Try not to push

We spent the weekend poolside at the aquatic center as our 9 year-old daughter competed in the district championship meet. I always get teary-eyed when I go to meets: athletes inspire me, especially young athletes, and most especially my own young athlete. When I get emotional I like to scribble notes about my surroundings, and as I scratched descriptions in my notebook this weekend, I remembered a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, when our daughter entered the pool first time for stroke school, the pre-swim-team team.

“Ready… GO!” The blonde, freckled, 30-something coach is barefoot on the pool deck, his chinos rolled above his ankles. His pant legs are wet, despite his precautions.

“Ready… GO!” He watches a stopwatch, watches the deck clock, watches his yellow-capped, mirror-goggled swimmers race to the wall. They are five to a lane, their long, fast bodies occupying every inch of surface water. “Ready… GO!” His voice booms over the racket of splashing and cuts through the chlorinated air of the aquatic center. Swimmers power to the wall, one after another, and soak his cuffs as their feet rocket out of the water in flip turns. They glide underwater down the other side of the lane, then emerge, arms slapping, kicks rumbling.

“Ready… GO!” The entire pool rocks and churns, as if it were filled with sharks instead of swimmers. Sharks in a feeding frenzy, slapping the surface with their tails, rolling and snarling and frothing the water into a two foot chop.

Our seven year old daughter pays no attention to the older swimmers’ practice. She scans the pool deck, looking for her coach. “Mom, I think I see people from my group over there. Should I go over?” I nod to her and pat her arm encouragingly, then watch her little gymnast body, now clad in a racerback swimsuit, hot pink goggles dangling from her hand, as she strides to the other end of the pool.

“Ready… GO!” The amount of energy contained in these lanes makes me want to leap from my seat and do a thousand jumping jacks, or ride a bike up a mountain, or bench press 200 pounds. These swimmers are driven, powerful, disciplined. Everything we want for our daughter. They work together like a machine, one swimmer three feet in front of the next, breathe, stroke stroke, breathe, stroke stroke, flip at the wall, down the other side.

I am riveted. But we must tread carefully here. Our daughter is a natural athlete, lithe and flexible and very strong. When her gymnastics coach invited her to join the pre-competitive team, we were thrilled, and we signed her up. Only the pressure to excel was too intense for her. Her body was ready, but her psyche was not, and she came to dislike gymnastics, despite a natural talent for it. We don’t want to push her again.

“Good job! Good job!” The blonde coach is clapping, his rolled cuffs drenched by every athlete who makes a final lunge for the wall. With each “good job,” a swimmer finishes her workout, and a splash cycle disappears. The pool begins to calm. Swimmers pant, look over at the clock, up at their coach. The deafening roar quiets to a distinct splish here, a sploshing kick there, until there is just the swishing sound of water calming itself through lane lines, lapping against the side of the pool.

When our daughter gets in, I see her round cheeks and neon pink goggles as she hangs on the wall at the end of her lane. I smile and wave, and then laugh, remembering the day we bought her the goggles. She wore them on the couch while we read together. Three inches of clear strap flapped by her ears every time she turned her head. She was excited to transition from swim lessons to swim practice.

Her group’s laps begin, and the sound is like mullet jumping. Little splashes made with little arms. They are still five to a lane, but there are huge gaps between their tiny bodies. I see her bright pink eyewear, the clear strap flapping when she turns her head to breathe. I can distinguish her personal splash echoing in the acoustics of the aquatic center, making its way across the water to my heart.

Their coach speaks quietly to them when they reach the end of the pool. His jeans are rolled down, dry. Sunglasses hang around his neck from a neoprene strap. He crouches down to talk, forearms on knees, clasping his hands or gesturing. Lets these young ones catch their breath. When they are on their way again, he strolls around the pool to meet them at the other side.

At the end of practice, our daughter grins as her little wet feet slap towards me on the painted deck. My heart races at her joy. Then, tempering my enthusiasm, hiding my eagerness, I follow her coach’s calm lead. Gently, I ask, “How was it baby? Did you have fun?”

Six short stories to listen to right now

I was asked in a recent job interview, “What’s a major decision you would like another go on?”

I answered that I wouldn’t change anything. Every choice I’ve made in my life has led me to the point I’m at now. And I like my life now.

“But,” I went on, “If I HAD to choose, I would have studied literature instead of ecology.”

This is a regret I’ve had for a long time, that I missed my chance to dedicate massive amounts of time to consuming and discussing books with smart people who cared.

At 20 I was not self-aware. I didn’t know myself well enough in my college years to study the thing I love most. Reading was like eating to me — it was not optional — and so I was oblivious to the fact that literature was a passion and not a basic necessity.

But, as I said in my interview, my life would have taken a different turn had I chosen the literary path. I would not be married to my husband. I would not have my children. I would not have the dream job I now have.

Thankfully, to stand in for those classes I did not take, there is the New Yorker: Fiction podcast. Hosted by New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, this podcast highlights the best of the best of the short story. Each month an esteemed writer chooses a story from the archives of The New Yorker, reads it aloud, and then discusses it with editor Deborah Triesman. The discussions help sate the cravings of my literature-degree daydream: Triesman and the reading-writer contemplate what makes it a good story, they examine craftsmanship, they attempt to tease out meaning, and –- most importantly for writers -– their dialogues provide insight into the mind and inclinations of a high-quality fiction editor.

I’ve been binging on New Yorker podcast stories lately, re-listening to ones that struck me hard the first time around, and want to share my favorite six with you. I love these not only for the stories themselves, but for the conversations around them as well:

  • Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” read by A. M. Homes. Aired Nov 12, 2008.
  • Carson McCullers’s “The Jockey,” read by Karen Russell. Aired Jan 14, 2010.
  • Raymond Carver’s “Chef’s House,” read by David Means. Aired Oct 15, 2010.
  • John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” read by Anne Enright. Aired Feb 17, 2011.
  • Nadine Gordimer’s “City Lovers,” read by Tessa Hadley. Aired Sep 05, 2012.
  • Elizabeth Taylor’s “The Letter Writers,” read by Paul Theroux. Aired Jan 03, 2014.