A while back I was at the Pain Center which sounds like a much more metal place than it actually is. It’s really just a place where they send you when your real doctor takes a look at your whole deal and is like eh not my problem. A nurse was taking my blood pressure and the machine malfunctioned somehow so she wheeled it out of there sort of embarrassed and then never came back and I never saw her again.
Eventually a doctor turned up and I was telling him about my back pain. I had a bottle of water I was drinking with me and he knocked it over accidentally then we both sort of watched it spill out onto the floor. When you have back pain the world becomes very small. Literally, because you don't want to go anywhere, and figuratively, because it's hard to care about anything else.
I had had back pain before but on this particular visit it was one of the worst in my life aside from the time I snapped myself in half on the squat rack at a gym somewhere in Arlington, Virginia when I was working as a White House intern during college which really just meant printing out articles to read and jacking off in the bathroom near where Al Gore worked. That type of back pain is bad it’s where you don't want to leave the house type of pain and you have to do physics equations and shit when you're trying to sit down type of pain.
The doctor spent thirty seconds examining me and he was nice and sympathetic but he could only tell me what I figured he would which is that I have to stretch so essentially he told me nothing. He said there was a type of shot they can give me to relax the muscles but it wouldn’t be for three weeks and not because they're too busy or anything the process itself takes minutes, but because it takes weeks for the insurance company to say it’s ok to do. Three weeks doesn't seem like too long but when you've got back pain every second is forever and any task encompasses summoning the entirety of the world.
He recommended acupuncture which I do now but it’s so expensive he said and I agreed it is and he wished insurance would cover it and I agreed with the doctor on that also. They cover fentanyl patches but not accupuncture he said which makes no sense he said. So he gave me a script for muscle relaxers and then went and found some weird coupon for a patch you put on the muscle that got me twenty dollars off so thank you for that. There were some leftover Oxys in our closet at home at the time and I could feel them in there like they had a voice that would pulsate out to me sometimes but I never took them because that’s the last shit I need at this point. When the bottle of water spilled the doctor didn't do anything for a minute then realized he probably should so he bent down to move it back upright and that was it and he walked out and I got dressed and the puddle of water was still there on the floor when I left.
On top of the acupuncture the other thing I do now which I may have mentioned before is swim every day and it somehow loosens my back up but I hate it so much now it fucking sucks it sucks so bad going there and getting in there and I hate it. Ok hold on now I’m in the locker room at the pool for this next part.
We speak so many languages in here. Some of us are half-dressed and some of us are fully dressed in the locker room I’m compelled to go to but we’re all either on the way toward or just coming back from being naked and exposed which is a necessary step before getting into the water. We speak Russian and Mandarin and Japanese and Spanish and we’re so old some of us older than you would think a person could be or so young or somewhere in between like me which is an age defined by its distance from either of those unimaginable poles. Think about what you think of when you think about what Boston looks like and the locker room is the opposite of that.
We are strong in here or frail or full of confidence or hesitant and ashamed of the sin of our bodies. Sometimes I glance at the powerful ones and imagine what it would be like to live inside of there and sometimes I glance at the decaying ones and imagine what it would be like to live inside of there and sometimes I glance at my own and imagine what it would be like to not live inside of there anymore. Sometimes I don’t think much of anything at all I just sleepwalk through it all letting the numbing routine of it carry me along to where I was always going to end up which is in the water.
There’s a steam room too and I go in there before swimming and one time a guy was in there on his phone watching trailer after trailer for the Nathan Fillion series The Rookie, Tuesdays on ABC in the opaque humidity and I was like what the fuck but I didn’t ask him what his deal was because it’s not my business.
In the water most of the differences in age and appearance go away because we’re all submerged and you can’t really tell what all is going on with someone’s whole thing underneath. The ways we get into the pool vary though. The unbothered squealing children bomb into the water and the older people lower themselves in hesitantly. I do a sort of half jump half fall like a reluctant skydiver and then I sink to the bottom for a minute where it’s quiet and no one can see me.
When you think about people running which is something I can’t do anymore due to I broke myself you might typically imagine a young fit person running along so fast and an older person plodding through but that’s not what it’s like in the water it depends on how much time you’ve spent in there over the years. An older person might skitter with practiced finesse like a pond bug and a strong young oaf might sputter along so much slower than the effortlessness he’s used to in every other aspect of his life thinking Jesus Christ this sucks and things of that nature. Sometimes I swim so fast I feel like a leviathan displacing tidal waves with every stroke and sometimes I can’t remember how to breathe right or do anything besides not drown and I swallow gallons of piss and snot which the pool is filled with something I know because I put my own piss and snot in there too.
In the water the things you take for granted everywhere else such as not being on the precipice of dying any second go away and you have to make a conscious effort to think about every stroke forward and ideally it just becomes another part of who you are after enough practice but I’m not there yet I still have to try really hard which is probably good for me because I don’t like to let my mind have a moment of stillness. So I look at the blue line painted on the pool floor that they put there so you know when you’ve just about gone too far and have to turn around before you smash your head on the wall something I’ve done more times than I care to confess or else I turn over on my back and there are flags suspended in the air that serve the same purpose. Time to slow down they say. Someone told me you can get an ipod that goes underwater now so you can listen to podcasts and such when you’re trying not to drown but I’m not gonna listen to a podcast life is too short.
The YMCA where I do my time in the water was founded in 1844 which is so much older than I would have guessed before I looked it up. It was founded by a guy named Sir George Williams in London and its general operating premise was something called Muscular Christianity which sounds like an extremely specific fetish for religious perverts which it is but not in the way that it sounds. Basically it meant teaching young men not to be such pieces of shit, a pretty tall order throughout the entirety of human history if we’re being honest, and getting them to practice teamwork and discipline and so on through athletics. They also talked about “the expulsion of all that is effeminate, un-English, and excessively intellectual,” but I’m pretty sure that part isn’t mentioned too much at the YMCA’s around the world anymore.
Originally they were organized as a way to provide housing for rural laborers coming into the city around the onset of industrialization and as an added bonus they gave the young men a more wholesome outlet besides things like gambling and fucking and drinking. Of course they also wanted the big boys to do Bible study. The motto they agreed upon in 1855 was taken from the book of John. "That they all may be one.” Another thing they set up not long after was public pools which is pretty ingenious I have to admit because it is not particularly easy to gamble or fuck or get wasted while you’re swimming laps. I went to see a painting I really like at the ICA in Boston a few years back called Swimming, Smoking, Crying by an artist named Dana Schutz and I would have called it a big mood but no one had said that particularly phrase yet. There’s a photo I have in my phone from that night of my wife posing in front of some fucking painting that I don’t remember in my mind but I remember how cool she looks like too cool for me to be there with.
Eventually the YMCA went on to give the world a whole bunch of really cool shit like basketball which was invented in 1891 at a YMCA in Springfield, MA, and volleyball which was invented in 1895 at a YMCA in Holyoke, MA and the song “YMCA” which was invented in 1978 by the Village People in New York City. “YMCA” was my grandmother’s favorite song and when we were young my sister and I would choreograph dance routines to that and the Grease soundtrack for her and have her play them over and over again. I am not entirely sure she knew what was going on with the Village People and their whole thing. Another thing she really liked to do a lot was to drink a whole bunch of gin and she got pretty good at that before she died.
My sister who doesn’t drink anymore wrote a story a few years back about our grandmother that I’m going to write more about later but basically when she died she and her kids put a message in a bottle near her vacation house in Maine and then a few months later the bottle showed up near where she lived in Scituate like two hundred miles away which sounds fake but it’s not. I already told that story never mind.
In Massachusetts where I grew up there is roughly one week a year where the water isn’t frigid but it never matters I will always get into the ocean and swim and float and let the waves slap into me because that is what I’ve always been compelled to do against my better judgment. In Maine I’d climb down the slick rocks tearing my feet on the barnacles and jump in not listening to my grandmother who constantly warned me about the riptides because no one listens to their grandparents until they’re dead then you listen to them all the time. One time on the western coast of Mexico I waded into the voracious undercurrent of the desolate beautiful beach next to our hotel where no one was swimming because it was always too dangerous and I got in anyway because I needed to feel what it was like to almost be carried away and guess what those people who were not swimming there were geniuses because that shit was very stupid of me to do in retrospect. Another time in Vermont my wife and I pulled over under a picture perfect covered bridge and I jumped into the freezing river and felt a current so strong I felt like it could break me in half. Another time at the very tip of Scotland I waded out into the water of a desolate bay that felt like the end of the world and swam alone out to an island that I had no business swimming to then I went back to the hotel and drank whisky until I didn’t have to think anymore.
There’s a difference between swimming for leisure and swimming out of necessity which is what I do now since I broke my body. You feel alive in the open water. It’s the most natural thing in the world. It’s a return to where we came from. The pool that I’m compelled to go to now is claustrophobic and lonelier than you would expect despite the fact that I’m surrounded by people all forcing themselves through the same steps I am. I’ve been a very strong swimmer my entire life I just never really learned how to do it the right way. They say getting help from other people works and I take lessons from a nice young woman sometimes.
The rest of that quote from the Bible goes like this: “…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
Around the time they were taking my older sister away from the hospital fucking up my mother for the rest of her life my father was doing things such as burning down part of my grandmother’s house where we all lived and going to jail for that. My father never learned how to live very well and now doesn’t live at all but he was very prolific at bringing others to life. Another thing he was good at was drinking a lot although I just realized now I have no idea what it was he actually liked drinking which is sort of like knowing your father was a talented baseball player but not having any idea what position he played. We all went to watch him die years later after he’d learned how to live a little better and I would go to the hospital and look at his once powerful and now ruined body and imagine what it would be like to live inside of there but it wasn’t all that hard to do because it feels like I already do.