Under Our Canopy

T-shirt design by Bonnie Gurney.

T-shirt design by Bonnie Gurney and Lyn Fiscus.

Six Saturdays each summer for the past 3.5 summers, I have sat poolside for 5 hours in some of the most humid Virginia weather to cheer on my daughter and her teammates. Or at least, I watch and cheer when I remember that I’m at a swim meet.

Swim meets involve approximately 200 swimmers ages 6-18 competing in four different strokes plus a couple of team relay races. Add to that a parent or two per swimmer, plus a sibling here and there who comes to raid the concession stand. That’s a minimum of 300 people at one public pool when heat indexes occasionally reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Soccer and baseball moms don’t understand. “It’s so long, and she swims for what, four minutes total?” True.

Aside: Maybe it’s the literary snob in me, but I prefer to compare my daughter’s individual sport to reading a character-driven book. You’re not in it for the non-stop action; you’re getting a snippet of action here interspersed with some quiet moments.

There has to be a selfish angle to enduring this kind of activity because I am one of the laziest moms I know. Maybe I’m trying to live vicariously through my daughter; I did envy that friend in grade school who swam for a team at the country club.

Aside: Let me clarify that our swim organization is as far from a country club as one can get. I once overheard moms in a neighboring suburb scoff at our rinky-dink outdoor pools. My neighborhood pool reminds me of watching The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island on a huge television that was really a piece of furniture with rabbit-ear antenna and a V-hold knob. I love it.

More likely, I’m committed to this experience because I’ve made some wonderful women friends in suburbia, a place that can be treacherous in its competitive parenting. Believe me when I say that I tried NOT to make friends at the pool. I went in all “I’m not from here”; “I don’t do the PTA thing”; and “this is totally a cult.” Snarky is a label often leveled against me.

Aside: This strategy is not working so well in the search for a literary agent and publisher for my memoir. Apparently, an author is supposed to brand herself without using “anti” as a prefix.

The cynic in me ascribes my circle of swim team friends to our family’s purchase of a canopy tent, which we haul to meets, set up and take down. It sounds like a credit card commercial, but the $99 price tag cannot compete with the camaraderie it has fostered. Among 300 people, we stake a claim to a small patch of cement pool deck and create our own family room.

Aside: In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s character Jordan Baker observes: “And I like large parties. They’re so intimate.” Indeed. I’ve been knocked up twice (in the literary sense) under that canopy: first when a fellow mom encouraged me to share my growing-up in Utah stories; second, when I reflected on how my poolside friendships could shape the story line for a present-day thread.

While I’m spouting aphorisms regarding the communal nature of swim meets, I might as well use another that pertains to swim meets: “It takes a village.”

Aside: My loyal readers will note that this is the second reference to Hillary Rodham Clinton in my blog posts. No, she hasn’t phoned me to ask for my support in 2016. But she will….

Fellow moms pack food for my son who is too young to join the team, but eats his weight in snacks at each meet. Dads armed with Sharpies write heat and lane numbers on kids’ arms. A fine mist of sunscreen coats everyone within a 10 ft. radius.

Aside: One of my favorite David Sedaris essays recounts his experience on swim team as a kid. I’m not going to link to it here because it’s so good that you’ll read it and stop reading mine.

So far, my daughter is still into this whole experience. She eschews summer camps in favor of attending daily morning practices. She collects ribbons for the scrapbook that we’ve never gotten around to starting. She shivers in a towel after warms up, waiting for her first event to start. One day, she may figure out that this isn’t so fun. My contingency plan involves private swim lessons for my son in hopes that I can guarantee myself at least four more summers under our canopy.

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SUP?!?!

My kids are ridiculously athletic. Me, not so much…

Aside: Twenty years ago, my then-boyfriend, now-husband didn’t believe that I couldn’t ride a bike. While visiting his family in Wisconsin, he insisted that I borrow his sister’s bike for a spin around the neighborhood. I can “ride” in the sense that I can balance and push the pedals with my feet, so he was probably feeling quite smug as we coasted down his parents’ cul de sac onto a neighborhood street. He was likely basking in his victory when we turned left onto a street that actually connected to a street with real traffic. What he didn’t understand is that my brain freezes up when I am on a bike. When he hollered from behind that I should hang a left into the strip mall, he did not instruct me to yield to the on-coming car. Luckily, the car came to a dead stop; I did not.

I’m the only member of the family who doesn’t own a bike. It’s better that way. However, I do occasionally feel guilty about this parental shortcoming, which might explain why I suggested Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP) as a family activity.

Like all of my ideas, this sounded great initially. The problem with kids is they actually listen when you wish they wouldn’t. Once the suggestion left my mouth, it was a pinky-promise, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-stick-a-needle-in-my-eye affair.

Aside: Brainstorming is a great practice for a writer. I can turn ideas out on the page, test drive them for a paragraph or so, and turn off the ignition. This post, for instance, could have been about my return trip to Costco, or any of the conversations that I had with friends last week while eating Mediterranean food, sipping mimosas, or inhaling Korean pastries. Coincidentally, my three friends are all Kristinas, or more accurately, Kristina, Kristina, and Christina. But alas, the subject is SUP….

I see fun family activities as a way to keep my children from beating the crap out of each other and as a means for me to earn parental currency. For example, the next time my daughter complains about going to church, I can remind her that we skipped one Sunday and went SUP-ing.

Aside: I realize that line could cause an epic backfire. I’ll make sure to assess the situation before I bust that out.

The impending SUP outing was a carrot to dangle in front of my children. It’s rough when Santa Claus is holed up at the North Pole making toys in June. Any good bribe/threat requires an immediacy factor. “Do I need to cancel that SUP lesson for Sunday?” I asked anytime my children looked at me the wrong way.

The problems didn’t really arise until Sunday morning when my son woke up everyone at 6 a.m. yelling, “SUP!?!?” My brain registered, “Holy shit this is really happening. What was I thinking?” Images of me falling into the lake filled my head. Embarrassing myself in front of my family was one thing, but the thought of making a buffoon out of myself in front of our neighbor, the SUP instructor, unsettled me. What a bad idea…

Aside: I feel this way at some point while drafting an essay, or this post. Writers often claim that a muse visits them. That’s bullshit. Part of the creative process involves self-loathing: stepping back from your creation with a critical eye as if to say, “What the fuck did I do?” In this way, writing and mothering are very similar.

I did what any good parent and writer would do: I bullied myself into following through. The kids will be so disappointed if you back out. Then I reassured myself: our SUP instructor also volunteers as a certified adaptive snowboard instructor. Maybe he’s had a skier whose artificial leg came off while attached to a board. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing to have your prosthesis slip away on a black diamond run?

Aside: No offense to those with physical challenges. I’d throw my own mother under the bus to make myself feel better. For my literary readers, please note how Flannery O’Connor likely influenced this rogue limb fantasy.

Thus fortified, I drove our family to the lesson and listened intently when Steve Gurney explained that kids get a kick out of seeing their parents fall into the water. I interrupted, “When do they do that? When they’re trying to stand up?” My neighbor/SUP instructor said, “No, it most often involves them trying to help one of their kids.” With that comment, he offered me the magic pill: don’t try to help your children.

During the 90-minute excursion, my motto became “Each person for herself.” The children had life vests. Steve hung back with my son. My husband stayed close to our daughter. I practiced knelling, standing, paddling and balancing enough to avoid a dip in a rather murky lake.

Aside: According to a fiction professor in my MFA program who adhered to Chekov’s rules for short stories, a writer cannot introduce a gun without having it go off before the end. Sometimes real life follows these rules for fiction writing, but mostly not. This is one of those rare instances.

As I climbed off my SUP and crossed the rocky beach on bare feet, I breathed a sigh of relief. Safely on land, I watched my son flailing in a shallow mix of water and mud near some cattails. Instead of playing the buffoon, I got to calmly wade in to extract him. Win-win.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.

Photo courtesy of Surf Reston.