Fritzie Sparks, my best friend’s mother, was fond of saying “Stress is the thing,” whenever the topic of illness came up in conversation. She’d tap the tips of her fingernails on the table or countertop to drive the point home. That was back in the ’70s, and it was just one of those things teenagers would find amusing about parents, but now that I’ve drifted into the older generation she once occupied, I can better appreciate her wisdom. In my teens the only things I recall being stressed about were acne and getting better grades than Mike Sharmin and Doug Shaffer, my high-school rivals. Now I have a long list of worries from an ongoing pandemic and pants growing ever tighter to meeting work deadlines and living in a 100-year-old house in an earthquake zone that’s bracing for the “big one.”
For the past month, as the gloom of winter’s coming has darkened the skies of shortened days, I’ve chosen to take refuge not from the rain but in it. I’ll put on a couple of pile jackets, a knit hat, and my cagoule and sit in the back yard on a boat cushion set on an upside-down 5-gallon bucket—an orange one from Home Depot. The raindrops falling on my hood sound like salt sprinkled into a paper bag.
I recently read that the sound of rain has a soothing effect that’s related to an elevated level of alpha waves generated by the brain. It’s a response that is also associated with meditation. I’d first heard of alpha waves when I was in college in the late ’70s and I was swept up in two trends that made short-lived marks on my generation: Earth shoes and Transcendental Meditation. I wore a pair of the first model of those shoes—with lowered heels and wide, squared toe boxes that looked like cartoon duck feet—when I took an off-campus class in TM. In my early practice of TM, I reached the bottom of the bubbles, as my instructor called reaching a state of thought-free wakefulness, just once. Having experienced that state of quietude and then being unable to reach it again, I meditated only sporadically in the years that followed.
Now, when I hear rain outside of my study and see the bright scintillas of rain on the garage’s flat tar-black roof, I’ll sit in the rain and do a 20-minute session of TM. The double dose of alpha waves seems to work. In the rain, I get to the bottom of the bubbles with a reassuring frequency.
On my first cruise up the Inside Passage, I frequently rowed for hours at a stretch and would often fall into a meditative state, listening to the metronomic rhythm of the oars. The memory of those pleasant days prompted me to switch my rainy-day practice from my orange bucket to the lapstrake Whitehall I’d built in 1983. I made a canopy for it not just as shelter from the rain but also as a resonator for it, to gather more sound than my cagoule can.
When I go rowing on Seattle’s Ship Canal, the rain and mist mute sound and color. The wail of cars and trucks rolling across the metal grate of the bascule bridge adjacent to the launch ramp is no more than a murmur, and the trees and buildings on hills flanking the waterway appear as if dusted with soot and ash. On the smooth surface of the water, raindrops make their chain-mail pattern of interlocking circles. I row with the sides of the canopy slipped up on the hoops and the rainwater pools in the folds overhead. With just an easy effort at the oars, I warm up in a few minutes and I can take my gloves and hat off, unzip my jacket to cool off, and still stay dry.
There are a few sections of shoreline that aren’t occupied by wharves or marinas where I’ll stop and tether the boat to a piling or nudge it onto a sandy shore, before lowering the canopy to better capture the rain’s soft sounds. I sit in my boat, quiet, alone, and out of worry’s reach.
A reader asked how I made the canopy. I bought a lightweight 6′x7′ tarp (finished size 70″ x 86″) made of 210D Oxford and two 10′ lengths of 1/2″ CPVC water pipe. The CPVC pipe is more flexible than PVC pipe and more tolerant of temperature extremes. The 1/2″ nominal size has an outside diameter of 5/8″. The Whitehall has a beam of 50-1/2″ and a 86″ length of pipe (equal to the long side of the tarp)created an arch with the headroom I needed for rowing.
I made a sleeves for the pipes by folding each of the long sides back 2-1/2″ and sewed the hem. The in the middle of the sleeve’s edge I used a hot knife to cut away a semicircle of fabric. The hole is needed for the guy lines that will pull the tops of the arches to the ends of the boat. Pulling directly on the pipes instead of a grommet or webbing loop is the only way to get a smooth canopy.
To secure the pipes to the Whitehall’s open rail, I threaded a 1/4″ braided line through each pipe, cutting the lines about 6′ longer than the pipe. With the lines through the pipes and the pipes in the sleeves, I tie one end of each line around the inwale and snug the pipe up against the rail. The extra length of the line lets me thread its other end through the open rail before flexing the pipe. I can then pull the line to bring the pipe’s end to the rail. I had initially thought I’d put rods in the ends of the pipes and then set the rods in the oarlock sockets, but that limits where I can put the canopy. The cord is much more versatile and unbreakable. I tie other cords to the pipe at the top of the arch where I cut the semicircle of fabric away, taking a few wraps around the pipe for friction. I loop the other end around something in the boat and use a taut-line hitch to position the arch and tension the tarp.
I had a piece of 1/2″ thick soft rubber that I cut into 1-1/2″ squares and drilled with a 5/8″ Forstner bit. Slipped over the ends of the pipes, they hold the tarp sides up when I need to see out.