Floating on the American River with the 15 year old and the 9 year old, who seem so caught up in their own internal narratives that at times they barely notice the river, the flocks of ducks crisscrossing it, the geese flying overhead, the distant blue heron standing on a snag, the dragonflies, the swallows, the shimmering of light and shade on the surface of the water. Try to teach them to paddle and they are strangely recalcitrant, doing things their own perverse way: Seated in the very bottom of the raft and reaching over its big yellow pontoon, for instance, or with both feet dangling off the side while swishing the water in front, or flailing at the water and splashing it up.

The 9 year old insists he’s a confident enough swimmer to float alongside the raft without a life jacket, despite my warnings that he still gets nervous in water that’s over his head. “No I don’t,” he says, contrary to all fact. “I can do it, Dad.” So I let him go over the side, and immediately there’s panic on his face as he realizes his feet can’t touch bottom. He seizes onto the side of the raft and throws an arm over, holding on like a Titanic survivor in the North Sea. Meanwhile I’m trying to get the 15 year old to sit up enough for her paddling to be effective, so we can get the raft in to the shore before we float past our landing. I dig hard with my paddle, she gets a few effective strokes in, and the 9 year old assists by paddling with his free arm in the water, and somehow we all stumble out of the water onto solid ground together.

I realize that there’s nothing you can teach anyone unless they are ready to learn, and to be ready to learn you need a certain degree of humility and curiosity. I’m concerned now that all our attempts to teach them the basics may have been for naught: How to brush their teeth, boil an egg, make a peanut butter sandwich, find a bus downtown, ask where the bathroom is. Not to mention how to paddle a raft, pitch a tent, find a constellation, review a book, create an invoice, or write a poem. If you want to learn new things, you have to get out of your own head enough to be able to hear someone else’s voice, to have some curiosity about the world around you. Given that it took me until I was maybe 35 to start realizing this, I just hope they have enough luck to survive their first 15 or 20 years after they leave home.

a mile downriver—
the mallard
still following us