From the street, our house hardly looks like a haven for decadent self-indulgence. We have a tastefully landscaped lawn that gets attacked once a week--whether it needs it or not--by gardeners wielding assorted noisemaking devices. The little alcove by the front door is downright prim, with its porch light discreetly hidden inside an ornate cast-iron hood. Everything looks firmly under control.
But come around back, and you will see why some folks swore we had gone off the deep end when we moved in last summer. In fact, there’s the deep end right over there. The shallow end is over here, next to the spa.
We have a swimming pool. Nothing fancy, you understand. No faux boulders, no marble trim or waterfalls. Just a kidney-shaped blue puddle with a plain concrete deck and a narrow row of decorative tiles around it. It’s not really ours--we’re renting--but as long as we live here, we can pretend.
Back-yard pools are certainly nothing unusual in these parts; they’re as much a part of the county landscape as palm trees and clogged freeways.
So I’m always more than a little surprised at the reactions I get from people when they hear about it or--better yet--when they step outside and get a look at the thing.
Sometimes with words, other times with alternate forms of expression--dropped jaws, gasps, laughter--they all seem to echo the same theme:
“Pretty extravagant, isn’t it?”
“You’ve gone the whole nine yards this time.”
“Aren’t you sort of spoiling your kids? And yourself?”
That’s about what I expected to hear from friends and relatives in other parts of the country. They accuse me of having gone truly Cally-forny, what with the ce-ment pond and all.
But I didn’t expect the locals to react that way. True, they’re not as taken aback as the out-of-towners. But they still snicker when they call and hear my son say, “Mom’s out in the spa right now. Can she call you back?”
“So how’s the screenplay?” one friend asked after I toweled off and returned his call.
“What screenplay?” I asked.
“Well, if you’ve got a pool and spa, I figured you probably had a screenplay in development too.”
“Nope. No screenplay.”
“OK. So how’s the Porsche?”
“No Porsche, either.”
“Too bad,” my friend said. “Guess that’s what happens when you’re spending all your money on a pool before you sell your screenplay.”
So what’s the big deal? After all, the thing is filled with water, not gold coins.
I finally figured out the reason for all the giggling and teasing. It’s simple: They don’t have pools.
I’ve wanted a pool for as long as I can remember. To be fair, I must admit that this is not my first. The others, however, were just two feet deep, with cartoon characters all around their thin plastic walls.
In the small southern Appalachian town where I grew up, there was--as far as I knew--just one kid whose family had a back-yard pool. Her dad was the local car dealer, so in addition to the pool, they always had a brand-new car.
Once a year, she would invite all the other kids in her class over for a pool party. We would track up the house and leave wet towels everywhere and seriously deplete her mother’s Band-Aid supply patching up our minor boo-boos.
Every year, at least one kid’s glasses would get stepped on and he would go home squinting. Our eyes got red, our fingers and toes got wrinkly. It was great fun. I wasn’t even much of a swimmer, but I secretly vowed that someday I’d have a pool in my back yard.
The rest of the summer, all we had was the local municipal swimming pool. But it cost a quarter to get in, so we could hardly afford to go every day.
Aside from that, the only pools I encountered were at motels on vacations.
Many years later, when I moved to Orange County, I suddenly found myself surrounded by pools. Three of my four immediate neighbors had them. Sometimes, I admit, I would stand on tiptoe at the fence and gaze longingly at the sparkling blue water on the other side. It seemed like such a waste, because they were almost always empty.
The few times they weren’t, however, always seemed to be the hottest, smoggiest days of the year. I thought I already knew what the word hot meant, but I was wrong. It isn’t the desert when the thermometer reads 120, and it isn’t a muggy July afternoon in some landlocked, windless spot where the relative humidity is 97% and you can’t even sweat.
No, the true definition of hot goes beyond that. When you’re burning up in your own back yard and you hear your neighbors splashing around in their pool--now that’s hot!
It got up to more than 100 degrees when we moved in here last Labor Day weekend. I don’t think there could have been a more perfect time for us to make the transition. Finally, we were the folks doing the splashing.
For the first few weeks, we were in it day and night. The kids would jump in as soon as they got home from school, sometimes to the detriment of their homework.
I preferred floating around in an inflatable chair with a good book--but not an expensive book, lest I happened to fall into the water with it.
Now I was the mom who went around picking up wet towels and yelling at everybody to dry off before coming inside. I was the mom passing out Band-Aids. And unlike my childhood friend’s mother, I was the mom who fretted constantly about not only safety but lawsuits.
I established and strictly enforced the rules: no swimming alone, no diving, no running, no glass. And no games that involved yelling, “Help! I’m drowning!” when you didn’t really mean it.
After a while, the novelty wore off. The temperature dropped, and the Santa Ana winds blew all the leaves off our neighbors’ trees--right into our pool. We fished out as many as we could, but only the pool man could get them all.
By January, when what passes here for winter was at its coldest, we looked out and watched the rain splash into the pool and wondered what point there was in having it.
“Can we turn on the heater?” my children asked.
“Nope,” I said. “I can’t afford it.”
But then spring finally got here, and we promptly forgot all our doubts.
Besides, I could always fire up the spa, no matter what the weather. Sometimes the kids and I would get in and soak together, relaxing and discussing the events of the day. Or I’d invite my friends over.
Some of them were a little reluctant. That’s one difference between Orange County and, say Marin County, north of San Francisco, legendary for its hot-tub debauchery.
“Don’t worry, I promise everybody can keep their suits on,” I said. “It’s not that kind of pool party.”
As I said, it’s only water. You can make it into anything you want. For me, it is not decadence but simply the fulfillment of a promise made long ago by, and to, a little girl who had no idea how she was going to make it come true.
I’m just glad the kid didn’t want a Porsche too.