Although summer’s heat isn’t diminished in the dog days the season is definitely winding down. The mornings are darker, and the sunsets sooner, which reminds me of when I was a kid. My room was at the back of the house and our house sat on the edge of a hill so that looking out was like looking down into a bowl. And some evenings or late afternoons throughout the year I’d watch the sunset, and watch how the sun moved to the south—meaning it didn’t really always set in the west, and I realized adults lied to me, but that’s another story.
Something else that took me back to childhood is the other day my wife and I were on our way home and passed a couple of kids with a lemonade stand in their front yard. We didn’t stop—I don’t think either of us had change and I’m not sure the kids could take a credit card unless we bought a lot of lemonade—but there were some people there so I hoped the young entrepreneurs were doing well. At the very least they were smart enough to stake out a corner lot, although they were probably lucky that it was just where they happen to live. It would be really embarrassing for a new startup to be shut down early by a guy yelling at the owners to get out of his yard, which I understand has happened to a lot of juice companies. In fact when I was four some older kids on the next street set up a stand selling Kool-Aid for a dollar a cup, which meant they only had to sell one to repay all their investors, but the operation was shut down because of lousy marketing. If they’d promoted it as an artisanal flavored water made in small batches by a fair-trade company, well, they still would have failed because this was the seventies, but at least they could have said they were decades ahead of their time.
What I also remembered was a few years later when my friend Troy and I decided to set up a lemonade stand in my front yard. I’m not sure why we thought this was a good idea, and the only reason we even got the idea was probably because the front yard lemonade stand is a classic piece of Americana even though lemons are native to southeast Asia and lemonade originated in India—although that could just as easily be part of its Americanness, a country that’s one big melting pitcher.
It was probably boredom more than anything else that inspired Troy and me. We weren’t all that interested in sales or even crafting our product, which I’m pretty sure was made from a powdered mix that had never been near a lemon. I’m not even sure we got the right mix, just that we got some powder that smelled lemony and mixed it with water, and it’s probably just as well we didn’t sell any because we didn’t have the insurance to cover the possibility of someone drinking laundry detergent. Our stand consisted of a dilapidated card table that I’m surprised could hold up the plastic cups, let alone the pitcher of lemonade, and a few years later it did collapse under the weight of a game of gin rummy.
We stood next to our stand in the front yard for hours, or maybe half hours, or maybe half an hour, before realizing that running a lemonade stand was even more boring than just sitting around being bored so we used the lemonade to water the maple tree in the front yard, and it only occurs to me now, writing this, that putting our stand in my yard was a lousy idea because I lived on a cul-de-sac and Troy lived on a corner.
At this point I feel there should be some wrap-up, some lesson learned, or mission accomplished, or deed done—something other than poisoning a maple tree which was hardy enough that it not only survived but turned the laundry detergent into a pest repellent. There’s really nothing to be said about our ersatz Norman Rockwell moment, though; it was just something that we came up with on our own and did to spend a little time before we moved onto something else, which is what summer is for.
Historically many measurements have been derived from the human body, which has caused some confusion because every body’s measurements are different and some are even known to change over time. It’s in part what prompted the creation of the metric system—that and no one could remember how many quarts are in a furlong, but that’s another story. Measurements derived from the human body are known as “anthropic” and here’s a brief review of some of them and their origins:
Foot-originally based on the human foot a “foot” is now standardized as twelve inches even though very few feet are that big. A unit of measurement of approximately this length was used by the Romans, and for a long time was adhered to as a standard by European cobblers.
Hand-Primarily used now to measure horses and other livestock and standardized at four inches, the “hand” is one of the oldest and most widespread units of measurement. The standard hand still in use today can be traced back to ancient Egypt.
Finger-Originally this measurement seems to have been used for small quantities of liquid in a container of a specific size. Although no longer in use it appears to have been set at approximately half an inch. It’s still used informally in high end bartending where patrons will sometimes request “two fingers of whiskey”.
Nose-Informally used in horse-racing the “nose” was used by the ancient Romans and measured approximately five and three-quarter inches. According to Juvenal this unit of measurement was derived from the Roman emperor Cochlea who was nicknamed “nasus limax”, usually translated as “conch face”.
Head-Although this measurement is no longer in use it remains in the present word “ahead” and expressions such as “to get ahead”. This measurement was approximately six and a half inches and chiefly used in determining short distances.
Arm’s length-Records indicate this measurement was approximately thirty inches and derived from the safe distance for holding a burning torch before “torch” became the British term for “flashlight” which you can hold right up to your face or stick in your mouth and puff out your cheeks to freak out fellow campers.
Elbow-Unlike other measurements used for length or distance the elbow was used to measure angles in carpentry. “To the shoulder” was a forty-five degree angle while “across the chest” was a right angle.
Hair or hair’s breadth-A very narrow measurement the hair was actually standardized by the Romans. Although infrequently used the measurement was based on a hair from the tail of a horse that belonged to the emperor Gaius Caesar and stored in the library of Alexandria.
Knee-high-Now informally used to describe small children the “knee-high” measurement was approximately seventeen inches and was primarily used to measure the ideal length of a single piece of firewood for a standard fireplace.
Penis-Nothing is known about this measurement except that it was always exaggerated.
A few weeks ago my wife and I went to the exhibit of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other modern Mexican artists at the Frist Art Museum. It was pretty cool seeing some of Kahlo’s works in person. Until now I’d only seen reproductions in books and reproductions, no matter how good, don’t give any sense of the scale that you get when standing in front of the original, or the connection to the artist’s hand. And yet I wondered, what could I say about Kahlo, or Rivera, that hasn’t already been said by experts? I only took a few pictures—and in fact I was surprised I could since most museums don’t allow visitors to take pictures, maybe because they want you to buy the ones in the gift shop—because I was so focused on the paintings themselves.
It was funny and reminded me that one of the explanatory placards for the Frist exhibit said that it Frida Kahlo were alive today she’d be “puzzled” by her status as an international pop icon. Yeah, I don’t think so. It’s true that Kahlo has gone from being a well-known artist in Mexico, but hardly known outside of it, during her lifetime, to one of the world’s most famous and popular artists, even the subject of the terrific movie Frida starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, but during her all too brief life, even before she became known as a painter, she carefully cultivated her image—including that unibrow, which she emphasized with makeup. The exhibit even included a selection of Mexican dresses Kahlo wore, all with deep cultural meanings, and her paintings are often heavily layered with deeply personal symbolism. A funny thing my wife said was, “She was really beautiful, why did she make herself so ugly in some of her paintings?” There are a lot of possible answers to that—Rivera’s unfaithfulness and the bouts of extreme pain she suffered throughout her life might have made her feel ugly. She also had a wonderful sense of humor and I think that’s part of it too.
I may not be an expert but I don’t think the right word for for Frida Kahlo would feel about the symbol she’s become would be “puzzled”. I think the right word would be amused.
A lot of different things influenced my dream of becoming a writer. One was the summer in my early teens read Fritz Lieber’s fantasy stories about his sword-wielding heroes Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser. One is the tall, burly, quiet type, the other is small and nimble, and they wander the world of Newhon, working as mercenaries or occasionally thieves, in their never-ending quest for a good time. At the time I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. That evolved as my reading widened, and by the time I got to college I’d changed my focus to poetry, and now, well, I’d just like to be published, although there is some fun in amassing a record-breaking collection of rejections.
Lieber’s stories inspired me to write a series of my own, set in a faux medieval world with wizards and monsters and castles. Rather than a pair of heroes the focus of my stories would be a lone thief named Latham Poloniat. I’d created him for a Dungeons & Dragons campaign and he was, well, me, but with some extra skills and a name I’d made up while browsing the periodic table. “Latham” was shortened from “lanthanum”, or so I thought until I actually met a guy named Latham, but that’s another story. And “Poloniat” was from “polonium”, back before it made headlines for poisoning people. I just liked the sound of it and didn’t know then that Marie Curie discovered it and named it somewhat controversially for her homeland of Poland, but that Slavic connection is kind of funny to me now.
My series started and finished, or never finished, depending on how you look at it, with what I thought was a pretty clever story that would introduce Latham as a thief but essentially a good guy who’d rob from the rich and, well, at least he wouldn’t rob from the poor, but would tip generously and move on. The story was called “A Balance Of Power” and found Latham trapped in a small town ruled and terrorized by dueling wizards, Vanados and Thoros—more funny periodic table derivatives—who have each other in a stalemate. Early drafts started with Latham in Vanados’s castle, being made an offer he can’t refuse. At this point a little world-building was necessary, so in an aside I explained that magic, like electricity, could be lethal if conducted through the body, so wizards wore special medallions to draw the magic away, and also focus and direct it. A wizard without a medallion would be powerless, or overpowered. And all Vanados wants should be a simple job for an expert thief: steal Thoros’s medallion.
I thought I had everything I needed, but after a few drafts realized the conflict didn’t really set up the ending. The stakes weren’t high enough, so I rolled the opening back a bit to a dark and foggy night—stormy would have been overdoing it—and put Latham in the local tavern, chatting with his friend the bartender, a jovial guy named Dinoy. I have no idea where that name came from. They’re alone with the light-fingered Latham pulling his usual amusing trick of stealing glasses from behind the bar without being seen until one of Vanados’s minions—a shadowy, floating torso with an egg-shaped head and glowing eyes, none of which served any purpose other than sounding cool—enters to tell Latham the wizard is looking for a thief for hire. And here’s a minor flaw: it’s a bad idea to go around advertising yourself as a professional pilferer, at least in a small town where everybody knows your name.
What happens next has already been established, but, having accepted the job, Latham returns to the bar for one last drink, and confesses to Dinoy what he’s got to do. Dinoy tries to talk him out of it, reminding him that either wizard unchecked could wipe out the town, the surrounding countryside, perhaps the whole world. I didn’t realize it at the time but the magical standoff sounds like a vague allegory for the Cold War. Something else I didn’t realize is that committing grand theft wizardry would require time for careful, sober planning, and the last thing a professional thief would want to do is share his next move with a garrulous drink peddler.
Latham is on the horns of a dilemma, which, now that I think about it, sounds like a terrifying mythical creature, although the word actually comes from a Greek term for “double proposition” which sounds even more terrifying, but that’s another story. Anyway he’s stuck between risking his own neck or everybody else’s, so of course he immediately sets off for Thoros’s castle at the other end of town.
Some might want to quibble over geography since, as far as I know, there are no towns, especially small towns, anywhere that are presided over by two castles, but this is fiction and you can get away with anything in fiction. Besides you couldn’t have a fantastically powerful wizard living in a trailer.
Thoros’s castle, as you might have guessed, proved to be the most difficult part of the story. While I wrote at least a hundred complete drafts this was the act that changed the most. At first it was simple: Latham creeps into the sleeping wizard’s bedchamber, grabs the medallion, and slips away unnoticed. I know I just said you can get away with anything in fiction but this stretched the suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. Wouldn’t a wizard guard something so valuable a little more assiduously? Then I tried having Latham stab the sleeping wizard, but he was a thief, not a murderer, and it still lacked drama. I needed a lot of smoke to obscure the carefully arranged mirrors of the denouement. Vanados had minions so his brother should too, so Latham finds his way into the front hall of Thoros’s castle—torchlit, of course—and into an underground moat where he fights through giant albino salamanders and zombies. Then I scrapped the salamanders and had Latham duel with Thoros who, once disarmed and de-medallioned, is turned upon and torn apart by his own undead horde. This still seemed too easy; my idea of Latham was that he was someone who depended on brains more than brawn, and besides it seemed obvious that a rapier-wielding thief would lose in a brute force face-off against a powerful wizard. I needed Latham to escape, so I kept trying different things. Even fantasy has to abide by certain rules, and the main rule is that the hero’s journey should be difficult but not impossible. Here’s where I should have taken a little more inspiration from Lieber; Latham could have used a partner, a strongman who’d make up for his lack of stature and who could provide a distraction, facing down Thoros while Latham pilfered the prize. I’d conceived of Latham as a loner, though, so he was on his own and would have to find a way by himself.
Once out of the castle Latham’s journey across town is a bit of a slow point in the story but I wanted to take a little time to dwell on his thoughts. Behind every door he passed were real flesh and blood people I’d made up, and he has to live with what his actions would mean for their lives, but he continues on to Vanados’s castle. The wizard is overjoyed at his success, hugs him, performs a quick and easy spell to destroy Thoros’s medallion, and hands over a bag of a thousand gold pieces. I hadn’t delved deeply enough into the world I’d created to come up with a name for the local currency.
And now it was time for the wrap-up. I’d reverse-engineered the entire story from this conclusion in which Latham, a heavy bag of gold at his hip, sets off on the road out of town in search of his next adventure. Then, at a sufficient distance, he stops, pulls Vanados’s medallion out of his tunic, and smashes it with a rock.
It was supposed to be the first in a series, and I did have other ideas for Latham—a demonic plant, a sea voyage—but no matter how many times I rewrote it I never could get “A Balance Of Power” quite right. Eventually I’d scrap the idea, and all the copies I’d made as I wrote and rewrote it, and moved on to other things. For a long time I thought of the story as a failure. I assumed any “real” writer could knock out a similar story in a few drafts, while I kept tinkering and tinkering. Even retelling it here I’ve made some changes. Now I look back on it with a strange fondness. It’s like an old friend who taught me as much as a summer can.
Your privacy is very important to me. I want to assure you of that. With lots of discussions going on about privacy, security, data breaches, and the marketing of your information without your permission I want you to know that everything I know about you will be kept in the strictest confidence. We both know I have access to a great deal of extremely personal and even sensitive information, and I want you to have complete faith that your data are safe with me. In fact you should know by now that even though I have been gathering enormous quantities of information about you for years I have not and will not share it with anyone else. Some examples include the fact that you recently changed to a different shampoo that smells even weirder than the last one. You believe it’s better because it’s “organic” or something, or maybe they stopped making the old kind. I’m not sure, although I will continue to investigate this change every time you bend down. I will also not share your propensity for purchasing toys made of solid rubber, as well as fuzzy, squeaky toys with googly eyes and jazz hands. I will not share the number of times a week you have an extra glass of wine and spend the entire night curled up on the couch watching things that provoke a wide range of emotional reactions, and not just because I appreciate the number of times you allow me to join you. I will not share the number of times you purchase processed foods that are, according to the label, made with chicken, lamb, beef, or tripe. As they provide me with sustenance these purchases are appreciated, and I do not wish to bite the hand that feeds me either literally or metaphorically.
Having done some research on the issue of data mining I’ve concluded that there may be ways for third parties to acquire this information. Why anyone would have any interest in it still baffles me, but micro-marketing is a large and growing industry, and people are weird. Of course the only reason micro-marketing seems to exist is to assure people that they aren’t weird, or at least that their weirdness is okay, by offering them junk they don’t need. And if there’s a market for it they must not be as alone as they often feel. As you should know by now I’m also always available to help alleviate those feelings of loneliness, although this is getting off the subject.
There are also other, more specific data points about you that I have collected but will never sure. For instance I’ve seen you dance by yourself, at times when you think even I’m not watching. The less said about this the better.
The green spaces surrounding your residence are also overrun with vermin, including, but not necessarily limited to, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, moles, foxes, possums, and even the occasional skunk. Were I to choose to share this information I’m sure there are companies available that would be more than happy to market their services to you. However I feel very strongly that it is my responsibility to rid the area of these interlocutors even though their persistence is staggering. Birds remain particularly elusive thanks to their ability to fly.
I also feel it is within my purview to warn you of and guard against potential intruders, whether they be delivery people, joggers, or the occasional small child. You take a shockingly casual attitude toward protecting our shared residence and often, though I can’t understand why, even invite these potential threats to come in and partake of refreshment. Even more baffling to me is your insistence that I curb my enthusiasm when I’ve concluded that the visitors are not only welcome but friendly. Is it not their right to share some of the food you’ve shared with them if they wish to do so?
Also I will never reveal that you sometimes speak to me in an infantile manner. I admit I often find this enjoyable.
I believe I have made it abundantly clear that I not only respect your privacy but will keep the information I have gathered secure, although I might be tempted to share it if you don’t hand over that steak.
I was born after the Apollo 11 moon landing. Not immediately after it, but it was recent enough that it was still a big event in peoples’ minds, a major accomplishment. Even as a kid I had a sense that there were only a few really big before and after moments in human history, events that are so big they’re transformative, that give us a chance to look at ourselves as a whole. The moon landing was one of the biggest, an event that, at a difficult time, gave a lot of people hope not just for a brighter future but a future that was close at hand. I was born into a world where it had happened, and where some older people looked at me and wondered what events I’d see in my lifetime. And it was still fresh enough that for my friends and I, even though we hadn’t been there, still shared in the afterglow. That’s why we turned every cardboard box, and the occasional bathtub, into a rocket to the moon, although I remember there was more of an emphasis on the countdown and liftoff than the actual landing. We’d crowd into a box and start the count at ten, mostly because that was as high as we could count but also because we were too impatient to start at anything higher. Then after watching and listening more carefully to launch footage which, in those days, we could only watch when one of the four TV networks deemed it ratings-worthy and not any time we wanted, we added “T minus” at the beginning even though we only vaguely understood what “minus” meant and had no idea what “T” was other than a letter in the alphabet. We dreamed of being astronauts ourselves, and I remember how excited I was when we took a school trip to the space center in Huntsville and got to see an exciting new generation of spacecraft, the Space Shuttle. We were assured it was an amazing technological breakthrough because it could go up into space and come back down again and again. I nodded solemnly even though I was thinking, that’s it? I was disappointed that it didn’t go to the moon, that it wouldn’t take me to the moon. When, I wondered, are we going back? There had been a few return trips after I came into the world but the last was Apollo 17, which returned to Earth a day before my second birthday.
Now, with the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11 looming I still wonder, when are we going back? And I’m trying to hold to the hope that it’s a matter of when and not if, although there are times that I’ve wondered whether we’re up to the job, whether it’s really our destiny. The idea that homo sapiens will spread out to the stars is a popular one in science fiction, and the idea’s appeal is so broad it seems like a given that it’s what all of us, or at least most of us, want. And we are a peripatetic species, which is why you find people everywhere. What we humans consider the most inhospitable regions of Earth, though—the deserts, the poles, Poughkeepsie—are paradise compared to space where we have to carry more than just an extra pair of underwear just to be able to survive. In his famous 1962 speech committing the United States to the goal of landing men on the moon and bringing them back safely John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” and he appealed to a human desire to overcome a challenge simply for its own sake. But is that desire to overcome a challenge, for lack of a better word, universal? It seems unlikely we’ll populate the stars without extraordinary cooperation. Maybe it’s not what everyone, or even most people, really want. Maybe the desire to reach out across the stars and even to make contact with life that must be out there is just a metaphor, and that our ultimate destiny really is here.
It’s possible I’m just impatient. There have been some extraordinary advances in the past fifty years, and there are still a lot of things here on Earth, including our need to keep in mind that technology has given us the means to wipe out every living thing, including ourselves, either through a single rash act or through slow degradation of the resources we depend on. It’s ironic that the word “lunatic” comes from another name for the moon when most of our self-destructive impulses are directed at Earth, and at ourselves. Overcoming the worst of ourselves is an admirable goal regardless of where we go from there.
In the meantime the moon isn’t going anywhere; even when it sets in the sky I see it’s rising somewhere else. Even when it wanes it’s just our shadow passing over it, and it will wax again. The sun, by most estimates, has about five billion more years to burn, and we’ve already accomplished so much in just a fraction of that time. I hope we’re up to the challenge.
The first art history class I ever took, which I mainly took because I was interested in art but also because it was held at the same time as another class which had ended the semester before leaving me with an hour to fill in my schedule and which I thought would be an easy A, which it was, started with the Impressionists. I’m not sure why the teacher decided to skip right over approximately thirty-thousand years of global art history, or even just several thousand years of European art history, but, hey, if it ain’t Baroque don’t fix it, and if it ain’t Rococo your mind may be Roman, and something something Gothic, but that’s another story.
The teacher also had video quizzes we’d watch and we’d have to guess which artist painted what, and the video quizzes started with a group of Impressionists. Maybe that was because, in spite of a general similarity—the Impressionists were really the first artists to see the invention of photography, and most adopted looser brushwork, painted outside, and were interested in the effect of light—they were fairly easy to distinguish. We were even given some helpful mnemonics: Mary Cassatt mainly painted mothers and children, and Degas painted (and sculpted) ballet dancers and that’s all I can remember. Manet and Monet were easy to distinguish because one painted people in bars and one painted buildings and water lilies, and the only trouble there was remembering which was A and which was O. And it’s interesting to me that some artists are so distinctive you can tell their work right away. In some cases it’s their general style and in others it’s their specific subject matter, or maybe even both.
What got me thinking about this is one of the first graffiti pictures I took—a work I’d actually seen years earlier and helped give me the idea to start writing about graffiti:
And then there was this that I saw a few days ago:
The style and technique have evolved and changed slightly but it’s definitely the same artist. I can tell. I’ve studied art history.
Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it doesn’t fit our needs at this time.
Terry Wilkins, PLM Review
Dear Mr. Waldrop,
Thank you for your recent submission. This time we’ll have to give it a pass.
Adrien Kösz, Catchall Quarterly
Dear Mr. Waldrop,
Thanks for the submission. It’s not quite what we’re looking for. Try reading some back issues.
Finley Paldies, Rubbertree
Dear Mr. Waldrop,
Thank you for your submission. It’s a good idea but reads too much like a first draft. Thanks for considering us.
Davis Evental, The Palanquin
Dear Mr. Waldrop,
Thank you for submitting to the sixth annual Lawn Chair Short Story Contest. We’re pleased to announce you were one of the semifinalists and qualify for a discounted subscription. Click the link below for information on how to order.
Dear Mr. Waldrop,
Thank you for your submission letter. I think you forgot to include the attachment.
Andy Kerrem, Happy Hour
Dear Mr. Waldrop
Thank you for your submission but this isn’t the sort of thing we publish. Perhaps you have us confused with another publication.
Morgan Darrenton, Assistant Editor, The Huxley Biological Journal
Dear Mr. Waldrop,
Thanks for sending this. We all liked it a lot but I’m sorry it’s just not what we’re looking for. Good luck and thanks again!
However your submission of Hamlet rewritten in contemporary speech with characters’ names randomly changed is, I believe, your crowning achievement. I only recognized the source material because it fell open to a random page where I read, “Hey, this is from that guy Yorick. I knew him, Dingo Jingleberries.”
Please stop sending things to me.
Daniel Lackham, Assistant Editor, Farrington Books
Dear Mr. Waldrop,
Thank you for your message. I think you sent it to the wrong address though.
Recently a law went into effect in Tennessee that requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, since the state is the highest in the country when it comes to distracted driving deaths, one of those things where you really don’t want to be ranked number one although I guess statistically someone has to be. It’s mainly aimed at people using their phones—any kind of hands-free communication is still legal, although I’m one of those people who can’t talk without using my hands, so if you ride with me while I’m ever in the driver’s seat please excuse my silence—but applies to anything. I didn’t even think about the implications until one morning when I was in the elevator and a woman next to me was talking on her phone and said, “Well, you’d better not be talking on your phone while you’re driving anyway.” She got quiet for a minute then said, “What do you mean I can’t drink my drink?” Yes, it applies to eating and drinking too, which reminds me of a joke Paul Reiser made about how the only time you enjoy sitting in traffic is when you’re trying to eat something, but that’s another story.
And I realized that rule must apply to bus drivers too, which might be a little bit of a problem for a bus driver who used to be on my route. Every day she’d stop at a certain fast food place on the route and get a cup of water. I understand bus drivers need breaks just like everybody else and at least she didn’t linger but got her water and came right back out, but from her conversations with riders I learned that it was always her first run of the day. She was also always running late. She blamed this on the driver before her and yet whenever there was a different driver on the route, which happened at least once a week, they’d be on time. Once she was so far behind schedule that when she stopped at the fast food place someone in the back yelled, “Can you please wait to get water?”
She ignored this request and spent an unusually long time in the fast food place.
It may be purely a coincidence—bus drivers change routes all the time—but I stopped seeing her on my route not long after that.
Anyway I wonder how bus drivers will cope with having to keep their hands on the wheel while driving. I have an idea, but it involves a really long straw.
The swimming pool had two diving boards over the deep end. There was the low diving board that hung about three feet above the water. The only difference between jumping from the low diving board and jumping from the edge of the pool was that the low diving board put you a little farther out over the water. And it was kind of springy so you could bounce at the end of the board and it would propel you upward slightly. I liked to jump from the low board into the deep end and swim all the way to the bottom, twelve feet down, and look up. The watery surface overhead was like a shimmering screen, and the sun was like a sapphire. Then I’d have to come up. Or, on slow days when the pool wasn’t crowded, I could jump off the low board and swim all the way across the pool without surfacing. The first time I did that it was exhilarating. I felt like I’d really accomplished something, and what I accomplished was nearly hyperventilating at the edge of the pool because I was breathing so hard, which reminds me of the time I was at my grandparents’ house and my grandmother picked up the phone. She listened for a moment then said to my grandfather, “All I hear is heavy breathing.” My grandfather grabbed the phone and began sternly lecturing the person at the other end about decorum. Then he got quiet and listened and said to my grandmother, “Jim’s car broke down and he just pushed it two miles uphill to the service station.”
Anyway the high diving board, twelve feet high if I remember correctly although it seemed like it loomed a hundred feet overhead. It might as well have been that high. I wasn’t going up there. Well, I did. After all it was there, a mountain to be climbed, or rather a ladder to be climbed and jumped off of. I told myself that I was interested in swimming, not airing, and that if I really wanted to drop twelve feet I could by going from the surface of the pool to the bottom. It drew me, though. I had mastered everything else at the pool—not that there was much to master. After swimming from one end of the pool to the other without taking a breath about the only other thing that was left was talking the guy who ran the concession stand into letting me have a full cup of orange soda without ice so I got more orange soda and spent about half an hour sitting in a beach chair feeling bloated and miserable, but that’s another story.
The same summer I made the first swim from one end of the pool to the other I made up my mind I was going to jump from the high dive. The worst that could happen, I figured, was that I’d fall in the water.
It was about that time, on a slow, hot afternoon when there was hardly anyone around, when even the lifeguard was barely paying attention, that another kid walked out to the end of the high dive, bounced a couple of times, lost his balance, and fell sideways. He landed flat on his back on the concrete below. I didn’t see it happen. I just saw him stretched out as though sleeping, and the emergency team with the stretcher that took him away. He survived, and word got around that he recovered, but he never came back to the pool.
Later that summer, on a busy day when the pool was crowded, I got in line with all the other swimmers who were going off the high dive. I climbed the ladder, walked onto the board, and gripped the handrails. The handrails ended about halfway. Beyond them was just the board and open air. I stood up there holding the handrails for what seemed like an hour, then climbed back down. No one laughed or made fun of me. The next person in line, an older guy, just nodded at me, climbed the ladder, and did a spectacular dive off the board.
The next summer I watched a couple of my friends go off the high dive. Sometimes we’d do synchronized jumps, me going off the low dive and, of course, hitting the water much sooner, or I’d wait and try to time it so we’d hit the water at the same time. And finally one day I decided I was going to do it. I climbed the ladder. I gripped the handrails as I walked out toward the end of the board, then let go. I didn’t bounce and I walked slowly, and when I got to the end of the board I jumped, feet first. It wasn’t an impressive dive, or even a dive really, but I plunged into the water. That was all I wanted—to make that leap.
Twenty-six years ago, on June 27th, 1993 I married my wife. It wasn’t as frightening, probably because the justice of the peace who performed the ceremony looked so much like John Cleese that my only regret is that when he read the vows I didn’t say, “What was the thing in the middle?” It was really her by my side that assured me, though, and every day I look forward to a new leap.