22 November 2008

In Praise of Off Season

No two beach towns in America are exactly alike, but at the peak of the season, they seem so.

From Cape Cod to the Jersey shore, the Chesapeake Bay, Virginia Beach, gulf towns and throughout the West Coast, beach communities come to life to serve the vacation traveler, seduced by sandy shorelines, sunny skies and perpetual hospitality. There are few differences beyond the eccentricities of their landscape and the length of the season.
They look alike, they sound alike. They share a gently frenzied ambiance. They all smell like commingled sun block, sweat and seared meats. When the weather cooperates, sunlight is ubiquitous and bright, but the streets so densely populated that hardly a shadow is cast, except by the occasional shade of tree line. Clouds drift by as if setting the pace, exhorting vacationers to slow down. Children run and splash and delight in their liberation from otherwise structured lives. Car doors and screen doors slam throughout the day. Engines whir and stall, thwarted by pedestrian traffic. Shops overflow with whimsical necessities – kites shaped like lobsters or parrots, primary colored plastic pails wrapped with shovels in white netting, striped beach umbrellas, film and lotions, post-cards stacked on racks and T-shirts blowing in the breeze. Sidewalk strollers ebb and flow like the surf. On the beach, shiny plastic beach balls roll in the wind, below the serrated fringes of kite tails flapping overhead. Small planes murmur now and then against skies of every possible shade of blue. Rock music competes with the calls of families, lovers and friends clustered together on the sand. Drum beats blare from car radios passing by and the constant din of chatter blankets all other sounds, like beach towels that punctuate the shoreline. Weekend walkers linger to watch impromptu games of volleyball or admire shapely bodies that drape the landscape.
The so-called quiet of vacation is a cacophony of sounds and scents and scenery that comfortably collide, much like waves that crash against the shore over and over again. The din subsides only late at night, long after the pink hues of sunset, when the last child collapses into peaceful dreams, the last glass of wine sipped, the last beach towels hung to dry, accompanied by the orchestral lullaby of katydids and grasshoppers crying through the stillness.
Beach town life is a spell that settles happily over inhabitants year after year. People thrive on it, long for it, and wait patiently for the season to return, because it is only in season when they permit themselves the freedom to explore, to abandon their responsibilities for a time, bond to their loved ones with neither obligation nor resignation nor rancor, and ignore the clock other than to prepare lunch or turn over on the sand. The vacation season, with its colors and music and singular scents, is the ultimate refuge from what might be seen as the colorless odorless monotony of daily living, even for those blessed with a satisfying life.
The very landscape jolts into ebullience as the season approaches, reaching its arms out to welcome the throng, then returning blissfully to hibernation in the off-season, because the landscape, as life in all forms, in the off-season exists only for itself. Craggy edges of shoreline spring back into view, no longer obfuscated by the crowd. Seagulls soar overhead, no need to share the sand. The surf surges with renewed vigor as if reclaiming its shore. A thin layer of sand blows about in chillier wind, unencumbered by the accoutrements of vacationers. The sun’s rays spread wide, diffusing shadows into abstracted muted images. Clouds drift closer to land. Long sunny days turn to short, warmth to chill. Runners breathe more deeply, walkers walk more slowly.
There is a collective sigh among the locals when their community is returned to them, because they know, rather than diminished by the quiet, their beach town is enhanced, strengthened from within like a delicate rose that’s been trimmed to its roots to restore vigor and balance, to bloom once again in the new season. It is the throng that most characterizes these towns in season – the throng of people on the streets, bodies on the beach. The throng of sound and scent. And it is the sheer absence of the throng that defines the off season, that time when a beach community is at its best: free of the frenzy, relinquished to residents and the occasional visitor to re-capture its true natural beauty, like an ancient succulent that blossoms only in the rain.
The off-season is more than a respite, it is a restoration, a haven of sorts, when the terrain is permitted to go wild, returning to a more organic state. The ocean is more gray than blue. The weather and the colors of the sky more volatile. Untamed and unobstructed, solemnity hovers over the town like an ancient church, deeply encrypted with mystical powers, where one might commune privately on a weekday morning, without parishioners or dictum, only the solace of silence and the wisdom of one’s inner voice.
Off-season was when I began my life in Laguna Beach and it is in the off-season that I am reminded most why I remain, its natural beauty best exposed to those of us that call this place home.

16 November 2008

Study in Contrasts

The days are short again. We return home from work in the dark. Mornings are cool, nearly brisk. The sun moves in a different angle across the sky, casting a light more silver than golden, and lands farther south than in summer, setting just behind Catalina Island, fashioning a halo behind the island's hilly terrain. And yet, the afternoon temperature hovers in the 80's. The air is oppressively hot and dry. A wild shockingly bright full moon woke me in the middle of the night as if a spotlight, and stars gleemed in the glow. Today, brush fires burned out of control in northern hills and too many people are homeless tonight. My eyes burn, my skin is dry, my throat perpetually parched. Yet, at this very moment, a gigantic orange ball is spreading ribbons of color across the horizon. And now, having fallen just behind the island, those ribbons rise to blanket the view like a color chart. The shades of sunset. As if on cue, the breeze picks up to blow away the last of the heat.

Everyone I know is grappling with their finances. Worrying about what comes next. How severe the recession might be, how long, how deep. Heaving with the weight of another year of college tuition. Loans to be repaid. Excessive credit card debt. Retirements postponed. Travels plans scrapped. Worry lines deepening. I came close this year to reaching a financial goal, a year or two away from working less and spending more time with friends and family in other places. We can never be certain of anything, but I know this for sure right now - I have to work harder and longer than I'd hoped. But I'm one of the lucky ones - I have a job I like and I still have savings. And the hope of recovery. Far better off still than most.

In the midst of great anxiety there is a palpable sense of political optimism. Obama has given us hope and the prospect of change. Straight talk reminds us that we are in for the long haul and we will have to play our part in recovery, but now there is a new destiny, within which we are not helpless. Optimism compensates for the fear. Perhaps the holiday season, despite the portent of gloom and doom in the marketplace, will bring a sense of renewal, or at least a sense of connection with fellow man. What ails us ails us all, and we face the future as one.

Summer has passed. Fall here has been among the warmest on record and there is no sign of winter, not event a Southern California winter. And yet, night comes quickly and it feels like winter. I should be wearing boots and sweaters by now, and, as if in protest, young people have already slipped their uggs on to the bottom of long tanned legs still in shorts. My friends in Connecticut bemoan gloomy wet days while many here would sell their souls for rain. I am already envisioning blustery days in New York City brightened by holiday lights and electric tinsel hanging across the facades on Fifth Avenue. I can picture the tree of angels at the Metropolitan Museum and origami at MOMA. Lights adorm much of downtown Laguna now and candlelight flickers in restaurant windows where, despite shrinking bank accounts and credit crunches, friends gather together to make merry.

Tomorrow morning I will slip into my sweat pants and clogs to walk Mona and by mid-day will seek shade. But tonight, I will pull the blanket up to my chin and huddle close to the dog for warmth, welcoming just a little bit of cooler air, which is always just a moment past sunset. Night is not day, and the days are bright before the dark. That is all we can count on, and that will just have to do for now. Life is a study in contrasts.

09 November 2008

On a Clear Day in SoCal

I imagine it seems odd in this a historic week to write about such a lowly subject as window screens, but read on, as there is a connection.

Among the many differences between east coast and west is the simple window screen. Not an item one finds in poetry, nor significant in the larger scheme of life, but of interest in this part of the world by virtue of its absence. One rarely finds a screen on windows in southern California. Nor on doors. No need. Despite green hillsides, tall palm trees and the constant surrounds of the sea, we live in a desert clime. Little or no humidity most of the time. And that sea brings with it sea breezes. Thus, no bugs. At least not the flying insects that screens are meant to obstruct. No annoying mosquitoes buzzing dangerously close to your ear in the dead of night. Rarely a wasp or a bee. Flies found largely in the orbit of open garbage pails or the sodden remains of an ice-cream cone. Termites are ubiquitous but largely unseen and they don’t fly through windows. On occasion, I spy a dragonfly and spiders abound, but they borrow their way in through the tiniest cracks and crevices. Flying roaches and killer bees seem to congregate in Texas and the panhandle, where they belong.

One day, a hummingbird flew through my open door to find itself trapped in the tiny solarium that borders my room. I watched in horror as that stunning creature fought against the glass and immediately called Byron, then living next door and the knower of all things, to determine how to help. Leave it by, he advised, as it relies on its radar and once it calms down it will find its way home. Sure enough, after just long enough for me to admire its form, it lifted its long nose, beamed on to the scent of a flower nearby and took off through the open doorway.
Tree rats are common, tiny squirrels flitting under cover of darkness among thick growths of ivy along back fences, but, thankfully, do not fly. I know this because the first few nights I slept here, I was kept awake by such rats in the overhead crawl space [no attic, that’s another thing not often found here – they interfere with views] and my only protection, I thought, was to keep the windows closed for safety, although the thunder of those little hooves overhead was nearly enough to turn this modern-day pioneer back east.
Now and then ants descend, although I’ve only seen a few now and then, hovering near the dog’s food bowl in anticipation of nearly invisible remains; Mona is a very thorough diner.
I’ve not seen any water bugs, my nemesis when a young girl in the city. In fact, perhaps the only creature that regularly sparked terror in my heart, even more so than the roaches with whom the poor in the city make peace by avoiding the kitchen after lights out. No, no nasty bugs in Laguna Beach, rarely a screen, and thus, the view is all the more clarified. A metaphor for the general sense of expansiveness one feels in Southern California. Nothing much stands between us and our environs. Breezes blow through windows without encumbrance. One steps from the inside to outside through fully open doorways, a constant connection from inside to out.
I attended a birthday party recently at a newly renovated 4-story home set into a steep incline. Every floor had a patio or two, encompassing roughly 280 degrees of breathtaking view, and floor-to-ceiling glass receded seamlessly and silently into walls so that it was hard to tell where the structure ended and the landscape began. On the upper floor, a Jacuzzi was carved into a terrace bordering the master bedroom, where I imagine sunset reflects in the wine glasses of the lucky couple while submerged in the soothing flow of rippled waters. Ah, SoCal.
However, there is one thing missing, nearly synonymous with my childhood summers – the sound of screen doors slamming through the day. I attended a summer camp in upstate New York where the sound of those doors marked the beginning and ends of day even more than flag-raising or taps. Screen doors slam in a gentler way, lighter by virtue of voided glass and thus more easily slammed, but less damning in the slamming. Warm week-ends at my husband’s family home on Candlewood Lake in Connecticut were defined by the constant banging of summerhouse screen doors, punctuating the ebb and flow of deliciously long days on the lake. I occasionally long for that sound as I long for crunchy leaves beneath my feet and the hum of the subway just below the surface on Broadway. The east coast has weather, my friend Diane reminded me not long ago, and here we have only climate, albeit lovely. And few bugs.

This week, as we celebrate President-elect Obama, and welcome a new way in the world, I imagine screens lifted from our collective consciousness, eliminating the rusted remains of mesh marring our vision for the future, a vision of hope and a new destiny, for which I am most grateful. Perhaps we have permanently shuttered screened windows against racism and opened wide a more expansive view of our humanity. I hope so.

01 November 2008

One More Hour

We set the clocks back tonight and tomorrow morning I will rise nearly with the sun and enjoy that delicious semi-annual sensation of having somehow beat Mother Nature. As much as we all love that moment in spring when we seem to extend the day, I prefer the fall because we truly gain the hour. One brief but precious hour. My body clock seamlessly realigned to earlier mornings and shorter evenings, which for those of us living alone is often a blessing. The hours of darkness can be painfully long for a single – work day done, dog walked, dinner dishes cleaned, and while a blissful time for reading or writing or the occasional visit with friends, often a bit too long. In fact, about an hour too long.
NPR yesterday reported results of a long-term longitudinal study that suggests that this one hour more of sleep alone may be the significant factor producing a 5% reduction in heart attacks during the 24-hours immediately following the fall-back time change. In a remarkable correlation, heart attacks increase exactly 5% in the wake of the spring time change that equates to one hour less of sleep.
Of course not everyone uses the extra hour for sleep as our bodies take time to adapt, so what becomes of that extra hour? Do we languish in bed just a bit longer given the gift of time? The dog may feel like she has to be walked, but she too will have to adjust. I might enjoy an hour of early morning reading in bed, a special reward as reading time, albeit the most cherished time of my day, always waits until all else has been fulfilled. Perhaps I will call daughter Dana in London, where clocks were reset a week earlier for some reason, and might catch her at a café on waiting for the tube, so that we might have an impromptu chat, cell phone to cell phone, a phenomenon I confess I still find remarkable and inexplicable.
This day of the time change always feels surreal, as no matter the actual hour it feels later. There is a great jolt of pleasure when peering at the newly set clocks to realize that less of the day has passed than expected, although a harsh realization when too soon the sun falls into the sea. The hour longer day plunges us into the semblance of winter, when we will return home from work in the dark and awaken early and before we’ve even had a chance to enjoy the extra time it slips away.
I’d like to use this hour well. Perhaps a bit more sleep. Read. Blog. Perhaps I will meditate, which I do rarely, largely because my mind wanders, although day-dreaming is a nearly daily pasttime. Perhaps the hour of Pilates that tends to fall into the cracks of a busy schedule. An extra long walk without rushing back in service of work or chore. Have a long talk with an East Coast friend, whose longer day is well underway. Perhaps I will take a nap, now there’s a rare treat. On the East Coast, I often used the time to switch out from the summer to winter closet, which one does not do so fully here, the lines less pronounced between seasons, clothing etiquette blurred. This year, I am invited to a cocktail party at 5:00 PM, but I will have a very full day before I leave, having slept well and used my time well and paid closer attention to the day, the attention we should all pay daily so that we use all our hours well. And when my body yearns for sleep, sooner than the clock would suggest, I will hold off and hold on to this day just a bit longer, granted this small coveted pleasure of one more hour in the day.