The Self-Reflecting Pool

By Tsui, Bonnie | International New York Times, February 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Self-Reflecting Pool


Tsui, Bonnie, International New York Times


Swimming may well be that last refuge from connectivity -- and, for some, the only way to find the solitary self.

Late last year, a designer and a geographer who met at M.I.T. revealed that they'd spent much of 2013 mapping every single swimming pool in Los Angeles -- 43,123 of them, to be exact. Their satellite photos documented all the little aquamarine ovals and rectangles in a huge 74-book project called "The Big Atlas of L.A. Pools." Though the cultural conversation mostly revolved around how unsettlingly easy it was for them to locate and discover personal details relating to each pool's owner -- address, property value, even sex-offender status -- I found myself fantasizing instead about disappearing, and using those pools to do it.

What would it be like to follow their hypothetical pool-hopping itinerary and swim freely, from one backyard to another? Submerge yourself, and suddenly you're under the world's radar. Each pool, I saw, was in fact a potential portal: a way to shed the noise, to swim to stillness.

"Swimming is the ultimate form of sensory deprivation," Diana Nyad told The New York Times in 2011, describing her attempt to be the first to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, a feat she finally accomplished last year. "You are left alone with your thoughts in a much more severe way."

This isn't as bad as it sounds. Ms. Nyad has spent a lifetime in the water, chasing an elusive mark in marathon swimming, and she has written about the exhilarating out-of-body experience she has when powering through long distances. The medium makes it necessary to unplug; the blunting of the senses by water encourages internal retreat. Though we don't all reach nirvana when we swim, swimming may well be that last refuge from connectivity -- and, for some, the only way to find the solitary self.

Most days, I get into the neighborhood pool by 8:30 a.m. Even when there's frost on the ground, the water is warm. Unless you're the lifeguard, blowing the whistle when you want me to get out, I don't know you exist. For 60 blessed minutes and 3,200 yards, I'm my only audience.

There's nothing to look at, once the goggles fog over. Sound? The sloshing of water pretty much cancels out everything else. Taste and smell are largely of the chlorine and salt variety (though, at my old pool, I used to smell burgers cooking from the cafe downstairs). Despite all the tech advances of the last few years, you won't see many swimmers wearing earphones or bone-conduction music devices: They just don't work that well.

We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We sing songs, or make to-do lists, or fantasize about what we're going to eat for breakfast. Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of them all, was found to have A.D.H.D. when he was a child; he has called the pool his "safe haven," in part because "being in the pool slowed down my mind."

In John Cheever's 1964 short story "The Swimmer," Neddy Merrill swims home through the backyard pools of his suburban neighbors. To get there, he must navigate the parties and social merriment surrounding every body of water. At one stop, Neddy "stood by the bar for a moment, anxious not to get stuck in any conversation that would delay his voyage. …

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