Safety First

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Chicago to Mackinac Island sailboat race officially kicked off on Saturday. It sounds like fun, and after we bought our current boat in 2002, we checked into it. And quickly ruled it out.

The Chicago-Mac race is by invitation only, and that probably means credentials we don't have. It also requires experienced crew and some off-shore sailing equipment we couldn't afford to buy at the time.

These requirements make a lot of sense. The race covers 333 miles, and during part of the course the boats may be as much as 40 miles from the nearest shore. Storms can pop up quickly over one part of the lake while the sun shines brightly just a few miles away. In fact, one boat was hit by lightening this year. (The crew was safe but the boat was damaged and had to leave the race.) So I don't blame the race organizers for putting safety first.

If we spent a lot of time in the middle of Lake Michigan or sailed the ocean, we'd buy that extra safety gear. But we usually sail in sight of land, and even when it disappears it is rarely more than fifteen miles away. And we're cowards who stay at home if the weather looks threatening. So we can get away without a life raft or an EPIRB (which broadcasts it's location in an emergency).

Not that we ignore safety. Life jackets, safety harnesses, and tethers have always been standard equipment on our boats. Since I can't swim, I wear my life jacket whenever we are on the water, and children must wear them or the boat won't leave the dock.

But there is some safety gear we learned about the hard way.

The first time we tried to sail the North Channel, we never reached Lake Huron. At the time we had a trailerable 23' sailboat, and we put it in the water at DeTour Village, Michigan. My brother joined us with his 18-footer, making two boats, three adults, and two children (ages 12 and 8) in our party.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and perfect sailing weather when we left DeTour. (That's DeTour Lighthouse in the picture.) We had been out about an hour and were sailing in moderate winds when... Crack! Suddenly the upper part of our mast was lying on the cabin roof and the sails were in the water. The mast had snapped just below the spreaders without giving us any warning. (For the non-sailors out there, the spreaders are the part of the mast that spreads out like arms on each side.) We were proud of our calmness and quick action, but we never did find out why the mast broke.

We motored back to the marina at DeTour and docked there for several days as we called the insurance company and did some sightseeing on land. But when the week-end rolled around again, we decided to use our sailboat as a motorboat and cruise up to Canada.

Everything went fine--until our return trip.

I was navigating (by sight) and was sure we weren't anywhere near the reef that showed up on the charts. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

With a crunch, the rudder struck an underwater boulder. Although we didn't take on any water, we couldn't steer the boat. We were stranded, and we couldn't use the radio to call for help because the antenna was at the top of the mast and the mast was tied to the trailer back at the marina.

(In my defense, I was used to sailing on Lake Michigan, where the water is at least 25 feet deep and there is nothing to run into except the shore and a few man-made structures clearly visible above the water.)

My brother and daughter were sailing on his boat, but we had left them far behind. When they eventually came by, they called someone to tow us off the rocks. It makes a good story, and my children will never forget that vacation.

The point? We bought a handheld radio as soon as we got back home, and our current boat has a depth finder. We also bought a GPS to help us pinpoint our location (and keep us away from reefs) before we attempted (successfully) to sail the North Channel again.

Because safety is important, even if you have to learn it the hard way.

Not a Lonely Job

Monday, July 19, 2010

Back when I was earning my living as a lawyer, I attended a hearing where a witness was asked why she wanted to work on the exchange floor when she was trading successfully from home. Her answer? "Trading is a lonely job."

That's what they say about writing, too. And it is partly true. I don't have colleagues occupying offices next door or meeting in conference rooms down the hall. When I sit down to put words on paper, I'm the only one in the room.

But I'm not alone.

No, I'm not referring to God. Yes, He is with me, but that's not what this post is about.

A truly solitary job is one that no one else understands well enough to provide encouragement and where no one else has input into the final product. I don't know if there are any truly solitary jobs out there, but neither writers nor traders qualify.

Writers are part of a broader writing community, and traders are part of a broader trading community. Both writers and traders can find others who have dealt with the same issues to provide encouragement.

Good writers seek input from critique partners, editors, and others to improve their manuscripts. Good traders read financial newsletters and study other traders' opinions and methods to improve their own performance.

I belong to a number of local, regional, and national writers' groups, and I am active in several. These include a local critique group (the Highland Writers' Group), a non-profit group formed to encourage Indiana's creative writers (the Indiana Writers' Consortium), and the Indiana chapter of the American Christian Fiction Writers. Each of these groups meets several times throughout the year, and HWG meets weekly. They all provide excellent opportunities to interact with other people who understand the writing life.

Saturday was a good example.

That's when IWG held its second annual networking picnic. Although there were a couple of fundraising activities, the day was primarily about the fellowship and the food and the fun. And I enjoyed creating a literary scavenger hunt using books as clues to things people could find in or near the picnic location.

You may have a job that requires some alone time, but you aren't alone.

And writing is definitely not a lonely job.

Teamwork Gone Wrong

Monday, July 12, 2010

Camels are herd animals. These camels are in perfect harmony as they pose for the tourists at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Why can't we all be like that?

Back in college, I took "Introduction to Sociology." The only way to get an A was to do a project, but it didn't have to be done well. Just done.

The teacher divided us into project teams, and we set to work. One member of my team was very outspoken, and his ideas were awful. Unfortunately, no one was willing to stand up to him. An awful idea carried through would still have gotten me an A, but my work ethic wouldn't accept anything less than my best. And this wasn't it.

Those of you who know me today may find it hard to believe, but at that point in my life I was a timid person who never stood up for myself. So it took extreme frustration to make me crack.

But crack I did. I asked the teacher if I could do an individual project (in a class involving the study of groups, no less). She said I could, so I told the team that I wasn't going to participate any more. I could tell the other members were shocked, but I didn't care. I simply couldn't handle the person who tried to dominate the group.

Today, I'm that person.

Well, not completely. I do try to listen to other people's opinions, and I often use their suggestions because I know they are better than my own. But I still can't stand incompetence.

Or people who always have to have their own way.

I have learned something over the years, though. Sometimes quitting isn't an option. Disagreeable people are a fact of life, and it is impossible to avoid them. Better to stick with it, give in graciously on the little things, and fight for the big ones. Because when I walk away, I silence my voice. And what if it is the only voice of reason?

Imagine how much I would have learned about groups if I'd stuck with the sociology team. I thought walking away took courage, but it was really the coward's way out.

So if you are discouraged and ready to quit, think about the void you'll create.

(A personal message to the person who inspired this post: please don't quit. We need your voice to keep us on track.)

Because every voice counts.

Our Politically Incorrect Heritage

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Nina and the Pinta sailed into our marina last week. Okay, so they are just replicas, but they were interesting all the same.

They also got me thinking about Christopher Columbus and other men and women who put their mark on this country. And about how different it would have been if those men and women had been politically correct.

Before I go there, I'd better define what I mean by "politically correct." I found dozens of definitions on the web, and they differ substantially. The one I'm using is from Encarta's online dictionary:
deliberately avoiding offense: relating to or supporting the use of language or conduct that deliberately avoids giving offense, e.g., on the basis of ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
Notice that the reference to ethnic origin or sexual orientation is just an example. The definition itself is much broader than those two contexts.

Under this definition, our nation's heroes were not politically correct. They knew they couldn't change the world without offending someone in the process, but they went ahead anyway.

Although born in Genoa (now a part of Italy), the adult Columbus lived and worked in Portugal, which was a bitter rival of Spain. So it wasn't politically correct for Columbus to sail under Spain's flag and claim the New World for Spain. But Portugal wouldn't fund the voyage and Spain would, so what was he to do? Give up? Someone else would have made the trip eventually, but it would have changed the course of history.

It wasn't politically correct for the founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence and participate in a revolt against the country that ruled the colonies. The loyalists in the colonies and many people in England must have been greatly offended. But the founding fathers thought the existing government was tyrannical, so they made a conscious choice to do something they knew would offend. If they had been unwilling to make that choice, we might be living in a monarchy.

It wasn't politically correct (at least among the Southern slave holders) for a woman named Harriett Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. In spite of the current controversy over stereotyping, the novel was meant to help black people by depicting the horrors of slavery, and it fueled abolitionist sentiment. We'll never know for sure, but slavery might not have ended as quickly if Stowe had worried about offending members of her own race.

It wasn't politically correct for Susan B. Anthony to organize women to fight for the right to vote. Some members of both sexes were offended at the time. Anthony died before her dream became a reality, but if she hadn't been willing to offend those who favored the status quo, would my mother have been able to vote when she came of age? And would the U.S. Supreme Court have any female members today?

It wasn't politically correct for Martin Luther King, Jr. to march through the streets and protest laws that treated blacks as second-class citizens. He offended many whites and even broke some laws in the process. Yet, looking back, how many of my readers wish he had been politically correct? Probably not many.

It is impossible to live a life that offends no one, and the person who tries will never be an agent of social change. I'm not advocating prejudice or speaking without thinking or insensitivity to other people's feelings. Those things have always been wrong and always will be. (See Titus 3:2, for example.) But given the choice between being politically correct or changing the world, I know which one I'd choose.

How about you?