Long-tall Adam

Last weekend's Sunday Times STYLE magazine featured a section called 'Those Warm Wild Nights' in which eight critically acclaimed writers shared unforgettable summer encounters. I enjoyed the read a lot, and of course it got me thinking about what I would have written if they had asked me, so I got up from the breakfast table and wrote my own. 

Long-tall Adam

On some evenings after dinner at Echo Lake, an Appalachian Mountain Club camp on Mt Desert Island, just under Maine’s chin, there was an opportunity for guests to perform. The broad dining room with its rows of long refectory tables and views of the mile-long lake had an upright piano. My dad was a jazz pianist, and this meant he met long-tall Adam before I did. Adam, one of the crew at work there for the summer, played the fiddle. The only entertainment I can remember from the evening they played together in the summer of 1982, when I was 16, is their rendition of ‘Satin Doll’.

My mother had imagined much family fun on that trip to Maine, I’m sure. The camp organized daily hikes and climbs, but I refused them all. I had hiked 40 miles of the Long Trail in Vermont already that summer (also her idea), and had starred as Rosemary in our town’s production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I was tired, I told her. But Adam had caught my eye.

My parents went on hikes, and I swam the width of the lake, watched by loons, when I couldn’t find a way to chat Adam up. When he had free time he took me sailing. Although I’d had lessons I still mistimed ducking under the boom when we swung around often enough to have angry grazes on my shoulder when we returned to shore. It raised some eyebrows. Another crew member joked, ‘What’s he been doing to you out there?’ I joked back, ‘You should have seen what he wanted me to do.’ He and Adam both laughed. They looked impressed. I felt cool. That was what I did those days. I talked plenty sexy. But I avoided the act for another five years.

My parents agreed to allow Adam to take me out in a rowboat under the crowded stars on our last night at the lake. I remember sitting on his long lap, embraced by his atmosphere of liberal intellect and coffee, my neck tickled by his soft goatee, telling him I wished my parents were dead. (So sue me. I was 16.) We were out there a long time, and when we got back to the camp and walked up to the deck where we would part, my mother was standing there waiting, livid, in a knee-length, nylon, leopard-print nightgown.

I now know that parents have internal clocks set for when their children should be home, even if they haven’t expressed that time as a number. They – we – just feel it: the reasonable amount of time for such an excursion has passed, and my daughter should be back by now. Having been allowed to go out without a curfew, I couldn’t understand her anger that night. I imagined her trying to get my father to do the confronting, imagined her frustration when he quite rightly didn’t feel as strongly as she did, imagined her storming out of the tent. The embarrassment was acute. But now the memory of watching her lay into Adam in the moonlight, her head tipped back to look up at his bowed head, his abashed face, is an emblem for me now. I’m no longer embarrassed by it; I’m impressed, because I’m no longer a beleaguered teenager. I’m a mother. I know the fangs and claws we grow when protective. So on that starry summer night, I went out in a rowboat with a man, but she was the wild one.

In Common with the Kalenjin

Originally a Restroom Reflection, first published in November 2013. When I wrote it, I was missing and worrying about my daughter, far away from me at college in New York. I'm posting it again now because my son has just graduated from high school. My heart goes out to all kids leaving home, and to all parents with college-age kids.

Today I learned in a podcast about the Kalenjin people of Kenya and their global domination of long-distance running. People have studied the Kalenjin for decades, ever since Kipchoge Keino ran six races in eight days at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, winning gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 5000 meters…all of it in extreme abdominal pain caused by a gallbladder infection. A doctor kept sending him to bed, but he kept getting back out of it.

“Kip” Keino is one of many Kalenjin who have sped to the front and stayed there. David Epstein, senior editor at Sports Illustrated and author of the new book The Sports Gene, said in the podcast, “There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.”

People have looked at climate and geography, diet, physique and behavior, but have had trouble identifying anything particular to the Kalenjin. Lots of Kenyans live at high altitudes, eat corn meal, have long tapering limbs, and grow up running many miles a day to and from school. What is now considered a defining factor in their long-distance excellence, however, is the social pressure to tolerate pain. Excruciating pain.

The podcast listed elements of Kalenjin initiation as crawling naked through stinging nettles and being beaten on the bony part of the ankles. Then, of course, there’s the circumcision, performed with a sharp stick. No effort is made to ensure the circumcision is rapid and painless. The boy must keep his face impassive, and in some cases a layer of mud will be caked on his face and left to dry so that the onlookers can see if he causes it to crack. A crack is an invitation to beat him.

The men who prevail in this test get the pick of the women, and the pick of the women are often those who haven’t flinched during their own initiation rituals and genital mutilation. Pairs like these are considered to be most likely to produce pain-tolerant children. Warriors. Olympic medalists.

Where I come from, we don’t, as a rule, make our kids crawl through stinging nettles and beat them, not in any socially agreed way.

We just make them leave home.

I dropped my accomplished but also apprehensive daughter at college at the end of August, and got on a plane that would put 10,000 miles between us. Six or seven weeks into the experience of figuring out who her friends might be, wondering whether her long-distance relationship was going to work out, and grappling with the constant question of where she was “from”, she called me. She was so bleak, so frozen with self-questioning and self-loathing, feeling weak and stupid, that I wondered if she’d make it through the semester. 

Listening to the podcast on the Kalenjin people had me wondering about how Kalenjin parents could watch their children being beaten and humiliated, and deprived of sexual choice if they didn’t measure up. I’ve realized, though, that when I hung up from a tearful and seldom conclusive call with my daughter and didn’t get on a plane to bring her back to me, I was doing a version of the same. I was watching her suffer, and doing what I could to help her stay in the game.

Her spirits are back up now. She’s had fantastic midterm grades, she’s exercising, she’s volunteering with cats, and her boyfriend will be picking her up at the airport when she comes home for Christmas. We now say that she’s “come through,” that she’s “come out the other side.”

Out the other side of what? Well, I know what to call it now.

Tribal initiation.