Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Aqua Boy

I went for a swim tonight--seriously.

It was only for a few feet, I expended more energy than the hydroelectric plant at the Grand Coulee Dam, and I moved with all the grace of an arthritic elephant, but, yes, damn it, I was swimming.

I am in the third week of an eight-week adult swimming course at the YMCA in Park Slope and I'm loving it.

This came about after my family trip to Hawaii during Christmas, when I vowed I would finally learn how to swim.

Bear in mind that learning how to swim has been one of my top five new year's resolutions since Mario Procaccino ran for mayor of New York.

But there was something about the Hawaii trip, seeing people in the hotel pool having a great time, while I splashed around in the kid's section, well, it just got to me.

It bothered me that, although I like to be physically active, I couldn't participate in this fabulous form of exercise. There's also the safety factor, should I ever find myself in a sinking canoe, but beyond that, swimming just looks like fun.

So, at the ripe old age of 50, I decided to take the plunge. (C'mon, I held out as long as I could on that one.)

While swimming is one of the most natural skills in the world, it is anything but to me. I had decided that I just could not--or would not--swim. And that was it.

As the youngest child, my parents babied me, and I think they decided they would not to force me into swimming. Every time we got near a body of water, my mother warned to be careful, to stay away from the deep end.

The funny thing is my father always believed that there were certain times in your life when you should learn to do things--swimming, driving, and other such essentials.

But they didn't push the swimming on me and, as a result, I just made a detour around it. I was also pretty late in getting my driver's license come to think of it.

I was supposed to learn how to swim in high school, but I avoided that, always worried that I would be found out and exposed as a non-swimmer, like it was some kind of horrible disease.

I was supposed to take a swimming test in college, too. I mentioned my lack of swimming skills to my geology teacher one time and he said, "I thought you had to swim in order to get out of here."

"No," I said. "I took the subway."

I wonder if either one of these institutions will demand their diplomas back now--or make me return and take the swimming test.

I remember once when I was about seven years old, we were vacationing in our favorite resort in the Poconos, and there was another family with a kid my age or maybe even younger. The kid knew how to swim, or at least had no fear of water.

His father put a life jacket on him and kept tossing him into the adult side of the pool while the kid laughed his head off. I thought he was a psycho.

The father offered to let me borrow the life jacket and my mom was gently encouraging me to go ahead and give it a try, but I would have none of it.

I didn't trust that funny-looking orange vest and I was convinced I'd hit the water and disappear like a mobster in a cement overcoat.

The little bastard thought this was funny and called me chicken.I looked to the skies and prayed for a bolt of lightning to hit the pool.

Later that day I walked by the father and son and this sawed-off pile of rat droppings looked to his father, but obviously talking to me, and said, "I still say he's a scraggly chicken!"

I don't know where that little puss pocket is today, but if I had my way he'd be doing a Luca Brazzi at the bottom of a very foul body of water. Not that I'm one to hold a grudge, of course.

I went back to the Poconos years later as a police reporter and we always had drowning stories every summer.

Everybody in the Pool

People either didn't have the skills they needed in the water or hadn't taken the proper precautions. These incidents did nothing to increase my enthusiasm for swimming.

I almost didn't sign up for this class, citing the loss of my job as an excuse. But at a hundred bucks I knew I could afford it. The truth is, I was afraid to do it. I was being...a scraggly chicken.

Screw that nonsense. I dragged my tail down to the Y on registration day, shot the living hell out of my Saturday afternoon, which admittedly has less value now that I had nowhere to go during the week, and signed up for the class.

The instructor is this fabulous woman who has teaching swimming to people of all ages for more than 20 years.

She breaks the lessons down so you learn a little bit at a time--putting your face in the water, kicking your legs--before going on to the next lesson. And you can always step back if you get confused.

She's funny, knowledgeable, and has this ability to take the mystical aura out of swimming. I see now that this is not some arcane ability passed down through the ages by medieval wizards to a chosen few.

It's logic in motion.

"We were all born swimming out of our mothers," one of my classmates, a Jamaican man, said after our first class.

"Yes," I said, "and once I hit dry land I kept on going and didn't look back."

I saved money on the class with my hairdo, since, as a bald guy, I don't have to buy a bathing cap. There's an African-American man in the class who also sports a shaved dome and is exempt from the bathing cap rule as well.

I was thinking of the Kojak comparison, but my Jamaican friend called me Moby last week, saying I look like the techno pop performer. (Hell, every white guy with a shaved head looks like him. Or Kojak.)

Yeah, I thought later, I look like Moby, but I swim like Ahab.

On the first class, the teacher had us putting our faces in the water, something that had always terrified me. But I began to lose some of that fear.

I got myself a set of swimming goggles, which kind of make me look like a comic book crime fighter, and hit the pool the following week. The instructor is ably assisted by a soft-spoken young man with a huge tattoo of an eagle (I think) on his back.

This fellow just sort of appears next to you and gently tells you where you're going wrong and then sinks below the surface.

Last week, we tried floating, and while this did not go well, I was determined to get it down. And tonight, I was actually moving across the water.

My form was hideous and I had to keep telling myself to kick and use the arms, and don't hold your breath and relax, for Christ's sake, but I was making progress.

Relaxing is the key to swimming, like so many other things in this life. If you're tensed up and nervous, whatever you're doing, whether its swimming, boxing, fan dancing or singing at the Met, it's going to suffer.

I know it's important not to get ahead of myself or get overly excited about this. Mark Spitz has nothing to worry about, that's for sure. And I've got a lot more to learn. But at least I'm learning now.

I never thought I'd be able to do anything like this. I just walled off that area of life, like that guy in "The Cask of Amontillado." Gone and never to be heard from again.

So I'm knocking down that wall and I wonder about what other things I've cut out of my life, bricked over and forgotten about because I was afraid or convinced I didn't have the ability.

We still have five more weeks of class and after that I may take one of the advanced beginner classes to hone my skills. No longer a scraggly chicken, I'll be a super-sleek penguin knifing through the waters.

Then I'm going to track down that little putz from the Poconos and hold his head below the surface until he's bubbling like an Alka-Seltzer tablet.

Better dig out that life jacket, kid. Moby is out to get you.


Calamity Jen said...

I'm so proud of you! I'm still working on my driver's license, and I'm pretty much a non-swimmer. Perhaps my upcoming trip to Hawaii will be as inspirational for me as it was for you. Keep up the awesome work.

Rob K said...

Thanks, Jen. That's very kind of you.

You keep working on that driver's license and you'll get it yet.

And I'm sure you'll be inspired to swim once you see Hawaii.