Monday, August 15, 2005


Don't Forget To Breathe

Half awake, I take a quick warm shower. It's the rule. Then, knowing the quicker I get this started the better I will feel, I fall into the water. It's coolness rushes over me and jolts me awake. My skin tingles, my toes curl. I take a big gulp of air and submerge my head, rubbing all the oil from my face and sleep from my eyes...rubbing my cheeks and arms to wake up.

There is a ritual to all this. First I put the lap fins on my feet; small flippers to work out my legs. Next the ear plugs, because I know how annoying it can be to get water in my ears during the turns. Then the web gloves on my hands to give my arms more traction. Finally, I put the goggles over my eyes. Within a minute, I am transformed into the middle-aged dolphin of the suburbs.

The ritual continues. I have been doing it so long that I have tweaked all the steps and know them without thinking. Stretching my arms and my legs, I take deep breaths. One breath, then another, and then another, blowing the spent air out of my lungs quickly. One final gulp and I drop under the surface, spring from the edge of the pool with my legs and kick my fins in unison to drive the length of the pool underwater. The ritual dictates that I cannot surface. I must traverse the entire length of the pool kicking like a fish, using only my legs.

As the oxygen slowly runs out, the far side of the pool comes into view and I surface. I have passed the first test. It is an easy one.

Looking back at the lane, it is empty, as is the whole pool. Forcing myself out of bed at 4am in the morning to be the first one here has given me this advantage. I am the master of the lap pool. Outside, the sun has yet to invade the day. The echo of the pool and the ripples in the water are the only sound. Here, there is solitude, before the day invades my world. Here, there is just me and the rhythms of my body and the coolness of the water.

I push off and start a lazy breast stroke. Doing this for so many years, I have learned to inch my heart rate up slowly. In the beginning, I had to keep reminding myself to slow down, to not swim too fast. Running out of breath in the middle of the pool is never a good thing. At the end of each stroke I tilt my head to gasp some air before turning my face downward to stare at the blue strip of tile that defines my lane. The rule is that I can't stop. Once the journey has begun, I have to complete the laps. The total is usually 10, sometimes more depending on how long I have to swim. As the end of the lane comes into view, I take one last deep gulp of air into my lungs and somersault in the water, kick off from the side of the pool and twist in the water so that I surface in the opposite direction and continue swimming. That's lap #1.

Swimming like this forces solitude upon me. There are no distractions. The ear plugs muffle and distort all sound, although the only sound at this time of the day is the water splashing past me. With nothing but the rate of my breathing and the blue line below me, my mind starts to wander. Deprived of all distractions, my mind becomes and ocean that is vast and deep. The flotsam and jetsam of my life floats through my thoughts.

What tasks are on my schedule once I get to the office? Is my left front tire leaking air? I need to remember to pay those utility bills before the end of the week.

End of the blue line, flip, push off, twist... surface. Where was I? Owe yea those bills, not to mention the car insurance coming due soon, Yeah, that was lap #2.

I still have to force myself to slow down and allow my lungs to catch with my brains desire to become the human torpedo. Patience. That is one of the reasons I am here. Forcing myself to slow down. See the different light, seek the different solution. It isn't all traffic, bills and job interviews and ... end of line, flip, push, twist, surface.

I have to start thinking of my next vacation. I know that the practical side of my brains is telling me this is a good workout and that I need to lose that weight. The realistic side of my brain knows that this is all about stress reduction. Too much stress in the modern industrial age. I need to get away more. Go hiking, maybe in the Superstitions, or down in Mexico. But that will take planning; swimming is much easier and is on my way to work. Besides I know this is better for me than drinking down Vodka to try and get relaxed or munching on Cheetos while I watch Starsky and Hutch on ....wall, flip, push, twist, surface.

Yea, food. What am I going to eat when I get to work? After these laps I deserve some sort of reward. What lap was that? Shit. Always forgetting. I think that was 4, no 3. Great, now I am going to wonder if I swam too many laps or not enough. Damn it.

Breakfast Burrito, yeah, that would be so good, with eggs and sausage in it, and the good coffee from Circle K. I am gliding through the water now, my heart rate in sync with my breathing. My pace quickens slightly since I have warmed up. With each turn, my mind wanders to a long since forgotten corner of the ocean. Old relationships and why they went wrong, the things I want to buy, but really don't need. My societal trained urges to want things that have no real purpose. My struggle to become more creative. Each thought eventually interrupted by a turn and a push off the wall.

Eventually, I notice other swimmers in the lane next to mine, gliding past me in the opposite direction. They are visible only for a moment. What are they thinking? Have they lost count? What are they escaping from?

Finally, I 'think' the last lap is upon me. Here, there are no reserves. I open it up and thrash through the water like a crazed shark. No doubt, terrifying anyone that might stray into my lane. My lungs straining, I reach the far wall and stop. Gasping for air, my feet touch the bottom of the pool for the first time in 15 minutes and I remove my goggles. I am spent, tired, relaxed. Only two things left to do.

While still breathing hard, I lie on my back and do a lazy paddle with my feet to the opposite end of the pool where this all started. As I let my breathing slow down, I stare at the ceiling as it passes over me. I have to count the number of beams or risk the chance of slamming my head into the far end of the pool. This is the cool down lap. The lap where I get to gloat about my conquest of the morning.

As I reach the end of the pool, I climb from the water, put my apparatus away and head for the steam room. The ultimate goal. Solitary, warm, relaxing, a place to hide with my thoughts before the invasion of the day.

Wrapping my towel around my head, I swing open the glass door to the hissing sound or escaping steam. It is tiled, with tiers to sit on and a glass wall that looks out onto the pool. The wet heat envelopes me, immediately nullifying the coolness of the water on my skin that is left over from the pool. The hiss of the steam coming from a pipe in the corner is almost deafening. Yet, it serves a purpose. Like so much white noise, it cancels out any sound from the outside world. Like the air escaping a punctured tire, the pressure and the stress are released with it. I sit in the far corner of the room, towel over my head to prevent the super heated air from burning my nostrils and my lips as I slowly breathe in and out.

Between the sound of the steam, the hard tile floors, the glass windows and the echoing of the voices in the pool beyond, all the sounds that reach my ears here are garbled. Indistinguishable. There are people in the pool now, there is talk and splashing. But the sounds they make are distorted by the echoes off the water and the hard walls, so that they sound distant, transformed, and unearthly. I stretch me legs in the heat, I crack my neck. For all the things that I am told to want and desire in life, I always end up realizing that this is one of the most important and most attainable.

The door to the steam room opens and someone else walks in. Between the steam and the towel over my head I cannot see who, nor do I care. The outside world has started to come in. The real struggle begins. Time to start a brand new day. I just have to remember to pace myself and breathe.

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