November 1, 2009

One thought at a time

YOU CAN’T SEE IT, but I have a special page that my blogmasters call a “dashboard.” It’s where I go to write these columns, and obtain certain technical information that puzzles and mystifies me. It might as well be written in ancient hieroglyphics.

Nevertheless, my dashboard informs me that I have five “followers.” At first I thought they might be stalkers, but I have since deduced that this means I must be winning the race, right? Wait. No. That just means I am no worse than sixth from last. Okay, I’ll take that. I hate being last.

My old friend and racing rival Peter Ashwell always said my greatest handicap was my lack of disparate attention. That was his polite way of describing my inability to think about more than one thing at a time.

For instance, if we were beating, I applied my total attention to watching the jib telltales. Nobody sailed closer to the wind than me. Nobody changed course quicker as the wind switched. My eyes, my brain, my everything was concentrating on keeping the boat in the slot, getting to windward faster than anyone else.

And if I may say so without boasting, I was good at it. The trouble was that I was so immersed in this one vital task that I didn’t notice if the wind had headed me, and I should be on the other tack. I didn’t notice if the wind was blowing harder, or from a better direction, on the far side of the course. I failed to implement the proper strategy of staying between between my closest opponent and the next mark of the course.

I knew that winning sailboat races incorporated many different skills, including an overall strategy and minute-to-minute tactics. It’s like a game of chess on water. The moves that your opponents make dictate an appropriate response from you.

I knew all this, but once I had those little fluttering telltales in my sights I was dead to everything else. And I can tell you now, from long and bitter experience, that being the best helmsman to windward doesn’t mean you’re going to win the race. The winner is the one who is good, on average, at doing all the things required, but not necessarily the best at any particular one of them.

There are probably things I could do to improve my disparate attention. I could try talking to my wife while driving the car, for instance. When I’m driving, I’m driving; and I never talk to her if I can help it, not because I don’t like her or anything, it’s just that I’m driving. I’m concentrating.

I once heard an entrant at a piano-playing competition loftily dismiss the chances of a competitor because “his right hand doesn’t know what his left hand is doing.” I can sympathize with that poor competitor. I know exactly what it feels like. We’re both handicapped. There should be special parking places for people like us.

Today’s Thought
Our business in this world is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.
— R. L. Stevenson, Ethical Studies

“Are you sure this hairnet is invisible?”
“Perfectly sure, lady. We’ve been selling them all morning and we’ve been out of stock for a week.”

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