but for the chemical rush in the hour after, for the night of dreamless sleep

Exercise was always in extremes — a distance to traverse, an impossibly high number. Every summer spent in the vicinity of a pool, I was to do 100 laps per day. This, too, was referred to in a shorthand — “doing the laps” — that made it sound like normal penance for any vacation. Counting to 100 was a feat, much less swimming there, and my mind went numb with boredom while my family ate watermelon by the pool side. I associated exercise with punishment, with the glossy magazine’s injunction to achieve the perfect body, a waifish small-breasted form that no amount of hotel-room yoga would ever transform mine into.

And yet, when I graduated from college, something shifted. Left to my own devices, I discovered exercise could be as hedonic as any other indulgence. It was a matter of reframing the goal: not to become thin, which was as unlikely as tall or blond, but for the chemical rush in the hour after, for the night of dreamless sleep, for the feeling of my body, a diffuse, frontier-less thing…Exercise was time that was mine, where I owed nothing to anyone, and the next day’s aching muscles could be as secret a pleasure as bruises left by a lover.

Now every summer, whenever I can find a pool, I do the laps. The size of the pool may vary, but I always swim until 100. At the ocean, I choose a point as far away as I can — a distant boat, a rocky outgrowth — and swim to it and back. The pleasure is partly in the terror, halfway there, when the beach umbrellas are as small as glitter, that I will never make it back. The pulse of deep water, the blue-black whisper of down down down, the atavistic tremor as my body realizes, as all bodies have always known, how slight it is against an ocean. And then the adrenaline: thighs and waist and biceps concocted into ropes of steel, hands that slip and reach under the surface as softly as under a skirt, feet that pound impossibly far behind, until I am as long as the shoreline. I’m a strong swimmer but not a good one, and I gasp only to the right, eyes stinging with salt, until I can hear the shrieks and lifeguard whistles and ice cream bells, the sounds of the civilization I almost slipped away from. In the water, my body expands, loses itself, weightless. Back on the sand, blood still pulsing with the ocean’s beat, I contract back into shape, my shape, whose boundaries are finally my own.

The Hedonic Rush of Exercise” (NY Times, August 27, 2019)

 


Photo: David Hockney’s “John St. Clair Swimming, April 1972” from “Twenty Photographic Pictures by David Hockney” (1976). CreditCredit© David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt.

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