Friday, August 28, 2009

Sailing Through Time And A Bit Of The Timeless

The dog days of summer have put sailing in lethargic slow motion, and family stuff has taken me on a sometimes chaotic cruise, whipsawing through time. It has been a little like Billy Pilgrim (protagonist from Slaughterhouse Five, a novel by Kurt Vonnegut) becoming unstuck in time and experiencing his life non-sequentially.

It started in July when my ex-wife was cleaning out her roomy suburban house to downsize into a city apartment. Although I wanted no part of that mess, the occasional artifact was discovered and shared to revive memories of 35 years ago. I took the old trunk bought at a junk store in Montreal and a few of “her books” with the original price tag ($1.95) from the school I attended and she did not. In the most amicable divorce settlement I know of, the only contested items (and a long running joke among the family) were a few books that hard evidence proved I purchased. I took a few that were really hers as compensation, and she never begrudged that.

It continued with my dad’s visit. He has recently been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in spite of having absolutely no symptoms. In my head, time flashed forward to endings which I don’t want to think about, the end of the parental generation and of course my own end. I’m betting he outlives the standard prognosis by a factor of two or three. Maybe that’s denial.

The journey was through both time and space when we took my son back to college last week for his final year and his first apartment. He goes to school in Pittsburgh at my ex’s alma mater, down the street from mine. There was a 34 year gap between my leaving Pittsburgh and my son’s returning, and now I have likely made my penultimate return to a place where many of the threads of my life began. The city has reinvented itself since the death of the steel industry and is a real study in the contrast of the old and the new, the temporary and the timeless. The universities have grown and the steel mills have been replaced by upscale shopping districts and civic buildings. Most of the old shabby buildings sit side by side with wonderfully renovated houses and new development. The college bar where we discovered draft beer for a quarter is still there and looks the same.

Being a parent, setting up your son’s first apartment is like walking back and forth through doors 35 years apart. It sure is different for kids now. No more fill two suitcases and get dumped off at college. It’s a pick-up truck and a U-Haul trailer full of stuff to make sure junior is relatively comfortable. No more cinderblocks, beanbag chairs, and kids shopping at Goodwill and St. Vincent DePaul for couches covered with 50 years of dust. Now the whole family goes to Target and Dad puts a large dent in his credit card account. Being dead broke, scrounging, and making things out of castoff junk when having that first apartment is one of the more important experiences in life. And yet, I, like most parents, can’t bring myself to force that onto a child who has spent his whole life living in comfort, playing with toys not even imagined when I was his age. All the while, I’m pretty sure he is the poorer for being so much richer.

On the way out of town, we stopped for a few hours of the timeless. I told my wife that we can’t end our sojourns to Pittsburgh without her seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, arguably the finest house ever built and the greatest piece of American architecture ever conceived. It’s a building that led me to architecture school just from the pictures and a building that still suggests man can live harmoniously with nature despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is a masterpiece of artistic expression and a reminder of the wondrous creative capabilities of human beings at their best. Knowing Wright’s amazing and exceptional other work, it is still difficult to comprehend this leap of imagination, vision and creativity. This is a building completed in 1936 that is still modern today, 73 years later. It was created by a man 67 years old and still in the middle of his career. Linear time makes no sense at Fallingwater and never has.

And finally, today is the first day of a new high school sailing season. It all starts anew with a new crop of freshmen, some of whom have never sailed before. I am challenged to remember what it is like to have never sailed, and strangely, that is one of the time portals most difficult to re-enter.


  1. Good evening...

    Wandered over from Proper Course, saw "Pittsburgh" & oh boy have I got a stupid stupid stupid question for you.

    May I ask it anyways?