For the years of 2000 and 2001, my wife Gayl and I lived a wanderer’s life. Our home was an old 32-foot sailboat named Tamarac II and in it we fell down the coast, into the lazy third world that is Mexico, then explored the desolate, idyllic islands of the South Pacific. But ours was not an open-ended journey; we knew from the start we weren’t sailing into the sunset, that one day we’d return. Mainly, we wanted to start a family, and a small 25-year-old boat is no place to do that.
Still, it’s impossible to spend any time close to nature and not have it change you, and our time living on the ocean defined us. It was a time of discovery, freedom and most important, simplicity, and when it was time to return to the place we’d grown up, we vowed to make those three words our mantra. We were determined to strive not for more, but for less, because we had discovered how wonderful less could be. We held dear the words of a great sailor, Robin Lee Graham, who at age 16 sailed a 24-foot boat around the world. He went to sea in search of what he wanted from life. Instead, he found, the sea showed him how little he really needed.
I can now say with certainty that of all the places Graham has called home, the Orange Coast of today, my hometown, is not one of them.
The Orange Coast we returned to after a two year absence was not the OC coast I remembered. For one thing, it was colder. A lot colder. Don’t let anyone tell you So Cal doesn’t have a winter; in my new skin it felt like we had nine months of it. The coast was also faster, louder and more expensive than I remembered.
I knew it couldn’t have changed so radically in two years, but flipping through a newspaper’s real estate section told me we were now less prepared for life here than if we were dumped onto the TV show “Survivor.” To make our sailing dream a reality, we had sold or given to charity everything: house, cars, refrigerator, washer and dryer, bikes…the list was long. Now, our worldly possessions consisted of a few bags full of clothes, a laptop computer, two surfboards, snorkeling equipment, a speargun, and a few pieces of furniture along with a closet full of books and shoes at my mother’s house.
Now you might think I would be a little stressed at this point. After all, my wife was pregnant, I was 35 years old, had no home, no car and no job, and the world was whirring around me at breakneck speed. Instead, I was oddly calm.
I rationalized: We’re doing exactly what we said we would, keeping it simple.
Down deep, however, something told me it couldn’t last.
For one thing, we were staying in the spare room of good friends, but I knew that couldn’t go on very long – the friendship was too good to risk losing. And unless I got a lot better with that speargun, feeding my family was going to cost money.
One morning I was contemplating this over my dose of caffeine with my friend. We stood in his kitchen and in a conversational lull I said, “Man, this place is colder than I remember.”
“You’re in surf trunks. It’s December,” he said.
I looked down. He had a point.
It was then that I realized a small tweak in the plan was imminent. I dug out my jeans and bought a new sweater.
But the bigger concession came in the form of a car.
My original plan was to use public transportation. After all, we had survived for two years doing everything by bus, in places where we didn’t speak the language or know the terrain. But that plan died a slow, bumpy death one day when I took the local bus for a spin.
It was a simple thing; at least it began that way. I needed to get about five miles away, to a friend’s for a game of tennis. I worked out my route, walked to the corner and boarded the bus. It jumped away before I even had a chance to sit down. Then it stopped. In fact, it stopped at what seemed like every corner and finally turned – in the opposite direction of my waiting tennis partner.
I lumbered to the driver. “Doesn’t this bus go to Coast Highway and Superior?” I asked.
“No,” he said, and kept driving. I had done better with tattooed drivers in deep Mexico.
“But I need to go that way,” I said, pointing toward the rear of the bus.
He set his jaw and jerked the wheel. As the bus stopped at the curb, the driver tore a slip of paper from a pad on his dash and handed it to me. A transfer.
I got out.
Almost one hour after I had climbed aboard the first bus, I climbed out of the second. I was still over half a mile from my friend’s house. It was apparent that the Orange County Transportation Authority had accomplished the impossible. Their buses, following a dizzyingly serpentine pattern, had managed to stop at every block in every neighborhood, except the one I was shooting for. I ran to my friend’s house – the bus had also made me late – played an hour of tennis, and went through the OCTA’s staccato tour of the coast again. A casual game of tennis had turned into a three-and-a-half-hour endurance test and taught me why most day laborers ride broken bikes to their 10-hour construction jobs: if they took the bus they’d die of exhaustion in a month.
So I bought the car.
The car, of course, made it possible to look for places to live. Gayl and I decided that we’d like something by the beach. We wanted to keep intact the close relationship with the sea that we had formed over the last few years. We began looking for rentals in Laguna and Newport Beach with either access to or views of the ocean.
We soon discovered we had two distinct choices in our $1,400 price point. One, a cozy 30-square-foot room in the back of someone’s beach house; or two, a two-bedroom shack with no heat, a former tenant that was obviously very into cats, and a punk band for upstairs neighbors. Neither one seemed fitting for a newborn.
So we looked inland.
Then we looked further inland, finally finding a few decent offerings. We filled out applications. We spoke to landlords. With few exceptions, the scenario played out like this:
“Mr. Loose, you haven’t used credit for two years.”
“I don’t sleep well if I owe someone money.”
“I see.” Suspicious look. “What’s with all this savings?”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
“I suppose.” Very suspicious look. “There’s no address for the past two years.”
“We were on a boat, in the South Pacific.” I would then dazzle them with tales of escape and adventure, a credit-free existence, million-dollar 360-degree views for free, and interacting with nature and new cultures.
Their response was always the same: “Geez! I wish I could do that. I really admire you. You are truly great people.”
Then, we would never hear from them again.
To finally get a place, I had to pay six month’s rent and a security deposit up front. It irked me that my worth as a person was so linked to my worth on paper. But to be fair, I understood. I was once a landlord and had been burned, badly, for trusting. Still, I like to think that I am still trusting, and trustworthy.
I thought back to a man I now consider a friend in Mexico. I needed a lot of work done on my boat for the 2,800-mile open ocean journey from Puerto Vallarta to the Marquesas, in the South Pacific. More than Gayl and I could get done alone. So I hired Juan, a young father of two who had no car, a tiny house and the most optimistic attitude I’ve ever encountered. Like many Mexicans I met, Juan was a natural McGuiver, able to assess and fix any problem – and Tamarac had some major ones.
Juan agreed to help me for a modest hourly wage. We shook hands on it and he showed up dockside every day for over two weeks and worked hard until after dark. When Juan was finished, Tamarac was in good shape, and over a beer together I asked Juan if he wanted to get paid now.
“Yes, that would help,” he said. I got the feeling that it would help a lot.
I pulled out my pesos. The sum, which was huge to a Mexican commoner, was tiny by American standards, but I was still well short and the banks were closed.
Juan just smiled. “It’s okay. Monday. Maybe you find more work for me by then.” I looked around Tamarac. There was only small stuff now. For all Juan knew, Gayl and I could provision up and sail away by Monday.
And we did.
We had to move to a different marina miles away. It wasn’t until Wednesday that I went looking for Juan. By this time, Juan was a friend and I worried that he saw me as some scheming, prejudiced American, like so many of the ex-pats I ran across in Mexican ports.
I found him scraping the bottom of a boat in the local yard, a back-breaking job. When he saw me approach, he stopped. I had no idea what he was thinking behind his mask and goggles, but I could imagine.
He pulled the mask down. A huge smile greeted me. “Terry, mi amigo!”
* * *
The place we moved into was nice, even though it was miles from the ocean we missed so much, and we began making plans for our next adventure: the arrival of our daughter. We had a thousand errands to accomplish so we spent a lot of time in the car. “Are you all right?” Gayl said one day. She was sitting in the passenger seat as I negotiated a third lap around a grocery store’s full parking lot.
“Sure, why?” I said.
“For the past few weeks you’ve been trying to strangle the steering wheel.”
She was right; I had noticed it myself. Along with the white knuckles came a clenched jaw and tight stomach. The up side was, it probably would improve my tennis grip, but who had time to play tennis? I had to find a way to pay for the imminent dental work and ulcer medication.
At first I chalked it up to stress about my approaching fatherhood, but now the reason was clear: It was traffic, crowds, full parking lots, and all the rules to try to curb them. It seemed every time I left my house, the rest of the local population hit the streets, too; it was as if my car’s ignition sent a mass email to all Orange Coasters that the “target” was on the move.
So I took evasive action. Taking advantage of my jobless status, I began doing errands in off hours: bank runs at 10 a.m.; post office at 10:30; Blockbuster at noon; groceries at 2 p.m. I didn’t even try to get near movie theaters or lunch spots. Weekends found me hunkered down at home, stocked up on anything we might need until at least Tuesday.
But they still found me, cutting me off at merge lanes, dodging ahead of me at gas station pumps. I began to realize why the rest of the world seemed so empty and idyllic: Everyone had moved to my home town. And they all had a lot more money and a lot less time than I did. The thing I couldn’t figure out was how this was possible when no one ever seemed to visit the office. My guess was it had something to do with the explosive proliferation of cell phones in my absence. Now, everywhere I went, business was being conducted wirelessly. The argument was that by being accessible 24 hours a day you actually became freer with your movements. But something about that logic seemed pretzelly and I resisted.
It all came to a head one day in a Barnes & Noble (where I went to read magazines for free). As I waxed nostalgic through an issue of Cruising World, an electronic “William Tell Overture” buzzed from the pocket of the man next to me. I glanced over after he answered. He spoke to the air and had a secret service-like earpiece connected to a tiny cell phone. He put down his magazine and walked to New Fiction. I followed, fascinated that I was the only one fascinated in his behavior. With his choice in hand, he moved to the check-out line and continued to lecture the air on how to “pump up the team” and “make them feel special” so they’d perform well in an upcoming deal. He was oblivious to the world around him, and it to him.
Outside the store, he was still rambling on loudly, having pontificated through his entire transaction with no more than a flip of a credit card as acknowledgement of the Barnes & Noble team member and cashier.
Was this the future? Was this my future? I vowed no; “no cell phone” became a part of The Simple Plan’s mission statement.
* * *
At least I could walk away from this chatter. But there was plenty of noise I couldn’t. Not that life on the ocean is quiet. In fact, it is filled with noises: the water against the boat’s hull, the wind through its rigging, the cackle of birds, the chant of islanders rowing outriggers at sunset. But most of these are soothing sounds and actually reminded me of how much space I had.
Here on land I was bombarded with a man-made cacophony, reminding me of how little space each one of us gets. I hadn’t met any of my neighbors, but I felt I knew everyone intimately. There was the mortgage broker to my south who liked to speak on his cell phone in his yard and ignore his large dog’s barking. There was the very caring family to my east who bonded over long weekend sessions hacking away at their backyard jungle with gas-powered machines. Then there was the jovial man to the north who owned and constantly operated every power tool Home Depot sells. During their breaks, planes roared overhead and cars thundered by on perfectly good streets being attacked by jackhammers. I wondered what everyone was racing after; I wondered if they knew.
Then there were the gardeners with their evil mowers and blowers and maniacal weed-whackers. It still amazes me how a place seemingly carpeted in concrete employs so many gardeners.
I calculated that I had approximately two seconds of quiet in each minute, and that stressed me out. Then I worried that I was calculating this, and became even more stressed out.
I felt trapped, hunted, and suddenly it became clear why everyone longed to buy a place at the top of a hill with a home theater, a gym, two subZeros and underground parking for 10 cars, all tucked into neat communities with heavy regulations, gates with guards and roaming security units: It was a jungle down here in reality.
This jungle did have rules, however. A lot of them. In fact, when the gardeners and power tools ran me out to the streets again, everywhere I looked I saw a sign telling me I couldn’t possibly do that or I had better do this, or if I were to actually be stupid enough to do what I was thinking about doing, the city could not be held responsible for the almost certain catastrophic consequences.
After two years at sea and abroad, where signs either came in the form of clouds or things I couldn’t read, I was simply not prepared for this. I didn’t remember my home being so dogmatic.
Parking seemed a particular favorite of the bureaucracy; believe me, if there is one area in which America excels, it is parking control. I truly believe that all our traffic worries would be solved if we just ripped out all the no parking signs – everyone could finally pull over and rest.
Of course, there are other restrictions on our renegade behavior, particularly such subversive habits as skateboarding and loitering, that keep sign makers in those mansions on the hill. It’s a testament to American optimism that every year, on Fourth of July, thousands rush down to our beaches, where the signs are the most prevalent. The result is throngs of patriotic Americans spending Independence Day restricted from doing just about anything that could be labeled a pursuit of happiness.
* * *
Gayl’s and my own happiness was becoming equally as elusive, until the day our daughter Leila was born. And, it’s fair to say, that is when our Simple Plan truly began to crumble. Unlike her parents, who had spent the better part of two years in an open cockpit being blasted by sun, rain and wind, Leila needed pampering. Not to mention a lot of Pampers.
My wife, in typical new mom fashion, began flipping through catalogs and checking out stores such as Oilily for baby clothes. I looked at the prices of some of these outfits. “Maybe some nice socks,” I said.
As for cribs and automatic swings and baby monitors…, Gayl would rightfully stand for only the safest, which were also the most luxurious. Don’t ask me why gold pin-striping makes a swing safer, but apparently it does.
And then there were the toys and videos and CDs, which were a crucial part of developing properly. I showed her our two-digit bank account and argued that all my generation had were simple blocks and clunky wagons. “And look how we turned out,” I said.
“So you want her to be an idiot,” said my wife. I really had no answer for that.
Rescue came from the one area we were wealthy in: friends. While little Leila’s parents were chasing dreams funded by her college fund, Leila’s parents’ friends were back here reaping the rewards of a local economy that refused to acknowledge the country’s recession. And thanks to a move that my wife still thinks I planned, we were the last to have a child. So before Gayl could open a credit line, our home was filled with only the best a child could want. Leila had a bassinet that vibrated her to sleep and a crib with a firmer mattress than ours. She had videos that promised to make her a mix between Frida and Einstein, toys that even I couldn’t master and so many clothes we couldn’t afford the hangers to hang them on. My baby had 22 hats; I went half way around the world with one.
This came with a price, however. One was that our plan of simplicity was quickly filling up with complications: We learned that one small baby actually takes the space of approximately five fraternity brothers. Our cozy little home was now a crowded little hovel.
But worse than that was the discovery of just how out of touch we had become with what it takes to fit in around our home town.
It happened like this:
Months after we had moved in we still had no coffee table. Then, one day our good friend Heather visited. She pulled us outside and pointed to a sad little table in the back of her truck, explaining that one of her clients was throwing it out. I inspected the table; it was made of nice wood alright, but it was chipped and rickety and covered in a flaking varnish that had yellowed in the sun. “The minute I saw it,” Heather said excitedly, “I thought of you.”
Days later I came home to find Gayl working on the table in the backyard. Leila looked on as my wife sweated through yet another hand-sanding. In the world we had come from just months ago this would be commendable: There is no badge more honored in the cruising kingdom than the one for self-reliance, making due with what floats your way. Out there, sailors are more likely to boast not about how nice something is, but how much skill and sweat it took to achieve it. In fact, mega-yachts with crews and shiny new gizmos are looked down on every bit as much as a dinged-up Nissan is here.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling that somehow I had steered my family wrong. Was this their punishment for all my big talk and recurring tendency to drop everything and chase down some new pipe dream? Manual labor and a stranger’s trash? Up until this moment I had imagined a grown Leila bragging to her friends about our adventurous spirit; now I saw her working her way through med school and cursing us as her irresponsible “gypsy parents.”
* * *
Maybe that’s why, by the end of summer I had a job, we had another car and, yes, I had a cell phone (it was the only way to avoid the office). Life was more complicated, but it was also more manageable. We didn’t spend much time at the beach that summer, but then, we rationalized, Leila was too young. Besides, where would we park?
But as fall approached and the sweaters came out of the back of the closet, so did the longing for those lazy days in quiet anchorages, free from dayplanners and checkbooks. Gayl and I had not mentioned those days in a long time, and I wondered how they ranked in her memory. We were almost treading water financially and I noticed she now flipped through Pottery Barn and J. Crew catalogs more often than sailing magazines. I couldn’t blame her: A family had always ranked first on her list, and with a family came responsibility, roots, a plan for the future.
One day, as I got Leila ready for our Sunday family walk, I ran down that list. I liked the responsibility, I decided, but when it came to roots and a plan for the future, I felt a little lost. I wasn’t sure I had what it takes to compete in the big leagues our home town had become; I didn’t have any of the skills cherished here.
I concentrated on Leila’s last button. “I guess we’re ready,” I said to Gayl.
“I was thinking,” she said, “maybe we could go to the old docks for a change. We could check out boats big enough for three.”
I lifted Leila onto the coffee table that Gayl had restored months before. Heather was right, I thought, it was reminiscent of us. It had been beaten down and forgotten, worthless to those in a rush for the best. But it was made from solid wood, its structure sound and balanced. With a little work, it held a lot of hope.
Climbing behind the wheel of the car I discovered I had forgotten the cell phone and my wallet. I didn’t go back, though; we were just going for a simple walk on the docks. So we pulled away, and somehow the traffic seemed lighter than normal that day.