January 26, 2005

Sanibel Isle Trip Log

...whereupon we visit our snowbird parents in their condo down in the land of Florida...

day 1

My reading here is Tom Hayden’s “Irish on the Inside”, Walter Kerr’s “Decline of Pleasure”, Percy’s “The Moviegoer” (which I finished), a book of essays and nature writing by a local writer and Russell Kirk’s ghost stories titled “Ancestral Shadows”. The reads were all, dare I say, pleasurable? From Kerr:

“We do not pay much attention to ancient saints, even when they were thinkers. 'No man can exist without pleasure,' remarked St. Thomas Aquinas, who ought – if our understanding of the dour medieval mind is correct – to have been urging us to put away our playthings in favor of prayer. 'Life would not be tolerable without poetry,' announced St. Teresa of Avila, making it perfectly clear, in a parenthetical remark, that she meant it would not be tolerable even in a convent for contemplatives. St. Augustine thought that whenever a conflict arose between the enjoyable and the useful, the useful had to give way as being, in the ultimate sense, inferior. Many of the soberer thinkers of the past, including those who had by vow denied themselves most earthly pleasures, did not scruple to elevate what they called recreation to a dizzying position in the hierarchy of the worth-while.”

Hayden quoted somebody who said that the Irish are “more interested in being interesting than in being successful”, which reminds me of William F. Buckley’s aphorism that the worst sin is to be boring. Hayden’s book is fascinating to me. The ‘60s liberal activist is my opposite yet we both have a love of things Irish: just different things. For him being Irish means being counter-cultural (no matter the culture) and it means putting the fighting in “fighting Irish” (he speaks of the IRA & Molly Maguires with unseemly affection). And reading Maureen Dezell’s “Irish America” wasn’t much better. She sees Ireland as the land of feminists, whence cometh strong women (presumably like herself), such as Mother Jones and Margaret Sanger. Sanger. Doesn’t that beat all? Sanger, one of the more misanthropic people on the planet, a person who wanted the disabled and so-called racial inferiors killed. But Dezell holds her up as a role model because she’s of the same sex and exercised power. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Power. It’s like someone who has a mustache pointing to Hitler as his role model because he was a strong man with a mustache. It’s profoundly dispiriting to see that our love for our heritage is often a love for ourselves. To see some of our traits expressed in our background can be a good thing because it can teach us that no man is an island and that history is not something dried up and only in books but lives within us. But the downside is raising where we came from to idol status, i.e. my culture right or wrong.

~ insert proper segue here ~

I’m puckering from the unflavorable aftertaste of Franzikaner Hefe-Weisse. All that glitters is not hefe-weisse. I got snookered by the label: a hearty-looking monk smiles as he takes a draught from a huge silver tankard. As a marketing trick, it's far more effective than nekkid wimmen. But the beer is too sweet or more probably I just don’t like wheat beers. But I brought Beck’s Dark too which looks especially good in the sun-drenched sand, like the set of a Corona commercial. I feel sentimental towards the decorative litter of shells around the bottle; the arrangement is pleasing to the point of providential. I would not destroy the randomness by moving one from here to there.

It’s the aspect of repetitive happy hours that is so attractive about vacations like this. Any individual happy hour here carries a light load since there’s always tomorrow…and tomorrow (God willing). The weather enforces a sort of temperance since by the third beer the beach temps are getting downright cool. I go for a jog and switch from running to skipping. I pass a man wearing a Jimmy Buffet t-shirt that says “Growing Older But Not Up”. My wife looks for shells and I always get a kick out of that. It confirms her essential girlishness. After all these years she still likes pretty rocks, be they expensive tanzanite or sea-borne conchs. We already have enough shells at home to start an armory but nevertheless we have a 6:05 date with Bowman beach. Something about low tide. I collect words while she collects shells.

Meanwhile the sun diamonds shine, gobbled up by pelicans on the rise. An elderly couple happens by. He has amazing stick-like legs and is stooped to almost a 90-degree angle. She carries a cane that makes a staccato sound as it hits the sand. She sits down in her chair while he remains standing; their smiling eyes make music together. He doesn’t have to lean over since he has aged that way. They have the love and simplicity that I tend to associate with the mentally disabled and I think it sad that I should associate it so. What I actually witnessed was a foretaste of Heaven.

By 4pm the wind picks up and the beach cools. My wife wants to go back inside but I tell her that a sweatshirt and sweatpants are all that are necessary. Is that cheating? Is there a clause that laying out on a beach covered in clothing defeats the purpose? Taken to extremes we could just read out in our backyard in Janurary Ohio clad in Eskimo clothing.


Driftwood decors the
shore drifting to and fro
but immaculately placed.

Misplace driftwood
and somebody’s liable to ask:
Why do you have that stick on your desk?

I'm finding that little moments launch more interior Man of La Mancha musical interludes than more ambitious enterprises. Writing a novel is the default ambition but the glorious victories are ones that God crowns with his beautiful synchronicity, the thoughtful gesture (painfully rare, as I am selfish) coming at precisely the time that person needed it. Such confirmations are thrilling even as I must look ahead to a time when going over and beyond will be less obviously rewarded. Mother Marie Douleurs wrote that “the Lord is most grieved when he sees us retracting into ourselves – we who were made for such great things!”.

I ponder mysteries like why my aunt, thin and careful with diet and a two-sets-a-day tennis player, would die of cancer at 52, while her brothers were quite heavy and never took care of themselves and lived decades longer. Unwelcome thoughts come - like that it’s somehow embarrassing to live a short life - it’s as if you weren’t tough enough, not in body but in mind. And not to be tough in mind seems uncomfortably aligned with too little faith. Or so are the thoughts I mean to reject. My father tells me of a doctor who served ALS victims for years – until the doctor eventually got the dread non-communicable disease. It gives a shiver to think that the mind might be that powerful, that mere fixation on a disease could bring it on.

day 2

I hike an hour in “Ding” Darling Nature Preserve. It feels almost contemplative. I have a sudden yearning to read William Trevor’s short stories or Christopher Nolan’s “The Banyan Tree” even though they are ineffably different. Nolan drops coin'd-words into gleam-heaps; he slows you down for the same reason sweet, heavy maple syrup does. Trevor, on the other hand, is utterly unflashy and dulls you to a Zen-like state. I see a large torpid sun-gator. His back is Firestone-studded with rhizomes. It’s impossible not to look upon the fine gleaming animal with anything but appreciation.

The pool is closed today but the ocean is not. The pool doesn’t have hours, it has temperatures; it only opens when the outdoor temperature is at least sixty degrees. I’m hoping to take my socks off. Going to the beach in sweatshirts and sweatpants is bad enough, but having to wear socks is deflating. Our seagull comes again, like Poe’s Raven. He thinks we have food and waits implacably. Two different days and he stands in his same spot, some seven feet away. His patience tugs.

day 3

Norman Mailer wrote in Parade Magazine that children’s attention spans are being destroyed by television commercials. Says that concentration interrupted is irritating even for adults, so imagine how children take it. They take it by developing a simple defense mechanism: they avoid concentrating at all. Coincidentally I read a similar thing a day later from Walter Kerr (written in 1962):
“Our deepest beliefs, in the twentieth century, command us to dismiss the arts, popular or otherwise: they have not had value, they do not have value, they will not have value…We are willing to make use of them when we are absolutely unable to do anything else, though on one condition: the condition is that they do not engage us. If they were to engage us, to ensnare our powers of concentration, to entice us into a complexity of thought or of narrative that might absorb us to the exclusion of the world around us, we should, of course, run the risk of not noticing our train, not hearing the telephone, or burning the casserole. More seriously still, we should be at fault morally: we’d have surrendered ourselves to an unprofitable activity.”
Drinking a beer, feet in the sand, I burrow my toes to a hard, cool surface that feels almost like a floor. It reminds me of a themed fraternity party I went to a couple decades ago. It was Ohio in January but we wanted the South Pacific, and imported x tons of sand, filling the huge social room floor to a depth of about a half a foot. College: the nexus of time and energy which results in unprofitable activities like that. I don’t think I suspended belief enough to forget the social room floor was beneath that sand. The party, ambered now in memory, has such a passive feel to it. I felt as much a visitor to it then as now... I feel relaxed about the last day, though in this Stop-Time I’d like to have figured something out, or at least make a resolution or two. Though that sounds suspiciously utilitarian.

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