Swimming Free

“The rational for this was like the story, trying to create the illustration in a medium that I have used but is not what I would generally do. In this case: water color. Also, I felt that the fluidness of the water color fit nicely as a swimming analogy.” – Introduction and illustration by Greg Bemis


My grandpa swam every morning until he couldn’t anymore because of cancer. I remember going with him to the community pool in Santa Rosa when he was eighty-four and watching him swim slow, simple laps. I knew he had good form, but he didn’t show it in his old age. He would swim so slowly that you couldn’t tell if he was moving, with his broad white back to the sun he would splash and float. Splash and float.

He used to have a pool in his backyard, along with a Koi pond. The water was cold, and I can only remember being in it one time, sitting on my dad’s shoulders as my brothers played around us.. I remember it from the third person perspective,  so who knows if I remember anything at all.

My dad swims too. Not every day, although I wish he would. He can get in the pool and swim for hours. It’s one of the ways he is a superhero to me. If you asked me about my dad, everything I’d tell you would be colored with the certainty and strength of his swimming.

I don’t remember swimming with my grandpa, but I do remember swimming with my dad. We’d goi to Riverplace Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon. He would swim. My brother Jared and I would play wallball with the big blown up exercise balls in the racquet ball courts before getting in the pool. It was only a matter of time before my brother and I would get in my dad’s swim lane to play with him and hold onto him while he swam laps.

Jared’s favorite thing to do was stand in front of my dad, holding his head as he freestyled so he wouldn’t move anywhere. Jared thought that was hilarious, and he was right. It was physical comedy at its best, and I was simultaneously proud of my big brother for being able hold my dad and for my dad who was able to keep on swimming.

This past summer I hurt my foot. Actually, I probably hurt it a long time ago and never did anything about it. No more basketball, no more running. I saw it as an opportunity to start swimming, so I signed up for swimming lessons. The last time I took swim lessons I was 11 years old and my dad had to bribe me with a computer game. I’ve never became a good swimmer, but then again I’ve never drowned either.

My dad said he would pay, so I got a gym membership at the 92 Street Y and a six pack of swim lessons. I scheduled the lessons on my calendar at work, I told enough people to be accountable but not so many that it lost its meaning. The morning of my first lesson, I put my swimsuit and flip flops in my backpack and left for work. I was ready. After work, I took the six train up to the Y and met my teacher.

My teacher’s name was Dexter.

Dexter was a barrel chested man with a big smile and a caribbean accent. When I say barrel chested, I mean he looks like he could be in a Popeye cartoon. He has a big strong belly that curves outward and is obviously all muscle. He has a natural swimmers chest and he leads with it when he walks.  You’d think he’d sink like a rock, but when I saw him I immediately pictured him swimming between islands with the greatest of ease, to emerge from the beachhead to take a seat next to your girlfriend at the bar.

After my free 15 minute stroke analysis, Dexter told me that I already knew how to swim. He told me that this was my time and that I should let myself swim how I want to, that my thinking was getting in the way of it. That my body already knew how to swim.

Those words brought an immediate ease and hope to my being, and I knew why.

I panic in water. I worry that I won’t be able to get air when I need it, that I won’t have enough when I do.

The only time in my life I ever thought I was going to die was when I was 6 years old and my family went white water tubing. My life wasn’t in danger, but when you’re six years old and holding onto an upside down Y shaped branch with your mother screaming at you to let go while the river roars around you it is the feeling that matters.

I can still picture that branch. I still have dreams about that branch. That branch was my lifeline. My friends mom swooped in and picked me up after a short time.

That experience isn’t why I panic in water, but it speaks to why I panic in water. It was a raw childhood experience and, as a childhood experience, it was without the context of a more robustly formed life. Now, when I get in the pool, I feel the same spark of untamed panic, but it brings about a feeling of primal comfort.

The first thing I do when I get in the pool is I put my goggles on and sit down on the bottom of the shallow end. I feel the water hold me. I shake my hands and legs and arms. I stretch my legs out and look past the tips of my feet towards the deep end… and I disappear. I remind myself that this is my time and that I don’t owe anyone anything, including myself.

I like goggles because they let me see. I like looking down as I’m swimming and smile to myself because I feel free, because I am free. I like reaching the end of a length and looking past my fingertips as I glide towards the wall on my final stroke. I like swimming because the water is more powerful than me, and it always will be. Even after I’m gone, the water will be stronger and more silent, yet I am in it. I am moving through the water and surviving it. brilliant!

Even when others are in the pool, the water has a deep peace. We are all held by the water, consumed by it. When I’m in the water, I’m surrounded by the only truth that matters: I’m surrounded by the beauty of my own insignificance.

The Death of #TheDress

Two weeks ago #TheDress went viral; today it is old news. This article explores what people experienced, why they looked for reconciliation online and how what they found never really answered the question – what color is #TheDress?

What is the first thing you do after you clump up a piece of paper, throw it at a wastebasket across the room and watch it go in?

This is not an article about #TheDress.

Here is #TheDress:

This photo is 900 pixels wide and 455 pixels tall. The data for the photo is stored on a DreamHost server somewhere. When you load this page, your browser goes and gets the data for those pixels and renders it on your screen.

You are aware that this is a photo of a dress, that you are not looking at a real dress made of cloth and lace. You know that the original, textile dress is out there somewhere.

The reason that I am able to write about this dress is because of that reference point, because we agree (unless we don’t) that this photo is a representation of a dress that exists somewhere in the world.

This is not an article about the photo of #TheDress.

What colors do you see?

Maybe you see gold and white, black and blue, or perhaps you see some combination of colors depending on how you look at it.

I see gold and white, and you can’t convince me otherwise. No matter what colors you see, you are right. We are all right because the experience of our perception is real and stable up until the very moment that we share that experience with someone else and they tell us that they perceive something else, some other color.

Imagine again that you made that shot of paper into the wastebasket across the room. What if when you made that shot, you looked up and saw that your friend was watching only to be told that they saw something else?

That is the experience of #TheDress, only this is not an article about the dress.

This article is about how humans are smart enough to know that we are going to die, but dumb enough to be terrified of irreconcilable experiences.

When we have a seemingly original experience and we share that experience by bringing it into a social sphere, we are looking for others to reconcile that experience with us and for us. We are looking for an affirmation of our perception, that yes in fact we are are real and yes in fact that piece of paper did just fly into the wastebasket across the room.

That yes in fact that dress is white and gold, or blue and black. Or whatever else it may look like.

When a set of individuals shares an experience but not a perception, we do what humans do best. We seek out a community, an affinity group that aligns with our perceptions.

In the case of #TheDress, we found our appropriate hashtags:

On a smaller scale, we are able to reconcile un-affirmed perceptions as anomaly. For example, if I see white and gold and someone else sees black and blue I can chalk it up as an outlier. However, once there are thousands of people yelling at each other on Twitter that they are sharing an experience (I see a picture of a dress) but not a perception (I see a set of colors), then there is a rift in the social sphere that needs mending.

In these situations, the collective experience always goes back to what can be logically agreed upon as real, as physical. Once it was confirmed by the owners of the physical dress that it is black and blue, then we allowed our collective experience to settle on that as a logical resolution.

That is to say, it was a good enough for us to stop talking about it. We had something we could all accept as proof, or evidence.

However, that is not a resolution, that is an excuse. Our need for reconciliation of perception across experiences is a sign of immaturity. The acceptance of irreconcilable perceptions is a pathway to serenity, and #TheDress is a mirror into the souls of those agitated by its discord.

Heidegger said that the only truly original experience each of us will ever have is our own death.

I say that reason we can’t handle the idea of experiencing an authentically unique perception away from the herd because it reeks of our own death.

As #TheDress illustrates, it not just the individual whom can’t stand the smell of its own unique experience, the social sphere needs reconciliation. Unfortunately, it often times it comes in an unsatisfactory piece of evidence that we can all agree on as fact.

The dress that we all know is out there – the one made of cloth and lace that makes it possible for us to engage in dialogue – that dress is black and blue.

Do you want to live your life being satisfied by agreeable fact?

For those of you answer no, then welcome to the party.

For those of you who are honest enough with yourselves to answer yes to that question, I encourage you to listen to the whisper of doubt and fear just under the surface.

For the rest of you who refuse investigate the question, then good luck with whatever it is that you’re doing out there. Make sure it feels good.

A special thanks to David Immel for his edits. This article is more of a question than anything else, and the author would love to discuss it with out. Also, it should be noted, that the author only read half of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. He probably should finish it.