A Pane in the Glass

Sunday summer mornings in Greenwich would commonly be spent poring over the newspapers. I would sit with my feet up, and my back against the heavily padded arm of the sofa, facing the window with the sun already high in the sky. The old style sash windows were open to welcome in the breeze, to clear the stuffiness in the hundred year old building, and to enhance that feeling – from sun, from wind – of being connected with the energy our existence. Usually, I’d slide the lower of the windows up, but just occasionally, I’d dare to slide the top one down instead, because I like to live life on the edge. However, when we open ourselves up to anything in life, there is always the risk of letting in the ‘bad’ with the good. Along with the oxygen (good), I’d find myself joined in my lounging by flies (bad), bees (good) and wasps (pointless?). It had been in my mind to learn from the written word on those Sunday mornings; I can’t recall much of what I read now but I have never forgotten what I saw.

Those insects, or “wee timorous beasties” – as the Scottish side of my family sometimes refers to them – would wander in, nose about a bit, and then exit. Except that they commonly didn’t exit. Confronted with a clear pane of glass, and unable to distinguish it from the empty space that lay a mere hand’s length below it (or above it, on my risk-taking days), they would collide and bounce off. In seeming frustration, they’d back up, and hitch their anthropomorphic britches, before building up ramming speed to make another failed attempt. The process would repeat, usually from the same angle, only with more intensity and force, and it would result in the same lack of success. The higher mammal that I am likes to think of myself as an observer of life, pondering these creatures as Robert the Bruce is purported to have observed his spider, but more often than I care to admit, I simply am one of those wee timorous beasties.

When my head collided with my own pane of glass, all I could hear was Clarence – the name I had given to the monkey on my back. Clarence gained in stature with each of my failed attempts to dive to 30 metres. Clarence eats all the time, and has no fashion sense. Clarence is a big distraction, as you might expect when you have a chimp in pink taffeta hanging over your shoulder, and chewing bananas in your ear. I heard the problem of Clarence perfectly described on a BBC Test Match Special podcast. During the cricket commentators’ lunchtime musings – this time on the topic of concentration – there was a proposal that you can either increase the intensity of focus on your goal, or simply tune out the noise until only the goal remains. Given those two options, I elected to slowly silence the chattering primate.

With every failure, Clarence had grown in stature, and although I’d like to take credit for his eventual eradication, few things in life are achieved alone; I had other higher mammals to thank. The morning after my latest failure, Clarence was sporting a baby-doll pink tutu and matching leg warmers. I wasn’t looking forward to diving with him, although I was actually quite impressed with how quiet I was managing to keep him. The cavalry arrived unbidden, maybe even unnecessarily – I will never know – and in spades, in the form of a pod of spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris). Clarence was overwhelmed. Swimming for nearly two hours with a pod of over 60 creatures oozing aquatic grace, bathed in the energy of the sun, and marinating in vitamin ‘sea’… Monkey? What monkey?

When the afternoon came around, I was still on a high from the morning’s exercise. (Exercise makes you happy because your body releases a chemical called ‘dolphins’, and since dolphins make us happy, exercise makes us happy.) However, my pane of glass remained; Clarence can make a right dive go wrong, but he can’t make a wrong dive go right. There was also something missing in the way I was diving. The approach I took to addressing that more physical problem is one that many of us adopt; I broke it down and looked at all the constituent parts, seeking to improve on each: breathe up, duck dive, finning, free-fall, mouth fill, turn, return, recovery breaths. None of it had helped. It turned out that I didn’t need more of what I already had, I needed a little of something I had completely ignored.

In my case, what I needed was ‘weight’. It’s not rare for me to be told that I need to put on more weight. An energetic lifestyle and a (fortunately) high metabolism mean the topic comes up from time to time, although this was one of the more memorable examples. (This, and the person who once told me that I was lucky to have such “high ‘meta-bollocks’ ”.)

There is a point underwater where you become neutrally buoyant; you can just hang, submerged, neither floating nor falling. It makes me smile to think of that point now, held as you are in the womb of the sea. I was neutrally buoyant at more than 20 metres, and needed to adjust my weight so that my point of zero gravity was in a Goldilocks zone (for the required depth of my dive) of about 13 to 16 metres – not too shallow, not too deep. It seemed inconceivable that all I needed to do was increase my weight by less than 1%. The weights on the boat were not small enough. Louise leant me her lucky half kilo weight (about 17 ounces).

That 1% change in my weight was the difference between completing my dive with a free-fall, and without. More dramatically, it was the difference between completing the dive with either a hypoxic fit, or the biggest grin on my face. My Goldilocks dive was nearly 30 seconds faster, and with nearly half as much physical exertion. A dive had never felt so easy. I even received a medal, of sorts. My Instructor, Emma, bought the lucky weight from the kind Louise. I’m hoping that some day, someone will see me diving with that bright yellow weight, with the word “Loo” on it, and ask me what it means. I might tell them about flies (but not wasps), about dolphins, or that 1% is mighty, but more likely I’ll just tell them that I need it to counteract my high meta-bollocks.