Monday, November 10, 2008

Parlez-vous Chlorine?

In my alternate existence as a newspaper reporter, part of my job is to gain a passable understanding of the language in each new world I encounter. Everything in life is its own little world with its own culture and language, whether it’s a 4-H club devoted to miniature horses (talk about control-freak moms), people who collect Christmas nativity scenes (a surprisingly humorless bunch), or clinical anatomists (you do NOT want to know where med-school skeletons come from). When you’re a visitor to these worlds, figuring out the language is half the fun. But then, once you’re done visiting, you can forget the language.

When you’re actually living in a new world, though, you have to learn and retain the new language. When I emigrated to the swim world 17 years ago, I was like a mail-order bride, clinging to my big new American husband and relying on him to translate everything for me. A minute, for example, was no longer "a minute": It was "one-double-oh." The number 12 on a clock became "the top" and 6 was "the bottom." Feet turned into "fins" and hands were now "paddles." Somewhere between land and water, the mile lost 110 yards.

After one of the first swim meets I ever attended, I asked my husband for his take on how one particular race had gone and he replied, "Well, Siegfried took it out like a shot. He was all legs but then he started spinning his wheels, got hung up on the wall and died like a fart." I looked at him with tears in my eyes and whispered, "I have no idea what you just said."

My fluency in swim language has improved over time, but there are still moments when the language barriers pop up and, while not meaning to pass judgment on swim language, I do. The first time Mr. Coach told me that some fine young swimmer had "a lot going on under the water," I stared at him and gasped, "That’s disgusting!"

Similarly I remain confused that it’s considered bad form to "come up breathing." A kid does a flip turn, pushes off the wall and then takes a breath. Speaking strictly as a mother here, I am always hopeful that my children will come up for air when they swim, but Mr. Coach’s standards for oxygen intake apparently aren’t quite as high as mine.

So, while I understand swim language well enough now to know what is being communicated here, I remain unconvinced that to "come up breathing" is bad and that to have "a lot going on under the water" is something you want to be a flack about and drop yourself a bouquet – as we say in the journo biz.

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