Once, we met on Mercer Street, and I startled him when I said hello. “I didn’t recognize you in your clothes,” he said. I rather liked that Playwright Dan only saw me in my swimsuit, but I was hurt when I learned that he didn’t think I was a very good swimmer. After watching me swim, he asked what kind of exercise I did. Just swimming, I told him. Couldn’t he see that? I’d taught myself to breathe on alternate sides, and I’d built up my stamina so that I could swim 40 lengths—twice what I could do in college. But I’d never been on a team, and no one had helped me with technique. Dan helped me improve my freestyle stroke, taught me to practice with a pull buoy, and finally, got me to try doing flip turns. But it was quite some time before I actually mastered them.
Watch Michael Phelps approach the wall with a strong stroke, somersault in a tight tuck, push off and glide forward with hands together like the prow of a ship. Competitive swimmers often do a couple of dolphin kicks before they surface and resume freestyle kicking. The turn happens quickly, and good swimmers take advantage of the push off the wall to glide a long way. Seen from above, a flip turn happens with a minimum of fuss: the feet barely come out the water and there’s just a discreet splash.
It’s pleasing to watch, and it feels even better to do. Maybe it’s the brief exhilaration of being upside down (people who practice yoga know the appeal of this), or the sweet challenge involved in the timing of the somersault, the pull of the hands, the kick, and the exhale (if you don’t blow out, you’ll get that nasty stinging sensation of pool water up your nose). I admit that when you only swim with other recreational swimmers—not on a team or in a master’s club—there’s satisfaction in showing off this skill. I particularly loved doing flip-turns in Germany, where I felt physically inferior in other ways, scrawny and short. Every time I executed a perfect flip turn and glided past the slow-moving German breast-strokers, I thought: hah!
Though I’m not as strong as most masters club swimmers, I am dedicated: 3-5 times a week since the mid-eighties. It’s a physical and mental necessity: a way of staying fit, but also of staving off depression. Almost every morning, I feel the symptoms: constriction in the throat, pressure behind the eyes, tug in the chest—incipient despair. I don’t want to do anything, especially anything that requires being visible to other humans. Then I get in the pool, and despair recedes; I go on with my day. More than a few days without swimming, and you don’t want to be around me. My husband knows this, so when we travel, he makes a point of booking a room in a hotel with a pool. As long as there is a pool, I’m happy.
Last May, my husband and I were in Montreal, visiting friends. I was up early to swim in the hotel pool. Hotel pools are not built for lap swimming, and sometimes they are kidney-shaped or so tiny that you can only swim three strokes. Nevertheless, they’re better than nothing. This hotel pool in Montreal was big enough, but it had its own peculiarity. One side had normal walls, but the other side had walls that were steeply angled. As I approached the wall to flip, I got confused—it was impossible to tell how close I was, and I wound up flipping too soon or too late. Soon, I gave up flipping on that side of the pool, and just turned the old-fashioned way: stop, touch the wall, and push off in the opposite direction. Slow and frustrating. When I got out of that pool, I shook my head and looked forward to being in my own lap pool again.
But the next time I was in my own pool again, it was as if the walls had angled inward. As I approached the wall to flip, a slight charge of fear went through me. Instead of tucking neatly to turn, I ducked as though to protect my skull from hitting the wall; instead of finding the wall to push off, my feet flailed in the water. I stood up, sputtering. I recovered myself, laughed, and continued swimming. But it happened again: the wall loomed, I felt a flash of fear, ducked too early, and my feet didn’t find the wall. I stood up again, bewildered. This time, I didn’t laugh, but I kept swimming.
Over the next few weeks, I ordered an instructional DVD about doing flip turns so I could coach myself through them. While I used to let my mind drift to all manner of things, now I had to stay focused on the next turn. I understood that I was turning too early, so I told myself (remembering the video): arm’s length distance. Come close to the wall, I told myself. But I couldn’t do it. Each time the wall loomed, a tiny panic prevented me from coming close enough. I wasn’t sure which was worse: failing at the flip turn or giving up and turning without it. I worried that the life-guards were laughing at me. What was once an instrument of sanity became an instrument of despair.
It just so happened that this flip-out happened right around my forty-fifth birthday, which made me wonder: Is this my middle-aged body saying, sorry dude, not anymore? How is it possible to do something automatically for fifteen years, and then suddenly not be able to do it anymore? I must have done thousands of flip-turns. What would be next? Was I going to forget how to walk? How to read? Was my brain deteriorating?
This was not my first lesson in unlearning (I get one whenever I try to speak German), but it’s been the sharpest.
It doesn’t seem to help, knowing that unlearning is involuntary. Maybe that makes it even more humiliating. Struggling against the loss may just mean frustration (pain but no gain), if the body or mind simply refuses to re-learn what it’s unlearned. Is this the beginning of losing myself? In middle age, you brace yourself for more unlearning. “I’m going to give myself Alzheimer’s,” my husband mutters whenever he randomly substitutes one word for another. It’s somewhere between a joke and hex, warding off the most terrifying possibility.
My mother met Saul Blum ten years after my father’s death, and their relationship has given her things she never had with my dad, mainly tenderness. Also, pleasures that didn’t interest my father: theater, movies, restaurants. I have rarely seen him in the ten years that they have been together, though: he’s reclusive and avoids family gatherings. Perhaps for this reason, we tend to refer to him formally, using his full name: “Saul Blum.” Everything I know about his unlearning comes second-hand, through my mother.
One afternoon, coming back from a date with my mother, Saul Blum fell backwards onto the sidewalk, hitting his head. (Later, doctors said the fall was related to undiagnosed Parkinson’s.) He was taken to the hospital, suffering from inter-cranial bleeding. Although he remained conscious, he was weak and unable to eat because he couldn’t swallow properly. In the days after the fall, doctors considered inserted a feeding tube, but complications prevented it. My mother was distraught, and spent all her waking hours at the hospital. But somehow she missed the conversation when Saul told his doctor that he didn’t want to undergo physical therapy. He didn’t want rehabilitation.
He had unlearned how to eat and how to walk, but he didn’t want to relearn.
My mother returned to the hospital the next day to find that Saul was being transferred to a nursing home, under hospice care. Since he had refused it, there would be no attempt to help him gain strength, just palliative care. He couldn’t eat, and in hospice, he would receive only intravenous fluids. How long can you live without eating, I wondered? A long time, it turns out. I called my mother frequently to find out how they were both doing. “He likes to suck on ice cubes,” she reported.
My mother felt shocked and betrayed—how could he have made this decision without her? As my mother saw the situation, it was a choice: not inevitable decline, but a choice to give in to depression. He could have re-learned, but he didn’t want to. She believed he might have recovered enough to come to home and resume their lives together—to once more enjoy books and movies and restaurants with her. With the strength of this belief, she pulled him back from the edge, little by little.
One day, she said, “He drank a little soda.” And a few days after that, he wanted a coffee from McDonald’s. I thought it was rather poignant that perhaps one of his last wishes was a coffee from McDonald’s. Then, a week or so later, my mother laughed as she reported: “He wanted an Egg McMuffin.”
I stopped calling so frequently.
At first, after Saul took up residence in the House of Unlearning, my mother dutifully spent every day there, feeding him ice cubes, then ice cream, then Egg McMuffins. When I went to visit her, a month or so after his fall, she giggled, “Saul gave me the day off.” Surprisingly, she no longer felt so tied to him, and—to her credit, I think—was frustrated by his refusal to relearn to walk or care for himself. He didn’t read or pursue friendships (but then again, he didn’t seem to have friends before). He still looked forward to my mother’s visits on some days—on others, not. Then she had “the day off.”
Saul wanted to die, it seems—to unlearn existence. But it didn’t work, perhaps because my mother wouldn’t allow it. And now, he was stuck in a kind of limbo between life and death, a state I dread more than death itself. My mother pulled him back from death, but he remained stubbornly in a state of complete dependency, a willful absence of will.
You need something—swimming, for example—that sustains the desire to live. What if, flip turn or no flip turn, I couldn’t swim at all? There would be no way to slip free of the constricting fingers of sadness, closing around my neck in the morning. No way to go on with my day. At 45, I had the will to keep swimming, which is, for me, exactly equivalent to the will to keep living in the world. What would have been the equivalent for Saul?
I was fed up with swimming as a daily humiliation, so I signed up for lessons. The six-week course was called “Stroke Improvement for Triathletes,” which I proudly announced to my husband: “for triathletes!” Privately, though, I was terrified, and pictured myself sputtering along in the wake of six gigantic, muscle-bound guys. Ironmen. (I’m barely five feet tall.) Anticipating this, I promised myself: I’ll just take the teacher aside and tell him, I don’t need to go that fast. I just need to relearn the flip turn. Even if I was the weakest and slowest of the lot, I was determined not to feel bad—I would just regain my flip turn and withstand the rest.
It turned out that there was only one other person in the class, Wayne, and we immediately fell to chatting while we waited on the bleachers for the class to begin. Wayne was a triathlete, muscular but not at all gigantic. In fact, rather small, like me, and a super-articulate Princeton graduate who worked in finance. Not the taciturn, towering fellow I had imagined. Swimming, he said, was his weak point in triathalon, and he had already taken some private lessons with our teacher, Lloyd. Lloyd asked me to swim a couple of normal laps so he could do a diagnosis. Afterwards, he asked me: “What do you think you’re doing wrong?” “Turning too soon,” I said. “That’s right. You could take at least two more strokes before turning.” And that was the last we said about flip turns until the fifth week of class.
In the first weeks, I wasn’t allowed to swim. I wasn’t even allowed to use my arms. (The system of training is called “Total Immersion.”) We began with a drill called “back balance,” with your arms folded in your lap. No arms, but a gentle kick sends you from one side of the pool to the other. Your body is shaped like ship, streamlined, gliding through the water as smoothly as possible. In the next drill, you extend one arm above your head, and—still on your back—kick easily back and forth. This drill was called “lengthen vessel.” At the beginning, I was not allowed to use what Lloyd called “my power”: the strength of my arms and legs to propel myself through the water. I was to pay attention, instead, to balance—how it felt to just float and move slowly. The idea was to start from scratch, to lose your bad swimming habits by rebuilding your stroke from the ground up. No flip turns involved.
I loved the peculiar name “lengthen vessel,” and I loved the drill, too. During the initial weeks of practicing drills, I thought: if I never swim again, I’ll be absolutely contented. I could just keep doing drills, forever. In daily practice, I shifted from the fast lane to the slow lane, which I shared with a pair of charming elderly ladies. I’d given myself permission to know nothing again, as if I’d fallen and was relearning to walk. Somehow, it was thrilling to be an absolute beginner again; instead of feeling humiliated, I felt gleeful. I even wished I could do the same thing with teaching or writing—forget everything I knew, and start again. Is this what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”? I couldn’t do flip turns, but for the moment, I didn’t care.
Somewhere around the third or fourth week, I was allowed to swim again—but not in the old way. Not just doggedly counting laps, but with a meditative awareness of how my body was balanced in the water, how my hands sliced the water in front of me, making a kind of tunnel to swim through. Instead of focusing on the turn at each end—or on the ugly failure to turn—I was now concentrating on being in the water, on swimming. While practicing, I did my best to stay focused on the stroke, but I felt a kind of sinister delight when I discovered one week in class: I was swimming faster than Wayne. Hah! He graciously complimented me on my “high elbows,” and Lloyd, who was not big on praise, gave a low whistle after watching me swim a fast lap.
In the fifth week of class, it was Wayne who asked if we could learn to do flip turns; he’d never done one before. Lloyd shook his head—he couldn’t teach us because he couldn’t do one himself. He was an open-water distance swimmer, who had no use for a fast turn. But he promised to ask a colleague to teach us the following week.
The sixth week arrived, and we conferred with Lloyd about how to refine our technique. We practiced “stroke reduction”: first counting the number of strokes in each lap, and then reducing it by gliding longer with each stroke. By the end of the last hour, I was freezing and exhausted, but Lloyd’s colleague—the one who was supposed to coach us on the flip-turn—hadn’t arrived. I got out, while Wayne stayed in a little longer, hoping he might show up. He never did.
It’s been more than a year now since I lost my flip turn, but I’ve kept swimming because it is a matter of survival—my weapon against despair. I remind myself every morning that it is enough to swim through the day, even in the slow lane–doing the things you don’t want to do, being visible when you would prefer not to be. That already is a lot. If swimming is a matter of survival, the most basic level of sanity, the flip turn is something else: a matter of mastery, of skill. You can swim quietly in the slow lane with the old ladies, and get out and go about your day, renewed. But once you decide you are going to execute a flip-turn, you have entered the realm of competition, with all the attendant anxiety. Beware the flip turn, then: the desire to perform the flashy move may undermine your pleasure in moving through the water.
But I admit that I couldn’t give up that desire, not even (or especially not) smack in the middle of a lifetime. I still wanted to excel, to be admirable, to take pride in what my body could do, to have the sense that it was more than what others could do. So if, on some days, I could just focus on the sensation of gliding through the water in perfect balance, on others days, I doggedly practiced doing flip-turns, almost always missing the mark and feeling humiliated. If Playwright Dan had not been so admirable—so gentle, graceful, and smart—maybe the flip-turn would not have the same seductive pull. But I still want to impress him, oh lovely literary athlete, and so I have to persist, against the steady decline of the body.
About a month ago, an elderly man was pacing by the pool where I was swimming. He had a bald head and grey beard, but he was still trim and strong. When I stopped between laps, he observed, “Don’t lift your head up before you turn. If you do, your hips sink and you won’t be able to do the turn properly. Keep looking down, and when you see the ‘T’ mark on the bottom, count two strokes—then turn.” It turns out that the thing I was doing to correct the problem—trying to gage an arm’s length from the wall—was the thing that was preventing me from turning gracefully. Now, I look down, see the “T” mark, count two strokes, and flip. It works.
The re-learned flip turn is not the same as the old flip turn. A charge of fear often goes through me, still, as I approach the wall—fear that is as much about humiliation as about cracking my head against the wall. Fear grips me now, as I write these words, because of a superstition: perhaps announcing that I can do a flip turn again might mean actually losing it, forever.
Over the course of a year, my mother had developed a steady routine with Saul, visiting him in the nursing home. “How’s Saul Blum?” I asked her, whenever I called. “The same,” she always said, with a sad chuckle. I could picture her shrug.
I understand Saul’s position: it is exhausting to be alive when we would prefer not to be, when staying afloat for another day is more effort than we can manage. And I understand hers: it is exhausting to keep someone afloat who wants to sink.
Saul demanded that she visit at certain times, wanted her to tend to him. And while he demanded to see her, most of the time he was short-tempered and critical. If they ate a meal together, he pointed out that she chewed too loudly; if she came at the appointed time, but he preferred to be alone, he sent her away. Perhaps it is natural to be angry with the person who insists that you live. My mother withstood all this patiently, on a regular basis, but it was clear that the pleasure had drained out of the relationship. She had become a handmaiden to Saul’s refusal to re-learn.
A month ago, I called to tell my mother about the theater tickets I’d bought for her birthday. “How’s Saul Blum?” I asked, after we’d discussed the play. “Well, actually…” my mother began slowly, and then explained that he had slipped into a coma. The doctors had called her in the day before to say goodbye, but he was still hanging on. Two days later, when I called again, he had died.
A week after Saul Blum’s death, my husband and I drove up to Connecticut and met my mother for lunch at our favorite deli. She ordered a liverwurst sandwich and piled it high with lettuce and tomato, took a voracious bite and slapped the sandwich down on the plate again. She snapped a pickle with her teeth, and sipped hot tea with relish. Things were very busy at work, she said.
Later in the day, I swam at the Y, conscious that the young lifeguards were watching as I glided past, flipped neatly, and did another smooth lap.