Greased Watermelon: Donaldson Run Pool, 1986

Most of my friends don’t go to church on Sundays, they go to the pool. I give my family’s member number at the front desk, but everyone knows my sister and me, we’ve been going for years. I quickly pass through the locker room, trying to avoid seeing the ancient hanging testicles of older men drying themselves. Quickly out the door, it appears majestic like Memorial Stadium where the Orioles play, the pool. A thick blue chlorinated backwards L, two connected rectangles filled with the tanned bodies of summer. I look over at the distant grassy area where the high school girls in curvy bikinis are splayed out on towels talking about Guiding Light and General Hospital, listening to Q107 on their transistor radios. The upper area has the baby pool, shallow warm urine-filled liquid where chubby diapered legs splash and play with exhausted parents. I check out the high dive, see if anyone is trying for a can opener or leaping off headfirst. The warped Ping-Pong table is in action, sandpaper paddles hitting the ball from all angles, while onlookers chomp on frozen 3 Musketeers bars. I opt for a jump off the low dive, then get into the sharks and minnows game. Sun high in the sky, no one is wearing sunscreen, as timeless moments pass at the glistening watery oasis. An hour later, kids compete in relays, dive for quarters, try to dunk lifeguards. The greased watermelon is the grand finale. I see it resting like an oval green buttery pig, on the edge of the high dive board. We all gather around the perimeter, maybe 70 of us, waiting for the oblong sphere to be shoved into the prepubescent abyss. The head lifeguard slowly climbs the ladder allowing the excitement for the time-honored tradition to build. Then with a nudge of his foot the thing is released to gravity with a cannonball splash. We are a kicking thrashing throng, Lord of the Flies, elbows and hands jutting out in all directions, like the start to a sugar-drunk triathlon. I can’t see anything, never wear goggles; I’m in the center of the wet stampede. Then I feel it, hard against my foot, of the earth, not someone’s thigh, the watermelon. I move it gradually, careful to guide it with my feet, barely paddling. Seconds later I heave it up to the side of the pool, hop out, struggle to hold it up, declare victory. A minute passes before everyone realizes the game is over, then they see me with it. A moment of awe, invincible, me, a man among boys. Walking up the stairs to the exit, I want to think it was my skill, my power, my stellar swimming, but no, just blind luck. Before I leave, I stare at the photo of the 1966 swim team, their taut smooth baby boomer muscles at life’s physical apex. I clutch my watermelon thinking about my dad who went to Vietnam in ’67, shifting the weight from arm to arm, I hope I can carry it all the way home.

Steph Curry

Soaring down the court he’s not a basketball player, more like a violinist commanding each finger to push the ball, the artistry of his movement a constant crescendo. He is Paganini, Perlman, starts, stops, probing scales to find frequency, where the notes penetrate the lane just right. His rhythmic 20-minute pregame routine began with Sonya and Dell, united at their Virginia Tech, then Ohio, later Charlotte, where Steph endured plyometric boot camp, revised his shooting form, learned toughness, grit. Faith, family, academics, pillars of the Curry home, where Sonya’s volleyball and Dell’s basketball were the athletic foundation. Slight of stature, the Hokies told him to walk on, but Davidson had the vision, saw the baby-faced assassin before all the others. The world soon learned, 2009 a Warrior, a Dub, a 3-point threat. The rest starts to become legend, Pistol Pete type lore, without the underlying obsessive darkness. Curry’s music an arsenal of visual disbelief: one hand pass behind the back, crossover to swish, breaking ankles, floater, heaved shots with spin, shooting from all angles with the left or right. John McPhee said of Bill Bradley’s practice, he moves systematically from one place to another around the basket, but Curry is taking tunnel shots, elevation, evolution, greatest shooter of all-time.

Writing Poetry

In college I wrote a poem on a Greyhound bus from Maine to Boston, something about a water gun, sun, translucent plastic. The next poem arrived in slumber, The Brilliant Liar, you are a shining ripple on the surface of a stream, enticing all currents you are spread thin, and to the bottom you sink, like a now forgotten skipping stone. That earned me an 8-page single-spaced reply. Slanted, upside down, my ebullient view, my lens, the one I use to look at the landscape and us in it. Apart, distant, watching my inner introvert who lives in constant wonder. The ink has sat in notebooks, on trains, planes, imitating others, their rhyming schemes, becoming my future plans. I have used it to protest wars, entice love, linger longer in memory, where it all becomes eventually ephemeral. In the past I was mostly scared, to share it, the words. But now, in the social media world of half-truths, fake news, tweeting presidents, an eroding earth, I look for little bits of real, especially tiny slivers dwelling well within.

 

 

History On One Foot, 2003

I’m standing on one foot; leg quivering slightly, the sweat is no longer just in my pits, it’s a wet ring expanding to the size of a sand dollar, darkening my Arrow shirt. On the board in my handwriting, Violence is the answer. The words simply arranged to spur discussion, debate. We are moving towards Sherman, the scorched earth policy, total war, weeks later we’ll compare Grant to Truman, and the dropping of the A bomb, but I always start with psychology, especially with this class, my basic section. When friends ask what I teach, I reply, United States History, AP, College Track, Basic. Basic basically means that the students show up, sometimes stoned, sometimes with weapons (knives, brass knuckles, that kind of stuff), rarely focused, a few barely literate. Raymond is also sweating, we’re 20 minutes into class, his leg looks wobbly. Raymond is the center for the football team; he keeps coming to class late, my pleas falling flat. 11th grade, 16, 17 years old, they’re all systemized, stigmatized; I’m the public school bureaucracy, handing out tardies. He’s a tough, kinesthetic kid; I needed to lose the script. I bet you put your foot down before me, I say when he comes in late. I wanted him to do push-ups, but that seemed like a step too far, now we’re in this one-foot thing together. Violence is the answer, if Gandhi got shot, he’s dead, then what? says Patricia. I hop over towards Brian who has his hand up. People talk about peace, but what about us making nukes? Only peace because we might blow someone up, he says. How many of you could burn someone’s house down in front of them, watch a child’s teddy bear become smoke, you holding the torch yourself? I ask. No one says they could do it, they’ve almost forgotten about Raymond and me, we’re all in the moment, thinking about destruction’s role in history. There are no rules in war, Phil says. So, if you could, you’d poison the water supply for the entire South? Kill all the toddlers, dogs and horses? I ask. Phil starts to squirm. No, no, there should be rules against thatBut why? I counter. 35 minutes into class and Raymond is puffing, flushed, swaying, about to topple. He finally puts his foot down, gives me a grin, sits at his desk. My face is dripping sweat, I jump over, shake his hand, please don’t be late againI won’t, he says. I stay on one foot for the rest of the 55-minute class, the bell rings, they walk out still debating, I hear one of them say, violence isn’t the answer.

Hip-Hop Junkie

Hip-hop, rap, freestyle, beats, bass, breaks, MC, laying down tracks, mixmastered, the mic. Summer of ’84, the beginning, Jam On It by Newcleus is playing; I’m outside a breakdance circle watching Marcus in awe. Legs fluttering through the air, propellers of his windmill. I don’t know it fully at the time, but the music is my cross-cultural bridge, a window into my black friends, Taliaferro, Alphonso, Terry, Tracy, Dennis, guys who live defacto segregated in South Arlington, or Hall’s Hill. The songs, the lyrics, aren’t their truth or mine, artistic expression, usually African-American, black mind creation; we interpret, make meaning. I start by memorizing the lyrics of Whodini, people used to say that you had a big mouth and now I understand what they’re talkin’ about. I find the DC stations on the dial, hear the infectious rap through static. Teenage years bring the Beastie Boys, N.W.A, Run-D.M.C., Will Smith; the Alpine in my Pontiac can’t go loud enough. My college roommates get me hooked on Pete Rock & CL Smooth, school me on Harlem, Chicago, lotion for ashy brown skin. They try to give me a fade, but the sides of my head just go cream-colored, no blending. We listen to all the MCs, talk about who rhymes superior, poetry of words, acceleration, intonation. Eric B. & Rakim, Brand Nubian, Tribe, Ice Cube, Redman, Method Man, names like superheroes. I see Tribe and De La in concert, meet Chuck D, his Public Enemy audio history, middle passage, Black Panthers, slavery. 1996, winter, The Smallest Bar in the NYC, me wearing khakis and an oxford, delivering drinks, my hip-hop night, lots of Biggie and Craig Mack. Reese, grew up with LL, comes in from Queens with his boys, freestyling. Years later students stare in disbelief when I recite all of My Philosophy by KRS-One, word for word. Hip-hop grew up with me and I grew up with hip-hop. Much older now, the CDs and cassette tapes are mostly gone. A few months ago I’m the middle-aged guy in the Prius, Fight The Power blasting out to the gentrified streets of San Francisco. A man at a stop sign stares at me, raises his fist into the air, gives me a nod. I feel like a hip-hop hippie, old days gone, Phife Dawg dead, MCA too, once a hip-hop junkie, that will always be true.

Being Jewish

Most days I forget that I would have been put in the gas chamber. I rarely tell anyone that by Jewish Law, I am, Jewish. I never understood how the Jewish part got to lay claim to me because of my Mother, even though I always celebrated Christmas with my Dad’s family. Daniel Polk, first name Jewish, surname Christian. At Temple Rodef Shalom I studied Moses and the Maccabees. I labored there reading an ancient alphabet with my moussed hair slicked back, trying to look like Don Johnson. Hardly anyone from my intermediate school went to that temple. I never fit, in a word, I thought they (the Jews), were nerds. I liked sports not the computer games they spoke about, their noses and animated faces more Ashkenazi than mine. Yet, I still learned about the holocaust through the patience of Ziva Zysman who survived the camps, endured my halting Hebrew, trained me to stand and be a bar mitzvahed man. Like many quasi-half breed reform Jews, I quit going to synagogue after my bar mitzvah, took the money and ran. But later I journeyed to Israel, researched my mother’s family from Iasi, Romania, Odessa, the pogroms, went through periods of reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, kept flirting with my inner Jew. Judaism would sometimes flirt back, they are married now, have kids with real Jewish men, but we dated then and I pretended that religion could mean something. Years later I took my biggest leap, taught at a Jewish high school where some of the students wore kippahs everyday. My first year a parent asks me, What’s it like for you to be surrounded by all these Jews? After that, I put my Bar Mitzvah certificate up over my desk like it was some kind of diploma, like I actually belonged, like somehow the paper made me kosher. I didn’t, I’m not. Last December I met a rabbi in Mexico while on vacation, told him my lifelong dilemma. Daniel, you either feel it within or you don’t. I don’t feel it, but I don’t not feel it either, caught between tradition, definition, and my own philosophic spirit. Most days I just breathe, some days I pray. To what God? I’m not sure.

Thinking about Meditation: 2008

Meditation, mindfulness, yogic breathing, transcendental meditation, zazen, guided visualization, the breath, mind in the moment, in the seconds really. I’ve read about them all, but I’m absorbing Kabat-Zinn now, his words slowing me down time, as I walk through campus seeing sentences, one by one, as they arrive from colleagues and students. Usually it is a torrent, flooding phrases, mine, theirs, uncontrolled verbal ejaculations, reactive, sometimes rehearsed. How are you? Good. It hasn’t yet occurred to me, to go beyond reading, to actually sit, breathe, listen to my breath. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf, Kabat-Zinn says. Intellectually I comprehend, but don’t yet know about the doing of the not doing, the complicated simplicity that is meditation. The aloneness of my lungs, eyes closed, the stopping, no audience, no tangible reward. As I read, I like to pretend that I’m mindful all the time, that I’m a Zen monk, learned, wise. Fantasy, like when I pick up a Runner’s World in the airport and think, I’m a marathoner, or I can do that, have calves that look like that. Could be mindful all the time, could run a marathon, can’t, won’t, truth. I sell myself the same ideas that are sold to me. But meditation, just breathing, is free. It will be three more years before I begin, really breathe in, breathe out, stringing minutes together, before I learn, that you don’t think about meditation, you do it.