My girl

From the “don’t take life too seriously” department.
Dedicated to wreck divers everywhere of all generations.
(Warning: if you lack a sense of humor, in my rarely humble opinion, you are not a true wreck diver and should read no further…)

And there are ships afloat,
and ship’s a-wreck,
Ships without planking,
beyond wooden decks,

Ships so big they fill the sea’s sky,
Wrecks so deep they tempt all to die,
Cluttered passages stacked high with the dead,
Sharpened steel edges eager to shred,

Holds of oblivion dark as the sun,
The lingering brilliance of past flash of gun,
Littered with soulless, pitiless ghosts,
Enticing finned warriors, the most evil of hosts,

The dice are rigged; the game fully stacked,
Zero percentage of emerging intact,
the cocky young warrior pulls into the trap,
a Stygian hell with no help of a map,

The silence roars, blood coursing in ears,
Instinct demanding most primal of fears,
Raise the light slowly with finger on switch,
And with eyes fully open scream, “Gonna make you my bitch!”

With apologies to Ricky Bobby of the movie Talladega Nights for the rough paraphrase of his son – Walker’s – delicate praise of his father, “Dad, you made that grace your bitch.”

Clarity in purpose

The instinctual allure of clarity in purpose can lift the spirit to the pinnacles of human achievement or drop the soul into a pitiless hell, never hinting which direction until arrival. And maybe the direction doesn’t matter; maybe they represent identical experiences come full circle in life’s continuum.

War, in my opinion, is life’s clearest example of clarity in purpose, and examples are rife of fighting men and women climbing or falling down their unchosen paths. Despite the best efforts of political hacks and wonks of all persuasions in explaining away natural behavior, war in its purest form of evolved design alters the contrived complexity of everyday existence in the flash of a neuron:

Kill or be killed.

Straight-line logic, no explanation required, just the acts of a millisecond experienced in a place where time has no meaning. Purely honest, deeply and soulfully known: horrific, beautiful, simple – in a word, real.

How or why one arrives at this point is absolutely irrelevant, morality becomes dismissively quaint, time is meaningless, and millions of years of nature’s honing sharpen survival’s lance.

The moment ends as if never existing, and with crushing convention the weight of life’s rules and games creep and claw their return in full effect. But war is certainly not the only place to find such clarity in purpose. Myriad experiences might serve as host.

But one type of vehicle to arrive at clarity in purpose is different from all the others in basic substance: that which is chosen. The choice to search for laser-specific purpose might still come through war (mercenaries, lifer combat addicts, etc…), but also via venues of high adventure. To choose to go to this place, assuming any sense of what is being truly risked, might just explain one of the most enigmatic questions of why “extreme addict” climb the mountain, dive the dive, or jump the cliff.

Maybe it’s because, despite societies best efforts to put premium value on the complex and contrived, it is really the simple that we seek; the binary answer immediately, decisively, and unapologetic offered – kill or be killed; survive or die.

There is a word, one word that does justice to the instantaneous liberation and subjugation of the binary challenge – powerful. Perhaps so many misguided titans of industry have it backward: they seek power to determine the clarity of purpose, while it is really the other way around.

In the end, for those searching for answers, nouns – like “power” – won’t do the trick; they miss the point entirely. In my opinion, it is the adjectives, such as “powerful,” and used only in a description other than to one’s silly physical abilities, that might just steer us in the right direction.


Savage simplicity

Growing up for six years in Athens, Greece allowed me to spend a lot of time underwater long before first strapping on a dive tank. Free diving and spear fishing were starkly honest expressions of young adventures in body and spirit. Our family friend – Anastas – taught me how to do both at age ten.

Anastas lived nearby only in the sense that all English-speakers within five miles or so were loosely considered “neighbors” in the sprawling Athenian suburbs. Anastas was a World War Two hero, professional pensioner, and exhibited the obliquely idealized model of Greek manhood upon which the movie “Zorba the Greek” was based.

The first two descriptors of Anastas were never in doubt, and whether or not his consistently strident claim to Zorba’s bona fides was actually true, it certainly could have been true. Anastas overflowed with a passion for living. His favorite expression in self-taught English was “To be in life”: to live in the moment and wrestle the day’s chores with rippling biceps from obscurity with fervent energy as if his very life was dependent upon their completion. And maybe it did; he was in his late seventies at the time.

Move over Homer; Anastas was both actively living and telling his personal “true life” stories to all who would listen and many who wouldn’t (sound familiar?).

With no access to a scuba diving class until our return to New York, my obsessive routine of free diving was pure and free of internal conflict. Hours floating and miles of swimming and submerging tied each summer day into a cohesive package that was never long enough, but also seemed to strangely never end.

There was no option of a wetsuit, weights, gauges, dive bag, or real stringer, and none were missed. Never having experienced these luxuries meant putting them outside my realm of conscious thought. Armed with my trusty olive-oiled Balco double rubber-banded spear gun and a total absence of reluctance to swim to an often distant shore with the catch, my only other companions of gear were a simple mask, fins, basic snorkel and a bathing suit that might as well have been tattooed on.

Early on, my father had pulled me aside and asked that I snorkel closer to shore out of concern that he could not reach me in an emergency. He realized that he would still be compelled to try to affect a rescue, and would probably die in the attempt. I ignored him, never had an emergency, and he seemed to learn to live with the situation.

I relished the unfettered attitude of youthful certainty, a streamlined thought process that flowed effortlessly into a cleanly executed pike before slipping silently in a perfect vertical toward the bottom and my prey. Hiding in a crevice, the small (compared to Pacific Giant standards) octopus would lie still, barely exposing evidence of its presence from a rocky lair. With the bottom sixty feet below, I would repeat and repeat the free dives until the poor mollusk finally gave in and I could shoot to the surface, fighting the tentacles as they wrapped around my arm in an attempt to “bite” me with its sharp beak.

Occasionally the octopus was successful, but more often than not I won. I would reach behind the head, break through a membrane, and literally turn the octopus’s head inside out while aching lungs arched for the surface air. One move of my bare hand and the octopus would be gutted and still, the only evidence of life being the suction marks lining my arm as I broke the surface a few seconds later.

Not a very pleasant image and definitely not the sort of thing I would repeat today, but those were truly different times. We always ate the catch, and the method was taught by Anastas and was sanctioned by common usage. It was pure art in its savage simplicity.

During those years I also learned about human death, having witnessed while snorkeling back to the beach the immediate aftermath of two drownings as the victims were towed ashore. These crudely vital experiences proved to be life lessons so basic yet rarely found in today’s civilized America.

But my real dream was to become an actual scuba diver, with compressed air tanks and all the complicated attachments. At times, the impatient urge could physically hurt; hadn’t I proven myself, put in the time? But a dive class was not available, and it wouldn’t be until I turned seventeen that I became a true, Cousteau-ic diver in 1979.

All those years of free diving were hardly wasted, not in my proficiency as a “real” scuba diver, or as a part of my character. As we turn the corner past middle age, our search for increasingly complicated challenge can bypass the most simple and honest bars of actual achievement. Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it…

I regularly try to remind myself that today’s most basic goal attained is quite likely tomorrow’s crown of reflection and satisfaction. It helps to settle me. After all, it’s always been that way.