For most youngsters, weekends are a time to sleep in, relax, and have fun. Growing up, for my sister and I, it was anything but. My parents signed us up for so many extracurricular activities – judo, yoga, bomb disposal – that they’d drop us off early Saturday morning and we wouldn’t see them again until late Sunday night. Part of me wants to believe it was born of a concerted effort to make us more rounded individuals, but I suspect it was really just a way of getting us out of the house.
This was especially true during the summers when my sister and I would have to take full advantage of our membership at a local pool. Full advantage in this case meant getting there for the 10:00 a.m. opening and staying there until 5:00 p.m. closing – every weekday and every weekend, rain or shine (It was up to the pool authorities to decide whether it was too dangerous to swim and, more often than not, they were spot judgement calls that required us to be on standby, quite literally standing by the pool house, for the green light). If we were ever late leaving the house, came home early, or lingered too long at lunch (we had approximately 40 minutes, like in most Japanese prisons), they’d suggest the one hundred dollars spent on the pool membership had been wasted and that, maybe, next year they would have to reconsider the expense. And so, duly chastised, my sister and I would trudge back – she with her nose plugs, goggles, and bathing cap, an ensemble that gave her the appearance of a subaquatic creature (in a one-piece dark blue swim suit) every time she broke surface; me with my goggles, Raiders towel, and whatever book I’d brought along to rescue me from the prospect of terminal pruning.
Truth be told, for all the time we spent at Heights Swimming Pool, I spent very little time in the actual pool, preferring to read or chat with friends over braving the crowd. I remember once standing poolside for a good fifteen minutes, waiting for an opening in the churning sea of bodies before deciding “What the hell” and jumping in, quite literally, feet first. I recall the coolness of the water, then the yielding softness of some hapless swimmer’s back as I unwittingly pinned her to the bottom of the pool.
Given all the opportunities, it’s surprising that I didn’t actually learn to swim until my early teen years. Before that, much of my pool time was spent wading, lounging, and participating in (dare I say it) horseplay. At some point, my father got fed up and paid for private lessons. Every Friday night, I’d go to the Pointe Claire YMCA where Gary, my instructor, would attempt to initiate me in the mechanics of swimming. It was a slow frustrating process. For him, I mean. Whereas my sister was a natural, mastering and honing her skills early enroute to attaining that loftiest of swimmer’s achievements, the position of summer lifeguard, I was about as comfortable in the water as C-3PO making love for the first time. I’d thrash my legs wildly, splash about, and generally try to avoid getting any of the corrosive pool water in my eyes. And, all the while, my father would sit forlornly up in the bleachers, watching and waiting. And then, one night, it happened. Gary cancelled late (I like to think that he’d finally given up and was going to let us down easy by maybe faking his own death, until he heard about my abrupt turnaround) and I decided to spend the hour going over what I’d learned. I lowered myself into the deep end, steeled myself, pushed off from the ladder and, suddenly, I was treading water. The treading became a breaststroke and, before I knew it, I was swimming. I swam all the way to the other side of the pool. Then I swam back. Then I swam front crawl. Then backstroke. By hour’s end, I pulled myself out of the pool to find my father waiting for me. Bursting with pride, he congratulated me. And handed me five dollars.
In addition to all the swimming, there were the piano lessons. When my sister and I first started, our instructor had done me the great disservice of informing my mother I had “piano fingers”. I’m not sure what that meant exactly but was fairly certain that its marked characteristics would have suited any of various other descriptors like, say, “surgeon fingers” or “origami fingers” or “pick pocket fingers”. To my mother, however, it denoted a genetic predisposition to musical genius. And so, while my sister, with her short, inelegant fingers better suited to t.v. remote manipulation, got a pass, I was pressured to make the most of my God-given talent.
Next to trampoline week in Phys. Ed., there was nothing I hated more and, perhaps sensing this, my instructor prescribed a practice regimen to help things along: thirty minutes a day for the six days between lessons. I was given a special chart to take home that my mother was to check off and sign at the end of each week. “You probably won’ t be able to practice for half an hour every single day,”my piano teacher conceded. “Some days a little more; some days a little less. Just as long as you get your hours in.” I returned home, my seven year old self embittered by the prospect of all this piano practice cutting into my non-existent plans. I mean, sure, my week was pretty wide open but what if something came up on Friday afternoon and I’d have to miss out on account of that final half hour owing? Well, the solution became readily apparent. I could just front load my practice at the beginning of the week and have the rest of the week free – just in case. And so, the following day, I sat down in front of our home piano – an antique, discordant monstrosity so enormous that it probably necessitated the house be built around it – and started banking practice time. Thirty minutes, then sixty, then an hour and a half. After two hours, I was beyond exhausted. Dazed, fingers cramped, I played on. Two and a half hours in, I had attained an otherworldly transcendence, what the Native Americans call “a vision quest”. I was one with the music, the metronome, and my poodle, Snoopy’s, sporadic howls. At one point, I was floating above it all like one of those out-of-body experiences where the spirit of the soon-to-be-undeceased looks down at himself and thinks “Poor sonovabitch”. And then, finally, it was over. Three and a half hours later. I trotted upstairs, had mom sign my practice schedule – which she did without even bothering to ask what the hell she was signing – and had the rest of the week off. I thought it a brilliant plan; my piano teacher less so when she checked out my practice schedule the following day.
Eventually, I grew tired of the piano and, after considerable thought, elected to stand up to my mother and tell her I was giving it up. It was my first adult decision. And a memorable one. I told her I was quitting. She burst into tears and tore my piano exercise book in half. My little sister cried. I apologized. The next day, my mother bought me a new piano exercise book and assured me that it would be our little secret and she would not be telling my dad what had happened.
It was another two years before I quit for good.