Sunrise over the surf at South Padre Island, Texas. August 2012. 2-minute meditation. Click through to Vimeo for high definition.
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.
“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
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
“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.