A long time ago I was in a conversation with a colleague in the Psychology department who intoned, “Everyone wants the same thing.” Of course, I asked, “What is that?” And he smiled as if he were about to say something very wise and replied, “To be happy.”
At that moment, I was filled with an unhappy and uncollegial desire to shake him till his teeth rattled. It may be true that everyone wants to be happy—I am not certain, but it could be true—but even if it is true, the pronouncement “Everyone wants to be happy” has got to be one of the least useful true statements ever. Maybe we all want to be happy, but that doesn’t tell us much about ourselves or other people because we all become happy by doing different things.
Which brings us inevitably to the topic of open water swimming. Open water swimming makes me happy. It makes me insanely happy. When I am swimming, I am filled with what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”
This swimmer’s high occasionally hits me in pools, but it usually takes a good two miles in a lake. I imagine it can be explained by biochemistry, which suggests that swimming might make lots of people happy. But most people seem to have no interest in trying it. They have different ways of becoming happy.
On Thursday K and I went to the lake for our second swim of the spring. It was a beautiful day. The water temperature was still cool at 71 degrees F, but not cold enough to require wetsuits again. The air temperature was also 71, perfectly fine; the wind, though, was blowing at 13 mph (according to my magic hyper-local weather app), and I said on the drive that the water was going to be choppy.
It was. I was delighted. The first half-mile out was crazy: it was cold, and the waves were coming at us, and I thought, “This is fantastic!”
If I’m going to swim in open water, I want it to feel like open water. If I want glassy calm and 78 degrees, I can go swim in a pool. I was fighting waves out there, getting tossed around; I was lifting my arms high to clear the water and breathing far back to keep from getting hit in the face. It was hard work, and the water was cold, and I was thinking about Beowulf swimming through the north ocean, battling sea monsters all the way. I was smiling as I was swimming.
When we got to the turn around point, K was waiting for me. He was not happy. He said something about how much better it had been last week. I was noncommittal. He said something about how I couldn’t possibly like swimming in these conditions. I said I quite possibly could.
We started back.
As we swam back and the waves pushed us in and I sang “The Sea Refuses No River” to myself, I thought about the previous week’s swim, when I had been trying very hard not to whine so much about my wetsuit: I couldn’t feel the water, I was floating too high, I was getting abrasions on the back of my neck. I find wearing the wetsuit disorienting. In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Call of Cthulhu,” people have dreams about a city (later found on an uncharted Pacific island) where the angles are “wrong”–there’s some alien non-Euclidian geometry at work, horrifying to the human mind–and that’s kind of how I feel about swimming in a wetsuit: the angles are wrong. And yet wearing a wetsuit doesn’t bother K at all. He likes it. He was happier last week.
All in all, I swam three miles. When I was done, my face hurt from three miles of smiling.
Everyone wants to be happy, but we all become happy by doing different things: the swim that makes me very happy might make you miserable and vice versa. The trick is to find out what makes you happy–and then to do it.