My lifeguard

Man, do I have advice about personal safety. For biking, climbing, and tornado aversion protocol—I’m your guy.

Take water, for example. My wife Edna’s family has a cabin on the St. Croix river not far from our city home. They’re right on the water, with lots of shady tree cover and Ruby Throated hummingbirds and canoe fishing right out the back door. The river is beautiful and serene—and it scares the bejeezus out of me.

I grew up swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, at Margate beach, New Jersey. My friends and I learned to crack clams for the seagulls and snap a wicked wet towel, as well as less practical things like how to tread water forever, or how to swim parallel to the beach to escape the dreaded undertow.

Of course, we were really able to feel secure because there was always someone there who had our respective, scrawny backs. The lifeguards, sitting high up on their white stands, noses covered in zinc oxide, were always watching to make sure we were safe (and that we weren’t getting too vicious with our towel snapping).

Nowadays, I know that you can drown in any body of water, from the ocean to a three-inch puddle of Minnesota snow melt. But to me rivers feel the most dangerous. A river’s smooth surface often hides a deep chaos of currents, and the St. Croix in particular has such high tannin content that you can’t see your feet while standing in knee-deep water. Objects like sunglasses disappear immediately from view only to bump along the bottom with twigs and turtles and invasive Big Head carp. Sunglasses (or—my annual fear—a four- or five- or six-year-old) don’t stand a chance.

I tried to prepare for the dangers by starting my son, Ed, Jr., in swim classes at the YMCA when he was only a year old (with Papa in tow, of course, standing half-naked in nipple-deep water singing Wheels on the Bus with other half-naked parents). Ed, Jr. is now a ‘trout’, as denoted by the Y’s fish-based swim ability rating system, and he’s a strong enough swimmer that he could survive some childish mistakes. The hope, of course, is that he’ll also learn enough from his mistakes to develop some common sense.

Until that day comes, he’ll have to adhere to some serious kid rules at the cabin. Younger kids like Ed, Jr. aren’t allowed near the water alone. And older kids aren’t allowed to swim on their own until they can swim all the way to Wisconsin without a life vest.

Another kind of safety

But all that is just physical safety. There’s another kind of safety that matters just as much: emotional safety—especially for our partners.

Here, in spite of my normal rules and protocol, I have no advice. There seems to be no simple five-step plan for how to be emotionally present for your partner, no bullet list to make sure you have created a safe place for them (and yourself) to be vulnerable.  You have to have an open heart (with limited scarring so it can be put to use) plus a head that doesn’t get in the way of it. And sometimes you just need to get lucky.

For example, I jumped into the deep end of the dating pool early and often—beginning at age 12. Those early ‘practice’ relationshipswere a little like swimming with arm floaties, though I had my fair share of near-drownings and gasping, soggy recoveries. By the time I was out of high school I was synchronized swimming with someone I’d stay with for over 12 years.

My wife, Edna, on the other hand, didn’t dive into the dating pool until college. She didn’t have those floaties of youth—but then she also started the process stronger and with less traumatic experience behind her.

Somehow we came together in calm water (with only a little splashing) our experience and damage miraculously cancelling each other out—or maybe even bouying each other a bit. And though we didn’t ever follow multiple-point plans for how to create safety for each other, I think we leaned on some old standbys handed down to us by our parents. Common sense things like how there’s always a reason for your partner’s actions (even when the actions seem insane) and it’s your job to try to understand it. Never kick a person when they are down. Always give the benefit of the doubt.

This is where I have to say (previous, columns complaining about being ‘not-mom’ and missed birthdays and other  ‘small stuff’ to the contrary) that on this biggest of stuff—out crossing deep water where the safety of my own heart desperately matters—Edna’s truly my lifeguard. And I get to be hers—and our kid’s.

Not that I wouldn’t snap either of them with a wicked, wet towel, you know, just as they’re trying to get out of the water. I just feel lucky that they’d do the same for me.

Sean Toren loves living the full catastrophe in Minneapolis with his wife and son. He can be contacted at mnga@mnpubs.com with thoughts or suggestions.