Just Dive In, They Say

[3-minute read]

I don’t want to just dive in to water, and I don’t care if I’m the “last one in…[and] a rotten egg!”. Bodies of water larger than a bathtub are not my best friends, and besides, I don’t just dive in to nearly anything.

Which is strange, because I love beginnings, the freshness of unstained hope not yet wracked by reality.¹ I think “diving in” reminds me of a future that I deny. Go jump in the lake can mean, in the wrong mind, I hope you die soon. Some of my resistance to jumping into water I can’t see the bottom of, I begin to glumly theorize, arises from my diffidence about death. It doesn’t feel like dread, not quite, but I do sense my unpreparedness. Strange waters or familiar, they feel like a presentiment of extinction. This explains a lot of things.

¹ I wish this applied to writing, though. The terror of the start, the Thing Not Yet Begun, still is not and maybe never will be quite overcome by the eventual flow of production and the relieved delight of having written. I often say, “Reading (or writing, and probably ‘rithmatic for that matter!) is like running; you have to build your stamina and skill to make it a positive habit.” I guess swimming is like writing, too, except that I don’t imagine ever being competent in water and, whatever my writing resistances are, I don’t dread imminent death when I scribble.

Some of this nervous distaste for getting in over my head, not just metaphorically but literally, is less abstract. It comes from my blasted confidence while in water, a feeling of drifting towards doom that may have begun with (and was certainly stoked by) a childhood failure at lessons in my small town’s cracked outdoor pool. It was simple stuff that the mermaids in blue one-piece bathers were asking of me, but I couldn’t do it. Ever since, a lake or pool or pond is above all a glorious thing to get out of, to put sand or clay or concrete underfoot again, to gaze from solid ground on the seductive beauty of water in motion, water still, water frozen and forever. I love looking at water. I stare at it, fascinated, confirmed to find it in front of me, not over my head.

Diving in, on my preferred footing of metaphor, is letting go of my dried-out conventions and certainties, which is hard to do. I can admit to the occasional thrill when literally doing so, in Actual Water. When hot, even if unbothered, crashing into coolness is a lively shock, and I don’t flounder right away. I just hang there, most of me under the surface. From the hindsight of a desk, I wonder why a man with more than sufficient body fat won’t float with more ease. But suspended in a cold, thought-stunning brew, I always play dead for a while,

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Start Spreadin’ the…

You asked for it.  (Photo by Getty Images)

You asked for it.
(Photo by Getty Images)

WHAT, spreading the NEWS? (I hear you, Mr. Sinatra.) It IS big news this morning.

…rumours? Everybody has his theory, everyone has her opinion. They’re like anuses, as the saying is.

…wings? A new freedom for the ordinary people of America? The victory of the Little Guy against the Political Elites? (How a millionaire’s son convinced millions that he is One of Them is breathtaking stuff, people.)

um, other sorts of wings? Air Canada B&B? Should I be advertising the small extra bedroom in my basement at inflated prices? Are the promised (or threatened?) refugees from this American election already lining up to emigrate to the Civilized North?

…fear and alarm? Ladies and gentlemen: President Trump! And listen: never doubt the ability of frightened people to do things against their own best interests.

…spreadin’ the Jello™? I remember a time when Bill Cosby was the Biggest Joker and not the Supreme Punchline, and this morning I recall his “Chickenheart” bit. It was a long, woolly tale of his childhood, in which his solution to the delicious but overwhelming terror he felt at listening to scary tales on the radio was, yes, to smear Jello on the floor so that when the evil Chickenheart That Ate Philadelphia got to Cos’s place, he’d slip and fall down. Start smearin’ the goos… (If you still don’t get this reference, repeat that line to the tune of Paul Anka’s (Frank Sinatra’s) “New York, New York”, where Hillary Clinton is even now binge-eating Ben & Jerry’s in her fuzzy Barbie pyjamas.)


Yeah, I’m shuddering, shaking my head in disbelief, pulling out my copy of Charles Pierce’s Idiot America (of which, here is “premise no. 3”: “Anything can be true if someone says it loud enough”). Pierce’s book wasn’t intended to say that all Americans are dumb, though my scary radio show in Ottawa this morning was filled with Canadians incredulizing ả la “How could they elect somebody like that? How could they be so stoopid?” And I go back to 1960s Cosby, when he links the Chickenheart story to another long childhood reminiscence of what happens to an innocent wino who gets run over by a wildly spooked Fat Albert. In the hospital emergency room of Cosby’s ridiculously funny (and rather sweet) story, his Jello-stained father commiserates with the steam-rolled wino, agreeing that terrified people are pretty hard to deal with…

So I’m whistling in the dark. I’m writing headlines, some of which amuse me.

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Some Poor Sap in a Big-Box Store (on mis-education & fear)

So there I was, looking for a little brainless recreation, a (slightly) guilty pleasure that doesn’t expand the horizons of my waistline. It was the latest edition of Sports Illustrated, which is about sports (and has lots of photos). I thought I’d be reading about football and basketball, and I was, but I wasn’t far into a profile on an NCAA hoopster I’d never heard of before I got slapped in the face with a frozen sociocultural mackerel.

Honest, I wasn’t planning on extracting any Higher Meaning from this piece. Luke Winn tells the story of Alan Williams, a master of one of the less glamourous aspects of basketball, rebounding. Snaring missed shots is deeply important to successful teams (and even more to unsuccessful ones, like the one I’m trying to coach these days), not to mention under-valued. I thought maybe I’d try to convince a few of my players to read his story and learn from his approach, with no great expectations or hopes even on that lukewarm front.

But then this chunk of backstory happened: Williams, as a nine-year-old, offers himself as a translator for a Hispanic man in a Toys “R” Us. (Deep prejudices leapt forward from the shadows: I used to call the place Toys “R” Satan when my kids were young, because it was a hellish place to take little boys. I swore I’d never enter one again, and so far I’m good, something like 23 straight years.) Alan Williams is black, and his parents are prominent in the legal and law enforcement communities of Phoenix, Arizona.

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John Steinbeck (On Fear, Self-Doubt and Creativity)

[In writing Of Mice and Men] “the biggest problem is a resolution of the will. The rewards of work are so sickening to me that I do more with the greatest reluctance….It is strange how this goes on. The struggle to get started. Terrible. It always happens….I am afraid. Among other things I feel that I have put some things over. That the little success of mine is cheating. I don’t seem to feel that any of it is any good. All cheating.”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) had, by this time (1936) broken through as a writer, and the monumental The Grapes of Wrath was also in progress. As I take another tour through Of Mice and Men, it is oddly heartening to hear a Nobel Prize-winner lament his lack of will, and his conviction that his stuff jus’ ain’t what it oughta be. And yet, though he mutters in his journal that he finds it “sickening”, on he plods. This quote comes from the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by the Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw.

Eric Hoffer (on fearsome & fearful enemies)

“You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.”

I don’t know an awful lot about Eric Hoffer, or about where and when I came across this quote. Perhaps it was the one memorable line in another’s book, one that I’ve forgotten, but this citation has stayed in my mind. And now that, shamed by the ignorance I’ve confessed here, I know a little more about this mainly self-taught American intellectual (and migrant worker) and philosopher (who worked for decades as a longshoreman), I’m hungry to know more. His most famous book, published in 1951, was called The True Believer.

In my immediate surroundings, I can’t help but think of another quote, from my buddy Joe Pearce, that “China is a fear-based society”. Observing the alternating fear and boredom that oppress my Chinese students and friends, I try to determine what is their “enemy” — “fear itself”, the Roosevelts might have argued — and what that enemy, be it philosophical, historical, or institutional, most fears.

I fear that this is about to turn into an excuse not to write what I was going to write, so here I end.

(Fear is a Good Teacher)

BLURT 21: Fear and self-loathing in Hong Kong, Guangdong, Yunnan, over an insignificant promise that terrifies me so that I’m writing THIS instead of THAT.

How Long Will That Take in Old-Dog Years?

In the spirit of The Revolution Starts…Now, Steve Earle’s Grammy-winning 2004 album, I proposed, back in the spring, a more selfish and less significant transformation. I decided, well, I planned, um, hoped, okay, speculated idly about the possibility of maybe learning to play guitar. (You can read the whole messy rationale for this new project here. It’s in On Second Thought.) You know, the revolution starts…someday. And [gulp] today’s the day.

I’ve paid attention to guitar players closely for a long time, starting with Chicago’s Terry Kath, who was the gritty soul of their brilliant first two albums. (My rabid teenaged fandom, I have found in my (relative) maturity, was not as embarrassing as I’d feared. They turned to Peter Cetera pop pap, but they started out as a real rock band with horns. Lyrically, they were never a powerhouse, though Robert Lamm had his moments, and their early years were infused with the peaceful and transformational spirit of the anti-Vietnam age. We dedicate ourselves to the revolution in all its forms, unfortunately, had morphed into Sweet sixteen, mighty fine in your tight blue jeans before the seventies were out. Don’t get me started about Chicago, though.) Some Walsh, some early Santana, a little Clapton and Page, Byrne and Strummer, and any number of blues players headed up by the lamented and incomparable Roy Buchanan. (Kath and Buchanan: tawdry and ridiculous deaths. I love their picking, not their choices.)

I do go on, but here’s the thing. I’ve decided the revolution does start now, and it scares me to death. And you get to follow along, kiddies, if you have the taste for it. I’m going to get a guitar. I’m going to get some guidance. I’m going to play every day for a year. Tomorrow is the launch, and my pad is the pad. If music or learning interest you, if the midlife twists of an old dog trying to learn a new trick strike any chords, you may want to follow along. I’m going to post this pilgrim’s progress in On Second Thought daily. (It’s mostly for longer finished pieces, but they’ll be easily found in the archives, if you’ve become addicted to Howdenilia.) They’ll be short takes, and they’ll have some distinguishing mark so you can read it preferentially or avoid it like the bird flu. This should be fun, but I think it’ll be frustrating as hell. I expect all of you to hold me to this slightly ridiculous vow.

The ongoing account of my mid-life quest for guitar glory begins here.