Turning Around

Turning Around 

A favorite sailing book of mine is Pete Goss’s  Close to the Wind.  It is the story of the famous British round the world racer’s valiant rescue of a competitor in the Vendee Globe race of 1996.  Hearing that he was the closest boat to Raphael Dinelli, a French sailor whose boat has capsized off Cape Horn, Goss turned his own boat around and into hurricane force winds of the Southern Ocean and successfully rescued Dinelli.  Goss rightly received both the Order of the British Empire from his Queen, and the Legion d’Honneur from the President of France.

My focus, however, is not on the awards ceremonies, but on those first moments when Goss considered what to do.  He wanted to win the race.  He had sponsors with real investments in his campaign.  But greater than either of these considerations, he had just sailed through that awful storm, eighty knots winds and thirty foot seas, and was almost in the clear . . . and now he was considering turning back.  The pain and nausea of going into such a maelstrom is almost beyond imagining.  Goss had plenty of good reasons to press on and hope another boat or plane could reach Dinelli.  Yet he turned back and sailed close to the wind for two damnable days of bone cold winds and chilling fear.   I have always wanted to think, after many miles on the open ocean and some storm stories of my own, that I could make Goss’s choice of turning back into the wind.  But I just don’t know.

It is one thing to go forward to something — a goal, a work completed, a homecoming – it is another thing all together to chose to turn back against the winds of progress and success, to recover something that should not be left behind or lost.  We are such “damn the torpedoes full steam ahead” beings.

So I was pedaling like crazy along the Thames bike path out of Reading making really good time towards Windsor Castle and a night of food and rest, if not in the Castle with the Royal Family, at least somewhere close by.  I had just stopped for a pint and a stuffed spud at a local pub.  Yum!  And now I was about 20 minutes further along approaching the Chilterns, those beautiful rolling hills between Oxford and London.  I decided to stop and take a picture of the approaching landscape.  And damnit! I had left my camera at the pub.  A dozen excuses came to mind for not turning back – I’ll call them later to send the camera, the camera didn’t cost that much anyway, I’ll loose an hour if I turn about, somebody’s probably stolen it by now anyway — then I turned around and went back.  Forty minutes later I was back where I was before turning around.  But obsessively, all the way to Windsor I chewed on the 60 minutes I had lost to turning around.  The Queen who was in residence – her flag was flying on the high round tower of the ancient fortress — did not confer the Order of the Empire on me.  Boo, MBE, sounds good to me, oh well.  Un-knighted, I took the train home to Oxford after a lovely Sunday longing around Eaton and Windsor. 

On Monday I biked (ouch legs!) into my college to print out some of my recent work on the book.  I printed out a copy of the new Introduction, then clicked to save that file and open my almost completed Chapter 3.  Unfortunately, I somehow over-wrote the Chapter 3 file with the new Introduction.  And the process begins again.  Denial is such a dependable first emotion.  Two days of work to repeat.  Two days lost when I only have 27 days left.  Two days of writing and rewriting, postponed by opening every damn folder and file for the fortieth time just in the hope that somehow I hadn’t been as stupid as I know I had.  And ultimately the decision to turn around.  Gathering my notes, I started writing again.

But here’s the weird thing . . . no matter how well I may do this second go at Chapter 3, I know it will never be as perfect and brilliant as what first I conceived.  Just out of my memory is prose that would make Hemmingway weep — lost, lost to all eternity!  (Just more excuses for not even trying to come about!)  Actually, it probably needed rewriting; but my mind will not accept this sagacious judgment.  I had just written the most insightful essay on Social Contract theory since Hobbes pinned Chapter XVII of The Leviathan 350 years ago.  And that electronic monster – The Cyber Beast, The Digital Dog, whoever — ate it!

I recall that one of my favorite professors at Davidson College fifty years ago had discovered a very insightful thing about turning around.  Dr. Workman’s study in experimental psychology was about rats and how they learn mazes.  What he discovered was pretty simple, but profound.  Rats only improve in the time it takes them to go through a maze if the cul ‘d sacs are narrow and therefore requiring them to learn the little trick of standing up and turning around at each dead end.  Dr. Workman enlarged the dead ends of the maze, and the rats didn’t improve at all.  They just ran around until, sooner or later, they found their cheese. 

QED: If you don’t learn to turn around, you will not improve.  Still sucks.

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