A fantasia: Man parks minivan and loads up little red wagon with diaper bag, sunscreen, bug spray, floaties, noodles, multicolored plastic buckets and shovels, beach tent, towels, beach chairs, beach umbrellas, cooler full of chips, sandwiches, and cold drinks, hauls said wagon over boardwalks and hot sand, risking splinters and burned feet, follows totally in-control wife, who looks like she’s leading a goddamn safari, and toddler, waits for said wife to pick the “perfect spot,” pitches said beach tent (with flexible fiberglass poles and yellow plastic spikes) while totally in-control wife looks on, secures said tent so it doesn’t blow away in the wind and impale other beachgoers, listens to wife complain about the bugs, the sand, the wind, the water, the sun, the toddler playing too close to the water’s edge, tells wife to fuck off and hitchhikes home.
Reid State Park in Georgetown, Maine is my California, my Malibu, my Pacific Ocean. Probably because I’ll never get to any of those places anytime soon. I’ve only been to California once, to a hot springs in Sierraville. I’ve never seen the Pacific Ocean. While nearby Popham Beach is Reid’s mellower, more refined cousin, Reid is all temptation and rough beauty. The surf is more violent. The water out past the break both more placid and menacing. The light is more intense, as if God, with his giant magnifying glass, is trying to burn us like ants. Even the sand seems prehistoric. If it weren’t for the bathhouse, little foot showers, and snack bar, you really could close your eyes and imagine yourself as the first human being, newly-formed from the clay, at the beginning of creation.
At a place like Reid, you really don’t need much. You don’t need to schlep a red plastic Radio Flyer full of multicolored plastic beach toys along with you, like I saw a poor, bedraggled father, with three toddlers and a wife in tow, do yesterday. I was at the beach, following my own advice, with my own children and two of their friends, and I watched as this young couple debated where to set up. They vacillated between the “beach” side, which is much rougher and I suppose more dangerous for toddlers, and the “lagoon” side, which is shallower and perfect for young families. I watched the dad haul his little red wagon full of toys over the dunes and back about three times before they finally settled on the lagoon side. Probably a better choice. But it called to mind both the allure and the repulsion we feel about the beach, and about water in general.
The Times just published an article about the importance of teaching children how to swim, even if parents are “afraid”of the water (something I’m glad my parents did when I was a kid and something we did with our two children from the time they were six months old. My daughter is a strong swimmer and fearless rope-swing user at our local swimming hole. My son is on the swim team at our local Y and has actually taught me a thing or two about my own flimsy freestyle stroke).
I’m also thinking about the passages in Leanne Shapton’s memoir Swimming Studies, where she, a pool swimmer and one-time Canadian Olympic hopeful, talks about how pool swimmers rarely, if ever, swim in the ocean, for fear of the “unknown.” Pool swimmers, she confesses, love the regimentation of the lane lines, the black stripe on the pool’s floor, the ability to see the bottom and to actually know what’s in front of and below you. There’s no mystery in pools, no fear of the Leviathan. (There’s also a wonderful passage where she writes about overcoming this fear of the ocean, jumping naked into the surf from a diving platform in Sweden).
The last association I made when I saw the dad pulling the wagon was from, I believe, Kon-Tiki, a book I read a few years ago when I was recovering from some minor surgery. (Actually it might not have been Kon-Tiki but instead from any number of other sea adventures I’ve read throughout the years from Melville, Conrad, etc.) It’s the notion that people who spend their time trying to wrest their living from the sea rarely, if ever, go to the beach on their day off. They know too much, have seen too much. The Polynesian fisherman that Heyerdahl describes have a healthy fear of the ocean. They don’t view it as a place of rest and rejuvenation like we Westerners do. They view at as a wild, sometimes deadly place that they venture out on only to get their food, nothing more. To them, the ocean is full of unseen hazards and murky enemies, ready to rise up and kill at any moment. As a resident of Maine for almost fifteen years, I can guarantee you that I’ve never seen any lobstermen enjoying a day off at the beach.
To be fair, I understand that father’s fear. I understand why he and his wife debated so long about where they were going to pitch their plastic, multicolored camp. The ocean is a dangerous place. Even if you don’t go in the water, the sun can burn you, as it did my son’s face yesterday (even though he swore he reapplied his sunscreen but I should have checked anyway but didn’t and now it’s my fault he has a sunburn, right?)
Sunburn, rogue waves, splinters, broken bottles buried in the sand, biting greenheads, random seagull droppings, heatstroke, dehydration, drowning: all these and more can happen on a simple trip to the beach. I’ve even watched as people had to be rescued by the sheriff’s boat at Popham when they hiked out to an island at low tide with just the clothes on their back, only to be marooned when the tide came in. We leave our cozy homes with idyllic thoughts in our head, and we come back scarred, or maybe we don’t come back at all. Once, when I was a senior in college, I left Syracuse for a short road trip down I-81 to Ithaca. Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance after getting t-boned by a K-Car on the Homer offramp. All for a cup of coffee. There are no guarantees in life, even in our so-called civilization. People in Maine have literally died because they left their house without a jacket and/or a box of matches in their pocket.
So, maybe we go to the beach not just to relax, but to test ourselves against our own fears. Most of us don’t have to hunt for our food, but that hunting instinct still survives, buried deep in our reptilian brains. We go to the beach now not with spears and seaworthy outrigger canoes hewn from single pieces of fallen timber, but instead with red plastic Radio Flyers, shod in weak-ass rubber flip-flops, endlessly circling our ancestor’s killing grounds, trying to find the perfect spot to keep our babies safe.
I still think all we need when we go to the beach (after we’ve eaten a big, hearty breakfast, of course) is a towel, a bottle of water, and some sunscreen.
But I understand.
I live in Maine, where no matter the season, people complain about the weather. In winter, it’s always too cold and the price of heating oil is too high. In spring, there’s too much rain and too much mud. In summer, it’s too hot and will never be bikini season. To my mind, complaining about the weather is like arguing balls and strikes. In all my years watching baseball, no umpire has ever reversed his call because an irate manager stormed from the dugout, threw his hat on the ground, and kicked dirt. In much the same way, our celestial umpire won’t change his or her mind once the course of the seasons are set, no matter how much bellyaching we do. The weather is what it is. This complaining reminds me of a joke they tell up here: “Do you think it will ever stop raining?” a tourist asks. “Always has,” the Mainer replies. I grew up in Syracuse and lived in Rochester and Buffalo for many years. Live in Buffalo for a few winters and believe me: you’ll be cured of bitching about the weather anywhere else.
Tomorrow is June 1st, and no matter what the calendar says, in my world it’s the first day of summer. On my personal Maine Mayan calendar, summer lasts exactly ninety days, from June 1st to August 31st. Ninety days, or to put it even more bluntly, twelve weekends. That’s what we got, friends We decided to live in Maine and not Miami Beach and that’s what we got. So take advantage of every single solitary ray of sunshine or drop of rain. If you’re cold, shiver like there’s no tomorrow. If you’re wet, be as wet as the bottom of the sea. If you’re hot, feel the sweat pouring off your body and know that you are alive. We’ve got the ocean for cooling breezes and bodysurfing. We’ve got lakes and ponds for swimming. We’ve got forests to go hiking in, mountains to climb. Savor your ninety days, your twelve weekends, in all their hot, sweaty, rainy, muggy, foggy glory.
During a semester break in college, I was driving home with a friend down Route 17 in New York State. Right around Roscoe, NY, we stopped by the side of the road to visit an old cemetery. I don’t know why we did it. I remember looking at all the old gravestones of the people who had been born and died, as far back as the 1800’s. Some of the names and dates you couldn’t even read anymore, such were the effects of time. But one image from one of the markers has always stayed with me; that of an hourglass with wings. Maybe this was a popular image around the time these folks were buried. I don’t know. But since that visit to that graveyard in Roscoe almost thirty years ago, I’ve been in more cemeteries than I care to count, and I’ve never seen the symbol of the winged hourglass again. A Zen master once said to go to sleep at night like it’s your final rest, and to get up in the morning as if your bed is on fire. That is; do everything fully, giving your all, all the time. There is only this present moment, no other. If not now, when? If not the beach today, then when? You’ve got ninety days, my friends. Twelve weekends. Stop arguing balls and strikes and play the game.
When Henry started this blog five years ago, it was an attempt to record the simple, everyday joys of life. A virtual cabin in the woods, as my subtitle says. As blogs go, it was all over the map. It could be about anything, which in the blogging world really means it could be, Seinfeld-like, about nothing. Successful, syndicated blogs usually do one thing very well. They become time-tested, predictable products that readers can rely on day after day to give them exactly what they want and expect. It could be cooking, music, politics, sports, etc. You know exactly what you’re going to get that when you go to Politico, Deadspin, Daily Beast or HuffPo. Here, Henry tried (and tries) to do something different. Like the Ming Dynasty text called the Caigentan, or “Root Vegetable Discourse“, I’ve tried to offer up varied bits of wisdom based on my experiences enjoying the simple pleasures of life. The title of this text comes from the Chinese proverb that “One who has eaten vegetable roots for lack of anything better can accomplish anything,” or perhaps more succinctly “One who has gone through hardships can do anything.” The way I’ve understood this text is “You will be unable to find joy in this lifetime unless you can find joy in the simple pleasures of living.” I’ve written about decaying Pocono resorts, creepy naked guys, shoegaze bands, snakes falling from the sky, Bruce, and Buddha. One of the easiest ways we can enjoy the simple things in life is to take a trip to the beach. No person can stand before the ocean and not feel reborn. Now that summer is here in Maine where Henry lives, he would like to give his advice for a perfect day at the beach. There are only a few rules you need to follow. 1. Buy a State of Maine park pass. If you can afford it. This year it costs $70 and lasts all the way until December 2012. Considering the fact that it costs about $10-15 every time Henry takes his family of four to the beach, you only have to use it about five times before it virtually pays for itself. 2. Eat a big breakfast. And drink plenty of water. That way, you start the day fully nourished and hydrated and you won’t have to schlep the entire contents of your fridge to the ocean’s edge. 3. Pack light. This is ancillary to #2 above. The bigger your breakfast, the less food you’ll need to bring. Henry knows this might be tough when you have kids, but parents don’t need to give their kids snacks every fifteen minutes. It’s OK to be hungry. Additionally, if kids don’t ask for food, don’t offer it to them. Pack only what you need. In my case that would be water, an apple, sunscreen, and a towel. Maybe a book, although strangely enough, I usually don’t read at the beach. Under perfect conditions, everything you bring should fit in one medium-sized backpack. 4. Pick an old favorite… You know where your favorite beaches are. Going back over and over to the same spot is not necessarily a bad thing. Shifting ocean currents can remake a sandy shoreline overnight. Temperature, wind, humidity, and the quality of sunlight can make two different visits to the same beach radically different experiences. 5…or try something new. Take a chance. Branch out. Hike to a deserted beach and take your clothes off. It doesn’t even have to be a beach. Tap into local folklore. Don’t be afraid to ask the guy at the general store about the secret swimming hole. Go skinny-dipping in the rain. Cultivate peak experiences. Thoreau moved into a cabin and went swimming in Walden Pond in order to live deliberately. You can too. But watch out for the snapping turtles.