Monday, November 16, 2009

Youth Sailing and Architecture?

By way of some very random thinking, my last post brings me back to a former conversation about Saving Sailing and youth sailing.

It seems to me that our interests and passions can be very non-linear in time and space.
What was I doing writing about architecture in a sailing blog? I abandoned the professional architecture track in the middle of college. I thought there were very good reasons for this at the time. I viewed its educational process as a belittling of very talented students (not necessarily me), and perceived the profession to be one that devoured its young. (I was too immature to see that many professions work this way.) After being completely removed from it for nine years, I decided to start a business designing and building custom houses. And so I was back in for twenty years until the increasing aggravation graph line crossed the diminishing creativity line. Out for nine years again (is there a nine year itch?), I find myself writing about architecture in an unrelated context. And in my own non-linear and discontinuous way, I associate this with the way people become sailors.

In the Saving Sailing discussions and reviews – the book itself, Tillerman’s review with many comments, and my review – the topic of youth sailing programs has been often raised, much maligned, and not sufficiently defended.

Nick Hayes, the author of Saving Sailing, characterizes junior sailing programs as themed babysitting services where kids are dumped off and picked up by taxi driver parents. James, one of Tillerman’s commenters, bemoans the negative effects of over competitiveness. And Tillerman has increased his notoriety with his campaign against competition and coaching gone mad in the use of Mommy Boats.

All of these things are issues to be sure, but all of them seem like natural outgrowths of a sick consumer culture. We consume what Hayes calls “time charters” when we spend our time in activities scripted by others. Worshiping celebrity, we accept that a guy making 40K will spend $200 to take his kids to a ball game to watch players making $10 million plus. Is it any wonder that talented sailors hire private coaches and when not seeing Olympic prospects for themselves, go off to chase some other holy grail? The culture will impose itself on sailing, like everything else, despite our best efforts.

Sailing does pretty well in holding off the onslaught of a culture whose values are largely antithetical to those of our sport. We have hundreds of thousands of unpaid competitive sailors enjoying healthy, friendly competition with a Corinthian spirit. We have as many or more non-competitors enjoying the poetic, perhaps Zen-like experience of wind, water, and boat in harmony. We even have a few hardy souls challenging the oceans to become man vs. nature heroes like Hemmingway’s Santiago. We are not yet an endangered species.

It all starts with the first sailing lessons, frequently in youth sailing. I’m not completely pleased with our local junior sailing programs, and I tend toward the competitive as a high school coach, but in spite of flaws, we who are involved in youth sailing are planting the seeds that grow into future sailors. While Nick Hayes is certainly right about mentoring being the best way to accomplish this goal, we are limited to being Johnny Appleseeds. We plant the seeds, but we can’t be the farmers who nurture the orchard.

Despite our obvious limitations, thousands, nay tens or hundreds of thousands, of these seeds somehow develop into sailors. I like to think, “if you plant them, they will grow.” Can you imagine those little kids taught by Tillerman not becoming sailors? I know I have planted some seeds that may lay dormant for periods of time, but they will eventually sprout and blossom. The seeds will grow, not as well or consistently nurtured as Nick Hayes and many of us would like, but they will grow.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Between the Coasts

Warning: another sailing blog post with virtually no sailing content.

I’ve lived in New England long enough now to have a full fledged case of East Coast snobbery. That was seriously called into question last weekend when I visited Chicago for the first time. Maybe it was because the trip was juxtaposed against an absolutely miserable evening of local sailing politics, but it seemed to me Chicago is a pretty cool place.

We only went there because we were obliged to attend a family wedding. Given the November timing and our gloomy long range weather forecast, we planned for as little time there as possible. What a mistake! Chicago is beautiful with plenty of things to do. The restaurants are excellent, the public transportation is clean and efficient, and the people are friendly – so much so that a New Englander is taken aback with every friendly encounter. And the weather – sunny and 65 degrees.

We stayed in the least swanky hotel (but very nice and surprisingly inexpensive) on the edge of the swankiest part of town, the “Magnificent Mile.” The high end shopping district in Chicago, it is a wide boulevard lined by sidewalks with areas of flowers, shrubs, and trees, as well oversized versions of all the best stores in the country.

Unlike Eastern cities, there is enough open space to afford views of the intriguing variety of creative urban architecture. The high rise buildings all seem to feature unique designs instead of the tall boxes with a few decorations at the top that characterize new Boston buildings. The older architecture features the work of world famous architects Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies Van Der Rohe. It’s all interesting enough to support several architectural tour businesses. Chicago also boasts the most green buildings in the country. That seems to beat what we have here in the Hub of the Universe.

In the little free time we had, we spent a summer-like afternoon in Oak Park, 12 miles west of downtown, visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s house and studio. It is a work from the very beginning of his career, and the neighborhood contains numerous examples of his early works as well as lovely “painted lady” Victorian houses. Mrs. Yarg was mostly humoring me in this little adventure, but afterward confessed to a visceral positive reaction to the house. The wide streets in Oak Park have sidewalks set far enough back to be lined with mature trees, giving them a welcoming and friendly feel.

It’s difficult to have anything more than a first impression of the people, but we encountered several unsolicited acts of kindness. When we asked the concierge where to buy a tie because I had forgotten to bring one, he offered me his. A stranger struck up a conversation on the subway, introduced himself and wished us well on our return trip. When walking with luggage toward the subway, another stranger asked if we were heading for the airport and offered us directions before we showed any signs of confusion. I wonder why we don’t treat each other more like this in the East.

And I hear they have a big lake with sailing! Ever heard of a sailing bachelorette party?

When we say in jest that there isn’t much between the coasts, the joke may be on us for thinking we are so smart and so cool. I would suspect that some of those Midwesterners laugh at us for being pompous asses, but they are probably too damn nice!