Sunday, 27 September 2009

Swimming Around

I'm a sports dunce. I have no hand-eye coordination, my ankles are weak, and I was born without that love of competition that fires up others' pulses when balls are kicked or whacked or thrown. But boy, can I swim.

The first swimming pool I went to was in San Dimas, California. It had a rough concrete bottom you could stub your toe on, which I frequently did. I was only four and could not swim: I floated around in an inflatable penguin that was bouncy and slippery and made squeaky noises when I climbed into it. I remember sun-filled days, the shrieks and laughter of other children, the delicious coolness of the water, how it shattered into crystal when I splashed.

Our next pool was at the Riverside YWCA pool. It was nowhere near as nice as the outside pool in San Dimas; the stink of chlorine burned your eyes and weird people smells were trapped in the warm, chemical fug. I couldn't swim and I had no inflatable toy, the water felt greasy and everyone else there was old -- at least fifteen. They took swimming seriously, too: they lashed back and forth in the water, barely coming up for air, their faces grim, their conversation full of distances and times.

Next we joined the pool at the University of California, a delightful turquoise rectangle nestled among eucalyptus trees. There was a grassy verge you could lie on, bleachers you could sit on, a gallery where my non-swimming mother sat and read, only looking up when I screamed, "Look at me!" for the umpteenth time. I learned to swim at the UCR pool; I met my best friend there.

When I moved to Miami, the apartment building where I lived with my cousin had a pool, but we liked the beach better. I did the back and side stroke; doing the crawl in salt water made me nervous. My cousin didn't swim -- she couldn't. Her father threw her in the water when she was a little girl, to teach her to swim; she almost drowned instead. She sat on the beach and watched me.

When I moved to San Francisco, I took a swimming class at eight in the morning. The pool was kept unheated for the water polo team, who had their practice session at ten. It was tough going, getting into that frigid pool in the wintertime, but I never missed a class.

In Southern Japan, I looked in vain for a pool in my town, but the only one that was convenient was the university pool. This was chained off and marked 立入禁止 (No Entrance) and with good reason: the water was foul, the color of seaweed. The entire surface of the pool was covered with thick green algae; God knows when the filter had last been cleaned. One day my desire to be cool overcame my squeamishness: I climbed over the fence, struggled into my swimsuit in the dingy changing room, and plunged right into that foul water. I did the side and back stroke and kept my mouth tightly shut, worried about amoebic dysentery. The next time I went, my boyfriend joined me: our bodies coursed through the water, leaving trails through green scum. Believe it or not, there was actually a swimming competition in that pool. The day it was held, the surface scum was even thicker than usual. I came in fourth out of ten. When I climbed out, I cut my left shin on a protruding bit just a few inches under the surface: the water was so turgid I couldn't see it. To this day, I have the scar; miraculously I never got tetanus. Or amoebic dysentery.

In Amsterdam, I swam at a pool near Dam Square. Though swimming lanes were clearly marked off, they were also chock full of swimmers, and little kids swam over the barriers and got in our way, driving me close to distraction. The lifeguards never seemed to notice. I suddenly realized I had become one of those tense, grim swimmers, lashing back and forth in the water, thinking of times and distances. I swam around the kids and tried to smile.

In Wales, I swam a kilometer a week, right through my first pregnancy. Two weeks before I delivered, the lifeguard begged me not to come back. "Or if you have to, just not on my shift, okay?" I had a blast coming back the next week; I made sure it was on his shift both times. I swam through my second pregnancy too, in the Tokyo YWCA. Some of the women frowned at me, but they all came to look at my baby after she was born. "She'll be a swimmer too," a couple of them said. "Mark our words."

In Chiba, we took the kids to a swimming pool in Abiko, in the park. Sometimes the lanes were so crowded, you almost had to wait in line. On Sundays, we cycled five miles to a larger pool, where we all swam. During the week, the kids had lessons there. Both of them got good at it too. They splashed and they played, but they swam too -- not grimly, but well. I could hardly contain my joy.

In Scotland, the closest pool was a long drive away and a lot like the Riverside YWCA. The first time we swam in it, there was something unmentionable floating in the shallow end that had to be fished out messily and necessitated a lot of chemicals. But we still went there regularly; not swimming was not an option. The lifeguards got to know us well. We participated in charity swims and swam mile upon mile in that pool.

Here in our little exclave of Turkey, there is a swimming pool hardly a stone's throw from our house. It is surrounded by lemon and olive trees, and in the morning, doves and wagtails come to drink out of it, tilting their heads back prettily as they swallow. Not far away is a field of sheep; you can hear their bells tinkling in the evening as they graze, mingling with the call to prayer. I am in heaven in that pool -- I cannot believe my good fortune. I have swum through claustrophobic chlorine fugs, in the sea and the ocean, through pools crowded with swimmers and playing children, through the vilest scum and murky water with number twos floating about. This pool is cleaned regularly by men with poles and nets; the water is pristine and almost no one comes to swim there.

But would you credit it? My youngest daughter will not swim in it.

"Too cold!" she protests, pulling out her foot, a grimace on her pretty face.

"No it isn't!" I say through gritted teeth, trying not to think about the ice-cold water of the university swimming pool, where I regularly built character.

"What is that thing floating there?"

"A leaf." And that's all it is, folks: one freshly fallen, clean, crisp leaf. In my mind, I see that floating jobby being fished out of the pool in Scotland.

"What's that?" she frowns, pointing.

"That would be a wasp." She jumps half a foot and I take a deep, steadying breath: I will not think about the green scum in the Oita University swimming pool.

"It's crowded!" Amazingly, three people have just arrived.

She goes back to the house; I swim a mile and feel like crying.

Later that night, there is an e-mail from Eldest: I've joined the swimming pool, it's fantastic! I swam a mile the other day.

Who knows? Maybe Youngest Daughter will do this too one day. Right now she's trying to learn Chinese.


Charlie said...

A virtual world tour of swimming pools, including the grunge pool at Oita University!

I can't believe that you swam in that algae pool, but I think I understand it: it was a character-building exercise.

Vijaya said...

All in good time, Mary, all in good time. Alas, I learned to swim as a grown up and will never be comfortable in the water ...

MG Higgins said...

I love to swim, too (though clearly not as much as you!) and what a treat to read about your experiences at all of those pools. I got my BA at UC Riverside but never swam there. Now I'm sorry that I didn't.

Robert the Skeptic said...

High School PE made me hate swimming. We always did it in the winter and it was always cold. But for one week every summer we would drive down to Santa Monica and stay with my aunt and uncle who had a beautiful warm pool with a diving board. I don't really "swim" I sink and hold my breath... but there is something magical about the human body hovering weightless in a clear warm pool.

Mary Witzl said...

Charlie -- I can't believe it either. If I didn't fight it, I'd be one of those obsessive-compulsive types. That water was FOUL, and the most amazing thing was that I didn't get sick from swimming in it. For the competition, I did back freestyle. I pitied the swimmers doing crawl and butterfly from the bottom of my heart.

Vijaya -- I tell myself that too. But what drives me wild is the fact that our time here is limited. The next pool we find ourselves using will probably be in a smelly old building with nasty changing rooms and athlete's foot fungi growing up the walls. And she really is a fine swimmer!

MG -- You're a UCR graduate? And more importantly, you survived four years of Riverside? We have to trade stories on that some day! The UCR pool was so wonderful. We used to run up to the book store and pester the people there, taking ages over chocolate covered mints and Reese's peanut butter cups.

Robert -- High school PE could probably ruin anything. Sadly, the only sport I could do halfway well -- swimming -- was the only sport I ended up not being able to do. I had minor surgery when the swimming course started and missed the whole thing. Though come to think of it, that was probably a good thing.

You're right, though: there is something magical about floating weightlessly in water. It's the closest most of us will get to space walking.

Lily Cate said...

My son won't swim, either. He loves the water, but won't do anything besides bounce around in the shallow end.
When I was a kid, that never would have flown. I had to learn to swim by the age of 4, because no pool had a shallow end shallow enough for short little me.
But my son is totally spoiled with all the lake swimming and zero depth pools these days.

The other thing I've been trying to do for years is get him on a horse. It was always "no no no" but finally this summer he actually wanted to go on a pony ride. There is hope!

Bish Denham said...

A veritable smorgasbord of pools. I've been swimming like a fish since I was 5. Not a big pool person, spoiled by the clear open waters of the Caribbean. BUT, I do water aerobics at least 4 times a week as I just can't get into land exercises/jogging. LOVE the water.

Kim Ayres said...

I fully intended to get back into swimming when we moved to this area, but a couple of trips to Dumfries pool - which I suspect was one of those you were referring to - put me off. There is now the new DG ONE centre, but now the CFS has settled in, it's no longer an option.

Meanwhile, you say youngest is learning Chinese. Does that mean she mastered Korean already?

Robin said...

The pool in Turkey sounds heavenly. So sad that youngest doesn't like it. I would be so disappointed, too.

What is it with people pooping in pools? Even kids? I remember swimming as a kid, and never did I have the urge to pull down my bikini bottom and take a crap. Sheesh.

laura said...

You're right up there with Hans when it comes to swimming. He was on the Miami High Swim Team way back when and still swims laps. When we were in Sylt, Germany he swam in the sea while I stood on shore in my leather jacket. COLD!!! He will swim anywhere and is also disapointed if he can't find a nice pool. Me? I love to swim, but only on hot sunshiny days in 80 degree pools!
Just this summer the pool at the club where we keep our boat had to be evacuated two times in one weekend due to 'floaties'. Gross.

Charles Gramlich said...

I taught myself how to swim and I didn't have a very good teacher.

Kit said...

I have to admit to being a fair weather swimmer these days, even though I grew up swimming in an unheated pool in England. The first one to get in was always (with good reason) said to be 'breaking the ice'.

My kids always start the summer eagerly swimming in the pool as soon as it nears 20C, but by the end of the summer they've got spoilt and gone soft and won't go in unless it is practically bath-like. Our pool is a charcoal color, so it heats itself in the sunny South African summers. We spend the whole summer juggling chemicals so that it won't turn pea green and lumpy like your horrendous sounding Japanese one!

Mary Witzl said...

Lily -- Bouncing about in the water eventually turns into swimming -- especially when there are older, cooler kids around. My sisters and I all learned how to swim on our own: one minute we were treading water, then the next we managed to get horizontal in it. It was an incredibly exciting experience.

Good luck with the horseback riding! I don't have the guts: I'm a klutz and it's a long way down.

Bish -- I prefer the ocean/sea myself (except when there are sharks around), but pools are awfully handy for those days when we're too tired to walk down to the beach. We have both the sea and a pool to swim in now, so we are pretty spoiled ourselves. But it won't last forever, and when it's over, I'm betting that's when our daughter will suddenly decide she wants to swim.

Kim -- Yes, that's the pool I meant! It had that weird, unused tube thingy too, and the locker rooms were old and smelly. The new pool is supposed to be very nice, but it's a huge hassle, getting ready, putting on cold weather gear (year-around in Scotland), then driving there, taking it all off again, swimming, putting it all back on again, and driving back. Wheeew. Just thinking about it tires me out!

Robin -- It is lovely, and it just vexes me no end that I can't get my kid to swim along with me!

I think the person who took the dump was a kid, so it was forgivable. It was just unfortunate that it happened on our first time there.

Laura -- My husband is a great swimmer too and happily swims in cold water. I'm far too much of a wimp to do this. But wherever we go, we almost always seek out a pool, like Hans.

A friend of mine drove forty miles to a pool with her little boy only to have it evacuated because of a double accident, involving both ends of the digestive tract. She almost decided to give up swimming after that.

Charles -- Hahaha, I just got that! Same here; I'm no Michael Phelps, but I manage to get through the water all the same.

Kit -- I remember thinking that the more people who got into the pool ahead of me, the warmer it would be, but it never really seemed to have much of an effect. Swimming in cold water DOES build character, though, doesn't it?

Pea green and lumpy: that was exactly what the water was like. How can your pool be charcoal brown? Tell me that isn't the color of the water!

adrienne said...

I swam in algae covered ponds when I was growing up, but it sounds so much more disgusting in a swimming pool. :P

If your daughter was a Southern California girl, too I'm sure she'd be a swimmer - it's practically a requirement.

kara said...

the youngest ones are always contrary. i know i work hard at it so she probably does too.

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- She's half a California girl, but apparently that doesn't count. I remember my own childhood -- the thrill of getting out our swimsuits, the splash of water, the delicious feeling of immersing ourselves in it. It's so sad not to have this shared experience, but that's just the way it has to be.

Kara -- Youngest has read your blog; you're sort of a role model. Say: maybe you could get her to go for a %$£"-ing swim?

Nandini said...

Hi Mary,
I was on my school swim team, in India, where basically if you could swim you were in. I love the water and can remember each pool (of varying quality!) I used as a child, so this feels so familar!! My husband, who grew up in the U.S., can't swim though he took tons of lessons. Go figure!! Spent the last few summers making sure the kids learn. There's no better feeling than when they swim their first lap isn't it??

Pat said...

How I envy your swimming history. I would be more like your mother but at least I have known the joy - a sort of swimming - in Greek seas and that was unforgettable.
Your daughter will come round; sooner or later we end up emulating our mothers.

the broken down barman said...

ha ha Jobby. Glad to see you picked up the lingo when you were in scotland. came to your blog through Kim. Like it. I'll be back

Mary Witzl said...

Nandini -- Sometimes I think that people with all the advantages don't go as far as they would if they really had to work. Your swimming story contrasted with your privileged husband's only reinforces this opinion.

Yes: watching my kids swim that first 25 meters and seeing the look of happy accomplishment on their faces was a huge high. Almost as good as the first time they made it to the toilet independently when suffering from gastroenteritis.

Pat -- Bobbing about in water IS joy, isn't it? And yet for my mother, this was hardly a pleasurable experience: NOTHING would induce her to get her head under water. I like reading, though, and in dozens of others ways, I have become her. Maybe one day my daughter will run out of excuses not to swim. And her Chinese is coming on a treat.

Barman -- Thank you for visiting!

Believe it or not, 'jobby' was used in my family since I was an infant. Only after coming to Scotland did I learn that it was actually a viable term that my family hadn't invented. Both of my parents had Scottish ancestry, and obviously this term lived on in their idiolect, surviving hundreds of years in America, along with 'smidgen', 'skillet' and a few other words.

Daphne said...

What an inspirational story! Kudos for being able to say that you have been so consistent in your value of swimming that you find a way to do it no matter the circumstances. I found your blog through Kim Ayres and I am so glad he shared you with me!

Library girl said...

Oh, I so loved your visual imagery! Brings back memories of floating on my back in the local pool, gazing at the clear blue sky whilst listening underwater to the muffled squeals and splashes all around. Found you through Kim - will be back.

Falak said...

I can relate to the joy you find in swimming....... wish i atleast had a scum filled pool nearby.... don't even have that:)

Mary Witzl said...

Daphne -- Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting!

The colder it is, the harder I find it to pursue my swimming habit, but yes, when I can find a way to swim, I do it. There are places/times it feels wrong -- when there is a water shortage, say, but I always tell myself that if the pool is already filled, I might as well get in and swim.

Library Girl -- Thank you for visiting my blog!

I love those muffled sounds too, the dancing shadows sun makes on tossing water, the splashes and cries -- and the wonderful feeling of lying on your back and staring up at the sky. Glad there are other swimmers out there with these memories.

Falak -- Thank you for visiting my blog!

I hope you'll find better than a scum-filled pool, soon -- preferably before we are well and truly into autumn.

ZaedahBlack said...

I found you quite by accident, but it was one of those hard-to-catch happy accidents that will make me smile through rest of the day. Your stories are warm and cozy, like a fleece blanket we're sharing across cyberspace.

Nora MacFarlane said...

I've played in my share of creeks, but I've never been a strong swimmer. I love to go to the pool though, if only to sit in the sun. : )

Mary Witzl said...

Zaedah -- (I love your flying cat!)

Thank you for those kind words. I will take them with me to work today and pull them out as I monitor my class of fifty, all trying to look at one another's test papers.

Nora -- In terms of sun-bathing, this pool is utterly wasted on me: I'm the opposite of a sun worshiper and find myself torn between wanting to go out there and get my money's worth of the poolside and knowing I shouldn't...

Helen said...

Wonderful blog Mary! I could just about smell the pools you described!!!!Take heart - my mother swam all the time too, and when I got over ignoring her weird habit (and thinking she might be slightly mad) I became a habitual swimmer as well. Thanks for the vivid mental imagery of all those jobbies (though we used to call them Chokitos) that I know I must have swum through over the years!!!

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you, Helen. I love the idea that my youngest daughter may be a born-again swimmer too some day. And what a great term 'chokito' is. You can't be a truly committed swimmer without finding a couple of them floating about, can you?

Deidra said...

Wow. Your writing style is very impressive. Here, take some kudos! :)
When I read what you said about stubbing your toe on the bottom of the pool, all I could think about was telling you about something my sister did on one of our vacations: she went swimming, came back to the room with one of my parents in tow (because she's young enough to need supervision), and I saw a scrape on her chin. Upon my questioning, she said that she scraped it on the bottom of the pool! I laughed very hard at this, and I thought maybe it would make you smile too.

Mary Witzl said...

Thank you for commenting, Deirdra. Was it the Cal Pool in San Dimas, by any chance? If so, I'd take your sister's word for it.

Anne Spollen said...

I'll swim anywhere, and so will two out of three of my kids.

Philip sees dead people in the water I think. He stares at a perfectly clean pool, makes a face, and goes to the nearest chaise lounge.

And he's a Pisces...

You are so lucky to have that. Where you live sounds absolutely wonderful. Youngest daughter may come around soon - you can lead them to water, but you can't make them swim.

Mary Witzl said...

Anne -- I despair of that ever happening! It's burning hot here and she still insists the water's too cold. Glad to know that there are others like her, though.