On Being At Sea & Sort of Liking It.

[Cheese sandwich warning]

Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, Angela Carter's Burning Your Boats, and Nicholas Christopher's Crossing the Equator top my list of "desert island" books, which I keep in the increasingly wistful and distant but persistent hope that someday I may wind up on just such an island, with just such a library.

Do you see me, atop the rigging, with my sunburned nose in a book? Look, I am waving at you - with my bookmark! Which I made myself, of seagull feathers and hemp and a blue ribbon I might have won sometime, or maybe stolen from the sky.

It is the color of my mother's eyes.

I love adventure stories. They always seem to involve an element of getting back to basics, back to the sea and sky, wind and water. Back to the elemental.

Once, when I was really, or more accurately, metaphorically, at sea, I went to the library, where I always go to get my bearings, and discovered the subject for my graduate thesis. Which started, naturally enough, in a navigation problem: the earth's magnetic field is weak but pervasive. It screws up compasses, makes navigation difficult under cloudy conditions. Someone in the megalomaniacal years of the early nineteenth century decided it would be a good idea to make global observations of this force, over long periods of time, in order to arrive at a method for figuring out what the strength of the field might be anywhere, at any time. Compasses could be corrected by book and algorithm. Sea adventures might yet require the library.


In the megalomaniaical years of writing my dissertation -- some might recall the party we threw when I finished, how we gave the -e-vite the opening line: Ladies and gentlemen, our long national nightmare is over -- I took a class, taught by my eventual dissertation advisor, on the history of ancient science and its influences on the early moderns, emphasis on Galileo and Newton. Astronomy, physics, mechanics -- I was in my element and out of my depth. (Both clichés are pleasingly exact, like the sciences in question.) For the first session, we were assigned all of Aristotle except the Poetics, which was a pity, given what was about to transpire. Five of us showed up for the first class, I think, including the professor. Class was held in his office. We wedged ourselves around a tiny table as he approached the whiteboard, where he wrote:

Fire. Water. Air. Earth.

"What are these?"

I had been reading Aristotle for days. I had been at sea for weeks. This was a graduate seminar. Surely, the professor could not be starting with Aristotle's doctrine of the elements? It was, if you'll forgive the pun, entirely too elementary.

We sat there, waiting to see who would jump, who would answer first. Perhaps it was a trick question.

"Come on, people," he said. He was getting exasperated. I couldn't blame him. He was all by himself up there, with all of us gawping at him, in confusion and awe and also not a little desperation. "What are these?"

Silence. Back to basics, I thought.

"Nouns," I said. "They are nouns."

Splash! In the laughter that followed, I realized that although we still didn't know where we were going, we had begun.