My six-year-old and I were hunkered down in the shallow end of the splash pool, our eyes on the big kids lining up at the edge of the lap pool. One by one, they jumped on a pedestal, took hold of the thick rope the lifeguard handed them, sailed out over the water like Tarzan and then, splash! It looked like a blast.
I want to try that, I thought.
But a whistle blast from a lifeguard interrupted the fun and the pool was ordered emptied.
“What happened?” my daughter asked. I wasn’t sure. We watched as lifeguards clustered together on the deck, pointing into the water and murmuring to each other. One of them walked off and came back with a net on a long pole, a bucket and a bottle of bleach.
The unlucky lifeguard dipped the net in the water and brought the contents to the bucket, then doused the net with bleach and repeated the process. Someone had pooped in the pool.
At the time, I was collecting mental lego pieces for my first kid’s novel. Little interesting tidbits like my friend who found a litter of kittens under his lawn mower, or the time I saw someone in my neighborhood driving around with two pygmy goats in the back of their station wagon. (Right now you’re thinking, where does she live? Portland. I live in Portland, Oregon.) I harvested the best of what I heard and observed to weave into my plot.
And so the Tarzan rope became a central challenge for one of my characters, seven-year-old Anand. His first attempt doesn’t go so well (think awful rope burn) and he spends the rest of the summer trying to get strong enough to swing without humiliating himself. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it must feel like to swing on the rope; trying to put myself in Anand’s head during his initial clumsy attempt and his ultimate triumph.
The next time we were at the pool, for my daughter’s seventh birthday party, I looked around. There were lots of moms and dads from my daughter’s class at the party. People I see everyday but don’t know incredibly well. It’s intimidating enough to be in your bathing suit in front of such people.
I thought of how assiduously adults avoid things that might make them look foolish. Was I willing to scamper up onto that pedestal and sail my foolish ass over the water in the name of book research?
I looked at my daughter, who eyed the rope swingers with admiration, yet didn’t feel ready to try herself, having not yet mastered the deep end.
“I’m going to do it,” I told her.
I hopped out of the water and onto the pool deck, and stood dripping and shivering in line behind a bunch of grade schoolers. While I felt a little awkward climbing onto the pedestal, once up there I grabbed the rope confidently, pushed off with my feet, lifted my knees, and swung out over the water, feeling the cheap thrill of height and speed. Then I let go…splash!
Plunged under the water, I was transported back into my childhood. I’d forgotten that feeling of not knowing quite how deep you are, but instinctively making climbing motions until you pop through to the surface.
Several parents clapped and gave me a “Right on!” as I swam to the edge. Best of all, my daughter exclaimed, “I can’t believe you did that!” Her tone was all admiration.
If I’d been at an adult only pool party, with only peers watching, I’d have felt like a dork. But with my daughter’s proud eyes on me, I felt ridiculously brave. To my surprise, whether you think of yourself as a fool or hero sometimes depends on who is watching.