William F. Buckley Jr.’s memorial service was today, so some fresh remembrances have gone up at National Review Online. My favorite was My Old Man and the Sea by his son Christopher, detailing some times he had with his dad aboard his sailboats. It’s a bit beyond coffee-break length, perhaps, but worth the read when you have time.
Although only superficially resembling any maritime adventures my father and I have ever had, I couldn’t help thinking of him, and our dynamic, when reading the essay.
I’m somewhere between fair and marginal at boating. If you sent me to Dad’s dock (in its during-the-week storage state) and said “get the boat out and ready to go; I’ll be down in ten minutes,” there’s an excellent chance the boat will be out and ready to go in ten minutes. There’s at least a good chance I will have accomplished such without personal injury or property damage.
Nothing comes naturally to me on the water. I can’t remember knots for shit. I have to be retaught every year how the boat lift works—no small task when I’m by myself, as there are a couple dozen permutations for the valves and power switch. I’m just clumsy enough to think a little too much about stepping from the boat to the dock or vice versa, thus complicating it even a little further.
A lot of the knowledge is in there (knocks on noggin), but it’s all firmly in the same sort of mental storage in which I might also keep historical dates, or remember a professional acquaintance’s children’s names. I can recall it, but none of it feels inherent. I can’t quite kick any of it over into that “second nature” place in my head, despite at least one summer of sustained attempts to do so.
This frustrates my dad. He grew up on the water, for one thing. But he also has relevant mental aptitudes that are either absent or greatly diminished in me (outstanding spatial visualization, for one).
The kind of disparity I’m talking about is not a matter of basic intelligence, nor is it one of motivation, attention span, or anything else controllable. It’s simply that we all have different strengths and weaknesses. When something comes as naturally to you as boating comes to my dad, it can be easy to forget how gifted you are, particularly when trying to convey it to someone else.
Despite that ease, my dad has never forgotten it when dealing with his landlubber son. And that’s why I don’t say it “disappoints” him than I’m not a better boater than I am. We have a lifetime of private jokes, fond memories, and many mental arenas in which we can enjoyably run together. That boating isn’t one of them is accepted, and never resented.
My boys aren’t quite old enough yet for me to try to teach them a discipline of this sort, but it won’t be long. As we move beyond tying shoes and telling time and into knowledge “realms” with the boys, I know I’ll be grateful for Dad’s example of grace, patience, and empathy.