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A Cynic Goes to the Beach

Sitting at the edge of the world, I catch myself recalling Lord Byron’s words:  “Time writes no wrinkle on thine azure brow…”

So okay, that’s not 100% true.  The buoys dancing in the surf about 300 yards out—and the weird, boat, depth marker another 100 beyond that—make it clear that man has learned how to leave a mark on every inch of the world.  Still…in Byron’s poetry a smidge of truth holds.

His larger idea…that I can stand where the waves lap at my ankles…look out across the sea…see a vista not much different than the one Spanish sailors gazed upon 500 years ago holds credence.  At my back, of course, the story is different.  Behind me, the wild palms and reeds peeking like wisps of stubble from once towering sand bars are gone.  In their place, five and six-story condominiums jut out of the interminably deep pilings dropped hundreds of feet into the sand.  Sprinkled around those behemoths rests the low-hanging fruit—single and two-story bungalows hearkening to the days when the Don Drapers of the world brought their single-income nuclear families down the Eastern Seaboard in their ’62 Impalas.  Despite a half-century of wind, water, and salt many of them still cling to a semblance of dignity—a coat of obnoxious pastel green slathered over the brick.  No doubt imposed by aggressive zoning, association clauses, or a sense of social obligation.

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Maybe they always looked like this…like a bright arrangement of Starburst candies in a row.  If so, then great.  Something about the beach evokes a sort of gaudiness which, anywhere else, would scream benign ostentation.  But even if not…even if these old brick facades once sported traditional reds, browns, and tans…I compare them to their towering neighbors nonetheless.  It’s a comparison I take with me to my chair among the shells.  Listening to the waves I wrestle with the complexities of time.  When those Eisenhower families came here, the economy was much less brutal.  The culture, on the other hand…?  I turn to my left.  My fiancée, Wendi, sleeps beside me…a beautiful creature born in Seoul, South Korea, adopted when she was six months old, and raised a Hoosier.  In the good old days of very white Americans admiring other, even whiter Americans, where would she have fit in?  Welcome to the new century: A Star Trek attitude on race and gender, a Gilded Age philosophy on work and wages.

The modern feudalism we’re all heading into crosses my mind when I cast my gaze roughly “three par fives” past Wendi.  Out there an array of uniform, yellow umbrellas poke out of the sand like colorful toadstools.  I’ve beached like that before.  Paid my $100, so that some working schmoe sets me up with a weeks’ access to a pair of seats and some shade.  The implicit notion that I’m buying a privilege which the locals—who fight for a few dozen spaces at the nearby public parking entrance—do not get…that haunts me.  It’s true that I love setting my own umbrella.  I’ve become a non-bonded, unlicensed expert at it to be honest.  But the inner snob inside me sometimes enjoys the exclusion those “courtesy” seating arrangements offer.

“Two hours later we voluntarily walk into the Gulf of Mexico, an enormous cesspool where millions of organisms swim, eat, pee, poop, and reproduce on a daily basis.”

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Three IPA’s into my morning I need to pee.  Behind me, the condo’s complimentary toilet awaits: only a 150-yard stroll through the sand and a stubborn four-digit punch-code away.  In front of me rests a much better option.  Crossing my arms at the waist, I yank off my homemade tank-top, with a David Hasselhoff flourish, suck in my gut, reposition my black-leather Indiana Jones fedora, and make way to the sea.

Wading into the ocean is probably one of the most hypocritical acts we do on a beach trip.  Every time we arrive in Flordia, we inspect our condos—the sinks, the fridges, the bathrooms, the bedsheets—with the zeal of a first-year health inspector.  But two hours later we voluntarily walk into the Gulf of Mexico, an enormous cesspool where millions of organisms swim, eat, pee, poop, and reproduce on a daily basis.  We convince ourselves the slab of congealed oil sitting on the floor of the sea—thoughtfully deposited courtesy of BP—won’t crawl into our cells, and we don’t give a thought to the gasoline-coated wakes left behind by boats and jet-skis.  Such is our faith in the magic of salt’s filtering powers.

But I’m not wading into those waters at the moment to appreciate that Byronic “playful spray” of the ocean’s immortal power.  That IPA which had coaxed me to the water with an “I should probably relieve myself” nudge has escalated quickly.  Now I have to pee like a thoroughbred jellyfish.  But taking a leak in the Gulf in late spring is no sport for the timid.  The water may not carry that North Atlantic sting Leonardo Dicaprio prognosticated, but it slaps you awake nonetheless.  The first challenge is not letting the bladder go when the first wave tickles your feet.  The next challenge is working past the 15-inch shelf about six feet in.  Despite all the work gradually acclimating your ankle (then shins) to the water, in a few seconds all of it is going to jump past the knees.  The jolt sucks a deep rush of air into my mouth.  Exhaling is out of the question, and the wind rushes inside me, packing like commuters at L’Enfant Plaza on their way back to Landover.  Finally, the water passes crotch-level.  Grunting a little, my brain finally tells my bladder to let go.  Waiting, I stand.  Arms akimbo, my fedora fluttering in the breeze just as Indy’s did when he watched his crew dig for the Ark of the Covenant.  I probably don’t look cool, but I feel cool.  That’s all that matters.

“If we walked into our workplace in a pair of boxers and flip-flops we’d be sent out the front door, our family desk photos inside a cardboard box.  But move from the corner office to the ocean’s edge and it becomes socially acceptable to soak in images of people at every stage of age and degradation.”

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Fifteen minutes later, I’m back in my seat and my cut-off tank-top—once a rather classy Captain America t-shirt—covers my torso.  As much as I’d like to tan my upper body, I accept that one of these days I should get in shape first.  Otherwise leaving it off would provide everyone passing by me a glimpse at a scale-model of the Ice World where Luke Skywalker fought snow monsters atop Taun-Tauns.  Only six years earlier, when Tony Horton had chiseled me into a “four-and-a-half-pack” beast of a man, I was more than willing to sit 80% nude in front of hundreds of strangers.

This more than anything has always struck me as the greatest of the beach trip paradoxes.  If we walked into our workplace in a pair of boxers and flip-flops we’d be sent out the front door, our family desk photos inside a cardboard box.  But move from the corner office to the ocean’s edge and it becomes socially acceptable to soak in images of people at every stage of age and degradation.  Those rolls and wrinkles we fret over at home, spending hundreds…thousands of dollars to mask under Dockers and Hollisters…we abruptly put on full display once we walk among the seashells.

Fortunately for me (and for everyone else, too…but mostly for me) I didn’t come to the beach to soak in the overt tourism.  I came because of Lord Byron—that bi-sexual, reckless playboy who was much too smart for his own good.  When I stand by the sea and look out at that ocean of eternity before me I feel small.  Insignificant.  Inconsequential.  We go to great lengths to run away from this truth.  But if we would embrace it instead we would know what is sublime.  I have looked into the eyes of death, and I spend too much of my time contemplating it as a result.  Once you have knocked on that door jamb, you never really walk off that porch.  But these thoughts haunt me much less at the sea.  It’s from these waters that we came.  It’s to these waters we will go.  And for every moment I have on this edge of the world I can be that 500 year-old Spaniard, his boots settling into the sands of a New World.  When that sailor had his moment, he claimed it.  Now that I have mine, I will do the same.

About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap, and he also writes for ISU’s STATE Magazine, NUVO News, and VisitIndiana. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

Featured Image Credits: ~Florida~ – The Sunshine State by Olin Gilbert is licensed under The Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

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