The new NBCUniversal streaming service Peacock is now offering the documentary A Most Beautiful Thing as a free feature. (Details here.) Last week I wrote about the movie, and its surprising timeliness and power, in this article. The film, based on a memoir by Arshay Cooper, is the saga of young men from the West Side of Chicago who in the 1990s formed what appears to have been the first all-Black high-school rowing team in the country.
In response, Peter Gadzinski, previously of Vermont but now living in Europe, writes about the themes of the book and movie, and how different this sport can seem from another country’s perspective.
Through my son I have been introduced to rowing, and it is a great sport.
We have been living in Portugal, where my wife is from, and where our son is going to school, and they have a slightly different take on rowing here that I wish was in America.
First, none of the schools have any sports teams. Sports teams are all organized by town clubs. That means that the whole town can cover the expense, and you can be in the club from literally 8 years old to 80. There is none of this sports-stops-cold when you graduate high school or college. Also, the rowing club out here is open to anyone, with a just fee of $40 a month which is waived for those who can’t afford it, which makes the otherwise very expensive sport of rowing available to everyone.
The other thing here is that they race in all of the types of boats: singles, doubles, fours, and the eight, with one and two oar boats in the doubles and fours. I grew up playing soccer, and like most team sports, it is all about only the first string playing, and everyone else sitting on the bench. By racing in all boat classes, in a meet here it is like a track meet, in that everyone races. Everyone knows what the club “A” boat is, but everyone races in a meet.
The saying is that you put your best and your worst people in the single. The best so that they are not slowed up by lesser people in a multiple seat boat, and the worst, so they don’t slow up anyone in a multiple seat boat. But in a big meet everyone races, from the kids in elementary school, to the “veterans”: the gray haired adults, with even special boats with outriggers for the handicapped. This thing in America where in college it is all about getting a “crew” seat in “the 8” doesn’t exist here, which is good.
But as you pointed out, there is something special and unique about rowing. Once you get past both the expense of it and the preppy reputation of it, there is something very special about it. The way I explain it to people is that the only comparable activity would be to play music in a classical or jazz quartet. You become one group, all together and synchronized. Except in rowing you are breathing a lot harder. It is really something to behold, and something to be part of.
Not only are rowers in perfect mental and physical synchronization when rowing, but due to the extreme motion of their bodies back and forth they are like birds in flight and breathe in and out with their body movements. That means that the entire boat is breathing together as well. There is supposed to be something beneficial to singing together. Rowing together is the same, except with a lot more horsepower.
I had grown up thinking rowing was just some bizarre preppy thing for rich kids. It still is in a lot of America, but in Europe it is a lot more common and public. If I were a billionaire philanthropist I would put all of my money into paying for rowing clubs all over the country. It is a really good thing to do. As the saying goes: “Rowing is a sport, everything else is a game.” Get a bunch of young people to give their all and literally all pull together is a wonderful thing. There should be more of it.
Update: Another reader, with a military-aviation background, writes in with another comparison:
When reading The Boys in the Boat. I was struck by how much rowing reminded me of flying close formation aerobatics with the Blue Angels. I’m giving copies to my former wingmen for Christmas
This week, NBCUniversal’s new Peacock streaming service will begin showing the feature-length documentary A Most Beautiful Thing. A trailer of the film is on Vimeo here, and the main site for the project is here. I saw a preview version last week and recommend it. The film’s story would be surprising and engrossing at any time, but it has a current power and relevance its producers could not have foreseen when they began making it.
The film is based on a book of the same name by Arshay Cooper, first self-published as Suga Water five years ago. In it, Cooper—who grew up in a violent and drug- and gang-dominated neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago—described the formation of what appears to be the first all-Black high school rowing team, including members of rival gangs who gathered at Chicago’s Manley high school (officially the Manley Career Academy High School).
The high school and college rowing world has been the subject of celebrated books ranging from David Halberstam’s The Amateurs to Craig Lambert’s Mind Over Water to the perennially best-selling The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. As these books and other rowing chronicles indicate, participants in the sport have been overwhelmingly white. In class terms, rowing has also had a strong but not complete prep-school/upper-class tone. Strong, because of signature races like the Oxford-Cambridge and Harvard-Yale showdowns. Not complete, because—as Boys in the Boat, especially, points out—some successful rowers have been from modest, rural, working-class, or other non-fancy backgrounds, and have converted their aptitude for this sport into college scholarships the way basketball or football players have done. (Of course without the pro-career prospects to follow.)
But the story Arshay Cooper recounts is far starker and more dramatic. Manley high school had never had a rowing team; the students who finally agreed to join the boat were from rival gangs and in other circumstances would have been fighting with one another; few of them even knew how to swim. Basketball and football were sports for real men. Rowing? They were mocked by many of their Black schoolmates—and by many of the white rowers whose world they tried to join. On one of the Manley crew’s first forays onto the water in Chicago, all of its rowers were wearing life jackets, which was one of many reasons they were the object of sneers from the all-white high school and college crews also on the water.
“I notice that most rowers are white, tall, and lean,” Cooper writes in the book about an early visit to a boathouse. “I am none of these things.” The first time their all-novice, non-swimmer boat goes on the water, after long training in indoor tanks, Arshay Cooper and his teammates are terrified:
I push with everything I have [against the dock] and we glide out into open water. My triumph is immediately followed by fear as the boat starts to drift away. It’s not even close to being balanced.
“Blades flat on the water and oars pressed against the oarlocks,” Coach Jessica shouts.
“No, no, take me back in,” Dashaun yells. His panic is contagious, and everyone starts freaking out …
Coach Jessica tries to quiet us and instructs Alvin and me to row first, but we tell her we can’t. We are too afraid.
What happens to the members of that crew—in the 1990s, and now—is the subject of the book and the new movie. I won’t spoil the story they have to tell. But I will say that through the vehicle of a niche-seeming sport, both the book and the film address issues of generations-long racial trauma, and relations between Black residents and the police, that are the center of attention now.
The most obviously 2020-relevant aspect of the movie is its immersion in the racial divide within Chicago and America as a whole. All the young men who made up the Manley crew had childhoods marked by crime, poverty, drug use, and discrimination. “When Alvin and Arshay drove me around their old neighborhood, they showed me the block-by-block topography of the different gangs there,” Mary Mazzio told me. Mazzio, herself a former Olympic rower, is a documentary maker and the writer, director, and producer of this film. “They told me there was no safe way to get to school. The concept of ‘inequality of safety’ began to dawn on me.”
The family stories in Cooper’s book, bolstered by many interviews in the film (especially with the rowers’ mothers), explore countless other realms of inequality. The movie’s final section, which I’ll let you learn about yourself, explores the tensions between Black families and the mainly white police force in a surprising way. The movie was completed last year but is very much of this moment.
The other quietly emerging theme in the movie involves the sport of rowing itself—not its class and racial signifiers, but the physical action of people pulling together on their oars.
As The Boys in the Boat and other books have emphasized, a crew in a racing shell may represent the most profound expression of teamwork in all of sports. It is possible for one rower to make an error that penalizes the whole boat. This is by “catching a crab,” or digging an oar too deep in the water and being unable to pull it out. And it is possible for a coxswain to make a costly mistake in steering the boat or pacing the rowers.
But otherwise, which is the great majority of the time, a team wins or loses utterly together, as a group. Their collective effort either is enough to beat the other teams, or it falls short. There is no I in crew—a variation on the cliché used by coaches in every sport, but especially true here. “We were able to get rival gang members together in a single boat,” Arshay Cooper told me when I spoke with him last week. “We hated each other, and we became like brothers.” As the last part of the film reveals, he has tried to extend that team-building possibility across the chasm of suspicion separating his Black neighborhood from the police.
Beyond teamwork, the mechanics of the sport proved important to Cooper and his teammates. “I grew up with a lot of trauma,” he told me. “Gunshots in our sleep, being chased home right after school, gangs everywhere.” Like many neighborhood boys, he grew up playing basketball. “But it’s a trash-talking sport. ‘You suck,’ ‘you are garbage’—it triggers a lot of trauma.” He played football, “and the coach is always saying, ‘Knock ‘em dead.’” When he got in a boat, he discovered, “it was non-combative, a non-conflict sport. It took me out of the neighborhood for a while. I could focus on the person sitting in front of me, and the person behind me, on developing that magical rhythm, together.” The swing and timing and unison of a boat, Cooper said, “really calmed the storm—rather than other sports, where the storm came out of me.”
Where will this all lead? Mary Mazzio said that she hoped philanthropy spurred by the film (“so many of today’s captains of industry have at some point picked up an oar”) could help make the sport more accessible. “The limiting factor is infrastructure—getting to the water, and to oars, boats, ergs.” “Ergs,” or ergometers, are the land-based rowing machines, of which the best known is the Concept 2. As Arshay Cooper put it, “You can walk to a basketball court, but you can’t just walk to a rowing site.”
“So many kids play basketball or football as a way out,” Mazzio said. Those rich, top-end opportunities for a handful of star athletes will never be matched by crew. But for admirable reasons and shadier ones, rowing has, especially for women, become an edge in college scholarships and admissions.
“This beautiful film shines light on the kinds of education experiences that launch kids into lives of purpose,” Ted Dintersmith, a former venture capitalist who has written extensively about education, told me. “The rowing program gets kids excited about school, while the entrepreneurship program equips them with essential career skills.”
“Maybe this year there are 500 Black rowers at the high-school level,” Arshay Cooper told me. “I’m hoping that in five years, it’s 5,000, or more.” He says that he has been making the rounds of high schools and colleges discussing why this collaborative, disciplined, “meditative” form of competition is especially valuable for people surrounded by trauma. “The biggest lesson I learned is, I can’t do the work of eight people,” he said. “But I need eight people to do the work.”
You’ll see the experience that view comes from, if you watch the film.
Everyone expects Harris to run for president again one day, but her job requires her to avoid even the appearance of preparing for her political future.
Air Force Two is a smaller plane than Air Force One. The exterior is the same light-blue and white, but unlike the commander in chief’s plane, the vice president’s aircraft is open plan—from the back, you can see all the way to the front, where a small office doubles as a bedroom. Kamala Harris spends most of her Air Force Two flights in that office, with the door closed. She doesn’t work the plane, the way Joe Biden or even Mike Pence did.
The vice president flew on Air Force Two to Los Angeles for Easter weekend, then to Oakland, her hometown, for events the following Monday. As Harris strode down the stairs, the angle of her head and the pace of her step deliberate, California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis started a round of applause. Kounalakis was still gushing when I caught up with her by phone a week later. “She carries the mantle of this big job in a way that seems very natural,” she said. “To arrive with so much pomp and circumstance, but then to go to a water-treatment plant and then a small business—the juxtaposition underscores the work at the center of her start on the job.”
Today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
A few weeks ago, I met my first Millennial grandparent. I was interviewing a woman in her late 30s about President Joe Biden’s new child-tax-credit proposal, and she mentioned that it would benefit not just her two young kids but her older son’s kid too.
The incidental meeting was a reminder both that Millennials are getting older and that they are doing so without growing up, at least not in the way that many of them might wish. The woman I interviewed does not own a home, nor is she anywhere close to affording one. She has nothing in the way of savings. Nevertheless, she is a grandmother, catapulting into middle age.
Millennials, as just about everyone knows at this point, are a generation delayed. The pandemic recession has led not-so-young adults to put off having kids, buying a house, getting married, or investing in a car—yet again. But today’s economic conditions are not just holding Millennials back. They are stratifying them, leading to unequal experiences within the generation as well as between it and other cohorts.
As always in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, two narratives are vying for primacy. In one, Israel is simply defending itself against a fresh attack. In the other, Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is the latest example of a desire to punish and humiliate Palestinians. These two narratives are not reconcilable, which makes reasoned discussion an exercise in futility. But any sophisticated argument must contend with the long, winding lead-up to the current crisis. Why is war in Gaza returning now, and why does it always seem to return, with stubborn, periodic insistence?
Despite inching toward the Democratic Party’s left flank on various domestic- and foreign-policy issues, the Biden administration has fallen back on the usual formulas, offering robotic recitations about “Israel’s right to defend itself.” On Thursday, President Joe Biden said that he hadn’t seen a “significant overreaction” from Israel, while failing to mention a word about Palestinian deaths. In so doing, he gave Israel what amounts to a green light to intensify its bombing campaign.
True inclusion requires viewpoint diversity, the educator Erin McLaughlin argues, and children should be taught how to think—not what to think.
Erin McLaughlin, an educator in Pennsylvania, believes that, in school and in life, people should study what others think and why. But in her estimation, many educational institutions that purport to value diversity and inclusion fail to treat viewpoint diversity—which she defines as “the recognition that nobody’s worldview is complete, and that no one marker of identity actually defines the way we see the world around us”—as a vital part of civic education. Her mission: to persuade educational institutions to put viewpoint diversity at the center of their cultures and curricula.
McLaughlin strives to do just that in her job as a high-school English teacher. While working on a master’s degree in positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, she began to build a theoretical and practical framework around her ideas. She has developed what she calls the Viewpoint Diversity Curriculum, which poses questions such as “Can I go beyond my personal experience?” and “Can I find a way to constructively connect with the other side?”
American tourists are stereotypically thought of as loud, boorish, and tacky. They’re also sorely missed.
“It’s a great time to be an American tourist.”
Such a statement would have been nonsensical a year ago, when the COVID-19 surge in the United States was so grim that Americans, who are accustomed to traveling most places without issue, were considered personae non gratae across much of the rest of the world. But Tom Jenkins, the CEO of the European Tourism Association, stands by it: When European countries reopen their borders to tourists—as they expect to do this summer—they hope Americans will be at the front of the line.
Not only is the U.S. one of the most important countries for European tourism, but it’s also now one of the most vaccinated in the world. Yet the idea that Americans would be desired, or even preferred, guests in Europe runs in stark contrast to a more long-standing stereotype—that of the “ugly American” tourist. You know the type: loud (especially on public transportation), bumbling, boorish, and often sporting the quintessential uniform of socks and sandals, a baseball cap, and a backpack worn on the front. “Our correspondents felt American tourists had few social graces,” the humorist Art Buchwald wrote in 1957 about how Americans were perceived across the Atlantic. “They objected to Americans ‘taking moving pictures of them,’ ‘throwing around money,’ ‘talking loudly,’ [and] ‘bragging about the American way of life.’”
The news tells us less about Israel than about the people writing the news, a former AP reporter says.
During the Gaza war this summer, it became clear that one of the most important aspects of the media-saturated conflict between Jews and Arabs is also the least covered: the press itself. The Western press has become less an observer of this conflict than an actor in it, a role with consequences for the millions of people trying to comprehend current events, including policymakers who depend on journalistic accounts to understand a region where they consistently seek, and fail, to productively intervene.
An essay I wrote for Tablet on this topic in the aftermath of the war sparked intense interest. In the article, based on my experiences between 2006 and 2011 as a reporter and editor in the Jerusalem bureau of the Associated Press, one of the world’s largest news organizations, I pointed out the existence of a problem and discussed it in broad terms. Using staffing numbers, I illustrated the disproportionate media attention devoted to this conflict relative to other stories, and gave examples of editorial decisions that appeared to be driven by ideological considerations rather than journalistic ones. I suggested that the cumulative effect has been to create a grossly oversimplified story—a kind of modern morality play in which the Jews of Israel are displayed more than any other people on earth as examples of moral failure. This is a thought pattern with deep roots in Western civilization.
The competition for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia has for decades affected the prospects for peace.
“Today Iran, tomorrow Palestine.” Thus cheered the crowd in Tehran in February 1979, during the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s visit to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini just days after the success of the Iranian revolution. Arafat was the first foreign dignitary to visit Iran after the fall of the shah. For him, Khomeini’s success was a win for the Palestinian cause: His guerrilla fighters had helped train Iranian revolutionaries in Lebanon, and he was hopeful that, with Khomeini’s help, he would soon be on his way to establishing a Palestinian state.
This fascinating and relatively little-known episode in the Middle East’s history altered the region’s political landscape, and still informs the context in which today’s events in the Palestinian territories and Israel are unfolding. Although the personal relationship between Arafat and Khomeini soured within a year, their encounter marks the moment when revolutionary Iran’s involvement with the Palestinians began, and when the Palestinian issue inserted itself into a then-still-nascent regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
When people share a space, their collective experience can sprout its own vocabulary, known as a familect.
I celebrated my second pandemic birthday recently. Many things were weird about it: opening presents on Zoom, my phone’s insistent photo reminders from “one year ago today” that could be mistaken for last month, my partner brightly wishing me “iki domuz,” a Turkish phrase that literally means “two pigs.”
Well, that last one is actually quite normal in our house. Long ago, I took my first steps into adult language lessons and tried to impress my Turkish American boyfriend on his special day. My younger self nervously bungled through new vocabulary—The numbers! The animals! The months!—to wish him “iki domuz” instead of “happy birthday” (İyi ki doğdun) while we drank like pigs in his tiny apartment outside of UCLA. Now, more than a decade later, that slipup is immortalized as our own peculiar greeting to each other twice a year.
It’s time to prepare for a new and better normal than your pre-pandemic life.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
Arthur C. Brooks will discuss the science of happiness live at 11 a.m. ET on May 20. Register for “In Pursuit of Happiness” here.
Many years ago, I met a woman who had had the kind of experience you ordinarily only find in fiction. As a young adult, she was in a serious car accident, resulting in a head injury. She suffered a period of total amnesia, followed by months of convalescence. When she recovered, she was never the same: Her family relationships weakened; she cut out former friends and found new ones; she moved halfway across the world; her interests and tastes changed; she became more outgoing and less self-conscious; she no longer cared much what other people thought about her.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we cannot ignore the warning signs for future catastrophes.
In North Carolina, where I live, only about one-third of gas stations are currently reporting that they have any gas, and that’s after some improvement in availability. A ransomware attack shut down a key pipeline supplying these stations, an event that could, but likely won’t, serve as a wake-up call, before we experience a true catastrophe.
Prior to the pandemic, I wrote a lot about digital security, or the lack thereof. I once compared our security status quo to “building skyscraper favelas in code—in earthquake zones.” Not much has changed since then, but we are starting to hear more rumbles.
The dynamics of digital insecurity, ransomware, and related threats are eerily similar to the global public health dynamics before the pandemic. Battlestar Galactica helps explain one key similarity: Networked systems are vulnerable. The premise of the series is that the battleship Galactica, and only Galactica, survived an attack by the Cylons (humanoid robots) on the human fleet simply because it was old and had just been decommissioned in the process of being turned into a museum. Being older, it had never been networked into the system. The “shutdown” command sent by the attackers never reached it, and it was thus spared.