Bonnie Tsui, WHY WE SWIM

Bonnie Tsui, WHY WE SWIM

Zibby Owens: Bonnie Tsui, spelled T-S-U-I, was born in Queens, New York, and raised on Long Island. Her parents met in a swimming pool in Hong Kong, which perhaps was part of the reason she developed a huge love of swimming and wrote the book Why We Swim. She attended Harvard University where she rowed crew, snowboarded, and graduated magna cum laude in English and American Literature and Language. She wrote a book in 2009 called American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods which won the 2009-2010 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and was a San Francisco Chronicle best seller. She’s been a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Gold Award for travel journalism and the Jane Rainie Opel Young Alumna Award at Harvard University. In 2017, she was awarded the 2017 Karola Saekel Craib Excellence in Food Journalism Fellowship by the San Francisco Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. A frequent contributor to The New York Times and California Sunday magazine, Bonnie has performed many times at Pop-Up Magazine and other live storytelling events. She helped launch F&B: Voices from the Kitchen, a storytelling project from La Cocina. She currently lives and surfs in the Bay Area and works at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.

Welcome, Bonnie. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Bonnie Tsui: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’m so glad to be here.

Zibby: Poor Bonnie, we just did like ten minutes of this without recording it. I’m making her do this again right away. I’m sorry for the technical issues, but here we go. We’ll have some of the same conversation, but I’m sure it’ll be better the second time. Actually, the third time because you were on my Instagram Live show, which was amazing and made me want to have an even longer conversation with you. Here we are.

Bonnie: Zibby, I will talk to you anytime you’ll have me. It’s a joy.

Zibby: Thank you. Why We Swim is your book. Why do we swim? Why did you write this book? What’s it about?

Bonnie: This book is a cultural and scientific exploration of our human relationship with water and swimming. We’ve been talking a lot about survival and community and competition and flow and all these reasons why we do it, and well-being. Before all of this, I would’ve said survival definitely is the most vital reason for swimming. Now I keep thinking about survival in all these different ways in these times. You and I were chatting about this before, just that we are in this moment of great uncertainty. We need time to recalibrate and be with our thoughts to understand what it is that we’re thinking. Right now, getting in the water is one of the best mental health things that we can do. You were just telling me about how you’ve been getting in the water for the first time this season, right?

Zibby: Yes. After our Instagram Live when I realized I hadn’t gone swimming in months, after hearing about all the benefits and reading about them in your book, all the physiological and emotional benefits of swimming — I’ve always loved to swim. Like you, I was in the pool at age three. I just love it. I swim laps all the time. I love it. I haven’t ever competed. It’s just something that I always have had a huge affinity for, which probably drew me to your book maybe more than other people because I love it. Anyway, even in the chaos of kids and podcasting and everything else, I’ve been like, you know what, getting in the pool, it’s such a luxury, A, but B, just so easy a way to deal with any sort of stress. It always makes me feel better. If you have the opportunity to swim, you should just do it. I’ll just say that.

Bonnie: Right. It’s so restorative. I know that a lot of people these days aren’t able to get into pools because most public pools are closed. I’ve been getting into San Francisco Bay and doing open-water swimming. I was just thinking about how the other day I ran into a doctor friend of mine. She had never been an open-water swimmer. Of course, I’m watching all these people adapt and putting on wetsuits and figuring out inflatable buoys and things to get out there and feel safe. We were walking up from the beach and she said, “I just feel so much better now. This has been a week.” Just the moment of stepping into the water and seeing the expansiveness and experiencing the connection to the water and the world, I think that is so important. We’re wired to respond to that. Again, the science just resoundingly supports how we find so much benefit in immersion.

Zibby: I know your parents met at a swimming pool. You’ve been swimming your whole life and competing, and you and your brother, and lifeguarding and all the rest. It’s a huge part of your DNA and what you do. There’s a big difference between enjoying swimming and writing an entire book about why we swim. How did you end up writing this particular book? Why make it into a book?

Bonnie: I spent a lot of years — it was really six years ago when I was started to think about swimming as maybe a book that I’d want to do. It was because I’d written an essay for The New York Times about the water, swimming being this last refuge for connectivity. At the time, I remember thinking it is a place where we can, not hide or escape exactly, but just sort of be unreachable for a while. That was so healthy. That was something that we’re not used to being anymore. We’re not used to having just time with our thoughts. Getting in the water is a kind of enforced isolation. Unfortunately, most of us are pretty accustomed to this enforced isolation now. It is a certain kind of restorative isolation where you get in the water. You are in a different medium. You are able to check in with yourself and just to be, just to be very present. I started to think about that. I started to think about the ways that being a swimmer over the course of my life has helped me to work through all these hard things.

Then I thought, I want to hear from other swimmers. I want to hear from extraordinary swimmers. I want to hear from competitive swimmers. I want to hear survival stories. The frame of the book is a personal one because of my family, my parents meeting in a swimming pool in Hong Kong and just having a lifelong relationship with the water and swimming, but it is filled with stories of other people because I am journalist. I’m drawn to other people telling me about themselves. I wanted to weave all of that into a story that felt really expansive, that had something for everyone, had something for someone who is a swimmer like you and me, we instinctively know that it does something for us that’s really valuable; and then for people who don’t call themselves swimmers, who say, I’m so afraid of the water. I’ve always wanted to be a better swimmer, but I’m just so afraid of it. I want to know why, and why is that, and to learn more about our human relationship with it. I wanted to do that with this book.

Zibby: You do a great job of talking about the emotional benefits, psychological benefits of swimming. I know I just read you this quote when we didn’t record it, but I’m reading it again because I just love it. “Even in grief, the breakup of my parents, a miscarriage, the death of a friend, I have marked time by water. I won’t linger on these sorrows because I don’t mean to say that swimming cured me of them. I will say that swimming, in all of its permutations, in a pool, in a lake, paddling a surfboard out to sea, has always helped me come out on the other side of a difficult time.” I’ll keep reading now. “The tides keep changing twice a day. Water is in a forever state of flux. To swim is to witness metamorphosis in our environment, in ourselves. To swim is to accept all the myriad conditions of life.” That is so awesome. It’s just as awesome the second time in ten minutes. It’s really beautiful. You talk in the book about how these difficult moments in your life were so, not mitigated, but made a little bit better by how you handled them in this way. That’s a powerful tool.

Bonnie: Right, it is. We go back to survival. It’s a survival tool. It’s a survival tool for our times. Maybe back in the day it was because we were diving for shellfish or seeking new lands. Now it’s something that feels equally vital. It’s a way of coping with a lot of the things that we’re dealing with right now.

Zibby: Then tell me a little more about Kim Chambers and how her water-based therapy helped her recover.

Bonnie: Kim Chambers is a world-record holding marathon swimmer, for those of you who don’t know. She only really started swimming as rehab after almost losing a leg to amputation after an accident. It turns out she’s freakishly gifted at long-distance swimming. She started to swim in San Francisco Bay as part of her rehab. She noticed that her leg, she got more feeling in it. It seemed like maybe the nerves were regenerating. She felt like she had this rebirth, like a second chance at life, really, to be swimming. She has since become one of the best marathon swimmers in the world. She was the first woman to swim from the Farallons to San Francisco, and in the notorious red triangle of sharks. She is a really extraordinary person and swimmer. Her story anchors the section of the book that is called Well-Being. It’s about how we have always thought about water as a cure-all for all kinds of crazy ailments. It turns out there’s some pretty good basis for that.

Zibby: That’s always good to hear. There’s a reason why. That’s awesome. One more thing about swimming which you talk about is how it relates to mortality and your view of that. This is another quote. “Swimming in open water is one small way of confronting that, of getting closer to the fire of wanting to stay alive, of warding off death, without the terror of having to do it for real. Maybe it’s a kind of dress rehearsal.” Talk to me more about that.

Bonnie: I have always been really afraid of death from when I was a kid. I think I remember going to visit my grandfather’s grave and just feeling that things were beyond my control and understanding. I have always had this sense of mortality as something that I wanted to be able to grasp and understand in some way. It’s beyond our control. We all face it. Yet how do you live every day knowing that? Swimming is, weirdly enough — I’ve done a lot of research and reading into this. Because of the porousness between states, swimming and drowning, life and death, it’s an exercise. It’s like a practice. It’s a meditation in being smaller than the world and being okay with that and understanding that life is fragile, but it’s still really beautiful, and to be attuned to the sensory elements and enjoyment of every moment. It allows you to be in the present moment and to acknowledge where you are right now. I think that that’s a really beautiful thing.

Zibby: How did you get into journalism to begin with? Did you always know you loved to write? How did that start?

Bonnie: I did always know that I liked to write. My dad is an artist. When I was growing up, I always thought I was going to be an artist. He actually said to me, “You should be an artist. It’s very hard to be a painter. You should just be a plastic surgeon because then you can still play with people’s faces, but then you can make money doing it.” I said, “I don’t think that’s really what I’m going for here.” Then I became the next best thing to being an artist, which is a freelance writer. So stable, right? I loved storytelling. I loved drawing when I was a kid. I also loved writing. I loved the combination of those two things. Then once I got to college, I discovered that nonfiction could be just as creative and innovative as fiction. I wanted to pull in those elements of telling a true story but being able to tell it in such a way that there’d be characters. There’s a narrative to it. There’s a tension you can hold. Because the stories are real, they’re just as meaningful as a story that you spin out of your head. It’s all about how we tell that story. We humans love to hear stories. I feel like the story of us and the story of swimming and the story about how we pass on these skills over time, it’s just what we are as human beings. We pass on meaning that way. I’ve always been really gripped by that power.

Zibby: Now do your kids like to swim?

Bonnie: They love swimming. They love swimming. It’s one of my greatest accomplishments that they do, basically just because they watched me. They’re seven and nine. If they draw a picture of me, they draw me on a surfboard or swimming in the ocean. I would say that they know me pretty well and they have absorbed the love of the water from me. That is really something that I take a lot of pride in.

Zibby: That’s great. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Bonnie: Oh, gosh. That is a great question, and especially now. I would say, especially with books — I’m a journalist. I’m often mostly writing magazine and newspaper stories, but I’ve written a few books. This book, Why We Swim, was such a joy to write every step of the way. It was because I knew that over the years I was thinking about it that it was a book that I had to write no matter what. I would say that if you find yourself thinking about something so much, like in your downtime, on your weekends, on your vacation, and you just have a story that you need to tell that you can’t stop thinking about, then you know that you have to write it. Do it.

Zibby: What is coming next? Are you still writing? Are you working on another book or just more shorter pieces? What are you doing now?

Bonnie: I am actually writing another book called The Fallow Time Handbook. This was also based on an essay I wrote for The New York Times last summer. It is about what I call fallow time, which is active rest. It’s the restorative time that you need to do the work that you do well. Oftentimes, that’s creative work that may not look like work or what we recognize as work. The weird thing about that is that since I have signed the contract to write this book, everyone has been ushered into a forced fallow time. It’s the greatest natural experiment in fallow that I could possibly imagine. It’s complicated things in really interesting ways. I’m thinking about it and talking to people and interviewing folks. That’s what I’m doing. It’s been challenging, as you know, to concentrate on anything for any period of time. I keep thinking about it as the, I think we talked about this last time, the Zeno’s paradox of divided, subdivided, micro-divided time. How can you do anything when you hold these slivers of time in your hand of any meaningful, purposeful — how do you create? How do you make things? Right now, I’m trying to manage. I wrote four sentences yesterday. I thought, that is a great day for me right now, and to be content with that and to understand that this is a really strange time. We’re all working through it. As a writer, I think there’s a lot to notice and observe and document right now. I also feel like there’s plenty of people doing that. Right now, I’m just listening. I’m watching. I’m observing and hoping that on the other side of this that I can make meaning from it.

Zibby: That’s beautiful. Thank you. Thank you so much for repeating yourself because of my mistake and for coming on again and for being on Instagram Live and for this great book and all your time and research and how you turned it into a story but also a handbook. It’s really awesome. It’s great. Now I think of you whenever I swim, so there we have it.

Bonnie: Thank you so much, Zibby. I also want to give a shout-out to my mom because my mom was the one who put us together in the first place.

Zibby: That’s right. That’s right. I forgot. Bonnie, I forgot that.

Bonnie: She saw you on TV. She called me up. She doesn’t do this. She called me and she said, “Bonnie, I just saw this wonderful woman on TV. Her name is Zibby Owens. Got that? Zibby Owens. You have a new book. You should talk to her.” I said, “Okay, Mom. I’ll contact her.” Thanks, Mom. I’m just shouting out to you.

Zibby: Thanks, Mom. By the way, she was not the only mom. I had so many moms, grandmothers, friends say, my friend has a book. My daughter has a book. My son has a — so don’t worry. I got a lot of those.

Bonnie: You are like the shining beacon before them, like, you need to talk to Zibby. Thank you for having me. It’s really a joy to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Have a great day.

Bonnie: You too. Bye.

Zibby: Bye, Bonnie. Thanks.

Bonnie Tsui, WHY WE SWIM