Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
Ode to Chlorine
At the pool, relearning to be a person in the world.
Our hotel in Oakland’s Jack London Square wasn’t the nicest, but it had a decent outdoor pool adjacent to the marina, and it was sunny and hot enough out to enjoy splashing around in it.
Despite being a terrible, fearful swimmer, when I travel, if there’s going to be a pool, I pack a swimsuit. I love the feeling of being immersed in water, and the calming, meditative property of swimming laps, even my clunky impression of a person doing the breaststroke.
Often there’s a social component, too, and this time was no exception. In the water we met some nice people who were visiting from other parts of California, including a man who worked in education. He told us he was traveling to institute a state-wide program aimed at teaching young children how to play again—with other kids, and without screens—after the more socially restrictive years of the pandemic.
In the Covid era, he explained, so many young kids have never played with others besides their siblings, if they even have them, and the slightly older kids who’d played with others before have since forgotten how to. What’s more, so many of them have only attended Zoom school, and, with busy parents working from home all that time, they’ve gotten used to having digital devices as their babysitters. It’s created an army of little screen addicts who have no idea how to interact with their peers.
“Can you please offer this for adults, too?” I quipped. “We desperately need it.”
After I said it, I realized I wasn’t fully kidding. Hiding inside my home for the greater part of three years has taken an emotional toll, and left me rusty at interacting with friends and acquaintances. I’ve been struggling for some time now to rebuild my social skills and connections, and I’ve talked with enough people to know I’m hardly the only one.
In the water we met a man who worked in education. He told us he was traveling to institute a state-wide program aimed at teaching young children how to play again…
Lately I’ve also been thinking about how much of my life is still confined to electronic devices, despite it being some time since we officially sheltered-in-place. My days are fully occupied by writing, editing, and publishing three newsletters, which are available only virtually. (I’m working on a proposal for an Oldster print anthology, which would help to make the thing I work hardest on feel more real. But it will be some time before that could come to fruition.)
I primarily talk to people in my field on the phone, over text and email, or via Zoom. I am rarely if ever in the same space with them, like I used to be with at least a few writers each day at my now defunct co-working space. I teach mostly over Zoom, or Canvas, or Blackboard, or Brightspace (although I did get to teach undergraduates at SUNY New Paltz in person last semester, and it was a joy).
I know I’ve written this before, but, especially in the past three years, it’s felt as if we’re living in E.M. Forster’s prescient, dystopian 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops,” in which people live in isolation from one another in pods underground, and only communicate via something like instant messaging. It’s definitely not what I want my life to feel like, and too often it does.
It was with all this in mind that last winter I persuaded Brian we should join a different pool—a local, inexpensive, low-frills one. That and the frequently high levels of ecoli and other bacteria in the Hudson River and local creeks, where we’ve been swimming for years. Oh, and water snakes; I found the upper edge of my (mostly performed) ruggedness a few years ago when a few water snakes popped their heads up as I was about to jump into Onteora Lake.
“Can you please offer this for adults, too?” I quipped. “We desperately need it.” After I said it, I realized I wasn’t fully kidding.
Brian and I are compatible in many ways, but he’s a homebody who prefers to spend his spare time holed up in the recording studio in our attic, while I’m more of a social creature who likes to bounce around in places where it’s easy to casually cross paths with others. It’s often a struggle for me to get him to venture out with me, but once I do, he’s glad for it. “I’m sorry I’m such a stick in the mud,” he’ll frequently apologize.
True to form, he was resistant when I told him I thought we should join the pool—in all fairness, not only because he was being a stick in the mud, but also because this particular pool, one of very few to join in the area, is actually the centerpiece of a tiny day camp that operates summer weekdays. There are also tennis courts, a basketball court, and an indoor structure festooned with small children’s finger painting and other arts and crafts projects. Adult members—mostly parents of small campers—are welcome in the evenings and on weekends.
Not only don’t Brian and I have children, at 57 and 61, we are significantly older than most members. I can see where some might think I’d made an off choice.
Nonetheless, when we arrived the first time, during Memorial Day weekend, we were greeted enthusiastically by several people we know, most of whom we hadn’t encountered since before Covid shut the world down. Brian lit up when he saw how many of them were genuinely happy to see him, and immediately he conceded that I was right to want us to join.
If I do say so myself, that’s putting it mildly. The pool has been a goddamned revelation for us—for me!
I love Kingston, but a lot is missing for me here these days, most notably places where I can just show up and find other like-minded folks to interact with—no plan-making, no tediously consulting Google calendars, no overthinking who asked who to get together last. In 2018, two years before the pandemic gold rush, we bought an amazing house here with good bones, a foreclosure, for $150K. It’s big, and lovely on the inside (on the outside, the paint is peeling, and the porch is off-kilter), and it was a great place for us to lock down together for a few years.
But right now I don’t feel as if I have much of a life outside its walls. I sometimes wish I could pick the house up and plop it down in a different city, one with exponentially more residents than Kingston’s 24K. A place where on a given night I could attend any number of readings, art openings, performances, or other gatherings where I’d bump into friends and acquaintances, and from there, spontaneously venture further for a drink or a bite. (Gee, I wonder where that kind of thing could happen…)
The pool, and its occasional cocktail parties, have given me a (teeny tiny) taste of that again. It’s become what would otherwise have been my “third place,” if I still had a second one. I show up…I make chit-chat…I read a book…I look up and see an old acquaintance walking past and we talk a bit…I swim around—or if the pool is overrun with kids playing, I tread water with a whacky noodle under my arms, while being uplifted by happy kid sounds washing over me.
A word about me and kids: I’ve written and spoken a lot about how glad I am not to have them. It’s been liberating for me to finally admit—to myself and others—that I’ve never truly been interested in being a mother. It tends to give people the impression I don’t like kids, but that’s not the case. I do. I just don’t want to be responsible for them. I’m terrified of being responsible for them. I’ll just summarize here and say that I had some unfortunate experiences as a kid where I was inappropriately given too much responsibility for others, and it left a mark.
Also, motherhood always seemed like a trap to me, and hearing about the inequities around childcare so many mothers experienced during the pandemic really underscored that for me. I’m glad I inadvertently avoided it.
But there are few things more entertaining to me than being in the presence of a bunch of kids un-self-consciously squealing through water games they’ve made up together, or a tween who’s first trying on some sass, or a chatty toddler with an imagination, and on these things, the pool truly delivers. What’s more, while I don’t know what those children’s relationship to technology is in their homes, it’s nice to notice how few devices are present poolside—to see kids playing together, in and around the water.
There’s one little girl in particular who stands out, a 3-and-1/2-year-old daughter of friends. She’s always excited to see us, maybe because Brian and I have taken turns helping her put on her goggles, and hanging out beside her for a bit as she floats with the help of her water wings. Each time she regales us with her summer adventures—where she went, who she saw, where she and her family are headed next.
When she spots us coming through the gate, she shouts, “Mommy, Mommy, our friends are here!” It’s as heartening as becoming reacquainted with the pool members closer to our age.
It occurs to me that our little pool pal, whose birthday is in November, was only five months old when the world shut down. I’m happy she has this place where she can learn to play—and where I’m relearning.
In other news…
Last week I spent a couple of days at an inn in Chatham, NY with my friend and fellow writer Jen Doll, writing and scheming up a writers’ retreat we might host next spring. We have a lot to figure out about what we’ll offer, but drop a line in response to this email if you think it’s something you might be interested in taking part in…