We were sitting on our living room floor after dinner on Thursday night last week, my wife and I, when she told me her cousin’s husband had extended me the invitation to go out on a fishing boat with him, his two sons, and my brother-in-law the following week.
This is deep sea fishing. I don’t know how big the boat is, but talk is they’ll be heading out eighty miles, well past the continental shelf’s end. The drop off is so sudden that nautical terms like fathoms replace feet when one tries describing how… well, how deep things get.
Her youngest son — my wife’s cousin’s youngest — went out on the same boat the same time last year and did not do well. (And by “did not do well,” I mean he got green-in-the-face, chucking-over-the-side-into-the-ocean sick within the first twenty minutes on the water. Poor kid. They were battling twelve-foot-high swells. And Dramamine or no, he hadn’t really experienced much in his life to that point that could have prepared him to withstand such turbulence.) So this year he’d understandably decided to sit out the trip, which meant his seat was open.
My wife knew I would probably also decline. After the Tea Cups at Disney kicked my ass a few years ago, and the Raptor at Cedar Point more or less ruined a couple days of my life recently, she has taken some pleasure in gently ribbing me about my soft stomach. But she’s sympathetic — there just isn’t much you can do about motion sickness — and so told her cousin she’d mention it to me but probably my answer would be “Thanks, but I don’t think I can do it.”
I struggled finding words that would make me sound not disinterested but unable to physically handle the trip.
Why it mattered so much that I find such words is part of the shame I’m trying to think through as I write this post. Because it did matter a great deal — so much so that I asked my wife to mention the Tea Cups and how shaken I was by the rides at Cedar Point.
When I talked to my wife’s cousin the other night — we stopped down at the beach house they rented to say hello, catch up, and let the kids play together a while — I again said thanks but no thanks. I’d get nauseous. Sick.
The way it feels actually not to want to go out on a boat with several other men and boys is a little bit of a couple different emotions. A little like being sick, come to think of it.
There’s shame, for one. Shame’s biggest. I feel ashamed because I feel I should want to board the boat, should want to feel the nauseating plunge as the boat crests twelve-foot swells on its way to the deep blue water eighty miles off-shore. I should want to know the strength of a dolphin fish’s pull as it takes the slack given it to run after it has taken the bait and swallowed the hook and in that moment become both my trophy and my dinner.
I should want to experience these things — and the wind, and the salt air, and the sense of my own safety dwindling as the shoreline recedes and the water around the rushing boat becomes ever darker, choppier — because such experiences feed my writing. Or could feed my writing. In that sense I would be stupid not to go, because I could talk and work together with my in-laws, my brother-in-law, my wife’s cousin’s husband, his oldest son. There’s no telling what I could learn watching the men who run the boat pilot us out past the break and over the chop, run the fish finding computer, bait the hooks and strap each of us into the belted chair and help us know when to let out the line and when to pull in.
I could be witness to all that, and to something like this: last year, my wife’s cousin’s oldest son pulled in a dolphin fish so large the man in charge of the boat swore it would have won the fishing competition they’d worked the week before.
If I went I could take my own turn, and know what it feels like when a fiftty-pound wild animal run out my line.
Instead, I feel relieved to have been able to decline the invitation, generous as it was. I feel better knowing I’ll keep near shore.
It isn’t that I don’t want to know what it feels like to do these things. It’s just that I’m not sure I need to experience them myself in order to know. It could be enough for me to imagine and then try and make real through writing experiences that are foreign to me. Better writers than me have played such games for centuries.
The problem is that I have some warped ideas about what it means to be a man.
I’ve been doing some work here on this blog and in my personal life to better understand the roots of these ideas: where they come from; whether they’re useful or accurate measures of manhood; and why I hold to them despite often feeling cowed by the widening gap I usually perceive between who I am and what kind of identity these ideas prescribe for me.
But to be honest, I’m getting a little sick thinking about this stuff all the time, constantly weighing what I do against some ideal of masculinity I should live up to. Really what I want to do is burn down the whole stinking mess of associations I’ve built in my mind around the ideas of masculinity and me.
So what if I don’t want to go out on a boat? No one will care either way.
Like I said: burn it down.
I’ll tell you what: just yesterday morning we were able to spy from the deck of the house we’re staying at this week an amphibious assault craft.
Think the game Battleship, and the game piece that takes four hits to sink; that’s what this ship looked like from where we sat on the deck watching the ship do its offshore maneuvers.
After everyone’s interest in the ship died down and the ship started sliding back the way it’d come, I mentioned to my mother-in-law and father-in-law how my mother had wanted to join the Navy when she was younger.
I told about how it had been her plan to travel, to see the world while serving God and country. She would have gone to nursing school. She would have made a career of it. She grew up hungry to see new places and to help people. Serving in the Navy would help feed both her hungers.
Only she didn’t join, because her father wouldn’t allow her to.
She did become a nurse, though. And she did travel. She’s here now, in this island off the coast of North Carolina. She’s recently been to Utah, and a few years ago she and my father came to England and Ireland for ten days at the end of winter to see what we could of both countries.
On top of that, she has made sure her children have taken every opportunity to do the things they most wanted to do.
It was strange that I brought all this up, that sight of a ship some ways off the coast would have inspired me to do so. I was thinking not of the way my grandfather had insisted on keeping my mother from joining the Navy (he was doing it to protect her, I believe; I suspect he thought he knew better than she did the kind of lonely, marginalized life she would have led while in service), but of the way she has gone ahead and done what she wanted to do, despite obstacles.
Love and obstacles, right? Isn’t that the stuff that motivates all of us? The stuff of life? The stuff of good writing?
I’ll go ahead and tell you now that I didn’t go out on the boat. I took a kayak out on the Intercoastal Waterway where it skirts Swansboro, NC. We found a way through the salt marsh and around back of Huggins Island. We landed on the island a moment to find a little shade and I was able to snap a few pictures, the best of which appear below.
Those who went out on the boat caught several fish, withstood the rock and shiver of choppy waters, and came back sufficiently zonked after a hard day’s work. My brother-in-law shared with me some of the details of the trip, and while the rush of the experience came through in his recounting the crew’s almost catching a blue Marlin (they had the fish in up to the leader line, cleared space in the deck,and had everyone empty their pockets and brace themselves for a very wet, trashing fight; but then it dove and the line broke), a lot of the realities came through as well:
The boys stayed inside the cabin coping with queasiness most of the trip.
The lines ran empty, or else the crew worked the rods, calling one of the men or boys only after a fish took a hook.
I was reminded, listening to my brother-in-law tell of the catch, of a few years ago watching a man skin and clean fish on a dock beside a restaurant in Morehead City. He’d cut the skin then tear it like he was shucking corn and toss it up for the gulls waiting, drafting on a current or air over the water just off the dock. He worked his razor-sharp filet knife as though it weren’t anything at all while the men he’d taken out on his charter boat sat on a bench along the dock waiting for him to finish his work.
I found something like that man’s work when I found a rhythm paddling across the channel against the current. I found something like joy pulling beside my wife’s kayak for a good portion of our return trip. Earlier, my brother and I rowed a narrow path through marsh grasses looking at oyster clusters and discussing whether we would find any of these oysters safe to eat. My sister and my wife, my sister and her husband, me and my youngest brother, my mother and father, each had some time together on the water.
I’ll have that. All that. Even the shame I mentioned earlier. It’s one of my biggest obstacles. Which is fine. An obstacle shows you what you love. Knowing one means better understanding the other.