The Old People

At the gym this week I have been surrounded by the old people. I’ve been swimming laps in the pool during the times that I normally run — weekday mornings — which seem to be the same times when the water aerobics classes for seniors are offered. In contrast, when I was training for the triathlon this past spring, my afternoon pool workouts always seemed to coincide with toddler swim lessons. During hours when there are lessons or classes going on, two lanes are kept available for lap swimming while the rest of the pool is taken over by whatever organized activity is on the schedule. These days it’s older folks in their aqua shoes, brandishing foam noodles and using pull buoys as underwater dumbbells.

It’s a strange world, the pool on these mornings. The two lanes reserved for lap swim are highly prized territory. There are serious swimmers executing graceful flip turns at the end of every perfectly paced lap; there are aqua-joggers striding up and down the length of the pool forwards, backwards, and sideways for thousands of yards. Then there is me, lurch-splashing my way up and down in a somewhat slow, somewhat poorly executed, but (I like to think) still rather serviceable freestyle, occasionally pausing to blow saltwater out of my nose or shake out an ear.

We all have to find our spots, coordinating which lane we join by our speed, trying to match ourselves up properly so we don’t have to run over our lane-mate every lap or, even worse, fear being chased down by a faster swimmer before we make it to the end of the black line. If we are lucky, and our timing is perfect, we get a whole lane all to ourselves. Whenever that happens to me, I indulge in a little backstroke, feeling free to weave haphazardly from one floating rope to the other as I struggle to balance my stroke and swim in a straight line. If I dare to backstroke while sharing a lane, well, disaster could ensue. On Monday I nearly took out a man’s eye.

Today, when I paused to rest at the end of a 100 yard interval, I stopped to watch the old people for a moment. They were engaged in some kind of exercise that involved holding their arms out in front of their bodies, parallel to the floor, and pat-pat-patting the water. Pat-pat-pat went the palms of their hands while the soft flab of their loose upper arms made an asynchronous slapping against the water’s surface. Pattaslappattapat-pa-SLAP. Slappatta-patsla-pat. Rows and rows of the old people, all pat-slapping together, staring blankly ahead in a bizarre aquatic version of every zombie movie you’ve ever seen.

Later, in the locker room, one of the women from the water aerobics class was using the same bank of lockers as I was, her bag, towels, and hair accoutrements spread out across the bench and the counter by the mirror. I slipped past and hit up my locker, doing my best awkward quick change maneuvers. (No one appreciates Lingering Locker-Room Nudity. Change quickly people, quickly!) By the time I turned back around, now dressed, the woman had vanished, leaving behind no trace except her pile of three soiled, wet towels. Had she ever really been there at all?

Like I said, it’s a strange world — and one I am going to inhabit as I continue to rehab my hip and to work on improving my swim in the long term. I may never fully understand the physics of water aerobics nor the locker-room and towel etiquette of my neighbors, but it is certainly proving to be a nice opportunity to observe the old people in one of their natural habitats. (Not having been to the local mall before the stores open, I have yet to study them there.) I shall continue to observe and to learn as much as I can. After all, I hope one day to be an old person myself.


  1. I was politely appraising a pretty teenager recently, only to stop myself – I’ll be 39 next week, old enough to have fathered her. When did I become a dirty old man? I’m not!

    I can’t see myself in a water aerobics gaggle of old folks someday… Or chatting it up about politics over a breakfast coffee at McDonald’s. Unsettling to think that I am slowly turning into a gray-haired citizen. It’s odd to think that they are like me, a 20-something trapped in a body that is inexorably falling apart.

    I don’t feel as if I’m getting older – not feeling the need to sit out on the porch in my rocker, yelling at neighborhood kids. Bingo still has zero allure. I’m still me! These gray hairs are a cruel joke of some kind!


  2. I know! I never FEEL like I’m getting older, but then….but then… what are these smile lines appearing around my face? Of course, I would rather have earned my smile lines than frown lines, right?


  3. I laughed so hard at your descriptions of them “pat-pat-patting” the water that my mom had to know what I was laughing at! We were both highly amused!


  4. Ha! Well I am glad I amused someone with this — I was afraid the small number of comments meant I had offended people with my age-ist ways. In truth, I admire the older people for getting out there and working it!


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