The first thing you realize when you face an above-ground pool is that the above-ground pool does not compromise. You are either in it or out of it.
You cannot lounge by the side of the above-ground pool, sipping a mixed, possibly tropical, beverage from a glass. At best you can rest awkwardly against the wall, your arms stretched on its rim, clutching a can of quickly warming light beer.
You cannot just casually wade into the water of the above-ground pool. You must scale its wall, climb over the edge, and plunk your mass into it. If you like your space to be as wide as possible in the water, you best pick your time accordingly. When the day is hot and school is out, loungers and splashers take up uneasy residence in the strict, fragile confines of the above-ground pool.
Spend enough days floating or bobbing in an above-ground pool and you start to notice it shares some commonalities with another above-ground water-based receptacle: the toilet. And because getting out of the above-ground pool requires as much effort as getting in, the above-ground pool gives you all the time in the world to think about that.
In the colder months the tragedy is compounded when they resemble an inflamed, poorly dressed wound or the bled husk of some gargantuan invader.
It’s ironic, then, that so uncompromising an object is in the possession of people who have had to compromise on having to own it. The above-ground pool falls so short of the smooth, flat, and seamless inground ideal. No doubt above-ground pool owners have longed for the latter only to find any number of obstacles in their way: cost, maintenance, safety hazards, or what have you. They wanted a pool. The trappings of a good pool proved too overbearing, so this is what you get instead. But it’s still a pool! It’s fun… if you try. Who in God’s name ever tried to have fun with any success?
That’s the long-accepted perception, learned from The Simpsons, which drew from as many of our own hopes and anxieties either as children of owners or as bemused observers of them.
It seems impossible that anyone would acquire such an amenity without first being denied the superior option. That scenario is by no means far-fetched. Yet we shouldn’t overlook those for whom other options are inconceivable, and whose backyard cannot accommodate anything else, space limitations notwithstanding. Those people who are, in a word, drawn to the above-ground pool and who detect no irony whatever in the situation of owning one.
Sociology has not sufficiently plumbed the depths of the above-ground pool mentality. But it is a mentality from which we have a good deal to learn. So let us here lay the groundwork for this “new” American type and explore its implications for the rest of us.
Let us return to the hardships of above-ground pool ownership I described at the beginning of this essay. Let us question none of them and accept them as true and confirmed. But now let us consider that owners of above-ground pools are not only just as aware of them as we are, but that they accept them as true as well. On the one hand, nothing has changed; on the other hand, everything has changed.
For this type of person, ownership of an above-ground pool is not a matter of convenience or of saving face in the suburban psychotundra, but an end in itself. More than that, it is a nonverbal statement of principle.
The demands and discomforts of an above-ground pool are precisely what their owners expect and want from it. They want to work for their ownership and to strive in their leisure. Out of this arrangement, a structure is imposed upon all who swim in it. Technically, they as owners or their guests can bring whatever drink they wish into their pool. Yet the above-ground pool is not so amenable to fancy drinks in glasses. You are within your rights and ability to try to force it to work, but drinking a daiquiri or a gin and tonic in such a pool would not make for easy or sophisticated imbibing. Plastic cups would suffice much better, but not to perfection. Cans are the way to go. And you must commit to wanting a can after you are in the pool. The cooler, so out of the way, either on the yard or on a deck, can only be accessed so many times under only so much comfort.
Swimwear and atmosphere are also dictated from above by the pool. The pool leaves no room for pure leisure on the one hand, or pure fitness on the other. No lying out on the side with a large hat and Vampire Weekend playing on Pandora. No laps in speedos either. In the above-ground pool, the swim trunks are always below the knees, paying no mind to their fashionableness, the hair is always wet, Adidas sandals pile up beside the ladder, and the sounds of Puddle of Mudd or Cold War Kids are in the air.
Some might not believe that someone would so willingly submit themselves to the dictation of their pool. Maybe in another era, when authority and order were less scarce, when institutions were not bankrupt, and when people did not need to grasp at the nearest most authoritative-seeming object in sight, this would not have been thinkable. So is it any wonder now, that something in need of such care and consideration to be enjoyed would offer at the same time a foundation for moral conduct in this era of scarcity?
Consider the opposition. How do the in-ground pool owners fare? By all appearances they are admirable and good. Having the space and the means to install an in-ground pool is usually a sign of managerial competence, logistical soundness, and exquisite taste. But to what end? To a leisure-based existence. That sounds great in theory, but such an existence in practice becomes as flat as the pool that enables it. in-ground pool owners are defined by a lax and careless attitude in which the pool serves them. Above-ground pool owners, for instance, must submit to a cumbersome cleaning routine while in-ground pool owners stir their water listlessly with a skimmer like lukewarm gazpacho while a robot glides along the floor.
The life of in-ground pool use is one of complacency and anxiety born from too much freedom by an existence without purpose. Through their “ethos,” leisure has made a bloody covenant with fetishized defeat.
We assume the above-grounder resents the in-grounder’s charmed life. This could not be further from the truth. Above-grounders would never wish in-ground life on even their greatest enemies—had their greatest enemies not already owned in-ground pools—and they would disown their children for aspiring to it.
But I mentioned that this has implications for the country. Well, it might. Only 47 percent of America’s swimming pools are above-ground. This suggests a slightly advanced force of in-ground decadence pervades our landscape and that the above-ground mentality is not very compelling. But that can change. Above-grounders, thoroughly disciplined and motivated through living by their pools’ decrees, are likely to become more vocal about their morality than the nihilistic in-grounders. They have the impetus to turn talk into action. A realignment of above-ground principles against in-ground futility and despair, and with sufficient force, it could take hold of the wider public mindset.
People who don’t own or care to use pools of any kind will find their core beliefs reshaped in the image of the above-grounders. They will reject their high-class beverages, stylish attire, unlistenable music, and dreams of unencumbered luxury nothingness while embracing the strenuous pool life with Oakley sunglasses, cargo shorts, and Natty Light hard seltzer. Those who cannot afford or do not have the space for an above-ground pool will seek out the nearest equivalent. What type of person, they will ask, most resembles the commanding presence of an above-ground pool? Might we grant that person supreme power?
I’ve been reliably informed by a pool cleaner, who wishes to remain anonymous, that the preferred swimming position of in-grounders is floating face-down. He suspects this to be a meditative stance where the pool becomes an enclosure of the pure, singular self, and all of the surrounding world is shut out, like Adam and Eve from Eden. The above-grounder looks upon this deviance with pity and also some relief. No one will resist when an above-ground pool comes to the White House.