No swimming allowed.

No swimming allowed.

I went to one of Washington DC’s open air public swimming pools on Saturday and my visit brought me back to a museum visit in San Francisco earlier this year. Freshly back in the US and eager to enjoy some culture (and distract myself from long listless days of unemployment), I walked all the way from the Mission to Golden Gate Park to visit the De Young art museum.

I arrived and found out admission costs $29 for a non-member adult visitor. What the?! Suddenly I was missing the museums of Europe which were often free (subsidized by the state on the radical basis that art, culture, and history should be accessible to the masses). No way I was going to shell out $29.

So instead I walked around the ground floor lobby, which had a limited amount of artwork that you could see without paying admission. As I walked through the lobby with my backpack on my back, a security guard approached me and informed me that if I was going to carry a bag inside the museum, I would have to carry it at waist level or below. Huh? Meaning, take your backpack off your back and carry it by your side. OK then. I’ll continue walking around, looking like a dufus with my backpack in my hand.

I found one installation that I particularly liked, a series of lighted TV-like panels that covered a wall and projected dancing images of trees rustling in the breeze. It was mesmerizing to watch the swaying of the branches and the leaves teasingly flashing their white underbellies in the wind. Captivated, I slowly walked closer to the screens, noticing each screen showed a different movement. “Ma’am, please back away from the art!” I heard brusquely barked at me from behind.

Startled from my revelry, I quickly and meekly retreated to a nearby bench to enjoy the installation from a distance. I watched other visitors be drawn to the art and get similarly repelled by the museum guard. One man – what the hell was he thinking – even tried to take a photograph and was quickly reprimanded. Another woman was scolded for snacking.

Rules, rules, rues. More rules than you can keep track of. A sign that I was was back in America, where things are regulated and structured and systematized in a way that I took for granted, and would have continued to take for granted, had I not spent time living in the developing world. I’m not saying these rules are bad; clearly, many of them serve a purpose, and much of “development” is about putting rules in place. But sometimes it seems rules can be taken too far.

Like when I went to the pool on Saturday. We had to queue up to get access to the (free) public pool in the neighborhood. All visitors had to present a valid photo ID and a proof of DC residency (e.g. utility bill or lease agreement) to get access to the pool. I understand that DC is providing this wonderful free facility – paid for with the DC taxes that are garnered from my paycheck – and they don’t want non-residents to abuse it.

But in addition to the ID and residency check, they were also checking for appropriate swimwear. They asked each visitor “Do you have a swimsuit?” and people flashed their swim gear underneath their clothing or rifled through their bags to supply proof of attire. We saw two (lower income) people get turned away for non-compliant swimwear. There was even a sign on the wall demonstrating what constituted swimwear.

I also went to the pool last month when I was in Connecticut, but that was a private pool inside the suburban condominium where my step-father lives. Nonetheless, there were rules. When my friend came over to hang out at the pool, my step-dad lent us his two pool passes, and we had to sign in when entering the pool area. When we went out for lunch and came back, I accidentally left the pool passes at the house. Sure enough, the pool guy showed up and asks us to present our pool passes.

“I’m sorry, I left them at the house.” To which he immediately and very seriously replied, “You cannot be in the pool area without possession of a valid pool pass.” I felt like a criminal and quickly offered to go and fetch them from the house. My friend later told me that as I got up and walked off, he remained standing there, looking at her as though he expected her to get up and leave, too.

Perhaps she was not wearing the right type of swimwear either.


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