Swimming at Dawn

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There are mornings when life spreads itself out like dawn breaking over water.  I see this swimming in the Bay as the cool pink light lifts to sunshine.   Watching a full moon sink below the Golden Gate Bridge as the sun rises over the East Bay is as magical as it gets.  Ahead Alcatraz Island floats in isolation, still dark and a little forbidding, and to the north the lights of Marin begin to give way to daylight.  Yes, the water is cold.  Not yet teeth chattering cold.  That comes later in the year.  I wonder if I’ll swim straight through the icy months of winter, when the water temperature can drop below 50 degrees.  My friends do, so I assume I will, too.  Somehow.

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I have always been a swimmer.  It’s a lonely sport.  The camaraderie comes when not in the water. In open water you’re vulnerable to the currents, the wind, the temperature, boats and to all of those creatures you would rather not be thinking about. I haven’t encountered a sea lion yet, but I will.  Everyone does.  Sharks?  Apparently not.  What I encounter, though, are my thoughts.  In team sports you think about your place in the game, about the opponent, about your next move and theirs.  You are one of many.

Out in the Bay I think about my life.  Sure, I think about making it to Ft. Mason or whatever the morning’s destination.  I think about my breathing, my stroke.  But bigger thoughts flow through my mind, too.  How good it is to be alive, here, now, in this dark water.  How big the sky is above the Bay.  How beautiful the city looks.  How special is this moment; how lucky I am.

The first time I flew in an airplane was from Pittsburgh to Charlotte, NC.  I flew with my swim coach Al Rose and three teammates.  I was fifteen, swimming in an older age group. We went to a meet to swim one event, a 400-meter freestyle relay, in which we meant to set the national record.  We did.  I set three other individual national records that year.  I continued to do well, and achieved some distinction.  That was a long time ago.

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I swam because I was terrible at all other sports, to my father’s immense displeasure. I swam because I didn’t have to play on a team and suffer the humiliation of being the last picked.  When in middle school I began to swim competitively I exempted out of gym.  Oh happy day!   I never went to gym again.

I swam because I could do it alone.  I was often alone, an only child of social parents who were rarely there.  For years I ate dinner alone at a club every Friday and Saturday night.  I wonder now what the kind waiter thought.  Some weekends my childless aunt and uncle would invite me to stay.  We would go to a drive-in theatre and have pizza, a treat and a transgression.  They came to my wedding and college graduation.  My father didn’t.  My aunt died in a nursing home ten years ago.  My uncle still lives there, annoyed that at ninety-four the State has taken away his driver’s license.  I wish I saw him more.

During the years of my divorce—it went on and on—I would have a few glasses of red wine at dinner and then head for the pool.  The wine in my blood and my body in the water was, unfortunately, a peace-inducing tonic.  Nothing mattered.  The sadness of life disappeared.  For an hour I was happy.

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Later, after a serious bicycle accident, I was out of the pool for a year, rehabilitating my right arm.  I have a metal elbow now.  It’s taken a while to get back in shape, and I’m not there yet.  My endurance is poor.  Swimming against the current in the Bay is helping.

Sometimes in the late afternoon I walk down Hyde Street to the South End Club and swim for an hour by myself.  The wind picks up later in the day, and the water is generally rougher.  Not rough by any serious swimmer’s standards, but wavy enough to feel the small up and down swells.  Alone I feel like a boy again.  Swimming does this.  In the water we’re always the same age.  I take heart at the many “old” swimmers, men and women, at our club who cherish the cold water every day.  I want someday to be them.

None of my boys became swimmers.  As kids they swam on our club’s swim team. I’m not sure whether they enjoyed it.  They played ice hockey and soccer and tennis and baseball.  All are highly proficient skiers.  David taught skiing at Killington in Vermont. Adam out-skied me in Zermatt when he was just a teenager.  Sam is a champion figure skater, and coaches still.  Because of skating he met his lovely Finnish figure skating wife.

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Brenda my girlfriend and her swimming friends at the South End Club are all vastly more experienced open water swimmers than I am.  I’ll never be able to earn what they have achieved.  Yet I treasure what I have.  It’s opening doors I didn’t know existed.  I don’t feel alone anymore.

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Everyday an opportunity arises to create something that didn’t exist before.  Everyday swimming in the Bay is a new experience.  What we experience today didn’t exist yesterday.  Unlike swimming in a pool, swimming in open water creates its own future.  Heraclitus wrote that the river we see is not the same as the river we step into.  The Bay isn’t the same.  While walking home from morning swims I look back at the Bay. It’s an astonishingly beautiful sight. The panoramic sweep from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate never fails to take my breath away.  The clear light falls on the Marin Headlands, the Marina shines.  On these gorgeous mornings I can’t believe I live here.  The further up Russian Hill I walk the wider the view expands to look across North Beach to Telegraph Hill, Coit Tower standing as a proud landmark.

At night the city sparkles. The light show playing its electronic rhythms on the Bay Bridge is a tribute to this City on the Bay.  I watch it from my apartment.  Looking north on clear nights the lights across the Bay in Sausalito wink in what I imagine as happy harmony.  Sometimes the moon shines on the black water, a silver sheen surrounding Alcatraz.  Its lighthouse is a beacon for ships, and a beacon for our lives.  Odd how a place infamous for misery now can renew itself as a destination of desire.  Our club conducts a swim from our beach, out around the island, and back to shore.  I want to do this one day.

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A happy death to me would be to die in the water.  Pamela Harriman died swimming in the pool at the Paris Ritz.  I don’t want to die anytime soon, but that will come and the water would be welcoming.  When I was snowshoeing in the Arctic last Christmas I imagined how novel it would sound for my boys to say their father froze in Finnish Lapland.  That happily didn’t happen.  Water is only another form of ice.  We can’t predict these things, and wouldn’t want to.  It’s just a passing thought.

It’s getting late and I want to swim in the morning.  Tomorrow is Saturday so I can wade in later than our usual 6:30am swims.  It will be daylight.  I hope the sun will be shining.  Already as October continues the water temperature is beginning to drop.  Back in New England we measure the beginning of autumn by the turning of the leaves. Here I’m marking the falling temperature in the Bay.  Every day the water is different from the day before, especially at this time of year.  But Thursday can’t come soon enough when Brenda and Josh and I swim together.  I look forward to Thursdays all week.  I hope I still will in January.

I won’t be alone.

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1 Comment

  1. timpmooney

     /  April 20, 2015

    The Bay is a magical place, for sure.

    Reply

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