Saturday, October 25, 2008

Laying it on - Chapter 8 from 1983

They were staying in a delicious old boarding house, all rustic and wooden. It might have been a journey to the past, but for their modern activity. On the second night, there was a great party around a campfire. Howie liked everyone very much and seemed to have been accepted. He was a good diver, and always eager. In those cold waters balkiness and problems are bound to arise, and he hadn't caused any. He'd proven his maturity.

They were drinking wildly around the fire. Hardened divers all, and full of lust and jokes and free talk. Howie had carried with him the absolute taboo against drinking which had been found, rationally, in opposition to the friv­olity of his peers to whom he always wanted to remain other. They cajoled him, they taunted him; they threatened him with his youth. He had admitted that he'd never drunk anything before, but he hadn't revealed his age. It was apparent that he liked them, and they weren't about to oust him or make him feel bad, but Fred was incredulous.

"I can't believe I've got a diving buddy who doesn't drink or smoke. Man, that just isn't done."

Howie was all smiles as he watched the swilling in that tonic which so effectively dissolves all social barriers. He wanted to be a part, but he was stilted and distant. Vulgar­ity was choked before it could be uttered. His mind thought feverishly for jokes that might include him, but they all fell flat in his mind. If only he could relinquish control -- relax and enter. But booze was frivolous and disgusting --it killed and ruined people. He knew the statistics for drunk-driving and could fairly preach on this topic about which he had no intimate knowledge.

A tough Canadian came over all full of his drink and vulgar accent. He bore the scars of a brawler, and it was clear that his earnest friendliness must be courted. He allowed his hatred of Yanks to be softened by the machismo of diving. And some of the divers had been born in Canada. Ah, but who of you are real men. I'll show you what a real Canadian man can do. Give me an axe.

"Alright, try chopping that log there."

The burliest of the divers gave a mighty and practised swing which left hardly a mark on the massive oak.

"On, no, that ain't the way now."

The Canadian weaved over to the block and took a gentle swing which hardly slowed as the axe-head neatly parted the log with just a whisper of a crack. Laughter all around. Howie was awed. To find with no thickness (the blade) the space in that which is joined only on the surface. The belief in two pieces behind the appearance of wholeness. The impossible solidity of the log so easily rendered a fiction.

He performed the feat over and over again. He must have been buoyed by the success of his display. The combination of the diver's prowess at what was remote to him and his own proof of capability must have warmed him to the group. He became genuinely friendly. There was no more contest. He taught them all how to give the head of the axe a twisting momentum so that when the blade enters the wood, the sharp jerk of the axe's twist will pry the log apart. There were scattered successes, but all were impressed by the knowledge.

He couldn't have imparted all he knew, but he made the honest attempt. He was a woodchopper, and it would have been impossible to convey a technique that in the end was no technique. But he'd figured something out that could be told. If they were to forget him, it would be of no use.
They had to look deeper than the technique to find his sec­rets, but most forgot and would forget the technique too when it didn't seem to work. Or if it did work, they'd have forgotten him anyway. The words that don't convey, and yet manage to make the teller extraneous -- mortal in comparison to their immortality.

Howie, at least, had gotten a fuller message. Somehow in the course of the merriment it had become alright to drink. With wild abandon and determination mixed, he took a few sips from a wine bottle. It wasn't a message from the woodchopper or a response to the repeated coaxing that start­ed him. It was something simple falling away. Something --some words -- had been made too much of and they were being sloughed off. Who? the teacher of our hearts.

Throughout the evening, he consumed perhaps a bottle of beer and a glass of wine. He could barely walk. His smiles were goofier and he had less to say -- less chance of partak­ing in any way than he had had before. Everyone was drawing farther away. This was an initiation. It was not yet given to him to partake of the other world. He was reeling from its otherness. Stupefied by the unaccustomed lethargy of his sense. The world was spinning and it was with some difficulty that he climbed into the van beside Fred. He marveled that Fred could actually drive. He marveled aloud in his garbled drunken voice. And Fred marveled, "I can't believe I've got the only buddy in the world who's never taken a drink." He'd watched Fred drink many times more than he had consumed, and marveled.

Later, when he had gotten really nauseously drunk for the first time, on quantities prodigious even for the veter­an, he marveled at his exquisite control as he roared home through the night. A hammering clinching physical control. He had never taken curves so perfectly, never been so perceptive of the slightest wink of activity on the side of the road -- never been so sure of his control -- nor so driven by a physical urge to hammer the pedal. To roar, to scream --to reach out. If the car could have gone faster, he would have driven it. The wheel must have pinched somewhat beneath his iron grip.

On the morning after his initiation, the world was disjointed. He kept telling Fred, in a somewhat less drunken voice, that he still felt drunk. The world still spun. Oh, he could act his natural self, but it was an act. He doubted anyone could notice, but it disturbed him, and he mourned the lost clear world. An irrevocable affront had been made to the clarity of his brain. When for years after he would have this disjointed feeling -- this confusion, where the world seemed at a remove, and he a ghost of himself -- or an actor -- he would mourn the lost self of his youth which had beheld the world so clearly. Which had never felt lost.

Part of that old clear world, he owed to science; he was quick at picking up the principles of biology, physics and chemistry. He was good at math. The gremlins of his sparkling youth were being replaced gradually by the smooth connections of science. He had faith in the future --in his future -- and it largely rested on his faith in his rational skills. Perhaps that faith was broken when the world still reeled after the apparent physical cause for the reeling --the drink -- had long since worn off. Or perhaps his faith was broken by his own fear that he had damaged his brain with the liquor. It didn't seem to be the lack of faith which caused the reeling, in any case. But the reeling which caused his lack of faith. Either the world had gone awry or he had. In either case, the future would leave gaps. He had begun a growing desperation for something to replace his lost faith.

When they took the dive that day, he was anxious to prove to himself that he could still function -- that the connections he had forged so carefully were still there. As a child, he would complete the sum of two-plus-two in his head to prove to himself that he wasn't crazy -- or dreaming -- and now he wanted to prove the same thing. He felt in a fog as they readied the gear for what was to be a deep and dangerous dive. Nothing was any more difficult. No memory is deficient. He just felt detached -- it wasn't quite real.

Only a few of the best and boldest divers were going to go down to one-hundred and fifty feet where there was an old wooden wreck reported to have belonged to an early trader or explorer. The water was frigid. As they got deeper in the green fresh water, all light was blocked out. Their wet suits had been squeezed into a tiny fraction of their former thickness and the cold penetrated easily. He knew the dang­ers and the time-tables; how deep they could go and for how long. There was a great need for control. The world was being closed out with utter completeness, leaving only the cold, their metallic breathing, and the unreal moonlit out­lines of the other divers. If you forgot for an instant where you were and why -- if you lost control -- you would be lost.

Someone panicked and wanted to go up. She was the girlfriend of the leader and brought along for that reason rather than for her experience. She was calmed. Fred and Howie looked into each other's sober faces. They were at ease. They only felt the enclosing claustrophobia as a possi­bility. It was real, but it was beyond them. A torch was played on a plaque commemorating the old ship. Divers had been there before. Howie looked at his depth gage. They were there.

To test the limits. To find out where -- exactly -- the hint of possibility becomes actuality. The summer before, alone, in the deeper darker water of a small Canadian lake he had fled for the depths. Where there might have been mon­sters. Nessie. He was alone with his scoutmaster, who was also a diver. While the other readied the boat, Howie went under again. Just for a minute. To see. To test. Alone.

Fifty feet. He'd been that deep before. But he was alone. There were no other eyes. There was nothing. It was getting darker. Colder. Eighty feet. The hint becomes a pounding. This is crazy. How much air do I have? I haven't checked the timetables. But I know the limits by heart. Can't stay long or he'll be worried. I would have to decom­press slowly on the way up and he'd think I had drowned. But he would see my bubbles. One hundred feet. I don't have a pressure gauge. How do I know I will have enough time to decompress? We've been in the water for an hour. He got cold. But I don't get cold, and I breath slowly. I'm calm and I can stay under through three buddies who must surface shivering, and out of breath -- their air tanks exhausted. I control my breathing. Conscious -- totally conscious, but relaxed.

Then there sparked a sharp disjuncture. A demon appeared. From where? From his head. From his experience that knew the limits. From his aloneness. Common sense? But suddenly his comfort turned to panic. He shivered in terror and cried out through the bubbles of his mouthpiece. Something darker than the depths had appeared to him. It impelled him to the surface with just enough control left in Howie's head from the other side of panic, that he managed not to bolt too quickly. Still he spent the rest of the day worriedly waiting for the bends to come on. How would he explain? It would cause such a ruckus. It would ruin every­thing. They'd have to send a helicopter. Who would pay? How could he explain. He would be a fool, and condemned --guilty -- before the only valid tribunal.

No, he couldn't face that. They'd all want him to feel guilty -- selfish. He had done something stupid. He didn't want that. He'd rather be the martyr. He would go off alone if he felt the bends coming on. He couldn't face the humil­iation of being cured. And most of all he couldn't face explaining what he was really up to. That he couldn't tell. It would have been more painful than the bends to try with words to convince anyone that he wasn't a fool. And there was no lie he could think of that would explain his act. More painful still to lie, because he'd be inventing all the while a reason that he would believe himself eventually. He would be made a fool along the way toward trying to convince everyone he wasn't. No, far better to crawl off. It would be painful for people, but easier to understand. They would simply think he'd drowned.

The way back more painful than the way out. Howie often had dreams of falling down under cold crystalline water. Out of breath. He'd just keep falling. Sinking. Being sucked under. He couldn't breath, and would wake from the night­mares out of breath.

Howie had been wondering what it would be like to dive to one hundred fifty feet. It isn't just the closing out of the world. The air you breathe becomes narcotic at that depth. Nitrogen has the same effect on physical and mental reactions that some drugs do. You feel stoned. Too far beneath the surface -- beyond the boundary -- and the connections are frayed. A metaphor of the world -- not literary, but there in experience.

Howie didn't feel anything strange. When they got back to the surface, there was the swapping of experiences. How great it felt to be stoned, and he hadn't felt it at all. Perhaps it had been the attempt to keep off claustrophobia and the cold. Perhaps it had been the real need for control, and the training which forged a strong connection. Perhaps it had been something else -- a physical immunity or a simple misnaming of experience. Narcosis is fickle. It's never the same from day to day, nor does it effect two people the same way. He knew that Fred had plenty of cause to worry from his performance the night before. But Howie had kept his head.

Years later, he was to experience narcosis. In the Bahamas, where the boat is still visible from one hundred and eighty-five feet below the surface. Where the cold is mild and the colors softened to phosphorescent glows instead of pitch darkness. Where you soar down an underwater cliff with the freedom of a bird and only with cold sobriety keep your­self from the temptation to continue falling into the invit­ing blackness that lies deeper, deeper. He made this dive four days in a row. It eradicated the privilege of making any other dives for the day, since too much gas had been stored in his blood under pressure, and he would risk getting bent. But the beauty and the odd sensation of the narcotic depths kept calling him back. He would get stoned.

He wasn't out of control. Once he reminded the dive-master that the time limit had been exhausted when he had forgotten. You must take care of how much gas your blood absorbs and leave time to allow it to escape during the slow ascent. The margins are slim. The air-supply doesn't last long at depth, and once below, a plunge for the surface is deadly. Acclimation, once acquired, can be relieved only with the same care that it was gotten. Exits are as slow as entrances, though the impulse to bolt for the familiar can be great. Or to bolt away.

There was a girl who panicked at one hundred and eighty five feet; Howie's buddy. The air comes thick in the regu­lator and with difficulty. You have to kick hard to compen­sate for the lost buoyancy of the compressed wetsuit, and to keep from falling the deadly extra fathom. It's easy to panic, and he saw it in her eyes. He was stoned, but in control. He had to chase after her in a dangerous burst of energy in order to grab her fin and hold her down. Calm is everything. Excitement can lead to panic when the regulator limits your ability to catch your breath. He looked at her and calmed her before they started the slower more reasoned ascent. Communication is limited under-water. There can be no words. But the simple and direct communication was effec­tive. It was all that was possible.

When the long drive home was nearing its end, and Fred was desperately on the brink of sleep, he offered to take Howie straight to his house. Howie was glad that Fred would see the house of which he was moderately proud. It was a nice house, and gave him some legitimacy. It might draw respect for his position. He hoped that Fred would stay to lunch. He would demonstrate his friendship by welcoming Fred openly into the position -- the status; the world he knew was other to Fred -- of his house. He wanted Fred to know that he respected him more than those others he'd excluded. That they could share their differences. He hoped they could bridge the difference in age and status and experience.

But his pride must have blinded him. As soon as they arrived, he was ashamed. He was ashamed of the prosperity of his house, because it announced the gulf. He knew that he must forever appear young and spoiled to this man who had earned his abilities and his intelligence. He was sorely disappointed that no amount of persuasion could get Fred to stay for lunch. Fred must have felt uncomfortable. Howie knew he was famished -- and that he didn't have much money. But, if he was uncomfortable, he didn't show it. With the unerring canniness of the initiate, he tendered the coin that is sure to be most highly prized in the suburbs.

"I can sure tell you, Mrs. Hahn.' I've never dove with anyone better than Howie. He really knows his stuff. A lot of people can't tell the difference between a good and bad diver, but I've never felt more comfortable. A good buddy is important in diving."

And with that he paid his debt and established his seniority and was off, forever. He had drawn the bounds of their friendship very clearly, and Howie, though secretly, was deeply hurt.

"You know Howie, you do seem out of control. You do veer and make false starts. It's hard to follow."

Can't you be patient. This is new to me. New Territory. I haven't been here before. I haven't written.

"Perhaps you should practice -- get some training. Study. Read. Anything before you just spill your guts out."

This is my life. It isn't ordered or neat or straight­forward. I want it to have meaning, but I also want it to remain alive.

"Your idealism isn't quite cute. You don't kill something by training it. You nourish something that otherwise might never grow. You're just spattering your brains out. It may do more harm than good."

But I have studied, and I have read, and I have lived. And I've talked. That's all this is. There's no training for those things except the rudiments. You learn it by doing it.

"But you shoot so high!"

You mean I have to earn my birthright? You mean that I have no right to presume that I have anything to say until I've assimilated all that has already been said? No. I'm through with guilt. I'm through trying to find a reason that could justify my presumption about myself. I'm through trying to pay back the world for the accident of my birth and my position.

"Looks to me like you're trying desperately to pay it back."

Damn you! Why can't I be whole -- just one. Yes, in a way I am. But I'm not going to feel guilty that I am who I am through no right. It was an accident. I just happened to be born who and where I was, and to be led or to have lead myself where I've been. I can't sort all that out. But I'm going to make that accident -- my life -- mean something.
That's a responsibility.

"Your life seems to have meant something in the past without your intervention. Why now?"

Because I'm lonely.

"Whose fault is that?"

I won't feel guilty, damn it. I won't. I just haven't become acclimated.

"You're getting carried away again."

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