Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beached (A Love Story)

I am so happy, tucked safely in the shade of a big yellow umbrella while lulled by the crash of ocean waves against the endless sand.  Families are pouring onto the beach as the clouds clear, joining the rest of us intrepids who were out here under total cloud cover.  It’s clear that were the strong breeze to cease it would be suffocatingly hot out here, clouds or no clouds.

Some folks sit already bronzed, minimal cover, no umbrella, inviting tan or burn.  A mom and three girls are playing lacrosse.  I tense as their broad sweeping runs get very close, the sand kicking up, but they always veer off just as they’re in kicking distance to me.  Still their play gets more and more aggressive till finally their mom calls a halt. 

A gaggle of teenage girls arrives and sets themselves up before spraying each other with sunscreen, for what it’s worth, blowing away in the wind—I know because I did the same futile thing myself.  I am truly feeling my age as I watch them, thinking, oh my god, how can that girl walk around in public with her ass cheeks hanging out?  And I giggle as I see one of my fellow B&B guests, just a few feet behind the girls on the sand, and imagine how hard it must be for the man as the four girls flop face down on their towels, bums directly facing him all in a row.  Did I mention he’s sitting next to his wife?

Three teenage boys, gangly and self-conscious, arrive bearing a huge boom box.  I really tense up at this, anticipating the worst, and rehearse what I might say to them when rap and techno shatter the pleasant day as I implore them to move down the beach (“hey guys, I drove four hours and spend hundreds of dollars coming here to find a little peace…”).  But then they just lie down to sun quietly, and a few minutes later, to my relief, a mom and dad arrive on the scene.  They’re funny, moving in unison to set down their beach chairs just so, perfectly lined up, then doing the same with towels in front of the chairs, then lying upon the towels like a synchronized tan team. 

By this time it’s become clear to me that the occasional tensing I experience in the face of potential noise or flung sand or small children shrieking loudly is quite silly, and I settle more calmly into my day, reading, ironically, a very Buddhisty book about being, and finding God in everyone, and letting go of all tension and worry.  I see now in an epiphany (I am prone to epiphanies when my mind is free of everyday cares) that the beach is my practice of those teachings. 

The big yellow umbrella above me flaps loudly but the pole stays buried in the sand where a muscled gal from a rental company put it.  I know from experience that my own flimsy umbrella, which I left home, wouldn’t stand a chance in this wind.  I’ve put my book in the beach bag now and am in full fledged observation mode, people watching, wave watching.  The various pockets of teens, with or without parents, preen oh so casually for one another.  The sun-conscious young parents adjust the little pup tents sheltering napping babies and toddlers. I am so happy here, warm but not too warm, comfortably perched in my deck chair now watching sea gulls in that amazing hover maneuver they do. 

I decide suddenly to get up and hit the water.  Grateful that I can actually stand up with relative ease from the low slung chair, thanks to two knee replacements plus water exercise and yoga, and I walk toward the water.  There are a lot of people standing near the edge or into the water slightly, jumping as waves crash.  But most of us shift back as the intensity of the roughness becomes clearer and the tug of the tide nearly knocks me off my feet as I clumsily try to escape its strong hold. 

All overcastness is long gone now, the sky beach-day blue with just a few artful puffs of white clouds.  I am getting hungry. I missed the B in my B&B this morning in favor of the B, despite my best intentions—I’d gone to bed (for me) early, but then couldn’t get to sleep till after 2.  I bought a can of iced coffee onto the beach with me along with some granola, but hours later I am thinking wistfully of the amazing-smelling breakfast I missed.  I had joked to my friend that I got to enjoy the beckoning of the bacon as the odor floated up to our little attic room, with none of the calories.  I pick up my cell phone (I know, I know!) and call her as she goes up to our room, asking her to bring some snacks from my bag to tide me over till tea is served.  And I think what a great idea it would be if there were dune buggies that went up and down the beach delivering lunch.  Nothing fancy, or requiring refrigeration even, maybe PB&J, or hummus and veggies.  Like the food trucks so popular on Washington, DC streets now, or the bygone delivery of snacks to your seats at the movie theaters, I feel certain these would be a hit. 

I am fascinated by the language of the lifeguards on their high perches in a row down the beach.  They wave small red flags in careful patterns one station at a time, then another station mimics the message, and so it goes down the row. I vow to find out what all those different waving patterns mean. And what I swear used to be a red flag with a big 2 on it on each station has been replaced with a black flag with a 2 instead.  As the beach has filled more (though blessedly it’s not crowded) and the water’s become rougher, the lifeguards are no longer sitting but standing and scanning in hyper watchfulness.

Babies are so cute at the beach, like little bobble heads, rocking in the sand, some in the merest of suits, others decked out in full safety attire, safari hats protecting their heads and necks, swim shirts over their torsos, some with life vests on, too.  Slightly older kids test their parents’ nerves by running into the churlish waves then back again, just escaping the undertow.

Books are read, magazines paged through, naps taken, sand castles crafted, people-watching endlessly entertaining.  The sound of the waves, the warmth of the sand, the air blowing about—I never want to leave!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rolling Blackouts

My life just flashed before my eyes.

I’m not sure why I found myself carrying three Rolodex cases downstairs from my home office.  I’d been looking at the two old ones across the room from my desk for years and decided I could do a small decluttering/purging project while I watched TV.  I didn’t realize it was going to be a retrospective of my life.

So, how do you tell when it’s time to toss a Rolodex card?

  • Rolodex?  Are you kidding me? 
  • The card has a phone number with no area code on it. Because you didn’t use to have to dial area codes for local calls (remember?)
  • The person on the card has died, or you think they might have but you’re not sure.
  • It has information on your student loan.  Not your kid’s, yours.
  • It’s for a divine little French restaurant in Georgetown.  From the days of expense account lunches.  RIP (the expense account lunches, not the restaurant).
  • It’s a no-longer-in-service phone number for an old grad school classmate you last saw when she told you she’d gotten a job at “The State Department” (you have to picture the air quotes) and promptly went incognito, never to be found again.
  • It’s the number for the guy you went on your first date with after your divorce.  Well, you thought it was a date; he thought it was just coffee.
  • It’s for your master’s thesis advisor.  Whose specialty was the Cold War.  (Remember the Cold War? Me neither.)  And he’s been dead for years.
  • It’s for Compaq Tech support.  And it’s been 8 years at least since you’ve owned a Compaq.  (Are they even in business still?)
  • It’s for the new cupcake place that opened in town.  Back when you still thought (why?) it was worth three bucks for a cupcake, and still thought it was a good idea for you to eat cupcakes.
  • It’s for the airport shuttle, and quotes the price as $19 (it’s now $27) and says your child (now 23) could ride free.
  • It’s for a manicurist you used to see in your old office building, back when you could afford the time or money for a weekly manicure. 
  • It’s for a favorite store that shut down, a victim of the economic downturn.
  • It’s a list of hours various Northern Virginia public libraries are open.  And you haven’t lived in Northern Virginia since the 1980s.
  • It’s from a telecommunications industry job you used to hold, and is one of a half dozen you have for Ma Bell companies. You know, Illinois Bell, Southern Bell, all those Bells that haven’t rung for about 20 years since the monopoly got broken up, after which all the vigorous competition among the new telecom companies brought us lower prices and great service, right?
  • Likewise, a card with the number for your own phone company, C&P Telephone.
  • It’s for a grocery delivery business, about 20 years pre-Peapod.
  • In the Doctors section of Rolodex cards, cards not only dating back to the OB/GYN who delivered your (now 22-year-old) baby, but back to the student health center at your university.
  • It’s the name and address of the nice couple with a house in the country who adopted your dog when you had to give her up before moving into a condo after you got married.
  • It’s for a plumber who’s the husband of the office manager in one of your doctors’ offices-- against whom you are now filing a complaint with the state Attorney General’s office.
  • It lists all the bookstores you frequent(ed).  Including Common Concerns, The Globe, Crown Books, MysteryBooks and others, may they rest in peace.
  • It’s for the airlines you used most.  And the list includes Eastern Airlines and Braniff.
  • It’s the home phone for the wonderful young intern you had in one of your trade association VP positions.  And he now owns his own company and lives in China. 
  • It’s got the number for a dog walker and dog trainer for a doggie you haven’t had for years. 
Someday I’m sure I’m going to be going through the same process in my Gmail contact list.  For now, history in a box of Rolodex cards has transitioned mostly to history in the “cloud.”  I hope my memories, my history, will be safe there.   

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Stories on the Train

A day-long train ride lay ahead of me to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I was headed for a visit to an old friend.  I was prepared to enjoy lots of quiet time with my books and my journal, and I did, and more.  I’m always struck by how cordial everyone is in train travel, smiling, nodding, talking, with an ease absent from the stress-filled world of plane travel.  My first encounter reflected that, exchanging pleasantries with the woman next to me in the Union Station as she made preparations to board her severely epileptic daughter. 

Once on board, I plunked myself down in my assigned seat. Within 15 minutes my seatmate, Linda, and I had had that amazing instant connection and sharing of life stories that women often have, each subsequent layer of revealing changing our initial perceptions of one another.  She was safeguarding in the rack above us a huge bag of bagels from Zabar’s that she was bringing from her home, New York City, to her children living near Raleigh where she had grown up.  We talked about how we both love trees, about my growing up in Massachusetts, about her idyllic youthful vacations with a lover on Cape Cod.  She related how when she decided to leave Raleigh in her early 20s in the late 1960s, she’d gone to stay with her brother who lived in New York.  Her parents had hoped he would keep an eye on her, but it was futile.  “I had fun!” she laughed.  Pink-tipped curls against her chocolate brown face peeked from beneath a purple scarf, a purple pashmina in her lap over black jeans and tee. Her wrist was covered with silver bracelets her former husband got her because, she said, as if it were evident, “he knew I loved silver.”  We compared our tastes in books and magazines.  She talked about how she was weaning herself off TV, and we discussed needing a quiet space and time in our days to remember who we really are.  We companionably offered one another the bits of the food we’d brought in our carry-ons for our long rides.  Hours later, we were sad to say goodbye, and laughed as she carried so much stuff she had to disembark into the down-South heat wearing her up-North down jacket.

As Linda had slept, snoring quietly, for part of the ride, I enjoyed people-watching.  A few bored-looking teens sitting next to their parents listened to iPods and texted.   A ‘tween helped her considerably shorter mother get several bags down from the rack above with one hand , the other hand and her attention engaged elsewhere, on her cell phone inside her hoodie dispensing advice to a lovelorn girlfriend.  A middle-aged woman’s elegant attire contrasted with the grocery bag from which she periodically pulled out and knitted a never-ending ugly scarf.  A cute 30-something woman earnestly did paperwork, until her craving for chocolate derailed her and sent her to the cafĂ© car for a bag of M&Ms, after which she never quite got back to work.

A friendly younger man and I chatted as we got off midday at one of the proclaimed smoke/stretch breaks offered.  Moving past the cluster of smokers we basked in the sun and I did stretches on the railings on the platform. 

After Linda left, an elderly woman from Wilson, N.C. sat down.  She was visiting family in Charlotte, carrying barbecue in a cooler that seemed heavier than she was.  When I asked incredulously if they didn’t have barbecue in Charlotte, she replied matter-of-factly, “yes, but they don’t make it like they do in Wilson.” (My friend later confirmed this.)  We discussed a mutual love of water aerobics and how much we were “not morning people.”  She was delighted when I shared my decadent mint truffles.   We reassured one another when the train was delayed with switch problems and to save fuel the lights were turned off.  One of the engineers broke the tension by joking, “I’m going to be lighting candles for you all in a minute here,” as he walked through our car.

No cards were exchanged or phone numbers keyed into BlackBerrys, but comforting connections were made among strangers on a train.

Finally disembarking close to 11 p.m., as we walked down ramps from two sides of the platform that merged into one entrance, I saw a vision before me.  A young woman with sky blue hair and ringlets around her face and a jaunty black bow, wearing a jazzy black and white print blouse with cap sleeves, over a very short, poufy, shimmery beaded black skirt, atop black and white fishnets and a pair of chunky, short black boots with heels, their black bows complementing the one atop her head.  She was perfect, totally at ease with herself.   I entered the station with an ear-to-ear grin.

[Author’s note:   This summer I’ll be mixing original posts with some reader favorites from my “Grace in the Gray Areas” column in Washington Woman magazine. This post originally appeared in that column.]