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ONE HAND CLAPPING - DONALD R. VOGEL


How is a kayak trip a metaphor for a socially awkward person making his way in a life marred by sloth and envy? The trite answer is it’s a journey. My hope is both excursions are worth hearing anyway. The kayak trip is one I embarked on recently during which two people, one an older woman and the other the group leader, were lost. There were 15 of us on a paddle to Bannerman Castle, the ruins of a Robber Baron estate on an island in the Hudson River. We started at 10 a.m. on a mid-October day, diagonally across from West Point, cannons booming for a football game. It was to be near 70-degres, and though a drought was ruining the colors of that spectacular autumn weather, bursts of yellow, orange, and reds still greeted us during the approximately 12-mile trip. Only, there was one more surprise burst to come, which shouldn’t have been a surprise as this was a serious paddle club.

Diametrically opposed to other groups I have kayaked with on drunken shallow water excursions, this was the touring set. Each member, including myself, had no less than 14 ft craft, meant for serious water, to cut through wind and wave, and a list of requisite safety equipment, including wetsuits with the water in in the 50s that day. The adage is to dress for immersion not the air, but it was the air that became our problem. We began the day with about 5 knot winds to our backs, but the leaders warned everyone before putting in that it often changes. By our first break, we could see white caps, and the trip leader gave us a choice, to explore a creek or head across the river right to Bannerman castle and then home, knowing we would be against the wind and tide. In a decision that seemed like the old joke of searching for lost keys in better light, not where you lost them, we chose the creek because it was sheltered. The winds only increased during that time.

This was obvious as soon as we left the creek to confront the challenging river cross, in two-foot chop. We kept to the plan to still visit Bannerman Castle. Skills and age divided the larger group into subsets, leading to us outpacing two compatriots. Like the military, this club paddled with a ‘leave no one behind’ credo and structured all excursions to prevent such an occurrence: one co-leader in the front, two on the sides, and the trip leader in the back, all with radios to report direction, hazards, and laggards. If you’ve ever paddled in rough water you are most stable while moving and, where possible, cutting directly through the waves without looking back. Mother nature wasn’t that cooperative as the swells came at angles. By the time we reached the Castle, sheltered but fatigued, we noticed the leader and an older woman not with us and not in sight of the horizon.

The majority of the group waited 45 minutes without a visual of the two, though the co-leaders were in clear and calm communication with the leader escorting the woman. It became a little like Lord of the Flies, as our small community broke down. Some paddled to the western shore to ready for the trip back, some stayed by Bannerman. One woman, not a leader but who had her own radio, kept interfering with the necessary communication among the others, screeching for updates, creating a cacophony on the air waves. She kept threatening to leave or call for a rescue, even while the leader confirmed that he and the struggling woman were okay. The panicked woman decided to leave and began paddling on her own into shifting winds and swells to venture solo approximately 5 miles. A co-leader and myself thought it prudent to, first seek permission to follow for her safety and to remove her obstruction of the other rescue.

The trip back would have been better had we stayed on the other side of the river with the cover of the cliffs, but to cross and then back again, would have been doubly treacherous. So, we slogged, the co-leader in the front, and me taking up the rear to ensure the woman did not fall behind. This formation is safer if you cannot paddle three across. You dare not turn your head to look back without the danger of getting swamped. Slow, calm, and steady was the rule, even when it seemed we were paddling in place. Though the wind muffled communication, one couldn’t miss the woman squawking her incessant justifications for leaving. Eventually another member of the group caught up to us and passed as the co-leader fell back to calm the woman. Perhaps out of frustration with her and a burgeoning of my self-preservation instinct, I left them behind me as I focused on following the other paddler. He and I made it back in enough time to clean our boats and load them on our cars before other members of the group straggled back, including the co-leader and boisterous woman. The leader and woman who fell behind earlier were both weary but fine. The leader and another paddler had to rig a towline to get her back.

Not one of my shining moments, I’ll admit, especially knowing what being left behind feels like in my own life. This is one of my many issues as a socially awkward person, including raising a child who is in the autistic spectrum. Like my son, I grew up reticent, with limited friends, and spent a lot of time by myself, eschewing sports and social activities, though I have never been diagnosed on the spectrum. What worries me is if my son mirrors me in my envy of the neuro normal and the sloth that has me say ‘fuck it all.’ My son just graduated college and is working his first job as a music teacher in a private elementary school, a temp job for another teacher on leave. He is fine, except that he has not made any acquaintances with colleagues, and spends most of his time at home, weekends included, playing his trombone. Unlike what I did that day on the Hudson, I will never leave my son behind to fend for himself in life. Along the way in raising him, I have grown weary of regrets and self-recriminations on how I could have guided him to be more sociable. Maybe that is what I should leave behind.

Kayaking as a solo or a group activity says something about me. I’ve always taken to the nonteam sports, biking and swimming as well. I was uncomfortable with athlete culture’s one-dimensional view of tough manhood, because I didn’t fit the mold, although I was a good athlete when I applied myself. The basic types of kayaking, recreational and touring, which I’ve done for 12 years, suit both sides of my personality, and I have a boat for each. Recreational yaks are in the 8-12-foot range and meant mostly for calm lakes or rivers. Anything larger, 14 foot or more are the open water, day tripper variety meant to glide with less effort. Funny, the Hudson trip was both, starting one way and ending the other. Luckily, I am experienced enough to know that this was a trip for the larger boat. When I go in my rec boat, I’m usually with people who, after a mile or so, are ready to crack the first beer. My touring colleagues are the opposite, all business and safety. With all of the trips I took this past summer, group or solo, do you know what the best one was? Me, floating on a lazy river, a 90-degree day, listening to Chuck Prophet sing “It’s a Summer Time Thing”, feet up, while sucking a cold brew and vaping. I was the envy of anyone passing that day.

In general, I have found that life can be like it was early on the morning of that Hudson River paddle: little wind, favorable current, water like glass. That to me equates with the ignorance

of youth, untainted by experience that teaches you to prepare for the unexpected wind to come. Thinking back, my youth was not worthy of a memoir in an age in which the word ‘compelling’ in that genre is equated with ‘shock value’. I grew up uneventfully working class and all that it implies with a divorce and the broken individuals that it produces. The man today has on one shoulder the devil of pride saying, ‘hey be proud, you’re first generation college educated’ and on the other the demon that says ‘yes, but look at the gulf it has produced between you and some of your no-load siblings.’ Before getting any deeper, what I do know at age 60, that the answers to life’s questions lie is in the muddled middle between the wind of philosophy and waves of experience.

Of course, the kayak trip provides a convenient metaphor, with the middle of a turbulent river in a speck of a boat is the most dangerous place to be and the only way to get through it is to keep paddling without looking behind. The goal is to get back to where you were before, because the shores are lined with rocks and treefall. I’m eschewing it as a model of the path to self-discovery, as I returned grateful for being safe, but with others eschewing me because I broke the cardinal rule to not leave anyone behind. No, I’m weary of knowing thyself, and trying for a metaphor of self-acceptance. If exhaustion does not swamp anyone dumb enough to think they can stay fighting in the middle their entire life, loneliness will as anyone closest to you will get exhausted from constantly trying to rescue you from yourself.

Not that some form of self-knowledge on my part is not required, such as recognizing my sins of envy and sloth and the damage that both have wrought. I wonder if it the combination that infects anyone we call a ‘slacker.’ It is something I see, but find hard to accept, and in discussing it I feel like it puts me in the place of the woman on the river I got weary of and left behind. On envy, it is as I mentioned before, being socially awkward growing up, wanting to be among the privileged, in looks, money, and networks. In high school, you would have found me among whomever occupies the social classes of the goths and stoners today that tend to produce brainiacs, artists or, regrettably, the maladjusted. This is the sin I never want to admit and one that I stashed behind the false idol of being an astute social critic of those groups I most wanted to be among. The self-preservation view to have was they were always shallow and self-absorbed, whereas I found my own self-satisfaction in being deep or enlightened. In reality, I most desired their emotional felicity, perhaps just their joy.

Music and books seem to be the coin of the realm among the socially inept, perpetuating customers and creators of each. My son and I fit both of those molds, but each of us speaks in languages the other may not understand. Jazz is my thing, my son’s peripherally, and I find free jazz to be the language I prefer, though my tastes are eclectic. My devices and shelves house a Ph.D. thesis of either musicology or psychology. The thesis statement would be about the search rather than the destination. The same could be said of books. Reading this essay should give some evidence of the creator in me. Where I can’t reach my son’s level is in the depth of music, expression and interpretation, he has reached. The kid has studied music from single notes up to composition, across instruments, but funneled it all through his trombone. A good critic, of which I am not, could write about emotion and intellection, maybe even intent, in the noise of his practice I hear several hours a day. Might there be some common ground when it is organized cacophony that draws me to free jazz. My vocabulary here is limited.

Sloth itself is like being on a river without a paddle, unable to help anyone or myself, barely staying afloat. I wrote an essay about this, that was meant to be comical, but thankfully, was never published. Its premise is that of a guide giving a tour of a house of sloth with dust and disproportion visible due to regrettable attempts to fix things, and what it says about the owner. Missing is what sloth has wrought in relationships, because that isn’t something I want to figure out (another example of sloth?). As that is like the rough part of the river, the muddled middle, I’ll contemplate if I could have done more to ensure my son doesn’t wind up like me: self-aware without self-acceptance. Bro-culture was the route my wife and I were most familiar with, and it involved sports. However, that stopped when my son, always uncaring about a game or interacting with the rest of the team, pulled down his pants in the outfield of a t-ball game. His answer to my later admonition, “I had an itch.”

His issues were more glaring with scouts, with its emphasis on team building activities, the pinnacle of patriarchy which still dominates our society. I was a co-den leader with a surfer dude father. Most of my time was spent working to get my son to interact with the other boys in activities than it was helping with the overall activities themselves. I envied the felicity with which the surfer dude led the others. The kids loved him. Scouts, like t-ball, didn’t last, but my wife and I were adamant that my son had to choose something to stay connected, and he relented on band. For a brief time, he flourished in drama, and one of my greatest memories is of him dancing joyfully with the chimney sweeps in his high school junior year production of Mary Poppins. Alas, that interest faded as he preferred the pit with the band. That has led him to where he is now, an artist in search of a teaching job. I spent his school age years failing to connect with others in our town, envying them and their lives of shared community, jocks, beauty queens, and socialites perpetuating their kind. I guess we were fated to do the same.

This is being borne out as we head into the next phase of our life. Right now, our generation’s sons and daughters are transitioning from college to the working world and eventually, to their own families. I am not sure that is the trajectory for me with my son as the only progenitor. We see signs of our fate in the extended family: a brother in law in his late fifties living alone in the family home; a nephew turning 40 who lives solitary in his own home. This is just on my wife’s side. You might be surprised that envy is still my sin here, because my family, represented by my youngest brother, is the example of those people who shouldn’t spawn, but did anyway. The result is a niece, though she is the best thing about this no-load shit brother, who was mostly raised by my mother and smarter than her patriarch. She is currently living in her own home with her boyfriend. This is quite the opposite of her cousin, my son, who has never dated and is pathologically shy around women. Time and again I feel like the woman in the lagging kayak, watching the another version of me paddle ahead and out of sight.

Not that my son will never settle down and have a family, I just wonder how he would do it and how well. This is a kid who, because of his issues, is mostly non-conversational, garnering certain types of glances at group functions from people who don’t know him. He gets annoyed when my wife has to ask a thousand questions just to get anything out of him. At most any gathering, he sits looking at his phone, or staring into space. You’ve heard the old saying that ‘even when a fool is quiet, people will think he’s wise’, well for my son it seems to

go ‘even when a kind soul is quiet, people will think he’s unfriendly.’ Look, in the wake of so many lone wolf scenarios making the daily front page, I am grateful for who he is, though I sometimes worry if the sideways glances at him could launch a bad trajectory. At the very least, I see the possibility of a future with my wife and I silent among friends sharing pictures of grandkids.

I have to wonder if not caring what people think is a step toward self-acceptance or the rally cry of the slothful. Yet again, competing forces, like wind and water. I may never find an answer, but so what, I hit the lotto every time I get a belly laugh out of this kid. I have spent more time thinking about ways to get him to laugh, than about teaching him how to live life. The world educates you whether you ask for that or not. One gift of being the awkward outsider is seeing the absurdity of life and how that can also be funny. Thank you, Robin Williams, rest in peace. Add comedian to those who are spawned by our awkward crowd. Our best moments are when my son and I are on long drives and I’ll say whatever comes to mind to see what clicks, and then riff from there. I’ll leave it God to forgive me if there is a lowest common denominator at times, but I can get the kid going and responsive. Conversation it is not, but I am reassured by the fact that his finding the humor is an awareness of the reality that makes it absurd.

I am writing this at the beginning of the Holiday Season, and our just completed Thanksgiving dinner, out at a restaurant, was either the first, or one of the few times my wife, son, and I, ever ate it outside a home. It is an indication of how life whittles down the social networks you do have. Our parents, who used to host these Holidays, are gone, and most of our siblings have moved away. Some cousins are what remain of the extended families, whom we see at various times. This too, is like that day on the Hudson in which the larger group gets separated by circumstance, age, or skill. I’m torn between my envy of friends who have large families and ongoing traditions, and the part of me that has always liked less noise and crowds, and thus appreciates this stage of life. I am noticing how the commercial part of Christmas favors the former, and is unkind to those who are alone. One of our recent Holiday family traditions that will continue, is going to see a jazz or classical Holiday concert. When I hear those old carols, it is more about nostalgia than making memories. In line with the clichés we all adopt as coping mechanisms, I appreciate each moment more now.

I am naively hopeful that the pandemic provided direct insight into the life of the socially awkward, and for that crowd, my son and I, a break from the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). It helped me to mostly get over mine because how can you envy anything that is not happening. Schadenfreude also helped, as I remember at the beginning of the lockdown biking past homes that had set up food pantries for the less fortunate to come and take what they needed. I am most grateful I never had to do that, pray that it never happens, and also have a bit more perspective on life. My type of otherness is nothing compared to theirs, an a point at which I should consider dropping back to help those left behind. Still, I write this after yet another lone wolf shooting that killed five people in a Walmart. The shooter’s suicide note alluded to being bullied and ridiculed for being socially awkward. Too many of these individuals fit that profile. I don’t empathize with that person, nor do I have any answers on preventing the next one. I can only speak for myself and ask forgiveness for sloth and envy and pray against self-fulfilling prophecies.

One person I have mostly forgotten about in my convenient paddling metaphor, is the trip co-leader who stayed behind with the struggling woman kayaker, as I forged ahead of them. Sometimes a life coping mechanism is allowing a paddler to come alongside and offer wisdom, while another is finding it in yourself to focus on what’s ahead, as I did to keep pace with the kayaker who had surpassed us. If neither is your thing, know that in my sometimes-solitary world of books and music, I have found wisdom, grace, and empathy in the fellowship of unintentional communal moments one finds across years or distance, reminding me I am not alone. Reality is quite often not so altruistic, as I certainly wasn’t that windy day on the river. Sometimes instinct takes over, whether that’s our tendency toward selfishness or survival. Looking back is helpful, and other times it might take your life. Readers should listen to me, because there is a great tutorial video out there of me on another kayaking trip, that got 45,000 hits in an hour.

Me and my recreational buddies were on the Upper Carman’s River on Long Island. We were heading back from paddling upstream against the current and the wind. It was midsummer and I had the requisite safety equipment. We three were headed downriver in a swift current, navigating lots of treefall and jagged rocks, exhausted from the first half of the trip. Fortunately, my buddy behind me caught my deft maneuvering on a Go Pro for posterity. We reached a curve in the river where the flow increased significantly. I was in the middle of the line of boats, and watched the man in front negotiate the treacherous bend. My turn. In the video you will see me, geared up enough to give kayak adventurers a boner, nonchalantly approach, as I was pushed sideways by the current into a tree limb hanging over the swirling stream. In that moment I figured, ‘simple enough’ and reached up to push way with my right hand.

Removing my hand from the paddle necessary to control the boat was the first stupid mistake in a confluence of dumbass one might study if you were to make this a lesson on what not to do. Remember, I said before that my recreational buddies were the ones to crack the first beer after the first mile. We did six miles that day. Anyway, the effect of me pushing with my right hand, instead of using the paddle to brace or navigate, created a force counter to the flow underneath, essentially capsizing me. You might think my expert survival skills from years of paddling kicked in and I made a seamless wet entry into my boat that would be the envy of the kayak community. Nope, I just stood. Outside of this being the first time I ever capsized in over a decade of paddling, the most embarrassing thing about the incident was that the river we were on averaged about two feet in depth. The video closes with me pumping furiously, and my buddies fore and aft taking bets on how many pumps it would take to dewater. The lesson here is simple, it just might be as stupid to make a kayak trip a metaphor for life.


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