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Feature Articles

The Self-Reflecting Pool
BONNIE TSUI
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SAN FRANCISCO -- Late last year, a designer and a geographer who met at M.I.T. revealed that they'd spent much of 2013 mapping every single swimming pool in Los Angeles -- 43,123 of them, to be exact. Their satellite photos documented all the little aquamarine ovals and rectangles in a huge 74-book project called "The Big Atlas of L.A. Pools." Though the cultural conversation mostly revolved around how unsettlingly easy it was for them to locate and discover personal details relating to each pool's owner -- address, property value, even sex-offender status -- I found myself fantasizing instead about disappearing, and using those pools to do it.

What would it be like to follow their hypothetical pool-hopping itinerary and swim freely, from one backyard to another? Submerge yourself, and suddenly you're under the world's radar. Each pool, I saw, was in fact a potential portal: a way to shed the noise, to swim to stillness.

"Swimming is the ultimate form of sensory deprivation," Diana Nyad told The New York Times in 2011, describing her attempt to be the first to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage, a feat she finally accomplished last year. "You are left alone with your thoughts in a much more severe way"

This isn't as bad as it sounds. Ms. Nyad has spent a lifetime in the water, chasing an elusive mark in marathon swimming, and she has written about the exhilarating out-of-body experience she has when powering through long distances. The medium makes it necessary to unplug; the blunting of the senses by water encourages internal retreat. Though we don't all reach nirvana when we swim, swimming may well be that last refuge from connectivity -- and, for some, the only way to find the solitary self.

Most days, I get into the neighborhood pool by 8:30 a.m. Even when there's frost on the ground, the water is warm. Unless you're the lifeguard, blowing the whistle when you want me to get out, I don't know you exist. For 60 blessed minutes and 3,200 yards, I'm my only audience.

There's nothing to look at, once the goggles fog over. Sound? The sloshing of water pretty much cancels out everything else. Taste and smell are largely of the chlorine and salt variety (though, at my old pool, I used to smell burgers cooking from the cafe downstairs). Despite all the tech advances of the last few years, you won't see many swimmers wearing earphones or bone-conduction music devices: They just don't work that well.

We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We sing songs, or make to-do lists, or fantasize about what we're going to eat for breakfast. Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of them all, was found to have A.D.H.D. when he was a child; he has called the pool his "safe haven," in part because "being in the pool slowed down my mind."

In John Cheever's 1964 short story "The Swimmer," Neddy Merrill swims home through the backyard pools of his suburban neighbors. To get there, he must navigate the parties and social merriment surrounding every body of water. At one stop, Neddy "stood by the bar for a moment, anxious not to get stuck in any conversation that would delay his voyage. When he seemed about to be surrounded he dove in and swam." Water, then, is a bubble in which all social pressure is easily eluded.

Fifty years later, as the world, with its escalating rings and pings, gets ever more hysterical, suspending yourself in water becomes ever more appealing.

For better or worse, the mind wanders: We are left alone with our thoughts, wherever they may take us. A lot of creative thinking happens when we're not actively aware of it. A recent Carnegie Mellon study shows that to make good decisions, our brains need every bit of that room to meander. Other research has found that problem-solving tends to come most easily when our minds are unfocused, and while we're exercising. The neurologist Oliver Sacks has written books in his head while swimming. "Theories and stories would construct themselves in my mind as I swam to and fro, or round and round Lake Jeff," he writes in the essay "Water Babies." Five hundred lengths in a pool were never boring or monotonous; instead, Dr. Sacks writes, "swimming gave me a sort of joy, a sense of well-being so extreme that it became at times a sort of ecstasy." The body is engaged in full physical movement, but the mind itself floats, untethered. Beyond this, he adds, "there is all the symbolism of swimming -- its imaginative resonances, its mythic potentials."

Dr. Sacks describes a sublime state that is accessible to all, from his father, with his "great whalelike bulk," who swam daily and elegantly until 94 years of age, to the very young. I recently watched an 8-year-old boy and his teenage sister swim their laps beside me. The boy shivered on land, lips blue and knees knocking. But when he hit the water, he was confident, focused, as fluent in the medium as a seal. For a little while, there was no talk and no tech. Just a boy in his buoyancy.

The enforced solitude is at odds with where we are as a culture. Our gyms are full of televisions tuned to SportsCenter and cable news. We're tethered to our devices, even at bedtime. With that pervasive lack of self-control, who has the willpower to turn off technology for any meaningful period of time? I submit: Sliding into the water is the easiest way to detach from your phone.

This is not to say that swimmers are natural Zen masters. Bill Clinton told PBS recently that he and Hillary swim together every afternoon; if either dares to mention a political topic during the course of their swim, he says, "We will stop the other one." I asked Dara Torres, who has logged countless training hours for her five Olympics, what she thinks about when she's swimming. "I'm always doing five things at once," she told me by phone (at the time, she was driving a car). "So when I get in the water, I think about all the things that I have to do. But sometimes I go into a state -- I don't really think about anything." The important thing, she says, is that the time is yours. "You can use it for anything. It depends where your head is at -- it's a reflection of where you are."

The reflection of where you are: in essence, a status update to you, and only you. The experience is egalitarian. You don't have to be a great swimmer to appreciate the benefits of sensory solitude and the equilibrium the water can bring.

So, quickly now: everybody in the pool. It won't be long before Google Goggles.

Bonnie Tsui is the author, most recently, of "American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods."

A version of this op-ed appears in print on February 16, 2014, on page SR5 of the New York edition with the headline: The Self-Reflecting Pool.


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