Currents and undertoads

Things have been rather adrift for some time, for many of us. Obviously Covid-19 for all of us, and then everyone’s other stuff – perhaps the same as before or perhaps changed, but always at least complicating the lives of the person dealing with their particular version of a life.

My novel story (as in “a new thing that one is dealing with”, also sometimes an escalation of an old thing) involves the last few years at the University of Cape Town, which has been in the news of late, for the same reasons spoken of in said news. As you’d expect.

Today was the first in-person meeting of UCT’s Senate since early 2020, and it was odd to be in a room with over 200 people, doing things that were previously routine. We were joined by people who had never been in a Senate meeting before (having been promoted during Covid, or for other reasons I won’t bore you with), as well as some of the usual people, saying what you would have expected them to.

It was lovely to see many people I respect, and whose commitment keep the thing running, in one room after so much time, and also to see the thing running at all.

That sense of being adrift has been manifesting through appropriately nautical experiences for me of late. Last year, the three brothers took what we believe to be, and was planned as, the final long cruise with our father in the Chesapeake Bay.

During that trip, a friend of mine took over the editorship of a newspaper, and while underway from one point to another, occasionally nearly losing my quill overboard, I recorded some notes for a column I intended to submit to him.

The notes include phrases referring to “how many of us had died”, by which I meant (or was going to mean) parts of us dying, while also revealing my intention to reassure readers “that everyone else is quite confused” too, and that they should be kind to themselves.

The column in question was never submitted, or even written. But I’ll message my friend after I post this, just in case he’ll be amused by the idea of the unsolicited rambly think-piece that might have landed in his inbox. But the thing is, it was trying to talk about something so slippery – how we should expect ourselves to respond to whatever, and by extension how we rationalise tolerating or chastising ourselves – that maybe I should actually write it.

Our father has the boat on the market now. Besides how wonderful the trip was because of the places we went to, and the evenings of good food and conversation while anchored out somewhere, the trip’s emotional weight was also complemented by it being the last of a sequence of annual respites (for me at least, most years) from noise.

The Bay is large enough that you can leave cellphone signal range. Also, though, it’s the only place (or more generally, activity) that I’ve allowed myself to relax in, for days on end.

But, the other concern that arises is whether you’d taken it seriously enough, or whether you should have some regrets about some things you didn’t do or say, because that was your last opportunity to do so.

One of my close friends is a proper sailor (not like my father with his motorboat). And I talk to him about these things, because he’s as ill-equipped to deal with them as I am. Even though we understand them well, they chafe at us when trying to actually describe their impact, and what the impact might properly have been instead.

Another good and longstanding friend is the shore captain of the Bark Europa, the vessel you can see as this post’s featured image. Or, you can go to Cape Town’s Waterfront and see for yourself, because it’s not going anywhere right now. Sorry.

This friend is a person who can build you what you need to house your collection of horses or frogs; run a restaurant; design and teach postgraduate programs for highly-ranked universities, or cook you a fine meal. I think he tames capybaras too.

(I should qualify the above by noting that he might sometimes benefit from the assistance of my dysfunctional McGyver friend, who can also do useful things with tools while simultaneously offering thoughtful counseling to someone in trouble, but while also being unsure about whether he most cares about them, or about duty.)

And even though the shore captain friend can do many things, he’s now dealing with something beyond what even his most pessimistic planning would have prepared him for. (And Sailorman, it’s no insult to your troubles that the words I just wrote have reminded me of UCT.) He’ll make a plan, as he does, but he’s too busy making it to tell me how it’s going.

Then, another friend just published a fine book about Shackleton and the Endurance, his life and father and family, but mostly about people and how they deal with things, and how they think they should. (Terms and Conditions apply, because that description involves one thing that’s relevant to me for the purposes of this post, rather than being a book review.)

Within hours of finishing the book, I hear that someone that I care for, and who I have been on the water with for many days, has been diagnosed* with something that none of us have reason to value, and who is being presented with an unexpected challenge that falls in the category of things we can’t compute.

I reckon many of these things will remain things we can’t compute, even as we try to anticipate and mitigate. Yet, they are reminders to do the work of thinking about thinking, and about feeling. Not only to have a better chance of understanding ourselves, but more importantly, understanding more of the people surrounding us.

* A silly aside, given how we’re all talking about AI and ChatGPT: I was watching a movie with The Doctor, and quickly jotted down a note on my phone while thinking about this post. Autocorrect records what you see above as: “Subwoofer that I care fort had just been stained”, which makes just about as much sense as anything else.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.