Tag Archives: sailing

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The Headwinds of Change

Sailing is like wizardry, computers, or electricity to me. No matter how many times people have explained how it works, how much I’ve read about it, or how many times I’ve seen its observable reality as a means of movement and transportation, it’s still an utter mystery and I’m stunned it actually works. I acknowledge that the words used to describe the forces at play make a kind of sense, but in the inner part of my mind, let’s be real – it’s an amazing superpower we’ve discovered and pretend is normal (c.f. consciousness, the taste of tomatoes and cheese together, music, and the way we feel when making eye contact with animals).

One of the few things I understand intuitively about sailing is that it is a balancing act of precision and flux. When sailing into the wind, to move forward as efficiently as possible, you often have to find the place to put your sails that is as close to being straight into the wind as you can get, without going too far to the other side and having the wind blow back around behind the sail. It is a process of finding and creating the perfect arc, which depends on all kinds of factors including wind speed, temperature, water conditions, drag, but ultimately, magic. When you find that sweet spot and hold it, the boat snaps into place and literally sings – you can feel it soaring just-there, like humming in exact resonance with a pure pitch in music. It is as exhilarating as if you suddenly took flight because, in a lot of ways, you have.

When learning to sail into the wind, it takes a Sisyphean process of trial and error. You edge closer and closer, then hit a wake in the water or jerk the tiller a little too far and get a gust of wind that makes all your sheets blow around like mad (luffing), so you have to pull back. It is enormously tempting to overcorrect and pull back so far away from the wind that you fall off from it entirely, sometimes even accidentally making a tack and spinning in circles, so you not only lose ground but become convinced that the direction you were headed was impossible anyway. With perseverance, patience, and confidence in the boat and the particular variety of magic in the universe you’ve chosen to recognize, you can not only learn to sail into the wind, but find it is one of the fastest and most exciting ways to move forward.

I use sailing as an analogy all the time for vastly complex experiences of being human that I struggle to discuss in their own terms. Love, and our ability to care for other people (even those we’ve never met) is another form of magic that we often take for granted. I have never been able to fully explain the overwhelming emotional response I feel when I read about terrible things that have happened, cruelties and hurts inflicted on innocents, and injustices in the world. That visceral, raw feeling is a scary and seemingly too-powerful headwind, and I recognize that my inclination (and I suspect most people’s) is still toward self-preservation, to turn away from it and to adjust my course to something easier, if slower-moving or regressive. A nice distraction by switching to an article about fashion or a quiz about what 1980s movie boyfriend I might have had often eases me out of it.

This week we have been at the confluence of some dizzying, terrifying winds. So many times I have literally closed my eyes and said, “It’s just too much,” before retreating away from reality. That is the path of cowardice and selfishness, so I know I need to come back and face it.

I have not been able to wrap my mind around the scale of terror experienced by the residents of Grenfell Tower in London, nor the intense coupling of helplessness and rage that the families of the fire’s victims must feel. It is beyond trying to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I’d feel because they are occupying a headspace that no person should ever have to. To know a loved one’s life might have been spared if the building owners had sprung for the fire-resistant cladding, a sprinkler system, or repairing the faulty refrigerator that seems to have started the whole disaster is a scope of cruelty and dehumanization beyond the conscionable. In the decision between human safety and cost-saving, it was ultimately decided that these lives were not worth enough to justify the extra expenses. How can a person ever reconcile that fact with the unutterable scale of grief?

The targeted shooting of Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in Alexandria this week was not just a senseless act of violence by a delusional man. He was intentional and calculating in attacking what he believed were the advocates and crafters of inhumane policy. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s A+ NRA rating and open advocacy of unrestricted Second Amendment liberties is not ironic or coincidental, but it is also by no means a reason why any such act of violence should be seen as anything but the horror it is. The shooter was not lashing out against the system, but is rather a product of it, the inevitable extension of increasing tolerances of cruelty, hatred, and dehumanizing violence being perpetrated daily.

Put more directly, I am deeply concerned with the erosion of the social contract of the sanctity of life. In many conversations about escalating police violence and extrajudicial executions, I am flummoxed by those who are able to justify these warped and brutal actions with thinking along the lines of, “The rules of law and order are clear, and if you break them, your life is forfeit.” (That is an actual quote from last summer that made me physically ill with disgust.) I guess on the very surface it seems like sound or defensible logic, and it gives people comfort to believe that the system is fair and those who die at its hands broke the rules, but… that is not actually what our society stands for. The deal is not “Follow all traffic laws or you may be executed.”

Last summer, I was shaken to my core by Philando Castile’s death. Everything I read and saw about the traffic stop – from both sides – had me honestly shocked that a man could do nothing wrong but end up shot seven times in front of his girlfriend and her child then left to bleed out and die. I asked those among my friends and family who are the strongest proponents of Second Amendment rights and responsible gun ownership what he could or should have done differently. We debated it for an uncomfortably long time, and the best rationalization one person came up with was that sometimes police officers just get “jumpy” when they are afraid. I don’t want to alienate everyone I know who disagrees with me, but I was so frustrated that our conversations kept turning toward the loss of police pensions or reduced pay as a reason why less qualified officers are on the force, or how maybe the media is actually to blame for constantly portraying men of color as the bad guys in fiction. And yet, I don’t think I successfully convinced anyone that a police officer killing an innocent man should be as alarming to them as it was to me.

No one enjoys confronting the ugly realities of racism and prejudice in America. We are a nation that was built on the massacre of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of African and Caribbean people. There is no history of America without subjugation, violence, and dehumanizing cruelty. We can’t pretend that’s not what happened, we can’t attempt to justify it by saying, “Yeah, but lots of people had slaves then,” or the most bafflingly racist argument I hear a lot, “You know there was slavery in Africa before white people, right?” The ongoing violation of the sanctity of lives of people of color is undeniably real, and it can be traced in a direct line through reluctant abolition, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and our current iterations of institutionalized racism.

I realize that the deflection tactics and denial I see around me (and in myself) are driven by fear. It is easier to believe that people who lose their lives because of implicit racial biases had a failing of personal responsibility or behavior than to confront such a massive and terrifying headwind of normalized racism and violence. We want to believe that our system is set up fairly to protect people and respond with justice to crime because it allows us to feel basically safe and sleep at night. If we (white people here) don’t do anything obviously wrong, then we should not expect to be shot dead in our cars or in the street. We tell ourselves that we’re not criminals in the capital-C sense (a little jaywalking, some underage drinking and weed in college, or low-level white collar crimes aside), so when people of color are killed in extrajudicial executions, they must have done something wrong, they must be criminals, and there must be more to the story. Facing full-on that our society treats the bodies and lives of some as lesser, or that the system was established to protect property over lives, or that the militarization of police forces is a cynical scheme to maximize profits for weapons manufacturers that has nothing to do with public safety, or that so many of the forces that are endangering our fellow Americans are in place out of greed, and not humanitarianism – that’s a gale-force terror.

I don’t need to have been in the courtroom to know what went wrong in the miscarriage of justice that acquitted the man who killed Philando Castile. I already know what happened and why, and I am once again outraged and disgusted at a soul-level. It hurts my heart that his is another name to add to the list of lives taken carelessly for no reason, with no justice. But it just plain breaks my heart that people of color are told once again that their lives matter less than others. I will never stop fighting against this reality – but that means facing it first.

I have taken to heart something a friend said when I was texting him tearfully in the middle of the night last November wondering what was wrong with my country. “If you didn’t even talk to your own friends and family about the issues you’re so upset about, who should have? I know you didn’t want to get in fights, but was it someone else’s job to help them see another perspective?” He was not born and raised in America, so maybe he is able to see it more clearly than we can, or maybe he is just way smarter than me, but his words echo for me often. I live in a city where the majority of the people I encounter every day share my values and espouse more progressive, humanitarian ideals. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this same city is one of the most culturally and racially diverse on the planet, so I have had countless opportunities to know and understand people with different experiences in life than me. New Yorkers are generally solidly good, kind, and fair people, no matter what fearful tourists may feel, and I think it comes from living harmoniously with such a vibrancy of beliefs, backgrounds, and sheer volume of interacting with others that we have to learn patience, tolerance, and compassion. So how do you bring those lessons and that respectful open-mindedness to people who have never met a Muslim or Jewish person in their lives and genuinely believe they are evil? How do you help people who live in economically, racially, and ideologically segregated areas of the US understand the commonalities of experience and humanity that bind us all worldwide? How can empathy be cultivated where it’s lacking?

I similarly do not believe it’s merely coincidence that a greed-driven mass loss of life in London, a terroristic shooting in Virginia, and the acquittal of an innocent man’s killer should all fall in a row in the same week as the two-year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, one of the more grotesque modern-day hate crimes. The universe is not ironic, but purposeful here, and the winds are gathering force. We are at an inflection point in history, where we can choose to face them head-on, to confront the harsh and unsettling realities of the erosion of the sanctity of life in the face of greed in our society. We can decide to make massive and essential changes in forward progress because we are unified in our common humanity and belief in the sanctity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Or we could turn away from the wind, retreat into partisan squabbling and the distractions of constant corrupt administration scandals, declare we are exhausted of politics or “divisiveness,” and lose ground.

I am not giving up on America or the sanctity of life. I am not letting the people I love avoid reality or accept unjust inequality rooted in hate and ignorance. We can’t close our eyes or look away, and we must not abandon ship.

All human life is sacred. No human life is inherently better or more valuable than another, especially on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability. Human life is more important than profit, property, or power. We need a new social contract that unifies us in the sanctity of life; this change only truly happens in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans when we can see each other as equals. I will never stop facing into this wind and steering as hard as I can toward positive change.

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Fail Better

IMAGE: In the Face of Loss. Spent hydrangeas poking through drifts of snow after a blizzard, a metaphor for unexpected beauty in the face of loss. (Prints available)

At any given time, I can give a lengthy list of things I’ve failed at. Relationships, jobs, ill-conceived Halloween costumes, diets, securing funding for the last 3 semesters of my chemistry degree… you name it. Depending on my mood, I can also list many reasons why I’ve failed, but until recently I haven’t recognized what an asset fully-appreciated failing can be.

It’s generally understood that failure is crucial to learning and growth, and I can’t imagine how dull life might be to constantly succeed or win all the time (DJ Khaled’s anthemic proclamation notwithstanding). The way we rise to challenges and hardships makes us who we are.



Last spring my parents and I went on a walking tour through a restricted section of Sandy Hook’s Gateway National Recreational Area, where we visited one of the oldest holly forests in the US. One of my favorite details in looking at these massive, sprawling trees was seeing the ways they’ve failed and overcome obstacles. Studying the knots and eyes from lost branches, the patterns of growth where the tree compensated its balance with new branches, scars in the bark, and how they’ve twisted and turned to reach better light, you can see a tree’s full gnarled history and learn so much about where and how it’s growing.

The same is true for people, in examining their attitudes, beliefs, and how they approach new challenges in life. We wear our history in our faces, posture, language, and even voice, and however much we may think we can hide it, we are constantly communicating past pain, loss, joy, victory, sorrow, hope, failure, and how we grew through it – or didn’t. Humans can have a strange tendency not often seen in nature to regress in the face of failure, overriding biological instincts to thrive in favor of social ones, like the fear of appearing foolish if we try something new and fail or if we open our heart and get rejected. Self-consciousness is a peculiar quality, as is the protection of emotions or reputation over our instincts, but it is also at the base of some forms of compassion; that is a double-edged sword of civilization and the conscious mind. Some people have a withdrawal instinct like a spiritual withering, a leaf curling up and browning despite ideal conditions of water, nutrients, and light, while other seemingly indomitable people better resemble wildflowers growing relentlessly out of sheer rock beside of a waterfall out of virtually nothing.



Tenacity – a tiny yellow wildflower growing in the mists of Goðafoss, a spectacular waterfall in the Bárðardalur region of Iceland. (Prints available)

(I have a lot of photos of the life of plants because I think about this stuff all the time.)

Sometimes we fail because we’re not ready to succeed or we know deep-down we don’t want to succeed in that particular way. Anyone who has sabotaged a job that came easily but felt hollow, or a relationship with a person who was great on paper but didn’t make their heart sing, knows the peculiar feeling when success feels like a let-down. Sometimes we get what we think we wanted, and it feels so empty and unsatisfying that we realize we enjoyed it more when we were just imagining and wishing for it. When I really think about the things I’ve failed at, I can’t name a single one where I would have been happier to have succeeded; that path wouldn’t have brought me to where I am now. Even the disappointments that sting the most take on a “wasn’t meant to be” feeling in retrospect, and however I may regret them in the moment, I wouldn’t change much of anything now.

Other times we fail because of dumb luck or lousy timing. We meet someone amazing, but it’s at the worst possible time career-wise, so we can’t get a relationship going. We come down with bronchitis when we needed to be at 100% and let our bosses down, or tank a critical exam because we were feverish and wheezing with pneumonia (I am an absolute expert at poorly-timed illness). We total the car we need to get to work, a hurricane sweeps our home away, we join a company just before they begin downsizing, we pass up an amazing opportunity because we’re short on cash, we decline an invitation to a networking event that could have been life-changing because we just need to catch up on sleep. There is a prevailing motivational myth that if something matters enough, we can just find a way, but that doesn’t usually work in reality. “Excuses” are sometimes just what happened.

I have had uncanny bad luck at reconnecting with an artist I admire because I’ve had exams, been required to stay late at work, or been grotesquely sick at every opportunity. Thus far, I haven’t been financially independent enough to declare, “I don’t care if you fire me, I’m going to this gallery opening!” just as parents can’t actually abandon the child who needs care when they get sick at the worst possible time. To characterize unavoidable set-backs as “not wanting it enough” is a disservice to everyone, and it prevents us from nurturing and helping one another when we can.



Seedlings stretching for the pale afternoon light on a windowsill in Brooklyn (Prints available)

As a society, we tend not to acknowledge the role luck and timing (and yes, privilege) play in success either. Just as the “find a way” myth overvalues tenacity or perseverance, there is an ego-driven myth that people succeed because of raw talent, perfectly-developed innovation, or some strength of character that makes them somehow destined for victory. For every one of the limitless tiny things that fell into place just so for one person to succeed, any one of those things could have knocked someone else off track, no matter how brilliant their ideas, good their heart, sound their business plan, or determined their character.

It is not necessarily as cut and dry as, “If you wanted to succeed, you should have had the sense to inherit a profitable business from your billionaire father,” but it can be as simple as missing the subway car with your would-be soulmate on it because you didn’t want to rush by the lady with a cane walking slowly down the stairs in front of you. Getting turned down for your start-up loan because the bank rep you happened to meet with is racist or sexist. Missing the cut for grad school admissions because the person reading your application assumed anyone using the word “juxtapose” was a pretentious pseudointellectual. Being upset about a mass shooting and your date thinking you just weren’t clicking. Life happens, and it’s fundamentally unfair, and a lot of really good and deserving people fail all the time. Because we treat failure with shame instead of openness, we may never even know what they were trying or why they failed, burying cures for cancer, new inventions, inspiring art and music, the next great American novel, or the solution for the global economic crisis and a plan for world peace along with their aspirations.



Monsoon Clouds, darkening the sky before the first major rainfall in Orchha, India. (Prints available)

When I fail, my first response is to look for all the reasons why it was my fault, including ridiculous things like why I shouldn’t have trusted my team members to do their jobs competently. In addition to being terrible for my self-esteem, it extends way beyond things I can control, and beating myself up about failure is often completely useless. As a holdover from an education where I considered a B as much a failure as an F, I tend to way over-do assignments, and even when clients or bosses are thrilled, I focus on the imperfections and my regrets about the way the project was run.

I’m working on being a lot chiller, though my skin still crawls at people who say, “Done is better than perfect” or some other variation of “Good enough” when they know they can do better. But because I am always micro-analyzing my failures – real or imagined – I’ve become agile at thinking on my feet, improvising for creative problem-solving, improving efficiency and procedures, and constantly assessing situations to see how things might be done more efficiently, more economically, or more beautifully. A lot of the growth in my artistic process has come from failing miserably at what I was trying to do, then innovating in the way I steer out of the disaster I’ve made. And I’ve learned a lot about how to treat people from the ways I’ve failed in friendships and romance.



The more I fail, the better I am getting at it. I frequently use the metaphor of sailing (which I fail at somewhat regularly). When you first learn to sail, it is with the assumption that the conditions will be steady and ideal, but in reality sailing is a never-ending series of irregular gusts of wind and sudden current changes that make it impossible to simply set a course and stick with it. Good sailors meet each new obstacle with flexibility and learn from them, maybe capsizing the boat a dozen or so times before they learn to recognize a pratfall and head it off. When sailing, you have to pay constant attention and regularly make adjustments, yet even if you do everything as planned, a power boat might buzz by and throw a wake that forces you to tack rapidly, a gust might blow across the stern and cause you to unexpectedly jibe, or you just plain miscalculate how much water you have left and run aground.

Life is, in so many ways, what happens between when you set your course and what you actually encounter on the water, and no two sailors have the same run of it. The only part that truly matters is to keep sailing and to resist the (sometimes constant) urge to pull in all your sheets and give up. And of course, you have to learn to trust your equipment, just as it is crucial to trust your judgment, your sense of what you want and don’t want in life, and to follow your moral compass even when it feels precarious.



Wet Rhododendron (prints available)

I am working at embracing failure as an opportunity, learning and improving each time, and looking carefully at what I’ve done and what I haven’t done to end up where I am. Instead of wearing my past failures as constraints on the future, I am owning them and taking pride in how I’ve developed because of them, like a fantastically-branching holly tree. In addition to the big material areas like my career and finances, I am looking at the smaller failures too – times I didn’t communicate as carefully as I should have, when I didn’t give as much of myself as I wanted, when I was pointlessly selfish, when I didn’t speak up or help as much as I meant to, or when I wasn’t as fully open and honest as I strive to be. As we sail along, we should constantly refine our craft at being human and treating others well. When I look at those failings or feel consumed with regret for how I’ve treated someone, I see extraordinary potential for growth and development: I know in my heart I can do better. My sense of failure is a recognition that I have it in me, which is empowering beyond belief.

If we fail better, which is to say fail more mindfully and openly, with a forgiving spirit, the amorphous shape of regret takes on specifics. If we look at them closely instead of distracting or excusing ourselves, I believe we can learn how to be kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately stronger, more honest, open, and beautiful people. That’s the course I plan to sail anyway.