The Cold Keeps the Riff-Raff Out

I probably should not admit this; under certain circumstances, I do give up. I give up on big things. Things I love. Things that define me to myself. A few months ago, I gave up on swimming at the YMCA.

Swimming is one of the few cardio-vascular exercises still open to me; as I explained in an earlier entry (That Which Doesn’t Kill You) I have to avoid raising my body temperature. Any time I get too hot, my multiple sclerosis symptoms rear their ugly heads. It gets kind of tricky to keep fit while also keeping cool. Exercise isn’t about keeping cool; exercise is about burning calories. “Feel the burn;” that’s the mantra. Problem is, when I feel the burn, it means I’m about to go down.

I’ve found all sorts of ways to work around this hitch. I can use the weight machines at the gym; I simply lift the lightest increments. I walk over to the water fountain after each machine, and take a drink to avoid overheating.  Then I go on to the next machine; perform my repetitions. Rinse. Repeat. My system works. I do get toned. I don’t get overheated. There is just one flaw. I do get bored.

I am not about getting bored. I am all about joy. Did I say exercise is about burning calories? That’s a boring way to look at it. Exercise, at its best, is about celebrating the body, at its best. Exercise is an act of joy.

For me, the most joyous form of exercise is swimming. My husband calls me a mermaid, because even on those days when I cannot walk, when I cannot put one foot in front of the other, I can still swim. Being in the water levels the playing field. The water exempts me from negotiating my balance. It exempts me from gravity. I know why the dolphin grins.

After all this waxing rhapsodic over swimming, you would think that nothing would stand in the way of me and a swimming pool. Let me introduce you to the women of the YMCA locker room. Gentlemen, avert your eyes.

My first impediment was an aging Southern Belle, who introduced herself by stating, “You’re not from around here, are you.” She asked me for my name, and my birthplace. I told her I was born in the Bronx.

The Southern Belle stiffened. I added, I thought helpfully, “Bronx, New York.”

“Oh, I guess that’s all right.”

A few visits later, The Southern Belle grilled me again about my birthplace. The first time she’d asked, she’d been poolside, looming over me as I backstroked. The second time, I had just stepped out of the shower in the locker room. The Southern Belle apparently felt very comfortable in the locker room. As she was asking me about my birthplace, she was languidly applying her hairdryer to her billowy private parts. Startled, I averted my eyes. I towel dried and dressed as quickly as possible. The hairdryer droned on. I could not help but notice as I passed The Southern Belle on my way out that she was still aiming her hairdryer where the wind should not blow. I checked the clock on the wall. Eleven thirty.

Let me tell you something about the daytime YMCA regulars. They are creatures of habit. I am not, and can never be, a creature of habit. I am not, and can never be, a “regular.” I am a creature with brain shrinkage. I could not be tethered to a schedule, even if I wanted one. When I plan, MS laughs.

This YMCA regular was getting in my way. I figured she couldn’t possibly linger at the YMCA all day. The Southern Belle had to eat. By the looks of her, The Southern Belle had to eat quite a lot. She would likely take a break for lunch. I would no longer go to the Y in the morning. I would go instead at noon.

This plan was brilliant. I encountered The Southern Belle on her way out.  We were both fully dressed. She may not have recognized me; she didn’t ask me where I was born. I changed and showered unmolested by her questions; and arrived at the pool—with all the other lunchtime swimmers.

I waited for a free lane. One swimmer was gracious enough to offer to share his lane. I accepted.

I like to lose myself when I swim; I’m pretty sure I’m not unique in that regard. I knew what he was giving up. I tried my best to be a good neighbor; to keep to one side, to keep a pool length between us. All that neighborliness was exhausting. The man was a shark. He never stopped moving. I often outlast fast swimmers. I figured, if I just held out, I’d eventually have the lane to myself. Then I noticed the waiting swimmers still poolside. Not a chance.

Maybe going to the YMCA at noon was not such a brilliant idea, after all. I remained undeterred.  I could always go in the early afternoons.

Little did I know I would encounter an even more terrifying locker room adversary; an adversary who could get into my head. I feel almost guilty introducing her to you, because she’ll get into your head, too.

But maybe she needs no introduction; chances are, you already know a version of her. Perhaps you are a version of her. She is The Suburban Soccer Mom. All she does is judge. And judge. And judge.

Oh yes, and one other thing; The Suburban Soccer Mom never shuts up.

My first early afternoon swim went…swimmingly. I’d had a lane to myself. I could shut out awareness of all the other swimmers, but better still, I could shut out all my own thoughts. Swimming is my moving meditation. My mantra is simple…I count as I stroke. One. Two. Three. Breathe.

I headed to the locker room showers, dripping and peaceful. And then I heard a strident female voice.

“He’s says the kids should be there to have fun. I’m sorry, but if my daughter were winning a game every once in a while she’d have a lot more fun. Correct me if I’m wrong. Is there something not-fun about winning? Isn’t winning the point? Am I wrong, here? Am I wrong?”

A second, softer voice responded eagerly; a voice so soft I couldn’t hear a pandering word.

I stepped in a shower and turned on the water, hoping to drown The Suburban Soccer Mom out. I tried to regain the calm I’d felt after forty-five minutes of laps, of forming no words in my head besides “one, two, three.” I lingered in the shower a bit longer than usual, giving the Suburban Soccer Mom ample opportunity to exhaust her case against her daughter’s fun-loving/fun-destroying soccer coach.

As it happened, by the time I was done with my shower, The Suburban Soccer Mom was done lambasting her daughter’s soccer coach. She’d moved on to lambasting her father-in-law.

“He expects me to feel sorry for him because he just had back surgery. Why should I? It’s his own damn fault he needed the surgery. He’s too damn fat. His spine couldn’t take it. No surprise there. He should have gone on a diet. He should have gotten off his fat ass and exercised. Instead he runs to a doctor. You want to know the real problem with health care costs in this country? People are too damn lazy. They’re too damn lazy and they’re too damn fat. They overeat, and then they transfer the burden to the rest of us.”

I had to pass The Suburban Soccer Mom on my way to my locker. I didn’t give her glance. I try to avoid looking directly at the other naked women, with the presumption they might extend the same courtesy to me. Even though I didn’t look at The Suburban Soccer Mom directly, there are things I can tell you for certain about her appearance. The Suburban Soccer Mom is blonde and trim, though perhaps no more trim than I am. I can also assure you she must appear perfectly, unassailably normal. She couldn’t possibly tolerate herself otherwise.

I could not help but look directly at The Suburban Soccer Mom soft-voiced companion; she was cowering in front of my locker. The soft-voiced companion was soft-bodied. Her eyes bulged out in terror at the sound of the word, fat.

Once again, I found myself changing into dry clothes as quickly as possible to make a speedy exit from the YMCA locker room. I pitied the The Suburban Soccer Mom for her malady; an unrelenting/unremitting chronic illness that was causing her to assume she is surrounded by inferiors. If only she’d leave off judging everyone, she could be a happier person. If only she was more like…me.

On subsequent visits I heard subsequent rants. When The Suburban Soccer Mom was in a good mood, she’d alternate her judgments of other people’s failings with reports of her own successes; the laps she’d swum, the triathlons she’d won. According to The Suburban Soccer Mom, the world would be a much better place if we would all be more…like her.

And that’s how I ran afoul of The Suburban Soccer Mom. One afternoon she happened to notice that I am not at all like her.

That particular afternoon, I was fighting against fatigue. Fatigue is one of the toughest elements to deal with in MS. It feels like a personal failure. The Suburban Soccer Mom in me told me to drive to the YMCA and do my laps, though The Henry’s Mom in me thought I should save my energy so I’d still have enough vigor to pick my son up from school, to snack with him, to talk with him, to walk the dog with him, and after all that, to make the family dinner. I compromised. I decided to still swim laps, but only for fifteen minutes.

As I stashed my street clothes in the locker room, I heard The Suburban Soccer Mom announcing to the assembled that she and her daughter would be going out for a jog. I happened to return from my fifteen-minute lap swim just as The Suburban Soccer Mom was announcing to those assembled that her daughter had just texted to cancel their jog.  Oh, Sububran Soccer Mom’s daughter, wherever you are, I took the bullet for you that time. Your mother looked up from her cell phone, and found a target in me .

“Well, that was the shortest swim I’ve ever heard of.”

That was it. That’s all The Suburban Soccer Mom said. Yet I didn’t go back to the YMCA for two months. The next time I felt fatigue, I stayed home. And so on, for almost three months.

I shouldn’t bother to spend any more energy dissecting what is wrong with The Suburban Soccer Mom. I ought to figure out what the heck is wrong with me. I gave up something I loved to avoid someone I hated. Maybe I ought to do a little less hating. Maybe the prescription I’ve been writing for The Suburban Soccer Mom is prescription I ought be writing for myself.

I’ll have you know that on Friday I did return to the YMCA. There was a notice posted on the front door, regretfully announcing that though the lifeguard was on duty, the pool heater was broken.

Perfect. I learned a folk saying back in the days when I lived with the good, decent people of Minnesota. The cold keeps the riff-raff out. Sure enough, the pool was empty. I could swim in any lane that I pleased, for as long or as short a time as I pleased. Better yet, the locker room was empty, too.

I’ve got to go. The pool is only open another hour. I’ve got to get in my fifteen minutes of laps.

author’s note: On the drive home from a cold, solitary swim, I heard this thoughtful discussion about judging the judger on NPR. Listen and learn: http://www.npr.org/2011/01/10/132809627/concrete-ways-to-live-a-compassionate-life

For my review of “12 Steps to a Compassionate Life,” the book under discussion on NPR that day, connect to Goodreads http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/144053847

6 thoughts on “The Cold Keeps the Riff-Raff Out

  1. Fabulous post. I saw it in the Sunday Salon (which I have yet to find time to post to) and actually emailed it to myself from my cell so I could come back, finish reading it, and listen to the NPR link. I’m some sort of atheist, so Armstrong’s opinions rubbed me wrong at times, but it was still a great listen. The comment thread, though full of disagreement, was still clearly inspired by the tolerance of the piece because people were having real discussion about sensitive things without reverting to rotten behavior.

    Thank you for the post, the link, all of it. This was an uplifting experience in my day today.

  2. The Minnesotans actually say, “Twenty below keeps the riff-raff out.” In North Dakota, it’s usually “Thirty below keeps the riff-raff out.” Minnesotans are considered riff-raff.

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