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Nitchevo April 10, 2012

Posted by Marc Troeger in adventure.
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Early in my career as a college admissions officer, I was fortunate to be selected to spend part of a summer at the Summer Institute on College Admissions at Harvard University.  While the purpose of the institute was to develop and grow future University admissions officers, its intent was to also provide a more in-depth understanding of the value and breadth of higher education.  As part of the preparation for the institute, there were required readings and papers to write.  One of the books assigned was “Tuning the Rig”, written by Harvey Oxenhorn, a former professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.   Though it would never be considered a best-seller, it is a book I reread often, because it reminds me of my own attitude towards life.

The book is about the author’s experience of forgoing a typical summer of research and scholarly endeavors, to spend it aboard an old, tall sailing ship, the Regina Maris, with a rag-tag crew, studying humpback whales in the Arctic Circle.  Harvey did not have any sailing experience, nor did he know much about humpback whales.  He did know that something was lacking in his life, even from within the walls of the ivory towers of academia in which he had spent a good portion of his adult life.  His book is about his adventures and frustrations and everything in between, but more importantly it addresses the discovery of what brought him to the open sea.

Towards the end of the voyage, Harvey recounts when he approached the captain of the Regina, George Nicholas.  He wanted to know why someone such as George would give up a successful medical career to become a captain of a ship, studying and teaching marine science as well as running a sailing crew.  The Captain’s response wasn’t what Harvey expected, but it ended up putting the entire trip into perspective for him.

Read on… Does “Nitchevo” apply to you?

I wondered what leads a man to give up his own research, and a deanship at Harvard Medical School to spend so much time at sea aboard Regina in cramped quarters in the company of students. “What’s the allure?” I asked.

“The allure of life at sea, I suppose, is its simplicity. On shore – especially in institutions-things are dependent on so many factors that the end results of what you do are nearly always out of your control. Nothing is ever quite completed. This life has its own discomforts and frustrations, to be sure. But the way things turn our here is a direct result of what you do, your own skill and judgment. And there’s a way to gauge each day’s success; you can mark it off with a pencil on a chart, as progress toward a goal.”

You mean there’s objectivity.”

“That”-he jabbed his finger at the sea-“is real. It’s there. It will fascinate you. It can feed or kill you. But there’s nothing mean about it, nothing wasteful.”

“What about it translates to our life on shore?”

“Mortality”

Pat [a crewman] interrupted. We are back in commercial shipping lanes; he had the watch and was concerned about a freighter that seemed to be bearing down. “I’ve been keeping an eye on them, “George said. “It’s OK. They just want a closer view.”

“Do you know the expression nitchevo?” he asked, once Pat had gone. “It’s a Russian word. Means ‘What the hell!” I shot him a dubious look.

“Well, more or less. Anyhoo, it describes an attitude toward life. You’ve got it. So do most of the kids on board. I suspect it’s what most of that bunch in Cambridge whom you run with-or sometimes think you run with-lack. They’ve got it all planned out: lifestyles, careers. If they could, they would abolish weather. But they are missing something, Harvey. Nitchevo! They never learned how to go out on a limb. They’re afraid to make mistakes.“

A lighthouse loomed off the starboard bow. Cabot Island, Bonavista, Baccaliue…This one was Cape St. Francis. Every point’s now labeled; we are nearing home.

“Are you taking about work of play?” I asked

“It’s interesting that you should say that. You remind me of something my father once said and when I was about your age that made a big difference in my life as I got older. He said that a lot of folks spend most of their lives doing one thing in order to be able to do another. They are always trying to get through what they are doing to ‘make time’ for something else, and they wind up resenting both things.

“But life doesn’t work like that. The only way not to resent the expenditure of time and effort is to devote yourself to the one activity you don’t want to get through. You should choose as your life’s work whatever feels most like play.”

Tuning The Rig by Harvey Oxenhorn

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