a book about swimming
(Northfield, MA: Talisman House, 2015)
for a reading from this book, click here
What are the great measurements of time, of distance, but tools with which to imagine our own experience? As a child, I knew that we lived an hour and a half from New York City, sixty miles: a couple of TV shows, perhaps the length of a baseball game. Later, as a teenager in California, I knew that we were half an hour from San Francisco, and yet an hour’s flight from L. A. Driving in the Bay Area of the 1970s, that was a mere fifteen miles over local roads, the freeway, the Bay Bridge; though, from airport to airport, some four hundred miles. Later still, in my footloose Paris years, I came to consider practically every distance I covered in the city from one point to another, whether on foot or by metro or bus, as taking half an hour. Of course, I was often late, and even sometimes early. But, as ever, distance was measured above all by time; accurately or not, it was the experience of moving through that distance, whatever the means of my locomotion.
Living in Brooklyn these twenty-plus years now, I figure that in my lifetime I have swum the equivalent of from here to Salt Lake City. What does that mean? I first took up swimming as a discipline early in 1985—or was it the end of the previous year?—at the age of 29. By the summer, I had managed to work my way up to swimming a mile without stop, doing the crawl. There I have remained ever since, occasionally swimming further, depending on the circumstance, but as a general rule I thought a mile was enough. Nor was I ever concerned about speed. Far as I was concerned, past attaining a certain reasonable pace, speed was completely pointless. Eventually, I reached a time of about forty minutes to the mile; it felt as natural as my particular walking pace, when left to my own devices. And that was one of the great discoveries about swimming for me, self-evident though it may be: by the very nature of the medium you had only your own devices, and I liked that simplicity.
Swimming is a constant measure, like a metronome, internally generated, conditioned by the elements of water, body, air. It is also a measuring without end, spinning out figures, ratios, relationships in changing perspectives. First and most immediate, the language of numbers asserts its ineffable domain in a continuous shifting of values: distance covered, distance remaining, in absolute numbers, fractions, inversions of terms, modular frequencies, comparative velocities, in and out of phase.
I have swum in pools of different lengths, where the magic number of how many laps to the mile totaled forty-eight, sixty-four, seventy-two, even thirty-two. When I say laps, I’m counting them in one direction, what at least one lifeguard insists are really lengths; a lap, he says, is there and back, round trip, and that makes sense, but nonetheless I cling to my use of the word. And habituated as I am to swimming pools, to the chlorine scrubbing in and out my body, its detergent smell on my arms later in the day, when I’ve swum in ponds and across inlets of the sea, curiously, I can only measure distance by the time it takes me to swim a certain path—an unreliable calculation, to be sure, though aided by certain estimates of a roughly parallel route along the shore.
The numbers games, for me, are among the necessary and inevitable amusements while my head goes soaring through the water for the span of those forty minutes. Four laps down: not just sixty-eight more to go, nearly an untenable number, but also one-eighteenth gone, which is still to say a long way yet to go, while cranking up the growing spin of numbers. Thus, rounding the turn from eight laps entering into the ninth is also to mark a larger advance, from one-nineth to one-eighth of a mile, and soon almost one-seventh. The play of fractions accelerates from there, while the proximity of denominators expands and contracts almost with every turn. At twenty-four laps, that’s one-third of the distance covered, a few minutes since reaching a quarter-mile and more than six minutes before the three collapses to two for a half-mile, but in between there is twenty-seven, three-eighths which not only begins to sound substantial but also rings one of those bells of other values. Since I swim a mile in forty minutes, and the pool in question is seventy-two laps, that makes nine laps every five minutes, and so twenty-seven (laps) is also fifteen (minutes). And there is a further set of nodal points that have their own resonance: since I first took to swimming as a regular discipline while living in Paris, I also took on the habit of thinking in kilometers, so that forty-five laps (what remains to swim after those twenty-seven) also rings in my head as a kilometer. It’s another measure of distance that plays quietly under the surface, like an alternate alphabet.
But how is it that numbers can have any relation to water? At least in a swimming pool, they seem to mold each other into the same mixed medium, bound by the hard edges of the basin that contains them, that lends bounce to their constant play. Just as the water sloshes about there starting with the first human body plying its orderly or disorderly path, so the numbers unseen jostle and slosh and change places constantly, in their hapless and slippery perspectives of measurement—of merriment too, perhaps, though that may be one of our special attachments to numbers, the idea that they are without emotion, hence no merriment or melancholy either. Yet I have never quite understood: are numbers man-made or simply discovered as a language of deep structure to the world, regardless of the human presence? If man-made or at least conceptualized by the human mind, do numbers then carry some trace of the emotional stamp that marks the curious creatures that we are? I suppose, giddy or garrulous, so many numbers roiling about with their boisterous party in the pool might leave no room for us swimmers. Then again, numbers are abstract, are they not, whereas water, of course, is—well, not concrete, but tangible, sort of. The length of a pool, not just for swimmers but for the water that fills it as well, represents a unit, a singular instance before an implied repetition. That singular instance, for the swimmer, is multiplied however many times a person decides, by will or weariness, its oneness unfolding and unfolding again. As for the water, any containment is always provisional, ever challenging the very instinct to measure, for its own inclination in the long run is to join with the wide immeasurable sea.
This morning, swimming my laps, a song floated into consciousness. “I’d love to get you on a slow boat to China / all to myself, alone . . . ” What it was doing there, why that song and not another, I have no idea. As though borrowed from a dream somewhere, or from a particular scene in a play or movie that I saw in the recent past; I could almost picture it, the ironic tone, the moonlit reverie. Not so often do specific tunes enter my thoughts while swimming, but when they do I think in large part they sail in on a rhythm. I cannot say if I swim in 4/4 time, only that it is steady, regular, constant—like walking, like breathing—as if an echo of my heartbeat. That corresponds as well to my sense of the general experience when I swim, no matter how often I’ve managed to do so at any given period: when I set forth in the water, I put my body on automatic pilot and let my mind wander. It doesn’t matter if I’m sharing the lane with other swimmers; I see them ahead or behind, they hardly affect my pace. That steady rhythm of my limbs, my breathing, not overly fast nor slow, would seem to underlie most any song. Yet it is only a certain tone of thought, of memory or mood or atmosphere, that mysteriously calls forth a specific song while I swim—and even then it may soon fade away, or linger stubbornly, past all reason. When walking along the street, I often take to whistling a tune made up on the spot to match my steps, or I’ll start with a familiar tune and soon veer off, but the frequency of such tunefulness, though propelled by my own internal mechanical rhythms, does not arise quite so much when my head is in the water. As if air were a crucial element in that peculiar alchemy. I once made an experiment in that regard, which I have at moments repeated: while I swam, I tried to hum a certain melody. I think it may have been one of those great emboldening melodies played by the South African jazz groups that I love, as if the music could grant me renewed strength and I might swim many miles. Right away, it became clear that I could not hum with my head in the water and keep up my usual rhythm of breathing. That humming, with its small way of projecting sound out beyond my head, required precious oxygen. Which meant, less for me as I swam. I had thought that tuneful buzzing, the humble vibration into sound emanating from the closed mouth, might be produced irrespective of inhaling or exhaling. But that was just as well: imagine a pool, a pond, a sea full of swimmers humming away, the cacophony!
My trajectory to the point of taking up swimming as a regular practice was a curious one—curious to me, at least, in its necessary detours of resistance. I had grown up across the street from the beach, at the Jersey shore, and we belonged to the big private beach club in town, also across the street. The Deal Casino had a large swimming pool, rows and rows of cabanas that families rented for the season, among which the wives played mahjong and the men their card games, as well as a snack bar, shuffleboard courts, ping pong tables, and the beach itself which was fenced off from the public beach next door at Phillips Avenue. I used to play shuffleboard sometimes, especially with Junior Lister who was older than my own folks, and though I seldom would just lie in the sand roasting like a piece of meat, I did go body surfing and otherwise play in the water, but rarely (never?) did I get in the pool and swim as if it were, you know, exercise. I loved to jump off the diving board where I would practice front and back somersaults, half and full gainers, once or twice even hitting my foot on the board. The idea of exercise, for me as a kid, was not attractive: it would only happen if I didn’t have to think that’s what I was doing—playing baseball, riding my bicycle—and so, even across the street from the beach, on a hot day swimming was more about getting wet, frolicking in the water. Perhaps the equivalent of piano lessons, for years in summer and winter I was carted off for swimming lessons. Not just so that I would learn how to, and never ever forget, but that I would actually continue to swim.
For a few years in the early 1980s, in the latter half of my bohemian twenties, I lived with a woman in Paris who was older than me, who had a history of bodily ailments and so, for longer than I knew her, had taken to easing her pains with a regimen of swimming in public pools. Of course, exercise as a purpose, a desired activity, was still anathema to me. I loved to walk long distances in the city, covering ground in great strides as if I could take in everything; I always felt that, were I somehow to find myself day or night without a cent, I could easily cross the city on foot, such was my sense of the dimensions of Paris with respect to my own physical capacities and the pleasure of moving through its streets. But for the sake of exercise? That wasn’t the point. Besides, we lived in a small one-bedroom apartment, converted from two maid’s rooms, six flights up from the street. With mail delivery three times a day back then, I thought nothing of dashing down and up those hundred and two steps just to see if anything had come for me; it was not unusual for me to climb those stairs five times a day. So, in spite of my essentially sedentary ways as a writer and reader, I never thought of exercise as something to go out and actually do.
Then, one winter, I came back from an extended stay in Spain with a bout of hepatitis from bad shellfish. Clearly, Jews of old knew something I didn’t know. Like a good doctor’s son, I had managed to be almost completely ignorant of any medical condition that hadn’t touched me directly, but such was the overwhelming evidence of my symptoms that something was not right in my body, that within a day or two of my return to Paris I strolled across the Jardin des Plantes from where I lived on the Rue Monge, which let me out across from the Gare d’Austerlitz train station. Just down the block from the station was the public hospital Salpêtrière (only now do I wonder by what logic the city planners once thought it a good idea to locate a major hospital complex beside an important train route: the hospital came first, originally the site of a gunpowder factory, and both are by the river). I found my way to the building with the clinic, waited an hour for my turn, and when I recounted my symptoms to the doctor, he leaned back with a triumphant grin and announced, “Why, you have hepatitis!” That sounded serious; I nearly fainted. The nurse, cigarette in one hand (this was 1984), took my blood and said to call next week for the results.
Despite the newfound appreciation of my own mortality, it was not until late that year somehow, around when I turned 29, that it occurred to me I might, I should, I could do something for the benefit of my physical well-being, something regular and sufficiently rigorous, something that others (not me) might even call exercise. Thanks no doubt to the example of that older girlfriend who had at last moved out in the spring (some six or eight months after I had encouraged her to do so—life is complicated, as is housing), and certainly thanks to my parents who all through my childhood made me take lessons, the only physical discipline that even presented itself to my mind as a denizen of that city, short of outright libertinage (which I was not necessarily against in principle, but way too much bother), was swimming. And Paris, as it happens, was a marvel when it comes to municipal services, like providing its citizens with public pools. And I mean pools the size in which one can swim laps—two or three in each arrondissement, something like fifty pools throughout the entire city (and if I exaggerate, it is not by terribly much; even if the number were half that, it would be impressive as a measure of public amenities). Over the next four-plus years, I swam in seven or eight of those many pools in Paris. However, the concept of swimming laps, in most of the pools, was practiced by a minority contingent.
My first day at the pool on the Rue de Pontoise. What was I doing there? Everyone seemed to belong—by the simple fact that they were already there—but me. A block from the river, off the Boulevard St. Germain, just east of the Place Maubert, the building dated from the 1930s, I would guess—possibly the oldest of the pools I frequented. Though I could glimpse the pool with its tiled walls beyond the partition, where I paid my fee at the front desk, I proceeded upstairs as instructed to the changing booths which were arrayed all along a balcony overlooking the pool. The attendant led me to an empty booth, and minutes later I was standing by the pool ready for action. But knowing how to swim was one thing; submitting myself to the chaos and cacophony before me was quite another. At first glance, I saw no order at all among the several dozen bathers. (And what were they all doing there in the middle of the day? Were they all nominal bohemians like me?) People of all ages dove in, jumped in, from the sides, the ends, the corners, splashing about or plunging halfway across before stopping and changing direction, oblivious to possible collisions. And yet, in the midst of all that random turbulence, I noticed a woman calmly plying through the waters from one end of the pool to the other and back again. How was it possible? I became aware of a couple of others carving a straight path as well, but the woman made it seem effortless. It dawned on me that swimming laps was a nice idea, but maybe not so easy?
Shedding whatever last excuses I could still muster, I climbed into the pool and pushed off. Avoiding any number of unidentified splashing objects veering toward me from the sides, I found that the biggest challenge was just to keep breathing as I propelled myself forward, swim and breathe, and to do both in a regular way until I reached the other end. By the time I did get to the other end, I was exhausted! Gripping the side while I caught my breath, I glanced about: did no one notice my achievement? Incredible as it seemed, I had to accept that my efforts were less than insignificant to others around me. But as I rested there contemplating how does one get from here to there and back again, and again and again, with no more strain than a pendulum, I decided to attempt the impossible and return the way I came. Heedless of the dangers, I set out—yet, despite my most valiant intentions, I had to abandon the quest. Just where my feet could reach the bottom, I touched down and walked the rest of the way, as if I’d washed ashore. Determined I was, though, to try again the next day.
I’m talking here about the crawl, freestyle, stick your face in the water and lift it out again a little further to take another breath. The other strokes I never took seriously, not since I began swimming laps. Breast stroke, what was that but locomotion by default, as a means of not sinking, and because of the forward movement providing the illusion of exercise. Back stroke, which I had always been pretty good at, posed its own problems in a public pool, such as not easily seeing where you were going, but also it canceled the centrality of a key element to the discipline, the control of breathing. As for the butterfly, who in their right mind could justify using that obnoxious stroke in a shared space? Like practicing the drums while your roommate is studying, or launching into your full aerobics routine in the middle of a communal kitchen. Clearly none of those were for me. Was I a Jacobin of swimming? But if I was ever to advance in my ability toward the effortless gliding back and forth as displayed by the woman in the pool that day, I had a lot of work ahead of me.
The next day, I managed to swim from one end of the pool to the other and back again without stopping. I thought I was going to explode. And when I arrived back to where I’d started, still no applause, no recognition. I didn’t find that woman there to marvel at, but a few others were cutting through the waters in their less than elegant manners, far more adept than I. And at last, I plunged forth to eke out another round trip amid the tohu-bohu of gratuitous splashers. Having doubled the previous day’s plateau, I took a well-deserved rest and studied the other swimmers, to see if I could discern some order that had so far escaped me. I concluded soon enough that a public pool in France was not a place for order or reason, except in the matter of closing time. Taking one last couple of unhurried laps—breaststroke—to better survey the scene and in this way prolong my adaptation to the new element of water, I thought surely I could go further the next day.
And so it was, I advanced by increments. By some strange determination, I quickly made a habit of going to the pool, four times a week or so. The next day, I climbed a different rung, trading quantity for endurance: there and back, and there and back again. Even if these small accomplishments were strictly my own affair, that did not stop me from basking in some measure of satisfaction. The truth was, I didn’t know how I did it—to think that only two days earlier I could barely swim to the other end without feeling completely winded! Had I tapped into some secret rhythm? The few swimmers doing laps, each time different than the last, maintained a certain evenness, a constancy and economy of motion, albeit not so gracefully as the woman of the first day. Just as water, over time, and through its own ceaseless motion, inevitably polishes stones, so the regular application of the swimmer’s body to his or her task must gradually make for smoother movements. Nice theory, at least; I can’t say it’s necessarily been proven by some swimmers I’ve seen over the years. By the end of that first week, I had made it to eight laps, most of them continuous. Thus I was embarked on the perpetual play of numbers, not just as a means to reach further, but also by fractions and ratios as a method to compare what was hypothetically left. Why I latched onto the marker, early on, of a mile, I’m not sure, just that it seemed about right. The pool at the Rue de Pontoise was thirty-three meters in length, and so forty-eight laps made a mile (which I later rounded up to fifty). Therefore, one-sixth of a mile was my high point for the week, and that sounded not half-bad in those terms. By my second week, I was sure to reach a quarter-mile.
Pushing off the side of the pool, at the beginning of my swim and with each new lap, I’m filled with a strange sensation of flying. Soaring along at the surface of the water, gazing down at the tiled floor, I have often thought how nice it might be if the bottom were painted. Specifically, as a reader in childhood of superhero comic books, most of all Superman, I would love to look down at the tops of buildings as I flew past high above. I once suggested as much to the regular lifeguard at the pool in Grand Army Plaza where I’ve gone for years now. His sensible rejoinder: that might be scary, it could make people nervous, scared of heights with such a view. Still, I think it would be fun.
Visual real estate like that for a captive audience of swimmers is ripe with wonderful possibilities; though I can also imagine the opportunity taken to complete ruination. When will we see the first corporate logo, the first billboard, at the bottom of a pool where previous sources of funding prove insufficient? But I would like to fly above not just cityscapes like an aquatic man of steel, but also mountains and prairies, coastlines, and why not, even planets! Could that not be a new domain for video projection (although a moving image at the bottom of a pool might indeed be destabilizing)? At which point, why not project the sea floor itself?
Think of the collisions among swimmers! And the aquatic film clubs, theoreticians, trivia compilers. What is certain, at any rate, is that the visual element is paramount in swimming and yet almost taken for granted. Corresponding to that sensation of flying when I push off from the side, I notice how other people enter the pool and how they push off as well. To extend the comic book resonance, when particular swimmers propel themselves forcefully from the sides (I notice this more in approaching as they are leaving), the bubbles streaming behind them, the jets of motion etched in the water, appear much like the vapor and currents of air that trail behind superheroes as they fly, or at least when they are first setting forth through the air. By what laws of force and waves and motion did the cartoonists make the effects in air appear much as in water? In a similar way, occasionally a swimmer will jump into the deep end plunging straight down like a rocket, momentarily lost in the column of bubbles in his wake, before he surfaces again and pushes forth across the pool. That may well be another small delight reaching back to the playful roots of childhood.
From early on in that intermittent life—like a dream world that we return to with anticipation and abandon, as if it were but a sub-rhythm within our waking life (or what we think of as our waking life, in which we leave some kind of wake behind us, though seldom quite what we imagine)—once I was able to get beyond the exclusive concentration on my own efforts, one of my favorite amusements came to be watching the bodies of my fellow swimmers. Unlike fish (I think), we don’t actively communicate under water, but we do see and look at others around us. I do, at least. How the bodies are shaped—thin or round, taut or lumpy—and how those bodies move. The cut and color of the bathing suit also add to the spectacle, and provoke idle wondering about just why the person chose that shiny or drab pattern, maybe it’s time to buy a new suit, this one’s not so flattering. My thoughts do not arrive at many conclusions about the personality or habits of other swimmers, at least not based on their suits or the shapes of their bodies; rather, such sights draw my attention along for a little while before it wanders off. But there are times when a particularly shapely body (usually female, but not always) sustains my curiosity enough to imagine what must the face look like, floating along there on the surface of the water. Or more likely to question, for my mind does not go so far as to pull up an image of a face. I’m speaking of swimmers I haven’t seen before, or noticed in that way, but it is always an elusive puzzle: inevitably there is some measure of surprise to discover that face, almost disappointment even, to find the face less attractive than expected for such a figure, or older, or younger. And in each instance that surprise is also a bit disturbing, to realize my interest was drawn by someone so young, or so old, or that the dull face on that shapely body should prove disappointing, as if to suggest that I’m not above such crass sentiments, after all. For while these observations of bodies are not exactly sexual, it is hardly an accident that those bodies and not others attract my notice.
It is nearly the inverse experience on dry land, away from the water. Seeing those same swimmers in their street clothes, their hair combed, without swim caps and goggles, as if we’d all been transformed into earthlings again (but had this other existence in common), inevitably brings its own surprise, as we recognize each other uncertainly at first. But also that unsettling separation of face and body in the water, especially when experienced from under the water, plays out in much the opposite way in our normal life. Most often, our bodies are far more covered by clothes, more concealed than any swimsuit could do, so that it is again like they are under water or separated, nearly hidden from view, in comparison to what’s on top. While we perceive the general shape of the bodies around us on the street, it is the faces that draw us in. The eyes, the gaze, the mouth; the expressions and gestures; perhaps even the voice, or the particular animation of that face carrying itself amid the sea of other faces.
And yet, after so many years swimming in the same pool, I no longer watch the bodies as much as I used to. Or not the bodies of people I know, or of swimmers I see there with some regularity. I see their bodies passing in the water, but like familiar signatures; they do not draw my curiosity in the same way as when they were completely unknown, when their mystery was most fertile. By the corresponding (if inverse) experience on dry land, do I therefore not look at familiar faces as much as when they were still unknown to me? But every face remains a mystery, even under cover of the familiar.