Adventures


This is the story of how I went canoing with my family and almost died. No, I’m not kidding. I may be exaggerating a little bit, but I’m not kidding. Really.

See, my family went canoing together Sunday, and if you know my family already you’re thinking, “Oh, dear.” I mean, we’re known for many things (being way too smart and articulate for our own good, rampant eccentricity, having read too many books), but any sort of physical ability or sports aptitude is usually not included on the list. The one time we went canoing before was remarkable for how much time we spent out of our boats, not in them. This, coincidentally, was the cause of a lot of hilarity, giving us several stories we happily told in the years since then. And so, the weather being beautiful and Judy’s birthday coming up, and while we were all still in the same geographic location (an unusual event typically prevented by my family’s tendency to wander off when not watched), we decided to go canoing again.

Everything was going really well. Mom decided to paddle her own kayak instead of being a passenger in someone else’s canoe, which lasted just long enough for her to discover that she cannot steer and does not like paddling. After the second (maybe third?) time she ended up in the water she wisely let someone else trade places with her. Other family members also discovered that they could not steer. Michelle and Larry seemed to make their way downstream by heading horizontally bank to bank in zig zag fashion. I was doing very well, though, sharing a canoe first with Eddie, and then with Mikey when Eddie decided that he wanted a turn in the kayak. My canoe never seemed to run into difficulties, serenely avoiding sandbars, lightly getting through rough places. As I successfully navigated challenge after challenge, I started to think, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this.” And that’s where things went wrong.

We came to a kind of tricky place in the river. There was a large branch overhanging the water on the right side, the water underneath it running smooth and deep. If you cut to the left to avoid it, the water looked ripply and disturbed, the turbulence evidence of rocks beneath the surface. Close to the right bank the branch lifted up enough to make an arch you could paddle through if you steered precisely enough, but you would have to cut left immediately after you emerged to avoid a huge tree stump that jutted out of the water a little way further down. In my hubris I decided that I was up for this, and steered us towards the opening. And it went really well, until in our triumph at having navigated the arch, we didn’t cut hard enough and ran up against the tree. Mikey in the front was able to avoid it. I … couldn’t, and the whole canoe tipped over.

I came up under the canoe. There was still a little pocket of air under there, so I could take a breath and then duck back under to push it off of me, assisted by Mikey. (Mikey: “It was really scary when I came up and you didn’t, and I couldn’t see you.”) The next few minutes were very confused. Everything happened really fast. Judy and Heather were in the canoe right behind us which at first avoided the tree, and then tipped a little way past us. The current was very strong, sweeping us and the canoes downstream fast. We were trying to get our feet under us, hold onto the boats, and grab for paddles and life jackets (which, um, we weren’t wearing) that threatened to escape. The canoes were rapidly filling with water, which made them incredibly heavy and difficult to handle. Still, it looked like everything was ok. We were all above water, and working hard and fast to fix the situation.

And then it happened. I was on the downstream side of our canoe which was on its side in the water, trying to keep hold of it as the current pushed it down like the wind filling a sail. The river wasn’t very deep, so I was trying to get a foothold that would let me stop the thing so we could empty and right it. And then I got stuck on a submerged log. It was behind me and completely under water, so I never saw it. All I knew was that suddenly I was up against this big thing in the water with the canoe and the full force of the current crushing me against it. My right leg and ankle were trapped under water, snagged on something. I couldn’t get it free, and the force of the canoe was trying to make it bend in ways legs were never meant to bend. I couldn’t get out. The boat was getting heavier by the second, and I was up to my shoulders in rushing water.

Our family’s normal procedure when someone runs into difficulties while canoing is to hang around casually while they right themselves, pretty confident that they’re fine, but there just in case. So there I was, trapped near the right bank of the river, with Judy by me trying to hold on to the other canoe, now pressing up against my canoe. The rest of my family was fetched up on the left bank, unconcernedly waiting and unaware that I was in deep trouble. Larry was out of his canoe, watching us. “Do you need help?” he asked pleasantly. Judy started to say that we did, and I cried, “I need help NOW!” my voice rough with panic. I think the raw terror in my voice got their attention. Within moments I had Larry, Mikey, and Sean all over there trying to help. Their first attempt to pry the canoe away only forced it harder against my leg. Then they got Judy’s canoe away, which eased the pressure a little. But my canoe wasn’t moving, and my ankle was still securely caught. Mikey started feeling around under the water trying to see what was holding it. I started praying a Hail Mary out loud. And then somehow I came free. (Later I realized that the whole side of my Tevas, which was what had snagged my foot under the water, had ripped away, freeing me.) I was able lift my ankle up and over the log that had snagged it, and stumble away from the group holding on to the canoe. With me out of the way they could let it go a little further downstream to calmer waters where they could right it.

I stood away from the group for a long moment, almost unable to believe I was free. I suddenly felt a deep need to not be in the water at all. I haltingly made my way up onto the bank a few feet away. I turned and looked at my brothers in the water with the canoe, at the sunlight glistening on the water, at the people and boats drawn up on the rocky beach opposite, at the lush green trees framing everything in beauty. “I just almost broke my leg.” I thought, and I started to shake. “I could have died.” I thought, and right there had a small, quiet bout of hysterics. Larry noticed. “Are you ok?” he asked. “Yeah,” I said as I hyperventilated, “I’m just having a reaction. Give me a minute.” Guy-like, he stood and waited for the tears to stop, then walked with me as, still jittery from the adrenaline rush, I crossed back over the river to the rest of my family.

And then we all got back in the boats and continued on our way.

I’m still amazed that I got off so easily. I think my Tevas must have been cushioning my foot under the water. My ankle is bruised some on the front, and there’s a huge scrape/bruise/contusion on the back of my calf that will be turning interesting colors for some time. Other places are sore to the touch, but there doesn’t seem to be any permanent damage. Nothing broke. I only have a few scratches. I think I aspirated a little water, which made my breathing rough for a little while, but that’s easing off. All in all, I’m fine. And I’m enormously lucky. If my brothers hadn’t been there, if they hadn’t been strong enough to get the canoe off me (in the end it took four of them to right it), if anything else had gone wrong… I don’t think I would have been typing this right now. Instead you could have been reading some newspaper story about the incredible tragedy on the river. But none of that happened, and I am typing this, and I’m so, so grateful to be alive.

I might even go canoing again some day.

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So I was talking to Ilse this weekend (so good to see her, btw) about life, the universe, and everything. One of the topics we got on to was my plans for the future. I’d always assumed that I would do both my BA and MA here at UD, then go off somewhere else (possibly Boston) for my Ph.D., and then teach wherever I could get hired. It’s a good plan, but Ilse challenged me to think about other possibilities. I’ve been growing and changing a lot in the last few years, and I love my life here, but sometimes I feel a little, well, cramped. Ilse thinks the answer to this is to go live somewhere else, get my MA somewhere besides UD. I’ve been thinking a little about this, and the idea intrigues me. But… where would I go? There are so many possibilities for an MA, unlike the extremely few for a Ph.D. They’re all so tempting! Anyway, this has prompted me to create the very first ever Official Just For The Halibut Poll, a special feature where you, my dear readers, can tell me what you think I should do with my life! Enjoy…

Quizzes by Quibblo.com

Today as I was heading out to lunch, I saw the most beautiful thing. Across the street from where I work is a large-ish, block like apartment building with a green lawn stretching down a hill in front. They haven’t mowed the grass in a while, so it’s tall, and thick with puffy, white clover blossoms. Toddling through the grass and clover was the most wonderful baby, maybe a year and a half old, with white-blond dandelion puff hair and a pacifier firmly fixed in her mouth. Just behind was her mother, who was kneeling in the tall grass, plaiting the long clover stems together to make a garland. As I waited to turn the corner, she rose to her feet and headed toward her daughter, holding what she’d made. I saw that it was a wreath of clover, just the right size to put on the little girl’s head. Just then I made my turn, so I didn’t see any more, but the image was so lovely: the mother and daughter together in the clear, golden sunshine, the quiet love between them, and the light outlining both of them against the green grass. Beautiful.

It seems like a very long time ago that I used to make clover garlands too. I was in southern Louisiana at the time, my second year with NET, a traveling youth ministry team. It was spring there, and the grass was thick and lush with the biggest clover blossoms I’d ever seen. I love their sweet, grassy scent, and would pick huge handfuls of them every chance I got. Most of the grass hadn’t been mowed yet, so the stems were long and sturdy, perfect for braiding. I don’t know how many garlands I made. I left them behind at host families, at the foot of saints’ statues, and hung them from the seatbelt supports in the team van. One time I got my whole small group on a retreat into it, and we returned from our time away wearing necklaces and bracelets and thick anklets of clover. I wrapped the dried wreaths in paper, and took them home with me. For a long time I kept them in my drawers with my clothes. I still run across them sometimes – odd little paper packets folded up around dried memories.

Memories can be mixed blessings. You don’t get to pick and choose what you remember. Associated with the clover wreaths isn’t just the hot Louisiana sunshine on my arms, the taste of cherry limeades at Sonic, the total security of having my NET Team around me. At the same time it’s also inextricably tied to the total exhaustion that comes at the end of a second year of NET, the fight I had with one of the guys on my team right before my birthday, the way the whole world went surreal when one of the girls on our team got sick and had to leave us for a while. But there’s also the memory of sitting at a picnic table in the shade on the side of a bayou, feeling the breeze against my skin as I looked around the table at the people I loved, the memory of walking arm and arm through a Wal-Mart parking lot with Isabelle, belting out “L Is For…“, and the taste of Zapp’s Cajun Dill potato chips on my tongue. I can’t have one part without the other. I guess I’ll keep it all.

My roommate Liv is having a very, very bad day today. Like most bad days, this one actually started last night. We had a plan to meet some friends downtown for dinner, and then go to see the East Village Opera Company, a group that performs opera songs to hard rock accompaniments. As we were eating, I could tell that Liv’s legs were already hurting. She kept rubbing them, hoping that by engaging the motor-control nerves the brain would be distracted from the signals the pain nerves were sending. I saw her doing it and expressed concern, but she was doing her best The Smile On My Face Means We’re All Fine Here, Just Fine, How Are You? impression, so I left it alone.

Then we went to the concert. I was enjoying it some, partly because I love opera so I’m familiar with the music, but it wasn’t thrilling me. The way they transposed the orchestra parts for electrical guitar, etc. was cool, and they had some very nice effects. But their vocalists just weren’t up to the challenge. It was a man and a woman, fine vocalists, but much more rock singers than opera singers. And friends, opera demands some serious chops. They didn’t have them. They couldn’t stand up to the music, and they especially couldn’t stand up to their own accompaniment. They were good, almost great, but the “almost” was heartbreaking. The saddest was when they did Nessun Dorma, and turned what should be a freaking powerhouse show-stopper of a song into something merely nice. Plus, the lighting was a little annoying, all rock-concert strobey. That works great in an arena, but we were in the smaller formal theatre where they usually have ballet performances. It was a little much.

At one point I leaned over to tell Liv something about the aria. As soon as she turned to face me I knew she was not doing well, but was trying to hide it. It turns out that strobe lights, loud music, and a low, throbbing bass are a bad, bad combination with anti-convulsant medication (which Liv takes as part of her medical treatment). I wrote her a note on the program asking if she was ok and if she needed to go home. She wrote back that she did, but that if I would give her my house key (she had left her keys at home since I was with her), she would grab a bus. When Liv starts talking about buses, she was ready to leave yesterday. Thankfully the handicapped seating was at the very back of the theatre so we were able to quietly slip away. It was good that we left when we did. Liv threw up once on the way to the car (discreetly down a sewer grating), once while we were driving home (opening the door while we were at a light), and once into the yew bushes beside the porch when we finally got there. It was pretty bad.

This morning Liv was looking some better, although still far from recovered. She was leaning against the counter talking to me while I was eating breakfast and got dizzy. I suggested that perhaps she shouldn’t go in to school today, but after thinking about it a little she decided that she would anyway.

When we left the house, Liv was loaded down as usual. Imagine a small woman in a wheelchair with a very large, blue backpack jammed with anything you might possibly need for several hours studying slung on the back. Slung underneath the backpack is a gym bag, packed tight with bathing suit, towel, etc. All was well until she went to roll over the curb on her way to my car. This is usually not a problem. We have an unusually low curb, and Liv is very good at going over them. This time… no.

I heard a whump! and looked up to see Liv sprawled on her butt in the gutter, her bags magically separated from the chair supporting her back, and the chair rolling towards the center of the street. One of Liv’s shoes had come off from the impact. It seems the chair had gone off balance and started to tip over when she went over the curb. Her big bags hit first and came off. The chair slid out from under Liv and, freed from the weight, popped back upright and continued on its merry way. It was so startling and unexpected, and the picture she made was so comical. It was like something out of a movie or a cartoon – even down to the shoe coming off. Plus, it had been raining all morning, so the gutter she got dumped in was full of water.

I retrieved the chair, Liv got herself back into it, and we continued on to school. Liv did her best to dry off on the way, but was only partially successful before I dropped her off at the library with a hug. I haven’t talked to her since, so I don’t know if the badness has continued. I do hope it hasn’t. This is quite enough for one day!

Last night I got back from the Boston Tea Party, the highlight of my dancing year. And, friends, I have danced with John Lindo. If you recall, that was on my list of Things To Do Before I Die. It’s been there since I discovered West Coast Swing a year and four months(ish) ago. The clips of John dancing with Blake Hobby and Deborah Szekely were instrumental in making me fall in love with West Coast. Last year at Boston Tea Party I asked him to dance, but it didn’t work out. I’d been waiting a whole year for another chance. It was worth it.

See, every time I’d ever seen him dance, whether on a video or in person, not only was he a fabulous dancer, but the girl he was dancing with looked like she was having the time of her life. She looked like she felt beautiful and sexy and honored by the gift of his full attention. I wanted that, particularly at a time when I left the floor after the majority of my dances feeling like a complete failure. Those days are mostly gone, but I still wanted whatever it was that I saw in those women’s faces. Now I know why they look that way. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so taken care of in a dance before, and so appreciated. Every tiniest styling I did got reactions of approval. I’ve rarely laughed so much just from pure delight. It was wonderful.

I also danced with Peter Strom, which was wonderful in a different way. I had seen him dancing in the Superstar competitions last year, and though his dancing was pretty darn sweet, it didn’t occur to me that I might want to dance with him. Then this year I discovered the Crossover Room, where they play music suitable for both Lindy and Westie – mostly the groovy, Motown music I adore. He was one of the main DJs there, and sometimes came out from behind the table to dance with people. His dancing looked like so much fun – groovy and bluesy in the very best sort of way. Early on Saturday night, while the crowd was still thin, I diffidently approached the table and asked if he would be willing to dance with me. He said yes, that we could take the next one, that he would pick a good song. I smiled and retired to the sidelines to breathe. And then the next song came on and we danced. I’m not sure how to describe it. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a lead being so completely in control of the dance before. I loved it.

It’s always a little risky asking one of the Superstars to dance. You could have the dance of a lifetime or you could … not. For example, on Friday night I asked one of the other Superstar West Coast instructors (who shall remain nameless) to dance. I had been watching him for a little while, and it seemed like he was having fun. The instant I touched his shoulder and asked him if he would like to dance, however, all the life drained out of his face. He nodded politely, but the expression on his face said, “Oh, great. This clueless unworthy peon is making me dance with her. I hope I can get through it without catching her cooties.” I immediately knew I had made a mistake, but hoped that maybe he would be pleasantly surprised.

So we started dancing, and from the first beat of the song, he was entirely disconnected. He stood there and led one basic, baby move after the other, with no hint of styling or musicality, just going through the motions while he waited for the song to be over. There was no opportunity for me to show him what I could do, and he wasn’t paying attention enough to have noticed if I did. It sucked. Plus the dance floor was really, really crowded. Since he wasn’t actually watching me I didn’t feel like he cared whether I collided with anyone else or not. There were several close calls, making me more and more nervous as the dance went on. By the end of the dance, I was so tense that when he finally did lead something a little complicated, I missed the lead entirely. I did not miss, however, the expression of disgust on his face. I think it’s safe to say I’ll never dance with him again. I don’t think I’ll ever take one of his classes again either.

Still, for the chance at another dance like the ones I had with John or Peter? Yeah, I’ll risk it.

High on my list of Things I Am Not Fond Of, far above People Who Turn Into My Lane, even beyond Writing Daily “Thought Papers” For An Entry Level Class (I hate these kinds of forced reflections with a burning passion that will never die) is a special category titled People I Care About Being In Unsafe Situations. Here there is, of course, the ever popular Friends Being Deployed To War Zones, and also Family Members Living In Underdeveloped Countries With Insufficient Health Care. However, far and above anything previously named, there is a very special section I have created just this past month. It is called Family Members Being Caught In Undeveloped Nations In Which There Is Uncontrolled Violence And Possibly Ethnic Cleansing Going On.

My sister Lisa is in Kenya. She arrived there shortly before Christmas to begin a five month stint teaching grade school at St. Jude’s Academy, the second half of her year of service in Africa. I don’t know how many of you guys have been following the news, but the country is in a downward spiral of violence that is threatening to turn into a total meltdown. Just after Christamas there was an election in which the two main candidates were members of rival tribes. The election was massively corrupt. Protests by the party that lost turned violent, there were reprisals, and everything quickly spiraled out of control. Now there are gangs of men from one tribe armed with machetes and clubs studded with nails actively going out to hunt down members of the other tribe, and being disappointed when they can’t find any to kill. So far the police have been unable to stop the violence, and have lately been given orders to shoot to kill. The US State Department’s warnings have been growing progressively grave, although they have not yet warned US citizens to leave the country.

Here’s the good news: the village where Lisa is living is out in the middle of nowhere, far from where the violence is occurring. Moreover, the violence seems to be almost entirely between the members of the two tribes. Europeans and Americans so far do not seem to be targeted at all. The area where she lives is populated entirely by the tribe of the politician who is in power, so the violence is unlikely to spread there. The family she lives with is being extremely careful, barely even letting her go outside by herself. She doesn’t go outside at all after dark. So for now it seems like she is safe.

However, the situation is volatile. In a split second all this could change, and Lisa could be swept up in the kind of unpleasantness I don’t want to think about. The temptation is to tell her to get the heck out of there, to get home as fast as an airliner can take her. However, in order to get out of the country she’d have to travel eighty miles over unsafe roads (the State Department website warns that travel may only be safe as part of an armed convoy) straight into Nairobi, the heart of where the violence is occurring. It is true that the airports are still operating normally, and that most of the violence is happening in the slum areas where she would not go. The problem is… can she get to the airport safely? We don’t know.

They make adventure movies about this stuff. However, this was never the kind of movie I wanted made about my cuddly, bubbly, blond little sister!

So, you know, if you could pray…

And now back to my Regularly Scheduled Life…

Really, that’s what going back to school has felt like for me. I was telling someone a couple of months ago that this past year has felt like I was stuck in a time warp. I did things, went places, learned stuff, but always some part of me was stuck back in the kitchen where I used to live, listening to Shelly use the word “metastes.” She couldn’t say tumors then. Not yet. So much changed this year, but part of me was still there, standing between the stove top and the door to the laundry room, watching her sitting in the chair at the end of the counter. I don’t completely remember the words she said, but I’ll never forget seeing the marks of tears on her face. That was what made me realize this wasn’t some kind of sick joke, that she really meant what she was saying. Shelly had been one of the toughest women I’d ever known. If she was crying, then the world quite possibly might be about to end. In a certain sense, it was.

Then Shelly died, and the time warp snapped. It was completely disorienting. It didn’t help that, since it was Christmas break, I didn’t even have a regular routine of classes and work to rely on. Seriously, there were some days when I couldn’t have told you what day of the week it was.

This week school started again. I never knew having a schedule of classes could feel so good. It’s been like snapping gratefully back into place. There can be so much security in knowing that this is what you’re going to be doing this week, and next week, and the week after that. Don’t worry – before long I’ll be back to my adventure-craving ways, but for now, this is what I need.

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