Friday, August 28, 2009

Sailing Through Time And A Bit Of The Timeless

The dog days of summer have put sailing in lethargic slow motion, and family stuff has taken me on a sometimes chaotic cruise, whipsawing through time. It has been a little like Billy Pilgrim (protagonist from Slaughterhouse Five, a novel by Kurt Vonnegut) becoming unstuck in time and experiencing his life non-sequentially.

It started in July when my ex-wife was cleaning out her roomy suburban house to downsize into a city apartment. Although I wanted no part of that mess, the occasional artifact was discovered and shared to revive memories of 35 years ago. I took the old trunk bought at a junk store in Montreal and a few of “her books” with the original price tag ($1.95) from the school I attended and she did not. In the most amicable divorce settlement I know of, the only contested items (and a long running joke among the family) were a few books that hard evidence proved I purchased. I took a few that were really hers as compensation, and she never begrudged that.

It continued with my dad’s visit. He has recently been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in spite of having absolutely no symptoms. In my head, time flashed forward to endings which I don’t want to think about, the end of the parental generation and of course my own end. I’m betting he outlives the standard prognosis by a factor of two or three. Maybe that’s denial.

The journey was through both time and space when we took my son back to college last week for his final year and his first apartment. He goes to school in Pittsburgh at my ex’s alma mater, down the street from mine. There was a 34 year gap between my leaving Pittsburgh and my son’s returning, and now I have likely made my penultimate return to a place where many of the threads of my life began. The city has reinvented itself since the death of the steel industry and is a real study in the contrast of the old and the new, the temporary and the timeless. The universities have grown and the steel mills have been replaced by upscale shopping districts and civic buildings. Most of the old shabby buildings sit side by side with wonderfully renovated houses and new development. The college bar where we discovered draft beer for a quarter is still there and looks the same.

Being a parent, setting up your son’s first apartment is like walking back and forth through doors 35 years apart. It sure is different for kids now. No more fill two suitcases and get dumped off at college. It’s a pick-up truck and a U-Haul trailer full of stuff to make sure junior is relatively comfortable. No more cinderblocks, beanbag chairs, and kids shopping at Goodwill and St. Vincent DePaul for couches covered with 50 years of dust. Now the whole family goes to Target and Dad puts a large dent in his credit card account. Being dead broke, scrounging, and making things out of castoff junk when having that first apartment is one of the more important experiences in life. And yet, I, like most parents, can’t bring myself to force that onto a child who has spent his whole life living in comfort, playing with toys not even imagined when I was his age. All the while, I’m pretty sure he is the poorer for being so much richer.

On the way out of town, we stopped for a few hours of the timeless. I told my wife that we can’t end our sojourns to Pittsburgh without her seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, arguably the finest house ever built and the greatest piece of American architecture ever conceived. It’s a building that led me to architecture school just from the pictures and a building that still suggests man can live harmoniously with nature despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It is a masterpiece of artistic expression and a reminder of the wondrous creative capabilities of human beings at their best. Knowing Wright’s amazing and exceptional other work, it is still difficult to comprehend this leap of imagination, vision and creativity. This is a building completed in 1936 that is still modern today, 73 years later. It was created by a man 67 years old and still in the middle of his career. Linear time makes no sense at Fallingwater and never has.

And finally, today is the first day of a new high school sailing season. It all starts anew with a new crop of freshmen, some of whom have never sailed before. I am challenged to remember what it is like to have never sailed, and strangely, that is one of the time portals most difficult to re-enter.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Two Race Regatta? - “It’s not about the sailing.”

My one annual foray back into Flying Scot sailing is an annual regatta in upstate New York. Last weekend I went, again, for about the 20th time, and had a good time. But a two race regatta? In winds of 0 – crazy? Predictable winds of 0 – crazy, I might add. I expected no wind, like the last time I went two years ago, and the time before that, but I went anyway.

It may be a defective memory, but I seem to remember many years when the scheduled five races actually happened. I remember at least three occasions where the wind was 15 – 20+. Has climate change forever altered this regatta? Back in the day, this was a 45 boat regatta with the reputation for being the best Flying Scot regatta in the Northeast. Last year, numbers were way down, and this year, there were 26 boats. Word has gotten out that this is a no wind regatta, and despite the absolutely great hospitality, some sailors seem to want wind and sailing at their regattas.

So why do I go? The obvious reason is that it is a social event, like a class reunion with a sailing class in which I spent twenty years. It’s nice to travel to an event where, like at Cheers, “everybody knows your name.” The real reason for me is that it’s a chance – or maybe just a hope - to sail with my son. He wants to go, so we go. And the reason he wants to go is to meet up with his long time regatta friends who live 300 miles away.

When my kids were quite young, it was standard practice to drag them to regattas where they were frequently grouped together with a common baby sitter while the parents sailed. The sure-fire activity to keep my son entertained was to play with LEGOs. It turned out that LEGOs seemed to have broad appeal, and a group of boys seemed to bond around their LEGOs. Somehow my son seemed to develop stronger friendships with this group than with any of the kids at home. His “sailing” friends became his best friends. Two of the group were local for us, living in the next town, and two lived in western New York. The local kids began to hang out regularly at our local yacht club and have now become best of friends, but all five have remained good friends as they have matured from LEGO kids into beer swilling college students and computer geeks. When they meet up these days, it is as if they can pick up the conversation from wherever it ended the previous year.

So we put up with no wind, and crazy races where we are stalled and those 10 yards away have little zephyrs and are sailing past us, or where the lead boat and last boat can switch places in 180 degree wind shifts. We optimistically hope for wind when we should know better. We spend far more time waiting to sail than sailing. And somehow, we like it.

As my son said, “It’s not about the sailing.”

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Conversation with O’Brien

Not long ago in my Lasering experience I made a new friend, O’Brien, who is not only a fellow Laser enthusiast, but he works as a dealer in the Laser marketing network. While having a beer after sailing, we had had a conversation about a bizarre dream I had.

“I was at a regatta, but not a Laser regatta,” I told him. It was a regatta for some kind of a larger, less fun boat, like the boat I used to sail before I was converted to Lasers. It was sort of like a Laser regatta, but the boats had different kinds of sails. I mean, they all looked pretty much alike, and they had the same measurements, but they all had different labels on them. There were about five different brands.”

“You mean all the boats were different? Was there some kind handicap scoring?”

“No, the boats were the same – only the sails were different – and maybe the way the spinnaker sheets were routed, but essentially the same. It was a one design class.”

“Couldn’t be, if the sails were different!”

“It was a dream. What can I say? The folks there all thought it was a one design regatta. They were even congratulating themselves that US Sailing had chosen their boat for the Triple handed youth and adult national championships just like they had a couple of years ago.”

“Wow! Imagine a championship where all the boats are different.”

“No, the boats were the same. Only the sails had different makers. And at this regatta, one of the sail makers was giving a seminar about how to trim sails and generally make the boat go faster. He was explaining how they were using this new cloth which would stretch a little less and hold the shape longer. And there was some extra reinforcing in the corners, but I really couldn’t understand why that was important. And this guy seemed to be friends with about half the people at the regatta.”

“Were all the sailors’ stockbrokers lining up to buy the next new and more expensive thing?”

“Not really. They were pretty regular folks. Most of them were pretty impressed that these new sails were still less expensive than the ones from the big sail makers. Some of the sailors really liked the sail maker, and were very apologetic that their sails were only a year old, and it would be another year before they would buy a new suit.”

O’Brien frowned. “Cheapskates. Any respectable Laser sailor replaces his sail at least once a year. The big time serious guys use a sail for only one or two regattas.”

I was puzzled. “Doesn’t that go against the one design principle of not giving an advantage to the guy who spends the most money?”

“No. It makes all the boats equal. Sails only cost $525. All the good guys have new sails.”

“I don’t,” I said sheepishly. “My friends don’t either. At my club there are a bunch of high school and college kids who nag their parents for a year just to get one of those imitation Laser sails. Then they try to borrow a real sail if they want to go to a big regatta.”

“Well, we have the dealer network any time you need a new sail – or anything else for your Laser. We’re only a click away.”

“Yeah. The service is great. But where do I get $525 every few months just to keep up with the good guys?..........You know, years ago when I was in that other class, I only had to pick up the phone and call the sail maker to order new sails. Most of the time it was my sail maker friend that I talked to. It worked the same way for boat parts – one phone call, next day shipping. I guess they use the internet now.”

“Of course they do. Who wants to actually talk to customers? That’s pretty inefficient, you know.”

“So, is it true the Laser sail we use now is the same as one that is 20 years old? It’s funny that in that time we have the emergence of personal computers, the internet, email, Ipods, Iphones, texting, twittering, and Facebook, but we can still depend on the Laser sail to stay the same.”

O’Brien thought I was being a smart ass. “Yarg, are you getting a bad attitude? You understand that in order to have a one design class, everything must be controlled. Things can’t just change over night.”

“I understand that.”

“And you know that letting just any sail maker supply sails would cause chaos and eventually ruin the class. If the class association and Laser Performance and the sail maker and the dealers didn’t all make money, they wouldn’t be able to serve you.”

“That makes sense.”

“And you know that when the sail eventually gets improved, and that will be soon, it will be because the entire supply chain worked together methodically for as many as five years, on your behalf, to develop the best possible product for the class.”

“I know years of hard work goes into this. ……………….But it worked so differently in that other class. It didn’t seem so hard.”

“That was just a dream, Yarg. You were dreaming that anarchy miraculously produced good products at reasonable prices. Don’t buy into that myth. This is reality. That other class is falling apart. They are not serious. Just because US Sailing picks their boat once in a while, doesn’t mean it is any good. It’s nothing like the Laser class, the best and most competitive class in the world. Laser has the Olympics- the Olympics, where the world’s most talented athletes invest endless amounts of time and money in becoming the best. Isn’t that what sailing is all about? Yarg, it isn’t just about you and your friends fooling around, having fun.”

“I don’t know what I was thinking. Crazy dream. I love the Laser class. Thank you Big Laser for taking care of us.”