Saturday, July 8, 2017

Swimming, Writing and the State of the World

I love to swim. There is nothing that makes me happier. When I lived in Budapest Hungarians would ask me what it is I liked about their city, and I'd tell them, sincerely: swimming at Margaret Island. They thought I was joking or crazy.

The pool at Margaret Island was fifty metres, outdoors. For a swimmer there's nothing better than that distance - other than open water, of course. Margaret Island had two 50 metre outdoor pools and a 33 m. It cost $4 for entrance. Every day I'd ride my red Puch bike, from Pest to the shores of the Danube, over the bridge and onto the island. It took about 7 minutes from my apartment.  At the halfway point of the Margatret Bridge I'd carry my bike down a set of steps, ride past the singing fountain, and arrive at the outdoor pool. It was both a consolation and a release.

I was working on a novel then and I was totally, utterly alone in a country whose language I couldn't understand. A girl I'd loved had dumped me; I was struggling with my health and my writing; somehow the swimming was the only thing that made me feel okay. Human, I suppose. For whenever I swim I'm happy, but when I'm finished my swim I feel alive. Supple, in body and limbs.

It wasn't always easy, nor was it always a solution. I remember once, coming down those concrete steps to the island, and being besieged by foreignness - although I was the foreigner, for this wasn't my country. I felt like I was hitting my head against a wall. I was so lonely. I was in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, writing, but the loneliness ate at me.

So I swam. In happiness and through despair. For me it starts with the smell of the pool. There's something about chlorine that's connected to my childhood. I was lucky to have learned to swim so young. I took to it. From as long as I can remember it was my sport. In high school I joined the swim team and we trained 7, 8 times a week. I was a decent swimmer when I was fourteen - I held one record for free-style at my high school - but when the other boys were bulking up I remained skinny and long. By sixteen I was middle of the pack. I didn't really care. I loved to be in the water. Nowadays, when I smell a public pool - a good one, one with plenty of room to swim and spread my wings - I feel myself again.

So I spent 1.5 years in Budapest. Swimming and writing. Writing and swimming. Sometimes, when I'm in the pool, I wish I could type while moving. There's a clarity and physicality I love that only comes from water. If you were to take a picture of me in action, front crawl, forward motion, I'm sure you'd see me smile.

(It was even open in winter. You could slip in from inside, slither the underground tunnel beneath plastic until you were outside, snow falling, the Hungarians with their bathing caps, mist rising above the surface of the water...)

In time the swimming has become my ritual, my solace, my routine. It's where I go to think, where I think best. It's where I go to clear myself. Perspective. I also got into open water swimming - last summer I did a 5 km race in Hague, New York - a beautiful lake surrounded by the Adirondacks.

Coming back to Canada, after five years of living in Europe, was good in many ways. I could understand what people were saying. I have good health care. But what is lacking, sadly, are the state of public pools (after Budapest there was Berlin, also a good swimming city, and before Budapest there was Vilnius, which has its share of good public pools. Swimming, like saunas and spas, are considered essential parts of a good life, unlike here, where they're considered luxury).

Montreal has a few good options, like the Olympic pool in Pie IX, but it's far and I don't like to have to travel across the city to get into a pool. I train with a triathlon club at the YMCA Mile End most of the year. It's a small pool, but I like the team, there are some really fantastic swimmers - one even used to race with the Italian national team. In the summer, there's Parc Jarry. From late June to early September it's open. It's 50 metres, and it's outdoors.

There's only one lane marked off while the rest is made for people who want to play. This is frustrating as a swimmer but I've learned to adjust my expectations. Also, it's free, and a 5 minute bike ride from my apartment.

There are a few tricks i've learned: one is that I don't go there when the weather is nice. It's just too crowded. But when it's cloudy or rainy, nobody goes. Those are the times I like to swim best.

I arrive at Jarry, under the threat of darkening skies, racing to finish my swim before thunder approaches. The lifeguards watch me, bored. I take in the trees that seem to erupt from concrete. Sometimes my goggles fog up. Rain or sun, I like to lie on the concrete, stretching my arms, following which I go home.

You could say that swimming is my way of being in the world. It's what I do when I first come to a new place: seek out the closest local public pool. In part it's a way of seeing the cross-section of a place. In a public pool you observe people from all walks of life - it is not the place of the wealthy and the privileged. Every city, every place has their own swimming rituals. In Tokyo they clear the pool every fifty-five minutes. For five minutes the lifeguards do a strange ritual of looking. In gestures that best resemble Tai-Chi, they check the state of the water. In my mind they are giving the water time to breathe and settle. At first I was annoyed by this interruption of my routine. But in time I grew to enjoy the strange meditative pace. Then, on the hour exactly, the lifeguards nod at each other, triangular in formation. A lifeguard blows her whistle; you re-enter the water and swim.

For over twenty years, every time I went by Parc Portugal in Montreal, I thought of Leonard. I thought of his lyrics and his music, how he touched so many people. How, when I was eighteen, Leonard made me want to become a writer – and to live the life that went with it. So when I actually ran into him one July some years ago in Parc Portugal – he was sitting alone on a park bench right across from his house – I decided to thank him. I sat down next to him and told him how grateful I felt for what he’s done for so many of us. Leonard nodded and said, “So what do you do?” I told him I was a poet and he said, “That’s really cool.” He wore a dark suit and while he sounded cool he also sounded a lot like my grandfather. He wore sunglasses and was totally present and this unnerved me. He said he’d love to read some of my poems. Then we talked about the weather – it was a beautiful summer day in Montreal. The World Cup was on, and he asked if I was watching any of it, and I confessed I hadn’t. I asked him if he was back in Montreal for good – this was around the time he discovered he was bankrupt – and he said he loved it here but couldn’t stand the winters, they were too hard on his bones. Then we were quiet. So I thanked him again and rejoined my friends and went on with the day. In time I did mail him my first book of poems. Six months later I received a postcard from Calcutta with some thoughts. It was signed, “L. Cohen.” I had the feeling of meeting my grandfather, an angel, and the coolest man in the universe. We’ve lost a prophet at a time when we desperately need clarity and reason. But along with the prophecy, we’ve lost the voice, his grace and his style. So put on your suits and leave your flowers on rue Marie-Anne. It’s time to get elegant again.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Dreamt I was dropped off at the beautiful river. There were many bends and pools as the river rose and fell through the wide expanse. The river was so beautiful, and so known for its beauty, that tourists left their luggage in the river itself (there was no evidence of hotels in the area). One had to walk through the river to find one’s suitcase or duffel bag (there were, for some reason, many large, blue hockey bags) and one was expected to walk. Next to their luggage a family of five had left a bag of apples that were spilling into the water and that’s when I realized everyone was not only leaving their luggage, but their apples too. I nabbed a few and left the river for a trail.

At a ridge there was a cabin where I was greeted by a bearded man. It was Walt Whitman. He invited me inside. Thinking this was an omen from the poetry gods, I accepted his invitation. But rather than go inside, I discovered the canvas shoulder bag I was carrying was a Walt Whitman printed canvas shoulder bag. That he didn’t really live in the cabin, in fact, that he didn’t actually exist. So nobody lived there, and nobody wrote poetry.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

In considering politeness, one wonders what happened to the time when people weren't so damn adamant about being nice. It seems, when watching professional sports, or attending an art opening or literary event, or walking down the streets of New York or Toronto or Montreal, that everyone is so unequivocally nice. I appreciate the niceness of people. I like to be asked how I am, to be offered something that I might need or want. I like to have things liked on Facebook, and I understand it's good to have a lot of Twitter followers. But there are times I am suspicious of this behaviour - in myself and others. It's as though life has become one big popularity contest. We can blame the Internet. But we are its willing participants. Lack of privacy aside, there are days I feel like I'm in high school, permanently, a kind of purgatory. Other days I feel like I'm constantly trying to sell or buy something. Do you want my face? My post? My photograph? Do you like this brand of me? New and updated? (Sadly, though, not enough cash is involved. Maybe this 'liking' is in lieu of adequate payment. Or, as Allen Ginsberg once asked, When can I walk into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?)

The Last Eccentrics

I live in a building full of eccentrics. Italian Elvis walks Clark Street in an old beige wool coat. He wears fat sunglasses and a giant cross. He talks to himself but is always happy to talk to you. Occasionally he'll stop his talking and break out into an Elvis song, a cappella style.

Then there's Sylvain, the last Quebec communist. From his steps a flag from the USSR waves; he shouts at the passersby: Vive Le Communisme! Sometimes he can be seen carting massive amounts of potato chips up Clark with his little red wagon. Rumour has it he eats them through the night while he plays violent video games on his old television screen. Sylvain is pushing 60. He makes a living selling pencil crayons, $2.50 a box. He has a sign outside his house advertising it. He's always trying to sell me things; once my girlfriend bought a beaded curtain.

His house smells awful. He lives with his two dogs. He hoards things. Yesterday it was cans of tuna fish; he came home with 160 cans of the stuff, not sure where he got it, certainly he didn't pay a cent. Once I asked him if he had anything I'd like. He offered bicycle chains, a dolly or Hitler paraphernalia. Sylvain doesn't speak a word of English. He is confused by the sexual proclivities of my generation. He is a 6 year old in a 60 year old's body.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Mathilde's Patience

As the inevitable wave of gentrification moves into Petite-Patrie, and as I ponder the owner's potential selling of the building I have lived in for three years, which includes the immanent eviction of people who have been living here for 35 + years, like the Italian Elvis, and Sylvain, the last Quebec Communist, I salute Mathilde the Pigeon, who has made a temporary home on my balcony, out of an old laundry line and random twigs. She's been sitting on her eggs for two weeks now, and she likes when I sit next to her, reading the London Review of Books, preferably with a pot of morning tea. Today it was Elena Ferrante. She has good taste and a lot of patience.