San Francisco empties in early September. Twenty-five million tourists inundate this forty-six-square-mile city during the summer months. The brisk fog startles and confuses them. They chase the sun as they flock to Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square and Aquatic Park. Shivering, they buy emergency hoodies and snap selfies while waiting in the cable car line. Tour companies negotiate GoCars and Segway rentals. Instead of feasting on summer cocktails, they duck inside The Buena Vista for a warm goblet of its highly-touted Irish coffee. Inside this trifecta of tourist buzz stands two historic swim and boat clubs with the only distinguishing feature being the bathing caps. The Dolphin Club swimmers wear bright orange and The South End swimmers wear yellow.
Five years ago, I joined the 134-year-old historic Dolphin Club shortly after experiencing my first open-water dip. Before that, I had been walking by it, driving past it, and flying over it for thirty-five years. I badly injured my knee from a cycling accident and was in constant pain that drifted along the left side of my body starting from my lower back down to my hips, knees, and ankles. As much as I turned to yoga to strengthen my muscles, I needed relief and something to numb the acute pain without medication. The shock of plunging into cold water seemed to magically disrupt the pain patterns. I felt an adrenaline burst travel through my entire body from the liquid cold. I had forgotten how bodies change in the water. How forgiving my aging body was. My limbs became weightless, elastic and sleek. The only time I thought about my nagging pain was when I was on dry land. My circulation improved and I soon learned how rejuvenating the open water is. Also, that unforgettable plunge into the bay gave me a front-seat view of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge.
Over the years, I have been that occasional seasonal swimmer who swims from late spring into early fall. At first glance, I don’t even look like a swimmer. I don’t have the extra wide shoulders, bulky biceps, flexible lats, and big quads. I am a slow swimmer with strong legs who isn’t technically proficient. My stroke repertoire is limited to the breaststroke and freestyle. I can’t swim in a straight line and look clumsy and disoriented when I pop back up. My swims never exceed twenty-five minutes. Mostly, I feel like some type of imposter who has no business slapping the water when world-class Channel and famous Olympic swimmers are the ‘real’ athletes of the bay. These brazen swimmers think nothing of swimming the 1.5-mile distance to Alcatraz or the 6.2 rough miles from the Golden Gate to the Bay Bridge. Like a tourist, who sporadically swims the bay and continues to brag about it, I swim so infrequently that I have to start all over each time I get back into the water. When the water temperature drops below fifty-eight degrees, my frigid swimming comes to a halt. I refuse to wear a wetsuit; not just because I feel like a rubber sausage, but because it is frowned upon. The discouraging “No wetsuits allowed” signs are plastered throughout the club and send blatant messages that only the serious swimmers should brave the water.
A bigger decision nags me on this day in late August. It brings a deeper ambivalence than swimming in what amounts to the largest estuary on the West Coast. This coming September will be my last month of being in my fifties. How could ten years whizz by unnoticed with the passage of time? Turning sixty has a different weight to it. Inaugurating a new decade with a physical challenge will make it more memorable.
I want to mark the occasion of this new decade and not have it quickly evaporate over a huge birthday bash. In past Octobers, I inaugurated new decades with big celebrations that captivated audiences. When I turned thirty, 240 people watched my father walk me down the aisle in an Orthodox synagogue. For my fortieth, I threw an extravagant arts and crafts party in Stern Grove for all my family and friends. The palm reader held my left hand on her lap and pointed to the separation lines in my marriage. My fiftieth birthday was celebrated bi-coastally in San Francisco and New York. I was that sexy and empowered single mother, entrepreneur, and author who just landed her first book deal. I proved one can thrive after divorce.
My friends have celebrated their sixtieth with bold, courageous and spiritual journeys. Jill took ayahuasca and went on a ten-day Vision Quest mission. Diane climbed up Machu Picchu while Lisa walked the 180-mile Camino de Santiago trail in fourteen days. Lauri rafted 100 miles down Idaho’s Middle Fork River and Marsha crossed the international date line on a cruise ship from Hawaii to Sydney on her birthday. I contemplated something unforgettable in the bay but not as newsworthy as when Jack LaLanne swam the bay shackled and manacled from Alcatraz to the clubhouse, towing a 1,000-pound rowboat.
As my life’s drumbeat sounds ever louder as I anticipate turning sixty in October, the bay calls to me like a childhood friend who loves me unconditionally. It welcomes me with open arms. No matter how old, tired, injured, angry, sad, lonely, nervous, distant, confused, or hungry I feel, it is always there for me. It never changes, and promises the same gift each time: rejuvenation. The zing on my skin and the brightness in my eyes that gives me the acute sense of being alive. I am ready for this euphoria and don’t want to run from it. I am ready to turn myself inside out and see what unfolds. The more I give to it, the more I will receive in return. I want to take the plunge with a beginner’s mind. I want to become enmeshed in the water, to circulate inside its mysterious container. I want to run my fingers through the glassy cold water, to taste the raindrops and mist when they trickle in. I want to hear it during a thunderstorm, to swim in extreme weather morning, noon and night.
I’m embarking on a daily swim challenge during the month of September 2017 — without a wetsuit. I chose thirty days because it is a long enough time to form a new habit and short enough to stick to it. Important enough to take it seriously and crazy enough to amaze everyone. Necessary enough to play with fear and safe enough to feel protected. Pivotal enough to transform my life and urgent enough to do it now.
Editor’s note: This piece is a re-un from 2017.