Getting a fix on Zeek isn't easy. He's all over the place. Geographically, metaphysically. Late last December, nobody at Perigee, the Penguin Putnam imprint that published his how-to book three months earlier, knew where their author was.
"He is literally traveling the world on a boat and does check e-mail periodically, and he must have to dock at some point and be near a phone somewhere," explained a bemused Perigee publicist. "Every other author is beating your door down demanding to know why there aren't going to be more interviews."
Might as well send Zeek a message in a bottle. Last the publicist heard, he was somewhere in the Caribbean. No per-diem kind of guy, he didn't do the typical author tour -- how do you book someone who picks up and goes wherever the weather suits his clothes?
Zeek isn't like most authors. Nor is his book like most books. "The Art of Shen Ku: The Ultimate Traveler's Guide of This Planet" was written over four years while Zeek crisscrossed the watery planet by sailboat. The book is based on four decades of collecting experiences and minutiae of the footloose life that others just dream about.
Offbeat, irreverent yet profound in simple lessons for living, it is "The Whole Earth Catalog" meets "The Cartoon History of the Universe" for the new millennium. Like a whacked-out Boy Scout manual on steroids, this self-illustrated survival guide jampacks 7,704 subjects into 256 large-format pages, from everyday stuff like tying a clove hitch and removing a fishhook from flesh, to exotica such as ancient sex enhancement methods and using tacks to prevent credit card break-ins by "worms."
It offers hundreds of natural remedies and tips, like how to diagnose illnesses from the smell and color of feet and why eating fish and rice in the same meal is an invitation to indigestion (a theory not widely held by orthodox nutritionists).
On every page, Zeek's black-and-white sketches are high-energy, in the eccentric style of R. Crumb, but with an Asian influence. Numbering more than 1,800, they range from simple instructional step-by-steps to recurring characters such as the bodacious Caribbean-born beauty Miss Aloe Vera and the author's alter ego, the transient mystic master Shen Ku -- disguised as a one-eyed Chinese peasant. Elaborate travelogue scenes and seaside vistas wrap around coarse quatrains of the larger cosmic logic evolved from a detached life under the stars.
"Greetings fellow traveler, be your journey to the supermarket on a bicycle or another galaxy by starship. Each must start with a single step and embark on that uncertain road which is life," Zeek starts out on a page illustrated with a relaxed sojourner wearing a Chinese hat, sitting under a palm tree, a cup of hot tea raised with pinkie extended, gazing across the calm surf toward the horizon.
This is where Zeek can always be found.
The 'Logics' of Shen Ku In late January, after nearly a month with no word of his whereabouts, Zeek emerges on the island of Phuket, off the southeast coast of Thailand. His life is moored there for a year, he writes. "We are currently in between boats."
At 56, Zeek, the pen name of Steven Dolby, is basically the Pacific islands wanderer whom Gardner McKay played in the early-'60s TV series "Adventures in Paradise." He's a metaphysical Travis McGee, the boat-bum hero in John D. MacDonald's novels who salvages solutions to mysteries. His is the life imagined by desk-anchored daydreamers, one that, indeed, could sound fanciful to some.
By his account, he has lived a year or more in each of 10 nations, including Britain, Australia, the United States, Brazil and Nigeria. He has spent six to 12 months in 16 places, including Spain, South Africa, Mauritius, Singapore, St. Bart's, Tahiti. Up to six months? Thirty-two places that he can remember. And never mind the stopovers -- too many to count.
Along that nautical odyssey, Zeek accumulated a shipload of experience he translates into a stayin'-alive philosophy he named "Shen Ku."
What is this Shen Ku? Grasp your aft, 'cause we're heading into some metaphysical whitecaps.
"Shen Ku is perhaps the ultimate self-help art," Zeek tries to explain in one e-mail, a combination of philosophies and time-tested skills from dozens of cultures.
At its foundation are four "logics": that every conscious being has "a potential choice every second" that can change his life and everything to come; that there's potential for good and evil in everyone; that movement changes circumstances and without change there can be no improvement; and that through spiritual resolve all goals are attainable, all dreams possible.
"No circumstances are hopeless; all situations can be improved," Zeek says.
Every decision in every moment matters. "Drop that pen from your desk to the floor," he writes. "Even if to an almost infinitely small degree, the universe that we live in has now been changed. The molecules and bacteria around your desk are not the same as they were. Your and my thought processes have deviated briefly to this subject. By such simple acts is our world changed."
Look at good health habits. "It only takes a 10-minute jog in the park to affect absolutely every part of your body," says Zeek, who awakens at 7 a.m. daily and jogs for a half-hour, does breathing exercises and rotating exercises, lifts heavy weights for an hour, and eats five small, macrobiotic meals a day. "Your entire metabolism and nutrient delivery system is improved."
And he repeats a positive thought with every breath.
But while Zeek lives by the book, on Page 2 is a boldface disclaimer in which publisher and author "expressly disclaim responsibility for any unforeseen consequences arising from the information contained within." Meaning some Shen Ku practices aren't exactly scientifically proven.
"What is considered proven today is frequently unproven tomorrow," Zeek observes. "But an open mind is the first step to infinity."
Sometimes Zeek's answers flash back to Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine of the '70s TV series "Kung Fu": "If knowledge is power but imagination is more valuable, then Shen Ku is what you make it."
The publisher of Perigee and Zeek's editor, John Duff, says: "It is very difficult to describe this book. But it is not just a bunch of weird stuff. This will help you." He adds that the book is in its fifth printing and selling well.
Duff has never met Zeek in person. He regularly asks authors who hand him their life's work, "What do you do to pay the rent?" -- his way of asking what's so compelling about them that will draw readers. "This was one question I never asked Zeek because it was completely irrelevant," says Duff.
How Zeek Became Zeek Born in Manchester, England, Zeek was a British army brat (his father was a captain) who changed homes and schools as often as other kids got new shoes. His addiction to travel started early when he commuted three times a year by himself from boarding school in Dorchester, England, to visit his parents, who were posted in West Africa.
The pivotal moment that set him off course came at age 15, as he was belly-boarding big waves off an isolated Nigerian beach. An accident, a severe blow to the head, detached his retinas, blinding him in one eye and damaging the other. The prognosis from London to Sydney: "Rapid deterioration of what sight was left and total blindness within two years," says Zeek, "or sooner if sedentary lifestyle not embarked on forthwith."
Instead of following doctors' orders, he says, he secretly slipped off back to Australia. "Being a difficult child, I refused to accept this no-chance scenario," says Zeek, who worked two jobs for years to save enough money to build an eight-meter sailboat he dubbed Ghost Rider.
Despite his failing eyes, he spent hours in used bookstores and libraries searching for a cure, collecting alternative health care practices in a file he labeled "Shen Ku." He got the name from a small ivory Chinese carving, one of his few personal treasures, that was inscribed "Shen Ku" with old-style Chinese letters. Translated, it means "ghost rider."
His quest to save his eyesight picked up wind when he found an obscure book on fingernail diagnosis that indicated that the white flecks on his fingernails were "acute nutritional zinc deficiency." Zeek then found that a major portion of the body's zinc is stored in the retina, and he went on a high-zinc diet -- shellfish, pumpkin seeds, egg yolks and zinc supplements. Eventually, he says, the white flecks were gone -- and his vision stabilized to where he can still, to this day, read small-type books without glasses.
His sailboat finally finished, Zeek, now in his twenties, set out for the Indian Ocean, the start of a bid to circumnavigate the globe. Seven years later, he "limped back" to Australia in his battered vessel. "My experience offshore was zero and led to multiple hair-raising scrapes," says Zeek, whose seafaring trials were the subject of articles in Australian Seacraft magazine and, in America, Yachting magazine.
One account Zeek tells has him single-handedly sailing Ghost Rider through the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. "Rain squall hits. Hopelessly lost! Dodging submerged coral heads. She inevitably hits. Crash! Thud. Zeek flung over the side, Ghost Rider struck by breaking seas and miraculously flung over the reef into an almost calm lagoon!" he writes.
"Zeek with multiple cuts and bruises, fearful of sharks, swims the fastest 100 meters outside of the Olympics, chasing Ghost Rider, which was drifting broadside across the lagoon towards a sandy beach. I never did plot that deserted cay's position, but camped under its two palm trees for almost a week."
Since those days, Zeek has owned 12 live-aboard yawls and traveled almost continuously. To pay bills, he purchases run-down sailing yachts, sails them to the next idyllic port he wants to see, fixes the boats up over several months, sells them, then starts looking for his next rehab boat.
"It's a dangerous business sailing small vessels across an ocean," Zeek writes in another e-mail. "The more times you do it, the greater your numerical risk of one day not coming back."
The same might be said of marriage. Despite describing himself as "a lone wolf," Zeek is twice divorced.
During his first visit to Thailand in 1982, he says, he met a 24-year-old law student named Suvipa in Bangkok. He married her two years later and they had two children -- a daughter, Samantha, now 17, and a son, Lom, 15. The marriage lasted eight years.
Three years after the divorce, Zeek married a 19-year-old Thai sporting goods saleswoman named Bangon. That lasted two years.
The Family Man The winds changed direction six years ago when Zeek took full custody of Samantha and Lom. Before that, he had taken them across the ocean once, when they were toddlers. After that, until this year, they sailed the world together. Zeek was their teacher.
"The kids still don't quite register that they did two Atlantic crossings under sail," he says.
Now the family has downshifted to a sedentary lifestyle in Phuket (pronounced "poo-GET"). No more grimy salt-hardened hands yanking worn lines. The reason will sound familiar to those desk-anchored daydreamers.
Last year, when they were in the British Virgin Islands, Lom was "going through a difficult stage," rejecting school and falling in with a bad crowd. Zeek decided to introduce them to calmer waters. He sailed them back to Phuket to embed Lom in his own culture. And he sent Samantha, who had announced that she wanted to be a lawyer, to boarding school in Britain.
"I miss them so much and I often feel like I would readily drop everything and go and live with them," a homesick Samantha e-mails from school. "But I've been brought up not to be a quitter."
Samantha is "quite clever," says her father, and this year is in the top 10 percent at her high school. Lom is a top math student, a natural with computers, and is now focusing on school. He has been helping his father with the latest decision of the moment -- to open a fitness center this summer in Phuket Town.
"Everyone is different, but my Dad is a bit more different than usual," e-mails Lom. "He, like, would never follow a crowd or do something just because it's popular. He would, like, do things he believes in."
Zeek and Lom live on the top floor of a white three-story house, with views of palm trees rising into jungle-capped hills. The unused second floor is where Zeek stores about 20 boxes of "boat junk." The ground floor houses Zeek's fitness center: exercise equipment, stationary bikes, weight sets -- and Shen Ku charts and posters.
So Zeek's living a little more like the rest of us? "Sorry, wrong," he responds. The plan is to sell the fitness center once it's up and running, buy a small sailboat for Lom and a cruising yacht for himself, and be back afloat next year.
"Zeek has missed his beloved sea quite badly this last nine months," he says. "The sea and its remote locations are Zeek's true love."
Make that one of Zeek's true loves. Recently Zeek got married again despite "strict instructions" from his widowed 81-year-old mother in England not to. He tied this knot to another "beautiful Thai girl," a 22-year-old named Pim-Jai.
"I told her about the wanderlust/boat problem," he says, "and she said, 'Wherever you go I go!' . . . If I buy a house later!"
Which, he says, yet again proves that "the choices of a single second affect all those that follow."