COUPLES THERAPY

Adam Kibbe

You’ll get a couple of thousand chances to be perfect. Most of those chances
you’ll blow, some badly, hard as you might try -- the trying gets in the way,
I think. But until you’re past that consciousness, you have to try. It’s
just what there is to do.

You want it to be easier, but if there weren’t that resistance, there’d be
no way to shape your effort into something perfect. You wouldn’t care about
the feel and form of it anymore. The effort tempers the steel of your
resolve into something truly strong and durable, and you know this. Still,
the effort challenges you. It colludes with the trying, gets even more in
the way. And so? And so you try harder.

To some degree, you’re never without a frame of reference against which to
measure your success and failures. Pulled from the narrow focus of self, a
shift in perspective is always just in front of you, or just behind. For yet
more perspective, you’ll occasionally have an even clearer model just out of
reach alongside. These all can cut both ways.

You can be simply guided, or even inspired into the grace you seek. If
you’re open and really looking. Or, you can be crushed by a (probably
fallacious) vision of a fluidity to which you feel you can’t aspire, and
stumble on your envy, or self-pity. Or worse, you can fall into an illusion
of superiority if the mirrors that keep you company have you looking good by
comparison. Then there is no real joy in what you might achieve, just a
righteousness that should never be mistaken for soul.

When the act you practice has such elusive simplicity to it, the complexity
that can be introduced by the human psyche and biomechanics is impressive
indeed. The trying gets in the way, and the internal conversations that you
concoct fall in with the effort and the trying and all conspire to keep your
dreams at bay. You’re wet, you’re tired, it’s all just a means to an end,
and the campsite’s not really just around the next bend anyway. No wonder
there’s talk of motors. Who needs all this paddling?

I do, for one. Never mind the romantic notion that untold generations of
wildly diverse peoples on all the waterways of this planet have poled and
paddled their way through millions of collective miles over much of human
history from our distant ancestors to the present. Never mind that motors
make noise and pollute (no offense, Q). I think there is that in this small
quest and narrow focus that opens up and makes available vast reaches of
content serenity. Profound opportunity. Understanding and soul.

You have to believe in grace. An action with style and appropriateness has
to seem better than mere efficiency, and power must be held to need context
to be judged powerful. It’s not about some mystical oneness with the water
– no other creature on any puddle or body of water you’ll travel paddles
metal or synthetic craft with sticks in their appendages. You’re up off the
water in a machine. You yourself are a machine. These machines are what you
are seeking to blend in harmony. The water is simply the context without
which neither of these machines have meaning. Your every action challenges
and disturbs the water, but you need it to measure yourself and to progress.
The water is always clear and honest, without resentment or prejudice. You
love the water, which cares not for you. It supports you, allows itself to
be used, insensitive to your putative external goals, or your inward quest.
You’re here because it is. It’s here because it hasn’t yet gotten somewhere
else. You’re not becoming one with that.

Each stroke is another opportunity for perfection. You reach forward and
slide the blade down into the water, noting, not entirely consciously, the
speed and direction with which the water is already passing the boat. This
is how you know how you will be resisted as you begin to pull back. The
mechanism of this action can be analyzed, but you’d lose your way. Which
muscles do what and in what order is for your motor reflexes to consider in
their patient, nonverbal way. You know these things by how your muscles
feel, and you measure the “rightness” by small outward signs, drips and
ripples, the noises of splash vortex. By how this action follows the last.
As you pull back, legs and shoulders, arms and back all do something for
which you could never write a manual, and the water resists. The harder you
pull, the more the water resists. And there is a balance to this. Computers
could calculate caloric output, biomechanical efficiency of leverage and
torque, the friction of hydrodynamic forces, the resultant kinetic energy,
thus the overall system efficiency. Bother, says Pooh. You can tell when
you’re not pulling your weight (ahem), and also when you’re trying too hard.
And there is no one “right” effort. It all depends on wind and current, on
physical condition, and on desire. You put into it what feels right, what
you know you can repeat continuously, what the moment needs, whether
strenuous pull, or a whispered scull to preserve the ineffable.

The stroke moves the boat, often in a combination of directions, but always
just a bit. It’s the longest moment, perhaps the simplest, but it, too, is
just a moment and will be repeated. It could not exist without the entrance,
and it cannot continue without the exit, and in the exit lies the greatest
sense of accomplishment, and also the severest failures. The exit is so
infinitely complex that the human brain, that pinnacle of millennia of
evolution, has about a one in one hundred chance of getting it right. Which
is why you leave it to your hands. When the brain gets involved -- usually
when the shoulders petulantly complain to the hands, or when an inadvertent
bump against the submerged hull wakes up your motor supervisors -- the grace
becomes scarce around your parts. Thinking through such fluid calculations
is beyond this impressive organic supercomputer. Your hands, in
oft-rehearsed symphonic cooperation with the rest of the aforementioned
muscle groups and skeletal substructures, do what is needed. The ever
necessary “J” stroke. The wide sweep. The steer, the scull, the straight
on powerstroke.

Your brain, contributes, to be sure, information about pitch and yaw,
direction and context. What your buddy in the bow or stern just did or is
about to do. Your hands make it happen, though. They execute this ending,
which is also the beginning, of movement, and the whisper of the exit, the
vortex whirling outward, tells the tale of their skill, in whatever form.
Each stroke is unique. All with their particular finish, exit, return. All
yielding up that which cannot be retained, and all offering up, regardless of
the outcome of the immediate past, this unique opportunity – another chance
to be perfect.

You reach forward and slide the blade into the water.