Apr. 5, 2011

Teaching My Husband to Swim

by Jacqueline Berger

Usually I'm the one who knows nothing,
frozen at the computer while my husband
tries to talk me through.
But this morning at the inn where we've come
to celebrate our second anniversary,
he tells me how many people in the past
have tried and failed to teach him how to swim.
I throw my suit on and grab our towels.
This is something I know I can do.
We've already been in the pool—a late afternoon
dip when we got here, me doing laps
and my husband dog paddling beside me,
his head above water, or holding his breath
the length of the pool before coming up for air.
Now I stand by the side, pulling my elbows back
and turning my head to demonstrate the crawl.
The fog has burned off the valley
and the pool shines, set off by the vineyards
whose grapes in another month
will be ready for harvest.
My husband in the pool tries to follow what I'm showing
but yanks his head to the surface, coughing water.
I get in with him and we discuss the mechanics
of breathing. He doesn't know about exhaling
through the nose under water, never learned
the significance of making bubbles.
It's a revelation. I send him
back and forth across the pool and it works.
He's swimming. Each time his face comes up
as his arm draws back,
the O of his mouth looks like wonder
or terror. We move on to the breast stroke,
and his head, like a needle stitching cloth,
gathers the water in the thick folds.
I stand off to the side coaching,
triumphant but careful to let the victory be his.
An ironic high five when we get out of the water
is all he wants to signify the occasion.
In the delicate economy of marriage
giving costs less than receiving,
the thin wire of power
threaded through the soft body of need.
We're ready for a hot bath
and both fit in the large tub in our room
where we lather our bodies and hair,
passing the soap between us.

"Teaching My Husband to Swim" by Jacqueline Berger, from The Gift that Arrives Broken. © Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1895, Oscar Wilde (books by this author) lost his criminal libel case against John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde was the author of many works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Douglas was the father of Wilde's lover, the poet Lord Alfred Douglas.

Douglas had scribbled on one of his calling cards that Wilde was a sodomite and left it for Wilde to find. He misspelled it — it actually read "somdomite" — but Wilde sued him for libel anyway, partly to demonstrate his superior wit in a public space. And when Douglas's lawyer asked Wilde if a certain story that had recently been published was immoral, Wilde responded: "It was worse; it was badly written."

Wit could not protect him, though. He lost the libel trial, was found guilty of "gross indecency" for homosexual practices, and was jailed for two years without bail, which caused him to go bankrupt.

It's the anniversary of the death of Kurt Cobain, the front man of the influential alternative band Nirvana, who shot and killed himself in the guesthouse of his home in Seattle, Washington (1994). He was 27.

In the note he left, he wrote: "I still can't get over the frustration, the guilt and empathy I have for everyone. There's good in all of us and I think I simply love people too much."

On this day (1984) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored point number 31,420, breaking Wilt Chamberlain's record and making himself the highest-scoring NBA player ever, a record he still holds to this day. It was during a game against the Utah Jazz. He took a pass from Magic Johnson, whirled, put up his trademark "sky-hook" shot, and drew nothing but net. He was 37.

He retired five years later after scoring 6,967 more points.

It's the birthday of Thomas Hobbes (books by this author), born in Westport, Wilshire, England (1588). He is considered to be the father of modern political philosophy.

His uncle had money, and Hobbes was intellectually gifted, so he made it to Oxford. He won a post tutoring the son of an important noble family. During the civil wars of England, he fled for his life to France, where he continued to teach and study. He was a scientist, a mathematician, a translator of the classics, and a writer on the law.

But his thoughts on morality and politics are what we remember him for. He argued that all people are equal, but that we pursue our own self-interest, and so we are all at war with each other. He argued that in order to gain some security for ourselves as individuals, we will give up some of our rights to government. He believed government should protect us from our own selfishness, and that we should reject any government that doesn't. The best government, he said, would have the power of a sea monster — a leviathan — which is the name of his most famous book.

In Leviathan (1651) he wrote, "There is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind while we live here; because life itself is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear, no more than without sense."

It's the birthday of the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (books by this author), born in London (1837) to a family so wealthy he never had to work. He wrote poetry that was considered scandalous during the Victorian Era but doesn't come close to scandalous now. It was technically excellent in meter and intensely lyrical, but sometimes the words didn't make much sense.

What he liked was musical language, and to shock people. While at Oxford, he became notorious for gallivanting around at night, screaming blasphemous things to God. His collection Poems and Ballads (1866) contained poems about sadism and vampires. When he read his poems, he would sometimes jump around the room. He was personally accused of sadism, nihilism, masochism, bestiality, and bisexuality, all of which he accepted. Still, Oscar Wilde considered him a poseur. And even still, he was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature in 1909.

It's the birthday of the American crime and suspense writer Robert Bloch (books by this author), born in Chicago (1917). He wrote many stories, novels, and screenplays, but he is best known for creating the psychopathic killer Norman Bates in his novel Psycho (1959), which was adapted into the famous film by Alfred Hitchcock.

When he was nine, Block saw a Lon Chaney movie, and he slept with the light on for a long time afterward. While still in high school, he started a correspondence with the writer H.P. Lovecraft, who encouraged him to write his own stories. He sold his first to Weird Tales magazine when he was 17.

During the Depression, Bloch worked as a full-time writer because there was no other work to be had. He wrote horror, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and psychological thrillers, often using comedy in his stories. He said, "Comedy and horror are opposite sides of the same coin."

He almost quit writing when he was 41 because he felt he had nothing to show for it and his wife was sick with tuberculosis. But he hit it big with Psycho (1959), a novel about a seemingly normal member of a community who has absorbed the personality of his dead mother — and "Mother" is in charge. That same year he won the prestigious Hugo Award for his short story "That Hell-Bound Train."

Bloch told a biographer: "I discovered, much to my surprise — and particularly if I was writing in the first person — that I could become a psychopath quite easily. I could think like one and I could devise a manner of unfortunate occurrences. So I probably gave up a flourishing, lucrative career as a mass murderer."

He was often heard saying, "I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a jar on my shelf."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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