Swimming Like Frankenstein’s Monster

[Note: This piece was originally published in Ordinary Times Magazine.]


“Remember,” explained Dr. K, “that when you swim, you want to concentrate on being as ungraceful as possible. Feet rigid, with no real bending in the elbows or knees, so that you’re almost flailing. What I want you to be thinking is, ‘This is the way Frankenstein’s monster would swim.’”

I find this whole idea — myself as Frankenstein’s monster in our community-center pool — absurd to the point of hilarity. My mind wants to stop and linger on this image just for the pure fun of it, but I can’t. Dr. K is talking a mile a minute; I’m already falling behind in my note taking.

Dr. K is my new primary care physician. He’s actually a sports medicine specialist, but he’s agreed to take me on in a more holistic PCP capacity. He has done this partly because he is fond of my wife and partly because he sees me as a professional challenge. I have the ankles of a ninety-eight-year-old man. Thanks in no small part to those ankles, my knees are not too far behind. Forget running. I can no longer do workouts on the elliptical without risking my legs being unable to bear weight for days. I can still hike, thank goodness, but not much and not regularly. Maybe six or seven miles a week, tops. And on top of all of that, my elbows are now beginning to give me fits. My last flare up of bursitis resulted in an infection that made bending my right arm even slightly an excruciating affair. The end result of all of this — ankles, knees, and elbows alike — has been by far the most sedentary year of my entire life.

If you are the kind of person who cares even the slightest bit about their appearance — and I have learned in this past year that, despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, I am one of those people — then there are two methods you can use to deal with sudden lack of activity while still keeping self-loathing at bay. The first method is to completely revamp your diet. With this method, you agree to say goodbye to all of your favorite foods, in exchange for a greatly reduced calorie intake, one better suited for the competitive world of couch sitting. I love food quite a bit, however, and so I have largely decided against adopting this method. The second method, the one I did choose, was this: avoid looking at any and all mirrors; never, ever let anyone take a picture of you; and pretend you’re not expanding like a universe newly born. The ultimate result of this choice is a balloon version of me, blown up beyond reason. Blown up to the point of caricature. Blown up until you worry that I just might pop.

Physical therapy for my ankles, I’m told by Dr. K, is not really an option. Decades of treating my legs as if they were normal has taken its toll. The tendons are almost all gone on both ankles, the muscles torn nearly in half. Dr. K isn’t entirely sure how they can work at all at this point, and the giddy, child-like joy he radiates as he pores over their highly abnormal x-rays and MRI images, trying to figure it out, would be infectious, if not for… well, everything. The only possible salvation for my ankles at this point is surgery, but surgery terrifies me. Not the going under the scalpel part; that bit’s a trifle. No, it’s the thought of the three to six months when I will be restricted to bed that stops me cold, the year it will take before I get back to where I am now — if I get back to where I am now. And since they can’t do both feet at the same time, it’s actually double that: two years of being so sedentary as to make my current lifestyle look like an ongoing Iron-Man training session. Also, there is this: My best chances of a successful and (relatively) quick rehabilitation lie in my being 165 pounds, which is forty-five pounds fewer than I am right now.

And so we decide, Dr. K and I, to try swimming. Or perhaps more accurately, to try this new kind of swimming that isn’t really swimming. Swimming where I don’t point my feet, or bend my arms or legs. Swimming that removes all vestiges of fluid grace, such that no casual observer would mistake me for someone still clinging to self-dignity. Swimming, as Dr. K puts it, like Frankenstein’s monster.


*      *      *


When I was sixteen, I jumped from a hotel room window. The room was on the first floor, but the hotel itself was on a steep hill; the distance from that window to the ground was somewhere between twenty and twenty-five feet. I went into shock immediately upon landing. Because of this, I have only vague memories of seeing my left foot hang off my leg, pointing in the exact opposite direction that it always had. So bad was the break to the left ankle that the extensive damage to the right was missed entirely by the emergency room team that first treated me.

This was before the days when the economics of professional sports propelled rehabilitative medicine into its current futuristic state. At the time I shattered my ankle, sports medicine was in its infancy. Physical therapy was unheard of in most circles of the medical industry, and likely still a joke to most who were aware of it. ACL tears were a career-ending affair for an athlete, as opposed to something that caused them to miss a month or two of top-tier competition. The destruction in my own foot was so complete that they didn’t even waste time with a detailed diagnosis. They’d cast me up for six months, I was told, and then we’d see. If I was very lucky, I’d be able to walk without the use of a cane or brace. In no circumstance would I ever be able to run again, let alone play any kind of sport.

Fortunately, my body is apparently as much of a contrarian as the rest of me. Within months of getting my cast off, I was running again. When I moved back to Portland after college, I got an apartment in a somewhat sketchy part of town, for the sole reason that it had a vibrant basketball park across the street. Between the ages of 22 and 28, I spent almost every night after work playing pick-up ball, rain or shine. Every pick-up baller has their specialty, and mine was a lock-down defense. The ankles that would likely never again walk unassisted instead spent countless hours in constant movement, ever cutting to stay glued to my man. The only reminder I had of the injury came as the weather changed in the fall, when I would have an annual week or so of arthritis. By the time I was twenty-five, I had become convinced that the doctors who treated me after my fall had given me my prognosis in a failed attempt to scare me away from any future desire to be a teenage boy filled with testosterone. By the time I was thirty-five, I had largely forgotten that I had been injured at all.

Father Time didn’t forget, though. Father Time remembered and he waited, patient and perfectly content. Father Time knows he need not chase us, ever. Sooner or later we all circle back to him. Of all the old gods, he is the one to which all our bodies are ultimately sacrificed. Me, you, our parents and children; Olympian athletes and ivory-tower intellects; the oldest living woman and the babe born still; all the world’s prophets and their gods alike — it doesn’t really matter. In the end, we are all Time’s bitch.


*      *      *

Here is what forty-five pounds is:

Forty-five pounds is a small bale of hay. Forty-five pounds is two car tires. Forty-five pounds is nine bags of sugar from the grocery store. Forty-five pounds is four and a half of those enormous bags of rice you see in Asian markets, the ones you always think you’d buy if you had a decent, out-of-the-way place to store them.

Here is what forty-five pounds is:

Forty-five pounds is three entire Thanksgiving dinners, spread out over your dining room table. Forty-five pounds is what you would consume if you committed suicide by drinking twenty-two bottles of wine in one sitting. Forty-five pounds is a backpack stuffed inexplicably with a dozen chihuahuas. Forty-five pounds is a border collie and a Maine coon house cat, fused into one via some futuristic pet teleportation experiment gone terribly wrong.

Here is what forty-five pounds is:

Forty-five pounds is 9,500 extra miles of blood vessels in your body, exponentially increasing your odds of heart disease. Forty-five pounds is upping your risk of Type 2 diabetes almost ten-fold. Forty-five pounds is the shock of 90 pounds being slammed against your joints each time you take a step toward your son for a hug after his soccer game. Forty-five pounds is an seemingly infinite mass that, for reasons you can’t begin to fathom, somehow doesn’t make you an object of disgust to the love of your life. Forty-five pounds is the dull, aching dread in the back of your mind that someday, eventually, it will.

Here is what forty-five pounds is:

A gift, perhaps. A kind-of, sort-of guarantee that you will drop dead of a heart attack before cancer can take you. A glimmer of hope that someday, many years from now, you pass away after a stroke in your sleep. A prayer for your children not to have to watch your body and mind deteriorate over months or years of radiation and chemotherapy. A fantasy where you simply drop dead one day as you are doing what you love: reading Chabon by the fire, perhaps, or cooking risotto for the people that you love in your kitchen as you dance and sing and sip bourbon. Going quickly while you’re still you, before the bits of memory and self-identity float away, piece by piece, into those lost seas of your subconscious like so much flotsam.

Here is what forty-five pounds is:

Everything that stands between who you are today, and who you want to return to being.


*      *      *

I turned fifty last year, and was surprised to find myself sad to do so.

I have spent most of my life looking quite a bit younger than my age, which was a bit of a drag in my formative dating years. Looking fourteen when you’re eighteen or eighteen when you’re twenty-five can be a bit of a lust deterrent when you’re a straight guy looking to date in your own age bracket. “You’ll be happy about that one day,” said one woman matter-of-factly as she was turning me down for this very reason. “I wouldn’t go out with you now, but I bet in ten or twenty years I’d jump at the chance.” I thanked her, because what else does one say to such a thing? That you look forward to the day, somewhere in some far-off future, when your stock has risen and you will be able to turn her down in kind? So the truth is that I’ve spent most of my life wanting to be and look older than I am, and thus I’ve always welcomed those birthdays that heralded a new decade.

But fifty has been the exception, for reasons that have entirely to do with vanity.

The fifties for men, I decided as the milestone approached, is the “eeew”-decade. To fully understand what I mean by “eeew”-decade, you must imagine two women talking at lunch: one of them single; the other not, and attempting to play cupid.

“I have a friend you should meet,” says the latter. “He’s a really great guy. I think you two would totally hit it off.”

“”Really?” says the second, a little excited at the prospect. “How old is he?”

At this point in my mind, the conversation unfolds differently based upon the answer.

For example, here’s this:

Non-single woman: He’s in his twenties.

Single woman: Oh. Well, that’s a little younger than I’m looking for, to be honest. But maybe tell me more about him?

Or this:

Non-single woman: He’s in his thirties.

Single woman: Great! Tell me more about him.

Or this:

Non-single woman: He’s in his forties.

Single woman: Oh. Well, that’s a little on the older side of what I’m looking for, to be honest. But maybe tell me more about him?

And then there’s this:

Non-single woman: He’s in his fifties.

Single woman: Eeew.

I can’t begin to explain why I find this depressing. I am not single, after all. And even if I was, I can’t imagine wanting to be set up on blind dates. It’s simply the knowledge that, if I were and if I did, that likely “eeew” makes me feel worn out and used up.

I tried to explain my “eeew”-decade theory to a female friend last year over martinis, and she told me I should buck up. “There are a lot of women out there who can’t find any men in their thirties or forties who will ask them out,” she said, trying to paint the silver lining. “They wouldn’t say ‘eeew,’ they’d actually see you as their very best option.”

I thought this was the most depressing thing I had ever heard, but I smiled and thanked her as I motioned to the bartender for another round.


*      *      *

The pool is indoors and heated, but somehow the water always feels uncomfortably cold at first. It’s never until about the second lap that I stop noticing it. After that, it’s all about trying to forget where I am and what I’m doing.

In the days when I ran and lifted weights, music always ensured that I never noticed the time passing. The technology has evolved over the years — Walkman, MP3 player, iPod, iPhone — but the effect of music drilled into your brain via headphones remains constant. With music, drudgery becomes joy; you’re able to run or work out faster, longer, and harder, as your mind sinks into the beat. Many times, my workout would technically be done, but I’d keep going anyway, because there’s this Zen state you reach where you lose yourself in the music, a state that doesn’t occur without the dull, mechanical repetition of physical exercise.

There is no music when you swim, however. You don’t find your breast strokes keeping time with The Roots; LCD Soundsystem doesn’t reach into your reptilian brain and propel you through the water. There’s just the sound of you, splashing, coupled with the cold knowledge that, when you finally pause to look at the clock, you will be disappointed at how little time has passed.

But still you swim, on and on, one slow and painful lap after the next. You force your ankles and elbows to be unbending and rigid: an absurd, aquatic Frankenstein’s monster. Some modern, maritime Prometheus flailing pathetically to keep Time’s eagles at bay. You do it day after day, hoping that maybe by summer — maybe — you can look at yourself in the mirror once more and see the same person you still like to imagine you are. And as much as you hate it, you also cling to it with a kind of wild desperation. You’re older and wiser now, and you are aware that swimming like Frankenstein’s monster, too, has a shelf life. You know that the day is coming when your body breaks down further, when even this pathetic excuse for flight will be beyond your decrepit wings.

And so you gasp in as much air as you can hold, you avoid looking at the clock, and you push off as best you can from the smooth wall of the pool, kicking as hard as you are still able, into the blurry depths.



[Image: Polar Bear Under Water by Ludovic Bertron, via: Wikipedia.]



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