#39 – It’s Never Too Late

My Life in France One of the nice things about having your own column is that every once in a while you can indulge in a tangent that may seem to be totally off the wall. This time the subject is Julia Child. There’s a movie – Julie & Julia — that’s just opened starring Meryl Streep, based at least in part on Julia’s auto-biographical memoir, My Life in France. With luck it will still be running when this column hits print.

You may be wondering what Julia Child has to do with cruising. From my perspective, quite a lot. Julia Child was an aunt…sort of. Actually more an aunt-in-law… once-removed. Specifically, she was my favorite cousin Patty’s aunt, the sister of my Uncle John, who was married to my mother’s sister. So, no, she wasn’t really my aunt at all, but my sisters and I have always been quick to claim the connection whenever we can. She was, after all, the family celebrity. And, yes, the first recipe I ever tried to follow from a cookbook was, no surprise, one of Julia’s.

I saw Julia the most during the years after college when my cousin Patty and I were roommates in New York City. As personal and ebullient a character in real life as on TV, Julia would come to town on business occasionally and take the two of us to lunch. How glamorous that made us feel, to be seen in public with so recognizable a figure! (Actually cousin Patty looks a lot like her!)

In later years, when both Julia and my parents had retired to Santa Barbara, Patty and I got the chance to watch Julia shoot a segment of one of her TV shows, on preparing artichokes, as I recall. Apparently, they never had much of a script on those shows; Julia would merrily ad-lib her way along the day’s recipe. During that same visit, Julia had us to dinner one night when she and her assistant were testing several recipes. “Never apologize, never explain,” she counseled us, even as she dissected the dish mercilessly. As useful as THAT bit of advice was to me in later years when I did my best to masquerade as a charter chef, it was not her most valuable contribution.

In fact, the important contribution that Julia made to my life had nothing to with the kitchen, but rather with several particular facts about her career, facts I hadn’t actually known about her until after college when I read an article about her life. It seems that the great Julia Child – author of all those cookbooks on the shelf and host of a television program that practically made public television – actually knew squat about cooking until she went to cooking school in France at age thirty-seven! Thirty-seven!!! Everything that she became to the rest of the world began then.

I don’t know why, in my twenties, I understood that to be such an important thing, but it always stuck with me, and fifteen years later, when I turned my life upside down by packing up and “going to sea,” it became very clear: It’s never too late. You can change your life, learn something totally new, do something totally different at any age, as long as you give it your all.

I came to the sea innocently through a scuba diving class at the YMCA. It became a hobby that took over and eventually lead me away from a nice conventional life to work as a dive instructor on a live-aboard dive ship in the Caribbean. I remember a particular moment of revelation (at a time when, in an effort to learn about big ship engines, I was reading The Army Corps of Engineers’ Marine Engineman’s Manual when it struck me suddenly that, while all my New York friends were doing the same jobs they had been hacking away at for fifteen years, going to the same restaurants and clubs, taking their summers in the same share houses out at the beach, I was learning something completely new, choosing a life completely different than what had gone before!

Working on the ship led to my captain’s license, which, as you may remember, led eventually to my purchasing my own boat on which I spent eight very successful, very fulfilling, years as an owner/operator captain/chef doing crewed dive-sail charters in the Virgin Islands.

Now there was a real moment of trepidation: the first time I stood at the checkout counter with a week’s worth of gourmet provisions for my very first charter!

Setting out on a new course in life is very scary, and it is a choice amazingly few people risk. I can’t tell you how many of my charter guests assumed that I had been sailing (and cooking!) all my life. That I’d only come to it in my late thirties always had them shaking their heads in wonder. At which I would invariably say, “Well, you know my Aunt Julia Child didn’t know how to cook until she was thirty-seven.”

In the weeks leading up to the release date for Julie & Julia, I seemed to catch every airing of the movie trailer on TV with Meryl Streep emulating Julia’s boisterous joie de vivre. Cousin Patty, invited with her siblings to the New York advance screening, reported back favorably on the Julia segments. In anticipation, I picked up a copy of My Life in France (with Ms Streep on the cover not Julia!)

I couldn’t put it down. And you know why? Because the Julia therein embodies Admiral attitude! She plunges into new situations, cultures, and projects with an open enthusiasm and a global consciousness. She has a marvelously egalitarian and mutually supportive relationship with her husband Paul, as well as a great appetite for experience. She doesn’t just dabble in her culinary endeavors, she throws herself wholly and heartily into it. She and Paul would have made great cruisers!

The last time I actually saw Julia was in 1996 at cousin Patty’s wedding on the shores of Vermont’s Lake Champlain. Julia was in her mid-eighties then, tsk-tsking over some of Patty’s vegetarian friends (“I believe in eating everything in moderation,” she stated, with the stress on everything.) I’d just introduced her to Don, who had just started working with me on my boat, and she eyed him up and down with a mischievous gleam and said, “So, Don, on this charter boat of Gwen’s, what do you do? The cooking?” He looked her right in the eye and said, “Absolutely. Why don’t you come sailing with us?” She clapped her hands and laughed that famous laugh. “Oh, I do think that would be such fun!”

This article was published in the October 2009 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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