by RUSS GRANGER, at age 17

The long-haired teenager shifted his feet nervously on the stage. Flustered during an unexpected impromptu speech on aviation, this was his final opportunity to win points for his high school in the Ventura County Academic Decathlon.

"I hate scuba diving," he began, noticing that the face of one of the judges suddenly brightened. Encouraged, he continued, "Every Friday my Mom bounces around the house, getting her scuba gear together for yet another excursion to some nearby island ... to catch fish.

"I hate fish! It's OK when they're in an aquarium with their vibrant colors still intact, but there's no poetry to describe a frozen slab of ling cod in a Ziploc freezer bag! It has even gotten to the point where we had to buy another freezer to store all the fish that she's caught, even though we eat fish every night!"

Now he was having fun, hamming it up to the one judge. "I bet he's a scuba diver too," he thought, as he went on.

"And another thing that gets to me about diving is all the underwater pictures Mom takes (of fish, of course!) I realize, though, that these mean a lot to her, judging by the quantity of slides she produces. I don't want to hurt her feelings or anything - because a lot of her pictures are really beautiful and all ­ but I cringe every time she gets home from the photo store and chases me around so she can proudly show me the 36th angle of the same ugly sea urchin! Why does it always take about two hundred shots to get it right?

"Through diving, Mom meets some very interesting people who do some very, very interesting things. For instance, on a boat in Australia all her dive buddies got together for a `Red Party' in honor of the sharks they'd been diving with (red for blood; get it?). Anyway, they dressed in red, painted their faces, and danced around in the dark while breaking Cyalume sticks all over each other so that they glowed! These are people just like my Mom who wear T-shirts that say, `I feel up when I'm down', have `I blow bubbles' bumper stickers, and have two or three freezers each.

"I have been invited many times to take a trial dive. But I know what's going on. Diving is an addiction not unlike drugs. One dive leads to another. And another. And another. Pretty soon, you're hooked on nitrogen and move on to the bigger stuff: advanced courses, new scuba equipment, longer boat trips, and new freezers. Money for nice things like food, gas, and house payments starts to disappear into the habit. So I decided not to try scuba diving even once. Because if I do, it is inevitable that I will join my mother in the bottomless pit of eternal debt.

"So if anybody asks, I just say `no'."

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