Tuesday, June 24, 2008

High Dives and Monkey Bars

Trapeze - Patty Griffin (mp3)
The Wrong Child - R.E.M. (mp3)
In My Tree - Matthew Sweet (mp3)

Had a melancholy moment with my daughters last night. We were driving back from Ringgold, emerging from the Fourth Circle of Hell otherwise known as "a swim meet," and they asked me if I'd ever been on a high dive. The only high dives they've ever seen were on the Olympic Trials we watched last night. They've never actually seen one in person.

"Was it fun?" my older daughter asked me.

As usual, I probably overthought my answer before just being honest, worrying that my honest "Yes, it was very fun" answer was salt in the wound, reminding them of joys they'd never have.

"What was it like? Was it scary?"

It was scary. It was exhilarating. Most of the fun was trying to decide what kind of flying leap you had the nerve to take while you were climbing up that steep ladder, then standing on the edge of that board for a gut-check. To dive, or do a flip, or just take the coward's way out and do a "pencil" or run flailing off the edge, hoping the silliness would disguise your hesitance to do something more skillful.

The high dive was an awesome rite of passage. That water seemed a looooong way down as a kid. It seemed even higher up when you'd see some adult -- usually a mother -- get up there and have trouble working up the gumption to jump.

What I didn't tell my girls -- not yet -- was that I fell off the back of a high dive when I was eight years old. After a year of swim lessons and regular visits to the neighborhood pool, I had finally worked up the nerve to dive off the high dive. It took a few minutes, but I finally managed, and even received a 3.4 from the East German judge.

Having successfully done it, I was in such a rush to repeat the miracle that I raced up the ladder a little too quickly, and as I reached for the rail at the top, my hand slipped, and I fell backward.

It's amazing how quickly your brain can shut down. That one split second in time, of my hand slipping away from that rail, feels like several minutes in my memory. I couldn't have been in the air for more than a second or two, but I don't remember any of the actual fall. I never even felt myself crunch against the concrete.

The only things I remember before starting to wake up is the nervous reaction of my mother, who was so frightened she couldn't even scream. She whimpered. And I could hear it as she leaped from her lawn chair. My biological father died when I was a couple of days old, and Mom never hid the fact that her single greatest fear in the world was losing me. The sound I recall coming from her is a lot more chilling now than it was back then.

Turns out blacking out saved me a few broken bones at the very least. I landed so completely flat against the concrete that I got up with only a few minor scratches and nothing else. We didn't sue. We didn't even cancel our membership. We were back at the pool the next week. No measures were put in place to make the high dive safer. No warnings were posted that one should grab the hand rail carefully, that no one should go too quickly up the ladder. The judgment was made, fairly quickly, that user error was the root of my accident.

By the time I was 10, I was joining my friend Andy and other pals at his pool, doing really stupid things. He had a curved slide that went eight or so feet down into the water, but mostly what they did was climb to the top and jump in. The really daring moments required you to stand on top of the handrail before jumping.

Someone really could've hurt themselves. Especially a massive klutz like myself. But we never did, other than a few bruises or scrapes from hitting the pool bottom too hard on occasion.

When I start thinking back to my childhood, there wasn't much of any of it that hasn't been deemed, by one group or another, as Too Dangerous. Riding dirt bikes 10 miles, across several four-lane high-speed roads, to the local movie theater. Fighting in bottle rocket wars. Playing "joust" on our bikes with baseball bats. Watching HBO when my parents weren't around. Hell, even playing Dungeons & Dragons.

And those adventures that weren't deemed dangerous were flat-out demolished. Like high dives. Monkey bars. Sitting in the floorboard of the back seat of your parents' car on the trip to the grandparents or the beach, playing with your Star Wars figures.

Where do kids today find healthy ways to explore that gray area of Acceptable Risk? The very nature of growing up, of maturing, requires that kids and teenagers test boundaries, take flying leaps, push red buttons. Part of growing up is learning that sometimes parents and other adults were right on about warnings, and sometimes maybe they weren't.

Lately it seems like adults, with heavy assistance from hungry attorneys, are working to sanitize the entire fucking planet. Gone is the notion of acceptable risk, replaced by "if it hurts even one child, it's too dangerous." I'm honestly surprised swimming pools are still permitted at all, with the crippling power of the anecdote and its value in the news media over actual statistics.

My daughters are oddly fortunate, however. The school campus on which I live includes something affectionately known as "The Tower," a huge concrete platform that soars some 20+ feet above the surface of the water. If it was a rare treasure 20 years ago, now it's a rat that has somehow survived in a cage full of velociraptors. I'd like to say The Tower will survive another 20 years, but the cynical side of me doesn't even give it another five. A boy had to be taken to the hospital a couple of weeks ago after slipping and falling off the concrete structure.

The lifeguards responded quickly. All of the precautionary measures in place worked. But he was hospitalized. The first injury we've had on The Tower in at least four or five summers and four or five school years, with thousands of boys, thousands of kids running and leaping from it every day from late April until September.

But one injury might be all it takes in today's world. The notion that kids will be kids and that sometimes being a kid can hurt... well, that's not acceptable.


jbradburn said...

Good stuff on the high diving board. I think it tells us all we need to know about how society has really shunned "personal responsibility" in that high dives were removed because of the prevalence of lawsuits. Don't worry, it will only get worse. Sure, being forced to wear your seat belt, not being allowed to smoke in bars, not being allowed to serve food w/ Transfats(or whatever that fun-loving mayor bloomberg banned) - it seems as if our goal today is to allow every individual to live as long as he can possibly, rather than living his life and he'd like to live it. (Unless, of course, your killed by a convicted felon or terrorist who is moving freely about due the miles and miles of red tape required to process these folks.)

But it's all short-sighted - because what happens if we don't allow nature to thin more of the herd than it wants? Well, we're kind of seeing it...most will end up in some nursing home, taking $1000.00 worth of meds each, not knowing the names of those around us and those dearest to them.

Bob said...

John McCain will make those swimming towers safe for our kids again.

Daytimerush said...

Enjoy life. High dives, monkey bars, tall trees, the roof of your house, the back of a station wagon, real butter, real sugar, alcohol, sex.
There is a bit of risk in all of them, but would you want to go through life without experiencing each one????