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Diving with the manchild

by Brian Clarey

The kid needs to learn how to dive. There’s no two ways about it.

He needs to pick up a few other skills as well:

the scissor kick, the overhand stroke, the flip turn, how to take a breath without stopping his forward momentum. All of that, I believe, will come in time.

But none of that will matter if he can’t get into the pool headfirst.

My oldest son has joined the swim team, a decision that was mostly his idea, though I admit I made the initial suggestion. If he wasn’t interested, I told myself, I was not going to push it — few things are sadder than a kid whose father is forcing him to play sports.

But he was amenable to the idea. Eager, even. And “eager” is not a word I use often to describe my oldest son.

My firstborn is the fourteeniest 11-year-old I know, prematurely entering the aggravated malaise of his teenage years, both physically and mentally. Since last summer he has grown perhaps a foot, making him roughly the same size as his mother and taller than both of his grandmothers. It is clear that he will one day be taller than me, a day for which he holds barely concealed enthusiasm. Wiry hair has sprouted from his legs and his toes. His toes! And just the other day I noticed the barest whisper of a mustache. At some point this summer, he will have his first shave.

And then there is his attitude, coming along, regrettably, in much the same way as his old man’s did, though I was a good bit older than he before I began to suspect that I knew everything there was to know.

I can tell by his posture and the roll of his eyes that he’s convinced his parents are dullards who are wrong about everything, from table manners to hygiene to study habits. I read from his stony silences that he’s pretty sure he’s a couple steps ahead of us, and that the only way we’ll figure out his sinister plans — to avoid housework, finagle more video-game and sleep time, cadge more than his share of snacks from the pantry — will be purely by accident. I know that he knows I may be onto him, but he doesn’t know that I know this.

I realize that writing about this boy — for he is still a boy, no matter how he sees himself — could prove embarrassing for him, traumatic even. His threshold for unease has dropped to a remarkably low level in recent years. But so great is his apathy towards me and the thing I do to keep the pantry filled with snacks, I am reasonably certain he will never, ever read these words.

I rarely meet anyone less impressed with a man who gets his picture and name in the paper every week.

But now, this summer, he needs me and he knows it. Because I know how to dive and he doesn’t.

I honestly can’t remember how I learned to dive. I grew up on an island — it was Long Island, but still…. when a kid is surrounded by water, he’s basically part fish. I could swim in the ocean before I could ride a bike, could catch a wave and take it to shore before I could hit a baseball. I intuitively understood the physics of aquatics in a way that my oldest son does not.

He has to be taught. I have my strengths as a father. For one, I am still around, unlike so many biological dads of my generation. I also know how to pick good toys and cool video games. I can cook what my kids like to eat. I know how to make my kids laugh, and I always know precisely the right time to stop for ice cream.

But I have never been one of those dads who can patiently teach his kid the basics of a sport. I have neither the skill nor the patience, and it doesn’t help when the student has a fundamental mistrust of the teacher.

We’re working on that dynamic, starting this summer. With the dive. It began over the weekend with an awkward moment perched at the side of a rippling, blue pool, still imbued with a spring chill. We started simply.

“Just fall in headfirst,” I said. He just looked at me, practically level with my eyes. “Watch,” I said, and proceeded to show him how easy it was to leap of the side, head follows hands, feet follow head.

We went at it for a few minutes, inching painstakingly toward success.

When he was able to will himself to break the water’s surface with his head, we moved on to the low diving board.

“Just go to the end and fall in,” I suggested. He tried. I’ll give him that, but at the last minute he pulled back. I understand. Diving can be scary, even for a boy at the cusp of manhood.

And we’ve got all summer to practice. Before the Fourth of July, I predict, he’ll be slipping through the water like an otter. And if I know my boy, he’ll act like he’s known how to do it all his life.

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