To Thrive Rather Than To Survive

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Photo courtesy of MediSwim Total Immersion

In his bestselling memoir entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami relates how it took him years to find a coach who enabled him to level up his swimming technique. While all of the coaches he worked with  were competent, he realized, to his dismay,  that not all were effective at helping those who came to them for help. As my teacher in pedagogical approaches would put it:  it is one thing to master something, it is another thing to be able to transfer that mastery to your students.

It was, in fact, Murakami’s insight that drove me to keep trying out various swim  instruction approaches for adult onset swimmers like me.  I am admittedly a special case as  I have never really taken any swim instruction all my life. I only became interested in the sport when I started to train for my first triathlon.  More to the point, it has taken me more than  8 sessions to figure out how to swim. That is the average number of swim lessons  for an average student to  achieve a certain level of breakthrough in swimming according to a local veteran triathlon coach.

Then again, he could be wrong. In the highly instructive Your First Triathlon, Joe Friel notes how it usually takes months if not years to really perfect one’s swim technique.  To punctuate his point, Friel cited the example of a  very efficient swimmer in the pool  who took a while to take his efficiency from the pool to the open water. The late Terry Laughlin who invented Total Immersion essentially reinforces Friel’s insight. More specifically, he wrote that of the three disciplines in triathlon, it is swimming that is most unnatural and therefore, the most challenging. Human beings being land-based mammals are naturally  designed to walk, run and even cycle. They are not naturally meant to swim.  Hence, his insight  that  a triathlete worth his salt should all the more focus on achieving efficiency in the swim leg to be able to save one’s legs (i.e., pun intended) for the cycling and the running legs of the triathlon.

The preceding might as well ground my seemingly endless search for the ultimate swim instruction. To date it has taken me 4 coaches to finally get to a point where I could truly say I will not just be able to survive the swim leg of my triathlon race. I just might  eventually enjoy and thrive in the process.  I am not exactly there yet but I could sense I’m about to enter the territory in the next couple of months.

To be fair, I did learn something instructive from my first 3 coaches. But  it was my learning experience facilitated by  my 4th coach that has proven to be the most game changing by far. That Coach JC Macdonald was personally trained and certified  by no less than  the Total Immersion Master Terry Laughlin may help explain this.

To celebrate the small wins I’ve been experiencing for the past two months, I am journalizing  10 realizations that have proved helpful to helping me gain the confidence and competence to achieve a series of baby steps that build on each other.

Breathing is everything.

Unlike most swim lessons, breathing is not something that my TI coach added towards the end of the swim lessons. Quite the opposite: breathing was the first thing he made me unlearn to be able to learn the TI approach to efficient swimming. He was very empathic about this. First, one must learn to breathe from the diaphragm rather than from the chest. Breathing from the core  relaxes the rest of your body. Breathing from the chest promotes tension and panic.

Just as important, I had to learn how to exhale gently and continuously thru my nose and exhale through  my mouth. Interestingly, I  was, at the same time,  instructed to do both while keeping my mouth open to relax my jaws. This was not something purposively taught to me in my previous swim lessons. In fact, my previous coaches suggested that I apply either the 50/50 exhalation or the 70/30  through either my nose or my mouth or a combination of the two that would work for me.

To my surprise, I have considerably lessened the gasping for air that I used to experience after each lap.  Consequently, my rest stops between laps have dramatically gone down  from 1.5 to 2 minutes to 10 to 20 seconds.

Relaxation can be learned.   

One of the recurrent feedback  I got from my first 3 coaches was the need for me to relax. “Relax, Von, relax,” I would often get reminded. “You’re so tense,” they would often point out to me.  That I am.   I was never comfortable in the water. Water and drowning used to be  synonymous to me.  That is why I have never taken any swim lessons until the age of 47. Thanks to TI, I learned that relaxation can be learned. Breathing correctly is foundational in this regard. Hand in hand with correct breathing, one must deliberately hang one’s neck and arms and loosen one’s shoulders. These are apparently the most critical body parts which could promote or hinder  relaxation. Loosen them up and the rest of one’s body follows.  Tense them and you set up yourself for failure. Thus, before starting each practice session, I now make sure I complete a series of superman glides that mimic a rag doll in the water as Terry Laughlin would describe it.

Balance is king. 

Doing the superman glide like a rag doll in a public  lapping pool   actually looks silly. One needs to keep pushing off several times in the course of completing one lap as you will eventually run out of oxygen and sink.  It is hardly the kind of pre-workout drill you would find most swimmers do before their practice set.  Thankfully, I have learned to ignore the curious and amusing stares I get when I do the superman glide this way.  The reward it provides me in terms of how it relaxes both my breathing and my movement far outweighs the curious and amusing stares. Eventually, I realized it’s also a great drill to improve one’s balance in the water. This is on the condition that you remember to keep your ankles and heels together as you do flutter kicks to cover more distance.

Goodbye swim toys. 

I used to start all my drill sessions with the use of the center snorkel, the pull buoy and at times, the flippers and the paddles.  Not anymore. While my TI coach appreciates the value of these toys for strengthening and improving one’s technique, he sees zero value in them for an adult onset swimmer who is still trying to learn the basics of the free style. What they do, he says, is mask a defect in one’s technique instead of addressing the same.  In their place, he’d rather help his student work on each aspect of the free style slowly albeit progressively.   First learn the basics then move to the swim toys was how he made me regard the place of swim toys in one’s swim training.

Slope your spear. 

Yet another new thing I only learned recently was the value of ensuring that as one spears into the water before pulling, one’s wrist should be aligned to one’s elbow and shoulders like a downward slope. Doing so complements the corresponding clicking of one’s heels to produce a taller posture that aligns with the surface of the water.  To be able to picture this under water, the slope being referred to in the TI context is where your nose aligns with your shoulder as it forms a downward slope with your elbow and wrist. It is noteworthy though that the distance from the surface could vary from person to person. Hence, there is value in experimenting until one finds the perfect fit so to speak. Previous to this,  what I was taught to do was to reach forward to extend one’s body and cover more distance.

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Trim your stroke count. 

Less is more.  This is the TI approach to the recommended stroke counts to complete one lap.   From a high of 40 plus strokes for a 25m lap, my coach was able to trim down my strokes to 25. He did this through the tempo timer which I eventually invested in. What it does is it forces you to improve your balance in the water. Not exactly an enjoyable learning experience as I did the free style around four timings:  1.7, 1.65, 1.60 and 1.55 for several sessions. The objective was to only spear when you hear the beep. This meant that as you awaited the go signal to spear, you needed to rotate your body for your inhalation followed by gentle exhalation.  The 1.70 to 1.65 timings were hell pure and simple.  I was literally bobbing up and down the water as I sought to complete my inhalation.  But persist I did. Lo and behold, the stroke count exercise not only helped improve my balance, it also addressed my tendency to pull my lead arm prematurely as I rotated to breathe.

Swing from your lap. 

Next to my breathing, what I do with my arm after I pull has always been a challenge.  My other coach used to point out to me that I tend to bring it all the way back.  Subsequently, I tend to swing  my pulling arm  from the back as I maneuvered to spear. Not very efficient.  To address this,  my TI coach taught me to bring my pulling arm to my lap and then swing my arm sideward before spearing downward.  Problem solved albeit since it meant  unlearning something I have gotten used to, it was by no means easy. It continues to be a struggle but that is why I continue to work on it. Recently, I discovered that bringing my pulling arm to my lap is a perfect springboard to rotate and inhale.  What a welcome bonus.

Learn from the past.  

One other thing that amazes me about the TI approach is its extensive use of video analysis. Every single swim lesson is preambled and capped by a video analysis of how I performed a particular drill or technique.  To be sure, feedback that is based on recorded data is up there in terms of pedagogical power. You can’t argue with the facts as they say. By reviewing these recordings, you get to realize that perception is not necessarily reality. Just as I thought I was doing a particular exercise right, the video analysis would  make me realize what I got right and what I need to work on prior to the next lesson. Very instructive and very humbling at the same time.  To the credit of  my coach there is always something to affirm and something to correct with each completed video analysis.

Take it a step at a time.   

I love the James Taylor song entitled “Line ‘Em Up.” In the song, Taylor talks about how  to solve so many difficult albeit mundane problems like Nixon’s wish to say goodbye to every single member of his White House staff or a pastor’s dilemma on how to  bless hundreds of couples in a mass wedding. The solution: line them up.  This is the signature characteristic of the TI approach. On any given learning day, both the lesson and the homework consisted of only 1 focal point. This flows from the pedagogical philosophy of Total Immersion that the human mind, for all its remarkable capabilities, can only truly focus on one thing at a time. So if it’s the superman glide with breathing for today, that will be the focal point for the next 5 days until the next learning session.

It’s all about mindfulness.

Finally, the TI approach is not just  about memorizing techniques mechanically. Much of what would make it work for you has to do with really being there and learning in the moment.   Time and again, my TI coach would remind me to be mindful of how I execute every learning focal point.   Meaning, each TI swim session is not just a matter of executing x number of laps within the shortest possible time.  Learning how to swim the TI  way is about being truly in the moment and giving 100% of your focus to what you are doing.  Doing so effectively converts one’s swim laps into a meditative activity where you learn more and more about how you learn with each lap that you complete.   When this happens one’s swimming progressively and inevitably becomes as rhythmic and melodic as one’s pedaling and one’s running.

For all that, I am humble enough to acknowledge that I am not there yet in terms of  swimming tall and solving my breathing challenge completely. Nonetheless,  I’ve been amazed by so many things I never thought I would eventually  be able to pull off – from improving my  balance to lessening my kicking, from making my breathing less tense to  partially solving my rotation problem. I really have a feeling I will be able to do open water swimming soon just as I know I will finally be able to enjoy the swim leg of my next triathlon instead of being stuck with the aspiration to simply survive it.  Until then, the ultimate goal which is finally within striking distance is  nothing less than the late Terry Laughlin’s hitherto fitting epitaph: “may your laps be as happy as mine.”   

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Photo courtesy of MediSwim Total Immersion

 

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Surreal

In the CD-ROM entitled All This Time, rock icon Sting shares how strange and surreal it was to meet your heroes face to face. This realization dawned on him as he met singer-songwriter legend James Taylor for the first time. This was because Taylor was one pop icon whose albums Sting  used to buy and listen to a lot during  his formative years as  a musician.  Given the preceding, it is not that difficult to imagine how he must have felt when Taylor unexpectedly showed up backstage right after Sting’s concert to engage him in a conversation. They would, of course,  eventually become life-long friends who would sing  in each other’s albums over the years.

Sting’s surreal reflection might as well apply to me when I met not one but two real-life writers who have paid their dues as accomplished craftswomen of the written word. Thanks to their continuing long-running stints with the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the leading broadsheet of the Philippines. I am, of course, referring here to Ma. Ceres Doyo whose column Human Face appears every Thursday in the Inquirer and Neni Sta. Romana Cruz who also regularly writes for the Inquirer on top of her duties as  Chair of the National Book Development Board and her calling as an educator, a book critic, a reading advocate and prime mover of WhereTheWriteThingsAre.  The latter facilitated the afternoon talk which was given by Ms. Doyo on the basics of feature writing.

SURREAL

Since I am a struggling and aspiring writer despite being published 5 times by the Inquirer between 2014 and 2015, it took awhile for me to get my bearings back when I realized I was in the presence of writing greatness.  Awed, blessed and highly favored would not be inaccurate to describe how I felt.  I took in the whole experience like the first time I saw the U2 docu film on IMAX.  Indeed, the experience brought back fond memories of how I felt when I  had the privilege of shaking the hand of Inquirer columnist  Conrad De Quiros during one of the rallies in Makati sparked by the excesses of the  Estrada presidency. The same might as well apply to the first time I got to speak face to face with yet another Inquirer columnist Randy David during the visit of the late philosopher Richard Rorty to U.P. I was instrumental in coordinating Professor Rorty’s visit to the Ateneo by referring Professor David to the Ateneo Philosophy faculty.

 MASTERCLASS

Despite the fact that Ms. Doyo conducted her talk sitting down (as she was not feeling well) and notwithstanding the fact that her Powerpoint deck  could use some millennial aesthetic fine-tuning to keep up with the times, from the moment she opened her mouth and proceeded to walk us through the various stages of feature writing, you knew this was not just a talk on feature writing. It felt more like a master class. I particularly appreciated her many stories and examples from her writing career. She used these to amplify her tips and advice to aspiring feature writers like me.  Among those that seared themselves in my heart and mind were her first-hand experience of being harassed during the Marcos dictatorship, her engaging interview with Chavit Singson, her life-long project of preserving the legacy of Mac-Ling Dulag and her front-seat access to the execution of a serial rapist by lethal injection.

It was also inspiring to realize –  as she was sharing tips on prospective subjects to write about as well as numerous angles and approaches one can explore – that one could never possibly run out of things to write about.  You just need to have the guts to face the typewriter or the keyboard and, to quote her favorite author, “let the drops of blood flow from your head to your keyboard.”  Funny yes  but oh so true.

DOWN TO EARTH

After overcoming the surreal dimension of the entire experience, I  found the voice to engage with Ms. Doyo by way of questions which she encouraged her class to shoot her way.  She answered every single one of them with very incisive insights and in a very inspiring way.  I think it was the poet Maya Angelou who once wrote that after several months, people will forget what it was you said to them but they will not forget how you made them feel.  Thanks to their sincerity and their being grounded in the  reality of their readers and now listeners, both Ms. Doyo and Ms. Cruz reminded me of my favorite teachers in high school and college. They would not only answer your questions with wit. They would also effortlessly complement their replies to your questions with inspiring remarks. Remarks that inspire you to dream bigger dreams. Remarks that goad you to keep fighting, keep trying, keep writing no matter what.

Maybe it was the reason why I ended up being caught by the camera with my eyes closed when I had my picture taken with them. Maybe it was my self’s physiological way of telling those who cared to observe that clearly my mind and my heart at that time could not snap out of such  a transcendent experience.  “Was this really happening?” would not be a bad way to caption the said picture.   In her book entitled Human Face which I requested Ms. Doyo to sign, she scribbled the message:  “Celebrate the human.”  That was what I felt like doing through writing as I contemplated her message weeks after her talk.  After listening to Ms Doyo’s talk and conversing with Ms Cruz about my travails and worries as an aspiring weekend writer, that was exactly how I felt celebrating by continuing on with my blogging, come rain or come shine.

Maraming salamat po, Ms. Doyo and Ms. Cruz. Hulog kayo ng langit.

A 2014 Christmas Playlist

“Ruby” or not, come rain or come shine, Christmas is practically just around the corner. And along with the familiar sight of the parol and Christmas lights all over the country, one sure sign that there is no stopping Christmas is the almost omnipresent sound of Christmas carols from a myriad of storage devices and streaming media.

Here are my top 10 Christmas tracks or if you will, songs my family and I can’t do without come December. Thankfully, most, if not all of them have not been accorded the overplays that tend to make some songs grate on your ears after some time. Check out how they stack up compared to your list.

1. “Gabriel’s Message” (Sting) Notwithstanding his declaration that he now eschews all types of organized religion (including the Judaeo-Christian tradition in which he was raised) – choosing instead to believe in a higher being – Sting’s inspired rendition of this 1892 classic by Charles Bordes and Sabine Baring-Gould makes you feel like you’re actually eavesdropping on how Gabriel must have spoken to Mary complete with the flapping of wings in the backdrop. The ethereal counterpoint is its key highlight.

a very special christmas

2. “7 O’Clock/Silent Night” (Simon & Garfunkel) Recorded in 1966 as part of the album “Parley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” this song features the signature harmonies of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel against the backdrop of depressing headlines read by newscaster Charlie O’Donnell during an imagined 7 O’Clock evening news. This version of “Silent Night” is unparalleled in communicating the continuing relevance of the carpenter’s son for fleshing out the meaning of love for 33 years in a world that continues to be in dire need of it. It was so in 1966. It is so in 2014.

Parsley-Sage-Rosemary-And-Thyme-cover

3. “Hands” [Christmas Version] (Jewel) Composed by Jewel Kilcher and Patrick Leonard in 1998, this song reminds me of the philantrophic mindset which, I suspect, grounds how Warren Buffet, Bill and Melinda Gates have chosen to regard their vast wealth and resources. The same might as well be said about humanity’s less celebrated unsung heroes who have chosen to devote their lives to serving the poor and the marginalized. “In the end,” Jewel would remind us, “only kindness matters.” And the Christmas season is the best time to realize that each of us has been blessed with a pair of hands precisely to explore the varied ways we could show such kindness.

joy by jewel

4. “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song)” (Amy Grant) The ominous-sounding introduction of this song is almost cinematic in paving the way for appreciating the burden Mary must have felt as she conceived the Son of God. “I have traveled many moonless nights. Cold and weary, with a babe inside.” The song takes flight as Mary chooses to humbly ask for the grace of God to handle “the load I bear.” In this regard, it naturally offers itself as a fitting continuum and an apt response to Sting’s “Gabriel’s Message.’

amy grant xmas album

5. “Christmas Lights” (Coldplay) What Coldplay describes as a “mid-tempo number” was actually released in 2010. In any case, a careful reading of its lyrics would seem to suggest its motif would have made it feel at home with the tracks that comprise the 2014 “Ghost Stories” album. Like most of the Coldplay songs we’ve grown to love, this song is melancholic both with respect to its melody and its lyrics. Its soaring and thankfully, hopeful chorus is a valiant musical attempt to get over heartbreak and move on: “May all your troubles soon be gone. Oh Christmas Lights, keep shining on.”

Coldplay_-_Christmas_Lights

6. “The Rebel Jesus” (Jackson Browne) In the event that Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” has lost its edge to unsettle you due to repeated overplays, check out this little-known Christmas song guaranteed 101% to disturb your merry-making and make you aware that Christmas should not be reduced to “noche buena” and “aguinaldo.” It’s also supposed to make you ask why some of us enjoy the best of the season with style while some of our fellow Filipinos make do with “pagpag” over candle light in a room that, as it is, is already too small to fit 2 but is nonetheless occupied by 10.

jackson browne

7. “A Christmas Song” (Dave Matthews Band) This song which first appeared as a surprise track in “Remember Two Things,” the debut album of DMB back in 1993 offers an unconventional and, therefore, fresh retelling of the life of Christ from His Nativity to His Crucifixion. In fact, the first time I heard it, I thought Matthews was narrating the story of a boyfriend and a girlfriend until the part where he cites the wise men who came to visit the bouncing, baby boy. Makes you realize that indeed, “Emmanuel”  means God with us.

remember two things

8. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (Sarah Mclachlan) Written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1971, this song was the culmination of more than 2 years of peace activism mounted by the couple against the Vietnam war. It was given a new lease on life when Sarah Mclachlan recreated it as the carrier single of her Christmas album entitled “Wintersong” in 2006. This along with “Rebel Jesus” offer themselves as powerful wake-up calls to counter the siren call of consumerism which is at its peak during this season and bring back, as the cliché goes, Christ to Christmas. Hence, Lennon and now, Mclachlan’s conscienticizing: “And so it is Christmas, and what have you done?”

Sarah_McLachlan-Wintersong-Frontal

9. “The Answer” (Corrinne May) This is the only original track in Corrinne May’s Christmas album aptly entitled “The Gift.” It is also the most personal as it is actually a prayer penned by May herself, a devout Catholic who completed her studies at the Berklee College of Music. “Give me strength when I am weary; give me hope when I can’t see; Through the crosses I must carry, Lord, bind my heart to Thee.” Interestingly, its melody is based on “Jupiter” which was part of the “Planets Suite” composed by classical music composer and conductor Gustav Holst (1874-1934.)

corrinne may the gift

10. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (James Taylor and Natalie Cole) For some reason, James Taylor and Natalie Cole’s 2006 cover of this 1944 classic brings to mind the witty one-liner exchanges between Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in the 80s hit “dramedy” series “Moonlighting.” Penned by Frank Loesser, this song has been recorded by over 25 pairs of musicians from the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr and Carmen McRae to Idina Menzel and Michael Buble. It is quite possibly the most romantic Christmas song.

james taylor christmas

Have a Blessed and Meaningful Christmas celebration!