Well, technically not at night. But it is dark. And cold. And in the company of prehistoric creatures that could mistake me for their favorite kibble. And I’ll freely concede that the whole thing is objectively unreasonable bordering on oddball, for a whole slew of reasons. It’s also perhaps the thing that most feeds my soul, makes me feel alive, and helps me deal with life’s trickier pieces.
At least a couple of mornings each week, including this morning, I wade into San Francisco Bay with a neighborhood swim buddy or two, ideally before the sun has come up (hence the “at night” part). The Bay isn’t too bad in the Summer and Fall, inching up above 60 degrees. But this time of year it can dip to 48 or lower. That’s a bit chilly, particularly if the air temp is hovering in the same vicinity, and since it’s dark, the sun isn’t out. One of my swim buddies understandably refuses to swim when the conditions sink below the “Smith Line” — the air and water temps combined must exceed 100 degrees. (“Smith” is not his real last name; here again I’m protecting the innocent.) This morning we were 1 degree over the Smith Line.
As you might imagine, there really is a whole process that has to be developed around this, in order to justify doing it repeatedly, and on purpose.
I grew up far from the ocean, near freshwater lakes. People that grow up far from the ocean and near freshwater lakes, in my experience, have a healthy (albeit uninformed) fear of what might be lurking in the ocean. In Northern California, that means sharks, particularly Great Whites. When I moved to San Francisco in 1999, I assuaged my lake-lubber fears by seeking out a shark expert/chairman of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences. He assured me that (a) there had never been a reported shark attack in the Bay, (b) any sharks in the Bay either have zero interest in me or are sick (and would therefore also have zero interest in me), and (c) territorial sea lions and broken beer bottle shards pose a far greater risk to me than any sharks in the Bay. As it turns out, he was mistaken on (b), as the San Francisco Chronicle would later report, but he couldn’t have known that 15 years ago, and I’m past the point now of worrying about sharks in the Bay anyhow. Anybody who recreates on a regular basis in the sea has long-since learned to suppress the “Jaws” poster image with themselves bobbing at the top of said poster. (Damnit, I need to push that back down again now. Suppress. Suppress.)
So the shark thing is handled. That leaves the cold and the dark. The cold: Many Bay swimmers far more courageous than I wear only a swim cap, goggles and a Speedo. Now that is crazy. Crazy in a good way, but still crazy. I get decked out in a wetsuit (not particularly thick), and this time of year a wool-lined neoprene cap, a silicone cap over that, and neoprene booties. Getting all this stuff on takes awhile, and even fully geared-up, the water still smashes my feet with a hammer and freezes my teeth. But only for a few minutes before the numbness kicks in. And you really do get used to flirting with the hypothermia line where simple math gets a bit funky and the euphoria starts to get a little too euphoric. So the cold thing is handled.
As for the dark? This took some getting used to, and it wasn’t my idea. “Smith” and another neighborhood buddy suckered me into the pre-dawn swims about a year ago. We met at the water’s edge in the pitch black. I thought they were joking when they jumped in, little lights blinking on their caps. My jaw dropped, but the lights began to fade in the distance, so I reluctantly slithered in and just swam toward the lights for half an hour, looking like a water polo player with my head popped up and constantly gasping for air, half-panicked.
But I was hooked. I soon ordered up my own blinking light (see the video above from this morning) and happily joined the ranks of the “night swimmers” out there. Rapid temperature changes bring foggy swims where fixed buoys sneak up on you (looking at a quick glance very much like the aforementioned territorial sea lions). High tide brings hidden chunks of telephone pole that hurt when your hand smacks them mid-stroke. And curious seals pop up next to you to give your adrenals a quick squeeze from time-to-time. A couple of my toes even at this moment, 90 minutes after getting out of the Bay, have absolutely no feeling.
And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I feel like I earn the spectacular sunrise casting Coit Tower in silhouette, sneaking a brief glimpse of it each time I take a breath to one side or the other. I appreciate each stroke and pull through heavy water so much more than if I were in a heated pool, eyes blankly fixed on a black line painted on the bottom. I’m a fan of suffering. Suffering, I think, reminds us how great it feels not to suffer.
And that brings us back full circle to Grandma’s Lemonade. I’ve come to realize that there are two kinds of “lemons”– Those that just appear on your doorstep unexpectedly, unwelcome, to be dealt with right now; and those that you grow yourself, deliberately, as a tool to see what you’re truly made of. Seems to me that it’s a helluva lot easier to be in the habit of “making lemonade out of lemons” if you put yourself in that second type of position often, on purpose, by choice. Strangely, these dark and frigid swims I think help me manage the tricky stuff that inevitably pops up — career setbacks, relationship struggles, sickness, all manner of disappointments, and truly tragic events like my grandmother’s recent passing.
So while I don’t necessarily advocate jumping into 48-degree water in near darkness somewhere in the middle of the food chain, I do advocate suffering on purpose. Growing your own lemons. I really think it helps.