Question: Can strict limitations enable interesting opportunities? We often think of limitations in terms of negatives, right? They keep things from happening, prevent advancement, and otherwise minimize possibilities. But can limitations provide opportunities that were otherwise not possible?
Head for the Beach!
When I was a kid, the best holidays I can remember were the times we went to Galveston Island. Back then, as far as I was concerned a day at the beach was pretty much the perfect holiday.
I mean, what’s not to like? You had a great big ocean (well, in our case it was the Gulf of Mexico, but it looked like an ocean to me), lots of sparkly sand to squish between my toes, zillions of teeny tiny crabs that absolutely hated being picked up, an occasional dead jellyfish or two – not to mention seashells galore – absolutely none of which were available at our oh-so-humdrum house back in Houston.
Most times, we spent our holiday at Stewart Beach, on the ocean side of the eastern end of the island. It’s easy to find; you just follow Interstate 45 South from the mainland over the causeway into the city of Galveston, where it becomes Broadway. Follow that until it hits Seawall Boulevard, and voila! you’re there!
You had to be ready for crowds, though; on particularly nice days, about a bazillion other people had the same idea. But hey, that never bothered me; more people meant more interesting, you know, stuff going on (besides, I didn’t have to, you know, drive). And you know how kids thrive on activity, right? (Not to mention, er, hot dogs, popsicles and Kool-Aide, but that’s neither here nor there.)
To secure a decent spot, we’d usually leave fairly early in the morning. Then, after a hard day of having fun, sometime around late afternoon we’d pack up and head back home. But before hitting the highway, we always – without fail – made a side trip to ride the ferry.
The Galveston – Bolivar Ferry
I don’t know what it is about ferries. They’re just… I don’t know, different. It’s an experience so totally unlike any other form of water transportation, such as traveling on a cruise ship, motorboat, or tramp freighter. (Gee, is there such a thing as a respectable freighter or must they all be tramps? Never mind.)
Now bear in mind, riding the ferry wasn’t something we had to do. The route we took to and from Houston didn’t go that way. No, it was more like a “because it was there” sortof thing. One simply didn’t go to Galveston without riding the ferry, don’cha know. It’s not even that long of a ride, either: from the northeastern end of the island across the Houston Ship Channel entrance to a narrow spit of land called Bolivar Peninsula, it was an actual distance of less than three miles.
There’s a lot of large ship traffic that passes through on its way to the Port of Houston, though, so at the very least there were usually interesting ships to watch for. It was always fun to imagine what exotic lands they might have come from (Africa? Japan? New Jersey?) and what fabulous cargoes they carried (gold? jewels? rendered whale blubber?)
It was the same ritual every time: Wait in line until the ferry docked, wait for the cars to get off, load up more cars in the other direction, then once we were all packed in like big metal sardines, off we went! It only took about 20 minutes to cross.
As soon as we got off, we’d go down the road about a half-mile, then turn around and get back in line. If there wasn’t too much traffic waiting, we could sometimes get back on the same boat for its return trip. Even if we had to wait for the next boat, though, the whole adventure never added more than an hour or so to our day before heading back home.
One of the things I remember clearly was how stable the crossing was. I mean, once we left the dock, it was pretty much rock solid (other than a distant vibration from the engines, but that didn’t count). Rarely were the waves big enough to (if you’ll pardon the expression) rock the boat.
Most fascinating was how supernaturally smooth the departure was. At first, the ferry moved so slowly it was easy to pretend the land itself was moving away, not us. On either side, large bundles of worn piles, nearly black from weather and age, provided a fine roost for the inevitable legions of seagulls (only one per pile, please!). Their raucous chorus celebrated our departure.
Most of the gulls took wing as we got under way, following us across the water. Diving like missiles for small fish kicked up by our wake, the rest flew in complex and ever-changing traffic patterns just off the stern, waiting for tidbits tossed into the air by passengers. Feeding the gulls was as much a part of the ferry ritual as the ride itself. We always had the remains of the day’s loaf of sandwich bread ready to toss at them.
Sometimes, if you stretched up as high as you could and held your hand just right, an enterprising gull would separate himself from the traffic pattern and come close enough to snatch the bread from your fingers. I’m tellin’ ya; that was a magical moment!
Then there was the inevitable “waving at the other ferry” routine as we passed the other ferry on its return trip. Without fail, folks would line up on that side of the boat and wave like mad. It was silly, sure; but like I said, it was sortof like a, you know, rule.
The Value of Routine
When you think about it, driving a ferry seems like an almost certain recipe for boredom, don’t you think? I mean, it runs the same course back and forth, over and over, day after day, week after – well, you get the idea. Doesn’t seem like much creativity would be allowed in a job like that, does it? Yep; it was a severely restricted regime, to say the least. No variation allowed. Very narrow limits of performance. Routine.
I’ve often wondered if the various Captains ever got tired of it, day in and day out. What would happen if one day the Captain suddenly made a hard turn to starboard (that’s to the right for you landlubber folk) and set off for a distant adventure?
But here’s the thing. That routine – going back and forth – made so much more possible. Here’s a couple of random thoughts illustrating what I mean:
Connection – The ferry provided a connection between two isolated communities (well, you know what I mean, I hope). What used to be a many-mile trip turned into a simple 15-minute commute. The truth is, all kinds of interesting things can happen when you eliminate barriers between folks.
Separation – Even though the communities are linked, because of the ferry both sides can still retain their own distinctive characters. On the peninsula side, it’s quiet, peaceful, tranquil – but on the Island side, there’s activity, excitement, and it’s filled with people to see (not to mention things to do). Though short in actual distance, it’s enough to provide an effective separation, allowing the two sides to preserve their own distinct and unique cultures.
Opportunity – People over on the peninsula no longer had to drive a zillion miles to get to the things Galveston Island had to offer. Likewise, those on the island had the chance to experience a different atmosphere. Both sides benefit when they take advantage of the opportunity to see how the other side lives. In a similar way, the flow of people allowed ideas to spread from one side to the other and back again. Everybody benefits from that.
Other Stuff – Plenty of other, well, peripheral things become possible because of the existence of this ferry line. For instance, compared to a plain ol’ ordinary bridge crossing, a ferry ride was an event. Not only that, but the event itself made possible lots of other, secondary events, too. The chance to wave madly at total strangers on the other ferry as it passed – coaxing a seagull to pluck food right from your fingers – a fresh sea breeze with its distinctive salt-water smell, blowing in your face and ruining your hair – the sun’s afternoon rays sparkling upon the water – the seagulls’ plaintive cries – the list goes on and on.
Sometimes, some of life’s simplest pleasures come about because of enforced limitations. Sometimes, they can help you see.
Your Turn Now
So are there any routines in your own life that may be, shall we say, underappreciated? I’ll bet you can think of at least a few. But here’s the big question: Which of those limitations actually enable you to do more or maybe greater things? Care to share ‘em with the rest of us? The floor is yours…