Powerless

On a warm August afternoon in 2003, as we lazed on the dock at our home on the lake in cottage-country, basking in the sun, chatting amiably, the electric power grid shut down.  Boom!  Just that quickly.

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We didn’t know, of course, not right away.  Not until one of us headed up to the house to replenish our drinks and shouted the news back down to the rest.  And even then, none of us worried much about it.

Power outages were a fact of life in our rural setting.  Living in the north was a glorious experience, one we enjoyed for fifteen years, but the infrastructure was not nearly so sophisticated as in large, urban areas.

Telephone service was usually reliable, the operative word being usually.  But everything else in the house depended upon electricity—heating, all appliances, lights, the internet (rudimentary as it was back then), and most importantly, running water, which flowed through an elaborate purification system in our basement, powered by a pump submerged in the lake.

On the many occasions we had lost power in the past, it never lasted long.  Thinking back on it now, I realize how naïve we were, how foolish not to have a generator on stand-by.  But we didn’t.  The need had never arisen.

As this latest outage dragged into the early evening hours, we decided to ‘rough it’, which meant cooking everything but the meat (which we always did on the barbecue) on an old propane camping-stove I hauled down from its shelf in the garage.  Afterwards, we stowed the dirty dishes in the dishwasher for cleaning, fully expecting the power to come back on momentarily.

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Before dusk gave way to the almost-total blackness of night, when the forest seemed to creep closer around us and the stars winked on by the thousands in the sky overhead, I lit our two propane lanterns, complaining, I’m sure, about how long the outage had lasted.

And then we went to bed.

By morning, the power was still not up and running.  I trundled large pails of water from the lake to the house, placing one in each bathroom to refill toilet tanks after flushing.  We resurrected the old cottage credo, When it’s yellow, let it mellow; when it’s brown, flush it down.

Another large pail went to the kitchen for boiling in a pot on the camping-stove.  We opened the refrigerator as little as possible, the freezer not at all.  And we washed our dishes in the sink.

Both our daughters were home from school for the summer, working at a resort restaurant some distance from the house.  The phone was working, and they found out after calling that the place was also affected, and would stay closed until power was restored.

Absent electricity, we had no way, short of phoning neighbours and family in the city, to ascertain what was happening.  The news we got from them described a huge power blackout encompassing much of the eastern seaboard, both in Canada and the U.S.

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Resigned to that, we enjoyed another lovely summer day, boating, swimming, sunbathing, all the time expecting the power back at any moment.  Around mid-afternoon, we began to plan for another camp-style dinner, just in case.  I had begun to feel like the pioneers, I think, hardy souls who could manage off-the-grid.  I remember remarking to my wife that we could probably survive like this indefinitely, thanks to a ready, natural food supply.

She had long been cultivating a large truck-garden behind the house, full of asparagus, lettuce, peas, beans, radishes, beets, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs.  Poppies had been strategically planted, too, to keep the deer from harvesting the crop before we could.  Eating that fresh produce was a season-long delight, and one which we now gave renewed thanks for.

The lake was stocked with fish, as well, and we had enjoyed many a fine feast of bass and pickerel over the years.

Nevertheless, my wife was not enamoured of my clueless remark.

On the following morning, day 3, we were still powerless.  Our early-morning swims were taken with soap, something we normally did not do for fear of fouling the water, but which was proving necessary, given the lack of hot water for baths and showers.  That was especially important for the girls, who were called into work that day when the power came back on in the sector where the restaurant was located.  We rejoiced at the news, fully anticipating the same thing for our neighbourhood.  Alas, it was not to be.

Following their shift, the girls drove home in the dark to find us huddled around the propane lanterns in the living-room—sunk in a funk, to be honest, in contrast to our usual sunny, optimistic natures.  The initial excitement of roughing it had given way to resentment at our plight, still engulfed in blackness when everyone around us (we had begun to imagine) had been restored to the light.

Day 4, another wondrous late-summer morning, brought more of the same.  By now, we had emptied the freezer, either cooking the items before they thawed and spoiled, or throwing out those we could not get to.  The girls had brought bags of ice home after work, and we had packed perishable goods from the refrigerator into two large coolers.  We were still wonderfully self-sufficient and in control, or so I tried to assure myself.

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Except, we no longer cared about that!  The bloom was long off the rose by then, and all we wanted was our old lives back.  By mid-afternoon, when the girls were readying to leave for work, my wife and I decided enough was enough.  After a hasty phone call to book a room at the resort where the restaurant was located, we threw a few things in our overnight bags and jumped in the car with the girls.

I could tell you that we never went back, but that would be untrue.  In fact, we returned the next day after electricity was finally and fully restored in our area, and resumed our enjoyment of the summer.  Powerless no longer.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that experience back in 2003, as I sit now in our condo home in the city, older and wiser (I hope), confined by the pandemic sweeping the globe.  And as much as I like to think we can survive this indefinitely, I know from experience that just isn’t so.

We are so dependent upon so many others to maintain the supply-chains for our food and medications, our communications, our hospitals and other essential services.  And every one of those is reliant upon that one indispensable need: electricity.

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I pray we will not become powerless again.

Telephone Jokester

I have never liked the telephone!  I know it’s a wonderful invention, a labour-sparing tool, a life-saver in time of emergency.  I’m aware that it brings friends together and ties families more closely to one another.  And I understand that it is, indeed, a technological marvel.

But I don’t like it, especially now when everyone but me carries one around in pocket or purse.  For whatever reason, I’ve never felt at ease when I’m talking to someone on the phone.  If I can’t be in front of the person to whom I’m speaking, it doesn’t feel right.  And no, Skype and FaceTime do not resolve that problem for me.

Even before the days of smartphones, my home phone always seemed to ring at the most inopportune moments; for example, when I’d just sat down to dinner, when I was busily engrossed in some leisure activity, or (most annoying of all) when I was the only one home to answer it.  That still happens.

But without a doubt, the worst thing about the telephone is the wrong number.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing the calling or receiving the call.  Wrong numbers are a pain!

Whenever I’ve entered a wrong number, I’m immediately apologetic to the person who answers.  I know that my own carelessness has put the other party out, and I try to make amends.  However, my efforts are invariably met with an angry or impolite reply.  It begins right after I realize I’ve dialled the number incorrectly.

“Oh…oh, sorry,” I stammer.  “I’m afraid I have the wrong number.”

“Obviously!” comes the reply.  And if it’s a landline I’ve called in error, that response is followed closely by an abrupt banging of the receiver in my ear.

What bothers me more, though, is when I answer a call from someone who has the wrong number.  For some reason, it’s still I who ends up being the bad guy.  Where’s the justice in that?

“Hello?” I answer.

“Jenny there?”

“Ah, no, sorry,” I begin.  “You have the wrong…”

“Where is she?” the caller demands.

“Hey, man, I don’t know.  You’ve got the wrong…”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s me,” I reply lamely, “and there’s no one here by the name of…”

“What number is this?”

When I dutifully give it, I get a snarling rejoinder, “That’s not the number I want!”

I’m never quick enough to miss that banging receiver.  And I’m left feeling it was all my fault for answering when the call was for Jenny.

I confess, back in those unlamented landline days, I resorted to dirty tricks on numerous occasions, more to avoid the unpleasantness than out of any malicious intent.  Although, I must concede, I did derive some guilty pleasure from it.

“Just a minute,” I would reply when the caller asked for someone I’d never heard of.  I’d lay the receiver by the phone, place a cushion on top, and forget about it.  After a few minutes, the caller would get tired of waiting and hang up.  When next I passed by the phone, I’d gently replace the receiver.

Or on occasion, I’d respond by saying, “Jenny?  She left quite a while ago.  She should be at your place any minute!  Tell her to call when she gets there.”

And I’d hang up first.

Sometimes, I would ask the name of the caller, tell them to wait, then make a show of yelling for the non-existent person to come to the phone.

“Jenny!  Phone for you.  It’s Alice!”

After a few seconds, I’d yell again, “No way!  If you don’t wanta talk to her, you tell her!  Not me!”

In those cases, I could hear the receiver bang down from ten feet away.

I never believed any great harm came from such tactics, and it sure made me feel better.  I always hoped it might even teach those careless callers to be a little more conscientious.

“They’re only getting what they deserve,” I rationalized.  “Just desserts for them, justice for me!”

Needless to say, I was elated when—back then, before the introduction of caller ID—I hit upon the very best way to deal with those nuisance calls.  Mind you, it took some measure of will-power, and it required a little practice at first to get the hang of it.  But I persevered, and once I mastered it, I no longer had to waste precious hours dreaming up new tricks.

It was so simple.  When the phone rang, if I thought it might be a wrong number, I didn’t answer!  Ergo, no hassle, no stress.  And in time, of course, no more calls!

Brilliant!

Nevertheless, given the technological world in which I live, I suppose I’ll have to break down and get a smartphone of my own one of these days.  I’ll be tempted to turn off the ringer, set it to vibrate, and leave it at home when I go out.  But I probably won’t.

I still don’t like the telephone, but it’s lonely being a Luddite.

Intelligence and Change (2)

Three-and-a-half years ago, I published a post expressing concern about our human resistance to change, and our ignoring of evidence presaging a calamity—an event which is, perhaps, now upon us with the covid-19 pandemic.

You may not have read the post at the time, but I recommend you do so now, for two reasons.  First, it may help to explain just how we have arrived in this situation, particularly the paragraphs highlighted in blue.  And second, it may point the way to a correction in our future behaviours—assuming, of course, our species survives.

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If the history of our planet and the existence of life upon it were to be displayed as a clock-face, with its beginning at twelve o’clock, the appearance of the first humanoid beings—our distant, distant precursors—would not occur until the hands had swept around to the merest sliver of time before twelve again.

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Life itself, however, in its earliest, most basic form, would have begun much earlier, when the hands were approaching two o’clock.  The difference in real time is about four billion years, based on the fossil record so far uncovered.  Bacteria, for example, are a subset of prokaryotes, the earliest type of life on earth.

Life existed, in other words, for four billion years before the first hominim stood up on hind-legs, discovered oppositional thumbs, and (possibly) wondered who or what (s)he was.

All this time later, modern humans claim supremacy over the planet and everything living in its embrace.  Such foolhardiness, as we shall see.

We do so, I suppose, out of a belief that we are the most highly-intelligent life-form yet evolved.  Our basic intelligence—distinct from other species because of our imagination and curiosity, which allow us to ask such questions as Why?, How?, and What if…?—varies widely among individual humans, but is demonstrably more advanced than that of other species.

If the specie-specific intelligences of all life-forms, as we measure them, were arrayed on a graph, the human sort would be a tiny triangle at the very top of a much larger triangle, the lower intelligences of inferior life-forms spreading out below ours.

But that ranking may be misleading because of the definition of intelligence we apply in order to do the grading.  If the essential purpose of every known life-form is to perpetuate the species, to survive, and if each group’s success at doing so is the ultimate measure of intelligence, then our ranking would certainly be much different on the graph.

Very recently, a study undertaken at Indiana University posited that the earth might presently host almost one trillion distinct species, of which less than one-thousandth of one percent have been identified.  We might imagine that we are one of the very few species among them to possess an awareness of the others’ existence, but that awareness may not matter much.

A parasite life-form, firmly attached to a host, may not be cognitively aware of its host, but it thrives and reproduces because of their symbiotic relationship—even as the host dies.  The trillions of bacteria that live on our bodies, most of them in the intestinal tract, may have no cognitive awareness of us, but they are essential to our survival, and they reproduce exponentially.

In fact, it has been argued that our human bodies are nothing more than carrying-cases for our microbiome, a coalition of genes from several different species, only one of which is human.

Most bacteria are beneficial to us, but certain types, pathogenic or disease-carrying, can be harmful.  They exist in three main forms—cocci, bacilli, and spirilla—and reproduce so quickly that they can overrun an otherwise-healthy organism, causing illness and even death.

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Another species posing a threat to us, perhaps the smallest and simplest life-form of any on earth, is the virus.  By themselves, viruses are inanimate, requiring a host in which to multiply and grow—which they do by invading a host-cell, causing it to produce infected cells that attack other cells, and eventually killing the host.

The drive to survive among bacteria and viruses is relentless.  Human intelligence has inspired the development of methods to combat them—antibiotics, such as penicillin, amoxicillin, and tetracycline for bacteria; vaccinations and antiviral drugs, among them acyclovir and interferon, for viruses.  For a long time, these have been effective.

There is some evidence, however, that pathogenic bacteria and viruses are evolving into organisms with an immunity to the drugs we administer.  This comes as no surprise, really, because all living things evolve over time through a process of random mutation and selection.  The alarming thing is that these ‘superbugs’ may be outstripping our ability to develop new drugs to combat them.

Imagine, for instance, if all our defenses against bacterial infections and viral illnesses were to be rendered useless.  Which species would survive, the highly-intelligent one of which we are a part, or the simple, ruthless ones that have existed for the better part of four billion years?

In that context, which of the species is truly the most intelligent?  The human one that spawned Newton and Marie Curie, Mozart and Dylan, Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa?  Or the simple ones that have ensured their survival over billions of years on the planet?

Einstein once wrote, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

But history tells us that, although humans are not naturally resistant to every bacterial and viral infection that might assail us, we are naturally resistant to change.

That is a problem.

Listening to My Mother

As a young boy, lo, those many years ago, I listened to my mother—not because I always wanted to, but because I quickly learned that not doing so could have severe consequences.  She’s been gone ten years and more, and yet I find I’m still listening, especially now, living in this pandemic world in which we find ourselves.

“Wash and brush your teeth first thing,” she’d say, “and brush your hair.  Make your bed before you get dressed, then come down for breakfast.”

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She didn’t tell me to shave, of course, my being but a stripling who had no need to do so.  But I was told to put my pyjamas away and drop my dirty clothes into the hamper on my way to the kitchen.

I didn’t need telling every day, but the reminders were frequent enough.  And woe betide me if I neglected any of the tasks.

Fast forward to today, and you’d see this past-mid-seventies man I have become still making my bed right after returning from my first visit of the day to the bathroom (where, of course, I wash and brush my teeth).  I still don’t shave, at least not every day, but I do brush my hair assiduously.

After slipping my PJ’s under the pillow, I get dressed (always neatly, if not stylishly), gather up any laundry, and head for the kitchen.

My mother always had breakfast ready when I got there, sometimes preceded by my brother and sisters, and she watched closely to ensure we ate everything—juice, oatmeal porridge, toast, and milk.

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“Sit up tall,” she’d say.  “Lift your spoon to your mouth.  Lean over your bowl.  Hold your spoon properly.”

My remembering it like this might make her sound like a martinet, but she was not.  Neither was she a nag.  She simply wanted each of us to be the best we could be, and she had strong opinions as to what the best looked like.

Today, my breakfast might consist of cottage cheese with fresh fruit mixed in, and a couple of oat biscuits; or granola with fresh fruit and yogurt.  Green tea has replaced the glass of milk, but juice is still a staple.  And while I am eating, I sit straight, careful not to lower my chin to the bowl.

“Don’t leave your dishes on the counter,” my mother would say when we’d get up to leave the table.  “Put them in the sink.  And make sure you fold your napkin and push your chair back in.”

To this day, my napkin is rolled carefully into the napkin ring, the chairs in my kitchen sit squarely around the table, pushed in just so.  And no dirty dishes adorn the countertop (although a dishwasher has replaced the sink to receive them).

I Love School

Our reward back then, as we tumbled out the door to school, was a smiling kiss from our taskmaster.  We expected it, looked forward to it, and remembered it often throughout the day.

Looking back, I think these instructions from my mother helped prepare us to face the world in front of us.  The subtle sense of accomplishment we gained from completing such simple chores, even if we weren’t consciously aware of it, instilled a sense of confidence in us that we were more than up to the task of dealing with whatever might befall us.

Of course, we were uncomplicated souls back then, my siblings and I.  As a senior citizen today, I would have expected myself to be much more jaded by now, much less naïve, not so likely to be swayed or influenced by simple rewards for elementary tasks.

Yet, here I am, confined to home because of the dreaded pandemic swirling around us, unsure as to what might lie ahead, needing that jolt of confidence more than ever.  I’m making my bed first thing every day, brushing my teeth, sitting up straight at the table.  I’m doing the dishes, the laundry, the numerous other household chores that keep my shrunken world from toppling over the edge into chaos.

And why?  Well, the answer to that is simple.

Mum

I’m still listening to my mother.

Can We Coexist? Will We Survive?

Some time back, well before the pandemic era we find ourselves in just now, I wrote a short piece on the importance of coexistence if we are to survive the challenges facing us as a species.  As we face the hardships wrought by the need for physical distancing and social behaviours that will ensure the greatest chance of survival for the greatest number of us, I am re-posting it in the severely-altered context of our world today.

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There’s a bumper sticker out there that neatly sums up the means to solving the world’s problems, including war, famine, pandemic, pollution, drought, overpopulation, greed—

Coexistence sounds so simple, yet over the millennia it has proven impossible to attain.

An old joke goes like this:  “You don’t know when you’re dead; only other people notice.  It’s the same when you’re stupid.”

Never having been dead, I can’t vouch for the first premise; for all I know, the world will scarce notice when I’m gone.  But the second part might well be true.  Why else, other than stupidity,  do so many of us ignore the certainty that humankind’s current practices are dooming our planet?

Nation against nation, race against race, religion against religion; ignorance and denial of the potential rise of drug-resistant bacteria and viruses; endless resource extraction; massive defoliation and over-fishing; reckless despoliation of our environment, including the very air we breathe—all in the name of what?  Geo-political supremacy?  Last one standing wins?  It’s sheer, rampant stupidity.

In his poem, Ozymandias, Shelley wrote these lines—

“…on the [shatter’d] pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Where the glory, where the triumph?  Nothing is left in a vast wasteland but a smashed relic of one man’s vainglorious attempt to take control of his world.

Think of two anthills in a garden, one bustling with industrious black ants, the other alive with equally busy red ants.  Everything is peaceful in the garden until, one sad day, the two colonies discover each other.  And then madness, folly, turmoil, mayhem, as each tries to subjugate the other.  Warfare unto the death, until the gardener brings his stomping boots and smashing shovel down on them.  And they are all annihilated, indistinguishable in their lifeless remains.

Is there a celestial gardener, I wonder, who looks upon our planet, this earthly garden, and despairs?  Do we appear as nothing more than those foolish ants, scurrying hysterically to and fro, intent upon the destruction of any who are not like us?  And will we avoid the gardener’s heavy boot?  Or is it already too late?

Coexistence has many synonyms: reconciliation, harmony, accord, synchronicity, collaboration.  All are needed if we are, indeed, to live together on our fragile planet.

Coexistence also has one supremely important result—

Survival!

Golfing Legends

In the long-ago summer of ’67, I went with a couple of friends to a day-long golf match at the Toronto Golf Club, the third-oldest course in North America.  We were there to watch two of the game’s leading players go head-to-head for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, a very popular TV program of the time.

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American Mickey Wright, a winner of 82 LPGA championships and 13 majors, was matched against a young Canadian amateur, Marlene Stewart, who went on to become the only person ever to win the Australian, British, Canadian, and U.S. Amateur Championships.  Both women have since been elected into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida.

My friends and I were rooting for the Canadian, of course, and after nine holes, she was up by one.  We had rushed ahead and strategically placed ourselves behind the ninth green, by the path the players would use on their way to the tenth tee.

As they left the green, the women stopped to be interviewed by the co-hosts of the program, two revered PGA golfers, Jimmy Demaret and Gene Sarazen, by then both retired from the game.  Demaret had won 31 tour events during his career, and was the first three-time winner of the Masters.  Sarazen, known as ‘The Squire’, had won seven major championships, and is one of five golfers to have won a career grand slam—a U.S. Open (twice), a PGA Championship (three times), the British Open, and the Masters.  Both of them are also in the Golf Hall of Fame.

sarazen and demaret

These four people were, indeed, superstars, and there they were, standing right in front of me as the camera rolled, taping proceedings for the hour-long telecast scheduled for later in the season.

I don’t remember what was asked and answered during the interview; it took place, after all, fifty-three years ago.  Nor do I remember being conscious at the time that I might be captured on film directly behind the celebrity foursome.  And I do not remember ever seeing the program when it was eventually broadcast.

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Many years later, my eldest daughter, Tara, had married a young CPGA golfer, head professional at one of Ontario’s premier golf courses.  We went with them on a week-long golfing holiday to Myrtle Beach, where we played several of the outstanding courses in the area.  At the end of one particular day, after enjoying a lovely dinner, the two couples withdrew to our separate bedrooms to read, watch TV, or, in my case, fall asleep.

Sometime shortly after I had done just that, my daughter burst into our room, face alight with excitement.

“Dad!  Dad!” she cried.

I wakened immediately, alarmed, worried something was wrong.

“Dad!” she said, plopping herself on the bed beside me.  “Did you ever go see a golf match at the old Toronto Golf Club?”

“Huh?” I managed.

“Dad, years ago, Marlene Stewart played a match with Mickey Wright, and it was taped for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.  Were you there?”

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Sitting up now, I tried to remember.  “Yeah, I think maybe I was.  I would’ve been in my early twenties, before I got married.  Why are you asking me now?”

“I knew it!” my daughter said, clapping her hands.  By now, our son-in-law, Adam, had joined her in our room.

“This is unbelievable,” he said.  “I was fooling with the remote and stopped on the Golf Channel.  By chance, there was an old black-and-white program showing a game in Toronto, so we watched it for a bit.  The guys hosting it were interviewing the two women playing the match, and there was a young guy standing behind them, right in the middle of the screen.”

My daughter cut in.  “I thought, ‘Holy cow!  That guy looks a lot like my dad, but younger.’  And just as I was thinking that, Adam said, ‘I think that might be your dad standing there.  How old is this program?’  So, it was you?”

The memories were slowly creeping back.  “I guess so, yeah,” I said.  “I was standing really close to them after the front nine, and I think you’re right.  They did stop to be interviewed.”

“Did you get an autograph from any of them?” Tara asked.

“Nope,” I said, seeing it again through the mists of time.  “As I recall, Marlene Stewart wasn’t much older than I was, and kinda cute.  I’d have been more likely to ask for a date.”

They laughed at that, even my wife, and then my son-in-law said, “I’ve seen you play.  You should have asked for a lesson!”

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We all laughed at the truth of that, but honestly, I’d been much too shy at the time to ask for any of those things—an autograph, a date, or a lesson.

To this day, I have never seen that program.  And I know my memories of being there at the match have been warped by the intervening years.  But I do remember those  people—Demaret, Sarazen, Wright, and Stewart—just as they were then, frozen in time.  Golfing legends.

I was certainly starstruck in the moment.  And I could never have imagined reliving the experience through the eyes of a grown daughter half a century later.

Wonderful world of golf, indeed!

Teenage Angst

The writers’ group I meet with regularly issues ‘prompts’ for us to generate story ideas, for presentation at our gatherings.  One of the most recent asked us to write about ‘oceans’—whatever that word might bring to mind.

I hit upon teenage angst as the setting for my piece, which I entitled By the Ocean.  Here it is for readers of this blog who might remember the heartbreak of summer love—

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Despite my repeated efforts to block them out, the mocking words and melody keep running through my head—

On a day like today, we passed the time away,

Writing love-letters in the sand…

Not love-letters exactly; just a big heart drawn on the beach with a stick, an I on the left, a YOU on the right.  We’d spread a blanket inside the heart and lie beside each other, resting, oblivious to the comings and goings of the other surfers.  There was only us and our boards.

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Sometimes we’d just stare at the ocean, watching it crash ashore, pointing at the big waves others were carving.  Abby would say she could see charging white stallions in the surf, like a painting she once saw, but I could never see them.  All I ever saw was yellowish foam, flecked with flotsam, washing up on the beach.

As each afternoon wore on, the water would creep ever closer to us on the incoming surge, until finally it would lap at the very edge of the blanket.  We’d pack up then and head for higher ground.  She’d laugh each time we saw the tide take our love-letters in the sand, washing them away as if they’d never existed.

Those were my favorite times, those late afternoons, both of us exhausted from surfing the breaks and bombs, when the sun hovered precariously above the horizon before plunging into the ocean.  The tips of the waves were almost pink as they rose and fell pell-mell on the sand.  The water behind them had a slick, green sheen on either side of the wide, diamond-dancing path across the surface that led from us to the sun.

The ocean’s power was immense, like the love we had for each other.

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I’m alone on the blanket now, though, and that cursed song keeps playing in my ears—

You made a vow that you would always be true,

But somehow that vow meant nothing to you…

I’m not sure when things changed, or why.  All I know is that, by the end of the summer, Abby was no longer surfing.  Not with me, and not with anyone else as far as I knew.  She quit returning my calls, and finally her mother told me to stop phoning.

I must have sounded pretty low because, even though she’d never approved of me—that beach-bum, I overheard her call me once—she explained that Abby had gone away to school.  Wellesley, I think she said, somewhere back east.  Not even a goodbye.

“What about you, Bode?” she asked, as if she cared.  “Where will you be going?”

I didn’t bother to answer.  Back to the beach is where I was going.  I’d grown up by the ocean, following my father from competition to competition up and down the state.  Even got to Hawaii once.  He won lots of trophies, not much money, and now, in his early-forties, he’s desperately clinging to that surfer-boy persona, the only thing he knows.

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They’re still together, though, him and my mother.  She cleans house for the rich-bitches on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, earns enough to keep us in the old double-wide on the outskirts of Surfside Acres, a patch of scrubland north of the beach.

I worked part-time all through high school at the Hang-Ten Board Shoppe, which is as tacky as its name.  Paid enough to suit me, though, and I got to try all the latest equipment.  Now that I’ve graduated, finally, I’m hoping to pick up a few more hours, maybe earn enough to buy a set of wheels.

“Bode?  Did you hear me?  What school are you off to?”  Abby’s mother, still on the line.

I hung up without replying.  She didn’t care, and, apparently, neither did Abby.

–  0  –

The surf is up today, the orange sun falling slowly behind scattered clouds to its rendezvous with the edge of the world.  Only a few people lie scattered on the sand, a few more out on the water.  I watch the waves creeping ever closer to the blanket, wishing Abby were here, knowing she never would be again.

I can imagine her friends talking about us.  Abby?  She’s at Wellesley.  Bode?  Still at the Hang-Ten.

Yeah, that’s me alright.  Despondent now, I resign myself to what I’m about to do.  Leaving my board by the blanket, I’ll wade out to waist-level, and begin the final journey from there.  I know the incoming waves are strong, but they won’t be a problem for someone who’s been surfing since he was eight years old.

sunset swim 2

I’ll follow that familiar, sun-dappled path on the surface toward the horizon—swimming freestyle, breathing easy, arms reaching, legs kicking.  I’ll harbor no second thoughts as the distance between me and the beach increases, stroke by stroke by stroke.  If someone on shore sees me, it won’t matter.

Pretty soon, I’ll feel myself tiring, but I won’t pause to look back.  Once I’m out beyond where the waves form, still swimming toward the sun—wondering if I’ll reach it before it’s extinguished by the ocean—it’ll be too late.

When my arms turn leaden, and my legs hang uselessly behind me, I’ll realize I’ve stopped for the last time.  And the damn song will start up again—

Now my broken heart aches with every wave that breaks

Over love-letters in the sand…

And as the song dies, so will I, swallowed by the unfeeling ocean.

–  0  –

I’m ready to do it now, but as I clamber to my feet, I spy Mary-Lou, Abby’s friend—the tiny one who always had a shy smile for me, the one Abby never let me get too close to.  She’s by herself at the water’s edge, holding her board, apparently unsure about going out alone.  Despite the heartsick funk I’m in, she looks mighty fine in her two-piece.  Rad!

When she sees me standing there, she waves and smiles, beckons me over.  I hesitate a moment—conflicted, my emotions chaotic—and then impulsively, I grab my board and trot towards her.  I feel a huge grin spreading across my face.  And as I get closer, another song breaks out in my head—

sufer girl

Little surfer, little one, makin’ my heart come undone,

Would you love me, love me, surfer girl…surfer girl,

My little surfer girl…