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Swimming has always been my wife’s thing, an activity I go along with occasionally to humour her. But I have recently taken it up with some regularity, thanks to a bum knee. Ironically, I got the knee injury when we decided to drop in on a yoga class, part of an effort to develop a more healthy life style. We both spend far too much time at the computer. Doesn’t everyone?

I can’t say I’m good at yoga, but I do enjoy the practice when we are able to find a class that has a slow, spiritual side, one that doesn’t involve impossible calisthenics and sun salutations. Shavasana, or the corpse pose, is my absolute favourite asana, and I wouldn’t be bragging if I told you I do a decent tree.

The teacher on the day my knee gave out decided that I needed some help pulling my hands down the length of my back to grab my feet while lying on my belly. Yoga classes are made up almost entirely of women, of course, and women definitely have an advantage when it comes to that sort of thing.

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My doctor told me that he had once seen an Indian yoga adept fold himself up sufficiently small to fit into the bottom half of a filing cabinet, but he did agree that most men are not that supple. Needless to say, I have not been back to follow up with the instructor who sent me to the doctor and a physiotherapist. I don’t believe thirty-somethings can really understand what short, squat, sixty-seven year olds are incapable of doing. I have the physique of a coal miner, not a ballet dancer.

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So, I’ve been swimming. Swimming started for me when I was eight. Thanks to my father’s expertise in animal husbandry, getting chickens to grow bigger and better in the “developing world,” we had just moved from Montana to Teheran, Iran. I didn’t find out until many years later that the CIA had put in motion a plot to overthrow their democratically-elected government at the behest of the British while we were there.

The Iranian parliament had nationalized “British” petroleum in 1951, oil that was inconveniently located under Iranian earth. The Iranians agreed to compensate the British for the wells and the refinery, but the British could not bring themselves to negotiate over a resource they had “owned” since 1901. When the British tried to stir up trouble, the Iranians simply kicked them out of the country.

Mossadegh

From Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1951, the popular, urbane, well-educated Prime Minister, Mossadegh suddenly became a villain in the eyes of the West. Truman refused to have any part of overthrowing his government, but Eisenhower and his buddies, the Dulles brothers, were suckers for any plot that might be construed as “rolling back Communism,” and the British were happy to spin it that way. They wanted their oil back.

In July, 1953, Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy’s grandson, slipped into Iran with a suitcase full of money and set the coup in motion. We had only just arrived in the country, but we were informed that we should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. It was a tragedy of errors, but the coup succeeded. The CIA installed the Shah as a dictator, rather than a constitutionally-constrained monarch. Iranian democracy was a footnote of history. “Yankee Go Home” began to grace the city walls, but it didn’t bother me. I was a kid with a strange new world as my playground.

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Our new abode had something that could almost be called a pool, a poured concrete reservoir for the garden. One day my big brother pushed me in. I was terrified, certain I would drown unless he came to the rescue. I did as much thrashing as a I possibly could and soon managed to reach the side. I think that was my one and only swimming lesson. Thrash about enough and you won’t drown, especially if you can stand on the bottom with your head in the air.

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It stood me in good stead because I failed to drown at all sorts of actual swimming pools during the next few years in India, Sudan and Lebanon, where I went to boarding school. I fell in love with the ocean at a beach in Beirut and used to go down deep to pick up shells. The American Marines had come ashore ashore at the same beach a year earlier to keep that country safe from the communists. I was told they were greeted by Lebanese kids my age saying, “Hey, Joe, wanna coke?”

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My wife managed to buy a small, falling down cottage on a beautiful little lake near a town called Rawdon. Quebec, while she was in Law School. The Separatists had just come to power for the first time and the Anglos were fleeing in droves, convinced the sky would fall. The cottage was on a small lake called Lac Clair, and the water came from a spring. THe cottage owners kept anyone with a motorboat from using it on the lake, so it was safe to swim across without fear of being run down.

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But the idea of it. It was at least a half mile across. Once I got it into my head that I could dog paddle the whole way, the distance seemed doable. Just walking into the frigid water was the hard part. The rest was just patience. Our youngest got dumped from the canoe by her older siblings when she was just four. She hollered dramatically that she was about to drown. But she was close to shore, bobbing about in her life jacket on a fine day, so we all ignored her until the wailing got too loud. That’s me, the show off, standing on a big rock just under water.

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Since then, my wife and I have paddled together in lakes, rivers, oceans and swimming pools. Her choice of hotels is often determined by the size and state of the pool. Last year, in Hamburg, we went to a public facility with a heated, geothermal outdoor pool in addition to their large indoor one. It was odd doing laps surrounded by snow, with lifeguards stomping around in parkas.

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We are now within walking distance of the Maribyrnong Aquatic Centre. It has an Olympic-size indoor pool but the entire length is rarely available. Our favourite pool here is in Fitzroy, the oldest suburb of Melbourne. In 1994, the Fitzroy council became part of the City of Yarra, and the unelected commissioners ordered it closed. They maintained the pool was losing money. A local poet pointed out that according to that logic, they should close all parks, roads, and libraries.

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It didn’t take long before the entire community rose up, putting the local politicians on notice that the pool would not be bulldozed without a fight. This was a neighbourhood that was in constant transition as the original settlers moved to the outer suburbs and newer migrants moved in. James Murphy, the pool manager in 1953, had the “Aqua profonda” sign painted to warn the post-war Italian immigrant children that this was the deep end. It is a misspelled, but charming remnant of the time.

“A few of us gathered down at the Rose Hotel, armed ourselves with padlocks and chains and things like that, and we came up and just told the staff that we were taking over the pool and asked them to leave, and they were happy to go.” (Clare Giddens) Some of the children that helped stage that protest are swimming at Fitzroy Pool now. Swimming is a pretty solitary activity, but it’s nice to know that swimmers can come together and save something of value.

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Madeline Albright came close to admitting that the 1953 coup in Iran wasn’t such a good idea, considering the blowback. “The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America.” Maybe my fellow countrymen should consider this before they bomb Iran at the behest of the Israelis.

I’ll stick to my laps. I know that if I keep on moving through the water, I won’t drown and it will do my head and heart and knee a world of good.


Each morning my wife is not teaching or otherwise engaged, we head out for our usual walk along the Maribyrnong River, embarking on what used to be called a “constitutional.” From the house, we thread our way down Hillside Crescent to Van Ness Avenue, a very busy road that siphons drivers off the main East-West artery through this suburb and sends them up to Highpoint Mall or down to Footscray. During rush hour, the traffic moves so fast that it can be hazardous to get across, especially when cars from our own neighbourhood join the jungle off Hillside Crescent itself. But on Sundays, even spectacularly fine ones like today, we can sometimes waltz right across as if it were a country road instead of a major thoroughfare.

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On Sundays, most of the traffic we encounter will be on the multi-use path along the river– cyclists, joggers, pedestrians, dog walkers and real runners. On the river the rowers will be are out, in single sculls or in groups of eight. On the other side, golfers inhabit their own green space, pulling clubs and whacking balls, framed by the path on the other side with its own share of joggers. We walk by the old, graffiti decorated building that was a meat canning factory first, then a concrete pipe company. We are in Pipemakers Park.

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In 1803, the first Europeans to explore along the river were led by Charles Grimes, Deputy Surveyor-General of New South Wales. John Batman, considered the founder of Melbourne, is likely to have explored the river in early 1835. With the establishment of the colony of Melbourne later that year, sheep runs were established by Edmund Davis Fergusson and Michael Solomon in what is now the Avondale and Sunshine areas.

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On Solomon’s sheep station the ford now near the west end of Canning Street in Avondale Heights became known as Solomon’s Ford. This was the lowest crossing on the Saltwater (Maribyrnong) River, and the furthest inland point of tidal influence. Batman is believed to have crossed the river at this point probably in the well worn steps of Aboriginals. It was for many years the only way from Melbourne to Geelong and land west.

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During the second half of the nineteenth century much of Melbourne’s industry was located along the river, and the river became a sewer. With the closure of many industries since the 1960s and 1970s, much river front land has opened up to parkland and residential estates. Some of the land adjacent to the river has been terraformed into settlement ponds and estuaries, to attract wildlife and skim off sludge.

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Some days we head out into dismal weather and come across only a handful of individuals, people as determined as us to get some exercise no matter what. Or people with dogs who have no choice. Occasionally, we get caught in downpours. Melbourne weather is the most unpredictable I have ever seen, anywhere. Just one week ago we got caught in a heavy-duty hail storm and had to take shelter in a gazebo until it let up.

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Spring seems to creep up on us here. It doesn’t reveal itself in such dramatic fashion as in lands with a prevalence of leafy, deciduous trees. THe birds announce it. Flocks of colourful, noisy lorikeets follow the flowering of the eucalypts. They fly onto the highest branches, using the tips of their tongues to extract nectar, then move on with much clattering and screeching to the next tree.

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Today, I spotted some old friends, a pair of black swans, and they have two young cygnets. They were too far away to get a good photo. Another day, perhaps. For the last two weeks, I seem to have done nothing but work on taxes. And our migration pattern saddles us with too many winter days and long winter nights, so the arrival of Spring is very welcome. Even in September.

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