Saturday, August 25, 2007

20,000,000 Shares, 200 Pages, 20 Laps

After the intensity of the past week and half (which I will explain a bit later), I gave myself permission to be utterly lazy this weekend. No obligations whatsoever. I could just stay in bed and read or watch DVDs if I want. The hardest activity I was going to give myself was deciding between continuing to read Michael Crichton’s thrilling anti-global-warming-scam novel, State of Fear, or watch one of the Peter Sellers movies that recently arrived from in a four-movie set, “Peter Sellers: MGM Movie Legends Collection”, The Pink Panther, Casino Royale, What’s New Pussycat?, and The Party. If I choose Peter Sellers over Michael Crichton (for now), it will be The Party, a movie I remember as being one of the most hilarious movies I have ever seen, but for the life of me, I can’t currently think why. It must be because of Peter Sellers, himself, and “birdy num-num”. Anyway, I can use losing myself in outrageous, helpless laughter.

But I was waylaid by getting my mail and receiving another incomprehensible stockholder information booklet from Magna, a company I bet no reader of this blog will have ever heard of. I certainly hadn’t heard of it before it became touted by an investment newsletter I subscribed to (but will not renew--I’ve proven to myself that I do much better picking my own stocks than listening to these self-claimed “experts” no matter how good their hype sounds). Magna is a “car manufacturing company” based all over the world, but primarily in Canada. They either assemble entire cars, or sometimes portions of cars (such as interiors) or sections of cars, like installing sunroofs or dashboards or whatever. The automobile business has changed dramatically since the simpler days of the fifties, say, when you understood WHO manufactured what car, and in which country. Now they are all global hybrid affairs where so-called Japanese Hondas can be made in Ohio and German BMWs can be made in South Carolina and American something or others can be made in Mexico or Australia or wherever...or pieces of them are assembled in Ontario. I suppose all this makes economic sense to somebody, although NOT to the average consumer...or auto worker.

I’ve been reading about the impending bankruptcy of General Motors and maybe Ford, too, and Magna was touted as the one company best positioned to pick up the pieces of those dying companies, and now Magna is best known as the most likely company to buy Chrysler from Daimler, which is apparently eager to dump it as a white elephant. Why somebody would want to buy a company that the maker of Mercedes wants to dump I can’t fully understand, but apparently Jeep (primarily), but also Dodge (secondarily) are valuable brands that Magna would love to own. The brand of Chrysler, itself, will possibly disappear.

By the way, a quick aside...the 17-year-old boy who was in my sailing class last weekend was a huge Stanley Kubrick fan and I got to impress him (one small advantage of my now ancient age) with the fact that when I was approximately his age, I got to see Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first came out, in CINERAMA (as it was intended to be seen). (Actually I was 20 when it came out.) He was suitably impressed and agreed that that was truly the way to see that movie. My ancient age also gave me the perspective that allowed me to understand the irony that all of the corporate brand names mentioned in that film and expected to be around in that futuristic time are now GONE, which I told the boy. (For example, the airline that had the space craft taking people from Earth to the Moon was “Pan Am”. While we DON’T have commercial travel to the Moon even now in 2007, Pan Am as a brand didn’t even last to the real year of 2001.) Something that Kubrick would have thought of as unlikely, if not impossible. For the boy’s part, he simply might not recognize any of the brands and might assume that they were likewise a science fiction creation, not major and presumably long-lived fixtures in everyone’s life at the time.

So yeah, I don’t think it is strange at all that someday there might not be a General Motors or a Ford or a Chrysler. And even some of the brands that we still have today really AREN'T the original, despite the adoption of the name. “AT&T” is really (wait while I vomit) “Cingular”, which is really “SBC,” which is really “Southern Bell”. “Bank of America” is really “Nations Bank”, only now yet somebody else bought them out but I forget who; Citibank, maybe? And going back to cars, Rolls Royce only makes airplane engines, whereas the Rolls Royce car is made by, who, Volkswagen, I think? Or Audi...either Audi owns Volkswagen, or Volkswagen owns Audi, so I mix up who is really the owner but either way, that’s where Rolls Royce now comes from. So enjoy your $450,000 automobile purchase.

I really (unintentionally) insulted a snotty man one time who proudly bought himself a very expensive model of Jaguar. I said, “Now that it’s made by Ford, maybe it will be reliable.” He didn’t like that all. But my uncle used to say, “If you want a Jaguar, buy two; one to drive and the other to have in the shop.” So while there are those who feel that Jaguars are so beautiful they may as well be made by Lalique, I’d rather have a car that I could actually drive somewhere and know that I would reach my destination.

So an investment in Magna seemed like a good bet, but about a month ago I got a multiple-paged booklet from them explaining that they were going to get involved with a horribly named Russian company called “Russian Machines” (maybe in Russian it sounds better), entirely owned by one man who wants to buy a billion and a half dollar’s worth of their shares of stock and Magna wanted to have this happen because somehow this would give them entrance into the “rapidly growing Russian automobile market.” We stockholders had to vote whether we agreed with this plan, or not.

I read that and thought, I own stock in a company that is getting involved with a Russian gangster! Well, I don’t want to libel the man, I really have no idea whether or not he really is a gangster, but what would you think? Forbes Magazine’s expose of the world’s top 100 billionaires (can you believe that there are now over a thousand billionaires in the world?) that pegged him very high in that list didn’t ease my mind about him at all. For example, Homeland Security won’t let him set foot in this country. The Forbes biography said something cryptic, like “after the fall of Communism, when he was 24, he acquired Russia’s aluminum industry at the end of Russia’s ‘aluminum wars’ which left hundreds of dead bodies in its wake.” Just HOW does a 24-year-old former Communist “acquire” a country’s entire industry? (With a machine gun, apparently.) And now he owns that nation’s largest automobile manufacturing company and whole bunch of other industries, too. He is now one of the richest people in the world. Pretty good for a person who used to receive his share of rubles along with all the other “comrades” in the worker’s paradise.

So I thought about it and thought about it and finally decided that if we attempted to avoid doing business with gangsters, we’d keep all our money in a sock under our mattress. I mean, this very computer I am writing on (an Apple iBook G4) was made in China (remember, Communist China), and there was one twentieth century regime crueler and more bloody than Hitler’s, and that was Stalin’s, and there was one twentienth century regime crueler and more bloody than Stalin’s, and that was Mao Tse Tung’s. So this “Russian Machines” man is probably a Gandhi compared to them. This may sound like a hypocritical self-serving justification on my part, but so be it. It’s not as if I am making a ton of money on this stock; so far, it hasn’t really been all that great of an investment, believe me.

But today, I received another long and incomprehensible booklet from Magna, this time an explanation of an offer to buy MY stock. Oh, I see, WHERE the “Russian Machines” man is going to get his billion and a half dollars worth of stock is from people like me who already own some! But he’s not going to buy it on the normal stock market (I guess a former Communist but now multi-billionaire isn’t going to participate in capitalism whole hog)--buying 20,000,000 shares on the open market just might make the selling price go through the roof! So they’re going to see if they can get it from little guys like me through a peculiar system called a “Dutch auction”. Now I ask you, doesn’t that sound suspicious?

Apparently how it works (although perhaps somebody who understands it more can further enlighten me) is that we are supposed to say that we are willing to sell it at any price we choose between $76.50 and $91.50 a share. So why wouldn’t somebody simply say they want to sell it at the higher number, $91.50 a share? Well, for one thing, the Russian Machines man wants 20,000,000 shares, but he is going to pay no more than $1,536,600,000 total for them, which divides out to be $76.83 a share. But gee whiz, I originally paid $80.58 a share for this, so I’m not going to simply volunteer to take a loss. And right now, that stock closed at $88.99 a share--a small profit for me, but very near the high end of the selling price that the Russian will pay. What they are going to do is tote up all the selling price “asks” and if they all average out to $76.83 a share, then fine, your stock will be bought at the price you asked for it, but if not, then they won’t buy it at that price. So I suppose if you REALLY want to sell this stock, then you would ask for the average price, or below. I guess. Or, there is yet a more cryptic choice, and that is to simply say you will take what they decide to pay for it, which I THINK is figured out this way: $1,536,600,000 minus the total of all the specific ask prices divided by the number of shares of non-specific ask prices equals the price they will pay per share for your stock. Which is bound to be somewhere near the lowest price of $76.50 share, a loss for me.

And the damned investment newsletter than recommended that we buy this stock in the first place (due to its likelihood of picking up the pieces of a bankrupt General Motors) has been totally silent about this whole Russian Machines affair. So they spew these recommendations out there and then leave you high and dry when it comes to future developments. So thank you very much, Stansberry & Associates.

Well, I said I did better on my own anyway, so I thought this one through and decided to simply keep the stock. After all, I don’t HAVE to sell it to the Russian and didn’t they just last month go through explaining why this Russian deal was so good? So why wouldn’t I want to stay on board? If the Russian involvement was going to make the price of my shares of stock collapse, why would the board of directors want to go along with it in the first place? Maybe there’s much more to all this than meets the eye. And I said today was supposed to be a lazy day. I just wanted to laugh with Peter Sellers.

Okay, so what all happened this week?

Well, it was the first week back on the full work schedule and this was the week that ALL employees would be back, including our huge number of new hires whom I will be paperworking and orienting and explaining to them complicated insurance benefits and enrolling, and so on (next week, but the preparations for it had to be this week). However, in the middle of it I decided to take two whole days of water safety training, something that ended up being very worthwhile, helpful, and I am very glad I did it, but it was also stressful.

These courses were offered to the P.E. department, but anyone was welcome to take them, if they wanted.

The water safety training was actually two different courses leading to two different certifications, intensified into one full day each. Remember, only last weekend I had taken the American Sailing Association’s first level of sailing training condensed down into one 16 hour weekend, so I was a bit sunburned and brain fried. But I figured that these YMCA water safety courses presented at our school were an opportunity too good to pass up, and, while my training in it might possibly be of some benefit to the school, it especially would be of benefit to me personally for the sailing, in which class we had spent quite a lot of time training for “man overboard” (not with actual people, thank goodness, but with buoys that we’d throw overboard and then turnabout to come rescue) and one thing I learned was that you did NOT want to fall overboard off of a sailboat and the likelihood of such an occurrence was not at all beyond the realm of possibility. So I felt that an uptick in my water safety skills might truly be lifesaving, and for myself, especially, should I ever be the one who was overboard! (Panic is the major cause of drowning.)

The first course, Tuesday’s class, was for the water safety assistant certification, and our school requires all P.E. teachers to pass that certification. Since I had already had quite a bit of swimming training in my youth, having earned my way through American Red Cross lifesaving and water safety instructor ratings to the extent that I taught swimming one summer when I was in college, I was pretty blase about that course, expecting it to be easy and fun. Well, it was fun, but it wasn’t really that easy. For one thing, we had to take a written exam, but I had never been exposed to the 200-page manual, and while the lecture portion of the course was a great summary of the material, it couldn’t really cover every single testable point. However, all of us did pass, thank goodness, much of which required logical thinking, although some of it actually required specific knowledge that the average person would be unlikely to know. For example, do you know how deep a pool has to be before you can allow diving off of the deck? (Nine feet.)

Interestingly, I learned how lucky in many ways I had been to have been a youth in my era rather than now (although in many ways, it is better now). While I generally was not athletic and hated P.E., where I was bad was mostly in team sports (football, softball, basketball), but I did manage to excel in individual sports (swimming, trampoline, and boxing), most of which are NOT ALLOWED nowadays! Because of liability issues, many schools don’t have swimming pools anymore, and those that do, have very shallow pools, so they can’t have diving boards (that is true in home pools, too, most of which nowadays aren’t deep enough for a diving board). A regular one-meter diving board requires a pool to be at least 11 1/2 feet deep; I don’t know the required depth figure for a HIGH dive, but the high school I went to had a high dive (and our pool at home had a regular diving board; we also, by the way, had a trampoline at home, too). While I wasn’t by any means a great diver, I was able to do some dives off a high board and I can’t imagine people nowadays not even having had that experience at all. That was one of my tests of courage as a child, 8 or 9 years old, being able to climb up the ladder of a high dive and then actually execute a DIVE off of it. I wonder what kind of stuff like that tests a child’s physical courage nowadays? (Diving off of a high dive is not a protected activity--you CAN get hurt and therefore it requires some skill, so the test of courage is meaningful.)

At least at our school, team sports is taught better nowadays than it was when I was young. If you didn’t start out good, you never had a chance to GET good in P.E., because the good players made sure you NEVER had a ball passed, tossed, or thrown to you (winning was what mattered over every other thing). All I ever did in football or basketball was “block”, and in softball, it was “you go way out into right field”. Nowadays, you would be put on a B or C team with players whose ability (or lack of it) matched yours and then you had a chance to develop some skills (and confidence).

But I didn’t have this problem with individual sports and therefore could do well in them.

Getting into our pool at school last Tuesday immediately brought back to me all the happy memories I had of being in big pools like that throughout my childhood. For almost all of my adult life, I have been swimming in only small home or motel pools. This pool here in my apartment building I can swim the length of with just about three crawl strokes. Not so the pool at school! It’s not an Olympic pool or anything, it’s 25-yards long, but that puts us more in the class of high school pools and public swimming pools.

There was a swimming test required for this water safety assistant certification, and that amounted to four laps of the pool. Well, it wasn’t as easy as I had assumed, because I was now so used to three-stroke-laps at home! I figured I would just bang these four laps out lickety-split, but suddenly that wall seemed to be very far away as I kind of struggled through the four laps, and completed them with a little bit more respect for this test! I COULD say that, well, I am a few months shy of being sixty years old, I’m not eighteen any more. But I didn’t like feeling that, or seeing it from that point of view. I refuse to allow age to be an excuse.

Another physical test that I thought was going to be a “phtt” was another lesson in humility--treading water for two minutes. Treading water? Gee, I could do that forever! Well, what made it hard was that we were supposed to do it with our arms up in the air. Uh oh! I am very much an “arm” water treader; using no arms and only kicks was a real test of my endurance; those were a long two minutes. But I passed that, too.

After we (all the P.E. teachers and me; I was the only non-P.E.-teacher to sign up to do this) passed all the qualifying tests, we then had the in-pool lessons, one of which was the back-boarding lesson for injured swimmers for whom we suspected spinal injury (which could occur after a fall from a height, or after diving or coming down a pool slide, or if the victim were found unconscious). I volunteered to be the first victim (ultimately, everybody in the course had to play each of the three roles, victim, lifeguard, and assistant). Uh oh, another “test” for me. I border on claustraphobic and as this exercise progressed, I slipped closer into panic mode.

The gist of it is that you are floating on the water and then held up with a rescue tube, and then a back board is pushed under you (held up by the assistant) and the rescue tube is moved under the foot of the board to help hold up that end. So far, so good. But then you are strapped to the board with a waist strap, then a cervical collar is installed around your neck, then your arms and chest are strapped to the board, then head immobilizers are squeezed tightly to either side of your head, then a forehead strap is installed and a chin strap is installed and second rescue tube is placed underneath the board and finally your legs are strapped down to the board. By now you are thoroughly and helplessly immobilized and strapped to this board from head to foot and I didn’t LIKE it at all. Yet there was still one more major operation left to do, and that was get the board up out of the pool and lying down on the deck. Since this was the first time we did this, everything was done incredibly slowly. I almost succumbed to full-on panic and actually did complain to the instructor, but she calmed me down.

After having gone through this, I have amazing empathy for some poor person who actually DOES have a spinal injury and while I could finally be freed from the backboard after I was safely up out of the pool, the real victim will have to stay mummified on that thing until the paramedics get there, and probably will still be bound immobile all the way to the hospital. It’s nearly unthinkable to me...although I know of something much worse (which thank God, we didn’t have to experience). When I went to take my final open water dive test in order to get my NAUI scuba diving certification (in the late 80s), the dive shop in Mendocino where we got our air tanks had an ominous-looking pipe outside next to the parking lot. This rusted iron pipe was about seven feet long and possibly two-feet feet in diameter, or thereabouts. One end was completely closed, and the other end had a round hinged door on it with a large wheel-valve, like a hatch on a submarine that would be screwed closed. There was a little glass window in the pipe about a foot and a half or so down from the valve-door.

“What the hell is this?” we asked our dive instructor.

“Oh, be glad they have one of those,” he told us cheerily. “That’s where they put you if you get the bends. It’s a pressure tube; they close you in it and pressurize it to equal the pressure of the depth of the ocean you just came up from, and you are transported inside that in a helicopter to a hospital that has a pressure chamber.”

Not me, they aren’t! I’ll just die from the bends, thank you very much. Or put me back in the water and let the sharks eat me. No way could I stand being stuffed into an iron tube the edge of which would be one inch away from my face and with there being no way to even move an arm and then have the door screwed shut and keep me in it for a undeterminably long helicopter ride.

Maybe the bends is so painful that it just knocks you out; maybe you are entirely unconcious and have no idea where you are until you wake up in the hospital. I don’t know, but just the sight of that thing made EVERYBODY suddenly truly UNDERSTAND their dive tables (that tell you how long you can stay under water at what depths in order to avoid getting the bends, which is what about 80% of scuba diving training is all about).

Being strapped onto the backboard wasn’t anywhere near as bad as that bends tube looked, but it was in the same realm. The major difference was that I was willing to be strapped on the backboard. But it WAS potentially dangerous, by the way. One thing that led to my being so uneasy was that it constantly felt like it was going to tip over, leaving me helplessly face down in the water. The instructor told us afterwards that instructors are not allowed to serve as victim in a lesson, because one died doing that. That instuctor was strapped on and the board DID turn over and the whole arrangement with the instructor face down sank to the bottom of the pool. The students didn’t know enough to know how to undo the straps to get the instructor free or get the board back up to the surface, so the instructor, bound there on the board, was unable to move and therefore drowned. I’m glad she told us about that afterwards.

So I passed all that, and when the course was over, I heard myself say that I would come to the LIFEGUARD certification course that was next. Why did I do that, I asked myself later that night. For THAT course, which was optional for our P.E. teachers (but all but one of them went for it) and certainly entirely optional for ME, had a much longer, harder, and much more serious written test (with some fill-in questions, not all multiple choice) and a swimming test that consisted of TWENTY laps! Didn’t I struggle through the four laps of this first course? What made me think I could do twenty? The test was actually four laps each of five specific strokes, which you could perform in any order: four laps of crawl, four laps of breast stroke, four laps of sidestroke, four laps of sidestroke with one arm up (like you are pulling a rescued swimmer in) and four laps of elementary backstroke with both arms up (again like you are pulling a rescued swimmer in). This time, at least, I would have a chance to read the textbook, but that meant that that night I had to read (and learn) 200 pages of the YMCA lifesaving manual. But something in me just wanted to do this and I justified it by saying “if I don’t pass it, it’s no different that if I didn’t do it at all except that I will learn some things.”

But that justification did not work for me when I was home that night reading those 200 pages. There was no way that I could go into this thing without passing it, and yet it seemed hopeless. I was worried about the written test, yes, but what really stressed me out was the 20-lap swimming test. All of the P.E. teachers were worried about the swimming test, too, and that added to my worry, because they certainly were in better shape than I was. Fortunately, I discussed this with one of the P.E. teachers (who happens to be a national tennis champion, but who was also worried about the test) and when I told her how I planned to do my strokes, getting the hardest one, the crawl, over in the beginning and then relaxing into the easier strokes, she said that my plan wasn’t good and she told me HER strategy, which was opposite of mine. She said that I should do the easy strokes first, that way I would bang out the numbers without exhausting myself and would mentally be more relaxed because the majority of the laps would then be done and then I could concentrate on the crawl, which would be the hard stroke. I honestly wouldn’t have thought of doing it that way, but fortunately I have FINALLY gotten to the point in life where I am willing to accept the advice of people who know better than I do, instead of thinking that I know a better way or am otherwise somehow “different”. No, I right away figured she knew more about such an athletic endurance test and I would follow her strategy.

I mentally rehearsed the swimming test at home that night several times in the pattern that I decided to do it that worked best for me, following the P.E. teacher’s strategy: four laps of side stroke with my arm up, four laps of elementary back stroke with my arms up, four laps of side stroke, and then alternating restful laps of breast stroke with the hard laps of crawl until all four of each had been done. I figured I would do them slowly and meditatively, thinking of “pumping” these muscles the way the heart pumps, in which the muscle of the heart is resting more than it is pumping. The heart goes “pump”, “reeeeeeest”, “pump”, “reeeeeest”, “pump”, “reeeeeeest”, eternally; I imagined myself swimming like that, “stroke”, “gliiiiiiiide”, “stroke”, “gliiiiiiiiide”, “stroke”, “gliiiiiiiide”.

I didn’t succeed in reading all 200 pages, but got too tired somewhere around 11:30 at night. Okay, I figured I had done enough, read the majority of the textbook and would pick up the rest in the summary lecture and use my still-somewhat-rested brain to figure out the rest if I could. Also, I needed some sleep in order to have good energy for the 20 laps.

The next morning at 6:00 when I woke up, I did one more mental imagining of the swim, then got up, took my shower, and ate a large protein and fat breakfast (two pieces of bacon, two ounces of turkey, and three eggs, all fried in coconut oil), because I knew that the body’s fuel source for sustained energy is fat.

At school in the course, we had a couple of hours of lecture and review, and then the written test. I was the first one finished with the test, so I turned it in and the instructor began to grade it. The questions were in textbook chapter order, so she was able to check the questions, chapter one, chapter, two, chapter three, all the way through. Then she said, “I’ve corrected the first nine chapters and you haven’t missed ONE question. I have never seen that before.” Wow. As it so happened, the first nine chapters were all that I had read, whereas chapters ten and eleven I had not read. But this beginning seemed good!

It ended up that all told, I missed a total of three (you could miss something like 20 and still pass). Well gee, I had been worried about the test and now I wished that I could have gotten a 100%, which maybe I would have if I had been able to read the whole book. But I’m not complaining! I passed the written test. And, fortunately, so did the others, as well.

Now it was time for lunch (which the school was providing, since this was in-service week), after which we would have the swimming test. Everybody said, “Aren’t you coming to lunch?” and I said, “No, I can’t eat, not with this swimming test right after.” But the instructor said, “You HAVE to eat. If will help you with the test.” So, once again, I followed the advice of someone who knew better. I didn’t eat a HUGE lunch, just half a tuna sandwich and some salad. I skipped the fancy-looking chocolate dessert. I finished lunch in fifteen minutes, which meant there was now 45 minutes of digestion time before the swimming test.

Then it was time to go back to the pool. One of the P.E. teachers said, “if anyone vomits an egg-salad sandwich, that will be me.” We all laughed, and I wondered if I would add my tuna to his egg salad.

I slipped into the nice clean water and admired the sparkling blue beauty of the pool. I told myself, “remember you are a heart, pumping and resting, easy does it, no worries, enjoy the smoothness of the water and shining sun, you are as smooth as a dolphin, gliding effortlessly through the water.” And that’s what I did. Four laps of sidestroke with my arm up. I paid no attention to the distance, but as I reached each end, I’d add to the count: one, two, three, four. Then I did four laps of the elementary backstroke. That one was harder than I thought, I had to frogkick my legs harder than I wanted to just to keep myself afloat. I thought I was a better floater than that, but maybe I have a greater lean body mass than I thought. However, I didn’t let it bother me. If I got a little tired, my next stroke would be an easy one, the side stroke. One, two, three, four laps.

The side stroke truly was easy, compared to the others I had done, it was almost like resting, it was the first stroke of the test in which I was able to use both arms. I moved slowly but breathed fully. However, I was conscious of how I was struggling for air, I definitely wasn’t the same as fully rested. But I kept going and kept my good attitude up. One, two, three, four laps.

Now the majority of the test was done, just like my friend the P.E. teacher said. I only had my easiest stroke and my hardest stroke left to do. I had to do the breast stroke first because I really felt like I needed to breathe; without a whole lap of full breathing, I don’t see how I could do the crawl, which I planned to breathe on every third stroke, as is taught in swimming class.

So I did my first lap of the breast stroke, breathing as fully as I could. All too soon, I got to the wall and now had to do my first lap of the crawl. I turned at the wall and started doing the crawl. It was immediately clear that I couldn’t wait three strokes to breathe, it had to be every time just before stroking with my right arm. Okay, so that’s what I’ll do. I really felt how hard it was to do this, it was a struggle and I had to gulp very hard each breath, but doing this now instead of at the beginning WAS so much better, because now all I had to do was use whatever I still had left in me. If I had started with this, I would have been too fresh and therefore would have put too much energy into it. However, amazingly, the pool's wall came up very fast. I realized what a fast stroke this really is, that even though it was tough, it made up for it by being quick. That was a great revelation.

I turned and did my second lap of breast stroke. Such a nice rest, almost like napping on a soft mattress! A great opportunity, again, to breathe breathe breathe...fill up those oxygen tanks, clear out that lactic acid, fill me with energy. Then the wall came up and I turned and was now in my second lap of the crawl, breathing prior to every right arm stroke. My arms ached. All I knew now was that somehow I just simply had to do it no matter how I felt. Just keep those arms churning and don’t let anything stop me. I knew the wall would come up quite fast, and it did, and then I had the pleasure of the third breast stroke, which was time to rest, breathe, and recouperate again.

I’m the kind of person whose mind can stop my body. I remember the first time I went skiing and I was successfully flying down the hill. It was glorious, but then suddenly my mind thought, “hey, you are a beginner, you’re not supposed to be doing this so well," so then suddenly I fell, sabotaged by my reasoning mind. Or I will try to jog and my body will feel the pain, feel exhaustion, and my mind will say, “this pain is bad, you don’t like it, you really don’t have to do this,” and I will stop running, with my breath pounding and my heart fluttering.

This did NOT happen to me while swimming. Just the opposite. Somewhere in the third crawl lap, my mind just slipped away. I don’t remember it, or remember my fourth breast stroke lap. My body simply swam, executing the plan that I mentally rehearsed several times the night before and then early that morning. This is something that as machine age humans we don’t normally get to experience (or I certainly don’t); movement is natural to the body and it actually likes it and knows how to do it. How else did nomadic tribes cross the veldt on long hunting journeys that lasted for weeks, if not much longer? How else did soldiers march from continent to continent? How else do marathon runners, triathletes, iron man participants succeed in multi-hour-long prodigious feats? My body moved into that realm and my mind didn’t interfere.

I completed the third crawl lap, and then filled my lungs and muscles with the fourth breast lap, and then turned into the fourth and final crawl lap. I honestly didn’t even really know where I was until my hand touched the far wall and as I turned in the water, I heard the instructor call out my name and say that I had finished it.

I had finished it. I had passed the test. Twenty laps. Almost a quarter of a mile.

There are far worse swimming tests. I know that. There are triathlons out in the open water, the ice cold, frothy ocean, competing for space against hundreds of other churning racers. Or Jack LaLanne, swimming to freedom from the impossible-to-escape-from-Alcatraz across swift San Francisco Bay currents towing a rowboat. Somebody swimming across the English channel in fog and no sight of land. Or The Iron Man, what is that, swimming completely around an island in Hawaii?

But this was amazing. I, an almost sedentary, nearly sixty-year-old non-athlete who will think twice about going up three flights of stairs in my apartment building and mostly will just use the elevator, I did this. That young person that I once was, bad in sports but I WAS a good swimmer, I could feel that self was still inside me, and it felt really good.

Time went on and one after another, the other swimmers completed their laps, too, so that ultimately, every one of us completed the task and passed the swimming test. It wasn’t easy for anybody, but we all did it. That, for me, became another part of the test. It wasn’t good enough for just me to pass it, everybody had to pass it.

Then we had the in-water lessons and practices of all the lifeguarding skills: how to rescue active and passive swimmers from the front and from the rear, how to rescue those who were partially under water, how to rescue those who had sunk to the bottom of the pool, how to rescue multiple swimmers, all the various ways to get into the water to rescue somebody, and all the ways to get rescued people OUT of the water. A full day of lessons.

One more test--swimming under water for fifteen yards. We didn’t even know they HAD that test, but it was easy for all. I’m an underwater swimmer from way back, so that was like going back home.

Then we each had to do several final “mystery” rescues. We’d have to scan the pool and other students would decide what kind of situation they were in and we’d then have to recognize who needed help and choose the correct pool entrance for that rescue, rescue them properly, and then get them out of the pool.

And then we were done. We all qualified for the YMCA lifeguard certification. I felt utterly exhausted physically and utterly exhiliarated mentally; an odd combination of feelings. I went home and felt like I would sleep for a week. But the next day was still a working day.

The next day there was a moment at the beginning of the in-service meetings when the headmaster asked each administrator if he or she had an announcement. When he came to me, I said that I had no announcement, although I FELT like saying “Guess what, I passed the lifeguard certification course!” But there would have been no point in saying that, that was only a personal achievement. However, he kept asking me, “Are you sure you have no announcement?”, as if he knew that I really did have something to say, but I don’t think he knew. Anyway, I said I had no announcements.

Later, several people said, “Oh, you should have said you completed the lifeguard training!” But it wasn’t part of my job. It COULD help my job, I can imagine a scenario where it would come in handy, but still. However, others in the P.E. department really appreciated the fact that I did fact, I think they were very disappointed that NO ONE ELSE did it. But I don’t blame anyone for not doing it. It was a very busy week and this swimming stuff really was a P.E. thing. It was intense, that’s all I can say, intense, which has become the word for the week.

However, after that morning with the headmaster asking me if I had any announcement, several in the P.E. department must have felt the same thing I did, that this was WORTH that announcement (as was their getting certified, too). So then for the rest of the day, I couldn’t walk into the auditorium or sit down to lunch or pass a group of people without one of the P.E. teachers announcing, “there he is, one of our new lifeguards!” And then I responded with something along the order of “me, and ALL of us!” So for sure the word did get out.

Two other cool things happened this week. One of the parents was on campus and she ran into our staff accountant, whose office is next door to mine. The parent was so happy to see her, this being the beginning of the new school year, and the parent said to her, “You are my children’s FAVORITE teacher!” The staff accountant teaches a wonderful and innovative crafts class after school that quite a few kids love to death and some of them take again and again each trimester. And they will even come up to our offices just to see her, they like her so much. But for her to hear that she is considered some kids’ favorite teacher, to even be considered in the same category as the other “real” teachers, is a very gratifying accomplishment. She said to me, “you know most people on campus don’t even know that we up here are involved with the students at all. They think all we do is juggle figures all day.”

Later that day, when the mail came, I saw that a wonderful student that we all know and love had sent a postcard from a foreign country he and his family visited this summer. He sent this postcard to three people whose names were written in three lines above the school’s address: to the person who was his teacher last year, to a school administrator who is from the country they were visiting, and to me. I showed it to the accountant and said to her, "Look at this, see the people in this school he thought to send this to." And my name was the first one on the list.

The staff accountant was right; most people on campus don’t know that we are involved with the students and the educational process at all. But the students know. And we are greatly rewarded by their recognition of that involvement.

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