This picture of the Obamas with the first family of Spain has been all over the interwebs. In the darkest corners of the web it is even fueling the assertion that our president is the antichrist, devil-spawn who consorts with demons and devils. (Not to start a new rumor, but I heard the state department suppressed some of the pictures from later on this roll, when this happy group was captured actually stirring a cauldron).
But after my bashing of goth culture about a month ago all such photographs have become vaguely relevant, which of course is all we really need to get us going over here at antarcticiana. Looking at this image, I now regret my cruel dismissal of the black-clothed army of teenagers who favor maroon eyeliner and combat boots. Simultaneously hunchbacked, bashful, excruciatingly awkward, and 100% goth, the Zapatero daughters make adorable poster-children for teen angst. One just wants to give them a big hug and tell them that it is all going to be okay, that it would only take a couple of yoga classes, a popsickle, and a pair of comfortable sneakers to make everything right with the world.
Click the image to enlarge
Via Nina Katchadourian, on her facebook page.
Somehow a day has gotten lost in the shuffle. It must be that our brief sail on Narraganset Bay was yesterday, the tenth, because the 11th was a drizzly gray day filled only by sitting around doing nothing. I was unmotivated to go ashore in order to walk once again Newport's strip of t-shirt shops and salt-water taffy purveyors, this time in the rain. I've determined that if we don't make a move tomorrow I will abandon Anthony, who is perfectly capable of single-handing Salomé back to Westchester County on his own. This will make for a grim and unfulfilled bus trip back to New York, but I can't devote any more days to hanging about in Newport Harbor. I don't tell Anthony that I am considering bailing out, however, since I don't want to influence his decision about whether the weather is or isn't going to be appropriate tomorrow. We think the winds will have eased off a bit and large swells will continue, but the forecast still calls for possible thunderstorms and a small craft advisory. We pass the day eating most of the rest of the food to be found on board, so if we do sail tomorrow there won't be much to snack on except feta crumbs and cilantro stalks.
"Insert totally fake posed action photograph of the Captain here"
We decide to go for it and are up at 7, removing the sail cover and listening to the weather. The harbor is enveloped in fog. Our radar is not working, but the visibility seems to be about a mile and we conclude that we will probably be able to see any gigantic ships bearing down on us before it is too late. Moments later in Narraganset Bay a monumental Norwegian cruise liner powers its way in from the ocean, emerging out of the fog like a towering white skyscraper, but the image resolves in plenty of time for us to stay clear. Once at sea we are glad to observe a small flotilla of other sailboats heading west for Point Judith, suggesting that we are not the only boat to have decided that today is the day to make a move.
"That's just swell"
Bobbing in the mists, we find a nice breeze and are lifted gently over the rolling swells. These are a good six feet or more from trough to crest, but in no way intimidating. A friend has offered Anthony a free mooring and an evening of grilled vegetables far out on the north fork of Long Island, so we decide to head that way and get the train back into the city in the morning. The breezes are light, but at last we are sailing. After a few hours of slow progress we turn the radio back on and listen to the canned voice of NOAA, which promises steady north winds of ten knots in Long Island sound, blowing right the way through the night. On a sailboat slowly moving through the water there is little to do but endlessly plan and replan the immediate future, and speculate wildly about the more distant future ("My NEXT boat will be..."). If we can make it to "the race," the passage where the tide rips in and out of the sound, in time to catch some assistance from the current, we might just make it back to Mamaroneck, Salomé's home port, by around noon the next day. We determine to sail through the night, taking three hour shifts.
"Checking the trim"
Anthony calls and cancels the barbecue and breaks the grim news that if we are to have any chance of favorable tides we must now motor for a couple of hours. I go below to nap and sulk, refusing to come back above decks until Anthony announces that we are through the race and the engines are going off. The wind immediately picks up, as if to welcome our green initiative. Then it really picks up, just as the sun is going down, and we wonder what we have gotten ourselves in for. The wind is off the rear starboard quarter and we can't seem to find a sail trim that will help Salomé hold her course--sailing her demands constant attention and course correction, and suddenly we are moving quite fast. Soon it is dark. The fog has cleared, but the cloud cover is so low that the towns and villages of Long Island and Connecticut are capped with blurry orange smears. Already visible at the far end of the sound is the biggest orange glow of all, New York City, projecting itself into the sky. Sailing, alone, gripping the wheel in the stiff night breeze while Anthony sleeps down below, I daydream about a reversal of the discovery of the Americas, and imagine Indians arriving in the America of today for the first time. Sailing down the sound as we are, without the experience of electricity, and certainly without a motor, they could only conclude that both shores of the sound are on fire. We are honking, doing between six and a half and seven knots. If the winds hold like we will arrive in Mamaroneck at dawn. I go below at about nine, and when I come back on deck to relieve Anthony we have already reached Middle Shoal. The hours between one and four in the morning are magical. One tugboat passes to the north of us, pushing a barge east, but it is the only other traffic to be found. I do my best to keep the boat in the dead middle of the channel. The temperature is perfect. There is no sound but the wind and the boat carving through the black water. Soon I am able to take my course from the distant beaded pearls of the Throgs Neck Bridge. When Anthony comes on deck shortly after four we are less than two hours from home, already sailing waters he knows well, easily visited on a day trip out of the city. At 5:45 we are high-fiving and, the engine back on, motoring up on Salomé's home mooring.
View Newport to Mamaroneck Sail in a larger map
After squandering vast amounts of time on Google searches and html manipulations, I have finally figured out how to implant a google map from the awesome GPSvisualizer into this blog. Look forward to viewing countless interactive maps of journeys you may never wish to take, plotted in extravagant detail. Note that you may zoom in and out and look at the trip at whatever scale you like. You may also click on any of the points marking the journey to read more of my snarky comments.
Most photographs: Anthony Chase
Another morning in Newport. We're considering going for a sail in Narragansett Bay, just to relieve the boredom. Conditions on the outside are, to judge by the tyrannical monotone of the National Weather Service's automated voice, still on the edge; a small craft advisory, a gale warning, and seas "4 to 7 feet." The weather is glorious and breezy here on the mooring inside the harbor; the danger in these situations is to let tedium overtake good judgement. The wind here is an ideal ten to fifteen knots, straight out of the east, and if we were to find the same conditions outside it would make for a perfect day of sail, a brisk tailwind skimming us effortlessly towards Long Island Sound and home. Instead we are sitting in the cabin, listening to gentle creakings in the rigging, both of us in desperate need of a shower. Every few hours we listen to a pessimistic weather forecast that in no way seems to reflect our reality.
Captain Chase curled up with a good book
Photo: Evan Eames
I have exhausted my reading material and made it some way through the onboard selections. Now I'm waiting for Anthony to finish reading Richard Price's Lush Life. Sitting around waiting for someone else to finish reading a book, that's what it has come to. This morning, in desperation, I picked up The Decorative Arts of the Mariner. It is not what is known as a page-turner. This large, dull volume compiles the prose of a gaggle of retired British Lieutenants-Commander and nautical museum curators, all experts in their arcane fields of hobby-study. In his enthralling chapter on decorative rope and canvaswork, P.W. Blandford notes that this form's development "was probably due as much to the need for an answer to boredom as to any intention of creating a work of art." Because "periods of intense activity alternated with days when there was little or nothing to do... the worker was looking for something to pass the time and maintain his interest for the longest possible period."
There must be some old twine or cord hidden away somewhere on this boat....
After a brief but exhilarating sail on Narragansett Bay, with strong enough gusts to remind us why we fear the ocean, we head back to our Newport mooring for another dozy afternoon. New topics of conversation are elusive, so we compile a list of the ten worst boat names we have come across. It astonishes me that people will spend tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a yacht just to paint a painfully bad pun on her stern. Don't get me started on tattoos.
Here they are, in no particular order. Should you happen to own a boat with one of these trite, hackneyed or otherwise painful names, apologies in advance for the disrespect.
The author on the starboard bunk, showing some gut, maintaining some perspective, and trying to remain patient by reading Adlard Coles' Heavy Weather Sailing, several hundred pages of small craft horror stories.
Photo: Anthony Chase
The ferry east from Boston to Provincetown today crosses a calm and silvery sea. On the PA system the ship's concierge announces ideal conditions for the crossing, "not like the past couple of days." He means that it is calm and windless. The hapless sailboats we pass in the harbor have given up their hopes for an exciting labor day sail, and they motor, with bare poles. This is as might be expected, since I am en route to meet Captain Anthony Chase and sail his boat, Salomé, back to New York City with him. My visits to that vessel have with extraordinary frequency been plagued by calm. Anthony and I have spent many afternoons together in Long Island Sound staring at a slack sail in dismay and watching bits of seaweed drift beside us, keeping pace as we bob, wakeless, praying for wind. I'm surprised still to be invited along, so consistently have I brought this sailor's curse along with me. Anthony and I both hate to start the engines, but we are usually forced to when the longed for late afternoon breeze invariably fails to materialize. The sheet of glass that is this morning's Bay of Massachusetts, and the immobile cottony balls of cloud pasted against the sky suggest that this trip will be no different.
Evan and Ant pick me up in Provincetown for the drive down the Cape to Wellfleet, where Salomé sits on a mooring. They made the trip north last week, during which Anthony left me not one but two breathless messages of the "you don't know what you are missing" variety, describing deliciously favorable and constant winds, resulting in entire days spent scooting along on a "broad reach" without even the dimmest memory of even having an engine to turn to ever intruding into their delighted minds.
On board we optimistically remove the sail covers and then fire up the motor. Ostensibly this is to help us navigate the counter-intuitive zig-zag channel out of Wellfleet Harbor, but one glance at the pancake sea and I have no doubt that we will be burning fuel all afternoon. Anthony calls his wife, Nini, who does the majority of the landlubbing in the marriage. "Well," he says, "to be honest, we're motoring." He graciously avoids blaming this unhappy state of affairs on me. "Loooooosers...," replies Nini, and I picture her sitting in the country kitchen of her Catskills farmhouse, gleefully making the "L" sign with thumb and forefinger, and holding it up to her forehead. The afternoon is calm as we diesel across the placid pond of the Bay of Massachusetts. The water is flat. How flat? The stunningly round tomato I will soon chop into the the codfish ceviche rests solidly on the cockpit table, tremorless.
Yesterday ended with a long, slow slog through the Cape Cod canal, which connects the Bay of Massachusetts with Buzzard's Bay and points south, saving mariners the danger and distance of going all the way around the outside of Cape Cod over treacherous and shifting banks. Arriving at the canal's northern mouth just at slack tide, we opted to press through and find a harbor for the night. It is an impressive feat of labor intensive engineering, but the canal also serves as a pressure valve of sorts for the tides flooding in and out of Buzzard's Bay. Soon we were motoring against the flood, four knots of current charging straight at us down the narrow channel. We slowed to a crawl.
The sun went down, and it was dusk. The pedestrians out for an evening constitutional on the canal towpaths at first kept pace with us, and then began to overtake us. Not a few glanced over at us in puzzlement, perhaps wondering why we were sitting still in an active shipping channel. Then it got dark, and they could no longer see us.
Finally through, we found a mooring at Onset harbor. We enjoyed ceviche, and miso-marinated grilled cod, enjoying the culinary aspect of the sailing lifestyle, even if we had yet to do any actual sailing. In the morning a dead calm, much like the day before. Rather than subject you to more of the same, here is a short poem I've written to sum up the continuation of our journey:
Oh, glassy tedium
Oh, unwrinkled sheet
Of gently undulating mercury,
Stretched out beneath the leaden skies
The flaccid canvas hanging
Limply from the poles
Implies a long dull day
Of gentle chugging
A sailor's ambivalence
Drowned out by the steady throb
Our excitement at finally watching the sails fill with wind yesterday afternoon--a lazy five to ten knot breeze that gave us just enough of a torpid push to justify turning off the engine--was tempered with anxiety at the weather forecast. Since we were barely moving along through the gentle ripples on the surface, the prospect that today would see fifteen to twenty knot winds, gusting up to thirty, five foot seas, and a "small craft advisory," seemed unlikely, almost absurd, but the sailor who ignores the weather forecast is a fool, and we headed into Newport to sit it out. It is sunny and breezy. No boats are moving in and out of the harbor, and the advertised gusts have us rolling and swinging in the mooring field. There is little to do but organize the tool boxes, eat granola and imagine that outside the harbor it would be just about sailable, but risky, the kind of conditions in which a minor mishap or problem might easily spiral out of control. The wind whistles through the rigging, and the sound of slapping halyards on boats moored upwind carries far over the water. I fantasize about being out at sea, and wonder when it will be time for the next snack.
Mario's disaffection for the police force and his perennially postponed aspirations to become a writer of "squalid and moving" tales leads him inexorably into a new career as a used book dealer. It is a brilliant choice of destiny on the part of Padura Fuentes, whose detective novels always transcend their genre. For the used book-seller in Cuba is not the enthusiastic recycler of ideas and the noble guardian of our literary heritage that we sometimes imagine him to be here. (Yes, we are also familiar with the drooling ambulance chaser, picking through the estate like a crow nibbling at fresh roadkill). In Cuba, to be a used book dealer means that one is an active participant in the exportation of the country's culture, history, and patrimony. A looter, a defiler. No Cuban wanders the bookstalls of the Plaza de Armas in Havana with the wads of dollars needed to take home a musty, leather-bound tome. The client, everyone knows, is an extranjero, a visitor who will put that priceless volume in a suitcase and spirit it away, out of the country, forever.
Padura Fuentes, whose work I've written about before, is only getting better at stacking multiple layers of meaning within the basic structure of the noir crime novel. Havana Fever, as the UK-based Bitter Lemon Press regrettably insists on calling their translation of La Neblina de Ayer (the mists of yesterday), presents, like all of its precedents, at least one robust mystery to be solved, but the novel manages all at the same time to be a look back at the evolution and devolution of the revolution; an ode to books both as objects imbued with aura and repositories of wisdom, history, and inspiration; a chronicle of a ruined family and its satellite members; and a revelation of contemporary Cuban life.
It is tempting, although perhaps excessive, to see in the vicissitudes of Mario Conde's progress a metaphor for the revolution itself. He is getting old, and is not as indestructible as he once was. The hangovers once cured with a shower and some thick, cheap home-brewed coffee now linger long into the grim day. He has grown skinny from scarcity and may be willing to do things he shouldn't, and once wouldn't have, to ensure his own survival. In Havana Fever even his trust in his own atheism has grown shaky:
Conde had come to suspect that the blend of aging and disillusion overwhelming his heart might finally cast him back, or just return him, to the fold of those who find consolation in faith. But the mere thought of that possibility irked him: the Count was a fundamentalist in his loyalties, and converts might be contemptible renegades and traitors, but re-conversion verged on the abominable.
In this novel he is battered, beaten to a pulp and left almost for dead, but he refuses to throw in the towel. Once, he was the most incorruptible of police officers, and then the most honest and plain-talking of book dealers, but the end of this thriller will find him stashing away a cache of Cuba's most prized publications on his modest personal shelf. And weeping.
I'm going to leave many of Padura Fuentes' plot threads unpicked, in the hopes that you will seize the moment and read Havana Fever for yourself. I'll reveal nothing of the elusive bolero-singing seductress who disappeared from the nightclub stage just as the revolution was dawning, nor of the wealthy, handsome Batista-hating Meyer Lansky crony who flew off to Miami, leaving behind a spectacular library but no forwarding address. Once one really starts to appreciate what Padura Fuentes is up to, the lurid details of the actual plot are merely a fine veneer on the surface of dense layers of allegory.
Let's concentrate on the library, and the books. The logical extension of Mario's career is that he quests after libraries; his livelihood depends on those same skills with which he once solved crimes, except that now he concentrates on locating fresh supplies of ancient texts. It is a difficult task. When I was in Cuba in 2001, walking through the island, I had the impression that already every last stick of antique furniture, every jeweled brooch, every Tiffany lamp and every mahogany mantelpiece had already been removed from the country. The woman at whose bed and breakfast I lodged in Havana had a regular client from Italy who specialized in buying diamonds passed down through the generations, stepping in whenever necessity overwhelmed nostalgia. He did not visit while I was there, but nonetheless a neighbor came around once, in the hopes that someone, anyone, might purchase her mother's wedding ring. It was a squalid and moving moment. Padura Fuentes conveys the dismal dynamics of this Havana used trade with pathos and economy: Conde, standing before a grand but tattered mansion he somehow has never noticed before, imagines that "someone must have already beaten him to it, because that style of edifice was usually profitable; past grandeurs might include a library of leather-bound volumes; present penury would include hunger and despair, and that formula tended to be a winner for a buyer of second hand goods."
The brother and sister who inhabit this house, in which Mario Conde discovers the ultimate library, have already sold off “the noble bone china dinner services, repoussé silver, chandeliers...,” and it is only because of a solemn, fifty-year old pledge that the books still exist. But there they are, untouched except for their ritual biannual dusting.
The reverence with which Padura Fuentes has Mario Conde enter that chapel of reading and savor the spines of those all-but mythical volumes rivals the bibliomaniacal inventions of Jorge Luis Borges. Not since the Argentine master has a library been this breathtaking, important, and charged. Naturally, it is in this place that the clues to two murders await revelation. But here also is inscribed the entirety of Cuba and, perhaps, much of the author’s personal cosmogeny. Mario immediately spots the Alphabetic Index of Demises in the Cuban Liberation Army “from its rare 1901 single printing in Havana,” and The Coffee Plantation, which “Conde’s fingers caressed even more lingeringly.” These are apparently real, rare, books, but their titles alone illuminate the march of Cuban literature and history, from sugar and coffee to slavery and rebellion. Here, too, is a first edition of “El Negrero,” (The Slave Trader), by Lino Novas Calvo, which I bought a couple of months ago in a painfully crumbly acidic paperback edition from an online bookseller in Venezuela, because Padura Fuentes recommended it in a 2004 "ten best" novels list. This is not the only cross-reference to the Cuban writer's other work: The previous Mario Conde novel, Havana Black, opens with two quotes. The first, from J. D. Salinger, reveals the forgotten (by me, at least) template for Conde's now five-novel predilection for all that is "esqualido y conmovedora." "I'm extremely interested in squalor," Esme tells Salinger's narrator. Now, in Havana Fever, the battered Conde, during a semi-conscious reverie as close as Padura Fuentes has yet veered towards the postmodern, encounters Salinger in an orange jumpsuit, and castigates him for no longer writing. The second quote is from José María Heredia and relates to that feeling of grim but almost sexual anticipation for the onslaught of an impending hurricane, a theme Padura Fuentes has repeatedly made his own, but which also constitutes a pivotal moment in Alejo Carpentier's Explosion in a Cathedral, suggesting that the tense and frantic waiting for a deadly but purifying cyclone constitutes an essential aspect of the Cuban character. On the last page of Fever, it is a thin but priceless volume of Heredia's poetry that Conde gives to his beloved. As usual, it's all about the reading.