August 19, 2013

On yachts and human beings

I spent some time recently in the harbor town of Saugatuck, Michigan. The land is awash with upscale boutiques and restaurants, and the harbor is awash in cabin cruisers and yachts. I don’t spend much time among the rich, but when I do it tends to make me reflect. I neither love nor hate them. Taken as a group, there isn’t much collective virtue there to love, but neither is there much virtue in grumbling about those who, through hard work, driving ambition, or the blind luck of heredity happen to be materially well off. It is usually better not to make sweeping judgments about other people, and it is almost never good to make self-serving ones. I stand on the shore; an edifice of fiberglass and dreams rumbles up the channel. That is all. The world is as it is.

A modern yacht, taken as an object, looks like nothing so much as an enormous wedding cake in a hurricane. It is a streamlined pile of white layers with a little man in a golf shirt standing on top. For all I know there may be women who own such objects too, but I have never seen a woman feel the need to steer one. The women are either inside or in the stern with a collection of underdressed teenagers. The teenagers are still caught up in the business of showing themselves off, rather than in displaying their limited possessions. A yacht is just a setting for this sort of human activity – a thing neither beautiful nor ugly in itself.

There is nothing very different from one yacht to the next apart from size. They are too big for their clean lines to convey any plausible sense of speed. If they are fast, they can only be so in open water – not lumbering and rumbling around in the shallows among other boats. They engage in a slow ritual, going up and down the channel. The smaller boat must make way for the larger. Thus, even in leisure there is competition. The man who proudly sheers the 70-foot yacht must pull aside for the 80-foot yacht, and must feel the eyes of the shore-bound spectators shift from his boat to the even more impressive one. The captain of the 80-footer, I can only guess, lives with a quiet dread that something even bigger may come grunting into port tomorrow. This concern, I know, is not so hard a fate as struggling against an ordinary mortgage. Nor is an ordinary mortgage as bitter as the struggle for a meal that many people on the planet have to go through every day. Still, human beings have an unerring capacity to scale their emotions to their circumstances, and can be miserable amid plenty or content with only a little more than bare subsistence. To see yachts and cabin cruisers coming and going is to see only those things that people have acquired in the attempt to please themselves – they are not guarantors of anything, least of all happiness.

I watched, amused, in this intermission between my own concerns, which swell or ebb in accordance with forces I can only now and then control. I envy not the yachtsman, but the water on which he rides– which parts in his wake but always returns to its serenity. Which neither minds being the wave, nor attaches itself to its interlude of calmness. Which makes the yacht, the harbor, and the reflection of the seagull possible. Even to envy such a thing, of course, is to disturb the very peace one seeks. Went I am in my right mind, I only watch, enjoy, and laugh.