The Wisdom of Varnish John

It’s an old joke, but it still makes me laugh.

“What’s the difference between a boatyard and a bar?”
“In a bar, someone might actually do some work.”

In truth, some of the hardest workers in the world spend their days in boatyards. It’s also a fact that, down by the water, boatyards and bars alike shelter a high percentage of reprobates, scam artists, hustlers and hard-drinking, hard-living sorts who aren’t necessarily subscribers to the Protestant work ethic.  Generally skilled but not always schooled, they drift through coastal towns like so much social flotsam and jetsam, rarely noticed or remarked by those who comb along life’s beaches.

On the waterfront, where skilled craftspeople and under-employed shrimpers, undocumented workers, refugees from corporate boardrooms and just plain boat junkies ebb and flow with the tides, there’s room for the hard-living and hard-drinking in the easy-going camaraderie that develops.  When the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the obsessive and the mysterious get thrown into the mix, the fun only increases.

A constant presence in the yards and on the docks, Varnish John was the most mysterious boat worker of all. I never knew his full name. I knew only that he was “about” seventy, that he was from “up the coast” and claimed to be the oldest varnisher in the area.  Tall and slender, carrying only the slightest reminders of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts, apparently convinced tees were too informal for “the office”.  

He could work without gloves in the winter and walk barefooted on the docks in full summer, and the docks and yards were the only places we ever saw him. He didn’t seem to frequent cafes or bars and you’d never catch him sitting around drinking beer and telling tales by the waterside.  His varnishwork was as beautiful as any I’ve seen, but he worked only for a few, select customers. When he’d disappear for a month or two we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in the warm, Caribbean breezes.

When he was around, John rarely had much to say. He’d nod or speak in passing, but idle chit-chat wasn’t his style.  He seemed wrapped in silence, and unsubstantial as a wraith.  He wasn’t exactly intimidating, but he wasn’t approachable either.   He simply was, like the osprey and heron who watch from the edges of our world.


One day, bent over  a trawler’s rail with my brush in hand, I felt a sudden sense of presence. Looking up, I was startled to see John standing a few feet away, watching me work.  Assuming he’d have nothing to say, I was surprised when he commented on the weather and asked a question or two about my varnish and brush.  Not wanting to be impolite but unwilling to stop, I answered his questions as I kept the varnish flowing.  When I reached the end of the rail and straightened up he said, “Good. You didn’t stop. Everyone wants to talk, so you have to learn to work and talk at the same time.”  With that, he bid me a good afternoon, turned away and walked off down the dock.

It was the first of many encounters that always took the same form. John would materialize,  watch, make his pronouncement and leave.  Sometimes he’d offer a technical tip so casually it hardly was noticeble: some people are using this solvent rather than that, a different caulk might not mildew so badly.  He could be unbelievably practical. It was John who insisted a shower and shampoo were mandatory before varnishing, even if you hadn’t been sanding. As he taught me to vanish on “clean” winds off the water, to recognize the first tendrils of  winter fog and guard freshly-applied varnish like a pit bull, the truth of our relationship slowly dawned. I had a mentor. 

Eventually, John revealed his inviolable  Rule For Living – a single rule I’ve come to cherish because it seems to apply in every circumstance of life. Whether John needed to vanish in uncoperative weather or was facing the aftermath of a hurricane, his rule was the same. Start where you can start, and do what you can do.

For years I used John’s Rule as I coped with the vicissitudes of the varnishing life. And then. as tropical storm Allison blew through Houston, swamping neighborhoods and floating semis down freeways as she destroyed much of our downtown and medical center, I learned first-hand the Rule’s value in more critical situations.

Like thousands of people in the city, I returned after Allison to a house that appeared absolutely normal, unless you noticed that barely visible water line four feet above ground level.

Stepping through the door, it was clear that “normal” was a thing of the past. It was as though a giant, malevolent hand had reached into the house and stirred everything together. Water from a rising tributary of White Oak Bayou had swirled bedroom items into the living room, dining chairs into the bath and canned goods into the office.  Files, photos, magazines and mail were soaked. Mud was everywhere, even in closed cabinets, closets and drawers. Cleaning supplies, pots and pans, clothing and tools were covered in mud.  The soaked carpet squished, and only furniture that could be taken outdoors and hosed down was usable.  The stench was overwhelming.

Worst of all, the refrigerator had been tipped forward by the flood waters and turned on its side with both doors opened. Broken condiment bottles, spilled milk, spoiling meat and limp vegetables had mixed with mud and now lay there in a sodden, stinking mess.  Looking around, wishing I were anywhere else, shocked by the destructive power of flooding waters and aware that my understanding of floods had been substantially limited, I didn’t have a clue what to do.

On the other hand, in the midst of total chaos, the refrigerator seemed an achievable goal. Gathering a few heavy-duty trashbags, a bucket, some rubber gloves and a mop, I gave a sigh and started. Two hours later, the mess was gone, the refrigerator had been righted and the floor washed down with water and bleach. Looking back on it now, I recognize it as another example of John’s wisdom. You start where you can start, and you do what you can do.  Then, you start again.

Today in Nashville, another woman stands in the midst of her own muddy chaos and wonders: what now?  In Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida people hold their breath, waiting to see if their livelihoods will be destroyed and the world they’ve cherished be ripped from them forever. 

Grief, anguish and gut-twisting fear are common and understandable.  But there is no undoing the past. The flood has come and the slick is spreading, and there is nothing left but to respond.  Freshly returned from a trip to the bayous and swamps of Louisiana, still moved by their unutterable beauty and the fragility of their treasure, I have no way to combat my own sense of despair over what has happened except to remember John’s words.

I haven’t the knowledge or expertise to engineer a solution for the gushing oil. I haven’t the certification to clean shore birds, or a boat to pull booms. I shouldn’t travel back to Louisiana and beyond to volunteer in offices or transport creatures.  There are people enough for those chores. 

Instead, when Houston’s Oiled Wildlife Response Team becomes involved in this massive effort, I will volunteer here at home, helping to transport and care for creatures of our own who still require help despite circumstances in other parts of the world.  I will contribute money.  I will add my voice to the chorus of those demanding accountability for the past and responsible stewardship in the future.  And of course,  I will write.  In short, I will start and I will do, and I will pledge to do it as long as necessary for the sake of those in need.

Across the country, others are doing the same.  A musician writes a song for Nashville and offers it freely on his website. Otis Goodson stirs some hay into a barrel of water and oil, and hope for remediation is born. Organizations like Audubon help to coordinate and educate volunteers for tasks as varied as bird distribution counts and wetlands restoration. Photojournalists record the awful realities of the spill and the heartbreaking innocence of creatures unaware of impending doom, even as school children collect paper towels and a weeping man puts his boat into the water for a solitary fishing trip he fears soon may be impossible.

Taken individually, each of these gestures may seem insignificant. Seen as a whole, they reveal something both touching and heroic about the human spirit.  As William Faulkner expressed it in his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, 

 I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. 

Or, as Varnish John might say, even when the task seems impossible, we’re willing to start where we can start, and do what we can do.



Comments are welcome.

22 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Varnish John

  1. Oh Linda. What a gift you have to paint a story, to paint a life, to paint with words. Thank you. I shared this story. We share your pain, you of the Gulf.


    Surely you know the proverb – a shared joy is doubled joy, a shared sorrow is halved. Thank you for the sharing – I have deep fears this will become an unprecedented tragedy, with immeasurable pain. But as they say, only time will tell.

    I heard someone today make the analogy to Apollo 13. It seems apt. We’ll hope for an analogous resolution.

    Thanks so much for stopping by.


  2. Wonderful post, Linda. Beautifully written. Folks like your Varnish John often go unnoticed in this world but it’s their ability to put their head down and simply put one foot in front of the other that allows us to endure so that we may one day prevail.

    Thanks for the words.


    So many of your paintings seem to me visual representations of the roads we’re sometimes forced to travel. Not clearly marked, often not marked at all, with no clear destination and almost vertiginous in their openness, they tell us nothing except that the time to travel has come.

    The importance of John’s insistence that we begin those journeys rather than sitting by the side of the road whining is part of what I wanted to convey. Your very kind words suggest that I succeeded, just a bit. Thanks for stopping by and meeting John!


  3. Linda;

    What a lovely piece and a great tribute to Varnish John and other boat yard workers like him who have lived much and have many bits of wisdom to impart.

    Many, many years ago, I worked at Chester Crosby & Son’s boat yard, a very old place that employed quite a few near or past retirement age men. I loved to listen to them talk about the old days and learn anything they were willing to impart. A man I considered to be a mentor, Ralph Baker (now deceased) was a large, disheveled man who ran the welding shop; but he was quietly smarter than most and seemed to always pare things down to a simple, wise answer that could be startlingly brilliant. And, he had an endearing sense of humor. He loved a good joke. He was rather rotund in build and he had a favorite chair in which he liked to sip his coffee at break time, and when caught up in a funny story, he’d laugh so hard that he’d just about jiggle himself right out of his chair. Sometimes, when his loud laughter carried through the yard, those with-in ear-shot would yell encouragingly to him; “Hold on, Ralph, hold on!” lest he fall on the floor.

    Last week, my boss at the boat shop where I currently work sent me down to Chester Crosby & Sons, now called Oyster Harbor Marine, to pick up parts. I hadn’t been there in about 30 years and it had changed so much that I hardly recognized a thing. It was sad to see that the charming old buildings were gone, replaced by modern, sleek, soulless buildings that were so big, they blocked any view of the harbor, despite that they were right on the water. I’m an artist of modest skills at best, but before I left Chester Crosby & Sons employ, I did a pen and ink drawing of the original boat shop and gave it to Chester’s son, Bookie, who then ran the shop; I wonder if it still exists?

    Oh well, anyways, thanks so much for bringing back so many long-lost memories! Sometimes it seems such a shame that those fondly remembered old days are gone.


    I had to smile at your comment about the old days being gone. There’s a line in a song I can’t quite recall – I think it might have been by Carole King – that says, “These are the good old days”. I suspect every generation has a bit of nostalgia for its past. I also suspect things never were as good – or as bad – as remembered.

    On the other hand, there’s no question changes are taking place today that may have irreversible consequences. We’ve been busy re-shaping not only customs and attitudes, but the very nature of the planet. I’ll spare you my thoughts on that – another day, another blog ;-)

    What is true is that producing something and creating something are two different processes, and craftsmen tend to have connections to their work that make them, and the process, much more interesting. When you talk about the change from Chester Crosby & Sons to Oyster Harbor Marine, and the replacement of charming old buildings with slick modern design, it feels to me like a perfect representation of that move away from craftsmanship and the importance of the human touch in what’s being created. How many times have I heard someone ask, for example, “How much thinner should I put in the varnish?” In my imagination, the varnisher at Chester Crosby says, “As much as you need.” The Oyster Harbor guy says, “Two capfuls.”
    It’s the relationship to the work and the personal connection to the process that makes the difference.

    The best news is that Chester’s grandson, Ned, is running EM Crosby boatworks in Barnstable. I went snooping and found their page – a bit of proof that the old days may be gone, but the traditions live on!


    1. Linda,

      I believe ‘these are the good old days’ was Carly Simon singing Anticipation in 1972.

      Would have liked to have met Varnish John, and Ralph Baker too. Bet we could have taught each other a few things.

      Didn’t have any real time to learn skills from my grandfather, he died too soon; but my Dad taught me a few things, and I have many of the original tools brought from Holland in 1924 and was taught how to use them. Just to say that we shouldn’t overly miss the passing of our forefathers, but owe it to all of us to try to retain what they have learned and pass those gems onto the following generations.


      1. Rick,

        You’re right about Carly Simon. Someone else pointed out the error to me earlier. Carole King, Carly Simon – at least I didn’t think it was James Taylor!

        We’re losing so many of our craftsmen, although I do see hints here and there that appreciation for finely crafted work is returning. There’s a series sitting in my files, waiting to be finished – “Useful Bits of Beauty”, I call it, and of course it’s based on William Morris’ famous line, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

        I have many of my dad’s hand tools, too, as well as a pair of his leather work gloves and a small tool box. Like my mother’s kitchenwares that I’ve kept, I enjoy using them – they’re a fine connection to the past.


  4. Having spent the better part of my life around boats and boat yards I can verify that there isn’t a grander collection of truly remarkable “characters” to be found anywhere.

    When I was starting out working in boat yards, in New Orleans waaaayyyy pre-Katrina, we painted a lot of yachts. Good prep work in painting and varnishing is 95% of the job. One of the best pieces of advice I got was “the hardest part of painting a boat is knowing when to stop the prep and start putting on the paint.”


    That business about knowing when to stop the prep and start the paint is directly related to my “rule of good enough”. There comes a time when no matter what you do, that coat of varnish isn’t going to get any better. If you redo it to get the pollen patches out, a love bug will fly into it. If you get rid of the love bug carcass, the wind will pick up and you’ll get some brush strokes. After a while, you learn to eyeball it and say, “That’s good enough.” I once did a nearly perfect coat of varnish. Two weeks later, somebody dropped a spinnaker pole on the rail in the middle of a race. So there you are.

    As for prep work – how many times have I heard someone say, “What you ought to do is hire somebody to do the stripping and sanding, and then you can come along and do the artistic part”? Spare me. It’s the stripping and sanding and fussing and obsessing before the varnishing starts that makes the difference. As you know. ;-)


  5. “A” love bug? I remember laying on a nice final coat of varnish on the hand rails of the 65′ Hatteras motor yacht I ran in New Orleans years ago when half the love bugs in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard Parishes thought it would be a great place to have an orgy. I tried sanding out the craters they left behind but after a while just opted to strip the rails down to bare wood and start over. It was easier.


    Well, yes. Of course. And I’m convinced part of the reason the little guys are such a problem is that they have a thing for varnish – Schooner, anyhow. They don’t just wander by, they’re attracted to the stuff. Crack open a fresh can in a love bug-free environment and you’d think you’d just told them it’s a free bar. They come from everywhere, and will fly right into the can. It’s frustrating, but I can’t help but laugh.


  6. Linda; I love Carole King’s music:

    From Anticipation:

    …And tomorrow we might not be together
    I’m no prophet, I don’t know nature’s way
    So I’ll try to see into your eyes right now
    And stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days.

    I do harbor warm nostalgic feelings for my days at that particular boat yard because I loved the job and I was young- just out of school – and just enjoying life. I was broke- too broke to have a vehicle- so I had to walk to work, the bank, grocery store, etc., and I had to be very frugal to survive but it still was a good life. Not long after that, I married and had a family and although there were good days, life was, of course, forever changed.

    But, what I meant about the ‘good old days’ was that so much of Cape Cod has lost its original character and charm, and seeing Crosby’s transformation from a lovely old boat yard to a business that could be any selling windows and doors in Nebraska, for all you could tell by looking at it, was a real let down.

    When my boss had asked me to run down there to pick up parts, I was happily anticipating walking through the old wooden shop and seeing the Ship’s Store again, so you can imagine my disappointment at not bring able to relive some old memories- laughing at funny stories from the Old Timers at coffee break time around the wood stove while sitting in one of the many dilapidated, funky chairs that had been cast offs from various households or rescued from the dump- seeing the beautiful boats being readied for another summer’s adventures- maybe even seeing a familiar face or two- but no- it was all foreign to me.

    Yes, I know EM Crosby; the boat shop I now work at subs them on occasion and they seem to be very nice folks. The Cape being a small place, I went to school with a few of the Crosby’s and have also worked with some of the family. They still own half of the boat yard, called Crosby Yacht Yard; the original business (est. 1850 see: ) had split into two different yards sometime before I was in their employ and I went to work for the Chester Crosby & Sons half in the late 70’s to about 1980. It doesn’t seem possible that so much time has passed since then. But then, I have to realize that my eldest step-grandson is now about the same age as I was at that time. When did I get so old? :-)

    BTW, I agree about the prep-work! If the prep-work is substandard, you’ll never get a nice finish. When I started working for myself, I might hire someone to scrape and sand the bottom or wash & wax the topsides, but I always did the brightwork and finishwork. That way if something got screwed up, I had no-one to blame but myself! Unless it’s those blasted ducks shedding their feathers all over the place that blow onto your wet varnish or some idiot starts grinding something upwind of you….. you know the drill! :-)


    That’s it! Thanks for refreshing my memory about King’s song. She is so good.

    Now you have my attention, and my full agreement, when you talk about the “new” chandlery and yard being the same as a store that could be selling windows in Nebraska. The growth of strip malls and the homogenization of design have transformed our landscape, and are eroding our sense of place. No question. I was thinking about that on the recent trip to Louisiana. When you first come into Breaux Bridge, you might as well be in any smallish town in America. There are the same box stores, the same fast-food franchises, the same retail chains. There’s absolutely no sense of place until you work your way to the small historic district, where people with a love of the past, some creativity and a conviction that place does matter have devoted themselves to restoration and preservation.

    We like to say that character matters, but so do “characters” like John, and the characteristics that make one region of the country different from another. I’m beginning to develop a little theory – the farther people are from the information superhighway, the more interesting they are. A little isolation isn’t always a bad thing ;-)

    As for your last paragraph – I do know the drill. In fact, the first Spanish I learned was the phrase “Alto! No hay agua, por favor!” There nothing like an enthusiastic boat-washer to really ruin the day!


  7. Again, I had no clue I was in the company of one who held such power over words. I am totally speechless after reading this, and that is unusual for me. Absolutely dumb struck. Thank you.


    Bless your heart – you’re too kind. You know as well as I do that sometimes “it works” and sometimes it doesn’t. This one seems to “work”, and I’m grateful for it myself.

    Pass a good week!


  8. Oh, these are words I must write down and hang over every spot in my house, in my world. Sometimes it all seems so very overwhelming. But task by task, maybe not so bad.

    This so reminded me of when my basement was flooded about eight years ago. Since I have considerable stuff, being one who has trouble separating, I was confronted with mess and loss. And my dear, it wasn’t nearly so devastating as water so tall in the living part of your house! Still, at the time, it seemed huge. I had to do that — one area at a time. Tossing the boxes on the floor that hadn’t been opened since I’d moved (only one put a lump in my throat — my old journals, and truth be told, I’d be embarrassed to read them now!)

    Do what you can do.

    Mentors are wonderful, but I think it’s a great gift to have had a quiet, gentle, subtle mentor. And, to your credit, you had the wisdom to listen and hear.

    As always, beautifully written. Bravo.

    And by the way, as long as I’m here, thanks so much for the comments on my recent posts. You’re always so very thoughtful and read underneath the type — another gift. I’ll post the Chihuly pics in a couple of days, but if you want me to send the link to my Shutterfly album, let me know — I’d be glad to!


    I grew up in a world where basements flooded, and must say – a flood is a flood, no matter if it’s “only” six inches. The great irony of Hurricane Ike is that my home escaped entirely unscathed, but the inland storage unit where I’d stashed some of my real treasures flooded three months later in a storm that brought extraordinary rain. No more cardboard boxes for this girl!

    I’ve often wondered if Varnish John didn’t end up talking to me because I tend to be a quiet one myself. Drop a pebble into a fast-flowing, tumbling stream, and it’s gone in a moment. Drop it into a quiet pool, and you can see exactly where it hit and watch the ripples spread. I think he’d smile to see the ripples are still spreading, after all these years.

    I’ll wait for the Chihuly – the photos will be better when they come framed by your words!


  9. Linda, I love how you shift from the sharp-focused detail of Varnish John and his lessons to the scene of your flooded home to the almost-too-large issue of the Gulf disaster so deftly. It makes this too-large tragedy unfolding with the oil slick something my mind can visit without just slipping away, overwhelmed. Thank you for that.

    Mary Ellen,

    It’s been such a shock to have been in Louisiana while all this was unfolding, and to really not have had a clue about the scope until I got home. My tendency to unplug when traveling, and the demands of another project I was working on while I was gone kept me oblivious – good because I enjoyed the trip, bad to the extent I wasn’t at all prepared to confront a reality that had grown so large while I was inattentive.

    It took me a while to find a way into writing about an event that truly is a tragedy, in the Shakespearean sense, rife with indications of hubris and o’erweeing pride. Your words are a treasure. They tell me I succeeded, just a bit, and that is all I could ask.


  10. It’s interesting to observe how individuals would do the humane thing from their heart, as your post so poignantly depicted. However, when people are grouped together as a corporate whole, they are less likely to act bravely and compassionately … of course, to guard their corporate interests.

    So my question is: What is BP doing? I’m sure there are caring souls in that corporation too. Just wondering what they’re thinking…


    What is BP thinking? Clearly, something akin to “How can we cut our losses and limit our liability?” And they’ve been thinking that since day one, when they insisted rig workers sign documents before allowing them to reunite with their families. Despite being dismissed as documents signed under duress and hence not admissible in court, the signed statements have been used against those now initiating claims for damages.

    What is BP doing? Pointing fingers, justifying procedures and refining their use of weasel words in phrases such as “legitimate claims” (emphasis mine). Anyone who’s had experience with BP knows the drill (pun not intended). When their refinery in Texas City exploded in 2005, my windows rattled. Concerns about safety procedures, shortcuts, bad decisions and a willingness to cut corners were at issue there, too.

    In 2006, the largest oil spill in Alaska’s north slope region resulted from corroded BP pipelines. The amount of oil released into the Arctic Ocean was second only to the Valdez spill.

    In 2009, OSHA levied their largest-ever fine against BP for failing to address safety issues raised by the explosion in Texas City four years earlier.

    On the Deepwater Horizon rig, they clearly made a choice to ignore worrisome testing done by their own people.

    The next time you hear someone say British Petroleum is concerned about the environment, or see one of their “green” commercials, you have my full permission to roll your eyes heavenward!


  11. Linda, I was waiting for your comment on this story, and it was worth the wait. I will definitely roll my eyes, and drive by the “green” BP sign. So many tragedies all over the world…..

    I often say to the young people I mentor, “You can only do what you can do; just do your best.” A similar sentiment to your wonderful mentor’s. And nicely, your story of Varnish John reminds me of old Jack. The last time he put a shoe on my horse, he was 92 years old – and that was 40 years ago, so he is long gone by now. He told rollicking tales of rodeos and cattle drives and cowboys. The good old days are so romantic, since we don’t have to live it!

    Good luck when your opportunity comes to help take care of the disaster at your shore.


    Apart from the obvious horrors of this situation – the human toll, the ecological damage, the economic losses and the long term impact we can’t even begin to visualize – I’ve been utterly unfocused and torn about what, and how, to write about it all. To have been in Louisiana while all of this was happening and to have been so “unplugged” I knew little about it is one thing. To return home anxious for a return trip, only to discover how much of what I’d seen might be lost – it’s given me just a glimpse into the anxiety, anger and grief of the people who live all along the coast and are suffering already.

    I’ve had to laugh, just a little – it’s so American of us to fixate on the dramatic disaster when we’ve paid no attention to the slow degradation of our coastal wetlands. I’ve certainly been ignorant – but learning how to write about that will be part of what I can do, too.

    Thank goodness for John, and Jack, and all the other elders in our lives. They truly can teach us how to live.


  12. Oh, this made me cry. All beautiful, every word. Thank you thank you thank you for finding me so that I could find you.

    A teacher once told me: “All you have to do is what you can do right now.” I go back to this whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, like I can’t do it all. John’s words are going right up there with hers. Words to live by.


    None of us can “do it all”. But together, we can do a good bit. And one of the things I’ve learned is that very often the most important things we do, we don’t even recognize at the time. Sometimes we discover their significance later, and I’m sure sometimes we don’t. But we go on, doing the good we can do.

    Sometimes I get caught up in thoughts of “what if this?” or “what if that?” Coping with what’s in front of us is so much better, and your teacher knew that!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. You’re welcome any time.


  13. I liked the word portrait you painted of Varnish John —

    “He seemed wrapped in silence, and unsubstantial as a wraith. He wasn’t exactly intimidating, but he wasn’t approachable either. He simply was…”

    Not so full of himself to impose himself on others. Take it or leave it advice. The unexpected compliment. And yes, the gift of words that become words to live by. One never knows what lasting gifts we leave with others. I imagine Varnish John didn’t. But, Linda, I’m so glad he was your mentor.


    All you say about John is true. He was so absolutely sure of himself, so confident, that his words carried that same authority and confidence – and he taught me a good bit about the power of silent observation. I suspect for every word he spoke, he stood and watched for ten minutes. It’s a lesson I need to remember, and one that’s probably transferable to writing. Ten minutes’ thought for every word written – what a guideline that would be!

    I’m glad he was my mentor, too – even though neither of us ever acknowledged it.


  14. Linda,
    You’ve made me cry. I’m heartsick and can barely stand to think of the damage, the loss, the suffering, and the years it will take to recover.

    Our family has been part of the seafood industry for four generations. In the seventies our rivers were polluted by Kepone – a toxic chemical. The oyster beds were polluted, and the watermen were not allowed to harvest them. Those were tough years.

    Varnish John’s wisdom can take you through some very hard times. Your words are so moving and respectful.


    You must be home ~ I hope you had a wonderful time at the shore.

    I must say, it seems as though the regulators in Louisiana are trying their best to balance safety and concern for peoples’ livelihoods in this situation. Oyster beds east of the Mississippi were closed rather quickly, and then some west of the river. Today, I see they’ve reopened areas to allow as much harvesting as possible ahead of the oil. And they adjusted the shrimping season as well, to allow people to get what they could.

    One of the problems for charter boat captains, restaurants, resorts and so on is that the media, in their desire to hype everything in sight, are making it sound as though there’s nowhere to catch a fish or walk the beach on the entire Gulf Coast. The last I read, 95% of Louisiana’s fishing waters still were open – bad news may sell papers, but inaccurate news can help to destroy peoples’ lives.

    I hope that in the end the people who will suffer the most because of this will receive at least some of the respect they deserve. And I certainly hope the same government who likes to regulate everyone nearly to death will find it appropriate to fairly enforce reasonable regulations in the oil and gas industry. It’s so clear that there was no single cause for this – and that winks and nods were going around at an alarming rate.

    Just to put a smile on your face, here’s one of photographer Judy Lovell’s friends. I’m sending him over to talk to the boys at BP. TransOcean, too, as a matter of fact ;-)


  15. Varnish John’s motto of “Start where you can start and do what you can do” reminded me of a quote from Miyamoto Musashi: “Step by step walk the thousand-mile road”, found in the Water Book, one chapter of his Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho).

    It is just the timeless advice of ignoring the magnitude of the job and taking that first step.


    It is timeless advice. And there’s a corollary from Musashi: “Do nothing which is of no use.” When DocNDSwamp and I were chatting about the situation, I mentioned the impulse most of us have to do something – anything – in the face of the threat. I suspect the urge to utilize hair and hay is of no use, but both are ways to satisfy us rather than solve the problem.

    As I put it to him, taking the first step is critical, but it needs to be a right step, and not a dead-wrong step. Sigh.


  16. Thank you so much for this post. Each semester, I encourage my writing students to identify a Varnish John in their lives. Most of them are too inexperienced to have noticed such people. I understand that; noticing such people, divining the fundamental things they contribute to our view of the world, and effectively presenting to others both the persons and their contributions, is the work of artists such as you.

    Once in a while, I come across a young artist whose eyes have focused on the seemingly ordinary and found there the qualities that help us better understand the world and our place in it.


    And what a wonderful writing assignment that would be. I do think you’re correct that “noticing” is a step often missing in writing ventures. It seems that lack of curiosity and lack of imaginative writing are related.

    Of course, a little thought never hurts, either – “More thinking, fewer words” has long been a touchstone for me. As I write, I continually edit, and my editing process is concerned with far more than correct spelling and grammar. I edit for clarity of thought, for logical consistency and personal conviction as well. Because I want my words to be a direct expression of who I am – because I want them to be true, in the fullest sense of that word – I’m forced to think to be sure my writing does the job.

    In any event, your words are boh encouraging and reassuring. Thank you for taking the time to stop by.


  17. Varnish John is my hero. If I say anything else about him, other than the fact that I’m sure I’d recognize him now, given your excellent “picture” of him, anyway, if I say anything more, I’ll muddy what I mean. Hero. Big time.

    As for the Gulf, this accident sickens us even more than Mother Nature’s ways, simply because we drilled ourselves into this one. That oil is spreading all over us, regardless of where we live.

    From a physical distance, unable to reach the birds, the fish, the manatees, all the life and the seaside life, we help with money.
    Up close, living at the edge of it as you do, likely my tears would fall into the water along with that fisherman’s. But the desire to actually do something, even helping to clean bird by bird, is so intense. I’ve teamed wih my brother who lives on Florida’s coast to write letters calling for action and assistance and to communicate daily, to keep a watch, so to speak.

    I am horrified, too, at the longterm impact of this spill, as it roils and rolls from the bottom up, impacting ulitimately every bit of life in the water, and beyond.

    Today, I filled my car with gas. It was on empty. We live with such contradictions.

    This was a beautiful entry.


    Contraditions abound, don’t they? I’m not one who’ll be in the end-all-drilling camp, but I have serious questions about our capability to work in deep water, and even more questions about our unquestioning trust in our own technologies. A factor in all this at least as contributory as the hunger for profit is the human tendency to think because something hasn’t happened, it won’t happen. Now, it has happened, and the horror that lurks at the back of my mind is the vision of hurricanes Ike and Katrina, mixed with oil. We could easily end with an entire section of coastline unlivable. If the oil gets picked up by the loop current and carried through the Florida Straits, it’s yet another issue.

    Hubris and pride – and the utter contempt of many involved in this for the world in which they move – have made this a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. They call it an accident, but as I work my way through the detailed discussions in the oil and gas forums, it’s clear that “accident” isn’t quite the right word. These people were playing the odds, and they lost.

    There’s yet another corollary that goes with Varnish John’s “start and do” advice. It’s that everything counts. Every dollar, every phone call, every moment of attentiveness counts. We’re going to need them all.


  18. Talk about casting out a fishing line, baiting the fish, setting the hook just right and then reeling in the catch.

    I bit that hook solid, expecting a nice easy essay with a solid message or concept to think about. Once caught, I was reeling emotional –and weeping. Finally someone was able to articulate what I have been carrying in my heart since this spill. Expressed so perfectly, I allowed myself to feel the grief. Thankfully, as always your way, – you leave us with tools to address “the task at hand” and enough Hope for our spirit to walk Mushashi’s thousand steps.

    I really, really, loved this sentence: When the idiosyncratic and quirky, the lazy, the obsessive and the mysterious get thrown into the mix, the fun only increases. Just delighted in the all of it – the vocab, the structure, the picture it created in my mind. Just loved it! If one could be tickled by words – this line sure did. I’m still reading it over & over –delighted each time : )

    I especially enjoyed reading everyone’s responses –lot’s of heart here, beautiful reflections, sound wisdom…. a tribe of humanity.

    Write, Linda, write: I will add my voice to the chorus of those demanding accountability for the past and responsible stewardship in the future. And of course, I will write. In short, I will start and I will do, and I will pledge to do it as long as necessary for the sake of those in need.

    Linda, the earth needs your words, the Lady of the Gulf and her creatures need your words, WE need your words, your HeartSong. For it is when I read your words, I can try to believe Faulkner is right.

    thank you for your work.


    In the past three weeks, I’ve done a lot of reading about these events. Two things are clear: hand-wringing isn’t very inspirational, and press releases hide as much information as they reveal. In a world of sound bites and press availabilities, the “five w’s and an h” often get lost, and in a world where (admittedly disturbing) photos of oil-covered creatures get substituted for analysis, both information and inspiration can be hard to come by.

    I have several posts in mind which address life on the bayous, the people who live there, and the forces they confront. Whether they tend toward inspiration (my intent for telling the story of John), information (as with my current post about Transocean and the legal system) or pure fun (I still have to tell OtherBug’s story!) my goal is substance. I’m one of those holdovers from the Pleistocene era who truly believes that substance doesn’t have to be boring, that fun can inspire and that logic and emotion can co-exist.

    And by the way – I really, really liked “that” sentence, too. We writers do have favorites, you know – we just try not to let the other sentences know ;-)

    It’s always such a treat to have you stop by!


  19. Beautiful. The words, the thought, the heart. Lucky you to have had Varnish John for a mentor; lucky us to have you. Clearly the pebble that falls into still water carries the most weight.

    Today’s newspaper reported that the latest scheme to stop the gushing oil (flushing down “dirty” mud) is not ready, and probably will not work. Have they tried to seek out their own Varnish John? Of course not.

    Thank you for this.


    I was lucky to have Varnish John. His little saying has helped me out in many, many situations – some of which were as far removed from gushing oil and flooding storms as you could imagine. But that’s the beauty of truth – it applies across the board. Faced with any kind of grief or loss – or even the need to get the laundry done and the bills paid! – his words still hold true.

    As for the oil – it seems clear to me they have no idea how to stop it. This is not an oil “spill” in any traditional sense, and many of the traditional approaches are useless.

    I did find a little tidbit that’s somehow comforting. From a NY Times article, this:

    Thad W. Allen, the Coast Guard admiral in charge of the response to the spill, said Wednesday evening that the government had decided to try to put equipment on the ocean floor to take accurate measurements. A technical team is at work devising a method, he said. “We are shoving pizzas under the door, and they are not coming out until they give us the answer.”

    What could be more encouraging than the thought of a technical team locked down with an unlimited supply of pizza? Sometimes I laugh at the strangest things. ;-)


  20. Varnish John’s comment: “Good, you did not stop…”

    I have worked on boats and buildings for years. Lately I am more inclined to stop and talk but varnishing (or fiberglassing) are another world. My friend Ulrick finished my speedboat. One day I stopped to check with him and asked how his wife was doing – she had had back surgery that day. He said: “She’s fine. If I was not so busy I would have done it myself.”

    Years later another friend is working on his boat and Ulrick has just had hip surgery himself. Ulrick comes to see the project. Ron keeps working as best he can and Ulrick left saying: “I’ve turned into the people I used to hate.”


    Poor Ulrick. It happens to us all. I can’t tell you the number of women I know whom I’ve heard say, “I’ve turned into my mother”.

    For some reason it reminds me of that lovely song by Judy Collins – “Both Sides Now”.
    Learning to see both sides (or all sides, or as many sides as possible) is part of learning wisdom, too.


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