Monday, June 24, 2013

Meryl Streep, Thomas Eakins and Me

The dashboard clock reads just past 6:15 AM as I pull into the small, irregularly-shaped parking area. Some days there is a car or two already in place, but today the lot sits empty. As I strip off my t-shirt the residual morning chill raises goosebumps on my bare skin. I maneuver the cargo from the roof rack and, with arms raised high over my head as if presenting an offering to the gods, stride slowly towards the water. Then, in a refutation of Darwin, I walk out of my modern human footwear and step by step return to the eternal soup. There is a gentle “plop” as I arc my vessel onto the surface. I lower myself into the seat, reach as far forward as I can and pull. As I waft out onto the water curls of mist yield to my prow and, with only a silvery-gray heron to bear witness, I propel myself across the lake. 

Thus begins my morning row.

Rowing as a sport first registered on my consciousness during the opening credits of The River Wild, as Meryl Streep skims down the Charles River in a single scull. “That’s pretty cool,” I remember thinking. Five years later, in1999, I was in Boston in the National Tour of Cabaret and was taking advantage of the pleasant weather to spend the afternoon in Cambridge, reading a book on the bank of the Charles. I glanced up from the page as a handsome, shirtless man in black spandex shorts glided by in a skiff. As an advertisement for the sport he was most effective. “That’s for me!”, thought I.

Online, I found Bernadette Getzler, a rowing coach in Chicago, which was our next stop on the tour. Bernadette was enthusiastic, patient and, charmingly, didn’t try to hide her amusement at my audible nerves when I first attempted to get into the boat. My skittishness turned me into a sort of ZaSu Pitts on the high seas. Bear in mind, sitting on a single scull is akin to balancing on a log; one false move and you instantly flip over into the water. And the water in the Lincoln Park Lagoon, where these lessons were taking place, was the quality of a fish tank in a Chinese restaurant.

After six weeks in Chicago I was proficient enough to continue on my own when our show decamped for a month in D.C. Rowing on the Potomac under the hot summer sun past the Watergate and the Jefferson Memorial was inspiring indeed.

And there ended my sculling career for the time being.  

Rowing is thought of as a “gentleman’s sport” and that’s understandable. The equipment is expensive; a new boat can run upwards of $8,000. The oars alone cost as much as a decent kayak. It must be learned; one can’t take a 20-minute crash course and head out to the open water. Simply getting into the moveable seat takes practice. Suitable locations are limited. A broad expanse of lake or a smooth more-or-less straight river are required. My scull is typical at 27 feet long (and only 32 pounds!) so there’s no impromptu plunking into a meandering creek as kayakers are able to do. It’s no wonder the sport has long been associated with eastern Ivy League schools.

When I left the Cabaret tour I moved to the Hudson Valley. The Hudson River by me is not ideal for rowing. It can be extremely choppy and pleasure speed boats and enormous tankers traffic it regularly. But there is a lake nearby that more than suffices if, of course, one owns a boat. An expensive boat.

My Bucket List contained a modest three things, and while I’m still waiting for an extended stay in Italy to study Italian, the other two have been checked off. I did in fact build my own house and six years ago I scraped together a bit of cash and bought a used single scull. For both the boat and the oars I paid about $2,500 and, except for several summers when I was working out of town, I’ve rowed almost daily during the warm months.

I row purely for pleasure. I haven’t had a coaching since Bernadette pushed me from the nest in Chicago and I’m sure my form is atrocious. My wrists don’t stay flat, I fall short of a really extended “catch” and my spine curves more than it would on a truly fine rower. I have no intentions of competing, though, and there’s no one around to critique my stroke so I do my best to police my own form and the rest is for my own enjoyment.

The lake I frequent is just a hair’s breadth under a half-mile. It necessitates a lot of turning around, but it also makes calculating mileage a breeze. I generally row 6-8 miles every morning. Given the quiet solitude of the scene one might expect I would enjoy the silence around me, but I prefer to listen to music as I row. I program my iPod to slow the pace of my session; the faster I go the sooner I tire and I like to stay on the water as long as I’m able. I find dreamy, languorous tunes work best. Primarily classical. Debussy, of course. Ravel. “Che Gelida Manina” from Bohème is sublime. Lots of movie music. Pretty much “The Love Theme from...” anything works well. The occasional vocal shows up. Cheyenne Jackson singing Lance Horne’s “Strange Bird” moves me along quite nicely and it turns out “The Moonbeam Song” by Harry Nilsson has the perfect rowing tempo. By coincidence, its 3:23 duration is the precise time it takes to traverse the lake from one end to the other.    

Why do I love this “gentleman’s sport”? The most obvious benefits are of the physical variety. Like cross-country skiing, rowing is that rare non-weight bearing activity that exercises all the main muscle groups while simultaneously providing world-class cardiovascular results. When I row in conjunction with my normal gym routine I can consume a whole mess of extra calories with impunity. The result is that, at 52, I find myself in the best shape of my life. And that includes my brief stint as a gainfully employed adult film star. 

For me, though, the psychic dividends are equally important. An hour or so each day spent floating mere inches above the the water’s surface--back and forth and back and forth--provides a perfect opportunity to think without distractions. I ponder whatever personal issues I might have, I (literally) work off stress during my time on the lake and it’s a great opportunity to mentally develop whatever creative project I have in progress. Including this very article. Formulating an essay about rowing while rowing is surely as true an example of organic creation as one could proffer. Or I can simply enjoy my music and the incredible scenery, uninterrupted.  

Dare I say it? It restoreth my soul.  

As I make my final return pass of the morning my visual guideposts (the old dead tree on my starboard, the dock with the faded blue kayak on my port) alert me that I have to mentally reconnect with the world so I can maneuver through the narrow slot between the water lily patches into the boat launch. I swoop my boat out of the water and over my head and walk it back to the roof rack. I’m exhausted but content. As I pull out of the parking lot, in the rear-view mirror I catch a glimpse of the red travel flag billowing gaily from the stern of my boat and I’m reminded that (here it comes, folks) life is, indeed, but a dream. 


  1. As with all of your writings, you make this experience so sublime that I too want to find a calm lake on which to row. But alas, I have no skull, no skill and none of the physical attributes that you posses. I will have to content myself with a re-reading and dream I am gliding along on the surface. Steve in Florida

  2. Tom, It's been over 3 months since your last post. We miss you. Randy

  3. Tom, I too miss your posts. Each and every one reminds me of what a profound and fun writer you are. Hope all is well and you post again real soon. Steve in Florida

  4. I hope you had a happy birthday. Please write again. Randy