The Hudson’s looking a bit crunchy…

DSC01328 C.E. Grundler

I haven’t watched the news all that much lately, though it plays, closed-caption, on a screen in a diner I frequent.  And whenever it’s on, much of the coverage is focused on the obvious. I don’t need the news to tell me, it’s COLD outside. Now I realize there are some of you reading this in more temperate zones, and while I do understand that your weather may be colder than normal, unless your temperature has been regularly dipping into the negatives, you’re not getting my sympathy. Unless dressing each morning to step outside involves layering your clothes until you feel like the kid brother in A Christmas Story, and your travel time has tripled or quadrupled due to an infrastructure stressed to the breaking point by these frigid temperatures, it’s hard to feel bad… though truth be told after anything more than a short time outdoors, it’s hard to feel much of anything. Fingers and toes quickly go numb, your face loses feeling, and if your nose runs, it won’t for long — it’ll freeze, plain and simple. This morning, some tea from my travel mug splashed onto my glove — and instantly froze solid. And according to all reports, this weather pattern won’t be shifting any time soon. DSC01319 The only consolation to this bitter weather is the beauty. We’ve been hit by relentless snow, and every time it starts to look a bit drab, a new storm arrives to freshen things up. The ice flows on the Hudson have yet again brought construction on the new Tappan Zee Bridge to a halt, and if you stand by the river’s edge, the soft, murmuring creaks and pops as the flows shift on the tide can be downright eerie. Yesterday I watched a tug and barge on a small strip of open water, waiting for an icebreaker to clear the channel. Today, even that open water looks as though it’s been swallowed by the ice. DSC01330 DSC01333 Yet, even with this bitter cold, life goes on. Particularly if you’re one of our local eagles, perched in one of her favorite trees.  In fact, she seem right at home with this weather.

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The Eagle has Landed…

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It’s that time of year again. I saw one flying by as I rounded the corner this morning, and now there’s another perched on a tree next to the travel lift. It’s January, ice flows clog the river, and the eagles have returned to the Hudson Valley. If it’s anything like last year, soon there will be seals lounging on the vacant docks.

Ebay and eagles 007

In the last week I’ve watched the temperature swing from the mid-60s down to sub-zero, and now it’s on it’s way back up. By Saturday it’s going to be pushing 50 again. I can’t even venture what the thermometer will read in a month, but either way, I’ll be jumping in the Hudson with an ever-growing crowd in the Stony Point Polar Plunge. Why? For a good cause. And because, why not?

<Update: Why not?  Doctor’s orders, apparently. *Sigh.*>

It’s…*ALIVE*!!!

*POKE* *POKE*

Yes… it IS breathing! For real!

Okay. All kidding aside. Some of you may have noticed a slight lack of activity on this blog for more than a slight amount of time. I could fill pages explaining my hiatus — but I won’t. It suffices to say that life has thrown me a few curve balls over that period, and while they’ve been, oh, let’s just call them challenging, I can say with confidence that I’ve learned a whole lot of new ways to swing a bat and hit a few out of the field. And I suppose, that’s much of what life’s all about. So, let’s take a look at the score.

I’m still here. And what’s the saying? Any day above the ground is a good day.

The boat is still NOT afloat. Which, at this time of year is fairly normal, though it would have been nice to actually seen her underway at any point last summer. And work (more on that some other time) is progressing at a slow but definite pace. ALL the decks, short of the cockpit, have been COMPLETELY re-cored. Again, this is the subject of far more than these few sentences, and it suffices to say that is a task I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It’s like banging your head against a wall, as it feels much better when you’re done. Someday I’d like to look back and say it was worth it…but that’s down the road, and these days I’ve found time passing far too fast as it is, so for now I’ll just enjoy the thought that my still not floating boat has some of the strongest, most solid decks around.

And my writing? Yes. I am writing. Not as consistently as I have in the past, but as I said, there were all those pesky curve balls. It’s ironic that my third book, set to take place during a fictional hurricane that decimates the NY/NJ coast, was derailed by that very fiction turning to reality. Such is life, but in the end it’s given my madness and mayhem far more material than I could ever imagine. And that’s what I’m writing.

What I’m not writing is anything remotely socially networky. As in, I’m not doing all that stuff writers are encouraged to do beyond actually living life and writing books. All that ‘connect with your audience’ stuff. If you’re my audience, if you’ve read my books, you should understand. I don’t just write about anti-social, snarky characters with questionable people skills — I play one in real life. And trying to pretend otherwise, trying to do that whole Facebook and Twitter and networking thing, for me has been like trying to force an isosceles triangle into a round hole.

The last two weeks have been the longest downtime I’ve had in years, and it’s been a good break. It’s let me regroup and focus on priorities. And it’s made me realize that half the reason I haven’t been blogging in all this time was because I was still trying to figure out how to digitally force that triangle peg into the round hole.

So here’s the score. I’m a crazy writer. Anti-social, highly introverted, and perfectly happy that way. My people skills suck. I know I’ve said that here before, but perhaps that message got lost in my attempts to be social, network, and connect.

This is the web. I can sit in my private little corner, comfy-cozy in my isolation, and write to my heart’s content. Some of you out there may enjoy my somewhat skewed characters, others of you may not. Some kind souls, out of concern for my moral well-being, may send me suggestions to read the Bible, and thank you very much. Some of you can, and have, written me directly, or commented on my posts, and I welcome that. I’ll even reply, though occasionally it may take a day or three.

Perhaps if I could focus on that whole social network thing I might ultimately sell more books. But let’s face the facts: me and social just don’t go together. That’s me. That’s the way I am, and that’s the way I like it. While it might not do much to advance my career, it’s a balance that works for me.  It’s wonderful that my books have an audience and a following, and while perhaps that following might be larger if this particular writer were wired a bit different, I’m not, and that’s what makes me who I am, and my books what they are, for better or worse.

Random Observation of the Day:  Food heats faster when you write. But that accelerated process also applies to food’s ability to burn if not watched. And on that note, I’m going to shut the stove and have some pre-blizzard dinner.

We’re here to fish…

Every so often, one of us will say or do something so notoriously noteworthy that our friends and family will never let us live it down. Sometimes a simple statement will live on, years, even decades later, haunting us, taking on a life of its own. My husband made one of those infamous quotes, and it’s gone on to embody a certain philosophy our family holds to, especially at times like these: the holidays.

It wasn’t long after we’d met; we were both still in high school at the time. It was one of those perfect summer days: the sun was warm without being hot and there wasn’t a trace of humidity. The sky was a flawless, cloudless cerulean blue that went on forever. It was an ideal day to go fishing. With his kid brother along, we slid his flat-bottomed boat into the bed of the pickup, loaded up our tackle and headed up to a nearby lake. How could anything go wrong?

Well, to start with, upon arrival we discovered the battery for the trolling motor never made it from the garage to the truck. Frank had asked his brother to load it; his brother thought Frank had grabbed it. But we had oars and we had rods and tackle, so we forged ahead.

It wasn’t long before it became obvious the fish weren’t biting. Obvious to his brother and I, at least. But it was a beautiful day and it was peaceful just drifting in a little boat on that sparkling lake. I put my rod aside, leaned over and trailed my finger in the cool water. Frank’s brother leaned back and gazed up at the sky, soaking in the sun’s rays. But Frank refused to accept defeat. He continued to cast and reel with great determination. I watched, bemused. Cast, reel. Cast, reel. Cast, reel. At last he finally paused, regarding me and his brother, our rods down and towels clearly thrown in even as we enjoyed that summer afternoon and he uttered that memorable quote:  “Damn it, we’re here to fish, not to have fun.”

No sooner than those words left his mouth, a look crossed his face as his brain processed what he’d said. I promptly burst out laughing and he shook his head in defeat. “You’re never going to let me forget that, are you?” he said.

I haven’t. In fact, that statement’s gone on to symbolize whenever the quest for fun turns into an epic battle. When doing what you love becomes more of a chore than a pleasure, you’ve reached the ‘here to fish’ moment. We’ve all been there: we get so wrapped up in what we’re doing that we lose sight of why we’re doing it to begin with. Most anything we do for pleasure can gradually turn on us if we’re not careful. Vacations fall victim to the ‘here to fish’ mindset; the hopes and expectations are so high, the time limited, and people make themselves crazed in an attempt to do it all. And it happens a lot this time of year, with the pressure to have a perfect holiday often overriding the point of the holiday to begin with. But whatever you’re doing, be it celebrating with family and friends, or fixing a boat or writing or even fishing, always remember why. The object of the game, plain and simple, is to have fun.

Happy Holidays, and a safe and healthy New Year to all!

Sorting boats…

December has arrived, and once again the docks are all but empty on my little corner of the Hudson River. Activity at the yard, which had been buzzing along in high gear for the last two months, starts to scale back. For a few weeks there were people and cars and sounds of all sorts around us on the hard, but now the silence is returning. In another week or two, the only signs of life we’ll see around the yard are a few marina employees and the hardy little feral ‘yard cats’, occasionally soaking up a bit of low winter sun on a warm car hood. The season has ended and rows of boats have been sorted.

In most cases, when yards block up boats for winter storage, there’s a very specific order to where each one winds up, and why. Size plays a role, as does the all-important ‘When do you want to go back in’ factor. Last out is usually first in. Some owners wrap things up after Labor Day and don’t pull the cover until the end of May while others are geared up for fishing at the first signs of spring – don’t block them in! But there’s more to it. It’s no accident that the shiniest and newest of boats with custom covers or shrink wrap are closer to the main entrance and offices. For one, it just looks better and reflects well on the yard. It also keeps these boats where they’re less inclined to be visited by someone other than their owner. Further back goes to the boats with flapping plastic tarps or no covers at all. And finally, tucked in the furthest corners of the yard, backed to the brush and overgrowth, are the boats that have been on the hard for many seasons – the hopeless and the forgotten. They sit as testaments to abandoned dreams. At some point in their existence, each had been someone’s pride and joy. Now they stand as silent reminders of failed aspirations. Perhaps their owner had fallen upon bad times or eventually the reality of boat ownership outweighed the dream, draining and straining finances and relationships, sometimes past the point of no return. Like a novel in a desk drawer, these grand dreams fell victim to the harsh realities of day-to-day life.

Yet, glimmers of hope spring up in these forgotten corners, like a rose blooming among the oil drums and weeds. Every so often someone with the right mix of skill, perseverance, delusional optimism and determination sets their eyes on one of those forgotten boats, and you’ll see it re-emerge from death-row to float and sail once more. I recall one boat where the cabin and bridge had been partially destroyed by fire, though the hull and engine remained intact. It was placed in the corner to languish for years. But then one day someone new arrived. The fellow who repaired her did so the only way he knew how — with sheet-metal. It wasn’t exactly pretty, but year after year he’s out on the water happily fishing away. On the other end of the spectrum a friend of mine acquired an old ketch that had been caught in the wrong end of a shed collapse, and he restored that boat to exceptional magnificence. In both cases, these boats were brought back from the dead and each is a victory. It’s that ability to see beyond the work to the potential, to press on in the face of all adversity, hoping someday it will be beautiful — or at least float. I sometimes wonder how many of those resurrected boats belong to writers.

Letting go of Perfection

Another winter is right around the corner, and once again, Annabel Lee remains right where she’s been for far too long.  No, the work I’ve been doing should have never taken this long, but sometimes health, hurricanes, and life in general get in the way. All the same I do know for certain (with the exception of any unforeseen impending disasters, of which I’ve had enough, thank you very much,) I am on the home stretch. If all goes according to plans (okay, go ahead and laugh. I know the boat gods are even as I type this.) her completely re-cored decks will once again be sheathed in fiberglass, and she WILL WILL WILL be afloat come spring, her decks nice and solid, her engine gleaming and purring, and her new-old mast standing high and proud. I may have mentioned in the past, it’s my delusional optimism that keeps me going. Hey, sometimes you just have to work with what you’ve got.

Now, I’ve heard the whispers. I know what some people are saying. I’m a perfectionist, and until I come to terms with that, the boat will never be done.  And that is true to some extent. For one, no boat is ever truly done –that just goes with the nature of boats. And I am a perfectionist when it comes to the boat, but only to a point. For example, I have a strong dislike for leaking decks, and I believe if you’re going to tear them all up and re-core them, you might as well do it once and do it right. So no, I won’t cut corners there. And I strongly believe that the engine room should be the cleanest, shiniest area on the entire boat, because then if there are any leaks, they are clear and easily located and addressed. But beyond that, I’m actually rather partial to the New England workboat philosophy – minimal brightwork, minimal shiny bits, and simply freshen up the paint once a season.  Let the boat look respectable, let her show she’s maintained, but don’t sweat the finish. Personally, I’m seriously considering simply rolling the hull with a nice, flat, off-white paint.  It’s a look I’m rather fond of, and not just aesthetically.  It’s a look that says, “This boat isn’t just a show piece.”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m the first to admire a truly beautiful, meticulous finish. You’ve got to respect the work and discipline that goes into achieving and maintaining it, and brightwork that gleams with flawless richness is truly a thing of beauty. I’d been that obsessive on my old catboat, Myra Lee, and took great pride in the admiration she attracted. But these days I’m letting go of that ideal. So long as she’s mechanically and structurally sound, I’d prefer  Annabel Lee be less of a show piece and more of a functional, functioning boat. A boat I won’t mind dogs romping around, and one I won’t mind hauling a striped bass aboard. A boat that guests don’t have to remove their shoes to board. A boat that dinghies can thump against all night without concern. A boat I don’t have to pamper. A boat with the lowest maintenance-to-use ratio I can achieve.  A boat I can simply enjoy.

It’s easy to get caught up in the quest for perfection. As a writer, there’s always another sentence we can tweak, and on boats, there’s always something that could shine just that much more.  But there’s a point where it might be best to let go of perfection in exchange for ‘good enough’. Because in the end, once Annabel Lee is finally anchored out, as the sun dips below the horizon as the clouds streak the sky with a magnificent pink and orange display, the last thing that will matter is how shiny her hull is.

And on that note, I found this video had been emailed to me from Jamestown Distributors, and it sums this philosophy up perfectly. It’s well worth watching.

But how did you get here??

Last week I mentioned cruising aboard the little cuddy-cabin my husband and owned back in our twenties. And as I said, we had many good times aboard that boat. But there’s one in particular we still laugh about – our arrival at Block Island. It was right after that two-day stop-over in Mystic, and wanting to squeeze in as much time as possible on the island, we departed the Seaport before dawn had  begun to tint the horizon. We had our course plotted, the engine was running perfectly, and off we ventured into the darkness.

The passage went smoothly, with nothing but miles of wide, flat rollers while the engine hummed and the blackness gradually gave way to a murky fog-bound grey. We stayed on course, and right on schedule, we reached the red bell buoy marking the entrance to the Great Salt Pond. We motored slowly through the crowded anchorage and made our way to Payne’s Dock, where we had a slip waiting at the floating dock with the thirty foot and under crowd. It was still early; the sun was starting to burn away the gloom, people were just beginning to stir, and the fellow on the 28’ flybridge Carver we were docking beside paused from his mug of steaming coffee to give us a hand tying up. And then he asked the strangest question.

“How did you get here?”

Huh? I looked to my husband, he looked to me, and we both looked to the boat we’d docked only moments before. The answer seemed fairly self-evident. But maybe not. Carver asked a second time, as though we hadn’t understood the question. In reply, I pointed to the boat we were standing in.

But that, it seems, wasn’t the answer he was looking for, so this time he rephrased his question. “But the ferries aren’t running yet. How did you get here?”

Am I missing something here? My husband and I look at each other, perplexed, and this time I state the obvious: “We came by boat.”

Still Carver looked as baffled as us, and finally he elaborated enough to explain his confusion and clear up ours. He said, “But the ferry isn’t running this early. How did you find the island?”

Ahhh! That’s what he meant. I pointed to the compass and my husband held up the chart.

“Oh,” Carver replied. “You know how to use those? We just follow the ferry.”

And sure enough, later that day as we hiked around the island and saw the ferry arriving, it was trailed by a small flotilla of boats, much like a duck with ducklings. Apparently, our friend from the docks wasn’t the only one who used that method of navigation. And while it may have been a reliable way to get from point A to point B in those pre-GPS days, personally, I’d rather plot my own course to explore new and unfamiliar waters, rather than follow in someone else’s wake.