Floating down the river with Dave

Inflatable boat icon. Vector Illustration.

In the summer of 1977, I floated down the American River with my friend Dave. This was a horrible moment in my life and I almost forgot about it until it came to me recently while sitting on a mat listening to a yoga teacher talk about dignity, contentment, and gratitude. We were about to go into some breathing exercises when asking myself how well I have lived by these values the event popped into my head and I nearly broke down and cried. I realized it was on that trip down the river I started making fun of myself in a very self-destructive way. Something very different from the values dignity, contentment, and gratitude.

Dave and I had launched the raft at Sunrise Boulevard with provisions of soda and snacks and were on our way when Dave took off his shirt and I noticed his body was bronzed and muscular. No, my dear reader, I am not gay, nor do I have a problem with somebody being gay. It was more of a reckoning. The Dave I was looking at was no longer the kid that I remembered in elementary school–the misfit, like me. He was no longer the kid that seemed to always be squinting in the sun with his mouth open, bubbles of spittal collecting on one side of his mouth; the only boy in elementary school who didn’t wear white sweat socks with expensive athletic shoes like Puma and Adidas, but funny colored hosiery with oxford-style dress shoes. He was terribly out of step with the rest of us. Now–stripped-down–he was a very attractive man: perfect white teeth, a perfect body, a dark tan, and a deep voice, and the clothes? Well, he was in a swimsuit.

It was painfully obvious now, looking at my phosphorescent blob of a body through his mirror sunglasses, Dave was beautiful and I wasn’t. Dave was dating one of the most beautiful girls from our high school, I hadn’t had a date since my disastrous Senior Homecoming. Dave was the human equivalent of the Ugly Duckling. I felt like that story in reverse–sort of.

At this point, I should clarify something. The young man sitting across from Dave in the raft was not fat–not like I am now (hovering around 210 lbs. at 5’6). I was husky most of my life before college. If you compared me to my brother and the kids in my neighborhood I was definitely thicker. If you asked me if I was fat back then I would have replied with a resounding affirmative and that is a goddamn shame because I could have had a happier childhood if I didn’t walk around so uncomfortable in my own skin. By the time my wife convinced me that I wasn’t fat–going through old pictures and home movies–a desk job, two kids and three squares followed by desserts, lots of desserts had made me become fat.

On top of this feeling that Dave had really blossomed and I was, well, the unattractive guy in Dave’s sunglasses, I felt I had this coming. Childhood can be vicious. Dave was often the object of many jokes–most of them behind his back. I think it is fair to say that before getting into that raft I had a pretty low opinion of myself. The reason Dave and I were friends was because we were both members of the same untouchable caste. I wasn’t completely shocked that Dave was such a good looking guy and I wasn’t: in the last couple of years Dave was spotted by our high school’s expert skiers–a cliche of attractive students. Dave had been skiing for years and could keep up with these people. Dave had also been interested in weight training throughout high school. Me? I spent most of my high school years in my room.

So, I should have seen this coming. Still, the physical superiority on the other side of the raft shocked me, especially against my own mediocrity. So, somewhere down the river, staring at Dave, I began to hate myself and that hatred manifested itself in cracking wise about my weight, my burn-and-peel fair skin, my height, and my physical weakness. Like I was afraid Dave would take this time–now with a captive audience–to call me out on all the back-stabbing and tell me how great it is to be him and ask how much pussy had I’d been getting lately, knowing the answer was zilch.

I don’t think we had beers, but we both became drunk: I on spouting self-deprecating humor and Dave on laughing at it. I vaguely remember even cracking a joke about my seizure disorder. Something about how, years previous, my best friend, Jesse–in an attempt to defend me when everyone else was laughing at how I royally sucked and some game–shouting at my attackers, “He can’t help it! He wasn’t born right. weren’t you?” The only way to back up my buddy backing me up was to confirm my lameness. I fancy me saying something like, “Yep, Jesse’s right, gents. Take it easy on me, I’m a complete retard!”

Though I believe good ole Jesse was only asking for mercy amongst the neighborhood kids, I probably had a more universal interpretation of “wasn’t born right.” After all, in addition to sports, I also wasn’t very swift when it came to scholastics, and I had a stutter at one time. So, when I had a seizure in in my backyard in front of all the neighborhood kids it only validated this feeling that I was less than the rest of them.

When I got home after the rafting trip, I felt sick to my stomach. I quietly walked to my backyard, and right where I had that seizure in front of all my friends seven years earlier, I threw up. Following the rejected soda, chips etc. came the tears. I’m sure there was a physiological reason for the vomit launch–being under the sun for that many hours can take its toll. I like to think it was a psychosomatic response to the nuclear attack I launched on my self-esteem.

If treating myself as an enemy combatant was the reason for the vomiting, I can say it never happened on this scale again. What I can’t say is that the self-deprecating jokes stopped, all together. From that point on the jokes were a bit more conservative. Call them drone strikes. It’s important we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Sometimes I might go a little overboard with the “it’s important to laugh at yourself” idea, but for the most part I keep the values of dignity, contentment, and gratitude close.

Over the forty years since the dreaded raft trip, I would graduate from college, get married, have kids, and hold down a respectable if not an exciting job. With age, my health would begin to fail and I would find myself on this yoga mat and that trip down the river would pop into my head. An unfortunate moment. Breathe through it, Jack.

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