One of my favorite living essayists (let’s face it, few of them really measure up to the dead) is Thomas Sowell—who once or twice a year lets himself off the hook and instead of composing a column, pens a series of aphorisms designed at once to goad the reader into thinking, and to let the columnist spend a final summer weekend at the beach.
Not that I think of Sowell as really a beach kind of guy. His notion of leisure more likely entails an extra night camped out in the Edmund Burke archives, or a Monday-night Monteverdi sing-in at the local high-Anglican church. But I could be wrong. It’s not like I’m one of his homeboys. In any case, your faithful columnist is himself headed for the beach this last week before Labor Day, after which he will dive face first into a sea of comma splices and logical fallacies. So expect a string of pithy observations, which I’ll get to… eventually.
I’m not exactly a beach bum. In fact, the first thing that comes to my mind when you say the word “beach” is “Dover,” and the second is “Omaha.” And I haven’t ventured down to the sand in oh…some 36 years. This explains my milky pallor, which I like to call “Pre-Raphaelite,” although my girlfriend prefers the term “cancer patient.” Which is just how her dermatologist warned her she would end up if she didn’t stop tanning, so now’s she’s addicted to SPF 70+, Jackie O sunglasses and great big retro hats. Which suits me just fine. If my beloved’s face is the page where I read her soul, I prefer it be the color of Xerox paper. But hey, that’s just me.
The last time I ventured out into the sand, I was seven years old, and my sisters led me by my tiny hand along what seemed a strand of Hell: A beach littered with inert human bodies, baking in the sun—it looked like those photos of Normandy right after the Allied landing, which I’d seen on my favorite TV show at that age, “The World At War.”
Except that these bodies were moving, sort of. Squirting liquid from tubes onto sweaty skin, flipping over on rickety chairs. Pausing occasionally to smack an ill-behaved child across the head. Getting up to turn the baby pig that was roasting over a gasoline flame, or tune the tinny radio blaring salsa tunes. The fallen bodies were spaced no further apart than those in Saving Private Ryan, and to a high-strung, impressionable 7-year-old, this multicultural moment felt like the first 40 minutes of that movie. I threw a tantrum, my long-suffering sisters had to haul me home, and I haven’t been to Jones Beach, or any beach, since.
Of course, I knew about the Hamptons, where the honkies go to frolic—if you can call it frolicking. More like networking, semi-naked. If there’s one thing worse than stripping down to your skivvies with the contents of Spanish Harlem, I imagine that it’s doing it with the spilled out attorneys, wrinkling “pro-choice” mavens and trophy brides of the Upper East Side. Their radios aren’t as tinny, and they’re all playing NPR—so your day at the beach is spoiled not by San Juan’s Greatest Hits, but by the natterings of Nina Totenberg. If forced at gunpoint to choose between these pre-tanned prosecco sippers and the folks cooking cochinillo, I guess I’d have to say, “Shoot.”
My friends assure me that beaches in New Hampshire are not nearly so huddled with masses, while neither Abercrombie nor Fitch has been spotted there in years, so I’m game to give it a try—lured on by the promise of low-cost, fresh-caught lobsters washed down with bottles of Smuttynose at a nearby seafood shack. So I’m off to buy the kind of sunblock that could well stop global warming, and read Ratzinger in the sun. My companion’s a brilliant Columbia physics grad, half-Chinese and half-Volksdeutsch, and his driving is kind of… tentative. Sometimes I’ve had to ask him, after a close call on the Interstate, “Could you please tap into your German side while you’re driving? Or do you save it for when you’re doing math?”
He’ll be pulling up here any minute (Don’t tell him about this column, okay?), so I’ll close with my Sowell-man series of passing observations. Of course, I haven’t half the learning or the brains I’d need to compete with the master—so instead of high-minded aphorisms, here’s my list of Bumper Stickers You Won’t Put on Your Car™: (Really. Go ahead, print them up. I dare you.)
For nostalgic readers of Russell Kirk, who keep their bound volumes of the old NR like a framed photo of Kaiser Franz Josef on the wall of a Holocaust survivor who fled Vienna:
“Burkeans ‘Do It’ Reluctantly and Incrementally.”
For tenured Straussians teaching at Christian colleges:
“God Bless America.” (then, in Attic Greek:) “Except that He Doesn’t Exist.”)
For Brilliant, Unemployable Catholic Losers: “Don’t Blame Me… I Voted for Philip II.” (with a Spanish galleon).
For pessimistic Protestants: “In Case of Rapture This Vehicle will Be… Just Fine.”
For home-schooling families of 15: “This Minivan Brakes for Apparitions of Mary.”
For paleocons who secretly wish that Putin were ruling America: “Have You Hugged Your Russian Oligarch Today?”
For neocons: “America First.” (written in Hebrew.)
For single guys: “Porn is for Wankers.”
For Crunchy-Cons who live in the suburbs and subscribe to the Farmer’s Almanac: “Think Parochially, Act Globally.”
For really disillusioned conservatives: “George III was Right.”
For blue collar Americans: “My Army Son Shoots Foreigners So Your Honor Student Can Have a Same-Sex Marriage.”
For me (and I really am printing this up, and you can buy one from me if you want): “Arm the Unborn to Guard the Border.”
Which pretty much sums things up. Now I’m off to eat a lobster, I hope without first turning the very same color. We Irish Slavs don’t tan so much as blister.
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