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Waiting to Begin

Island Life

I was floating around in the Vashon Pool this past Saturday, taking advantage of lap swim on this first day of the pool being open this year. I was trying to remember how it feels like to be in shape for swimming, as I was feeling quite far from that point on my first day back in the water since last October. I was also thinking about graduation, as I was noticing that during my rest stops between each set of laps there was a growing stream of cars pulling by the west end of the pool, apparently arriving early for a good parking place that would be closer to the Vashon High School (VHS) graduation ceremonies happening later that afternoon.

This pilgrimage brought to mind a recent exchange at a Park District board meeting, where in a discussion about who would share the costs in getting the pool back open this Summer after the great backwash outflow debacle discussed here earlier and elsewhere, it was noted that some members of the school board really wanted to have nothing to do with the pool. This, of course, brought to mind the fact that on an island, in order to get anywhere else, one needed to cross a body of water in any direction. It would seem that among the life skills one might consider sending a graduate off to the real world with might be the ability to swim. I was reminded of the fact that even though I had not grown up on an island, I had learned to swim in my fourth year of life. This was a skill that I built upon outside the local educational system.

The swim league I was in ended for the individual swimmer once one they passed the age of fourteen when you were expected to be swimming with your high school team. As it was, our high school did not have a team, because we did not have a pool. The story was, though, that the folks across the street at the corporate offices of the Reader’s Digest had offered to build a pool for the high school and, as I’m remembering it, the only condition they included with that deal was that their workers would be able to use the pool on Saturday afternoons. There may have been other stipulations, but a free pool would seem to be a hard thing to pass up. My high school did pass, so I’ve seen this lack of vision before, although it doesn’t make it any easier to understand.

What this led to was my attending commencement ceremonies rather than just a graduation. With no place to further my swimming talents, my grandmother offered to pay my way at a New England preparatory school, where I guess we were being prepared to commence. I began to swim a lot better once I got there, but I found that the learning and studying thing were still not much to my liking. I won a lot of swimming races, but on commencement day I had no idea what I was heading off to begin. I don’t remember anything that the commencement speaker suggested that we should do with our new beginnings, and I spent four more years in college having no idea what I wanted to begin.

For some reason, one of the things that came to mind as I floated in the Vashon pool with my arms aching and the cars streaming into the VHS parking lot was a graduated cylinder. This came from one of my chemistry classes of long ago. I never did well in chemistry, but this bit of trace memory still carried some weight. As I often do in writing these things, I decided to look to Webster and the new world dictionary for guidance, where I found that among the definitions for graduate there is this: “a flask, tube or container marked with a progressive series of lines or numbers for measuring liquids or solids…” In thinking of the graduated cylinder while I was in the pool, I was doing just a simple word association thing. But what I am seeing in this definition is more of what graduating has meant to me. I kind of see my life as a giant chemistry set with an array of graduated cylinders spread across a messy table top. Some of the tubes are filled with a murky, fetid glop- others have exploded and allowed their contents to flow and solidify where they lay. But in a few isolated cases there exists an enticing fragrance or a curious, muted glow where the contents have combined and mingled either by chance or by the recalled experience derived from spontaneous combustion and errant happenstance.

I can’t really tell you of where this all began, other than at the beginning. It certainly wasn’t at any grand commencement ceremony. One of my strongest memories of that particular commencement day in New England was the orange and red of the dawn, which perhaps should have been a bit of a sailor’s warning to be wary of new beginnings. On this particular day I was uncertain of what I was beginning, I think partly because I had been filling up my graduated cylinder with pool water. It wasn’t until I had graduated and commenced a few more times after that the chemistry in the cylinders and beakers began to look and act like something worthwhile. So at least for me, graduation is neither an end or a beginning, but a continuing process of filling and assessing and trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing next. If I had any advice for new graduates it would be along the lines of continuing to be one. Make mistakes and learn from them. Beyond that I would say be wary of Mrs. Robinson, and just nod and walk away from anyone whose one word of wisdom for you is “plastics”.