Panic and Public Pools: Looking Back/Forward

Having reached what is statistically speaking the midpoint of my life, I’ve learned a few things: good shoes are important, Indian food is better than Chinese, going to bed early is a delightful privilege, people notice your clothes, Tuesdays suck, and recently, that I don’t particularly care for public pools.

I spent a substantial part of my young summers in a pool. Our local YMCA offered a crowded system of pools open in the summertime. The shallow puddle of pee and chlorine for the babies, the rectangular lines of the lap pool for the elderly who still enjoy tanning, the diving board and slide area for the flirty, show-offy teens, and the one-meter deep square for the rest of us. I remember hopping around that pool watching legs through my goggles in the silence below water only to return to the surface gasping as the shrieks and sounds of play shattered that peaceful isolation.

It’s not that I was anti-social, I’m sure I was there with one of my three siblings and probably with friends, but I remember liking the feeling of hiding. Underwater isn’t exactly hiding, because water is as transparent as a passive aggressive co-worker saying, “You look happier than usual today.” But, a crowded dinner table, stresses from elementary schoolteachers, avoiding the taunts and hassles of peer pressure, division homework, pretty girls who run away from you on the playground and pee wee sports coaches pushing laps and crunches can make a young boy of the 90’s want to just get away from it all for thirty seconds or as long as his lungs can hold.

There were other small sanctuaries. I’d hide in my parent’s closet smelling the unfamiliar scents of adult wardrobes like leather, suede or flannel. I’d hide in the forest climbing trees and sitting there watching squirrels leap between branches, feeling the wind gently sway me as I looked down upon my boyhood empire—our little house and yard. I’d hide in the dank, spider webbed recesses of our unfinished basement which doubled as my dad’s workshop. I’d make forts of pillows and blankets which always gave me goosebumps as I climbed inside and felt the surge of coziness as pillows on all four sides cradled me in a cushioned embrace.

Thinking back, I must have been exercising a budding desire to find my own space in the world. High in the trees or deep in the cool basement, searching for a place to be comfortable. Anxiety doesn’t lend itself to comfort anywhere. I’m not sure when my anxiety first came, but it found me and gripped me hard in its unending examinations of societal life. Thinking too much, wondering, scrutinizing, questioning, mistrusting, pushing away fear as the angst crept in behind. My panic was rarely evident because most places have a bathroom within sight. That was my place to publicly hide as an adult. I’d rush away, sometimes mid-conversation, and dart into a bathroom, usually followed by vomiting, but sometimes just getting overheated. Panic and anxiety must be a modern malady caused by ease of acquiring immediate needs. I mean, what kind of a hunter would puke as he pulled back the bowstring? It’s because I was, am and hopefully will be (barring a nuclear winter, alien invasion, cataclysmic global warming, poisoning of the water system or the Chinese calling in America’s debt, forcing us all to forty years’ labor in FoxConn, Huawei or some rare earth mine while the old employees sip wine spritzers wearing gowns and tuxedos) rather comfortable in the bodily sense.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was fulfilled pretty completely for me. Basic needs were given: my own bed, plenty of milk for cereal, friends, decent grades in school and what better toy than a He-Man to self-actualize, “I have the power!” Or the creative practice of having an arsenal of little army men to create a world where I win every battle. I was a lucky son of a gun, all thanks to my immigrant ancestors plowing in the Nebraska cornfields or laying bricks in Philadelphia. So, what could have made me so nervous about being a part of that world?

Without going too much into the actual details of which I found and hopefully deleted (via therapy, cognitive exercises, and solo travelling) from my programming, I think it’s from thinking. If you stop to look around once in a while, as Ferris Bueller suggested, you won’t miss it, you’ll see it. You’ll see the mortal coil. You’ll see the suffering, the injustice, the terror. You’ll see the minor trivialities, the futility, the worry, the search for meaning. When you see it, you won’t be able to unsee it. It sticks inside you like melted Velveeta, like day old bacon grease, like dried peanut butter on the inside of the fork tines, it’s sticky I’m tellin’ ya!

My mom told me one night as we discussed (mostly me ranting and her nodding politely) the unexplainable things, “I just don’t think as hard as you do.” And she probably never had to run off to the bathroom to throw up a steak dinner because somebody asked, “Where are you going after this?” It was a long process to get past it all. Medication was involved for sure, but a lot of introspection helped too. It also felt good to use my given name instead of a nickname. Like I was moving away from that world where Bill had panic attacks, but William understood the physiological triggers and just let them pass through.

Time passed and my twice-yearly cold sores are now more common for me than panic attacks, which I’m actually not sure if that’s an upgrade. Which is easier to explain away? Which is less attractive?

Using this navel-gazing talent I’ve gained over the past 38 years, I still think about everything, and I have a new saying, “Everything is sad.” That is not to detract from the beauty, happiness, joy, kindness, compassion and awe we notice with our five amazing senses every day, it’s merely to acknowledge that there is an opposite to those feelings as well. If there is beauty, there must be ugliness; if there is happiness, there is sadness. Those animating geniuses at Pixar taught us that lesson with Inside Out, and how necessary Sadness was to Riley’s brain chemistry. Or what about the mournful dread we all felt after watching Toy Story 2 and wondering if any of our old toys were actually sentient and got left behind as we grew up and moved on.

Maybe it’s better expressed as: everything can be sad. A puppy on a chain. The fish and crab aquarium of death in seafood restaurants. Graduations. Getting a haircut that no one notices. Landfills. Alarm clocks. That person who wears the exact same clothes every day.

I can hear the optimists chanting about half-full glasses and it’s all how you look at it. You can choose to see the life instead of the death, or the relationship instead of the break-up, or the baby lion who lives by eating the baby antelope. Well, I bet those people have nightmares about smiling murderers or losing all their teeth and exclaiming how easy it is to eat ice cream now.

I see the sadness. Perhaps I’ve always seen the sadness. All those legs I watched as kids bouncing around the YMCA pool, perhaps they’ve gotten knee surgeries or varicose veins by now. All those trees I climbed, the branches have all thinned out as newer, younger trees compete for resources. All those odorous fashions in my parent’s closet have been donated to Goodwill making way for newer cotton and lycra fashions. All my He-Men, baseball cards and assorted childish things have been put away for the dark mirror of middle age.

The lines, the sagging, the aches, I can see and feel them beginning. I’m trying to be okay with it; I’m trying to understand how fast it all goes, how we lose the good moments no matter how tight we hold, and how the bad moments can give way to a funny story.

That’s why I want to choose tasty expensive burgers to cheaper McDonalds, or fine, Italian made shirts to the Goodwill ones I used to buy. I mean, I’m being completely hypocritical right now, because my first meal whenever I return to the States is to find the nearest Chick-Fil-A. And I definitely have been seen shopping at UniQlo as recently as last month. Nevertheless, in most cases, quality is preferable to quantity.

All this is a roundabout way to get to the point. Public pools are stupid. Pools are quantity, there are pools everywhere, but the quality place has always been the ocean. (It should go without saying that a pool on your own property is a fantastic luxury, and can make one feel slightly royal sipping daiquiris on a steady raft with a cup holder and leg rests.)

The YMCA kept me cool in the summer, but the grinch in me wouldn’t like all that Whoville-like noise noise noise now. The water slide park might still be fun, just like the old days; but the price has presumably tripled since my younger and more vulnerable years, probably without tripling the possible fun to be had there. Rivers are cool, but most big rivers are too dirty to swim, leaving only small tributaries and creeks which isn’t really swimming as much as it is slowly immersing into the freezing rush.

And don’t get me started about lakes! How deep is it? What lives in that lake? Lakes freak me out. Lakes are too cold, too black. Maybe the Great Lakes are cool, but I’ve never been there, and they are more like mini, salt-less oceans than the lakes I’m picturing. Did you ever see Loch Ness? It’s totally possible that a prehistoric monster could find herself right at home in that terrifying water. The water was inky black, calm and gave an echoing sound like a moan as our boat cruised along, sonar beeping for a sight of Ol’ Nessie. The high cliffs on both sides were barren and rock strewn. Probably because anything living that came to bathe or drink from those haunted ancient waters was gobbled up by that unimaginably scary swimming brontosaur.

No, the answer is the ocean. That limitless horizon, the salty waves, the warm sand, the expansive and mysterious oceans give our small world perspective. Yes, there are plenty of terrors in the ocean, but somehow, since I’m standing, it seems less possible to be dragged under by a five eyed mutated lake bass and nibbled on by her fifty little five-eyed babies among the disgusting lake grass and gelatinous lake muck.

There are five oceans—all amazing to behold. To be fair, the Arctic and Southern are not really for people. Those are the lands of whales and blubber flush creatures. Some hardy winter folk learned how to survive the poles. They took aversion to crowds to the extremes and just went for it. I imagine they’d be good settlers to start the Mars colony once we eat all the tuna and the cities are flooded here on Earth.

How many rivers and lakes are there you say? There are 165 major rivers and over two million lakes in this wide world. Let’s be clear, not all rivers are polluted trash streams; and not all lakes are nightmarish horrors with slippery, lurking predators beneath. The Mississippi felt like a grandpa rolling along in his rocking chair telling stories about the good ol’ days. The Mekong felt much younger, much more vigorous. There were fish jumping out of the water and winking at me. The Delaware was shallow and languorous. Rivers are small enough to have a personality, which is endearing.

Lakes have no personality and offer little in the way of entertainment. You can go fishing, and that’s about it. Lakes are good for looking. Sit by the water, fill up a glass with an adult beverage and light one up. Just avoid night swimming in a lake.

So, in a pinch, I’ll take a lake, relax by a river and, if the mercury rises too high, pool it up. I won’t complain, you take what you can get right? Yet still, the ocean calls me, it actually pulls me like Bugs Bunny with those visible pie aromas.

The ocean is always there for me, even when I’m not physically present. The anxiety is always there in me, even when I’m not physically aware.

As I begin planning the next stage in my life, I’ve been trying to put the ocean closer to me. Finding places with access to that vast sea. Finding a place to be comfortable. Finding a place where “the climate suits my clothes…where the water tastes like wine.” The real trick is knowing that houses, like anxiety, are transitory, mere passing moments within the larger home of your life. And it’s always good to have your own pool.



My Top Ten Best Places to Swim in the World

Ocean creatures nibble on your feet as the wide expanse of seawater pulses with waves for bodysurfing. Nude night swimming as a teenager felt like breaking rules that weren’t meant to be followed anyway. Sunday night swims at the Y.M.C.A, when we were still a family of four, with vending machine ice cream followed by the classic show by the formerly virtuous, presently vilified Bill Cosby.

Swimming was always a part of my life. There are soundless, grainy videos of me as a chubby baby splashing and floating in Styrofoam tubes, later, flat chested, sun browned and endlessly chasing waves and catching rides, picking up horseshoe crabs to scare girls. We would spend every summer weekend and our big two-week vacation at the beach. I remember the crispy crust of seawater kissed skin, the smell of barbecuing meat and steaming corn as we ran around the yard. I remember barely being able to sleep out of excitement the night before we would go to the Wildwood, NJ water parks.

They were the days of pre-9/11 America. They were the days before any premature deaths had forced me to reckon with life’s brief candle. They were the days before girls were significant, when we all looked the same. They were the days of wonder and sleepover nights, before jobs and bills. They were the days of best friends, talking on the phone, riding bikes. This is a list of memories, a catalog of subjective experiences, a way to look back while wondering what is still to come.

I read a story in the New York Times by Loudon Wainwright III, an American troubadour, who has similar feelings for the water. He put down his top ten swimming places in the world. I thought it would be fun to do the same.

Here are my top ten most memorable water filled places:

10. Stuttgart Mineral Baths, Germany—I love a good sauna. When I first arrived in Korea, I’d spend hours slipping in and out of the hot and cold baths, hopping between the steam or the cool showers. But my love for saunas started here, in Germany’s Black Forest. I got naked in front of strange Germans, suntanned unabashedly and relished the nude joy of the healing waters. (I should include that Budapest and Sevilla also had amazing bathhouses, but as a bathing suit was required, it just felt more like a fancy pool with beautiful mosaic tiles.)

9. Lagos, Portugal—Although this was the most hungover I’ve ever been as the local bars offer 2 for 1 everything, the crisp seawater was a lifesaver in the morning. I found some crepes and a bucket of ice water and stared at the shimmering Atlantic Ocean. The massive cliffs beside the beaches make for a spectacular backdrop. I remember swimming out with some friends to a natural bridge in the rocks before remembering a scene from a nature documentary where hundreds of manta rays gathered in a place just like that.


Courtesy: Western Australia Pinterest

8. Karijini National Park, Western Australia—Hidden among the baked red earth of Australia’s outback was a bright blue pool dotted with waterfalls and trees. There was a good hour hike down the rocks to the pool, heating you up for the cool down. There was a 20-meter cliff jump, shady spots to have a drink and some rock climbing inside the waterfalls. We camped in this remote park, and it remains the most stars I’ve ever seen.


7. Gwangalli Beach, Busan, South Korea—It’s one of the most famous beaches of Korea and insanely crowded for 6 weeks in July and August. But in any season, you can get some Ramen noodles, beers, chips and shoot fireworks into the placid waters. There are no waves here, but the scenic Gwangan Bridge makes a glimmering seascape come alive at night. (Most of the Korea’s east coast has lovely blue water, white sands and nearby 7-11’s. Plus, the island of Jeju is full of amazing waterfalls, beaches and sex museums.)


6. Mekong River, Laos—Although the Mekong runs from China to Vietnam, my favorite spot was in the Thousand Islands of Don Det. It’s not easy to get to, as you must ride a shaky diesel-powered longboat with a draft of a few inches to the water. Animals run wild, people are friendly and there is a small swimming spot at the end of the island. It was amazing to walk out a few feet and feel the current begin to take you downstream. A few more feet and you’d need to paddle hard to get back in. (In Kratie, Cambodia, I found a cool spot with thatched huts on pylons where the locals drank and cooled off.)


5. Otres Beach, Cambodia—This is my ideal paradise beach. It’s quiet, chill, beautifully set on the Gulf of Thailand with a few beachside bars and pubs pumping quiet house music. There are French expats who’ve opened some decent restaurants complete with a boule lawn. Every day, the local women sold me fresh mango, watermelon and a back and foot rub for 10$. I also did a great scuba dive here. I was the only one who signed up, so I got to solo dive with the instructor. Sitting under a thatch umbrella, mangoes, cold beer, burgers and a Kindle. (There are Happy Pizza restaurants and tons of bars in nearby Sihanoukville, the backpacker party town.)


4. Trieste, Italy—This little enclave of an Italian city with an Austrian heritage has a small sidewalk with access to the Adriatic Sea, called the Barcola. If you remember to bring a cushioned mat and towel, relaxing on the cement will be a breeze. The sea is beautiful here, flat and blue out to the horizon with tree covered mountains behind. (Nearby Croatian beaches are similarly wonderful.)

3. Barton Springs, Austin, Texas—A spring fed pool in South Austin, with lax clothing requirements, few personal restrictions, naturally cold water and a diving board. The only negative might be that it is set upon a grassy hill, which just isn’t as nice as sand. (If you catch the right day, McKinney Falls can be spectacular. But a real gem is down in Wimberley at the Blue Hole or chilling near the Blanco River.)


2. Phuket, Thailand—It was near the end of a four-month journey in SE Asia, and our last day in Thailand. Jordyn and I wanted to swim. We could see heavy, dark clouds shooting lightning in the distance. The rain was falling, the waves were high and we jumped right in. Walking back, people were covered in rain gear, umbrellas and galoshes, we wore only bathing suits and sandals. (Phuket is nice, but the islands like Ko Lanta, or Ko Tao are much more stunning.)


1. Avalon, NJ—It’s not the clearest, cleanest or nicest water. It’s not always the most peaceful environment. It’s not the most reliably wonderful weather. And although things are changing there, as it’s become a playground for elites with multi-million dollar houses, and there are sound ordinances where police will shut you down for singing after midnight, and extreme weather pushes the storm surges ever closer to the doorstep, and the restaurants are overpriced, and the bars full of college meatheads, khaki shorts and high heels…well, damn, maybe it’s just our little house there. The little cinderblock paradise on the bay, where so many memories were made, remains my favorite place to swim in the world.