A history of water

I have this memory of swimming lessons when I was a child. We were at the Blaisdell Y in Minneapolis. The floor surrounding the pool was made of small tiles fitted neatly together and patterned in bright, seventies colors – turquoise, orange, brown, yellow. The walls were painted cinderblock, slicked with the damp clouds of chlorine and water and ringing with the shouting of children. I remember trying to slide my arms into my swimming suit (pink, with red and green flower appliqués). I remember the sound of my chattering teeth, my short hair clinging to my face in inky clumps. I remember how slippery the floor was, and how worried I was that I would fall.

And I remember feeling utterly disconnected from the other kids plunging merrily into the weirdly blue-green water. I remember how terrified I was. I remember positioning myself on the top rung of the ladder, hooking each arm into its curved handles, hooking each leg under the sides, and hanging on like a vise.

And I remember screaming. A lot.

“YOU CAN’T MAKE ME GO IN THERE,” I howled. It has been suggested to me that I may have also yelled something about not wanting to die. I can’t say for sure whether it is true. I do remember that I screamed myself hoarse.

My mother, as I recall, was not amused.

I told this story today to a mother at the beach, as we fanned our faces and huddled under the shade, cupping our hands over our eyes as we watched our children at their last swimming lesson down by the lake. Her son, like me, refused to go into the water. And she was exasperated.

“Is it fear? Is he actually afraid? Or is it just that I want him to go, and he wants to oppose me on principle. I’m worried that’s it.”

“It might be fear,” I said. “But it might be his very real need for personal autonomy. Water is chaotic. The kids are chaotic. The instructors have to yell to make themselves heard. And in the midst of that, here’s this four year old kid engaged in actualized existentialism, but with no words for it. I am me, he says. I make decisions. And then he doesn’t know how to undo them. So he stands neither here nor there, unable to move. He doesn’t want to follow your decision and he doesn’t want to follow his teacher’s decision, but he doesn’t know what he has decided on his own. He’s stuck, poor baby.”

The boy stood at the shore, his toes only barely touching the water, his blonde head shimmering in the hot sun. A statue. A sentinel. A pillar of salt. I understood.

We live in Minnesota, and learning to swim is a statewide occupation. Parents take this very seriously. We have a lot of water around here, and drownings happen. My kids take swimming lessons at the local high school during the winter months, and out at the lake during the summer. (We could do it at the Y, but it is expensive, and I am cheap. And broke.) I don’t particularly care for pools – chlorine gives me a headache and the noise is crazy-making. But they learn stroke refinement at the pool, which is important. At the lake, they learn how to stay safe and move efficiently in chaotic conditions. This is important as well.

My daughters are born swimmers – long and lean with strong legs and broad shoulders. They move through the water in a long, quiet slice, like a canoe cutting across the surface. They go long distances without being winded and can keep their heads even in the wind and the waves. They go back and forth between the shore and the diving dock, and I watch the curve of their arms as they lift, extend and pull. I watch the furrow they leave on the water, and my breath catches. They are marvelous, my girls.

My son, on the other hand. Well. We’re getting there.

I took him to an outdoor pool a couple summers ago. He couldn’t swim at all. Unfortunately, his innate sense of high self-efficacy led him to believe that he was awesome at swimming. This was problematic. It was a hot day – 102, as I recall – and the pool was packed. And he was not even considering staying close to me.

It was, hands down, the most terrifying moment of my life.

I pushed through the crowd of slicked, soaking bodies, standing chest deep in overly-warm water as my son darted from shoulder to shoulder to shoulder. He would cling, curl and leap through the water, grabbing onto strangers as he slithered from one end of the pool to the other.

“GET BACK OVER HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG MAN,” I bellowed.

“I’m swimming!” he called back delightedly as he slipped between groups.

“NO YOU ARE NOT!”

No one noticed him. He was a fish. A salamander. A water moccasin. He splashed and wriggled and was gone. And it would only take one second for him to go down. And no one would see him. (Even the life guards, god bless them, would have been useless. There were too many people. And Leo was short.)

I love swimming instructors. I think they all deserve a medal. And the key to the city. They are not just rescuing children, but they are giving kids the tools to rescue themselves. This is a powerful thing.

Lately, after class, he and I have been going into the water together, practicing endurance and troubleshooting. I swim right next to him as we go into deep water. We tread water, we swim toward objects, we lie on our backs to catch our breath. We practice what to do if water gets in our mouths and we start coughing. We make plans on how to get to safety if we need it. We talk about what to do if we see someone struggling in the water.

The water in the lake is dark green and slick. It smells of fish and algae. We can’t see our feet when we stand waist-deep. He knows that if he goes down, it would be unlikely that he would be found in time in that world of green. More reason to be strong, smart and efficient. More reason to be aware.

There is a giant fish that lives in the bottom of Lake Nokomis, did you know? Leo told me. And a race of frog men and women with catfish tails and water bugs the size of golden retrievers. You’d think this would make him hesitant to get in the water. It has not.

“I love this lake,” he said to me as we floated out by the far buoys. “It’s so mysterious. We watch the water and the water watches us.”

Doing my best not to be completely creeped out, I swam back to shore, matching his pace. Kick, breathe, reach, pull, breathe, float, breathe. I imagined the bug-eyed frog men standing below us, looking up. I imagined the the giant fish with eyes the size of tractor wheels sliding through the muck at the middle, peering upwards from time to time to see the wrinkled surface of the lake shirring the sky.

There is something amazing that happens in a kid when they first learn to swim. Or no. When they first learn to move with surety and grace through the capriciousness of water. When they first learn how to survive in a medium that would kill them if it could. That didn’t care if they lived or died.

The water is wide, the child understands. Rise above.

The water is cold, the child feels. Move.

The water is insistent, the child says. Redirect. Recalibrate. Bend.

It might be the first time they learn to rely on themselves for their own survival. It may be the first time that it is their bodies, and their bodies alone, that mark the edges of themselves. The skin is its own shoreline. The brain is its own sky. The lungs contain a weather system all their own. The body exists and it is separate from the watery world that surrounds it. It is complete, whole, and powerful. And fragile. And precious. It is all of these things at once.

“Nice job, kiddo,” I said, as we pushed through the water toward the sand.

“Thanks mom,” he said. “Let’s do it again.”

 

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When my son grows up, I hope he is like his dad. If not, I hope he is like this guy.

 

There’s an article you should read. I’ll tell you about it in a minute. First I have to tell you this story:

The other day, while at the train station, my sister-in-law saw a bunch of college age dudes checking out the posterior-region of my thirteen-year-old child. “I just didn’t know what to do,” she told me. “It was so galling and so totally out of the realm of what I expected. I felt torn between wanting to tell them off and wanting to usher my beautiful niece as quickly as possible out of the vicinity so that she wouldn’t ever know what happened, and wanting to kick them all in their respective groins. I chose the middle thing.”

(I told her about a similar instance where I ducked behind my innocent child, looked the offending onlookers straight in the eye, gave them my laser-beam stare, and gave them the ole double-middle-fingers. These men were my age. They, suddenly realizing how young the girl at my side actually was, turned beet-red and skedaddled.

We didn’t know, their faces said.

Fuck you, said mine.)

Here’s the thing. In my younger years – on the 21 bus on Lake Street in Minneapolis during high school, at parties and on the job and once even during a professor’s office hours during college, on airplanes and in bars and walking home late at night and again on the job in my twenties, and even at professional conventions in my thirties – I have been subjected to groping, oggling, propositioning, butt-grabbing, space-invading, unwanted pick-upping, cat-calling and even scary and gross insistence (You know you want this, he said. No I do not, I said. Then why are you – OUCH! he said. And then I didn’t need to say anything at all.). It happens. We all know it happens.

To cope with these things I have used a variety of tactics – my fists (twice), my feet (a lot – I am fast), my sharp tongue (in both English and halting Spanish! And once in very bad French! Hooray for lingualism!), my clever maneuvers and quick thinking, and once, the very lucky appearance of a bus.

In my teens and twenties, my body was a liability. A vulnerability. I was not my mind. I was not my accomplishments. I was not my life. I was not my friends or my ideas or my care or my love. I was flesh and breast; I was lips and hair. And nothing else. The world that I loved was full of threats. And it made me angry. This has been true in my thirties as well, though less so, primarily due to circumstance. I live with a good man who is wildly in love with his wife, and associate primarily with good people of both genders with whom we collectively care for our children and trade stories and share food and love our respective spouses. It’s a good life, and I don’t venture away from it all that often. There’s a benefit to not getting out much. I had one horrible experience with an editor at a SFF convention (there was luring, there was a conversation that I thought was platonic but apparently was not, there was a sudden shirt removal and a lot of explosive chest hair and a proposition and a very astonished mother-of-three who had no idea how to respond. Of course I didn’t. I was out of practice), and it makes me reluctant to leave the safety of my neighborhood, to be honest.

But my safety is no longer my main concern. Now I have daughters. And I have to warn them.

We train our daughters to be street smart and tough. We train our daughters to be aware, to know the escape routes of any room, to have a buddy, to protect and protect and protect. We tell our daughters that this is the world we live in. It sucks sometimes. Be tough and be tougher. Find your allies. Make a battle plan. Know the weak spots. Fight. 

My oldest left earlier this summer for a three week summer camp. She was going to be in a dorm, in a college. I’ve been to college. I know what goes on there. So we had to have Conversations. The first one was called “Why You Should Never Leave Your Drink Unattended”. The second one was called “The Buddy System – Not Just For the Beach!” The third was called “How to Know When to Knee a Boy in the Gonads: A Primer”.

And it breaks us to tell our girls these things. It breaks us in half.

Lately, my beloved SFF community has been in some intense conversations about harassment and autonomy and the rights of any individual to feel safe in their environment. Since I have been limiting my time online, I have missed much of these conversations, but they continue, and they deepen and they are important. Folks have been talking about  respect and consent and have been outing serial harassers. A bright light now shines on bad behavior – which is good because bad behavior can only be addressed when it is named, clarified and known. People can learn. They can become aware of their privilege. They can change. I truly believe this.

There was the ugliness at Wiscon and then the attacks on N.K. Jemison after she (rightly) called Theodore Beale a sexist and racist a-hole, and then of course this little brouhaha. It makes me tired, is what.

Then, my darling Genevieve Valentine wrote a piece called “Dealing With It”, which I would urge all mothers to read, and to give it to their daughters. If my daughters are as tough as Genevieve, I will have succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings. And the overwhelmingly positive feedback she’s gotten from the piece is telling, I think. We’re all of us dealing with it. And sometimes we have to push back with all our might just to stand still. And sometimes that’s a colossal success.

But then I look at my son, and I wonder what kind of man he will be. How aware is he of his privileged status in our culture? How can I, as his mother, train him to be conscientious and kind, generous and brave, to use his strengthened position to do good in the world and to stand up for others? How does he resist being the guy who takes up more space, who uses more resources, who operates with impunity just because he can? Because we have all met that guy. And nobody likes that guy.

Which brought me to this gentleman, who wrote this piece: “Changing the Creepy Guy Narrative.” Stop what you’re doing and read that piece. I have printed it out and made a file called “Things To Show my Son”.  This is not to say that we should all start sexually harassing the sexual harassers (though it does make for good blog posts), but it is to say that we have a voice. And our voices matter. And my son has a voice too. And I hope he uses it.

How can we, as thoughtful citizens, shine a light on obnoxious behavior? How can we call wrongdoers to task, identify and clarify bad behavior, and insist on change?

We can’t force change. But we can insist. There’s a difference. John Scalzi is insisting. So is Tobias Buckell. So are a lot of people. And so am I.

The “B” word.

Earlier today, my ridiculously lovely nine year old child came home in tears. She had, because she thought she was old enough, attempted to walk the dog by herself. Not very far, mind you, or for very long. The child is shaped like a slight bunch of reeds, loosely braided and bound with thin ribbons. She is as substantial as smoke.

I should have known it would not end well.

She came home crying. Leo, her brother, was aghast.

“It wasn’t Harper’s fault,” she said stoutly, unhooking her dog’s leash and kissing her on the head.

“What happened,” I asked.

She sniffed. “Harper tried to chase a squirrel. Then she pulled me into the bike path and this teenager had to swerve and then…” Her little eyes welled with tears. “He called me a B-word.” 

Leo was horrified. He balled his fists, getting ready for a fight. But with each moment that passed, he had questions. And his questions grew until they wrote themselves onto his face.

“What’s a B-word?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about it, honey,” I said. “Sometimes people make mistakes when they feel scared.”

“But what is it? Does B stand for something?”

Cordelia drew herself up. “The B-word is a word that is impolite to say. So we just say the B-word so we don’t have to say it.”

Leo nodded. “Okay,” he said. “But what is it?” He thought for a moment. “Is it baloney?”

“No,” Cordelia said.

“Is it bogus?”

“No.”

“Blasted?”

“No.”

“Binoculars?”

“MOM! MAKE HIM STOP.”

“Your brother’s just curious,” I said, trying really really really hard not to laugh. “He just doesn’t know.”

“Did he call you a baby?”

“NO!” And she stomped away.

Leo looked at me. “Is the letter B a mean letter?”

“No,” I said, “but maybe you should think of some nice words that start with B and use them around her sister. Maybe you should just say a bunch of nice things today.”

Later on, I found a little index card that he had put on his sister’s pillow so she would find it.

“BEEOOTIFOL,” it said.