Another Blog About Bodies
I've discussed bodies before, and this blog once again involves talking about the human body - especially my human body. There is no gentle lead-up. I begin from the outset. If this is something that offends or disgusts you, I suggest that you skip this blog - the next one might be less graphic.
I had been swimming, and I was in the changing room. In the mirror I caught sight of a naked body standing there. There was nothing remarkable about this body. It was a man's body - that is all. I was very surprised when I shut the locker door to see that my own head belonged to this unfamiliar nude figure. Last time I had bothered to look; this wasn't what my own body looked like.
This is not so surprising to me. When I was growing up, we never really made any reference to the fact that we were corporeal beings. Bathroom doors remained locked at all times. Beach holidays meant the boys changing under towels and the girls changing underneath this toilet-tent-like garment with an elasticated neck. Both methods involved contortion and wriggling and fear that someone might be looking at us long enough to catch something pink flop out unexpectedly. There was a cognitive dissonance in how we thought about our bodies - we never acknowledged the fact that being inside them was the only place we could inhabit; there was little mention of flesh or function. Even the word 'fart' was forbidden. In fact, I don't think anyone ever passed wind throughout my entire childhood - and I am certain that no one ever 'farted'.
Changing rooms have never been happy places for me. At school, I would physically shrink behind the locker doors and get out of there as soon as possible. Nothing traumatic ever happened - as far as I can remember. I was never the victim of any changing room cruelty. We had one PE teacher who would insist on us parading into the large communal showers, and would stand there until he could guarantee that all the boys had gone through. I don't think his motives were suspicious; he also took us for maths and he probably didn't want the smell of adolescent body odour during a double lesson. Even now, I feel a bit sick whenever I go into the changing rooms. Beyond the ordeal of going to an all boys' school, the stress involved is simply all about getting naked in front of strangers.
Times have changed. My own children both know how to unlock the bathroom door from the outside. The idea of the bathroom being a sacred or private place is unknown to them. I could be in the shower, or sitting on the loo, and if one of them wants something then they see it as perfectly normal to just unlock the door and come in. The implication of this is that there is nowhere in the house where I can get some piece and quiet. So, if I choose to extend my visit to the bathroom because I want to read a newspaper article, or I'm mid way through a game of scrabble on my iPad; I have to scream at them when I hear them approaching the door as if my life depended on it. They are slowly beginning to realise - the bathroom is a place I go to when I just want to be alone.
I take both our children swimming weekly. The freedom which they display in taking their clothes off in a public space startles me. Even before I have unpacked their swimming kit from the rucksack, they are both naked. It must seem strange to them that their father always huddles behind a locker door to get changed and also always showers in one of the few cubicles with a door; they choose the open plan ones so that they can entertain each other doing whatever it is that they do - I honestly don't know as I'm far too stressed to notice, but they seem to involve a lot of splashing and noise and it earns disapproving looks from others using the changing rooms.
For our son, getting changed in a public space is a completely natural activity. At school he has to change in or out of ballet clothes at least four times a day. My feelings of shame or embarrassment are something foreign to him. He just wouldn't have time to indulge them. Also, during ballet classes, his body is under non-stop scrutiny: lines, shapes and timings are commented on constantly. When I was his age I would have crumbled under such a microscope of relentless physical dissection. Even now - especially now, as I focus on the beginning of middle-age decline - I wouldn't survive comments about how I look or the way I move. And yet our son seems entirely comfortable with this culture of physical exhibitionism and continual assessment. He has an ease with his body of which I am envious. Already I have learned much from him. While I am not nearly at his level of physical comfort and kinetic precision, I am happier living in my God-given body and taking up my rightful amount of space than I have ever been. Even though feelings of shame and embarrassment still linger, it is not nearly as bad as it once was. I wish that in my awkward and cumbersome twenties our son had been around to lead by example and show me the way so clearly. But, that of course would have been impossible.
Catching up #3
Another blog that would have been posted last year, before our internet provider decided temporarily to put a stop to it all.
Out of My Depth: Learning how to Tumble Turn.
I wondered what it must be like to learn something new. By this I mean something physical, rather than cerebral - I have a 'Learn Spanish' app on my iPad which I've used twice. Kinaesthetic learning is what our son does every day. As his ballet training progresses, he has to learn increasingly complicated techniques and sequences. It becomes more demanding at every(literal) turn. I cannot imagine what this must be like; I've not really succeeded in learning anything physical since learning to ride a bike as a child.
Ballroom dancing was out of the question - I'd only worry about the tightly fitting sparkly shirts - so I decided instead to learn how to tumble turn. This is what some swimmers do when they reach the end of the lane. Instead of huffing and puffing and doing an awkward restart, they gracefully turn in the water and push off again in one fluid movement. It's a much more elegant way to continue swimming, and it looks a bit like a dolphin. I've seen a couple of people do it in the pool. They are dynamic, accomplished and efficient - a higher type of being. I want to be one of them.
I had no idea of the mechanics of how to do this - but that is the point. I wanted to engage with a physical skill which presented itself as initially impossible so that I could experience the stages of incompetence, competence and then hopefully mastery. The journey of the unknown unknown passing through the known unknown and becoming the known known - as Donald Rumsfeld or the managements experts refer to it.
It might have been a good idea to pick a incompetency which didn't involve the sensation of drowning in the early stages of development. The YouTube video that I watched made it look like a simple and natural movement - like skipping or jumping. This is not the case. I learned two things immediately. The first was that when you actually do the turn, you lose all sense of where you are, and which way is up. The second is that water goes up your nose and painfully hits the back of your throat. Counteracting the first of these difficulties involved preparing for the turn by visualising the position I would be in, and then initially doing it with my eyes closed. Combatting the second was easier - I just had to remember to breathe out through my nose as the turn was taking place.
I began to dread getting to the end of the lane. I would challenge myself to do it this time, and if I attempted it just twice on any day, I would feel a sense of exhaustion mixed with fulfilment. It took a week before I could execute the move without coughing and spluttering and feeling a burning sensation somewhere in my pharynx. I was always hesitant and many times I terminated performing the turn seconds before it was due to occur through no other reason than fear.
Over a period of about a month this is what I learned:
- You have to be mid-breath or at the top of the breath in order to turn. The feeling of running out of air in the middle of a turn induces a primal sense of panic.
- If you start the turn too far away from the wall, you have nothing to kick of against, so you just lie there under the water - excuse the pun - floundering
- Only push off from the wall when you are certain that you are aiming your body in the right direction. Launching yourself across someone else's lane, or towards the bottom of the pool results in embarrassment
- Flip back over onto your front as soon as possible after the turn. The videos that show people gliding effortlessly on their backs are all clearly CGI. My own long glides have always ended in a spluttery and ungainly gasping for air.
The most interesting element about this adventure involved a point in time about three weeks in. As I was becoming more familiar, and my confidence was burgeoning, I began to start making mistakes and having to stop mid turn. In fact at some points I had to re-remember the technique that I had learned initially. Habits were creeping in or I was forgetting the strict order of the sequence of moves which meant it felt like I was back at the beginning all over again. This was the most frustrating stage, and the one that made me most angry with myself. However, after a month of work, my tumble turns are now graceful and precise. It is my preferred method for turning around at the end of the pool. I do it almost automatically. It is the nearest I am ever going to get to feeling like a fish, or an astronaut ... or a ballet dancer.
I have two final thoughts:
- If our son has such a rich inner dialogue for every new technique he is mastering, his life must be exhausting.
- I bought some cheap mask-style goggles a while ago. They are fluorescent yellow. They were reduced. No one else wanted them in that colour, I presume. I also always wear a swimming hat. It occurred to me a couple of days ago that, even though my tumble turns are magic, I must look like a minion splashing around in the water.
Sink or Swim
This summer I realised that I am not as immune as I has previously thought to the effects of ageing; I had not made the link between the greying hair, the permanent frown lines, the need to calorie count and now being in my mid-forties. I have been engaging in self-deception ... again. The summer holidays were so blissful, because we nearly forgot all about ballet - except for one slight nuisance. Our son needed to maintain his cardio-vascular fitness. The normal running around of a twelve year old is not sufficient apparently for someone in full time vocational ballet training. So, we went swimming. Especially towards the end of the holiday, we went nearly every day. We assumed the unnecessary habit of swimming together in the same lane - a watery convoy. He's a strong and elegant swimmer; efficient, sleek and graceful. And, I would swim behind.
Aside from swimming lengths, we would also play racing games and diving games, hiding plastic clam shells for one another under the water and then racing to find them. I'm not ashamed to admit that it gives me a tremendous sense of pride to be able to announce that I am the stronger swimmer. Even at 45, I am faster, more agile and I can hold my breath for far longer which gives me an unfair advantage in the diving competitions. This makes me want to punch the air, clench my back teeth and shout, 'Yessss!'
There is a reason behind this child-like celebration of a Pyrrhic victory. Before the father and son underwater Olympics commence, we would swim lengths in the way described. He would swim first and I would follow. He set the pace and I fell into line. He decided how many lengths we would swim, and I would. This swimming of lengths is what gave rise to the sense of time passing and my own mortality. I may be the faster and more experienced swimmer, but he is the the more resilient. After about twenty minutes or so of ploughing along the lane, I would begin to tire. As the end of each length approached, I would think, 'This is it. This has to be the last one.' And then, with the mechanical precision of a well tempered machine, he would begin the next. Each time, I would react as much as it is possible to breathe a sigh of regret when swimming front crawl. Every time I caught sight of him kicking off to continue our marathon of lengths, I'd silently plead, 'Please let this be the last one.' And so it would continue: the son effortless and steadily gliding along, length after length; the father hoping that each length would be the last.
Eventually he would stop. He'd turn to me with an exhausted expression and say, 'Sorry, Daddy, but I think I've had enough now.'
'That's fine, Son.' I would say. 'You're only young, of course that's enough.' I would be nonchalant, casual, deliberately patronising, and hope that he didn't notice every pore in my body exhaling with relief. We'd have a few minutes' rest, and then I'd beat him in all the games.
I'm impressed by the way he swims; tenacious, systematic and resolute. And once again, our son challenges me as he sets an example. My rhythm of swimming is different. I swim in bursts that are powerful and direct, but hard to sustain for longer than ten or at most fifteen minutes. Perhaps this applies to the way I live my life. I am very efficient at fulfilling the short-term needs of myself and those around me, but I neglect the long-term. My patterns of behaviour involve short sharp bursts of energy that get stuff done but leave me exhausted. Swimming in the pillion position has given me new knowledge of what it feels like to just keep going. This is perhaps the mind-set which makes him want to excel at something so difficult, and why my talent seems to lie in finding immediate solutions, and initiating flurries of activity. The thought of long-term projects make me gasp and splutter - almost as if drowning in panic. I need to learn how to keep going, inexhaustibly. For me, the concern has never been about whether I sink or swim, or about the distance that I can complete, but for how long I can keep afloat while simply treading water.