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.
A brilliant new account upends bedrock assumptions about 30,000 years of change.
Many years ago, when I was a junior professor at Yale, I cold-called a colleague in the anthropology department for assistance with a project I was working on. I didn’t know anything about the guy; I just selected him because he was young, and therefore, I figured, more likely to agree to talk.
Five minutes into our lunch, I realized that I was in the presence of a genius. Not an extremely intelligent person—a genius. There’s a qualitative difference. The individual across the table seemed to belong to a different order of being from me, like a visitor from a higher dimension. I had never experienced anything like it before. I quickly went from trying to keep up with him, to hanging on for dear life, to simply sitting there in wonder.
In ways both large and small, American society still assumes that the default adult has a partner and that the default household contains multiple people.
If you were to look under the roofs of American homes at random, it wouldn’t take long to find someone who lives alone. By the Census Bureau’s latest count, there are about 36 million solo dwellers, and together they make up 28 percent of U.S. households.
Even though this percentage has been climbing steadily for decades, these people are still living in a society that is tilted against them. In the domains of work, housing, shopping, and health care, much of American life is a little—and in some cases, a lot—easier if you have a partner or live with family members or housemates. The number of people who are inconvenienced by that fact grows every year.
Those who live alone, to be clear, are not lonely and miserable. Research indicates that, young or old, single people are more social than their partnered peers. Bella DePaulo, the author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, reeled off to me some of the pleasures of having your own space: “the privacy, the freedom to arrange your life and your space just the way you want it—you get to decide when to sleep, when to get up, what you eat, when you eat, what you watch on Netflix, how you set the thermostat.”
You can make your quest for meaning manageable by breaking it down into three bite-size dimensions.
“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Want to live in a directed, resolute way? To always know why you’re doing what you’re doing? There’s a simple way to make your dreams come true: Go find the meaning of life!
People who believe that they know their life’s meaning enjoy greater well-being than those who don’t. One 2019 study found that agreeing with the statement “I have a philosophy of life that helps me understand who I am” was associated with fewer symptoms of depression and higher positive affect.
Lucky you if you were born already knowing what the meaning of your life is. For the rest of us, the search can be difficult and frustrating. Philosophy is often unhelpful, offering abstract ideas such as Aristotle’s human function or Kant’s “highest good” that are hard to comprehend, let alone put into action.
It is not a world in a headset but a fantasy of power.
In science fiction, the end of the world is a tidy affair. Climate collapse or an alien invasion drives humanity to flee on cosmic arks, or live inside a simulation. Real-life apocalypse is more ambiguous. It happens slowly, and there’s no way of knowing when the Earth is really doomed. To depart our world, under these conditions, is the same as giving up on it.
And yet, some of your wealthiest fellow earthlings would like to do exactly that. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other purveyors of private space travel imagine a celestial paradise where we can thrive as a “multiplanet species.” That’s the dream of films such as Interstellar and Wall-E. Now comes news that Mark Zuckerberg has embraced the premise of The Matrix, that we can plug ourselves into a big computer and persist as flesh husks while reality decays around us. According to a report this week from The Verge, the Facebook chief may soon rebrand his company to mark its change in focus from social media to “the metaverse.”
Different chemically than it was a decade ago, the drug is creating a wave of severe mental illness and worsening America’s homelessness problem.
In the fall of 2006, law enforcement on the southwest border of the United States seized some crystal methamphetamine. In due course, a five-gram sample of that seizure landed on the desk of a 31-year-old chemist named Joe Bozenko, at the Drug Enforcement Administration lab outside Washington, D.C.
Organic chemistry can be endlessly manipulated, with compounds that, like Lego bricks, can be used to build almost anything. The field seems to breed folks whose every waking minute is spent puzzling over chemical reactions. Bozenko, a garrulous man with a wide smile, worked in the DEA lab during the day and taught chemistry at a local university in the evenings. “Chemist by day, chemist by night,” his Twitter bio once read.
A new film adaptation of the best seller has a colossal budget and an all-star cast—but its emotional depth is what sets it apart.
Paul Atreides, the handsome young protagonist of Dune, is one of science fiction’s original chosen ones. His heroic journey from plucky teenager to feared warrior has been imitated time and time again—think of Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter. But the director Denis Villeneuve’s film is the first adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel to properly portray the grim tragedy of Paul’s arc; the movie is epic in scope, but it understands the quieter human underpinnings of the original work.
At the heart of Herbert’s Dune series, a multi-book tale of space empires, sandworms, religious fervor, and political gamesmanship spanning centuries, was a simple observation: Great power comes with terrible burden. Dune follows the Atreides family after Duke Leto Atreides (played by Oscar Isaac) is given control of Arrakis, a harsh planet that is mined for a magical substance called spice, crucial to space travel. The Duke knows the gift is a poisoned chalice, an opportunity to fail that’s been set up by an evil baron—but still he accepts, hoping to defeat the odds stacked against him. His wife, Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), is an aristocratic space witch who works to mold the future behind the scenes. And their son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet), might be the messiah, a baby she willed into existence against her training. He is marked from birth with the potential to change the universe’s destiny. But being at the center of a cosmic chess match is as terrifying as it is exhilarating.
We know more than ever about how to use boosters, but still very little about when to use them.
In this week’s installment of the booster chronicles, the plot is picking up. An advisory committee to the FDA began a two-day meeting today to formulate recommendations for whether the agency should authorize additional doses of the Johnson & Johnson and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. (The FDA still has to authorize, and the CDC still has to recommend, any new use of boosters before they’ll be readily available.) Committee members have already voted yes on giving boosters to people over 65 and other high-risk adults who received the Moderna vaccine. Meanwhile, the NIH released the results of a long-awaited (and not yet peer-reviewed) clinical trial on the “mix and match” approach to booster shots, in which people receive a dose of a different vaccine from the one they started with. The FDA committee is scheduled to discuss that idea, too, before this meeting ends.
Shane Campbell-Staton never planned on traveling to Mozambique in search of tuskless elephants, but weird things can happen when you stay up ’til 3 a.m. binge-watching YouTube videos. (“Sometimes, a brother can’t get to sleep, Ed,” he told me.)
Battling insomnia, Campbell-Staton watched a video about Gorongosa National Park. The park was once Edenic, but during Mozambique’s civil war, from 1977 to 1992, much of its wildlife was exterminated. Government troops and resistance fighters slaughtered 90 percent of Gorongosa’s elephants, selling their ivory to buy arms and supplies. Naturally tuskless females, which are normally rare, were more likely to survive the culls; after the war, their unusual trait was noticeably common.
You might have fewer antibodies now. But they’re better than the ones you started with.
In early March, Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, celebrated a milestone: hitting the point of full vaccination, two weeks after getting his second Pfizer shot. Since then, he’s been watching the number of coronavirus antibodies in his blood slowly but surely decline.
The drop hasn’t been precipitous, but it’s definitely happening—regular checkups have shown his antibody levels, also known as titers, ticking down, down, down, from spring through summer, now into fall. The slump fits the narrative that countless reports have been sounding the alarm on for a while now: In the months after vaccination, our antibodies peace out, a trend that’s often been described as a “waning” of immunity, and evidence that we’re all in dire need of boosters to shore our defenses back up.
A lasting effect of this pandemic will be a revolution in worker expectations.
I first noticed that something weird was happening this past spring.
In April, the number of workers who quit their job in a single month broke an all-time U.S. record. Economists called it the “Great Resignation.” But America’s quittin’ spirit was just getting started. In July, even more people left their job. In August, quitters set yet another record. That Great Resignation? It just keeps getting greater.
“Quits,” as the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls them, are rising in almost every industry. For those in leisure and hospitality, especially, the workplace must feel like one giant revolving door. Nearly 7 percent of employees in the “accommodations and food services” sector left their job in August. That means one in 14 hotel clerks, restaurant servers, and barbacks said sayonara in a single month. Thanks to several pandemic-relief checks, a rent moratorium, and student-loan forgiveness, everybody, particularly if they are young and have a low income, has more freedom to quit jobs they hate and hop to something else.