Back in the water.

photo by Fran Hegeler

It’s Spring, since yesterday, and I’m swimming again. The familiar soreness of the arm and shoulder muscles, the cup of the middle ear sometimes retaining water until midmorning, the occasional feelings of wavelike or boatlike “floating” when I’m at my desk, working, hours after emerging from the water — all remind me that I’m back at it.

I’ve been back in the water for about two weeks now. I’m not yet committing to a serious training plan, not fully, but I have a couple of ambitious long swims in mind. My “pre-training” plan is to spend four or five weeks getting used to the water again, and building up to a decent base of weekly training miles, before making a decision about whether to carry out a more serious plan. For me, that base is about 7 miles and 5.5 hours a week of swimming. Because my mileage often includes open-water swims that are assisted by (or hampered by) tidal currents, the time is more significant than the mileage. But in general, with a mix of pool workouts and Bay swims, that’s the near-term, pre-training goal. It breaks down roughly like this:

Monday – 1.5 miles, 1.25 hours in the pool

Tuesday – 1 mile, 0.75 hour in the Bay

Wednesday – 1.5 miles, 1.25 hours in the pool

Thursday or Friday – 1.5 miles, 1 hour in the Bay

Saturday or Sunday – a longer swim in the bay, 1.5 or more miles and over an hour

That feels to me like the minimum I need to begin considering a long swim. A serious training plan would add mileage, intensity, and distance to this base, with longer pool workouts, a pool workout replacing one of the more relaxed weekday Bay swims, and progressively longer distance swims on the weekend, eventually building up to several hours at a time in cold water and waves.

The rule of thumb for long-distance swims seems to be this: Train for about as many miles per week as the swim you plan on doing. So for a 12-mile swim, like a Tahoe crossing, 12 miles a week. For a 22.5-mile English Channel crossing, 22.5 miles a week.

If you do the math, you realize that channel swimmers are putting in an enormous amount of time in the water before they ever start their crossings. Just finding a way to fit all that training into a busy week is a challenge. This is why the decision to plan for a long swim isn’t mine alone: I have to make it together with KJ, and the kids. If I do embark on a longer swim, the training means I’ll be waking up earlier, going to bed earlier, missing large parts of the weekend, and being tired and distracted more than usual. It’s not a decision I can make on my own. It’s not something I can undertake lightly.

In the meantime, however, I’m simply blissed to be back in the water. Swimming nearly every day brings me joy and settles my brain. It makes me feel — to use a word that seems out of place when talking about an activity that involves floating in water — grounded.

Back in the water.

A few thoughts on ModPo

I was reluctant at first: A friend had taken the ModPo poetry course — twice — and she’s now pursuing an MFA at Columbia, living in a 4th-floor walkup while her wife remains here in San Francisco. I don’t need that kind of hassle in my life.

Eventually the draw became irresistible, thanks to my friend’s recommendations and my own growing shame at the many gaps in my knowledge of 20th century poetry. Plus, the course is online, accessible on a smartphone, and free. So last fall, I spent 10 weeks taking the course.

The format of the course is perfectly suited to what it is: A poetry appreciation class. There are not really any lectures. You read poems. You listen to recordings. You watch videos of poets performing. But you spend most of your time watching videos where the professor, Al Filreis, leads discussions with small groups of U. Penn undergrads.

You can do this on your phone while commuting to your day job. The Coursera app has lots of problems but the bugs don’t usually stop you from enjoying the course content.

Most of the course videos were recorded several years ago but many of the students are still involved in the course as TAs, helping out in discussion forums and the occasional live webcast.

It’s fun to watch the discussions and get to know the personalities as the weeks go on. Sometimes you get distracted by imagining back stories for these people who you only know through their appearance in the class sessions. (Just like a real life poetry class I suppose.)

The online discussion forums are lively. Somehow Prof. Al manages to stay on top of it all and makes the occasional comment on something you wrote, which makes you feel warm and special and singled out, as if a rock star had signed your t-shirt.

Sometimes one of the TAs will notice something you said, which makes you feel like a member of the rock star’s backup band had signed your t-shirt. Also awesome!

Eventually, no matter what the topic, the forum discussions seem to evolve into people sharing their own poems. That is the point at which I tuned out.


Al Filreis may be the world’s most enthusiastic cheerleader for the formal aspects of modern poetry. He’s engaging and entertaining and a bit dorky and funny. He knows more about 20th century poetry than almost anyone I know in real life.

But what I really valued from the course was not Al’s comments so much as the sense of wonder at watching poems unfold over the course of a close reading in a group, like tea flowers in hot water. There’s something remarkable that happens to many of these poems during a group reading.

In the same way that I have found memory to be deeply social, this course showed me that reading poetry is, too.


The course speeds breakneck through the late 19th and 20th century and on into the first decades of the 21st, and in so doing imposes more of a narrative arc than I think the history can actually support.

That arc, summarized: Poetry advances through innovation in form. The most interesting poets are those who bend forms or break new ground, formally speaking, in order to more accurately express the fragmentation and confusion of life as it is lived.

Thus the history of poetry, per ModPo, is an endless forward march: From formal and understandable to radical, free, and seemingly incoherent.

The arc is free of all but the most glancing references to political or social contexts that shape the meanings of these poems or the lives of the poets who wrote them.


Two modes of reading: appreciative and critical. The scholar’s mode and the editor’s. The classroom and the workshop.

Overwhelmingly the only mode used in ModPo is the former.

Troubling to me: Almost the only time a critical mode of reading emerged was during the discussion of Harlem Renaissance poets and of Communist poets of the 1930s. This was one of the few if only times that anyone asked: Does this poem succeed? Does its form match the content it’s trying to express?

This was also the only time I recall seeing an African-American student in the videotaped discussions.


Critical reading: I keep wanting to ask: What makes this poem so special?

Or to put it another way: Why did an editor or publisher choose this poem above all others? What if the poem had not been so chosen? Would we still be admiring it and looking for evidence of formal invention and assonance and allusion and more?

What if it was simply a Facebook update from a friend instead of a published poem from a respected poet?

What if it bore the name of John Q. Public or Anonymous instead of a respected poet?

What if it was the guy next to you on BART babbling his every thought instead of Ron Silliman writing down his every thought during a BART ride?

This is particularly apparent in the works of some Language poets and some conceptualists.

What if it was written on notebook paper and discarded on the street? If you picked that scrap up, would the genius shine through? Or does your appreciation of the poem to a certain extent depend on knowing who wrote it, what journal published it, whether it appeared in a book, and so forth?

Obviously the latter.

Given that this is the case, it is a shortcoming of the course that more attention is not given to the social and political circumstances of these poems, of those who wrote them, and of the editors who first published them.


Journalists and newspapers are regularly used as foils — as if the opposite of a poet was a journalist. As someone who often wrote and edited news stories, I understand the impulse. Like John Ashbery, I too have sat in my office, working on a boring manual, daydreaming of Guadalajara. But I think it stems from a naive understanding of both forms. Journalists, the best of them, in fact are much savvier about the form of their writing than this opposition would suggest. No newspaper editor would subscribe to the direct, purely representationalist view of language that Filreis seems to attribute to them. Most editors and reporters seek artfulness too, as well as honesty, if not a naive sort of truthiness.


Do we really want to address the modern era’s blurring and confusion of language by crafting poetry that is also blurry and confused? Now that public discourse is getting even more incoherent and multivalent, do we really want our poetry to do the same? ModPo seems to suggest we do. I am not so sure. Personally I would appreciate a return to someone like Oppen, or the Imagists, who sought a more crystalline, precise use of language.

Or maybe we want to think about the ways language could be used magically, in an incantatory way, like Jack Spicer.


Overlooked: The slam and spoken-word poetry movement of the past two decades. The poetry being written by rappers (arguably one of the most vibrant genres of writing today). The poetry of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen or Neko Case for that matter.

Also missing: Berryman. Bishop. Lowell. Moore. Plath. Hughes. A whole long list of midcentury giants that don’t fit into the arc of ever-advancing formal innovation but are nevertheless geniuses of modern poetry.

Most of the tenth week (on contemporary conceptualists, flarf poets, and other bullshit) pissed me off and left me cold but I admit a grudging admiration for Christian Bök’s virtuosity in “Eunoia.”


Not to let this override my gratitude to ModPo for showing me how deeply a close, group reading can change my feelings for a poem.

Nor for showing me how great Gertrude Stein can be (and how radical her innovations — in many ways they make later poets look far less radical by comparison).

Hell, I have a new appreciation for Kerouac, and I never saw that coming. Not that I am likely to curl up of an evening with “October in Railroad Earth” — even though it turns out that where I live is exactly what Kerouac meant by “railroad earth” — but I understand his manic, incantatory style better, and even like it.

I also have a deeper appreciation for Ashbery and Williams (and I remain ridiculously, dorkily fond of “Danse Russe” — so sue me).

But the poems that shot through me like blades of light were Stein’s. And Emily Dickinson. Lorine Niedecker.  Gwendolyn Brooks (“Boy Breaking Glass”). Bob Kaufman. Lyn Hejinian. Charles Bernstein (“In a Restless World Like This Is.”) Susan Howe. Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments. Bob Perelman’s “Chronic Meanings.” Laynie Browne’s sonnets.

I’m not sure where this leaves me but I have a stack of new books to read, and fresh lenses to read them with.

And since I used all my reading time for the past two months to take this course, I am looking forward to reading poetry books again.

So: back to the books.

A few thoughts on ModPo

How to Fake an Email From Almost Anyone in Under 5 Minutes

"Fraud" photo by Michele HubacekIn my day job as the communications guy for ValiMail, I spend a lot of time explaining how easy it is to create fraudulent emails using an email address that doesn’t belong to you.

A faked “from” address, in fact, how the majority of email attacks happen. And email attacks (aka phishing) are how the majority (actually the vast majority) of cyberattacks begin. So the ease of faking emails from people is a major vulnerability.

But, you ask, why would I bother faking an email from “company.com” when I could just register a fake lookalike domain (like c0mpany.com) and use that? Or create a Gmail account (randomaddress1347356@gmail.com) and give it a friendly name that looks like the CEO of a company?

Well, actually, it’s significantly easier to forge the address of a real person at a real company than it is to register a fake domain, or even to create a throwaway Gmail account.

Here’s how easy it is.

Website mailer

Find a website like deadfake, which describes itself as “a site that lets you send free fake emails to anyone you like.” Or anonymailer.net. Or spoofbox.com. There are dozens. Many of them are free, some cost a little money to send mail. Then:

  1. Enter your recipient’s email address in the To: field.
  2. Put whatever email address you want in the From: field.
  3. Craft your message and press the Send Now! Button.

Here’s a message I sent to myself using President Trump’s address. Note that Gmail is a suspicious of the source — that’s why it put a little red question mark next to the address.

Unix command line

If you have a computer that’s set up with mail services — or you can telnet or SSH to a computer that has mail services — you can forge a from address with one line. Just type this:

mail -aFrom:whatever@anydomain.com

That creates a message that says “whatever@anydomain.com” in the From field. Type in a subject line and the rest of your message, press Ctrl-D when you’re done, and off the message goes.

This doesn’t work in every version of Unix, and whether it works at all depends on how your system is set up (whether it’s connected to Sendmail, etc.). Still, this is the basic idea and it works in many systems.

PHP

Because I’m not very sophisticated about programming I use PHP when I need to code stuff for my personal websites. It’s fast, easy, and used by about 90% of the people (like me) who don’t know any more about programming than they were able to pick up through Google searches and by stealing snippets of code published on various public forums. (Which is also why PHP is often accused of being insecure.) Hey, I built a whole website content management system in PHP. If I can figure it out, how hard can it be?

Without getting into all the pros and cons of PHP, I will say that it is perfect for email purposes. You can forge emails with five lines of very simple PHP code:

<?php
$to      = 'nobody@example.com';
$subject = 'the subject';
$message = 'hello';
$headers = 'From: webmaster@example.com' . "\r\n";
mail($to, $subject, $message, $headers);
?>

Note: These are actual lines of code used as an example in the online manual for PHP’s mail() function. I took out a couple of lines you don’t actually need.

Again: configurations vary; maybe this won’t work on every version of PHP on every server.

Email Is a Very Trusting Place

The email world, until quite recently, was an entirely trusting place. Most of it still is. No matter who I am, if I use the Unix mail command or PHP mail(), the email goes off into the internet and the internet obligingly delivers it to whomever, with the exact headers that I specified. Nobody checks to see if I own the address I used in the from field. Nobody cares.

Well, almost nobody: As I noted above, Gmail and some other mail clients are starting to flag mail that looks suspicious, like my anonymailer message. Still, that’s dependent on the client you use and/or the receiving mail server.

Granted, these spoofing tools are pretty simplistic. If I want to do some fancier formatting and make my messages look even more realistic, it takes a little more work. But the basic forgery is just that simple.

The only thing truly stopping fake From addresses is email authentication using a standard called DMARC. But that only works if the domain you’re trying to fake has published a DMARC record and set it to an enforcement policy. Then, and only then, will almost all email servers that receive messages (Gmail, Yahoo Mail, etc.) block the faked emails.

Fortunately for fraudsters, most of the Internet’s domains haven’t done this yet. For example, only about 4% of .gov domains have protected themselves.

As for other  96%? Fraudsters can forge emails from those domains all day long with no repercussions.

Domains like justice.gov. House.gov. Senate.gov. Whitehouse.gov.

And also domains like democrats.org, dnc.org, gop.com, rnc.org. And DonaldJTrump.com.

All of them can be easily faked by email scammers with access to a Unix command line or some rudimentary PHP skills. And, as we are learning, scammers have been taking advantage of that vulnerability. For instance, according to one source, one in four email messages from .gov domains are fraudulent.

And that’s why I am trying to get the message out: It’s way too easy to fake emails from most sources. We need to start authenticating our email, today.

How to Fake an Email From Almost Anyone in Under 5 Minutes

Why do we keep using Facebook?

To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit. So maybe, one day, people will stop using it.

John Lanchester’s long essay about Facebook in the London Review of Books has been getting shared a lot in my circles; Wired editor in chief Nicholas Thompson called it “the most intense, critical essay on Facebook that I’ve ever read.”

While it covers a lot of familiar ground (tl;dr: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product”) Lanchester makes a couple of points that have been troubling me. One is the statement above, about Facebook use correlating negatively with happiness.

Lanchester cites a number of studies to support his point:

  • American Journal of Epidemiology: ‘Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being: A Longitudinal Study’
  • Computers in Human Behaviour: ‘Facebook Use, Envy and Depression among College Students: Is Facebooking Depressing?’
  • Current Opinion in Psychiatry: ‘The Interplay between Facebook Use, Social Comparison, Envy and Depression’
  • Plos One: ‘Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults’
  • Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking: ‘The Facebook Experiment: Quitting Facebook Leads to Higher Levels of Well-Being’

But here’s the question: If Facebook makes people unhappy, and the more they use it the unhappier they are, why does usage continue to grow? Not only are more people using it, a higher proportion are checking Facebook at least once a day.

My experience correlates with this: The more I use Facebook, the unhappier I am. And yet I keep returning to it: That’s where my friends are. It’s where organizations I belong to post useful information (about my children’s school, for instance).

Using social media makes me feel more connected, albeit unhappier. In a fragmentary suburban environment, with few opportunities to form and maintain long-term friendships; as a parent, with no time for a social life; as a full-time salaried worker and commuter whose job demands constant attention — with all of these conditions social media is often the only social interaction I get outside my family and work life.

This is why, despite occasionally signing off Facebook and Twitter, despite removing their apps and trying different ways to limit my access, despite trying to be mindful about my use of social media and its effects on my mood, I always come back.

Facebook offers a terrible bargain: It gives you the connectedness you crave, but it’s unfulfilling and leaves you wanting more. It’s like drinking Coke, or eating McDonald’s, except you don’t even have to pay for it. No wonder we guzzle it down, when all the evidence, and even our own eyes and hearts, show us how bad it is for us.

Which brings me to the second point I can’t get away from: Lanchester’s comments about how Facebook is effectively “the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in human history.”

What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.

I am looking for a way to use social media like Facebook that doesn’t make me feel like shit.

Amanda Scurti’s comic-essay on Twitter is a relevant read. She takes a hiatus but finds her way back to Twitter based on the creative communities she’s part of there, and the values they provide to her: Empathy, understanding, communication. She concludes that the secret is knowing when to disconnect, and using Twitter responsibly, particularly if you have a large following.

Scurti’s essay is thoughtful and hopeful but has an unsatisfying conclusion. For me, Twitter is somewhat less troubling than Facebook because Twitter is far less effective at surveillance, thanks largely to the ease with which people can create pseudonymous accounts. But I’ve found Twitter is just as mood-affecting as Facebook is, and I can’t say I’ve found the communities there to be particularly conducive to empathy and communication.

In short, I’m still looking for a way to share ideas, and stay connected with people I like, without feeling like shit.

In the meantime, I guess you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Source: John Lanchester reviews ‘The Attention Merchants’ by Tim Wu, ‘Chaos Monkeys’ by Antonio García Martínez and ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ by Jonathan Taplin · LRB 17 August 2017

Why do we keep using Facebook?

The meaning of a solar eclipse

“What is the meaning of a solar eclipse? To the ancient Chinese, solar eclipses meant that dragons were devouring the sun. To the Czechoslovakians, they meant that ice giants, bitter enemies of the sun, were conquering it. To the Romans, they meant that the sun was poisoned and dying.

To the Jews, solar eclipses meant that the moon was passing between the sun and the earth, thereby blocking the sun’s light.”

Ask the Rabbi

The meaning of a solar eclipse

Email you can trust.

closeup of "we trust" on a $20 bill

tl;dr: I’m joining ValiMail as head of communications, because I like email and want it to work right.

I’m kind of a fan of email. I’m weird like that: Most of the journalists and tech experts I know say they hate email. But I keep coming back to it.

Email is ubiquitous, and since it’s based on open standards, it’s not controlled by any single company. Unlike the rest of the web we lost, it stands, almost alone, as a bastion of universality, accessibility, and openness. You can set up your own email server if you want, with whatever security or lack of security you deem appropriate, and you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission or pay a fee. You can write lengthy formal missives to your friends and business associates or short notes to yourself or your baby daughter. You can use email as your to-do list. You can treat email like SMS and write tight messages without punctuation or capitalization. It’s all good, and it’s all up to you.

photo of a book page showing how to send email
This is how we did Internet e-mail back in the day, kids.

Email was one of the first things that caught my interest when I first really got online in 1991, and when I published a book in 1995, the most useful four pages in it explained how to send email from one online service (like Prodigy) to another (like CompuServe) via the Internet. (It wasn’t obvious at the time.)

Since then I’ve written about how I’m deluged in mail, passed along secrets for getting me to read your email, made a case for writing shorter emails, and argued that we would all miss email if it died.

Email continues to be an essential tool for communication between people and companies. It is the most effective marketing medium bar none. The spam problem is largely taken care of due to sophisticated and adaptable filtering.

But there’s one big problem remaining, and that’s trustworthiness.

In most cases, it’s far too easy impersonate someone in email by putting their name and email address in the From field of your message. There are no built-in safeguards in email’s basic protocols to validate the sender of an email.

As a result, phishing is rampant. Roughly 90% of cyberattacks start with hackers sending phishing emails to individuals, and those emails often impersonate senders the recipients would trust (like their company’s IT manager or CEO, or their bank, or Google.)

That’s where email authentication comes in. To simplify a bit, once a domain owner has enabled email authentication and has set an enforcement policy, emails from any authorized senders — to any recipient — will get through. But emails from unauthorized senders won’t even get delivered.

It’s complicated to implement, and that’s why most domain owners have not yet enabled authentication, even though the majority of email service providers (like Gmail or Office 365) are compatible with it. And that’s the job that ValiMail handles, by automating the process of setting up, managing, and monitoring email authentication for companies that want to protect their domains.

The headline benefit is that it stops phishing. Close behind that is that it protects a company’s brand reputation from bad guys who would impersonate it. A third benefit includes the ability for IT people to get control over “shadow IT” services: cloud services that random employees have signed up for. Whenever those services attempt to send email on behalf of the company, and most of them will, the IT folks get a notification and can make a decision about whether or not to authorize those emails.

To make a long story short, ValiMail offered me the position of head of communications, and I accepted. My first day is Monday. If you’re a journalist and want the inside scoop on email authentication, or you could use data on phishing and its broader impact on cybersecurity, let me know. I am going to be a zero-BS comms guy, because I’ve been on the other side and I know what is useful PR and what’s not. I’m going to be useful.

If you’re not a journalist and you’re interested in this topic, tune in to the ValiMail blog, where I’ve been writing for over a year and will continue to post what I hope will be interesting and illuminating updates.

I didn’t set out to find a job. I was very happily running my own show at Tweney Media, enjoying life as an independent consultant and freelancer. I’m proud that I was able to deliver some great results for my clients.

But I like the people at ValiMail, I like what the company is doing, I think there’s a big opportunity there, and most of all, I believe they’ve got something real that will have actual, material benefit to the world. I’m not saying that Snap Spectacles or your social network for dogs don’t have social utility, but with ValiMail, I can clearly see a real benefit that I can get behind.

Besides, did I mention that I really like email? And I want it to stay open and free — just more trustworthy.

Email you can trust.

The big swim.

I have loved the San Francisco waterfront since I first saw it. For years, my commutes have taken me along the Peninsula coastline via Caltrain, and then along the Embarcadero on my bike. I’ve got a folder full of photos of the waterfront. I never tire of looking at the Bay Bridge, alongside it, under it, the fireboats next to it, the Claes Oldenberg sculpture of a bow-and-arrow embedded in the grass nearby. When I go to events at Fort Mason I almost always sneak out and walk to the end of a pier so I can look at the water and wonder what the fishermen are catching. I watch people strolling the Embarcadero as I bike along. The water is ever changing, the weather almost as constantly in flux. Weird and wonderful things come and go, like a massive silver rocket ship that stood on the waterfront for several years, or a congregation of cormorants and pelicans clustering on the water for half an hour in pursuit of a tasty school of fish just under the surface.

Bay Parade course map.On Sunday I got to see that waterfront from a seal’s point of view. At 9:50am I got in the water at the Golden Gate Bridge, and at about 12:05 I got out at McCovey Cove, about 6.5 miles east and south.

I say “I got in the water” and “I got out,” and while it’s true that I did all the swimming by myself, I was also supported by a pilot boat, helmed by Capt. A (who wishes to remain anonymous), encouraged by my wife Karen, and protected by a flotilla of volunteers in Zodiacs and kayaks. Baykeeper organized the swim, and it’s thanks to them and all the volunteers who pitched in that I was even able to attempt this swim. Also, there were about 4 other solo swimmers and a dozen or so relay teams doing the swim at the same time.

My, or our, swim on Sunday took me along a huge part of San Francisco’s Bay frontage, and it made me realize again how varied and beautiful it is. I tend to be a bit of a tourist when I swim: I’m not that fast to begin with, and I frequently stop to look around when I see an interesting sight, or a bird, or a change in the pattern of waves in the water. It’s because of this that I say my most critical piece of swimming equipment is my goggles. Vision-correcting goggles have been life changers for me: I doubt I would be interested in or comfortable doing open-water swimming if all I could see at a distance were the blurry shapes my naked eyes render to my brain, but with the goggles everything is, apart from drops of water or occasional problems with fogging, crystal clear even at a distance.

The fundamental rhythm of being a swimming sightseer is slow, rhythmic, repetitive: A scene glimpsed to the left, then the green of the water below as you breath out; a scene glimpsed to the right, then the green of the water again. These scenes, left and right—assuming you’re a bilateral breather—change slowly. You get important, reassuring information that you’re actually making progress by noticing how the relative positions of distant and more-distant objects change in parallax. The view in front of you, as you lift your head to sight forward, tends to change even more slowly, and you glimpse it even less often, making it a more fragmentary, tactical series of views. But the views to the side stitch themselves into a long panorama, the long scroll of the shoreline unfurling in slow motion alongside you.

Dylan in the water with a whale in the background.

Just before the swim began we spotted humpback whales to our north, breaching near the north tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. I was excited about this because I feel a special bond with humpbacks: I enjoy their playful and peaceful personalities and I see them as a triumph of the environmental movement. Once near extinction, the “save the whales” movement, though easy to mock, was incredibly successful and has protected the humpbacks long enough that their populations, in most parts of the world where they are found, have rebounded remarkably. These whales continued their display as I started my swim, and though I didn’t see them from the water Karen captured one photo where you can see a whale in the background and me in the foreground.

For the first hour or so my concern was to make a good start and cover some distance, so I swam hard. Fort Point, the Presidio, and Chrissy Field to my right, with their furry, green hills, slowly gave way to the area around the Palace of Fine Arts, its golden dome shining brightly under the overcast sky. That dome was my companion for a long time, it seemed, as the Marin headlands to my left fell away and I aimed for Alcatraz in front of me.

At some point Capt. A moved the boat from my right rear quarter over to my left side. Its large bulk obscured the view to the left for a long time, but in return I got to see the encouraging sight of Karen and Capt. A watching me, cheering me on, and taking photos.

And then, a bit less than an hour along, we were abreast of Fort Mason’s bright cream-colored buildings and then Aquatic Park, less visible than I’d thought it would be from the distance we were, but with the Ghirardelli sign showing clearly out above it. Capt. A threw my Odwalla bottle to me, tied to a long string, and as I took a few sips I noticed Alcatraz peeking out on the other side of the boat, alongside me and enormous instead of ahead of me and smallish. At that point I knew I’d made good progress and I started enjoying the swim more.

For the next hour we went along the waterfront I know well: the Jeremiah O’Brien’s battleship-grey bulk, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39, the Embarcadero’s many piers leading up to the broad low profile of the Ferry Building with its clock tower standing up in the middle. Behind the clock tower were the rising hills of skyscrapers downtown, bracketed by the old 1970s Transamerica Pyramid on the right, and the new, rounded, not-yet-complete blunt pickle shape of the Salesforce Tower on the left.

A swimmer in the water with the San Francisco skyline, Transamerica Pyramid on the left and Coit Tower on the right.
Dylan in the water with the Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower.

Eventually we were alongside Cupid’s Span, clearly visible in front of the brick buildings of the old working waterfront, former warehouses exemplified by the Hills Bros. coffee building, its long-obsolete sign still standing as a reminder of the city’s long-gone working-class past. The sun was coming out and the quality of the light and the water changed dramatically as I approached the Bay Bridge. Instead of cold grey-green water I was now swimming in a warm bright yellowish-green, and the sunlight glinted on the surface of the waves and cast shadows underneath the Bay Bridge. I swam directly under the bridge, paused to whoop and holler and float on my back for a moment, gazing up at its underside: I knew I had come a long way, in less than two hours, and the hardest part was done. And there I was, looking up at the bridge I had spent years admiring and looking up at, only this time I was in the water and I had swum to it, all the way from that other bridge, the Golden Gate, which I’d been looking up at just a couple hours before.

After passing the Bay Bridge the water was getting noticeably warmer, but also it seemed I wasn’t making nearly as much progress—the current had slackened a bit. Also, perhaps, in my mind I was assuming I was close to the end, but I had underestimated the remaining distance. As I swam along the grey warehouses and parking piers of the SoMa waterfront I kept wondering: How much further to AT&T Park? Why aren’t I there yet? Where is it?

After twenty minutes or so, though, the long, low breakwater that shelters the marina adjacent to the ballpark came into view. It was about this time that I encountered the Bay Parade proper, a fleet of colorful kayakers and paddle boarders coming the other way. I swam through a group of them, and they shouted encouragement to me as they went by in the opposite direction.

I asked Capt. A where I was supposed to be swimming, and he pointed out two red buoys on the water. I could barely see them but there was a speck of red, so I aimed for that. It took a frustratingly long time, it seemed, in water that was growing warmer and more resistant to progress, before the red speck resolved and became clearly visible as a pyramidal buoy. In fact the current was still pushing me along a little bit, I’m sure, only less than before. I was so used to the feeling of rocketing along on a major flood by that time that having to provide most of my own forward momentum felt like resistance—like normal swimming.

At any rate, I eventually came within shouting distance of the buoy on the right, and I swam hard until I was sure that I had cleared the imaginary line between it and the buoy on the left. I was done! As Capt A’s boat pulled up alongside me, I could see Karen on the deck shouting and me and taking pictures. I whooped, raised both fists in the air, and my head immediately submerged under water. I tried again, kicking a bit harder this time: The victory pose is a little tricky in the water.

A swimmer in the water wearing a narwhal horn on a swim cap.
That’s a magical narwhal in the water next to the Baykeeper boat.

I climbed aboard the boat and stood soaking up the sun and the accomplishment for half an hour, and then the Bay Parade returned and it was time for the finale alongside AT&T Park. I put on my unicorn-horn swim cap and jumped back into the water, this time as a magical narwhal, for an easy swim back and forth with a group of other swimmers. We were all happy, paddling slowly, a little confused from the effects of cold water, but enjoying the moment. Aboard the Baykeeper sailboat Freda the band SeaForager’s Fishwives was playing a squeezebox and singing sea chanties; I joined in for a few lines of “Blow the Man Down.” And then we swam into the harbor and exited the water.

Someone was taking video of the parade and showed it on the Jumbotron inside the ballpark, where the Giants vs. Marlins game was just about to start. As for me, I was enjoying a warm shower in a portable shower truck provided by Baykeeper, and then I went and celebrated with the other swimmers and parade participants in a party on the other side of McCovey Cove.

I was not the fastest swimmer, by far. The winning swimmer completed the swim in 1:35, while it took me 2:15 or 2:20. But I don’t care. Five years ago I could barely swim 100 yards without having to stop and catch my breath. Sunday I covered the distance almost nonstop, with a lot of help and encouragement and support from Capt. A and Karen, and from the many supporting pilots and kayakers on the water from the Dolphin Club and the South End Rowing Club. I got to see the waterfront I love so much, from a reverse angle, and I gained a new appreciation for its variety and the way it all fits together.

And, I am happy to say, my supporters completely blew me away. You guys collectively donated almost $2,400 to Baykeeper, helping to fund the organization’s important mission of researching and defending the health of the Bay. I know Baykeeper is grateful. And I am so appreciative. I felt your support the entire length of the swim.


If you’re into this sort of thing, you might enjoy this album of photos Karen took during the swim:

Bay Parade 2017

Also, I wrote a small series of posts about swimming recently:

And some older posts:

If you’re interested, I’d be happy to email you in the future when I write about swimming again. Just sign up here:

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The big swim.

Breakthrough

Pelicans and cormorants near Pier 14 in San Francisco Bay, December 2015.

Pelicans stood on the breakwater, gravely watching us as we swam by. I’ve come to think of the shorebirds as different kinds of people, a sort of audience for my swims: The cormorant people, the gull people. It’s clear they’re looking at us as much as we are looking at them. And indeed, I noticed at least one of the pelicans swiveled his or her head, slow and smooth, to follow me as I went by. Nothing escaped that one.

The pelicans have a rather different look when they are staring at you. They seem grave, and unperturbed, and much more dignified than they appear when they’re splashing into the water or tipping their heads back to choke down a fish caught in that absurd pouch of theirs. The fact that they can stare at you with both eyes reminds you that they are predators.

I swam in the Bay for three hours and five minutes on Saturday, for a total distance of about 4.6 miles. Two hours of that was with Zina, who has been with me on several training swims so far, and whose adventurousness and good nature make these mini-journeys a lot easier.

That’s the longest I’ve been in the cold water so far, and the furthest distance I’ve ever swum in any kind of water. It’s probably more time than I’ll use on my big swim July 9, too, because even though that swim is a greater distance by about two miles, I’ll have the advantage of a flood current pushing me along. After last weekend’s training swim, several people told me I was over-preparing. That’s a good place to be. I feel confident and strong.

We crossed back and forth between the end of the breakwater that protects Fisherman’s Wharf and the far end of Fort Mason, at the edge of Gas House Cove. Two full circuits of that (Chas Laps in the lingo of the South End) took us about two hours, and then I circled around the cove twice. It felt like a kind of breakthrough.

Another breakthrough with this swim is an absurdly ordinary one. I realized a couple hours into the swim that I was getting very uncomfortable because I really had to pee—all the water and liquid food I was taking in was catching up to me. “Just go,” Zina said. “That’s your prerogative as an open-water swimmer.” And yet it’s not so easy: A lifetime of self control leads one to feel substantially repressed about pissing one’s pants, even if those pants are already completely immersed in liquid. Maybe there is also something about the water that physically inhibits this function, at least for me—though to judge from studies of swimming pool chemistry, many people don’t have the same problem I do. At any rate, I had never succeeded at this neglected skill, and I realized that it might limit my ability to stay in the water and complete a long swim, since the discomfort was great enough to make me really doubt my willingness to continue.

So after Zina paddled in to the beach, I just hung out for a bit by the opening of the cove, looking out at Alcatraz, treading water and trying to relax. Eventually, you’ll be happy to hear, I was able to pee in the water. I did another hour in the water much more comfortably after that.

Just as I was realizing this small personal breakthrough, though, another swimmer hailed me from a a few dozen feet away. “Hey Dylan! Great day, isn’t it!” She, too, was on a long training swim and had been in the water as long as I had. We chatted traded notes on what kind of feeds we were taking, and then we continued on our swims.

Finally, this week there came a third breakthrough that I have nothing to do with: My supporters have contributed over $2,000 to Baykeeper, exceeding the fundraising goal I set when I committed to do this swim. Baykeeper does terrific work as a data collector, analyst, and legal advocate for the health of SF Bay as a natural, recreational, and economic resource for everyone. Its Bay Parade on Sunday will be a colorful, costumed, on-the-water celebration of all that the SF Bay represents to the people who live around it. And it will be the culmination of my swim training and fundraising. There’s still time to contribute your support, and if you do, I will be incredibly grateful—and Baykeeper will as well.

Breakthrough