I Hate Swimming, But I’ll Never Stop

The Welles Park pool in Chicago where I swim. In the summer, the walls slide aside to the open air. On winter mornings, sunlight streams in.

I hate swimming. The act itself is unnatural. Humans are just not built to spend long periods of time submerged in water, holding their breath. Think about the position a person takes in the water: Stretched out, windmilling arms, wiggling legs back and forth. There is no elegance, nothing attractive about it. When a person gets out of the water, their skin is pruny and tender, with hair a complete mess. They’re likely out of breath from holding it for so long.

And yet, I do it three times a week. I don’t think I’ll ever stop swimming if I can help it.

Swimming has changed my life. Since I started going regularly last January, I’ve lost weight, gained energy and for the first time in my life, managed to do something that requires long-term discipline.

Early in the morning I walk three blocks to my local park district pool. I change into my swimsuit, sharing the showers with a pair of very clean homeless men that shower there every morning. I push open the heavy metal door dividing the men’s showers from the pool, drop my ID on the table by the door and plop my towel on the metal bleachers to the right.

Then, I pad to the middle lane – the fast one with people doing freestyle or breast stroke rather than the crawl – and jump in the pool. I take a deep breath, and dive in. Twenty laps on weekdays, thirty seven, one mile, on weekends.

I get into the pool and start swimming as soon as possible. Some people hang out at the shallow end and talk a bit, or psych themselves up. I just go. Waiting is my enemy. If I wait, I’ll think. And when I think, I imagine other things I’d like to do instead of swimming. Instead, I just plunge in, forcing my body to do something it would much rather not.

Now that I’ve been swimming for a while, I’ve gotten to know the characters of my pool. The lifeguards are all interchangable and almost never interact with the lap swimmers. They do set the music on the boombox, which echoes throughout the room and fills your ears when you stop at the end of a lap. Mostly they choose pop stations, but one guy sometimes punches in the classical station, sublime on an early, cold morning. I wish he worked more often.

The swimmers however, are all very different. The first lesson you learn about lap swimmers is: Body type and age is not an indicator of swimming ability. Of course you can imagine some muscle-bound, trim guy or woman splashing uselessly in the pool. But your mind gets bent when a rotund woman in her mid-60’s does a flip-kick off the end, then a dolphin kick into a breast stroke, lapping you twice in five minutes. These are the people who intimidate me.

One of them, a woman I call “blue suit” (I have names for everyone in my mind) is blindingly fast and well into retirement. Sometimes a buddy of hers shows up in a black suit. Together they dominate the fast lane, setting a pace for everyone, so we all go faster, rushing not to keep up with blue and black suits, but to avoid the thing that silently creeps up on you in the pool: The overtake.

The overtake can be a delicate thing during lap swim. Either the person being overtaken stays politely to the right, or they flail arms everywhere, swerving back and forth so the faster swimmer needs to knock them about a bit. When someone like blue suit attempts to overtake Mr. Crawl, then everything goes nuts.

Mr. Crawl is a guy I just hate. He’s probably in his late 50’s, balding, wears a black volley shorts suit. And he does the fucking crawl, a stroke where your arms and legs go as wide as possible, in the fast lane. In my mind, this is an offense of the highest order. The fast lane is where you go fast. So, the crawl? He’s taking so much space, it’s almost impossible to pass. Basically, Mr. Crawl is saying “fuck you” to everyone in the pool, since he’s throwing himself into the pool as a monkey wrench to all of our attempts to keep a rhythm.

Don’t be Mr. Crawl. Go to the slow or medium lanes if you’re doing the crawl.

Now, just because I have strong opinions about my exercise doesn’t mean I’m some kind of pool nut. In reality, I’m a very mediocre swimmer. I swim five laps at a time, because I really start to run out of breath after that. Five laps, break, five laps, break, and so on. I don’t bring a water bottle or use any kind of swimming aide. Just googles, because swimming without them is plain dumb.

Eventually, after my twenty or thirty-seven laps, I pull myself out. Grab my towel and my ID card, rinse off in the shower, change clothes, go outside and walk home three blocks. I’m always super hot and sweaty. I pull out my phone and type my distance into Swimtivity, an app that allows you to enter exercise into the iPhone/Apple Watch activity tracker. I close my exercise circles for another day.

I managed to do it one more time. Even though I hate it.

Saturday Morning Around The World

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know that the American world fell into a shitstorm this week. Rather than write about the big topic we’re all talking about, I want to invite you to be part of something positive, demonstrating togetherness.

Please help make our Saturday Morning Around The World video. Already people from half a dozen countries and from all over the United States have volunteered to be a part of it.

You can get details here. It really shouldn’t take you more than three minutes on Saturday between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. your time, and dang, it would be great to see your face along with all the others. With your help, I’d like to help show that people all around the world, are pretty much the same.

Yes, it’s quaint. And, no, it won’t alter world history. But it will feel good. And it will be cool to show so many great people be a part of it. If you know someone overseas or somewhere in the U.S. that might want to be part of it, please forward this message!

After I get everyone’s clips, I’ll edit it all together and release to you next Friday, October 5.

I can’t wait to see your video! [Here’s the details again.]

Just A Shell

Lou Fourcher, at Loyola Beach in Chicago, June 2012.

It begins one of two ways, either a call to your cell marked “No Caller ID”, or from that gut-wrenching number from the nurse’s station you’ve memorized.

“Hi, Mike. There’s no emergency with your dad. I just wanted to check in on some things.”

These kinds of phone calls are never good, but they’re better than the alternative, when there is an actual emergency.

“So, we haven’t talked in a bit. But have you taken care of funeral arrangements?”

That isn’t exactly what the social worker said, in fact he never said the word “funeral”. Instead, he said something artful and sympathetic, so you understood the topic without an overt mention of death. But still. The dull pain hits you.

My father, who has been living with Alzheimer’s for twelve years, well, at least since he was diagnosed, is in a nursing home here in Chicago. He isn’t married, and I have no brothers and sisters, so all the calls, all the paperwork comes to me.

And yes, I’m the main one who visits him too, although over the last couple of years I’m ashamed to admit, the visits aren’t that often. But also in the last couple of years he’s been a total vegetable, so I don’t feel like I’m really hurting anyone.

Well, I do feel bad about it, actually. But it’s so complicated. I mean, he’s totally gone now. The details of his current illness are ugly, and my father’s modesty and propriety keeps me from describing how bad things are. So, please take my word for it: He is a shell now. None of the man I, or anyone else once knew, is there.

Gone, all gone. Except for the shell of a being that looks like a person. Except it really isn’t.

And so now, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been responsible for someone that’s really not there anymore. I could tell you all kinds of things about how wonderful a man he was, how loved he was, and how he loved me, his son and only child.

I could tell you about his failures. His two divorces, lost jobs and people tired of his endless crusading.

But at this point it’s all gone. Supported by Medicaid and Social Security, my father eats and breathes in a facility that tends to his bodily needs. A chaplain visits at least once a week, and so does a volunteer that plays CDs of music I know he used to like. His nurses and their assistants are good to him.

I visit when I feel like I can stomach the grief. Which seems less and less often these days. But who, except the nurses and nurses’ assistants would know the difference? Not my dad.

I love him so much.

But I can’t help him. When he was declining, my love made a difference. I knew.

Like when he began to have paranoid freak outs common to Alzheimer’s, I’d stand in the room with him, and hug him. I’d play Earl Hines piano jazz on my phone to distract him. It usually worked. And as painful as it was, the knowledge that I was helping him, being a good son, filled a hole for me.

I felt like I was loving him as well as I could.

But now. The shell.

There’s nothing I can do for the shell.

I miss him so much.

But he’s not gone yet.

I had already taken care of funeral arrangements. I bought a funeral package with his savings before he went into the nursing home.

I Was Raised By A Black Woman

One of my mothers was a black woman and I miss her more than words can convey.

I’ve tried countless times to write this essay, because I want to tell you about my relationship with Inez Fleming. I keep stopping, or have thrown away previous drafts because I’ve been so afraid to talk about this well-to-do, white man’s connection to a poor, black woman. If I’ve learned anything about race and class in America, it’s that it twists and corrupts our understanding of one another.

By telling you about my invisible, undeniable bond with Inez, now buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery, I’m opening up my pristine, loving memories of her to you. Please be careful with my memories. You may have your own ideas about what we were to one another, and maybe they are right. But I have my own memories and ideas, and I know those will always be true.

When my biological mother started her career, Inez was hired to take me during the days and nights. It was the 1970’s, and as progressive as my dad was, he was going to work too. I was just six weeks old when Inez entered my life.

She was my Inez. You may have a different, more common name for what she was, but I will never say it, because “second mother” seems like the only term that fits.

Two years later, my mother and father divorced, and Inez stepped in for more hours. I knew her better than my biological mother at times. It was not uncommon for me to call her “mom”, because that’s what she was.

My strongest memories of childhood are of Inez trundling me around in her green and white Impala. I moved with her in South Side Chicago’s world of black women caring for white children. Again, because it was the 1970’s, that often meant going to some of those caretaker’s houses, or to greasy chicken shacks for lunch. It seemed there were fewer rules those days, so I rode along into Inez’ world most days, listening to gossip about so-and-so, running errands for her friends. Nobody seemed to mind.

We were close. Everyone remarked on it. I’m not sure what I did to show it, but she hugged and held me tight. And when I was bad, she threatened to “get a switch”, but she never did.

Inez was from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, although Inez had left long before that had happened. I’d asked her about life in Mississippi, but she always deflected, saying, “I don’t like to talk about bad things, Michael. That’s why I came here.”

Sweet, full of smiles, and devoted to Christ and Roman Catholicism, she was wiser than her lack of education should have allowed. She understood people, and could detect a false motive a mile away. “I only deal with good people, Michael. There are too many bad people in this world, and I can’t make time for them.”

Round and with a weakness for food of all kinds–especially Neji pop–Inez struggled with weight her entire life and eventually with bad knees and diabetes. Going on, and staying on diets were a constant topic with her, up until the end. My mother, who became close friends with Inez, would talk recipes and bring her loads of fresh fruit, hoping her habits would change. But South Side church dinners and chicken shacks don’t usually serve diet-friendly food, and so the diets always came to an end.

For complicated family reasons, my mother and step-father let Inez go when I was seven. Her services were quickly picked up by another family I knew, which made me jealous beyond belief.

I insisted on visiting her regularly to make sure she was still “my Inez” and to check in with her. I was a child, so I didn’t know exactly how to check in, but I did my childish best.

The visits were at first a few times a year, eventually winding down to twice, then once. By the time I went to college, we mostly talked on the phone and exchanged cards and letters. I still have them, in her flowey, perfect Palmer Method script.

Around when when I was thirty, my mother got very sick with cancer, I orchestrated a visit between her and Inez. The logistics were difficult, since Inez was also enfeebled now, using a walker and visiting dialysis twice a week. My mother was less feeble, although using a walker of her own, so we visited Inez’ second-floor walk up. It was terrible, and lovely.

The three of us present knew it was the last visit. Not a goodbye, just yet, so we made the best of it with a dinner cooked in the apartment and jokes and stories. My mother and Inez reminisced and told each other how much they loved one another, a conversation Inez repeated back to me verbatim, up until the last week of her life.

After that, they called each other every other day, just to check in. To complain about hospitals and nurses, things they’d both experienced in detail.

“She’s like my sister, your mother is,” Inez would say. And they both pledged their undying devotion to each other. Inez had pulled my mother through early motherhood, and then her divorce from my dad, and supported her early career. My mother and dad had steadied Inez, took her to a bank to open her first bank account, loved her and gave her security when her brutal husband left her after years of beatings and alcoholism.

But my mother’s illness frightened Inez. “Who will take care of me, now?” she asked me. She had no other family.

Then when my mother died, my father flew in for the funeral, prepared to pick up Inez for the service.

“I can’t do it, baby,” she told me on the phone. “I just can’t do it. My knees hurt too much. But you know how much I loved your mother, don’t you.”

It was an excuse, of course. But my father and I understood and visited her together the next day. It was the first time he’d seen her in fifteen years. “So gaunt,” my dad said. The once rotund, jolly woman was now ashen, with skin hanging off her bones. Dad was visibly shaken.

Quickly now, Inez began to decline. Exhausted and depressed by dialysis, my visits to her house or trips to dialysis barely perked her up. Once, I convinced a priest friend of mine, to visit her house and say a private mass. When the priest and I arrived, Inez had tidied her house, put on her wig and a bucket of rouge, and had set out snacks. Delightful, it still makes me smile to think of her excitement.

Eventually, her knees got so bad that she couldn’t walk up her own stairs. Her social worker begged her to enter a nursing home. We knew what that decision meant.

“I don’t want to go there, honey. That’s where people die,” Inez said. I remember it clearly.

But, if you don’t go, you’ll fall and probably die sooner, I told her. And so she went.

It was good at first. I visited twice a week for a long while. People in the nursing home seemed to perk up when the white man in a suit kept visiting this one old, black lady. Inez knew it too, and chuckled over the treatment she got from the nurses as a result. “They asked me, is that your lawyer? And I said, No! That’s my God son!”

And so I was.

Things went on like this for a while. But, as it goes, a sudden jolt changes things. For Inez, there was an accident on the shuttle she rode in to dialysis. The driver had forgotten to strap her wheelchair down, and when he came to a sudden stop, she violently rolled forward, and fell out of her chair, breaking her hip.

Now, the social worker asked, “Who is her next of kin? Because she needs a legal guardian.”

Then Inez pointed at me. “He is. He is my son. He’ll sign the papers.”

Even now, thinking of that moment, I’m brought to tears.

Of course, her health got worse. There were more hospital visits, doctors, social workers. We talked less, because she was weakening quickly. When she could, we talked about old days, and how she was ready to see The Lord.

The visits shook me. I’d cry on the Metra Electric as I headed north.

And then the call came: She’s crashed and is having another heart attack. Do we resuscitate?

No.

I scraped together some life insurance receipts she had in the back a of a drawer, and visited the funeral home. Her insurance wasn’t nearly enough to pay for a funeral and burial, so my dad and I paid the rest. Some cousins came, a couple old friends. But Inez was old with few relations left. She was either 71 according to her expired driver’s license, or 88 according to her welfare records. Philadelphia, Mississippi didn’t have a birth certificate.

Inez Fleming taught me compassion and love. She taught me to be suspicious of overly generous people, and she taught me that it’s a good thing to care deeply and give of your self to others that you care about.

I miss her every day, and I wish that race and class didn’t mean anything. I wish I was allowed to use the lessons Inez gave me to connect with people the way she taught me.