Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fish Out of Water

When I was a kid we played "Marco Polo" at the public pool just down the street pretty much all the time. Either that or we dived for pennies or asked the life guards to open the diving board in the deep end, effectively avoiding yet another game of "Sharks and Minnows." During Adult Swim, those last ten minutes of the hour which seemed to drag unendurably, we would run back home for Otter Pops and Mario 3.

But that's not what I'm getting at. I'm thinking about the phrase "fish out of water"—what someone shouts in "Marco Polo" when they suspect their opponents have gotten fully out of the pool to avoid being caught. Did the game create the cliché or did the cliché lend itself so nicely to the game? I mean, the phrase fits in so literally that it calls into question the central phrase of the game as somehow implausible; what sense does it make to splash around yelling "Marco!" when kids, slippery and slick as fish themselves, are actually beaching themselves?

Marco Polo, a Venetian out of Italy

In the last two days I've spent considerable time as a worm out of dirt. Yesterday I went to a local bar to meet and mingle with other members of the OU English grad program. As a non-drinker, I don't typically spend a lot of time in bars—I used to watch my high school girlfriend's family get slowly drunk on Sunday afternoons, but other than that I'm pretty inexperienced. Today I hung out with 3 married couples and their children for several hours. As the single single guy in the room, I had a bit of a challenge relating to much of the conversation, it often being about home buying, male-pattern baldness, and keeping unwanted articles out of toddlers' mouths.

But that isn't to say I didn't have a great time, and it isn't to say I didn't blend in. Just as a kid out of the pool will stoop low when shouting "Polo!" to avoid his voice sounding from too high and smile excitedly self-satisfied with his successful ruse, I did my best to sway just a little bit to the too loud music in the bar (a great selection I might add: Prince's "Kiss," Tom Petty's "It's Good to Be King," and more) while learning names and trading stories. I met T, who works as a baker in a local organic bakery supplying nearby restaurants and a farmer's market; T, a woman who until recently had several feet of red hair and is debating whether to write her thesis in modern American writers of color or Shakespeare (quite a difference!); and K, a sweet girl with the brightest eyes recently engaged to a jazz saxophonist. Charming people, really—really nice, really welcoming, anxious to know what I think about Athens, and genuinely interested in giving me a good impression of the place.

So what made me a stranger in a strange land? Was it my Mormon-ness, my refusal to drink? I'd say that's true to an extent. I definitely walked in there expecting to be different, feeling different. The fact of my leaving Utah has indeed been on my mind. One guy I met, J, asked me right away when I told him I had come from BYU in Provo whether it was a big change to go from such a private university to such a secular one. His tone was one of near concern and slight astonishment, completely well-intentioned (I should add that he looked and talked exactly like my old roommate Scott). We got into a conversation and he told me about his plans to go to Jerusalem in a week for an internship with the Associated Press. Having lived for a time in South Korea, I could really relate to his situation, so I offered my advice on things, listened to his excitement about going, and generally had an engaging talk. When I first mentioned Korea he asked how I came to be there and I replied that I was a missionary there. He paused and tentatively asked, "So are you a Mormon?"

"Yes," I replied. And he said, "Yeah, I was putting that together earlier with the BYU thing, but I didn't want to just ask, you know." So polite; so polite. And that didn't change anything either: a few minutes later he noticed his beer was rather empty and my hands were completely thus, so he said, "I'm gonna run back to the bar—do you drink?"

"No," I smiled.

"Oh. Cause I'd love to buy you a—or even just some water?"

"Thanks; I'm good."

How kind and completely unassuming. I hope I can do as well. To him I was merely me, a guy in a bar meeting people—no fish, no water.

And what about my new married friends? All in the room had been at church that morning; the only difference was my bachelorhood. Ordinarily (meaning at BYU), I would only have hung out with married folks if we were very good friends before hand. Doing so with three couples at once would've been outrageous (my bishopric, perhaps?), and I would've left severely chastened and booked with blind dates for weekends to come. But that's not what it was at all. I was invited cause I was new, I was being shown hospitality. It wasn't me versus them; it was just us, boys and girls chatting and having a good time. I didn't even notice at the time that the conversation was characteristic of the demographic, and I chimed in as much as ever, commiserating with my thinning-haired companions, comparing the virtues of David McKay and Dallin Oaks. If I was or felt like a camel out of desert, it was my own doing. It was too much thinking about it later in this case, to much thinking about it before in the case of the bar.

David O. McKay and Dallin H. Oaks, angels out of heaven

It's like the kid who can't stand the possibility that he might get caught so he gets caught on purpose, either splashing wildly out of the pool or walking right up to It and getting tagged. As if he could preserve some his dignity by pretending his lack of nerve was really some kind of courage.

So I take it back: I wasn't swaying to the music in the bar because I wanted to fit in (was anyone but K swaying?); I was doing it because I can't resist a line like:

"I just want your extra time and your

Prince, a genius out of his time


Elisa said...

I actually heard "kiss" on the radio THIS MORNING and thought of you. That song is a super-jam. (I'm reading old blog posts I missed while I was gone...I missed a lot)

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