When I bought Mistress, she was in rough shape and had a different name. She’d been neglected for far too long and her owners knew that. They also knew that they wanted her to go to someone who would bring her back and not let the neglect continue. They had an offer from someone else for more money than I was willing to pay. But they didn’t want her to go to him because he wasn’t planning on restoring her and because “he was an asshole.” (Their words not mine.) That’s when I got the call with an offer I couldn’t pass up. After all, she had also chosen me that night when I snuck on board and her wheel finally moved.

It was slow at first simply getting her cleaned up and cleaned out. Finding out what worked and what didn’t. Most didn’t. But she had good bones and was structurally sound to the best I was able to determine with her sitting in the water. There was a lot wrong with her and it was going to take everything I had to bring her back. But, she had to wait a while longer for her resurrection as I first had to come to terms with the neglect I’d allowed into my own life.

I sat alone in my office after my final class of the spring semester. It was a night class so the building was empty. The class was also part of an experiment the university was doing, offering hybrid courses that gave students the option of attending class in person, online with their webcams where I could see and talk to them on monitors on the wall of the classroom, or since it was all recorded, just watch the lecture online at their own leisure. It was an attempt by the university to make attending class as easy as possible. In practicality, it was trying to be all things to all people. It also meant me trying to be all things to all people. Of roughly twenty students enrolled, on the last night I found myself standing in an empty classroom talking to two students on a computer monitor on the wall. Reviewing the analytics from previous classes, those who didn’t appear, also didn’t take the time to watch the lectures.

To put this into context, less than ten years prior one of my classes had to be moved to an auditorium because they didn’t have a classroom big enough to hold the enrollment.

My time is more valuable than this.

Leaning back in my chair with my feet up on my desk, I considered the past few years. I considered what I had held onto for too long and all that had gone terribly wrong. But, I was still trying to hold onto something that just wasn’t there anymore. In reality, I’d let a slow decay develop and I was just pretending everything hadn’t fallen apart.

I’d already dealt with some conflict over the course with the university that semester. Because I’d failed to read the fine print over the project, (my fault) I didn’t realize they also wanted to take all my lectures, assignments and exams and repackage them into an online course that someone else could teach the course in the future. I realized this when they kept pushing me to change the structure of the course so that “someone who doesn’t know anything about the subject” could teach the course. When I finally realized what they were doing, I immediately revoked my permission for them to use my work and forfeited the extra money they were going to pay me for the course.

It should also be noted, that I was up again for the promotion I’d been denied two years earlier by a previous vice president of academic affairs over a technicality in my promotion portfolio. I didn’t state which faculty handbook I wanted to be reviewed on the cover page. Since most of you don’t work in the world of academia, I won’t bore you with details. But, I was denied promotion for what essentially was a formatting error that could have been cleared up with a phone call had the VP made any effort at all. I was told that I had done everything that I needed to do for promotion, but because of that one error I was ruled ineligible and denied. 15 years of hard work and dedication was apparently less important than a properly formatted cover page. It’s such a ridiculous reason that it sounds like I’m making it up. But I’m not. I appealed the decision and the appeal committee agreed with me and petitioned the administration to change their decision. The administration refused. What it told me in that moment was that it didn’t matter to them if I actually deserved the promotion. What mattered was a proper cover page. The cover, not the content.
And that gave me clear insight into their values.

Function follows form.

Two years and two new VPs of academic affairs later, my promotion was awarded. But, the damage was already done. I’d reapplied more out of spite than anything else. In my office, I stared at a note I had written on my whiteboard months before.

Solve for “why?”

Why am I still here? I’d kept waiting for it to get better and it simply wasn’t. I loved what I did, and held on for my students. But, now there wasn’t any students. Right boat, wrong water.

There’s only so much hot sauce you can put on shitty food and pretend it still tastes good. Same way with a shitty life or a shitty job. There’s only so long that you can act like it’s okay.

After graduation, I packed up and headed back down to the boat. I found her waiting for me no worse, but no better. Much like me. The next day I started work. A couple of weeks later, sitting in the cockpit watching the sun go down with a glass of wine, I realized that I couldn’t go back.

If I didn’t make a change now then I never would. A good boat provides a means of order and a way forward and I realized that the university offered me nothing but a place to hide.

It also became clear to me that I had been chasing safety over freedom.

The next day, I drove the eleven hours back to the university, cleaned out my office and left the keys on my desk. The only thing I left was the note on my board that said, Solve for “why?”

People should be free.

I suppose there are few in this world who would disagree with that statement, but I wonder how many of us really consider what it means? I don’t guess a day goes by that I don’t hear someone declare that they’re “free of” or “free to” do something. And I guess that’s a good thing. I never thought much about it until then. When you grow up in the land of the free it’s easy to take freedom for granted. But when everything came crashing down I realized something. I wasn’t free. I wasn’t free at all. I realized how much of my life was being dictated by other things. There’s the obvious stuff like the bills that show up in the mailbox. But there are the less obvious things like having a phone that was once a symbol of freedom, now really more feels like a leash.

And it’s amazing how quickly we’ll buy into something that makes things seem a little easier or makes us feel just a little more secure. Call it dependence or call it addiction. Call it whatever you want. I’ll be honest, I was pretty happy being led by its hand. But, there’s just this one thing. You see, dependence is essentially the opposite of freedom. And once you realize that, all the junk you’ve surrounded yourself with… all that stuff you carry around with you… All that stuff can start feeling like chains. And the life that’s grown up around you can really start to resemble a prison.

And that is a problem.

I began to understand that too many decisions that dictated my life were being made by too many people and too many things that didn’t have my best interest in mind. And it was time to do something about it. But there’s this funny thing about freedom. It doesn’t come with safety straps and it sure isn’t afraid to make a fool out of you. I decided on a path, but there would be a lot bumps, scrapes and bleeding I’d endure before I’d ever turn it into reality.

I had to ask myself what am I willing to put myself through to create the life that I actually want? How bad do I really want it? What am I willing to pick up and what am I willing to leave behind?

It was my reckoning.

So, I knocked normal off its feet.

I found myself needing to build a better boat, both metaphorically and literally. I needed to reconnect to my own values, the people around me and the ground that I walk. I was tired of drifting and I needed to grab the wheel and do something about it.

There were dragons to slay and horizons to chase. And down on the southern coast of Texas, 42 feet of sail and teak was waiting for me to do the hard work of putting both her and me back together.

It’s not that I’m looking for a better place over that horizon. I’m looking for a better me.

A few weeks later I had Mistress hauled out in a boatyard that would allow me to both live and work on her while she sat on the hard. It also happened to be one of the hottest summers in Texas history. But there was no going back so I went to work. As the weeks went on, whatever resemblance I had to looking like a respectable member of society eroded into the image of a mangy and feral pirate. I spent weeks sanding her down to bare fiberglass, making repairs and repainting her. I rewired, re-plumbed, re-upholstered. I replaced the old engine. I replaced the old electronics with new. I had a new mainsail made. Each morning, I’d walk half of a mile to a public restroom so I could use a toilet that flushed and watch the sunrise. In the afternoons when it got too hot to work, I’d nap and read in a hammock under a deck shade. I lived off bologna sandwiches and fast food because it got too hot to cook. Weeks turned into months, and both delays and expenses kept getting bigger. Somewhere along the way, I decided it was also a great time to write a book.

I bled, I scraped, I had panic attacks. Plenty of people seemed to respect what I was doing but I suspect plenty more just saw a man in a midlife crisis freefall.

But I kept getting up each morning and going to work. Some days simply because I understood that I had to. There was no safety net. I just knew that I had to finish what I started one way or another.

As of this writing, my Mistress is almost ready. I’ve spent much of the winter at the cabin while she waited to have new rigging and headsail furlers installed. But all of that should be completed within the month. And as springtime approaches and warm southern breezes replace winter’s cold fronts, I am almost ready to hoist my sail and my flag and head out into the open ocean.

This is a new beginning.

That being said. I didn’t do this alone.

I had friends to listen to me on the worst and best days. I had people send me texts and call just to check on me. I had a gypsy girl who loves me, help me move out of my office that night and who has reminded me every day since that it’ll be okay. I had people pull me out of that boatyard when it was obvious that I needed a break.

I have people.

There are people who will be safe harbors for you along the journey and you will need them. You don’t make big changes without finding yourself in storms. Don’t be afraid to seek protected waters when things get too rough. But, also don’t forget to be a safe harbor for them as well.