Years ago, I became a compulsive swimmer because I couldn’t escape the recollection of being called, in the parlance of those times, a “chubby” kid. That was how some well-meaning adults described me. Many of my peers used blunter, more judgmental terminology. Actually, I was a visible tribute to consuming great quantities of ice cream (flavor didn’t matter) and Italian bread (the thicker the slice the better), to identify a few of my enablers. The general rule seemed to be the more caloric a food, the greater was my passion for it. In college, I decided as the saying goes, to “get my act together.” I understood the self-reconstruction project wasn’t going to be easy, so I vowed to work out daily. At first, I played multiple sets of tennis every day on outdoor courts year around. I was fortunate to have a partner just as driven as I. On snowy days, we used a push broom to clear the court. I still wince when I remember the shock that electrified my arm the first couple of times I served the ball on very cold days.
After graduation, I became a teacher, structuring my day to allow time for a late afternoon workout. I tried to find a tennis partner as compulsive and loony as I. Sometimes, those to whom I suggested playing outdoors in 20 degree weather responded only with a sympathetic look. I finally had to face the reality of not finding a new opponent. After much thought, I concluded the ideal workout was one that I could engage in alone and offered a facility close to me. I often wished I could have joined the ranks of runners, those intrepid but misguided beings who challenge traffic in cities around the world. Neither temperature nor precipitation nor screeching brakes slow them in their rounds. But growing up “chubby” precluded any interest in that elemental but effective pastime. Simply put, I despised running.
Finally, I realized that indoor swimming could offer a reliable outlet. It wasn’t without some drawbacks. To give myself the benefit of the doubt, I am a mediocre swimmer because I lack a kick. That deficiency stemmed from my being self-taught, a consequence of being pushed underwater by a swim instructor at the local YMCA when I was very young. As a result, I quit the class and worked on fundamentals by myself. Absence of kick testifies to how bad a teacher I was.
Another drawback stems from my preference for warm water. Summoning my courage, I can deal, not happily, with water temperature at 82 degrees, but I greatly prefer water that’s absolutely unshocking at first immersion. Obviously I’m not a candidate for any Polar Bear Club. Even seeing pictures of their antics makes me shudder. So, swimming it was and has been for decades. Pathological as it sounds, my conscience gnaws at me when I miss a day at the pool. Sure, sometimes there are travel plans or various appointments that force a dry day, but I struggle to assure myself that a pool-less day won’t cause me to forget how to swim or to put on ten pounds. Mostly, I believe that, but it’s not an easy sell.
At the outset, I discovered I needed a routine. Continuous swimming for a specific time period wasn’t goal-directed enough. I settled on a required distance of a mile’s worth of laps. My kickless style probably contributed to a world’s slowness record. That bothered me not at all because I was in my solitary aqueous world, oblivious to possible judgments of others. At the conclusion of a workout, I always checked my swim time to be sure I hadn’t goofed off too much. Ninety seconds longer than usual made me unhappy. I had been too lethargic. As the decades passed, I noticed something, appropriately enough, unfathomable. Magically, pools had grown larger, causing laps to expand beyond the conventional twenty-five yards. I knew this because each lap required of me more and more strokes, more and more effort. To compensate, I gradually cut the original number I did, attributing change to a mystical pool expansionary force. I’ll have to research that someday. But I held myself to a satisfying number of laps done in a respectable time.
There are days I really don’t feel like swimming. I feel lazy or my mind dwells on some project I want to finish. I ignore that inner dissident because, as some of my swim pals and I occasionally remind each other, when we exit the pool, we never feel worse than when we initially got in. I’ve come to understand that if mind and body don’t complement each other, we can’t function with true efficiency. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two. Besides tuning up the body and providing therapeutic recesses for the mind, swimming offers another advantage I hadn’t expected. Most people adjust well, almost automatically to the requirements of sociability. We tend to be modulated and controlled because we operate in public forums. Not long after I started my swimming regimen, I began to realize how much I relished the solitude offered by the pool. I had my own swimming lane, mine and mine alone except for the rare doofus who, without asking, decided to share with me. On those occasions, I filled him in (always a “him”) on pool decorum, happy to enhance his interpersonal awareness.
Doing my laps, I exist in my own world, oblivious to what’s happening outside of it. I’m free to reminisce, problem solve, plan-- in short, to follow my mind wherever it leads. Most of the time, thoughts are fleeting and unimportant. Sometimes, they require concentration. Working on incomplete plans can be more effective away from the varied influences of non-water existence. For example, when Elaine and I were anticipating the arrival of our first-born, we auditioned potential names. One day, at the pool, “Gillian” came to the surface of my mind, and the rest is history.
In short, I always look forward to my watery sequestration. Even when I’m unaware of anything needing to be mulled over, issues below the level of awareness suddenly pop up in the atmosphere most conducive to their undistracted examination. In isolation thrives thoughtfulness.
I regard swimming with almost religious fervor. It has helped balance my life, I think, as no other activity could. That’s why I recommend it to everyone except those who might be tempted to share, without invitation, my lane. For them, I suggest the treadmill.