Two reads: Impacts of electronics, old age

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Finding North by George Michelsen Foy, Flatiron Books 2016, 285 pp., $25.

Reviewed by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

My grandson, Lewis, achieved his first birthday recently, and, with it, came mobility. Suddenly, navigation became a big concern.

He needed to know how to get places, and he needed to remember how he got there so he could get back to his toys or his mom or whatever. He has become hyper-aware of movement, particularly his mother’s movement from point to point. We joke that he stalks her with his big, blue eyes. Until he fully trusts that she will return, his survival depends on knowing where she is and how to get there.

For the rest of his life, navigation will be an essential skill. Unless, that is, he becomes like the rest of us and relies on electronic devices and GPS to find his way through life and down the road. Then, argues George Michelsen Foy in his fascinating book, “Finding North: How Navigation Makes us Human,” he may lose the ability to find his way without digital help.

Foy is not out to convince anyone that this fate is a sure thing. This book is not scientific investigation. Rather, it is a quest to better understand the roots of navigation through voyaging, exploration, and exhaustive inquiry. In the end, he convinces himself that he ought to reduce his digital dependence by about half. But he doesn’t expect you to. Even his best friend belittles his concerns.

Much of the time researching the book is spent on boats, the author’s own in New England and various other craft in far-flung places, including a harrowing and dangerous trip on a Haitian coastal schooner with no navigational gear. Foy is not timid. And he doesn’t seem to be the lazy man he thinks he is. Of course self-deprecation is charming.

His journeying is inspired by the wreck of the Stavanger Packet, a small Norwegian sailing ship, captained by his great-great grandfather, Halvor Michelsen, along the coast of Norway. In 1844, something went terribly wrong, nobody knows quite what, and the ship sank. The passengers survived, but the captain went down with the ship.

Foy feels compelled to explore whether there was “some perverse coding in the Michelsen genes that made us susceptible to venturing into ocean spaces to see if we could find our way around.” So he decides he will take his own voyage, navigating by the stars and with electronics off, from Cape Cod to Maine.

He’s not out to replicate his ancestor’s fatal trip. It’s just a construct that allows him to dig deeply into the topic of navigation. “My story was made up,” he acknowledges, “and could never be the same as Halvor’s.” But that doesn’t matter: “I figured, if I pursued it long enough, it must become its own story, whatever the initial plot; must fashion its own bash at the ineffable.”

And what a strange, wonderful, original story it becomes as Foy skillfully navigates, connecting ideas, some way out there, about death, loss, quality of life, love, culture, the Titanic, existentialism, and more, always asking and thinking, and always fearlessly.

So will electronics compromise my grandson’s navigational skills when he gets his first iPhone? Foy thinks maybe, but that’s not the point. He just wants us to think about what that could mean, because to not know where we are means we cannot move rightly or act sensibly.

Are we already lost? Recently, as the world reels from a seemingly daily string of chaotic events, and as perhaps the most bizarre election season in history drags on in America, commentators continuously tell us that we have “lost our bearings.” Could that actually be true? Can our problems be traced to some new navigational incompetence? Perhaps, says Foy.

“We are all looking around less,” he writes, “asking fewer tough questions, avoiding environments whose paths and shadows we don’t know.”

That Good Night

by Richard Probert, Beaufort Books 2016, 288 pp., $16.

We’re supposed to write about what we know, so Richard Probert, whose connection to Points East goes way back to its flotilla days, decided to write a novel about sailing. Not into the sunset, but into the sunset of your life. At 84, Charlie Lambert realizes there aren’t that many sunsets left in his life. And that he doesn’t want to see those that are left from a window of the nursing home in which he is imprisoned.

So he hatches a plan, recruits some accomplices, and one humorous thing leads to another and before you know it he is at the helm of an Island Packet sailboat on a senior freedom cruise that ends in Maine rather than the intended Caribbean. Lambert is no angel. He has made mistakes, as have all the other characters in this tale, but he did manage to stash some somewhat-dirty but significant cash aside, without which this whole story could not have happened.

Lambert isn’t a very likable man – crusty, often immature, ethically unmoored – but we warm up to him as the story moves along and he becomes not a nice guy, but a nicer, more thoughtful guy, thanks to a bunch of friends who aren’t that nice but at least look out for each other.

Give Lambert credit: At 84, he got out of the nursing home and onto a nice sailboat with wads of cash in his seabag. We should all be so lucky.

Sandy Marsters, co-founder of Points East, is the magazine’s media critic.

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