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The Zen of Swimming

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The Zen of Swimming

This is a radical departure from my usual political rants, I admit. My aim is to probe that gap between the experience of boy-jocks who grew up to be man-jocks and girls like me, who grew up in the '50s and the '60s. (I know I didn't inherit this cultural attitude from my mother. She was an all-city field hockey champ. Her friends had to beg her to sit out games scheduled around their weddings so that she wouldn't walk down the aisle on crutches, something that happened more than once.) In my adolescence, girls sweating from sports was decidedly uncool and there was something unsavory and 'unfeminine' about female athletes. Remember the East European female Olympians who looked like bulked up men with boobs? Girls like me traded in our tennis racquets and sneakers for issues of Sports Illustrated and became figurative, if not literal, cheerleaders. The boyfriends I chose were Class A jocks and, somehow, it was enough. This strategy fell apart when my basketball and tennis playing beau got into Stanford while his girlfriend, higher class rank and G.P.A. notwithstanding, didn't. Living vicariously had its limits. On the sports front, the damage had already been done. It was simply too late to become a jock.

Fast forward many years to me as the mother of two college students and a basketball- crazy pre-teen. I had the great fortune to have a son who desired his mother not just to understand the game but to be able to play it, as well. Starting with games of HORSE, under Michael's exquisitely patient tutelage, I eventually graduated to one-on-one. Then, a friend (and former babysitter) told me about a regular Tuesday night women's basketball game at the JCC and I signed up. As I gradually built up the endurance to run on the court for an hour, I began to feel the pull of being part of a team, of women sweating and playing competitively and yet, also, cooperatively. Maybe because it wasn't a league or because it was women only, teammates were happy to share tips with me. That was definitely a plus since I had a lot to learn. I was old enough to be the mother of many of these girls and a late bloomer, as well. I'd come home at 10:30, wide awake and energized. I finally 'got' it. So that's what guys have always had from Little League on. I loved it. Let's hear it for those endorphins!

At this point, you're wondering what all this has to do with swimming. Well, here it is. Since my adult kids were toddlers, we have gone a number of times to a rustic resort in Michigan for a week during the summer. In fact, that's where I am at this very moment. One of the enticements about this place is the large outdoor pool which is entirely enclosed with plexiglass, making outdoor swimming a delight in all but the most inclement weather. I got into the habit of swimming laps early each morning of that week, coming home and putting away my suit until the next summer. Finally, a few years ago, it dawned on me that if I truly enjoyed swimming so much, there was no reason to live without, fifty-one weeks of the year. That year, instead of retiring my suit when I got home, I joined a community center where I could have my summer pleasure all year long.

Since then, as my swimming has evolved, so has my gear. After many summers suffering from a stiff neck from holding my head out of the water, someone gently suggested goggles. I went through numerous pairs, all of which shared the same characteristic: letting the water seep in while at the same time gripping my head so tightly that when I took the goggles off, I looked like a very surprised owl for hours on end. Last year, I finally went all out and bought a pair of good goggles and the difference is huge. Other than the telltale chlorine smell, I can 'pass' as a regular person.

This brings me to the actual experience of swimming, which is what I wanted to talk about in the first place. Something magical happens when I get in that pool. That is not to say that every single Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning, I don't go through at least a few half-hearted attempts to talk myself out of going. In fact, one of the reasons I have settled on that before-work time slot is that if I wait until later in the day, too many things seem to get in the way. Even as late as that split second before I jump in all at once to avoid that horrible frisson of cold that would otherwise hit me in the small of my back, I'm still not positive that it'll actually happen. But once I'm in the water, all that ambivalence disappears. Let me set the scene for you.

Although I have graduated to good goggles that no longer cut off the circulation to my head, I still have several 'issues'. Water still often seeps in, inexplicably, always on the left side. Invariably, my goggles fog up. This fact, compounded by leaving my tri-focals upstairs, renders me virtually blind in the pool. I wear two swimming caps (a trick to protect my hair from the chlorine) and that double layer leaves me deaf as well. I'm gliding through the water without access to two of my most prized senses. Eerie but liberating, this sensory deprivation. In this case, less IS more.

After a few laps, if I'm lucky, I find this special place where my consciousness splits into three parts. The first one is 'me as swimming machine': with the only sound my own breathing, like the sound track of a movie on scuba diving. I'm also engaged in counting my laps since I can't see the clock (or anything else not within a foot of me) and wouldn't know when I was done otherwise. This temporary myopia plus the repetitive nature of fifty minutes of stroking to and fro, allow my mind to veer off in still other directions simultaneously. Number two is total stream of consciousness. On this track, I am often very productive. I have germinated my best ideas for articles, speeches, relationship 'fixes' and new directions altogether. I can also accomplish a lot in the list-making department. The only problem here is retaining what I've come up with once I'm out of the pool, but not yet near pen and paper. As I get older, this is more of a problem. The good news is that many of these good ideas often resurface later, if not immediately. (The other good news is that if I fail to remember, I'm unaware that I haven't remembered, if you know what I mean.) All of this happens while I am ostensibly focusing on physical exercise.

The third plane is a very spiritual one. This is where the Zen comes in. People who do long distance running also experience this, I'm told. It's as if the body's engagement in a mindless task frees up the mind in a way that just doesn't happen in the ordinary course of the day. What magically occurs is a brief transcendence to another, quieter, plane where inner peace reigns. A part of me is outside of me, watching and serene. For fifty minutes three times a week, I get (if the conditions are right) a tantalizing glimpse of the 'me' which is not currently multi-tasking as mom, wife, daughter, friend, carpooler, shopper, office manager, editor, lending librarian. Is this how I would be if I weren't trying to juggle all of these balls? At least for these precious moments, even though I am furiously writing and editing, list-making and creating, I am also totally inner-directed. I'm not thinking about anything other than what I want to think about. Nothing and no-one intrudes unless I allow them to. And this is the only time of the week when this is true.

Even when I emerge from the pool and take an extra few minutes in the steam and sauna, my mind has already inexorably turned to the day ahead. It is only in the pool that time stops, suspended, while I churn back and forth and achieve a little respite from the fast-paced world which awaits me outside. And the power of that 'fix' assures that next Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday morning, you can find me in my usual spot at the pool, generating endorphins and achieving mental health, however briefly.
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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