December 7th, 2006


I think, therefore I float.

We went to Masten Lake every summer between the years of I-don’t-know-when and I’m-not-sure. It was when my sisters and I were still kids, wearing Speedo one-piece bathing suits in the pictures, and we were young enough that our idea of a night of fun involved Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and eating the powder we normally used to make lemonade. (The house in which we were staying belonged to an older couple who kept no sweets in the house and it was at a point in time when sour candies (Tear Jerkers, Sour Power Straws, Cry Babies) were extremely popular—not that children need an explanation for eating things they are not supposed to be eating.) There is a picture of my sisters and I smiling, with scrabble pieces placed over our eyes like the gold coins on a dead man’s face.

“Those weren’t Scrabble,” Karen reminded me, “Those were the pieces to Mickey Mouse Yahtzee.”

“But they’re the same size as Scrabble pieces,” I said.

“Yes,” Karen said. “The same size. But different colors.”

In the picture we are scrunching our eye sockets so that the pieces stayed in place for the photograph. We are all smiling.

It was Pam and Karen and I, (Karen being too young to really do anything besides bathe in the sink and be picked up by fawning adults—too young even, to own regular Yahtzee) and Tim and James. Tim and James were related to someone who was married to someone whose parents owned the house we were staying in. There is no point in describing the relationship in more detail than that. They were our age. Tim had red hair and James had brown and we would play cards together while the adults watched Captain Blood in the other room. We had no interest in watching Captain Blood—it was not even in color, and none of us knew any of the actors.

Each summer we had an entire lake for an entire week; regardless of the other people whose summer homes lined the shores—it was clearly ours, though we allowed them their canoes and paddleboats and summer camps on the opposite shore. We swam and boated and teased James for being very afraid of the small snakes in the shallow water, although I was afraid of spiders and Pam was afraid of the dark. Tim was fairly logical and did not appear to be afraid of anything in particular.

“What’s so terrifying about snakes?” I asked James once.

“What’s so terrifying about spiders?” he replied.

Neither of us knew. I sometimes thought it would be a good idea to cover him in snakes, to stick him in a pit like the one in the Indiana Jones movie, and to cover me in spiders and to lock Pam in a dark closet (It’s called “flooding,” a Psychologist friend would tell me later). And when it was done and we had faced our fears I would no longer be afraid of spiders and James would no longer be afraid of snakes and Pam would be out of my hair, trapped in a dark closet somewhere where she could no longer give me shoe wedgies when I was trying to read in the backyard hammock. (No one is particularly enamored of their siblings at this age—is there anyone who has not, at least once, wished this fate on a younger brother or sister?)
Sometimes we would take a small rowboat out on the lake and pull an inner tube behind it, pretending we were going very fast-- the experience was stupidly exhilarating. We were at the point in our lives where we were amused by inane, un-amusing things, or from another perspective, at the point in our lives where we were still able to amuse ourselves.

We were all very young. There was me and Pam and Tim and James. And sometimes Karen.
And of course, there was my father.

We were sitting on the screened in Porch eating something (not lemonade powder) while my father sipped his coffee, sitting in a plastic chair. Tim and James were taking the cards from Mille Bornes (a French game my mother loved) and were dog-earing the corners of the good cards so they could recognize them when they came up in the pile. Pam and I objected, saying they had ruined my mother’s cards, and they assured us that they weren’t really ruined and that, if needed, they could buy her more cards. Which is when my father, sensing an opening, decided to ask a question that would make no sense to any of us.

“All right, Tim,” he said, “You’re willing to buy more cards, and that’s very gentlemanly of you. But…” he continued, “what if no other cards exist outside of the ones right here on this table?”

Tim stopped because he was used to adults saying things like, “Stop that!” or “You’re ruining that game and it’s not yours to ruin!” or “Go to your room!” He was not used to adults suggesting things that (to him) clearly made no sense at all, such as the idea that no cards existed outside of the ones he was currently ripping at the corners. He quietly and discreetly stopped ripping.

“D’you mean what if they don’t sell this game anymore?” Tim asked. He seemed worried. But that was not what my father was talking about.

“What if…” my father leaned back in his chair, unfolding his fingers in a gesture of possibility, “what if nothing existed outside of what you could see at this very moment? What if some of the things you can see don’t exist?” My father presented this idea in the way someone might reveal to someone else that they had a superpower or a plot for world domination. It was huge. It was overwhelming, and Tim was not ready for it.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Tim. His hair was curly and red and he scratched it.

“What are you talking about, Ross?” James asked. It was always strange to hear children call my father Ross unless they were cousins and the word was preceded by “Uncle.”

“Ok,” my father said. “Your bedroom right now. Can you see it?”

“No,” said Tim.

“No,” said James.

“Can you smell it? Can you touch anything in it? Are you in any way experiencing your bedroom at this moment in time?”

“No, I can’t experience it, but I know it exists,” Tim said, frustrated. “Why would something not exist just because I can’t see it?”

“Why would something exist just because you can?” my father asked. “What does it stand to gain by existing? Is what we perceive what exists or do things exist outside our perception?

“It’s a card game,” said Tim.

“We’re not talking about a card game, Tim, we’re talking about a foundational element of Western Philosophy!

“You are so weird, Ross!”

“The first truth!” my father cried. “You, Tim, exist! Cogito Ergo Sum! Does anything exist but you?”

“NOTHING YOU ARE SAYING MAKES ANY SENSE,” Tim said, pleading. “Ross,” he said, calming down, “I’m sorry I ripped the cards. I’m sure some others exist somewhere and I’ll get you new cards. I cannot see them or smell them or touch them at this time and at this point in space, but I am almost positive that, were I to go to the store, they would exist there and I could buy new ones.”

My father smiled. “On the off chance,” he said, “that other cards DO exist, it’s very kind of you to offer to purchase them, but not needed. They’re just cards.”

Tim stood, completely baffled, undone in a way we had never seen him undone. My father left the room to go watch Captain Blood. My father was at that point in his life where he was sometimes amused by inane, nonsensical conversations, or, conversely, at a point where he was still able to amuse himself (a point at which he remains). And Tim awoke the next morning, unrested, admitting over a damaged round of Mille Bornes that he had tossed and turned all night, wondering whether he existed or not.

“I don’t know,” he said, shaky. “I’m almost positive I do, but I’m not sure.” I could not tell whether or not Tim was bothered solely by the thought of his not existing, but he was more anxious than usual.

“I hope I do exist,” he said. “I think.”

“I hope you do too,” I said, mainly to encourage him but also because if Tim did not exist, I would have doubts regarding my own being and, given my potential non-existence, would probably be unable to pursue fairly run-of-the-mill activities, such as attending Stephanie Whitford’s birthday party or graduating 6th grade.

Regardless of Tim’s or my metaphysical status, we had agreed to go boating the next day in his Grandfather’s navy blue sailboat that was never intended to hold four people (Karen, being too small, was not allowed to go.) It wasn’t so much a sailboat as it was a rowboat with a rudder, onto which someone had attached a mast and a boom. (The someone was most likely his grandfather, but I do not care to make vast, sweeping generalizations about sailboats that are not my own.) None of us had ever used a sailboat, with the exception of James, who “was pretty sure he knew how,” but who continually let the boom whip around and hit us in the heads. The water had gotten a little choppy, due to motorboat wakes, and the small boat was tipping back and forth.

“I’ve done this before,” James stressed. Tim was silent but shaky. Nervous. Pam and I were evenly spaced on the bench and we had ventured halfway into the lake when I first noticed that there were five of us in the boat.

“Ohhhhhh…” I said, nervously. “Oh, oh oh.” As the spider crawled toward me, along the bench, I slid over until I was nearly in my sister’s lap.

“You’re tipping the boat,” James said. “Go back to your side!”

“I can’t!” I told him. Attempting to walk toward me, James once again released the boom, knocking Tim in the head. Tim clasped his head and pulled it down, allowing the boom to whip over him, knocking into my head, pushing me toward the spider.

“Gah!” I screamed. “Stop letting go of the rope!”

“Owwww,” said Tim. He clasped his head at the point of impact. He could experience pain—did that make him exist?

“There’s water coming in,” James said. Grabbing a container, he began to scoop the water back out but the boat sat low, due to our combined weight (we were not THAT young or THAT small) and as it rocked back and forth it allowed in more rivulets, which combined and pooled in the bottom of the boat. At some point in the confusion the spider was hit with a wave of incoming water and was washed into the pool in which our feet sat. I immediately pulled my feet up onto the bench and began shoveling water out of the boat with an old margarine container that had once been filled with bait.

"Tim looks like he's goingn to be sick," I said.

“James, please hold onto the rope,” Tim said, nervously, still clutching his hair, which was still curly and still red and which probably existed, but we were not positive.

“I’m holding it. Keep getting the water out!”

“We are!”

“You’re not!”

“Shut up and hold the rope, James!”

“There’s more coming in…do it faster!”

“We CAN’T do it faster!”

And we couldn’t do it faster. Nor could we do it fast enough. As James released the rope a final time, the boom swept around, knocking Tim in the cheek. He fell toward the side of the boat and as slowly and quickly as anything has ever happened, the vessel was upside down, capsized, with the five of us: me, Pam, Tim, James and the spider, floating around it like buoys in our life vests. (I am speaking, of course, of Pam, Tim, James and myself. The spider was not wearing a life vest, but mother spiders give birth to sufficient amounts of young that they can leave their children ill-advised about the benefits of life-jacket-wearing and still go on to see thousands of descendents.)

We bobbed slowly up and down in the water, first shocked from the cold and, only a minute or two later, comforted by how warm it felt, enveloping us. No one was frantic. James was holding a rope attached to the upside down boat, which was floating quietly like a small island on a leash.

“Is everybody ok?” James asked. The question wasn’t worried—just cautious. We each nodded that we were fine. As I peacefully floated in the water, I wondered if this was what we had been afraid of a moment ago, hysterically shoveling water over the sides, yelling at each other to prevent…this? A quiet moment in the middle of a lake where no one was nervous anymore because the thing we were afraid would happen had happened; we had been doused with our fear, and diffused it of its power. (“Flooding in every sense of the word!” my psychologist friend would say cheerfully.)

I was no longer afraid of the spider—it may very well have been dead in my hair or on my person but I did not know and did not care. It was not important. James mentioned nothing about water snakes as he slowly swam back toward the shore, pulling his pet sailboat. Pam was still frightened of the dark, but her fear did not currently occupy her thoughts. None of us was afraid of having a boat capsizing on us.

Tim, with his hair that was red and wet and matted to his head, floated thoughtfully. He floated on the side of the boat, away from me and Pam and James, his orange life vest up around his shoulders.

“Are you Ok, Tim?” James asked.

“I’m fine,” Tim admitted slowly. “I didn’t think I would be, but I’m totally fine.”

We shook our heads encouragingly, pleased at his answer. He was not holding his head or his cheek in pain. For the first time that day, he looked fine, we concluded-- completely at peace with (if he had one) his existence.