Further than My Own Back Yard: Week #42 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On suburban fiefdoms and home invasion
There’s a wonderful moment toward the beginning of The Swimmer, the 1968 film adaptation of the John Cheever short story, when Ned Merrill (played by Burt Lancaster) announces that he’s going to swim “clear across the county” to his house. He stands at the edge of his friends’ patio and gestures across the wooded hills below as he explains that the pools of their wealthy neighbors “form a river” from where he’s standing all the way to his house. Of course he’s not really going to swim the whole way—his outlined plan involves mostly walking from pool to pool, as well as “a portage through the Pasterns’ riding ring” and a dangerous dash across a busy highway. As one of the people he encounters points out, it’s “more hiking than swimming.” Everyone thinks he’s nuts.
Many people think of “The Swimmer” as the quintessential suburban ur-text: when I put out a call on social media for examples of back yards in literature or movies, multiple people suggested the story, the film, or both.1 Anyone who has recurring dreams (or fantasies) about trespassing in other people’s back yards—maybe even dashing through their houses and startling them at the dinner table—understands the intense pleasure of interloping that Ned anticipates as he sketches his plan. It’s one of the reasons, I firmly believe, that people love Ferris Bueller’s Day Off so much.2 While the entire movie is a succession of cheeky intrusions on the part of the hero (the fancy restaurant, the Mercantile Exchange, the German Day parade), it’s the scene where Ferris races to beat his parents home by dashing through a series of his neighbors’ yards that best encapsulates his joie de vivre and boundless self-confidence.
That self-confidence is what Ferris and Ned have in common. Cheever’s narrator (sort of) explains the latter’s decision to crash his neighbor’s pools by telling us that he had “a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.” The contradiction—modest vs. legendary—is important, since the story hinges on the reader’s uncertainty about Ned’s status in the community: Is he beloved or reviled? Why are some people thrilled to see him while others harshly reject him as a “gate crasher”? What has he done to his friends and neighbors, and what does he remember about what he has done? Is he quite mad?
The contradiction is also key to understanding Ferris, who truly is a legendary figure in his high school social circle. As the school secretary explains to the principal who hates him, “he’s very popular.... The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads—they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.” Yet his legendariness is leavened by his modesty—it doesn’t even matter if it’s false or not. He spends the entire movie smirking adorably at the camera as if to say “Can you believe I’m getting away with this?” and we are utterly charmed by his (seeming) self-deprecation. Ned, on the other hand, is lost in his own world, staring dreamily at the horizon while a truly bonkers Marvin Hamlisch score swells ominously around him. He is so out of touch with his milieu (and the audience) that even the music is trying to warn him to pull himself together.
So while Ferris and Ned share a conviction that they are universally adored—and will be more or less welcome in any back yard they care to gambol through—only the former is correct: the fact that Ned is so tragically mistaken about his neighbors’ opinion of him is pretty much the whole point of the story. Of course, another way of saying “self-confidence” is “arrogance,” or even “privilege.” (The latter two tend to be found, shockingly, in the same populations of people.) And therein lies another key difference between the two characters. As Ned stands next to his friends’ pool in his alarmingly skimpy 1960s swimming trunks, pointing out the river of pools from on high—and here is the wonderful moment I alluded to—you suddenly realize he’s hardly talking about “back yards” as the average middle-class American understands that term. The vista below him is a vast and bosky expanse of “properties,” or even “estates,” separated from one another by acres upon acres of private land. While Ferris is dashing across quarter-acre lots bounded by low hedges and a wooden fence or two, Ned truly is portaging across a large territory of widely separated demesnes retained by the super-rich.
While only the very wealthiest people own homes like those in a Cheever story, even relatively poor Americans are often in possession of a back yard: it seems almost an inalienable right, up there with life, liberty, and all the rest of it. The G. I. Bill put home ownership within reach of millions of vets returning home from WWII,3 and the yard was an important component of the postwar suburban dream: the bill provided for “construction of a minimal house (800 square feet) on a relatively large (6,000-square-foot) plot.” The real estate developer William J. Levitt, the so-called Father of Suburbia responsible for five Levittown planned communities, apparently opined, “No man who owns a house and lot can be a Communist, because he has too much to do” (emphasis added). Levitt was quite adamant about the importance of the yard part of the deal: the original stipulations for Levittowns included prohibitions on hanging laundry out to dry on Sundays and the building of backyard fences.4 If only his family had lived in a Levittown, Ferris would have found his journey home much easier.
One of the things about which I feel the most irrational shame is my yard, particularly my back yard. (Anyone who’s read even a few of these mini-essays knows that Dr. Waffle feels guilty about a lot of stuff. I’m working on it.) It’s too big, it’s too suburban, it’s too resource-intensive (we also have a swimming pool, for god’s sake), it’s too ... selfish, I guess. I am hard-pressed to explain why two childless middle-aged people need an acre of non-arable land set aside for their own private ownership.5 Are we doing anything with it, other than fighting weeds? I guess the answer to that question is complicated.
When Mr. Waffle6 and I first looked at our current house, we had just moved to Mississippi from Vancouver mere days before. For 8 years we had lived in a 1400-square-foot townhouse with two tiny balconies, and before that in a 600-square-foot boxy condo with a ledge pasted onto the side of the building. (I do not recommend the latter as conducive to conjugal bliss.) We also didn’t own a car, took public transit everywhere, recycled and composted everything thanks to municipal pick-up programs, ate very little meat, and basically felt pretty darn good about ourselves. I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of home we were looking to buy in Mississippi, but I didn’t anticipate that it would have attached to it an entirely new identity as an earth-ravaging robber baron.7
We’d spotted the house on a walk around town: a beautiful little mid-century bungalow with a big screened porch on a corner lot, nestled among towering oaks and pine trees, with a devilishly tempting For Sale sign in front. We both agreed that it reminded us of the West Coast and were immediately smitten. When we went home and looked at it on Zillow, we just started laughing. It was actually huge: over 2000 square feet, with a big addition on the back with soaring cathedral ceilings, two fireplaces, and of course that pool. We decided to make an appointment to look at it anyway, simply because we wanted to gawk. When the real estate agent started taking us around the property, I got an emergency phone call from my sister which I took in the back yard while the agent showed Scott around the rest of the house. After I got off my call the agent asked if I wanted to see the areas that I’d missed, and I declined. What was the point? I had stood by the pool for the length of the phone call, staring into the glassy blue water and feeling like a trespasser. The whole thing was hilariously beyond our reach, way more house (and yard) than we were looking for.
Then my beloved life partner said he wanted to buy it.
I will skip over the boring marital negotiations that ensued (which involved, among other things, my actually going back and looking at the house), but suffice to say that there was a little bit of arm-twisting involved, and in the end I agreed to this mad scheme only with the proviso that our house and yard and pool become communal spaces, that we entertain constantly and host things and have people over and maybe even house some refugees and become foster parents and rescue at least 11 cats and possibly some dogs and definitely get some goats and chickens. And bees. Basically, the only way I was going to justify this purchase was by telling myself that it was going to be shared, and widely.
And mostly we’ve made good on that promise. We do entertain constantly, and because we’re in the South people come over for supper sometimes with little notice and we’ve managed to convince some neighbors that our pool is their pool. We “rewilded” the front lawn so that it’s less offensive to my environmentalist sensibilities. Despite my constant pleading for more animals we have so far adopted only one more cat, the redoubtable and deeply entertaining Jiffy Pop, and so far there is no sign of refugees. I’m working on the chickens.
But one thing that has happened that I didn’t bargain for is that I have fallen head-over-heels in love with my back yard. Since moving in we’ve added a patio (wacky adventures ensued) and basically turned the space into a sylvan retreat: there’s the pool of course; the new brick patio with flowering vines, a rose trellis, potted lemon trees, and an herb garden; a shade garden with wildflowers for the birds and bees; hummingbird feeders, bird feeders, and a bird bath; towering cryptomeria and pine trees creating delicious little groves; raspberry bushes and fig trees; and 150-year-old oaks towering above it all. It’s completely ridiculous and I freaking love it.
As much as I enjoy it, I’m still trying to come to peace with my back yard. If I think about it hard enough and kind of squint sideways, I can convince myself for stretches at a time that there’s nothing necessarily evil about fencing off a little private plot of land for the enjoyment of one’s family and friends. (Mostly I reassure myself that the collapse of civilization is just around the corner anyway, at which point we will have to turn over our yard to marauding gangs of cannibals on motorcycles, so we might as well enjoy it now.8)
And really, it seems a shame to revile something that brings so much joy. For those lucky enough to grow up with one, back yards are the sites of our most intense and pleasurable childhood memories: cookouts, snow fort building, hide and seek, see-saws, trapping fireflies in jars. Back yards are where we entertain and where we make people welcome. They are the perfect expression of middle-class American sensibility, because they balance the imperatives of privacy and sociability. They’re private, but not so private as to be all gross about it—no one likes that old man who yells at the neighborhood kids whenever their ball goes over his fence.9 Back yards are comfy. Front yards are a little too much like showing off: they are the clothes you put on to teach, whereas back yards are yoga pants and a stained Team Building Exercise T-shirt. Strangers ring the front doorbell, but people you know and love pop in around the back.
In the end, I think, that is why we are so titillated by the idea of barging into other people’s yards uninvited, why we find the exploits of Ferris and Ned weirdly admirable and outré at the same time. We all worry what others really think of us, and want to know (but are afraid to know) how much we mean to them. How welcome are you, really? Is your neighbors’ back yard yours, too, or is that just a thing they say to be nice? When you jump on that trampoline and your feet land in the springy grass on the other side of the fence, what will await you? A dog’s teeth in your leg, or a slap on the shoulder, a cold beer, and a quick game of corn hole while the light’s still good? Will anyone ask you to stay for supper? When the marauding gang of cannibals comes tearing through your neighborhood, where will you have shelter, and where will you find love?
I received an amazing bunch of suggestions, only a small fraction of which I could use. For the full discussion and list, see the original Facebook thread. And thanks so much again to all who shared ideas!
Apparently I’m not the only one to notice this connection: an essay comparing Ned and Ferris appeared a couple of weeks after I started researching this essay.
Infamously, the G. I. Bill systematically excluded Black veterans from both home ownership and education programs. See here and here for good analyses. However, the breakdown between backyard ownership and non-backyard ownership (or at least rentership) is more along rural/suburban-vs.-urban lines than racial lines, at least in the South. That said, while back yards in my two emblematic texts are closely associated with white suburbia, of course plenty of people of all races and ethnicities living in cities also have back yards.
Apparently these rules proved unenforceable in the long run, particularly after private pool ownership came within reach of middle-class homeowners.
Let me hasten to reassure all my childless yard-owning friends that this is not a judgment I make about other people. I frequently condemn myself for the same things I find unobjectionable or even laudable in my friends.
Just to clarify: Scott (a.k.a. Mr. Waffle) also has a doctorate—that is, a Ph.D., not a “real doctorate”—just like me. But I took the Dr. Waffle moniker first, so he’s just going to have to be Mr. Waffle in order to differentiate us.
Just kidding! While I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the perdurability of late capitalism, I don’t really think that we will all immediately join rampaging gangs as soon as the bottom falls out of the crypto market or whatever.