I was under the weather the entire first week of July, so I spent July 4 in bed, reading this book by Mitch Horowitz. Published in 2009, Occult America is an entertaining survey of a variety of “occult” religious trends that blossomed over three centuries of American history.
Horowitz starts his account with the arrival of the Shakers, a somewhat controversial choice since the Shakers weren’t especially “occult,” even by Horowitz’s very broad definition: A belief in a mysterious, hidden world that controls what happens in the visible world, and which can be used to understand or control the visible world in ways that aren’t accessible to most of us. But it’s a good point to start the discussion of enthusiastic, sometimes radical outbreaks of charismatic, contagious spiritualism.
In subsequent chapters, Horowitz covers 18th-century spiritualism and Freemasonry; 19th-century Theosophy and Mormonism; the self-reliant spiritualism of Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey; African-American hoodoo; Wicca, Ouija boards, tarot, and mail-order spiritual supply houses; Manly P. Hall; and the rise of the New Age.
Occult America makes a persuasive argument that many of these movements were closely linked with women’s suffrage, abolitionists, and other progressive causes, and that as a result they had a substantial impact on the development of this country’s values, politics, and government. The fact that many of these movement were founded by women and/or included many women in leadership positions is no coincidence. (Side note: A research paper by Mary Bednarowski (.pdf), from the 1990s, found some interesting parallels between various outside-the-mainstream groups’ theologies and the leadership role of women.)
Some tidbits of interest:
The “Shaker formulation”: “Keep hands to work even as hearts soar to God”
Madame Helena Blavatsky and her companion Colonel Henry Steel Olcott were not just the founders of Theosophy, but also played a huge role in defending Hindu and Buddhist practices from colonialism, in India as well as in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Blavatsky: “The Theosophical Society means, if it cannot rescue Christians from modern Christianity, at least to aid in saving the ‘heathen’ from its influence.” [p. 47]
Poet James Merrill’s book The Changing Light at Sandover was composed in part with a Ouija board, which Merrill and his partner were so obsessed with that Truman Capote referred to their house as “Creepyville.” Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath also experimented with Ouija-based poetry composition, less successfully it appears. Merrill, on the reality of spirit communication:
“If it’s still yourself that you’re drawing upon,” he said, “then that self is much stranger and freer and more far-seeking than the one you thought you knew.” And at another point: “If the spirits aren’t external, how astonishing the mediums become!” [p. 79]
Frederick Douglass’s escape from slavery was aided in part by a mysterious man he met in the woods, “Sandy,” who gave him a root (called “John the Conqueror” or “John de Conker”) that, he said, would make him impossible to beat in hand to hand combat. The next day, Douglass resisted the slavemaster and fought him to a standoff. The incident gave Douglass a sense of inner confidence and power: “I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” [pp. 120-121]
“Man has been an alchemist from the time when first he raised himself,” [Manly] Hall wrote. “… Experiences are the chemicals of life with which the philosopher experiments.” [p. 152]
The word “science” was used by New Thought advocates and mentalists like Phineas T. Quimby, as well as Marcus Garvey, to connote magical practices. But it also indicated that certain practices were deterministic, and could be used to better oneself: “Get you[reself], as the white man has done, a scientific understanding of God and religion,” Garvey told a Jamaican audience in 1928. [p. 135-136]
According to the Marathon Swimmers Federation, the minimum distance to qualify a swim as a “marathon swim” is 10 kilometers. By that definition, I guess I’m now a marathon swimmer.
Yesterday I joined about 20 others in a 10km (6.2 mile) swim from the Capitola pier to the Santa Cruz pier, by way of a rather arbitrary point about 2 miles due south from Capitola. The swim was hosted by the Monterey Bay Swimming Association. I got up early in the morning to meet Naji, my kayaker, at the train station at 4:45am, then we drove down to Santa Cruz, arriving about 6am. By 6:30 or so, swimmers were starting to gather as the sun rose.
Once we had all checked in and signed away our rights in one of the most terrifying safety waivers I’ve ever seen, we piled onto a party bus that drove us east along the winding coastal streets and roads until we reached Capitola. We got out, smeared on sunscreen, and generally got ready to go as the organizer, Scott Tapley, explained to us what would happen.
After a bit of prep our kayakers launched themselves into the water just to the right of the Capitola pier, than paddled around to the end of the pier and waited for us there. We swimmers assembled to the left of the pier and waited for the all-clear. At about 8:45am, Scott gave us the signal to go, and the group of us strolled down to the water. (None of the running and sharp elbows you might find in a bigger crowd of swimmers.) A few moments later, we were in the water, swimming out.
The course took us straight out to sea, due south from the beach, along the pier and then beyond it. Naji and I quickly found each other near the end of the pier and off we went, continuing south into the Monterey Bay.
As we set off on our adventure, the water was smooth, the morning sunny, and the air still. The water, at a comfortable 60 degrees F (about 15 C) maintained its same shade of jade green but became much clearer as I swam beyond the surf break and the end of the pier: I couldn’t see anything below me, but as I looked at my arm in the water, I could see it clear and sharp. At one point I saw a luminous, translucent white moon jelly, about the size of my head or maybe a little smaller, floating alone a foot or two below me. Another time, I stopped briefly to watch a flock of geese or cormorants flying past, heading south parallel to our path, with the sunlit coastline leading up to Pleasure Point in the background. This sunlit outbound leg of the swim was my second-favorite part of the day.
Kelp was the biggest potential obstacle throughout this swim, with huge beds of thick bull kelp just offshore through much of the coast. It’s a wonderful thing, kelp, and the return of kelp (thanks to the return of sea otters, who eat the sea urchins that once decimated Monterey’s teeming kelp forests) has been one of the great environmental success stories of the past four or five decades. Kelp forests are richly diverse ecosystems and have helped bring about an explosion of new marine life in the Monterey Bay. But kelp is a pain to swim through and it can be terrifying to dive through, as its swaying tentacles seem designed to entangle the flailing limbs of the hapless human swimmer.
Naji did a good job of steering me around the biggest kelp beds, so it wasn’t much of a problem in the end. But occasionally I did have to swim through, and over, a few swaying columns of bull kelp. Their leaves were yellow-green, and many of them bleached or spotted with lighter patches, a sign of sickness or old age maybe. They were a little scratchy but not a big problem, though once I had a nice long loop of free-floating kelp “tubing” looped around my right arm for a few strokes.
After heading due south for about an hour and fifteen minutes (roughly two miles), we reached the turn point. The lead sailboat, “Nomad,” had dropped a big, yellow, inflatable tetrahedral buoy at this point, leaving it anchored to the floor of the ocean thirty or forty feet below. I swam to it, came around it, and then Naji put us on our new course: west-northwest, toward the Santa Cruz wharf, which I still couldn’t see.
On a swim like this, you feed every half hour or so. Naji would call me over every thirty minutes by waving a sports bottle at me, then he’d toss it to me on a line and I’d drink while floating there. When I was done he could reel the bottle back in on the line, and sometimes I used that time to backstroke gently and pee. (Also essential on a long swim!) I used two kinds of endurance fuels made by a company called Hammer Nutrition: Sustained Energy, which has a sort of sweetish, slightly milky non-taste, and Perpetuem, which is sweetish, more milky, and sort of orange vanilla tasting. Both are powders I mixed with lots of water before the start of the swim, and I tried to drink half a bottle (12 ounces of water and half a packet of powder) at each feeding. Even for liquid food, it’s hard to consume that much while floating on your back or treading water, with a mouth full of saltwater taste, breathing hard from your exertion, and knowing that you’re going to go right back to exerting yourself pretty hard. So I have a lot more respect now for the skills of channel swimmers who have to work out how to feed regularly, and fast, on their long crossings. Anyway, they’re not delicious, but these feeds are essential, and yesterday they worked as advertised, giving me a pretty continuous feeling of energy and power throughout the day.
Shortly after that turn, I realized I could no longer see the coastline to my right. Fog had come up, and while it was a light mist, it reduced visibility to maybe a quarter mile to half a mile, and filmed the sun with a greyish hue. Naji couldn’t see the next waypoint, but he could follow the kayakers and swimmers ahead of us, so he kept us on course by following them. I think we may have swum for an hour or so during which I couldn’t see land or anything else except the occasional fishing boat, and in one case a fairly large group of recreational fishing boats off to our left.
Meanwhile the sun got fainter, the air cooler, a slight breeze picked up, and the water got a little lumpier. On the outbound leg we’d had nice, soft rollers at most; here the waves were coming at me from my left front quarter and they were a little choppier. I took a fair amount of water up my nose and in my mouth, even choking a bit once. Naji asked me if I was okay, or if I felt like quitting, and he says that when I snapped back at him, “I’m not quitting!” he knew I was all right. He also claims that was the only time I seemed irritated at all, so maybe I’m just good at hiding things. The entire middle stretch, maybe two hours long, felt rough, difficult, and slow.
One thing made this leg easier, and that was the presence of another swimmer, Jennifer from Santa Cruz, who I’d met on the beach before. It turned out we were almost exactly the same pace, and once our kayakers figured this out, they let us swim side by side, with the two kayaks on either side of both of us. For an hour or more Jennifer and I swam three to twenty feet apart, always in sight of each other. This helped keep me going, because I saw how strong she was swimming and I figured I wasn’t about to slow down if she wasn’t. And she told me on the beach afterward that I’d had the same effect on her. So without exchanging a word we were communicating and urging one another on, which was pretty powerful.
Eventually we came within sight of the Santa Cruz pier and the big hotel behind it, so I could sight on that — and after awhile, the big yellow tetrahedron that had been placed off the end of the pier was also visible, so I could aim for that. It took me awhile to realize that the long horizontal black mark just below the hills was the pier, though.
The Santa Cruz pier is huge, about half a mile long, and here’s the thing about huge things: You can see them from a long way off. And then, as you approach them, they can seem exactly the same distance away for a very long time. Eventually, even when you get close enough to see individual pilings and to realize that yes, it is a pier and not some long horizontal band of black rock, even then it can take a long time to get to the end of the damn thing and to the point where you can start swimming in to shore along it.
Fortunately, after about six years, that moment came. And then, there we were, swimming up the pier from the end, careful to stay far enough at that we didn’t irritate any of the sea lions we could hear barking under the pier. Naji had to peel off to go land the kayak some distance away, where the surf was lower, so I swam this last half mile — roughly 20 minutes — mostly alone, though there were two other kayakers keeping an eye out for me a bit.
Swimming along a pier is something I enjoy immensely, and that’s what made this my favorite part of the swim. It is easy to see that you’re making progress, because you can mark the distance between each breath (or even each stroke) by watching the pilings go by. And in this case, the Santa Cruz boardwalk was visible behind the pier, a series of square, pastel-hued postcards framed by the massive dark-brown and black bulk of the pilings and the green of the water below. It was like watching a slide show go by, making it one of my favorite kinds of swimming: One in which you are making palpable and visible progress, and you get to watch a show as you go.
Eventually I was swimming into the surf, then stumbling a bit and finally walking up out of the water. There was a small crew of waiting MBSA volunteers holding towels and cheering for me, and one of them drew a line in the dry part of the sand and told me I had to cross it. I hopped over it with both feet, she wrapped me in a white towel, and my swim was over.
My time was nothing to brag about, but I will brag about it anyway. I came in after 4 hours, 27 minutes, and 17 seconds — about 43 minutes per mile according to the official course. (This is very slow compared to the speedy marathon swimmers, who can do two or even three miles per hour.) The organizer, Scott, told me that the fog and northwest breeze pushed a lot of people off course, so most swimmers did between 6.5 and 7 miles, instead of the official 6.2. That means we had both a longer course and were fighting current and/or wind much of the way, which explains — to my satisfaction anyway — why I swam consistently hard but still came in slower than I expected. The fastest on the course were much faster, and there were a few who endured the swim for much longer than I did, but all the same, I did my best and I enjoyed the hell out of it and I’m glad I did it.
I drank two and a half 24-ounce bottles of the Hammer fuels/water mixes, leaving 1.5 bottle un-drunk. Maybe I should have drunk a bit more. I’m not sure which fuel worked better for me but the Perpetuem seemed easier to drink — at least it had a taste. I used SolRx sunscreen, and on top of that I put a layer of extra-strength Desitin (zinc oxide) on my face and arms, and didn’t get too burned. Afterwards I warmed up with a thermos of tea, some cookies, and a banana, and then proceeded to eat a leftover bagel, a 7-11 hot dog, an ice cream sundae, and pretty much anything else that came into my field of vision and sat still long enough.
As I seem to do after long swims, I felt immensely happy and giddy — “fizzy” I would say — for most of the day. Eventually that faded, as the evening wore on, into a sort of mellow, relaxed, almost high feeling.My throat felt scratchy and swollen most of the afternoon, because of the saltwater that had been forced into my face for hours. Today I’m sleepy, a little sore, and weak as a kitten, but none the worse for wear.
One final note: There is a myth that distance swimming is a solo sport. Yet I don’t know anyone who does epic marathon swims all by themselves. (Well, I know two guys who are epic marathoners and regularly do 10K or 12K training swims in the Bay by themselves, but apart from them nobody does this solo.) For most of us, maybe all of us, swims like this are impossible without a huge amount of support: Swim organizers, boat captains, kayakers accompanying us and feeding us, and our families making time and making allowances so we can sink hours of every week into our training. I felt all of that support yesterday.
As I swam, I was physically supported by the water buoying me up, and spiritually supported by the love of all the people helping me swim and keeping me safe. That, perhaps, is the most powerful thing I took from the swim. There is support all around, and for that, I’m immensely grateful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
Last weekend I entered the water much better prepared than the week before, and managed to swim for two and a half hours. The water temperature varied from 59F-60F, and the morning was fairly calm, overcast giving way to sunny sky. The biggest challenge was the current: We found a significant flood challenging our attempts to swim westward out of the cove, so we gave in and rode the current back east, along the outside of the breakwater, and then came back inside. But even with the shelter from the breakwater, and later inside the cove, the flood was still strong enough that it wreaked havoc with any notion of speed or time. I had to fight my way out to the opening of the cove, but later I had to fight my way in the opposite direction, from the opening back along the ships. Behind the ships the water was sucking me up against the hulls, to the right, but as soon as I emerged from behind a ship the full force of the flood knocked me hard to the left, and I had to swim diagonally to make any headway at all. In all I think I covered about 3.5 miles, which is not much for the time, but plenty given the currents. I felt very good about the swim—it was confidence-boosting.
In my last post I wrote about how changeable the water is, and this weekend was no exception to the rule. But there was one factor I didn’t mention, and that’s human influence.
Humans have been changing water flows in the Bay for a century: Dredging shipping channels, putting in bridge piers that create vortices and outright whirlpools during strong floods and ebbs, filling in parts of the bay and eliminating many of the marshy margins that used to absorb the excess rains or river flows and act as a buffer to the incoming tides. Compared to many estuaries, the SF Bay is still remarkably functional as an ecosystem; it hasn’t been paved or channelized or contained too drastically. There are notable victories: The environmental movement got its start in the 1960s and 1970s here, spearheaded in large part by Berkeley wives, and the organization those women founded, Save the Bay, helped bring about a massive reduction of pollution and trash in the Bay and a huge increase in the amount of publicly-accessible shoreline around the Bay. Peninsula environmentalists helped create a 20,000-acre wildlife refuge in the 1980s. Former salt-drying ponds operated by Cargill are being converted back into marshland, bringing back endangered species.
But there’s one way humans exert massive control over the entire Bay ecosystem, and that’s through the rivers that flow into it. Nearly every river going into the Bay has been dammed at some point upstream, giving the State of California a huge amount of control over how much water makes it down to SF. Much of this water is already diverted to agricultural uses in the Central Valley, or to reservoirs in the East Bay that store water for drinking, for flushing toilets, and for watering lawns. Now, a new proposal championed by the Governor would divert even more water, through underground tunnels, to Southern California.
Called WaterFix, the $17-billion-dollar project’s most prominent feature is the creation of the Delta Tunnels, a pair of long underground tunnels, 30-40 feet in diameter and up to 150 feet underground, that will suck water out of the Sacramento River between Courtland and Clarksburg, and take it 35 miles south, under the entire Delta, to deposit that water in the Clifton Court Forebay, a part of the California Water system that lies between Walnut Creek and Tracy. The water would then flow south through the California aqueduct system, through the Central Valley and potentially as far south as Los Angeles.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service recently reviewed the plan and gave it a green light, particularly after the inclusion of some habitat restoration in the project. Also, it may be that WaterFix will be better for fish than the current Delta water-capture system, which draws water out of the southern Delta only, sucking up so much water that rivers flow backwards and fish die en masse. The new system will avoid these reverse flows and kill fewer fish, planners say.
But SF Baykeeper has also reviewed the plan and has found a lot of reasons to be concerned. The one that sticks out, to me, is the fact that the Delta is not in good shape to begin with. Algal blooms, the near-extinction of the Delta smelt and the decline of many other native species, and the fact that fresh-water inflows into the Bay have been very low through the drought years are causes for concern. The salmon-fishing season has seen a lot of trouble for the past several years due to low numbers of mature salmon, for instance. Crab seasons in the SF area have also been sharply curtailed or cut off completely in recent years as well.
In that context, sucking even more water out of the rivers that feed the Bay doesn’t seem like a step in the right direction. As Baykeeper’s brief puts it, “The consequences of removing flows from the Sacramento River include ecosystem-scale effects.” (emphasis mine) Even with the habitat restoration and the steps to prevent fish kills, less fresh water in the Bay could lead to long-term changes throughout the entire Bay system: More species declines, increased salinity, more stagnant water, less oxygen-generating phytoplankton.
One of the reasons I am swimming 6.5 miles in Baykeeper’s Bay Parade on July 9 is because I value exactly this kind of work: Careful, systematic, scientific analysis of the ecological consequences of human actions on the SF Bay. The Baykeeper paper is a thoughtful, balanced study — and it recognizes that, while the Bay and Delta ecosystem need help, there’s no easy fix. It also acknowledges the need for Southern California water users to have access to water, and that it’s impossible to return the Delta to some kind of pristine, pre-human-development condition. Instead, Baykeeper proposes a range of specific alternatives to WaterFix: better watershed management, habitat restoration projects, modernization of the delta levee system, better groundwater storage, more conservation, and perhaps a smaller, single-tunnel project instead of the current double tunnel proposal.
Yesterday I swam around Aquatic Park on a sunny, windy afternoon with shreds of fog whipping themselves away from the Golden Gate and across the blue sky.
The wind on the cove gave different textures to water in every part of the cove: Just off the dock and along the buoy line I was swimming into the chop, punching through each wave and gliding just beneath the jade-green roughness of the surface. Alongside the pier, sheltered from the wind, the water took on a darker, smoother quality, with long, easy hills swelling up and down. Beside the opening of the cove, waves rose up to a foot or more in height, and I looked out at the whitecaps in the open bay and decided I didn’t need to be there at all. I swam back through the lively little waves pushed up against the breakwater and what we call the Jacuzzi, a round cement structure at the end of the breakwater, but felt a bit like I was in a foamy, bubbly jacuzzi myself. Around the other side of the breakwater, in its lee, the water was glassy calm, flat, and pale green. Then I swam back out, alongside the sailing ships and encountered bouncy, playful, tumbly waves the color of an overcast sky, which rolled and rocked me back into the dock, laughing and grinning.
Water in the San Francisco Bay is highly changeable, even within the half-mile circle of Aquatic Park, which after all is just a tiny sample jar pulling a bit of water out of an enormous ecosystem. Sometimes the water is murky and brown, sometimes translucently green, sometimes (rarely) completely clear. It can be as salty as the aftertaste of an over-salted salt bagel, or as mild as lake water on the lips.
The Bay is, in a phrase that John McPhee rightly calls haunting, a “drowned river mouth.” Legends of the people who lived here first suggest that the Bay may not have existed at all as recently as a thousand years ago, or maybe a few hundred—the first Spanish explorers apparently sailed right past it without noticing it, which is surprising for explorers in search of good harbors but perhaps not entirely impossible. The underwater topography of the Bay still preserves what was there before: a river canyon, flowing to the sea around a large hill and then between two even higher hills, the sentinels on either side of what we call the Gate. But at some point it sank, or the sea rose, and though the rivers still flow into it their water now mixes early with the inflowing sea tides, swirling around the northern and southern lobes of the bay and creating thousands of microclimates in and around the water.
The water is green because it’s rich with phytoplankton, the tiny algae that convert sunlight and CO2 into oxygen and serve as the foundation of a whole web of life. It’s opaque brown or translucent green-brown because of suspended sediments of silt, brought down from the Sierras along with the snowmelt. Its fish have elevated levels of mercury because mercury was used, 150 years ago, in gold-mining operations in the foothills hundreds of miles away, and the excess mercury ran down into the Bay and sat there for a century, only now starting to diminish in its effects as the silt covers it up. Because of the mercury you shouldn’t eat certain fish more than once a month, although some of the fishermen along the pier, who are fishing for their dinners, for their families, probably eat more than that. It’s saline because of the ocean and fresh because of the rivers. It’s cold, and the more ocean water pours in the mouth of the Gate the colder it gets, but in the southern and northern, shallower parts of the Bay, the water warms up to bathlike temperatures.
And its currents are maddeningly complex. Tides alone have their own rhythmic predictability, so as mysterious as they may seem while you’re standing on the beach, they’re orderly and rational enough that a simple algorithm in an app can calculate the high and low tides at any time of day anyplace in the world. But the inward flood of water leading to the high tide, and the outward ebb on the way to low tide, are truly hard to grasp. Fluid dynamics at large scales are not easy to understand intuitively, the rivers add another complication, and the involuted, lobed shape of the Bay makes everything cockeyed.
Everyone who swims at Aquatic Park has their own rule of thumb for guessing the currents. Some who have guessed badly, or are not prepared for the currents, have been trapped, terrifyingly, against the pier, pinned down by a current they couldn’t fight. My principle is to listen to people, watch the water, and make my own decisions. I pay close attention to what the water’s doing, how it feels, how it tastes, whether there’s a seam between a patch of ruffled water and a patch of smooth. I watch the shoreline to see how I’m drifting, and time myself between landmarks I know to see if the current is speeding me up or slowing me down. I don’t go outside the cove alone. But those are my rules, and I only know a little about the Bay. I’ve only been swimming here a few years. I still have much to learn.