Summer is here: Everybody get in the pool

Published 1:15 pm Saturday, June 7, 2008

School is winding down and small children are staring out the windows at freedom and counting the days until the heavy hand of grammar and spelling will be lifted from their backs. My sandy-haired daughter dove into the pool on Memorial Day and has been amphibious ever since. She loves swimming and has to be extracted after four or five hours, before she turns prunish, and since the pool is a public pool, not our own — sensible people in Minnesota don’t own swimming pools, any more than people in Tucson build backyard hockey rinks — this requires an adult to spend those hours sitting under an umbrella, reading a book and trying not to look at a clock.

I don’t do pool duty because the sorts of books I read aren’t suitable for poolside. You want a novel in which slim young women rising in the world meet over margaritas to discuss the various men who have pitched themselves at the women’s feet, and that is not my cup of tea. I am reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is so dense you can only read a few sentences at a time and then you must get up and take a walk, which doesn’t make for good supervision.

Emerson would get a kick out of watching my kid swim. He was always recommending boldness and passion — he said, “Give all to love, obey thy heart” and he said, “Always do what you are afraid to do” — and there she is, doing it, practicing the butterfly, green goggles up and down, arms flashing, cleaving the water, back and forth.

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This is what a child does for us — shows us joy in action — and watching her in the water, I have to ask myself, what do I love as much? Well (ahem), there is that, of course. And there is our new screened porch with a view of the Mississippi valley. And there are the galley proofs of a new book spread out on the dining room table — the cake is baked and now I get to put on the frosting. When it’s done, I have in mind to get in a car and drive west and have three weeks, unscheduled, an enormous luxury mostly reserved for playboys and hoboes but briefly available to you and me.

A couple weeks ago I watched a tenor in a gondolier’s outfit stride out on a stage and sing to an immense outdoor crowd “O Sole Mio” and “Torna a Sorrento” and “Finiculi-Finicula,” three old cheeseballs that no serious singer does nowadays, and when he hit the big money note at the end of “O Sole Mio,” that crowd jumped up as if bitten by badgers and yelled and whooped and whistled. I loved that. Serious artists seek to create challenging work that leaves the audience stunned, thoughtful, even angry, but what we the audience want is the pure joy of a man aiming at a very high note and hitting it squarely and us jumping up and yelling. A simple reflex, same as when the opposition hits into a double play in the ninth inning with one out and the winning run on third.

And a few days ago I saw a skinny mandolinist named Chris Thile get up and sing Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” as if his life depended on it and slide up into his falsetto on “Something is dreadfully wrong for I feel/A deep burning pain in my side —” and that very evening I was in El Paso and drove past Rosa’s Cantina, where the cowboy in the song fell in love with Felina, a woman of a flirtatious nature. Jealousy turned out to be the downfall of the cowboy, which all of us who have loved and lost can well understand. We too have felt that burning pain in the side.

The joyful child in the pool has been scorched too and has cried hard over playground slights and betrayals, but joy has the power to sweep misery away. This is true. Nobody “gets over” anything, there is no closure, hearts stay broken for a long time. Love is a tumult and it’s a wonder anyone survives it. But you look out the window and imagine joy is waiting for you somewhere. A long cathedral fairway between tall trees and a sweet shot with a 3-iron. The Pacific Coast Highway up through Mendocino. You and your beloved naked in Sorrento, making some finiculi-finicula. I hope you find it.

Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.