Wednesday, August 10, 2022

LEVIATHAN

[Composed in the style of a story told live for an audience, as on "The Moth."]

 

Hi, everybody. I’d like to talk to you about whales. How about it, anybody here like whales? Yeah, you like ‘em, and you, and you in the back there … really, who doesn’t like whales, almost nobody. I’m not a marine biologist, but I can tell you that there aren’t as many whales as there used to be, we gotta be careful with them, we don’t wanna make a big mistake and end up snuffing them out. They’re kind of like distant cousins of ours, you know? They used to walk around on dry land, imagine that. They’re warm-blooded, and they have these big brains, and they sing. They sing these crazy, beautiful songs, and no one’s completely sure what that’s all about. They’re not like fish, even though they live in the ocean. They’re not like sharks. I mean, no offense, but hardly anybody goes out on a shark watch. But people do go out on whale watches, in big numbers, very popular. Because it’s fun, and because you’re going to go way out to where the whales are. They can’t come to you, they’re too big to come in close to shore, so you get on a big boat with a bunch of other people, nice sunny day, it’s your first whale watch, very exciting, and you go waaaaaaaaaaaaay out to sea until you can’t see the land anymore, and the whales just show up and do their thing. Isn’t it great?

You watch them coming up for air, their big backs and their fins breaking the surface, and they spout, you know, they breathe in and out and it looks like a white cloud. It’s like something out of a fairy tale! Sometimes they wave their big tails like a flag, and sometimes they jump out of the water almost all the way, just for the fun of it, is what it looks like. We watch the whales and the whales watch us too, I think, very curious about us.

Fun times, going out to watch the whales. So some years ago, my girlfriend (now my wife … woo-hoo! yes! thank you!), she surprises me on my birthday with a pair of tickets to a … whale watch. Yes, you saw that coming, pretty sharp out here tonight.

So the first thing I noticed that morning when we pulled into the parking lot up in Gloucester was that the whale-watching boat was a lot … smaller than the one on that first trip I was telling you about. Actually, really, the first thing I noticed, before we even got down to the harbor, was that it was raining. Raining pretty hard, and chilly too. Very chilly for mid-May. Also, pretty breezy.

Our whale-watch boat was actually a party boat, in real life. There are lots of them up and down the shore, north and south of Boston. They’re designed to take large groups of people offshore for a gentle summer day of bottom-fishing and beer-drinking and getting your line tangled up with your buddies’ lines. That kind of stuff. Fair-weather fishing trips. Maybe it was a cheap rental this early in the year. How big was it? Oh, I don’t know, not too big. Maybe from here to over here in width. Little cabin, pilot house on top. And for length, well, if you stood at the stern and threw a stone towards the bow, it would probably go past the bow and land kerplop! somewhere out in front. Not too big.

There are maybe 35 people on board, many of them kids, and everybody seems really psyched to be going out to see the whales, except that it keeps raining, which is a … challenge. But a crew member I take to be the captain hollers to the rest of the crew, waving both arms forward: “Let’s just GO! Let’s just DO it!” And away we go, out of the harbor, out to the east where the action of the sea is … rougher.

So, you’re getting the picture, right? Small boat, choppy seas, wet weather. I begin to get the idea that things might not exactly work out the way I thought they would. So let’s get the rest of the negative stuff out of the way up front. People begin to get seasick all around us. Not a good time. A lot of them aren’t dressed for the weather, so they’re getting cold and drenched. There’s no more room in the cabin. I’m thinking, it’s actually better to be outside where you can watch the scenery. Nobody asks the crew to turn around. Folks seem to have decided just to endure it. Glassy eyes, pale faces, shivering. They’re holding on tight to whatever they’ve found that seems solid. What else can you do?  

Right about now you might be asking yourself, what kind of a story is this guy telling? Which version of the narrative is going to win out? Will it be the one featuring the trials and tribulations of the boat trip, where it’s cold and bumpy and wet? Or is it going to be something more … transformative? Something about how alive I feel, riding along on a little chip of steel and plywood on the limitless sea? That some discomforts need to be endured in order to get to that “alive” feeling? In short, is it going to be a happy story, or a sad one, or both? Well, I’m the storyteller, you’d think I would know. But sometimes the storyteller has to tell the story all the way through, to find out what kind of a story it is. So let’s see how that goes, you and me together.

So meanwhile the boat is powering through the waves, rolling to the left and right, hooo boy, and the bow is twitching from side to side like someone shaking their head, no-no. Also the bow is rising and falling, rising and falling, saying ah yes, ah yes, and sometimes a big wave catches the bow on the downstroke and seawater cascades down the deck and up our ankles. Hey captain, can we keep the ocean down there, where it belongs? I take a look over the side and notice how close the water is. We’re out of sight of land now. It’s just gray seawater all around, all chopped up into waves large and small, coming at us from every direction. If the boat should roll and we all go in, it’ll be over in minutes. No point spending any time worrying about that.

The guy I think is the captain comes by where we’re standing, on his way up to the pilot house. Hey captain, who’s upstairs driving the boat? And I say something to him like, Pretty rough out here today, and he turns to me as he grips the ladder, and his look is kind of wild-eyed and distracted. Stressed, you could say. Not exactly frightened, not exactly the Titanic, but still. He says to me, It’s a lot rougher than I thought it would be, too! Well, OK, good. That’s settled, then.

All of a sudden somebody shouts. The whales are here! They’re right here! Their black backs are rising out of the sea, all around us, very close, and as we slow down to pass by them and among them, I catch a glimpse of a long, mottled flipper down through the water. The boat loses its headway. Now we’re swinging skyward on the crest of each big wave, and falling into the trough behind it, up and down like a seesaw. The whales don’t care, they keep on feeding and snorting and spouting. We wipe the rainwater out of our eyes and strain to see, and to remember what we’re seeing. Look, there’s a big whale tale, against the sky! Or am I just remembering a picture I’ve seen in some tourist magazine? This goes on for a while. And then, in a moment, they’re gone, as if they were never here. Where did they go? The wind picks up, and now so does the engine. The captain is making an arc, bouncing around through the waves, turning around to get us out of there and headed for home.

A lot of that is the version of the story about how grueling it was. And for the first time I’m going to tell, I’m going to tell you, the version of the story about how great it was. Because that’s the way to get unstuck, and keep everything moving forward. Because it was. It was a pretty good trip! Yes it was too cold and yes too rough and yes people got sick all over the place, but look at it. Are you gonna let that stuff get to you? Would you let that stuff ruin a good story? Would I? Things are seldom flawless, in case you haven’t noticed. It’s all about what you choose to emphasize, and let’s just say that I choose to emphasize the following:

One. We saw the whales, many of them, and up close. That doesn’t always happen.
Two. I saw unforgettable scenery.
Three. We all went out and we all came back.
Four. I might be exaggerating how grim the weather was.
Five. We had taken Dramamine before boarding and it worked.
Six. We had brought along a stainless-steel dispenser holding a quart of hot coffee. The hot drink kept us from getting cold, and I remember sharing some with other passengers.
Seven. We had bundled up, dressing in layers as if for a cold-weather hike.
Eight. A short time after we turned back and beat it for Gloucester, the rain clouds moved away to the east and the sun came out and pretty soon it was a brilliantly clear, warm afternoon, and people who had been shivering and sick came out and sat on the deck and soaked up the sun, and began to be restored.

Yes? Yes. So, seeing as how everything worked out in the end, that should be a lesson to me, right? Just hang in, and everything will be OK.

Yes, except, you know, that’s the last whale watch I’ve been on. The fact is, I avoid putting myself in that kind of position — confined for a long time to a limited space, among strangers, no exit ramp, and at the mercy of forces I can’t control. I don’t like it. I don’t like to take those kinds of risks. Strong feelings! So I’ve missed out on a lot, very much so, and my life is less rich than it could be. I tend remember the bad. That’s as much me as the color of my eyes. I accept that.

But I also accept how right it feels to come through something and feel so alive afterwards, like a new person, a different version of myself. And I can see it coming, just as I can see the spires and headlands of Gloucester on the horizon ahead, rising out of the ocean as the boat heads for home. I can’t see all of the mainland yet, can’t see the harbor either, but I know it’s there, I accept that it’s there, and that it will be good.