A few Swimming Memoirs I love

Prairie Dolphin has been on sabbatical—still swimming, just not chronicling it on the blog these days for reasons below. I am thrilled the lion’s mane jellyfish and fair-weather swimming crowds eventually cleared off for the season after an usually long residency, and we winter mermaids and mermen have the deliciously cold water to ourselves since mid October. I have had many glorious swims over the year starting with a blustery, very low tide, swampy Ferry Point swim down in Youghal on New Year’s Day (the sea looked like a shallow bowl of pea green soup) to last week’s refreshing Wednesday dip in Sandycove with the air cooler than the water–the water temperature not yet under 10 degrees. A fellow swimmer said to me, “It’s cheaper than psychoanalysis.” I laughed, and she said, “I said that to another woman one day swimming here and she said, ‘I am a psychoanalyst!’. And so I told her, You should tell your clients to come here for a session!”

Highlights of the year include training my little ones to be seadogs too; seeing them frolicking and braving the bracing Irish Sea in our summer holidays was a delight of a lifetime for me. My daughter shows signs of loving the masochistic cold water, charging the waves in the surf with a throaty war cry and retreating in delighted terror while my boy likes to flirt briefly with the whitecaps and his torso and then surrender promptly to dry land—hopefully next year he’ll feel the call more. After I finished writing Cadillac Couches a book about some big loves, namely music, I started my second novel In the Swim, which is also about some big loves, swimming and reading. I feel the same way about swimming as I do about music, an overwhelmingly goofy desire to express my love for it (not that it needs it) battling with words and never quite scratching the itch and needing to proselytize some more (I gotta do something with all this love otherwise I’m gonna burst.) Prairie Dolphin has been a wonderful incubator for In the Swim. So these days I save up all of my aqua thoughts for the novel in progress. In the meantime here’s a little marine content for the thalassophiles out there: a sample of my favourite swimming non-fiction. Please feel free to read in bits. I may not update for awhile and it’s a biggie. 1454159Waterlog by Roger Deakin, published by Vintage Books The bible of wild swimming. Inspired by John Cheever’s story The Swimmer, Deakin set out to swim his way around Britain, in every pond, river, lake, lido, fen, dyke, quarry and cove he could, in the manner of The Swimmer‘s protagonist who swims in all the swimming pools across Westchester County, NY, on his way home. Deakin logs his waterlogged adventures in gorgeous prose.

Deakin, like me, swims not as much for athletic reasons, but for spiritual ones. He evangelizes about aimless swimming; the whole point is to have no point. Alongside his Buddhist approach to swimming, he charts the history of the crawl and our modern swimming styles, and for me most importantly he tackles the notion that swimming in the wild is super risky. Not so long ago in this part of the world, people swam in rivers and ponds and viaducts all the time and even up and down the Thames. But now there are so many danger warnings signs and talk of rat-induced Weil’s disease that it’s ingrained in most of us, that most water sources are off-limits because of various aqua bogeymen. He analyzes the statistics on Weil’s disease and finds that swimming doesn’t pose much of a risk at all in this regard. He shimmies under fences and warning signs to gain access to many forbidden former swimming holes, reclaiming humans’ rights and thundering desires to swim. Waterlog is a call to arms for a “swimmer’s right to roam”.

Another radical notion for me is that Deakin’s love of water includes its creepy crawly companions. While I like to pretend there is nothing but me in the water, his championing of all creatures great and small challenges head on my squeamishness of all things floaty in the water near me. He doesn’t just want turquoise warm waters and sesame seed sandbeds, he relishes swims in shallow, Guinness-brown rivers, hoping to encounter eels. Eels for heaven’s sakes… Rhapsodizing, he describes swimming in the moat outside of his cottage in all seasons and admires the changing landscapes outside and inside the water—from the moorhen ducking under, to the toads’ chorus pondside, to dozens of newts canoodling just below the surface. He relishes slippery silty underfoot. He finds it all sensual. He convinces me not to be a swim prude or nervous nelly in the water and to embrace the wonders of life starting with cattails and water boatmen. And afterwards there is nothing better than a blazing hot steaming bath and cup of tea.

Deakin quadrupled my water vocabulary with exotic words like naiads, tarn, tufa, fen and his friend’s made-up one, endolphins. He is undoubtedly my swimming guru. I would have loved to have met him but sadly he had a brain tumour and passed away far too young. Waterlog has since become a classic of the nature writing canon.

Here’s Waterlog’s opening paragraph that made my socks roll up and down.

“The warm rain tumbled down from the gutter in one of those midsummer downpours as I hastened across the lawn behind my house in Suffolk and took shelter in the moat. Breast-stroking up and down the thirty yards of clear, green water, I nosed along, eyes just at water level. The frog’s eye view of rain on the moat was magnificent. Rain calms water, it freshens it, sinks all the floating pollen, dead bumblebees and other flotsam. Each raindrop exploded in a momentary, bouncing fountain that turned into a bubble and burst. The best moments were when the storm intensified, drowning birdsong, and a haze rose off the water as though the moat itself were rising to meet the lowering sky. Then the rain eased and the reflected heavens were full of tiny dancers: water sprites springing up on tiptoe like bright pins over the surface. It was raining water sprites.” Hallelujah! I love his frog’s eye view. This Pisces bows to the master. 9781846144950   Swimming Studies by fellow Canadian Leanne Shapton and published by Blue Rider Press offers a grand intersection of art and exercise, a memoir on the art of doing laps and the aesthetics of a watery life. A former competitive swimmer and Canadian Olympic hopeful, Shapton is an artist, novelist and publisher in New York. Shapton’s memoir of a life in laps includes charming illustrations of swimming pools, paintings of swimmers and a photographic archive of swimsuits worn. Shapton takes us on a swimmer’s wishlist of destinations from Switzerland to St. Barts.

I’m more of a bather than a swimmer. I like to freestyle, to frolic, to somersault randomly and pretend to be a seal. I prefer open water. I like pools too, just not as much. Shapton, on the other hand, as a trained swimmer, is used to four sides and a bottom and is nervous in the sea without that clarity. When I was in high school, I admired friends like Shapton who had the discipline to hit the pool for hours every day at terrible times of the morning, week in week out. There is romance in those Tim Hortons’-coffee fueled, early morning training sessions in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter. “Ever present is the smell of chlorine and the drifting of snow in the dark.” I imagine too, that training discipline learned young, offers what HR people refer to as a seriously transferable skill. I enjoyed reading her account of the training regimes of serious swimmers and the subculture of her watery colleagues, and her goggle advice.

Shapton chronicles her life lived so far in various swimsuits (she gives us 26 photographs of swimsuits on a headless mannequin and tells us when and where she swum in them). These mini stories offer charming poetic details, like how she wore a suit to a pool in Paris and then cycle-dried on the way back to her hotel on her Vélib bicycle because she forgot her towel. How the sea tasted like “thin chicken stock from a stainless steel bow.” We meet swimsuits she has worn in Reykjavik, in New York, one she has stolen from the Banff Hot Springs, one from swimming in Olympic trials in 1992.

Where Shapton studiously analyzes Jaws and its subtexts of the carnality of sex, I studiously avoided watching it. She explains that Jaws the movie is about man versus monster while Jaws the book is about marriage and the shark is a metaphor for infidelity. Shapton tells us that her husband asks her why she is so obsessed and frightened by sharks. She does some nifty psychoanalysis and reckons that sharks represent the unknown, the darkness just below the surface, violence, loneliness—her own vulnerability in other words. I love some good psychoanalysis, I do, but I think the reason for the obsession could also be having scrutinized that movie in the first place—multiple viewings of Jaws is kind of bound to give you the fear I would think. In order for me to unafraid of the oceans I have swum in, I need to not think of sharks and their ilk at all. I have swum in the middle of the ocean off the west coast of Mexico, the Caribbean, the English Channel, the Med, lake Uganda, Crater Lake, and the Irish Sea. See no danger, feel no danger. I love the story my friend Saman told me that Luc Besson made The Big Blue to make up for the damage Spielberg did in creating Jaws, a whole generation of swimmers terrified to get in the water. The Big Blue features an unbelievably beautiful man who free dives in the stunning Mediterranean and keeps pictures of his dolphin friends/family in his wallet. He is an improbable virgin, but nonetheless you go with it for the sheer stunning cinematography of the water and him in it, the drops on his eyelashes and Jean Reno too. While Jaws is all gore and terror of the sea and its creatures, The Big Blue is all rhapsodizing wonder and beauty.

Along with Sheila Heiti and Heidi Julavits, Shapton has a new book out these days called Women in Clothes published by Blue Rider Press.

PS I have read recently that sharks, like rats, are largely misrepresented. The incidence of sharks attacking humans is still quite rare statistically. There’s a young woman Madison Stewart who is trying to change their image. (I’ve been assured there are only basking sharks in Ireland.) 17322943   Pondlife published by Bloomsbury is a poignant meditation on aging and swimming written by Al Alavarez, the famous poet, literary critic, anthologist and editor who championed Sylvia Plath in London in the late fifties early sixties. (My father as young PhD student from Brighton knocked on his door in the 60s to chat about Norman Mailer—Dad says Alvarez was very affable). Alvarez was a rugged mountain man and poker player, a Hemingway type, macho and literary. Now he is a guy who is seriously on his last, wobbly legs, barely, who prefers being horizontal to vertical.*

Like Deakin’s, his book is a log, a daily journal entry of his swims in the Hampstead Heath ponds from 2002-2011. He gives us the temperature, the context and story of the swim and how it felt. Alvarez has been swimming for over 70 years at the Hampstead Heath ponds. Pondlife is inspiring my older character in the In the Swim. He is unflinching in his description of ageing and of the betrayal of his body parts letting him down. He also gave me a big desire to go swim in the famous London ponds at Hampstead Heath (I’m no longer worried about duck poop thanks to Deakin and Alvarez). Like Smiley in John LeCarré’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Alvarez goes swimming most mornings of the week—you can see Gary Oldman paddle away in the movie version.

The infirmer he becomes the more effort it costs Alvarez to get his much-needed tonic. He hobbles day after day to the water on his arthritic legs and dodgy ankle no matter how grey and miserable the day. But he always comes away anew. The colder the water, the bigger the rush. He also thrives on the camaraderie of the regular swimmers. He is in huge pain mostly from an old ankle injury. He is a guy that used to climb mountains and now has been felled by merciless ageing. He writes that he desperately misses his old self. Swimming represents everything good to him and he feels reborn after each dip. The whole struggle is worth it for these moments of transcendence. As a fellow water worshipper I could relate.

It was illuminating to read a sweary older guy revealing the true story of getting older, no sugar coating. And also inspiring to see the magic of cold water swimming so very obviously healing and nourishing someone well into their decrepitude. Whenever people express amazement that I swim in the winter, I always tell them, it’s full of older people! If they can do it, surely so can we. But the truth is only some of us are drawn to it and love it. For us that do it is fun to experience the shock and try to articulate the nuances of cold: burning armpits, angry crotch… It doesn’t make sense for other people to do cold-water swimming if they don’t feel the call (you need to like it); hopefully they have their own version of the sublime at the ready.

“And I am falling apart. I swallow a painkiller every day but all it seems to do is dumb me down. My ankle aches, becoming more unsteady and treacherous each day; the slightest irregularity makes it give way and lands me in the mud. My back aches and my legs go numb, freeze up and cease to work; my eyesight is poor; my sense of balance is shot… I toil up every incline as though it was steep scree. *Thank God for horizontality and its three Ss, swimming, sex and sleep.

Ten days later he has two falls. Three days after that he declares in his journal he is back at last! Such is his relief to be horizontal again in the water. He had intended to go the previous day but the first winter snow made him relent. This is all in between writing long articles for the New York Review of Books and editing manuscripts.

In his acknowledgments he thanks the lifeguards who work the Hampstead ponds for keeping him alive and if not still kicking, at least, still swimming. They help get him in the water even after he’s had a stroke and has a dead leg. They get a special dispensation to drive on the Heath to the water’s edge to deliver him to his merciful dip and then they help getting him dressed in the middle of winter. I hope today he’s still getting his fix!

I also enjoyed  his opening epigraph from Tallulah Bankhead: They don’t make mirrors like they used to. 9214995   The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and published by Hawthorne Books is intense and sometimes shocking, but always a powerful and engaging memoir of a life lived in the pool. Yuknavitch flees a troubled home life with a swimming scholarship and then messes up her Olympian chances with addictions to booze and drugs. The intensity of her honesty and her visceral use of language to tell her story of chlorine and vodka and a lost baby makes for a white-knuckle reading experience. Sometimes I wanted to look away, like when I was reading how she got incredibly high before attempting her first major whitewater kayak expedition… The unflinching, foul-languaged, self-harming extravaganza felt almost too much. But the beauty of her writing pulled me back in. Glad I read it.

Alongside her swimming and growing up journeys is her training as a writer, being mentored by Ken Kesey and her PhD in English literature. There definitely strikes me as something edgy, tough, and true about the Oregonian writers I have read so far. Yuknavitch was in a writing workshop with Chuck Palahniuk and Cheryl Strayed—I can imagine the fireworks. Like with Shapton I could get into Yuknavitch’s Zen groove of doing laps, doing laps, doing laps, and then more laps. The repetition soothing, calming, the quiet underwater, the chlorine… Swimming is the therapeutic backdrop for life.

Both Shapton and Yuknavitch had been competitive swimmers. Contenders. Both flee it and find themselves returning to the laps for the soothing sake of doing laps. Amen.

PS I have had this book for a good few years and never noticed until now that there is big boob on the cover! It was tragically hidden underneath a glued-on flap (modesty cover) that I only thought to pull off after seeing the real cover online… If you click on the cover you can see the modesty flap in action.

Yesterday I went for a run in Sandycove and as usual by the sea I noticed people sitting on benches by themselves just staring out to sea in the middle of a normal weekday. Watergazers Mellville called us. Us humans are so drawn to the beautiful spectacle of water. When I get a little hostile from stress, my husband inquires gently, “When are you going swimming again, darling?”

For great waterlove quotes there is nothing to top Melville’s Moby Dick.

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball…. Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip… What do you see?—Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries…”

In recent swim fiction I enjoyed Samantha Warwick’s Sage Island and I’m really looking forward to reading Angie Abdou’s The Bone Cage.

From a winningly titled new album Swimmin’ Time here’s a video from a band my brother recently recommended.

Swimmingly yours,

Sophie b

Any swim book recommendations?

Not Drowning but Waving*

IMG_0506Two days before Christmas, 3 wives met up to swim in the icy Irish Sea and complain about 3 sick husbands. The husbands were meant to be immediately fully embracing all things Christmassy and in particular, helping their embattled wives and their never-ending seasonal chores instead of lolling about with ‘flus. It did us all good to have our pre-Christmas rant in the chilling out surrounding of our beloved Forty Foot. It was a blue sky, a wicked Banshee wind, wild sea day. Sheets of watery waves slapped me in the face. Fierce and cold.

I’d read an article that week about cold water swimming and how your heart speeds up as you gasp for air and how it can lead to a feeling of panic which then puts you on a dangerous watery path.

Years ago, I battled the demons of fully fledged panic attacks so when I read that article, it put them back in my mind as a possibility. As I gasped and flailed in the first minute or two of getting into the numbing water, I wondered if I should indeed panic. My heart was beating fast, it was freezing. Breathing was difficult.

I almost, almost psyched myself out.

It’s a funny thing panic and what I try always to remember is that it’s a kind of choice.  So, as the waves slapped me about with deliciously cold, salty water I thought, no, Mr. Panic,  I want to do this.

I have done it and I can do it.

Swimming is my choice of pleasure. Also, having my buddies there makes it all okay in the harsher conditions. We will all protect each other.

Sure enough I forgot all about it and just enjoyed the wildness of this feisty winter swim. As per ritual, I did my one baptismal dunk of my head underwater before getting out. More than one dunk freezes my brain a bit too much I find. Making my way up the steps in the rambunctious, big water I banged my knee. It didn’t hurt much but I could see the blood already running down my leg.

I was weirdly pleased with my wound like it was a badge of honour. I had conquered the aquatic challenges of the day and this was the proof. Or as Little Chief likes to say: I had a  blood.

We dried ourselves up and a random swimmer beside me showed me the size of his teeny towel. I thought he was looking for sympathy, but really he wanted to explain that it was a high-tech one that dries super quickly and is weirdly very absorbent and packs up into the size of a kernel of corn. Slight exaggeration. He has a green shamrock tattoo right above his butt I couldn’t help but notice. He’s kind of a leprechauny type of dude.

My knee was fine, it was quite swollen but with lots of icing with a bag of frozen peas that day, no probs or, not a bother, as they say here..

St. Stephen’s Day we were out for a swim with my great new Christmas pressie: an underwater camera.

My beautiful picture

My beautiful picture

New Year’s Day there were lots of people starting their year off right with a sprightly dip. A friendly forty-footer offered around crispy pieces of bacon. Perfect après-swim snack.

School holidays are wonderful as we all know but sometimes the moms get a little harassed. I was thrilled to learn that Devildog also likes to kick appliances and yell at them.

My beautiful picture

These days I generally swim on Sunday mornings. It’s the perfect holy time.

Going down the steps last swim, Devildog said: “you know it’s cold when you feel the hairs on your legs blowing in the wind.”  Thank God our husbands are of the generation that are oblivious to fur or in fact are man enough to relish a hairy wife during the winter months.

Hope your ass warms up we say to each other instead of goodbye.

I’m so looking forward to my next Sunday swim. I have been two weeks on land and my toes are unwebbing…

*Stevie Smith

For any of you that missed this classic I posted ages ago, here it is again:

How’s Your Resolve? November Swims and Cranky Codgers

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Early Sunday morning November 5, I got a text from Devildog (formerly known as C) saying: How’s your resolve? It’s raining and it’s low tide

Devildog was C’s nickname back in her youth for her might in arm wrestling and Herculean chin up competitions. It still suits her as I always think she’s a little Kamikaze, swimming further out, and always wanting to swim where the water is wildest. Devildog never bails, but this text was clearly a feeler.

My resolve as it turns out was holding steady, because once I’ve got my swimsuit on it would piss me off to take it off unused and unpack my massive swimming bag. The thermos was made, the hot water bottle was wrapped inside the towels heating them for later. Toque on. Seadog was minding the monkeys, I was ready for pick-up.

It was indeed raining, though not heavily, and a beautiful palette of greys and pale greens surrounded us at the Forty Foot.

Out of the water came a tanned, buff youngish man wearing purple, blue, yellow and pink floral Bermuda swimming trunks. A Pow! of colour that inspired us on this rainy wet morning as we shivered our clothes off, teeth chattering.

We shivered our way in and it was biting cold as usual. But after flailing about as normal, the giddiness kicked in. Lately when I swim I don’t want to get out, I’m blissed out and 10 minutes never feels long enough, but we know that hypothermia can set in and have the effect of making you want to stay in forever. The water was crystal clear and speaking of crystal it looked like the raindrops were landing on the sea and then rebounding in a stunning miniature water ballet. Water sprites maybe? No, it was hail.

Hail balls don’t sink right away, they bounce on the surface of the sea…

I was mesmerized by all this watery magic. Not wanting to get out, I was flirting with danger. It takes willpower some days to get out of the water, just like knowing when to stop drinking wine. Sometimes you just want to throw caution to the wind, party on and get messy, enjoy the high.

November 15, the day of my book launch was, as expected, a bit stressy. Seadog had to drive me around downtown on errands. Charming as downtown Dublin is, it’s also a quagmire of determined one ways. Seadog was well fed up by the end of it all and I needed to purify my diva self before my big night. No better way than a dip. It was 13 degrees Celsius outside and 10 in the water apparently and 4.4m high tide. It’s a new feature of our swim life that Devildog pays attention to the height of the tide as advertised on the tides charts. Until now I just liked to look up what time high tide was at on my handy tides app, ignoring the height stats altogether. Being Devildog she likes it super high. It’s true it’s nice and even helpful to be bobbed around up high on the water on a high high tide. I swam in some sunbeams and chilled myself out to prepare for the big night. It did the trick.

Another Sunday morning swim in November. 7:45 a.m. pick up. Sharkbait (formerly known as S) has multiple kid activities on a Sunday so it gets us out the door an hour earlier than I would prefer. It is sunny, but only 1 degree Celsius. Devildog has christened S Sharkbait because of her preoccupation with spotting imaginary sharks and other big watery creatures.

Speaking of water creatures there were two seals there that morning swimming languorously. Devildog and Sharkbait are aghast that I haven’t swum in the sea for 10 days. They are going almost every day. Devildog says housework is piling up. Hurrah for not doing housework I say!

I know by not going everyday I miss lots of stuff. Sharkbait and Devildog give me the highlights of the week, like the day they witnessed a crowd of twenty people gathered to celebrate the life of a fellow swimmer. There was a man in a boat to scatter the ashes. Or The Great Knicker swap. Sharkbait managed to forget her swimsuit one day and so Devildog very kindly gave her her swim bottoms and swum in her underpants herself. Swimming in jock bra and swim bottoms, that’s devotion. An old lady confided she’d done that hundreds of times. Meanwhile men swim naked around the corner and flap their willies in the wind.

Another day, there was  a crew of three cute young bucks filming a promo video for something or other. Scarves wrapped tightly around their necks, looking smart in their Peacoats. The Forty Foot is so iconic it features in a few Christmas ads. Meanwhile 40 foot regular old grumpy guy, as I think of him, was doing the rounds with his bucket and broom bleaching the hell out of the cement, killing the slippery green seaweed algae and moss. It seemed like more bleach than he usually used and the stench gave the place an odd swimming pool atmosphere.

An older woman with a rainbow-patterned bathing cap blessed herself and did the sign of the cross with the sea water as she waded in.  She swam up to us later as we were bitching about something. We told her we came here in part to vent about life’s problems.

The colder the better, right?! she said, knowingly.

Last November swim was on a sunny Sunday morning at Sandycove because it was too ferocious at the 40 foot. Minus 1 outside and 7 Celsius in the water. Devildog and I stayed in 15mins because we didn’t have our watches on. Shivered a lot. Frozen boobs and ladybits. Had gallons of chocolate afterwards to defrost our engines.

First December swim was on a Sunday again. Minus 1 again. 8:30 swim date. Pink sky.  Freezing. There were two outraged women getting dried up after a swim talking about rudeness and injustice. I knew what they were on about: The Irish Times article the past Friday about the Sandycove Bathers’ Association upholding a ban on women from their club! And the one woman said, it reeks of the time of  Charles McQuade (super conservative archbishop of Dublin). There had been a petition passed around to allow women in the club and they had voted against women 24 to 17.

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It had upset me too because it’s such a magical and special place no one should claim any ownership or exclude others from any piece of it.

Here I had been thinking, at last winter swimming! no jellyfish, no bad algae, lots of parking. But there’s a new annoyance down at the Forty Foot.  Old Codgers! Actually it’s not a new foe, it’s an ancient tiresome one rearing its Cro-Magnon head. Now when I see a grumpy old guy I wonder is he one of them? Can’t help but feel personal. Banning women from their club, The Sandycove Bathers’ Association make me feel excluded. I didn’t even realize they had their own changing hut with a kitchen inside, but it’s down right rude that I’m not allowed into it.  Up yours, and your kitchen, Codgers! They’ll no doubt get an earful when they try to collect money for 40 Foot upkeep as they do sometimes.

In the Sunday Times that day some of the Sandycove Bathers’ Association were redeemed by board member Frank Kelly (Father Jack from Father Ted) saying he couldn’t understand how some members had voted women out…

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Relations between sexes are interesting at the 40 foot. Historically it was a women free zone. I think now generally it’s very polite and gallant and for the most part equal. There’s no pervy vibe. Us three hairy sirens often outstay the men in the water. Not that it’s a competition… We notice men watching us, not in a predatory way, but rather in an are they crazy, it’s been 10 minutes kind of way? Most people this time of year just come to dip themselves and get back out, like human tea bags. Last year, I bowed to the knowledge of the regulars and thought maybe Devildog was being reckless by letting us stay in the water that long, but we all survived our winter swim season and it taught us that we can trust our own judgement. Even if Devildog does look seriously blue after the swims.

That Sunday morning , the women outnumbered the men. One older man showed up and right away, the two women said: “I hope you didn’t vote against us, Joe.”

“No,” he said, smiling charmingly, “I approve of women on principle!!”

Afterwards Devildog and I went to heavenly smelling Avoca for delicious berry scones. Then I got myself home and into a steaming hot bubble bath with the Sunday supplements. Bliss.

Friday afternoon Devildog called me to tell me if I want to swim it has to be extra early this Sunday. She leads with: It’s high tide at 7:30am!

Happy Christmas Everyone! Next swim: New Year’s Day (All Welcome!)

P.S. An article in The Irish Times today declares that research says that cold water swimming isn’t good for old people and that the sudden shock isn’t good for the heart. But the place is full of seniors and as one regular is quoted as saying loads of the bathers even have pacemakers. They wade in rather than dive in as a precaution. I think the article is wrong and these people are proof that the sea is in fact a fountain of youth.

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Prairie Dolphin on Tour Featuring Special Guest: The Gorge Waterway, Victoria B.C.

In late September, Prairie Dolphin went on tour to Canada for two weeks. The sea in Victoria, British Columbia is freeze-your-butt-off cold, even colder than our Irish Sea. But there is now a new swimming venue that was especially cleaned up by divers and volunteers this past summer with a swanky pontoon and everything: The Gorge Waterway, where the river meets the sea and connects Victoria Harbour to Portage Inlet. They even hosted a swimming festival.

My mother is the original sea lioness. She brought me to the Gorge on a super sunny, Indian summer day with the autumn leaves orange and red. I somehow imagined the water would be warm… I climbed down the mossy wooden ladder and got in.

Sploush…

It was a novelty to be swimming somewhere other than the Irish Sea. This felt more like a lake. It was wonderfully still except for the floating reeds and tiny minnows scurrying around me and the odd seabus taxi pootling by and a school of kayakers paddling towards the Craigflower bridge. (more on this swim in an upcoming piece in the Globe & Mail Life section)

Another Victoria evening, down at Dallas Beach I stumbled onto a proper wild swimmer’s cairn. Cosmic, I thought…

Sunset in Victoria.

One of the many great things that happened in Victoria was I met up with a friend for lunch who had just been Stand up Paddling in a dress and a pearl necklace along with a denim coat underneath a life jacket. SUP is something I’ve seen before and wondered all about. I really dig the Hawaiian vibe. Go to this link to read all about her seal activities and watch the video, it’s super cool:

Back to Ireland and to Joyce’s “snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea”, or a place I now call I home. Jetlagged, groggy and blue, I texted the girls to say when are we swimming?

First Swim Back was the jetlag blues killer. Perfect, cold, totally transparent water did exactly what I needed it to, brought me back to my senses and filled me with gratitude to live only 10 minutes away from this chunk of bliss.

Second Swim Back or alternate title, Glowing Ladybits, was far more adventurous. It was October already and C picked me for a 6:30 a.m. swim. It was pitch black outside ( we hadn’t quite accounted for how dark it would be, that the season had changed and gone was our summer light). Luckily Sandycove had streetlights. The other help was the fluorescent, neon green plankton—at least I assume that’s what it was. All the locals drying off when we arrived were laughing about the possible meaning of the lime green glow in the water. Was it Sellafield’s nuclear waste or Thai Green Curry? I really wish I had an underwater camera that would be good in the dark too so I could show you how trippy and amazing it looked. Imagine your hands carving out oceanic Northern lights with every stroke in the black water.

I think each wild swimmer has ways of gauging how cold the water actually is. For me when I feel it in my actual bones I declare it goddamn cold. That dark morning, I was aware of my calves and forearms as stiff batons. And my ladybits were one solid cold block. That’s definitely a colder water than the kind when it’s just a scalding tingly feeling on the surface of your skin. We discussed whether I could use the term ladybits in my blog, but given all the attention the shrinking of men’s willies in cold water gets in popular culture, surely the term ladybits is fairly harmless and yet so relevant.

Apparently C’s husband thought she was crazy for going out for a swim at this time of the day in the dark but what was even crazier was that she had two others to go with her. Every stroke made a disco green wave.

I love the way we meet up, get undressed and literally step into another dimension, just like we have our own funky transformer Star Trek elevator. And the funny thing is, on our new planet we often talk about the most mundane things like how many years you wipe your kids butts for and clip their toenails.

Week Later Swim

Saw a Tarzan-like man with glamorous thick wavy chestnut brown hair swimming in the seriously stormy sea at 40 foot. Gales and floods the night before made for a rambunctious ocean and so me and the girls swam around the corner at the much mellower SandyCove.

Our cove is manageably choppy, while around the corner it’s wild. S is from Florida and likes to speculate on the whereabouts of sharks. I change the subject and call a lice summit as it’s new to my monkeys. My more experienced parent swim buddies talk me through strategies in the choppy waters involving different potions and types of combs.

Later we walked back around to see the water rage. Around the corner, behind the changing area, we were confronted with Tarzan Man using what can only be described as an elaborate butt floss drying technique, gleefully, like my 4 year old’s patented bum dance.

Despite our surprise, we agreed if we weren’t self-conscious about our bodies we too would’ve enjoyed being unabashed and naked, flapping our bits gleefully in the water and on land but that was not going to happen anytime soon…

Next swim: Foggy Warship.

C texted to say there was an Arctic front blowing in on Thursday and so Tuesday was last chance to swim in mild weather. Plus the Donegal postman was forecasting a snowy winter this year and Paddy Power was giving him good odds. We showed up again to a wild sea. An oldtimer told me to be careful because it was “lively” today. Good adjective I thought, understated.

It was foggy, there was a big grey battleship 100 yards out. I got in and didn’t even feel the cold such is my love of the experience and the quality of my boots and gloves. I wouldn’t have gone in alone, it was too feisty and bouncy. With my buddies though I was able to enjoy the big waves in the safety of numbers.

Over a big wave we suddenly saw three snorkelers and wondered what they were doing in this crazy water and where had they come from?  But they probably wondered what are those broads doing in this huge water? People often come snorkeling out of nowhere here. I like to imagine some people just have to see some marine life some days.

Those last two swims were at lunchtime and so I’ve got a new ritual of having a hot chocolate and picnic in the car, looking out to sea, which lots of other people seem to be doing too. When I first moved to Ireland someone explained that bringing a woman to the seaside and sitting in a parked car was like Blueberry Hill or Inspiration Point on Happy Days, it’s for snogging! Must drag Seadog away from his desk for swimdate one of these days.

This episode’s song*:

*spot the frog

PS: Possible name for our swim club:  No Knickers, Old Bras and Ratty Towels SC

What do you think? Suggestions?

Prairie Dolphin Goes Mano-a-mano with Jellyfish and Other Tales of the Summer

Mid July there was at last some heat! Real, proper summer heat. It was a gorgeous sunny morning, two hours from low tide. I drove myself to Forty Foot as soon as I was free. I had been especially wired lately and needing thalassotherapy more than ever.

Getting there, the first thing I saw was one of the regular old-timers actually holding a real live jellyfish in his bare hands! Seconds later he lobbed it casually off into the wildflowerbed at the mezzanine level of the Forty Foot.

Meanwhile a woman and her daughter heading towards the cars post-swim told me there were loads of jellyfish but they were no problem. I must have looked nervous because the daughter who looked ten-ish reassured me again, “they’re fine!”

Lots of swimmers were coming out of the water faster than usual.

I got changed beside one of the regular women who told me in her thick Slavic accent that her heels were getting stung and that they were down below at heel level. I headed down the ladder and realized they weren’t down below anymore, they were floating very close to the surface.

There were no swimmers in the water now. Looking back to the changers I saw older, cuddlier women (my friend’s euphemism for chubbier), getting dried up, their tyres of loose wobbly flesh on display. Waves of flesh. Waves of water. It was good for morale and somehow comforting to see all this uncensored, matronly, dough-like flesh.

My desire to get in was almost equal to my fear of jellyfish. I could see dozens of them. Normally I would say there were thousands, but I’m trying to rein in my hyperbolic tendencies for wild exaggeration.

Let’s just say there were tons of them, what were they all doing here?

The Baba with stung heels must have realized she’d put me off because she came to over to tell me it was okay to get in the water. There were gaps of water in between the jellyfish after all.

Stuck on the ladder, I was seriously desperate to get in. It was hot. I was stressed. Relief was in front of me. Devouring Cheryl Strayed’s Wild that week I had been seriously inspired to up my can-do. Strayed had reminded me of the beauty of intense physical exertion. And not to be a wimp-ass. Hot and bothered and the perfect antidote was before me, how could I do not do it? I knew they were probably harmless, but I’ve never got in with so many so visible. Should I stay or should I go? Being in my swimsuit with my bathing cap and boots on was a big motivation. It would be too disappointing to not accomplish my mission and have to get all the gear off for nuffin, like Mancub says in his toddler-cockney.

Plus, having small children, I’m trying to get over my own squeamishness involving insects and other boogeymen, etc to set a mighty example. It’s good to feel the fear and do it anyway as the self-help gurus advise, not just once, in not just one way, but practicing doing scary things, within reason, to keep sharp for the wee ones.

And so I plunged in.

The water was gorgeous-delicious on my skin. Fresh, bouncy, not frozen, lovely and that’s why they like it too. Refreshing is the adjective that always comes to my mind but it is never enough of a word. The feeling is as if a profound corporal thirst is being quenched and more importantly so is a spiritual one.

Jellyfish are not out to get us specifically are they? I’m no biologist but I don’t think our blood is food for them, like it is for mosquitos.

In all my swimming life I’ve never seen so many in one area, it was a goddamn convention of them. Maybe because it’s a little cove, they all want to hang out together, like a cosy party. And I was crashing.

Bumping into them I couldn’t help scream, every single time. I’m a jumpy person anyways. I often scream at Seadog when he comes into the living room with his quiet, panther-like gait. I think I bumped about 10 of them, it felt somehow like lobbing a football with the back of my hand. But thank god I hadn’t left the boots and shoes at home. Thank God for my boot kicking jellyfish boots. And thank God for the wonderfully refreshing water.

Two stern looking women in floral bathing suits in their sixties showed up and made their way down the ladder steps. They seemed unusual candidates for morning swims with their skirted swim suits, and blond, Elnett-sprayed, hot-curler hairdos. Then one told me, while dipping her one foot in the water, that they were just coming for a quick dip to try anything to fix their hangovers. They weren’t smiling at all as they took turns dipping only their toes in the water for medicinal purposes.

Next, a busload of ten-year-old, inner-city, kayak students showed up in wetsuits giddy on a day out. Yelling holy shite and calling each other pussies. Their minders in thick Dub accents yelled: Stop coursing.  The kids couldn’t believe all the jellyfish and kept pointing. Their training involved jumping in to get acclimatized and used to the water but the jellyfish were throwing off the whole program. Some of the kids were brave enough to do it anyway and some refused and their chief yelled: “ARE YE GONNA WASTE YE MAMMY’S MONEY?!!. GET IN or go get dressed and go ome!!”

I swam in a little circle and bumped and bumped and bumped into one jellyfish after another. I screamed each single bump time and yelped at imagined ones. But not one of them had stung me so far.

A youngish guy with dark thick hair floppy hair a bit like Keanu Reeves joined me in the water just as a colony of even more jellyfish had arrived. I was relieved to have company and company that seemed unafraid. He swum further out than me but near enough to chat. He didn’t move around much and just treaded water in the midst of loads of them.

You’re kidding yourself said a women watching from the land above. There are HUNDREDS of them she told us.

Keanu said, “Arah, they’re harmless! I saw one of the old guys actually rubbing one against his arm up and down just to show the other swimmers they are harmless. They come for a few weeks and then the others come… It’s the red ones, the Lion’s Mane they’re called, they’re the deadly ones. Some of the old guys here try to catch them in buckets to get rid of them. But these ones are fine…”

Seems a bit unfair we brave some of the coldest water in Europe through the winter months and then when it finally, finally actually heats up a bit, these little fuckers show up. And these guys are the good guys. The ones that look like glass.

Meanwhile a well intentioned but grumpy old guy was pouring bleach out of a bucket on the steps to kill the seaweed and moss so the swimmers wouldn’t slip on their way out. I make a note to try to remember to bring some coins for the upkeep collection bucket. I always forget.

My friend C has now determined that winter is much better because there are no crowds of fair-weather swimmers, you can always get parking and it’s more peaceful.  It’s true it’s annoying to see all the debris at our beloved changing area, empty Lucozade bottles and cigarette butts.  I think October last year was pretty great. No jellyfish and not Arctic yet. But C’s hands still get cold in the summer. Look at this!

Next up on the summer swim menu: we had our week holiday back on the Irish Riviera. It was amazing to be back in the neighbourhood with Caliso Bay, Whiting Bay, Ferry Point, and Goat Island beaches on our doorstep.  Despite the foggy days, Little Chief, Mancub and Seadog and I charged the oceans and frolicked for hours in the soulful surf, having the beaches to ourselves in this strangely underused part of the Irish coast. Unbelievably, despite hours of packing for the trip, I hadn’t packed my swimsuit and had to make do with my husbands extra large Simpsons t-shirt that got super heavy when wet. I was jealous of the monkeys in their aerodynamic birthdays suits.

Back in the city again I had many beautiful early Sunday morning swims with C at Forty Foot and evening swims at Seapoint and Sandycove. Getting home shivering from staying in the water a tad too long I was warmed by hot little toddler hugs and Seadog’s hot lips (hot anyway but hot especially in contrast to my frozen ones). Team Kelly-Watson triumphed in the post-swim-heat-up-Prairie-Dolphin Olympics.

This summer I started taking a lot of cold showers and not because I was too turned on! Or actually, yes I was turned on by the thought of the sea in a funny kind of a way. But when I couldn’t get to the sea, I was left craving it like an addict. Hot and bothered I would put on my floral shower bonnet and shower on the coldest dial. It’s always a shock, but it does help to take the edge off. Seadog tells me fast flowing water releases negatively charged ions which makes you feel super positive! It certainly gives me a spiritual cooldown and a pep in my step to continue the day more than a hot one which just makes me sleepier than I normally am.

I noticed the different demographics of swimmers at the different times of the day on my summer program. Mornings and daytime are for seniors and evenings for partyers. Hot weather brings everyone out. The teenagers with their Redbull cans, string bikinis and “that’s amazeballs” talk, the gooners celebrating Katie Taylor’s gracious boxing win, the families with the parents having a break from being harassed by kids out of school, the blissed-out shivering young kids noodling on their kayaks, others chanting an I hate seaweed mantra but staying in the water regardless, Spanish and French exchange students looking gorgeous and ready for romance and some fat men sun-worshipping in their underpants. Seapoint becomes a real city party beach on a warm summer evening. There are so many people in the water that every now and then I imagine I see a whale in the distance, but really it’s just wetsuit-clad arms doing the crawl and spraying water like a whale’s blowhole. I can’t wait til my monkeys are old enough and good swimmers to hang out on summer evenings at the seaside.

One early evening swim was so busy with people I was actually smelling an adjacent swimmer, this portly man’s very strong cologne that seemed to be waterproof? Just then a punky peroxide blonde woman did a huge cannonball jump from the rocks above down into the water. She surfaced after a few seconds in a huge swell of water, gasping. As she hollered with cold shock the light just captured the gleaming silver stud of her tongue piercing. Meanwhile, a fregan man I’d seen earlier with wild God hair and a bunch of random food tied onto his bicycle rack showed up with a black and white dog and first got his dog swimming and then later, stripped himself down and for all to see did a full spread-eagle nude dive off the rocks in all his glory.

I often find myself rushing through tasks as if all jobs need doing fast with the unconscious objective always of getting home safe and sound. It’s maybe a hangover from years of waitressing, a job where speed and getting things done expediently just about keeps the stress of swearing chefs and disgruntled customers at bay. Everyday I have to keep telling myself: Stop rushing. Stop rushing. And what’s worse I often catch myself rushing and holding my breath. So when I’m in the water I focus of letting myself feel my fingers gleefully plowing through the water, grabbing time and holding on to it to slow it all down, to just be able to feel the water on my skin. It’s the perfect special time after or before or during a day’s stresses. And afterwards, like shagging flashbacks, I revisit my swims throughout the day in small pleasurable hits.

My favourite summer swim was the one at 830 p.m with the tide coming in high. Sunset over Dun Laoghaire, pink clouds.  In the big wavy water it felt as if we were all in one giant bouncy castle together. And it struck me how this little swimming hole, the 40 Foot, every single day of the year someone is visiting it, every single day. That night C was rapturous to discover Irish rugby legend and hottie Johnny Sexton was the guest celebrity for the evening. All of us heads bobbing around together like Lilliputians in this giant drink.

Afterwards a woman we didn’t know keen to talk about her experience told us it was her first time.

She looked like she’d seen God.

I’ll be back definitely she said.

To finish off my August swims we had another dazzling blue water and blue sky day for another 40th birthday at the 40 Foot. Boas and cupcakes, tea and coffee for the girls again, our new birthday ritual. We stayed in so long I lost the feeling in my fingers and S had to do up my bra for me. During our swimming girl chatter I learned among other things that apparently the most hardcore, everyday, swimmers have hideous toenails, it’s called 40 Foot Feet!  I tried to get photographs for you but have yet to see these gruesome toenails of legend in the wild…

This is C’s song pic: Rock Lobster

PS Here is an article about sea safety following last week’s drowning tragedy in Cornwall.

Pee is the answer?

Last Monday morning, Mancub in crèche, Little Chief at school, off to the beach I went with a great urge for water therapy. It was less than two hours from low tide but the trusty 40 Foot always provides some depth. It was sunny and quiet and the sea was gone at Sandycove, but around the corner at 40 Foot it was a bustling party of buzzing swimmers drying and changing and lounging against the wall, basking in the sun trap.

I found a place to change and got started disrobing. Everyone was looking out to sea. I looked seaward hoping to see the dolphins that are rumoured to be around from time to time. But no, all the excitement was about jelly fish. Since the water had heated up to a toasty 12 degrees Celsius the place has been awash in dreaded jelly fish. Everyone was looking at one woman, just out of the water, who was busy rubbing her thigh.

Did ya get bit?

I don’t know, it stings a little. Could be the salt she said, a little worried but mostly cheerful seeming.

People weren’t going to let those little feckers stop them from enjoying their daily water worship.

I climbed down the steps and got in the water and an older guy with thick white hair and ruddy cheeks told me he’d counted fifteen jelly fish yesterday. Just the small, white and purple kind. Today so far, there was only one spotted over by the railing. I know that kind fairly well and I don’t like them, but they don’t usually bug me. What scares the crap out of me is those portuguese men-of-war with their legendary tentacles.

I swam after an older woman who was swimming around the Point. I had only done this once, on my wetsuit outing. It was definitely easier without the suit. We didn’t go the whole way but it felt good to be drafting a senior who was being a little adventurous. Coming back I was swimming against a current which always makes me feel a bit nervous, like the power of the ocean is going to overwhelm me. Fear and respect for the sea is always in my mind. I have had my moments of being taken by the sea and tumbled along in a crazed washing-machine-like whirl enough times to know a girl’s gotta be careful.

Lots of bubbles my companion said.

What does it mean? I asked.

Well, we think it usually means the water is dirty. Keep your mouth closed she said knowingly.

It was beautiful and sunny. Blue sky and bubbly water.  I’m really pro bubbles and it’s my favourite word in Spanish: burbujas. Champagne is my favourite drink. I wasn’t going to engage in the dirty water idea. Besides, she wasn’t letting her bubble theory stop her from swimming.

I asked Seadog later what she meant. Was she talking about, god forbid, sewage?

He answered vaguely that all organic matter decomposes into methane. I interpreted that to mean it could be anything. I decided I’d like to think it was water sprites burping or angel fish farting deep under water.

Then I swam next to the jelly-fish counting guy who jerked his arm suddenly. That was one, he said, meaning jellyfish.

Could have been seaweed? I suggested.

Not so high up. I tell you the thing for it. YouRhine he yelled. That’s right. The pharmacists don’t like it because they can’t sell you their stuff. But that’s what works. YouRhine, he declared emphatically one more time making sure I heard him. I nodded dutifully, spitting out some water that had snuck in my mouth. I distinctly remember seeing on the lifeguard’s information board around at Sandycove that urine is in fact not the answer. But you gotta let people have their homemade cures if they want them. I swear by camomile for my nerves, pretzels for nausea, raw garlic for colds, and chocolate for every malaise no matter how slight.

I swam for a lovely long time. It was a proper summer swim. Afterwards drying off, YouRhine-Guy said to me, that was great! You  just  can’t  beat  it. You just can’t beat it with a stick, or 2 sticks even!! He chuckled at his own poetry. I knew what he was talking about. I felt great.

Y’know he said, there’s one kind of jelly fish that stings you and that’s the end. Goes right into your blood and that’s it. You’re Dead. He cymbaled his hands together to demonstrate. But you can’t let that stop ya, he concluded.

No indeed, we choose our risks where pleasure is concerned.

I sat on the wall and drank my Earl Grey tea in the sun and was filled with a great happiness. The whole experience never fails to tap into my sweet spot. This has got to be the most optimistic place ever; hanging out with these fit-as-fiddle seniors jumping in the  sea, you can’t help but be cheerful about the present and the future.

By popular request this week’s song is The Waterboys’ old classic: This Is The Sea

Communing Sola

I love having my new swim buddies, can’t say it enough. But I also know that I still need to do solo swims. When I swim with people, it’s jolly to share the experience. But alone, I don’t get distracted and can’t help but be mindful. Going sola, I go to a kind of nature/water-church.

Monday was the first super sunny morning in ages. The first morning that it truly felt like it could be called summer-ish. Nothing warms a prairie girl’s heart or indeed most people’s hearts like a full-blown, blue-sky, sunny morning. I checked the tides on the pooter like Mancub calls it and I could already imagine the glory of my first Dublin-swimspot love: Seapoint. It was 13 degrees Celsius according to my car and only 9:33am.

No one was there except one older guy drying himself off. He was in no hurry to put on clothes and seemed to be settling down in his towel skirt for some morning sunbathing and reading the newspaper.

In some ways it’s a lonelier experience swimming at Seapoint. The size of the bay is much bigger and lends to a bit less intimacy than the swimming hole of Forty Foot. And though the city is closer it feels a bit wilder being out in the open far away from people.

I got in and felt colder than usual. Normally I’m distracted and in such a rush to catch up to C and the others that I barely experience the freezingness.

I swam a hundred yards out. Turning back to check my bag and stuff I spotted another potential swimmer disrobing.

At first I wonder why am I in the water? It’s freeze-your-boobs-off cold. And then I wonder, has the magic gone? Where’s my thrill? And then I flap about some more and the cold wears off a bit and I concentrate on being in the moment. And in this moment there is sunshine, pure sunshine on my wet face. I close my eyes and all I see are my giant orange eyelids. I did a baptismal dunk and came up again and relished shaking the deliciously fresh water off of my face, feeling ecstatic. When I re-surfaced the first thing I noticed a hundred yards away at the changing area was the cross on the Martello tower. Hmm, I wonder is Jesus sending me a sign? Was he saying, stop flaky dabbling with Buddhism and nature worship and come back to me. Actually I think he probably is a fan of Buddha too.

I very much enjoyed Glennon Melton’s essay on the problem with trying to carpe diem all the time. And I agreed. But I think what also needed mentioning is that living in the moment is an art. Something you have to practise, daily. Like during meditation when monkey mind takes over, you have to keep coming back to your breath, let it wander and keep coming back. You have to keep coming back to the present during your day and feel all the textures and layers. And sometimes you suck at it and sometimes you are there in the now more. I totally agree with sage people who say that happiness lies in slowing down and being totally present.

In the present I look over to see what’s taking the changing swimmer at the Martello tower so long.

Just then, facing Howth and the great big sea in front of him, he opened the towel around his waist and did a big, long, naked stretch.

He’s definitely not wearing togs, unless they are nude coloured. I turn away, trying to peek without it being obvious. And I determine he is not wearing togs for sure. As with other encounters with nudists on beaches I’m the one who is embarrassed. Like I’m intruding on them. Maybe my unconscious reckons they are part of the natural habitat.

He put his towel back on.

And then opened it again, sneaking another nudie, arms-up-high stretch.

I don’t want him to think I mind (not that I enjoy it, but I’m not against it philosophically) but how to convey this? I try never to turn in his direction but that’s a little limiting, I like to frolic here and there and take in the whole panoramic view while I float and noodle on my back, and if I can see him in detail then he can see me and which way I’m looking.

I’ve read that some nudists are compulsive about it. They just yearn to feel the air on their soft places and can’t resist. He probably deludes himself into thinking I can’t see him. You can tell that he doesn’t want to freak people out, by his perpetual covering himself back up. I wonder if the sunbathing pensioner in his towel has similar urges and that’s why he is still in his towel skirt rather than back in his civvies.

Little Chief and Mancub love to parade around the garden nude in this weather. Why should we grow out of that urge or resist it? It obviously feels lovely to be free if you can be unself-conscious as toddlers can.

Maybe Mr. Naked is doing what I’m doing. Communing. Maybe this is his holy-ish thing.

I stayed in the longest I’ve done since last August, I’m sure. A few others came and went doing their espresso shot swims, while I lingered in my extra long cappuccino dip. One older lady spent ages getting into her suit. When she finally approached the water’s edge she said aloud to herself, rolling her r: Looks dirty. Ooh it’s cold. I’ll just do 3 strokes and I’m out. And that’s what she did. And then she declared her swimming season for the year had now officially started. Onlookers said to her you’re right to start slow. Aren’t you good, they encouraged her.

A couple of joggers came in to dip their toes. One of them walked in the water all the way up to her cycling-shorts-clad butt. First taste of summer and everyone gets playful.

After a good long set of alternating stretching nude and covering himself with his towel, like a matador playing bullfighter and bull, Mr. Naked put back on all his clothes. He slung his trendy messenger bag across his shoulder, got on his bicycle and rode away, set for the day ahead no doubt.

When I get back out to change I realize it wasn’t a cross I’d spotted in my religious moment after all, but just a set of changing hooks.

I had stayed in the water the longest since last August. And so I had the chills even in the heat. What is the opposite of a meltdown. A freeze-up? A lot of chocolate and tea and coffee and clutching 3 consecutive hot water bottles and I was grand… I loved the weird dry feeling of having sea salt stuck to the skin just below my eyebrows throughout the day.

P.S. Speaking of wind on your soft places, here’s some vintage Hawksley Workman: Paper Shoes. HW is appearing in my upcoming novel: Cadillac Couches, out in September!

Cinco de Mayo Supermoon Swim

After more than a month out of the water, I had a swim date for a Cinco de Mayo midnight full moon swim. I was excited and nervous all day in anticipation. I’d heard the water had gotten much colder in April. Plus, apparently there had been sightings of seasonal jelly fish already.

Here in Dublintown we had a freakish summer spell in March when Mancub was parading around the garden nude, picking dandelions and jumping on the mini-trampoline, or bounce-aline as Little Chief calls it. I even bought LC and him both some sandals so hot and sweaty were their pudgy little feet. Since those blissfully sunny two weeks, it has gone all wintry, interminable wet weather, no sun, icy winds, and temperatures stuck below 10 Celsius and not a single outing of those sandals. Summer in March. Winter in April, and May so far, more winter with never-ending rain showers. When the sun did come out one day, my eyes couldn’t cope with the novelty. All this to say it was cold.

We had been planning on going on the previous month’s full moon. But it was so wild out, our plans were thwarted by the gale force winds and small craft warnings on the news. We were, after all, small crafts ourselves.

Lots of anxious texts were exchanged the evening of Cinco de Mayo. My swim date with C was for 11:35pm. Everyone else had bailed and C seemed willing to bail if I said the word. I was feeling so excited though about this wacky endeavour that we agreed after much back and forth that we could at least go on a reconnaissance mission. We decided though to go earlier. Night time is night time and the moon would be out well before midnight.

She picked me up at 10:40. Everyone was in bed. Seadog said he’d keep his phone on beside him. In case I die? I asked. No in case you have hypothermia, he said patiently.

C and I were both wearing our swimsuits optimistically. The car temperature gauge read 4 degrees Celsius. But I was instantly relieved that I could actually see the moon. I hadn’t been able to catch sight of the supposed Perigee moon out of our windows at home without ridiculous neck contortions. Plus some full moons are never even visible because of dense cloud coverage, which is not an unusual state of affairs here in Ireland; it’s not big-sky Alberta.

I’m 40 years old and I don’t do dope or take mushrooms or ride motorcycles or party that hard: half a bottle of wine or three cocktails, one episode of the Savage Eye and two re-runs of The Wire and that’s as wild as I get these days, and that’s been the case since going down into the parenthood bunker. And I certainly don’t leave my house at 10:40PM!! That’s nuts.  And neither does C. I’m guessing our demographic may stay up late sometimes, but we don’t start our night out that late. Like Spaniards going out for dinner.

We were giddy from the sheer feralness of leaving our cozy homes at this hour. C was quite worried there’d be scary freaks out and about. Seadog had warned me there may be drunks. My instincts told me not to worry about that unlikelihood and instead had me focussing on the freezingness and darkness of our mission. Water strikes me as even more engulfing and otherworldly when it’s black.

We arrived and no one was there. Not a single person. We parked and went walking up to the 40 Foot. It  was empty, dark and foreboding—nothing like the cheerful aquatic institution of the daylight. The uneven cement path down to the water was slippery in the dark. Visibility was poor but I could see and hear the sea crashing up on to the changing area. The tide was pretty high. The moon looked good, but it didn’t look like a Supermoon particularly. I guess we were too early for that. The later in the night, the closer to the horizon it would get and closer to the sea, the bigger it would look. I have to admit I don’t know much about the specs on the moon. All I know is that sometimes, totally unplanned, I have seen the moon look absolutely massive and best of all, really yellow. I think that’s what’s called a Harvest Moon. Given the name Supermoon, I was expecting it to be like one of those if not better.

So I was a little underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong, it was coot as ManCub likes to say, but not hooge as I was expecting. Still, being out at this time of night in the dark was thrilling. I tried to take some photos. Turns out I have a lot to learn about night-time photography. Namely that you’re supposed to hold the camera still for a long time. We shivered in the wind.

On our way back down to SandyCove we spotted a sweet looking, middle-aged woman who looked like she shopped at Marks and Spencers. We knew she was a swimmer from the telltale towel poking out of her bag. Big relief to see one of the tribe. Sure enough a whole gaggle of people then showed up, as if on cue.

It’s the kind of community you would see in a quirky art-house film. So sweet or charmingly eccentric you can’t quite believe they’re real. But this community is real. Old people. Young’uns in wetsuits. Dog named Dog. More females than males. They arrived with their crate of tea cups and post-swim treats. And a big jolly lantern. Some old guys were even designated torch holders, acting as human lighthouses.

Not a hooligan in sight. In fact if there were any, they’d be posh ones in this neighbourhood. There were even a handful of ten-year olds. And there were loads of over-sixties and just a few of us 40-ish year olds. It was the usual type of band of merry bathers. We chatted with an older woman who had walked up from her house up the road in her bathrobe, with her dog keeping guard.

And so we disrobed and got in the water in a big, polite queue with a volunteer shining a path for us. I still can’t say enough good things about my beloved swim boots! Thank you rubber trees.

I got in and howled away at the moon immediately from the cold and for the theatrics of it, presuming others would join in a chorus. Surely that’s what you’re supposed to do on one of these pagan gatherings. But it was probably better they didn’t or the residents may have gotten pissed off. My howls tailed off as I flapped about in the bouncy, dark water.

People say the water is warmer at night because it stores the heat of the day. It’s true it didn’t seem so freezing. C and I swam about, busily checking out the scene around us, all the swimmers looking at each other as if to say, what are we doing? Are we unconsciously following some maritime ancestral instincts, are we driven here by the ancient watery forces of sea-god Poseidon? I don’t think anybody really knew why we were doing what we were doing except that swimming during a full moon makes perfect sense in a totally oddball way. We probably all need more earthy, hippie, pagan nights out like this as a detoxifying ritual to bring us back to our true feral selves, to delight in the sweetest, simplest pleasures.

I was impressed to see one swimmer had a head torch. Like a caver. It was definitely hard to see even with the moon and the street lamps.

Everyone cheered the nervous young girl for finally getting in the black water, or the drink like another swimmer called it.

C and I dunked our heads underwater once before getting out.

Drying up, the moon tucked itself in under the clouds and all but vanished. We had unwittingly experienced perfect timing; again maybe it was those old watery forces pulling us there for that perfect moon window.

We dried ourselves up and stood on our hot water bottles in warm clothes. Hot water bottles, perfect simple technology. I ate a banana. Had some tea from the thermos and was delighted to be offered a delicious dark-chocolate-cluster desert.

That night I slept terribly. I was too excited and uncomfortable, sleeping in my fleece and toque because I didn’t want to get the chills or wake up the house by turning on the shower. It was such a bad night’s sleep that the next day I felt like I was actually hungover  from a major party. And just like all good parties, I relived the best bits and replayed them in my mind the next day in my sleepy dry land life.

 The Whole Of The Moon ( a great moon song)

Turning Forty at the Forty Foot! a short-ish entry at last

(Thanks J for taking the photo and sorry S for being the only one with the bathing hat still on!)

I don’t actually remember my twentieth birthday, does anyone? For my thirtieth I went over the top and organized a huge sleigh ride. On a dark and snowy prairie winter night I dragged out several freezing friends to sit on bails of hay on a sleigh as horses trotted us around Fort Edmonton under a bit of moonlight. I remember the quiet magic of snowflakes, seeing our breath and the horses’ breath and lots of talk of cold cold butts. We warmed up afterwards with frozen margaritas in a Mexican restaurant and cocktails at the E-town Savoy. Ten years later, on a blustery island far from E-town, what could be better than cupcakes, hot chocolate out of a thermos, feather boas around our necks for glamour and jumping in freezing water to shock and delight me and my new buddies back to youth.

There’s some debate about when Irish Spring actually is. It’s surprisingly early according to some people: February 1. It’s true that back on dry land trees were budding and many cherry blossoms and crab apple-type varieties were already starting to bloom despite water temperature holding cold at only around 8 degrees.

I was relieved of monkey-minding duties for my leisurely afternoon birthday celebration February 28th. C and J picked me up for our outing. Under her civvies C confessed she was wearing a damp bathing suit. It hadn’t dried properly since her swim the day before. That’s dedication I thought, really glad mine was dry.  We arrived and met S there. Before our swim and party we did our photo shoot for posterity with boas. They gave me a bright yellow bathing cap, the kind my grandma used to wear and a lovely card. Thank you, girls!

We swam in the icy and perfect water and discussed the fountain of youth that is the Irish Sea.  C’s other friends have been asking her what she’s been doing differently, she looks so much younger and fresher. And she says, well let me tell you… Always looking for new swim recruits she is.

I learned more interesting and endearing things about my new swim pals. C is a rabid Wilco fan, she and her buddies follow them around Europe. This is great news for me, being a fellow music freak. S was a competitive swimmer for years. Talking about getting stuck in currents she gave me the helpful tip that backstroke is best if you are ever in trouble in the water. We fantasize about saunas and hot tubs. Swimming in formation on the way out my friends looked like the flag of France with their blue, white and red hats.

That day there were a few old-timers in for good long swims even though the water was crashing up the wall, feisty and flexing its muscle. I was worried about leaving one elderly looking, very white man in by himself when we got out after 8 minutes, but another older regular told me, oh that’s Maurice, he usually stays in for 30 minutes.

All clothed and dry, clutching our hot water bottles still, we had hot chocolate and coffee and several tiny cupcakes with fists full of pastel-coloured icing on top that S had sourced locally. I was very happy to see those cupcakes, note the cheer. After I blew out the candles, made a wish and wolfed down a few of the perfect après-swim treats we noticed Frank Kelly from Father Ted was there. The girls whisperingly admired his fine physique. He graciously declined our offer of cupcakes.

March 7 we started a new Wednesday thing: run then swim. When I was doing my pre-run stretches I spotted a gigantic seal; he must be King Seal from Bullock harbour. We had a good long stare at each other. I love the sleekness and comedy of seals. And I foolishly long to hug one, but I know I should never ever try to do that.  I was glad to be on land admiring this bad boy safely from the shore where there was no chance of me hugging him or of him taking a chomp out of me.

It was a cold and windy day and a herculean struggle to run all the way to Dun Laoghaire Pier. But we did it, thanks to a Drill Sergeant app on S’s phone, and then we had a super refreshing cool down in the water. Applauding us, an old Slavic bathing regular said in her thick accent: “Thumbs up, you, you stay in long time.” We were treading water for a long time in Sandycove, talking for Ireland, almost oblivious to the cold.  We were chilling, literally! The peace of the winter swim, the quiet at the water’s edge, tunes out all stress and acts like a womb flotation tank (with a lot of quality chat). Love it. I also love discovering later in the day that my eyebrows are salty.

One day we arrive and there’s half a dozen American female university students getting dry after their swim, a circus of long soggy pony tails and people in various stages of undress. They chatter giddily about their experience. Holy crap, that was cold. Ya but you kind of get used to it. My foot is bleeding, I don’t know even know why. I’d definitely do that again. Me too. I can’t feel my toes. One of them held a towel like bullfighter, trying to shield three of them struggling with their swimsuits and modesty. A young guy came around the corner. High-pitched squeals: Go away, boys, GO AWAY! giggle giggle giggle

Summer hit this last week of March. We often seem to get a big beautiful blast of summer super early in Ireland. We’re talking up to 20 degrees Celsius. The regulars are cursing and hmphhing about the place being mobbed by fair-weather swimmers. It’s getting hard to get parking.

My friend said they were practically licking the windows at work, so desperate to get outside and J poignantly told me her son said he didn’t know why but he was in a fantastic mood. Sustained sunshine in Ireland is a freaky and joyous thing.

These boots are made for swimming and that’s just what they’ll do, one of these days these boot are gonna swim all over you… Are you ready, boots? Start swimming!

Here’s a lovely and relevant video/song that an old friend sent me. I love the lyric about toes hardening and numbing. Enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SzjERZU3wbY (Frightened Rabbit — Swim Until You Can’t see Land)

Next up (maybe): Midnight swim at full moon and high tide.