July 14th 2005 5:40 pm
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Although it makes me feel as if I have regressed to half my age, I am spending the summer at my mother's house in Northern Virginia, waiting for my post-doc in California to start. I am sleeping in my same old pink bedroom with the model horse collection on the bookshelf and the megaphone and pom-poms in the corner. Raiding the refrigerator and microwaving the same Celeste pizza I snacked on after class in high school. Watching my mom's cable TV. Really, I am freeloading because I have no income at the moment, but I'm sort of paying it back since I'm painting the basement, and in the process gaining a new respect for people who paint basements for a living. It isn't easy. It's tiring, and it's giving me whiplash.
I grew up in what is called a "planned community." What this means is that all of the houses look the same and you can't paint the outside of one without permission, or else... actually, I'm not sure what they do to you. The community is organized into geographic clusters. The grocery stores and dry cleaners are distributed such that you never have to go more than half a mile to get to one, wherever you are in the planned community. There are five community centers, one for each cluster, each with a swimming pool, so that kids only have to walk for five or ten minutes to get to one. And there is a network of paved "hiking" paths (I say "hiking" because it implies a inappropriately rugged outdoorsiness) that takes you all over the community through the scanty woods that are left between the identical-looking housing tracts. The paths aren't marked and once you're on one, unless you stay near a road, you have no idea where you're going. They are perfect for long, meandering walks with bored Border Collies.
A few days ago I took the dogs on a long, meandering walk and we found ourselves on the shores of another hallmark of this planned community, the man-made lake. "Lake" is an optimistic label for this particular body of water, but it does possess a spillway and an earthen dam, and it's kept stocked with fish, and (importantly for our story) it's quite deep. Since it was almost 90 degrees out, and humid, the dogs jumped right in, just under the "no swimming" and "dogs on leash" sign (oops).
Skeeter immediately paddled out to the middle of the lake and sped around in circles, barking and biting at the water, cutting a snazzy little V-shaped wake. Now Skeeter, he's a swimmer. Solo and Fly, on the other hand, merely splashed around close to the bank. Fly is a strong swimmer if it's hot enough out and she's in the mood, but usually she isn't. Solo is an enthusiastic wader who lives in apparent deathly fear of not being able to feel the bottom with his feet. Nothing will induce him to swim in water higher than his withers, not even me leading him out. We spent all of last summer in the fountains in front of Philadelphia's Art Museum. (You have to love Philadelphia for this -- the cops would walk by and wave and smile while we were in there, and say, "It's a nice day for that." The tourist buses would go by and take pictures.) Those fountains are pretty deep. I'd go in up to my thighs with my shorts rolled up, while Solo hugged the edge like a five-year-old in the deep end, and whined if I threw a ball out of his reach.
Back at the lake, I threw a ball into the shallows, and Solo splashed in to fetch it. Fly dashed around and chased Solo and did her Fly thing, which looks unfortunately very much as if she considers Solo to be some sort of bizarre, ursine, retrieving sheep. (She will even take flank commands on him.) I aimed carefully to land the balls close to the bank, but I didn't figure on the rocks that were submerged just under the water. The ball struck one and bounced way off into the middle of the lake. Oh no!
Solo ran along the bank, ears and tail up, horrified. He went halfway around clockwise. He went halfway around counter-clockwise. He splashed into the water at intervals, hoping to find a sandbar or something he could easily walk into the middle of the lake on. No luck. He went over and clung to a stand of cattails along the bank and made sad, ineffective lunges in the direction of the racquetball that gently bobbed on the surface of the water, about 20 feet away. He did this over and over again for at least 15 minutes while I stood there saying, uselessly, "You can do it! You can do it! You can do it!" Solo whined, and woofed, and occasionally rooed his frustration. He tried to use the rocks that had waylaid his ball as stepping stones to retrieve it, but alas, they did not go out far enough.
Solo stood there, balanced precariously on the rocks in the shallow water, gazing at that racquetball, and then turned to stare at me, urgently. Do something! "Dude, it's your ball," I told him. "You're on your own." Besides, the sign said "no swimming."
He looked hard at that ball. Then he looked some more. With an expression of hypnotic trepidation, Solo picked his way into the water, toward the middle of the lake. At once, his feet went out from under him, and he disappeared almost completely.
I understood then why Solo hates swimming. He is obviously made of some very dense material, because his body rode so low in the water that all I could see were his ears, his eyes, and the end of his muzzle, like a crocodile. Solo made a slow, painful progress out toward the middle of the lake, straining to keep his head above the water, big pink nostrils flaring. He approached the ball asymptotically, and then started to curve back toward the bank, making a big circle that just missed the target. He'd lost his nerve. He hauled himself up on the bank and panted to catch his breath, looking determined. The ball was still out there, floating. He screwed up his courage and struck out a second time, only to lose his nerve at the last instant again. The ball had only been a few inches from his grasp.
"You can do it!" I told him, jumping up and down on the bank and clapping stupidly. Two passing joggers gave me a long, slow look.
This was it. I could see it in his eyes. Solo eased himself into the water a third time. He struggled, he swam. He made uneven, frantic splashes with his front paws when he kicked them up too high. I saw his white tail tip bob up toward the surface, and then sink out of sight again. His yellow eyes rolled wildly until the whites showed. Solo opened his mouth, thrust his head out of the water, made a heroic lunge, and grabbed the floating blue ball between his pointy, shiny white teeth.
"Yay!" I screamed, jumping up and down and clapping. The joggers, who were by now on the opposite side of the lake, turned to look at me again. One shook his head.
Fly ran around and around. Yay! Yay!
Solo climbed out of the water and dropped the ball at my feet. He was covered in algae, but his tail was up in the air, a gallant, bedraggled, dripping banner. Then he crouched and waited for me to throw.
I contemplated throwing the ball into the middle of the lake again, but I didn't.