Treading Water

Treading Water

Boston, 2006: I step down from a full-time editing job seconds before I’m sure to get a pink slip. I convince myself I’m ready to create my own work. And I do.

I edit.
I teach.
I write.

I even babysit.

Ten years fly by in a blur – during which I accumulate exactly two things: telling experiences and untold debt.

I try LA, then Boston, and then LA again. All complete busts. The unsteady diet of tutoring and teaching is making me penniless. I finally admit it’s time to grow up. Ironically, that means moving to Sonoma County to spend some time with my mother and brother – who during the blur I’ve totally neglected.

Sonoma County, 2016: I spend six months applying, revising my resume, updating my social media sites – all to naught. I start swimming to keep from going insane.

Treading Water - Unemploymentville

Then one day after I finish my swim, I look up at the marquee in front of the pool and I see the words

“Now Hiring.”

Hiring what?

Swim teachers and lifeguards, it turns out. Now here I should say: I’m going on fifty…not fifteen, fifty.

I sign-up anyway and present myself to the clerk.

“The senior center is next door.”

“Nope. Here for the lifeguard class.”

“Oh … Then you’re in the right place.”

If the right place is hell… I glance about the room: it’s perky high school aqua stars and me. Then Matt, the teacher, walks in. Thank the Lord, he’s almost as old as me.

Matt calls, “Out to the water. Swim. Go!”

Happy to. One thing I know I can do. Sure, the swimming studs lap me. And, yeah, the middle of the pack passes me by. Okay, I finish dead last, but at least I haven’t died.

“Next. Grab that brick. Go!”

The brick is determined to drown me. I huff and puff the whole way. I try to hide my exhaustion by breathing out into the water. Yes, I’m vain. I slap the brick at Matt’s feet and wait for the verdict.

“Fifty-seven seconds.”

Three seconds to spare, baby. Beat that. My classmates—nine out of ten of whom are fifteen and female—do just that.

“Next. Tread water. Go! Robert, hands in your armpits.”

What? No hands. I hate fine print. No way to hide my huffs and puffs now.

“Go, Robert! Go, Robert!” my classmates cheer. Why do they have air to spare? I fail, spectacularly. Right out of the box. Humiliated much? You betcha.

“Matt,” I beg, “Can I try it again?”

“Show me you can tread by Friday and you’re in.”

Unemployment comes in handy because I can tread water all day. Tuesday: I build up to a minute. Wednesday: a minute and a half. Friday: Two minutes. I’ve made it. I’ve left fear behind.


Week Two: Monday—Compact Jumps

Matt calls out, “Compact jumps. Climb the chair. Stay on the surface. Keep your eye on the victim. Robert, you’re up.”

No kidding; way the hell too high. That chair is ten feet off the ground. Hello? Have we met? Fear of heights here.


I breathe deep and leap. I land with a splash.

One of my classmates calls out, “Leave some water for us next time!” She’s smiling. She wants to be friends, even though she’s calling me fat.

Week Two: Wednesday—Rescues

Matt calls out, “Rescues. Go!”

Step 1: Leap from ungodly height.

Step 2: Grab victim.

Step 3: Say, “My name is Robert – huff puff. I’m a lifeguard – huff puff.”

Step 4: Remove victim from water in under a minute.

Step 5: Don’t die.

Step 2 is awkward because my victims are my classmates—nine out of ten of whom are female and fifteen—remember? Yeah, huffing and puffing doesn’t help. So, I add silently, a promise: “I am the farthest thing from a creep you’ll ever meet.”

And it works. By the following night, I am everyone’s favorite.

Week Two: Thursday—Victims

Um…their favorite victim, that is.

Matt calls out, “Everyone rescue Robert. He’s our typical swimmer.”

Old, fat, with one foot in the grave?

“Middle-aged, two hundred pounds, and prone to heart-attack.”

Like I said.

One at a time, they leap in, grab me, and struggle to get us out of the pool in less than a minute. That’s a relief because many rescues that take me sixty seconds, they complete in forty-five.

Tomorrow is graduation day. And I’m deeply scared again because I don’t know if I can do what I will be asked to do. I ask Matt for advice. “Practice,” he says, loquacious to the end.

Week Two: Friday—Deep-water rescues

Today to graduate, I have to make a deep-water rescue. I will have to go down to the bottom of a twelve-foot pool and bring my victim all the way back up with me. Why does this scare me? Because when I practice, I can’t get myself all the way to the bottom and back up without running out of breath.

So, let’s say I run out of breath. Then what do I do? Drop my victim? Bolt to the surface? Don’t laugh. I think that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Matt calls out, “Deep water. Go!”

And I go, and it’s easy because I have my rescue tube. In my practice—in my worry—I forgot I would have that tube. With that tube—hallelujah—I grab my victim from the bottom and we shoot to the surface.

I laugh. I cry. I’m so happy. I’m so relieved.

“Everyone rescue Robert. Go!”

Wait. What? What if I can’t hold my breath long enough?

Headline: Bonehead Fifty-Year-Old Drowns Trying to Become Lifeguard.

No, no, no.

My silent “no’s” mean nothing. Tireless fifteen-year-olds rescue me from drowning again and again. I huff and puff like mad. I think they enjoy my fatigue just a little bit too much.

But I don’t drown. I make it. I graduate—all of us do—but only because Matt makes sure that we can perform every skill that will be required from us as lifeguards. Now: the real question is, do I lifeguard now?

The surprising answer is yes. Yes, because my presence—strange as it may be—comforts and amuses many swimmers, especially older ones. You see: I talk to people; get to know them; assess their potential risk. Try to meet their needs because I’m looking for ways to make up being fifteen to thirty seconds slower than other lifeguards. This makes all of us a little kinder, a little more connected, and perhaps just a little more daring.

Now in case you are wondering how I pay my bills on a lifeguard’s wages alone, the answer is, I don’t. I can’t, even though the outdoor pool where I put in most of my guarding is open year-round for lap swim, swim team, and early morning Masters swim programs.

But lifeguarding connects me to the city and those connections have led to tutoring and other jobs that have taken my income to its highest level since 2006. So, lifeguarding may not be a “real” job in terms of hours or pay. But thanks to the generous spirit of my co-workers, it creates a place of on-going trust from which to sustain and build work and social networks – and, just as importantly, make friends. That makes it “real” in the most important sense.

This interview is one of 22 comeback stories included in Escape from Unemploymentville. Click to discover more

Guest post written by Robert Rogers.

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