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The Buddy Call

When I went to sleep away camp for the first time, at age nine, everything was new to me. Living in a bunk with other girls, sharing sinks and toilets and showers and such a small space, when I was used to having my own room, and my own door to close out the world. But one of the biggest changes was the lake. At day camps on Long Island I’d been swimming in pools, with see-through water and the burn of chlorine up my nose. At sleepaway camp we swam in a lake, with murky depths, and floating docks that moved with the water.

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Cricket is not sure about this whole swimming thing.

I didn’t do very well on my first swim test, on the first full day of camp, but that was okay with me, because it meant that my advanced beginner swim classes would be held in the shallow water by the shore, where I could touch the ground under my feet. I was willing to learn surface dives and summersaults and treading water, and basic swim strokes, as long as I could reach out and find the ground when I needed to.

We had swim classes every morning, five days a week, and in the afternoons we had free swim. For my first three summers at camp “free” swim was required, and we needed to have a buddy. The social anxiety of, every day, having to ask someone to go swimming with me, and be tied to me, metaphorically, for forty five minutes, was brutal. I did have friends at camp, in a way I didn’t during the school year, but even so, every day the specter of rejection hovered over me. “Will you be my buddy?” is as excruciating a question to ask as you might think it is, even when I was only asking for temporary friendship.

The buddy rule was to make sure that if one person started to drown, their buddy would notice and call for the life guards on the dock. And to make sure we were all still alive, at some point during each free swim period, we had to go through the torment of the buddy call.

So, some background. Depending on our swimming ability we received a buddy tag corresponding to the shallow water (red), deeper water (yellow), and deepest water (green). I had a red tag, so I could only go for free swim in the shallow water. Someone with a yellow tag could go into deeper water, still surrounded on three sides by contiguous docks, with life guards standing at regular intervals. A green tag meant you could go into the deepest water, which was outlined in stand-alone docks connected by buoy ropes. There was only one lifeguard on each of the scattered docks, so you were mostly on your own out there.

I never wanted a green tag. I was happy to be trapped in red water, even though it meant that friends with higher level tags wouldn’t want to be my buddy, because they’d be restricted to shallow water with me. We lined up at the buddy board, and each pair of swimmers would be assigned a number, in Hebrew, in red, yellow, or green water. Our tags would be placed on the board, under our assigned number, so that if, god forbid, we failed to respond to the buddy call, they would know whose body to search for.

I’d been studying Hebrew since kindergarten, but even I found it stressful to have to remember my number in Hebrew, under stress. The problem is that the number fifteen, using Hebrew letters as numbers, spells one of the names of God, and therefore can’t be said out loud. So instead of using the letters for ten and five, we had to use the letters for nine and six to make fifteen, I think. Just trying to think this through again is bringing up long buried panic.

Anyway. You’d be swimming along, splashing your neighbors (red water was always crowded, because I wasn’t the only one happy to stay in the shallow water), and then the whistles would blow, and you had to stay still throughout the buddy call. If you were in yellow or green water, and more than an arm’s length from the dock when the whistles blew, you’d have to tread water the whole time. I would stand in red water and listen for my number, reminding my usually non-Hebrew speaking friend where our number would be in the order, worried the whole time that I was remembering or counting wrong.

I always needed a nap after free swim because of the stress of it all.

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“Cricket, are you sleeping?” “Not anymore.”

Even now, I feel like I’ve spent my whole life dreading the buddy call, but now it’s the “Are you married?” “Do you have kids?” “Where do you work?” questions. The questions that really seem to be asking if I have proven myself worthy of being chosen. And if I haven’t? It kind of feels like I’m not allowed into the pool, or the lake, of life.

Cricket thinks it’s nonsense, of course. I mean, really, who wants to swim in a lake anyway? She also believes in the reject-them-before-they-can-reject-you philosophy, with lots of barking added.

 

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“I don’t always bark, but when I do there’s a very good reason, Mommy.”

I’m not sure where Ellie stands on these issues yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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When she wakes up from her nap.

I want to swim

I have this idea, probably because it still feels vaguely like winter, that this summer I want to go swimming. I’ve barely gone swimming since I was a teenager, except maybe wading in once or twice at the beach. I got as far as buying a swimsuit, two times, but I couldn’t convince myself to wear them in public. Maybe if I’d lived in the era of bathing costumes for women, with ruffles and fabric covering the whole body, maybe then I could have gone swimming more often. But, still, maybe not.

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This is not my picture, but I wish it were

 

There’s something odd about a whole society expecting women, of all ages, to feel comfortable in skin tight Lycra, barely covering a third of the body. When did this happen? And why? There are certain adaptations available, like blouson tops, and skirts or swim shorts, but they mark you as overly modest and strange, if you wear them.

I had to swim every summer as a kid, at sleep away camp. And I couldn’t wear my t-shirt and shorts over my swimsuit when I went into the water, though I kept them on until the last possible second.

My fear of swimming is about more than how I look in a bathing suit, though. There’s also how I feel in a bathing suit – slimy, and trapped, and sick to my stomach. And then you get sandy, or covered in chlorine, or salt water, or sea weed. And really, who knows what’s in the water with you. And then there’s the breathing problem. I’ve always struggled to breathe correctly when I swim. I almost drowned a couple of times: once, when my father shoved me into the backyard pool fully dressed; and again when my father capsized our rented sailboat and I was caught under the hull.

I was also sexually abused in a swimming pool, as a little girl, by my friend’s older brother. So there’s that.

Given all of this, the mystery is why I would ever want to swim. But when summer comes and I’m choking from the heat and sweating to death, a pool starts to look good to me, and I feel left out and isolated. And I have this underlying belief that everything needs to be overcome, eventually, or else I’ve been wasting decades in therapy. Even though that’s really silly.

I’d rather swim in a pool than at the beach. A pool can be temperature controlled, and indoors, with clear water. And the ground can be level under your feet, depending on the pool. And you’re not trapped, because there are ladders out. But also, I don’t want to sit on the beach and get a tan. I don’t tan. I burn, or get sun poisoning. And I feel like a sheet of cookies left in the oven too long, after three minutes.

Ideally I would have my own pool, in my own backyard, and I could swim in whatever I wanted to wear at whatever time of day. I could have one of those enclosed pools with a glass ceiling in a building of its own. Like the old guys in the movie Cocoon.

            I wonder what Cricket would think of an indoor pool. It’s possible that she’d see it as an enormous bathtub and run screaming back under her couch. But that’s more pool for me.

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“You can’t make me swim, Mommy.”

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“No, really. You can’t make me.”