Just a Man on the Road

The joie de vivre had disappeared from view. It had gone underground. Like cattle before a storm, it scampered along the edge of disaster, dodging a dreary cloud here, fleeing a funnel cloud there. The dust exploded at the front, and the joie disappeared in a head of darkness, but it always seemed to be able to resurface, leaving only a dirty crust on the joie, a crust which in different times ought to have been of little consequence.

But perhaps that is to give cattle too much credit. Cattle don’t know that a storm is coming until the chill of dropping pressure hits them in the face.

But perhaps that is to give man too much credit.

The oceans are still a wilderness for man, perhaps as much a frontier as the outer reaches of our solar system. In fact, a few years ago, one of our satellites made a close approach to Pluto, so in a sense we’ve actually done better at exploring 6 billion kilometers away than we have 11 kilometers of the oceans’ depths. They are so vast, so deep, so uninhabitable for man. Deep sea creatures; reefs; vast mountain ranges, including the tallest mountains in the world, with volcanoes erupting into the water, turning it to steam in the deeps; deep, deep, deep trenches; trillions of critters and plants thriving in the salt water; continent-sized ice sheets where the water is too cold to be liquid. Currents, gulf streams, el ninos, la ninas, it’s just too much for our poor frail brains to fathom! As Billy Joel would say, “I can’t take it any more!”

I’m returning to the beach, sporadically but incessantly, throughout my life. My family, particularly a daughter-in-law who shall remain nameless but nevertheless knows of whom I write, makes fun of the way I dress for the beach. Much as I am deeply penetrated by the environment, by that particular place in space and time, I do not like the sun. The sun does not always join me at the beach – I’ve enjoyed many hours on cloudy, even stormy beaches. It’s the nature of family life, however, that the papa follows the family to the beach when they want to go, selection of time which I have found cannot be influenced away from the warm clear days of summer.

So I dress for the sun, long-sleeved shirt, sweat shirt preferably with a hood, swimsuit ready for the quick dip in the waves but a blanket to cover my legs, my cool guy hat (which will probably be tucked away in my casket some day, though “cool” doesn’t seem a likely attribute of people in heaven), and a towel over my head, all best further shaded under a beach umbrella. A coat of sun lotion ensures a minimum of exposure to the deadly gushtunkina ray gun we call the sun.

But the clothing also isolates me, which is part of the plan. Mind and senses forward to the sea, what I see, feel, hear, smell, and even taste is waves. Crashing waves, with no apparently discernible pattern, but with a pattern nonetheless. Some like the beach for its camaraderie, to play volleyball or marco polo, as kids play games that nobody has ever played before. Some come to swim and bodysurf and otherwise play in the water. Some actually come for the sun. But they all miss the point of aloof independent observation of fractal sensory saturation.

When I’m on the beach, I’m on the beach. Or maybe rather in the beach. Or perhaps even of the beach. I listen as I doze to the unpredictable but incessant crash of each wave, the water itself an instrument tuned with E minor as its key. As from a distance you watch a person sneeze, it is quite evident that a sneeze is coming when you see the sudden open-mouthed inhalation filling the lungs; then follows the loud climax of exhalation, so loud that even from some distance you not only see, but hear it. But close your eyes, and you will miss the prelude; deprived of the visual, your ears alone cannot hear the inhale, so you are perhaps startled by the exhale. Waves are like that. Eyes open, I watch the wave crest to a peak (Rayleigh number = 1, the line of coarsest pebbles), knowing exactly when to expect the crash in front of me. Eyes closed, I find it impossible to hear the crest. It must occur at some point in the quiet calm between the crashes, but I cannot discern the exact moment, and therefore miss the predictable moment of the crash. Like the sneeze, the crash is audibly unpredictable and perhaps startling while I listen as I doze.

I sit quite comfortably at the water’s edge, knowing that there is, in fact, a water’s edge. I often pause to wonder at the fact that the oceans are, not in the least precariously, contained within their boundaries. To be sure, every once in a while a wave will threaten to invade the private enclave under my blanket, and I waiver a little, momentarily not trusting that I have chosen a spot above the limit of those waves, only to find that the edge is still the edge. By analogy it always, always reminds me that, straying outside the limits of faith, I wander in sin, not trusting in the boundaries set before me. Why waiver I?

Each of billions of drops of water dance together. Had they thoughts, they would know they were lost in an ocean of lost drops, each seeking a place, each seeking perhaps an answer to “Where am I?” Or, “Who am I?” Like so many lost people, lost cattle, they follow aimless currents through existence not knowing that there really is a choreography to the whole thing. There really is a pattern in a “vast eternal plan,” as Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” would sing. We just don’t know what it is, in its uninterruptible constancy of expected seeming randomness. Meanwhile on the shore, I must come up from the sea again because the tide is, after all, coming in. It began when the first wave wet my toes. Then I had to lift my legs and even build a little moat in the sand around me. Is the water getting closer to me, or am I getting closer to the water?

Regardless, like the cattle in a storm, my hat and I must move from the edge of this earthly ocean.