Monday, November 7, 2016

The Pool Disrupter (An Election Parable)

Swimming is what I do for exercise and for mental health - the latter more than ever this election cycle when I've been working at CNN and having to immerse myself in the daily morass.

But I was reminded again this morning, there's one swimmer who keeps making it difficult for me to lose myself - and the situation has echoes of the campaign.

Public pool lap swimmers are generally a collegial, accommodating bunch. We all have our routines, but we understand that since we have chosen to exercise not on a lake or on a solo elliptical machine at the gym, we have to pace ourselves and dovetail with our fellows.  If there are two swimmers, you split a lane. More than two, you swim in counterclockwise circles. Some pools even designate "slow, medium, fast" lanes to help sort things out.

But some people just don't care - about others, rules or decorum.

Case in point: One day last summer I was at the excellent community pool in Durango, Colorado (left), and found 10 of the 11 lanes had two swimmers sharing. So as is customary, I stood at the end of the 11th, and when the lone swimmer arrived, I tapped him on the shoulder to inform him we'd be splitting it.

His reply was shocking. "I don't do well with splits." He turned and headed back into hogging the lane.  Instead of crowding two other swimmers, I waited for someone else to finish and took her place.

That was a one-time incident. But the situation at my neighborhood rec center pool in Harlem is chronic. I was ecstatic to discover the beautiful tiled space when I moved uptown 6 years ago, and I have adjusted my life to match the Parks Department's limited lap swim hours, during which orange cones are set up by the lifeguard to designate them slow, fast, medium, respectively.
Over the years a melting-pot group of regulars - African-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Latinos, Caucasians - is usually partaking of the M/W/F 7-9am slot. Among the most memorable a 90-year-old woman who paddles the whole time on her back; a 90-pound woman who swims entire laps underwater along the pool bottom; a bearded guy who wears no goggles yet zooms past most of us; an elderly guy who works out with water barbells in the deep end, and a heavyset man who does some lackadaisical water exercise in the shallow end of the slow lane but mostly harangues anyone else in earshot.

Then there's the Big Guy.

When I first enter the pool room, I know what kind of workout it will be if The Big Guy is in the water. He's retirement age, well over 6 feet, pear-shaped, probably 300 lbs., and he swims a full 90 minutes three times a week.  His pace is very very very methodical (ie slow), taking elaborate, wide-swath flip turns at each end, which would be fine if he were in the slow lane. But
he swims exclusively in the fast lane. Which is the narrowest of the three. His reach is so wide he often accidentally slaps swimmers in both adjacent lanes. I am not a fast swimmer, but the one time I tried to share a lane with him, I passed him 6 times in 30 laps. He never once moved or held back to help me or anyone else pass.

This creates a domino effect. Fast swimmers in the correct lane have to exert most of their energy trying to make their way past him. So they end up defecting to other lanes, which throws off the whole ecosystem. Sometimes there are as many as 5 swimmers in each of the side lanes, while only one or two others try to share with the Big Guy.

After a few times noticing this phenomenon, I asked a lifeguard, what's the deal with this guy? Over the years several have told me "He's going to be spoken to" and yet The Big Guy never varies from his bigfooting of the whole pool.

It turns out that when the rec center and parks officials have tried to reason with the Big Guy, he claims the "fast lane" was put in the center simply as a slight against him. He claims he doesn't fit in either of the side lanes because they have steps leading to and from the pool at the ends - something that doesn't seem to foil any other swimmers.

The Big Guy also claims he's being discriminated against (even though there are other swimmers his race and his size), and that the pool belongs to the neighborhood people, not the Parks Dept. rulemakers.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I have learned to time my arrival at the building to have the least overlap with him, so that eventually things get freed up. Often by the end of my swim, I have a whole lane to myself -- sometimes even the whole pool. When I get into the locker room, the Big Guy is often still there -- even his shower and dressing ritual is methodical -- he's usually holding forth about sports. Also notable is that in the five years I have been swimming there, my swimming competence and speed have improved a lot -- I went from mostly pursuing my mile with breast stroke, to now mostly crawl. I finish the mile now in 45 minutes instead of an hour. I've lost my middle aged pot belly and a few loops on the belt.

The Big Guy, despite all his efforts, remains exactly the same pace and size.

He doesn't seem like a bad guy, out of the water. He just seems to not care about anybody else. I've found that in life there are people who are givers and people who are takers, and it's usually impossible to get the takers to even see how they're affecting others, much less to get them to change.

I'm going to be glad when at least the election is over.


PSC said...

Your tummy has flattened, your heart is stronger, your mind is clearer. He hogs the pool, but you have won this challenge. In every way.

Unknown said...

You win all the way around!

stmmendoza said...

That's quite a culture! Good for you for sticking in there. It's a great metaphor for life.