Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Or, I Could Just Moisturise and Lie About My Age

It's been a busy couple of months. Having got the hang of driving (broadly speaking - I still have a tendency to use solid objects as supplementary braking devices) I turned my learning gland towards shaving with a straight razor, which took less time than I thought, then toward swimming, which didn't.

I can swim, if by 'swim' you mean 'delay drowning for a short period while drifting in a named direction', but I cannot swim well, fast, elegantly or on my front. Swimming was taught in schools even when I was young, but teaching was done differently then: one watched an instructor swim a length, then one was harangued to imitate him. Failure to get this right resulted in eyerolling and advice to keep trying until one got it right. In fairness, this is symptomatic of a common misconception about swimming, namely that it is a natural function of the human body like running and can therefore be improved through repetition.

This is not the case. Running improves through conditioning because it is fundamentally an endurance activity: swimming is a technique and simply doesn't come naturally to most people. Unfortunately swimming is frequently taught by the minority to whom it does come naturally, which perpetuates the myth.

It starts with floating. You're not taught to float, you're told to lie back and just do it, and if you sink it's because you're mucking about and not taking it seriously. But floating itself is a skill, with tricks and techniques and methods to make it happen: talent is not required, only knowledge. Total Immersion are very good at this sort of thing, teaching floating and balance skills before building up the stroke itself (although be warned: the books tend not to cut to the chase until quite late on - expect to wade through a lot of anecdotes and opinion about how poorly you were taught before) and I took notes (mental ones, obviously) with me to the pool.

I had signed up for an intermediate (i.e. has-seen-water-before) swimming course, and the first lesson (actually the fifth for the rest of the class) had gone pretty badly. Ninety percent of my effort was going into drowning prevention, leaving little for movement, and I emerged exhausted and deeply ashamed of my inability to breathe during front crawl. The 25 metre certificate I obtained in school was obtained through an epic doggy paddle. The hole in my skillset had never seemed critical enough to fill.

The following week was spent studying YouTube videos and books, the digest of which I took to the pool to experiment before work. I burned a lot of calories, learned to float and improved my backstroke markedly. I also developed an alarming fluffiness to my hair and persisted in failing to breathe underwater.

I turned up to lesson two feeling way behind the curve. Fortunately the instructor has more patience with me than I do, and some progress was made with a float. But there's a long way to go.

Why now, then? Not just with the swimming, but with driving, knitting, Android development, playing ukulele and the dozens of other assorted skills I've set about learning over the last couple of years? Well, put simply, I'm thirty-nine. I will turn forty in a few months and I'm having a crisis of sorts. For most men this is a reaction to being a husband and father and realising you've had no time for anything else for the last few years and forgotten what it is to be a person; for me, wifeless, childless and mortgageless, it's simply a sense of having fallen horribly behind.

I routinely associate capability with manhood: a man should be able to turn his hand to anything, no matter how unexpected. So it's important to me to plug as many of the gaps in my life as I can before I hit that complicated fourth decade, to catch up with who I suspect I should really be by now. If life begins at forty then I want to have the tools in my bag before I start.

The other thing, of course, is the writing. In the absence of kids, books are my legacy: while I feel no need to write a magnum opus (I doubt any author wants to be remembered for just one work, complicated and egotistical bastards that we are) I do want to leave as many behind as I can. At the moment I'm writing two: The Vagrant And The Snowflake inches forward, while I moonlight with a new project that I'm not ready to explain just yet.

The short version is, I've had a busy couple of months and it's only going to get busier. Getting old is only a matter of ceasing to improve, I think. It's not entirely avoidable, but there are choices.

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