|Confessions of a
about the food
Vol•un•teer. I looked it up. Merriam
Webster’s online dictionary defines it as: “a person who voluntarily
undertakes or expresses a willingness to undertake a service”. Sounds
wonderfully philanthropic, don’t you think? Certainly, where my children
are concerned, I am “willing to undertake a service”. Then again, the
definition on the website was further enhanced by the statement, “one
who enters into military service voluntarily”. I had to rethink for a
moment. As the start of my third year as a volunteer parent looms on the
horizon, I begin to wonder if the latter definition is more appropriate,
since that first year felt a lot like Boot Camp.
It all starts innocently, doesn’t it? Anyone with children in
competitive sports or a school band already has an inkling of where this
is going. You see, I never signed my kids up for hockey because I was
determined to enjoy my weekends. There was no way I was getting out of
bed at 4:00 am on a Saturday in order to pack the van and drive for
hours to some remote town just for a few hours of competition! Little
did I know… It starts innocently. Swim club seemed like a good idea. It
was only maintenance swimming – non-competitive – and would help my kids
with their strength and endurance, which would certainly help them pass
their swimming lessons with flying colours. Seemed like a nice way to
spend a couple of hours each weekend. Gosh, we didn’t even have to do
anything except drop them at the pool and provide some encouragement at
the end of each day. Simple. After 9 weeks, maintenance ended. Nothing
was ever simple after that.
“Did you guys enjoy that?” my wife asked the dripping children. Nods and
grunts, globally understood by parents as positive communication from
teens and pre-teens alike, signaled their approval.
“Are you interested in competing at the swim meets in the summer? Your
friends are going to.” She asked, knowing full well that they’d say no
because of the commitment and effort both kids were going to have to put
into it. They hate work. They hate effort. They’re kids. It’s an
unwritten rule that all children will shy away from work and effort
whenever possible. Just look into the bedroom of any 14 year old boy and
you’ll have the proof you need. We were on easy street. No swim meets
Then the unthinkable happened. More grunts. They said YES! Now what?
Well, it couldn’t be all that bad could it? Actually, it was going to be
a great adventure – kind of like having lots of little vacations all
summer long. Everyone would get along and we’d smile and laugh and sing
songs in the car as we happily drove around the province looking out the
windows and discussing the beauty of the flora and fauna we sped past.
Ok, I know you’re laughing at my naïveté, but I had already survived the
dreaded family road trip to Disneyland. Two weeks of driving. Two weeks
of working hard to fill the days of two young children penned into a
mini-van for 12 hours at a stretch (gosh – almost sounds cruel now,
doesn’t it?) with little to do. Two weeks of playing “I’m Going to
Grandma’s House” and “I Spy” and “License Plate Bingo” and eating
whatever fast food that rolled up on the great interstate treadmill we
were on. So ya, this was going to be a piece of cake.
The first meet was a breeze. An introductory meet, one other club only
and hosted at our pool. I could have walked there after breakfast.
“Oh, I signed you up to do timing. The club always needs volunteers to
help at the swim meets” My wife said as we were leaving. I nodded.
“Ok. Is that hard?”
“Nope. Show up, sit in a chair at the end of the pool and use a
stopwatch to record the times of the swimmers.”
Sounds important, I thought. Maybe I’m not cut out for “important”
“What if I make a mistake?” I ask.
“Not to worry, there are other people there to back you up. Basically,
you sit in a chair for two hours, click the button for each race and
tell someone the time. Oh, and they feed you.”
Feed me? Now you’re talking! Ok. I can be important; I can click the
button, drink coffee, eat donuts and make new friends, all in the name
of supporting my kids. Bring on the snacks!
And that’s how it starts. You don’t even notice that you’ve just
volunteered. I think it’s a conspiracy. Our wives all set us up, knowing
full well they’re going to be marshalling the kids around and wiping
their runny noses and finding their goggles and hanging towels to dry
and so they all get together and volunteer one another’s husbands for
everything else. It’s some kind of payback scheme. And it works. So
there you have it. You just volunteered. Or maybe, more appropriately,
you just got set up and you didn’t even know it. You just stepped one
big clumsy foot off the edge of a precipice and the slope is a slippery
one. You ain’t getting off this ride easily.
Thing is, I liked it. I sat in the chair and I clicked the button and I
ate muffins and drank coffee that magically appeared from somewhere and
made new friends and I liked it. I learned about the club and the people
and the rules and I learned the names of the swimmers and I got soaking
wet. They don’t tell you about the soaking wet part when they first sign
you up for timing. I suppose some people might not show up if they told
you that stuff up front. Don’t wear jeans. Or socks. Or sneakers. I can
tell you firsthand that all of those items comprise the most
uncomfortable gear imaginable to be wearing at the end of a lane. After
a few hours stewing in the steaming heat of an indoor pool in the soggy
gear, it gets a little socially uncomfortable, if you get my drift…or
waft, as the case may be. Don’t wear socks or jeans or sneakers. Shorts
and flip-flops do very nicely. So, it turned out that the end of the
pool was the place to be; the races were way more exciting on the front
lines and two hours flew by. Then it happens. You stand to leave at the
end of your shift and, for some reason, there is no one to replace you.
You look around and people avert their eyes, looking very importantly
elsewhere in order to avoid direct eye contact. Someone asks you to
stay. So-and-so couldn’t show up – emergency splenectomy or exploding
toilet or escaped gerbil - or maybe it was escaped toilet and exploding
gerbil – or something equally terribly important and “can you stay” and
the snacks are turning into yummy-looking little sandwiches, cut into
triangles like Mom used to do and you think, “if only there was some
chocolate milk” and ultimately, sure, another two hours in the chair
couldn’t be all that bad. If only it were 2 more hours.
Eight hours in the chair. My backside is in need of some collagen
treatments to plump it back to its former self. I couldn’t even think
about another little sandwich and my eyeballs are swimming after
eleventy-five coffees, iced teas and watered down glasses of Red Death
drink mix. My feet look and feel like raisins that have been soaking for
days and I’m boiling hot. Never wear pants and a long sleeved shirt to
an indoor pool. What was I thinking? Next time I’ll be smart. Next time,
I’ll wear shorts and flip-flops and a short-sleeved shirt. I know
there’s a next time because my wife has already signed me up. I have
proven I can click the button and read the numbers and eat the goodies.
My rookie days are over. I am now a seasoned veteran of the timing
circuit. I am confident that I can do my part to help out and so we get
ready for the next meet.
This time, it’s a different pool in a different community. I have two
shifts in the timing and snacking section and I’m ready. I have shorts
on. I have my flip-flops on and the van is packed at ready to go. It’s
raining and cold and 5 in the morning, but we have packed enough gear to
camp for a week on Everest and besides, it’ll be warm inside at the
pool, just like last week. At the last minute, I remember to throw an
umbrella in the car so that we can shelter ourselves as we walk from the
tent into the pool and we’re off. A little behind schedule, but nothing
I can’t correct by lead-footing it a bit down the highway. It’s only an
hour away and I can make up the 10 minutes easily. Everyone is chatting
and I mention something about having tossed the umbrella in the car and
how clever I was to have brought it. My wife asks if I brought my rain
gear as well. Rain gear? Why would I possibly need rain gear? The
umbrella is perfect for the little trips from car to tent to pool.
“It’s an outdoor pool you know.” My wife says quite matter-of-factly.
“What???” I scream while trying to keep the van on the road. No, I
didn’t know. No one mentioned anything about an outdoor pool to me. I
grew up in a community where the only outdoor pools were in people’s
backyards. We had Rec Centres with indoor pools. It had never occurred
to me that we might have to spend the day outdoors.
“I wondered why you were dressed like that.” She says, “I just thought
you knew. Everyone knows.”
Apparently, everyone but me. Swim Club is a stressful time for parents.
That was something I learned that morning as we were already way too far
along the road to consider turning back for more clothing. We’ll be OK,
we have our tent and sleeping bags and my nice big umbrella.
Unfortunately, Mr. Murphy himself had seen fit to ensure that somehow I
had forgotten to put the tent fly back in the bag after drying it out
following our last rainy camping weekend. I NEVER forget to put the fly
back in. Never. I would describe myself as fastidious and thorough. My
wife says I’m anally retentive. Either way, good qualities to have if
you want to ensure your tent fly is in the bag the next time you use the
tent. The thing about the fly is that you kind of need it if you want to
keep the rain out. Our tent is open at the top. Vented for extra
comfort. Nothing but net, to quote a phrase, and we had nothing to cover
the net. It was cold and it was raining. We were sunk. Fortunately,
within seconds of discovering I had let everyone down, we were taken in
by some Swim Club veterans and invited to their gazebo for the day. Good
plan, because my time in the chair was approaching. Everything was saved
and I would soon be pushing the button, sipping hot coffee and munching
back some tasty muffins.
The thing about being a volunteer is that there are so many ways for you
to help. What I learned is that the job of timing is the lure. It’s the
first cheap trick played to draw you in to the volunteer web. They tell
you it’s easy. “C’mon,” they say. “It’s easy. We’ll feed you”. What they
fail to tell you is there’s more. It’s not long before someone says, “We
need a Recorder. You can do that can’t you? You’ve been Timing long
enough to know how it works. And we’ll feed you.” And that’s the hook –
we’ll feed you. It’s not long before Recording evolves into Head Timer
or Place Judge and then you find yourself on your way home from work
when you get a call from your wife telling you not to come home.
Instead, you make a detour to some other pool in another community and
find yourself in a classroom learning about Stroke and Turn judging. The
good news is that they feed you. They always feed you. And you know
what? You do feel important, because you ARE important. Without
volunteers: timers, recorders, officials, executives, people preparing
and serving food, people preparing and selling programs, running raffles
and 50/50 draws and everything else that takes place at a swim meet, our
children wouldn’t be exposed to such a positive and powerful learning
experience. Swimming teaches, among other things, the power of positive
thinking, the benefit of hard work and determination, the value of
teamwork, exercise and healthy living. They spend their summers building
friendships that can last a lifetime and have a blast doing it. How
could any of that be a bad thing?
It takes a minimum of 85 volunteers to run a swim meet. I poke fun at
how it all started and how I was “roped in” to helping out but you know
what? I wouldn’t change it for anything. I volunteer. And they feed me!
- Craig Todd
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