Anxiety is a bear whose breath is always hot on my heels but it was a greyhound that got me. I was enjoying a mid-morning run when the dog lunged, tore the lead from its elderly owners hand, and bit me on the back. Some runs are so good they feel almost spiritual and I was in that hallowed space in the stratosphere when the incident occurred, but four well-placed puncture wounds and a five hour wait in a downtown emergency room are enough to cause ones spirit to nosedive Icarus-style back to earth and come up with a mouthful of soil and woe. I left the hospital with a fresh tetanus shot, having witnessed in that time, one overdose and two assaults.
I’m not normally superstitious (well not really) but this attack felt personal. Could it be an omen? Shortly after, I contracted covid (a very mild case) and got rejected for the second time from a publication I had thought a sure thing. It felt like some bad juju had settled upon me. I grew distracted, often re-reading the same paragraph over and over. People spoke to me and I watched their lips move only to realize I had not heard a word they’d said. I became clumsy and butter-fingered. Absent-minded, forgetful of things I have always remembered.
Before this happened, I was already feeling antsy, having arrived back in Canada for the start of the sailing season prematurely. You could see this in the books I was reading; a new translation of the Odyssey, Robert MacFarlane’s ‘Old Ways’ wherein the author explores ancient walking paths in the UK and elsewhere, Peter Robb’s excellent book on Sicily and the Mezzogiorno ‘Midnight in Sicily’ and Olga Tokarczuk’s magnificent ‘Flights’, part first-person travelogue, part short-story collection, chalk-full of historical and anthropological ephemera. (It is only as I write this that it occurs to me that most reading is, in and of itself, a form of travel.)
I have always admired the eighteenth-century drawings of flora and fauna rendered by explorers and naturalists of the day. I read somewhere that these people, while not necessarily naturally talented artists, were accomplished with pencil and paints because in the days before the camera they were their only means of making a visual document of their fascinating finds. An artist friend of mine went on to tell me that ‘anyone can learn to draw’ with a certain degree of competency. And so, inspired by these words I went out and bought pencils, an eraser and a sketchbook. I watched a few YouTube tutorials and I looked at structural sketches and contour sketches. I learned the difference between a 2B, a 4B and an HB pencil. I read about chiaroscuro and adding value to a drawing, which is creating depth and perspective to an image, basically, how light or dark a drawing is. I spent hours drawing circles and filling them in. I reduced objects and animals to component parts of rectangles, oblongs, cylinders, squares and circles. Mugs, a teapot, swans, owls and a brass figurine of a priapic monkey all found their images crudely reproduced on the matte-white pages of my sketchbook. I cut a 1 by 1 ½ inch square in a piece of cardboard to create a viewfinder with which to arrange my compositions and understand an area or an object and its constituent shapes better.
This helped pass the time, and I spent hours in the living room listening to records and drawing but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was awry. Peculiar things, or at least things I perceived as peculiar, continued to occur. Twice my order was forgotten at a restaurant. Crossing the street, a car ran a light and almost hit me, the driver flailed his arms and shouted something unintelligible before speeding off. Drunks accosted me in the street. Sudden loud noises caused me undue alarm. The recycling truck on the street outside became excruciating. When the call finally came for me to ship out, I was relieved to be free of the city, but couldn’t help feeling like I was somehow still, a man condemned.
I drove a rental north nine hours to meet the ship with a new chef and a deckhand who sat shotgun and plopped his bare feet on the dash. When he wasn’t smoking, he chewed gum and blew bubbles which snapped loudly when they burst, all the while he picked his nose assiduously, took a cursory look at what he found up there and then flicked his fresh discoveries out the window.
Joining a working ship is like leaping onto a fast-moving conveyer. In five days we saw five different docks in two American states and one Canadian province and carried three different cargoes. We were short a deckhand in Sombra so I volunteeredl for the punt job. (A punt is a 14 foot aluminum craft which is launched from the ship. Sometimes it is used to take the wires ashore). Punt jobs are hard work and generally the province of younger men but I am fit and figured that it would be just the thing to blow off the dust which had settled upon me in the four idle weeks I’d been in the city. At 3AM the small, aluminum boat was ready on the ships side and me and the two other hands lowered it down to the water and prepared to launch it. Coincidentally one of them was the same guy I had a serious accident in a punt with five years before, when the boat capsized and threw us both into the freezing waters of the St. Marys River in December.
“I hope you guys do better than you did last time you were in a punt together,” said the mate as we descended the ladder to the waiting boat.
The next night in Toledo’s Maumee River we required a tug to help us reverse through a narrow swing bridge. Toledo seems to exist in its own weather bubble as it is always much warmer there than anywhere else in the lakes and it was nice to wear just one layer of clothing after mostly freezing my nuts off for the last month. The captain chatted with the tug captain on the radio and they came up with a game plan. The tug captain had a grizzled smokers rasp. He radioed the bridge operator, a woman, and they back and forthed affectionately. She said there would be a brief delay in getting the bridge open.
“Awww sweetheart,” he said, “If you could see the look of disappointment on my face.”
Eventually the bridge swung open and we reversed our 700’ length through with just 20’ to spare on either side. Once through we slipped our tow and the tug set up on our port quarter. Our stern thruster was broken and we needed the extra horsepower in that swift current. As we lined ourselves up on the wall for tie-up our captain said,
“OK sir, we’ll take that push now.” At which the tug gently nosed up to the hull and slowly applied pressure.
“OK skipper,” said the tug captain as he brought up the revs. “Here comes them horses.”
I can’t dismiss entirely the notion that I might have picked up some bad juju somewhere along the way. Since joining the ship I’ve come down with a doozie of a cold (not covid) and I’ve pulled all my abdominal muscles. Thems horses. Thems horses. They’ll help you out but they’ll trample you too if you’re not careful. But there is at least much here to distract me. The work. The scenery. All of it an amateur sketch artists dream. There are the varying textures of the water that changes hour to hour, the shapes of the clouds that offer astounding perspectives as they shrink towards the horizon. The trees that line the northern shores; the hardy pines and those still leaf-less from the long winter. There is the ship itself, just geometric angles, rectangles and squares. And then there’s that figure in the foreground. It is just the barest outline of a man, a crude self-portrait, but I’m sure you’ll agree it is unmistakably me. Still outrunning that bear. Still putting these words down whenever I can and for whomever it is that might want to read them. These travelogues of the interior and exterior are my way of discerning the light from the dark, to gain perspective and find depth, as I try and sketch out the value in these days.