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

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.



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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.

The other night, summertime, just after dark, in a light rain, I lazily rowed my dinghy out of the marina and toward my sailboat moored out about 50 yards.   The water dripping from my oar blades blended with the sleepy raindrops on the water, and as I stealthily passed the marina owner’s 102-foot motor yacht, from inside I could hear the old man’s voice and the chit-chat of his guests, including the recognizable hearty laughter of the barrel-chested bartender, a friend of mine. Gliding past the tall, steep, white hull of the yacht, I was reminded of the opening scene of the famous classic The Oddyoullsee, the epic voyage of Miklysses.

In case you don’t immediately recall the opening scene from reading the book in its entirety in high school, I’ll summarize it here for you. I’m sure my rendition will not be nearly as poetic as the original, but here goes:

The great voyage began with Miklysses rowing a tiny boat away from a small seafaring village and in to the sun setting on the sea. On shore, all the women waved farewell, wept, and wailed; all the men – the husbands, the boyfriends, the lonely but hopeful single men – gestured disgustingly, threw curses and rocks and insults, and then shouted with joy, clapped each other soundly around the shoulders, drank heroically, and celebrated better days to come. None of this fazed Miklysses: over the years, he had become quite accustomed to this sort of farewell. At each of his departures, the satisfied women and moon-eyed girls and the frustrated men, all behaved this same way, here, there, this year, last year . . . ad nauseum – ya, I think that’s the phrase.

Anyways, Miklysses rowed away into the falling night, less concerned with the inconsolable women and the relieved men on shore than the immediate dangers of the darkening water. Near the village, still relatively close to shore, there were the Water Snakes of Death, monstrous things that could tip a boat and swallow a man whole. Only their very young, still the size of finger-thick ropes just a foot or two long, would be seen during the day; the big ones hunted exclusively at night. Some brave but foolish men would use wine to lure them in to their vision, but that usually did not end well: it was best to keep your distance (from the Water Snakes of Death, not the wine.) A little farther out, there were the dreaded, massive, menacing Ducks of Death (in other surviving texts from ancient times, these are commonly referred to as Duhhhhhcks ovvvvvvv Deaeaeath.) He couldn’t see them, but he could hear, he could feel in his vibrating bones, the low grumbling roar of their of thunderous QUAAAACK.   By sound alone he judged their changing positions, adjusting his course this way and that, undetected and undeterred, snaking and sneaking his way through the frightful flock. Then, a bit further, were the Straits of Liquidity.

The Straits of Liquidity were not dangerous waters per se, but on the south side, cutting cleanly into the water, there was a sheer white cliff that towered high overhead, and there, high above the water, was the haunt of a giant.   The problem was that if he saw you passing the cliffs, he would invite you to visit. He would reach down from above to lift you up, and then he would give you copious amounts of exquisite honeymeade to slake your thirst. All of this was not particularly perilous in itself.   The giant – tall, strong, white-haired, and clear-eyed – was not very dangerous, that is, unless someone attempted to trick him or take advantage of him. Otherwise he was considered by all to be rather jovial and generous. The real problem was that he tended to take in a variety of orphaned goblins that hung about underfoot, eating his food and drinking his prime wine, mead, and ale. Some of those smiling goblins would refill your bull’s horn or mug until you were unaware that they were magically sucking the life force from your soul, literally taking time from the span of your life, one heartbeat at a time, to add to theirs. Horrid, horrid little beasts!

In the preceding years many times Miklysses had visited the dear old giant, and he considered him a friend. In what little ways he could, he repaid, or at least attempted to repay, the old giant’s benevolence. This night, though, he did not stop, could not stop to visit. He worked his rowboat through the Straits of Liquidity and out onto Decker Flats. Not stopping, though, on this particular night, might have been a mistake.

The Straits had been calm, nary even a wavelet, only ripples echoing from the now far-away mighty Ducks of Death. The Flats, though, out in the open, with tremendous fetch to form waves, waves made steep and tall by the shallow bottom, were, this night, much more than just a bit treacherous. Miklysses’s ocean-going boat Kala Nag was heavily anchored safe on the edge of the flats. The problem? It was far, far away on the other side of the flats!

Other, more fearful sailors would have waited for less threatening conditions, but Miklysses didn’t hesitate to point the bow of his tiny rowboat toward Kala Nag, his voyaging vessel, his home. Up one side of a random wave and down the other, the tiny boat heaving and yawing every which way the waves and wind could imagine, but with his oars cycling rhythmically despite the chaos, Miklysses held his course arrow straight. He had to aim upwind to allow for leeway, of course, but when he reached the stern of his stout voyaging vessel, he had to make only a single correcting stroke. And he accomplished this in the near blackness of the night!

Sensing the surge of a wave under his rowboat, he leaped into the near blackness, timing his jump as the rowboat rose while his already famous sailboat Kala Nug plummeted down into the wave’s trough nearby. In midair he flicked his wrist and snapped the tender’s painter into a solid cleat hitch on Kala Nag’s stern, securing the rowboat before he landed on deck. With a twist and a turn he vaulted himself – he did NOT trip and fall – through the split backstay, over the coaming, around the tiller, and into the cockpit. The boat was bouncing like a ball being batted around by anthropomorphic waves, but, I’m telling you, he did NOT trip and fall. He did not. He braced himself in a three-point ready stance, the position to be made famous many centuries later by Spiderman and other incredibly athletic superheroes. He did NOT trip and fall into the cockpit like a loose bag of broken sticks. He did NOT.

Once aboard the admirable sailing vessel Kala Nag, he looked about, checking her lines and state of readiness, surveying his realm. He did not weigh anchor and slip away, though: no, because he was a sailor’s sailor, because he was Miklysses, salty, seasoned, and prudent, he went below, took a nip of whiskey to ward off any evil spirits lurking nearby, then promptly fell asleep, wisely waiting until “first light” to begin his voyage and continue his adventure.

So, there you have it, a humble re-telling of the opening of The Oddyoullsee, a mere glimpse into the life of Miklysses. Not until two millennia had passed, not until the likes of Sir Walter Mitty and Commander McBragg, would the world see the likes of such a man.

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 . . .

The Indie Book Boosters Club has a number of pretty good writers, but my favorite among them so far is Helen Spring.   I don’t believe she’ll take exception if I say that although her writing is not absolutely perfect or awe-inspiringly beautiful, it is certainly impressive!   When you read her books, you will wonder why she isn’t already more famous. You will think of other, more widely-known authors you’ve picked up and put down, and you will wonder why aren’t her books already overflowing out of airport kiosks?

From my review of her Strands of Gold:

I found myself reading it way past my bedtime and then going right back to it with my morning coffee.   Pretty quickly I realized that the author is a true storyteller: she pulls you in and makes you want to discover what happens next. It is apparent that she spent a lot of time imagining the characters and details of the story, impressive in its thoroughness, exactly enough to make it all feel quite real.

Repeatedly I thought of how, as a young reader many years ago, I would be absorbed into a novel and transported to a new world. On the surface this story is about a proper English woman in Singapore and Australia circa 1900, but the undercurrent is about timeless, universal ideas of integrity, loyalty, perspectives of truth, and more.   There’s a love story in here, too, and it’s more than just a popcorn romance tale: I’m recommending this book to my niece for the examples of strong-hearted women and what really matters in love.

It is apparent that the author is comfortable with her craft and her self-image as a novelist: the writing is not at all self-conscious or clumsy. Her use of dialogue is better than average, her plot and sub-plots are well-executed, and her characters are portrayed with all the complexities of real people. To top it off, because her heroes are such likeable people, she – the author who created them – is quite likeable, too.

Strands of Gold by Helen Spring

From my review of her The Chainmakers:

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Helen Spring is a true storyteller!

99 percent of this book flows through your eyes and into your mind as easily and comfortably as the thoughts of a daydream. The author writes with enough skill that 99 percent of the time you read and believe the fiction as fact, like you’re the proverbial fly on the wall absorbing it all.

Her characters are distinct, complex, and layered with maturity as the story progresses. She has villains with redeeming graces and heroes with faults, and she portrays both in wholly believable fashion. She made me care about what happened to the characters not simply out of curiosity but because I LIKED them as if they were real people, my friends or acquaintances in real life. That’s a neat trick, and it is books like this one that fuel a reader’s desire to search out another good book. This is why I’ve been telling friends who like to read to give this author a try whether or not her books are in their favorite genre.

The Chainmakers by Helen Spring

So why am I posting this on my blog? Because that’s what we in the Indie Book Boosters Club do: we help other indie authors we respect and admire. Why?   Because as Sophocles said, “If we always helped one another, no one would need luck.”

Note: If you like her books, and especially if you agree that she deserves big success as an author, please go to Amazon (or Amazon.co.uk, or whichever branch you use) to post a review for her. Thank you!

PS – If you like a good read, or if you have friends who like a good read, please tell them about Helen Spring.  If you’re a fellow blogger here on WordPress, please repost this!  If you like the indie spirit, or if you’re an indie writer yourself, please repost this!  Woo-hoo!

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