The Thing About Jill

As many of you reading this surely know, I am engaged to be married to a lovely English woman named Jill whom I met three years ago while traveling in London. Since that time a lot of water literally has passed under the keel for both of us, as we acquired and patched up a simple old boat and sailed her by ourselves from France to the New World. Two of the last three years have been spent rubbing along together at sea and in various idyllic anchorages in the warm and sunny West Indies.

Following in the wake of Columbus, we made the wonderful discovery that we love each other, get on quite well, and would like to spend the rest of our lives together. Toward that end I have begun the long, slow march to British citizenship, and we have planned our march to the altar (as best anyone can make an altar of a rowing club on the Thames) for the 20th of October.

It was in service of our wedding plans that we met two months ago with our lovely and wise friend Linda Donnelly, the celebrant who will extract (one hopes) an emphatic “I Do” from each of us in the presence of more than a hundred friends and family. Linda is a much-sought-after wedding minister, and part of her charm is the personal touch she adds in saying something meaningful about the bond that holds two people together in the ageless institution of marriage. Quite naturally, then, during our planning meeting last summer she asked each of us to send her a short statement of what makes the other person unique compared to all the other lovers and partners we have ever known. At that time we we were due in three weeks to begin a 500-mile pilgrimage on foot along the ancient Camino de Santiago in northern Spain (where I sit as I write these words). Jill dutifully composed and sent her statement to Linda before we left. I, despite posing as the writer in the relationship, procrastinated with my assignment for months, rolling it over in my mind each day as I trudged mile after mile through mountains, little towns, lush vineyards and along the sun-baked, dusty paths of the Camino. It would have been easy enough to dash off something pithy and charming and sweet, but I hesitated, and I wasn’t sure why. Then, one day it hit me.

I was standing in a place famously known to Camino pilgrims as the Cruz de Ferro, the “iron cross.” Here at the highest point along the 500 miles of the Way of St. James from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, a tall cross stands atop a mound of small stones. The stones have been left there in the hundreds of thousands by pilgrims who carry them on the Camino to symbolize a particular burden, often some grief or sadness or self-doubt or anger, they wish to let go.

The stone I left behind at the Cruz de Ferro symbolized my deep, gnawing sadness over my only daughter Caroline, now 26, who has refused to see me or speak or write to me for nearly five years. In that time and in my absence she has graduated from college, married a fine young man, and brought into the world a grandson I have never met. Like so many daughters of so many angry and embittered ex-wives, she felt compelled to choose sides in the ugly aftermath of the divorce that ended my 26-year marriage to her mother twelve years ago. Caroline is my heart’s delight and the reason I climbed up to the iron cross, but my sadness and Caroline’s disappointment in me are not the point of this story.

As I laid my stone on the pile, I prayed for the grace to let go of my grief but vowed never to let go of Caroline. The reason for the difference, of course, is that a father’s love for his children does not depend on their love for him. Nor does it depend on them having pleasing personalities or admirable traits of character or the right opinions, qualities, attitudes, or allegiances. It doesn’t pale with time or rejection. Long before I watched each of them enter the world, before I first held their pink, curling hands and hurriedly counted all their fingers and toes, I loved my children unqualifiedly and unconditionally because they are a part of me and I am a part of them.

When I dropped Caroline’s stone on the pile, without aforethought I decided to pick up another to symbolize the new burden I was gladly undertaking for the rest of my life—namely, the promise to care for and comfort, love, honor and defend the woman standing beside me on that mound of rocks. The perfect stone appeared to me at once as if by providence. What made it perfect was not its shape but its many colors and its smoothness. In that moment I realized at last my answer to the wedding celebrant’s question.

It is certainly true that Jill is nothing like any other woman I have ever loved in ways almost too numerous to mention. She rides on an even keel. She goes with the flow. She’s plenty stubborn but never cross or curt. She’s more than a little game for adventure. She has a list a mile long of food she won’t eat, but she always wants half of whatever I’m having. Little things don’t upset her apple cart. She’s not overly into money and “stuff.” She tends to old friends like heirloom roses and grows new ones like daisies. She doesn’t see sexuality and femininity as mutually exclusive realms. But I don’t love her, nor did I resolve to marry her, because of these qualities. It is also certainly true that Jill loves me with more honest, genuine affection and devotion than every other women I have ever known, but neither is that the chief reason I want to marry her. I didn’t propose to her because she possessed new features or capabilities or improvements lacking in the women I had known before, as one might choose a new vacuum cleaner or lawn mower.

Jill and I came together in the usual way through the fireworks of mutual attraction, but it’s what happened afterward that really tells our tale. Like small stones rendered smooth from countless small abrasions, we rubbed along together through storms both material and ethereal and came out the other side so well accustomed to each other’s ways, so reliant on each other’s touch and reassurance and laughter and friendship, that the question of “what attracts” me to Jill now seems almost unanswerable. Her many wonderful qualities, like her physical beauty, are something I find lovely and fascinating but not essential. My bond with her is something at once obviously different from but in important ways very similar to the bond I feel for my children. It is not founded in merit or mutuality but in love—and true love, it seems, has rendered me incapable to engage in the cold, objective analysis of a beauty pageant where Jill is concerned. Jill wins my vote for the title of Miss Universe by acclamation because . . . because, well . . . because she’s the only woman in the universe as far as I can tell.

And a girl can’t get any more unique than that.


Why I Changed My Mind About Abortion

If you had met me thirty years ago, you would have encountered a rather self-assured fellow with a clear vision of the moral landscape in which he lived. Steeped in dialectics at a Jesuit law school and possessed of the trademark zeal of a convert to the faith, I volunteered to teach religious confirmation classes to public-school kids in my Catholic parish and lead youth group discussions.

On the subject of Roe v. Wade, I equipped young people with the tools to argue against the idea that abortion is not really the murder of a human being. It was an easy fight. After all, seeking to fix a point at which a continually developing fetus becomes “human” on the presumption that, until then, it can be destroyed without the moral qualms that must ensure its safekeeping thereafter, is a fool’s errand. On that field of battle the god of science was always squarely on the side of the Church. The DNA of a fetus in the first minute of life is not just fully formed but set in stone, as it were, containing all the genetic markers of humanity that the adult will carry to the grave. The argument that humanity does not vest until the point during pregnancy when a fetus becomes “viable,” meaning that it can survive outside the womb, seemed equally absurd. Coma patients are kept alive only by external measures, yet no doctor in the land would pull the plug on a patient expected to awake healthy and well in exactly nine months’ time. Few people—least of all expectant parents from the very moment they get the happy news that they are pregnant—would accept the notion that the ability to live without help from others is the sine qua non of a child’s human dignity.

Despite this flawed logic, the majority in Roe v. Wade chose the criterion of fetal viability to establish but also limit to the first trimester a woman’s absolute right to terminate a pregnancy. Conflating humanity and viability was nothing more than a rhetorical fig leaf. Crafted in an era of dawning sexual freedom, it was driven not so much by any social or scientific consensus on what makes us human as by the political will to ensure safe and legal access to abortion for newly liberated middle class women. Yet, by conceding that society must take pains not to destroy a viable fetus, the Roe majority uneasily affirmed that human life, with its attendant rights of citizenship under our constitution, necessarily begins at some point before birth. But when, exactly? This was the briar patch into which the pro-life movement happily dove and where it has thrived for the past fifty years.

For my confirmation students, the legal argument was more easily grasped: Our constitution guarantees equal protection under the law to every human being. As once explained with characteristic common sense by President Reagan, as long as there is reasonable disagreement and doubt on the question of when human life begins, the benefit of the doubt must go to the one who will suffer the greatest and most irreparable harm should we decide the question unjustly. It was all so terribly obvious. Then one day, the landscape of the abortion debate shifted for me.

I was in Durham, North Carolina, defending an obstetrician accused of malpractice for failing to order an emergency C-section soon enough to save  the life of a pre-term infant. The evidence showed that the mother had suffered a placental abruption that was unknown to her doctor when she went into labor dangerously early. The placenta is the membrane that forms in the wall of the uterus during pregnancy and through which maternal blood carrying oxygen and nutrients is delivered to the fetus. A placental abruption is a complication in which the placenta pulls away from the uterine wall. The subsequent bleeding slowly deprives the fetus of the normal flow of maternal blood and oxygen, causing distress in the form of contractions, pain, and fluctuations in fetal heart-rate and rhythm that can mimic what occurs during ordinary labor, making diagnosis difficult. This mother suffered a particularly insidious form of abruption known as a Couvelaire uterus, in which the bleeding remains contained within the uterine wall and thus hidden from detection by ultrasound.

The mother’s medical records revealed that she was a heavy smoker who had been warned that continued smoking would endanger the life of her baby. In a routine deposition, she admitted she continued to smoke during pregnancy. She further admitted she had been counseled on the harmful effects of smoking during pregnancy and had chosen to smoke anyway.

After examining tissue specimens of the mother’s placenta, a pathologist made our defense chillingly clear: Smoking damages blood vessels. The damage is immediate and becomes irreparable with continued smoking and repeated injury to the vessel walls. Seen under a microscope, the vasculature in this mother’s placenta looked like the plumbing in a hundred-year-old house, with damaged, broken and leaking veins diverting life-giving blood away from the baby. The expert testified it was a reasonable medical certainty the mother’s smoking had proximately caused the abruption and resulting death of her child.

When the case went to trial, the judge was understandably reluctant to ask the jury to decide whether the mother’s negligence contributed to the death of her child. Negligence presupposes a duty of care. In the era of Roe v. Wade, would it be constitutional to find that the mother had a legal duty to protect the life of her unborn child and had sacrificed her legal rights by failing to do so? After wrestling with this dilemma for three days, the judge submitted the issue of the mother’s conduct to the jury but informed the lawyers privately that he would set aside any verdict based on a finding of maternal negligence and let the Court of Appeals decide what duty, if any, the mother had.

In the end, the question was moot. The jury decided that the doctor was not liable for the death of the child, as a result of which they never reached the issue of the mother’s behavior. But the questions raised by the child’s death lingered with me.

It remains in my view the correct interpretation of settled law, even under a regime of abortion rights, that a mother cannot recklessly injure her unborn child with one hand and, with the other, collect damages from her doctor for failing to save the child from that very injury. But that’s not the point of my story. This case in Durham made me consider deeply for the first time the profound impracticality of regarding an unborn child as a citizen with rights and privileges inapposite to the rights and privileges of the citizen in whose body the child lives. Banning abortion is about protecting unborn children, but if a mother can abort or seriously harm her child through indifference to prenatal health (smoking being just one example), how far, practically and morally speaking, are we prepared to intervene in the daily lives of women of child-bearing age to protect the unborn? If we invest all unborn children with full rights of citizenship, the answer would seem to be, “As far as we would go to rescue someone from a burning building.” In other words, as far as it takes. But have we really considered what dramatic changes that would portend for our society?

The troublesome biological reality that the pro-life movement would have courts overlook is that during pregnancy, mother and child stand before the power of the State not as two persons but one. The State cannot champion the rights of unborn children without curtailing the rights of millions of women and relegating them, for a substantial portion of their lives, to a second-class citizenship with towering civic duties unknown to men and wildly more invasive than most of us in our everyday lives would tolerate government to demand.

We could stipulate that every fetus is a human child, that saving the lives of unborn children is an unquestionable good, and that to kill them is an unspeakable evil, and still come no closer to a resolution of this controversy. If choosing goodness over evil were the only criterion of sound policy, the debate would end there. But of course it doesn’t end there. What makes public policy “public” is that we collectively consent to the use of force, if ultimately necessary, to see it carried out. We must decide whether the goodness we seek can be achieved in a world that sanctions the threat of official violence and the use of brute force to compel women to give birth against their will. Stated more plainly, the public question is not merely whether to choose life over death, but whether we shall create a society in which uniformed officers carrying night sticks and handcuffs force women to choose as we command.

It is one thing—and to be sure, no small thing—to insist that women who are unhappily pregnant endure, by government coercion, nine months of gestation followed by the extraordinary physical and emotional trauma of childbirth. But as the case in Durham so tragically revealed, any honest argument that the State has a constitutional duty to protect the unborn child against violence must concede that the job doesn’t end with criminalizing abortion. After all, a six-year old deprived of clean clothes and a loving home is in no danger of death but will still be swiftly separated from his mother by child protective agencies. How does the State uphold its duty when the victim cannot be separated from the body of a mother who smokes, drinks, eats too little or too much, or fails to adhere to a plan for adequate prenatal care?

Abortion is only one means by which children in the womb are brutalized. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, children whose mothers fail to obtain prenatal care are three times more likely to be born underweight and five times more likely to die.[i]

In view of these sobering facts, the justice that would be demanded by fetal citizenship is as obvious as it is ominous: a vigilant State would not merely criminalize abortion but also deeply intrude upon the daily lives of expectant mothers—pressing its will by force and incarceration if necessary—whenever there is probable cause to believe the mother’s lifestyle may be unhealthy for her unborn child. And what of those fetal-citizens whose mothers may injure them unawares in the critical first weeks of pregnancy? To avoid the needless death or deformity of a single child, should not a vigilant State require all women of child-bearing age to submit regularly to pregnancy tests and present proof of their reproductive status before they are served alcohol or sold cigarettes or certain medications?

Those too young to consider seriously the possibility of such pervasive government intrusion into the lives of women would do well to brush up on their history. Until 1965, when the Supreme Court in a split-decision in Griswold v. Connecticut found that a fundamental right of marital privacy was implied in the Bill of Rights, it was a crime in the state of Connecticut for anyone to use any drug or device to prevent conception. Absurdly, that meant that a police officer with probable cause to believe that a husband and wife were committing the crime of having sex while using a condom could arrest them and demand that the condom be removed. Until the Supreme Court decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, twenty-six states still prohibited the sale of contraceptives to unmarried persons. Now imagine a world in which the womb of an unwilling mother-to-be is legally no different than the underground cave in which those Thai boys were famously stranded, deserving to be safely extracted by their government at any cost. How many doctors and neighbors would wish to serve in a network of informants telling the police who may be pregnant, who is smoking, who is drinking, and who isn’t taking her prenatal vitamins? America is already a country where parents can go to jail if neighbors see their adolescent child playing alone in a city park. A new prenatal Gestapo could be the well-intentioned but Orwellian outcome of a pro-life movement determined to invest unborn children with the rights of citizenship that would make abortion a crime.

Of course, it is one thing to say that a woman shall no longer have a constitutional right to abortion, another to say a fetus shall have a constitutional right to life. A future Supreme Court wishing to overturn Roe v. Wade could do so without having to go that extra mile.  Roe v. Wade took from the states the authority to criminalize abortion. A future Supreme Court could give it back to them on the grounds that there is nothing in the Bill of Rights that prohibits such a law, and on that basis find that the Roe majority was wrong, fifty years ago, to infer otherwise.  In the wake of such a decision, abortion at least for a time would be outlawed in some states and not in others. The battle would eventually return to the high court when some state passed a law recognizing a woman’s access to abortion in that state as a constitutional right—something no state has needed to do since Roe made that decision for all states in 1973.  This would set up a legal challenge exactly in reverse of the one mounted by Jane Roe.  Instead of a woman seeking the right to abort her baby, the plaintiff would be an unborn child seeking the right to life. At that point, the Supreme Court would have to decide whether and when an unborn child becomes, at some point during gestation, a citizen protected by our constitution.

Admittedly, no one can be sure that a criminal justice system of prenatal surveillance would necessarily follow the creation of a fetal right to life. There are obvious enforcement problems, and state governments weren’t terribly concerned with criminalizing prenatal neglect back when abortion was still a crime (although we know a lot more about prenatal injury now than we did then). But what would it say about the pro-life argument if we were asked to believe that concerns about pre-natal surveillance in a post-Roe America are unfounded? If you believe a fetus in the womb is a human child deserving of the protections of citizenship and you acknowledge the many ways in which an indifferent or unwitting mother can pose a mortal danger to the citizen in her womb, why wouldn’t you demand a law-enforcement regime of prenatal surveillance? To suggest otherwise would seem to lend credence to the feminist view that the pro-life movement, cheered loudest by a Catholic priesthood that has shown widespread contempt for the safety of vulnerable children and a Republican Party that champions the death penalty, has less to do with saving lives than turning back the clock on societal changes that have upended traditional roles for women.

Finally, some would say that dystopian images of a post-Roe America as something out of The Handmaid’s Tale are overwrought. Such politicians and public figures are careful to direct their animus not against expectant mothers but rather the doctors and clinics comprising the abortion industry that, in this country alone, receives over a billion dollars annually for its services. At a town hall meeting on March 30, 2016, candidate Donald Trump was swiftly condemned for initially stating that “there has to be some form of punishment” for a woman who has an abortion. His campaign later issued a retraction, stating that only doctors and clinics, not mothers, would be punished if abortion were outlawed. A great many other politicians (and, no doubt, many of the people at pro-life marches) share this sympathetic view. Like Trump, they have given little thought to the possibility that what they advocate could lead to the criminal prosecution of millions of young women.

Making a distinction between abortion providers and expectant mothers might be good politics, but it is hardly clear that such a distinction would be tenable in a legal system that recognizes a constitutional right to life for the unborn. Our constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, meaning chiefly that laws cannot be enforced arbitrarily against some groups but not others. What we say is a crime for one must be a crime for all.  We could not send one man to prison for murder while refusing to prosecute another because he happens to be the victim’s father. Likewise, we could not imprison a doctor for the crime of abortion while exonerating the mother who instigated, authorized and participated in the crime. The first argument of the doctor prosecuted under such a system would be that he is being denied his constitutional right to equal protection under the law. If the law protects the mother from prosecution, it must also protect the doctor. If we prosecute the doctor for murder, we must also prosecute his accomplice.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of millions of Catholics, Christians, and faithful members of all religions who may dream of the day when a Justice Kavanaugh will cast the deciding vote to overturn Roe. But as we so often learn through needless suffering, the zeal of the faithful can be misplaced. On this point there is an important lesson in the story of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of the soldier who came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane. It’s a lesson I would teach my students if I were still a Catholic and entrusted with their formation. It isn’t that Peter’s anger wasn’t justified or that Christ’s life wasn’t worth defending, but that the Gospel of Life was meant to be spread by faith, not force. The normalization of abortion as a form of birth control in popular culture bodes ill for the soul of our nation, yet the only lasting victory against what Pope John Paul II rightly lamented as the emerging “culture of death” will not be won on the steps of the Supreme Court. [ii]

Is abortion even in the very early stages of pregnancy the taking of a human life? The answer that in my view remains as obvious as it is tragic, is yes. Is abortion a sin in the eyes of God? No less a light than Mother Teresa once said, “It is a great poverty that a child must die so that we may live as we wish.” Who cannot see the spiritual and moral poverty that has overtaken our culture in the last fifty years, when widely admired figures like Oprah now encourage women to “shout their abortions” as a symbol of personal empowerment? An abortion is an unspeakable tragedy for a mother and her child followed, for many women, by a lifetime of secret anguish and regret. It should be met with mercy and compassion and forgiveness and grieving, not fist-pumping celebration.

Nothing in this essay nor anything we might say about the rights of women supports the proposition that there can be no limit whatsoever on the right to abortion. Indeed, Roe v. Wade specifically recognized the right of states to regulate abortion in the second trimester and ban it altogether in the third. Many of our individual rights and privileges, even very important ones, can be lost by inaction. The maxim, vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt (the law aids the vigilant, not those who sleep on their rights), is at the bedrock of our jurisprudence. Considering the excruciating choice for all concerned between a child’s life and a woman’s rights, it is hardly unjust to expect that a woman who fails to choose an abortion with reasonable alacrity should lose that choice.

None of us who believes that God gives us life could imagine that he is indifferent to its taking, even as we hope and pray he is merciful to the taker. But can we remain a secular society that respects the fundamental right of citizens to privacy against governmental interference in their person and that guarantees men and women equal status under the law, yet force unhappily pregnant women to endure nine months of involuntary, reproductive servitude? The answer I find to be equally obvious, is no. Despite the tragedy of children whose mothers fail to safeguard them in the womb, few of us would welcome an America in which the State is given the power and the duty to control every aspect of the daily lives of expectant mothers that might adversely impact the life of an unborn child. Being a free people, we cannot bend the will of every individual toward every greater good.

To my Catholic friends and former students who pray unceasingly for the unborn, I say keep praying—not because these children have been denied the rights of citizenship by our secular government, but because they already are citizens of heaven.


[i] Prenatal Services, Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Health Resources and Services Administration, U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[ii] Joannes Paulus PP.II, Evangelium Vitae on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, 25 March 1995.


A Eulogy for My Brother

Jay Edwin Hurley, Jr.
July 10, 1941 to December 3, 2017

What has come to me today, and to all of us, is the unexpected, unwelcome and, frankly, impossible task somehow to punctuate the end of my brother’s life with a statement of what his life meant to us—unexpected, for me, because even though I knew Jay was not well and hadn’t been well for a long time, I never imagined this day would come so soon. Jay was only 76 years old. To some that may seem a ripe old age, but not to me. Jay and I shared a father who, despite a disastrously destructive lifestyle that would have killed most men a dozen times over, lived longer than his eldest son. Jay died almost two decades younger than our Grandfather Hurley, who was born into poverty in England in a century that did not know penicillin or most of the vaccines we take for granted today. My brother died many years sooner than did our mother, and her mother before her.

I don’t mention this as a shortcoming to find fault with Jay somehow for not giving us more of himself. The truth is, I’m a bit angry with God. I have been a trial attorney for most of my life. I rarely lost a case and it never rested easy with me when I did. I was also not over fond of judges, but when things didn’t go my way I made my objection and yielded gracefully to the judgment of the court, as every lawyer must do. I lost my appeal to God about Jay, and I take exception to that decision. I wish here and now to note my objection for the record to the judgment of heaven that Jay should have left us so soon. One day I’ll have a hearing with the Almighty, because this world is not the court of last resort. My day before the throne of heaven will come, and when it does, I intend to ask the judge of us all why Jay’s time on Earth could not have been a bit longer, a bit easier, and his burden a bit lighter. I am looking forward to his explanation, because as scripture teaches, now we see as through a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.

Now, all we can do is yield gracefully to the judgment of heaven, but there is a benefit to us in doing so. We whom Jay has left behind should abandon any delusion that, somehow, the progress of medical science has made life something other than what it has always been: temporary and precarious and often unfair. Life remains as it ever was: a precious gift, not a guarantee.

And so if I may, I would like to take a few moments to share some sense of the gift that was given to me in the life of Jay Edwin Hurley, Jr.

I came here literally straight off the boat—by that I mean a sailboat of course, in Antigua, the West Indies, and I have Jay to thank for that. I am so grateful that Jay lived to see his little brother cross the Atlantic in a good old boat. I am so grateful that I got to send him a letter from a foreign port of call enclosed with the flag that had flown from my rigging. Jay didn’t just teach me to sail when I was a boy. He did something much more important. He infected me with an incurable wanderlust for sailing. I remember well the day when I succumbed to this disease. He and I were out in Chesapeake Bay in a nineteen-foot sloop he had rented by the hour on the South River, and suddenly there was nothing on the horizon—no limit, nothing stopping us. Nothing but water and time. And I looked down into the small cabin and imagined that if we stuffed a duffle in there filled with food and water, we could just keep going. Little did either of us know then that one day, I would do just that.

Jay was very different from me in many ways. He had a math-science brain. I did not. He was always the go-to guy in our family to fix anything—the TV, the car, the radio—whatever. He could build things, too, including boats. He was a science and technology geek. I was at his house once in the seventies when he came to me with something tiny in his hand. When I asked what it was, he said, “This is the reason the Russians will never catch us.” It was a silicon chip at the dawn of the age of microcomputers. Unlike my brother, I was confounded by math and mechanics. I loved music and writing, but the great thing about sailing is that it’s poetry and music in motion. I loved the romance of sailing. When I grew up, I bought my first sailboat before I bought my first house. Sailing became the language Jay and I could always speak together, and a way to understand each other. Since that day on the South River and many other days like it that he and I spent together, I have sailed thousands of miles. Jay I don’t believe ever sailed more than 28 miles from home, but that didn’t matter. We spoke the same language, and I would not have seen a single one of those thousands of miles were it not for him.

I looked up to Jay, and not just because he was an inch taller and sixteen years older. Sometimes he would speak so softly that you could barely hear him, and I never knew why he was like that, but in remembering his life it occurred to me that in all those years I don’t think I ever asked him to speak up. I just listened harder. I never corrected him. I never wanted to change or improve him. I wanted Jay to be Jay, and to succeed just the way he was. In his quietness he had an authority that I respected, and others did too. At my wedding reception in 1981 there were probably a dozen buddies of mine—big guys—who had carried me off in my tuxedo and were getting ready to throw me in the pool. Jay stopped them with a look and a word, and they dropped me like a rock.

Perhaps he should have let them throw me in. When my marriage ended badly twenty-five years later, there were a lot of people who were surprised and disappointed in me, some of whom weren’t talking to me, even in my own family. I remember my failings as a husband being hashed over at one family gathering, when Jay interrupted the conversation and said, in a mocking tone, “Off with his head!” In that one outburst, he took the criticism to an absurd extreme to demonstrate the absurdity of nurturing feelings of spite toward the people who are our flesh and blood. He was reminding everyone of the obvious: “This is Mike. He’s our family. Of course we’re not going to turn our back on him, so let it go.” Jay never judged me for my failures—not once, even when I managed to capsize and snap off the mast of his boat while he was away on his honeymoon with Donna. He gave me some advice, instead. It was one of his favorite sayings whenever I would get ready to leave. “Keep the shiny side up,” he would say. These were words of wisdom that applied to boats, cars, motorcycles, and life. It meant, do your best to stay right side up, and keep going.

That’s what he would tell me today, if he could, and what he would say to all of us. I intend to do my best to remember that advice, and to follow it in his honor. To Jay, I offer a prayer for fair winds and following seas, and to God I give thanks for the brother he gave to me, and for the time we had together. Amen.

Letters from the Sea: A Sinking

The Prodigal, 500 miles south of Nova Scotia


s a few friends will recall and the few readers of scattered press reports at the time have surely forgotten, I was sailing alone, ten days out of Charleston, when I made the decision to abandon a leaking, weather-beaten, fifty-year-old ketch named Prodigal in rough seas about 500 miles south of Nova Scotia. The month was June, in the year 2015. I was one-third of the way to Ireland on a 3,500-mile passage I had planned for months. The implosion of my second marriage had come just three weeks before. I had set sail anyway, already mired in one storm, headed inevitably for others.

As was the case with most of the boats I have acquired through the years, I had bought Prodigal for a pittance and fitted her out for a king’s ransom. I sailed her for a week up the Chesapeake Bay from Norfolk in 2013 and solo for seventeen days nonstop on a shakedown cruise to Bermuda and back in June 2014. Mechanical wind vane self-steering gear—the indefatigable but dear Monitor brand—freed me from all steering responsibilities offshore and allowed me to get snatches of sleep at night. The split ketch rig made for steady sailing in rough weather with the mainsail furled and the mizzen and foresail (the smaller sails at each end of the boat) flying.

Prodigal had leaked a bit on the 2014 voyage to Bermuda, but no more than could be easily mopped up with a few swipes of a sponge from the cabin sole. She was an old boat, but I am an old man, and we hardly begrudged each other a few imperfections. The passage to Ireland was different. After a glorious week of good weather, Prodigal took quite a pounding in heavy conditions and began leaking more than before. The United States Coast Guard (not at my invitation but of their own volition or someone else’s), was following my progress with uncharacteristic interest, as I discovered when their New York group began communicating with me by satellite text messages. They expressed concern short of alarm at my terse report to Facebook friends, at the time, that I was “taking on water.” (I concealed my concern approaching alarm that the government had the time, interest and ability to peruse my Facebook posts.)

The Coast Guard offered a rescue. I politely declined and stoically assured them I would be fine, not realizing at the time that my automatic, electric bilge pump, throbbing away deep in the bowels of the ship and unheard above the fracas of wind and wave, was pumping out water not quite as fast as it came in and steadily draining my battery, giving me a false sense of security as to the rate and volume of the leak.

Why draining the battery, you ask? Because on a sailboat and most especially a sailboat built in the sixties, the motor is the source of electricity, and the motor itself is more of an ornament than a main source of power. This owes to the fact that there is only a very small space in the slender, lovely yacht designs of the sixties into which to squeeze a motor at all, and an even smaller space in which to squeeze a fuel tank. Motors on sailboats are called “auxiliaries” for this reason, because to depend on them primarily much less desperately for anything (including generating electricity to charge batteries and run bilge pumps) is folly. It’s rather like depending on your 110-pound girlfriend to beat up the loud-mouthed guy in the bar, or depending on the baloney sandwich in your lunchbox to save you from starvation. Both are there, yes, and both will function after a fashion, but not very well or long. Relying on an electric bilge pump at sea to continuously evacuate an ongoing leak, and on the boat’s  motor to keep the pump charged, far from fuel docks and diesel supplies, is never a long-term solution—and being 1000 miles out into the Atlantic in a 30-foot boat, carried inexorably northward by the Gulf Stream, is the very definition of long-term.

Prodigal, an Allied Seawind Ketch built in 1965 in the Catskills of Upstate New York, was a tender sort of yacht—tender being a term that refers to the propensity of some boats to tilt over quickly and far when a breeze hits their sails. In Prodigal, this characteristic stemmed from a design that combined a narrow beam with a shoal draft, “shoal” meaning shallow and “draft” meaning the depth to which the keel extends below the water. Boats with narrow beams and tall masts need long, heavy keels filled with lead to counteract the force of the wind on the sails above the water. That’s because the more the wind blows a boat over sideways, the higher she lifts her keel, and the heavier and longer the keel, the more force gravity exerts on it to return the boat to level. Once a boat gets underway, the energy of the sails and the keel acting at cross purposes is expelled preferably in forward motion, not continued sideways motion to the point of capsizing. It is the envied characteristic of a deep-keeled boat that the wind can blow her over only so far until the force of the wind upon the sails can lift her keel no higher, at which point the boat stops absorbing all that wind energy by heeling sideways and converts it to forward motion instead, boring through the waves like a bus. Here endeth the lesson of keels and wind and the mysterious motion of boats.

But deep keels are problematic for the majority of American sailors who never sail in the deep, blue waters of the sea and instead spend their weekends skimming over shallow, muddy estuaries like Chesapeake Bay and Pamlico Sound. And so Prodigal’s designers, like those of many other American boats, saw fit to give her a lightweight keel that extended only a brief four-feet and some inches underneath her thirty feet of length overall. As a result, she was ruled more by her sails than her keel, making her a bit “tippy.” With all sails flying she often sailed “on her ear,” as sailors say—with her leeward rail (the side that dips low when a boat heels, opposite the direction of the wind) awash or underwater. And because, like most old boats and old people, she didn’t fit together quite as sleekly as when she was new, when she sailed in this fashion Prodigal leaked at her seams. A widening gap of open space in the connection between her decks and her hull—the two solid, molded forms of fiberglass by which she was constructed—siphoned seawater into the hull, especially during periods of high wind and seas, when the rails were awash.

On the passage to Ireland, a second storm late at night caught me by surprise. I was flying too much sail when it hit. Ideally a sailor sees a storm coming and reduces sail-area ahead of time to give the wind a smaller target and steady the motion of the boat. Not this time. This was just before the advent of GPS devices that now deliver inexpensive, accurate satellite weather forecasts to sailors in remote parts of any ocean. I was relying on friends sitting at their computers at home to text me the weather forecast for my location. A buddy in Washington State who fancied himself something of a weather guru had sent me the happy and mistaken news, that night, that I could sleep well in gentle, fifteen-knot breezes. I should have trusted my instincts to the contrary. Near midnight, the sea became as smooth as glass, and there wasn’t even enough wind to hold a heading. This was the proverbial calm before the storm. Sudden changes in wind speed almost always signal a weather system that is reorganizing itself for a dramatic change in direction and strength. So it was that night.

Once the front hit, everything in my world was suddenly tight, sideways, drenching wet, pitch black, and plunging up and down like a demon. I was flying the large, full mainsail (the one in the middle) and the working jib (the one in the front)—not the mizzen (the one in the back). I might have dropped the main and raised the mizzen to “split” the sail plan and steady the boat, but the conditions were just short enough of worrisome to give me pause before doing so. In strong winds and pitching seas, standing on the cabin top to release a large mainsail, then trying to get it all down, folded, tied and sorted, is like trying to rope a wild, frightened steer. The operation comes with its own set of risks that have to be balanced against the risk of doing nothing. The violent motion of a small boat getting bucked in the waves and the difficulty of keeping your feet underneath you, in the dark, on heaving, wet and slippery decks without hitting your head or breaking a limb, threaten to take the problem of a merely uncomfortable angle of heel and turn it into something exponentially worse. With no one to man the helm but a mechanical wind vane that needs sails and forward motion to work, there is the added problem, once the mainsail is struck or slacked and the boat looses steerageway, of keeping the boat headed into the waves and not turning sideways into a trough in the waves, where it can toss about and broach violently while you attempt to raise the next sail and get the steering back on track. I have done all of this before, many times, and too often not elegantly or well. It resembles a bull ride with the risk of getting thrown somewhere from whence you cannot simply pick yourself up and dust yourself off.

I knew it would be an uncomfortable night—in fact I slept lying mostly sideways against the inside of the hull that night in the forward berth—but I also knew the boat was never in danger of capsizing. I have sailed in many storms, and their bark is almost always worse than their bite. This was a blustery frontal system, not an organized major storm. I had supreme and well-founded confidence that Prodigal would shoulder the load and weather the conditions even with her mainsail fully unfurled, and she did.

But what I saw on the morning light gave me greater pause. With only manual pumping every few hours to stem the inflow of water, the rate and volume of water entering the boat through the hull to deck seam had increased dramatically. My feet touched down from the forward sleeping berth onto the cabin floor that morning into water sloshing over my ankles that covered the entire cabin and was rising into the forward bow section. The wind and seas were in no more or less foul a mood, but suddenly I was rapidly losing confidence in my vessel and the wisdom of the voyage. A few minutes of nervous bailing seemed to make no difference. Indeed, the water seemed to be rising slowly, and the boat by this time no longer had her rail in the water to explain where a continued flow of water might be coming from. I looked for a seacock (a hole in the boat controlled with a valve that opens and shuts) that might have accidentally failed but found none.

The idea of another three weeks and 2,000 miles headed to Ireland in a boat leaking this badly filled me with dread. I quickly dispatched a short message to family and friends on Facebook that I was taking on water more precipitously and looking for a cause. It was at this moment that the Coast Guard contacted me again and offered—urged might be the better word—a rescue from a nearby ship, the State of Maine, a training vessel of the Maine Maritime Academy.

I made a decision at this point that I would roll over in my mind for months to come. The better decision at such moments is always an emotional one, not a financial one. Too many sailors have gone to their doom chasing dollars into the abyss. I have been something of a minimalist since my first fevered readings of Thoreau and the Gospels, aided by the fact that I have made enough money from the comfortable ramparts of a law practice to be neither greatly impressed with what money can do nor greatly worried about my ability to get more of it. I never lived in terror of losing things or despair to hang onto them. The real wealth and fortune in life is time and freedom, which makes the free man in forma pauperis the wealthiest and most fortunate person in any room. I was always much more impressed by people who made the most out of their time and wasted the least of it than those who made the most of their wealth and spent the majority of it. The really poor bastards, it always seemed to me, were the ones who traded their years of health and vigor for the diminishing returns of business or profession or career that were destined finally to vanish without a trace in the memory of the world. In the end we have each other and such of our integrity as we have been able to preserve, and that is all.

On the sea that day, I had an estranged wife beckoning me to return to work on my marriage, and while I had been willing to defer that work to achieve the lofty aim, once begun, of sailing alone to Ireland, suddenly the idea of risking life and limb to go bailing my weary way into some God-forsaken shipyard in frozen Newfoundland, all so that after paying handsome storage fees for two or three or five years’ time I might find a cod fisherman gullible enough to take Prodigal off my hands for a few farthings, seemed far less noble. This makes no sense, I know, to the man who will walk two miles past one shop to save three cents on a foot of pipe at the next, but I have never wanted to be that man. He is welcome to his bargain. I am content with mine.

Which is why I took the offer, stepped off of my leaking boat, and said goodbye. The crew of the 248-foot ship State of Maine, manned by some hundreds of eager, fresh-faced midshipmen and their instructors on passage from Spain, executed their first-ever rescue at sea that day. Three days later, TV crews and newspaper reporters greeted me at the docks in Portland, eager to record the story that England’s Daily Mail cheekily called “stranger than fiction,” about an American novelist who had lost his yacht but saved his marriage.

It was a lovely story while it lasted, which is to say through three weeks of local TV news interviews and an AP story picked up around the world, but in the end I would lose boat and marriage, stem to stern, the hull and the rigging, the having and the holding—all gone. Susan asked for a divorce; I relented, and I left.

I suddenly had no ship and seemingly no purpose. Having recently sold my practice and retired from the law to make way for the obscure life of an unsung novelist, I also had no clients and no job. My children were grown, educated, and sorted in their own careers and faraway cities and relationships. For the first time in my life I had nothing to do and nowhere to go. So I sold everything I owned and took the first plane to nowhere.

This is the first chapter of a coming book to include the Voyage of Nevermore.

Notes on a Revolution

It is the birthright of every American to have an opinion about the president—however indifferently the holder of that office may be loved or loathed. But with President Trump, it’s different. The birthright has become a bounden duty. Our opinions about Trump, for or against (as the prevailing mood tolerates no middle ground), are demanded of us in even the most mundane social interactions as a kind of identity card—a passport among fellow travelers in a fierce brand of tribalism not seen since the Civil War.

I have been living outside the United States, now, for over two years—since right about the time Trump descended the escalator in his Manhattan tower and completely blew everyone’s mind forever. Today, whenever I meet a compatriot in some far-flung corner of the world, within the first fifteen minutes the same intricate ballet occurs between us: the gently rolled eyes, the shaking of the head, the casual remark punctuated by the well-timed sigh until we have sussed out each other’s politics enough to declare, in unison, “Isn’t Trump just awful!”

So far that has been the prevailing view—even among the few people I meet who admit to voting for him. If you are an American living in America, you likely have had more frequent occasion to declare your feelings about Trump than to show your driver’s license. It is only natural, then, that I should publish my own views—not just about Trump, whose myriad flaws are well cataloged and seemingly on permanent display, but about how we got to this truly remarkable place in American history and where, pray tell, we might be headed from here.

First, in a salaam to the new tribalism in which “reality” has become less a matter of fact than opinion, like a gradient of water colors laid down in broad, fuzzy strokes according to one’s preference in cable news shows, I offer the reader full disclosure. Who am I, and what is my tribe? From what corner do I come presuming to lead anyone along the path of reason out of the psychosis that has gripped America since Donald Trump arrived in Washington?

I voted for Hilary Clinton in 2016 and Barrack Obama in 2012, which, believe it or not, says really nothing about me. I come from a long line of New Deal Democrats, but I was too young to be nostalgic for FDR. I first became a Democrat because John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert—the beau ideals of youthful American manhood when I was a boy—were Democrats, and because no boy ever wanted to be Richard Nixon (including Nixon, as it turned out).

In 1968, with the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., fresh in memory, I had the distinct sense that the world was spinning out of control when news came before school one morning that Robert Kennedy had been shot. I promptly became a (ten-year-old) Humphrey man. In 1972, undeterred by Humphrey’s electoral massacre four years earlier, I signed on as a foot soldier in George McGovern’s groovy army, wearily pacing all day outside a precinct in Towson, Maryland, holding a placard of epithets against Nixon, only to weep and mourn with the hippies back at headquarters when McGovern lost in a landslide. In 1976, as the editorial page editor of my high school newspaper, I endorsed Jerry Brown in the Maryland primary (he won), then cheered when the peanut farmer from Georgia rose to an improbable victory in November. But then came Carter’s “malaise” speech, needlessly reminding the nation of something it already knew in the same ill-advised way a man tells his wife that, yes, she does look fat in that dress. What hope we had left was lost when the helicopters sent for the Iranian hostages crashed in the desert, leaving Americans with an indescribable feeling of national impotence we were only too happy to believe a plainspoken cowboy from Hollywood could banish.

Like millions of others I found much in Reagan to admire, but the effect in my case was short-lived. I first learned to distrust Republicans when, as a law student, I was offered a summer internship in Ronald Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency. Like many kids who came of age in the seventies—the era of Earth Day, Foxfire books, “The Waltons,” and Euell Gibbons—I was a lover of wilderness and eager to have a role in preserving it. Being an “environmental lawyer” sounded like the coolest of jobs. I applied for the internship at EPA headquarters in Washington and spent precious funds buying a cheap polyester suit at Foley’s Department store in St. Louis before flying out for the interview. I was offered the job on the spot and told to report the following summer. After scraping up the money for another plane ticket from St. Louis and making arrangements to share an apartment with a college pal for the summer, I arrived in D.C. in May, ready to start work. With horror and embarrassment, I listened to the same people who had offered me the job months earlier dishonestly deny that any such offer had been made. There I was, low on money and options, having turned down other offers from firms in St. Louis to fly half-way across the country for what had become, literally, a “dream” job. My small plight was due, I darkly and grandiosely assumed, to the Reagan Administration’s determination not to add a farthing to the EPA’s share of the federal pie. Fearing I would be unable to pay my way through the next year of law school, I took a page from Woodward and Bernstein and went to a reporter at the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with my story. After one call from the reporter, my position at EPA mysteriously reappeared along with apologies for the “misunderstanding.” That, to a naïve twenty-four-year-old law student, was the essence of speaking truth to power, and I never forgot it.

But my time as an intern in the Office of Legislation at EPA taught me an unexpected lesson in government. The highly paid career bureaucrat whose office I shared that summer slept at his desk in the afternoon. As I walked through the halls in EPA headquarters, I struggled to make sense of a dizzying array of sub-departments and offices, many with some indistinguishable variation of the same name and the same mission, over-stuffed with civil servants engaged in varying degrees of what might charitably be called busy-work, joylessly performing the Lilliputian tasks laid before them without any observable drive, sense of urgency, ambition, or connection to the whole. It seemed to me a wilderness of soul-sucking minutiae. The summer of 1982 I spent at EPA was my last job in government and the reason I spent the entire thirty-one years of my career as a trial lawyer in private practice.

While still in law school in the fall of 1983, I saw in Colorado Senator Gary Hart the kind of “new” Democrat that neither Humphrey nor Carter had been and that Walter Mondale could never be—principled but practical on social welfare and the environment; smart but tough on defense. I signed on to be the Gary Hart campaign contact on campus. Unfortunately, Gary saw something else entirely in Donna Rice, and in an episode that seems almost quaint by today’s standards, decided to suspend his campaign before he and Monkey Business became a circus sideshow.

By 1988—the year Vice President George H. W. Bush ran for the presidency on the Republican ticket—I was a member of the Texas Bar with my own practice, a staff of employees, and a sizeable monthly payroll. Self-employment was the occasion for my rude introduction to the “self-employment tax.” For the privilege of creating paying jobs for myself and my employees, my marginal tax rate was raised from 28 to 41 percent—cutting not just into my income but into the funds available to me to hire new employees. I was there at the hotel in Houston when Bush announced his presidential campaign in October 1987. I heard him say, “I’m not going to raise your taxes, period!” When he famously repeated that pledge at the convention in August 1988 with the words, “Read my lips: no new taxes!” I decided to give him my vote. When he surrendered to George Mitchell and Tom Foley and abandoned his promise without a shot fired early in his short presidency, I decided to give him a piece of my mind. It was the only letter I’ve ever written to a president, and it was not a gracious one. Bush, a consummate letter writer, did not respond, but the voters did when they threw him out of office and elected Bill Clinton in 1992. It didn’t matter that Bush had good reasons for raising taxes. Those same arguments were well known when he made his pledge. To the public he became just another example of a politician who would say one thing to get their vote and do another when he got elected.

I’ll end my partisan resume there, if that’s alright with you. Suffice it to say I am a Democrat today for a narrow range of reasons—chiefly because I don’t believe women who choose not to follow my pregnancy advice should be imprisoned, and because I trust Democrats more than Republicans to preserve America’s remaining wild places. The older I get, the more the world appears to me in shades of gray than black or white. I have lost some of the naiveté of my youth but not, I hope, my ideals. I am hardly a Republican loyalist, but neither do I burn with zeal for the sacred totems and selective outrages of the New Left. In that regard I suspect I’m like most Americans my age. And like most Americans, I stare in wonder at the circus that has come to Washington.

CNN shouts from our TV screens every day like a carnival barker on the midway: “Step right up to the Russian collusion hoop toss! You can’t miss, kid! A new felony with every throw!” Meanwhile, under the big top, Donald Trump is P. T. Barnum—“really rich,” as he crassly reminds us, smiling in a spray-on tan, leering at the girls in sequined bikinis riding a parade of elephants into the Oval Office. It’s the Weirdest Show on Earth, but how on earth did it come to this?

Like all good therapy sessions, let’s begin ours by agreeing on at least one unassailable truth: Whether you voted for him or not, it is astonishing to see someone like Trump standing behind the presidential seal. In fact it’s jarring. He appears to represent a disturbance in the natural order. Presidents, as we have known or read about them for two centuries, do not speak or act as he does. He’s more than a little gauche. He revels in his ignorance of policy. He often is not just inarticulate but disjointed and incoherent of thought and speech to a degree that seems medically significant. He is not just brash and unconventional but peevish to a degree that seems pathologically adolescent. His juvenile tweets against political opponents all sound like some variation of “Your mother wears army boots!” But gravely, there is more.

While standing on a stage before thousands of cheering supporters, he exhorted the crowd to “knock the crap out of” and “beat the hell out of” anyone they saw getting ready to throw a tomato his way. At another rally he waxed nostalgic, as a protester was being removed by police, for the old days when such people would have been “carried out on a stretcher,” adding that he would like to “punch him in the @#$ @#$ @#$#” himself. (I can’t say for sure what Trump wanted to punch, because the words were too crude to be broadcast on TV.) All that is old news by now, I know, but stay with that thought for a moment. It’s so easy with Trump, the human five-alarm fire, to rush along with the water buckets to the next conflagration and forget the one before. Instead, just let “knock the crap out of him” sink in a bit. Ask yourself: when did words like those become anything other than ipso facto disqualifying for any presidential candidate? Who in national political life would ever be so bereft of tact and judgment to say such a thing? I’ll tell you who—the same guy who stood on the stage of a nationally televised presidential debate, watched by astonished millions around the world, and reassured them about the size of his penis. Yes, that really happened. And yet he still won. No wonder the staff at The New York Times are losing their minds.

To dismiss Trump simply as a jackass and a one-off who ran against an exceptionally weak candidate in a fluke election is dangerously naïve. President Knock-the-Crap-Out-of-Him and Grab-Them-By-The-Pussy could not have won unless an unseen, epochal shift in the tectonic plates of the American psyche had occurred first. Look more closely and you’ll see that Trump didn’t so much upend the natural political order as successfully exploit changes that were occurring long before he arrived on the scene.

Many on the left would say that the debasement of American political life began with Nixon and Watergate, but that would be unfair to Nixon, who after all was punished spectacularly in a way that Bill Clinton was not. Nixon’s humiliation and political death reinforced the national consensus at the time that no man is above the law, whereas Clinton’s narrow escape and political resurrection established exactly the opposite consensus twenty-five years later—with corrosive effect on the nation’s moral sensibility.

I, for one, find the first seeds of America’s current political dysfunction not in Watergate but in the sands of Chappaquiddick. People still remember the bridge on that island where Teddy Kennedy drove off the road in the summer of 1969, sending Mary Jo Kopechne, a young volunteer from his brother Robert’s presidential campaign, to her death. People still recall the news that after freeing himself from the wreckage and swimming to the surface, Kennedy walked past several lighted houses on his way back to Edgartown without stopping to call the police, choosing to swim back across the channel to his hotel in Edgartown in the dead of night and crawl into bed. He never, in fact, called the authorities and gave conflicting statements about whether he even informed his friends of what had happened. He was in Edgartown on the phone to his advisors to plan damage control the next morning when by chance, two fishermen spotted a car deep in the clear water under the bridge. A diver was summoned who retrieved Mary Jo’s body and then Kennedy’s car, where the diver found evidence Mary Jo had lived by breathing an air pocket in the overturned vehicle for two hours or more after the initial plunge—easily enough time for him to have reached her alive if he had been called promptly the night before. Many suspect she slowly suffocated to death, alone and cold in the darkness, no doubt believing to the bitter, frenetic end that help was on the way, if only because no decent man would fail to summon it.

Kennedy, who at the time of the accident had just come from a private bash in a friend’s cottage hosted in honor of Mary Jo and other “Boiler Room Girls” of his brother’s campaign, received a suspended sentence merely for leaving the scene of an accident. Despite evidence sufficient to convict him of manslaughter, he served no jail time for a crime that has put lesser mortals behind bars for years. But he didn’t just escape justice for his recklessness; he went on to be reelected to the United States Senate by the credulous citizens of Massachusetts in a landslide the following year and in every election for the next thirty years. He was lionized over the remainder of his career by a Democratic Party increasingly desperate for heroes and by Republicans eager to profit from his friendship. You can be sure, when the “Lion of the Senate” roared forth his moral condemnations at each gathering of the Democratic faithful, no one in the press or the party dared mention the past unpleasantness.

Without condoning for a moment Trump’s many contemptible outrages, you tell me: what should bother voters and preoccupy members of the press more—a man who once fat-shamed a Miss Universe contestant, or one who abandoned a woman to a slow, agonizing death while he went home to plan his political future? Think voters don’t pay attention to such things? I think many did and still do. Americans watch and learn from their leaders like children watch their elders. Most of them can spot a phony a mile away. The problem is that when Americans look around the political landscape, lately, phonies are increasingly all they can see. And the more they watch, the more cynical they become.

Of course, the bonfire of America’s political vanities didn’t stop with Chappaquiddick. What more could possibly be said of Bill Clinton’s shameful tenure in the national spotlight? We need hardly speak of the allegations of perjury, rape, attempted rape, intimidation and harassment by several women in accusations, counter-accusations, lawsuits, and investigations so convoluted it would take a Ken Burns docudrama to explain them in full. We need hardly speak of the bald faced lies about Monica Lewinsky, the enlistment of unwitting cabinet members to defend his lies, and a suspiciously timed military intervention overseas that seemed part of an effort to cover up, distract and deflect from those colossal acts of hubris. Yet in all this the Democratic Party leadership was hardly a profile in courage. On the contrary, many barely blinked at the charges and cheered when Clinton beat impeachment on a partisan Senate vote. Remember Bill Clinton’s triumphal, cinematic entrance at the 2000 Democratic Convention? There he was—the disgraced lawyer, his law license soon to be suspended, having been found in contempt and fined $90,000 by a federal judge for lying under oath, the only president to be impeached in more than a century and one of only two in American history—striding triumphantly toward the stage through a tunnel, clapping and smiling for the camera like a winning quarterback about to take the field. Can I get a WTF? Where was the humility? Where was the lesson to millions of Americans that the same rules apply to everyone—that when you break the rules spectacularly and publicly there will be spectacular and public consequences, and that if only by the partisan wheedling of your friends in the U. S. Senate you manage to escape those consequences, the least you can do is have the decency not to spike the football.

But for all that can be said of the shadowy depths to which Bill Clinton took us, George W. Bush more than matched him atop mountains of political stupidity. What more can be said of the Iraqi invasion than what General Colin Powell, Bush’s chief apologist at the time, revealed in his memoir, It Worked for Me: that the president led the world into a senseless, catastrophic war on the strength of an unverified report of weapons of mass destruction in mobile van launchers that our allies had already dismissed as bogus, given to him by a single, un-vetted CIA informant tellingly code-named “Curveball.” Indeed, what more can be said than the words conservative commentator George Will used to describe Bush’s invasion: “the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the country.”

The people around President Bush regarded themselves and asked us to regard them, like those who had served under President Kennedy, as “the best and the brightest.” These were the Brahmins, the A-students, the experienced foreign-policy hands that Americans were told knew how the world worked. Bush and his team were going to bring Jeffersonian Democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, but they failed because they knew less about Islam and the centuries-long history of tribalism in those regions than a high school student might have gleaned from a casual reading of Marco Polo’s Journal.

Bush was wrong about Iraq, yes, but more to the point, he and his enablers in the Republican Party were (and remain) unrepentantly wrong. The exhibit on the Iraqi invasion in the George W. Bush Presidential Library reads like a child’s bedtime story, with a courageous president rescuing the Iraqi people as a white knight would free a princess from the castle tower. When the former president was interviewed by Bob Schiffer at CBS, years after the WMD threat had been revealed as a ruse and amid the ensuing debacle that has now destabilized the entire region, Bush incredibly could not bring himself to say he regretted his decision to invade. Jeb Bush’s hesitation to concede the same obvious point was chiefly the reason for his early implosion in the 2016 presidential campaign. By contrast, Donald Trump’s willingness to loudly and unambiguously acknowledge the terrible tragedy of that decision—albeit at no political cost to himself, as he hadn’t made it—was one of the reasons for his early rise. America can take failure. Admitting and overcoming failure is deep in the national DNA. But Americans won’t stand for lying and prevaricating and excuse-making about failure.

There are some echoes of Vietnam in the nation’s disillusionment over Iraq, but there are important and disturbing differences. Very quickly after the humiliating defeat in Vietnam, America’s political class acknowledged the mistake of that war and the failure of political leadership and foresight that got us into it. In 1974, well before the last American helicopter had left during the Fall of Saigon, President Ford granted conditional amnesty to thousands of American draft dodgers and deserters. On his first day in office, President Carter removed any further moral ambiguity about opposition to the war by making amnesty unconditional. Our entire society had embraced and was changed by the ethos of the anti-war movement within two years after we left Vietnam. What had been the counter-culture quickly became the culture. The nation has seen nothing like that kind of public candor and clarity and remorse from George W. Bush and his fellow establishment Republicans even now, fourteen years after the Iraq invasion—and it desperately needs to.

The deficiency in Jimmy Carter’s leadership and political skills notwithstanding, Americans’ enthusiastic support for his election in 1976 represented a hopeful response to the tragedy of Watergate and Vietnam and—most strikingly in contrast to the election of Trump—a turn toward the public morality, rectitude, spirituality, and social consciousness that Carter exemplified. Sadly for our times, the election of Trump seems to represent a much more cynical turn toward just the opposite impulses—moral indifference, vulgarity, materialism, a zero-sum, we-win-you-lose isolationism, and me-first selfishness. Why is this so?

Through examples far more numerous than those I have recounted, here, our leaders have gradually taught us not to expect, in public life, what Benjamin Cardozo once defined as justice: “the synonym of an aspiration, a mood of exaltation, a yearning for what is fine and high.” Certainly Hilary Clinton, with her constant prevarications during the 2016 campaign and seeming utter inability to take personal responsibility for anything until it was foisted upon her, usually by subpoena, did nothing to alter that impression.

I wish I could say President Obama’s election was a ray of hope amid the gloom if not a contrarian trend. Obama made huge mistakes during his tenure, but they were more often mistakes of policy, ideology, and naive utopianism than hubris or malice. Even most of those who fiercely disagreed with him still regard him as a decent and honorable man, driven by his ideals, who did nothing overtly to embarrass himself or his nation during his eight years in office. But the singular enthusiasm of millions of voters in both parties for the election and re-election of the first black president so overwhelmed all other factors in his support as to make it difficult to draw broader conclusions about American society from his victories. If Barrack Obama had not run in 2008 we almost certainly would have welcomed President Hilary Clinton that year, and for reasons I trust are now obvious even to her supporters, she was never the vanguard of a new era of candor and moral clarity in American politics.

With the euphoria of Obama’s victories now a distant echo, the message from the American people to conventional politicians and their enablers in the press is clear: we don’t believe you anymore, we don’t care what you think, and all things being equal, we’d just as soon elect a candidate who feels as we do. Contrary to much of the conventional punditry that sees Trump’s election as an uprising of “the working classes” against “the elites,” I expect Trump’s support is much broader across upper income and education levels than anyone supposes. Contempt for the political classes is not the sole franchise of the poor. Plenty of people with graduate degrees think the system is a sham and that the politicians desperate to maintain their place within it are self-interested hucksters. Viewership of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” where political hypocrisy and selfish intrigue are served up in heaping helpings each week, is highest among New York Times readers. The catastrophic polling errors of the 2016 election could not have been possible without hoards of affluent, college-educated voters publicly denying the support they gave Trump in the privacy of the ballot box.

Wither, then, O Ship of State? It has been said that character is destiny. If so, Trump’s destiny is not a happy one, but his destiny need not be ours. The journey back from the precipice begins with acknowledging the wisdom of Pogo: “I have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The American people have an endless optimism and capacity for renewal. We have come to this sad junction because our leaders have brought us here. Trump is not the cure but a symptom of the disease and the natural evolution of the cynicism of our politics. He can be beaten, but only by the truth, not by posturing and name-calling and fear mongering about Russia and rigged elections—all sports at which he has Olympic abilities.

Whose truth, you ask? We could start with George W. Bush at the podium of the next Republican convention, finally beginning to heal the nation with the words, “I made a terrible mistake in invading Iraq, with disastrous consequences for America and the world,” followed by a conversation about why we should ever again trust a member of the Republican establishment with our foreign policy.

We could start with Hilary Clinton at the podium of the next Democratic convention, revealing “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” to be the dangerous and appalling lie it is,” and apologizing for the decision to invite Michael Brown’s mother, who stood by her husband as he incited a group of rioters in Ferguson with shouts of “burn this bitch down,” to stand on stage in a place of honor at the 2016 convention —as if Brown’s robbery of a convenience store, his fatal decision to assault a police officer, and the subsequent looting and burning of a Midwest town said something instructive about the modern black experience in America. Americans well know there is racial injustice as well as police brutality, but the Democratic Party has sought to trade on the cynical falsehood that police departments across the nation, today, disproportionately target black suspects with lethal force. A public repentance for that cynicism would begin to show voters in both parties that Democrats are actually serious about solving the pressing problems of the nation, not just stoking grievances for political gain.

In short, all we need to ignite the next American Renaissance are leaders willing to tell us the truth—even if it seems at first that the truth will cost them their political viability. It is precisely because candidates have so long been willing to lie to them that voters see no downside in electing a charlatan like Trump. If politicians will but tell the painful truth, they or those that follow in their footsteps will succeed beyond their wildest dreams. In so doing, they will teach voters a new code of optimism, charity and fraternity to replace Trump’s jungle code of one-upmanship, insults and reprisals. Most of all, we are in need of a model to follow whose conduct and character we can emulate in returning to a vision for America that is fine and high. Let’s hope she is already on her way.


The Crossing

“What a long, strange trip it’s been.” –The Grateful Dead

Well, better late than never, as they say. It took me a while—fifty-nine years, to be exact—but after a lifetime of sailing, more than my share of lost and sunken boats, two lost and sunken marriages, and the usual coming and going of storms both material and ethereal that all of us must face, I finally crossed an ocean and made it to the other side, still standing aboard the same vessel I set out upon. If I were to say nothing else about it, a simple “hurrah!” would suffice to convey much of what I feel. I have witnessed, from a small and fragile arc, something of awesome expanse and power of the Earth that few people ever know. I have sailed literally in the wake of Columbus, known some of the same fears, watched the same mysteries unfold, by the same means and methods. It is good to be alive.

But there is more to it than that—much more. For starters, I now realize just how dramatically the world has changed since I first pointed the bow of a sailboat toward the horizon, as a boy. I recall an old photograph I snapped of my high school girlfriend against the backdrop of Annapolis Harbor in 1975. Years after I stopped gazing at the girl in the photo, I noticed that among the great array of sailboats moored in the harbor behind her there were none larger than thirty feet from end to end. In Annapolis Harbor today, and certainly in the Caribbean where I am now, there are scarcely any boats under forty feet, and the great majority are closer to fifty feet. More than a few are massively larger. They are all fabulously expensive and new and posh—save one. That would be my boat.

The Nevermore is a 1967 Camper Nicholson 32—a heavy, traditional, full keel sloop built in England and famous in her day for being one of the few pleasure craft built to Lloyds Shipping specifications, a stringent and expensive regimen of construction inspections and standards usually reserved for commercial vessels. The company traces its history of building some of Britain’s greatest ships back to the Napoleonic Wars. Fully eight of the few hundred Nicholson 32s that were built in the 1960s have sailed around the world. One of them, in January 2017, took me and an intrepid novitiate—fifty-five-year-old Londoner Jillian Gormley—across the Atlantic from East to West.

Nevermore came to me, like many of the good things in life, in the nick of time and rather unexpectedly. In the wake of losing another boat, a worthy but wounded thirty-foot ketch named Prodigal, on a failed attempt to cross the Atlantic solo from America to Ireland in June 2015, I sold everything I owned and made my way to Dublin by plane. From there I wandered for a few days on foot across a small patch of Ireland, then for two months and five hundred miles along the northern border of France and Spain on the “Camino a Santiago de Compostela,” the ancient pilgrimage route known as the Way of St. James. While walking the Camino I convinced myself that my sailing days were well and truly over, and that seemed no cause for sadness as I gazed upon the ageless glories of Galicia. But by the time I flew into London in October 2015, I faced a dilemma. Great Britain would allow me, as an American tourist, just six months to remain in the country; the rest of Europe, only ninety days more. I had no desire to head home. My holiday in Britain gave me just enough time to finish the novel, The Passage, that had been languishing half-finished on my laptop, but I needed a plan for what would come next. That plan was Nevermore.

As I often tell the uninitiated, a sailboat is not merely a means of conveyance or a pleasant hobby. It is a snug and safe and well-ordered home. It is a dream machine. It is a magic carpet, borne aloft by the power of imagination against the weight of despair, capable of flying to the remotest, most unlikely corners of all that is possible in life. Fighting against my own despair, I stood in a shipyard in Essex one cold, rainy day in February 2016 and imagined that a battered, unloved but unbowed vessel formerly known as Morica could live to sail and strive again, and that I could live to sail and strive again aboard her.

I wish (almost, but not really), I could tell you that the eighteen days I spent sailing alone from England to the Spanish island of La Palma, off the northwest coast of Africa, and the twenty-eight days Jillian and I spent sailing from La Palma to the West Indies—more than five thousand miles in all—were fraught with danger, drama, and death-defying feats of bravado. Not hardly. To be sure, there were difficulties. Nevermore, like her captain, is an old vessel. She has her idiosyncrasies and more than a few quirks—like the navigation lights that shorted off of Omaha Beach, near Normandy, filling the forward cabin with thick smoke and turning her into a pirate ship, ghosting two thousand miles down the coast of Portugal, every night, in near total darkness. A gale hit us on the first night of the Atlantic crossing, overpowering our self-steering and shaking the rigging so hard that the radar reflector flew off the backstay and crashed to the deck in a shattered mess. We lost our engine a week later, then our navigation lights (again). By the end, the only thing lighting up the boat at night was an eight-dollar solar-powered garden spotlight that I bought in a London hardware store on a whim, before we left. We hooked and ate a delicious mahi-mahi in the first week, but a week later an eight-foot marlin ate our hook and quickly left the scene with our blessing and 300 yards of fifty pound test line that it snapped like a thread. There were four more continuous, uncomfortable days of gales and twelve foot seas, midway, that made us wonder aloud what we ever thought would be “fun” about crossing an ocean.

But that’s the thing, you see. It was fun. Seriously uncomfortable, at times, but great fun nonetheless—made so not leastly by a sailing companion who was cheerful in all weathers and never uttered a discouraging word—not one—and a boat that never stumbled or strayed from her objective—not once. We would do it again, and we just might. But for now, I have more important things to do. As I type these words, I am bathed in balmy breezes, surrounded by tropical birds in the air and tropical fish swimming at my feet, listening to the lapping of clear, blue-green water and the whoosh of coconut palms high overhead. It has been two months to the day since we made landfall. I have a suntan but no watch on my arm—the battery ran out a month ago, and I can’t be bothered to replace it. I can’t really remember what day or even what time it is. All I know is that the sun is warm, that my boat is nodding at a mooring in a charming little nook known as Marigot Bay on the island of St. Lucia, and that the waitress has promised to bring me another Piton, soon. I am sitting on the water’s edge in a restaurant named Dolittle’s—so called because, as it turns out, this bay is where the movie based on the famous book about Dr. Dolittle was filmed. I am filled with newfound peace and newfound confidence. I have crossed a great ocean in a small boat and seen the wonders of the world. Talking to animals? Sure. Why not? Anything is possible.


Bligh’s Revenge

Most people have heard of the mutiny on the Bounty. Even though the actual events occurred in the year 1789, the drama is just perfect for the silver screen, which explains why no fewer than four movies have been made about it. All the elements Hollywood could wish for are there: sunny, palm-shaded islands on the far side of the world; credulous, naked Tahitian women; homesick, pasty-faced British sailors who decide (surprise!) they would sooner betray king and country than give up all that to return to the squeamish, straitlaced sweethearts waiting for them at home.

But for all its prurient allure, the story of those gullible sailors and their fetching paramours is not nearly as compelling as the one told by the guy who was set adrift. With no charts, no sextant, and only a five-day supply of food and water, Captain William Bligh navigated a wave-swamped, twenty-three-foot open lifeboat loaded to the gunwales with eighteen men, over 3,600 stormy miles of the Pacific, landing safely forty-seven days later in Timor. In statute (land) miles, that’s the equivalent of drifting from New York to Los Angeles and back to St. Louis. It was nothing short of a miracle, and it remains to this day the greatest feat of navigation and survival at sea in the history of the British Royal Navy.

Along the way, Bligh made copious entries in a daily log that was published upon his return to England. The resulting work, “A Narrative Of The Mutiny On Board His Majesty’s Ship Bounty; And The Subsequent Voyage Of Part Of The Crew, In The Ship’s Boat” (available free on Kindle), might have benefited from a shorter title, like “Bligh’s Revenge.” It’s a fascinating tell-all, psychological thriller, and factual account. In reading it, I learned that while the folk hero of popular culture may be Fletcher Christian, who did nothing more than betray his shipmates and his country for a little whoopee in Whytootackee, his much maligned captain is a far more interesting character. Bligh didn’t merely survive, and he wasn’t just a masterful sailor and navigator. He was a total badass who faced insurmountable odds and never flinched. And to our great good fortune, he was also a thoughtful, literate man who lived to tell his tale.

Several parts of the narrative struck me as particularly moving. Fletcher Christian was Bligh’s second in command and a personal friend of the Bligh family. He had apprenticed under Bligh on Captain Cook’s famous voyages of discovery. In recalling the mutiny, Bligh carefully notes that “Christian, the captain of the gang, is of a respectable family in the north of England” and “a young man of abilities” whom he had taken “great pains to instruct” and who at one time promised to be a “credit” to his country. (No doubt the Christian family’s reputation declined precipitously after Fletcher’s crimes were published.) “Notwithstanding the roughness with which I was treated,” Bligh writes, “the remembrance of past kindnesses produced some signs of remorse in Christian. When they were forcing me out of the ship, I asked him if this treatment was a proper return for the many instances he had received of my friendship. He appeared disturbed at my question and answered, with much emotion, ‘That—Captain Bligh—that is the thing; I am in hell. I am in hell.’”

The delicacy with which Bligh posits his “conjecture” about the mutineers’ blindingly obvious motives will seem particularly humorous to the wizened modern reader:

It will very naturally be asked, ‘What could be the reason for such a revolt?’ in answer to which, I can only conjecture that the mutineers had assured themselves of a more happy life among the Tahitians than they could possibly have in England; which, joined to some female connections, have most probably been the principal cause of the whole transaction . . . [I]t is now perhaps not so much to be wondered at, though scarcely possible to have been foreseen, that a set of sailors, most of them void of connections, should be led away; especially when, in addition to such powerful inducements, they imagined it in their power to fix themselves in the midst of plenty, on the finest island in the world, where they need not labour, and were the allurements of dissipation are beyond anything that can be conceived.

“Female connections?” You think?

Actually, Bligh later points out that there had been desertions from “many” ships before in the Society Islands of the South Pacific but that it “ever has been in the commanders’ power to make the chiefs return their people.” It was no doubt for this very reason that the mutineers aboard Bounty elected to take the ship rather than desert it and try to hide on a small island.

The mutineers were not completely heartless. As mentioned, they did give Bligh and his men food and water for five days—enough time for the mutineers to get away and for Bligh and his followers to find a nearby island on which to live out their lives as castaways. The conspirators never imagined that Bligh would make it all the way to England and dispatch a man-of-war with precise directions to find them and bring them to the gallows.

Immediately after he was set adrift, Bligh rowed and sailed his way to the island of Tofoa, to which the Bounty had been bound, in hopes of augmenting his meager provisions. He described the women in Tahiti as “handsome, mild and cheerful in their manners and conversation, possessed of great sensibility,” and with “sufficient delicacy to make them admired and beloved.” But his account of the landing at Tofoa disproves the popular mythology that native Polynesians were all docile utopians, interested only in free love and mangoes. With no weapons but four cutlasses among them, Bligh and his crew resisted “going amongst multitudes” of natives out of fear they “might lose everything.” Out of concern for what might happen if he revealed to the natives how truly vulnerable he and his crew were, he decided to lie:

I knew they [the natives] had too much sense to be amused with a story that the ship was to join me, when she was not in sight from the hills. I was at first doubtful whether I should tell the real fact, or say that the ship had overset and sunk, and that only we were saved: the latter appeared to me to be the most proper and advantageous to us, and I accordingly instructed my people, that we might all agree on one story.

For the natives’ part, Bligh says, “they seemed readily satisfied with our account, but there did not appear the least symptom of joy or sorrow in their faces.” He was able to trade carpenter’s nails for coconuts and bread fruit, but he mentions that “the natives did not appear to have much to spare.” Later two of their chiefs appeared, who Bligh notes “were very inquisitive to know the manner in which I had lost my ship.” The chiefs suspected weakness and began cagily preparing for a sneak attack. “[T]he natives began to increase in number,” Bligh writes, “and I observed some symptoms of a design against us; soon after they attempted to haul the boat on shore. I threatened [Chief] Eefow with a cutlass to induce him to make them desist, which they did, and everything became quiet again . . . I kept buying up the little breadfruit that was brought to us, and likewise some spears to arm my men with.” Eventually the beach was “lined with natives,” Bligh states, “and we heard nothing but the knocking of stones together, which they had in each hand. I knew very well this was the sign of an attack.”

Hollywood has depicted the early Pacific islanders as an ingenuous people, incapable of artifice, but in fact their deception matched Bligh’s: “I served a coconut and bread fruit to each person for dinner,” he writes, “and gave some to the chiefs, with whom I continued to appear intimate and friendly. They frequently importuned me to sit down, but I as constantly refused; for it occurred to Mr. Nelson and myself that they intended to seize hold of me, if I gave them such an opportunity. Keeping, therefore, constantly on our guard, we were suffered to eat our uncomfortable meal in some quietness.”

After these niceties, 200 Tofoa natives did finally attack. One of Bligh’s men—the only one to lose his life in the whole adventure—was killed while trying to free the boat’s anchor on shore. “Providence here assisted us,” Bligh recalls, as “the fluke [of the anchor] broke, and we got to our oars, and pulled out to sea.” Rather than despair that the anchor fouled to begin with and that a man died trying to free it, Bligh, as was his custom, saw the hand of divine providence. Later in the voyage, when his boat’s rudder fell off, he credited divine mercy for ensuring this disaster happened while they were ashore and able to repair it, and not at sea in a storm. A true Church of England man, Bligh also insisted that the men attend to their prayers daily, proving the old adage that there are no atheists in foxholes (or lifeboats).

Bligh took the lesson of his narrow escape from the natives on Tofoa to heart. He would never again put ashore on an island that bore any sign of recent habitation until he reached a European settlement. He concluded from the Tofoan’s hostility that “their good behavior” in previous encounters with British sailors “proceed[ed] from a dread of our firearms, which, now knowing us destitute of, would cease.”

After leaving Tofoa, all the men implored Bligh to set a course for the voyage home:

When I told them no hopes of relief for us remained, but what I might find at New Holland [Australia], until I came to Timor, a distance of full 1200 leagues, where was a Dutch settlement . . . they all agreed to live on an ounce of bread, and a quarter pint of water, per day. Therefore, after examining our stock of provisions, and recommending this as a sacred promise for ever to their memory, we bore away across a sea, where the navigation is but little known, in a small boat, twenty-three feet long from stern to stern, deep laden with eighteen men; without a chart, and nothing but my own recollection and general knowledge of the situation of places, assisted by a book of latitudes and longitudes, to guide us. I was happy, however, to see every one better satisfied with our situation in this particular than myself.

Bligh logs the lifeboat provisions as consisting of “150 pounds of bread, 16 pieces of pork, each piece weighing 2 pounds, 6 quarts of rum, six bottles of wine, with 28 gallons of water and four empty [barrels],” along with a few coconuts and smashed breadfruit. He resolved (with the agreement of his crew), to ration the provisions and stretch a five-day supply for two months—enough time, he reckoned, to sail to some European outpost in Indonesia. To their daily ration of bread and water he added an occasional ounce of pork and other items he was able to acquire along the way, chiefly plantains, coconuts, clams, and oysters. The crew had little luck fishing, but from within the boat they managed to catch several birds that were promptly eaten—beak, bones, feathers and all. Bligh parceled out these treasures by a special method designed to ensure fairness. He would stand behind a member of the crew designated to be the decider, cut off a morsel, and ask “Who shall have this?” The decider, unable to see the size or desirability of the morsel in question, would choose without bias which member of the crew would receive it.

Rain regularly replenished the crew’s water supply, and they were able to forage added provisions during a stop at an island off the coast of Australia to which Bligh gave a name that endures to this day: “This being the day of the restoration of King Charles the Second, and the name not being inapplicable to our present situation (for we were restored to fresh life and strength), I have named this Restoration Island.” Here the crew rested ashore for six days before pressing on.

Of all the provisions carried by the castaways, none was more carefully stewarded than the rum, followed by the wine. Bligh attributed remarkable medicinal properties to each, often bringing the men to whom it was issued by the teaspoonful back from the brink of fever and malaise. So carefully did Bligh husband and, from time to time, add to all of their stores, that when he and his men were finally rescued, forty-seven days later, they had provisions to last another eleven days.

Two things cannot be missed by even the casual reader of Bligh’s tale: one is the unremitting doom and misery he and his crew faced, and the other is their remarkable refusal to despair. “It was a great consolation to me to find,” he writes, “that the spirits of my people did not sink, notwithstanding our miserable and almost hopeless situation.” This was of no small importance, for Bligh considered that a collapse of the group’s resolve would have led swiftly to the collapse of their physical health. In this dynamic of the voyage, as he describes it, is a lesson for all of us:

Miserable as our situation was in every respect, I was secretly surprised to see that it did not appear to affect anyone so strongly as myself; on the contrary, it seemed as if they had embarked on a voyage to Timor, in a vessel sufficiently calculated for safety and convenience. So much confidence gave me great pleasure, and I may assert that to this cause their preservation is chiefly to be attributed; for if any one of them had despaired, he most probably would have died before we reached New Holland.

The mutiny took place on the 28th of April. Bligh and his crew sighted land near the Dutch settlement of Timor on the 12th of June, arriving there two days later. Bligh’s commission papers as a captain in the Royal Navy, which he was careful to request before being put off the Bounty, were not just proof of his authority. They amounted to an 18th century government charge-card. With the full faith and credit of the British crown behind him, Bligh was given money by the Dutch governor at Timor to buy a ship to sail the rest of the way home. The sum, 1,000 rix dollars, amounted to about $70,000 U.S. in today’s money. With it he acquired a modest 34-foot schooner he named the Resource and in which he set sail again on the 20th of August. He made it through Indonesia to Java. But after contracting a fever that historians believe was likely malaria, Bligh was placed aboard another ship that was bound sooner for England. He recovered and landed in Plymouth on the 14th of March, 1790.

Against the record of Bligh’s heroic voyage, the cowardice and depravity of Fletcher Christian stands in stark relief. He traded his honor and his duty, not to mention the friendship and patronage of his captain, for pleasure, ignominy, and the contempt of history. There would be no redemption and no rescue for Christian. He was drummed out of the navy in absentia. Those of his fellow mutineers who elected to return to Tahiti were captured by the British ship sent to hunt them. Three of them hanged. Christian remained at large, living a small and paranoid existence, crouched in a cave atop a cliff on Pitcairn Island, where he kept a lookout for the British ship he was certain would one day come to seize him. He and his fellow mutineers burned Bounty to the waterline and abandoned any hope of ever leaving Pitcairn of their own volition.

There are various accounts of what happened to the mutineers on Pitcairn island—none of them laudatory. Thieves without honor, they fell to drunkenness, infighting and treachery among themselves. According to sources in Wikipedia, the mutineers enslaved the Tahitian men who accompanied them, fathered several children with the Tahitian women, and died by the same code of violence under which they had lived.

Bligh, for his part, went on to greater glory, commanding several other ships and achieving the rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue in the Royal Navy. He never achieved a great military victory, which is most likely the reason (and a poor one) that no monuments stand in his memory in England. The government of Australia made amends for this slight only in 1987, when it erected a statue in his honor to “restore the proper image of a much maligned and gallant man.”  Bligh ended his career as the Royal Governor of New South Wales, a former British penal colony that is now the largest state in Australia. He died in 1808, nineteen years after his ordeal aboard Bounty, at the age of sixty-four. (I recently traveled to his gravesite in London, which lies in the cemetery of the old St. Mary’s Church, beside the Thames, but it was unfortunately inaccessible due to construction when I arrived.)


The South Bank of the Thames River in London near Lambeth Bridge and St. Mary’s Church, where Bligh was buried.

Hollywood has propagated the convenient fiction that Bligh was a cruel taskmaster who pushed his crew until they had no choice but to mutiny, and that Fletcher Christian (played by stars like Clark Gable and Mel Gibson) was their tragic but heroic savior. I find the evidence of this lacking. Consider that when Bligh arrived at Timor, as a British captain he was offered private, luxurious accommodations ashore, complete with servants, while his crew was to be berthed on ships in the harbor. Instead, he insisted that all his crew lodge with him in the same house. They would enjoy the same amenities and the same food prepared for Bligh, who did not eat until every man was served:

Having seen every one enjoy this meal of plenty, I dined . . . ; but I found no extraordinary inclination to eat or drink. Rest and quiet, I considered, as more necessary to my doing well, and therefore retired to my room, which I found furnished with every convenience. But instead of rest, my mind was disposed to reflect on our late sufferings, and on the failure of the expedition; but above all, on the thanks due to Almighty God, who had given us power to support and bear such heavy calamities, and had enabled me at least to be the means of saving eighteen lives . . . When I reflect how providentially our lives were saved at Tofoa, by the Indians delaying their attack, and that, with scarce anything to support life, we crossed a sea of more than 1200 leagues, without shelter from the inclemency of the weather; when I reflect that in an open boat, with so much stormy weather, we escaped foundering, that not any of us was taken off by disease, that we had the great good fortune to pass the unfriendly natives of other countries without accident, and at last happily to meet with the most friendly and best of people to relieve our distresses; I say, when I reflect on all these wonderful escapes, the remembrance of such great mercies enables me to bear, with resignation, the failure of an expedition . . .

So, there you have it—Bligh’s revenge was a life well-lived and a tale well-told. In a footnote to my study of his voyage, I had the wonderful good fortune during my travels in London to meet Sarah Bligh. Neither she nor I know whether she is related to the famous captain, but she graciously agreed to read the first few pages of Bligh’s narrative on camera:

God Save the Queen

The inscription on the chancel screen of All Saints Church in Blackheath, London.

The inscription on the chancel screen of All Saints Church in Blackheath, London: “To the Glory of God and in Memory of Brave Men who fought in the Great War, 1914-1918. Their Name Liveth For Evermore.”

This past Sunday, November 13, was “Remembrance Sunday” in Great Britain. Everywhere this month as in every month of November for nearly a century, red poppies made of silk or paper or plastic, collected in exchange for donations to the “Poppy Appeal” of the Royal British Legion, have appeared on the lapels of Britons of every creed and tribe and political stripe, men and women alike. Inspired by the poem, “In Flanders Fields,” written by Canadian physician Lt. Col. John McCrae during World War I, the Poppy Appeal symbolizes honor for the memory and gratitude for the sacrifice of the nation’s war dead as well as commitment to the needs of present-day veterans.


by Lt Col John McCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders’ fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high,
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.

There is a tremendous swell of good feeling and patriotism surrounding the Poppy Appeal. I first witnessed this a year ago while traveling between London and Wales. Scrupulously polite army and naval officers, smartly dressed in uniform, their smiling faces brimming with the happy promise of youth, gather in train stations to sing songs, collect money for the appeal, and hand out poppies to the public. They give Britons reason to remember and renew feelings of national honor and hope for the future. You can see it in the faces of ordinary men and women fairly beaming with pride as they pause on the way to wherever they are going to listen to the chorus of a marching band—mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who see their own loved ones in these servicemen and women. The expressions of the onlookers all say the same thing: We love you. We claim you as our own. We wish you Godspeed. We would defend you, who defend us. You make us feel better about ourselves and our country, for if you are the future of Britain, what a very bright future it must be.

I was in London at All Saints Church in Blackheath on Remembrance Sunday, this year. During the prayers of the faithful, recited by a darling little cherub of a girl with the most punctilious elocution, a prayer was first offered for “Elizabeth, our queen,” followed by a prayer for the “American president-elect.” I was greatly touched by this, as I was by the rousing chorus of “God Save the Queen” into which the congregation erupted followed the closing benediction, as is the tradition every Remembrance Sunday.

It’s no secret that during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump had few supporters in London or most of Europe, for that matter. No one in British politics—not even Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson—talks like Trump. People cringed and marveled at the very idea that someone as inarticulate, crass, rude and erratic as Trump could rise to the pinnacle of power in the most powerful nation on earth. Unlike American pollsters who wrote him off, the people I spoke to around London expressed a knowing sense of dread that he was winning and would win. Fresh from the shock of Brexit and unburdened by any bias for what they wished to see in the political future of Hillary Clinton, they uniformly saw and lamented the fact that Trump was the man of the new American hour.

And yet on Remembrance Sunday, they prayed for him. In the same breath, they prayed that God might save the queen and Trump alike. No stranger bedfellows have there ever been than Donald and Elizabeth, and yet the people in an ancient little church in London prayed for them both. It was such a very British thing to do. So, therefore, do I pray, and so should we all.

President Trump: Why The Polls are Wrong and This Nut May Win

donald-trump_pngFor those feeling confident about a Clinton victory in the wake of recent polls showing Trump behind, consider the poll taken just before WWF wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura—a celebrity joke candidate with no political experience—“shocked the world” by winning the governor’s race in Minnesota in 1998. Ventura was polling third at 15 percent three weeks before the election but got 37 percent of the vote in a three-way race against Hubert Humphrey III, a well-liked Democrat whose family is as close to royalty as you can get in a liberal, deeply Democratic state notable as the only one to vote for Mondale in Reagan’s 49-state landslide in 1984. Minnesota Public Radio, which conducted the poll, reported Ventura as a footnote in the race that was seen primarily between Humphrey, the Democrat, and Coleman, the Republican:

“Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III enjoys a double digit lead over Norm Coleman . . . as the race enters its final three weeks. Statewide, 56 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of Humphrey, while 23 percent have an unfavorable opinion . . . In a match-up, Humphrey captures 44 percent of the vote, compared to 31 percent for Coleman, with 15 percent backing Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura . . .”

What The Washington Post wrote about the race after the election sounds eerily familiar:

“Campaigning with little money for television ads but plenty of name recognition thanks to his wrestling, movie and talk radio careers, ‘The Body’ at first seemed not to take his own candidacy seriously. He openly spoke of resuming his radio show after Election Day. But as his cut-rate campaign gained in the polls, Ventura kept the experts on edge with his odd pronouncements – he publicly pondered the merits of legalizing drugs and prostitution – and redubbed himself ‘The Mind.'”

I suspect the polls are as wrong today as they were in Minnesota, for three reasons: (1) Polling firms are using outdated turnout models from 2008 and 2012 that fail to account for the tsunami of Trump supporters who are either voting for the first time or crossing party lines, and the relative indifference of Clinton supporters compared to Obama supporters in 2008 and 2012;  (2) Polls cannot account for the numbers of people who simply won’t admit to a pollster they’re voting for someone so outrageous as Trump; and (3) The WTHWN (“what the hell, why not”) factor. In the aftermath of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, George Bush’s trillion-dollar WMD fantasy, and premiums for Obama’s “Affordable” Care Act rising into outer orbit while coverage sinks beneath the sea, we simply no longer have the capacity to be shocked or disgusted by anything. That thinking is dangerous, as Trump so well proves, but understandable. 

The stealth factor behind Trump is well documented. He got more votes than any Republican in history in the primaries, but he consistently under-performed in polls.  According to Real Clear Politics, Trump polled at 48 percent on the eve of the Pennsylvania primary but got 58 percent of the vote. In Massachusetts, he did 5 points better in votes than he did in polls. In Maryland, his percentage of votes beat his polling average by a whopping 12 points.  If GOP primary voters in those states were too embarrassed to tell pollsters they were supporting Trump, imagine how bashful general election voters are. In Minnesota, Jesse Ventura’s candidacy was considered a sideshow, but his performance at the ballot box more than doubled his performance in polling three weeks before the election.  In other words, the polls very close to the election weren’t just wrong; they were wildly wrong.

You might be inclined to dismiss the Jesse Ventura shocker as an outdated anomaly involving a governor’s race that got far less scrutiny from top-level pollsters than a modern presidential campaign.  Perhaps—until you consider that Hillary Clinton led in every poll by double digits and 21.4 points in the Real Clear Politics average of all polls the night before she lost the Michigan primary to Bernie Sanders by 1.5 percent of the vote. That’s a 23-point polling error. Nervous yet? Perhaps you put your hope in uber-savvy pollsters like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight to know what’s coming. Well, Nate gave Hillary a 99-percent chance of winning the Michigan primary. Once again, the pollsters were wildly wrong. Why?

Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Jesse Ventura all have one thing in common: each is more phenomenon than politician. Whatever you think of John McCain and Mitt Romney, no one could accuse either of them of being a phenomenon. Their losses were very easily and accurately predicted by pollsters. It’s harder to understand and therefore impossible to predict the behavior of a phenomenon. No one really knew why, much less predicted, millions of Americans would pay twice the minimum wage in 1975 for something called a “pet rock.” It was a totally new idea. It didn’t adhere to marketing norms that relied on things like utility, beauty, quality, and value to predict customer behavior. Pet rocks were unapologetically useless, ugly, and grossly over-priced, yet they sold like hotcakes. Likewise, we’ve never seen a major-party nominee like Donald Trump. He is unapologetically ignorant, crude, crass, inexperienced, unqualified, and over-hyped by every norm of American politics, and yet he may be our next president. Just ask Governor Ventura.

In Minnesota in 1998, Hubert Humphrey was well liked and well qualified. He led in pre-election polls but came in third. In America in 2016, Hillary Clinton is well-qualified but deeply disliked and distrusted. (When even Bob Woodward of Watergate fame says you are “corrupt,” you have a problem as a Democrat.) She leads the electoral college in every poll even as everyone, including those pundits publicly confident that she cannot possibly lose, privately worries that somehow she will lose—just as she lost to Bernie in Michigan when he couldn’t possibly win, and just as a respected, accomplished, trusted, well-educated, experienced and much-loved son of a Democratic icon in an overwhelmingly Democratic state lost to an inexperienced, self-promoting buffoon in wrestling tights.

The truth—and it’s high time we admitted it—is that no one really knows what’s likely to happen on November 8, which is why everyone is on edge. Predicting where Trump will do well and by how much is like trying to predict the track of a hurricane. But in my unstudied opinion (and one I dearly hope will be disproved), anywhere that Clinton is not ahead in the polls by at least five points, it is safe to assume she is tied or slightly behind in the actual vote.

I mailed my absentee ballot for Clinton from London a month ago. The three pounds and seventy pence it cost me for postage was money gladly spent, but I have a sneaking suspicion it will be to no avail.  Look for the polls to tighten in the days ahead. Trump not only can win this thing, he is winning, and all this complacent talk about an inevitable Hillary Clinton presidency is not helping.

I Feel Bad About My Leg

sketch2I have to be honest. I’ve been a little sad lately—and not just lately, actually, but for a while. It’s not a feeling of despondency or despair or even depression (whatever that means), so much as a sort of ache that is by now almost familiar. Nothing is really broken, but something is clearly missing.

I’m not sure how to explain it, but this comes close: things as they are now are not as they once were, and things that once were will never be so again. I am not pining for the past or despairing of the present so much as I am quietly aware of the coming of a very different future. Life moves on, and it sheds its skin in places as it goes. There is an inescapable sadness to that. I can see it. I can feel it. I just haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it—until now.

In my case, I am swirling in the wake of two failed marriages and all the emotional turbulence that goes with such calamities. But what I am feeling is not really what most people would recognize as grief, nor is it something I expect ever to “get over.” It is rather more subtle—an indescribable strangeness that surrounds the people, places, and rituals in my life where once there was an ease so familiar to me that I scarcely knew it was there, like the beating of my heart or the motion of my leg. Have you thought deeply about your leg, today? I would guess not, but I bet you would if it were no longer attached to your body. This, oddly enough, came to me as something of an epiphany.

If you have been suffering through any sort of loss for more than thirty minutes in our therapeutic Internet culture, someone, somewhere has given you well-intentioned encouragement about moving on, coming to terms, opening a window, finding yourself, rediscovering what really matters, embracing change—pick your metaphor. It all comes down to the dogma that a healthy state of mind sooner or later requires us to “get over” the thing we are grieving. I’m not so sure. Consider, once again, the leg.

Legs are wondrous things. They are an essential part of our bodies. They bear us up and carry us to every adventure and accomplishment in life. Yet for some of us, there may come a time when a leg is no longer a help but a hindrance. The gangrenous or cancerous leg is not just a burden; unless it is removed it may threaten the survival of the entire body.

So it is with divorce (to state the obvious). A marriage that was integral to the lives of two people—something that once was vital and strong and useful—grows weaker, becomes useless, and dies. Dead or dying tissue must be excised. The leg must go. I get it. If you’ve been divorced, you get it.

But what I didn’t get until recently is that, after the thing that was once a part of us is gone, however necessary its removal, we never really “get over” the fact that it’s gone. We don’t say “good riddance” to the leg. After it’s gone, we don’t kid ourselves that it was never, after all, a very good leg. No matter how long it has been gone, we don’t forget that we once had a leg, as if by forgetting we could achieve some triumph of healing. We don’t say things like, “I wish I had never met my leg.”

It’s not a perfect metaphor, I realize. Unlike legs, people have the capacity to hurt us deliberately. Some marriages never learn to walk, much less run, because the people in them are dragging more baggage than Marley’s ghost. But speaking for myself and, I believe, for most, relationships don’t start out as awful. They are rarely bad to the bone. They aren’t intrinsically pathological. They know periods of sickness and health. For some the sickness passes, for others it becomes insufferable. Such is life.

And so I’ve decided to make peace with my sadness. It’s not such a bad thing. It’s a healed wound that reminds me I am human and still alive. I smile to look back and remember what was. Why? Because two people once shared such hopes, and when was hopefulness ever unlovely? There was excitement and anticipation and enthusiasm for the future—all good things. Life didn’t turn out quite as anyone expected, but whose life ever does?

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” My own history refuses to leave me. I have now been married and divorced twice. Whenever I hear someone disparage a politician or celebrity as the “twice-divorced” so-and-so, as if that statistic alone said something important about a person’s character, I cringe. That’s me, I think, and I wonder how that could even be possible.

It’s uncomfortable, yes, but it’s also clarifying. Failure never feels great, but it keeps us humble. Trial and error is the soul of wisdom. No one aspires to be a man of sorrows, but I’d rather be a wistful sage than a happy idiot. Sitting quietly with the unalterable sadness of the past isn’t wonderful, but it is honest. I can live with that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I can’t really live without it.

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