We’re staying at a hotel with a little balcony overlooking the pools. I thought I’d do some writing, but it’s not quite as peaceful as I’d hoped.

“NOOOOOOOO!” The screaming had been going on for some time now.





And most heartrending of all, “I. WANT. MUMMY.” (Followed by a crafty, “Guess what? I don’t hafta pee anymore,” which had the rest of the swimmers in the pool streaming for the ladders…)

Each statement was interspersed with low pleading from the man in the pool. “You can do it, Jamie.” “Just try.” “Kick your feet.” “No, don’t kick me.” “Really. Don’t kick me there. Please.”

The man kept looking longingly at the bar next to the pool. (It’s a full service hotel.) He might have been looking at his wife, who was doing an unconvincing impression of someone who couldn’t possibly hear what was going on because she was listening so carefully to her headphones and reading her magazine. But actually, I think it was her beer that the man was eyeing up with a naked longing usually reserved for attendees at a Weight Watcher’s convention casing the dessert cart.

There’s probably a word for it—perhaps some even longer Germanic revision of schadenfreude—that means ‘not only enjoying your misery, but rejoicing in the fact that it’s not my problem’. And indeed, it was SO much easier to watch other parents face this with children who don’t share my DNA. But of course, it’s a life lesson every child needs to learn. I’m not talking about the not-drowning, although it’s possible that might come in handy someday. No, it’s a bit more fundamental:

Sooner or later, the most important people in your life will turn on you. When they do, they’ll claim it’s for your own good. Usually, they mean it’s for their own good.

I remember being in our local pool trying to keep my three non-swimming children afloat. I looked up, and saw my neighbor lying in a lounge chair reading summer-trash and occasionally glancing at her children as they did triple flips off the high dive. “When I grow up,” I vowed, “I want to be her.”

My three-year-old, however, was firmly convinced that if Mother Nature meant us to return to the water, several millennia of evolution have been a waste of time. I took his refusal to go in without the proper equipment (gills, fins, and a tail at least) as a personal challenge. So he and I made a pilgrimage to Chez Target where he was delighted to pick out an inflatable ring emblazoned with his choice of cartoon character.

This happy state lasted until we got back to the pool and he realized I expected him and Donald Duck to get wet. “DON’T KILL ME, MAMA,” he screamed as I dragged son and Donald around the pool under the horrified eyes of my fellow swimmers. My vision of the lounge chair was replaced by a Department of Child & Family Services employee in a wetsuit tapping me on the shoulder.

Like eating broccoli without gagging and giving a valentine to every child in the class, swimming is one of those life skills parents feel obligated to inflict on their helpless children.

I still remember my own first swimming lessons. My mother—who must have felt it was okay to throw me to the water safety mafia because she had spare children at home—dragged me to the high school pool. There we met the swim instructor, a cute teenager who hid her homicidal tendencies until our parents had abandoned us.

Swimming Lessons, Day 1

[Scene: shortly after sunrise, as soon as they’ve broken up the ice on the pool surface and shooed away the penguins.]

Instructor: “Okay, everyone into the pool.”

First Child: “Aieeeeeee…. [splash!] Burble… glub… glub, glub…”

Rest of Class: “We’re outa here.”

Swimming Lessons, Day 2

Instructor: “Today I have an assistant.”

Assistant: [Throws children in to Instructor. Blocks escape attempts.]

Instructor: “It is very important to open your eyes underwater when you swim.”

Child: “Why don’t you go under and just tell us what you see? We’re only four years old; we’ll believe anything you say.”

Instructor [Holding hand about eight feet below water surface]: “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Children [Bob faces under and announce with conviction]: “Eighteen.”

[Later.] Mother: “What did you learn in swimming lessons today?”

Me: “How to scream with your mouth closed.”

It turns out this is an important life skill when watching presidential candidate debates. Belated thanks, Mom.