As I was walking the High Line in New York this week—not because it’s terribly fashionable right now, but because I am a fan of old railroads and especially of gardens—my girlfriend was eager to find a good place on that elevated park path from which we could view a sailboat come up the river.
On this three-masted schooner was a man who had just spent a thousand days aboard his vessel alone without touching land or resupplying or seeing another person. To her, this sounded intensely romantic and wonderful. What an accomplishment! To me, it sounded pointless. Thor Heyerdahl’s 1940s adventure across the Pacific in his big raft, Kon-Tiki, proved to modern man that ancient man was capable of staying alive on the ocean in a tiny craft for thousands of miles. I do not see why this modern guy doing something only slightly different—and not to follow an ancient path and thus explain the history of a people’s migration—has a lot of meaning.
But then, I am one who uses automatic transmission, instead of seeking out cars that don’t drive as smoothly because they have manual transmission. I also like hot showers, indoor plumbing, central heating, and yes, on occasion, even air conditioning. This does not make me a namby-bamby city girl. I mow my own lawn, use my own chain saw to cut down small trees, and I am very familiar with my shovel. (After last winter’s four feet of snow, too familiar.) I still don’t think that sailing away from everything for a thousand days proves anything. Although this guy was lucky to miss the winter we had this year.
Flash forward to the news article that my still-excited girlfriend sent an e-mail about. She also included the terribly romantic news that at the dock, to greet the man, was his wife/girlfriend and his two-year-old son. Do the math. The kid was a known reality before the guy left, but he left anyway. What a convenient plan to avoid changing a single diaper or doing even one 2 AM feeding.
People have suggested that women have always waited for their men to return from the sea, and men who came back from long whaling trips did inevitably greet children they had not previously met. Men who come back from Iraq or Afghanistan do the same. Ah, but sailing around the world on a schooner just to do it is a far cry from going fishing in order to earn the money to support your family, or from serving in the military in a foreign war. I am reminded of a man who died climbing Everest, who left behind a wife and a tiny baby. At the time he attempted his climb and died, I thought he was a selfish fool. I still think that. Everest has been climbed. Been there, done that. For the last fifty years. Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, conquered Everest in 1953. Even so, other men have lost their lives since trying to emulate them, and this man who died recently left a child who will never know his father. He’ll get told the legend of how strong and brave and adventurous his father was, but he’ll never have that man around to do all the things that a father can and ought to do for his child. Why do men do this? Deliberately get their women pregnant before going off to do battle with whatever. Because that’s definitely a common theme. The difference is that in these cases I’m citing, the men left entirely of their own free will, setting out to accomplish absolutely nothing.
I wonder how soon the thousand-days man will get restless again and want to take off for somewhere else? Since he’s obviously quite the publicity hound (you’ll notice how carefully I have not mentioned his name; I am not helping him get any more famous), it will surely be soon. What a pity. His child may grow up thinking he isn’t as strong or as manly as his father, with a hole in his heart where his father’s love should be. The kid will be so wrong, just as the man himself is wrong about what is important in life.
My point of view is entirely intimate, you see. Many people would say that a life in which all you could look back on was successful domesticity was a life lived almost as an animal. They would say that larger-than-life achievements such as climbing mountains or sailing around the world alone are what make us different from and better than mere animals. They would have me consider how an old person would feel if all he had to look back on was having raised children affectionately, instead of having performed great feats of daring. My answer is that I think being an active, present parent is a great feat of daring in and of itself. So many men cop out on it. They plant the seed and vanish. They run away from the core of existence, which to my mind is not battling the elements, but being as close as possible to the people we love.