With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

Archive for the ‘My world’ Category

Diving the Tokai Maru

The Tokai Maru

I came across my old diving watch and offered it to my nephew, and when I told him via text I’ve had the watch 120 feet down in the ocean, he texted back, “Tell me more.” So here it is, the story of my first dive on the Tokai Maru, a WWII Japanese freighter sunk in Apra Harbor, Guam.

A lifetime ago, right after high school I was in the Navy and assigned to a stateside ship that soon had its homeport changed to Guam for the next two years. That was fine with me because I’d wanted to spend some time in the tropics: at age 15 reading Robin Lee Graham’s Dove had firmly seeded that desire. A few of my shipmate friends and I learned to scuba dive, and we had our choice of coral reefs and WWII wrecks. There was a relatively shallow dive on a Japanese Zero, an American tanker, and deep dives on the German WWI Cormoran and the Japanese WWII Tokai Maru. The Tokai was lying on her side, one rail at 110 feet and the other at 130.

Here’s the thing about deep water: every 30 feet or so is equivalent pressure to the average pressure of the atmosphere we live in, so when you go down 120 feet, you have four times the usual pressure pushing in on you everywhere. You don’t notice it much – it’s not like swimming in molasses – but your body processes are affected. I’m not going to talk about nitrogen absorption and all that, but I will point out that at 120 feet your lungs must hold four times the air as they usually do or they will be crushed. Luckily, four times the quantity doesn’t mean four times the volume: it’s pressurized. This allows a really neat trick. If you have to, absolutely have to, you can swim to the surface, slowly, with just the air in your lungs, exhaling the whole way. If you hold your breath, the air expands and will explode your lungs. You blow bubbles and let them rise just a little faster than you. The longer you’ve been deep the more likely a fast ascent will give you the bends, but once topside with help you have a chance to survive. Good to know, but don’t do it for fun, because it won’t be.

The plan for the dive was simple. It wasn’t all that smart, but it was simple. A friend of ours from the boat club would give us a ride out with an inflatable Zodiac, drop us off, and come back to get us – if his workload permitted. If not, we’d use our BC vests (buoyancy control) to stay on top and slowly kick our way in. This plan was more to my dive partner’s liking than mine, mainly because he was a former Marine and I was a 142 pound, 5’ 10” skinny shit with a 29” waist. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from having an adventure, though.

Back then, before the advent of GPS, to dive the Tokai first you have to get on top of her, which we did by going out on a boat, lining up distant landmarks to triangulate our position, and then going down to look for her. As we allowed ourselves to sink, to spot our target we’d slowly spin round and round. My timing with this on my first Tokai dive was perfect. I must have come within range of sight while my back was turned, because as I slowly spun around, all at once, ta-da, there she was! Well, not actually all at once, because it was an entire ship and the deep water was dark, but her working masts were jutting upwards, covered in 40 years of marine growth, some of it trailing in wispy strings, all of it looking a little spooky in a Flying Dutchman sort of way. It was great fun to come upon her in this way and not by her form just gradually taking shape out of the darkness. Since I was nearly weightless, suspended in endless dark water almost like an astronaut in space, it was easy to feel that the ship had come to me and not I to it.

Diving the wreck was interesting, of course, but not fascinating. There is the historical element, and the easy-to-imagine real drama of the sinking, but for the most part it is just iron decks and bulkheads, passageways and portals, and empty cargo holds. It is, however, much more fun to explore a ship that’s underwater because you, as a diver, easily move in three dimensions like a fish or a bird, and that sensation of free movement is enhanced when you’re in proximity of a large, stationary object. Underwater, you fly, not like a bird, but like Superman. Much, much slower, but ya, like Superman.

We carried battery lights, of course. They were bright enough only to guide the way but not fully illuminate the black interior compartments. Anything could be in there, from frightened fish hiding from sharks to freaky space aliens setting up a base of operations. The fish were few and no big deal, and the space aliens were only a tiny possibility, but the sharks . . . well, although not frequently encountered in the area, sightings were not altogether uncommon. Once, a friend of mine was about to come up over a bulkwark when from the other direction a large shark came over from the other side, near enough to reach out and touch.

I remembered my friend’s episode after realizing that I had been repeatedly clearing my mask not of snot but of blood from my nose. Apparently the four atmospheres of pressure on my sinuses popped a little leak. Natural light is filtered by the deep seawater, so with depth color disappears, but I could see that whatever I was leaking through my nose was dark, and snot is not dark. I motioned to my dive buddy that I was going up, he checked his watch and air guage, motioned a few minutes more, and waved me on my way. He was a more efficient swimmer and breather, so he almost always had more time under than the rest of our usual group. Diving alone is not recommended, but it is done.

I went up and waited awhile at the prescribed depth for decompression. And yes, once you start thinking about sharks hurtling at you from the vague veil of grey and black seawater, it’s hard to stop. I was probably in no real danger, and no, I was not panicking, but hell yes, I was ready to get out of the water. I continued to the surface.

The problem was, once topside, there was no boat. Our boatyard buddy wasn’t there. Well, I wanted out of the water. I spied a boat not too far off, and when I got close to it, discovered it was empty and tied with a long lead to a nav buoy (which is a no-no). Hmm. I climbed in. It probably belonged to another group of divers.

In a few minutes, my friend came up, and he joined me since our pick-up ride was so far a no-show. Eventually the other divers surfaced, and although they were surprised to find us in their boat, they gave us not only a ride in but also a cold beer. That, by the way, is the rule for all adventures: it is never, ever completely what you expect.

Here are some of my topside pics from 1979 and 80; the featured underwater pic up top is from the web.


A Book is Like a Boat and a Baby

Jack Poww and GO-Girl

While I was writing my second book (Jack Poww and GO-Girl), I sincerely believed I was doing it mainly for the project itself. I can write, I want to write because I enjoy writing, so I did write a book, regardless of what would become of it. I would create a book, release it into the world, and see what happens.

I was able to have this attitude because of the success of my first book, Napism (for people who take their naps “religiously”.) It sold and continues to sell, but, frankly, not nearly as much as I thought it would. Do a quick Google / Instagram / Facebook search on #nap, napping, etc., and you will find many thousands of nap-related memes, jokes, serious biomedical research, and so on, so I figured if I could get a sale for every one-hundredth or even one-thousandth of one percent of all those nap mentions, I’d do quite well. Despite good (international!) reviews of my book, the sales have not been the torrent I thought they might be. The reasons for this are, for the point I’m making here, irrelevant. What my experience with my first book did for me was to make real the idea that writing a book is one thing and its commercial success is quite another. For me, it is no longer a concept or theory: it is an internalized fact.

So, as I wrote Jack Poww and GO-Girl’s first adventure, although I certainly kept in mind to make it readable for others, I truly did write it for me. I had fun with it. I took it through several drafts and beta reads, and finally I pronounced it finished. I knew that if I let it sit for a few months and looked at it again, I would surely change a few words or scenes, but I pronounced it finished. I didn’t do this because I was tired of it: I did it because I happen to be a sailor, and I thoroughly know that if you don’t take your boat out until absolutely everything on it is in perfect condition, you will never get out on the water. So, just like my “good ol’ boat”, I felt the book was ready to be enjoyable out there flying in the wind.

Very soon after I clicked the final release button, I switched from thinking of the book as a boat to thinking of it as a baby. Why? Because when men and women are expecting a baby, mostly they’re thinking some version of “I just hope the baby’s okay. I just hope the baby’s generally healthy. I just hope the child will be reasonably happy.” But then, very soon after the baby’s born, the parents start wishing things like “I can’t wait until she laughs. I want to see her walk, and run, and dance. I want her to have lots of friends! I want her to have a great life!”

It’s the same with giving birth to a book. It goes quickly from “I’m creating this just because I can and it is what I want for me” to “Great God Almighty! I want a ba-zillion people to read it and like it!” Of course it would be a very good thing if the book earns even half a ba-zillion pennies, but that truly is totally separate from having strangers (with no reason to try to make you feel good about your work) let you know that your book is enjoyable. It is very much like when you have a child: for his own sake, you want him to do well and have many friends.

People who “don’t believe in Prozac”

Every now and then I hear somebody say, “I don’t believe in Prozac” (or other anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.) It has become increasingly harder for me not to reply. That statement can somehow instantly suck my Zen serenity right out of me and deflate my bubble of hope for the other person.

My first question is, “What do you mean you don’t believe in it? You don’t believe that it exists, like Santa Claus?” Yes, it’s just a little bit of play, an attempt at a lighthearted opening to a non-confrontational or non-defensive discussion. Then I’ll hear some version and combination of the following statements:

“I really don’t like putting chemicals into my body.”

They’ll say something about being very leery of taking drugs – even medicinal, even mild medicine such as aspirin – to alter their brain function, but they’ll tell me this over a cup of coffee, a can of soda, a bottle of beer, or a glass of wine . . . all the while munching on processed foods packed with artificial sweeteners and chemical preservatives. (Yes, I know it is human, but nonetheless it is inconsistent logic.)

Many, many people seem to have this belief that their personality is pure and separate from the meat of their bodies, that their cosmic soul is not hampered by their human genetics and filtered through their day-by-day biochemical balance. It is commonly understood that everything about our bodies – the shape of our faces, the color of our eyes and hair and skin, our general physical builds, our level of innate athleticism, and even our various levels of intelligence – are strongly influenced by both genetics and diet (biochemical balance), so why is it such a hurdle to extend this understanding to the product of our primary organ, the brain?

We know that our thoughts (and their resultant feelings) reside in the brain; we knew that long before science could explain exactly how a “hard knock on the noggin” could severely change a person’s mental functioning; we knew that long before science could explain why women’s moods tend to change with their hormonal cycle; we knew that long before science could explain why normally sensible men became someone else when under the influence of testosterone (in love or war). Hell, we know it when we excuse a friend’s behavior when we say, “Don’t worry about; he’s just had too much to drink.” So why is it that we can believe, that we can empirically and scientifically know, that our thinking is done by our body’s brain – a biological organ subject to biological influences and problems – but somehow completely separate this, disassociate this, from our ephemeral and “pure” personality? (Yes, I know it is human, but nonetheless it is inconsistent logic.)

“I prefer to do without it, to live the way God made me.”

They’ll take their insulin or blood pressure medication, they’ll wear their eyeglasses or contacts, they’ll go to the dentist or orthodontist, they’ll even get cosmetic surgery – but oh, no, they won’t mess with the way God created them, the way they move through life . . . (And again, inconsistent logic.)

“I don’t need it; I’m not that bad off.”

Oh, is that so?   Maybe they should ask the people around them and then not dismiss or discredit their answers.

“I tried it and didn’t like it, didn’t like the way it made me feel.”

Okay, that’s perfectly valid. The big question, though, is whether they tried the right medicine and right dosage for them, and if they took it long enough for their bodies to adjust to it.

This statement is almost the same as the next:

“I’ve had bad experiences with it.”

Slow down; there are a couple of points here:

  1. Yes, absolutely, as we hear in the warning sections of so many pharmaceutical commercials on TV, yes, it is entirely possible that the prescribed drug exacerbated the problem and created fairly-appraised “bad experiences.”
  2. So, again, did they have the right medicine and the right dosage?
  3. Did they try more than one or two medications? If your adult child went out and dated just one, two, three, or four different people then came home and said he or she was not ever going to date again because he or she “had bad experiences with it,” what would you say? Or the same with two or three jobs? Keep looking!
  4. What were the current circumstances of their lives?   If they had several stressors active at the time, can they be sure it was the medicine and not the circumstantial stress that was giving them headaches, clouding their minds, making them sleepy, and so on? As in all other areas of life, most people simply do NOT carefully separate all possible variables to identify the true cause.
  5. THE TRICKIEST REASON to understand and accept just might be that the medication did indeed work, that it made them healthier and strong enough to begin to face whatever problems and dysfunctions and demons were stressing them. Disrupting the status quo and finding themselves in unknown territory can be quite unnerving. (I know a man whose wife stayed by his side for 20 years while he was a (self-proclaimed) drunk, but soon after he finally sobered up, she divorced him.)

“Everyone I know who has used it is still unhappy and kind of wacky.”

Yes, they are.   (Well, actually, maybe not: it is doubtful that anyone is aware of every person around them who uses anti-anxiety or anti-depressant meds at a maintenance level.) But, how unhappy and more wacky might they be if they didn’t have their meds? No one can say for sure, but – if they’ve been accurately diagnosed and properly prescribed – they’re probably better off. Ask the properly medicated what they think of their medication use. The meds are not a magic pill; they don’t make you instantly happy and mentally healthy. For that, you have to change the way you live your life and maybe even change the circumstances of your life. Not only does that take time but also it is an endless struggle, for all of us. The meds are intended just to enable you to get out of bed and make it through a day with at least half a chance of being functional enough to make progress on your own.

“It’s a crutch. I’ll be stronger if I learn to do without it.”

Uh-huh, yes, it is.   If their ankle were sprained, would they use a physical crutch? Same with their coats in cold weather, shoes on their feet, etc., no?

Readers, I have been taking anti-depressants for about 20 years now, and there is a clear demarcation between the first “half”, the “before” part of my life and the second, “after” part of my life. The medicinal drugs don’t make me a superman, that’s for sure, but I shudder to think of living without them. You know those futuristic apocalyptic movies where either in the city or in the desert even basic living is brutally hard? Without my meds, that would sort of be the world I would be living in today, here, now (but with less bizarre clothing.) They’d call me (No-)Med Max . . . So, yes, hell yes, I “believe” in anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds.

I have one question for steadily depressed or anxious people who tell me they don’t believe in meds.   So far, I haven’t asked it of anyone, but each time the topic is broached, I can feel that question crawling up my throat. One of these days it will escape my lips, so I hope I can lead up to it gently, and find softer words than I have up till now. Here it is:

Instead of you taking medication, more convenient than you taking medication, are you forcing your family and all the people around you to suffer your behavior and make adjustments in their lives to deal with all the overt and subtle repercussions of your maybe simple biochemical imbalance? Especially with your family, is it fair, healthy, and loving of you to dump long term echoes of dysfunction permanently into their hearts and lives simply because you are afraid of finding medicine that will help you?

Ya, I know: ouch.

Maybe before I get so pointed I’ll say just – when steadily depressed or anxious people tell me they don’t believe in meds – that I have had to adopt a policy for investing my energy where I believe it will do good and not investing it where I’m banging my head against a wall while there’s a doorway open to me. Aww, hell, maybe I’ll tell them I “don’t believe” in helping to solve the depression or anxiety problems of people who “don’t believe” in proper medication . . .

Two Old Men of Iron and One Not-So-Old Man of Polish Sausage

Ya, I did that teak!

Lately I’ve been working on the teak cap and hand rails on a 104-foot power yacht, and I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with my workmates, an 86-year-old man and a 74-year-old-man. I’m not kidding: every day, long after I’d be ready for a break, long after I’d ask them if they’d like me to fetch drinking water “for them”, they’d shoot me a quick glance and say, “Less talk, more work.” Sweat would be dripping off our faces, sweat would soak our shirts not damp but downright wet, and as we walked we would trail a cloud of teak dust. Eventually, finally, we’d break for lunch. These old doogans were working machines!

Once, going to lunch, I told them every night I went home and cried myself to sleep because they were Men of Iron and in comparison I was just a Boy Made of Polish Sausage and French Crepes. Telling them that opened the door, or should I say, opened their mouths.  After lunch, and for days, they ran with the joke:

“Hey, Sausage! You got the box of paper?”

“Hey, Scrapple! . . . ”

“Hey, Hamburger! . . . ”

“Hey, Ground Beef . . .”

“Hey, Chopped Liver. . .”

“Hey, Peanut Butter and Jelly . . .” followed quickly by “No, no Peanut Butter – just Jelly.”

“Hey, Soup . . .” and “No, not Soup – just Broth!” and “What’s that Mexican cold soup? Gar-bage-bo?”

“Hey, Puddin’ . . .”

“Hey, Jello . . . ”

(Note: I’m not using their names or photos ’cause they both hate the internet and love their privacy.)

Today I Killed a Piano

Piano kill b

It seemed like a good idea at the time: when my friend and I were moving his old and unwanted piano to the curb and happened to break it open on the way down the driveway, I spied the “harp” inside and thought it would make a great coffee table. It would, too: later I Googled “piano harp table” and found plenty of images that matched or exceeded my imaginary project results. I wanted to make it, but not for myself: I live on a not-big sailboat, so even if I did have space for a coffee table – especially one that takes at least two men to lift – on a sailboat it would be ridiculous and dangerous. No, I figured it would be great for either of my nephews in their college apartments.

I called my nephews to see if they were interested in making strong legs and mounting a glass or plexiglass top, and then I claimed it from my friend’s curb. I deconstructed the piano at his house and trucked the harp to my marina, where I tucked it away in a shed.

Weekend after weekend passed, and before I knew it, the piano harp had been sitting there for months, still attached to its backboard and not looking the least bit closer to becoming a coffee table. With my nephews’ busy term breaks, part-time job schedules, and the 100 miles between us, we accepted that it just wasn’t going to happen, and about that time the marina owner asked me to get rid of it.

To take it to the recycler, the harp had to be separated from the wood backing, and that turned out to be more work than deconstructing the rest of the entire piano. The fine-threaded tuning screws had to be loosened one by one before the strings could be cut (a piano-tuning friend of mine warned me about the danger of an unequally stressed harp!), and the wood parts were strongly glued and screwed together. It took a couple of hours over three afternoons to get it ready to throw away!

The reason for writing about this? As I was turning the small wrench on those 88 finely-threaded and very tight piano wire adjustment screws, I started thinking about the day I conceived this project. It would have been cool, but both of my nephews and I were a bit too busy to start something none of us really needed. Ya, it was a cool project, but it was also much more of a want than a need. That’s what I learned (again, dammit!) from this: sometimes you have to say no to things you want to do, no matter how cool it might be, so that you have time to do things more useful to the rest of your life. The thought might have jelled in my head because I heard something about Steve Jobs saying no to a lot of good projects so Apple could focus on the best projects. Focus is not about only keeping your eye on the target; it’s also about narrowing your field of peripheral vision. “Wants” have a seductive way of distracting you from your more important goals.

So, I killed a piano, and from it I harvested not a coffee table but a reminder to use what I already knew . . .

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