Friday, August 31, 2007

Go West, Old Man

By DAVID BROOKS
Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
August 31, 2007

Every year we go to the beach, and every year it becomes more obvious that beach vacations are a metaphor for the human predicament. For while in his soul the contemporary man seeks to realize the loftiness of his essential nature, in actual life he finds himself whacking a ball against the windmill arm in an eternal game of mini-golf.

Middle-aged man seeks the spiritual grandeur of a mountain vacation, but is trapped in the saltwater taffy of a beach vacation. He seeks to ride a dude ranch horse among whispering pines and timberline silences, but society is structured such that he finds himself in a piercingly loud ski-ball arcade surrounded by “Party Like a Rock Star” T-shirts and eating a funnel cake.

Not that there is anything wrong with funnel cake. It is the only food left that hasn’t been captured by the Alice Waters/Whole Foods set.

Nobody is making organic, locally grown, zero-carbon-footprint funnel cake.

Still, man seeks something more. And so I repeat my theme: No decliningly virile American man should be content with a beach vacation when a mountain vacation is more in keeping with his inner longing. No middle-aged man of a certain girth should be wearing bathing trunks around adolescents when he could be wearing riding chaps around livestock.

We all, you see, have two summer selves.

Our greater summer self is the mountain self, which is spiritually and physically robust, in a Robert Redford/Horse Whisperer sort of way. Our lesser self is our beach self, which is a banal bimbo-ized version of the person we think we are.

Our beach self munches on cheese fries while browsing through “You Were Better-Looking on MySpace” T-shirts along boardwalks that are basically strip malls of unnecessary objects. Our beach self suffers from sandzheimers syndrome, which is manifested by the tendency to spend hours staring at oncoming waves while making scientific observations like, “Here comes a big one.”

Our beach self is ruled by a spiritual Gresham’s law — every aspiration becomes three degrees trashier than it used to be.

Once, kids were lobbying for a pet dog. Now they are lobbying for a pet hermit crab.

Once, adults were hoarding blue-chip stocks. Now they are hoarding 4,500 video arcade prize tickets in hopes of getting a dayglo Megadeth poster.

It even infects northern Europeans. It was on beaches there that I first came across the menace of Belgian cultural hegemony — the tendency to take everything erotically charged and make it boring. For it is on northern European beaches that middle-aged burghers unaccountably strip off their clothes. If you want to do permanent damage to your libido, go watch 1,000 aging Germans eat bratwurst naked on the beach.

If Vincent van Gogh had taken beach vacations, we wouldn’t have the masterpieces dotting the museums of the world. Instead, van Gogh would have discovered body surfing. He would have concluded, without any actual evidence, that he was really good at body surfing. He would have imagined that people along the shore were admiring his form as he got pounded into the sand. Instead of “Bedroom at Arles,” we’d have a pale guy nursing a piña colada and showing off his chest abrasions.

I think it was Abraham Joshua Heschel — after he broke off with Reinhold Niebuhr and formed Jefferson Airplane — who observed that though the ancients counseled, “Know Thyself,” in 87 percent of actual cases, profound self-knowledge is not transforming. It’s just disappointing.

And this is never more true than when the beach self takes over. There is a boardwalk game near where we vacation where you roll balls into holes to try to get your mechanical horse across a track faster than your 11 opponents. You pay a dollar a game and if you win you get a stuffed horse worth 75 cents. My beach self has played that game for 15 years, and I have never once gotten up without secretly wishing I was playing again.

In my heart, I’d be happy to play that game 11 hours a day at the cost of several thousand dollars, and the only thing preventing me is that the Slovakian girl behind the counter might conclude that American men are pathetic.

Is this really the way we want to spend the summers of our lives? Am I going to spend every August of my declining years sitting on broiling sands feeling inferior to the lifeguards? In fact, probably.

It’s the human predicament.

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