Jill and I took a round trip road trip last weekend, with Washington DC as the weather mark. The visit included catching up with our son Ned, his girlfriend, Mackenzie, her family and Jill’s sister. And I took the opportunity of catching up Friday evening with one of my former Prout sailors, now a sophomore in DC.

On Saturday we did a walkabout of the Capitol and the White House. A memorable encounter was an exchange with one of the Secret Service police on duty outside the White House fence. The officer, a pleasant young woman dressed in Ninja Combat Black, was at the back end of the leash of a liver and white and very lively Springer Spaniel…are there any other sorts? I remarked to her that we had a Springer, but that hers must be a field Springer; they are more muscular and have the tail.

We chatted about dogs for a second before I tried my luck with her task. “Drug sniffing dogs in front of the White House?” I asked with a raised, inquiring eye. One has visions of Josh Lyman chilling at the end of a disastrous day. “No,” she chuckled. “Explosives. If we looked for drugs here we’d never get anything else done,” or words to that effect. I remarked one does not usually associate explosive sniffing dogs with the Springer breed. “They are very smart, trainable and not as intimidating as the Shepherds,” she noted, motioning to the throng of tourists and kids. Guard Dogs at the White House: not intimidating, friendly…OK, moving right along.

Saturday night was a full team dinner. Mackenzie, her dad, sister and mum, me, Jill, her sister and Ned. In the pre-dining dance of the who is going to sit where, her dad and I were left at the head of the table. If it was ploy to get us away from the girls, It might have backfired because he is Scottish and so we traded Monty Python sketches most of the evening with the accompanying undercurrent of chuckles, guffaws and the occasional, lightly suppressed, squawk of pure laughter.

After lunch with Ned on Sunday, Jill and I loaded up and headed back upwind to Rhode Island. It is our habit when doing long drives to get a couple of books on tape going. This trip’s winner was Walter Isaacson’s biography of the late Steve Jobs. A grand choice. What a character.

Adopted and raised by a genial mechanical type, who tried from an early stage to instill in the young Steve an appreciation of tools, use of, making things and design. A self-professed car head, Jobs senior, Paul, had been a mechanic in the U.S. Coast Guard in the war.

In the book, Jobs reports being fascinated by his dad’s ability to make things and make them really well and so they came out really beautiful. A backyard fence, cabinets, workbench, anything he turned his hand to was absolutely gorgeous. My takeaway from the three quarters of the book we got through before Newport Bridge hove into view was it was this sense of, what amounted to, and eventually became, Industrial Design. Beauty was the big thing Jobs brought to the company we now know as Apple. The tech brains was Woz, Steve Wozniak, the solder-sniffing, black box building, electronics nerd that was the computing genius of the partnership.

The one thing I have captured from the book so far, maybe two thirds of the way through, is he was really interested in how things looked. His dad apparently educated him in the arts and sciences of the curves on the 1950s cars he was always working on. This comes back to the fore when, discussing the shape of the box, one of the earlier machines, perhaps the Macintosh, Jobs went several rounds with the guy designing the box it was going to live in. Analyzing the width and angles of the bevels for instance. The footprint on the desktop, the ratio of length to beam and the height, where the keyboard was to be and what that was going to look like.

I glance at my own basic black Staples generic keyboard and find it unremarkable. Compared for instance to the white box anything from Apple comes in these days. I find the simple box for a phone to be near a work of art. I keep them to put pushpins in. Jobs wanted to have the machine be “user friendly” (The Springer of computers, I guess), not intimidating metallic grey like calculators and similar office machines of the day. “Easy to use, fun, not intimidating to look at” was the strategy, or at least what he wanted it to look like, if strategy is too big a term for such an infant operation.

I have read recently that the Iconic Apple, with the bite out of it, was Job’s Homage to Alan Turing’s death by eating a poisoned apple. This is discounted in Jobs’ telling. He says he did not learn about that detail until after Apple was launched. Isaacson reports the actual apple graphic was the idea of a marketing guy Jobs had hired. Jobs’ discussion was again around the idea of a user friendly, a not intimidating, but fun image. That he spent time in a commune, known for apples, while trying to not be at Reed College plays a role in this lore.

It appears to be more of a nod to Newton getting Knocked on the Nut by an apple, than Turing’s demise. While certainly not the inventor of the K.I.S.S., studying the work of Jobs and Apple must have be serious studies in any graphics design course.

Jobs also spent much of his teens and early twenties, and possibly this life, searching for himself. This trek led him to the apple orchard near Reed, to India, finding and leaving gurus, dressing in robes, barefoot, shaven head and not bathing. This leads to some entertaining, at least at this remove, for the reader/listener encounters with “serious” business types in boardrooms. While looking like the hippie he partly was, Jobs held his ground with his fire, knowledge, and vision. He won more often than the visuals suggest.

I too muse on the great beyond and “what the heck are we doing here and what does it all mean?” Well before I discovered Monty Python. Anyone who has gazed out upon the rippled horizon of the sea across the cumulus turbulence of the north face of the Gulf Stream as the warm and wet thunder clouds roll northwards, hitting cold water and brewing up into the remarkable thunderheads of fifty shades of grey that land bound mortals simply do not see, inviting us to consider reefing or tacking, or perhaps disapparating on occasion. Or looked up at the preponderance of white dots on the indigo, black darkness of the sky, above us on a moonless night at sea cannot but have questions.

When I am questioned on religious beliefs, I generally respond “aspiring Buddhist.” The idea that what we become is generated by contemplation of and actions by ourselves seems to fit, certainly based on my life in sailing.

Large tracts of Buddhism morphed via Southeast Asia to Zen, a discipline which Jobs studied. Much of Jobs’ interest in this can be seen, heard, in accounts of his wanting to pare his machines to the minimum, and look beautiful. Emptying the cup of tea, suggests one Koan.

I have remarked before in these pages, and I do so pretty often with my high school sailors, on the relationship of Buddhist thought, Zen, to sailing. It is all the NOW. One cannot really look too far ahead when actually steering; that’s why we have tacticians and forward-looking SONAR in the IMOCA fleets now. Steering takes up all of one’s energies, just to focus on the feel. Good singlehanded dinghy, Finn, sailors learn to sail with DOS, the feel, running in the background and use the desk top for tactical activities.

On our first day of sailing on a Monday in early March, it was chill, dank overcast but with a nice 12-15 knot breeze. Add 35 degrees to the air temp and it would have been a grand day. The Padawans were rambunctious and ready to go sailing.

As I drew them in for the final pre-launch briefing, one of the kids made the motions of a pre-game hold hands and rah-rah. I come from an age when such activities did not exist. You ran onto the field and played the game. Never wanting to squish the enthusiasm of the kids, I enquired what that was about, so I could hear it from them, not my own ideas…from their cup of tea. “Let’s go Prout!” replied the ringleader. “It’s just practice,” (realizing in the same instant that is contrary to my normal admonition to practice like you play) I replied. She remarked along the lines of “getting revved/fired up.” “Like Abbey (the school) saying a prayer?” I suggested. “Well, we just gotta get fired up,” said she. A feisty and tough bundle of excitement, loving her sailing, having found “it” only with us three years before as a Freshie and rising rapidly in the ranks. Here I fessed up.

“Well, your humble coach recognizes you are all students at a Catholic school and so exhortations to the Spirits are the standard fare, but I remind you my general religious interest lies in the Buddhist field…self-contemplation.” Silence. I go on.

“Would it not be more suitable for the purpose, winning a race, to get NOT fired up and buzzing, spiking the ball, Māori Haka, jazzed, but to, for instance concentrate on what has to actually happen to win? To visualize in your mind, to actually SEE yourself lining up for the primo start? SEE where you will be on the line, SEE that gap to leeward, where you can put the bow down and accelerate. SEE you and your crew hiking harder than the rest of the boats and eking out a foredeck lead in the first 90 seconds? SEE yourselves in a tight third around the top mark, SEE yourself peeling off two boats on the next couple of legs, and SEE yourself FINISHING first…Would that be more helpful? The calmer approach, perhaps?”

There was merely a beat before they agreed, modified by a “Can we launch?” “If you are ready to go you may launch. Stay close till I am on the water with the RIB,” I answered smiling to myself. “This is Sooo much fun,” I thought.

Next time I will be ready with a Koan. I have started making notes, on paper, so easy to discard. ■

Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing.com, when not paying attention to his wife, dog and several, mainly small, boats.

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