Monday, September 28, 2009


They don’t sell coyote fat talismans at the local supermarket here in Paihia, which is a disappointment. They have other weird and terrifying products, such as pre-cooked spaghetti in a can, but no amulets, charms or magical spells.

Cruising in New Zealand is different that way.

In Mexico, you always knew your meat was fresh in the market. You knew this by evaluating the fly-to-meat ratio on the eviscerated carcass. Also, the good meat stands had packs of feral dogs hanging around, hoping for scraps. The bad meat stands didn’t have any dogs. This is because they were selling the dogs, butchered and sliced, as carne asada.

The same goes for chickens. In El Salvador, I knew my chicken was fresh, because it was waddling around in a cage with a worried expression on its face. And our Thanksgiving turkey in Guatemala was as fresh as they come. We were secure in this fact, since we’d spent the afternoon chopping its head off with a machete.

But here in the Paihia supermarket, all of the meat is in shrink-wrapped containers, cleaned and labeled and priced. There’s not a fly to be seen, not a maggot, not a dog. The only way to gauge the freshness of the meat is to read the date stamp some joker slapped on the package. And who’s to say if he’s telling the truth? Personally, I’d rather follow the swarm of flies.

There are flies in New Zealand, just a different variety. New Zealand has a teeny-tiny black fly with the scientific name Austrosimulium australense, which is Latin for “Total Fucking Asshole.” Long adopted by Satan as his Minion on Earth, the black fly is the only known insect whose bite is approximately four million times larger than its body. You can’t see them, and you can’t feel their sting. Then, hours later, as you lie snug in your bunk, a welt the size of a silver dollar will appear on your skin. You’ll start itching in your sleep, and you won’t wake up until you have the curious sensation of scratching your own fibula, ribbons of flesh formerly known as your ankle scattering the sheets around you.

Sailing in New Zealand brings another curious challenge, one commonly known as “maintaining personal hygiene.” Our lack of a shower never troubled us in the tropics, since each new anchorage offered a fresh place to swim, usually with excellent snorkeling. Whenever we got a bit sticky, we just hopped in the drink, then pulled ourselves on deck to air-dry in the sunshine. We were clean and suntanned, our skin glittering with salt crystals. It was a halcyon existence really, sort of like Brooke Shields and that blonde guy in Blue Lagoon.

Not so in New Zealand. Wishing to avoid hypothermia, chilblains, and all their attendant discomforts, we don’t swim here. We see quite a few penguins paddling around our boat, but we take that as a sign that the water’s not warm enough for humans. Instead, we stew in our long underwear for days at a time, growing cysts and carbuncles and other plagues of the medieval unwashed.

On the other hand, the water’s safe to drink. There’s Parmesan cheese in the grocery store. Unlike San Salvador, you can walk down the street without being menaced by bored teenagers with pump action shotguns.

So what’s a carbuncle, more or less? As long as we don’t have to eat that tinned spaghetti, we'll just scratch those black fly bites and smile.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Passage to Russell

Unlike Captain Cook, we didn’t have four or five hundred natives with “tattou’d backsides” rowing out to meet us as we rounded Cape Brett. Instead, we had a gorgeous, peaceful sail up to the Bay of Islands, with fifteen knots on the port beam and not a lump of swell. These are the conditions Sereia loves best. Silas and I took a gentle nap down below, lulled to sleep by the rushing ocean as Peter steered us north at seven knots.

And then we rounded the Cape, and it all went to custard.

Sailing in New Zealand in 2009, surfing the Internet from my shipboard laptop, it’s hard to remember that just a couple of hundred years ago, Captain Cook was the first European to chart this wild coast. But study a map, and you’ll see his mark is everywhere. We pass Piercy Island off Cape Brett, a dramatic rock formation with a massive hole in it. The name is Cook’s little joke—he named Cape Brett and Piercy Island after one of the Lords of the Admiralty, Sr. Percy Brett—only he changed the spelling in honor of the rock that was “perced quite thro'…like the Arch of a Bridge.”

Today, it’s a tourist attraction. For a hundred bucks, you can take a speedboat ride out to “Hole in the Rock,” and they’ll buzz you right through the stone archway. They’ll probably tattoo your backside, too, for an extra fifty bucks, then take you back to Russell for hot chips and cold beer.

We didn’t chance the archway, and instead steered a course between rock and cape. Once we turned West toward the Bay of Islands, two things happened in quick succession. The wind, so recently friendly and on our beam, blew right in our teeth. The chop kicked up, Sereia started to hobby horse, and our speed cut right in half. Then the rubbish bin went hurtling across the cabin, and I realized that I’d forgotten how to stow.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in anything like a sloppy sea, and I hadn’t really bothered with the nonskid. Now the cabin sole was awash in coffee grounds, soup cans and dirty nappies, and my mistake was abundantly clear. If Cook had been my Captain, he would have ordered a dozen lashes.

As it happens, Cook spent a lot of time on this passage ordering lashes for his men, who seem to have been a ragtag bunch of ruffians. There were Cox, Stephens and Paroyra, who left their guard duty while ashore and prowled off to snatch potatoes from the Maori. Then, just two days later, Gunner Collin, Alex Simpson and Richard Littleboy got hold of the spirit cask and managed to swipe ten gallons of rum, getting dead drunk in the process and becoming completely “useless to the ship.” Those three probably didn’t feel their lashes, but they would have felt the pain of their other punishment: no more rum rations until they made up for what they’d stolen.

By comparison, the natives Cook met along the way were positively civilized. They may have sported feathers and dogskin cloaks, but for the most part “they dealt very fair and friendly .” They sold fresh fish and kumara to the English, came aboard and accepted gifts of cloth and iron nails. Every now and then they got a bit nasty, performing a war dance, tossing stones at the men, or trying to snatch a shore boat from under Cook’s watchful gaze, so he’d just order some muskets fired above their heads, or shoot them with “small shott.” For an eighteenth century white guy, Cook was pretty enlightened. He seemed to understand that the shows of aggression were part of Maori culture, a need to preserve mana by showing him they were unafraid. He wrote: “I avoided killing any one of them as much as possible and for that reason withheld our people from fireing.”

And if his men were caught stealing rum and potatoes, it’s hard to blame them. Cook mentions several times how pleased he is to see “sellery” growing ashore, “for this I still continue to be boild every morning with Oatmeal and Portable Soup for the ships companies breakfast.” Boiled celery, oatmeal, and dried soup. Every morning. It’s enough to make you want to swipe a potato or two, or a flagon of rum, and damn the consequences.

As for Sereia’s crew, we pulled into Russell at nightfall, choking down a horrible meal of rice and roasted squash because it was too late to find our bearings on shore. But the very next morning, we dashed into town, where we gorged ourselves on fresh fruit, fried eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, blueberry muffins, and great big frothy coffees. If Captain Cook had provided rations like that for his men, they would have followed him to the ends of the earth.

On second thought, they did follow him to the ends of the earth. Even without the frothy coffees. Or the blueberry muffins.

Damn, that man was a hell of a sailor.

[Excerpts from Captain Cook's Journal aboard the Endeavor come from the National Library of Australia,]

Monday, September 21, 2009


Is your child not cute enough?

Do you get sympathetic looks from strangers?

For Cuter Babies… the Natural Way!

Babies without dimples can be unattractive and unruly, giving them a difficult start in life. This baby refuses to smile or even open his eyes for the camera. Instead, he prefers to snarl and drool, resembling an ill-tempered ferret.

Note the precious, life-changing dimple on the right hand side of this baby's face. With his new-found cuteness, this baby now laughs and smiles, completely transformed from the repugnant devil child pictured above. In fact, his parents are now completing early applications to MIT and teaching him Japanese. Now that he's Cute-as-a-Button
, the sky's the limit for this little dimple!


With THE DIMPLER™’s simple patented procedure, we can change your baby’s life around. Pioneered by Dr. Peter “Hookmaster” Murphy, THE DIMPLER™ will carve a small hole inside your baby’s cheek, stimulating the growth of healthy scar tissue. Once healed, your baby’s face will be transformed with a Cute-As-A-Button™ dimple!

Will THE DIMPLER™ hurt my baby?

While THE DIMPLER™’s simple patented procedure may produce some discomfort in your baby, it’s nothing compared to the lifetime of pain he or she will feel for being ugly and/or not cute. Remember, THE DIMPLER™ takes a moment, but cuteness is forever!


Before we found THE DIMPLER™, my baby couldn’t even walk or talk. He was so unattractive and unruly, we thought he was retarded! Now that he has a dimple, he still can’t walk or talk, but he looks so cute that we don’t care. THANK YOU, DIMPLER™!
—One Satisfied Mother

Only YOU can change your baby’s life around. Call THE DIMPLER™ today!

Payment plans available. Side effects may include, but are not limited to, bleeding, sepsis, and blood-curdling screams. Depending on your country of residence, children may be confiscated by Child Protective Services or other well-meaning government agency. Dr. Peter “Hookmaster” Murphy is not responsible for negative side effects, up to and including your child’s need for future psychiatric evaluation and/or counseling. Dr. Peter “Hookmaster” Murphy is not actually a doctor, he’s just some guy with a hook. Cute-As-A-Button™, THE DIMPLER™, Hookmaster™, and Cuteness Technology
are registered trademarks, all rights reserved.

Friday, September 18, 2009


The first thing Rob tells us is that our fish is full of worms.

“She’ll be right for bait,” he smiles. “Barracuda. Kiwis call ‘em cooters, we don’t eat them really. They’ve got a lot of worms.”

Peter and I concede that we had seen some worms in the meat, but we’d just cut them out. Besides, surely if the fish was cooked thoroughly, the worms would die?

“Not the eggs though.” Rob takes a slug of our feijoa wine. “You’ll want to freeze the meat overnight. That’ll kill the eggs. Otherwise you’ll get infected with the worms.”

He knows about hunting and fishing and skinning. Born on the Chatham Islands, part Moriori, Rob’s grandfather raised him from the age of four months on a series of working sailboats. “I’ve got pictures of some real old men, the old cooks and that, bottle-feeding me.”

He warns us he’ll be making some noise tonight, when he’s out shooting rabbit. “Need some tucker to stock up the freezer,” he explains, with a crooked-toothed grin. He has a bushy beard and a grey Confederate soldier’s cap perched atop his head, crossed yellow muskets embroidered in the wool. He’s wearing a filthy hoody, an old pair blue shorts. I imagine he’d rather wear the same clothes every day than do the bloody laundry.

We sit in the cockpit, enjoying the sunshine in Mimiwhangata Bay, the gentle roll of our boat at anchor.

“My Dad was a writer, pretty famous. Bit of a hunter, bit of a bushman, like that. Wrote about the old New Zealand, the way it was. Pub yarns. I'm probably one of sixteen kids. That I know about. He was a dad to about 12 of them.”

“And you?”

“I was one of the lucky ones, that escaped. He wasn't exactly the best of dads. But if I could have impregnated as many women as he did, I wouldn't have minded.”

I ask him who his father was, and he tells me. He really is famous. I’ve heard of him, even with my tiny knowledge of New Zealand literature. “Is he still alive?”

“Dead now. Too much smoking and drinking and living the good life. Can’t blame him for that, I guess.”

Rob takes us on a walk around the nature reserve. We hike up a hill, thick green grass tangled in our Tevas. From the top, we see a stunning vista: jagged rocks crumbling into the ocean, the water shifting from turquoise to darkest blue as the bottom drops away. The view extends to the horizon: the crashing surf blends into rolling swell, and then the great white Pacific, glinting beneath the sun.

Rob’s lived on a boat his entire life, except when he was in Japan for ten years, teaching English. “I faked a university degree, a Bachelor in the arts. Got one printed out and sent over there, and –yeah, 'cause the money was good and everything else. Then I met a Japanese girl, and we got married. We had our twins–in Japan they call 'em "halves," but we called 'em "doubles," 'cause they got a bit of Japanese and a bit of Kiwi in ‘em.”

Since we are damn near exhausted keeping up with one toddler, the thought of twins makes us shiver. “Twins?” Peter asks. “What was that like?”

“Dunno mate,” Rob replies. “Didn’t have much to do with it.” He’s in touch with them now, though. His son’s a bush pilot, flying planes in Papua New Guinea. As to his daughter, she’s studying to be a geisha in Japan.

“It's the last path I'd ever want her to take, but she's stuck with it, it's what she wants to do. A lot of training, a lot of hard work. She's on good money yeah, for Japanese standards and everything else, but she'll never be fully into it till she's about thirty.”

He tells us how she has to study poetry and music, as well as business and the law. She has to be able to sit down with anyone, and converse intelligently on any subject. “Why in the world wouldn’t you want her to do it, then?” I ask, confused. “It sounds as though you’d be very proud of her.”

“Well…” he trails off. “What’s wrong with being the next Jean Batten, or Sir Edmund Hillary?”

“That’s a pretty tall order,” mutters Peter.

Rob points out a Pohutukawa, a magnificent tree with great, straining branches, extended and cupped as though offering their leaves to the sky. The tree is covered with vines, thousands of tiny tendrils twisting around branches and trunk, a symbiotic circulatory system.

The Pohutukawa is sacred to the Maori. There’s a lone, ghostly tree up at the tip of Cape Reinga, at the northernmost edge of the country. That’s where the spirits of the Maori are said to go when they die, into the tree and down through the root system, and on to Hawaiiki, their mythical home.

“Do you take your boat up to the islands much?” I ask. “Fiji? Tonga?”

Rob shakes his head. “I actually prefer the Southern Ocean to be honest. I go cruising down there, go round in circles for a few months, and come back when I run out of food.”

“The Southern Ocean?” I ask. That’s sort of like jogging up Everest for a bit of a holiday. I think about his fiberglass boat, with no pilothouse, not even a dodger. “Ever see anything scary down there?”

“Ninety knots,” he chuckles. “Your rigging actually breaks 'cause it's so iced up, just goes brittle and snaps. Lost my mast and the whole lot. Got saved by some blokes at Scott Base.”

“Wait a minute,” I interrupt. “Scott Base? Isn't that in the Antarctic? What the hell were you doing down there?”

“Something about that Southern Ocean,” he recalls fondly. “You can get a month of crap, then one day, the sky will open up, you'll get a huge great big southern swell, and that southern breeze, about twenty knots, and so you'll get some of the big whales coming up, it just makes the last thirty days all worthwhile, even just for a ten minute window like that. You've got a great big whale riding up, and a bit of iceberg out the back.”

“Icebergs,” I repeat. “Jesus.”

“ You don't have to worry about mosquitoes down there,” he adds.

“No,” I say, lamely. “I guess not.”

That afternoon, he brings round a book, by his useless mongrel of a father. “Just please return it,” he asks us. “I just—I want it back.”

It’s a book of short stories, and I read several of them. The writing is excellent, luminous and spare. The stories are full of gum boots, sodden pastureland, hot bowls of porridge, and warm beer. They take place in New Zealand, forty or fifty years ago. It’s clear that Rob’s father loved the outdoor life, self-sufficiency, “a good keen man” who can stand on his own two feet in the world.

Setting the stories aside, I reflect that Rob’s father would have been proud of his son’s adventures in the Southern Ocean, his unconventional kids, his skill with a rifle and a knife.

And I wonder if he knew about any of it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Flipping through our cruising guide for the North Island, Peter sighed in despair. “JESUS,” he complained. “Rangaruru, Rangamumu, these names are driving me fucking crazy. It’s a dyslexic’s nightmare out here.”

And it’s true, the Maori place names can be difficult for English-speaking pakeha such as ourselves. Take Taumatawhakatangihangakoauau Atamateapokaiwhenuakitanatahu, for example. Though it’s situated in Hawke’s Bay, which is a very lovely area that produces some rather famous wines, we’ll likely give it a miss. We’d crash the boat just trying to read the place name on a chart.

So we compromised, and sailed to Tutukaka instead. Actually, we weren’t trying to go to Tutukaka. We were trying to get to Mimiwhangata (the “wh” is pronounced as an “f,” just to make things easy for you). But we didn’t exactly make it there.

Allow me to explain.

The morning dawned calm and overcast, tendrils of fog slinking over the hilltops. We were right at the mouth of the Pacific, in a lovely little inlet called McLeod’s Bay. The New Zealand landscape is like England, with a twist: you see rolling hills and grazing sheep, topped by jagged peaks shaped like raunchy Polynesian sex gods. And then a penguin swims by, and you think: “Ah. We’re not in Brighton, after all. In fact, we’re rather a long way away.”

Here’s the view from our toilet, known to salty dogs as the “head:”

For three and a half months, we’ve been working, and spending our savings, and worrying about babies and buckets and all sorts of nightmares, and it hasn’t been fun at all. Then last night I went to have a pee, and I discovered this spectacularly beautiful sunset—the kind you see so often from a boat that you take them for granted—and I thought: “OH. THAT’s why we’re doing this. It’s supposed to be beautiful. It’s supposed to be FUN.”

And today was fun. At first.

To begin with, the passage was positively poetic. We raised anchor, and found to our surprise a collection of tiny green and purple starfish, clinging to the anchor chain. This would have been especially sweet and picturesque if the chain hadn’t already snapped off several of their delicate little arms:

Silas was raring to go. In fact, he wasn’t really interested in relinquishing the helm.

For awhile, he was content with peering out at his papa from the companionway.

Then he started to yawn, and I lay down with him for a nap. And it was at this juncture that the wise words of Douglas Adams came back to me: “A towel,” he wrote, “is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” He was right, of course, and same holds true for people who sail with small children. Only in our case, six or seven towels, and a rubber sheet, would have possibly been more a propos.

Silas, I can tell you with authority, had a ham omelette, apple juice, and water for breakfast. In copious quantities. Soon, these ingredients—in liquid form—were all over Silas, his clothes, his mother, and our bed. The poor little nipper was seasick, and everything was covered in barf.

At that moment, Peter started hollering. “FISH!! I CAUGHT A FISH!!” he crowed from the cockpit. “Wanna come up and gut it?”

“Not now,” I called, cradling my rancid baby. “Can we have another towel?”

We stripped the baby down, and wrapped him up. Then I brought him on deck, knowing—with the wisdom of someone who has been seasick for a fair proportion of my own life—that the fresh air would make him feel better. On deck, in the presence of a large, gory fish, he fell asleep.

“Do you think we’re nearly there?” I asked, hopefully.

Peter looked perturbed. “Did I say one o’clock? Uh. Maybe I mixed up kilometers and miles. Hang on.”

He went down below, and came up looking worried. “We’re just about a quarter of the way to Mimi—Mimi—Mimi whatever the fuck it is,” he admitted. “It’s actually, uh, forty miles to get there.”

I held Silas tighter. “Can we pull in anywhere closer? I think forty miles is too much for the first day.”

Peter, because he is a hero and a gentleman, plotted a new course. Silas took an exceptionally long nap, as only seasick and dehydrated babies can do. And we pulled in to Tutukaka, which is a very beautiful bay, rimmed with rocky green hills and cheerful holiday homes.

A fleet—or perhaps they were a gaggle? a pride?—of kayaks greeted us as we set our anchor. Silas slept soundly. I made fish tacos. And Peter sipped a glass of feijoa wine, practicing silently to himself how to pronounce our next anchorage.

Monday, September 14, 2009


The other day I was having tea with a friend, and I asked her where the toilet was. When I excused myself to head off down the corridor, she hollered, “YOU DON’T HAVE TO THROW IT OUT THE WINDOW,” a gesture that was surely intended to be helpful to trolls like me who’ve used buckets for so long that we’ve forgotten how indoor plumbing works. So I peed on the carpet and festooned the walls with toilet paper, then returned to the living room to finish my tea. I hate disappointing my friends.

But the truth of the matter is that we’ve left the bucket phase of our lives behind us. When Peter dismantled the head this last time, he discovered that her main pump arm had snapped clean through, the victim of twenty-odd years of metal fatigue, corrosion, and low-fiber diets. There was nothing, short of Jesus, that could resurrect her. We progressed through the typical stages of grief: the anger, the denial, the guilt. Finally we accepted the fact that the only thing that could lift us from our life of eighteenth-century squalor was a new toilet, so we bought the cheapest one we could find. It’s plastic, and it’s made in Taiwan.

We’re not getting rid of the bucket.

But we are going sailing. Yes, three and a half months after leaving Invercargill, after an exhausting boat refit and a series of terrifying diagnoses for our son, we’re raising a sail. We’ll just head toward the Bay of Islands at first, an easy jaunt to an area with lots of fascinating history. There’s Waitangi, where New Zealand became an official part of the British Empire, and Russell, once known as “the Hellhole of the Pacific,” presumably because it was one helluva place for a party. Back in the day, the whole town was awash in whale blubber, booze and cheap whores, although now you’re more likely to find souvenir shops and a rather chic breakfast café or two.

I’ve been studying the history of the Bay of Islands, which gives me a valuable perspective on our voyage. While we’ve had our share of troubles, just think of poor Marion du Fresne, captain of the French ship Mascarin. In 1772, he and his men were logging kauri up in the Bay of Islands, working with the local Maori tribes to fix up their ships and reprovision. Somehow, they managed to annoy the locals, and before they knew what hit them, Marion and two dozen of his men were slaughtered, cooked and eaten.

When their captain failed to show up, the French stormed the local village, and they found Marion. Or rather, they found what was left of him: “the skull of a man which had been cooked some days before. All the remaining flesh had been eaten and upon the skull itself were still to be seen the traces of the teeth of the cannibals.”*

Death at the hands of cannibals. And to top it all off, the year was 1772. I guarantee you Marion had to shit in a bucket.

All things considered, buckets and brain-damaged babies aren’t so bad. It could be worse. There could be cannibals gnawing on our skulls.

* Dumas, Alexandre. Translated by F. W. Reed. Captain Marion. Christchurch: Cadsonbury Publications, 1998.

Friday, September 4, 2009


We’ve decided not to treat Silas any differently, despite his diagnosis of developmental delay. We’re still stacking blocks, reading stories, and playing his favorite opera arias on the laptop. Why, just yesterday, we spilled a little gasoline on him, and everyone had a good laugh. And in honor of the doctor’s psychic diagnosis, in which he looked into the future and announced our son would have an IQ of 50, we’ve given Silas a new nickname. We now call him “Fitty.” Unless he does something particularly clever, in which case we call him “Fitty-two.”

But despite our iron-willed determination to be of good cheer, life on a boat with a baby is still an adjustment. Sometimes, Silas howls in frustration, the screams resounding through our tiny living space, and I wish I could tear off my clothes, swim to shore, and go roam with the sheep in the meadows. Their lives seem so simple: Eat grass. Poo. Occasionally get a haircut, and look like an asshole for awhile so someone else can wear a sweater.

It’s at trying times such as these that the New Zealand anti-smacking law can seem so restrictive. You’re not allowed to smack your child in New Zealand, even when he’s behaving badly and you haven’t even had your first cup of coffee. On the other hand, they don’t say anything about gaffing him like a tuna. That’s a relief, because Silas hooked himself on a shock cord yesterday, screaming and thrashing until Peter released him like a large, pink game fish.

Naturally, I asked what happened. “Why was the baby chewing on a hook attached to an industrial-strength piece of elastic?” I wanted to know, blotting the gore from his cheeks. Silas’ screams had subsided by this time, and he was reduced to a series of pitiful sobs.

“It felt good on his gums,” Peter replied, as though this made sense. “I never would have thought he’d hook his cheek with it. I didn’t know it could be so dangerous.”

But it turns out that a hook is not a suitable toy for a baby. And neither is a bucket of gasoline. We know this because after his encounter with the shock cord, Silas crawled over to the open container of dirty gas that Peter had drained out of our outboard engine, and spilled the contents over his hands and legs.

I heard a commotion in the cockpit, and looked up from the bread I was kneading in the galley.

“One minute!” Peter protested, handing me a flammable baby. “I turned my back for ONE MINUTE, and he found the gasoline!”

I grabbed the baby’s hands in a wet washcloth, scrubbing the poison from his fingers before he stuffed them in his mouth. “You can’t have an open container of gas in the cockpit,” I explained, through gritted teeth. “It’s not safe.”

“That’s boat life!” Peter argued. “Everything can’t always be safe all the time!”

I tactfully suggested that while everything couldn’t always be safe, it might perhaps be more safe without easily accessible explosives on board. But Peter wasn’t ready to agree. Instead, he stormed up on deck, where he spent the afternoon scrubbing the cockpit eight hundred times so it wouldn’t reek of poisonous solvents.

It occurs to me, in retrospect, that Peter might have been frightened and upset that he nearly blew up our retarded baby. I suppose this is understandable. After all, we’re still getting used to life on the boat.

What is not understandable, on the other hand, is the fact that I now have to piss in a bucket. AGAIN.

The moment of reckoning came last night, at the end of a difficult and trying day of boat life. After gaffing our child and dousing him with gasoline, Peter felt drained, and decided to take a shower. (The word “shower,” it should be noted, is here used euphemistically. What we actually do is pour a kettle of hot water over our heads and hope most of the lice fall off.)

Silas had long ago gone to sleep, which was a wise move, under the circumstances. I was enjoying a cup of tea in the quarterberth, relishing a few quiet moments at the end of a hard day. I heard a pumping noise from the head, and thought nothing of it.

And then, the pumping stopped. I heard a low, mirthless laughter. And all of a sudden, I knew.

“The head broke, didn’t it?” I asked.

Peter couldn’t even talk. He was laughing too hard. It was the dry, hollow laughter of a political dissident on his way to the gulag. It was the laughter of a man who knows he is condemned.

“I don’t fucking believe it,” he chuckled. “The head broke. With a big, steaming shit in it.”

So, instead of taking a warm and restful shower, Peter snapped on a pair of latex gloves. He busied himself with pulling fresh turds out of the broken toilet, collecting them in a bucket to throw over the side.

“I have to pee,” I announced. “When can you fix it?”

Wordlessly, Peter handed me the bucket. And then he went to bed.

On my good days, I think of this as a character-building exercise. Unlike those coddled kids on land, with their decadent refrigerators and indoor plumbing, our Silas will grow up with true inner steel. When he’s old and grey, he can tell his grandkids how easy they have it. “When I was a youngster,” he’ll cackle, “my parents gave away my toys. All I had was a shock cord and a jug of gas to play with. Toilet? HA! We barely had a pot to piss in. Had to carry the turds on deck, and hope we didn’t splash the laptop on the way up.”

And then his grandkids will roll their eyes. “Oh, Fitty,” they’ll say. “You’re so crazy!”

Things do get better. Silas’ cheek is healing up real nice, and he hardly smells like gasoline at all now. And Peter doesn’t smoke any more, which significantly lowers the risk of exploding babies. We’re anchored in Parua Bay, which is one of the most beautiful and exclusive areas of Whangarei. Our boat is surrounded by jagged Polynesian cliffs, with luxurious homes overlooking the water.

And wealthy people are so understanding. I’m sure they won’t mind the boat bums, tossing buckets of hobgoblins into their bay. As long as we don’t smack the child, everyone should get along just fine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Clinical Opinion

There are a few things you’d rather not hear your pediatrician say, such as “cancer,” or “this is a fatal disease and there is no cure.” Then there’s this one:

“So. Is there any possibility you two are related?”

The doctor’s rust-colored hair was cropped close to his head, and he wore an extravagant blue bow tie, likely an affectation from the years (he made a point of telling us), “I practiced in Boston.” When he saw Silas he peered at him, tilting his head like a viper assessing a mouse for juiciness. Silas stared right back.

We sat down in his office, my heart thundering as though this pediatrician were about to administer an oral exam—which, in a sense, he was. “Do you think Silas can hear? What does Silas like to do? How does Silas play with others? Does he eat well? Sleep well?”

He skimmed through the medical records, scribbling notes on a separate sheet of paper, then looked up, continuing to stare pointedly at my son. Sensing the tension in the room, Silas crept behind my chair, then peeked out at the doctor with a tentative smile, not sure if he was friendly or not.

“He makes good eye contact,” the doctor declared. “But it’s not a social gaze. It’s a sort of a cold, hard stare.”

I didn’t want to be the silly mother in denial, so I kept quiet. Not a social gaze? I wondered to myself, knowing full well the way Silas’ smile can light up a room. You’re staring at him as though he were a Petri dish, growing an interesting species of mold. What do you expect him to do?

Then I began answering the questions. “Silas loves to chase balls and bottles, anything that will roll. He loves to spin things. I once saw him spinning a smaller pot lid inside of a larger pot lid, adjusting both lids very gently, to get them spinning together just right.”

“Obsessed with spinning things,” the doctor noted, jotting this down in his notebook.

Peter spoke up. “But it’s not like a mindless action. He’ll take the big basin we wash him in, turn it on its side, and get that rolling in a huge arc around him. He’s very concentrated, and he gets very frustrated if it isn’t just the way he wants it.”

“Short-tempered,” the doctor scribbled. “Easily frustrated.”

“He absolutely adores—and he has always adored—his books,” I ventured. “He can sit and listen to a stack of books, one after the other. And he has a rapturous love for music. Some of the mixes I’ve made for him, he’ll sit and listen to for an hour at a time, just entranced.”

The doctor ignored the part about the music. “When you read to him,” he asked. “What does he do when you read to him?”

“Do?” I was a little taken aback. What’s a toddler supposed to do? What was the right answer? “He smiles, looks from me to the book. He’ll turn the pages when we say ‘turn the page.’” Then I admitted, “But he doesn’t point to things. If you say ‘where’s the dog,’ he won’t point to it.”

“But he knows his books,” Peter interjected hopefully. “Antonia can start reciting the words from one of his favorite books—even when the book isn’t there!—and his face will light up. He recognizes the book, definitely.”

The doctor was writing furiously. “Cause and effect,” he announced, without looking up. “Would you say he has an understanding of cause and effect?”

I was eager, the little girl in French school again. I felt like raising my hand, anxiously calling oooooo I know this one!Definitely,” I told the doctor. “From a very early age, as soon as we had him up at the table with us, he had this game he’d play with the water or wine glasses.”

Peter took over. “He figured out that if he bounced in his seat, the table would shake, and he could make the water slosh over the side of the glass.”

“Obsessed with water,” the doctor muttered, jotting this down on his pad.

“But isn’t that cause and effect?” I asked. “And turning the pages of a book because he wants to see the next page, isn’t that cause and effect? And flipping the light switch to see the light go on and off?”

The doctor raised his pale green eyes. He looked impatient. “Simple, rote behaviors. Repetitive flicking and bouncing. That’s all it is.”

I was quiet; I was wrong. But what about when Silas gets so excited to see what’s on the next page, and he turns it, at the right time, without even being told? That’s a rote behavior?

“His gaze, as I mentioned, seems very intense, but not social. Does he feel empathy at all, do you think? Does he smile socially?”

“Absolutely.” I told the doctor about the time Silas’ little friend Sammi started to cry, and Silas looked so worried and upset.

The doctor shook his head. “He was probably just responding to the sound. Is he hyper-sensitive to sound at all? Does he clamp his hands over his ears?”

“No, never. And he looked really troubled that the little girl was crying. Even her mother noticed it.”

The doctor pounced. “Ah, but was he troubled because the little girl was upset? Or because the sound was bothering him? He’s in his own little world, you see. Does he ever try to get your attention, does he seem gratified when you smile at him?”

“Of course,” I nodded emphatically. “Whenever I’m cooking, and he wants attention, he’ll pull on my legs or hang on me until I respond to him.”

The pale green eyes flashed. “But does he want the exchange with you, or is he just trying to get his own needs met? There’s a difference, you know.”

This didn’t make sense. “But what would a neuro-typical child do to get his mother’s attention? Aren’t all little children selfish? Aren’t they all trying to get their own needs met?”

The doctor snapped his head back and forth. “Even infants show empathy. It’s been shown in studies.” He turned his pale gaze on Silas. “Now let’s have a look at him. I’ll just measure his head, shall I?”

At this point, Silas was sitting in my lap, looking warily at the man with the notepad. He saw the tape measure come out, and he started to squirm. The doctor pushed his rolling chair towards us with gleaming leather shoes. He put the tape measure around Silas’ head. Immediately, Silas started squirming and twisting. I imagined he was whining in protest at this strange man, and his insistence on nineteenth-century phrenology.

“Hyper sensitive to touch,” the doctor noted. “He won’t even let me get near him. He hates being touched, doesn’t he?”

I had to disagree. “Not at all,” I protested. “He loves touch. He just hates being restrained. And we’ve seen several doctors in the past few days, and everyone keeps trying to put a tape measure around his head.”

“I’d be pretty pissed too,” Peter joked, thinly.

The doctor sat back, examining Silas’ face. “Round head. Full cheeks. A tendency to synophrys. He doesn’t really look like either of you, does he?”

Everyone says Silas looks just like Peter, but it seemed pointless to bring this up. I gestured to the space between my eyebrows. “I’ve got a bit of the Brooke Shields thing going. And Peter’s pretty hairy.”

The doctor lifted one of Silas’ feet and examined it. Silas, who had long ago decided he hated this man, kicked and howled. “Rather pronounced heels,” he murmured. “And very mottled skin.” At this point, it was clear to me that Silas’ skin was mottled because he was both Caucasian and cold, especially because he was wearing no pants. However, this seemed too obvious to mention.

The doctor was ready to grade our baby. We sat silent, breathless.

He reviewed his notes, not looking at us. “Without wanting to say the ‘A word,’ there is a possibility of autism. The lack of empathy, the inability to form social relationships, the repetitive actions.” He tapped his pen on his notepad, three short, sharp clicks. “From some elements of his appearance—as we’ve spoken about—there is a possibility of a genetic or metabolic syndrome of some kind.” He began pulling forms out of his briefcase. “I’m going to order a series of karyotyping tests, and we’ll see what comes up.”

He paused, looked at us. “This may be a strange question,” he asked. “But is there any possibility that you two are related?”

What the hell? I hesitated. “There’s a remote chance that we might have the same ancestors from Poland or something, but we’re not cousins or anything, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I know it’s strange, but I have to ask. In some cultures, you know, it’s accepted. And it can increase the possibility of recessive genes appearing in the offspring.”

“The offspring,” at that moment, was down on the ground, crawling over to the doctor. Perhaps he had decided to give this horrible man a second chance. As the doctor talked, Silas pulled himself to a standing position, drooling on what were undoubtedly an expensive pair of black pants. Instinctively, I started reaching for the diaper bag, to pull out a little towel and apologize. Then I stopped myself. The guy’s a pediatrician, I considered. Juicy babies must go with the territory.

“He certainly does drool a lot,” the doctor commented, distastefully. He edged his knee away from Silas’ wet chin. Silas reached out for balance, then fell backwards on his bum.

“He’s making five teeth right now,” I explained, scooping up my baby. “It’s part of the teething.”

“Maybe,” the doctor mused. “Or perhaps not.”

Oh, God. Is he going to tell us our child is a drooling idiot? We waited.

And then, he did. “In my clinical opinion, Silas is globally at a nine-month level for a nineteen-month chronological age,” the doctor pronounced. “This is what we call a global developmental delay.”

There it was. Our kid’s retarded. “So without sounding too Polyanna-ish,” I asked softly, “is there a chance he can catch up with his peers, with early intervention?”

The doctor studied me, tilting his head in that serpentine way. “Likely not.” His words fell around us like stones. Cold, hard, final. “We can’t test cognition in a child this young, but as a rough guide, we divide the chronological age into the developmental age.”

“So nine, divided by nineteen. Help me with the arithmetic and the implications.”

The doctor didn’t skip a beat. “He could have an IQ of 50.”

Beside me, Peter breathed out. “Wow. That’s heavy.” I looked over at my husband. His face was strained, in a way that perhaps only I know means he is holding back tears.

Silas was on the floor, flipping the pages of his caterpillar book, seemingly unaware that he’d just been assigned a future as a drooling cretin.

“What do we do with this?” I stammered. “I mean, where do we go from here?”

“What do we do?” Peter wanted to know. “How can I help my son?”

The doctor looked startled at our emotions. “There’s really not much you can do. Help him to get out of his own little world, if you can. I’ll leave you with the forms for the child disability allowance. You’ll get money now, every month.” He tapped his watch, pointedly. “I really must be moving on. It’s after one o’clock, you know.”

The doctor handed us forms, and a bill for $350. We tucked Silas’ things into our bags. We changed the baby’s diaper, pulled on his pants. I felt detached, as though I were floating in air.

Silas started to squirm again, impatient with the mean man and his cramped little room. Peter took him outside. I turned to the doctor. His eyes looked troubled, as though he wasn’t sure what it was he’d said to upset us. As though, I thought, he can’t read other people’s feelings.

I shook his hand. “Thank you for your candor, doctor.” What more was there to say?

We paid our bill, in cash, as required. We walked to the elevator in silence. We rode down to the ground level. We said nothing.

We floated to the car. Peter strapped Silas into his seat, removing his jacket first because it was hot and we’d been parked in the sun. He sat in the driver’s seat. He leaned over, putting his arms around me. We sat, rigid, for a moment, then our shoulders loosened. The tears came, hot and tight. I clawed his neck, screaming rage and fear into his shoulder.

After a few minutes, Peter started the ignition. He was wearing his sunglasses, but I saw his eyes were wet behind the lenses. I turned back to Silas. Will he ever love books? Have a stimulating conversation? Challenge someone’s ideas? Fall in love?

Will he ever say ‘mama’?

“Ready to go home?” I asked, and smiled at my son.

Silas looked at me, his face instantly alight with love and joy. His big, brown eyes looked clear and intelligent. He craned his head around, eager and curious to see more.

He doesn’t look retarded to me.

But what the hell do I know? I’m just his mother.