Site icon s/v Hazel James

Zeitgeist, Collective Grief and The First-Mile Problem

In reflection, that’s some ambitious title for this post—let’s hope the subsequent writing can deliver on the promise. I’m over 90 days straight of living on the boat and, given our lockdown, approaching 30 days at anchor in one place so I’ve certainly got the time to do it right. Here goes nothing…

You’ve got to love how the Germans can pack an entire English sentence into one word (anyone remember Volkswagen’s “Farfegnugen” advertising campaign?). I’ve always loved the word “zeitgeist” because so much meaning and nuance is conveyed in a single word that has no English equivalent.

Zeitgeist started appearing in the English language in the 1830s and is a combination of the German words Zeit, meaning “time,” and Geist, meaning “spirit” or “ghost.” Scholars, writers, artists often assert that the zeitgeist of an era can’t be known until it is over. While I respect that viewpoint at a granular level, I think that some world-events are so big and so impactful, a period’s zeitgeist can and should be directionally anticipated.

I got to thinking about this couple nights ago as I was talking to my cousin Tom on the phone. Growing up, he and I were thick as thieves and our idol was the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Of course we both wore Jacques Cousteau’s signature orange knit cap as homage to his greatness; I’m proud to say that today, I keep one on Hazel James for those 3 AM watches when things are chilly.

Tom is an environmental sciences teacher and has written several books. In addition, he also proofed and edited many books for his father (my Uncle Bill) who was an English professor and prolific author. On the phone the other night, Tom and I were bouncing around ideas for how the voyage and this supporting blog could be transformed into a book. As Tom and I were talking, I thought of my sister Lisa and the similarity of our challenges. Lisa is beyond a quilter, she is a quilt artist. It’s a joy to see how can piece-together individual swaths of fabric into a beautiful mosaic.

One of my sister Lisa’s quilts (this is all her design)

My challenge (and soon to be our collective challenge, should you choose to accept the mission) is how to take related but often divergent thoughts that are encapsulated in blog posts, and stitch them together into a book. There’s a fine-line between a Frankenstein monster and a quilt. While my sister thinks in terms of uncovering patterns amongst pieces of fabric, a book needs themes that would be not only interesting but also helpful to others. I further think that in order to be relevant, a book needs to capture some element of the current zeitgeist—and, shooting for the stars, help readers better understand and navigate that zeitgeist.

As Tom and I were brainstorming, the obvious occurred to us: What a unique and unexpected global backdrop this terrible pandemic has given to the voyage. While I wish it weren’t happening—it is. The question then becomes, what do we do with it and how can it contribute to the story? I’m reminded of my daughter’s eulogy of her mother. At Colleen’s service, Emma quoted J.R.R. Tolkien from The Lord of the Rings:

Frodo: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”
Gandalf: “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

When I departed on my voyage on the morning of January 18th from my backyard, I don’t believe I had heard the term “Coronavirus”. Even when I was in the Bahamas for the next month and followed the news, I only heard it mentioned here-and-there. On my 12-day passage from the Bahamas to the Virgin Islands I was totally cutoff from the news and as I left the Bahamas, the U.S. presidential impeachment dominated headlines. 12 days later when I reconnected to the outside world, every headline was about the brewing global pandemic. When I departed home and again embarked from the Bahamas, I had no idea what was coming or how it would change my voyaging plans and change all of us.

Building on earlier comments, I think what we are all currently experiencing is so big and so unprecedented—at least in our lifetimes—that we can make some inferences as to its impact. While it’s obvious that as a result of the pandemic many will be mourning and grieving the the direct-loss of loved ones, I think there will be a collective mourning and grieving of the loss of the world that we once knew; so many elements of our lives will be forever changed. The stark reminder of the brevity and fragility of life will drive us to question our lives’ directions. Introspections such as: “What makes me happy and why am I not doing more of it?”, “How did I accumulate all of this stuff and is it truly making me happy?”, “How can I simplify?”, and “How do I introduce more intentionality and meaning into my life?”, will be at the top of many people’s mind. As Tom and I brainstormed, we began to think about how those parallel themes of my voyage—with their genesis well-before the emergence of the pandemic—would resonate with the zeitgeist and be of interest and help to readers.

Thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this drive for introspection will be superimposed on unemployment, furloughs, and a fundamental economic restructuring of entire industry sectors (think about those in the business of cruise ship hospitality). How does one introspect when personal finances are managed day-to-day and a job may not be secure? Fortunately, re-thinking one’s life direction and ruthless simplification need not be a high-dollar proposition. I’ll be the first to admit that cruising on a boat (dare I say “yachting”?) is not the least expensive endeavor in the world. However, to put things in perspective, I initially acquired Hazel James for $50,000 and have since done most of the work on her myself. As I see the conclusion of this voyage coming into focus, I’m seriously thinking about selling my house and living on her full-time. Furthermore, if time is the ultimate luxury, simplification done right can result in more time and more attention to helping others in solidarity for the common good.

In this upcoming new-normal, as readers have a desire to contemplate embarking on dramatic changes to their own lives, I think a key element to address is “the first-mile problem”. It’s a concept that I’ve been playing with in my mind and is a twist on the fairly well-known “last-mile problem”. Those of us who worked in technology during the internet boom are very familiar with it and it has since been co-opted by the transportation and logistics industry. In technology, the last-mile problem came into use in the 1990s as the internet’s popularity was blossoming and it became clear that “dial-up”—that is accessing the internet from home via existing phone lines—was not going to handle the bandwidth consumers would demand. While telephone and cable providers could visualize running fiber optic and other high-speed cable down streets (i.e., trunk lines), “the last-mile problem” was the orders-of-magnitude greater challenge of how to wire from the street to each and every house.

While the phrase is similar, my conceptualization of the “first-mile problem” began a couple weeks ago when I was talking to my friend Jessica on the phone. At the time I was 80 days into my voyage and she asked an ever-so insightful question: “Dan, I’m curious, what has been the single, most difficult thing about your trip?” I thought about it for a long time and replied, “It was taking that first step off my dock in my backyard and onto Hazel James, throwing off the lines and just going.” Saying that to her got me thinking about one of the key reasons I started this whole blog—it was to hold myself true. I figured that if I told enough friends about what I was intending to do, I’d have to do it (and I thank all of you for that!). The physical voyage—all 1,400 nautical miles of it—was just one level. The more powerful level was how I wanted to change my life, both for myself and to honor my sister Amy’s and Colleen’s memories.

Earlier this week I reconnected with Jon, a friend years back who knew Colleen well. Given that we’d drifted apart, I’d neglected to notify him of what happened so I found myself recounting the last several years of my life for him. After listening and reading Colleen’s memorial website and this blog, he said he was proud of what I was doing and—given all that had transpired—wouldn’t have been surprised if I had decided to curl up in a ball and hide under a rock. His comment made me feel so good about myself in a deep and genuine way. Returning to all of you and all of your profound support, I know that you would have been one-hundred percent understanding if, in January, I would have “chickened out” and not taken that first step off the dock and thrown off the lines.

Thinking back to the potential of a book, helping readers navigate what’s going on in their minds given the zeitgeist and helping them understand and conquer their own personal first-mile problems, would be a noble undertaking—a voyage in its own right. While everyone’s physical voyage will be unique, I see a lot of similarities to the emotional voyages we will be taking in this emerging new world in which we will find ourselves.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

—Generally attributed to Mark Twain

Hazel James’ stern wake on January 18, 2020 as we steam south in the intracoastal on the first-mile of out voyage (Just visible in the distance is the Atlantic Boulevard drawbridge. We live on Northeast 4th Street, four streets north of that bridge.)

I’m so appreciative, flattered, and frankly a little self-conscious and embarrassed by all the suggestions that a book would be a natural extension of this experience. Thank you, it means the world and is so healing.

I would ask all of you for comments back and thoughts on what’s been written here as we further develop the themes. There’s no such thing as an individual sport or, for that matter, singlehanded sailing; it always is a team.

As a quick closer, the other day I kayaked over to Go & Lan to shoot the breeze. Lancelot has a guitar onboard and I hear and see him practicing often. His mother plays guitar and gave him this travel-sized guitar to learn and play on the voyage.

As I floated behind Go & Lan and was chatting, Lancelot asked if I would play a couple songs on his guitar. It was a funny feeling given the scale-length and size of it combined with me not having touched a guitar in 3 months. However I eked out a few tunes and, unbeknownst to me, Lancelot got a picture of me doing so.

Later when he sent me the picture, my first thought was, “What is Billy Gibbons (from ZZ-Top) doing in our little bay?”

Exit mobile version