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John Otterbacher's Latest is "What Remains: Memoir of an Old Man on the Road"
Why I loved it, and why this book matters.
I first discovered John Otterbacher in June 2008, right around the time I decided to leave my teaching job and write full-time.
My career leap had been a huge one — for me and for my young family — but the wrestling of words called to me. It’s hard to describe the conviction I felt for something I’d never yet done, but as a 40-year-old mother of three, I just knew I had to explore the writing life before it was too late.
That summer, while searching for a good summer read, I plugged in two of my favorite (albeit disparate) subjects into the Amazon search bar — “sailing” and “medicine” — and that’s when Otterbacher’s first book, Sailing Grace, came up.
In Sailing Grace, Otterbacher, facing mortality, nevertheless sets sail with his family and a damaged heart. The book, touching upon loving, living, and enjoying what we have, touched all the right tones and nerves for me with its self-deprecation, humor, adventure, and approachable wisdom.
Soon after reading it, I recommended Sailing Grace to my couples book group, then invited Otterbacher to join our discussion via phone. Amazingly, he agreed and called in from his home in Michigan. That evening, our group’s already deeply meaningful discourse was made that much more memorable when Otterbacher joined in, gently and powerfully reminding ten complete strangers how to stop and appreciate the little things in our day-to-day lives.
As a fledgling writer, I kept in touch via email with Otterbacher, and we’d share our thoughts on the very real struggle of juggling the writing life with families we loved dearly. I felt understood.
Sometimes, while writing my first novel, I’d reach out to him with questions and/or for advice. He always made time and always made me feel like my inquiries were his top priority.
I’ll never forget that chilly morning in January 2010 when I wondered to myself if my newbie, haphazard, rambling blog was worth the time I poured into it. That very morning, my phone rang and it was John. He was driving from Michigan to Chicago to speak at the Strictly Sail convention, and wondered if I’d be attending. Turns out that, though my family would be there, I’d be traveling and would miss seeing him. I was so disappointed. Still, before we hung up, John offered kind and encouraging words about sticking with my new and unfamiliar blogging adventure. His call, and our subsequent discussion, moved me so deeply that I wrote a blog post about our conversation…and about how much I admired Otterbacher as a human being.
I finally met Otterbacher in person five years later when he came back to speak at Strictly Sail 2013. His talk, titled, “What Sailing Taught Me About Living,” highlighted his sailing passages around the world with a young family and a compromised heart. After a warm and familiar embrace, he made generous time to speak with my family and me, then signed our copy of Sailing Grace. Otterbacher was more than just some author hocking his book. He was a human being imparting loving wisdom and making sincere connections with his readers. I knew then and there that I wanted to be that kind of literary citizen.
Born a scrawny kid in working-class Michigan, Otterbacher’s life has been one of epic adventure, including years in a monastery, competing in marathons, multiple motorcycle tours of the U.S., eight years as a state legislator, a Ph.D. in psychology, and several cross-Atlantic passages, as chronicled in the award-winning Sailing Grace.
The fact that Otterbacher should be dead isn’t reason enough to read his work, though it certainly heightens the reader’s experience.
And though sadness, madness, insecurity, and struggle are experiences known by many, Otterbacher offers an astute and genuine willingness to step into them, explore them, and convey lasting meaning.
Otterbacher’s latest book, What Remains: Memoir of an Old Man on the Road, continues in that brilliant tradition. Released in September of 2021, What Remains details the author’s journey as he goes riding his motorcycle through small-town America in search of peace and acceptance, hoping to get out of his own head and lose the self-doubt that plagues this accomplished man as he faces the aging process with a mix of sadness and wonder. While on his journey, an accident forces him to come to terms with the very things he went searching for — acceptance of (and more peace with) the unstoppable aging process and its impact on his body and his life.
Drawing on decades of life experience as an adventurer, legislator, psychologist, public speaker, and dedicated family man, What Remains: Memoir of an Old Man on the Road is the perfect example of what memoir is meant to be: an examined life.
Featuring Otterbacher’s beautiful observations and his efficiency with words, What Remains weaves multiple, heavy themes, including working through long-held insecurities, adventure-seeking, self-discovery, and ultimately, healing. Living fully in the moment, Otterbacher takes everything in, often preserving his impressions visually or in snippets. “As much as I love words,” Otterbacher writes in What Remains, “I don’t experience life in complete sentences. Especially on my Honda. Images and impressions, mostly, that I try to make sense of later.” The author then processes and writes about the meaning he finds, often drawing from quotes by everyone from Mary Oliver to Socrates.
I last saw Otterbacher this past summer while he was on a driving trip through Chicago, preparing for the launch of What Remains. We hadn’t met in person for nearly a decade. Over lunch, as we ate and caught up on our lives, he showed me the small stack of index cards he carries in his pocket for those moments when writing inspiration strikes. At one point, he told me, “In my life, I’ve made enough mistakes to be helpful.” I found this sentiment so profound and filled with such self-acceptance that I immediately asked to borrow one of his index cards. I wrote that phrase down and have carried that card with me ever since.
Reading Otterbacher’s passionate and mindful writing — be it in his books or on his social media posts — I regularly catch my breath, learn something new, and find an easy path to gratitude.
If I hadn’t come to know the author personally, why would I, a 53-year-old woman, want to read this book? Because it gives me a front-row seat into the psyche and vulnerability of another human being, and there’s infinite value and grace in that. Moreover, Otterbacher, who’s incredibly well-read, exhibits gratitude in abundance, not to mention a strong and beautifully lyrical ability to self-reflect. Reading his words feels not only like taking an adventure into someone else’s life, but also offers a compassionate framework to examine my own.
After all the times Otterbacher showed me so much kindness and understanding, I found it fascinating and deeply humbling to watch him set out in search of those very same things for himself. This is more than just a book about an old guy out for a motorcycle ride; it’s an example of self-care, and of making the decision to answer the door when life’s biggest challenges come knocking.
Just as the wrestling of words once called to me personally — pulling me and challenging me to do something I’d never yet done — Otterbacher regularly listens to his heart — one that’s still miraculously and wondrously beating — using his eloquent command of language to explore the world and his place in it. And, as any reader will agree, we are all the better for it.
Christine Wolf is a memoir coach and award-winning writer from the Chicago area. She’s also the owner of Writers’ Haven LLC, a cooperative workspace for women writers. Check out more of her writing and writing tips at www.christinewolf.com.
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