it ain't easy

January 3, 2002

Today's Reading
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Last Year's Reading
2001 Book List
(Haven't started this year's list yet.)


It Ain't Easy


Gull in the Crow's Nest

Ring-billed Gull

Window with Reflections

Another Window with Other Reflections

I woke up in Massachusetts this morning and it's a great place to be. Thus spoke the director of the Kendall Institute at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on being introduced after the president-elect of the Melville Society who was introduced as having woken up in Texas this morning and having come via Louisiana to New Bedford. So yeah, I too woke up in Massachusetts this morning and it is a great place to be. I applauded when mister Kendall Institute said that. A lot of people followed my lead. I'd have burst out singing "I'm in love with Massachusetts... on 128 ... with the radio on..." (do I really need to say that's a reference to Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner?) but I do have some (very little) sense of appropriate/inappropriate behavior in public.

Anyway, the reader will have guessed by now that it's that magical time of year again, the 161st anniversary of the day Herman Melville set sail on the Acushnet for the whaling voyage that would result 10 years later in Moby Dick. And you know what that means, boys and girls... it's time for the Moby Dick Marathon!

The captain of the watch makes it 8 bells and the words "Call me Ishmael" fill the Lagoda Room. Sun streams in through the windows. This is not a day like the one Ishmael describes in the Seamen's Bethel chapter. On one side of the room, readers wait their turn wearing numbers on their sleeves. On the other side, spectators follow along in their own copies. A lot of people seem to have the Modern Library one like mine. The next most popular is the 150th anniversary edition, which came out last year (2001). On the deck of the Lagoda a father and son sit with sketch books drawing the rigging from interesting angles. A few more spectators sit on the Lagoda's deck, leaning on the masts as they listen.

An ice sculpture of a right whale's tail gleams in the sun outside the front door of the museum. Potted Christmas trees sponsored and decorated by local businesses still line the cobblestone streets around Johnny Cake Hill. Two herring gulls point their bills skyward and let loose full throated cries that echo down the alleyways.

In the harbor, guys wearing at least three sweatshirts apiece cut lumber on the deck of It Ain't Easy. The refrain "... you know it ain't easy. You know how hard it can be. The way things are going ..." runs through my head as I watch them. Two boats named Explorer and Seeker bob next to each other. I half expect to see boats named Truth and Beauty, but that would be far too metaphysical. Explorer and Seeker are bright red and sparkling while It Ain't Easy is rusty and faded. Gulls perch in the rigging and on the rails. Tugs push a barge loaded with what looks like a desert landscape - mountains of tawny sand. The sounds of bilge pumps, power saws, and winches mix with the calls of gulls. The waterfront is completely different from its 1841 version and yet somehow the same.

During one of the chapters I'm not particularly fond of, I wander into the gift shop and discover these absurd gummy orcas, yes little candy killer whales, made by a local candy company and priced for a kid-sized budget (they're in the kids' section) at $1.50 for a bag of them. I can't resist buying a bag with which to tease Nancy. I swim one through the air toward her mouth and watch her try to figure out if it's edible and what on earth it is supposed to be. Is that really a gummy orca? Yup. They taste sort of citrusy and grapey at the same time. And, for candy, they look remarkably like orcas.

The afternoon light fades in the Lagoda Room. Ahab's speech, the Sunset and Dusk chapters - 37 and 38 - drift over the hot cider, chowder, and plum duff. It starts to feel cold in there. We move to the museum's fo'c'sle room where a group of readers act out the Forecastle Midnight chapter complete with percussion and dancing.

Again we move. This time to the Jacobs Family Gallery as the huge lobby where KOBO the blue whale's remains hang from the ceiling is now called. Yes the bones still smell faintly of whale oil. I was kind of hoping they would. When the smell finally fades, will people forget those bones were once alive?

The Jacobs Family Gallery's huge picture windows superimpose reflections of the officer of the watch's table and the spectators' chairs on the lighted window displays in the art gallery across the street. They reflect the video monitors from the balcony above making it seem like whales are swimming silently back and forth somewhere over the cobblestone streets, over the rusting boats in the harbor, and over the Christmas lights decorating the rigging of the Ernestina. Ghosts of ghosts of whales ... as if the whale spirits too have gathered to hear the story...

A woman wearing a lavender plaid jacket takes notes in purple ink. A box of pencils in more colors than I knew existed sits at the ready on the chair next to her. Plumbers and artists, ministers and songwriters, students and teachers read into the night.

Sometime after 10:00 there's some mention of a bird called a sea raven and I start wondering what that could be.

It gets cold in the Jacobs Family Gallery, surrounded by all that glass, and sometime around 11:30 we decided to head for the motel I've booked us into for a few hours sleep. We already knew we weren't going to stay awake for the whole 25 hours so I think we've done pretty well. After all, it ain't easy.


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Copyright © 2002, Janet I. Egan