Civil disobedience and open-water swimming

The water is too cold for swimming.

I was talking to a teenager who was a lifeguard. He didn’t do it on purpose. I should follow his advice and go home. My hips were already submerged. It was clear that he cleared his throat. My first thought was, please don’t repeat that. There would be no stopping him.

“Sir,” he said with a crack in his voice. There’s no swimming there, Mr.!”

In Concord, Massachusetts, most teenagers are extremely polite, which is to say that they are usually speechless when spoken to. It was just a normal day for him. It’s my fault for not being kinder. My mistake was to use the word “cannot,” since I most certainly could swim right here, that I have been doing it every day between April and November for many years. It would have been more appropriate to quote Henry David Thoreau: “Go with confidence in the direction of your dreams.”

I now regret the gesture I made with my hand. What I do not regret is taking off. Taking the most direct route around Walden Pond is 1.48 miles. In March 1845, Thoreau sauntered along these shores beginning on this route. I usually take about 36 minutes to complete this task. It was a straight crossroads this time. The lifeguard would have to take the dinghy if he wanted to physically stop me.

I know all of this sounds incredibly petty, like a philosophy professor having a temper tantrum when he is denied his intellectual birthright or a nerdy pleasure. In some ways, it sounds ridiculous, petty, maybe even downright ridiculous. However, I think it’s sometimes necessary for people to behave stupidly in response to stupid laws. State legislators in Massachusetts banned open-water swimming last month after a spate of drownings. Walden Pond was included in the list of places where the ban was implemented. I know drowning is tragic and horrific: it almost happened to me when I was a kid, swimming in the Pacific, and I’ve managed to save several people-and failed to save one.

Nevertheless, there are other ways lawmakers could have attempted to stop drownings, such as increasing the number of lifeguards or providing swim instruction to landlocked people or even requiring swimmers to use yellow inflation devices on the high seas. It’s necessary to wear seatbelts, I get that. You can mitigate unnecessary risks with a little paternalism. There are dangers associated with mountain climbing. There is a risk associated with mountain biking. There is danger in playing football. There is a risk associated with skiing. The dangers of open-water swimming cannot be overstated. There is danger in life. Taking preventive measures and intentionally facing these challenges may be the essence of being human.

Thoreau went to this pond to “live deliberately,” or to live deeply in order to avoid what is all too common of us — learning too late that we haven’t lived. In April of last year, I wore a wetsuit to this pond after undergoing bypass surgery. 58 degrees is dangerously cold, so the water was dangerously cold. The month before, I had been hacked apart at the sternum, so I slipped in and started to swim as best I could. Thirty seconds in, I collapsed on my back, gasped, and gagged. That day, I decided I would not be able to swim across Walden at that moment. The decision has been made by a number of people, and it should remain so. I still would like to make that decision if I can swim in the pond on many days, so I will.

Halfway across was where I stood. In an effort to find out if I was alone, I peeked out of the window. There was no sign of my lifeguard. At the launch ramp, the dinghy remained firmly attached.

There was nothing grand or defiant about my swim. While living at Walden, Thoreau wrote the essay “Civil Disobedience” to protest gross injustice-slavery and imperialism. As a result of his refusal to support a government without moral compass, he refused to pay taxes. Due to his refusal, he was thrown in jail, and made the argument that jail was the only appropriate place for a person of character in such times. The statement was similar to Martin Luther King Jr. saying that we are morally obliged to follow just laws, but we are also bound to break the unjust ones.

There was no protest like this in Walden. The right of a philosophy professor to trek across an ocean in search of enlightenment is not the most important thing. In spite of the fact that we are living in a world filled with restrictions, swimming in Walden will continue to be a simple, joyous freedom. A mind prone to the amorality of privileged life was roused by my refusal to listen to the polite young man. There was nothing scary or difficult about protesting. Occasionally I find myself in trouble defending things I care about. The one in question was this. I may want to consider others as well.

A fine of $500 is imposed in Massachusetts for swimming in public open water. The fate of criminal trespassers at Walden will remain a mystery to me, for better or for worse. I was overturned from the open-water swimming law three days after the altercation with my teenage guardian. The Governor was swayed by fifteen thousand signatures on a petition of protest. I wasn’t alone in the middle of the pond in the end, but I will always be grateful for the passing feeling of being alone. Trespassing is worthwhile in some cases. My state-mandated yellow buoy will accompany me to the swimming pool tomorrow morning at 6 a.m.

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