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Original Issue


With the first million laps behind him, the author has a good shot at circumnavigating the globe. Totally awesome!

I swim every day of the year except on one or another holiday when all my pools are closed. This is no longer the end of the world; now it's more like the week before. I tell myself. You've got to put things in perspective. For example, I saw this sign in a Miami Beach hotel: THE OCEAN ISN'T OPEN. (Life's most important lesson, I've learned, is how to be forbearant, or put another way, how to be your own defensive coordinator.)

I belong to two health clubs, two Y's and a pool in a church basement. I used to belong to a third health club, but I let my membership lapse because I felt I might be overdoing it. I own 17 bathing suits, usually draped on doorknobs or over shower rods or fluttering from the railing of my deck. From time to time Tin arrested by the spectacle they present and find myself wondering what it is that I have done. I am the only person I know who sets his alarm clock on vacation: this is so I can do my laps before the kids get in the pool. It also occurs to me that I may be the only person I know. To say that my life centers on swimming adds little to the store of human knowledge. To say that swimming may in fact be my life is to slowly raise the curtain....

When asked whether I believe in God, I say I've never given it any thought. Oh, they say, you're an agnostic. No, I say, an agnostic hasn't made up his mind. With me, it hasn't entered my mind.

I lie. I believe in God, but it's a kind of token immanence—He only presides over swimming pools. I believe that if I tell myself I'm going to swim, say. 100 laps, He overhears me. He also counts. Maybe He goes like this, ||||[Strikethrough] |||| etc., or maybe he's got one of those little clickers. And if I swim, say. 98. I believe He shakes his head in confirmation of His longstanding conviction that I am without character, that I'm just vamping and have, as my father used to point out, no gumption.

Lifetime (mine, not His), He's had to count a million laps, minimum. And he doesn't get overtime. He doesn't even get paid. It's all pro bono. Benies? Does God need managed care, a 401(k)? But look at it this way, it's pretty steady work. How would you like to unload God? Got a nice little package for you, God, if you take early....

God: Don't even try it, sonny. I'll hit you with the age discrimination suit of the....

Me: Ages.

God: You took the word right out of my mouth.

A million laps works out to about 14,200 miles, more than halfway around the world.

Me: You know, God, when I was a kid I didn't set out to circumnavigate the globe, but, hey, if I live long enough, I got a shot at it.

God: Totally awesome!

Expressed temporally, that's like 400 days, about 1.7% of my life—if I didn't sleep. Sleep included, it's 2.56%. What do you think, am I wasting my life? And so conscious am I of the nemesic clicker that only once, out of impatience, boredom, fatigue, whatever, have I fallen short. Key Biscayne, Fla., Nov. 3, 1987, 90 instead of 100. Filled not so much with shame as remorse, I wrote it down.

As a check against overreporting, if I forget what number lap I'm on, I go back to the last one I recall.

God: You're such a good boy.

What helps is it's always odd numbers up, even ones back. Applying this system to life at large...

God: Mr. Analogy.

...while acknowledging that my life may make more sense as a concept than as a shooting script....

Put it this way, while most lives might be said to describe a great, and we are led to believe, consolatory are, mine may best be characterized as consisting of unremitting, numbing back and forths, like a farmer following the plow, except the farmer moves heedlessly sideways while I, trapped in the tyranny of thought, cover no new ground. All this can be reduced to idle speculation as to whether, when I reach the final wall in the interminable workout that I guess has turned out to be my life, I'll be finishing an odd- or even-numbered lap. And what, if anything, that will signify other than a sense of incompleteness if it's odd—but I suppose one might experience that in any case.

Heraclitus said you can't step into the same river twice. I say you can lower yourself into the same pool a thousand times. Pers. obs., as biologists write.

Me: By the way, God, did I ever tell you about the time I shook up the shampoo because I thought it was Italian dressing?

God: More than once.

Garbage yardage, which is what mindlessly swimming laps instead of doing sets is called, gives rise more to this kind of meditation than, say, to cite the example I started out with, pondering the existence of God. The black-line blues is what swimmers call the mood that leads to such rumination, the black lines being those thickly drawn on the bottom of the pool to delineate the lanes, lines that only lead you remorselessly back to where you started.

To dispel the blues, I lay down three tracks as I do my laps. The first is the hum, kind of like the bass line in hip-hop in that it underlies everything else. But you can't swim to Snoop Doggy Dogg—I've tried. Humming is good because you don't use up a lot of energy and you do it with your mouth closed, so you don't drown. Today I was humming Vivaldi's G major violin concerto, FI, No. 173—mainly the hooks—which was in heavy rotation last month. Yesterday it was Cher, Beavis and Butthead's I Got You, Babe. Your pool playlist shouldn't include anything too up-tempo; it's going to mess up your rhythm.

The second track is lap counting, which I've dealt with, and the third is thinking, heavy-duty and otherwise. In fact I composed this piece in. successively, the Four Seasons Hotel pool (Los Angeles), the pool in the basement of St. Bartholomew's Church (New York City), and the Norwalk and Westport (Conn.) Y's.

Me: How about when I was driving my car and panicked because I couldn't find my car keys in my pockets?

God: Truly pathetic.

I have swum in a 50-meter pool, passing over, at the deep end, beneath a 10-meter tower, a man in an old-timey diver's helmet, cleaning the bottom. I have swum in a 12-yard (approx.) pool, 200 furious, wave-tossed laps, forgetfully crashing into the walls at the ends. I have swum in a driving rainstorm. I have swum with snowflakes settling on my back. I have swum in 48° water. I have swum in 90° water. I have swum in a pool while it was being drained, my knees scraping the bottom as I made my final turns. I have swum from darkness into light and from light into darkness.

From light into darkness. As I turn my head to breathe, I see a last, lemony fragment of sky. On the next lap it's gone. The palm trees rising from the beach and above the pool deck betray the dark by being darker. It is still except for my wake, quiet except for the splashes and gurgles that mark my progress, the organic notes of my exhalations underwater. Then, suddenly, always unexpectedly, the pool lights come on and my shadow is flung upon the far wall. I am transmogrified. I am a dancing man. I am emblazoned and I am exalted.

In competition you swim on the lines, in workouts between them. The hitter's my man; interlineation; long, narrow spaces in which to revise your work, your life. I am compulsively scribbling between the lines, but who can read what I write?

The best swimmers have a feel for the water. They reach out and capture it, pull it toward them, mold it, making something that disappears in the act of creation. I am swimming from light into darkness amid murmurs of, I don't know. Freddie Jackson, Bach. Crash Test Dummies and incanted numbers, writing my life story, such as it is; behind me not a trace remains.

I once wrote of a prisoner who wrote a book in the spaces between the lines of a book because it was the only paper he had. Here I will revise an episode (true story) I wrote years ago, so that it has a different, perhaps more edifying, conclusion.

I arrived in Key Biscayne at night and went swimming in the motel pool, which was illuminated by underwater lights at the deep end. A Cuban boy of 10 or 12 was at the shallow end. Although it was my impression that he was getting out while I was getting in, as I returned to the shallow end on my second lap, I saw his dark, slender, headless body before me. I mean, there's no one else in the whole pool except me and him, so of course he has to do a number in my lane. I was going to have to kind of smack him one. Instead of dropping my hand slightly below the diagonal on the point of entry, I rotated it outward. But as I extended my hand, he held out his to mine...

God: Ah! Wasn't that how I gave life to Adam? fingers touched the tiles and I was joined to my writhing shadow.

God: You're such a feeble schmuck, but I forgive you.

Me: Thank you, Lord.

God: Don't mention it, and I appreciate the plugs.