19 February 2006

Keeping it real

My cousin, Stunt Mother's sister, is getting married in July, and I have to do something about it. I don't mean I have to stop the wedding -- after what she and her fiance have been through, it would take a thermo-nuclear event to do that. I have to do something about what I am going to look like in the family photos, which will replace the last set of family photos on my parents' fridge. That last set was taken at my younger brother's wedding a year and a half ago, and I look the same in all of them: awkward, jolly and fat.

Even the most excellent walking cannot make a person much thinner, and it does nothing for one's arms, which, at a July wedding, are sure to be bared by a sleeveless dress. (Have you noticed that even winter dresses have turned sleeveless in the last few years?) In addition to lifting weights at the gym -- don't be too impressed, I seem to be doing it once every 10 days -- I have been swimming on Saturday mornings, at a pool in a hotel near Times Square.

I am not a good swimmer. As a child, I took the requisite lessons at the Y, and passed the tests that certify that you won't drown when thrown in the deep end, and, in fact, I would never drown in calm water. I can tread water and if that gets too tiring, I can flip over and float on my back for hours.

But that's not the same things as being able to swim. When I passed those tests, I did what I have done my entire life when things are hard: I faked it. I never mastered the breathing technique you use in swimming. Breathe, face in water, breathe out underwater, head up just enough to take another breath, repeat. What I did instead was take a breath above water, hold it under water, let it out above water and take another quick breath before going under again. I faked it, and they bought it.

It was okay. I would never be on the swim team, but I could enjoy playing Marco Polo when Stunt Mother's family took me to their pool club, and in college, using a kickboard and spending a half hour chatting with a friend as you kicked up and down the lane was a perfectly acceptable form of exercise.

Somewhere in my mid 20s, the sham fell apart. I became afraid of things I'd never been entirely comfortable with, but had managed to do anyway. Swimming was not the most important of them. It took my weeks of raising my courage to make a doctor's appointment, for instance, and the interval between making the appointment and going to it was filled with constant anxiety. Now I can see that my depression probably began in those days. The effect of all that fear was that I stopped doing things that were hard or discomforting, and I didn't yet realize that there wasn't anyone who was going to notice, or if they did, who was going to make me do them anyway.

So, swimming on Saturday mornings. It's a big deal for me. I cannot put my face in the water; even dunking under the lane markers to change lanes, which takes all of 2 seconds, is impossible. I do a lap or two of butterfly stroke, then several of backstroke, use the kickboard, then begin again. I'm horrible at the butterfly stroke, but I don't have to go underwater for it. I'm good at the backstroke. It's getting easier for me to be in the water. Sometime this year I will confront going under. My arms are even starting to show vague indentations where there might someday be defined muscles.

Yesterday, when the lifeguard, a 20-year-old kid, walked over to my lane as I was approaching the end of a butterfly lap, struggling, but feeling good, like I was getting a workout, I thought he might be coming over to adjust the water hose that was rushing cold water into my lane.

"Do you know how to swim," he asked.

"What," I stopped before I reached the end.

"You're just," he made some flailing motions with his arms. "I could show you a few things."

"Don't worry," I replied, indigant, flustered. "I know how to swim. I'm not going to drown."

"I don't think you're going to drown. It's only four feet deep."

I was about to say that, no, thank you, I didn't want any lessons, I'm getting back into swimming after developing a phobia of going underwater, and I'm not up to dealing with it right now, but then why should I explain myself to this kid? Get away from me! Don't come over telling me I don't know how to swim then expect I'm going to be grateful for your help.

But instead, "no, thanks, I'm good," I said, emphatically pushing off the wall into a backstroke. He wandered back to his chair.

I know he was just trying to be nice. He's sitting there with nothing to do but watch four people move 30 yards up and back, over and over. Coaching me would add a little interest to his day.

I was afraid he was going to come back if I attempted a butterfly stroke again, so I continued to do backstroke until I couldn't anymore. I felt horrible. Maybe I should have listened to what he was going to tell me. If it was bad advice, I could have ignored it.

For someone who was never confident in her physical self as a child, any time I do something that is primarily about my body, in public, I just cannot feel any way but like that awkward kid, unable to exhale underwater, unable to throw a softball or run a mile in under 10 minutes. Having someone point that out to me as an adult means that I'm not successfully faking it anymore, and even though I no longer want to fake it, I want to do the real thing, it's still humiliating.

5 Comments:

Blogger PG said...

I sympathise...interesting thing happened in that holiday in Greece. Andy and his parents (two ex-Physical ed teachers and very sporty son - and me - bookworm chubby child nobody wanted on the team, you get the picture) swam from the beach to a little cove. It was quite a way for a sloth like myself, I've never swam so far in my life and I only swim about once every two years. To keep up with them I did my cowardly unorthodox front crawl - turning my head sideways at each stroke, to breathe, rather than that awful plunging one's head under you're supposed to do. It gets me from A to B quite quickly. To my amazement they were impressed - had never seen it done that way before. Thought it was more difficult than the usual way. I guess what I'm trying to say is - be proud to do your own thing. Even it's it's not the way Other People think it should be done. Whatever works. I'm sure I wouldn't have wanted anyone interupting my feeble attempts at keep fit. At least with walking you know where you are! Usually. :)

4:07 PM  
Blogger Stuntmother said...

As I age, and turn more and more into my aunt, I am more likely to do that weird breaststroke thing that women who had just had their hair done used to do -- like awkward geese, their heads a good foot above the water and their arms having to go ten to the dozen just to keep any forward momentum.

I remember discussing in some literature class or other about how the most horrible murder in Greek tragedy was when Agamemnon was stabbed in the bath because there was something so utterly vulnerable about being in water. I think this must have been part of why this sort of thing is so awful -- and I hardly know how you managed to keep going because I'd have been in the sauna snivelling like a shot -- because the power imbalance of the young man on shore, and the vulnerability of you in the water is too great. Yes, he might have meant to be nice, but it can't be nice. It's why I couldn't make it through basic life-saving with Maria coaching me, because I nearly killed her/drowned in my own misery.

You are okay. This was a terribly difficult situation which the young whippersnapper had not the empathy to grasp. If you can make it up and down the lanes, you are doing all you need to do.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Pedestrian Rage said...

Oh, Sweets! I can't really swim -- I do some weird side-stroke thing if I'm trying to get anywhere, remembering nothing from swim lessons except this awkward arm motion that was supposed to look like I was putting apples in a basket.... (Who puts apples in a basket underwater?!)

My advice: do the bravest thing you can think of. If that lifeguard is there the next time you go, walk right up to him, tell him you haven't been in a pool in a while, and what tips did he have in mind?

11:05 PM  
Blogger tammara said...

I agree with everyone - the idea of exercise is motion, and you were clearly going from one end to the other, thank you very much. If you want the instruction - ask him to show you without that imbalance which pg mentioned - of him basically sneaking up on you while you were backstroking along. (Also look at it this way - he must have thought you looked teachable or he wouldn't have bothered.)

12:00 PM  
Anonymous Prince of Tides said...

I prefer "presumed innocence" as a principle in approaching the world. Perhaps the offer was artless but the intention was probably not. Which is not to say you should take up the offer: if he is 20 and, judging from your characterization of him as a "kid", you are well past that age, he is unlikely to be able to adapt his training to your phobia.

The point I wanted to make here, however, is that while you say this young man "wandered back to his chair", implying nonchalance, he may have gone back to his post shamefaced. So now there are two people embarassed and angry because one offered help to another.

6:04 AM  

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