Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Inside Water

There’s a famous quote from Bruce Lee, martial arts legend, where he said:

Don't get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Water takes the shape of its container.

Tonight I was sitting in the car driving home from our final residential trip to our local storytelling venue with my partner Laura.  Laura and I are about to move to Kansas City – big move.  We’ve both been in the Boston area for more than 20 years and more importantly, we grew up as storytellers here.  We each learned under the tutelage of Brother Blue, famed storyteller and self proclaimed holy fool for story.  And now, because of a job layoff and new exciting job opportunity, we’re moving to Kansas City.  Sitting there in the car we talked about our what we are taking with us from our community – from our nest.

Many saw Brother Blue as a colorful character.  He only wore blue from head to toe.  When performing he wore balloons pinned to his shirt, butterfly pins on his clothing and hat, butterflies hand drawn with sharpie on the palms of his hands and on his face, and a spectacular sash across his chest proclaiming him as a storyteller. And when he opened his mouth, what came out was more than stories.  It was him that came out, it was you, it was the world as he saw it and then as you saw it.  It was magic and holy and crazy and dream-like and sometimes hard to comprehend.  But it was always from someone who lived story, not just told stories.

We each have the power to change the world in some way.  Blue compelled us to tell stories from the middle of the middle of us to the middle of the middle of those who hear our stories.  The storyteller’s job is to give water – give stories that take the shape of the listener – every listener.  The world is a thirsty place for more than what can fit in a cup.  We need to give them life.

And as Laura and I travel to a new home 1500 miles away, we know we take water with us.  We will bring our stories.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Glide Faith

It happened again.  And I love it every time it happens.  That moment when I’m working with a student and they “get it.”  They have that sudden realization that they’ve just achieved something they never thought they could do in the water.  That moment when, after trying again and again, something clicks due to some image I gave them, some phrase, some change in the cosmic vibrations of the pool – and they get it, what ever it is.  And when they get it, they just grin.  Not a small grin, but one of those big ear to ear grins that would turn them tomato red if they could see their own face.  But fortunately they can’t and continue enjoying the moment.

I was working with a new student in her 20’s who had never taken formal swimming lessons.  Before our first lesson when we were sitting and talking, she told me her goals were to pass a necessary swimming test for boating, generally be more comfortable in the water and perhaps, in a couple years, do a triathlon.  She was already a runner, but she needed to learn how to swim.  And to that I said great, let’s get started.  In my mind I said, THANK YOU FOR NOT REGISTERING FOR A TRIATHLON NEXT MONTH.  I know that for some people setting such a deadline is just the motivation they thrive on.  But where’s the joy in pre-registering for a plan to almost drown or worse, being successful at it?

Once we got in the water, for someone who never took a swim lesson, she sailed through the rudimentary stuff.  Back float, front float, flutter kick on the wall and flutter kick with a board.  I had to work a little to calm her, get her smiling, get her laughing.  I had to help her understand that if she tenses her neck, her legs will sink.  Which is counter intuitive, since the legs are about a body length away from the neck, yet this is true for many people.  She pushed off the wall and did front glide well enough after a couple attempts, no problem.  Then back glide.  Problem.

The glide is an act of faith.  To do the front glide, you have to push off the wall with your legs, but it’s best to put your face in the water first with your arms outstretched in front of you.  You have to push off the safety of the wall assuming a position that leaves you unable to see where you’re going, since you should be looking directly down at the bottom of the pool, body shaped like a missile.  Plus all the investment is made up front.  Once you push off, you’re supposed to be still and sleek, slipping through the water and staying up with no additional propulsion from hands or feet.  You gotta invest everything up front and enjoy the ride.

But the back glide is an even greater act of faith.  Still all the energy investment is up front – you pay at the door.  But one must fight instinct.  Because everything that’s instinctive for adults to do and not do destroys the back glide.

First you push off from the wall as if you’re jumping up off the floor – but horizontally.  It’s instinctive to keep your feet flat, as if in preparation for that eventual landing back on the ground.  But the back glide rewards toe pointing – streamlining the body to make better use of the energy paid up front.  One leaps from the wall to fly, not land.  Have faith.

The next instinctive thing is to look where you’ve been – to lift your head, putting chin to chest so you can see down towards your feet.  But then that neck/leg connection comes into effect, the legs sink, feet hit the bottom of the pool and the glider stands up.  Instead one must relax and gaze skyward.  It’s the ceiling or stars that hold the secret.  Look up and have faith that the water holds no malice.  Don’t encourage it to drop you and it knows no better than to support you.
Little children listen to swimming instructors with complete faith.  And when you think about it, it’s amazing!  “Point your toes after you push off.”  And they do it.   “Head back – relax.”  And they do that too.  They soar on their back on request.  They’re like little water faith machines, unable to conceive of falsehood, while many adults have to work to revive that child inside.  My job is to help someone learn to soar that first time, so they never have to touch down again.  To fly.

I may not have looked like a tomato, but when my student finally flew, I grinned from ear to ear.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Mexico City

At the time I’m writing this in June/July of 2012, every muscle of my middle aged body is aware that this is an Olympic year.  Which means that if the TV network that airs the Olympics in the US doesn’t screw it up like in previous years, I will be transfixed and transported in front of the TV again, just as I was when I was a kid.  To me nothing compares to the Olympics.  There is no other sporting event, no post season madness, bowl game, or cup final that compares to the romance, heart and drive the Summer Olympics have for me.  It’s where I learned things that school would never teach me.  Sitting in front of my black and white TV as a 10 year old in 1968, I was there.  The glow of the cathode ray tube may have been in South Philadelphia, but in ‘68 my soul was in Mexico City.

I lived with my mother and maternal grandparents.  My older sister lived there too, but by that time she was either off at college or working somewhere.  And since my mother worked two jobs to support us all, I watched all TV, including the ’68 Olympics, either by myself or with my grandfather, a former boxer.  Whenever boxing was on, Olympics or not, and especially when there were black boxers fighting, like the then 19 year old George Foreman who won the gold medal that year fighting a Russian, my grandpop watched.  And during the middle of that James Bond / Man From U.N.C.L.E., cold war era of ‘68, as George stood tall, my grandpop cheered, even though he could barely see the bouts.  My grandpop was then blind in one eye and had bad sight in the other, so he watched our TV with his face inches from the screen.  And still he couldn’t see clearly.  Watching boxing with grandpop sounded something like this:
   “Hey, is he black?”
   “Yes grandpop, he’s black.”
   “And what about that guy?”
   “No he’s from Poland – not black.”
   “Are you sure?  Play with that knob on the side again.”
   “I can play with the contrast knob all day grandpop, but the Polish guy is not black.”

Even though my Mexico City Olympic experience was seen from an acute angle in order to see around my grandpop, whose forehead kissed the screen, I was still transported.

Jim Hines winning the 100m dash.
To this day three images from that time stand out for me.  Images that have been circulating in my mind since before puberty and will hang with me until the day I stop competing in this sprint called life.  The first image is that of black men flying across our TV.  Now I loved to run when I was small and I knew I was fast.  But what I saw in ’68 were men my color, who went to college, flying around a track.  I saw them muscling around curves and down straight-aways, not as if they were getting away with something, but like they owned the track.  Go to college, run track, be the best in the world.  Oh ok. That’s the sequence?  Got it.  My ten year old mind had a model to follow – go to college, compete, be the best.  OK.

And that other guy?  Australian Peter Norman won
silver and on the podium wore the badge for the
Olympic Project for Human Rights.  He was left
off the 1972 Australian team.
The second image is fists in the air. Tommy Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze in the men’s 200m dash, made their awards ceremony a salute to the struggles of kids like me and a protest visible enough to wake up the world.  The ’68 Olympics were the first real televised Olympics for Americans.  Just south of the border, we didn’t have the time zone issues of Rome or Tokyo in ’60 and ’64. It was a live televised event.  So the live black power salute during the national anthem also served as a wakeup call to Americans who wanted to believe that trouble makers like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could be contained within our borders, and were never - never in a position to represent our flag like Smith and Carlos.  It was a lesson in how national policies of ignorance, like racism, represent our country just as much as national athletic pride.  Smith and Carols were champions who wanted everyone to know something about the competition they faced off the track everyday.  And at 10 years old I learned that sometimes to be the best, you have to stand up, even if no one else is standing.

The third image is of the water, in an event that according to online records, never actually took place at the ’68 Olympics.  Yet I have this memory and it is vivid.  Perhaps what I’m remembering is something from the very popular ABC Wide World of Sports, since ABC was the network that aired the Olympics in the US that year.  Perhaps when I was home from summer camp and watching ABC in preparation for the Olympics, which actually took place in October, ABC featured a sport I had never seen before.  What I remember is men standing tall and powerful on the craggy peak of a cliff, high above the water. [Image: cliff diver] The backdrop behind them was more cliffs and the expanse of the ocean.  Below them were waves waxing and waning, as each man chose his moment to gracefully leap, the camera following them all the way down to a tiny splash, just feet away from the rocks below.  I had never seen cliff diving before.  It was hypnotic.  The divers would just stand there for who knows how long, waiting for the water, that appeared to be about a mile below them, to be just right.  How could they even see it?  These guys – and they were all guys, who on our black and white TV all looked like they had that George Hamilton 60’s TV California tan, though I’m likely remembering the Mexican athletes – these guys stood on cliffs!  First off, I didn’t even understand how they got up there.  It’s like an Olympic event to haul their ass up to top of a death defying piece of rock.  But then to stand there like a Rio de Janeiro Jesus and jump – and make it beautiful!?

This was a relationship with water that I knew nothing about.  That one could be on the highest part of the earth, essentially be a part of the sky, and fling themselves elegantly into the waiting arms of the water below.  I know that I could never judge such a competition.  It would be like grading prayer.  How does one measure individual skill, wrapped so tightly in faith, belief and the wisdom of knowing how to navigate so quickly through the worlds of earth, sky and water.  “You get the gold, you get the silver, and you the bronze.”  Yeah, whatever.  At 10 years old in 1968 I learned that success sometimes means taking a leap, falling with grace, and even with a tiny splash, celebrating life.

Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK 2012

Today we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martian Luther King Jr.  I write this post sitting in a café, surrounded by people.  Fifty years ago it still would have been possible for me, an African American, to sit and sip coffee with others who don’t look like me, in this restaurant chain in Boston, but it would have been noticed.  I would have stood out. I would have had to pick the café with care, as some neighborhoods felt the need to keep obvious outsiders from being comfortable in their tiny corner of the metropolis.  And while perhaps I could do this in Boston, south of the Mason-Dixon line, my choices of establishment would be very limited, even given the same restaurant chain.  Choosing carefully would have meant choosing life. But today I am surrounded by blondes, brunettes, dark skin, light skin, people whose parents came from other countries, and people who probably speak another language at home.  As I stood in line behind a police officer, a white man perhaps a decade younger and a number of inches shorter than I am, I was aware of just how much the world has changed and yet how subtle that change is.  The officer completely ignored me.  I posed no innate threat to him or this establishment.  I was just another citizen.  

Photo by John Chuckman - http://chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com
When Dr. King was alive, I did not have the privilege of just being another citizen, not even in the northern U.S. In a previous post I told the story of clearing the pool, when ignorant people made a choice in the 1960’s that was to my family’s benefit.  If any of you come from families that have made similar choices in the past, I say thank you on behalf of my family, though I hope you have gained some love and understanding over the years.  Because you are reading this blog, I’m guessing you have.

Last week my partner alerted me to a CNN article about a 31 year-old Ohio landlord who put a “Whites Only” sign on the fence surrounding her pool after seeing the biracial daughter of a white tenant swimming. This didn’t happen in 1961, but in 2011.  The landlord is not 81, but 31. And it didn’t happen below the Mason-Dixon line, it happened in Ohio, though in 2011 that should no longer be relevant.  Still, it happened.  It happened because the US is scarred by its racist past in ways that remain invisible until poked and exposed, hidden and yet too numerous to count.

Part of what my mother did as she taught swimming at the Center City Philadelphia YWCA in the 1960’s and 70’s was to help make Dr.’s King’s dream a reality.  When little black boys and black girls joined little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers in my mother’s pool, the dream was real.  Under her watchful eye she gave them the gift of life, a survival skill that they would never forget.  And this gift came from a black woman at a time when black women where all too often invisible or disempowered by white society.  Who knows what these children heard at home, but in her pool the dream was alive and it had a face.
We can not change everyone’s mind and we can not all be a Dr. King.  But in what we do everyday, in who we are everyday, we can stretch, we can reach, we can spread our arms wide and embrace a beautiful diverse world.  And in that embrace we can truly be free at last.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Lessons From Teaching Swimming

The best way to learn something is to teach it.  As a part-time swimming instructor, I know how to swim, but in teaching swimming there are certain principles that I must relearn for life out of the water.  Principles that make me a better person.
1. Prioritize breathing. A woman I was teaching once would swim a few strokes, then stand up – swim a few more strokes, then stand up again.  Each time she stood she’d be panting and wiping the water from her face even before her feet touched the bottom of the shallow pool.  My first assumption was that she tired easily.  But when I talked with her, I found that she was actually out of breath.  During those few precious strokes before standing, I saw her breath, but she wasn’t getting enough air with each breath she took.  Keeping her brief swimming rhythm was more important to her than breathing.  I told her that it’s more important to breath than it is to stroke.  I told her that eventually she will be able to do both well, but for now, she should prioritize breathing.  If she needed more time to breath, she should take the time, even if it meant her rhythm was uneven. Take the time.  When she did, she swam longer.

Every day I sit in front of my computer screen and bang my way through email.  Sometimes I skim through and deal with the more important items first.  But I easily get a sense of urgency and just jump in and slash away – first come first served.  Invariably I get myself bogged down in one task or another, one email request or another, one remote emergency or another.  I stop thinking and just go.  And when I do that, I forget to breath.  I stand up and cease effective work, complain about fatigue, and all too often avail myself of any number of distractions on my screen.  But if I remember to breath through my tasks, breath through my email strokes, breath through my day, I won’t have to stop nearly as often.
2. There’s no rush.  Another woman I was teaching was performing swimming strokes as if she was being chased – a little frantic and clearly faster than was comfortable.  Then when she stopped at the other end of the pool, she would gasp for air.  Some people think that if they don’t swim as fast as they can, they’ll sink.  But swimming isn’t a race, it’s a dance.  You flow through the dance with the water.  And when you flow nice and easy, the water will support you.  It’ll hold you up and keep you going with little effort.  You can swim fast or you can swim long, but you can’t swim fast for long.*  Let the water support you.

When I was a young parent, I worked all the time – at my job, at home with family duties, at home with take-home work, then as a parent in grad school, plus grad school homework.  I can’t keep that frantic pace anymore.  But I know that there’s a balance to find in my life now where I can be more efficient and effective with less overall effort, relying a little more on experience.  No doubt hard work is important.  But it’s also important to understand that one can work hard or long, but no one can work hard for long.  Unless you’re being chased, don’t rush through life.
3. No drowning.  On the first day of a series of private lessons with a 6 year old who loved being in the water, I found that he especially liked swimming under water.  I know this because he showed me at every possible opportunity.  This was fine, but there were a few surface skills that he needed to master first in order to move up to the next swimming level.  One of those skills was treading water.  The problem was that this kid’s little legs and hands where not yet efficient at keeping his body up and head above water.  Which for him was fine, since he was comfortable just sinking under water.  But what his instructor saw when he attempted to tread was the waterline start at his neck, then rise to his chin, then move up to the back of his ears.  Standing in 4 and a half feet of water, I was able to calmly reach out to him, grab him under his arm and guide him over to the wall.  “First rule in my class,” I said, “is no drowning.”  His puppy dog eyes looked up at me.  “OK” he said.  

I am now the parent of adults who are all out on their own.  I have no pets I have to walk, feed or groom.  While I value my day job, it’s not one that has me developing products or services that are vital to life.  There is in fact no other place in my life where I get to say, no drowning and actively mean it.  My day job pays the bills, but teaching swimming teaches me that I can still make a difference. 

* Adapted from a common saying of cycling trainer Bobby Mac of Quad Cycles
** All images taken from the American Red Cross "Swimming and Water Safety" manual.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Size Matters

Size may not matter for a great many things, but it matters for pools. 
I grew up swimming in 25 yard pools.  My YWCA pool as kid was 25 yards.  My high school pool was 25 yards.  Most lap pools are 25 yards. That’s just standard.  OK, so maybe there’s a shallow and deep end or not.  Or maybe there are only 3 lanes, or 4, or 5.  But for me the standard length is 25 yards.  Even if it’s 25 meters, that’s still only an extra 6 feet and change. No biggie. I like 25 yards.
I went to a YMCA day camp for a couple summers that had a pool that was probably smaller than 25 yards.  The walls of the pool room were mostly a dingy yellow tile with black trim.  I’m not sure if the tile started out dingy yellow.  Who would choose that color?  I only hope that the walls evenly faded over the years of camp kids and swim lessons to finally take on the color of a depressed canary. This of course made the pool room dark, with eerie watery reflections on the ceiling, like in a bad slasher movie where the next victim is, for some unknown reason, swimming alone.  But I don’t want to misrepresent the Y – it’s not like there was a bare 60 watt bulb swinging over the diving board.  But no amount of artificial light could have overcome that depressed canary color.  So when we camp kids were in the pool, we had to play hard to make the room seem brighter.  The sounds of our voices and splashes played against the walls and ceiling.  The pool room was lit by our voices and imaginations, as we dove and burst up from our 10 foot vertical playroom with pool rings.
Size does matter.  Since those many decades ago of summer camp, I’ve found a number of 20 yard “lap pools,” but they’re not real pools to me.  Five strokes and I’m looking for the wall.  But I don’t want to seem like a snob.  Many people don’t care and that’s fine.  If you walk back and forth from one end to the other, it doesn’t matter how long the pool is.  If you like to float on your back and kick or if you’re just learning to swim, then what does size matter.  If the only reason you use the pool is to cool off after sitting in the hot tub at the gym, size doesn’t matter.  Otherwise, it matters a lot.
The University of Pennsylvania was my first 50 yard pool.  It was enormous!  I got to use it just once a year at the Philadelphia all-city swim meets, for the two years I competed in high school.  I swam the 100 yard freestyle, but I trained and competed all season in 25 yard pools. Come spring during the big city meet in that 50 yard pool, it felt like 100 yards was swimming over to Jersey and back.  Since I only had one wall to bounce off, I couldn’t judge the competition.  Am I winning my heat?  I don’t know.  I’m in open water.  Is that a tug boat?  The sound during those meets was deafening.  Hundreds of teenage teammates and parents filled the stands, screaming encouragement at their favorite competitors who were for one, busy, and two, had their heads in water.  The space was loud, but the swimmers couldn’t hear a thing.
The MIT pool is also big.  It’s somewhere between 50 yards and 5 miles long.  I should say it’s the “new” MIT pool.  The older Alumni pool is a fancier version of the old dingy Y pools, but with bleachers and only a slightly better paint job.  The pool in the newer athletic facility gets some natural light and is the size of an entire zip code.  This was the pool we used for WSI class.   The first day of class the instructor said, “To warm up, everybody swim to the other end of the pool and back, any stroke you want.  I want to see how you swim.”  OK, what time do you want us back? I have dinner plans.
The only people who swim in 50 yard pools are adults swimming laps and teenagers, who are either doing competition training or life guard classes.  Which means that when there isn’t an all-city competition, 50 yard pools sound different than 25 yard pools.  Sure the walls are further apart, so sound reflection is less severe, but otherwise 50 yard pools are in huge bright rooms with petite well trained splashes.  There’s no yelling or screaming; no diving and coming up with pool toys; no audio color.  People are there to just put one arm in front of the other.  So 50 yard pools lack some character.  I wonder how many rich guys have 50 yard pools.  If for no other reason than so women can see them and think to themselves, “Wow, that’s a big pool.  I wonder what he’s compensating for?”
Then there are hotels.  In the movie Up In The Air, George Clooney’s character is seen swimming laps in a 25 yard hotel lap pool. Where the hell is that hotel?  It doesn’t matter – I couldn’t afford it if I knew.  I’ve never seen a hotel with a 25 yard lap pool.  The hotel chains I stay in hire architects on crack.  The pools are weird rounded shapes vaguely resembling a kidney or an amoeba.  You have to be on crack to look to microbiology for shape inspiration for a pool. Or maybe it’s some concrete contractor having fun after smoking a lot of pot.  
“Dude, if you cover one eye, the pool kinda looks like a turd, doesn’t it?  So Cool!  So I thought we’d dot the turd with a little round hot tub next to it.  I mean come on – what do people expect for 75 bucks a night, right?”
When I wanted to improve my strokes before WSI training, I found the site for Total Immersion Swimming.  Their videos are great, but they demonstrate some of their strokes using an Endless Pool.   An endless pool is basically an overblown bathtub with a current.  Swim against the current and you never reach the end of the tub. Like magic, a pool where size can’t matter.  Yeah well, as my mother used to tell me, “Save all your pennies and one day…” But she would never finish that sentence.  One day I’ll be able to afford my own pool, which will be the right size and which I hope to use endlessly.  And it will have pool toys – for color.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Tub View

I don’t own a home, but I’m a proud renter. The whole American Dream home ownership thing has never been a strong draw in my life.  Plus given the economy, I’m ok with not having scary mortgage issues.

But one of the down sides for not owning my own home is that I can’t own a hot tub.  I love hot tubs.  I fell in love with them almost 30 years ago when I moved to California and it’s been a torrid bubbly love affair ever since, no matter where I’ve lived or traveled.  If you are my friend and you own a hot tub, know that we are not friends just so I can crash your jacuzzi every once in a while, but it doesn’t hurt.

As a member of Bally’s Total Fitness,  I was greatly dismayed when they closed some clubs a year ago to help their bottom line.  They closed the one near where I work, which made dealing with daily traffic, cubicles and hours under florescent light far less appealing.  That club had a 25 yard pool (which unfortunately is rare) and a huge hot tub.  And the culture of that gym was geared more toward weight lifting, so there weren’t a lot of swimmers – score!  Now I’m down to just one club in my area with a full size pool for lap swimming… and hot tub.

Since I completed WSI last Christmas, hot tubs at Bally’s have not been the same.  Before, I sat in there to warm up before starting my laps.  This year due to either laziness or fatigue (or both), I’ve been soaking up those hot jets for longer and longer every time I get in.  Sometimes I won’t even do any laps, but just close my eyes and do the rotisserie thing – lie on my back for a while, then roll over to my front with my head in my folded arms, then repeat every few minutes.  Oh yeah.  This is water done right!

Once relaxed, I’ll poke my head up, feeling better, but not wanting to get out.  Instead I’ll just watch other people swim.  And here’s where my life has been changed forever.  It used to be that I didn’t care how other people swam.  I just cared that they got out of the pool so I could have the lane, thank you very much.  But now I watch and I analyze.  What are they doing?

  • She’s either afraid to put her face in the water or her hair in the water.  I wonder if anyone's ever worked with her on that?
  • Oh I see his problem.  He doesn’t think the water can support him, so he’s thrashing his arms from one end of the pool to the other.  It's so exhausting that he has to rest for minutes at each end.  
  • You know, her stroke would be so much better if she stretched her arms and glided like a swan. What’s the rush?  I could teach her how to do that. 
  • Hey muscle man, stop boxing with the water!  This isn't Taekwondo.

Of course, I never say these things out loud, but I want to.  I want to walk over and say, “Dude, let me help.  I can help.”  But that’s hard.  Most men would tell me to butt out.  Plus the dumbest thing in the world to do is make a guy uncomfortable who works out regularly and with whom you share a locker room.  And with a woman, how do you not make it sound like a bad pickup line?  What they’d hear is, “Hey baby, let me show you how to stroke.”

So until I get a swimming instructor job, I’ll just keep my mouth shut, my body in hot water and my thoughts on swimming.  But hey, if you know of a part-time swim instructor job opening, I live in the Boston North Shore area.  And I won’t even insist that the pool have a hot tub.  But it wouldn’t hurt.