Archives for the month of: March, 2015

True story: I was a pirate.

I didn’t dress up in some fancy costume: I didn’t throw out “Argh” and “matey!” and other pirate words. I never forced someone to walk the gang plank, nor did I bury any treasure.

I did, however, drink my share of rum: my clothes were ripped, torn, slightly dirty; showers were NOT daily, and I was probably slightly smelly. I wore an eye patch and a sword (it was plastic); and I had a pirate name (which, due to its nature, shall remain unnamed).

I was a pirate. Summer, 1996

I was a pirate. Summer, 1996

It was summer of 1996 and I was 21, taking a summer and semester off of school, escaping from a full college schedule and a job at a local TV station as the morning show producer. I was running, from some vague feeling of restlessness. Within a week of my arrival in Key West, I had managed to talk my way aboard The Topsail Schooner Wolf, a 74-foot, top sail, gaff-rigged schooner that ran tourists out for sunset sails off the shore of the keys. I was one of five of an all-woman crew aboard the ship, and we spent our evenings ushering tourists into the green, sea-foam waters becalmed by the oppressive windless summers that mark the summer months in the keys. We’d motor around for two hours, encouraging our guests to raise the sails and serving them cheap beer and wine. On the weekends, we’d dress up in rag-tag costumes sourced from the local Goodwill store, and we’d spin tales of knife-wielding passengers (true story), violent squalls and yearly water and food fights at sea against the US Coast Guard (also a true story).

At the end of my six months there, I’d learned to sail and I learned that adventure lay wherever you put it. I learned that just because it looked and felt like paradise, that didn’t make it so: that the possibility of adventure lay wherever you were willing to put it.

With time, I stopped mentioning the pirate part of my time aboard The Wolf. And with another decade, I’d nearly stopped mentioning my time in Key West at all, unless I was relating my story about getting the Bends (decompression sickness) while diving off the Bahamas to a fellow diver or sharing some insight on Key West. But for me the chapter had closed, and I had moved on with my typical East-Coast lifestyle.

And then, in 2012, the Wolf came back into my life.

***********

2012

Cowboy is all frenetic energy, ideas and stories. He is Thai-Vietnamese-American. Or Thai-Hawaiian. Or Vietnamese-Canadian-American. It’s hard to get a straight answer. He has been married, maybe a few times, has a few kids, loves Virginia Tech and Pho soup. He has run a business, is an expert cameraman and has been homeless. He is, technically, homeless now, save for a small bunk on the Wolf crammed full of him. He believes in angels and luck. His real name is Cao Boi, and no he does not have another last name. He is always talking, thinking, moving to the next thought, and talking. And he is gladly at the beck and call of Captain Finbar and the rest of the crew as cook, mate, galley wench, hop-to, instigator and mediator, and pirate on the Wolf. I know all of this in our five-minute walk to the local 7-Eleven where we are getting ice.

We troll back to the dock, lugging a cart of ice behind us together. Cowboy woke up 20 minutes ago: I woke up two hours ago and I cannot match his energy. I am merely trying to capture a bit of it. I imagine a lot of us around Cowboy are doing the same.  “So, Laura, tell me about yourself,” Cowboy says. “What’s your story?”

I have to think about that one, pause in its telling. “Well. I was married. Technically I still am, I guess.” In Maryland, you have to be separated for a year before you can even file the paperwork for a divorce. “It was a rough marriage, and even rougher separation. But it is getting better,” I tell him. I am only slightly uncomfortable with the telling: This is the first time I’ve really been able to succinctly sum up my current life, the first time I have told a stranger my story. It feels surreal, but it makes it final and real.

“I sailed on the Wolf for six months when I ran away to Key West from school and work. You know, for a break. I found the Wolf the first day I was in Key West and I said, ‘I want to learn to sail, and I want to sail on her,’” I tell him.

“Yes, The Wolf will do that,” Cowboy says. He squints at me from the side of his eyes. “I have been on and off the Wolf for six years. I have owned a camera shop, and done many things. I’ve been married — and divorced — too, and I have a son. But I always end up back with her. My family doesn’t understand it.”

But I do. I haven’t been on The Wolf since I visited Key West in 1997. But I still have dreams about sailing her.  For the past 15 years I have woken up in the middle of the night with glimmers of a dream where I was handling The Wolf’s lines again, making fast the jib sheet after a tack, battling epic forces of nature amid howling wind. There’s not a single boat I sail that doesn’t take me straight back to the decks of the Wolf. I have no other sea stories than those I gathered while I sailed her, but I don’t need more: She gave me plenty in those six months. “She is in my soul, Cowboy, and that was after a short time. I can’t imagine what happens if you’ve sailed on her for even longer.”

The Wolf  drifted on the Chesapeake that day

We sail her that day from Baltimore to Annapolis, where we exchange the “Conch Republic ” flag with the “Maritime Republic of Eastport” in a ceremony full of the nature of two pieces of the US that have jokingly seceded from their homelands — Key West from the United States, and Eastport from Annapolis. I spend three days with the Wolf and her crew, Captain Finbar and his pirate wife Julie, and at the end of it return back to my single family home in the burbs of Baltimore, while the crew journeys on their coastal tour of the US.

Later, after I see her and her crew off the docks of Annapolis, I am talking to my friend Karen. She knew I sailed on a “pirate ship” in Key West, saw the photo of the Wolf hanging on the wall in my office. She’d heard the stories, knew my journey there and back. But she hadn’t seen me on The Wolf, hadn’t realized the depth of her reach into my being. “The Wolf came in and saved you when you lived in Key West,” she says. “And she’s come back to save you again.” Until she said it so succinctly, I hadn’t realized that’s exactly what my time aboard her was doing this time, too.

************

We love pirates: something about the romanticism of the freedom that comes from being a pirate, the imagined carefree attitude to do what you want, when you want, beckons our internal sense of adventure. The rag-a-tag nature of pirates, the devil-may-care approach to life seems to answer the internal siren call of living life for life’s sake. It calls to us in the midst of how we really live it — get up, fight traffic, go to work, go home, do some errands, take care of all the stuff around the house and in our life. The life of a pirate, with few earthly possessions and calling a 6-by-4 foot berth and wherever it may be in port, “home” renews in us the right sense that there is, indeed, a life out there most of us are just not living — at least not the way we want.

Want to know what Happy looks like? Hang with Cao for a little while

Want to know what Happy looks like? Hang with Cao for a little while

In all the studies of what makes people happy – truly happy, fulfilled, experiencing life in a positive manner no matter age or life circumstances — “stuff” does not make the list.  Instead, new indications are that overall balance and harmony with the environment and with the individual’s sense of place in the world creates more happiness than any single indicator of wealth or power. Just ask the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himilayas, which measure GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) instead of GDP. New measures social scientists are using point to factors like access to health care, free time with family, natural resource conservation, a sense of giving back and other “soft measures” as being more indicative with overall happiness.  (Want to read more? I recommend, “A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom“). The documentary Happy sums it up succinctly: spend an hour and watch it to walk away feeling….. well, Happy.

So  maybe it’s not the swash buckling tales of pirates that have us so enraptured, as much as it is a sense that pirates, surely, must have had free time to explore and do the things that filled their soul.

After The Wolf left that summer in 2012, I embarked on my own land-loving adventure to rediscover what happiness really means — to re-capture those pieces of myself and my lifestyle back in my pirate days that had made me feel so at peace with the world and the ocean. I don’t know if I am there yet. But today I can say that almost every day, I live just a little piece of the Pirate’s Life.

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I was sick for three months.

Ok, so maybe it was more like 2.75. But whatever. I’m a writer. Sometimes writers fudge and expand the details to enhance the story.

At any rate, at the exact time that I had FINALLY been given some time to do that THING that has most called to me for almost my entire life is the time when sickness fell and wiped me out. For, like, that last three months.

For years I’d been a busy, professional and rather successful career woman. I had the titles, the salary, the friends (but not the car… a part of me has always eschewed totally following the cliché). But last year, something snapped. A bit of frustration, plus a workaholic schedule, plus the growing realization that my life was perfectly poised to go DO this thing – for once – naturally made me want to shake it all up.
Full confession: I am approaching the official mid-life mark, and now that it’s nearly here and I’ve made the jump, I can no longer deny that perhaps the big 4-0 had more to do with this new life than I’d previously wanted to admit.

I am, admittedly in this telling, glossing over all the gory details: suffice it to say, on Dec. 1, I quit the job and headed out to follow my dream = to write that book I’ve wanted to do for years.

I’d developed an agreement with myself that I could have six gloriously free months to research and write the book. I’d do a two-week trip to Key West in December for all the research to be done. By January, I’d have it outlined. By February I’d be done with Chapter 2. By May my first draft would be done.

Given that planning it out in my professional career before had usually, mostly, WORKED, I had no reason to think this would go any differently.

Dude, Dudette. DogGod... whatever works for your "higher power"

Dude, Dudette. DogGod… whatever works for your “higher power”

But the dude (or dudette or DogGod or Pluto- whatever you need you believe. Just make sure you read What Questions a Dog would Ask God) upstairs has one heck of a sense of humor. As so often happens when things are set up PERFECTLY, the plan hit the bottom of the ravine all too quickly. My dream of spending day after day writing, editing, researching – thoroughly embedded in the work of my story — slowly slipped away as, week after week, I either caught an infection or had some new symptom develop that essentially wiped out my ability to do much of anything useful.

It started in the middle of Paradise on my maiden voyage, just two weeks into this grand new life. I was struck: a bacterial infection that sent my insides scrambling and left me with a prescription for two heavy-duty antibiotics. I avoided the hospital this time, but not without suffering through a few weeks of side effects. Then, at the tail end of that debacle came the flu. Happy New Year. Followed by a cold. Then another. Then a virus that refused to go away. Then another cold. Ad nauseam, for two months. As if that wasn’t enough, in January my hands pretty much stopped working, and I couldn’t actually perform the function of writing for any longer than 10 minutes.

I was a pirate in paradise when it all went down...

I was a pirate in paradise when it all went down…

For a newly-minted, newly-proclaimed writer, this loss of use of hands was the cruelest. It sent me howling into my journal (a new daily practice I mostly do, seeming only apropos that if I’m to be a writer I should write something each day, even if it’s only dribbling thoughts). I read back through those entries the other day and admit, here, fully – It was entirely whining. Like with a capital W. In retrospect, some WINE might have helped that situation- but I don’t do that anymore (another story).

It didn’t help that each time I’d have a day or two of feeling better, of being nearly normal, and then I’d feel some signal of the start of yet another virus. My Whining reached fevered pitch, along with my visits to various doctors and specialists. I may have even shook  my fists in the air at God- which at the least did make me, and the hubster, laugh.

 While I am back to pre-December production, energy level and doing-ness, it turns out there are in fact reasons this has all been happening – an immune dysfunction that doctors usually treat only when the patient is symptomatic and/or under duress. And I am fast hurtling towards a Fibromyalgia diagnosis, which is where they put you when you have all these THINGS, but no known underlying already-defined disease. Never mind that I don’t have either one of the main hallmark of the disorder (all-over pain). Truth is, this isn’t the first time: Like many in my situation, I started having bouts of this after a 3-month virus in 2008, and in the past few years it has gotten worse. Last year I spent most of my time going to work and when I wasn’t doing that, sleeping. The on-and-off elevated pulse, the fingers and toes losing circulation, the extreme fatigue, and tingling hands were, my doctor told me, all due to stress. Blood tests backed this up. OK, so great, simple solution: quit said stressful job. So when it got WORSE at the beginning of this year, rather than better…. well hopefully you can empathize with why I was so flummoxed. Beside myself. OK: Angry. I was very angry and pitiful.

But like all things, it eventually wound down, the sickness and the Whining.

Because in the midst this storm that was sleeping, eating, feeling awful, battling medicinal side effects, not being able to comprehend the words I was reading let alone make NEW thoughts out of them, I remembered one very important thing: I was a pirate once.

topsail schooner wolf

Schooner Wolf

Albeit, I was a nice pirate, the kind that you run into on sailboats in very nice touristy places—but still, even there the pirate spirit exists. You take the girl off the ship, but you can’t take the pirate out of the girl. You can’t take away the rebellion, you can’t remove the desire to freedom, and you can’t get away from the pirate’s indomitable spirit to PROSPER against even the mightiest of uncontrollable forces. In fact, it is those very howling forces of fate that call a pirate to most BE. It is this spirit, after all, that attracts so many people to the idea of pirates – this the reason the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has done so well, that pirate festivals around the US have flourished (and been established even inland, like Kansas).

Yes, somewhere around about late January I got angry, full of fight. Somewhere around mid-February, I gave up. Perhaps not UP as much as IN: to the irrefutable truth that life so often seems to want to teach us: that despite the best-laid plans, you cannot control the actual outcome of the situation. My pirate self started, essentially, to howl into the wind. And now that the storm has abated (today marks one week entirely symptom free, two weeks since I could function normally again), I am beginning to do what so many REAL pirates before me have done when faced with a journey thwarted, a ship sunk: to begin again.

This marks the launch of a serial blog, one that will pull on bits and pieces from the book I am working on, will explore what makes a pirate, why we love pirates, and what it all has to do with business – and life. I know three people who will read it. And I’m happy with that. It’s practice, and it will remind me that I am a pirate at heart, as so many of us really, truly are. It all comes from my time aboard the Schooner Wolf, Key West’s official pirate flagship –often stories that don’t fit in the official book. The one time that knife-wielding customer boarded the evening sunset sail, for instance. Stories abound on a pirate ship. And I am just beginning to capture them.