How I learned to Swim

My favorite swimsuit, a real Speedo
When my mother noticed that I would not tie my own shoes, she attempted to teach me herself, and gave up when I went limp on the floor instead of watching her do it.  At preschool I picked up an over-the-head technique for putting on my winter coat myself, and I thought everything about it was excellent, especially the part where I violently swung my arms trapped in the sleeves up and over my head. My mother hated this.
When my mother noticed that I had not learned to swim naturally and without teaching as all the other children seemed to in the mid-to-late 1960s, she determined that I should be subjected to swimming lessons at the local natatorium.
I am sure I was against swimming lessons before they even began. I had been happy at the outdoor public wading pool in summer, and saw no reason why I, as a very, very small five year old, should give up the warm and shallow area reserved for the preschool set. The water barely got up over my knees! There was no violent splashing! I could crawl in it!
I was removed on a Saturday morning from my hunched spot on the carpet in front of the TV and taken to swimming lessons. The place stank of pool chemicals and especially chlorine, of course, as public pools do, and involved entering a labyrinth of smelly lockers and damp tile and threatening showers. My mother may have attempted to cram my already unbrushable hair into a swimming cap, but I would have squirmed and thrashed away from her.  I steadfastly resisted washing, brushing, and dressing with vigor. In addition to smelling dangerous and wrong, the ceilings were too high, there were too many people, and that pool sounded splashy and sharp, and then, once I was dragged to the edge of the pool, the most profound horror of all was revealed to me: the water was cold.
There was scolding and shouting and I don’t know who was talking to me, but suddenly I was in the water and I was supposed to be jumping up and down, and not screaming or crying. What a perfect misery! Betrayal! Cold water! Strangers! Exhausted and overwhelmed, I relented and allowed the initial purpose of swimming lessons to be revealed: I was meant to put the back of my head into the cold water, followed by my ears.
It was unthinkable.
The swimming teacher wanted, no, needed required me to relax my whole body and let it float on top of the water. The water would hold me up, like magic. All I had to do was let the water hold me up, let the water surround my neck, let the back of my head rest on the water, let the water lap around my ears, let my ears go under the water. It was going to be easy. Ready?
I could take about three seconds of it. One, Mississippi, I was in the water. Two, Mississippi, my head was in the water. Three, Mississippi, I was floating in the water. Four, nope, no way, not doing it. I was standing, gulping, sputtering, and crying.
I did not want to float. The water was too cold. I did not want to learn to swim. I did not listen to the instructor. I screamed and cried until I was allowed to get out of the water. I was happy to sit in the acrid, stinking terror of the freezing cold locker room, shivering until my mother came back to take me home. Anything but swimming in that pool.
There was no second lesson.
By the time I was in the third grade, my mother, had arranged for me to attend a summer camp where I would get particularly well-regarded swimming instruction.   There, we were grouped not by age but by ability, and I, being unable, was grouped with the kindergarteners.  Suddenly, the stakes were very high. They could not have been higher. No, I did not know any of the other kids at this strange new day camp, where the only real highlight of every day was the tiny plastic tub of imitation vanilla ice-cream with ripples of indescribably delicious artificial chocolate given to each camper to eat with a tiny wooden paddle before we boarded the buses home. Even in the presence of strange other children who hadn’t yet learned to make fun of me and all of my obvious flaws, I knew that being in the kindergarteners’ swimming group was social death. I was in the third grade.

And so, dear reader, I put my head in the water. I got water in my ears. I floated on my fucking back. I attempted the crawl with primitive side-breathing. I learned to jump in from the side of the pool and from the diving board. I learned to dive into the water with my hands stacked on top of each other, my upper arms tight over my ears. The next summer I was not required to attend the strange new camp again: I had learned to swim.

A Pluto Story: Panic!

Pluto soon learned how to swim without splashing, and how to fetch objects from the water. He often would bound into bodies of water without waiting for anyone to give him permission or throw him a ball.  He never had the chance to experience water that was anything more that really cold, living in the Pacific Northwest, but it never seemed to bother him. He swam in the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon Coast, emerging bright red, covered in sand and shivering, every hair on his body standing on end. He swam in glacial lakes at the top of hiking trails when we’d stop for lunch. He swam in the Puget Sound in winter.

More than once he encountered a floating log in the water. As much as he enjoyed fetching sticks and balls, and hauling large tree limbs on land, a floating branch in the water was one thing he found frightening. More than once he got stuck in the water, frantically trying to get past the log that was between him and the shore.
He also had this reaction to coming down a ladder. Now, you might wonder why a dog would ever need to come down a ladder. Pluto loved to climb ladders, and also to slide down slides. He would entertain himself on our play-set if you would just stand and watch him, climbing clumsily up the ladder and galloping down the slide.  There was a slide on one side of the play-set, and a fort on the other. More than once he followed the kids up the ladder to the fort, and found himself unable to jump or climb down. He would begin to shake and bark in a very frightened voice.
Our solution was to cover the ladder with a tarp long enough for Pluto to attempt to slide down it. Typically, the tarp would go through the space between the rungs of the ladder as soon as he put weight on his paws, but he could stumble down in a fairly controlled fashion this way.  Once, he followed our contractor up a ladder onto the roof of the garage, and the very understanding and heroic contractor carried him down.

A Pluto Story: Water

Pluto was an extremely energetic dog, and required a lot of exercise.  He was passionate about fetching a ball (or any other dog’s ball), and about swimming.  Not long after we moved to Seattle, we took him to a dog park for the first time. Pluto ran and leaped and barked.  We threw the ball for him for a while, but found he was easily distracted with so many people and dogs to meet.

We made our way to the river, which is accessed from the park in a series of small, steep, rocky beaches.  Pluto had never seen open water before, and immediately bounded in. This river is not particularly deep, but can be fast moving, especially in the spring. In his excitement, he found himself in moving water over his head. From shore, I could almost see his instincts kick in. His front paws began to paddle rhythmically, and soon his expression changed from panic to real pleasure. Almost immediately he grew confident, and began thrusting his front legs out of the water in huge, circular strokes, generating a lot of splash and not really moving him in any direction very fast.
A man standing nearby with his own dog in the water turned to me. “Is that your dog?” he asked.
I was laughing so hard I could barely answer him.  He began to laugh, too. Another passing dog owner joined us, and we all stood, strangers on a river bank, laughing at the most ridiculous dog-paddle any of us had ever seen.