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.
The coming months of the pandemic could be catastrophic. The U.S. still has ways to prepare.
On April 13, Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appeared on the Today show and assured viewers that the worst was nearly behind us. It had been a month since the last gathering of fans in an NBA arena; a month since the fateful week when Americans began panic-buying bottled water and canned beans. The segment’s host, Savannah Guthrie, was broadcasting from home in upstate New York. With the light of a makeshift camera reflecting in her glasses, she asked Redfield to address reports that we could be facing another three weeks of social distancing. “We are nearing the peak right now,” Redfield told her. “Clearly we are stabilizing in terms of the state of this outbreak.”
Climate change is killing Americans and destroying the country’s physical infrastructure.
The federal government spends roughly $700 billion a year on the military. It spends perhaps $15 billion a year trying to understand and stop climate change.
I thought about those numbers a lot last week, as I tried to stop my toddler from playing in ash, tried to calm down my dogs as they paced and panted in mid-morning dusk light, tried to figure out whether my air purifier was actually protecting my lungs, tried to understand why the sky was pumpkin-colored, and tried not to think about the carcinogen risk of breathing in wildfire smoke, week after week.
The government has committed to defending us and our allies against foreign enemies. Yet when it comes to the single biggest existential threat we collectively face—the one that threatens to make much of the planet uninhabitable, starve millions, and incite violent conflicts around the world—it has chosen to do near-nothing. Worse than that, the federal government continues to subsidize and promote fossil fuels, and with them the destruction of our planetary home. Climate hell is here. We cannot stand it. And we cannot afford it either.
Changing voters’ minds is famously difficult, but a recent progressive effort found real success.
No state has haunted the Democratic Party’s imagination for the past four years like Wisconsin. While it was not the only state that killed Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes in 2016, it was the one where the knife plunged deepest. Clinton was so confident about Wisconsin that she never even campaigned there. This year, it is one of the most fiercely contested states. The Democrats planned to hold their convention in Milwaukee, before the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation. Donald Trump is also making a strong play for Wisconsin.
Trump’s weaknesses with the electorate are familiar: Voters find him coarse, and they deplore his handling of race, the coronavirus, and protests. One recent YouGov poll found that just 42 percent of Americans approved of his performance as president, while 54 percent disapproved. But when the pollsters asked about Trump’s handling of the economy, those attitudes reversed: 48 percent approved and 44 percent disapproved, despite the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.
Millions of coronavirus tests may be happening without their results being made public.
President Donald Trump has never hidden his ambivalence about testing for the coronavirus. In June, when he told an arena of supporters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that he had instructed “his people” to “‘slow the testing down, please,’” the disclosure prompted one of the more dire news cycles of the pandemic. The president said repeatedly that he wanted the United States to reduce its testing. But in the weeks that followed, testing increased.
Not so now. In the past month, the number of tests conducted in the United States has actually drifted down—and that may be partly because of Trump-administration policy.
The United States now reports about 100,000 fewer daily tests than it did in late July, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. Some of this decline is due to reduced demand: The surge of infections across the South and West has subsided, and when fewer people are sick, fewer people seek out tests. Yet this cannot explain all of it. In the Midwest, the number of confirmed cases is growing faster than the number of tests, which has been a sign of a growing outbreak throughout the pandemic.
Reports of a vote-by-mail apocalypse are greatly exaggerated.
President Donald Trump stood on a North Carolina tarmac earlier this month, Air Force One idling behind him, and urged his supporters to commit a crime. He said they should cast the ballots they received in the mail—just as he has done many times in the past—and then they should go to their polling place on Election Day and test the system by trying to vote again. “Let them send it in, and let them go vote,” Trump said. “If their system’s as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote.”
Officials in North Carolina were aghast. The executive director of the state’s board of elections, Karen Brinson Bell, issued a statement the next day explicitly warning North Carolinians not to follow the president’s advice. “It is illegal to vote twice in an election,” she said. “Attempting to vote twice in an election or soliciting someone to do so also is a violation of North Carolina law.”
It’s a moment we don’t often see in sports: a woman beating a man. But that’s exactly what was announced Thursday, when the World Surf League reported that the Brazilian big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira set a new world record. The 73.5-foot wave she surfed on February 11 in Nazaré, Portugal, was the largest wave surfed by anyone this year, earning Gabeira the WSL’s 2020 women’s XXL Biggest Wave Award. It also broke her own previous record, a 68-foot wave. By contrast, this year’s men’s XXL Biggest Wave Award winner, Kai Lenny, rode a 70-foot wave.
But Gabeira’s historic win was light on fanfare, with the news hampered by an uncharacteristically long delay (about four weeks after the men’s announcement), and also because her achievement was subject to a brand-new and completely different set of measuring criteria than was required for the men’s waves. The situation highlights a rare and missed opportunity to challenge widespread ideas about women’s athletic inferiority.
Coffee plants were supposed to be safe on this side of the Atlantic. But the fungus found them.
In the southern corner of Guatemala, outside the tiny mountain town of San Pedro Yepocapa, Elmer Gabriel’s coffee plants ought to be leafed-out and gleaming. It is a week before Christmas, the heart of the coffee-harvesting season, and if his bushes were healthy, they would look like holiday trees hung with ornaments, studded with bright-red coffee cherries. But in a long row that stretches down the side of his steeply sloped field, the plants are twiggy and withered. Most of their leaves are gone, and the ones that remain are drab olive and curling at the edges. There are yellow spots, brown in the center, on the leaves’ upper surfaces. On the underside they are pebbly, and coated with a fine orange dust.
The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, wildfire damage in Oregon, flooding in Florida from Hurricane Sally, continued protests in Belarus, smoky skies over Seattle, and much more
The Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, a hammock on Australian ski slopes, wildfire damage in Oregon, scorched wetlands in Brazil, flooding in Florida from Hurricane Sally, continued protests in Belarus, smoky skies over Seattle, scenes from the Crimean Fashion Week, and much more
How Donald Trump’s favorite news source became a language
All happy families are alike; some unhappy families are unhappy because of Fox News.
You might have come across the articles (“I Lost My Dad to Fox News” / “Lost Someone to Fox News?” / “‘Fox News Brain’: Meet the Families Torn Apart by Toxic Cable News”), or the Reddit threads, or the support groups on Facebook, as people have sought ways to mourn loved ones who are still alive. The discussions consider a loss that Americans don’t have good language for, in part because the loss itself is a matter of language: They describe what it’s like to find yourself suddenly unable to speak with people you’ve known your whole life. They acknowledge how easily a national crisis can become a personal one. At this point, some Americans speak English; others speak Fox.
A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of TheNew York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.
When The New York Times Magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.