The art of not doing much

Boating on the ThamesSomething has been going on behind the house across the street. Months ago, the diesel generator arrived. It was a bad sign. I could mitigate the impact of this growling and odoriferous beast by closing the window. But last week saw the coming of the jackhammer, an instrument of torture.

You have the impression that a giant bird is bashing against the insides of your head. The sign beside the generator read: Soil Engineers, and gave the phone number.

I called. After only being cut off twice, I was put through to the owner. He told me that the “job” was more complex than they’d thought. What was that job, I wondered; a personal nuclear fallout shelter? Were they drilling for oil in Oakland? The hammering and drilling would only be for a few more days, he said. Clearly, the fellow had his hands full. He asked for my phone number, but had to have his assistant write it down for him.

I once worked in an office where a very self-important woman would walk out of her office, past the nearby copy machine to the other side of the building to give her assistant one page to copy for her. Although, to be fair, this fellow may have had a hard time hearing me because I stood by the window so he could get the full effect of the clatter, din, and racket.

Half an hour later I was lost. It looked fairly straightforward on the online map. I needed to go ten miles down highway 580 and then turn east into the hills. But the map I had in the car didn’t cover the area.

Then I saw it, right at the bottom, in small print. There was a little arrow pointing to Lake Chabot. I drove back to the freeway, took the winding road, and soon left the suburbs behind.
I walked through the almost empty parking lot to the marina. It smelled good. I could feel the quiet of the place. The sign said, “Monday: All-day rowboats $16.” The boat was a metal coastguard rowboat. One oar was twisted, and both were bolted to the gunwales. It was hard to row, but I felt my body relax as I oared gently away from the dock.

It had been a long time since I had been out on a lake. When I was four, my father’s hobby was to stock a lake with trout. In return, we had fishing rights. The lake was on the grounds of Carmel College, a school near the old Roman town of Wallingford-on-Thames. It too was a quiet and wooded place. It was winter when we went out. We were the only ones there. The boat was cedar wood. The lake was clear. Strange weeds grew out of the clay bottom. I marveled at an underwater forest world. Brown and rainbow trout glided effortlessly through the water.

Later, when I came to read the Arthurian legend, I imagined the lady of the lake raising Excalibur from this cold lake. I imagined Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies living beneath the surface. It was a still, magical, and romantic place. I learned to listen to the quiet.

My metal coastguard rental rattled and squeaked, drawing me back to the present as I rowed towards the small island. Even in mid-November the sun was intense. But even if winter gets canceled yet again in this part of California, it has nothing to do with global warming. The surface reflection was a glittering ever-changing mosaic. I had forgotten my sun block. Even my hat wasn’t much protection. I rowed into the shade. I stopped.

Just to float on the surface of a calm lake is, well, calming. I had come for some peace and quiet, and I found it. The water here is green, still, and deep. I looked over the side of the boat and could see tiny green discs of vegetation suspended in the motionless water. A shaft of sunlight illuminated subterranean plant life. My senses were starting to sharpen as I slowed down. I heard the plop of a waterfowl bobbing back to the surface, a fish jumped, the beat of wings overhead. A duck swam over to me. I floated.

No wonder Jerome. K. Jerome was so keen on boating. His Three Men in a Boat is a classic. The whole idea of boating on the Thames was to escape the rapid pace of industrial life. The boating idea became popular in the mid 1870’s. There is nothing like sitting about in a boat. It has to be one of the best places to perfect the art of doing nothing.

The boat becomes an extension of the body. You can feel the depression in the water that the bottom of the boat makes. And talking of bottoms, I thought the seat in this boat to be brutally uncomfortable. Was this the coastguard seat for manly men? No. I realized I had been sitting on the wrong side. I turned it around and lay back in an attitude of total relaxation. I watched the turkey vultures gliding high up in the blue.

I was thinking about how floating in a boat like this could be similar to the experience of being in one of those sensory deprivation tanks. I’ve never tried it, but I would give it a stalwart go in my quest for worthwhile knowledge about living a slow lifestyle. I was just getting into the calm of it all when Southwest flight 1505 from Phoenix came screaming low over the horizon. If you spend much time just sitting and listening you realize just how long it can take for the roar of an airplane to dissipate. Eventually it was quiet again.

There were a few immobile fishermen out on the lake. These fellows know how to live. I was beginning to float towards two young fishermen on the bank. One was digging into his hamper. The other seemed to be wrestling with a bush. I heard a snapping and crackling. The bush was shaking violently.

“My hook got stuck again,” he complained to his companion.

The hamper inspector retrieved a radio and turned it on. I put my oars in the water again and moved to a quieter place. As I looked over my shoulder I could see that they had now managed to lose their football in the water. The bush wrestler was wading in after it. He was up to his chest in the water. He had taken off his pants, but not much else.

It’s easy to be critical of others. I would have thought if you take all your clothes off, then you have a better chance of being comfortable when you come out. Then I thought about the time I was a boy fishing by the Thames. Early one morning, I cast my line far out into the river and the reel plopped into the water. I took off my clothes and jumped into the frigid, brackish water and swam down feeling for the reel on the bottom. I slithered up onto the muddy bank, clutching it in my now blue hand. It was only then that I realized I could have just kept hold of the rod and pulled on the line. These thoughts don’t always occur to us ten-year-old men of action.

If you are going to live by a river, and have children, then teach them to swim. I was always falling in the river as a child. Groups of us would hire punts and have battles to try to get the other group as wet as possible. Inevitably someone would fall in.

One day, my mother took me to the dentist in Wallingford. This was an ordeal for me as dentists were not in the habit of giving anything by way of pain relief. The drills were slow and the process painful. What added to this difficulty was that I was required to look neat, clean, and tidy. This is not the natural state for a boy.

We lived in a village about two miles from the dentist’s surgery. My mother professed some shopping and I was to present myself at the dentist’s in an hour.

It so happened I met a friend, who, after duly berating me for looking “done up like a dog’s dinner,” suggested we would have time to rent an open canoe for half an hour. We called this craft an Indian canoe. Once we were on the water we became Indians. Pleasure launches caused wakes that we imagined to be rapids. The wakes were rather tame, so we slid from side to side to give a more realistic impression of rapids. We whooped. We hollered. We were on the warpath. Our side-to-side motion became more eccentric until we reached that critical angle. The canoe took on water and sank like a stone.

It’s hard work simultaneously retrieving wooden oars that float and a boat that sinks. Our boat was now resting on the bottom of the river. We had to dive to get it. We got our boat back in time for me to squelch off to the dentist’s. When my mother met me outside, she seemed to be in a black mood. To this day, I’m still not convinced shopping is a good thing for women. I did at least avoid the drill that day.

The sun was lower in the sky now turning the hills orange. I was approaching some reeds. A deer stopped grazing to look at me. It decided I wasn’t interesting and resumed munching. A flock of cormorants came swimming by. They were ducking under the water and flapping their wings in a kind of frenzied bathing. One ran across the surface flapping its wings until it was airborne. It flew just above the surface. Then another one did exactly the same. It was like they were politely waiting their turn on the aquatic runway.

As I rowed back to the marina, I noticed how the oars make eddies. The water swirls around the oar. Air seems to be drawn down into the green water and then bubbles up to the surface again like jewels. Maybe there is no such thing as doing nothing. Slowing down lets us become involved in the joy of looking and listening. I got back in the late autumn afternoon with just a few minutes to spare before rental closing time.

The lake had a calming effect. I’ll do it again.