Coaching Imogene Herdman

Yesterday I made a girl cry.

The head coach told me, “You did the right thing.”

When I told the story to one of my sons, he said the same thing. “That was the right decision,” he said.

Still, I went to sleep thinking about her and woke up thinking about her.

Basically, I’m coaching Imogene Herdman. If you’ve never read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The opening line in the book is, “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.” Imogene is all Herdman.

In fact, I’ll call my swimmer Imogene for this post.

She’s mean. A real bully. Lots of name-calling. Shoving. Swimming over top of other kids. Always late — when she shows up at all. Mouthy.

I’ve said to my co-coaches more than once, “I need to figure Imogene out. Where does the mean come from?”

A lot of kids these days are from broken homes and blended families, so I don’t want to assume that’s the root, but I think it plays a part. She’s been displaced by a baby half-brother in her home. She’s a hers, but he’s a theirs.

My group of swimmers is developmental. They’re mostly around 10 years old and still learning the strokes. We practice Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

On Tuesdays, however, I coach a different group, a higher level group, because their coach can’t make Tuesdays at all.

A few parents of swimmers from my group have asked about having their child practice on Tuesday with me. Piano lessons and other activities make it hard to make it to all the practices. I’ve answered that on a case-to-case basis.

Imogene showed up last Tuesday.

“Can I practice today to make up for some of my missed practices?” she asked.

I paused. “Can you be nice?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, looking up at me so hopefully.

“Can you listen and do what you’re told?” I asked. She often doesn’t.

“Uh-huh,” she said, and gave me a please-please-please smile.

“Okay, we’ll give it a try,” I said.

She made it about 40 minutes before she started pushing and swimming over top of other kids.

The next day, she didn’t come to practice. She went to the locker room, though, and told the other girls, “I’ve been moved up to another group.”

“Was Imogene moved up?” my saintly swimmers asked.

“No,” I told them.

She came Friday in full-on bully mode, skipped the meet on Saturday, and then at Monday’s practice told me that she was coming on Tuesday.

“No, Imogene,” I told her. “Coming on Tuesday is a conversation I need to have with your parents. You can’t just decide that you’re coming.”

But she came.

And I made her get out.

“We talked about this yesterday,” I said to her.

“I have a note from home,” she replied, but didn’t offer to show it to me.

“I’d like to have a conversation, not a note,” I told her.

She stared at the deck.

“My problem, Imogene, is this,” I continued. “You aren’t always nice to the other swimmers in your lane. You don’t do what I ask you to do. You skip practices. You skip meets.”

Tears filled her eyes.

“I can’t go to swim meets,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “I have a baby brother.”

“Can you ask some of your friends for rides to meets?” I suggested, but as soon as I said the words, I knew the answer. She doesn’t have many friends.

The tears rolled down her cheeks. I thought of Amanda Beard’s memoir, In the Water They Can’t See You Cry. On deck, standing in front of me, I could see the tears.

“Tuesday practices are a privilege for our group,” I said. “I need to talk with one of your parents.”

With that, she left.

And I felt like crying.

“You did the right thing,” the head coach said. “She can’t run the show. You feel badly because you’re kind.”

I didn’t feel kind.

I felt like I had kicked Imogene Herdman out of the Christmas Pageant. At the start of Advent.

For me, swim team has always been about a thousand different things other than swimming. Now it’s about a Christmas Pageant bully.

How do I reach Imogene?

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Self-diagnosis

My father was reading Time magazine the other day.

“Can you read the date of this?” he asked me when I came in the room.

I squinted and read, “July 17, 2000.”

“So it’s current,” he said.

“No, Dad,” I told him. “This is 2017.”

“Well, it’s pretty current,” he said, “you know — it’s in our lifetime.”

I shook my head, not sure how to respond to that. The world has changed so much.

When that issue of Time came out, airplanes hadn’t flown into buildings. Airport security wasn’t a thing. Donald Trump wouldn’t be firing would-be apprentices for 3 1/2 more years and I doubt anyone would have imagined him becoming our 45th president. The first iPhone wouldn’t be released for 7 more years.

2000 was a lifetime ago. We had just gotten over the worries of Y2K. Mary was baby and Laurel not even imagined.

“So it’s current,” he said again.

“It’s in our lifetime,” I conceded, and went back to what I had been doing.

Later, he found me in the kitchen where I was prepping dinner. He was still holding that old issue of Time magazine.

“This is fascinating,” he said. “I’m reading an article about Alzheimer’s.”

It was, in fact, the cover story for the issue.

“I think I may have Alzheimer’s,” he said. He looked at me and paused before asking, “Do you think I have it?”

I stopped shredding cheese and turned to face him. “Well,” I said slowly, “you do have trouble remembering things.”

“That’s right,” he said. “I feel like my brain is squashed.”

That’s a description he has used a number of times. Rotten fruit and roadkill always come to mind when he says it – not a pleasant picture.

I looked at the cover of the magazine which compared the brain of an Alzheimer’s sufferer with a normal brain. His description may be more right than he knows.

I didn’t know what to say to him. Silence settled over us as we both stood in the kitchen.

He leaned on his walker, and finally said, “It was interesting to read.”

Interesting. Not sad. Not heart-wrenching. Not hand-wringing. Just interesting.

A dispassionate diagnosis.

And life goes on.

Every night I hear him whistling as he gets ready for bed. Sometimes he even sings.

O Danny boy —
The pipes, the pipes are calling.
From glen to glen and down the mountain side.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling,
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.

It’s such a sad song. My heart aches a little.

But he seems so happy. I can’t ask for more.

 

First Sunday of Advent 2017

I peeked at the first page of The New Christian Year (compiled by Charles Williams) one last time before putting it on the shelf.

My well-worn copy is even more well-worn now that I’ve been through the book several times. The New Christian Year isn’t so new anymore. My copy is from 1941 — and it was written in but not falling apart when I got it. I picked it up at a used bookstore, not knowing what a dear friend it would become. It’s falling apart now, like a Velveteen Rabbit of books.

Charles Williams introduced me to so many Christian thinkers — St. Augustine, John Donne, Lancelot Andrewes, William Law, and Blaise Pascal to name a few.  The New Christian Year helped me fill my bookshelves with deep, rich books.

But, when I read Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance earlier this year, I knew I was reading a modern author who would challenge me to change my life and deepen my faith. I ordered Gift and Task as soon as I finished the Sabbath book.

When it arrived, I set it aside. I would have to wait for Advent, the start of the Christian year.

My brand new copy of Walter Brueggemann’s Gift and Task beckoned me this morning.

All those pages so new and clean.

Oh — to write in the margins!

Brueggemann starts the Christian year not with light and hope, but with a roar.

…Advent is “in like a lion,” a roaring truthfulness that disrupts our every illusion…

…Christmas is not a safe, private, or even familial enterprise but is preoccupied with great public issues of war and peace and issues of economic justice that concern the worth and bodily well-being of human persons. Our Advent preparation may invite us to consider the ways in which we ourselves are complicit in the deep inhumanity of our current world.

Not what I was expecting at all.

Indeed, for me, Advent roared in like a lion, but Brueggemann concluded today with these words –

The lion opens space for the Lamb, who will arrive soon.

I hope I’m ready for this new Christian year.

 

 

The Perfect Job

My home away from home. At 5:30 AM, so serene.

“It must be boring,” said one of the swimmers this morning, “just watching people swim back and forth.”

No. It really isn’t. Something about the rhythmic splash-splash-splash of a single person swimming down the pool is very Zen — and I say that in the most Christian way possible.

It’s meditative. Contemplative.

Add in a few more swimmers, each with their own rhythm of splashes, and it’s a trio, a quartet, a quintet.

Musical.

Quiet.

Calming.

I also love my co-workers. I hadn’t realized how much I missed people, until I was spending time in quiet conversation with another lifeguard every weekday morning.

When I go back later in the day to coach, the atmosphere is totally different.

Confusion. Cacophony. Unbridled energy.

Forty to fifty swimmers fill the lanes. The youngest group splashes with their coach in the shallow teaching pool working on skills, or playing a game, or both. A couple of other swimmers practice a specific skill or do a late warm-up in the diving pool. Young swimmers are everywhere.

This, too, is perfect for me. The hustle-bustle-excitement of coaching. Both frustrating and rewarding. A puzzle to solve as I try to figure out what makes each child tick. I watch to see what skills they need to develop, and I fall asleep thinking about how to help one swimmer learn to dive, and another master the breaststroke kick.

Three hours a day. That’s all I work at a paying job.

Don’t tell them — but I think I would do it for free.

Two hours of quiet. One hour of craziness.

A perfect ratio.

And the perfect change of pace to balance out my time as a caregiver.

How did I get so lucky?

 

Rough and Slippery Roads

Those who journey on level ground have no need to give one another their hands, whereas those who are on rough and slippery roads hold fast one to another… in order to walk securely and help one another in the many difficult places through which they have to pass.

St. France de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

A helping hand while climbing the rocks at Whytecliff Park

God, in His mercy, blessed me with a number of people who offer me their hand in the difficult places.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for each one of them.

 

Another Sunrise Post

Laurel and I left before the crack of dawn for a swim meet this morning.

As we came over the top of Murphy Hill, I caught my first glimpse of the eastern horizon.

“That’s going to be a beautiful sunrise,” I told her.

She started to laugh.

“Just you wait,” I said, assuming she was laughing at me gushing over another sunrise. “Some day 50 years from now, you’ll see a breath-taking sunrise, and you’ll think, Mom would have liked that.”

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“You laughed,” I said.

“I thought you said, ‘That’s no surprise’,” she said, referring to the conversation we had been having before I was distracted by the crack of dawn breaking through the sky ahead of us.

We both laughed. I mis-hear a lot. This time is was someone else’s turn to hear incorrectly.

I handed Laurel my phone. “See if you can take a few pictures on the way,” I said.

And she did.

 

I know that beautiful sunrises are simply caused by light reflecting through particles in the atmosphere.

Still, it was a lovely way to start the day.

Every time we came around another curve or crested another hill, the view just got better.

It doesn’t happen often , but I’m so glad that some days are like that.

Dear Evan Hansen

Getting in line to see Dear Evan Hansen

On the way home from New York City Mary asked me what my favorite song from Dear Evan Hansen had been.

Mind you, I had heard all of the songs a grand total of one time.

Unlike Mary, who knew every word of every song.

Unlike the woman sitting next to Mary, who also knew every word to every song.

During intermission I asked the woman if she had seen the play before.

“No,” she said, “I’ve just listened to the soundtrack a thousand times.”

Now, two weeks out, I’ve joined their ranks.

I want to see the show again in the worst way, but the tickets were a huge splurge the first time and would fall into the realm of ridiculous expenditures if I were to see it again.

“What’s it about?” Karl asked, a little mystified about my latest obsession.

In a nutshell, the story is about a socially awkward teen (Evan Hansen) whose counselor suggests that he write a pep talk to himself every day — Dear Evan Hansen. One of these letters falls into the hands of another social outcast who commits suicide. When the letter is found in the pocket of the deceased boy, his parents conclude that he and Evan Hansen were friends, and a fabricated friendship begins. This barebones synopsis leaves out a thousand important details, I know, but it’s a start.

What’s it about?  I could have answered mental health or high school or parenting or social media or life.

I’m still trying to figure that out — life, and what it’s about.

~~~

As Mary and I stood in line to enter the theater, we saw a sign saying that the part of Evan Hansen was being played that day by Michael Lee Brown. People in front of us and behind began to grumble. Before taking my seat, I listened to a woman argue with an usher about it.

“I paid to see Ben Platt,” she said. Purse looped over her forearm, gloves in one hand, ticket in the other, silver-haired — she looked like the innocuous grandmotherly sort, but she went after the usher like a Rottweiler.

The opening set for Dear Evan Hansen

To future Dear Evan Hansen viewers: May you be so lucky to see Michael Lee Brown perform the title role. He was amazing. He was the perfect amount of awkward as he stuttered. His hands fluttered — a stage-visible sign of a racing heart, something I know too well. I watched his hands, fascinated.

~~~

What was my favorite song?

I know them all now and sing along as I make dinner or walk the dog.

The lyrics are quotable, meme-able, but so layered and rich.

I think I know which song I would choose now — but that’s probably a post for another day.