Friday, August 19, 2011

The Houseboat

During the epic process of rebuilding the ancient sailing vessel “Vixen” my mentor and friend Wladek had been living in a tiny waterfront shack on the Oakland estuary. The shack occupied the empty space that would have otherwise been wasted inside the legs of an old water tower that had seen better days. The tank itself was a huge big barrel made of vertical wooden staves held round with a couple steel bands. At that time it was probably no longer in use.

And now I wonder. There was a fancy restaurant built in Kensington at about that time called “Narsai’s”. The decor featured a redwood dining room “fashioned from a giant redwood tank”. Might have been the same one.

It was the summer of 1968 and I was just graduating from UC Berkeley with a PhD in Nuclear Physics and getting ready to go to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen for a one year postdoctoral position. Wladek’s restoration work was coming to an end and the boat was back in the water. At about this time he learned that the small boat harbor just west of Jack London Square where he had lived and worked on the boat for the last 6-7 years was about to be razed for the construction of a major container ship unloading facility. He decided that it would be cool to first build a float of some sort and then second to hire a crane to hoist his home from under the water tank onto the float. Somehow I got enlisted into the float building project and the very next weekend we set out on our quest.

There was an old ramshackle, one story, factory building adjacent to the water tower, and I remember that there was a sort of “greasy spoon” cafe somewhere near there on the dock as well.  Inside the factory we cleared a space on the wooden floor and laid out a template for the individual stringers out of which the box was to be made. Something like this:

There was a beam at the top and another at the bottom, then 4-5 short vertical risers and a bunch of rectangular and triangular plywood gussets. Since 8-10 of these beams were required for the float a lot of individual pieces had to be cut and then assembled. I think that we did it in one day (probably a Saturday) and then spent the next day (Sunday, when even the Lord normally takes a break) we set up the framework of the box outside and then covered it with plywood. So, in a few short hours we had managed to build the box, but it still had some shortcomings: first it had a lot of cracks and seams that would leak and second it was big and heavy and upside down so getting it into the water was not going to be easy.

During the week Wladek covered the box with fiberglass mat and then saturated the mat with a two part liquid epoxy that then hardened into a thick permanently waterproof layer. To the best of my knowledge it never leaked. There were water intrusion issues from time to time but they usually had to do with rain water leaking in from above or waves from boats passing in the estuary. These waves would break against the houseboat and push their way in over the open top of the box. When the epoxy had hardened Wladek hired a crane to lift the box and turn it over and then set it into the water. Then he put plywood flooring on to seal up the top of the box and started building the frame of what was eventually to become the houseboat itself. (Somewhere along the way it had become clear that the shack from under the water tower was not really suitable.) So, the decision was made to start from scratch and build something new.

I don’t remember why I wasn’t involved in this part of the project, perhaps I had already left for Denmark.

The houseboat ended up on an end tie in the 5th Avenue Marina. It was a wonderful location on the Oakland side of the channel a little less than a mile east of Jack London Square and across from  the Oakland and Encinal Yacht Clubs on the Alameda side. The view down the estuary toward San Francisco and the setting sun was really special. Speaking of the view, this might be a good time to mention that the three main windows of the house were reused from the old abandoned factory where we had begun the project.

In the course of time something special happened with the houseboat. People who spent time there were affected somehow. Not suddenly and not everyone. The change is subtle at first then more noticeable with time.  It is as if the time spent there doesn’t count. If you spent days there it would still the same time when you left as the time when when you entered. Frequent visitors would notice (or not) that the world that they went back into when leaving was not exactly the world that they had left earlier. Often each instance went unnoticed but a sense of otherness would accumulate.

You know who you are.

I think of it as a “Portal”, an opening from one place in space and time to another place in space and time. Mind you, I’m not talking about the kind of Portal that you might find in a science fiction movie where a shimmering wall appears that looks like the surface of a small pool of water (but vertical) where one leaps through into another universe. No, what I am trying to describe is a lot more subtle. The effects were smaller and incremental.

In science these days there are people who take seriously the idea that the world of our senses moves forward in time by splitting smoothly into multiple universes that differ from each other by the tiniest amount at first but the differences grow with time as the process continuously repeats itself. Maybe Wladek found a way to move sideways in this continuum of universes and he somehow built it into the structure. Let’s say someone is upset with you and as time goes forward this is going to continue to be the case. On the time line where you are there might be parallel universes splitting off all the time where the person is even more angry or maybe less angry so that they forgive you. You have to believe that all of these things actually happen but you only experience the one that you are in.

What if the houseboat would let you slip sideways from one reality to another that is adjacent to it. Actually, I don’t expect that a word I’m saying is going to be understood, but the experience has left a mark on me that has not faded with time. On occasions when I was struggling to find direction in life I ended up living on the houseboat for weeks at a time. Each experience left me somewhat disoriented but more and more with a sense that I was not bound to the world line that otherwise might have seemed inevitable, but that I could “move sideways” and, in some sense, “choose the future”.

Think of it as surfing or hang gliding. Normally the universe unfolds in front you as if you were going straight down the wave and holding on for dear life. What if you slowly learned to stand and then to lean a little to one side or the other so that your trajectory differs infinitesimally at first but with time a gap begins to grow between what is, and what might have been. As a caveat, let me assure you that this has not helped me to avoid illness nor has it enabled me to choose a future where my investments are always growing. That’s not the way it works.

One of the very few regrets I have, and there are not many (Being able to choose your future means that you are responsible for it.) is that the experience I have been trying to describe here is so difficult to share. I have tried, and it is like standing at the north pole under a sky filled with an aurora and wanting to share it with a friend who does not believe in “lights in the sky” and refuses to look up. I have some ideas and I had thought that with time I might make some progress in this area. But it is not to be. The gateway is gone. It only remains for those of us who have been marked by its existence to form a circle, hold hands and murmur some sort of blessing.

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