Swimming Lessons – Part I

When I was a child, beginning at a very early age, I was enrolled, each and every summer in “Red Cross certified” swimming lessons. My mother was adamant about it, I remember well. I grew up in Napa, north of San Francisco forty or so miles. Perched on the northern most edge of the bay, summer mornings here are usually cold, gray, foggy and overcast. Did I mention cold? About noon, the sun manages to burn through the fog and it actually feels like summer should. I’ve been colder on summer mornings here than I have on winter nights on the east coast, or even the farthest northern reaches of Alaska. It’s a damp, penetrating cold, and there I was, a tiny, skinny, child, in a swim suit, tossed into a pool that couldn’t be heated enough to dispel the chill. Summer after summer, year after year, I learned to swim. I learned to float, I learned to kick, I learned to use my arms effectively. Most importantly, I learned to breathe.

Scarlette Begonia

And I swam. There was a neighborhood pool up the street. The adults on our block all pooled their money, no pun intended, and bought the lot up by the dead end. They formed an association, obtained financing, and built a fabulous pool, complete with a springy diving board. They sold memberships with a nominal monthly fee which paid off the loan, covered operation, maintenance and even provided for a lifeguard all summer long. The lifeguard taught swimming lessons in the morning, and kept us all supervised and out of our parents’ hair each and every afternoon. I swam. I swam every day, every summer.

With all those lessons, and all the swimming I did every summer, when I got to middle school and swimming was a P.E. class activity, I excelled. There were a few P.E. teachers at my middle school, Miss Harlow was my favorite, I thought she looked like Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island, but more than that, Miss Harlow was always especially nice to me, she knew my name and encouraged me to learn gymnastics, modern dance and to run hurdles on the track. The other P.E. teachers didn’t even know I existed.

It was in the eighth grade that Qwen arrived, an immigrant from Vietnam. I remember my home room teacher wanted me to sit with Qwen and, I guess, tutor her, that she may learn English and History more quickly. I had no idea how to make that happen! Qwen was in my French class, too, and, again, I was put on task to help Qwen. So, when Miss Harlow asked me to teach Qwen to swim, I wasn’t too shocked, and, more than English, History, and French, I felt like I could actually teach her something! I taught Qwen to float, to kick, to use her arms effectively, and, most importantly, to breathe. The school pool was slightly deeper at one end than the other. We worked in the shallower end for a few days, Qwen was short, I was short and super skinny, the shallow end was appropriate, we could touch the bottom comfortably flat-footed. I remember that our goal was for Qwen to be able to swim across the width of the pool, then the length of the pool, meaning we’d have to traverse the deeper water, where neither of us would be able to touch the bottom of the pool with our tippy toes. Within a week or so, Qwen was swimming across the width of the pool in the shallower end quite confidently. Miss Harlow really wanted to see her progress to swimming the length of the pool. I remember taking Qwen to the deeper end of the pool and trying to explain to her that she didn’t have to do anything different, just swim, just like in the shallow end. We slid into the water and hung onto the ledge. We both set off across the pool, in the deep end. I swam next to Qwen, it just seemed the thing to do. We got about a quarter of the way across, well out of grasp of the ledge. Qwen stopped, for some reason, Qwen stopped. She tried to find the bottom of the pool with her foot and couldn’t. She went under, then flailed wildly, her outstretched hand landed on my shoulder and in a moment, she was climbing on me, trying to get out of the water. I couldn’t touch the bottom, and though short, Qwen was larger and stronger than me. I’d had “junior lifesaving”, I knew you were never to jump in to save a drowning person because they’d pull you under trying to get to the surface. But, here I was. The pool was crowded with other kids, and I don’t think our plight was evident to anyone who mattered. All I could think to do was to flip over on my back and float and hope Qwen would calm down enough to do the same. Still she flailed and pushed me under, trying to stay on the surface. What I ended up doing, was bouncing, going under, hitting the bottom of the pool, and pushing off up and towards the ledge. After what seemed an impossible period of time, I managed to get us both within reach of the ledge.

We all feel like we’re drowning, at some point in our lives. Some of us more frequently than others. Some of us actually do, the waves of life crash into us until we can no longer hold our head above the water, and we slip under. This can manifest in health, both physical and emotional, it can impact all facets of our lives; family, career, friendships, relationships, longevity and quality of life.

If we can apply to life the basics we learn in swimming lessons, we stand a much better chance of floating right through the unavoidable challenges we face. The basics:

  1. Get in the water.
  2. Stay calm. Don’t be afraid. Don’t panic.
  3. Float.
  4. Kick and paddle.
  5. Build confidence.
  6. Breathe.
  7. Be aware. Have respect.

You absolutely cannot learn how to swim until you get in the water. Life is no different. You absolutely cannot learn how to live until you get out there and experience life. Jump in, don’t sit on the edge in fear and watch everyone else from the safety of the shore. Life, like swimming is far more enjoyable for the participants than for the spectators. Life is not a spectator sport, get off the lounge chair and get in the water!

As with most experiences in life, especially new ones, fear can be debilitating. Fear limits us. Like learning to swim in deep water, where you cannot touch the bottom of the pool, life has its risks, uncertainties and perils. Often in life we don’t feel like we can “touch the bottom”, and here, as in swimming, remaining calm is absolutely imperative. Qwen had the skills to swim in the deeper water, but because she panicked, she lost confidence and became fearful.

Learning to float is probably the most important lesson for a beginning swimmer. When you discover you can’t touch the bottom of the pool, when you grow too tired to tread water or kick and paddle, knowing you can float on your back, calmly, atop the water, is a great comfort. I remember the lifeguard who taught me my very first swimming lessons telling me, as I attempted to swim clear across the pool, “if you get tired, flip over on your back and float”. In life, when things get overwhelming, you can take a break and just float for a few moments, until you regain some strength, some energy, some clarity, and continue. For some of us, this may just mean a quiet night at home, a good night’s sleep, meditation, exercise, listening to soothing music, or spending time with friends and family. Whatever it is we do to stop kicking and paddling, to stop treading water, we must do when the time calls for it.

To get anywhere in the water you’ve got to kick and paddle. In a large body of water there may be a current that carries you for a ways, but at some point, the current will cease, or will take you in a direction you do not wish to go. In a pool, without kicking and paddling, you just bob. Or you sink. Life, like swimming, requires forward motion, propulsion, effort, if we are to make any progress.

From the very first swim lesson until the day we master every stroke, we build confidence. Without confidence, in swimming, fear sets in, we either fail to try new strokes, new skills, out of fear, or we panic and try to find a way out of the water. Life, living life, necessitates confidence. It is confidence we rely on when we face a new day, get out of bed, leave the house, and all the very basic things we do. It, too, is confidence we require to learn, to grow, to achieve, and to prosper. Confidence is gained through experience, both in swimming and in life. Confidence is gained in overcoming fear, in calmly pressing on, and with more confidence gained with each lesson, with each new experience, we become masters.

Breathe. In swimming, in most sports, as in life, breathing is critical. How often do we see folks in the water, paddling and kicking, with their face out of the water? Sure, they are making progress, slowly, but it’s the swimmer who breathes rhythmically with his strokes that covers great distances with efficiency and grace. By breathing, in life, I’m not referring to the involuntary inhalations we make that sustain us physically. I’m talking about the deliberate practice of breathing, deeply, rhythmically, calming the mind and awakening the heart. Whether you call this meditation, or practice this walking, standing, sitting, lying down, or during physical exertion, breathing is probably the most basic and beneficial life skill we can adopt.

Swimming, like many active pursuits, requires awareness and respect. Water is dangerous, awareness and respect are necessary. Swimmers need to be aware and respectful of the water itself, the depth, the temperature, the current. Swimmers need to be aware and respectful of their abilities, of the dangers, and of the consequences. In life, too, we have to be aware and respectful of ourselves, of others in our lives, of those around us. We need to be aware and respectful of our surroundings, our physical being, even of the thoughts that cross our mind. Everything influences our well-being, whether it is external or internal. Bringing awareness to all that influences us and building respect for ourselves is second only to breathing.

With swimming lessons we learn to swim, but there really isn’t a “Red Cross certified” series of life lessons we can enroll in. Much of life is by trial and error, by observation, by following examples, or advice, or muddling through and just trying to figure it all out on our own. Like swimming, or other things we are taught, by breaking our activities down, thoughtfully, into “lessons”, or skills, we can achieve the same level of success. So, go on, get in the water, don’t be afraid, don’t panic, kick and paddle, float when you need to, build confidence, and most importantly, breathe, be aware and have respect. Whether you’re in the shallow part of the pool or swimming in the surf, the skills you master from these very basic lessons will ensure your safety and survival. So, too, in life. Dive in.

Crossing a Line

We’ve crossed a line, many times, I’m certain. I’ve seen it. From both sides of the line.

I was on a lovely run the other day. It was warm, but not as hot as it had been the few days prior. There was a breeze, but not a gusty wind as in the past couple of days. It was just a perfect day for a run. The flower gardens are abloom in vibrant color and sweet fragrance. It was Saturday, late morning, so the smell of bacon and pancakes still wafted from homes along my route. I had bacon and pancakes for breakfast, too, a bit earlier, so I was a happy, happy girl who really needed to go out and run!

I ran my “usual” route, a six-mile rectangle through the northwest end of town, south for a bit, then eastward, north along a frontage road, then west along a rural, vineyard lined road and south, again, back to the park where my car awaits. I deliberately run this route in this particular direction because I save the best, the prettiest pert of the run for last. My reward. Though the prettiest part of the run, it is by far the most treacherous part of the run. There is a narrow shoulder, no sidewalk, and no bike lane marked. Cars travel fast. I use this road, myself, as a bypass for the slow, confused and sometimes intoxicated traffic cluster on the main thoroughfares in Napa. The tourist traffic consists of people looking for the next winery, the restaurant entrance or the hotel driveway, and most certainly not for runners, walkers, or cyclists. Marked bike lane or not.

Dazed, confused, lost, distracted, and preoccupied.

The part of my route that takes me along the frontage road, a road that parallels Highway 29, the main highway into the heart of Napa Valley winedom, is littered with hotels, tourist bus outfits and a few restaurants. There is a bike lane, but I usually break the rules and run on the sidewalk. I cross the line. There are rules for the road, for cars, cyclists, runners and amblers. Cars should stay on the road and not fade into the bike lane to cut corners or to “straighten out” their trajectory so as to not have to decelerate or apply the brakes. Bikes should be on the road, in the bike lane, or shoulder, if no bike lane is afforded, single file, headed in the same direction as the cars. Runners should be on the road, in the bike lane, single file, going the opposite direction of cars and bikes. Walkers should stick to the sidewalk, if there is one, or obey the rules of the runners. If everyone follows the rules of the road and kind of looks out for one another, no one gets hurt! Bueno!

Ah, but mutiny is afoot. The bikers want the whole road, the cars want the whole road, the walkers want the width of the sidewalk and/or bike lane and the runners just want to run, red lights and crosswalks be damned! Don’t make me pause my Garmin! Don’t make me have to explain my lousy mile time on “Map my Run” for mile four because I got caught by the “don’t walk” sign at three consecutive intersections. We are all crossing the line.

I’ll admit, even I cross the line on the frontage road, I run on the sidewalk. But, I exit the sidewalk for any other pedestrian I encounter, happily, for those who belong on the sidewalk, and with a great deal of discontent, eye rolling and huffing, when encountered by a bicycle on the sidewalk. I forgot to mention all the tourists with rental bikes and without a clue. Another wrinkle.

It’s funny how our attitude tends to change when we switch our mode of forward motion.

When I am driving, I am always mindful of those I share the road with, both those encased in a large metal and plastic pod, and those who are not. And I am more than a little irritated when I encounter pedestrians who’ve crossed the line; whether they are traveling two or three abreast or have tribed up and just commanded the entire vehicle lane. I can see their point, but I can’t help but feel a bit annoyed that they’ve crossed the line if there are adequate provisions, such as an ample shoulder or a well-marked bike lane. I’m not picking on cyclists, there are other offenders, but, frankly, not as often.

I was running a week or so ago and I observed a woman inline skating. I used to inline skate. I know where my inline skates are. I want to inline skate again. She breezed past me like I was standing still, gliding smoothly along in long, graceful strides. She was sharing the well-marked bike lane with me and passed very courteously. As we were both opposing oncoming cars, when the vehicle lane was clear, she’d cross the line and skate down the middle of the street, a few mere inches from the double yellow line. I understand her reasoning. If you’ve spent any time at all traveling on the side of the road, you know the roads are quite sloped towards the gutter to allow water to evacuate the road quickly. For runners, and skaters, too, I suppose, there is some uneven wear and tear on ligaments and such from always running on sloped surfaces. Another reason why I prefer sidewalks and the dirt shoulder along the vineyards. We all cross lines.

Another time, I was just approaching the park where I leave my car. I am a bit of an opportunist, and when the traffic permits, if I’m within a quarter mile of the park, which is on the opposite side of the street, I’ll cross early and walk “with” traffic. The shoulder is wide and I am certainly visible. On this particular day, as I walked towards the park, I could hear a car approaching from behind. Imagine my surprise when the car passed, well over the line and within a fraction of an inch of me. He crossed the line, but, so, too, had I. I was on the wrong side of the road. Sure, if he’d have slaughtered me, which at the rate of speed he was propelling down the road, I’d have been pulp, the law would’ve been on my side. A great deal of good that’d do me dead. Had I been on the correct side of the road, I would’ve seen him coming and would have stood a better chance of getting myself out of harm’s way. I no longer cross early, I stick to my side of the road and wait for traffic to clear before I cross. I won’t cross that line, again.

What’s necessary here, is to look out for oneself. Just because there are traffic laws to protect you, and general rules of the road, and common courtesies, does not guarantee your safety. Ultimately, it’s up to you to keep yourself safe and to decide if you are in danger and then react appropriately.

This goes beyond running, cycling, walking or even driving. This, I believe, applies to the world in general. Laws are passed by the hundreds, if not thousands, each and every day. Many are drafted and passed to “protect” us, from ourselves, from others. Supposedly. I’m not so sure. I have my theories on this, but that’s a topic for another day. My point is, unless the laws are 100% enforced, which, of course, is impossible, no matter how genius the law is, it amounts to words on a page and has no real ability to protect you. It is up to you, first and foremost.

This can be translated in any way you choose. If you think owning and knowing how to use a gun to protect yourself is a good idea, then do. If you think studying MMA is a good idea to protect yourself, then do. If you think hiding in your family room, cringing in your recliner, clutching your TV remote will keep you safe, that is your choice, I’ll disagree, with that one, however.

This can also be applied to general rules, laws, if you will, of humanity. People should treat people in a certain manner; with respect, without endangering others, without harming others, physically or emotionally. There is a certain “code of conduct” that elevates us to a higher life form, and much of that has to do with how we treat one another. Sadly, I think we all fail, from time to time, in one area or another. How often do we yell at our kids out of frustration, ridicule our mates for something they say or do, or don’t say or do? How often do we criticize people close to us for their behavior, their beliefs? How often do we label people in our lives, creating and affirming false limits? How frequently do we dislike or distrust people out of fear, or prejudice? How often do we not return a kindly smile or a well-meaning “hello”? How often do we go about our day, ignorant of the people we pass on the street, the people we ignore in our families, the friends we don’t make time to visit with? We are crossing a line. A line of civility, decency, respect, friendship, and love. This line is far more important than any line of reflective white paint on the roadway.

And what about the line we cross when we are unkind to ourselves? When we think or speak negatively about ourselves, create limits for ourselves, denigrate ourselves, underestimate ourselves, neglect ourselves, mistreat ourselves, physically or emotionally? This line is, I think, the most important of all. Having self-respect, self-love, a good self-image, to care for oneself, emotionally and physically is crucial, not just for our happiness, our ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way, but also for those around us who love us, care for us, and perhaps even depend on us. The lines we cross.

Start being mindful of all the lines we cross, on the road, and off, with others, with ourselves. We’ve crossed a line, but there may still be time to swerve back into our lane.

 

Show Me a Man

Show me a man who knows balance in life; a man who works very hard, but knows the value of a enjoying the stillness of morning. A man who can perform any task offered him, however daunting, however physical, however long. A man who cherishes a few moments swinging in the hammock on the porch in the early evening just as the ravens pass overhead on their ritual path. Show me a man skilled in many trades and who can grow a garden where many struggle. Show me a man that knows he could earn far more by working longer hours, days, weeks, months, years, but knows that money won’t buy back the time he spent in toil, and so chooses a simpler, less extravagant lifestyle.

Show me a man with integrity; a man who will quickly admit his mistakes, even if it means less money in his pocket at the end of the day. A man who is honest about his feelings at any moment in time. A man accountable for every thought, action and deed. Show me a man that will do today what he says he will. Show me a man known for his good word because he has always lived up to his word. Show me a man that makes no excuses. Show me a man who looks for the best deal, but only if it is fair and honest.

Show me a man with wealth beyond measure; not a man with a big paycheck, solid portfolio, an important title, pricey real estate, a luxury automobile, for these are not true measures of wealth. The fickle economy, changes in technology, the volatility of the markets, can bring a man with tangible wealth to his knees in a moment. Show me a man with true wealth; a man without debt, a home that is paid for, a man who lives within his means, a man that knows the value of a dollar earned and a dollar saved, a man with a practical outlook on the future, a man that values what he owns, a man that has long standing relationships and a good name in his community, a man that is able to do any job, work hard, and be proud of his work at the end of the day.

Show me a man with compassion; a man who will open his home to those in need. A man who will teach someone disadvantaged the value of earning their keep, of saving a portion of their pay, of developing themselves so that they may become independent. Show me a man who will represent his friend in front of someone who seeks to take advantage of them. Show me a man that will listen to the stories of the old, the ambitions of the young, the concerns of a friend, the tears of a lover.

Show me a man with respect; a man who can live off the land but doesn’t gloat for his conquests. A man who understands the balance of nature and when the balance is being tipped, realizes it is better to have less this year to hopefully have more in the next. Show me a man who maintains a friendship with his high school English teacher. Show me a man who will take an elderly man fishing so his wife won’t worry.

Show me a man who is handsome; a man who doesn’t look like he walked off the cover of a magazine, but a man with a genuine smile. A man who cares for himself, his hair, his skin, his teeth, but not out of vanity. Show me a man with kind, smiling eyes and a playful grin. Show me a man that takes pride in his appearance and even more pride in his character.

Show me a man who is strong; not a man who works out at the gym to create muscles that will rarely, if ever, be used, other than to impress others. Show me a man who is strong enough to work incredibly hard, physically, all day, every day. Show me a man who can swing an ax, who can build a shelter single-handedly, who can fix anything and fix it right, a man who can climb a steep hillside, a man who can hunt for his own food and manage what he has claimed.

Show me a man with patience; a man who develops lasting friendships, a man who meets a woman at the wrong time and waits until it’s the right time. Show me a man who will work, save, then buy. Show me a man who will do with less to enjoy life more. Show me a man who will do without rather than compromise his savings.

Show me a man that knows how to communicate; a man who will be honest about his past, his present and his plans for the future. Show me a man who will patiently tell his lover what he likes, what he doesn’t. Show me a man who will listen before he speaks, and speaks that which is worth listening to. Show me a man who likes a lively debate, but not for the sake of triumph. Show me a man who can express himself without the constant use of explicatives. Show me a man that knows his turn in conversation. Show me a man with a kind, even tone, a man that speaks softly that he will be listened to, not a man that yells to be heard.

Show me a man that is intelligent; not a man with an accumulation of diplomas and degrees hung upon the wall that demonstrate only the completion of some curriculum. Not an intelligence measured by an institution, but an intelligence demonstrated in how he conducts his life. Show me a man that understands life, understands people, understands the world, from paying careful attention, remembering valuable lessons, applying practical wisdom, knowledge and discernment. Show me a man that learns a lesson, remembers it and applies it. Show me a man that can educate himself in anything to accomplish what must be done. Show me a man that knows himself.

Show me a man unlike any other; a man who can, by himself, throw a dinner party for eight, a man who can bake not just bread, but brioche, a man who has a tidy home. Show me a man who puts thought into every task, a man who builds his home so that his bedroom window has a unique view, that he may someday share that view with someone he adores. Show me a man who is able to think of the creation and also build it. Show me a man that doesn’t expect more of people, but inspires them to expect more of themselves.

Show me this man, the rarest of rare, an unexpected treasure, the man of my dreams. My dream come true.