I hate swimming. I grew up in England in World War II where swimming meant either exposure to the cold, rain and wind of the North Atlantic or unheated indoor pools. Getting in the water, from a state of dry warmth to frigid wet, was agonizing, getting out, damp and shivering, almost as bad. Consequently, my technique has never got past that of a dog paddling, though without the finesse. I don’t even know how to float.
Moving to Southern California with young children, however, a house with a pool seemed as natural as an annual pass to Disneyland. It still takes an act of willpower to go in, and I do it only because I tell myself “you must.” During the recent scorching weather, however, with the pool cover pushing up the water temperature, getting in was like climbing into a warm bath, and on a day that convinced me that perfection is possible on earth it reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
So I have taken to going in every day just before dinner when the sun has lost some of its intensity. Now, being as ancient as I am and vulnerable to a host of calamities, and often with no one else in the house at the time to come to the rescue, and given my pathetic skills, I decided to face the derision and instead of swimming up and down the pool like all other mortals I — please don’t tell anyone — swim across it at the shallow end.
It takes me so long to swim even that distance with my laborious breast stroke that the shortness of the passage from one side to the other is no problem and the thought that I can stand up at any time is enormously comforting.
I should also say that I find swimming depressingly boring. Every day I hike and every day I find something of absorbing interest. I either look around, feeling the hugeness of the mountains, or fall into a sort of dream where ideas float in and out.
By contrast, swimming for me is just a slow plod to a concrete wall topped by an ugly border of ceramic tile, then back again to an identical wall. I’ve made a pact with myself to do 16 of these crossings every day and every day I wonder if I can face it.
I find it tolerable only by squeezing some comfort out of the fractions I learned like a parrot at school: At the first crossing I say to myself “That’s one-sixteenth gone.” As I struggle back to the first side a daily miracle happens: I’ve done one-eighth! Twice as much as one-sixteenth! I’m on my way.
Two more painful crossings and I’m one-quarter done. It still feels almost impossible, but at least some of it is over with. Four more and I’m at eight. Halfway! Two more and I’m in double figures. Each of these milestones injects just enough push to go on.
Two more after that and I’m three-quarters there. “You can’t give up now!” Then wearily and finding no pleasure in it I slowly finish my quota.
The relief is short-lived. “What about tomorrow?” a small voice says. “There’s another 16 sixteenths to be done. And next week? Seven times 16 sixteenths.” I shove the depressing thought aside and remember the weather will soon be cool enough that I can honorably quit for the rest of the year.
The small voice will not be stilled, however. “Don’t forget,” it says, savoring my misery, “next summer is already speeding toward us. Do you know how many sixteenths that means?”
Its tone indicates that it thinks it has delivered a knockout blow. Not so. I have an ace up my sleeve: “Next summer,” I scoff. “With any luck I’ll be dead by then.”