I remember years ago watching That’s Incredible! on television. On this particular episode they showed a group of people that they portrayed as completely insane: a Polar Bear club who would start off their New Year with a swim in icy water. I remember being simultaneously horrified at the thought and fascinated by it. What would possess people to do such a thing? Why were they having a good time doing something that sounded like misery?
Now, just a few weeks ago, I found myself about 30 years older. In the intervening time I somehow learned to dislike the cold much more than I had as a kid. I try to minimize the amount of time I spend outside in the winter and when I am outside I try to get my work done as quickly as I can so I can get back indoors where I grumpily wish for the day I see the first signs of spring. In other words, while I am a tremendously positive person most of the time, if you catch me outdoors when the temperature is below freezing you’re likely to find yourself with a misanthropic old Archie Bunker caught in the body of a 42 year old.
A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine sent me an invitation to join her in the 2013 Polar Bear Dip in Lake Ontario on New Year’s Day. The name immediately woke up 9 year old Todd. “I remember that! That’s where the crazy people jump in the water and scream and laugh and have an amazing time. I want to find out what that’s all about!!” But you bet old Archie Bunker had his say. “Awwww Jeeez! Do you know how cold it’s going to be!? If you don’t actually freeze to death, you’ll probably spend the rest of the winter colder than you already are.” He was already calling in reinforcements in the form of “The voice of my dad,” “My Grade 10 Health Science Teacher,” and just in case I might still listen to him, Father Paul from St. Anthony’s Church where I hadn’t attended a service since 1981. But it was too late, before he could bring any of them in, I had clicked “Join”
Sure, I had lots of reservations, but part of me clearly thought it was a good idea, and if last summer’s ride didn’t teach me that doing something many people, including part of yourself, thinks is crazy was a great way to do something amazing, everyone participating in this project certainly did. If you had listened to your internal pessimist, the one who thinks you might have a bad idea or something better to do, someone wouldn’t have visited residents in a long-term care facility, a Grade 8 English teacher wouldn’t have found out what a difference they made in someone’s life, and nobody would have sent hundreds of cards to residents of The Moorings in Illinois. There would be no dithering as to whether this was a good idea or not. I had the impulse to do it for a reason and it was time to follow through.
And so with Archie Bunker tied up in the back of my subconscious with over 1,000 acts of kindness pledged, and gagged with a 1,534 kilometre father/son bike ride, I found myself out at the edge of Lake Ontario with two friends and several hundred other people. The temperature outside was -5C (23F) and the ground was snow-covered. Relative to the air, the water was positively balmy at 5C (41F). I was wearing nothing but a bathing suit and water shoes. In the background Dhol Circle drummed and the January sun tried its best to warm us all. Before we had time to register what was happening or to talk ourselves out of it, it was time to go and everyone entered the water. When the water reached my knees I remember thinking “Wow, this isn’t so bad, really!” We pushed further out until the water was up to my stomach. At this point, any thoughts of “Wow, this isn’t too cold, after all!” had disappeared. The cold was beginning to literally take my breath away and pushing through the water seemed to get harder by the step. I turned around and my two friends were there. We looked at one another, and someone asked if we were going under. Before we could answer or talk ourselves out of it, someone else started counting. “One, Two, Three!” And that was it, we went under. We were now completely submerged in water that was colder than any water I might avoid on the hottest summer day. We ran back toward the snowy beach, trying to find where we’d left our towels and warm clothes. The cold was definitely affecting my brain, giving it the feeling of both incredible focus on one need: “Where are the warm things?!” and being scattered, looking all over trying to find where it might be Finally we found our things among the crowds of people. A few minutes was all it took to towel off and get back into our warm clothes, my only regret being that I didn’t bring a second pair of warm, dry shoes.
And the verdict? 9 year old Todd was right. I had an amazing time. Starting the year off doing something crazy that I’d always been curious about was tremendously rewarding. Doing it with friends was even more fun. And Archie Bunker and all of the friends he tried to call in? Well, they didn’t even bother to show up. I guess he knew the power of just following your instincts and making good on your intentions.