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.

 

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On Applying to Be The New York Times’ Travel Writer

When I was in elementary school, I had a globe with raised mountains and sunken seas on the surface. The tactile senses elicited by slowly roaming my dirty little fingers over the nubs conveyed a palpable sense of something beyond me, beyond my little town, in the mysterious lands across the Atlantic ocean in which I’d swim every summer. That was my instant and distinct connection to the larger world. What was out there? The New Jersey shoreline was awash in jellyfish and horseshoe crabs remnants, but what washed ashore in India or New Zealand? My little Appalachia Mountains appeared as mere bumps, but the Andes, that great backbone of South America, or the Swiss Alps, or the monstrous Himalayas were like knuckled fists, a menacing presence taunting my young mind. “You’ll never be here. You’ll never be near me.” Like hot girls turning mean, those big hills teased me with their distance and overall foreignness, which, similarly to hot girls, made me want them even more.

Antarctica was too weird to even make sense. You couldn’t really see it as it was hiding above the globe stand and what was there to see? I mean, there were no cartoon penguins there, and that’s the only draw to that frozen land besides the wild-eyed scientists who find snow drifts neat and ice cores sexy.

Australia was lacking in labels as only about 10% of the land is livable, so there were only a few cities even marked. I thought it was just a country for cool animals. Essentially it is. Marsupials with pouches, giant crocodiles, Tasmanian devils, the most poisonous snakes, spiders and orcs in the world. The aboriginals became part of that world tens of thousands of years ago, adapted and thus seemed so strange to the pale English invaders. People and animals change. Imagine how a kangaroo and horse might look at each other and think the other is the strange one.

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Russia was an epiphany. How could there be so much land? Why did they get to keep all of it? As a young kid, I thought biggest equals best, and that didn’t compute as we were taught to fear the evil empire of the Reds.

Asia also made no sense. The names were unknown and I couldn’t make up a vision of what it might be like there. All I could focus on was the massive heart of Asia in the raised and thus distorted land called Nepal. The Himalayas had white tops which meant very tall. Only a few peaks in the Rockies of North America had those white tops.

Winter-Desktop-Wallpaper-Himalaya-Mountain-FreshEurope held all the familiar names: Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, I could imagine what they looked like. Basically, America with older buildings. They were all part of my elementary history books. South America, vast and long, held the enigmatic and formidable Amazon River. Kids love learning about the massive anaconda or the shocking hunger of piranhas. South America felt like a neighbor to me, the neighbor you never see, the neighbor whose lights aren’t on, so you stop asking questions about who lives there.

And finally, there is Africa, the land of extremes. Giant animals, expansive deserts, bewildering jungles, a history tied by shackles to the New World. All my young mind knew of that continent was the mighty pyramids, mummies and King Tut. Egypt was a consuming fascination since I saw Bert & Ernie walk through the Natural History Museum followed by a dancing mummy.

Maps were my connection to the world, and I was lucky to have that. As a kid without YouTube and before the Planet Earth series, I could only imagine visiting the places scattered around the globe. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done a bit of traveling and written about some of those experiences. Then, I saw the NY Times was looking for a travel writer to go to one city each week for a year. 52 places, 52 new experiences. Over 3,000 people applied. A young writer for New York Magazine got it. My hopes weren’t high to get the position, but the hope was still there. To be paid to travel and tell others about it is such a modern idea. The tripadvisor and yelp world looks to others who’ve passed that way before to enlighten the first timer. It’s a good system that has led me to many cool places of which I might not have known.

It’s easy to be critical of social media as a tool for inducing jealousy or a mechanism to promote the best photo of the best place with your best friends, but it also reminds us about what may still lie in our futures. The new travel writer for America’s most respected newspaper is one woman chosen from a motivated group of excited wannabe tourists. It’s fun to be a tourist, everything is new even as we bring all our old memories, issues and expectations. Travel gives us a chance to push out the old and invite the new. That remains my favorite part of being mobile in the world. What new will be found? What new is inside of me? What old will be left behind? What old will remain? Travel is searching, exploring, walking, listening, eating, sensing, active verbs in strange places. Travel and vacation are not always the same thing. Traveling requires effort; vacation requires time. Mixing the two is a recipe for a great trip.

The essay section wanted applicants to write a short description of: “The most interesting place you’ve ever been and why.” I’ve been many interesting places, but none more than Roma, Italia. Here is what I wrote:

The most interesting place I’ve ever been was Rome, Italy. There is no secret about why this place is infinitely interesting. The living history, the Egyptian obelisks, carved facades, murmuring fontanas, the Colosseo, the pizza, pasta, gelato and espresso, the youth among the ancient, wandering cats, beautiful women, whistling men, the grandiosity of Vatican City, and the simplicity of an evening café.

I’ve been to Rome three times, never stepping in the same street twice, though visiting several places multiple times. The shifting ambiance and shuffling crowd, stirring the city into a fluid radiance that has kept Rome dynamic for three millennia makes it truly an eternal city. It is a city to conjure history while soaking in the pleasant present.

Throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain to ensure your Roman return. Place your hand in The Mouth of Truth and hope you’ve spoken verità. Amble among the Roman Forum and walk in the steps of Caesar. Drop below ground to gaze into the sunken glare of ancient skulls. I did all those things, looked for sights from Roman Holiday, visited the museums, climbed the Spanish Steps and then saw a jazz show after an eight-course meal and a bottle of cheap, delicious wine.

I experienced a vague shock when confronted with the underbelly of the Colosseum. Gladiators fought to the death in a stadium as big as any pro football arena. It felt so human to know that for centuries humans have cheered for destructive combat. However, I doubt the Romans cared about C.T.E.

On a private tour from an ambassador, we visited some back rooms and private galleries in Vatican City, but mostly I remember the guide’s awful breath, the colorful outfits of the Swiss Guard and the art. I loved seeing the old maps of the “world” before one side of the globe knew about the other. The Vatican frescoes showed varied human perspectives of agony, glory or the mystery of faith.

There is an impression in Roma of a gentle hand guiding you down tiny walking streets, with centuries-old bricks and the hush of a little back alley, before thrusting you into a wide, grand piazza. There will be a statue, a café, a painter, a moment of realization that this city is designed to explore by foot, experiencing the endless beauty, stepping on the stones of antiquity, finding your own Rome.

My family is Italian, and I felt a connection to the land in my grandmother’s home high in the Dolomites; or my grandfather, whose name I carry, in the southern hustle of Naples. Italy is a conglomeration of many diverse regions, but the old saying, “All roads lead to Rome”, places this most interesting city at the heart of a magnificent country.

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What’s my age again?

For years, I’ve always looked younger than my age. I suppose at 12 I may have looked twelve, but after that, I was always mistaken for a younger version of myself. Once, around 27, a local campaigning politician came to the door of my parents’ house and asked for my mother or father. I replied they were out, and she asked me if I was old enough to vote. I stopped getting carded for alcohol around 28, but still get carded at bars. In Italy, at age 26, a nice old lady asked me if I was old enough to drink wine with dinner. Yet, this is a country where pre-teens sip vino with the Sunday meals. Last week during a massage, the masseuse asked if I was 26, because he was “good at guessing ages.” I told him I’m turning 32 this year, and he was surprised.

Through the18-21 ages, it was terrible to be confused with a young age. During the 20’s it was just a funny little thing that my face still appeared babyish. But now that I’m in my 30’s I appreciate it very much that I remain youthful. The question I asked myself today was, will I get upset when someone actually guesses my correct age? Is it possible that I will continue to look 5 years younger at each consecutive age, or at some point will the marathon of life catch up to me with a properly distinguished exterior? Since I’m used to getting the younger guesses, it would certainly hit me harder, but I am preparing for that day, and the terrible things I will say to that unlucky person.

Can the positive thinking exercises and mantras people use to keep a shining interior also be used for the surface? If you’re “only as old as you feel” is it additionally possible you’re only as old as you appear? Did the guys in high school with full beards feel like they were 25 and working at entry-level jobs some days? Did the girls with fully developed bodies at age 14 feel like they were getting better treatment at the office due to their precocious hormones? It’s funny though, in those very young days, I used to wonder when I would grow hair on my body. Now that it’s here, I spend that time shaving it off.