Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Deep End

From the ages of six to nine, I spent summer mornings at the public pool taking swimming lessons. The shallow end, where I started with the other littlest kids, was only three-feet deep, the water low enough that even then I could stand with my chest at the surface. But then there was the deep end. Eight feet of unforgiving depths that might as well have been the ocean at that point.

The swimming lessons were taught by lifeguards—mostly college kids home for the summer. From my memory, a disproportionate number of them were women, though that observation may have been influenced by my budding hormones, as I saw attractive women in bathing suits for the first time.

It was cold those mornings. Thought the afternoons sweltered to a sweaty eighty to ninety-five degrees, in those early hours the temperatures often wouldn’t reach much above fifty degrees with a cool breeze. The pool water was frigid, but actually felt like a reprieve in those cases, after I walked shivering across the concrete patio toward the pool, fresh from the ice cold water in the locker room showers where each of us were instructed to rinse off before heading into the pool.

I wasn’t a great swimmer. Though several friends I made later in life who were great swimmers pointed out that I had the body for it, I never really developed a level of comfort in the water or the right muscles to achieve more than average competence for someone who had had four seasons of lessons.

My third summer, I forgot how to achieve even adequacy.

The crawl stroke is, from my recollection, the most fundamental in swimming--laying flat in the water, face down, arms straight and rotating like windmills, coupled with kicking to propel the swimmer forward through the water. While I had developed a fair enough aptitude for the back stroke (essentially the same formation, but lying with my back on the water—slower and less easy to navigate, but easier to breath) and for staying still, treading water when I couldn’t touch the bottom, I hadn’t ever mastered the crawl. And when I started swimming lessons again for a new summer, and my group warmed up with laps across the pool, I couldn’t manage more than four or five strokes before being completely gassed--needing to stand up and catch my breath before I tried again.

I was put back a level--tantamount to being demoted from the fourth grade back to third. I was disappointed and a little humiliated. My father, who watched my lessons alternately from behind the wrought iron fence around the pool, or from a viewing area up above the locker rooms, was apoplectic.

He brought me back to the pool the afternoon of that particular lesson. The concrete around the pool was blazing hot by then beneath the afternoon sun, thus I remember skipping more than I walked across it,eager for the chill of the chlorinated water, despite my trepidation about getting into the pool with my dad.

Predictably, that afternoon lesson did not go well. Like other occasions when my father tried to teach me something, I began the lesson with a combination of fear and recalcitrance that slowed the learning process by inestimable degrees, which led to him forcibly pushing my head underwater and insisting that I hold my goddamn breath.

The weeks to follow were less violent, if little less focused. Outside the pool, my father had me hold my breath and turn my head to practice breathing and when the WWF came to town he told me we could get tickets if I could swim fifteen strokes uninterrupted. I got as many as thirteen but didn’t make quota. We still went to the show on the condition I would hold up my end of the bargain the following week (in retrospect, I’m pretty sure my father had already bought the tickets).

But that following week, I figured it out.

The textbook crawl stroke sees the swimmer take a stroke with his right arm, face down, holding his breath. Then swing his right arm and turn his head to the right, out of the water to take a breath. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I had been turning my head, but not really breathing, too frantic, anxious to take the next stroke and turning my head in little more than a symbolic motion.

I started breathing.

My breath under control and my body better acclimated after a few weeks of visiting the water, I moved to the head of my class (the class I’d previously graduated, then been moved back to, but it felt like a victory nonetheless). I didn’t have any illusions about swimming at a higher level than I really could--about swimming at Olympic speeds or with any more perfect form than I had developed. But with my breathing under control, I felt the sensation that I could swim forever. That I could keep going.


Throughout my middle and high school years, there were occasions to swim. Swimming during recreational activity periods at camp. Swimming at pool parties. A trip or two to the Enchanted Forest water park. When I headed off to college and in the immediate aftermath, the reasons to swim grew fewer and further between.

But I always had faith that my swimming would stick with me. That once I had remembered/learned how to swim for real, the skill would never leave me.

Fast forward to me at age twenty-five. A beach trip with friends.

I trusted the crawl stroke I had honed some fifteen summers earlier, swimming laps in in the municipal pool. Everything was different there in the Atlantic Ocean. The waters weren’t steady. Waves crashed and I was swimming against the tide. I didn’t smell chlorine, but rather sand and salt and what was left of my sunscreen. At the pool, I had grown acclimated to the water deepening by degrees, neatly marked at the side of the pool. Three-and-a-half feet, four feet, four-and-a-half-feet, five feet. The ocean floor played tricks, and I unwittingly left the safety of the shallow end in favor of waters deep enough that when I tried to rest--to set foot on the sand below--my head was under water.

The others made it to a sandbar forty yards out, where they could stand again, high above the waves. I tried. Tried again. I was in decent shape at that point in my life, but hadn’t used my swimming muscles for years. I tried one more time. My heart raced and I swallowed a mouthful of salt water. And I headed back for the shore.

I was nine years old again. Before I remembered how to swim. Before I believed I could swim forever. And though I wasn’t any more proud to return to the shore than I once had been to stand up in the middle of a lap, I knew what I was doing.


Back on the beach, ten, fifteen minutes after my skin had dried, my friends returned, hair slicked, dripping ocean water, and asked me why I hadn’t joined them. They said I seemed like a strong swimmer.

I shook my head.

I swam once more, a week after I got back from the beach trip, in the swimming pool at my apartment complex. Without the unpredictability of waves to contend with, I managed to swim three and a half laps without stopping. Then I stood, there in the center of the pool. There was no deep end there. Yes, my muscles tired, but I wasn’t exhausted. I could carry on. I thought to myself I would come back to that pool, once a week or so for as long as the weather held out and the pool stayed open. I would persevere.

I haven’t swum again since.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dar Williams’s “Iowa”

I’ve never had a way with women, but the hills of Iowa make me wish that I could.

So begins “Iowa,” a track from Mortal City by Dar Williams, originally released in 1996, about five years before I heard of Dar Williams. Like so many of the artists I love, I came to Williams via my sister, who learned of her music at college and brought it home to me. I fell in love with “As Cool As I Am,” then “The Christians and the Pagans” and, after I had left for college myself, the first full album I heard from her, End of Summer.

As na├»ve as I was, I was oblivious to any lesbian bent in her lyrics and much of the more biting satire in Williams’s music, and tapped into the narrative arcs that pervaded her songs, not to mention the folksy melodies that spoke of my earlier musical sensibilities, growing up listening to Arlo Guthrie and Simon & Garfunkel and The Indigo Girls.

At college, I found access to an expansive catalog of music, available for illegal download via my college network. I pored over the Williams catalog. And I found “Iowa.”

I had never been to Iowa, and didn’t think much about how a female singer-songwriter speaking of a female love interest might register as a “lesbian anthem” (though I’d pieced it together much more years later, that particular phrasing came from a woman I sat next to at an a cappella show in Manhattan, in which that song was covered six or seven years after I first heard it). What I did focus on were the elements that I suspect Williams herself may have been more interested in--less about global connotations than a personal story that the listener might build her or his own stories and interpretations around. A love story and a commentary on small town America where everything is everyone else’s business and people keep things inside until they burn.

I listened to “Iowa” incessantly. My junior year of college, I roomed with a friend's boyfriend, with whom I was friendly, but never really became as tight with as I think either of us had hoped. Bless him for being patient with my obsession with this song--I listened to it when I got up and when I was getting ready to bed. When he was around and when he wasn’t. I can only imagine him--serious political scientist and practitioner of kung fu--walking back to his home and hearing those familiar chords--rolling his eyes and wondering if I’d ever listen to anything else.

Fast forward six years and I found myself in Ann Arbor, Michigan for a long weekend. I was there, first and foremost, to cover an a cappella competition, but also to visit with Ashley, a friend and fellow writer from undergrad who had recently matriculated to the University of Michigan to pursue an MFA in creative writing. I had never been especially close with her, but she was nonetheless generous enough to put me up for three nights and not only go to the a cappella show with me, but bring me along to a public reading by Yiyun Li, and bring me to her own reading in Detroit. To tolerate my presence as she edited, read, and wrote and I occupied space in her one bedroom apartment.

I came to cover an a cappella show, and I left, profoundly envious of my friend’s life.

The idea of getting up and writing each day. And reading. And editing. And going to workshops with talented writers from around the world was intoxicating.

I had applied to MFA programs, cursorily and clumsily, on my way out of undergrad--just three schools and the one I got into was the one I really didn’t want to attend, so I entered the work force instead, with vague notions I might go back someday. When I started working at Johns Hopkins, I became aware of a part time MA program in creative writing and enrolled in that. One course per semester, fully paid for, working alongside some really talented writers, and some for whom a graduate program in creative writing didn’t seem like a particularly good fit.

I decided that I would finish the MA and save every penny I could. And if I still wanted it, and the right program saw fit to admit me, I would start a new life in the fall of 2014.

Along the way, I grew enamored with the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The world's first and arguably still the most prestigious graduate writing program. As I looked into it, I realized more and more of my favorite authors had emerged from that workshop. And I came to romanticize the idea of studying in an idyllic rural setting.

And there was the song.

Dar Williams’s “Iowa” re-entered my life, one of my favorite songs, now bearing the weight of destiny--an anthem for a mythic journey, for the writing experience I dreamed of. I saw myself running through the screen door of discretion to write every word I needed to write, read every word I needed to read, say every word I needed to say in a community of writers. At home.

Truth be told, I was offered admission to eleven MFA programs. Iowa said no.

I elected to attend Oregon State University, the most selective program to offer admission, home to several authors I admired, and with the offer of an assistantship that would cover my tuition and supplement my savings to make returning to life as a full-time student as financially viable as it could be. I finished out my last summer of work at Johns Hopkins, filled up a moving truck, and made the cross-country drive.

Along the way, I spent my birthday in Iowa.

I’m not entirely sure what I expected. A glimpse of a life I might have had? Relief at a bullet dodged? A holiday in a literary haven?

In truth, the day was a little of each. I listened to Dar Williams’s “Iowa” as I crossed the Iowa City limits. I walked through parts of campus, blocks of college bars and restaurants, the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk, Prairie Lights and The Haunted Bookshop. I bought a few short story collections and read the first fifty pages of one of them over dinner, pie, and coffee at a diner next door to my hotel.

And that life could have been mine. I could see myself getting lost in cornfields, attending readings there, and writing, writing, writing. And I can see myself visiting again for all of Iowa’s literary significance.

But just the same, Iowa City was not the be all end all I had once hoped, and later feared it might be. It was just a place, more welcoming than some, but not a place I was meant to call home. And that’s OK.

I went a-wandering out on the hills of Iowa, and it--this place, this “community of writers,” as the literature on the program purports, was not thinking of me. So I saw it all, and put that particular dream to bed.

And I drove on. Through the Midwest and on to Mount Rushmore, to Yellowstone, to Shoshone Falls, and all the way to a new home in Corvallis, Oregon. And while I can’t say with any certainty how long I’ll stay here, I don’t regret the trip. And while I look back on my visit to Iowa fondly, I don't idealize or romanticism it as much as I once did.

Sometimes a dream is just a dream, and a song is just a song.

Neither of these facts make the reality any less sweet.