Saturday, September 13, 2014


Tendonitis continues to be the one factor that limits me. A few weeks ago, I finally put a coat of prime on the outside of the boat. I had never used the type of paint that I chose. So the first coat had some issues. So instead of a quick sanding between coats of prime, I had to perform a major sanding. A few hours into that job, and I had to stop. I could no longer use any pressure without my elbow screaming. But I didn't stop. I switched to my electric, orbital sander.

Pushing myself too far is my continuing, obstinate stupidity. I should have just stopped. By the end of the day, my elbow was even worse. I decided to take a couple of days off. But here's the thing: If one has tendonitis in the elbow, one tends to start favoring and using one's arm in a weird way. Soon, my wrist tendonitis flared up. And then my shoulder tendonitis made its first appearance in 12 months.

Of course, I had to stop rowing. I thought I could do some very light work on my rowing machine. Dumb. Dumb. Dumb. I had to stop that, too. For the past week, I haven't done any activity that's stressed my arms or shoulder. But If I'm going to stay somewhat on track to row from Martha's Vineyard to Mattapoisett, I have to keep my stamina. And the effort required of sliding-seat rowing is 80% legs, so I've been biking a lot.

A week ago Thursday, I rode down to New London to catch the train home to New York. 108 miles. On Sunday, I participated in the Transportation Alternatives NYC Century. 117 miles. On Tuesday, I got up early and rode out to Orient Point at the end of Long Island. 108 miles. And I took the ferry across to New London, then rode up to Providence. 60 miles. I taught my first classes of the semester; then, yesterday, I rode back to Mattapoisett. 44 miles. 437 miles in all. My leg stamina is doing fine.
Riders at the starting line of the NYC Century.
Stopping for a break along the Coventry Bike Path (RI).
Biking has been a passion of mine for at least 25 years. I wouldn't be surprised if I find a way to directly insert cycling into my work. The time I've spent with the Buzzards Bay Coalition and the New Bedford Rowing Center gives me some notion of how to bring something like cycling directly in sync with my artistic practice.

Already there is some synchronizing (or synchronicity?) going on. One of the Buzzards Bay Coalition's main fundraisers is a cycling event that takes cyclists through the watershed that feeds the bay. I've done this ride twice already, and I'm doing it again this year. Of course, this means that I have agreed to raise at least $300.00 as part of my Watershed Ride. As an incentive for people to donate to my ride, I am putting one small artwork in as a raffle item. One person who donates to my ride will win this artwork. My next project will involve making large watercolors combined with text-image works (like those that I have been producing for the last ten years). I've been doing some small watercolors as tests. The small work (pictured below) uses text from the introduction (written by Amos Elon) to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem and presents the image of mayflies. You could win the work pictured.

The Buzzards Bay Coalition has helped me learn a lot about Buzzards Bay. But, more importantly, the organization does a great job at advocating for water resources, monitoring water quality, and preserving key resources throughout the watershed. And it's incredibly well-run. Not all non-profits can claim that. If you donate to my ride, your money will be used wisely and well. And you could win this artwork. Meanwhile, I'll be on my bike preparing for this ride -- and for my row -- and preparing for the thousands of hours of artmaking that, oddly enough, take more stamina than riding my bike 437 miles.
The Banality of Evil, Introduction (part 1.0).  2014. Watercolor and acrylic with pigment print on paper. 7"x9" (print #4).

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Fact Check

Early in June, I was starting to get extra anxious about the date of my big row across Buzzards Bay. For two years, I had been loosely aiming for July 7th, 2014. On that date, I would be the exact same age that Gideon Dexter had been on the day that he died. What perfect symmetry — to row back to his home town at that age — to return and continue-on at that point.

Gideon died roughly two months before his birthday. The newspaper account of his death noted that “Mr. Gideon Dexter was 46 years old.” Was it too strained an assumption to think that his next birthday would be his 47th? Probably not. The strained assumption, however, was to think that an 1827 newspaper employed a fact-checker — or cared enough about the details of the life of a caulker. Early in June, my mother asked me why I was thinking of July 7th for the date of my row. I explained. She replied, “But he was 45. He was born in 1781.”

Once I accepted the fact that Gideon’s death and my life would not share this math-mystical intersection, I was relieved. The physical therapy of my wrists and elbows is progressing — but slowly. Certainly the progress was too slow to get me across Buzzards Bay under my own power on July 7th. 

My relief has continued to grow each week — as the finishing work on my boat has taken much, much longer than I had anticipated. Every time I’ve been asked “how long until your boat’s done?” I’ve replied, “two weeks.” And I’ve meant it. But I’ve been saying that for over three months now.

Two weeks ago, I finally figured out why I was so grossly wrong in my estimation of time. I was out volunteering on the Baykeeper, the boat that the Buzzards Bay Coalition uses to go out and do water testing and to offer septic tank pump-out to recreational boaters. The captain that day asked me how things were going. He actually has some knowledge of boatbuilding, and as I described how much sanding I was doing between each layer of epoxy, he asked me why? After all, all I needed to do was to use a scouring pad to microscopically abrade the surface. I didn’t need to sand.

Picture this: I had been taking a little folded piece of sandpaper and rubbing it with two fingers into the crevasse between the underside of the seats and the side of the boat. I had been leaning over into the boat upside down to smoothly sand the underside of each seat. It was taking me five days just to hand-sand the inside (only the inside) of the boat. Full days and three months of such bodily contortions were beginning to send my back into spasms — slowing the sanding, threatening my training and physical therapy schedule.

Which is not to complain, as such. The learning curve for any new skill can be steep. Wrong assumptions and lack of knowledge can send one down dead-ends or on long detours. I haven’t ruined anything. But, hell, I just spent three months doing something I didn’t really need to do. I don’t exactly have the money to afford such mistakes. I could have been earning money with that time — but such thoughts are just the downward spiral of anxiety. I remind myself constantly that my artistic practice — and especially this project — is about labor and its fetishization. I should feel highly successful in that regard. yay.

The upshot is that my row did not happen on July 7th. I could possibly have the boat done in time to row it across Buzzards Bay in early September. But I would have virtually no time to practice in that boat. And I have no way of knowing if my tendon issues will be resolved enough to make a 20-25 mile row feasible. Would I really want to push myself across the bay only to thoroughly damage my tendons — to the point at which I would be unable to draw for months. That would be a distinct possibility. But my anxiety has been mounting nonetheless, as I would need to put all of my support crew in place in order to row this year.

I’d been anxiously running though such thoughts — actually thinking of my tendonitis and the fact that I did not yet have a boat  as sorry excuses for my failure to get this project done. As if facts were excuses. Then last week I was out on the Baykeeper again, and a different captain said, “You don’t want to row across Buzzards Bay in September. The wind starts picking up — That’s why they have the America’s Cup in September. July is the best time to row.” July.

I will be rowing across Buzzards Bay next July. I will get the boat done this year, and I’ll test it out. Then I’ll have it ready and waiting to put in the water in April or May next year and train in that boat — and I'll be ready to row in July.
looking across Buzzards Bay from the back of the Baykeeper.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Resting Place

I finally picked up a copy of the 2014 Eldridge guide. This is the "tide and pilot book" that boaters keep on board in order to look up tides and to see what tidal currents are to be expected -- especially in treacherous areas. I plan to row through a treacherous area.

When I row back to Mattapoisett, I will have to go through the narrows at Woods Hole. And I can't row back through if the tide is ebbing out of Buzzards Bay. The water flows through Woods Hole as fast as (or faster than) I could row. It's a waste of energy to fight the tide. Power boaters don't necessarily plan their trips around the tides. They can just use twice the fuel, push through, and budget a few more minutes. But even if I could row against the river of water that rushes out through the narrows twice a day, I would be, effectively, doubling the distance that I'd be rowing.

The trick of this journey is to time it so that I'll be always rowing with the current. The Eldridge Guide shows an hour-by-hour illustration of the ebb and flood of the tides, their strength and direction.

My destination is Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. I grew up thinking that the translation of the word "Mattapoisett" was "place of rest." As a kid, I thought "place of rest" meant "vacation spot," "place to take it easy." As I became a morose teenager, it occurred to me that a "resting place" is a cemetery. But of course, that's a modern euphemism.

Gideon Dexter is buried in Mattapoisett; he is the great-great-great-great grandfather whose death in Buzzards Bay provides the center of gravity for this project. The town wasn't called Mattapoisett by Gideon. Back in 1827 it was still part of Rochester (one of the original settlers of which was Gideon’s great-great grandfather). In the mid 1800's European-Americans became safely nostalgic for the Wampanoag they had killed and displaced; and they embraced native place names. Mattapoisett: incorporated 1857.

Armchair linguists imply that Mattapoisett was a sacred site of Wampanoag burial. The Place of Resting. It fits in with the romantic nostalgia. Why, Mattapoisett is practically a holy city, the Tenochtitlan of Southeastern Massachusetts!

But then I was at the offices of the Buzzards Bay Coalition, walking down the stairwell. Its walls are decorated with a map of Buzzards Bay, with translations of all the native place names around the water's edge. "Place where the waters open," "good fishing." The place names are practical, useful. What is striking, is that they are like place names everywhere. Mill Pond. Land's End. Riverdale.

And when I saw the translation of Mattapoisett, my understanding of the town’s history shifted.

“Resting place after the crossing.” Mattapoisett had been no mystic necropolis of the Wampanoag. The town’s name was like every other place name surrounding the bay: it was a practical record. Mattapoisett was the place with a protected, calm harbor, where you and the water rest after crossing Buzzards Bay. And when I look at the charts of the tidal currents in Buzzards Bay, the practicality becomes clear. Boats leaving Mattapoisett as the tide ebbs are pushed south and across towards Falmouth and Wood’s Hole at the southwestern tip of Cape Cod. And if one rows east from that spot as the tide flows into Buzzards Bay, one can easily use the current to go straight for the protected harbor of Mattapoisett. Hundreds of thousands of people lived in the area before Europeans arrived. They worked the once-rich fishery of the bay. The name “Mattapoisett” exists as a record of that work.

On the evening of January 31st, 1827, when the storm hit and Gideon Dexter was blown out of Mattapoisett Harbor and into Buzzards Bay, the ebbing tides and northwestern winds pushed his rowboat with his frozen corpse straight across the bay and through Woods Hole. As long as I time it right, the reversed, flooding tides should bring me straight back.

However, I’m still not sure that I’ll be able to row across Buzzards Bay in Early July as I’d hoped. My tendonitis seems manageable. But I slightly sprained my wrist in early March. And it is unclear if it will be healed on time — or if I’ll be able to train hard enough to make the row possible.

If it’s not healed, my thought is that I’ll just drift — that I’ll push off from Mattapoisett and use the same currents that pushed Gideon away from home. Will those currents really take me to the spot where his body was found?

Then, when my wrist is healed, I can row back. Ultimately, this is not some heroic feat that I am proposing. For the Wampanoag, and for the pre-industrial Europeans who displaced them, Buzzards Bay was a tricky but navigable highway. I am proposing a voyage that was once commonplace. The very word “Mattapoisett” is a record of the mundane, workaday history of this trip. But there is so much knowledge (an so much muscle tone) that has been lost. But that loss doesn’t make the knowledge aesthetic. Much of my tension and struggle, however, becomes aesthetic. What is unusual for an artist is that an aesthetic struggle must give over to tides and weather. My project may have the aura of 19th century romanticism — But to get caught up in an aestheticisation of history or nature would, at best, push me ashore on the wrong side of Buzzards Bay — or sink the boat on which I have spent months of studio time. Failure as an aesthetic end-point would seem to me to be a bit of a reactionary disengagement with historical context.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Rehab Residency

The tendonitis in my left arm is getting better. I'm still feeling it. And I wear wrist braces all night and much of the day. Wearing wrist braces might not make immediate sense when the problem is with my elbows. But the braces keep me from hyperextending the tendons all the way up the arm -- giving them a chance to rest and heal.

After months of not rowing, I began this year spending some time on the erg. I started slowly. Really just stretching, not even working up a sweat. Five minutes every two or three days.

By the end of January, I decided to begin increasing my efforts. I spent February and March at an artists residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire (an amazing place!). I spent most of my time drawing. But rehabilitating and traning for my row was equally important during my time at the residency. I set up a video camera and recorded my training every day. Who knows how much of this documentation will make it into the final video that I edit when I'm done with this project. But some of the footage is quite nice. Thank you to T Kira Madden for assisting me on the day that I did naked erging amid the piles of snow (I never saw the ground during my two, freezing months up there).

The good news is that I went from 1000K every other day during my first week to 5000K near the end (I actually was up to 6000K but then a sledding misadventure set me back a couple of weeks).

Anyway, I am mildly optimistic that I can be on track to row across Buzzards Bay in July. Here are some video stills grabbed from the footage I shot a MacDowell: