28 March 2011

Confessions of a 40-Something Pool Rat

Looking back on a lifetime spanning now six different decades (1960’s through 20-teens), there are few things that I can point to that have been part of my life throughout this time.  One of them has been a love for swimming, diving, swimming pools, and in general, being submerged in water.  I believe chlorine is in my blood.

Within a few weeks of arriving in Columbia, my family found itself at the Running Brook Pool.  Equipped with the little 2”x2” pool passes pinned to our suits, we began the yearly ritual of escaping the heat of summer in the water.  After three short weeks of lessons, I found myself part of the Running Brook Swim Team.  Somewhere in my house I have a shoebox filled with decades-old swimming ribbons.  Small badges marking stroke, time and place from long ago.  I remember the maroon and white striped swimsuits were not all too protective from the sun, and resulted in alternating tan-and-not-tan stripes on my butt.  This was also my first introduction to Visine.

Summer days were filled with splashing in the 3ft and “taking the Nestea Plunge” in the 5ft (a maneuver that today would raise the ire of CA’s risk management overlords).  All of this periodically interrupted by the lifeguard’s long whistle trill signaling adult swim.  This provided time for us kids to find their way to the 7-eleven for Slurpees and the occasional purchase of Wacky-Packages or Odd Rod sticker packs (yes, thanks to the wonder of the internet, they are still available).  Those days ended back at home, with hair bleached by sun and chlorine to point of almost being translucent and total exhaustion.  Yes, we slept well on those summer nights.

As childhood blossomed into pre-teen and adolescence, Columbia’s aquatics grew to more than a dozen pools scattered throughout the city.  Toughskins cut-offs gave way to OP shorts and swimsuits.  Someone invented the boombox.  WPGC and WAVA went from the AOR format to pop-40.  Funk and R&B were provided equally by WOOK (OK-100) and the big ol’ funky V-103.  The word “lightsaber” entered the lexicon.

Back at the pool (now the Dasher Green pool), swimming proficiency expanded from freestyle to backstroke and then breaststroke to butterfly.  Splashing in the shallow end migrated to all kinds of merriment in the deep end. 

The 1-meter diving board, installed throughout the city, became a focus.  As with all things aquatic, it begins with learning:  Step out to the end, turn around and take three steps back.  Take two steps, and on the third step, hop; land with two feet and find yourself sprung into the air.  After that, what happens was up to you and your imagination.  And this is where it gets interesting.  No matter where you lived in Columbia, the types of dives, even when left to the imagination, efficiently whittled down to a few different types of dives.  The simple forward dive, the swan dive, the “jackknife.”  The forward flip, forward 1-1/2, and the hard to accomplish forward double.  The backflip, the back 1-1/2, the gainer.  Apart from the acrobatics existed a second type of dive – the “splash dive.”  The intent here is completely counter to the Olympic diving ideal: bounce off the board and displace as much water when you hit the surface.  The belly-flop, the cannonball, the can opener, wherein one leg is gripped by the arms combined with a falling-backward motion only after touching the water.  Hours were spent launching off the board, splashing, and then returning to the end of the line again to get the chance to refine and repeat the performance.

As middle school gave way to high school, the chance to work at the pool presented itself.  This required obtaining Red Cross lifeguard certification and was taught over-winter at the Columbia Swim Center.  For those who are old-dog Columbia lifeguards, you know who ran the lifeguard certification.  Kitty was an affable woman who embodied years of experience and wisdom with regard to water safety, first aid, and responsibility.  This course was unlike any other course for Columbia’s teens.  It required study and passing written and practical exams.  All those kind and friendly lifeguards that we had known through the years showed up to ensure that anyone taking the course was going to know how to keep the pool safe and how to rescue anyone in trouble.

Completion of the course and subsequent employment of the Columbia Association put pool operation in a whole new light.  Work involved not only shifts “in the chair” or at the front desk, but also included a needed knowledge of pool filtration, water chemistry, and a knowledge of pumping systems.  There was a lot of cleaning.  But there was a cadre of great people.  Suddenly your peer group was not limited to your neighborhood and high school, but expanded city wide.  Fast friendships were developed with Peter, Ellen and Larry from Atholton, Beth and Chris from Wilde Lake (although Beth lived in Clemens Crossing), Jen, John, Cindy, Mary, and Luke from Oakland Mills, Benny and Kim (and her younger brother Steve) from Centennial, Jimmy (and his brothers John and Dennis) and Rich from Mt. Hebron, and Judy, who lived in Catonsville, but found her way down to Columbia every summer.  Many of these friends are still close to this day.

During this time, CA expanded offerings at some of the pools.  Hot tubs were installed.  Volleyball went from “on grass,” to “on mulch,” to “on sand.”  Splashdown opened at the Columbia Swim Center.

It was at the end of this era that the imbalance occurred.  As with most forms of recreation, aquatics offerings evolve.  After two decades of pool operations, a different type of pool emerged in the late 1980’s; the “superpool.”  Let’s first go on record and say that at the time, the Columbia Association was correct in constructing superpools in Hawthorn, Dickenson, River Hill, and Kendall Ridge.  I take a little bit of exception to the construction of the Clary’s Forest superpool, given that it is less than a mile from Hawthorn.  Construction of those pools demonstrated that CA continued to be on the leading edge of aquatic recreation.

What also occurred at that time was that CA quietly changed the name of the non-indoor division from “Neighborhood Pools” to “Outdoor Pools.”  CA now claims that this change in nomenclature signaled that they would no longer pursue the Columbia Vision of having a pool in every Columbia neighborhood.

From that point forward, not all Columbia pools were created equal.  Before the advent of the superpool, most aquatic facilities followed a predictable offering.  Each provided lanes for lap swimming, a diving board (with one or two exceptions), a roped-off shallow end, and a deeper end.  There were differences.  Some pools are 25 meters; some are 25 yards.  Some baby pools are round, others square.  Some bathhouses are little more than a small bathroom and shower.  Some bathhouses are more extensive.  Bryant Woods has perpetually shaded by trees (and some like that just fine).  Huntington and Dorsey’s Search have a lot of deck and not much grass.  All-in-all, the differences were not so large that a pool a little farther away was not so different than the one close by.  In fact, as I have lived these few decades in aquatic bliss, I have known many people that would just not go to another pool on the day of the week that their pool was closed.  The end result was that in the past, pools provided equal opportunity for relief from the heat and family fun, and the pool attending population was dispersed throughout the city.

In the current era, the superpools have quite a bit to offer: beach (or zero-depth) entry, fountains, snack bar, hot tubs (not at Dickensen), and sand volleyball courts.  By comparison, pools constructed before the superpools suffer from the lack of amenities.  This resulted in a concentrating of pool-goers at a few pools, with others seeing low attendance figures.

This brings me to the current relationship with Columbia’s pools.  As a parent, I have looked forward to introducing my kids to the water.  Over the last few summers, we have had a great time splashing around and learning how to swim.  My son loves the summer swim league, and I have had a great time participating in the master’s events.  Here is what has been our family experience with the summer pools:  If we get a chance to hit the water during the week, our number one priority is to get to the pool as fast as possible so that we can maximize our time in the water.  On the weekends, the focus shifts because we know that we will spend a significant time at the pool.  It is then that choices need to be made.  Do we want to spend time with classmates?  The local pool works well for this, but it is not absolute.  Our local elementary school is fed by children in four different Villages, so spending time in the water with classmates can lead us to four different locations.  The other driver is what can be done at the pool.  At the superpools, the kids can roam from the fountain to the diving board to the volleyball court and back, and that can’t be done at some of the local pools.  I have also found that the beach entry is very good for allowing the little one to gain confidence on her terms.  At our older neighborhood pool, it is pretty much a yes/no proposition. 

Looking forward, I can soon see a day when I can go to the pool with the kids and they will be self-sufficient.  Playing in the pool as I did all those years ago.  I look forward to watching them do their thing and then getting in a few hundred yards of exercise.  I look forward to the sing-song Marco-Polo games while I am still perfecting that forward 1-1/2 or cannonball.  And for the first time in my life, I look forward to adult swim, and I will send my son to 7-eleven to get me a cherry and coke (mixed) slurpee.

09 March 2011

Speed Cameras Can be Fun

I’m not a fan of speed cameras, but I am resigned to the fact that they will be coming.  Some have stated speed cameras are a tax and certain Ford Mustang drivers have a lot to say about the subject.  For a great analysis of driver behavior, I strongly suggest checking out Sarah’s blog on the subject.  Behind all the discussion, I have been impressed by the approach the Ulman Administration has taken on this subject.  Rather that jumping into deployment, the administration conducted studies to quantify the problem.  Good idea to have the data to back your decision.  Personally, I would like to see the details broken down by school (and time of day), but the fact that 66% of drivers are speeding in school zones and nearly one-in-five motorists exceeded the speed limit by more than 12 mph, indicates a real problem.  The administration has also indicated as slow approach to deployment, using two cameras next year.  Contrasted with Baltimore County’s recent decision to expand their program, two cameras appears to be a measured first step.

Now let me share with you my personal experience, because, you see, I know speed cameras.  My place of employment is in College Park, Maryland; which is firmly ensconced with the bounds of Prince George’s County, Maryland.  The PGCo government started using speed cameras earlier this year.

speed camera2

What you see above is not the unlikely offspring of Number Five of the movie Short Circuit  and an Ingorsoll-Rand portable air compressor, it is a speed camera (although on some mornings, it does look self-aware).  This particular camera is located on the southbound side of U.S 1, a few hundred feet north of Greenbelt Road (MD-193).

This camera and a similar installation on Metzerott Road have been the subject of much discussion in my office building.  Few people were given notice that the cameras were active and the initial reaction was mild ire.  The protestations, the animated hand-waving about big brother and the general feeling of being coldly judged by technology all had their actors and places.  Over time, behaviors have changed and various levels of acceptance has grown.  From the admonition of fellow employees “watch your speed when you get out on Route 1, you know they’re watching,” to violators willingly posting tickets received on their cube wall or office door.  They are badges of dishonor proudly displayed to demonstrate “yes, I am human, I made a mistake.”

I provide this as background because if the speed cameras are installed, many people in Howard County can expect a similar reaction.

But it Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Now let me be clear and say that I don’t like speed cameras; but I do like serendipity, I like innovative thinking, and I like (although cliché) win-win outcomes.  Some of you hipster savvy readers may be acquainted with The Fun Theory an initiative by Volkswagen.  A few more of you out in Compass Nation may not know Fun Theory by its name, but are still familiar with their award winners.

Late in 2010, just as some of the counties in the region began researching speed camera sites, the Fun Theory announced an award winner that involved speed cameras.  The theory at play here is to reward good behavior rather than only punishing bad behavior.  The New York Times “Wheels” blog has a pretty good post on the subject.

As shown above, rather than taking a photo of only those exceeding the speed limit, the speed camera takes a photo of every car that passes by.  Those who speed still get a speeding ticket and fine; however, the drivers who pass the camera and obey the speed limit have their picture taken and are automatically entered into lottery.  Each (you pick ‘em, week, month, etc) a drawing is held for those entered in the lottery and the winner is awarded a portion of the fines issued by that particular speed camera.

The folks at Fun Theory tested this on a street in Stockholm, Sweden with positive results:

Transforming theory into practice isn’t always a smooth process.  I can already see two issues that may have to be resolved before this kind of innovative thinking can be deployed in Howard County.  First, I believe the maximum fine that is allowed by law is $40.  This apparently covers the cost of operating the cameras and does not provide for much of a lottery prize.  Legislation may have to be enacted to raise the upper limit on the fine to make the lottery an alluring proposition.  I would think $60 vs. $40.

Secondly, because of the chance for monetary gain, this type of arrangement might have the unintended consequence of increasing traffic near schools.  I believe some study should be performed to look at this possibility.  At its worst, the increased traffic would be presumably moving at the speed limit in an attempt to gain entrance into the lottery.

Although the presentations from Fun Theory and my discussion above are pretty light in theme, I believe the speed camera lottery idea should be given serious consideration.  By rewarding good behavior the system holds the promise of greater compliance with the posted speed limits and shifts the attitude of the general public from an onerous infraction to a possible gain for doing what you were supposed to do anyway.  If PGCo had adopted this idea, the discussion around my office would have been very different.  I hope the leaders in Howard County will give this serious consideration.