Saturday, February 10, 2018

Swimming Lessons

"As for our bodies, there comes a time when no one wants to come near them." ~ Mr. Perlman speaking one of the saddest line from the lovely film Call Me by Your Name.

I took my youngest daughter to the gym with me one Saturday. She wanted to use the treadmill, but there were actual other human beings in the room, so she just used the bike. She's not confident with the treadmill yet and doesn't want to look stupid. I told her, "Don't be silly; nobody in the room will even notice how you look on it!" But, apparently, I just don't understand.

Well, she's young, right? She'll get over that feeling of being observed and judged.


The very next day, I headed to my first swimming lesson in about forty years. I mean my lesson, not one for my kids.

I used to be a solid swimmer, but, at some point during the years of treading water while watching little children swim around me, I somehow lost my ability to duck my head under. Nothing bad ever happened to me in or near water; I just forgot how to do it. Or maybe I was so worried about going under and losing track of one of my little ones for so long that staying above water became the default. So curious! As much as I once loved deep diving off a raft in the middle of our lake back in the day, I thought I'd go to my grave swimming on the surface. But after kayaking this past summer, this dis-abliity was clearly becoming a barrier to my summer fun and games. There's no kayaking level 1 without getting your head wet.

My doctors keep telling me the best thing for lymphedema and for my back issues is swimming. I really just make up my own ineffective strokes at this point, and last summer I got in a place in a wavy lake that I actually, for the first time in my life, felt like I would have been a gonner had my 13-year-old not pushed me closer to shore. I was just six-weeks post surgery, so there's that. But a refresher was absolutely necessary.

As the first lesson loomed in front of me, I started getting a little anxious.

Making lesson plans when you're sick is the number one worst part of teaching, but a close second is being terrified my swimming instructor would be one of my students. Living near my school means being constantly surrounded by them, at the store, at the theatre, waitressing in my favourite bar.... It's an occupational hazard. I didn't really want to be taught how to swim by someone whose exam I had just finished marking. It's a little awkward. And shouldn't I be proficient at swimming by now?? But, whatever. Suck it up already! We can do this!

I actually dragged a razor over my legs as if a few hairs would be the thing that offends. I didn't shave at all until my mid-40s when suddenly my leg hairs turned black and wiry. But a giant patch of lichen planus on my shin - basically an ever present open sore - and another splotch on my neck for well-meaning people to openly wonder at and comment on over and over, rendered any hairs innocuous by comparison.

And then there's the scoliosis. I have a spiral staircase of a spine, once measured at 26 degrees veering to the right of centre. So, after my messy, shit show of a double mastectomy, this is my good side!

The number of well-meaning who say it's just a muscle imbalance and I have to work out the other side too - Ack! The giant muscles on one side (even better seen with a profile shot) are holding me upright. I need them to be unbalanced to help me balance out as a whole. I had my son take this picture so I could monitor any swelling at the back quadrant affected by my ALND, but my back is so unsymmetrical, it's hard to tell.

And then there's a white mole thingy at the top there that I've had since I was a kid. Just another wondrous curiosity for the gawkers! And what the hell's with that cut in part on the lower left? How does that even make sense?? It looks like if I lean to the right (god forbid), it would open up like a puppet yawning!

I almost let a few tears well up in self-pity before I quickly became abjectly ashamed at my reaction to the first worldiest of first world problems. It's superficial, and I was raised to be concerned with my brain, not the structure and casing that carries it around. I was a mix of anxiety and shame and pure raw courage.

With my hair up and soon wet, not even a good hair day could save me from this. At least in a pool nobody would know if a hot flash suddenly drenched me in sweat! There's always a bright side.

I wrestled myself into a bikini bought last summer: a sports bra and high waisted bottoms taut with "normal" swelling from too many Christmas goodies and my kid's efforts to convince me there's something wrong with taking any measures to maintain my body weight despite how vital it is for controlling lymphedema. I let it go - more or less, and marched onto the pool deck.

Nobody in the room even noticed how I look. Of course they didn't; I've become invisible.

There were six other adults of various shapes and sizes and - hooray! - not a former or current student at the helm. We got in the shallow pool with water waist high. Our instructor told us to dunk our heads five times, and everyone just did it. I waited a moment or two, made sure my earplugs were secure and wished I hadn't forgotten my goggles. Next time I might show up in full head gear with an oxygen tank! Everybody finished and waited for me to go. With them standing there, waiting, and watching me, I just had to do it. And SO IT CAME TO PASS that I put my head under the water! Almost all the way under, even, in the first five minutes! 

By the end of the lesson, I still couldn't get a disc 5 metres away at the bottom of a 4' deep pool--something I once mastered when I was around seven or eight. And I couldn't figure out how to take a breath on a front crawl. At every inhale, I have to stop and tread water a minute and gasp a bit before getting into it again. I asked the instructor how to actually coordinate this swim and breathe thing:

She said, "I swim competitive, so I take a breath every 11 to 15 strokes, but you should breathe ever 2 to 3 strokes."

Yes, but, that's that answer to a different question.

I went just one more time. The following week the instructor began the class telling me about all her friends whom I teach, and that one friend who said, she told me, "You're the only teacher who didn't love her." I replied with my typical rebuttal, "What was her evidence?" and later thought of a plethora of comebacks unbecoming someone of my station. Then she asked me about teaching as a career option. This was all in the shallow pool surrounded by my classmates. She seemed to suddenly remember her audience so went around the circle asking about everyone's jobs. She got me over the hump of going under but didn't seem able to really help answer my further questions, so I called it a day.

Now I go every Sunday to a family swim, buttressed by my children with whom I can more easily ignore the existence of the other patrons, including the lifeguards who are often current and former students watching me flail and gasp my way across the width of the pool. Two visits after the lessons, my kids cajoled me into diving in, which I then did several more times just because I could!

It's funny how we can lose our ability to do the simplest things. I have to re-learn how to drive every summer after 11 months of not driving, but, after an attempt last July, I think driving a stick will just be a thing of my past. Sometimes it's a matter of losing our nerve. I long ago stopped jumping off heights, and I'm cool with never again feeling the thrill of a roller coaster. The adrenaline rush I once loved has become more stressful than exciting over the years. And that's okay.

But why doesn't that worry over how we appear to others, how closely we match an elusive ideal,  dissipate over the decades too, dammit? We have our top of the world days, but they're just as likely to slip into a bottom of the barrel tailspin if a shirt doesn't fit quite right or our hair does something weird. I used to think I had solid body image, but now I think I was just deluded into thinking I matched that ideal closer than photographic evidence might corroborate. It wasn't confidence that allowed me to lounge on crowded beaches barely decent; it was cognitive myopia. We still want to live up to some attainable and socially admirable image of ourselves, and dumpy and incompetent aren't usually part of that vision. I hadn't escaped that cultural construct as successfully as I had imagined.

The trick for me is being seen as incompetent in one area while maintaining authority in another. Is it too easy for a student to ignore constructive feedback on an essay if the criticisms come from a teacher who allows herself to be an absolute spectacle every Sunday morning at the local pool? This all comes back to a call to see everyone we meet as three-dimensional. We generally don't listen to losers, and our films and shows reinforce that decision. We're either attractive and capable or laughable. It's the same reason some people struggle with my favourable review of some of Jordan Peterson's course videos mixed with serious condemnation of some of his ideas. Wha...??  It's so easy to understand things in black or white, and it's so much harder, but so necessary, to see all the gradations.

We have another obvious choice: We can stay on the winner side of the table if we just never let people see our flaws. But that is to accept the false dichotomy, and it merely serves to limit our opportunities to become authentically ourselves. Instead, we need to feel an acknowledgement of our fallible humanity instead of profound disappointed whenever we finally see the warts and all of our idols. People who don't have some element of loser or fuck-up in them just hide it better than the rest of us. Buying into the illusion of perfection is why we end up following shiny nitwits who can make enough of a show of confidence to distract us from the mess of reality.

So perhaps it's not the case that, as we age, there comes a time when no one wants to come near our bodies. Perhaps it just that majority drowning under the illusions of perfection that won't take a chance.

Or just check out this bit of Tig Notaro as she totally owns her body, warts and all:

Swoon. I can't help wishing, just a little, that I looked this good, which misses the whole point of this post!

Works in progress, we are.

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