Zen, politics and the Australian crawl

Downing 

Zen, politics and the Australian crawl

We columnists have been in clover lately. News--the very wool we spin--threatens to bury us even as we type. We've had the debates. (Note to all future candidates: Answer the goddamned question.) The governor's long-anticipated water plan for the state was finally released; it's voluntary for local governments and will only go into effect when it is determined by unspecified governmental entities and methods that there is a drought. In other words, Lake Powell is half empty and we're still at "Kids! Turn off the water while you brush!"

Flag-draped coffins have been coming home to Southern Arizona.

On a lighter note, there was ASU's Nobel Prize. There was no joy in midtown last week: In some quarters at the UA, the award may have hurt as much as a first-round whipping at the NCAA Tournament. (No! Nothing could be as bad as that!) The really galling part is that Tempe's guy isn't even in the hard sciences, where UA has been putting all its chips for 15 years: "Darn. Who knew we should have funded the social sciences?"

But let's not go into any of that. There's been too much nerve-wracking news lately and a person's adrenal glands can stand just so many polls. And just so much pain: Bodies are coming home from Iraq.

And that is why I turn, all Esther Williams-like, to the soothing, thoughtless joys of lap-swimming.

Swimming laps is the most reliably sedative activity I know. Yoga's good, directed visualization's fine and taking drugs works OK, although, sadly, they always wear off. I can also strongly recommend acupuncture, which produces a calm much like that of narcotics, but without those unwanted side-effects. Still, the pool rules.

I've had plenty of time to think about why swimming is so soothing because I am a slow swimmer.

A really slow swimmer. I'm lazy and don't really know how to swim. I can't do flip turns and I breathe unilaterally, pathetically, after every stroke. I'm a huge fan of air.

I also love water. It's beautiful, feels nice and puts gravity in its place. Simply being in it can be bliss. (Or survival, if you're talking about advanced pregnancy.)

When it's just you and the bubbles and the flickering patterns that sunlight makes on the cement, you're free. Some of it's probably that prenatal, oceanic-conscious thing; the rest, I believe, is simple physical comfort.

It's quiet in there, except for your own hypnotically regular gasp and glub. The silence is important. Years ago, when I swam in the funky old pool behind the old Student Union, there was a brief vogue for underwater Walkmans. It never crossed my mind to get one. Even in my impatient youth, I had an inkling of a truth that swimming, like other great spiritual practices, reveals over time: Boredom is good.

Being alone is good, too, and swimming is the most private of sports, even if you do have to do it in a swimsuit. Each lane is a long, blue room unto itself, and you are its absolute owner until you decide you're done. Other swimmers exist only as dim, fast-moving shapes on either side. They, too, are lost in their exercise, pleasantly stoned on oxygen, endorphins and sensory deprivation.

The ideal maximum of communication around a pool is "May I share this lane?" but even loud conversations can't intrude on your mindless self-absorption as long as you go about your submarine business. At the excellent Tucson Racquet Club lap pool (clean, shaded, unchlorinated), there was once a near fist-fight between the guy in the next lane and a lunatic in flippers who'd jumped in and started swimming across the pool, weaving in and out of traffic. I learned what it was all about later. While the drama lasted --about four laps--I'd gotten only soundbites when I touched and turned. It takes me a while to reach the Zen-like state in which I can fantasize about being the great backstroker Natalie Coughlin (my heroine). It takes concentration to pretend that I'm gliding like a mackerel along the water's invisible slipstreams rather than doing what I'm doing, which is thrashing and wallowing from one end to the other. It's not a spell I want broken.

On the other hand, the enlightened lap swimmer embraces the actual turbulence created by the pool-gods. It's thrilling when a huge young guy with concave abs and Michael Jordan arms starts doing the butterfly, churning the whole pool within seconds. It's as if someone dropped an orca into the water. Very cool.

Lap swimming becomes a peak experience at two extremes. At one end is the place in which you're "in the moment," totally there and alive to every breath and muscle. I assume that's where athletes spend their time. The other peak is at the place where you forget that you are swimming. When you get there, everything goes away. For a while, the world is at peace.

America will have the president-elect it deserves on Nov. 3. Get out there and vote.

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