Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Have a Swim. Feel Better. 

Floating in the pool - Florida

I've been thinking a lot about swimming lately, particularly as I've been too busy to go this week (I usually swim two to three times a week). Not swimming, especially in the summer is rough for an enthusiast such as myself. As an enthusiast, I'm prone to mentally collect lists of films that touch on my chosen diversion. You know what I mean. I cycle a lot, so I note any movie where bikes play a part of the story (think of Breaking Away, or of the cycling montage in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or even The 40-year-old Virgin – where Steve Carrell is caricatured by his use of a bike). If you love hockey, you might list Slapshot or Mystery Alaska in your cerebral library of hockey movies (you’ll probably try to forget Rob Lowe’s Youngblood).
Relax. We'll have a swim. Feel better.
I’ve started to do that same thing with swimming, not just the obvious ones like Swimfan, Big River Man or The Swimmer but ones where a character is shown doing laps in lieu of a “long thoughtful walk on a beach” or something. I guess the idea is we can “see” a character thinking while a voice-over or inspirational music plays. The two scenes that come to mind are decades apart but similar (because they are in a pool – that’s about it really).

Don Draper looking a little defeated after his first swim.

In season 4 of Mad Men, after Don Draper has his lost weekend-style nadir we see him making a journal entry as a sort of proto-twelve step program. He wants to regain control of his life, cutting back on his alcoholic crutch and getting healthier, of course, he doesn’t mention cutting back on cigarettes. As he writes to himself about his regrets, goals and questions we see him swimming laps and barely making it (the cut to him, exhausted on the locker room bench says it all). Some critics didn’t care for the voice-over technique but I thought it contrasted Don’s approach to journal writing as self exploration as opposed to Roger Sterling’s self aggrandizing memoir spoken into a dictaphone. Then there’s the clip later in the episode when Don, revived by his new regimen, won’t let a younger man pass him despite the fact they are in separate lanes (Jon Hamm gives a great “Not in my house, Be-atch” glare to his imagined competitor). This reminds me of something David Sedaris wrote in When You Are Engulfed in Flames about when he started swimming for his own health, he couldn’t help but try to pass people in the next lane and how he gloated after beating them, even if they were “that 50-year-old lady with Down’s Syndrome”. I definitely do that. I win the gold every time I beat someone to the wall, even it is an 80-year-old man who just happens to be floating by.

The other scene is from The Paper Chase where Timothy Bottoms, as a first year Harvard law student, tells an over stressed classmate to “Relax. Have a swim. Feel better.”

Swimming is the only exercise I can think of that is simultaneously relaxing and exhausting (mind you, I’ve never tried Yoga). Running is so damned hard, and biking is treacherous, particularly in Toronto, not to mention the countless broken bones of le Tour de France. There’s nothing like swimming on a sunny day in the Autumn. The late afternoon sun streams through the water to create dappled light patterns across the tiles of the pool walls. When dusk comes, the sky turns inky purple and the water begins to glow from the pool lights. Drawing yourself up out of the water, every muscle feels loose and limber and you feel as if you’ve just finished a massage. It really is that good.

Yet, if you haven’t always swam, then getting started is tough. There’s the public display of nudity which in my Protestant mind can seem unusually uncomfortable. Showering with others is another indignity. The water itself is highly chemical and usually a touch above freezing (I’m surprised I don’t have to break ice to get in sometimes). Finally, there’s the matter of breathing, which of course, you can’t do underwater. All things said, there’s no reason to like it. Whether there’s something deeply Freudian about returning to the embryonic fluid or simply because it’s just great exercise, I’m still drawn to it. I seek it out and I hope to do so no matter where I am. In St. John's, I swam twice at the Aquarena, one of the only pools in the city to offer lane swimming. It was strange swimming there. The place feels like a bunker and isn't exactly charming. The lane swimming is at the deep end (really deep) and it was disconcerting. The water is so clear it's like your fear of heights kicks in while you're swimming. Plus the lanes were very narrow so you are uncomfortably close to anyone else in your lane. But I got my laps in and had fun. The first time I went with Morgan, after considerable haranguing, the staff let her do laps despite being underage. There were a lot slower swimmers there so it wasn't really a problem. What happened to that famous hospitality? Dried up in the prune of a woman exerting her authority, no doubt. Despite all that, I'm glad I went. When you've had a swim, everything else just doesn't matter. Not even the greasy and high caloric lunch we had afterwards at Scampers.

Update: Clearly there are many more swimming references in films and television as pointed out here by Swimming Holes We Have Known.

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