Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Tuesday Morning, 6 AM

This is the day my wife and I go swimming. For exercise. I hate it.

I hate the early start. I hate the chilly (and, until recently, dark) walk to the leisure centre. I hate changing in those little cubicles. I hate having to hold my stomach in as I walk to the pool. I even hate the swimming, which is mind-numbingly boring, and the public shower afterward. The only thing I like about it is stepping out of the leisure centre into the now-not-quite-as-frigid-and-dark morning to go to the Cafe in the Park for a cup of tea and a toasted teacake. That feeling of having the swimming behind me and something else to look forward to is what keeps me going back week after week (that, and my wife reminding me of how beneficial it is). It’s akin to hitting yourself in the head with a hammer just because it feels so good when you stop.

All of this is strange to me because, as a youth, I loved swimming. In fact, love is too bland a word. I lived for swimming.

Such was our eagerness to get back into the water that we—the half-dozen kids in the area I grew up in—designated Memorial Day as the opening of swimming season, and celebrated it each year with an inaugural trek to the local swimming hole.

Where I swam as a kid.
Memorial Day comes on the final weekend in May and, while it can often be deceptively warm, the holiday is separated from the time when the streams raged with a torrent of snow-melt by mere weeks. Consequently, the water was scrotum-clenchingly cold, but we never let that deter us. We walked over the fields and through the ravine to the nearest bend in the creek to splash in the fast, icy water until our lips turned blue, then we made our way back to our homes where the hot dogs, potato salad and watermelon of the first barbecue of the season waited for us.

Where I swim now.
School ended not long after, ushering in ten glorious weeks of summer, when I swam almost every day. From the age of ten or eleven until my early twenties, summer days were split between the series of cliffs, waterfalls and dam at the edge of the the nearby town of Stuyvesant Falls signified, respectively, as The Cliff, Lower Falls and The Dam and collectively as The Sand Bar, and the more secluded bend in the creek known locally as Wagoner’s.

The Sand Bar and surroundings offered the opportunity of jumping from high places into deep water, and the exhilaration of climbing back up the cliffs to do it again. There was also the thrill of crossing dangerous rapids to get to some of these places, coupled with the pleasantly disquieting knowledge that, if the water rose too far, you might be trapped out there, or be swept away by the white, roiling water.

The Sand Bar, taken when I was an adult. This is the beach (the actual Sand Bar).
Behind is The Dam. Cliffs and Lower Falls not pictured.
This is The Cliff.
Yeah, I jumped off that.
Wagoner’s, on the other hand, involved a languid stroll through dusty fields and down rutted farm tracks to a bend in the creek that was boarded by a ridge of rock on one side and shallow rapids on the other. This formed a pocket of slow-running water, deep enough to accommodate dives from the rope swing hanging from a tree on the high bank.

Both had their place, and were equally utilized, and I spent many lazy afternoons splashing in the cool, green water, or shivering on the rocky beach, waiting for the sun to warm me so I could go splash again. Everything about it excited the senses: the glaring sun washing the color from everything except our naked backs, which turned red in the first weeks before going nut-brown, the coolness of the water, the slightly rotting smell of the creek, the hushed heat of the ninety-degree afternoons, the wet bodies glistening, the sounds of yelps and squeals as the boys, and girls, swung from the rope or jumped from dizzying heights.

In comparison, the sterile, rule-driven environment of the leisure centre is…well, there is no comparison. I go there to exercise, to swim, back and forth, in a designated lane, over and over and over again. I realize this is good for me, I admit I can see the benefits, but I would give a pretty for just one afternoon of getting my exercise by climbing the cliffs, navigating the rapids or swinging from the rope to splash into the cool, green water.

Swimming--for probably the last time--at Wagoner's.
But after that, I really wouldn’t mind a nice hot shower (public or not) and a visit to the cafe for a cup of tea and a toasted teacake.

Monday, April 1, 2019

April Fool's Day

A strange thing happened this morning. My wife and I woke up to find, for the first time in, well, forever, that there is nothing on our calendar.

Today is the second day of British Summertime, which, even if the weather was crap (which it isn’t) is kinda nice. The sun is shining, the sky is a cloudless blue, we are both without the need to go to work (this is my wife’s first official day of Professional Retirement, having passed her exam and turned in her ‘L’ plate last Friday) and there are no appointments to keep, no crisis to deal with or even any pressing tasks we have been letting go that demanded attention NOW.

We are still in shock.

I know it’s April Fool’s Day but, trust me, this is not a joke, which made me wonder what jokes could actually be played on this day. The newspapers traditionally publish ludicrous, but almost believable, headlines on this day, but with the world being as it is, what could they possibly print that would be stranger than actual fact? Trump Resolves to Become a Rational Human Being? Britain Finally Comes to Its Senses? They’re not exactly laugh-inducing headlines, and they would be spotted straight away as untrue.

Typical Joke Headline
So, I decided to not think about it, or any of the other nonsense going on in the clusterfuck they call Britain or the Banana Republic across the pond, and instead walked into town with my newly retired wife to get tea at the Park Cafe.

Part of the reason for this unexpected leisure had to do with The Show being over. There were no songs to learn, no lines to rehearse and no practices to prepare for and, although that leaves a big hole in my life, for the time being, it’s a good feeling.

The Show—Keep Smiling Through—opened on Friday the 22nd, and closed on Saturday the 23rd, but that wasn’t because critics from The Guardian, The Independent or The Daily Telegraph panned us in their reviews; it was always scheduled as a two-day only event. Also, as far as I know, no one from The Guardian, The Independent or The Daily Telegraph showed up anyway.

The Show, in case you missed my previous post about it, was a WWII revue, put on by The Unitarian Players. It went well, and was everything an AmDram production should be, including awkward silences, flubbed lines and creative ad libbing.

We had a final meeting after the run, where they showed us a video of the entire production from beginning to end. It was the first time I had seen the show. All I knew of it were the parts I was in, so to see it fully and in its proper sequence was as new to me as it was to the audience.

The singing was really good. There are several members of the group with outstanding voices, and the ladies did their routines with practiced ease and no visible panic.

Us men, on the other hand…not that there weren’t some outstanding performances, but one guy (that would be me) managed to lead the group into the wrong verse of a song, which precipitated one of those awkward silences. In another skit, four of us were singing, and doing movements to, Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line, and we looked like four guys who had just met and decided to do a song and dance together.

Me, Rob and John ready for our Nightingale Sang in Berekly Square number
But it all added to the humor, and I like to think the audience took this unintended comedy to be part of the production.

The atmosphere, however, was what I recall most. It was thrillingly frenetic “backstage” (read: the church hall adjacent to the chapel): changing costumes, lining up for the next scene, trying to keep your voice to a whisper and checking the script outline to see if you might have time to gulp down a coffee before you had to go on again. It was—in a little church AmDram group sort of way—thrilling.

In the Green Room, waiting to go on.
Due to the subject matter, several members of the cast told me stories of their wartime experiences, both while we were waiting to go on and at the gathering after the event. They weren’t (thankfully) horrific tales, but they were personal, so I won’t recount them here. All I will say is, they put my consternation at Waitrose’s failure—for two weeks running—to stock my favorite Soft-Baked Belvita Breakfast Bars into perspective.

I'm the white blob on the right
It also puts into perspective that, no matter how fraught and angst-ridden the modern world is, at least no one is dropping bombs on us. (Aside from the obvious disadvantages, it would really put a crimp in the supply-line for those Soft-Baked Belvita Breakfast Bars.)

And so, we finished our tea, took a wander through the shops and returned home to do whatever we pleased with our time, which was a good way to remind ourselves that, despite all, life can be good at times.