I’ve spent the last couple of weeks by the beach. I am working, not vacationing. But since I work remotely, and my primary collaborator is on vacation, and the beach is so near Athens, and I have somewhere to stay, and decent WiFi is available at the seaside cafés, well: I’d be a fool to stay downtown. During the summer Athens is only bearable after seven or eight in the evening.
After lunch each day I head to the beach to bake in the sun for a bit and then go for a short swim. It’s a peaceful break in the middle of my day. Sometimes a work problem will occupy my mind, but often I can put work aside and think through the plot of a novel I’m writing. It’s a slow process. I won’t get to type anything until the evening, when I’ve wrapped up my main work for the day.
Yesterday I gave up on shoes and just wear flip-flops everywhere. But I won’t pretend that I’m an utter slacker. In order to have such a long lunch break, I usually work six or seven days a week, often late into the night. There are only so many hours in the day, you see.
There I was: swimming and mulling things over. It was a windy day and the current was strong and I am not a particularly good swimmer. Which is putting it mildly. I don’t swim so much as sink towards a particular direction.
The shore was near. I wasn’t concerned about my safety. Just miffed about my lack of swimming prowess. I mentioned this to a friend the other day after he told me, not without a hint of satisfaction, that he regularly swam to the small island out in the bay. An island that to me seems as distant as a dream. He told me he learned how to swim by watching YouTube videos. I had tried the same without much success. He then admitted to having taken swimming lessons as a child.
There you have it. My impoverished childhood is at the root of all that is terrible in my life. If I ever have children, they’ll definitely have swimming lessons.
And learn to play a musical instrument of some kind. There are studies showing how learning music is good for the brain. I heard it on NPR and everything. My parents never forced music lessons upon me. Even though at a young age I could routinely be found in the cupboard underneath the sink arranging the kettles just so and banging on them as if they were drums. I was precocious, you see.
When I wanted to learn to play the guitar, shortly after discovering Nirvana, my parents refused to buy me an electric guitar. They instead bought me a frugally-priced classical guitar that has served me well for over two decades. Pft!
There I was: arduously fighting against the current, against the squalid heritage of my youth, wondering what other lessons my imaginary children would attend. And then I stopped. I started treading water, keeping my head out but not moving in any direction.
Two things occurred to me. First, that if I ever had children, I would be one of those parents. Second, that I should thank my parents sometime for not shoving their own inadequacies down my throat.
True, I lack all sorts of useful skills. I still can’t drive. And I am the only person that enjoys my cooking. While my classmates were in the boyscouts, learning the rudiments of manhood, such as farting, finessing knots and fraternizing, I was left to my own idiosyncratic devices. Like poring over the most impressively hefty book in the house.
At a tender age, having recently abandoned my career as a drummer of kettles, I wanted to become a wizard. Since spells are made of words, I had reasoned that if I learned all the words, then I could cast any spell I wanted. That is how I ended up trying to read through the dictionary. I read with a pocket flashlight under the covers, even though it was day. It seemed fitting that wizards should learn their craft in the darkness.
It amuses me how I mostly got things right, aged six.
When I told my parents at seventeen that I wanted to study literature and become a novelist, they didn’t freak out. Instead, they supported me through college and graduate school and remained stalwart during some pretty dark times, including the ones where I didn’t become a novelist. But I found other work that’s satisfying and meaningful. And there’s always time. Or, in the fullness of time, the possibility of becoming content.
My friend the swimmer is a talented musician. People who know about such things tell me he’s got “it,” whatever “it” is. Along with swimming lessons, he took music as a child, but only came to love music as an adult. When he told his parents that he wanted to study music, they agreed to support him — as long as he finished that accounting degree first and then took over the family business. He has studied long and hard — don’t let anyone tell you that failing is easy. He’s got “it”, whatever “it” is. But he’s not swimming now. He’s thrashing.1
There I was: treading water.
How easy it is to lay blame and how hard to offer gratitude. I could see the sun and the beach and everywhere the water and the heads of other swimmers bobbing in the water and the island I dared not reach and it was the middle of the day and I had a lot of work ahead of me and I did not mind and for a moment had nothing in mind except one stroke and then another and then I was swimming. Badly, admittedly. But swimming.
I don’t know the details of his story well. This might well might be an unfair caricature. But then, everything I’ve told you is a caricature. ↩︎
Photo by Alex Armstrong [CC0].