Crew Is Life; The Rest Is Just Details

BOOKS

MIND OVER WATER: LESSONS ON LIFE FROM THE ART OF ROWING

By Charles Lambert '69

Houghton Mifflin

$22, 181 pp.

Ever wonder why so many students get up at 5 a.m. only to throw themselves at the mercy of the cold, polluted Charles River? The mysterious allure of rowing is the subject of Mind Over Water: Lessons on Life from the Art of Rowing, a new book by Craig Lambert '69. However, a fully satisfactory answer to this question is not to be found in this book. Lambert sets out to make the ordinary extraordinary and winds up doing so in an ordinary way. The book is an autobiographical account of his rowing career, which he extends into life lessons and insights. Lambert divides the book into three sections, loosely organized around his own personal experiences as a rower. He coxed for freshman crew at Harvard in 1965, then gave it up only to resume rowing at the age of 37, first in eight-mans, then single sculling. Lambert begins and ends the book by recounting particularly memorable times: rowing a double Head piece (a six-mile loop on the Charles) and competing in the Head of the Charles Regatta.

While Lambert's description is clear and his prose lucid, the book stretches thin as he tries to extrapolate too many generalizations about rowing and life from his personal experience. The book begins to read like a catalogue of cliches, as Lambert winds up each vignette with trite observations that ring faintly of Chicken Soup for the Soul: "To find our calling, we must listen to all of these inner voices, which speak from, and to, the soul," and "strong teams balance variety with unity around a clear sense of purpose," are some of the reflections and advice he offers. Such messages as these, certainly obvious, border on the banal, and truly say nothing unique or compelling.

Lambert comes at rowing as a reporter and an athlete. He is up-front about this, mentioning in the book that he covered rowing for various magazine before returning to the sport, such as Sports Illustrated, Town & Country and Harvard Magazine, where he is currently an editor. His expertise is an asset in his eye for detail and his intelligent description. There is no doubt that he is an experienced rower, knowledgeable and passionate about the sport. Lambert explains the basics as well as the nuances of rowing in straightforward terms that provide a solid introduction to the sport.

Lambert also paints some evocative scenes, capturing the Charles from a rower's perspective. While the typical student only hurries by the Charles, on her way somewhere else or maybe out for exercise, Lambert points out that rowers "in the shell occupy a liminal area between sky and water, between carp and cormorant."

As Lambert layers too much poetic exposition and lofty thoughts onto his basic account of rowing, it begins to take on a ring of inauthenticity. Lambert demonstrates an intelligent, distinctive and at moments strikingly creative style, incorporating references as diverse as analysis of the Latin root of the verb "to educate" to quoting Kierkegaard. However, his voice as a writer comes into conflict with his desire to clearly convey the rowing experience. It is difficult to believe that a rower on the Charles before sunrise is thinking about the benefits to learning from mistakes orthe merits of teamwork.

The realization that Lambert cannot speak forall rowers further erodes the "lessons on life" hedraws from "the art of rowing." Lambert did notrow for a substantial period of time in college,and he has not rowed at elite levels--these arefacts that he freely discusses in the book. Hedoes his best to subsidize this deficit ofexperience by recounting anecdotes about rowersand coaches at various levels. While Lambertsummarizes other rowers' stories effectively, theconclusions he draws are so all-encompassing thatthe reader begins to wonder how many people he cangenuinely speak for.

For instance, Lambert describes legendaryHarvard coach Harry Parker as a "willfulcharacter," explaining that the phrase "Don't takeNo for an answer--neatly defines a willfulcharacter." He tells us that "many of Harry'sathletes identify him as the best and mostimportant teacher they had at Harvard." Lambertgoes on to say that crews "need, in short, a coachwho is a willful character." While there is truthin this generalization--which is still excessivelybroad--Lambert does not discuss the negativeaspects of being coached by such a strong persona.Would Lambert praise "willful characters" as muchas he does had Harry Parker yelled at him inperson? It is easier to make such a statement fromthe comfort of a computer rather than the chillywinds of the Charles.

Mind Over Water sails into the genre offeel-good motivational books that are so popularas of late. There is nothing wrong with a little"chicken soup" for the rower's soul, or forLambert's soul, as the case may be, but the book'slessons are decidedly limited. The mysteries ofrowing could perhaps be just as effectivelyuncovered by asking a rower returning from amorning's practice, "so what are you doing up soearly?