Remembering Varnish John

Repairing a Pot Pie Skiff

It’s an old joke, but it still gets a laugh:

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

It’s true anywhere, I suppose, but it’s a fact that boatyards do shelter a certain number of reprobates: scam artists, hustlers and hard-drinking, hard-living sorts who aren’t necessarily subscribers to the Protestant work ethic. 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 around the yards and docks, Varnish John was among the most mysterious of the workers. I never knew his full name. I knew only that he was about seventy; that he was from up the coast; and that he claimed to be the oldest varnisher in the area.  Tall and slender, evidencing only the slightest traces of youthful dissipation, he favored jeans and faded cotton shirts since, as he put it, tees were too informal for “the office.”

He worked without gloves in the winter, walked barefooted on the docks in full summer, and the docks and the yards were the only places I ever saw him. He didn’t seem to frequent cafés or bars; I never found him sitting in a shed after work, drinking beer and telling tales with other workers.

His brightwork was as beautiful as any I’d seen, but he worked only for a few, select customers. During his occasional month-long absences, we always assumed he was in the islands, varnishing some elegant beauty of a boat in warm, Caribbean breezes.

Breaktime in the Boatyard ~ Laura Ragland

Even 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: unsubstantial as a wraith. While not exactly intimidating,  he didn’t seem especially approachable. He simply was: like the osprey and heron watching from the edges of our world.

One day, bending over a trawler’s rail with my brush in hand, I felt a sudden presence. Looking up, I was startled to see John standing a few feet away, watching me work. I assumed he’d have nothing to say, but he surprised me by commenting on the weather, and asking a question or two about my varnish and brush.  

Unwilling to stop work, but not wanting to be impolite, I answered his questions while I worked my way down the rail. When I reached the end 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 turned, and walked off down the dock.

It was the first of many such encounters. 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.  

Both practical and cautious, he insisted a shower and shampoo were mandatory before final coats of varnish, even if you hadn’t been sanding. Over time, as he taught me to varnish on clean winds blowing from the water, to recognize the first tendrils of  winter fog, and to 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 varnishing: a rule I’ve come to cherish because it applies so well to every circumstance of life. Whether needing to varnish in uncoperative weather or 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 to help me cope with the vicissitudes of the varnishing life. Then. as tropical storm Allison blew through Houston — swamping neighborhoods, floating big rigs down freeways, and destroying neighborhoods with indiscriminate glee — I discovered the Rule’s value in more critical situations.

Like thousands of people, I returned to a house that appeared absolutely normal, apart from a barely visible water line four feet above the ground. Stepping through the door, it became obvious that “normal” was a thing of the past. It was as though a giant, malevolent hand had reached into the house, intent on destruction.

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 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.

In the midst of the chaos, reclaiming the refrigerator that had been dumped, face-down, into the dining area, 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, the spoiled food thrown out, and the floor washed down with water and bleach. Looking back, I recognize it as another example of John’s wisdom at work. You start where you can start, and you do what you can do. Then, you start again.

Once again, there’s flooding down in Texas; others are standing in the midst of their own muddy chaos and wondering, “What now?” Grief, anguish, and frustration are common and understandable. But there is no undoing what is. The waters have come and, as the waters recede, what will count is the response. As a friend said after Houston’s Memorial Day flood took her car and her home, “We’ll just have to start where we can start, and do what we can do.” Then she grinned, and added, “Wouldn’t John be proud of me?”

A first step: untangling boats after Hurricane Ike

Across the country, the story often is the same. After the terrible floods of 2010 in Nashville, a musician wrote a song for the city and offered it at no charge on his website. When oil from the Deepwater Horizon explosion began fouling the Gulf of Mexico coastline, Otis Goodson stirred some hay into a barrel of water and oil, and hope for remediation was born.

While larger organizations like Audubon help to coordinate and educate volunteers for tasks as varied as bird distribution counts and wetlands restoration after hurricanes, individual photographers record deeply personal responses of the people affected, as a way of fleshing out the story for the public at large.

Taken individually, each of these gestures might 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. 

As Varnish John might say, with less elegant language but equal sincerity: even when the task seems impossible, we’re willing to start where we can start, and do what we can do.


Comments always are welcome.

109 thoughts on “Remembering Varnish John

    1. Many thanks, Gary. I’d thought we were done with rain about an hour ago, but it seems to be building again. I’ve been trying to get over to Nash, Brazoria and San Bernard, but now they’re saying rain for next weekend, too. With luck, there will be some sunshine tomorrow — even if it just reflects off the floodwaters.

  1. Your description of Varnish John is full of marvelous particulars, painting, or should I say varnishing (?) a characterful portrait of the man. And this is so, so true: “Taken individually, each of these gestures might seem insignificant. Seen as a whole, they reveal something both touching and heroic about the human spirit.” It’s what makes, for example, oral histories like those Studs Terkel collected so incredibly valuable–and, come to think of it, you add to the store in a multitude of wonderful ways, too.

    1. There are people who impress themselves on our memory, no doubt about that. I was trying to figure out how long it’s been since I’ve seen John. Surely, it’s been fifteen years. It might even be more.
      As the saying goes, it could have been yesterday.

      As for Terkel, incredibly valuable is exactly right. In this era of idolizing celebrity and calculating value by numbers of likes or shares, I love this, from his memoir:

      “In most cases, the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person. ‘Ordinary’ is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.”

      1. I love this quotation. Absolutely on point. (PS: This is not related, but on the subject of Prokofiev, David Nice tipped me off to a recording of Prokofiev playing some of the Visions Fugitives. I found it on Youtube and thought you might enjoy it.)

    1. And all of them — the vocalists and mechanics, the creators and the re-creators — learn John’s lessons. If they’re lucky, they learn them sooner rather than later.

  2. What a wonderful character study! I love John’s Rule: “Start where you can start, and do what you can do.” It works for so many other things besides varnish.

    1. Jean, the first thing I thought of when I read your comment was that series of trips you’ve made to the auction houses. If that little project wasn’t a perfect place to put the rule to work, I don’t know what would be.

      I’m not sure about this, but it occurs to me that the mark of a good rule for living is that it does apply in every circumstance. Just as 2 + 2 = 4 whether it’s a recipe being doubled or a cathedral being built, starting where we can start, and doing what we can do, works for everything from hurricane recovery to getting the laundry done.

  3. Like how to eat an elephant, Linda— one bite at a time. Or possibly like the old Frank Sinatra song, High Hopes. Oops there goes another rubber tree plant. I enjoyed your sudden recognition that you had a mentor. Obviously, he respected you. –Curt

    1. That elephant metaphor’s familiar, but it seems different to me: probably because I first learned it as a joke, akin to all the other elephant jokes. (Remember those? “Why are elephants wrinkled?”
      “Have you ever tried to iron one?” There were dozens.)

      One unanswered question, of course, is why he showed up in the first place. I’ll never know, but today I have some suspicions. What I do know is that he made learning my craft much easier, and gave me an unexpected treasure of a saying that’s helped me cope with the widest possiblel range of situations.

  4. “Start where you can start and do what you can do.” I am often amazed at how many victims of disasters come through with that determination to build again. This is a fitting tribute to a “make a difference” kind of man. You wrote it beautifully.

    1. Thanks, Oneta. After Hurricane Ike, that determination was so visible. The story of the Frascone winery is only one of a multitude of tales, and the tales still are told. On the wall of a local café, there’s a sign by a local artist that says, “Hurricane Ike stories told here” — and they are.

      This past two weeks or so, a home on a very large lot with many large trees has been adorned with jack-o-lanterns hanging from the branches. This photo, taken the year of Ike, shows something of what it looks like. The people had been hanging those for years, and when they appeared again after the hurricane, it was as if the whole town heaved a huge sigh of relief. It was a sign of normal life returning — they had done what they could do.

  5. An absolute blessing to have John in your life. It takes time and true presence to find these people and then you can only hope they “find” you, too.

    1. And sometimes it takes time to recognize their value: the contributions they’ve made to our lives long before we became aware of them. It’s a good reminder that life-changing wisdom could be waiting for us anywhere. All we need do is pay attention.

  6. It certainly can be paralyzing to face a mountain — whether flood damage or paperwork or yard work. I like Curt’s comment about eating an elephant. But Varnish John’s phrasing is a bit more palatable.

    1. As I mentioned to Curt, my view of the elephant-eating approach has been forever warped by my introduction to the concept in grade school, when it was part of a genre known as “elephant jokes.” Still, the “one step at a time” approach certainly is related, and valid.

      On the other hand, there are times when a lot of time and energy are wasted or misdirected, because we chose an impossible starting point, or attempt to achieve impossible goals. The questions I’ve always understood to be implied by John’s little mantra serve as a useful guard against action-for-action’s sake.

    1. Thanks, Julie. I think you might enjoy my little corollary to John’s rule, too: “Do what you can, and not what you can’t.” Heaven knows the temptation to achieve the impossible is everywhere!

  7. All jobs are like this, but some are easier to see where our part begins. But even in “creating” something new, where it appears there is a beginning, others have already taken the initial steps. We come in much later. The great trick in life is appreciating and recognizing them, as you do with John. thanks.

    1. I never would put “creating” in quotation marks, because I believe there are beginnings which are unique to us as individuals. We do create, we do take initial steps — there are individual visions which emerge in art, business, science. Of course we owe a debt to those who have come before, and are influenced by them. Still, the making of new things is possible, and I’m glad for it.

      On the other hand, I certainly do appreciate John. Implicit in his little guideline is another truth: each of us has our own capabilities, and, hence, our own starting point. Given the same situation, where you could start and where I could start might be quite different. It’s interesting to think about.

  8. I’ve learned about some principles of being called mindfulness. It has a lot of advice for living and accepting and making the best of your situation. I think John has captured the entirety of the philosophy with his words.

    1. I know very little about the mindfulness movement, but from what I’ve been told and the little I’ve read, I suspect there might be some differences.

      When it comes to attentiveness, there’s no question John was right in line with the proponents of mindfulness. But he also was a firm proponent of engagement, not detachment, and the thought of observing life without judgment? He’d go nuts. He constantly was judging — not usually in the sense of condemning, but in the sense of discerning.

      The man had no qualms at all about declaring a piece of work good or bad. What I found especially galling was that he almost always was right. I might protest in the beginning — even be insulted — but a little time and consideration usually brought me around. I suppose that’s another thing he taught me: the importance of self-criticism.

  9. Beautifully expressed, Linda – like stanzas in the song of life. During good times and bad, it’s where we are and where we head that matters. Handwringing only delays our journey.

    1. Ah, handwringing. There’s a word I’ve not heard in many years, and it’s such a good one. Maybe no one handwrings, anymore. We just yell at each other, or leave snarky comments on social media.

      But to your point: you’re right. Whatever form it takes, “O, woe is me” does delay necessary action. I’ll never forget a woman sorting clothing donations at a church in San Leon after Ike. As she worked, tears streamed down her face. Someone asked her why she didn’t take a break. She said, “I can sit around and cry, or I can work and cry, and there’s too much to do to just sit.”

      There it is.

      1. I don’t know why the handwringing image came to me, but so many people tie their own hands in their misery. What’s done is done; how do we deal with it? I’ve generally not fussed a lot about that; my ‘handwringing’ is more about the anxiety and paralysis around future events – what ‘might’ happen even if it’s things I can’t control one way or another. Just the last few years, I’ve been able to let go of a LOT of future-centered anxiety. Perhaps that’s a natural benefit of aging.

        1. I call that the “What-ifs.” My mother suffered from it, and believe me, the scenarios she could imagine were remarkable. I never did find the ax-murderer she imagined out by the trash bin at night, but I’m sure he was there. I picked up the tendency toward what-iffing from her, and it took some effort to get it under control. Life’s better, now that I have.

          1. So true! I fought the same role model in my Mom, and fear is a paralyzing block to living a full life. I’m glad you and I were able to grow beyond its power.

  10. I love that saying: it’s phrased so simply and succinctly! The essence of it is, I think, the secret of a successful life lived close to the earth. What more, really, can ever be done?

    1. Simplicity really is a virtue, isn’t it? The best part is that John’s saying addresses every situation — even rehabbing a knee. In fact, your journey back to hiking-level health is a perfect example of its value.

      I think you’re right that actively living in the real (that is, physical) world makes a difference. The real world pushes back in a way that so much of modern life doesn’t. At minimum, the consequences of not taking the physical world seriously are more immediate — especially if we start where we shouldn’t start, and don’t do what we should!

  11. Linda, I’m so glad that you wrote Varnish John’s story. He was quite a character and I wonder what happened to him after you last saw him in the boatyard.

    I must say that in your time you have met many characters and he has to be the most outstanding, in my opinion, which is limited, since I have no idea of all the personalities that you have met on the coast.

    But his words are filled with “un-varnished” wisdom and I find his story intriguing. I think he would be honored to read what you have written- that is if he were alive.

    I hope that you don’t have a repeat of your home being flooded. That must have been a nightmare but you came through it all in fine fettle. It seems you don’t let too much faze you and I find that admirable.

    1. Yvonne, I haven’t always been so unfazeable. But varnishing has taught me a good bit of flexibility (weather!), caring for my mom all those years taught me patience, and age itself has its virtues. At least now, I have enough years behind me that I can think, “Well, if I survived that, I certainly can cope with this.”

      I made some inquiries last week, and discovered, to my surprise, that John worked for a while with another of my friends. It was many years ago, but even though I now know John’s last name, I still don’t have a clue what happened to him. My friend had the same experience; John simply disappeared.

      I suspect he’s probably gone from the earth, now. If he was about 70 when I met him, he’d be around 90 today, or even a little more. I’d rather think he took off for that Caribbean island, and is lazing away under a palm tree somewhere.

      What tickles me most is that I’m now the age John was when I met him. Perhaps my new career goal should be to become the oldest varnisher on the coast.

      1. Linda, that is all so interesting. Could be that John, maybe,. had no family and he just went out to sea one day and never came back. His life story would make an interesting book. You could write his story as a short novel or long and fill in the blanks in all manner of ways. And gee I can just imagine all those wonderful words of your coming together that make the page/s sing. I marvel at your writing ability. Keep up the good work, literally and physically.

        1. Believe it or not, I spent some time at work today pondering whether I would take on writing a fictionalized account of John’s life. I decided that I wouldn’t, at least partly because the charm of the story as it is now is that every reader can fill in the blanks as they please. To try and fill in the gaps that do exist would feel like tampering with his life and the relationship we had. I suppose some would disagree.

          On the other hand, I’m learning some things with these personal essays — like character development — that may get put to use sooner rather than later in a couple of reality-based Texas stories. They’re so good — even though I end up being the butt of the joke. There’s nothing like a good urban-girl-goes-to-the-country story to make people laugh.

          1. I’ve been reading quite a few short stories lately and think that Varnish John or the essence of his character would provide and excellent basis for one. It might be interesting to play with. After reading the biographies of Tolstoy and Chekov, I concluded that biography reading ought to precede reading of a writer’s works. I understood much better the books after understanding the authors and those in their lives. I’ve kept in mind your Varnish John Rule as long as I’ve known and that’s awhile now!! Very grounding since I tend to visualize the worst.

            1. I just read a piece that you might enjoy: if enjoy is the right word. It’s from the Paris Review, and focuses on Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from a Dead House.” With the Russian writers, biographical context certainly is important — although that’s true with any, I suppose.

              I’ve been re-reading a lot of Tom Wolfe lately. His collections, like “Mauve Gloves and Madmen,” are a tonic. I first read “Mau-mauing the Flak-Catchers” when I was living in Oakland back in the 70s, and I mean to tell you — it was dead on. I’ve always thought he was great, and now I’ve found someone who agrees with me.

              Visualizing the worst is easy, isn’t it? My mother was a master, so I learned from the best, and then learned again to let go of all that. Letting go was harder.

  12. Varnish John continuing to share bits of his wisdom. Speaks highly of you Linda, and a very excellent tribute to the man Varnish John. Appreciate you introducing him to the rest of us! DM

    1. You would have liked him, DM. Now that I’ve heard another story or two, I think he was a better worker than he was an employee, and his vanishing technique had a few idiosyncracies, but he arrived in my life at just the right time, and his presence still lingers in the form of his advice.

      I just wish he still was around. I’d love to share some of the things I’ve learned over the years: rules like, “Do what you can, not what you can’t,” and “The Rule of Good Enough.” Given his tendencies toward perfectionism, he might have been able to make use of that second one.

      1. I love how you were able to pierce the wall of silence and have repeated interaction with him. Guys like that tend to keep to themselves and do not lightly bring other people into their lives. I know a couple of men like him locally.

        1. Honestly, I don’t think there was a “wall of silence,” and I don’t think I pierced anything. He just was much like a blogger I knew, who had as her tagline: “If I don’t have anything to say, I won’t say it.” Would that there were more such people in the world.

  13. Did Varnish John die? I hope not. He strikes me as a wise, eccentric soul, one who makes an unexpected impact in life. And he’s so right with these words of wisdom. Sometimes it is all one can do to put one foot ahead of another but to start where you can and do what you can makes you feel a little more productive.

    I don’t think I know about your past flooding. I sure hope that isn’t damaging things too much this time around. I know you live “up high” but work at water level.

    Varnish John’s wisdom reminds me a bit of my friend Mike Lewis. Sometimes these people who look as though they may have little to offer are the deepest and most sensitive, the most observant and the the wisest. This is a glorious tribute to him. I hope he’ll see it.

    1. Jeanie, I don’t know if he’s died. I wouldn’t be surprised. I did make inquiries again during this past week, and finally surfaced his last name, and the fact that he worked for another of my friends for a time, but no one knows where or when he left. Or how, for all that.

      I like your comparison of John to Mike, and I think it’s exactly right. I remember your tribute to him. Your comment about his willingness to observe reminds me of another little saying from childhood. Someone (I don’t remember who) used to remind me to keep my eyes open, and my mouth shut. That’s smart, too.

      We’re always flooding around here. Sometimes it’s tropical systems, as with Allison (storm) and Ike (hurricane) but it’s just as likely to be a result of summer deluges or training thunderstorms. Even a long, strong east wind can bring coastal flooding. Things are better, thanks to road and house elevations since Ike, but there still are areas you just can’t go when the tides are up. This is the second weekend I’d hoped to go back to Anahuac, but it’s impossible. The ferry’s running, but the highway’s still closed.

      And it’s still raining!

      1. I’m always slow getting back to read comments but I hope you’ll get to Anahuac sooner or later. We’re due for high winds (55 mph) and rain over the next couple of days. Our beautiful fall may be edging out but I have hope!

        The observing you mention here — eyes open and mouth shut — well, you certainly kept your eyes open in your next post!

    1. Little nudges and reminders always are good. I’m glad to have offered this one to you.

      I appreciate your comment, and am happy you stopped by. You’re always welcome here.


    1. Thanks, Bella. He reminded me a lot of your refrigerator guy. That ought to make you really like him.

      Now, get out there, dispose of those pumpkins, and turn the porch dog’s basket into a cornucopia. But — by the way — where is the porch pup? Does your porch accomodate him? I can’t quite tell from today’s photo. And did you ever name him? Surely I didn’t miss that. An update’s required!

  14. I seem to recollect folks sharing memories of the “sound of rain on a tin roof” as though the sound were musical. The rain has beat up my metal roof for 12 hours now, and the din is nearly deafening; aggravating at the very least. Enough is enough already.

    I can’t read about hurricane recovery without flashing back to Juan, Andrew, Rita, and Ike and the associated sights, smells, and emotions. Been there. Done that. Don’t need a t-shirt as a reminder. Don’t care to go back. But, start where we could, and do what we could, and then do it again was our theme.

    Everyone needs a mentor named John. That’s my marsh mentor’s name, by the way…

    1. Believe me, I’m with you when it comes to enough is enough. We were supposed to clear out yesterday afternoon. Then, they said last night. Then, it was Sunday morning. All that’s happened is that it’s settled in again, and has been raining steadily since I got up. I wanted so badly to get out and about today, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. I guess I’d better dust off John’s advice and use it again.

      My first storm was Alicia, in 1983. I still remember that experience as though it were yesterday. Of course, experiencing the eye made it even more special, but there’s nothing quite like thinking, “I didn’t know a brick house could shake like this.”

      What people often don’t realize is that the big, publicity-generating storms aren’t the only ones we cope with. Every tropical storm recalls every other one, and the anxiety level goes up even with the near-misses, the far-misses, and the dissipations. And I don’t need to tell you anything about how long recovery can take. I’ve not seen a blue tarp in a while, but there still are communities along the bayfront that only now are beginning to show signs of general rebuilding.

      You’re right about the importance of mentors. And think about this: some mentors don’t realize they’re fulfilling that function at the time. You might be surprised to know who you’re mentoring, right now.

      I can’t help wondering: if your marsh mentor, John, is a mellow sort of fellow, would that mean he’s a marsh mellow?

      1. I’m laughing at your last question as I type! I would say yes, he’s a marsh mellow, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him lose his temper. And I can feel an etheree coming on: John/is a/ mellow sort/of fellow who/ . . . . .. you made my day! (plus the rain finally gave way to sunshine!)

        1. Etheree on, Wendy! Finish that poem and give it to your John. I know he’d get a kick out of it. And I’m so glad you finally got some sunshine. We had a break just long enough for a rainbow last night; then, it clouded up again until about 9 this morning. I can’t even tell you how happy I was to see the sun. I’d like some on the weekends, too, but if I have to choose, I suppose getting decent working weather should take priority.

    1. Thanks, Sheila. And the philosophy’s good for far more than storms, disasters, and housecleaning. It even applies to the pleasures of life, like learning my new camera, or, for the more advanced, a new lens or a new processing program. What a wise man John was!

  15. Such sage advice, and a wonderful study of Varnish John! Priceless that he eventually shared with you, in his own way. I’d bet he observed you for quite awhile before his initial contact with you. Take care during the current system. :)

    1. I’m sure he knew who I was, Becca. For one thing, I was competition, and every varnisher, sailmaker, mechanic, and fiberglass worker knows who’s come to town to set up shop. I still remember the woman who was flown in from Maine to work on a boat. She was the talk of the town for a while, partly because she told everyone in sight she was the 5th best varnisher in the U.S. How she knew that, I can’t say.

      Beyond that, there really aren’t many independent boat workers. We often end up working on the same boats, and refer customers to one another. When I don’t have time in my schedule for a new boat, I’ll call around and see if someone else can find time. And, they do the same for me. We get to know one another pretty well: at least as colleagues.

      So, John may have come around initially to scope out the competition, but you’re right: he left some sage advice when he left.

      I finally see just a bit of blue sky. I’m sure it will clear out about ten minutes before sunset. So it goes.

  16. Love this one, Linda — and what outstanding advice from Varnish John! We all need mentors; nice of him to volunteer to be yours, whether you chose him or not, whether he’d even categorize himself as one or not!

    I watch the weather reports, and I’m taken back to those hurricanes we endured when I lived on the Miss. Gulf Coast. How well I remember the precautions — boarding up, moving low-lying stuff to high ground, etc. I’ve been gone years, but the memories are indelible.

    The local newspaper published a book after Hurricane Katrina, complete with Before and After photos. It still takes my breath away. My folks even had a boat washed up into their back yard (who knows from whence it came??). The water came right up to the stairs. Yes, they were lucky!

    Love John’s advice about learning to talk and work at the same time!!

    1. Two of the first places I visited after Katrina and Rita (perhaps a year after) were Bay St. Louis and Gulfport. It was beyond words. I hated that the media focused almost solely on NOLA. Of course things were horrid there, but they were no better eastward.

      Was it the Sun Herald that published the book? They were very, very good about responding to the needs of their communities — I really respect that paper, and the Sun Sentinel.

      Speaking of boats: we brought a boat from Pensacola to Galveston just before Hurricane Ivan. It had been in Palafox Marina. After the storm, Palafox was a mess, and there was a small Catalina sailboat (maybe a 31′) up in a tree. You’re right about the memories; They never go.

      That business about talking and working at the same time is so important. There are times I’ll even suggest to someone that, if they’d like to chat, they might come back later. I can sand and chat easily, but when I start putting on a final coat, it’s time to focus.

      I suppose you have your own kind of interruptions and your own balancing act to maintain. People sometimes imagine that being one’s own boss means perfect freedom and no frustrations, but you know the truth about that!

      1. It was the Sun-Herald, Linda (I used to work there, many moons ago). We’ve got a copy of the book, but I still find it hard to peruse the photos — too many memories, I guess.
        You’ve hit the nail on its head regarding working for yourself. When I’m up to my eyeballs in code, I hate being bothered; other times, I welcome an interruption (just like for most solopreneurs, right?!)

        1. I’ve never heard the word “solopreneur,” but it’s a good one. Now that we’re moving into November, the marinas are emptying out, and there are days when I don’t talk to anyone for eight hours. I don’t mind it, but there are times when it’s enjoyable to work on a project with someone else.

  17. I love people who make a living with their natural talents and who enjoy doing so. I’ve been reading your work for a year or so and have put off my task-at-hand, that of reworking the teak on my boat. This spring I will finally get to it!

    1. I keep forgetting that some of you have to take your boats out for the winter: at least, I presume you do. It can get foggy and wet here in December, and cold and nasty in January, but there usually is enough decent working weather to keep things rolling along.

      Your mention of natural talents tickled me, Terry. A couple of years ago I wrote about my mother’s chagrin when I began varnishing, and the subsequent revelation that her father — my grandfather — had varnished woodwork in homes for a time. It’s said that some talents skip generations; I wonder if it’s true?

    1. You may or may not remember how my blog title came to be. It’s the same as the one I used for the first poem I wrote, back in January, 2008 — three months before I started the blog. It still makes me laugh when I remember that poem was begun on a piece of used sandpaper.

      It’s been nearly three years since I told that story. Maybe it’s time to do it again.

      By the way: the sun did come out just before setting. It still was raining, so I found the rainbow, and combined it with the top of some palm trees.

  18. I enjoyed reading about Varnish John. You wonderfully fleshed out his character and made his story come alive. He reminds me of some craftspeople I know, who don’t say very much but when they do talk often have words of wisdom about their areas of expertise.

    1. I suspect John knew he was regarded as a bit of a character, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he nurtured that persona: the quirky, crotchety old man. I do think he’d be surprised to find himself here, in this little tale.

      If he’s still around, it would be fun if he found this piece. I’ve been amazed by the people I’ve written about who have discovered my work, and contacted me. it’s always been a good experience.

      I’ve found that same sort of “conversational reticence” in craftspeople, and in country people. I’m sure the characteristic can be found in any group, but it does seem more typical among some.

  19. This is reminiscent of the Hints from Heloise “do ten things” hint. When faced with a task of such overwhelming size or complexity that you don’t know where to begin, list ten tasks at random and start with the first task on the list, and cross them out one by one. Somewhere about the third task one thing will start leading into another. After the recent plumbing disaster(August) I have even more empathy and sympathy for those who have been the victims of flooding.

    1. Ah, Heloise. She’s another one who was in our pantheon of household gods — especially my mother’s. But that list-of-ten approach is a good one, as are its variations. The randomness of the initial selection’s good, too. It eliminates all that dithering about which is most important.

      And you’re exactly right about flooding being flooding. The nature of the water may differ, but the effects of water are pretty much the same. Before experiencing flooding, I thought that particular disaster would be relatively easy to cope with. Nope. It’s a long, hard process: even in a situation like yours.

  20. What a lovely tribute to Varnish John. I remember you mentioned him some time ago. He sounds a wonderful character. I loved that segment of Faulkner’s speech.

    It seems irrelevant, but we finally got rain today. It is a splendid sight to see it coming down.

    1. Rain never is irrelevant, Kayti: especially where you are. I hope you get enough to not only settle the dust (that was a horrible accident on 99 near Glendale, in the dust storm) but also to reduce the wildfire risk. We’ve had enough for a while, but there are rumors of more to come this weekend. I’ll suggest it stop in California instead.

      I went back and looked, and Varnish John has made an appearance in a few posts. Sometimes it was only a cameo, but still, he’s there: especially in posts written after Hurricane Ike. In a way, I wouldn’t want to know what happened to him. There’s something wonderful and timeless bout him living on in his advice.

      It just occurred to me: that’s not bad advice for moving, either!

  21. Your description of the marvelous Varnish John reminded me of my years on canals when we had a narrowboat, yes a diverse mix of people are to be found hanging out with boats, with the odd gem like Varnish John. I do like his rule!
    I’m shocked at the damage you sustained.water is a holy terror for sure! How awful to hear of the current flooding, I do hope it ends and soon!xxx

    1. Dina, I can’t believe it. I lived aboard a small sailboat for a time, but I always have thought that a canal boat would be the very best. When I traveled in England and Europe, I hadn’t yet come to boats, and paid no attention to what was around me. But now, after having had friends in England and the Netherlands post about their experiences with them — well, I just think it would be wonderful.

      On the other hand, your sort of rescue work would be difficult, if not impossible, in that setting. There always are trade-offs.

      In our area, river flooding is going to be an issue for a while, but otherwise, things have settled down. What’s perfectly clear is just how high the water table has risen. The fire ant mounds are nearly a foot high — they may be nasty creatures, but they certainly aren’t stupid.

      1. Oh yes, narrowboats are simply heavenly, I don’t think there is anything cosier. We had one for years but simply couldn’t keep up with the maintenance. We found we didn’t have too much time to use it either. Here’s a link, if you’re interested, to my last post re my old boat.

        Maybe one day I’ll get another! I do miss hanging out around boats!xxx

        1. Well, now you’ve done it, Dina. I’m ready to move back aboard. Apart from the needs of the dogs, yours seemed just perfect. And you know what made me laugh aloud? Your mention of the ducks and geese coming around and pecking on the hull to get their morning bread. Some things are common the world around, it seems.

          Boats in good weather are great, but, contrary to what many people think, there’s no place cozier than a boat in winter. I loved being aboard when it rained, or when a good, strong norther was blowing through. A funny storm story: we had an ice storm in December one year. I thought to turn the boat around so that the companionway was away from the wind. A friend didn’t, and she got iced in, good and proper. In those days of no cell phones, she couldn’t even call someone. Eventually, she got chipped out – and bought herself a hair dryer.

          Thanks for sharing the post!

  22. Starting where you can start – yes! Sometimes things at work get chaotic & I start feeling overwhelmed & out of control. When that happens I just start methodically going through my email & doing each task in the order it appeared in my inbox. It’s very soothing :)

    1. I do the same thing, Dana. Long ago and far away, in a world where I still was supporting myself with office work, a co-worker gave me another good tip: handle each piece of paper only once. (This was well before computers.) Her point was that, once it’s in your hand, if you file it, toss it, pass it on — whatever — you’re done with it.

      The trick with any advice, of course, is to take it. But you’re right about the soothing effect of just getting started, and doing it. I think it’s probably the focus that helps. It seems like that to me, anyway.

    1. Many thanks! Honestly, I learned a great deal from varnishing that served me well once I began writing. Patience comes to mind, just a touch of perfectionism, and a willingness to accept that absolute perfection never is possible.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the tale. It was a fun one to tell.

  23. One of the things that we appreciate about living in the northeast is the lack of natural disasters. Those of you who are constantly in harm’s way get both my sympathy and admiration for having to live under the threat of ruin and having to rebuild. Our little Halloween surprise snowstorm a few years back was nothing compared to a hurricane’s devastation. We do have a history of flooding from a Hurricane or the rare tornado, but they are just that…rare. Varnish John’s advice does indeed apply to such an occurrence as well as most everything else in life. I need to apply that advice to exercising. I never seem to be ready. LOL

    Although I am sure John’s mentoring was invaluable, I also have the sense that you would have grown into an outstanding varnisher on your own simply by observing the meticulous way that you assemble your essays and poems.

    1. It does seem to be true that you have fewer extreme weather events, although reports from a friend who lives out on the Cape suggest that even a nor’easter isn’t to be trifled with. I occasionally ponder whether I want to stay here as a really old woman. Evacuation’s no fun, especially when you’re at the mercy of someone else’s planning. But, as another friend found out, moving inland puts you in the path of hurricane-spawned tornados. There are no easy answers — and no perfect safety.

      When it comes to John’s advice, and doing what you can do, your ladder comes to mind. There are more creative solutions in the world than most of us imagine.

      As for being meticulous: the funny thing is that the varnishing came first; that’s where I learned to slow down, pay attention to details, and really think about what I was doing. When I started my blog, I’d already been varnishing for 18 (!) years, and some new patterns were pretty firmly set.

      What really helped, in the beginning, was the opportunity to serve an informal apprenticeship with one of the best varnishers in the area. She had been in the business for years before I came along, and had a lot of good tricks and shortcuts to teach.

      The irony is that many of those tricks and shortcuts aren’t used any more. New products, and new ways of doing things, have come along, and we’ve all adapted some of them. Others, like the reformulated Captain’s varnish, have been firmly rejected. Companies just can’t stop messing around with good products.

      1. I don’t think any inclement weather, extreme or not, should be trifled with. And the Cape is certainly a vulnerable place, not only for nor’easters or hurricanes, but should the prognostications prove true, the rising waters will make it disappear. Inland here is relatively free from such worries, but there are a few fault lines that could some day wreak a bit of havoc although not on the San Andreas level.
        18 years! I know the feeling you just expressed. I’ve been lacquering for 42. Every day there seems to be some little aspect that an improvement occurs to me. Always something new to learn or just a totally new challenge that has to be addressed.
        Changes…most of what I do now is so different from the old practices. Whenever my supplier’s rep shows up I am surprised to learn of changes in the products…not always for the good in my opinion…which means upgrading the materials. Fortunately, when one has the opportunity to work on an antique, the old ways are required even if they are not as durable as the new.

        1. Your comment about the old ways being required when working on an antique reminded me of a friend’s son-in-law, who worked as a caulker on ships in martitime museums. He was skilled in the use of oakum and pitch — a critical skill, if you didn’t want your ship to sink!

          I rarely use old techniques, although, in some interiors, I have done hand-rubbed finishes for people who really wanted that warm, rich look. It’s money wasted on many boats, but if the wood is good, it’s great — and great fun.

          One of the ironies of varnishing is that, at least in the marine trade, the old finishes hold up better than the polyurethanes, the two-part coatings, and such. Part of the problem is that boats flex, and many of the new coatings are so hard, they crack like crazy. Traditional oil varnishes will are much more forgiving.

          As for challenges — I had a good one this morning. I was ready to put a final coat of varnish on a beautiful cockpit table when the crew showed up and announced they were taking the boat to the yard. Now, the two pieces I already had vanished are on my dining room table — I’ll finish the job when the boat comes home!

          1. When I made our kitchen cabinets, I varnished the quartered oak rather than lacquering. Varnish just is so much better at resisting water that I chose it…not that water gets sprayed about very much, just a choice.

  24. I enjoyed learning more about Varnish John and his practical advice. But most of all I enjoyed your words ” But there is no undoing what is”. Once that point is accepted it is easier to follow John’s “start where you can start……”

    By the way, because I make lots of mistakes myself I rarely mention them in anyone else’s post, but I am intrigued that you wrote vanish instead of varnish more than once. The mistake fits so well with the idea that Varnish John has (in a physical sense) vanished from your life. Do you mentor any new varnishers now you are as old as Varnish John when you first met him?

    1. That varnish/vanish error (now corrected, I think — thank you!) is funnier than you might imagine. I’ve often said that the epitaph I want on my tombstone is, “She Varnished From Our Sight.” I’ve spent so many years amusing myself with that little bit of wordplay, it’s perhaps inevitable that it would have shown up here, reversed. And, as you point out, the very fact that John does seem to have vanished without a trace may have been affecting me, at least subconsciously.

      I’ve not done any mentoring myself. I did have a couple of people who worked for me for about a year or so, back when I still was taking people’s advice that I should expand my business. But there were complications, as there often are with employees, and the added insurance costs, the paperwork, and the need to keep running behind them to check their work was all too much. I decided that I’d work solo. If the work was good, I’d take credit. If there was a problem, I’d solve it. If the quality didn’t meet my customer’s standards, I’d redo it. Much simpler.

      The other thing is that there aren’t that many new varnishers. Fewer are needed these days, as people increasingly choose fiberglass and stainless over wood. And most of the young people who start, don’t stick. I’ve known a lot of twenty-somethings who’ve thought, “Gee, I think I’ll go into varnishing.” Most are gone within the year.

      On the other hand, no group of people I’ve ever known are happier to share tips and tricks. We sit around and talk brushes and solvents the way some people talk cars or fashion.

      1. The awful thing is that unless you make sure the tombstone is ready before you go, someone will think, “oh surely she made a mistake” and he/she will make the r in varnish vanish.
        I am glad you are a happy group of people. :)

        1. Maybe I ought to have that stone fixed up right now: small enough for a living room conversation piece, and easily enough transported that it can land wherever I do!

  25. What a beautiful tribute to a true enigma of a man. I feel like I came to know him through your lovely eulogy. We’d dealt with lots of the floods when I was little, but our house was on stilts and we never had to worry about things inside… just the garden and the studio. His words of wisdom are good. Thank you for imparting them to all of us.

    1. Many of our neighborhoods now look like your early ones. Houses have been raised (as the entire city of Galveston was after the Great Storm of 1900), and many roads and bridges that traditionally went under water have been raised, too.

      Still, the next great storm will come. Texas always has been a place of weather extremes, with some records of major events going back as far as the 1700s. The cycles of nature always have been with us, and they’ll be with us into the future.

      As for John, I’ve had a couple of very interesting conversations with people who also knew him. Each of those people experienced him differently than I did, and differently from one another. That’s why those prototypical “one-dimensional characters” in fiction can be so dreadfully boring. No one’s one-dimensional.

  26. Collectively, the human spirit is indomitable.
    I am, however, not so sure that man will prevail. Unless man learns to treat this planet more kindly and less greedily we might just destroy it.

    I love your Varnish John, he comes off the page as a wise old bird who does not bear fools lightly but appreciates folk well on the way to understanding the rules of the game, if game it can be called.

    Living in an area frequently flooded cannot be easy; knowing where to start rebuilding and doing one’s best in the face of such calamity is perhaps not given to all.

    Stay safe.

    1. It’s interesting to read Faulkner’s speech in context, realizing how deep was the fear of planetary destruction in that time, too. In the 1950s, it was nuclear annihilation that led to duck-and-cover drills in the classroom, and this, also from the speech:

      “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?

      “Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”

      If I heard that phrase, “the human heart in conflict with itself” once while I was in grad school, I heard it a hundred times or more — and all from the same professor. Anyone who thinks you can’t teach theology with “Moby Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Sound and the Fury,” and “Bleak House” as texts would be wrong.

      John was very much your wise old bird. His apparent indifference to the opinions of others was legendary, but when it came to his work, there’s no question that he craved approval.

      As for staying safe: believe me, I try. Unfortunately, that’s not always possible in this world. But we do what we can.

  27. I so enjoyed reading this. We meet such interesting and colourful characters in the marina. Many of them share a deep seated kindness just below their rough edges. They know that we need each other. They know that little things matter. They know that rushing usually ends in disaster. They know that laughter greases wheels. They know how to apologize. Of course, there are jerks too. But I generally come away from a day down at the boat with a smile on my face.

    1. I was thinking about you and your boat just the other day. I suppose if it isn’t tucked away for winter yet, it soon will be. Strange, to think time has passed so quickly

      All you say about marinas is true. It’s interesting that marinas, boatyards, and yacht clubs are such distinctive environments. There’s even a distinction between yards where people are allowed to do their own work, and those where they aren’t.

      The only thing I’d add to your list is this: they know that making assumptions can lead to disaster. We had an example today. Several people assumed that a bilge pump was running because a newly-repaired air conditioner was taking humidity from the air and putting water in the bilge. Not so. A rusted seacock had failed and was happily filling the boat with water. Luckily, it was caught in time.

      You do have wooden plugs tied next to all your through-hulls, yes? I know a fellow who just today figured out that’s a good idea. I suspect he’ll have that little oversight taken care of within the next few days.

  28. Many thanks, Linda, for this meditative post, just right for the Descent into autumn. And I loved your description of the boatyard. I grew up in a small town by the sea; there were areas of the harbour front which had a very similar ‘feel’ to your boatyard. I used to love watching the gnarled old characters who hung out there. Your Varnish John could have been one of them…

    1. I’ve been sitting here thinking about how “gnarled” has been transformed into “gnarly” — first in surfer slang, then in society at large. The urban dictionary tells me that gnarly in the surfer sense means difficult, and/or excellent, as in, “That was a gnarly ride, dude.” Come to think of it, I suspect your boatyard characters were the same combination of difficult and excellent — as are mine.

      But above all else, they’re individuals. There aren’t any cookie-cutter workers in the boatyards, at least in my experience.

      Speaking of your beautiful country, I just was gifted a wonderful calendar for the coming year, with scenes in and around Tywyn: the Dysynni River, Tal y Llyn, Craig Las and Cadair Idris. The countryside is so beautiful. My friend moved there from Staffordshire, and hasn’t regretted a minute of it.

  29. What a great post Linda. My top 3 thoughts about it:
    1. I share your assessment of humanity. We’re good folks, imperfections and all.
    2. John’s Rule makes good sense. It’s simple wisdom, as most wisdom probably is.
    3. Varnish John seems like a character who stepped right out of a Jimmy Buffett song.

    1. Speaking of threes — congratulations on your triplets! I just got home, and found the happy news. I’m sure we’ll have photos — hope all are doing well.

      I do believe that most people are good, with some imperfections, but I’d also be willing to argue the other side: that many people are truly bad, with some saving graces. I suppose that’s where I find Luther so helpful. It’s not saints “here” and sinners “there.” We’re all a combination of both — only the proportion differs.

      Speaking of simplicity, did you happen to read the article in a recent “Atlantic” about the needless complexity of academic writing? I’ve always said that words can be windows, through which we see the world and allow the world to look in, or they can be bricks, which we use to wall off the world. By the time I finished the article, I suspected the writer might agree.

      And you’re right about the Buffett relationship – but not just because of wackiness. The song that came to mind immediately is “Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On,” which Buffett wrote after Katrina. It’s combined here with “Wonder Where the Lions Are,” and I can’t watch the video without reliving it all again: not necessarily the fear as much as the gratitude that people still feel for those who came from so far away to help.

  30. Thanks for the very thoughtful and grounding post. It is often poignant to dwell on those kinds of personalities who show so much wisdom in such an unassuming ways. And I agree with a commenter above that he saw something special in you.

    1. In a culture devoted to celebrity and spectacle, it’s refreshing to find people like John, who simply do what they do, and say what they say. When I began blogging, I met a woman who had as her blog’s tagline, “If I don’t have anything to say, I won’t say it.” There’s so much wisdom in that. Of course, it seems like I always have something to say — sometimes I think I could put a cork in it a little more often than I do!

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