The Importance of Going Nowhere

Musical accompaniment: Joni Mitchell’s “Refuge of the Roads.”

I was at a holiday event this past weekend, and chatted with someone I hadn’t seen since last year. “I heard you bought a sailboat,” she said. “Where do you go?”

“Wherever the wind takes me.” It has become a pretty reflexive answer. For all the hours I spent on the lake this year, there were only a few where I was seeking a specific destination: leaving from and returning to the boatyard for the change of season, and my trip to St. Joseph, Michigan. Otherwise, I planned my trip based on the wind and sometimes the waves.

For some, sailing with the wind represents a limitation, but for me it is freedom. So often the need to achieve a specific destination is stifling, a form of suppression that mutes our ability to reach beyond arbitrary limits placed on us for the sake of maintaining formation. Knowing where you will finish your journey before it begins provides a sense of comfort but very little opportunity for discovery. Not knowing ensures little beyond your freedom to wander according to your desires.

I would be lying if I told you that this attitude hasn’t guided much of my life. While I’m certainly not a wanderer or vagabond, I’ve never been one to plan much beyond the horizon. I prefer to respond to the world around me, and that has led me down many different paths, both good and not so good. It has kept me from becoming an expert in a narrow field or obtaining a powerful title at a corporation, but allowed me to enjoy many different projects and discover passions that I previously might have overlooked. Indeed, one such path led me to Chicago and introduced me to a love of sailing.

We have a strong tendency to view events on a linear, progressive curve. We look back at an arc of history and see a natural sequence of actions from point A to point X. Things makes sense; serendipity and discovery seem logically embedded in our past. Of course, it doesn’t really work that way, our memory is a marvelous filter that exists to create coherence. Our destinations are not defined by our starting points, they arise from the choices we make along the way. Looking forward, no trajectory exists. Looking backward, we see what we created.

Instead of asking the question 'where will I go?', I'm trying very hard to reframe it as 'how can I… Click To Tweet

Often we fix our goals early and judge success by their attainment. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. But, to return to sailing, sometimes the wind shifts and staying on the same course is the least desirable option. For those who are unfamiliar, you cannot sail directly into the wind, and beating upwind (sailing close to the wind’s direction) can be physically demanding and hard on the ship — the boat is hitting waves head-on and the skipper is struggling to resist weather helm. While it’s often an invigorating tack, beating upwind requires an added amount of diligence and effort. Turning to a broad reach not only keeps your cocktail in the glass it allows you to go below and pee.

Instead of asking the question, “where will I go?” I’m trying very hard to reframe it as “how can I go?” After all, it’s not the destination, but the journey, right? It makes little sense (to me, at least) to work towards a goal that I chose for myself decades ago when I possessed little wisdom and much less discipline. I’m trying to allow exploration and discovery to influence my direction and expose me to many pursuits that might otherwise pass by me. Sailing has not only become one of those passions but also a great analogy for the process itself. I’m excited to see where next season takes me.


The Legacy of Vincent de Paul

On June 16th I will graduate with an M.A. in History from DePaul University. It has been a good experience, but it was with consternation that I read an email from Rev. Holtschneider, the President of the university, pitching a plan for a new basketball stadium at McCormick Place in Chicago. The plan is an irresponsible allocation of public resources, and enables city leaders to “Christmas shop” while ignoring serious fiscal issues in the city.

The numbers seem to vary depending upon who you read, but the total cost is being estimated between $210 million and $300 million. It would include the 12,000 seat stadium, hotels, and street-level improvements for restaurants and shopping. DePaul would contribute $70 million in order to build a “first-rate college [basketball] program.”

DePaul makes this investment for several reasons. College basketball presents high-impact opportunities to promote our reputation. Alumni find the broadened name recognition a help when competing for jobs nationally. This first-class facility and its more central location will help us build on the momentum our basketball program has enjoyed in recent years from hiring first-rate coaches and staff.

Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M.

This is extraordinarily confusing for a number of reasons. First, DePaul’s basketball program has languished since its glory days of Ray Meyer in the 1980s. Last year, the team was 11-21, and they are barely better over the past five years. Departmental budgets have been cut to the point where professors have limited ability to print and photocopy classroom materials. Academic conference budgets are non-existent.

The city of Chicago is a clusterfuck. Police, fire, public health clinics, and sanitation are all under strain. Schools are closing and Mayor Emanuel is pressing for school privatization. Property and sales taxes are very high and corporations are cutting deals to stay in the city in exchange for huge tax breaks. The neoliberal experiment is embraced with abandon but failing miserably.

The only people who think this is a good idea are those pushing it. Rev. Holtschneider “expects this project to produce 3,000 to 5,000 permanent jobs, along with 5,000 construction jobs during the building phase.” I cannot begin to imagine how that might happen, and neither can other urban planning consultants interview by the Chicago Sun-Times (the story is behind a paywall.) City leaders are faced with the law of diminishing returns: Chicago is already a vibrant tourist and convention destination, and DePaul is already selling tickets at its current arena in Rosemont. Adding more capacity in the city is nothing more than a shell game that will add little to the overall economy (the mayor of Rosemont is already in Springfield lobbying for concessions.)

While I appreciate the many conflicts that exist in the administration of a large organization like a university, I am disappointed that DePaul University is contributing to a development plan that will draw financial resources away from other necessities and make taxpayers responsible for more municipal debt. Ideally, Rev. Holtschneider should oppose the plan entirely and speak to the crisis of our public school system. At the very least, he should not contribute $70 million to a project that — like so many others in cities around the country — promises to be an under-utilized public asset for decades.

Although I am not Catholic (or even religious, for that matter) I have enjoyed learning about the life of Vincent de Paul, a seventeenth-century priest who founded a charitable order, counseled kings and queens, and seemingly lived the life of Jesus Christ through humility and good works. As a practical man, Vincent might have stood by while such a project was constructed, but he also would have counseled against depriving the population in order to achieve it.

Education and Nation-Building

The structure of primary and secondary education is a hot topic in my home town of Chicago. The teachers’ strike last fall polarized the entire population and gave both sides an opportunity to disseminate a favorable narrative. Rahm Emanuel — the mayor of Chicago and former Obama administration Chief of Staff — has begun to move on his plan to license dozens of new charter schools while the Chicago Public School (CPS) system faces budget shortfalls and consolidation.

Recent news helps define the shape of that plan. WBEZ recently reported that the Walton Family Foundation just donated $3.8 million to fund the startup of thirteen new charter schools. That amount represents a record level of foundation funding for a city.

The charter school debate in Illinois is particularly thorny, and I can serve little purpose by wading into it here. However, there is a perspective that is sorely lacking in our discussion of public education that I can emphasize, and believe it is important to do so. When discussing “fixes” and “solutions” to public education problems, we never consider one critical purpose of state schooling: the inculcation of national identity in our youth.


As citizens of a well-established nation, we sometimes take our identity for granted. Many of us don’t realize that for the first quarter-century of our republic, U.S. Americans didn’t always identify with their nation before their region, ethnicity, or religious denomination. And our nation is not unique; many historians assert that nationalism is facilitated through public education. Nationalism developed in Europe and North America during the late-18th and 19th century as public education became more common. The question then becomes, does this have bearing on our modern debate? I believe it does.

Public schools are the platform on which social inculcation of civic values operates. Therefore, the state has a significant interest in encouraging a large percentage of the population to attend them. Providing a singular vision of the nation and a citizen’s role within it advances not only democracy but also stability (this is true regardless of your ideology or political perspective.) There is nothing profound about this. In fact, leaders and groups from across the social spectrum demonstrate their awareness of this process every day, as this proposed legislation in Arizona illustrates.

The rise in popularity of home schooling and, subsequently, charter schools needs to be examined in light of the desire to expose young children to an alternate view of not only knowledge but also civic identity and responsibility. Although I am certainly concerned about subjects like evolution getting the short shrift, I am more troubled by an elevation of individuality to the point where the social compact of individualism is no longer sustainable. What does it mean to be a citizen in a pluralist republic? As citizens, do we have a responsibility to negotiate a common national identity in order to stabilize the state (which includes all of us?) If we choose to segregate ourselves into homogenized interests groups, do we fulfill the nightmare of factionalism that Madison foresaw, and warned against?

My concern is that we avoid a hyperbolic, existential crisis. As a society, we have many more similarities than differences, and public education is a way to disseminate those. A strong national identity will mitigate the tensions that we face in our civic debate.

Rahm Emanuel is wrong to push for charter schools as an alternative to the public system. In doing so, he abdicates his responsibility to provide a unified, civic identity to the youngest generation. He places that identity in the hands of a private group with intimate ties to a trans-national corporation that serves no interest but its own. In fact, he undermines the social fabric that makes all of us the United States of America.

Awesome Day in Chicago

I love Chicago. Big city; totally accessible.

Today was pretty simple, but a great experience. I took the El downtown to attend the solidarity rally at Daley Plaza, and stopped by Rick Bayless’ XOCO for a really awesome Cochinita Pibil torta. Just lovely, and the habañero salsa was genuinely spicy. My only available camera was my smartphone, but here is a sample of what you can expect if you come to eat:

"Cochinita Pibil Torta"

Afterwards, I proceeded to Daley Plaza, where people had gathered to show support for Wisconsin public union members. A number of speakers were there, including Senator Dick Durbin. "Walker Protest Sign"There were lots of good signs, and I shot a few seconds of video. What was really cool, though, is that after a few minutes a bunch of pro-choice protesters showed up, and the crowds started to mix and feed off of each other. It was really exciting to see such a diverse mix of folks who shared a common vision for the future; an inclusive vision that allows for economic and social mobility, and rejects the notion of inherent class separation.

We like to throw around the word “freedom”, but what good is that if there is economic oppression?

Rally at Daley Plaza, Chicago, February 26, 2011 (#1)

Rally at Daley Plaza, Chicago, February 26, 2011 (#2)

Turbo Needs a Home!

UPDATE (3/4/2011): Great news! Turbo was adopted this week. He’s finally going to get the forever home he deserves.

Alright, everybody. It’s time to find Turbo a home. He is a sweet, energetic, middle-aged dog that has been in foster care far too long. I met him last summer (2010) and he couldn’t have been more loving and gregarious. This boy deserves better than what he has been handed.

He doesn’t like cats, but that happens once in awhile. My late dog Honey Pie didn’t like other cats or dogs, but she was awesome in a roomful of people, and worked the sidewalk café circuit with aplomb. Turbo needs someone who loves the outdoors – maybe a jogger – but who doesn’t feel compelled to stand around the dog park.

Chicagoland Bully Breed Rescue is handling the foster care and adoption; you can find out more on their website (they handled the adoption of our pittie, Garbo.) We would have loved him ourselves but already had a cat in our home.

Let’s get this guy a forever home! Link to this page and tell all your friends. Use the Share button below to send this to your social network. Someone out there would be perfect for him.

Strictly Sail – Chicago

It gets cold in Chicago, and the harbors freeze. That’s not so good if you enjoy sailing. While it helps to long for April 1st, when the boats will start to return to their slips, attending a boat show in January helps a lot. Yesterday my friend Michael and I went to Strictly Sail at Navy Pier – where among other cool things – Beneteau’s new First 30 made its Chicago debut. Perfect for getting one’s mind off of gray skies and old snow.

"First 30 Marque"Beneteau has always done a fabulous job of walking the line between performance and comfort, and the second generation of the First 30 is no different. Designed by famed naval architecture firm Juan Yacht Design, the First 30 retains the distinctive Beneteau profile while incorporating substantial racing improvements, like a bulb keel, a new tiller design linked to dual rudders, and specially designed mast and sails to maximize power (no backstay on this baby.)

I’m not going to get into a review of the boat, since I haven’t sailed one and – I’m sad to think – I surely won’t have the opportunity for quite a while. "Galley and stateroom" Needless to say, from the photos, it’s easy to see the relative comfort built into the cabin. This is definitely not a J/30, which makes cocktail hour at the end of the day a bit more comfortable (now you know what kind of sailor I am.) But in the right hands, the boat is not going to provide any handicap on the water. So for any of you out there who feel compelled to reward me with lavish gifts, this is definitely the big daddy.

Of course, there was more: three yachts from the Beneteau series – a 37, 40 and 50 – all stunning and outfitted to the nines. The 50 actually comes with the Dock & Go system, a new 360 degree, joystick-controlled trolling motor that requires almost no skill to professionally maneuver your yacht. Perfect for the bond trader that doesn’t know how to sail.

"First 30 Sail" Other highlights included a new J/111 – the latest in a series of impressive racing boats, a beautiful one-class daysailer from C.W. Hood (which was just voted Boat of the Year), and lots of cool gear (I totally fell in love with these really lightweight water shoes from Zeko footwear.) Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

Now it’s just a matter of getting through the next eight weeks, until the boat yards come to life and the harbors start to fill again. I’ve joined a crew that will be running in the Chicago-Mac race this summer, so stayed tuned for news and updates. It promises to be a really fun time.

Shelter Shiver 2011

Happy New Year, everyone! I’ve taken a couple of weeks of vacation in order to enjoy the holidays and have a bit of minor surgery, but I’m happy to be back. This morning Laura and I started the new year by participating in Project Rescue Chicago’s Shelter Shiver, a polar bear plunge into Lake Michigan to raise money for dogs in need of homes. It was a great success; Project Rescue beat its fundraising goal by thirty percent.

I put together a bit of video from the morning. Laura was brave enough to get her feet wet. Even though I couldn’t get in the water, I’m pretty glad I had an excuse – the wind was whipping and everyone was wading amongst the shoreline ice!

And since I was shooting still images when Laura actually stepped in the water, here are a few photos to wrap things up.

"Brave Souls"

"Getting Ready"

"Laura gets her feet wet"