It is a surreal moment when a young man realizes he is doing water aerobics with a half-dozen elderly women.
Up until that moment in the spring of 2011, I had not thought of my cross training in the pool as water aerobics. But there was no denying it. There we all were--methodically kicking, paddling, and wading through the water in a slow march up and down the slow lane of UC Berkeley's Hearst gym pool. The epiphany made me choke on a mouthful of chlorinated brine. The sting of yet another "f*ck-my-life" moment was compounded by the fact that I knew the faces of all the women in the pool. Not only was I doing water aerobics at the Hearst pool, I was a regular.
Six weeks earlier I had broken my foot. I was mindlessly out running down the trails in northern California when I noticed a sharp shooting pain in my left foot. One moment I was whipping through the woods, beginning to contemplate lunch; the next I could barely walk. I had to limp the two or three miles back to my car. Three weeks later I could still barely walk.
"What kind of tendonitis is this?!" I asked myself as I tried, through excruciating pain, to test the injury with sets of calf raises while waiting for the bus. Eventually an x-ray showed that I had completely broken my second metatarsal. The bone was displaced, the ends skewed away from each other. It looked like a mangled steel girder, sheared apart through structural strain. I was lucky I did not need surgery. In hindsight, I doubt the calf raises helped.
So here I was pool running with the ladies. My only solace was that I could not afford the bright blue flotation vest that makes pool running easier; so I looked slightly less geeky. But let us be honest: no one will never look bad-ass treading water.
You should know that I loathe pools. I dislike wearing goggles and garish spandex. I really hate the feeling of chlorine in your ears and that initial shock of cold water engulfing your genitals. When I was a child, my parents forced me to do summer swim league. I hated it. I mean, I'm glad I learned how to avoid drowning. If I ever happen to be thrown from a ferryboat while holding my cat, I will send prayers of thanksgiving and praise to my parents as I backstroke our way to safety. But the experience was generally unpleasant: sitting at swim meets in the summer heat, waiting nervously for for the fifty-meter breaststroke, watching pre-pubescent bodies leak various fluids as they flailed across the pool, waiting hours for 90-second race, sitting on hot concrete in my Speedo as fire ants bit my crotch.
All this to be able to move across a short body of water at about the speed of a brisk walk. I just don't get it.
Compounding the present situation was Northern California generally lousy spring weather. Most of my little pool workouts took place in the rain. So I did not even have the luxury of getting a nice tan during my buoyant workouts. Only in the San Francisco area can you spend hours outside and still look anemic. But the sports doctor said I couldn’t even get on a bicycle, so what could I do other than return to the pool? So, reluctantly, I signed up for a 6AM swim class in Oakland and spent the early evening of most days at the Hearst gym pool bobbing through the water and literally going through the motions of running.
So why bother? Why not spend the time wasted on pool running reading a book or catching up on work? Why, when we have so little time on this earth, would I spend even ten minutes every day doing something I really don’t enjoy?
Have we not, however, been trained, perhaps indoctrinated, to think that we shouldn’t give up? That we should persist through hardship? That persistence is, in and of itself, of some sort of value? However vaguely articulated, are we not told there is some payoff to pointless grit by our parents and teachers and presidents? If we work just hard enough, we were told, if we put off just enough social evenings to grab an hour of sleep, skip just enough Netflix, then we will create something in ourselves that is truly worthwhile, important, and admirable... or at least marketable.
Naturally, doing water aerobics in the rain leads one to question this effort. What is to be gained, really, from running a 10K faster than I did two years ago? Why struggle? What will it change? How will it put food on empty plates, or help those struggling with endemic illness, or stop sectarian violence?
I still can’t answer that.
But, I am an experiment of one. And loath though I am to say it, there is little that I can control outside of myself. So maybe, if I push a little harder, run that extra two miles, stay up the extra hour reading, then maybe, just maybe, it will be helpful. Someone might realize in my history class that the violent boundaries between us are historical constructions. Or that if a redneck kid from North Carolina can run in the NCAA, then they can finish a marathon. Or that if we all just pushed ourselves a little harder, we might understand ourselves and thus each other a little better. But we shall see.
Float on, friends.