Parents: Can’t live with ’em; can’t tie ’em to a mast and set it to sea.
The whole thing is my fault, actually. Three years ago, I was on the phone with my dad one matte summer night in upstate New York. I related my half-baked half-dream to him, of buying a boat when I returned to L.A. and learning how to sail. I had started reading Moby Dick, and was seduced by the dense sloshy New England grayness of Melville’s whale-centric adventure. (I never finished the book.)
I was astray. My boyfriend broke up with me while I was traveling in Israel. I had no job prospects. I didn’t even have a return ticket to my hometown of Los Angeles. I was attending an Orthodox Jewish summer education program purely for the stipend they offered. Sailing away somewhere, preferably nowhere, seemed like the most productive pursuit at my disposal.
My dad seized my nascent dream. A sparkplug popped somewhere, and his aging cerebellum reset itself to “sail” mode.
He was 70, living out an un-notable existence as part of a retirement community in Palm Springs. Once upon a time, he’d been a successful patent attorney living in Beverly Hills. Now he was barely skirting by each month on disability payments doled out by the government for proving himself a bona fide type I manic-depressive. On the phone, he began reminiscing about sailing the Charles River while a grad student at Harvard, around ’63. I could hear his cerebral cortex churning a sea shanty: Way hey blow the man down!
My dream huffed and puffed—I did end up taking a few sailing lessons on my friend’s 27-ft Catalina when I made it back to L.A.—but the vision eventually blew itself out. Turns out, I don’t love sailing. I get cold. I get seasick. My blood runs the sunset orange of L.A., not the steely gray of Nantucket.
While my sea legs receded, my dad’s stretched out. Within a few months, his mind was made up: He would leave his apartment and live in his car so he could pour all his financial resources into his appropriated dream: Building a boat from scratch and sailing it around the world.
This December, when I first stepped foot in my dad’s “workshop”—a large storage facility in Indio, California, where he is building his 40-foot catamaran and companion dinghy—I navigated through senseless heaps of paper, photographs, tools, jugs of epoxy, empty McDonald’s coffee cups, planks of wood, clothes, books, boxes, a spinning globe. I squeezed between two half-finished boats, and ducked under makeshift plastic awnings. Things fell onto the ground as we waded through the mess. Jayne Mansfield danced on a TV tucked in the corner.
I scaled a homemade wooden table to get a better look at the boats-in-the-making.
“Take care not to impale yourself on anything,” warned my dad. “Seriously, there are a lot of sharp things lying around.”
The scene didn’t surprise me. All my dad’s spaces look like this: An erudite tornado. No one else in my family has ventured out to the workshop. Honestly, predictable expressions of insanity get as tiresome as predictable expressions of sanity.
“Are you writing this article to make fun of me?” my dad asks. I snap pictures of the space, almost afraid to shine a light on such incivility. “Did you get a shot of the map?” He points to what has to be the saddest map that anyone ever took the trouble of tacking up. “We could go east to Hawaii”—is “we” me and him?—“Then we could go down to the South Pacific…then around Cape Horn.”
My dad hasn’t been on a boat more than a handful of times in his entire life. He’s confident he can circumnavigate the planet—alone.
The boat is my dad’s White Whale. His mania and last leg standing tied up in a rusty bow. All conversations with him lead back to boat: His boat, boats he saw online, monohull v. catamaran v. trimaran, ancient Polynesian boat construction. He’s applied his monomania to various fascinations over his lifetime. It exasperates me. “You’re probably going to be the one to inherit these. Your brother says he doesn’t love boats.”
He went all in and isn’t coming back: My dad will either finish the boat and die sailing or die trying. It’s his Viking funeral. At 73, there’s only so much rope left to mete out. It’s not his first totally nutso-whacko project, but it’s destined to be his last. Give me some time to blow the man down!
Sleeping in his Lexus is wearing him down, even if it’s not the first time he’s called the car home sweet home. (Too) frequently he comes down to sleep on the floor of the apartment I share with my mom in L.A.; it must get hard sleeping in a seated position. I usually end up screaming after him until he leaves. Post-scream pangs of guilt are tempered with legitimate reasoning: He chose this life against the entire family’s wishes. He made his mobile bed, now he can sit in it.
At the retirement community where he was living before he decided to go Ahab, there was a pool and a rec room. Residents were served free Starbucks pastries every morning. He could lounge all day. “It was so boring,” he explains.
“Maybe this is a really stupid project,” he says after I explore the workshop. “But it really keeps me going.”
It’s taken me a while, but it finally dawns on me: A Viking funeral trumps death by daytime TV. Way hey blow the man down.