The Things We Do to Graduate…
Back in August 2010, the extremely cool Janet Buttenwieser brought the Polar Bear Plunge to our NILA residency at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island.*
Janet excels at infectious enthusiasm and, accompanied by a few like-minded individuals, she organized more than a dozen people willing to fling their barely-clad flesh into cold waters of Puget Sound. I came along to watch and cheer, and I had to admit, they did seem to enjoy themselves. They also claimed that the water, while cold, was as many as a dozen degrees above freezing.
Perhaps stricken by the madness of the crowd, I suggested that I might be willing to essay such a thing the following year, though I would wait until the August residency. Whatever possessed them was not strong enough to persuade me that January was a reasonable option.
Come August 2011, I forgot my swim trunks. And I honestly did forget them. I intended to bring them so that I would have the option, whatever I might decide. The Whidbey Polar Bear Jump proceeded without me, though my thesis advisor Bruce Holland Rogers suggested that, in the future, perhaps taking the plunge should be a requirement for graduation.
I wonder sometimes how a rule like that would affect enrollment.
The Whidbey Polar Bear Plunge was mentioned again on Facebook a couple of months ago, and Bruce once more reminded his thesis students that it might become a requirement for graduation.** I brought my swimsuit.
About halfway through the residency the day arrives, the last class ends and I run to my car for my towel. I hurry into the inn, find an open bathroom stall and promptly discover that I left my swimsuit in the car. Back down the stairs, across the parking lot, grab the suit, then flee back to that stall to change quickly.
I hustle out of the inn and down the stairs toward the pebbled beach and the dock beyond. Spectators along the way tell me that “everyone’s waiting for me.” I move faster.
I needn’t have worried. I’m not the last to arrive. The number of jumpers has swelled this year to about a score. Down the dock we go. We spread out, while Janet and Sandy Sarr position themselves for a running start.
I don’t know who says it, but Janet and Sandy come flying past us. Up into the air I jump. Then water everywhere, my hair streaming above me as Puget Sound tries to worm its way down my nostrils and into my lungs. All I can think is, “What if I’ve forgotten how to swim.”
I haven’t been in so much as a pool in more than a year, and I haven’t done any serious swimming in quite some time, so it seems like a reasonable concern during that momentary flash of eternity. I actually have enough time to think about the last time I swam. It was over Labor Day weekend the previous year, at a convention, in a pool so shallow I could easily touch the bottom with my feet whenever I wanted. Much friendlier than the cold, salty Puget Sound.
Fortunately, the laws of physics continue to be upheld, however often I test them (certain exceptions excluded, but those are tales for another time). My hands and feet return me to the surface and air. Now I’m laughing with the others. I did it. The water is cold, but not the bone-chilling seventh-circle-of-hell I expected. Still, I’ve made my jump and feel no need to lounge about in the waters of Penn Cove.
On to the next challenge – pulling myself out of the water. I know that last year, at least one person scraped himself up on the dock trying to get out. This is not the time to think about how long it’s been since I worked out regularly. This is not the time to feel overweight, or wonder if training at an art focused on kicks will give me the arm strength I expect right now. So I cheat. I kick hard toward the dock, and use my momentum to propel myself easily up onto the dock.
The universe rewards me for my insane effort – the air is pleasantly warm. I expected that the worst part would be shivering on the dock after getting out of the water, but I don’t even need to drape my towel around my neck. Instead I relax and savor the moment. And I help a few others pull themselves out of the water.
Oh, and I turn to Bruce and say, “There, Bruce, I did it. Can I graduate now?”
He even agrees to sign off on it.
* Proving that she might also be extremely mad, but she’s an excellent essayist, and there might be a causal relationship between the two
**Bruce was, of course, joking, but still. You jump through a lot of hoops when you’re getting ready to graduate…