row2k Features
February Thaw
March 14, 2000
Alessandra Phillips

T.S. Eliot was wrong. February is the cruelest month. Every day, as I walked to work, I'd check the river faithfully for signs that the ice was indeed melting, and I checked the boathouse door just as faithfully each morning for the sign that would say that members were cleared to row. Then, finally, one day last week around noon, the magic message hit the inbox; and an excited flurry of emails working out details and logistics and bickering about seats erupted among members of my group, accompanied by plenty of longing glances out of office windows and furtive clock-watching. Once the hour hand hit five it was a mad dash home to gather up trou and lights for our first night row of the season.

We slip into the water like ghosts, thrilling at the newness of it and the unfamiliar rendered familiar in a few short strokes, the seduction of feeling the boat run under one almost silently. And for our first time back it's not bad; bowing the quad is a bit spooky, and the shoreline seems to loom like a murky Whistler painting, but there is power here, and the heady rush of joy as we glide up to the catch. We reacquaint ourselves with just what it is that makes us all follow this divine madness. Six miles, with water still as plate glass, and the stars dancing in it from the reverberations of the oar puddles. Upriver, it is utterly black, and I fumble to remember exactly how far off the bridge pilings are, and when to make the turns. We call a power ten past the island, and the effect of the dark velvet water is hypnotic, the trance deepened by the detached movement of the boat as it leaps beneath us. It's easy to lose one's bearings here, enveloped in the rhythm of the oars in the oarlocks and the flickering patterns that the street lamps cast on the dark water. The boathouses emerge from the gloom just in time to ground us with their comforting lacy intricacy of lights, and we dock--with some reluctance, but filled with this overwhelming tired happiness that seems unique to a good practice.

The next day, I drop by the coffee shop before work, and the fellow behind the counter notices my skinned knuckles and assortment of band-aids as I give him the money. He smiles and asks "Prizefighter?" I murmur "Something like that," and take the cup of coffee very carefully, as new blisters render my hands sensitive in the oddest places. The coffee shop is perennially out of those little paper sleeves, so I find myself doing my best Flipper impression, clutching the paper cup between my palms. By the time I get back to my office I nearly drop the cup on the desk. My colleagues are used to my eccentricities-I usually arrive like a hermit crab with a bag stuffed with rowing gear on my back, but this latest stunt has them stifling giggles. I have my revenge, however, in the production meeting, as I pull off the skin on my blisters in plain view. I must make clear, however, that I do not chew at my hands. I gave up that habit in high school.

So the start of the season is here; springspring SPRING! People are eager to row, no matter how cold it gets in these early mornings; they have a fresh exuberance, a wild joy at being liberated from the ergometer. What fools this season makes us, but what glad fools. It seems that people are smiling more around the boathouses, especially in these fluke days where you can actually feel warmth on your face when you turn towards the sun.

Speaking of folly in the springtime, when one is not interested in the advances of one's next door neighbor, research recently proved that the excuse "I have practice" is far better than the old "I have a boyfriend" routine, and a bit more original. As a friend pointed out, in general, it is more likely that one will end a relationship than give up rowing.

A not-so-hypothetical recent conversation:

Average Joe--"Hey, do you want to go out for a drink?" Rower type--"That sounds lovely, but I go to bed around 9 because I have to row at 5.30 tomorrow morning." Average Joe--"What? Don't you miss going out? How old are you?" Rower type--"Er, no. And isn't that a personal question?"

Obviously this does not work if the person in question is a rower: it's then that you are stuck with the old "I have a boyfriend / partner / dog / pet rock" standby. And if all else fails, brutal honesty is always an option, although perhaps not the best way to go, especially if you see said person either on the river or at the local diner on a regular basis. Be careful out there; ask not for whom the novice coxswain tolls; they toll for thee.

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