When I first signed up at the Fitness Center in February, trainer Emily gave me a set of strength exercises to do and suggested that I might want to add a swimming pool workout class in a few weeks. I cancelled the class idea because of my inclination to avoid mingling with strangers and concentrated instead on doing machine workouts. About five weeks ago though, I woke up one morning with a lot of pain in my upper arms and shoulders. I attributed this to overdoing it on the strength machines, though Emily also suggested it could mean the onset of arthritis. I lightened up on my weights, then took a weeklong break from strength training altogether, added Advil and Tylenol to my diet several times a day, and started doing a lot more stretching. While my aches and pains didn’t get worse, they didn’t get any better either.
I looked back over my fitness center material, and I noticed that they held arthritis classes in the warm water therapy pool multiple times a day. I’d seen these going on because the pool is behind a big bay window as you come in the front entrance, but, partly because there never seemed to be any men there, I hadn’t given it any thought. Yesterday, though, I woke up so sore that I thought I’d better try a new tack. There were aqua arthritis classes scheduled for 8, 9, 10, 11, 2, 3:30, and 5. I fiddled around until mid-afternoon, then gritted my teeth and decided it was now or never. Katja said she wished she could go with me, but she’d just had cataract surgery the day before and couldn’t get water in her eyes. She wished me luck and said she was sure I could do it.
I told the fitness center receptionist I was going to my first aqua class and asked if I needed to do anything special. She said no, just go in there. A sign in the men’s locker room said to shower before using the swimming pool because, otherwise, your body would shed two hundred million bacteria into the water. I had no idea I had that many bacteria on me, and so I showered carefully. I doubt whether I got rid of more than maybe fifty million though. By the time I got into the warm water pool area, a fair-sized group had already assembled. There were about 15 women near the end of the pool closest to where I entered, and there was one man at the opposite end. It might sound appealing to be in a swimming pool totally full of women, but it was not like Fort Lauderdale. All the women looked like they could be my grandmother, gray-haired, wrinkly, usually tubby. (This statement, of course, attests to my distorted view of my own age since I’m also a grandparent, probably an age-mate to many in the group, and hardly lean). The women all seemed acquainted with one another and were busy chatting in groups of two or three, except for one group of five who were bouncing a big beach ball back and forth. The water was pleasantly warm, and I quickly paddled my way to the opposite end of the pool. The other man and I treaded water for five minutes or so without speaking. When we finally floated within five feet of one another, I turned and said to him that this was my first class. That broke the ice, and he replied that he was in his tenth year. His name was Harold. He’d started there when he came down with arthritis in his knees and thumb joints, and he’d had no recurrence after beginning this class. He recounted his lengthy history of medical problems. I found it easy to chit chat with Harold because all I had to say was “Oh yeah?” and “Really.” He’d retired ten years ago and, though I’d pegged him as an old geezer, he was actually a couple of years younger than me. Suddenly, as Harold talked on, I noticed that all the women had formed a circle. One of them beckoned to me to join them. I excused myself to Harold, and, as I moved toward the group, another woman said that they were having a prayer circle. I joined hands with two random women. The prayer was being held for Jackie, an absent member of the group, but I didn’t get a sense of why. The instructor, Billy, then asked if there was anybody else we should be praying for. A skinny woman with glasses wondered if anybody knew where Mary Jo was, since she hadn’t been to the class for some time. Nobody knew so we included Mary Jo as well. Billy then led us in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s been a long time, and I was pleased that I only made one obvious error.
After the prayer circle, Billy went over some scheduling changes. Harold had told me that she was a nurse at a nearby hospital and taught these classes after work. She was perhaps in her late fifties, wore glasses, and had a friendly personal style. It’s impolite to comment on people’s body shapes, but I did observe that the water in the pool rose several inches when Billy climbed in, and I inferred that aqua therapy may be excellent for arthritis, but it apparently doesn’t do a lot for slimming down. Billy began leading the group in upper body exercises, swaying one’s arms to the left and right, then down to one’s knees and over one’s head, then holding one’s arms out to one’s sides and turning one’s palms up and down and up again. When she got to one of the more complicated routines, Billy paddled over to me in the back row and asked if I’d been to class before. I said I hadn’t, and she gave me some one-on-one instruction. It’s hard to follow someone’s physical motions when their body is under water and they’re making big waves, but I did finally get it.
Billy returned to the front of the class, and then, without any preface, she suddenly broke into song, leading the group in a spirited rendition of “God Bless America.” Everybody else joined in, swaying back and forth in rhythm. Billy had a pretty good voice, and she was the loudest singer. Following a technique I’d learned in fourth grade, I moved my lips along with the words, but didn’t sing any notes aloud. After “God Bless America,” we launched right into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Then with each new aquatic exercise, Billy started a new song. We did the Star Spangled Banner, This Land is Your Land, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and some others I can’t remember. I felt peculiar and wondered where I was. At first I thought perhaps this outpouring of patriotism was happening because it was Veteran’s Day. But then, when we exhausted Love for America songs, Billy moved on to “Oh Susanna,” “It’s a Great Day for Singing a Song,” and “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain.”
About then, probably from being in all that water, I came down with an uncontrollable bodily urge that I won’t identify. I told Billy I would be back shortly and climbed out of the pool. I walked back to the men’s locker room via the adjacent lap pool where a guide dog was sitting patiently while his blind mistress swam laps. By the time I returned the singing was over with, and Billy had moved on to lower body exercises, moving one’s legs this way and that, rotating one’s hips, etc. I noticed that about half the class, including myself, were carefully following Billy’s lead. The rest of the women, however, were paying no attention to her at all and were just standing around chatting with one another. This seemed to be a permissible option. We more serious students did a series of hand and finger exercises to work on potential sore joints, and then we all wound up doing the hokie pokie. The hokie pokie was the most fun of all.
By and large I found water exercises to be pleasant and relaxing. While I’d felt some achiness early on, my muscles felt better as we went along. At the end of the class I told Billy about the symptoms I’d been experiencing and asked her if this class were the right place for me. She said it was, though she suggested that I should check with my doctor as well. I said I would if my aches didn’t go away. So, songs or no songs, I’m going to give aqua therapy another shot tomorrow.
*Pseudonyms used in this story.
Linda C. (11-13):
Vicki L. (11-14): D, This is too hilarious and not to be believed. Is this what people are referring to when they speak of the "Christian Right"? Did you make this up? Remember, when your father set about curing his rheumatoid arthritis in his shoulder, he swam at the YMCA...it was always a good day when he went swimming at the "Y". Love, Vicki