Smoking With Roblin Meeks

by Matt Rowan Read the Story September 22, 2014

OK, so for starters could you explain the circumstances that led to writing this one? I ask because you’ve managed to make the act and/or art of learning to float simultaneously hilarious and horrifying in one fell swoop. I don’t know if I’ll ever float the same way again!

The story grew out of hours spent poolside while my daughter took swim lessons. Lesson one, particularly for little kids, is how to float, which requires convincing them to ignore some pretty deep survival instincts. Over the weeks I had enough time to come to the conclusion that swim lessons are probably the only routine kid activity that’s fun and designed to prevent death. (I suppose some kids on their way home from music classes could fend off attackers with their 3/4-size guitars, but still.) Once I got gripped by the idea of learning to float as bound up with concern for safety, I thought about how safety can smother, as in the case of that Upstate New York mother in 2011 who drove her family into the Hudson. I still can’t quite get my head around it—she belted them in like a good mother should, and they drowned because of it. It almost seems like a joke of the “dead baby” variety. The lessons, the joke, the tragedy all just coalesced.

The humor in this piece is constant, but like the dead baby joke it references, you have to wonder why it’s funny. How did you manage to do that? I mean, there’s even something morbidly funny to your description of that Upstate New York mother drowning her children and the ideas that unfurl around it. What I’m saying is, am I a bad person?

I’m not entirely sure how the dead baby joke works so effectively. I do know that I took to it right away and have told it often myself. I now appreciate how it at the time let me say something dangerous yet funny, or maybe dangerous because somehow funny, so thoroughly wrong. I also like what you might call the instructional component: It’s framed in a way that asks the listener how she would make a dead baby float, and the answer, when told in the best way, feels like common sense passed on by way of experience. I’ve obviously thought too much about all this, but this framework lets both teller and listener participate in the punchline in an interesting way, which I think provides a good amount of its power. I wanted the story to somehow embody this danger/humor tension, right down to the instructional component. A little like: “How do you keep safe in the water? You stop struggling to survive and learn how to float” plus “How do you drown your entire family? You make sure they’re all safely seat belted in your van when you drive into the river.” In borrowing this structure, I was hoping to draw the reader into that joke-style participation.

Once I had babies of my own, dead ones became a literal concern, and I found such jokes even more dangerous and cathartic and necessary. I’m dying to tell my kids the one that appears in the story, but I know it’s better if they hear this type of thing in the back of buses or over their sack lunches. I don’t want to deny them the possibility of feeling that power. I want them to wonder whether they might be bad people. It’s healthy. (Probably.)

When’s the last time you had a good float? (Hmm, I know that sounds weird, but I mean it in only the most literal of ways.)

A good float is a precious thing, and an especially elusive one for tall guys like me who tend not to float well. I did just bob in the waves off Danag, Vietnam. The salt water was wondrous, as was being a long way from everything.

I always hesitate to ask authors about the “meaning” of their work, in their work, and all that, but I couldn’t ignore the significance of floating in its binary, metaphorical context—that life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness interplay you illustrate so nicely and strangely. Is life just everyone’s struggle to stay afloat, or is it more than that, or less?

Pretty big question there. For what it’s worth, I find that though the “life comes down to a struggle to stay afloat” metaphor does seem apt for a wide variety of struggles—with love, with financial and emotional solvency, etc.—it elides some important and interesting tensions. I guess I prefer the galaxy of related but more specific metaphors, such as the body as vessel for our true selves, that reveal the vexed relationship we have with our bodies as physical things in the world. Not to venture too far into the deep end (forgive me), but our physical thingness creates both the possibility of harm as well as the possibility of safety, and we end up probing both possibilities in various ways throughout our lives. To put the point a little differently, the more general metaphor privileges striving toward one end of the binary and away from the other, whereas the interplay of the more particular binaries you mention usually proves more complicated. It is strange, but I sometimes don’t want to stay afloat; I want to let my self go under or run out altogether. Now I’m wondering if I’m a bad person.

About the Author:

Roblin Meeks currently serves as associate dean of graduate studies at John Jay College and writes for the Human Parts collection on Medium.com and for Printculture, a blog on media, culture, politics, academic life, and weasels. He lives in New York with his wife and son and daughter.

About the Interviewer:

Matt Rowan lives in Chicago. He edits Untoward and Another Chicago Magazine. He is the author of Big Venerable (CCLaP, 2015) and Why God Why (Love Symbol Press, 2013).