Saturday, July 31, 2021

At home

I've been swimming again for the first time in many years. When I entered the pool at the local YMCA a few weeks back and began laps, I felt instantly at home, as if entering through the doors of a long-vacated safe place. I took to swimming easily as a kid, taught, I think, mostly by my dad at the public pool, with my sister pitching in. If I had official lessons—which seems logical—I don't remember them now. Rather, I remember my dad's large arms and hands holding me afloat in blue water under a sunny sky as I began paddling. (An image reoccurs: me swimming toward my smiling dad as he's kicking his legs in the water as the melancholy "Nadia's Theme" plays. I haven't figured that one out, yet.) I loved swimming (though not competitively), filling my lungs with air and then skimming the floor on long sweeps down a pool's length, coming up for air, repeating. My wife, who I taught to swim, likens me to a river otter. I do feel purely, innately creature-like in the water, with little permeable boundaries except the obvious—I can't breathe, I have to fight not to float, I exhaust myself and have to rest, etc.. These facts mean there's a finite time that I can spend in water. Yet when I'm there I feel placeless, and the very gesture of the crawl stroke feels ancient yet familiar.

Boundaries of a different sort describe another place where I've aways felt at home: the dive bar. Let me wander into a small, dark, not necessarily old, joint, sit on a rickety stool near the door (on which, preferably, there's a diamond window), allow my eyes to adjust, order a round of cold cheap beer and a shot, control a killer jukebox for a dozen or so songs, and I'm at peace. If there is a TV, it's on but low, hopefully tuned to a baseball game, if we're in season. (In my beloved pub the Oasis, in Rockford, Illinois, the TV's busted, and hangs dark from the ceiling gathering dust.) I'll make small talk if I'm in the mood, but I'm usually not, preferring to gaze into my beer as my own company, and follow the current of my my thoughts. Here, I feel comfortable, whether I'm a regular who the bartender knows or whether I've ducked in to this appealing looking place in a city I'm visiting for the first time. I'm careful to guard against over-valuing the buzzed epiphany, trusting that, as the afternoon or evening lengthens, any worthwhile philosophizing I might mutter to myself will be replaced by simple grooving to a good song on the jukebox.

I'm all too aware that romanticizing bars can be dangerous. A decade ago I wrote about my attraction to bars and drinking, and my wariness of both, in "Barfly on the Wall," an essay for Junk: A Literary Fix; revisiting the piece, I'm struck by how little my attitude has changed, and how my discovery near the end of the piece feels even more urgent to me now. "I’d like to think that I’m in recovery, but I’m not so sure." I wrote. "Addiction to romanticizing, addiction to sentimentalizing, can be dangerous lifetime habits. As an addict is wary of his next sip, her next pain pill, so am I wary of the next indulgent slip into idealizing, because it could be fatal to what I might call the Mature Life."

While an addiction to romancing debauchery is certainly better for my physical and mental health than actual debauchery, it poisons in a different way: I can place a dive bar on a pedestal high enough that all I really see is its appealing shape, its blurring borders in Ideal Land, the pretty wink of neon signs. Romanticizing a bar is like falling for the Platonic promise of model homes at new housing developments, or the house fa├žades on a movie set. The crisp front walk and neat green hedges, the clean white paint and trim, the shimmering bay windows present the family within as cast by Woods-Were-Once-Here Corporation. When we walk into a stranger’s home we know the odd smells and psychological histories, the muttering corners and emotionally weighted heirlooms, actual realities, the flawed families inside not reading from scripts, but improvising daily.

The limitations of indulging bar romance are considerable, then. I guess one can over swim, but the excesses of that pastime aren't nearly as corrosive as overstaying, by years, one's welcome at the corner joint. 

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What of the connections, if any, between swimming in a pool and drinking in a bar? Both allow me to feel innate and untroubled when I'm on the road—we love visiting local Y's in whatever towns we're staying in on long road trips; hitting a good dive in a strange city, I feel uncannily at home. Both allow me some measure of solitude in public; both encourage the kind of pleasant, essayistic ambling of the mind from thought to observation and back again; both create a kind of cocoon for me to be present and apart at the same time. I won't indulge in more symbolism or psychological insights than my predilection for pools and dives deserves, except to admit to a certain ambivalence recognizing that, though I'm a social creature, if an introverted one, and a happy, solid husband and a friend to my friends, I often find my most authentic self in my own head.

Photo of pool via iStock; photo of International Bar in New York City by yours truly

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