I take a break this morning from your regularly scheduled Brain in a Jar to share what goes on inside the mind of a Mermaid in a Bottle.
In an effort to be healthier and return to my watery roots, I joined the master’s swim team at the YMCA. Not only is being in the water good for my body, it’s good for my head–although the latter is probably questionable as you will soon learn.
Regardless, I’m connected to my history when I’m swimming. The South Seas near the Philippines. The Pacific Ocean that we crossed en route back to the United States. The public pool in Alabama where my dad taught to me swim. The Rivanna River at the old Bercaw farm in Virginia. Carlouel Yacht Club in Clearwater, Florida. The natatorium at the University of South Florida.
I’m just now remembering that in one of the few emails I ever received from my father, some 10 years ago, he simply sent a word and definition of his own making:
na·na·to·ri·um: noun, place where Nan swims
That’s all he wrote. Odd, but it’s a window of where his head was as the tide of Alzheimer’s was coming in and where he thought my mind and body belonged. In the water.
But let me write to you, now, that any place where Nan swims is also a battleground. I’m not undulating and dreaming of poetry while I’m in the water. It’s more like a covert war. The seen me vs. the unseen me. My stroke might look smooth and effortless, but I’m fighting lactic acid and fatigue. My face cuts through the clear blue but it’s beet red from exertion. My shoulders are on fire. My goggles are burrowing into my sockets. I watch the clock like a hawk for my precious five or ten or fifteen seconds of recovery before I continue on an interval that makes my heart race and burns 1,000 calories an hour.
Especially interesting to me is the fact that I can control my breathing better in the water than on land. I even get out of breath going up one flight of stairs, yet somehow I can swim 500 yards at a stretch on limited inhales and exhales. How is it that I can grab enough air when I turn to breathe to sustain me for three strokes or more—-but when I’m resting between intervals, with air as plentiful as blue skies, I pant and gasp like I’ve scaled Everest? Once I’m back at work, pulling and kicking, my breathing is as calm as a mountain lake at sunrise.
But just as my lungs relax, my brain kicks into overdrive. Here’s a sample of my stream-of-consciousness thinking during yesterday’s main set (10×25 with 5 sec rest, 5×50 with 15 sec rest, 3×100 with 20 seconds rest–all done twice):
Got to stay a body length ahead of everyone else…or more…not good enough if I’m not fastest…can I go faster…who’s that person who just got in the pool…that barrel-chested guy…I can’t see him very well…what’s he doing…he’s catching up to me…that never happens…WTF…this doesn’t make any sense…I’ll out-strategize him…find his weakness and capitalize on it…the turns…I gain on the turns…but he’s turning it up during the length…he’s faster…I’m two or three body lengths ahead of the others, but then this thing comes in and destroys my lead…kick harder Nancy…lengthen your stroke…he’s got a short choppy stroke…how can he be faster?…wait, what’s that I see…OMG…he’s wearing flippers…that’s why the man with the crappy stroke is beating me…I’ll put my flippers on for the final set and just kick. (PAUSE AS I PUT THEM ON)…that’s better, he’s about a length behind me now…asshole…the playing field has to be level…you can’t challenge me when you are wearing flippers and I’m not…you can’t act like you’re winning in that scenario…you smug cheater…take your punishment.
At the end of the long set, the guy got out of the pool. And I stretched my long, long arms out in silent victory. Mission accomplished. I won. The nanatorium is mine.