Lost at sea, so to speak, with a book of quotations

Posted: Sunday, April 15, 2001

I just spent a very instructive week aboard the state ferry. My task was to accompany and educate two Elderhostel groups, one traveling south and another north through the Inside Passage. The education was mine and I am exhausted. We've proven that the average Elderhostler knows more about the average topic than I do, plus they read up before coming here, so their information is fresh. They even write poetry at the end of the trips, clever and topical. Make you sick.

In sessions with the groups, I tossed out words like terrane and blastocyst, but they were right with me. Then they asked questions I was at a loss to answer, plunging my credibility with nauseating regularity along with the ship's bow in Queen Charlotte Sound. I fired off anecdotes from a life in the frozen north, but as world travelers, they were unimpressed. I fared no better with the local passengers. The group included several 40-plus year Alaskan retirees out for a spring cruise, local business travelers and returning snowbirds. They had heard it all before and just wanted some quiet. I kept my presentations short and simply enjoyed their company.

There is nothing quite like a sea voyage. I may have been wound a bit tightly before setting sail, but a day or so through beautiful scenery in the company of people not in a hurry set my mind right. The final balm was a day of rest in Bellingham (actually I never made it out of Fairhaven) with, count 'em, three bookstores. There may have been popular literature there, but I looked for used Alaska history accounts, reference books and the obscure lot of bargain tables. Great stuff, all, but my favorite so far is a dictionary of quotations. On the way north, I searched for poignant observations to quote, hoping to dazzle the students. Perhaps Samuel Johnson's "Being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned" was not well chosen, but I warmed up. Here's Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The wonder is always new that a sane man would be a sailor." After talking with crewpersons, I think Joseph Conrad may be correct, that "There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea."

Enslaved by my new book of quotations, I looked for other topics. On spring, Dorothy Parker said, "Every year, back spring comes, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off, and the ground all mucked up with arbutus." You don't have to know what arbutus is to get the gist of that one. The nature section was interesting. John Locke said, "There is not so contemptible a plant or animal that does not confound the most enlarged understanding." I might offer devils club, but between the double negatives, I don't know if he means it is or isn't contemptible. As the Elderhostlers proved, I needed simpler fare. Besides, according to James Whistler, "Nature is usually wrong."

I couldn't resist seeing what the book had to offer on the subject of smartypants old people. "Age is a shipwreck," said Charles De Gaulle, but Toni Cade Bambara believes "Old folks are the nation." Under education, I found what I was looking for. It's easy to agree with Robert Frost that "Education is hanging around until you've caught on." But when Francis Bacon says, "Studies serve for delight, for ornament and for ability," he is surely referring to memorable Elderhostler Robert Lee's appreciation of the identifying features of wild shrubs, "Who the hell cares?"

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com.

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