Inside the Barrel

It is a familiar feeling. Like getting tossed by a huge wave, whipped around under the water, pulled down by the undertow, surrounded by silent fury. Caught in a rip current, disoriented and momentarily uncertain how, when, or if you’ll make it to the surface. A challenge to some sense of security I used to face with frequency throughout my childhood and adolescent development that has unfortunately had a hard time locating me lately.

The last time I experienced it to this degree was when I was about sixteen.

It was the very first time my parents had ever left me alone with the house—each half of my parental unit out of town with my little siblings in tow.

Completely impromptu, a party (which truly overachieved by high school party standards) materialized that night at my house and we all proceeded to take full advantage of our deliciously rare lapse in supervision. One of my friends even lost his virginity that night—needless to say, some pretty damn groundbreaking stuff.

The next morning after powercleaning my house to leave no trace like the good Boy Scout does, I got a ride from my two best friends to the Volusia County Beach Lifeguard tryouts.

I showed up, one of 100 or so prospective lifeguards ready to take the prerequisite swimming test. The Ocean Rescue corps maintain minimum swim times and other physical benchmarks to ensure that the people endowed with the responsibility can rise to the occasion of saving someone’s life when the ocean decides to remind us of its capacity for murder. In reality the County (which was later involved in a bunch of scandals of matters including but not restricted to sexual misconduct and racial insensitivity) probably required it mostly for reasons far less heroic-sounding, like “insurance” or “liability” but it makes no difference now.

Skinny and pale, I had not been training for the swim and had the added luxury of a few of my friends (and maybe even my mother) having expressed surprise that I would even want to try out…wondering if I would be ABLE to pass. Reflecting on it now, this chip on my shoulder probably deserves a good deal of the credit for my attendance at the tryout that morning.

At times I wish people other than me would doubt me more often.

Before any actual swim tests started, they informed us that there would be a drug test approaching in approximately six weeks, plenty of time, they said, to stop smoking and pass the piss test.

I watched somewhat in awe as about a dozen or more people shamelessly & immediately headed for the door, including not least of all, my two best friends and therefore, my ride.

I was likely nursing my first ever hangover, certainly a bit intimidated by the prospect of the swim and other requirements and could have easily taken this opportunity to leave.

Next thing I know, I’m in the pool. Pulling, kicking, mind simultaneously clear of any thought but racing with some beat running ad nauseum in my head as I rotated and breathed and rotated and breathed until hitting the wall where I would tap, turn, and head back the other way.

As the time remaining to complete the challenge waned, the timekeeper’s intensity took on momentum until with only a few laps left it seemed like he found some enjoyment slipping into full-on drill sergeant mode, even kneeling next to the water to deliver his message, a fervent swirly twist cone of vanilla encouragement alongside the chocolate threat of failure.

I decided to hit the afterburners and just go all out. Commit, to it, if you will. At the very least, I did not want to have forced myself to work out this hard, THIS early in the morning, all for naught.

I managed to finish under their maximum allowable time, cutting it dangerously close. This meant that I was eligible to move on to the next round, and barring any unforeseen major setbacks they would invest in my education and training for the vaunted position. Particularly in Central Florida along the Atlantic Coast, ‘Lifeguard’ is a pretty glorious occupation. And especially as high school kids’ summer jobs go, we may as well have been cowboys or samurai…a position generally regarded with high status and prestige in the community.

The most pivotal moment came immediately after my swim but just prior to commencement of the rest of the weeklong training program.

I was exhausted. Lack of sleep, alcohol, smoking, the intense swim I just performed—I was feeling uncharacteristically lightheaded and weak, eyes glazing over in a state of semi shock standing by the water fountain not far from the EXIT door.

“I could just walk out and come back next year when I’ve actually prepared for this shit, I’ll find some other job for the summer. Do I really want this that badly anyway? I mean it would almost be cooler to qualify, get accepted, and then just walk out and do my own thing, right?” I allowed myself to think—in a very misguided devil-may-care sort of teenage righteousness that I would like to believe that I’ve now outgrown.

I ended up walking away from the water fountain, back inside…where I made a few friends on the fly who eventually drove me with them to the next phase of the training.

I ended up spending the better (the best) part of six summers between the ages of 16 and 22 lifeguarding on the beach there, making a ton of friends, getting into the best shape of my life, philandering with tourist girls on beach vacations, participating in rescues in the open water & tasting the best natural high around—saving a life. All of this while getting PAID to do so and eventually even winning the war of attrition in tanning my stubborn skin.

Lifeguarding was without a doubt one of the best things I have ever been a part of, all of it because I decided to suck it up and not give up like that little bitch ass corner of my mind wanted me to. It was momentarily very uncomfortable, but it challenged my ego far more than my actual capability. My inflated sense of “self” had a hard time sitting with that feeling. That ego that parades itself around as protecting us, keeping us somehow safe, all the while secretly crippling us by insisting on having its lazily ignorant way.

It is only through these moments of uncertainty, adversity and challenge that we learn about ourselves, regardless of whether the main goal is achieved or not.

My first few days dealing with coding Ruby at the Metis bootcamp have brought me back. Back to that feeling of uncertainty and panic that I (apparently) have been nostalgic for. Not at all helped by the fact that I got fewer than three hours of rest the night before it all kicked off, I found myself overcaffeinated and overwhelmed, even stepping out for a minute to come up for air at one point during the late stages of day one.

I did not do much better the second night than the first, this time not kept awake by anticipation as much as I was essentially haunted in my sleep by that state of utter confusion and the (mostly imagined) sensation that I’m inconveniencing others and falling behind the pack. I even wrote this piece inside the command terminal instead of in a word processor.

Communicating with computers from any perspective other than “mouth breathing consumer” is more or less uncharted territory for me, and humility aside, a sense of intimidation inside of a classroom or any educational setting whatsoever is as completely foreign a concept as the seemingly labyrinthine code itself (what does block.call(arr[index]) mean to you?). For the first time in my life I am not feeling like I’m ahead of the class, casually coasting on the luxury of my intellect, happily assuming the role of bored underachieving class clown and cockily taking the tests (and usually acing them) without having cracked the book or done any of the homework.

So for a moment at least, I’m back in the whirlwind,—back inside the wave that has crashed around me and is sending me for a violent, frothy spin. If the previous times provide any indication, I’ll emerge soon, a little shaken but ultimately ready to take on the next wave, vindicated.