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The loneliness of the long-distance swimmer: life, the universe and everything

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Justin Nurse is ‘the T-shirt guy”’– the guy who went to court with SABMiller over his right to poke fun at Black Label with his infamous ‘Black Labour/White Guilt’ T-shirt, which resulted in a Constitutional Court victory in 2005 and a landmark judgment for freedom of expression in the face of trademark law.

I swam Robben Island last year, with great company, and this year I wanted to do it again. It was much, much tougher alone. Again it was an exercise in mortality. I resigned myself to death at the start. 

21 February 2022

I was thinking about diligence on my swim this morning, with my face down in the murky Silvermine water. How, when there are clouds over Ou Kaapse Weg and Monday is snapping at my heels, I manage to clamber into the dam from the awkward rocky shore and apply myself. 

The constant pursuit of wellness, a war of attrition against my demons in the war of attrition against the ravages of time. How lucky I am to swim until I am out of breath and out of mind, and take qi gong classes that remind me that my creaking bones need to limber up every day now, lest the next 30 years of my life become stiff and sore. I am training to swim from Robben Island again. Instead of waiting for my ship to come in, I will be swimming alongside them.

19 March 2022

Flanked by rocky outcrops along Bainskloof’s Witte river, I swim back to the top of my mark at the bowler’s end of the rock pool I am training in on any given day and survey the field I’ve set. Or that has been set for me, I never know. Is this life self-determined or preordained? Who can say for sure?

A dassie may be perched on a cliff at deep midwicket, a pair of teenage black eagles circling far away on the boundary rope. My dogs will always be resting in the shade at silly mid-on — somehow they always know to lift their heads and make eye contact whenever I seek it. Walk in with the bowler. 

Shane Warne has taught me to take what he called a “three-second chill”. Two deep breaths in through the nose, then out through the mouth. Respond, don’t just react. Take your time, it’s all we have. Like a cyclist on a rain-soaked Argus approaching Red Hill, I figure that with each passing day I must be close to halfway. I cannot know for sure. Shane Warne also taught me that. 

I am going to a wedding today, and my therapist is getting divorced. She talks for the better part of an hour and I listen. It’s been that long. A friend is struggling. As an act of empathy, I talk as a way of listening and it sounds like I’m the one struggling. I get the Wordle in two and tell my family. It’s not really a competition, more a way of saying “I love you”. There are many ways to say that. Love you lots, big love, cash in an envelope at a wedding, look what I did. 

Paying your medical aid and enjoying 15 free therapy sessions a year is another. I string together thoughts while swimming back to my mark. Oh, the dull repetition, look how these thoughts keep swimming around in circles. Why, when my will is to resist temptation, must she still knock at my door? Two years have passed and time has stood still, melted, even flown. I went for a long hike with my daughter and then overnight she became a teenager. I have no way of gauging how far I swim as I get lost in my head and lose count of my laps. So I swim to the top of my mark and play for time. The three-second chill…

21 March 2022

I went for a swim in Lover’s Pool in Bainskloof on Human Rights Day and while all the water was sloshing around me I thought of what human rights mean to me. I stripped away the societal concepts around housing, food, and education. I stripped away my entitlement — that which I have some personal right to. Do I have the right to life? Well, I am alive and I hope that nobody takes that away from me. My rights are like me — best when exercised.

So I looked at the curiously-shaped rocks and let the slooshing sound drown out any pretence of exercise-induced epiphanies and just felt glad for the public holiday really…

23 March 2022

I fell asleep at the wheel after school drop-off this morning. Well, I tried to, but the groundsman knocked on my window and asked me to vacate the premises. I wish I had a power-down button — for those moments when I need a hard reset. I crawled up the hill to Silvermine Dam, thinking about friends with fathers who have passed away, mosquitoes that ruin my night, and that job that I just had and then just lost. 

The job I’d taken was supposed to be a moonlighting job, in corporate finance of all places. It was a way to make ends meet in 2022, to get some distance from month-end’s dread. It lasted two weeks. Turns out that if you work by moonlight, you really struggle to get up at dawn. I sat with a message in my Slack channel that read, “I don’t think this is working out.” I eventually hit send and woke up this morning to find it was all over. 

“Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” 

“I’ll never work for them again — not after what they said to me!” 

“What did they say to you?” 

“You’re fired!” 

What I learned is that I can’t work for someone who tells me: “There is no room for creativity in this job.” I was reminded that the first no is the hardest no, but it’s the best no. I probably shouldn’t have embarked on a career in finance that ends at 2am each morning, but I got out early enough for it to only have cost me sleep. 

I was reminded that healthy eating and living require healthy sleep patterns, and in two short weeks, I compromised all that very quickly. I learned that no one actually knows what the hell is going on in global finance, and I was reminded that the sound of the Witte River gives me greater peace of mind than any podcast or dollar amount in my bank account ever can. 

The universe has reminded me to follow my passions, not the money, and it kept giving me signs each shift that I could no longer ignore. My self-esteem is low and I’m fearful as to how I’m going to pay the bills next month, but I’m grateful that I’m learning from my mistakes enough to not keep repeating them. 

Oh, for the unassailable arrogance of my 20s, when being entrepreneurial was second nature to me. I don’t miss the hangovers though, and so I started afresh this morning with a “rise and shine” hustle that’s in line with daylight saving time and preserving my sanity while I still have it. Hey, at least it got me to school in the morning on time. 

Back at the water’s edge, a decapitated red protea floating alongside the dam wall stirred something in me as I fought with my dawning reality of unemployment by absconding into the water. I swam 14 full-lengths — roughly 5km — and when I was finished I closed my eyes. Sunshine the colour of the protea flamed across my eyelids and in that moment I was never more alive. 

6 April 2022

“Woke up this morning, got myself a gun”… go the opening lyrics to The Sopranos as Tony pulls into his driveway. I finished the series for the second time — as much an exercise of navel-gazing into the bowels of my memory as it is a fascinating portrait of a troubled family man — and quickly polished off the last season of Peaky Blinders which ends with an “All The Tired Horses” Bob Dylan cover that now haunts my subconscious

“All the tired horses in the sun, How am I supposed to get any writing done?’

We can’t all be Bob Dylan, but I did find time to write a salacious radio play that I now don’t know what to do with. The end of the state of disaster has been met with the coming of winter. I’ll trade in my societal angst stamp of approval for seasonal affective disorder and stay in bed, thank you very much! 

Life before 2020 was a life in Pandora’s Box. Now that I have an inkling of the full extent of my surroundings and the precious little time I have to explore them, I shall make like Schrödinger’s cat — dead or alive to the casual observer — and keep writing these platitudes to a life with meaning in the hope that I find meaning in them myself. 

For now, I’m re-reading On The Road while I wait for the last season of Better Call Saul and my memory to fade some more so that I can re-watch Mad Men with that vague sense of déjà vu that is becoming a familiar comfort.

25 April 2022

I found myself at Newlands Pool today. These are the streets I cycled to school on. This was the place where I learned to swim, thrown in at the shallow end as a toddler. Here were the interschool galas — quadrangulars — where, as awkward teenagers, you’d ignore children from other schools that you’d only just been at a braai with that past weekend. The origins of “cliquey Cape Town”. 

I remember swimming a whole length underwater here, hearing in the stands about Chris Hani’s murder and the fearful look on my parents’ faces as the weight of our country’s politics became too much to ignore. 

I remember falling to the bottom of the diving board pool and feeling the thick sound of being suspended so deep underwater reverberating through my body. Gone now are the diving boards. There were three old white men (myself included) swimming in total. We each had our own mixed-race lifesaver watching our every stroke. 

I thought about what it would be like to time travel back to the 80s and relive those times. There’d be plenty of smoking on the grass banks, tanning oil in use over sunscreen, and everybody would be white, just about. 

That beautiful shape of dancing sunlight that is not quite a square and is not quite a hexagon frolicked on the white and blue tiles below as I passed the time. There were water restrictions, then Covid, and now here I was. 

Some kind of municipal portfolio budgetary bungling that sees this blue expanse reopened in the leafy suburbs without much fanfare. It costs R32 to get in (R18 for kids) and is open until 31 May. A white elephant is yet a thing of beauty.

4 May 2022

Waking up in a cold sweat early this morning I took a hot shower so I could appreciate feeling warm. I was engulfed in darkness as the “sheds” (load shedding) kicked in. Driving into town along the Foreshore the red hazard lights of cyclists flashed ominously; a cryptic neon sign shone atop a building in the sky that read “LUNO”. There was no moon. 

A trolley person crashed in front of me, their gathered belongings splaying out across Buitengracht. I pulled up my handbrake in front of the red lights to help her retrieve her entireties. The City Bowl was a dystopian BladeRunner movie set and life seemed fragile, on a knife-edge. As the contagious morning light spread across the Granger Bay sky, it dawned on me: I was soon to be swimming Robben Island.

I had started a swimming club called “BADASA” (Born Alone, Die Alone, Swim Alone) with my sister and friend, and so far I was the only participating member. I swam Robben Island last year, with great company, and this year I wanted to do it again. It was much, much tougher alone. Again it was an exercise in mortality. I resigned myself to death at the start. 

The cold, a shark, a giant squid — you name it, I entertained how it would kill me. As it turns out, today was not my day to die. The icy water temperature hovered below 12 degrees, the swell was huge, and it took me over four hours to complete. My hands were too cold to cup so I would slap the water surface for feeling for most of the journey. 

How I longed for the previous year when I would look up and see my partner and friend chatting to each other in the boat while we all chugged along. This time, to feign a “can do” attitude I would think happy thoughts — the goodbye hug from my daughter that morning, or my father waiting for me on the shore. Then I would smile and inhale more water. 

I learned that doing things a second time around can be much harder. Every step I took in training to get to Silvermine Dam or my Bainskloof river pool was every stroke I needed that got me to shore. 

Eventually, a surfer in a wetsuit said, “you’re nearly there, bru. You can stand just there, where the waves are crashing.” Crash over me they did. Salty tears were filling up my goggles as I ripped them off, so relieved to see my dad and my girlfriend rushing to help warm me up. Cherish the ones you love. Start a club with them if you can. DM

 

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  • The link to Marianne Thamm’s article leads here? This swimmer article link leads to the bitcoin bubble bursting, the bitcoin links leads to dishonest lawyers . . . is it just me or are things a bit scrambled today?

  • Is it loneliness, solitude or a personal adventure down a road that is still half travelled? To quote the East Australian philosopher Dory: “Just keep swimming”. We’ll keep reading.

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