Folk are funny.
You only have to spend a couple of hours at the pool to realise just how funny.
There are many different ways in which people can enjoy a pool. Obviously those who swim lengths have there own special purposes - fitness, preparation for racing, improvement of style, meeting buff chicks and so on. But the really interesting swimmers are those in the "family lanes" at the public facility. I cannot comment about squad swimmers, lap dancers - I mean swimmers - or the participants in the "age-well" (aqua aerobics) class (used to be one of them til I realised the class had that name and I was lowering the average age by 20 years and possibly splashing too much for some of the hair dos) as I do not frequent the public pool other than on weekends when I take the Off-Spring for a well-needed cooling-off-and-wear-them-out session. Rather, I will confine my remarks to the weekend family swimmers at the local public pool.
But first, an observation about public pools nomenclature. As a rule, the grottier the facilities the greater the chance that the pool is called a "leisure" or "recreation" centre. If there is a squash court or free weights room it will masquerade as a "sports" centre.
That's fine. As long as we all know what we are dealing with. In other countries a pool is a pool, or maybe an aquatic centre or even a public bath - which, as you will see as you read on, is perhaps the most apt description.
Anyway, the wordy pedant wanted to make that point. False advertising is one of her pet peeves.
So - I was going to tell you how funny folk can be. It now seems overly critical to comment on the pre-adolescent but deceptively chubby twin boys who circled me like sharks for most of one session, staring underwater at my belly and legs. I did not at first realise they were twins. I was starting to feel paranoid under the scrutiny of one rotund chap and said to him "whatcha lookin at, sonny?" in what I hoped was a Clint Eastwood tone of voice. He stared me down like an agent of the Stasi (his mother nearby may well have been one) and turned away in the manner of a seal falling off rocks. Then lo and behold I saw him with an identical fellow and had a moment's guilt - how precious must I look confronting him when it was probably his brother who had been gawking at me all morning? I should not have worried though, as soon both of them were back in close proximity, duck diving around me. Perhaps my swimsuit was the attraction. Being black, low legged and high cut at the neck, it it something of an oddity...
Or perhaps the fact that I was moving at all had piqued their curiosity. It has to be said that my self styled aqua routine of crunches, star jumps, frog kicks, high kicks and arm swings is not standard at most pools. Indeed most of the ladies on this occasion were semi reclined over the lane barriers chatting to each other. The poor life guard could barely watch the children as he tried to catch the attention of said ladies and persuade them to get off the barriers and stop impeding the lane swimmers next door. Which brings me to another way in which folk are funny - they come to the pool and loll about in all that urine and dead skin cells and spit. At least when one is moving - face firmly above the water with spectacles on and dry - one can feel that the risk to health is somehow lessened. At least one burns some calories in any event. But floating in it?
Last but by no one least is the "Daddy's morning" phenomenon. Sunday is clearly the day that Daddy is on duty because the place is swarming with fathers and their treasures. Not a woman in sight, apart from me, until well past noon. The Dads are a motley crew to be sure. Yes, there is Designer Dad with his Vilebrequin ensemble matching his young son's (over a swimming nappy I hope at that price). Anyone who can afford those swimmers should at least be at the Berkely Hotel pool, if not Cap Ferrat, is my view.
Designer Dad has a tendency to lose his son in the shallows and often Life Guard number 1 is earning his money watching the little tyke.
Meanwhile, High Blood Pressure Harry is yelling at young Victoria as she front crawls her way up the length. What Harry lacks in sartorial elegance, tan and tact, he more than makes up for in his fervent desire to see her improve her time. Victoria, much to my delight, stops midway and says over her shoulder across two lanes of splashing youngsters (quite audibly) "I thawt I was doing rawther well, actually."
Then there is Pepe with his little princesses abandoned in the rampy bit while he chats up Life Guard number 2.
There is usually a thrower among the fathers. A thrower likes to display his strength, manliness and ability to rough-house his kids as only the best dads can, and pitches his kids out of his arms towards the wall at speed. I am not sure what wives of throwers would say if they knew, but I guess the lie-in is worth the risk that the little pets come home concussed.
Most weeks we encounter Dry Dad who brings his news paper and coffee and lets the little darling/s get on with it. Can't fault him for making the best of his time with the kids.
Finally, there are always one or two "You can do it Buddy" types who think that if they speak loudly and clearly enough, their two year olds will become Olympic standard athletes after they win academic and sporting scholarships to UCLA. Self consciously aware of themselves and their parenting skills, "You can do it Buddy" dads (UCDIB) are my favourites. They are earnest and sincere and hopeful. This time is precious and valuable and must be utilised and maximised. Wives of UCDIB guys emerge from the gym part way through the session to check on the guys and see if Buddy is swimming underwater yet. She brings enthusiasm and perkiness and the promise of clover filled sunny days all season. I get quite misty eyed as I bundle the Off-Spring away to the germ-fest in the showers...
Indeed, the public pool is a wonderful place. Where else do human beings voluntarily get as naked and close to complete strangers? Not even in hospitals does this occur - where there is an element of compulsion, not pleasure or I dare I say "recreation". At the beach? Yes; especially in some parts of Southern Europe where less is more when it comes to apparel, and bobbing about in tepid, flat, effluent can be regarded as glamorous. But the tobacco induced highs typical of such settings may explain the abandonment the beach goers feel as they baste themselves in their three square feet of butt covered sand (cigarettes, that it).
No - I can think of no where else, apart from a public park in central London at the height of summer or at the Hill at the Sydney Cricket Ground during a one-day match, where one knowingly and happily gets one's kit off in order to get really close to fleshy, panting people one does not know.
That said, the humanity of the experience is humbling. There we all are united in a quest. A quest for exercise, tone or weightlessness. For freedom of some sort: from the kids perhaps - splashing in the shallow end -just close enough to rescue should one try to submerge another, but far enough away to allow one to pretend not to be connected with them. Or freedom from thought - staring at the wobbly arms of former communist bloc ageing "beauty" queens can distract one from one's banal thoughts. Freedom from the darned phone and email - so far no genius has invented a water proof iPhone. Have they? Well - I said it first!
We are perhaps united in a quest for community - a transient sense that we belong to a unit greater than our own family or circle of friends. Perhaps we are trying to convince ourselves as we bravely wade into the murky shallows that there is a lovely democracy to leisure centre group exercise. We are not too proud or posh. We mix it with real people. We want our children to feel part of a dynamic, multi-faceted society in which all can play a part and contribute with vitality and energy.
Or perhaps it's just that we know our off-spring are incapable of sparing us embarrassment or stress in a more exclusive, members only setting for more than 20 minutes.