Sunday, July 29, 2012

Swimming lessons, Southern-style

(note: this is nothing like the life preserver mentioned in this piece.
I could find no samples to match. I think the company burned all evidence.)

I lounged by the Trousdell public pool and experienced an epiphany. As a writer, I live for a good epiphany. As soon as I grab one by the short hairs, I slam it to the ground and wrestle it onto paper. My characters depend on me to supply these profound thoughts. I like to share.

Epiphany. Epiphany. Epiphany.

If I repeat it enough, the word sounds absurd, a silly term some frat boy invented after knocking back a fifth of Jack Daniels Black while watching a babe curl her body around a dance floor pole.

Must’ve been the endorphins behind this particular epiphany. I had completed ten laps (ten!) and felt fairly righteous. For once, I wasn’t parked at home in front of the laptop. I had actually expended energy. And no paramedics got involved.

Bears hibernate in winter; I hibernate in summer. I should’ve been dropped off in Canada as a wiggling infant. Stupid stork with a faulty GPS landed me in the Deep South. Dixie has its good points: sweet tea, chicken ’n’ dumplings, extra syllables in every spoken word. The stifling heat and humidity aren’t on the short list.

Back to that epiphany. I have focus issues from late May until mid-October.

A scene popped to mind as I watched one of the lifeguards work with a group of children. The “sink or swim” school: my father’s version a swimming lesson.

The year: 1961. July. Air hotter than a three-peckered billy-goat. Me, at four and a half, in an aqua and lime one-piece swimsuit. Wispy blond hair. Knock knees. A dimpled smile—until my daddy lashed me into a Day-Glo orange marshmallow and tossed me (yes, tossed) into the middle of the family pool. Let me add here: we weren’t wealthy. My daddy built that in-ground pool. If he wanted something, he made it himself.

The screams could be heard all the way into town, and we lived three and a half miles from Chattahoochee. Nowadays, it would’ve been enough to summon a team of child welfare agents with their official notepads set on stun. Back then, the nearest neighbor probably paused for a moment, then shrugged. Just another snot-nosed kid learning to dog-paddle.

Non-swimmers didn’t survive long in my neck of the Florida panhandle. Everywhere I turned, a body of water loomed: Lake Seminole, the Apalachicola River, numerous ponds, springs, pools, and deep mud holes. I had to learn to swim. Or die. Or fall prey to one of the gators/snakes/snapping turtles/river monsters that lurked in wait for floundering children and small yippy dogs.

What I know now:

1.    Daddy was only a step away.

2.    That ’60s-era flotation device could’ve bobbed a mature manatee three feet above the water’s surface.

3.    I was in more danger from choking from that vest than drowning.

4.    My daddy taught me a valuable life lesson.

Here’s the epiphany:

Everything important I have ever done, I’ve learned by jumping in (or being tossed in), and figuring out how to survive.

Education was crucial. Teachers guided me. Mentors praised and scolded. But learning by doing, swallowing the blinding fear and a good amount of pride, was, and still is, the best way. The only way.

I’ve found this true in my writing. When I started out years ago, I knew little about point of view, plotting, character development, original language, or effective dialogue. I simply wished to tell a story. And I did. Just not well.

I kept dog-paddling, barely keeping the vital airways clear. Each time I failed, I’d cough and sputter, curl up for a bit, get ticked off, and dive in once more. Soon, I lengthened my strokes, creativity flowed, and I improved. And I’m still working on it.

A hybrid, I’m not. Nothing fancy. I require no special pampering, no expensive fertilizer, no designer pot, no private gardener.

I’m as tenacious as a ditch weed.

But that’s an epiphany for another day.