding a thermometer up a doll’s ass.” In any event, I realized full well, with all the talk of centimeters this and lactation that, that nature had dealt me the easy hand in this partnership.

There were decisions to make. First was the name. This one is fun but also a little nerve-wracking. To think that two people can sit around and just decide what somebody is going to be called for the rest of their lives, like they would decide whether to go for Mexican or seafood on a given night, is bizarre, and, if you let yourself think about it for too long, can be petrifying.

Kirstin and I had decided that we were old fashioned and didn’t want to know the gender of the baby before it was born, as this is one of the true surprises left in life. But that means that you’ve got to pick two names.

I felt the weight of this decision keenly. Kirstin and I suspect a pendulum at work here — one generation assigns a “creative,” that is to say unusual, name to their kids, who suffer the daily grind of a world not set up for creative names: spelling it every time you leave a phone message or transact any business whatsoever, correcting people who mispronounce it or, as I tend to do, simply answering to anything. As Kirstin and I (Avrel) had this in common, we aimed to give the kids names that were 1) self-explanatory 2) without being overly common. Of course, this is a fool’s errand because you’re always fighting the last war when it comes to distinctiveness vs. commonness. We though we were going just a little ways off the beaten path with each one until we showed up for the first day of preschool, and heard “Andrew, come here!” from six different directions, addressing six of Andrew’s classmates. How all parents decide to “zag” at precisely the same moment, rendering the zag a zig and thereby nullifying it, is uncanny.

The next decision, I can honestly say, never occurred to me before she was pregnant: Whether or not to circumcise if it be a boy. Most things of consequence in our marriage and in our family life Kirstin and I consult on. But occasionally there will be something that we just leave completely up to the other. One example was whether or not to try for a third child, which, recognizing that her level of sacrifice both physically and mentally — was higher than mine, I left completely up to her. In her wisdom, Kirstin left this one entirely up to me.

Like virtually all American boys born in the mid-century, I had been circumcised. But there were a lot of things done back in the day that weren’t anymore. Immunization schedules. Birthing methods. Just because something was done for or to me was not a compelling reason. I read everything I could easily find on the subject. There were pros and cons on both sides. The Cut It side offered horror stories of chronic infections in little boys that led to teenage circumcisions.

The Leave It side pointed to the fact that circumcision shortened one’s adult manhood by an average of one inch. Other studies have put the average difference at 8 millimeters, or a quarter inch, but the point remains, as it were. An inch, or even a quarter inch, might not seem like a lot in most areas of life; I don’t think I need to go into detail on why that might not be so in this particular case. The closest equivalent for a girl would be deciding before she was born that she should have a breast reduction as soon as she hit puberty regardless of her bra size. I wasn’t comfortable making a permanent remodel to someone else’s body; it just never seemed like my decision to make.

The American Medical Association was no help: Do whatever you want. Doesn’t hurt to do it; probably won’t hurt not to.

Where I finally came down on the question is that I found it unlikely that, while there might have been excellent reasons for it in ages past, and even today in other parts of the world, when and where human life was far less antiseptic than it is today, to say that all boys should be circumcised is to say that half of the human race is born in immediate need of surgery. This just seemed unlikely to me. So I threw their lot in with nature.

When the fortieth week arrived, a kind of hush fell over our house. A watched cervix never dilates — that is the saying, right? — and we were watching it pretty closely. About this time in a pregnancy, advice about how to get the baby out begins to gush from all quarters. Chief among this advice, at least in Texas, is that Mexican food is the key. And so we ate Mexican, she with extra jalapeños, every night. Nothing.

Walking also is said to bring on labor, and so, every night, I would prod Kirstin out of the house and take her — waddling now in the universal side-to-side motion that comes from the elastin in the pelvis — around our one-mile loop.

When her due date arrived, I stayed close to my phone at work, checking every time I returned to my desk for the stutter-tone that meant I had voicemail. (This was before I had a cell phone, which today seems like saying “This was before I started wearing pants,” but it’s true, kids. There was a time when not everybody carried a phone/computer/TV with them everywhere they went.)

No stutter-tone. No call. That afternoon she copied me on an e-mail she had sent to friends and family: “Today has been a very emotional day for me. Please forgive me if I don’t answer the phone tonight.”

It was like we had been stood up. With her miserable and me miserable by proxy, and the impatient type anyway, we looked for the silver lining. At least he or she wouldn’t be a premie.

One day past due. Two days. Four days. Six days. Knowing from our many classes that most women go into labor in the middle of the night, we greeted each sunrise with disappointment. Another eternal day of fending off questions by well-meaning co-workers and another volley of phone calls from anxious family members. How many times could we say “no news”?

We had tried Mexican food. We had tried dancing. We had walked her until her swollen feet were bursting out of the only pair of shoes that still fit.

I kissed her goodnight and retired down the hall to the study, where I had pitched camp about three weeks earlier, to give her the maximum chance to sleep without being awakened by my tossing, turning, snoring, sneezing. Maybe sex would work; maybe it wouldn’t. We had played our last card. Now, truly, all we could do was wait.

About two hours later, at half past midnight, I was awakened by the creak of the study door. Her ample silhouette eased through the doorway and slipped down beside me in spoons on the futon. She whispered in the dark, as if there were already a baby in the house she was trying not to wake, “I think I may have had a contraction.”

The House on the Rock

It was in the summer of 2010 when we decided it was time to again go to Wisconsin to see Kirstin’s aunts and uncles. It would be four days in the car, and three days in the Dairy State. One day would be spent at the family reunion on Uncle Steve’s farm. Another day would be spent in La Crosse, where Kirstin’s dad, Grandpa John, would show them where he used to swim and eat ice cream and go to school when he was their age. That left a third day to site-see in southern Wisconsin. As we spoke with family and hotel clerks, several possibilities presented themselves: there was Little Norway, the Madison Zoo, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright house Taliesen, and then there was something that kept being mentioned by relatives and front-desk clerks called The House on the Rock.

A quick visit to the website showed us that it was the home of the late Alex Jordan, who had amassed a fantastic collection of … collections, more than 200 acres of gardens and attractions that would inspire us and leave us in awe. A call confirmed that they were indeed open on the Fourth of July, and we were off.

We started off a merry party of six, the five us plus Kirstin’s dad. The price was a little steep —a hundred dollars for all of us — but hey, we were on vacation, and it promised to be an afternoon we’d not soon forget. In that, we were as right as we’d ever be about anything.

At the main entrance, festooned with dragon sculptures, we turned off the road and wound our way through a half-mile of woods punctuated with huge urns crawling with sculpted lizards and dragons. Parked, we made our way across the ample lot to the visitor center where they ran my credit card and we were pointed to the start of the tour, a museum about The House on the Rock. Yeah, yeah, whatever, I thought. I didn’t pay to see pictures of stuff. I paid to see stuff! Bring on the stuff!

Soon enough we were directed to Tour 1 of 3, which was Mr. Jordan’s house itself.

We first passed through a room where numerous instruments — player pianos and violins and cellos affixed with little pneumatic devices — were playing Ravel’s Bolero by themselves. A little creepy, but the boys always dug the haunted house thing. Turns out self-playing instruments would be a MAJOR theme throughout our afternoon. I wondered how many years the ghostly ensemble had been continuously playing Bolero, and how close the man who was taking tickets right outside that room had come to taking his own life.

We exited that room, and for five minutes climbed a covered boardwalk rising higher and higher as the hill sloped away underfoot. At last we reached a low door that seemed to open into the rock face. Once through the door, the Wisconsin breeze gave way to a dank, vague funkiness, trapped by a low ceiling and, everywhere you looked, red shag carpeting, on the floor, yes, but also on every wall. And with it, all of the most dated elements of Sixties and Seventies mod decor. It reminded one of a cross between a steak house and a Jungle Room den. Literally a man cave. The most impressive engineering achievement was the so-called Infinity Room, a sliver of a room that stuck out, seemingly unsupported, over the forest, walled by 3,000 small windows.

Throughout most of Mr. Jordan’s residence, I carried Ian in my arms, setting him down occasionally to rest my middle-aged back. We wound our way around and around the uneven floors, low ceilings, red-carpeted walls with their dated amber light fixtures until we reached the top deck, where a bare plywood roof gave a nice vista of the surrounding hilltops and forest.

Hmm, we thought. Interesting enough, but not really worth $100 and a forty-minute drive out of our way. And where’s that carousel we saw on the website? There must be more somewhere.

We made our way back down the catwalk and after a few wrong turns and queries found ourselves heading into a large hangar-like building for Tour 2. Inside, the uneven brick floor theme was carried forward, and we started down a walkway that reminded one of a cross between a theme park and a haunted house. On either side of us were faux store fronts each holding enormous collections of random items: now an antique fire truck and a life-size porcelain Dalmatian, now an Old West saloon with a hitching post and trough out front; and scattered randomly, actual trees that had been “preserved” by encasing their trunks in concrete; their dead leaves, coated in a generous layer of dust, still clung to dusty stems from branches that were not encased. As a tree enthusiast, this mainly struck me as creepy and not necessarily any better than just cutting them down.

At the end of the walkway was an enormous calliope — 20 feet high and 30 feet long, that, for a token, played a five-minute song using mechanical devices of all kinds, mallets playing on differently sized glass bottles and carboys, cymbals and tambourines and whistles.

Okay, we thought, now we’re getting somewhere. That’s really something.

By now, coming up on an hour or so of walking and climbing, the kids were starting to show early signs of fatigue – increasing frequency of drink requests, questions about how much longer, if we were going back to the hotel soon, of course, hanging on rails and, if our party paused for more than a two-count, sitting down on any surface that wasn’t occupied by a mannequin with a self-playing violin. Many times have I heard the story of my own family’s trip, taken when I was six, to Washington, D.C., and the most oft-repeated episode, when the State Department docent invited guests to look behind them at the intricately woven carpet featuring the American bald eagle. Of course the only thing spread-eagle on the floor was me, sprawled on the carpet in utter exhaustion from walking through, over, and around national treasures that were of interest mostly to adults, teenagers at best.

No matter, with a manufactured spring in my step, I led the troops onward and upward into the next exhibit hall, determined to squeeze every penny’s worth from this strange compound in the middle of the Wisconsin wilderness.

Up a ramp and through another doorway, we entered an enormous room with a sixty-foot ceiling that held in its center a colossal, three-story sculpture of an octopus locked in battle with a terrible whale, which, not to be confined to zoological truth, had the size and shape of a blue whale but the teeth of a sperm whale, toothy mouth agape revealing a crushed canoe inside. The walkway rose slowly around the perimeter of the room so the sculpture could be admired from all sides and at various heights, and along the wall was case after case after case of model ships, enormous intricately rigged models of whaling ships and battleships and submarines. Now we’re really getting somewhere! As a boy their age, I could have happily explored this room for three months.

Of the boys, Ian, the youngest, proved to me most game at this point, probably because he was being carried half the time. The battle of leviathans provided a slight uptick in Andrew’s interest and energy. Cameron, whom I thought would get the biggest charge out of it, refused to look at what he stubbornly referred to as “the dolphin,” and clung to his mother, looking only at the display cases all the way up the three floors of catwalk.

Spending the next 15 minutes climbing toward the hangar’s ceiling, we then entered a neighboring room of equal dimensions in which we promenaded past life-sized dollhouses, Jordan’s custom-built cars, and a gigantic Rube Goldberg machine. By now it was getting on toward suppertime, and Kirstin and I knew instinctively that a behavioral time bomb was ticking. Plus we had been warned numerous times by staff that Tour 3 could only be entered until 5 o’clock. Yes, it was time to pick up the pace. We soldiered wearily past the temptations of a pizzeria and through a tunnel leading to Tour 3.

Words fail utterly to capture the scale of what we saw next, but I’ll try. As soon as we entered Tour 3, we were greeted by the long-promised carousel. But it was not just any carousel. It was an ENORMOUS carousel, so big you couldn’t see the far side of it. A nearby plaque appraised its worth at more than $4 million. It held probably 100 circus chimera, the bodies of horses and the heads of eagles, elephants, tigers, and so on.

The brochure called Alex Jordan a visionary. It was about this time that I decided I would call him the craziest son of a bitch that ever drew breath. The enormous room that held the carousel held dozens, maybe hundreds, of other carousel animals fastened to the ceiling. We exited the room through the huge mouth of a devilish ape and soon emerged into an even more cavernous room.

More trees encased in concrete, more red shag carpet, steel catwalks routing people up and down, under and over and around the most bizarre assortment. An enormous bronze cannon. Strings of copper kettledrums hanging from the ceiling. Printing presses. Bellow organs. Giant steam engines. A three-story-tall clock off a tower. The pop culture reference point for how we were feeling by now had become clear: we were moving through a real-life Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, minus the chocolate, and with Willie Wonka a crazy Wisconsin mogul who had died in 1989 and was now ghoulishly laughing at us from beyond the grave.

At this point, I remember beginning to laugh uncontrollably as I stared at Kirstin and her dad for their reactions. “What is this place?!” we guffawed. “What’s happening?!”

When that burst of incredulity had worn off, we had decided we were done. It was a fascinating regional attraction, we had gotten our money’s worth, and we were ready for our next destination. The boys were hungry and beyond exhausted and we were close behind them. Fortunately the walkway led us right into a café.

Unfortunately, the café was closing down and even though they were still routing people into it, they wouldn’t sell us anything, and routed us right back out into Tour 3. I now was carrying The Destroyer of Worlds on my shoulders as we entered the dollhouse wing. There, like rats through a maze, we were routed past dozens, maybe a hundred, dollhouses. It might well have been the most extensive and valuable collection of dollhouses and dolls in the world, and we didn’t give a flying crap. By this time I was outright fast-walking, careful not to hit the head of the Destroyer of Worlds on a beam or a doorway. At one point, we saw a bottleneck shaping up ahead of us due to a lady in a wheelchair, and we actually broke into a run to get around her.

Through the dollhouses, we were sure we must be near the exit, when we stepped through a doorway and were greeted by a sign reading “CIRCUS LAND.” Within, to a continuous soundtrack crazy circus music, we filed past model tent after model tent filled with hundreds to thousands of dolls watching the freeze-frame action. Through more doors we came upon two more carousels, each two or three stories — who’s counting anymore? — and featuring half-size characters. Up another ramp and through another doorway Mr. Jordan took Circus Land into a huge finish, a two-story gilded wagon loaded with mannequins dressed in band uniforms, in the corner, a three-tiered pyramid of life-size elephants with 1970 J.C. Penney surplus mannequins riding on their heads and trunks. And in another corner, a 100-piece J.C. Penney surplus mannequin orchestra holding self-playing instruments.

For a moment I flashed on the scene from Gandhi, when the Martin Sheen character shouts into the telephone to transmit his news story on passive resistance at the salt mine. “And still they came STOP! Wave after wave STOP! No amount of violence or force used by the empire dissuading them from their mission STOP!”

We trudged up another ramp getting closer and closer to the ceiling toward an unassuming door with a standard Exit sign over it. I pushed the bar, it opened, and there it was, daylight, the out of doors. And just like that, after three hours, it was over.

Except for the gift shop.

The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder – Chapter 1

The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder: A Search for the Boundaries of the Body, Mind, and Soul

Chapter 1 – Fishing

“Yeah,” we assure each other. “We’re covering some water.”

It’s slow, but we can mark our progress by the movement of the weedy bottom past the hull. The tiny trolling motor whirs away on its virgin voyage, clamped onto the back of my ten-foot homemade boat. As Jason and I leave the dock and putter quietly west across the Laguna Madre — the wide, shallow bay that separates South Padre Island from the Texas mainland — the handle/throttle of the trolling motor vibrates in my grip, and I check the clamp to make sure it isn’t jiggling loose.

It is eleven on a brilliant autumn morning, the second Saturday of October 1998, and the sky has grown a deep shade of blue as the sun has begun its migration south for the winter.

We’re headed for the gulls, the easiest sign for fishermen to follow. Where there are gulls, there are shrimp and baitfish: piggy perch, finger mullet, croakers. And where there are baitfish, usually, there are gamefish: reds (red drum), specks (speckled sea trout), and flounder. Like everybody else, we’re after these three. And so we head for the gulls, snow-white with gray legs and heads dipped in black like the onion dome tops of Dairy Queen ice cream cones. Large brown pelicans patrol the coastline of the bay in long, motionless passes. Occasionally, they fold their wings and plunge into the water in what to me seems a magnificent and daring maneuver, then surface expressionless with a billful of baitfish. The blank stare reminds me that daring dive-bombing in three feet of water is no more extraordinary or romantic to them than driving through Whataburger is to me.

When we reach the gulls, I throw out the iron anchor, which looks like a tiny black sombrero with a chain out its top, and tie it off on a cleat near the stern. It proves more a weight than an anchor, as it only slows our drift. Knowing how fickle gamefish are, and how soon and utterly completely they can move on to other feeding grounds, we quickly begin chunking our red rubber worms and reeling them in. I’ve never gotten used to the speed at which you should reel in artificial lures like this. It’s so counterintuitive: If you want the fish to bite it, shouldn’t you slow it down and give it a better chance, not try to outrun it? No. Reds, specks, and even the flat, asymmetrical flounder, one of the elite freaks of nature, can swim at astounding speeds. And so you reel quickly, much quicker than you think you should, just slow enough to prevent your wrists from seizing up from fatigue.

We have fished fewer than ten minutes when Jason’s lure is hit. His black bay rod bends into that sweet, familiar parabola, and the tip begins jerking franticly. “All right!” he exclaims. “Dude, we got fish out here,” he laughs. Setting my pole down, I grab the green net, and he leads the silvery trout into it before I lift the fish quickly into the boat. It is the first fish caught in the new boat — a christening of sorts. I produce the disposable cardboard fun cam out of my vest pocket and document the occasion with a few quick clicks before folding the speck into our small ice chest, the only one that will fit on the boat. Jason has fine brown hair and a thin face with eyes that angle down slightly at the edges. His large Adam’s apple produces a low, soft voice, except when he laughs. He moves slowly and methodically, but his speech comes in sudden surges and sentences come with the same cadence of a fish suddenly taking the drag and running off sixty feet of line. He holds the fish underhand with the second knuckle of each finger, allowing his fingertips to extend out past the fish toward the camera and curve slightly downward.

Me — I’m six-two, 175, and at 31 years old, am already going white at the temples, which is accented by the fact that the rest of my hair seems to be getting darker with age. As a kid, it alternated between brown and dirty blond depending on the season. But I guess a desk job and middle age have permanently darkened it. I was bone skinny from childhood until four years ago, when the metabolic and the caloric lines suddenly crossed. Then, my once-angular face began to take on the rounded corners of middle-age comfort, and the waist went from a 30 to a 34. My hair is board straight, and I keep it shorter now that we’re out of the eighties.

The speck flops against the inside of the chest giving the typically eerie Telltale Heart thudding of a life ebbing away, not under the floorboards of a haunted house, but in the same general area.

Energized at the prospect of “wild schooling action,” as we often fantasized would be the case, we both hurry our lures back into the bay at the same approximate spot.

A dejected “Oh, man,” from Jason is the first sign I have that two “fishpigs” are in hot pursuit. Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers have an uncanny ability to sniff out irregularities in the bay and home in on them in seconds. And when, through their high-powered binoculars, they see a ten-foot, plywood boat with a trolling motor clamped on the back, they head toward us as instinctively as the speckled trout had headed for Jason’s plastic lure five minutes earlier.

The two rangers pulled up beside us in their flat-bottom boat, perfectly suited for patrolling the shallow bay. One of them kneels on the indoor/outdoor carpeting of their boat’s deck and holds the hull of mine at arm’s length to prevent them from hitting as they bob. The other begins his law-enforcement patter.

“Mornin’, fellas.”

“Morning!” I chirp, inflecting too much cheerfulness.

“This thing registered?” he asks.

“Well, no. I was told I didn’t have to register it because it’s a sailboat under fourteen feet.”

He smiles and exchanges glances with his partner. “Who told you that?”

“The salesman at the sailboat shop where I bought supplies.”

“Well, that’s true for a sailboat, but see, you’ve got a motor on it.”

“This thing?” I ask incredulously. It has never occurred to me that I am piloting a “motor boat,” as our trolling motor will not go more than about five miles per hour in ideal conditions.

“Yes, sir. Any boat with a motor attached has to be registered.”

“But,” I parse his every phrase for a technicality, “… but this isn’t permanently attached. I put it on and take it off constantly. It’s just barely clamped on here!”

“If it’s got a motor, it’s gotta be registered.” By this time he is already writing on his little yellow pad. “Can I get your name please?”

“Avrel. A-V, as in Victor, R-E-L, Seale, S-E-A-L-E.” Our conversation proceeds to other topics like address and phone number, area code first. Still I grope for any shred of mercy. “This is my first time out in this boat, and I honestly didn’t know it had to be registered! Is there any possible way you can give me a warning?”

He chuckles and exchanges glances with his partner, the boatholder, again, as he adjusts his BlueBlockers higher on the bridge of his nose. “If I had a nickel for every time I heard that question,” he says. That’s all he says. I hate it when people don’t answer a question — or answer it by not answering it.

The boatholder is starting to throw me off my mission by drawing me into a conversation about the boat: “This is pretty neat.”

“Thanks,” I mumble, taking off my hat and throwing it disgustedly on the little pine seat that holds the back of the boat together. Jason sits in the front seat fingering his reel, wondering if it would be inappropriate to go ahead and cast again while I’m getting written up.

“This is really neat.‘ you build it from a kit or something?”

“No,” I say, resigning to the ticket now. “I just got some plans out of Wooden Boat magazine and built it with lumberyard stock.”

“Perty cool,” the boatholder continues. The ticket-writer now gets in on the act. “Yeah, this is really neat. You just need to get it registered,” he says in an annoying sing-song voice.
“Well, I know that now,” I assure him.

When the State of Texas finishes its dealings with me, and the fishpigs turn us loose, the one in BlueBlockers gives his final directive: “Now, you need to take this straight back to shore and not bring it out again until it’s registered, okay? You can leave the motor on shore and paddle around in it, or use your sail if you want, but you can’t use the motor.”

“All right,” I mutter.

Discouraged and teased by the lone, early speckled trout, Jason and I head back to shore. Now hungry, we take advantage of our land-locked status and drive to Whataburger for the regular: Whataburger-with-cheese-plain-and-dry, large fries, and a Dr Pepper on the drink, times two. After every bite of his French fries Jason flicks the salt off his fingers.

“Man! I can’t believe you got a ticket!”

“Yep.” I say stoically, then take another swig of Dr Pepper. “’ guess we can fish from the dock, or maybe just wade Freedom Channel.” (The nearest wading spot to the house we dubbed “Freedom Channel” because it was just few dozen yards out from a bayside bar with a P.A. system that seemed to be continuously playing the Freedom Rock compilation album, as seen on TV.)

“I wonder,” Jason starts, then starts again. “He said we could take it back out, right?”

“Yeah, just not with the motor.”

“I wonder how that would work.”

“Yeah, I wonder.”

And so we systematically talk each other into braving the Laguna Madre with nothing but a sail, a rudder, and two fishing poles. After a quick nap, 2 o’clock finds Jason easing down off the dock into the middle seat, the front being occupied now by the mast, which slides down through a hole in the seat and into a “step” that holds the base of the mast in place. A cotter pin that fits through a hole in the mast underneath the seat prevents the mast from popping up out of place. The ice chest, which originally occupied the middle seat, is bumped to shore. If we do catch keepers, we’ll simply have to put them on a stringer and trail it behind the boat. This keeps fish fresher, anyway, we rationalize. To hell with those fishing fascists and their $75 tickets and their police state.

We’ll just do it the old-fashioned way. This’ll be great.

When you’re fishing in the bay, there is a curious optical phenomenon. Unless a fish is within about three feet of your boat, you hardly ever can see it. It’s not that the water is dirty; it’s not. It’s the glare of the light on the surface and the relatively low angle at which you’re looking at it. It turns out that if you can somehow build a platform on your boat, then climb up three to six feet and look down, the water comes alive with forms of all kinds swirling around you. It was time to start building my platform. All my life I had been trying to foulhook truth, just hoping that I would snag it by chance.

Now, it was time I started casting to it.


“Turn a thing inside out, and see what it is.”1
—Marcus Aurelius

That trip back out into the bay to fish with nothing but a sail and a rudder was very much like something else I did around the same time, which is, I started searching, really systematically searching, for the truth.

I suppose I have always had the thought that the truth is down there just beneath the surface, the truth about us.

I have had the thought as I read a theory here and an idea there, that if all the bits of truth were brought under a single roof, I might be able to see myself, see humanity, in something close to a true light, or at least a truer light. My underlying assumption had been that the key to lasting happiness was knowing 1) who we were, and 2) what we were doing here, or supposed to be doing, if anything. Ultimately, like so many before me and so many to come, I sought the meaning of life. A tall order, sure. But what else did I have to do? How many consecutive hours of “reality” television can a person really watch?

In my mind’s eye I saw gallery of scoffing skeptics, postmodern intellectuals who whiled away their lives at smoky sidewalk cafes and in tweedy, rarefied faculty lounges, tsk-ing and hrumph-ing. They said that a fishing expedition for the truth was hopelessly audacious, wastefully naïve, that humans had attempted to get at their essential nature for eons and still we struggled in our own obscurity. Their version of knowledge said: The human — and the universe, for that matter — is too complex to be knowable at all. We are not equipped with sophisticated enough machinery to comprehend ourselves. Let’s call the whole thing off.

There was in modern thinking this growing agnostic streak with regard to, not just God, but everything. It went beyond simple intellectual humility, to claim that we can never really know our nature. I suspected that, if you scratched hard enough, underneath this view you would find fear, a fear that if we look closely enough at ourselves and our history, we may not like what we discover, that we may just be held to account for the messes we make after all.

Steven Pinker concluded his massive tome How the Mind Works by saying that perhaps humans were not designed in a way to be capable of understanding the meaning of life. “Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth.”2 After 600 pages of dissecting the workings of the brain, when he got to the ultimate meaning of life, he threw up his hands, shrugged, and walked away.

Was this ignorance, willful ignorance, really bliss?

One of the world’s most powerful exponents of the idea that we can never know our nature was the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who spent his whole professional life promoting the idea that it was impossible for man really to know anything. (I’ve never understood people who are passionate about nihilism. If nothing makes sense and nothing matters, why waste energy writing and talking about it?) At last, his nihilism having hobbled his intellect, Hume became despondent:

The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me and heated my brain that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning and can look upon no opinion even as more probable than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence and to what condition shall I return? …

I am confounded by all these questions and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed in the deepest darkness and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty?3

Intellectual agnosticism — the belief that it is impossible to know anything — was nowadays equated with intellectual humility, subtlety, and sophistication, when in fact it seemed to me the height of anti-intellectualism. It was an affront to the spirit of human achievement.
In short, it was for quitters.

Maybe the naysayers in the peanut gallery were right, but I had to see for myself. Maybe they were wrong. After all, a lot of people had found valid answers to the question of who we were. A bit of truth here, a morsel there, sometimes a whole chunk at once. I simply started to wonder, what might be the good in picking those pieces up, those boulders, clods, and pebbles, and pressing them into a single form — a comprehensive theory of the human?

As I began to work with these components or dimensions, I began to wonder just how concrete I could make them. Could the interior contours of the human be represented with charts and graphs? Could the soul itself be, in some crude way, mapped?

Did I want to demystify the human experience? Certainly the human was more complex than we could ever know in absolute detail, I thought, in this and probably any generation. But the goal of demystification was a noble one, not to explain away, but to explain. Not to disenchant the human being, but to know ourselves more deeply, to uncover knowledge that would enchant us with our world more than ever before. Two of the noblest and wisest words ever written had been inscribed near the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece: “Know thyself.” I wanted to take another stab at this, one of the oldest injunctions in our history.

So, back at home in my study, also known as the extra bedroom, I got out my easel, a whiteboard and black marker, and started to draw lines. The lines became geometric planes, which then became fields. The graphs got more and more complex as I kept thinking of things that I knew had to plug in somewhere. I wanted to expand into three dimensions, but it became too hard to draw. So I drove to Toys R Us one Saturday morning and bought six tubs of Play-doh and a large tub of Tinker Toys — staples of my childhood, then went to work pressing those components together, spinning the object around to look at it from every side, top and bottom. Thinking, thinking. What was I leaving out? How did this one impulse intersect with that other?

I felt like humans of our age had been given an enormous head-start by all the speculation and discovery that had come before. But we’d also been given a handicap, and that was that to get to the truth, we had to wade through an inordinate amount of nonsense — absurd proclamations from intellectual and spiritual midgets who were held up right alongside those of the giants on whose shoulders Newton famously stood. Now I had to separate out a few years of wheat from centuries of chaff — extract a ream of sense diluted by tenfold reams of arrogant or superstitious nonsense.

Then there was the sheer volume of information, which had done a curious thing to us. There was more information extant than ever in the history of our civilization, and yet, were we wiser for it? The libraries of the world overflowed with millions of books on every conceivable topic. Electronic media now brought those books to us instantly. But this fact only gave me a feeling of intellectual inadequacy — the impression that there was so much out there that I couldn’t even make a dent in it in a lifetime of ravenous study. It was spitting in the ocean to run over here and learn to play violin, then scurry over there and learn irregular Spanish verbs, and scamper off in a third direction to learn 8th century British history. I was blessed by so much information, and yet cursed by that same quantity. What was the big picture?! What huge, crucial element of life was I missing from being distracted by the flotsam of this modern information ocean?

The discovery of the process of evolution had conditioned us to think that, in all matters, later was better. I also sensed an arrogance in modernity that seemed to stem from our technological progress, as if to say that because we now had perfected the inside-the-shell egg scrambler, our philosophers must be closer to truth than those who lived in times before the inside-the-shell egg scrambler.

I had the notion that much of the best stuff in philosophy, the purest truth, was stated very early on, and since those days, much of philosophy had been an exercise in muddying up the waters, or sophomorically claiming that it is foolish, even wrong, to even ask the Great Questions in the first place. Why were so many of the purest truths stated so early on? Because early philosophers were working on the most basic questions and were starting with all they had, common sense, intuition. Common sense and curiosity will get a person a long way; if he or she is patient, it will get them most of the way.

I concluded that the true task of our age was to sort the worthy ideas and beautiful achievements from the trivial and base.

When I looked at the human, I saw a mass of seeming contradictions, wondrous phenomena, and mystery. Surely we were hopelessly complex creatures. Emotions, reflexes, instincts, ethics, habits, bodies, minds, sensations, trances, perceptions, consciences, dreams, personalities, visions, archetypes, appetites, addictions, and perhaps even souls. On and on the list of descriptions and phenomena went, seemingly without end, and so often without apparent reason.

We were complex creatures, indeed the most complex creatures we knew of. And yet, did it necessarily follow that we were unknowable? The earth was a complex place, and yet we had come to know it, and at an impressively high level — to identify its continents and oceans, and on those continents, its forests and mountains and desserts. And in those forests, the plants and animals. And in those animals, their organs, and biochemicals, and the molecules of the chemicals, and atoms of the molecules, and the quarks of the atoms.

Pliny the Elder, the first century Roman naturalist, wrote, “Indeed, what is there that does not appear marvelous when it comes to our knowledge for the first time? How many things, too, are looked upon as quite impossible until they have been actually effected?” That was it — the chest-out, stomach-in, no-whining spirit I had to adopt at the outset if I was to stand any chance of crossing this ocean of information, letting the trivia and minutiae of life float harmlessly to either side of the bow, and landing on that beachhead of edifying knowledge, of Truth.

The first step was getting organized. I pictured myself walking into a new job and being ushered to my office. When my new boss opened the door, the room was heaped with dozens of seemingly random stacks of paper. “Good luck,” he said, as he turned and coolly walked back to his corner office with adjoining executive washroom.

What would be my first step? I would start through the piles of paper and sort them into a manageable number of categories. Once I had sorted the characteristics into stacks, then I could throw out the duplicates, spot the gaps, and start to see how the rest of it fit together.


Thanks for reading! The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder: A Search for the Boundaries of the Body, Mind, and Soul is available here.
Table of Contents

1 Fishing ………………………….. 1
2 Sailing ………………………… 13
3 Building the Hull ………………….. 31
4 Raising the Sail ……………………. 41
5 Sail Problems …………………….. 55
6 The Rudder and the Night…………….63
7 Primordial Urges…………………..81
8 Things in the Shallows, Things in the Deep….95
9 The Spiral………………………115
10 Losing the Rudder………………….123
11 Decision Time……………………133
12 The Light……………………….147
13 And the Lighthouse…………………163
14 Facing the Deep……………………183
15 The Harbor Master…………………197
16 How Things Ended…………………205


Back Cover:
“Avrel Seale’s book is a thoughtful and compelling consideration of what it means to be both human and spiritual. Sailing — and a real, nearly fatal sailing fiasco — is the metaphor for a gentle yet intelligent search for the meaning of life in the modern world. How the author measures his life at the beginning of this search is quite different from how he describes it at the end. The wonder of this book is the extraordinary journey in between.”

—James Kunetka, Author of Oppenheimer and Warday


On October 11, 1998, Avrel Seale climbed into his homemade sailboat with a friend to go fishing in the Laguna Madre, the wide bay between South Padre Island and Port Isabel, Texas. Through the peril and the beauty of the next 15 hours, he would live out an allegory of his life, both his past and his future. And through the metaphor of sailing, he would discover the three irreducible dimensions of human existence — the hull, the sail, and the rudder.

With a mixture of storytelling, theory, humor, and spiritual exploration, The Hull, the Sail, and the Rudder builds on the work of thinkers from ancient to modern times in an audacious quest for a unified theory of human life. Seale’s destination, it turns out, is as close as the boat he’s sitting in. Through the workings of the hull, the sail, and the rudder, he learns that our bodies, minds, and souls can be defined by the different functions they perform as well as by their differing internal structures, and that the unique way those three fields intersect in every person creates our identities.

Seale supports his theory with vignettes from his own life — from a quirky childhood, to a partying and protracted adolescence, to the birth of his first child and his embarkment on a life of true responsibility and deeper meaning.