Saturday, July 16, 2016

Writing Update: In Defense of Unrequited Love

I’m writing a memoir about my family and my swimming and triathlon careers.  It’s an open question who’s going to care about it, but some parts of it, at least, I think work pretty well.  I hope they do, anyway.  I am the worst judge ever of my own writing, but this particular project still feels like a worthwhile experience, even if I still wish like all Hell that I felt like I could trust my own judgment about it.

My parents in Hawaii.  Dad was on mid-tour leave
from Vietnam.
In particular, writing about my mother has given me some insights into her life that I’m not sure I could have gotten another way.  We didn’t get along towards the end of her life, and then she died, and it’s not like we ever made up.  I'd always assumed we’d put the past behind us at some point, that she'd come around and we'd finally make peace.  That's not what happened.  Mom was a wonderful, supportive presence early one, but as I got older, well, she wanted a life for me that could only exist in a fairy tale.

I feel like I've done okay with my life.  All other factors aside, I have a wonderful marriage, two great kids, and a house that I can afford in a community that I adore.  That is the American Dream.  My version of that dream didn't match my mom's, though, and she stayed angry about it, and then she died.  I confess that I’ve struggled to feel anything other than a sense of relief in the years since.  Writing about her has made me love and appreciate her again, however, and for that alone this project has been more than worthwhile.  I don’t know who else is going to care about it, but it feels like it’s working for me.  Maybe that's enough.

The problem is in describing the rest of my life.  Not swimming, not my family, but everything else.  In particular, how to describe the girls I knew?

That I had a million crushes in high school goes without saying.  What I’ve realized in the course of writing my own story, though, is that the girls I actually dated and the girls that I cared about…  There is no overlap there at all.  None whatsoever.  In the movies they say, “Just tell her how you feel.”  In real life, I’m not convinced that it’s at all difficult to know how she feels, and let’s face it, who wants to ruin a fully-functional friendship with an ill-conceived confession of love?

Love among teenagers is a fickle thing.  One girl I loved intensely in high school out in California wound up by the sheerest coincidence at the United States Military Academy.  This girl was one of my best friends.  That I loved her goes without saying.  She was then and remains today one of the most beautiful women I've ever known.  In the course of three years together at the Academy, though, I think we said--at most--twenty-five words to each other.  It just wasn't the same.  The love that I'd know as a kid in Fallbrook, California, did not transcend space and time.  It was, if fact, rooted deeply in the experience of a specific moment.

I didn't love the actual girl at all.  I loved being young and free and living in California.  I loved the idea of the girl that went along with that.  But the version of this girl that I loved only truly existed in my head.

This has become a major theme in the book, that there are three realities, and that our success in life is determined by how we manage their interactions.  The first reality is the one that exists.  It's the reality that's real, that can be measured with a stopwatch.  I swam a :55.5 in the 100 Butterfly as a freshman in high school.  That was real.  It actually happened and could be scientifically proven.  The next reality is our perception of ourselves as we exist in our own minds.  I wasn't a great swimmer when I first got to Fallbrook--that's the actual reality--but I was in my mind.  That perception of myself changed the way that I interacted with the world, and it gave me the confidence I needed to confront challenges head-on.  Through an effort of will, I made actual reality conform to my vision of myself.  The last reality is our vision of other people, not as they are but as we project our own needs onto them.  My friend in California was not really a blonde goddess who typified everything that was great about those years of my life.  She was really just my friend.  I put everything else onto her as a kind of shorthand for feelings--about everything--that I wasn't yet old enough to process.

How much of this needs to go in the book?

It's a conundrum because, at the end of the day, our personal relationships define our happiness more than anything else.  On the one hand, this is my story, and it's supposed to be the version that exists through the lens of sport.  On the other hand, how do you describe what works in a relationship without describing what's ridiculous, childish, or unrealistic in your formative years?

I don't know how to hit this balance yet.  It's become an issue because this idea of unrequited love is a potentially major theme in the next part of the story.

While I'm thinking about love, Sally and I renewed our vows at last night's Bridgeport Bluefish game.  It was a riot.

I love this woman.  That's real.

In writing about infatuations from my youth, I hope you guys can all see how those experiences were different than the actual life that Sally and I have built together.  I'm in horror at the idea that someone's going to take one of these stories the wrong way and think I've been pining for them for the last twenty-plus years.  This is not the case.  I just don't know how else to talk about that part of my life, the part before I met Sally and learned what real love actually looked like.  Strictly speaking, none of it was relevant to my swimming.  However, I'm not sure we can understand the mindset of that time without understanding reality as I perceived it through personal interactions.


  1. You write your story. That's all you can do. Maybe keep it in a binder with a title page that reads "in the event of my death, destroy this material unread". But you have to write it down in some draft form, and it's probably going to come out hopelessly indulgent, because it's your story and you don't have the perspective yet to be able to edit it into something that you'd want other people to read.

    Don't be afraid to put words in print. Once you have them down, you can go back and make them say what you want.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Chris. People have been very supportive of this project--and occasionally even interested in it. It just weirds me out. It feels INCREDIBLY self-indulgent, and maybe it is. Like you said, it's a little hard to know. We'll see if anybody other than my kids is interested in a few months, I suppose.