the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Swimming Past the Sharks


In case someone reads this post two years from now and doesn’t remember the name Diana Nyad — she is an American endurance swimmer, and today, at age 64, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the help of a shark tank.

It was Nyad’s fifth try to complete the approximately 110-mile swim. She tried three times in 2011 and 2012. She had also tried in 1978.

Her last attempt was cut short amid boat trouble, storms, unfavorable currents and jellyfish stings that left her face puffy and swollen.

“I am about to swim my last 2 miles in the ocean,” Nyad told her 35-member team from the water, according to her website. “This is a lifelong dream of mine and I’m very very glad to be with you.”

I learned about her success on Facebook. My timeline was filled with supportive responses to her amazing feat.

“Diana Nyad is my hero.”

“This just proves what I tell my children. If you try hard enough, you can succeed in anything.”

“I hope to be like her when I get older — accomplishing greatness in MY sixties!”


“What do you think of the woman who swam from Cuba to Florida?” I asked my mother at lunch.

My mother wasn’t following the story. She was watching a Labor Day Perry Mason marathon on the Hallmark Channel.

“What woman? I haven’t been following it.”

“Her name is Diana Nyad. And she’s sixty four years old!”

“That’s great. Amazing. Was she trying to escape?”

“Escape? Escape from what?”

“Escape from Cuba for asylum? Is that why she was swimming to Florida?”

“No. She wasn’t swimming to escape. She was swimming because she is a long distance swimmer and this was her lifelong dream! She never gave up.”

“Her lifelong dream was to swim from Cuba to Florida?”


“That’s crazy. Couldn’t she just take a boat?”


3PM, Labor Day

I’m in my bed. Thinking about swimming from Cuba to Florida. There are vibrations going up and down my body, as if a thousand electric toothbrushes are powered up and pressing against my skin at once, shaking my nerves.

There is something about Diana Nyad’s accomplishment — the fact that she never gave up, even for a goal that my own mother saw as rather unnecessary — that has brought me close to a nervous breakdown.


3:30PM, Labor Day

Maybe I was being a little over dramatic before. I’m fine. I can be a bit of a drama queen. Everything’s fine.


4:00PM, Labor Day

I’m sitting at my laptop. I’m feeling better. Not sure what happened before. But let me tell you — during the last couple of weeks, I have been acting very strangely, more so than usual. It’s as if my body is sending my brain a message. Or more likely, the other way around.


4:30PM, Labor Day

In the 1960s, there was a popular therapy technique called “flooding.” It was used on patients with various phobias. A woman scared of elevators, for instance, would be forced into a closed elevator to confront her darkest fears until she would pass out from hypertension, but then, miraculously, from that day on, she would be able to take elevators without a problem. While the method seems primitive and cruel today, it was also quite effective.

During the last two weeks, I have been flooding myself, almost as if I want to fix every leaky valve in my brain before the start of Rosh Hashanah. While none of my personal little goals have been as dramatic as swimming a shark-infested ocean, they have been dangerous to me in that they forced me to swim into the dark waters of myself.

Two weeks ago, I submitted a screenplay that I had been working on for three years.

My thoughts at the time: (Is it any good? What if it isn’t any good? What if he doesn’t like it? What if it was better in that draft from two months ago? Why did I take that friend’s stupid advice of changing the “priest” character when it was way better before? Why am I so weak and compromise so easily?)

Last week, I placed a banner ad in my sidebar of my blog.

My thoughts at the time: (Am I being a hypocrite after everything I’ve ever said against monetization? Is it even worth if for such little money? How will my readers take it? Will they see me as too needy? Did I lose face with myself? Why do I feel nausea when I see the ad on my personal blog? Should I tell everyone to use an ad blocker so they don’t have to see the ad when the read my blog? Why WOULD I tell everyone to use an ad blocker so they don’t see the ad — isn’t that the point?!)

This weekend, while most of my friends enjoyed the last weekend of the summer swimming in lakes or hiking mountains, I stayed home, with an eye on a new prize — putting a few of my instagram photos for sale on my blog as prints.

My thoughts at the time — and now: (How much should I charge? Will I look like I am extorting friends? What if I charge too little and my real photographer friends feel like I am degrading the art of photography? Do I deserve to even make any money on an iphone photo? Who am I fooling? What if someone feels obligated to buy one, and they don’t really want to? What if someone buys one and then in a month they start a Kickstarter campaign for their own project, and I feel obligated to donate to it?)

Today, as a sixty-four year old woman finished achieved greatness in the water, my body, as a reaction to my own thought process over the last two weeks — gave up.

“This is not normal,” I told myself while lying in bed, looking up at the ceiling. “You have anxiety.”

I can hear some of my friends laughing.

“Dude, I could have told you this YEARS ago.”

I hate when people call me “dude.”

Why am I suddenly so obsessed with this idea of “feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” Why am I pushing myself? What am I trying to push myself to do? Would anyone care about Diana Nyad if she failed again, and decided it was time to give up? Why is she a hero? What did she do? Is she a nice person? What do I need to prove to others? To myself? Do I want to be the second person to swim from Cuba to Florida? Wouldn’t it better to just take a boat?

I exhaust myself.


  1. Sarah Piazza

    Can I just say that your BRAIN could totally swim from Cuba to Key West? And back?

  2. Denise

    My father is visiting right now. I haven’t even mentioned Diana to him, but I must now just to see what he says about it. I am personally blown away by her resilience. I must add, where can I buy the photos? I see no link. You need to work on your marketing. I see IG on the sidebar, but nothing about purchasing photos. Please help.

    • Neil

      Next week. Maybe.

  3. Sarah Piazza

    Yep, I’d buy one of your photos, too.

  4. Dana

    I’d have thought she was a hero if she tried and didn’t make it. I think it’s heroic to set a goal -especially one as frightening and ballsy and challenging as this – and have the nerve and resolve to work at it. Of course, the fact that she actually accomplished the swim, after failed attempts, makes her not just heroic but a badass to boot. I feel like our reactions to her feat are telling. I’m not sure exactly what they tell, but I found it so interesting today to see the varied reactions. I know some who learned she was about to finish and felt their own lives were somehow diminished. Others found it thrilling and the ultimate inspiration. As I told my husband earlier, we’re not all going to get to swim from Cuba, but we can tackle huge feats too, ones just as terrifying and life-affirming..

    • Neil

      But maybe, in some ways, my mother is right. Is this what heroism is — setting up an unnecessary goal that’s difficult to reach and spending your life trying to achieve it? Is that really inspirational, more than the teacher who works down the block?

    • Neil

      And what if we never overcome our fears and finish the swim? Can we ever look at ourselves in the mirror?

      • The Animated Woman

        We don’t have to ‘accomplish’ to succeed; we only have to try our best.

  5. kate inglis

    They say that when kids lose it—temper, balance, calmness—the only way to get them to snap out of it is to get them out of their heads and into their bodies. A burst of physical play, running ten times around the house, skipping rocks, anything. I think the same is good for adults. Specifically, thinking less. Also, it’s hard to submit but the moment you do, it’s out of your hands. There is nothing you can do except perhaps try again next time. So don’t worry about it until next time.

  6. Elizabeth Aquino

    Before I proselytize about mindfulness meditation, I’ll say that I know nothing and can’t answer any of the questions you posed except to state that Diana Nyad is actually a nice person — at least according to my husband whose business she frequented many times (he is a chef and owned a cafe/take-out/restaurant until last year). Calling her a hero, I think, is a bit extreme, but again, what do I know? I can only shake my head in wonder at those who do things like climb glaciers or Everest or swim millions of miles.

  7. Alexandra

    You may exhaust yourself, but you make me feel less lonely in the world.

    No small thing, Neil.

    Thank you.

  8. Michelle Andres

    Thoroughly enjoyed living vicariously through the recollection of your breakdown. I firmly believe their comes a point, for many but not all of us, when we begin to touch on the edges of what will happen if we don’t pursue our dreams. I love helping people transition into that place of fear where they put it all on the line and taste the victory…or not. Some people don’t understand this, my mother wouldn’t either. Those of us who do are blessed and obligated to charge forward. Good for you!!! All the best on your screenplay! It is a masterpiece regardless and you, undoubtedly, are a hero!

  9. angela

    i think you need to find diane and ask her.
    it wont make any difference on your *why*
    but it would be pretty cool to know

    now i am going to look at your prints and appreciate them for the image and for the swimming it took you to get you there.

  10. The Animated Woman

    Congrats on your manuscript; letting go of something like that is like letting go of a baby. I hope you can relax soon.

    Sorry for all those times I called you “dude”.

  11. Kerstin @ Auer Life

    Why don’t you use your tumblr blog to sell your IG prints?
    (also: nothing wrong with taking the boat. a speedboat even.)

  12. Joe

    I agree with your mother. Take a frickin’ boat.

  13. Rene Foran

    My thoughts on the swim?
    Awesome for Diana.
    Truly swell.
    I am way too vain for that shit

  14. caron

    I don’t enjoy being a “shoulder” about weird stuff, but this has helped me so much, I have to share. My anxiety was much like what I read here. Constant self doubt and fear, no matter how the world tried to tell me otherwise. I talked therapied
    until I lost my voice. I think it’s important to talk it out too, but if those messages are still looping endlessly, this might help.

    There has to be someone in NYC who does therapy if there is someone here in Lake Wobegon who does it. Costs me the same as a massage, so, not cheap, but 1/2 0f talk therapy.

    It’s so simple, and yet powerful. It’s like Taoist truth – it’s hard to speak about.

    You deserve to feel as good about yourself as the rest us feel about you. You are talented and amazing.

  15. Jack

    There is joy in the journey, the hard part is recognizing it.

  16. Chrisor (ynotkissme)

    Neil, you write dialogue better than anyone else on the Internet. I’m not surprised you’ve written and submitted a screenplay. I can totally understand the anxiety you have because I can’t shut my mind off either. It’s about time you’re selling your Instagram prints! You are already a success in my eyes; all you have to do is convince yourself of that. 🙂

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