Midlife Merman

Midlife Merman

     There are a lot of midlife crisis junkets I could have hopped on. Restoring my hairline should have been at the top of the list. Instead, I answered the call of the wild in the Pacific Ocean, with the help of a fiberglass merman-fin.
     It started back in 2004 when my wife and I bought our first wetsuits. I decided I wanted to swim in the Ocean, specifically the Monterey Bay off the Central California Coast. She tolerated my obvious attempt to regain the glory of youth and when pressed, was up for boogie boarding and on nice days, a swim.
     I tried to be mature about my new passion (not easy to do when you’re mid-midlife crisis). I worked up to two miles of freestyle swimming in a pool before heading out on my first serious swim. I looked for open water swim classes to take, but nothing panned out. My early forays would be alone with my wife waving cheerfully from the shore, ready to call the coast guard if necessary. Actually, there was no cell reception there. Still, it made me feel better to be able to wave to her and have her wave back.
     Turns out answering the call of the wild can be quite cold. Even with a thick wetsuit, 52º hurts, especially when you’re swimming face down. After repeatedly dunking my face in the water and holding it up to the wind, it was numb enough to stay submerged without causing molar-splitting agony. My lips always looked like they’d gotten giant collagen injections when I got home on cold days.
     Early on my freestyle stroke was still geared to a pool, not the choppy Ocean. I flailed about with little forward momentum. The local marine life took pity on me, it was not uncommon to see a seal trailing me to make sure I didn’t drown. I must have looked like a severely deformed fledgling seal on its first and last solo voyage. Eventually I managed to learn from the currents and buoyant salt water. A girl seal even flirted with me a bit.
     When the waves were big I could barely get in and out of the water. I had to swim way out beyond the breakers to have enough calm water to get up a good rhythm. If I used up too much energy, getting back to dry land was a desperate race against giant waves, outsmarting them by ducking under to escape their crushing footsteps.
     The rough days quickly faded from memory when I had a good day in the water. Carried by the deep troughs and swells I learned to become liquid, moving within a greater body. Stretching out my spine, tipping forward I could find the glide point of the surface. If I caught current just right I slid on the top 4 or 5 inches of water, expending almost no energy. It was flight.
     Some part of me now knew exactly how to be in the ocean, I just needed to relax and give it a chance to show itself. The pulling and rolling of the waves invoked a trance and awakened a creature in me that instinctively thrives in this world. It became my aquatic ambassador, making allies of the waves.
     I began to emerge from the ocean a different animal. After months of struggle, the most stress-ridden part of my mind dissolved into a place of absolute silence. I was remade as
an amphibian, returning to my ancestral home. The comfort I found there was soon disturbed.
     “Never turn your back on the ocean.” Thats what one of the indigenous survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami said on the news. It happened the day after Christmas – I’d been swimming in the ocean for several months. Slightly battered from winter waves, I watched the footage of the Tsunami with crazed obsession. I had to see the darker side of my newly discovered love. I studied the waves as they wiped away whole communities. Over and over again I saw carnage on a scale I never knew possible. My memories of swimming started to feel more like nightmares.
     The storms came hard that winter. The swells were too big to swim, the rain too heavy and too frigid. The water temperature held steady in the low fifties, the bacteria level off the
local beaches jumped to a new high. For a time I didn’t even want to look at the ocean, though we lived only five blocks from the beach. I had managed to freaked myself out.
     I would go out of my way not to drive by the coast. At night the crashing waves and seal songs drifted into our attic bedroom. Angrier than I’d ever heard her, the waves sounded like
the long low growls of a far away monster.
     It took a while for my fear to fade. I read about a group of surfers who were fund raising for victims of the Tsunami. The local paper had photos of them looking wistfully out to sea. They said they owed a debt to the communities that were devastated by the waves. I read something more than sorrow and concern in their faces and words. I saw a need to reconcile themselves with a loving Mother Ocean who seemed to have been swallowed up by a voracious killer. They were mourning a loss of innocence, as I was.
     Eventually I made my way back into her. This was the “conquer your fear” chapter of my midlife merman rebirth. It was late in Feburary and she had become calm and bright with a low, hot sun that made the surf glow. I started slowly at first, then worked up to mile and half swims down the coast.
     I had become more cautious, studying her moods carefully. For the first time I turned tail and headed home, rather than risking offending her. I had become a wise little amphibian.
Then, weirdly, I found myself back at the pool. After years of swearing off boxed-in water I bought a Speedo and headed for my community swim center. It would be a few months of doing laps before the reason came to me in a travel t.v. show on Italy. It highlighted one young mans pursuit of a career as a competitive Free Diver.
     For those of you who don’t know, competitive Free Diving is a way of committing suicide. Just kidding, its actually the time honored sport of achieving the greatest depth on a single breath. In order for your score to be accepted after descending into the darkness, you have to surface, remove your goggles, make the “OK” sign with your hand and say the words “I am OK”. Often, Free Divers will surface, start shaking violently and lose consciousness. This is known as “pushing it a little too far.”
     I did not have grand plans of Free Diving to great depths. Rather I was fascinated by the single swim fin this young man wore. It was a large fiberglass whale tail with two pockets for your feet. Watching from above, he was transformed into a great dolphin-like fish, undulating through the water. A monofin allows a swimmer to use the gentle rippling of their whole body to propel themselves forward. You can achieve great speed and depth with minimal effort and therefore, expenditure of oxygen.
     The amphibian in me woke up. To be able to swim like a fish in the open water! No more pitying glances from seals as they swam circles around me! It was love at first sight.
     I started out with a short training monfin at the pool. The first time I put it on I froze. Being in water with my feet bound did not feel good. Then I flopped along the bottom of the pool and nearly drown in three feet of water. It took me a while but I figured out a basic stroke by replaying the t.v. show over and over again. Pike and face down, arch and face up. Point fingers down, open hand up and lift up. After a few weeks of this the amphibian took over.
     I snaked through the water, flipping my tail and sliding forward. I was no longer swimming, I was making love to water. Every cell in my body was rippling and moving me forward. I made two laps in deep water on one breath without even noticing. The next week I made three laps on one breath. It wasn’t until I graduated to the big fin that I hit four laps on one breath.
     The big fin took 3 months to arrive after I ordered it. Of course it did, they had to make it by hand in Czechoslovakia. Monofins of this size don’t sell in America – its more of a Euro thing. When it finally arrived it was a lot stiffer than I thought it was going to be. I got the long distance fin, the biggest, stiffest one they had. Its not like I could go down to my neighborhood free diving shop and upgrade fins. I figured I’d grow into it.
     My inagural swim at the pool was daunting. First of all the fin was sharp and about a half foot wider than my shoulders. I had to be careful not to slice any other swimmers. Then there was the stiffness, like pushing concrete. Over time I learned to rise up and hunch my back, like a dolphin, in order to get on top of the power the big fin had to offer. Inevitably the amphibian took over and made the big fin a part of my body. I was aching to plum the ocean depths.
     “That was beautiful.” Suprised, I looked at the older woman swimming in the lane next to me. Her jaw was hanging open. My amphibian self had taken so completely to the fin it had turned swimming into a graceful dance. Swimmers, bored with the repetitions of their own work-outs were fascinated by the fin and its power to turn a middle aged man into a merman. I saw the beach wild-child in countless adult eyes light up as they asked me about this amazing new toy that transformed me into a sea creature.
     I try to tell them what being a merman is like. I leave the shore as a human, then shape-shift into something much more ancient. After spending time with the big fin in the open water I’ve come to understand why surfers rarely share with outsiders what the experience of surfing is like. Its impossible to explain. You have to be an amphibian to understand.

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