Alone Together: Fred Brill - TMI Project

Swimming Through Covid

It is not that living through a pandemic was prompting an existential crisis. I simply felt a profound need for something new in my life. I needed to feel free again. But even after my local pool opened back up, I didn’t feel safe taking the plunge with fellow swimmers taking deep exhalations beside me. 

Back in November, when strolling along Albany Beach, I heard the steady churn of feet, kicking a froth of bubbles … I noticed this deliberate rhythmic windmilling of arms in the waves. Hmmm. Now that looks like fun! There are several reasons I should have abandoned the idea of open water swimming before it took hold. 1. The water is a frigid 52 degrees, much colder than I like to keep my body. 2. I’m 59 years old. 3. I’m kind of a wimp. 

But with proper equipment I could do this thing. Before I could change my mind, I went online and ordered a 3 mm wetsuit to cover my body from ankles to wrists. When the box arrived, I was like a kid on Christmas morning. When I slipped into the neoprene, I felt like a Centaur, except part man, part seal. Whatever. For the first time in a while, I could feel my heart beating in my chest. 

My wife, Mimi, a rock throughout the pandemic, readily agreed to serve as my crew. As we ambled onto the beach, we noticed it was awfully quiet out there. Maybe the low hanging clouds and 40-degree weather were a deterrent to more rational human beings. As I eased into the waters, I maintained my resolve, my swagger … until I got up to my waist and the icy waters began biting my legs. Every cell in my body began screaming: ABORT MISSION! OUT OF THE WATER! YOU’RE GOING TO DIE! How long does it take to generate some of that luscious brown fat that burns calories and keeps you warm in frigid waters like the man in My Octopus Teacher? 

By the time, I made it up to my neck, I was gasping. It was now or never. I suctioned the goggles over my eyes, leaped like dolphin, and began a splashy crawl at Olympic speeds– for five strokes– until I was overcome by a painful ice cream headache (without the joy of ice cream). 

I looked back at Mimi and displayed a spindly index finger to let her know I was all right; it was almost time to head home. I tried to relax body and breathing. Thankfully, the wetsuit provided exceptional buoyancy. I could float like a jellyfish, expending little energy. Another dive and I executed seven strokes before the headache revisited. Then 10, 15, until I got up to 60 strokes. 

There was even a moment when I experienced warmth. Dare I say bliss? I was returning to my primal state of being, and when I was able to ignore my gasping, the gulls and I shared the most glorious view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was experiencing a perfect moment out there. 

After a half hour of swimming around – not too far from shore – I made my way back to the beach. This is when Mimi captured the Dystopian picture of me, out there, all alone in the world. I think the photo captures the anguish so many of us are experiencing in the Age of Covid. When I tried to share the odd union of peacefulness and pain, I was unable to form words. My tongue and lips refused to articulate, and my fingers were useless. Mimi sprang into action, unzipping the layer of rubber from my pale body, offering towels and hot tea, holding my claws while I stripped down to lycra undershorts. She didn’t say a word about my shrunken junk as she draped an old towel around me and guided my sandy feet through dry boxers, a shivering body into sweatpants and fleece. Slowly, the arctic creature transformed back into a shivering man. More hot tea, please! 

I have maintained this exhilarating weekly activity for several months now, and it is getting easier. I’m getting stronger and more confident in the murky green waters. While I’m generally in the drink for less than 45 minutes, the adventure can consume a good chunk of my day. When I step out of my car-turned sauna, I must hose off the wetsuit and accessories. I run a warm bath (hot water is like pins and needles). Of course, a big meal is required to cultivate the brown fat that will eventually keep me warm. And then, post-prandial narcolepsy. Vigorous activity deserves a rejuvenating nap! 

Admittedly, this activity is not for everyone. But for me, it’s been like a beacon of light in a tempestuous storm. Even though I am not moving in any particular direction when I’m out there, I am moving. I am breathing. I’m reminded that I’m alive and my heart is beating inside my chest.


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