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According to Zadie Smith's definition, is swimming a joy or pleasure?

According to Zadie Smith’s definition, is swimming a joy or pleasure?  And what about learning to swim differently?

In the New York Review of Books last year novelist Zadie Smith wrote an article on the differences between joy and pleasure.  I wasn’t made aware of the piece until last Christmas, those long, slow, sometimes empty, sometimes bumpy days of eating and reading and sleeping.  I read Smith’s words closely; I read them repeatedly.  Are these ideas of joy and pleasure really that hard to get a grip on?

What else to do when something’s on your mind than head to the local pool.

In my lane, which luck would have it I didn’t need to share, amongst the crystal-clear chlorinated water, beneath the hazy but grand Southern Tablelands sky, I thought about Zadie Smith and her joy/pleasure conundrum.  She believed that for most people joy is just a more intense version of pleasure.  However, she also noted, ‘The thing no one ever really tells you about joy is that there is very little pleasure in it.  And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how could we live?’  It’s this question that hounded – haunted? – me as I got myself from one end of the pool to the other.

I’m a life-long lap-swimmer; I come from the breed of people who find this sort of thing enjoyable.  I can remember my first swimming less as a little boy, which was given in the family pool at home in Sydney by a Jaguar-driving man who prevented me from sinking by gripping the back of my tiny black Speedos.  Since then there’s rarely been a time when swimming hasn’t been a weekly activity; not so long ago I could do thirty laps, sometimes fifty, every so often more.

Which is probably why my shoulder gave up the ghost.  The physiotherapist told me that if I wanted to swim for the rest of my life then I’d have to learn to breathe ‘on both sides’, which, like jogging, is something I’ve simply never been able to do.  So, during the Christmas just gone, with Zadie Smith in my head, I began teaching myself to breathe on my left as well as my right.  By the end of the first session I could do it, gingerly, and I had to concentrate, but I made it work.

As I walked home I thought, swimming might be a pleasure but teaching this old dog to learn new swimming-pool tricks is where joy lives.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 February 2013.)

Sadly not me

In eighteen months time he will turn forty, he will hit that milestone, if, that is, something else doesn’t hit him first.  Yes, he will become middle aged, although surely he’s middle aged already.  If he doesn’t shave, he has grey whiskers on his chin; if he doesn’t shave his head, he has grey hair above his ears.  He swims and walks and rides his bike to work but still his paunch remains, in fact it seems to be getting bigger even though he can swim 1.5kms in a row, which is more than he could do as a child or a teenager or a much younger man.

No longer does he hunger for burgers, soft drinks and doughnuts.  He wants salads; he licks his lips at the thought of rocket leaves.  He goes to bed early, indeed he looks forward to being between the sheets at 8:30pm and reading for an hour, longer if his eyes allow.  He reads more now than ever before in his life: novels, Booker Prize-winners.  He even reads poetry.  He likes ending the day with a poem in his head – a cheeky literary tipple!

He has started to imagine where he’ll be when he’s sixty, seventy, eighty years old.  Will he be in a retirement village, those school camps for people at the wrong end of their lives?  Will he be fit and well (perhaps he might still be able to swim 1.5kms, maybe even more)?  Or will he not remember who’s important to him, who he is himself, what he’s done?  Will he look upon himself as a stranger?

Yes, all this is middle aged.  But what of the rest of him?

There is no opera in his large music collection, very little classical (except a Mozart for Meditation CD he bought because work stress had got the better of him; the music, he has to admit, is quite interesting, too much so for meditation).  Every CD he buys – and he buys many, at least one a week – is contemporary rock or electronica.  He buys them at a small independent music store in the city, a place that is a hang out (do people still ‘hang out’?) for kids with trousers down around their chopstick thighs.  A guilty pleasure is reading rock-music magazines; he even reads articles about bands he doesn’t like.  Part of him still wants to be a rock star: he wants to be interviewed about his new band, his new album, his new direction.  As a child he’d dreamt of having these things, and now, all these decades later, he still does so.

On Friday nights, after a week of full-on work (do people still say ‘full-on’?), his body weary from back-to-back meetings, from too much riding and walking and swimming, he might go past a bar packed with hot, young, cashed-up things ready to embark on a wild, narcotic weekend.  And he’ll want to be there.  He’ll want to be sinking beers, scotches, anything, everything.  He’ll want to be dangerous too.  But he peddles on, heads home, knowing there is someone waiting for him.  Because these days being with someone is much better than being with something illegal.

It’s true, in eighteen months time he will turn forty.

And like a ferry pulling away from the shore, he has begun viewing life from a distance.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, May 26, 2007)

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