July 14, 2020
When I was a kid, growing up in Encino, we had a pool in our backyard. It was what they call in the real estate business “kidney-shaped” (though do you really want to think about kidneys and swimming in the same breath?), and it had rounded concrete edges and a diving board with a nice, solid bounce.
There was very little to do in that house in the 1970s on a summer day. We lived on a busy street on one of those hills that are ubiquitous in the south San Fernando Valley — not really a hill, but the side of a Santa Monica Mountain — and the cars whooshed by on their way to either the flat, sidewalked streets at the top, or to Ventura Boulevard down below. There were hardly any kids around to play with, and none who were my friends. So when I think of the summers, I have two memories: day camp, or lounging for long hours by the pool with my younger brother, Mark.
The pool was surrounded by a chain link fence, I guess so no one could accidentally drown in it. Though I don’t remember a time when we couldn’t open the gate and a dog did drown in the pool once, a Scottish terrier named Heather, who was only 14 months old, and the fence had nothing to do with it. But anyway, there it was, and to get there you’d walk out the back door and across the asphalt driveway — where a pepper tree shed crushable red pellets and lizards dashed, from one spot of shade to the next — up three cement steps, to the gate with one of those horseshoe-shaped latches that you’d have to lift up with one hand while you pushed the gate with the other. This was not easy when you were holding towels and drinks and god knows whatever else you needed to sustain you because the back door was always too far to go.
And then you were there, and there were so many possibilities. You could sit in a chair or lie on a chaise lounge. All were made out of metal frames criss-crossed with plastic strips that stuck to the back of your legs and left checked red marks when you got up. The chaise lounges, though, were fun, because they could be adjusted, from barely reclining to lying flat out on your back, and if you positioned your beach towel well enough, only the backs of your heels and ankles got glued to the furniture. Maybe you’d lie there and read a book, or sit part-way up and color in one.
You could turn on the radio, plugged into an electrical outlet, to KHJ-AM, and listen to the latest hits. Just don’t touch the cord when you’re wet.
The pavement was always scorching hot, so you could try walking on it barefoot and see how long you could go until the pain was so searing you leapt into the nearest chair, or the pool.
And the pool! You could have races. You could see how long you could hold your breath underwater. You could pretend there was an imaginary world underwater and pretend to have conversations with your imaginary friends, until you ran out of breath and had to resurface so you could gulp air and continue the story.
You could dive off the diving board, which was made of decaying wood topped by some peeling material that could occasionally leave you at risk of splinters. But mostly it was okay. You could do a cannonball. You could do a belly flop. You could learn how much belly flops hurt and teach yourself how to execute a proper dive.
You could also walk along the pool’s edge, one foot in front of the other, not quite balanced, about to either fall in sideways or simply stumble on the broiling cement.
At a time when I lacked neighbors and 24 hour screens, it was about as much fun as I could possibly have on a hot day when school was out and, for whatever reason, camp wasn’t on the schedule. I knew it was good. But I knew other kids had it better — more friends to play with, more space to play in — and even as I enjoyed myself, there was no denying the isolation and even loneliness of those long, summer days.
Friends, I think we are all stuck this summer in some version of my Encino backyard. There’s the trappings of the season — the heat and the wet and the family and the furniture we know too well and the creative-fun making. Many of us are privileged, and some are not, but we are all united in wanting more. No matter how much fun that pool is, in the end it’s not the ocean. It’s not even a lake. And as many games as you and your brother can dream up, is it ungrateful to wish that a few more people could join the party?
Here’s the difference: summer ended, and we went back to school. But school’s back online this fall. The country is shutting down again. Across the world, other nations are getting back to normal. Taiwan just held a film festival. New Zealand managed to bring the virus to heel, and the government has lifted almost all restrictions. In the entire nation of Canada, there were 321 cases last week. Meanwhile, Florida tops 15,000 in one day alone.
I love my home life, just like I loved that backyard in Encino. But I’ve been here all spring. I’m going to stay here all summer. Looks like the fall will be more of the same. It doesn’t have to be this way. We are destroying ourselves with our lack of imagination, our inability to pivot in a crisis, our insistence that the way we’ve always done it — each person for herself, individual before community, community before nation — is the way we must barrel forward.
And so here we will remain, stranded in what my family used to so poetically call the “pool area,” making games out of hot concrete and a splintering diving board and a mammoth bowl of chlorinated water. Better order up some foam noodles, and a couple of rafts. It’s going to be a long one.