The waves were tiny our first day at the New Jersey shore and the water was surprisingly cold–that numbing cold you never get used to. We’d heard the Gulf Stream was unusually frigid this year. Our neighbor, Joan, had just returned from the beach with tales of wearing a wet suit in order to stay warm in the water.
This made me nostalgic for the Pacific. You expect the water to be icy in the Pacific. Big waves and cold water. I’m not one of those polar bear types, the ones who run into glacial waters as fast as they can, jumping head first into an oncoming wave. I’m a tiptoer. I stand where the salt water meets my ankles for hours, moving incrementally deeper every few minutes. It’s excruciating slow. The Atlantic is usually so much more inviting. But not this year.
How ironic to stay right at the beach yet take hours preparing yourself to walk the 50 feet to the shore. You can look out your window and watch the sunrise over the water. But getting everyone in the family anointed with sun block over every exposed area of our bodies takes the better part of the morning. It makes the view seem like a movie. You know it’s real somewhere, just not where you are.
It wasn’t like that when I was a kid. Back then our prep time seemed much more condensed. All it took was a quick shellacking of baby oil to make our skin nice and attractive to all those cool tanning rays. A controlled burn insured a nice even tan. Just pink to the touch and a little pain that lasted a day. “Are you tan from the sun?” I asked my 6 year old. “Glad to meet you, I’m Jeff from the Earth!” I’d been waiting decades to pull that out of my beach bag. She wanted me to repeat it so she could use it on her friends.
My wife brought enough bathing suits for the kids to change each morning and afternoon of our four-day stay. Walking around in a damp suit seemed so uncomfortable to her (although I don’t think the kids noticed). So deciding which fashion statement would start the day added to our time frame. I brought my only pair of trunks, a lovely island print that set me back $2.35 at the J.C. Penny Outlet. I was looking forward to parading my svelter figure this year. Why I might even walk around without a baggy t-shirt hiding my midriff. I couldn’t wait to get down on that sand.
The beach is my special place. It’s where I “go” when I’m meditating and need to relax. I sat quietly in my beach chair, my t-shirt clinging to my skin with an ample layer of SPF 45 adhesive (old habits die hard). I momentarily closed my eyes to conjure up graceful thanks to the gods who had finally delivered me to this live version. The stiff ocean breeze kept me centered. My daughters decided to make a sand replica of the U.S. Capitol; a broken sharp shell became the perfect dome.
I work hard to choose my beach reading material. My choices are seriously considered weeks in advance in order to transition to a more relaxed alpha state. Newspapers are out. Too much reality. Books on project management and team building are contraband (although I was tempted this trip by this one). I must remain at the focus of my special place. And this year I found the perfect book. In 1851 Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife took their two daughters to visit her sister. Hawthorne was left with his young son and their pet rabbit. Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa is his account of his time alone with them. It reminded me of my recent past.
Beach time is aspiration time. The gentle sound of the surf allows you to explore beyond your present circumstances (especially when the children are with their mother collecting more shells for their sand castle version of the White House). The possibilities become endless: new job (ok, no job) and fame and fortune. So I began by comparing myself to this famous mid-19th century author. Yes, it was a good start.
And Hawthorne’s days were like my days. Well they were more like how I’d like my days to be: idyllic, with rather simple expectations and friends like Herman Melville. Yes, this is what this beach trip was really about. I watched my children play as if I were Hawthorne. Every scene became a page in my own journal.
Suddenly, my interactions with my wife’s entire extended family were gentile encounters (this was a “family vacation” in the broadest sense). Conversations were meaningless but enriching. How could that be? But they were! Well, except for when we ventured on beach patrol looking for men who should be in “bros” and women who shouldn’t be wearing bikinis.
Life with Julian, Nathaniel, and Little Bunny became my life. When coming back to our room at the end of a successful beach sojourn, the clean-up tasks simply became wistful marks on our day. Making sure we washed every grain of sand from our sticky bodies in a shower that went from ice to boiling hot without notice became something interesting to write about. This was the new genre I had fashioned for our lives.
Ok, I could only take so much of this. Julian and the rabbit in the sun, something a bit more edgy was required after hours. We planned our annual nighttime visit to the boardwalk.
The boardwalk is everything Hawthorne’s life was not. Families overloaded with deep fried visual input. People everywhere–none of them famous authors. Hawkers enticing you to anti up for the bean bag toss. “Win the little lady a stuffed animal.” We noticed the hoops on that toss were rigged. Seen from the front they looked perfectly round, real easy to swish the bag through. But from the side they were actually oval. Very few would succeed at that game. Seedy humanity. Keep-that-wallet-in-your-front-pocket humanity. Now this was the life. A very special place.
Related Life Outtacontext Story: Vacation 2001: West Meets East