Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wanna Go To the Beach?

Ready for a surprise? I don't like the beach.

In late Summer of 1994, my family took a trip to Jekyll Island, GA. I had taken vacations to the beach before, but this time I ended up at a church event for teenagers. Now, I was a squeamish kid. I didn't like swimming in lakes, because I didn't like my bare feet on the squishy, muddy bottom or getting tangled in seaweed, or whatever you call the stuff that grows out of a lakebed. Also, snapping turtles. And dirty water. And fish poop. If you're swimming near a dock, there are strange plants or fungi that grow on the sides of docks and make everything slippery and gross, too. Despite Hollywood's best efforts, always showing attractive naked people swimming near waterfalls, there's really nothing attractive to me about swimming in a lake. Take away the snapping turtles, and add sharks, stingrays, jellyfish, and getting sucked out to sea by undertow, and you can guess at my feelings about swimming in the ocean.

What about staying out of the water, you know, enjoying the sun and sand? I've gone to various beaches on the Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast, maybe a dozen separate trips over the course of my life. I always seem to end up on the beaches with jellyfish washing up all over the shore, or cars driving on the beach (looking at you, Daytona), or sand that consists primarily of broken shells that cut into your feet. On really hot days, walking on the beach is like walking on hot asphalt. Then there's the never ending parade of people. I mean, I probably like my friends and family even more than the average person does, but I like the general public even less than the average person. I could list the things that I don't like about the public, except that I'd just come off as a crotchety old man, so I'll just fall back on my social anxiety, my complete discomfort at being around large numbers of people I don't know and with whom I probably have nothing in common. Being at the beach isn't like being at Dragoncon. At Con, I can tell by a costume whether or not I have something in common with a person, and standing in line for a panel next to someone generally leads to easy conversations. I can't start a conversation so easily on the beach. "Gee, that's a nice bikini line you have there. Do you wax or do you shave?"

In this case, though, I was a teenaged boy, getting a chance to spend time around teenaged girls in bathing suits. Even if I could never work up the nerve to speak to any of them, why miss the chance to look at them?

Wow, that's not creepy at all.

And one thing leads to another, you know. I started horsing around in the water with some friends. Before I could blink, I was underwater, upside down, rolling along the sand. I could hear the waves around me as water rushed into my mouth and my nose, and I was blind. I don't know what happened. I don't know if I was ever in any real danger, or if I was just carrying on like a Mel Brooks Merry Man. Whatever the case, I found my feet and managed to get out of the water, choking and spluttering and making a fool of myself.

I spent the next couple of days swimming in the hotel pool. At least I can't get wrapped up in seaweed or sucked out to sea. Sure, kids pee in pools, but there's enough chlorine that nothing can live in those places. Well, that's what I thought then, anyway. Since having kids I've learned all about the funky bacteria and viruses that live in public pools. But nasty bugs haven't kept me out of pools for the last decade and a half. I've mostly stayed out of public pools because of my Jekyll Island trip.

Just a couple of days after nearly drowning on the beach, I found myself at the hotel pool diving for quarters with some friends. If you've never dived for quarters before, it goes something like this. Throw change in a pool, and dive to the bottom to pick it up. This passes for entertainment in a swimming pool. One of my quarters landed right down at the bottom of the deep end, 15 feet down, and I jumped right in. As I dove deeper, the pressure of all that water on top of me became stronger and stronger, and I didn't know that I should do something to equalize the pressure in my ears, and as I put my fingers on the quarter, I felt a POP! and a whoosh in my left ear, then pain, horrible pain. After a drive into Brunswick, GA to find a hospital and hours spent in an emergency room, I found out that I had ruptured an ear drum.

I'm about to sound like a paranoid agoraphobe for a minute, but bear with me. Other than a family trip to Daytona a couple of years after that, where I stayed in hotel room and ventured out for meals and for a day trip to Disneyworld, I haven't returned to the beach since then. I've also stayed away from swimming pools. I took the kids to the neighborhood pool a few times, but I avoid putting my head underwater. I no longer have any interest. Don't give my experiences too much credit, though, for keeping me away from the ocean. Mostly I haven't gone back because I don't take very many vacations anymore, not like we did when I was a teenager. We had religious reasons for taking trips every year for big church conventions, and often those conventions were in cities like Pensacola, Daytona, Jekyll Island, or Virginia Beach. I don't do those things anymore. I used the Bill Hicks defense for years. He once remarked that the beach "is where dirt meets water. End of fascination." Not going to the beach became a way to differentiate myself from the drooling masses. See? I'm too intelligent and awesome. I would never lower myself enough to go to a beach.

I do like a couple of things about beaches. I love sunrises and sunsets on the beach, especially sunset, because if the beach is quiet and deserted enough, if the lights of the closest city lie far enough away, I can watch the sky darken ever so slowly and watch the stars fade into view. I've written before about my love of the stars, and only in the mountains do I find more peace and joy looking at the stars than I do at the beach. Sitting quietly on the beach, listening to the waves crashing, watching the stars begin to twinkle, I feel tiny up against the vast cosmos, and I come closer to the spiritual than I ever have (or probably ever will) in a building made by humans.

Jessika has never been to the beach, nor have my children, and we're starting to talk about taking a vacation this year, getting away for a few days and staying in a hotel, maybe at the beach. In fact, I'm the one who suggested the beach, even though Jessika responded by protesting that I hate the beach. I don't think I do. I think I had a bad week and some easy excuses to stay away. I think I'd like it, especially with Jess and the kids along.

But I'm still grossed out by jellyfish.

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