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Swinging Over the Bar

October 21, 2009

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I’ve never had a mind for tough subjects. As textbooks filled up with equations, rules and formulae, homework hour became a training camp for how hard I could whip my pencil across the room. By junior high, I could bury the lead a full centimetre into the wall. I would sit at my desk, panicking quietly, my hands folded into a knot or raking through my hair. 

I had incredible fights with my math tutor, who would patiently explain the correct method for solving a problem, and then watch in strained agony while I dismantled then reassembled rows of numbers all wrong. Our pedogogy went something like:

Tutor: Is that how I just showed you?

Me: No.

Tutor: Then why are you doing it that way?

Me: Because this way makes sense.

Tutor: Even though you know it’s wrong?

Me: Yes.

Tutor: …

We’d run through things again, the so-called correct way, then my tutor would flip the page, tap the book with his index finger. “Try this one, the way I just showed you.” I’d pause, think, nibble my eraser, then scrawl out some numbers and operators, throw in a few brackets for good measure, flip to the Answers page and inevitably expose my error. It should work out to 7 not 51, should be positive not negative, should leave me with a triangle sliced in two equal parts not three random chunks.

And yet, my mistakes were consistent. It’s not like I solved one math problem incorrectly then wildly applied a new batch of mistakes to the next one. I’d do everything wrong, the same way. If the laws governing mathematics were brought in line with my brain, I would be a genius. Orderly, neat as a pin, particular about everything having its place and being in it, I drafted gorgeous lab reports and perfectly ruled my tables and charts. Excellent penmanship kept headings legible, my observations and assessments were meticulous and detailed. I never coloured outside the lines when diagraming a plant cell, nor did I blow up my workstation by letting one chemical dribble into another. But, achieving correct answers flattened me like a wrestling smackdown. When it came time to extrapolate hard data from my experiments or add a bunch of factors and come up with a conclusion, it all fell apart.

It’s not that I lacked enthusiasm or a desire to learn. More likely, my brain was hijacked by its creative, inventive side, the one that believed science and math work like this:

1. If you pick up a shovel and dig with steady, unflagging effort, someday, eventually, maybe years from now but surely in due course, your spade will break through the crust and there you’ll be in China. Cartoons were to blame for this geographic misconception, but even after someone showed me a globe, poked a finger at the middle of the ocean, and confirmed that’s where I’d end up, far far far from China, I still believed in the digging part. That is was possible to burrow through the earth and come out the other side. A helper could travel ahead of me by some more efficient means, anchor a raft above my destination, and once I finished my dig, I could swim to the surface and pull myself aboard.

2. If you pumped your legs strongly enough, you could swing over the bar, your body carving a perfect wheel against the playground sky. Hands gripping swing-chains, hair streaming behind like an elegant horse’s tail, toes pointed and legs stiff. A gymnast on the high bar, her trajectory assisted by a rubber swing. The moment you drew parallel and the chains slackened then snapped, this meant you were close but not quite there. Instead of seeing that snap as physics judging your manoeuver impossible, it was a sign to try harder on your next go.

3. Cola could strip the tarnish off a coin, and could burn a hole through your stomach lining if you drank the used soda. We knew this because of skinny Allison, the grade-fiver as lean as a rail. She claimed to chug two cans a day, one a recess and one later on. She said her favourite was the Coke she drank for her after-school snack. Flat from sitting uncovered in a cup of soaking pennies all day, warm from standing at room temperature on a shelf in her closet, the cola went down like water, she said. Her cousin, who often got babysat by skinny Allison’s mom, had overheard the parents talking and the diagnosis wasn’t good: a hole in Allison’s belly, the size of a penny, preventing her from growing fit and meaty, leaving her pale and thin and shorter than her classmates. A penny! The Coke! It had to be.

4. After the Chernobyl disaster, older kids terrorised younger ones on the school bus, delivering grim bulletins about the posionous cloud that was allegedly drifting toward Canada, leaving nothing but shriveled children and vaporised plantlife in its wake. My parents had announced our family was moving to Winnipeg that summer, and after living in dread of our upcoming prairie lives, I sighed in relief. By the time our move-date arrived, we’d be long since smothered by nuclear fog. My grade seven class had read the novel On the Beach for extra credit (in hindsight, this seems outrageous), and I was fully equipped with images, vocabulary and medical stages to conjure our deteriorating health, vibrant last days, and ultimately our suicides. The opening scene of Strange Brew had always seemed hilarious, the McKenzie brothers dressed in longjohns and hockey pads, scrambling along the rocky shores of Lake Ontario, the last men on earth. But no one would really want to be left alone after the meltdown. And so, a girlfriend and I scooched down in our bus seats and plotted the best way to off ourselves. We weighed the danger in letting the cloud drift too close (what if it muddled our brains with radiation and rendered us incapable of keeping it together and doing ourselves in?) against the risk of acting too soon. Like, what if someone saved the world at the last minute and we’d been too hasty in drinking our deadly potions or leaping from the highest bridge in town?

5. If you run a wire through a string of dill pickles, you can connect the ends to batteries and make the pickles spark and glow. If you leave the connection intact long enough, eventually the pickles will explode.

As it turns out, the pickle one is possible. It’s one of my friend A.’s favourite party tricks, and if you can stand the stench of scorched brine that lingers long after the wires are disconnected, it’s worth begging him to perform it for you sometime!      

As for the rest, I’m not a strong enough swimmer to test the tunnelling theory, and after snarling my hair in swingset chains enough times, once having to call my mother to cut me loose, I gave up trying to swing over the bar. My family did move to Winnipeg, seemingly unscathed by Ukrainian radiation, and eventually, we moved back to Ontario, too. And so, most of my science theories remain untested, but I think I crafted some pretty solid hypotheses.

This past summer, I spent two weeks living on the Toronto Islands, and as a municipal strike halted the ferry service, the islands bobbed empty in the lake. I cannot deny that I played Strange Brew now and then, hopping from rock to rock just off shore, wearing only my underpants and a scarf on my head, and lugging a satchel of weird shit, items I figured were essential supplies to make it through the day. With no one in sight, it was easy to imagine I was the last one on earth, and to behave like it, too. When the ferries resumed and tourists flocked to the islands again, it was tough to remember to put on some pants, watch for broken glass underfoot, and to be more discreet with the flask of bourbon midday.

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