Cool in the Pool?

There’s an article in this month’s issue of Focus, the popular (ie I can understand some of it) science magazine, which says how beneficial it is to be bored from time to time. The experience, so the writer claims, helps you unwind, increases creativity and helps problem solving. I reflected that for once I was reading something commending an aspect of my lifestyle, at least for the two or three hours a week I spend in the pool. Virtually nothing I can think of is as boring as swimming.

I must add, and always do when talking about it, that that boredom is one of its chief attractions. For perhaps three quarters of an hour there’s  nothing to do apart from count lengths. While you’re moving, all other activities are impossible. The digital universe might as well not exist. Starved of input, part of the brain closes down. I find when I emerge that, as well as shedding most aches and pains I might have had at the start, my mind has generally been purged of its anxieties and confusions. In short, the whole exercise is a restorative one; a form of mobile meditation.

This, at least, is what I tell people. Since reading the Focus article I’ve been giving the matter some thought. Am I quite as pure in the pool as I like to think? I also reflected on conversations I’d had with other regular swimmers and things I’d noticed about their behaviour. The reality is a bit less engaging.

I don’t suffer from any form of OCD that I’m aware of: not on dry land, anyway. As soon as I see the water and smell the chlorine, this changes. I have a particular locker and cubicle I prefer to use and if either are already occupied I feel a palpable sense of annoyance. I know others feel the same way because I’ve asked them. I also always start swimming at the shallow end, which is perhaps logical if you don’t like diving, but a few people always do it the other way round. Neither of these amounts to an obsession but they’re slightly worrying deviations from my normal way of behaving.

The next issue is the temperature. I swim often enough to be able to tell this to within half a degree from the moment I get in. Humans are not very adaptable, certainly not this one. Anything south of 27º is too cold, north of 32º too hot. Of the two, colder is better and the swim easier. Whatever the temperature is sets my mood and attitude to the swim. If it’s too warm I’ll swim more slowly. This may be a self-fulfilling prophecy but I seem incapable of breaking out of it. Again, regular swimmers know the score. “What’s the water like?” I once asked Jo, another regular. “Sticky and uphill,’ she said. I knew exactly what she meant – 31º. It was.

Right, so those hurdles are crossed. I’ve got changed and got in the water. What’s the next problem?

I now have to admit to an even more extreme form of my aquatic OCD: I’m almost incapable of swimming a number of lengths that isn’t divisible by eight. This makes some sense as five eights are 40 lengths (a kilometre) and eight eights are 64 lengths (a mile). If I do more than a mile, 72 is a more natural number for me to end on than 70 and 96 is better than 90. I suppose this is like what some people put up with every day, having to stir a cup of coffee a precise number of times in a particular direction or else it’s undrinkable. It’s not a particularly welcome habit but one I seem to be stuck with it.

During my unofficial research for this article I told Jim, another regular swimmer, about my obsession with eights and asked if he thought it odd.

“Well, yes,” he said at last.

“Oh.” Maybe I was bonkers after all.

“You see, I always do multiples of ten.”

Aside from needing to count in eights or tens as the case may be, the real problem has to do with the very boredom that is also so refreshing. If a thought does get stuck in your head it can become very difficult to shake. Because swimming is almost free of normal external stimuli and because you are in a closed little world, anything else taking place in the pool itself assumes a vast and immediate significance. As the only other thing going on is other people swimming, it is on them that your conscious attention focusses. A number of adults swimming up and down, engaging in a healthy pursuit and shedding their own minds and bodies of whatever aches and anxieties they brought into the changing room – everyone is relaxed and free of rage and stress, myself included. Or so you might think.

Not a bit of it. We’re all different but on dry land these variations are usually ignored. In the water, perhaps because we’re all basically doing the same thing, any idiosyncrasies are magnified. Someone swimming in a funny way, or wearing an odd costume, or doing a strange stroke or stopping at odd times – all these things are noticed. Aside from counting, there’s nothing else to do but notice, and notice again two lengths later. It’s only a short step from noticing something regularly to becoming irritated by it, particularly if in even the smallest way it interacts with what you are doing. Our own idiosyncrasies we do not, of course, see as annoying to other people in this way at all – it’s everyone else who’s being weird and difficult, not us.

As there are never more than three lanes, the most common way we interact with each other is when two or more people in the same lane are swimming at different speeds. There’s an unspoken convention of pausing at the end of a length to let someone behind you pass if they’re swimming more quickly than you are. A few people just don’t get this. When I’m the victim  – already my choice of words is becoming adversarial – of this, I’m driven into a condition just slightly short of rage. Only the fact that speech is impossible prevents confrontations. Discreet research amongst other regular swimmers, of both sexes, shows I’m not alone in this reaction.

The other thing about swimming at different speeds is that one sometimes has secret races with other swimmers. A secret race is in a way pathetic, almost child-like: then again, even odder would be to lean across the lane ropes, tap a stranger on the shoulder and say “last one to the far end and back is a sissy.” No, this is a private game. To someone swimming more slowly, I might say to myself “I’ll do three lengths in the time he takes to do two.” For someone who swims more quickly it might be “I’m not going to let the bastard catch me up before the end of the next length.” All this passes the time, gets my heart rate up and is fairly harmless. No problems there. However, I’m slightly alarmed by this secretly competitive streak the activity exposes. Ask any other regular swimmer if they ever do this themselves and most will admit that they do. I don’t know many of them that well – indeed many I find hard to recognise when they have their clothes on – but I suspect that most are not this competitive, nor this secretive, on dry land. We thus seem to be dealing with some hitherto unnoticed side-effect of H2O.

Sometimes these rages or races make me loose track of how many lengths I’ve swum. I have a rigid rule for coping with that, too, always going back to the last number I can definitely remember. In most sessions, I therefore swim more lengths than the ones I’ve counted. If I admit to 80 I might have swum 84, but those extra four didn’t empirically happen and so don’t affect my OCD multiple- of-eight problem. Do you see? It’s only the ones that I count that count. If all this seems slightly bonkers then that’s probably because it  is. Like any good psychopath, I have a cunning and internally consistent logic to explain every aberration.

A certain amount of the time underwater is also spent sneering at the peculiar strokes of some people and marveling at the fluid grace of others. I suspect that my own doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. My legs tend to twist over when I breathe on the right but not when I breathe on the left. I have no idea why. Clearly my frame is distorted in a way that only this activity reveals. It’s not a problem on dry land so I don’t then think about it: but in the pool, sometimes for several lengths in a row, I can think about nothing else.

I suppose it’s to be expected that our minds play tricks with us during long-ish swims. We are, after all, in an alien environment. We see only a few shades of white and blue. We can taste and smell only chlorine, feel only water, hear only the little waves we make rushing past our ears. We’re immersed in a life-giving fluid that will kill us if we breathe it. We’re only partly affected by gravity. Most aspects of day-to-day life have been stripped away. It’s the closest many of us will get to being in outer space. Is it any wonder that our thought processes can become slightly obsessive? It’s as if as soon as we get into the water, and no matter how many times we’ve done it before, an automatic and ancient part of our brain switches itself on and says, “listen up – we’re in a hazardous situation here. One screw-up and we’re toast. I’m in charge. Do what I say or perish!” This isn’t a pleasant synapse but perhaps it keeps us alive. It’s rather like having a bodyguard permanently standing by your shoulder who, at the first sign of trouble, reaches for his gun and starts barking at you to hit the deck.

At least, that’s my story – it’s not me that’s thinking these things, it’s my protector; that or the boredom, playing tricks in my head. Well, no it isn’t, not if I’m being honest. I see now that I’m abundantly capable of these unworthy and obsessive thoughts all the time but that they are particularly unleashed in this watery world. When I get out of the pool, I am neither so shriven nor so pure as I might like to pretend. In fact, I’ve passed some of the time peering and poking at the darker parts of my personality and watching them snap and hiss like vipers. If so, maybe it’s as well that I’ve seen a bit more of the man I really am. After a long swim – which is a good thing – I feel almost impossibly self-righteous. These reflections might make me less so. That is a probably a good thing too.

Brian Quinn
• For further articles, including ‘Cooler in the Pool’, please click here
• For rants and musings set to music, please click here




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