I haven’t been a lifeguard for years. But when I walk past the freshly reopened McCarren Park Pool and get a whiff of chlorine, I realize there are some things I haven’t really forgotten. The positions for performing CPR. The office cubbyholes where we stashed our keys while on duty. The way the light on the water changes from six o’clock, when the sun starts setting, until the pool closes at eight.
To the children in the water, we are like the gargoyles on an old cathedral: instantly recognized, immediately forgotten. If we are gargoyles, they are wide-eyed pilgrims, in love with water. They swim with inflatable wings, water noodles, kickboards, flippers. They swim in the shallow areas, then they go deeper, then they learn how to dive. We watch them come back over days, months, years.
We perform the same rituals day after day. We unlock the bathhouse doors. We hand each other our foam rescue tubes as we climb up and down the lifeguard stands. We loosen the lane ropes, turning six-foot-tall wheels, until they have been coiled up on a reel aboveground, only to unroll them again later in the day.
The water circulates through the filters and the pumps, always the same water.
• • • •
One winter, I went to the Whitney, and saw a series of photographs by Roni Horn of the River Thames. As I looked more closely, I realized that the pictures had been superimposed with tiny numbers. Below the photographs were numbered footnotes.
61. Is water sexy?
62. Water is sexy.
63. Water is sexy. It’s the purity of it, the transparency, the passivity, the aggression of it.
64. Water is sexy; the sensuality of it teases me when I’m near it.
65. Water is sexy. (I want to touch it, to hold it, to drink it, to go into it, to be surrounded by it.)
66. Water is sexy. (I want to be near it, to be in it, to move through it, to be under it. I want it in me.)
I smiled. Not long after, I forgot about the photos and their captions, just as I stopped thinking about about my time as a lifeguard. Even when McCarren Pool opened last month, I didn't think about the water as anything more than an afternoon's diversion.
• • • •
Back when I was a lifeguard, I had always kept an eye on the evening swim teams practicing. After a shift, I sometimes jumped straight from my chair into the water and started swimming laps beside them. I swam to shake off the heat and restlessness of the long day, to bring my mind back to the real world I would face upon exiting the water. Watching those swimmers, I wondered what they thought about as they went from one end of the pool to the other. And then I read Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies.
I know their hours of swimming are no less repetitive than a lifeguard’s on his chair. Instead of focusing on everyone but themselves, however, swimmers focus on nobody but themselves. Leanne Shapton distills this to a state of mind.*
I swim a few laps, then decide to do a hundred. This is my default workout, one hundred reps of whatever. One hundred is actually not much, but it sounds nice, like “an hour,” even though swimming a hundred laps of this short a pool does not take an hour, it takes about twenty minutes ... As I swim, my mind wanders. I talk to myself. What I can see through my goggles is boring and foggy, the same view lap by lap. Mundane, unrelated memories flash up vividly and randomly, a slide show of shuffling thoughts.
Leanne had been training for the Olympics. She nearly qualified, but didn’t. I wasn’t interested in reading about this, nor she in writing about this. Instead, I read about the small, quotidian details of a swimmer's life. Her drives with her parents to and from the pool. The effects chlorine has on swimmers’ swimsuits, on swimmers’ hair. And then there are her watercolors. She continually detailed the contours of the different pools she had gone to—a silly thing to mention, I thought, until I came much later in the book to watercolors of all the swimming pools she remembered, and I suddenly recognized the details she had described.
Leanne stopped seriously competing after those Olympic trials, channeling her energy into art. The result, in Swimming Studies, is a collage of prose texts and pieces of art that cumulatively feel well, watery. Aqueous. The quality of her diction, as well as the similarity of the many scenes she depicts, makes reading the book feel very much like swimming laps with someone who knows the pool, the water, and her own body, extraordinarily well.
• • • •
I was a lifeguard. And Leanne, the one in the water, was just as obsessed with its surface. She went through rubber swimming caps, through championships, through boyfriends and houses and cities, and still relished each moment she made the first dive into the sickly-blue water. I looked through the footnotes about her swimsuits, and was reminded again of Roni Horn’s pictures.
Sure enough, those photographs had been made into a book: Another Water (The River Thames, for Example). Roni's footnotes were still as idiosyncratic and meditative as back at the Whitney.
411. Water shines. Water shimmers. Water glows. Water glimmers. Water glitters. Water gleams. Water glistens. Water glints. Water twinkles. Water sparkles. Water blinks. Water winks. Water waves.
412. Under the cover of harsh, elusive colors, black is constant. These useless, hopeless colors gather around this black place.
413. The Thames is a tunnel.
414. The river is a tunnel, it’s civic infrastructure.
415. The river is a tunnel with an uncountable number of entrances.
416. When you go into the river you discover a new entrance—and in yourself you uncover an exit, an unseen exit, your exit. (You brought it with you.)
There are many waters, but our experiences with them were deeply similar, deeply meditative. I looked up from each to realize that I did not smell chlorine. I was not in a lifeguard chair in the Midwest or in Brooklyn but on a couch in my apartment. These books had so perfectly recreated in my mind the experience of sitting at the edge of water that those faraway summers had come back and, doing flip turns, splashed me awake.
* Buzz Poole, who also works at Black Balloon and was once a competitive swimmer, has a wholly different and very enjoyable perspective on Shapton's book at The Millions.
Image credit: David Hockney, Swimming Pool Lithograph,ahholeahhole.blogspot.com