Sunday, July 3, 2011

Beached Whale


Looking west toward Destin on our first evening there this year.

We spent most of last week on a beach near Destin, Florida. Jennifer and I have been there many times during our marriage. Just as a couple, then with both sets of parents (on different trips), then with my daughter as a child, then with my daughter and a friend as teens, we even went once with my sister and her daughter; all sorts of variations dating back before most of the high-rises and overdevelopment.

This year’s excursion held true to the fact that my daughter has taken only her cousin to Destin twice. All her other best friends have only made the trip once so far. (You don’t think it is us do you?) But this year’s friend was bright and chatty and fun to be around. The two girls were on autopilot much of the trip, Jennifer got to sit in her beach chair, drink beer, and stare.

Meanwhile, I got up early, did the coffee routine on the beach with Jennifer, went for beach walks both alone and with Jennifer before the beach crowd invaded the space. I took a morning dip in the as yet empty pool. Then I waited for the girls to wake up, checked into work now and then on the laptop, and I read a lot, usually in the heat of the afternoon, usually drinking a Harp Lager or a Heineken lite while reading.

Beach reading is always essential to packing for the trip. This year I took the latest issue of The Economist and Moby-Dick. I have read that novel once in college and again sometime within the past ten years ago or so. (I remember because I made several email posts back then to friends about how much Captain Ahab reminded me of George W. Bush just before the Bush invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was the Whale.) At any rate, I have never read Herman Melville's great work at the beach and so I made it my somewhat cliché book of choice for Beach Vacation 2011.

On the trip down Jennifer and I got to enjoy On the Beach and Are You Passionate? on the Caddy’s great sound system. The girls were obliviously watching DVDs with their head phones on. It was nice cruising down part of the way with Neil. We came back in a night journey to miss the Atlanta traffic. All traffic is lite at midnight and beyond. We got home at 3AM and still had the day before us after about five hours sleep. I prefer driving at night. There are fewer vehicles to put up with, you make better time, the passengers all sleep instead of complaining, and it is cooler temperature-wise.

Vacation goes hand in hand with often decadent eating. My hybrid-CRON diet goes out the window when I travel for entertainment. The first night Jennifer prepared our best seafood meal of the trip; large scallops and boiled shrimp, with crab salad and slaw on the side. She loves to prepare scallops and is quite good at it. Later in the week we enjoyed a fresh-made Key Lime pie, a favorite of mine. I started out full-throttle with two large pieces and a glass of milk. I slept briefly thereafter. Naps are part of the beach experience, right?

The typically expensive eat-out meals were less-seafood oriented and included stops to Destin’s Hard Rock CafĂ© and a place we traditionally eat at called Fudpuckers. Both featured fun, energetic atmospheres. We all ate heartily. My daughter and her friend did not cop an attitude the whole trip (it must have been the bountiful sun and shopping that kept spirits high) and we had lively, funny conversations.

The water was particularly rough this year. It was mostly a red flag surf, which alerts the swimmer to use extreme caution. The sea’s undertoe was fierce but my daughter had a float which she and I shared and we stayed up at the surface where the drift was much calmer. The water was wonderfully clear despite the wave action. You could see the bottom clearly down about five feet (Maybe more but, abiding the red flag, I didn’t get out too deep.) We saw schools of minnows swimming under us and around us. My daughter’s friend had a large inner-tube float that proved very practical for riding in the rough waves. Most of them were small waves, maybe 2-3 feet. But there were some larger waves too, something more akin to what one typically sees on the Atlantic side. The usually calm Gulf featured some waves as high as 5 feet if you hit them just right.

The three of us stayed out in them for a long time one morning. It was a lot of fun. Of course, once you rode a wave in (or got thrown around by it, groping for the shallow, sandy ocean bottom) getting the float back out there, indeed getting yourself, was a challenge in the frequent breakers. It was a workout but my daughter and I caught a couple of big waves nicely. She and her friend were screaming and laughing the whole time. I laughed too.

The transfer of experience from being in the actual surf on a beautiful Emerald Coast beach resort, the smell and taste of salt, the hot sun beaming down in a warm breeze, to a classic work of nineteenth century literature (one of the greatest novels ever written) about the metaphysical qualities of whaling flowed smoothly for me. Landlubber though I am, I connected with Ishmael’s journey too.

Moby-Dick is boring at times. So boring that many readers feel passionately about its dullness. Other’s will point out, as D. H. Lawrence did, that the work often overreaches its metaphysical and symbolic attempts. Lawrence wrote in his essay on the masterwork: “Melville manages to keep a real whaling ship, on a real cruise, in spite of all fantastics. A wonderful, wonderful voyage. And a beauty that is so surpassing only because of the author’s awful floundering in mystical waters. He wanted to get metaphysically deep. And he got deeper than metaphysics. It is a surprisingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts…”

That sums it up pretty well, I think. I guess a basic question is whether Moby-Dick is relevant today or just a tedious, long-winded read. I think it holds up well and Lawrence’s comments could just have easily been written last week. The book is overblown and slow. It tries very hard to make a big symbolic deal out of the Pequod’s expedition in search of the White Whale, Ahab’s singular, powerful obsession.

But, it should be dull at times. That is part of the voyage, to be on an American whaling ship in the 1851, sailing out of cold, wintry Nantucket to the warm south Pacific. Countless months go by. Time has no meaning. The ship’s crew has to deal with everyday boredom of the same. The same endless horizon, the same routine, the same long days without catching a whale, the same difficult process of carving up the giant beast into all its valued parts and fluids. The same.

Melville offers the reader an intimate acquaintance of this vast sameness by treating us to rather lengthy descriptions of whaling operations, the comparisons of different kinds of whales, a bunch of tales about whaling, and so forth. The characters are barely involved during literally a couple of hundred of pages about whaling. It is not entirely disinteresting but it gets a tad worn after awhile, which is precisely the point. Ever been on a ship at sea for months on end? It is largely boring after awhile. Melville wants his reader to experience all of this as well as the adventure of it. The actual killing of whales and the final, climatic, confrontation with Moby-Dick himself is rather first-rate action. A real page turner. So, you have the basic, well-told adventure aspect of the book as well.

The rest is Melville’s attempts with mixed mastery of transforming the whole story into this symbolic epic about…about what exactly, I do not know. There are many, many opinions on what Moby-Dick is about. Suffice it to say that, for me, I think Melville is often intentionally ambiguous, which makes him highly relevant in literature today. Read your own impressions into the work and discover the meaning best fit for you. Which, of course, could change each time you read the novel.

The reader is practically invited to pick and choose among the many metaphysical passages of prose as to which symbols mean what. There is much more to the novel than the quest for Moby-Dick. A myriad of possible meanings await the hearty reader. Lawrence said he didn’t care what the book meant, he simply enjoyed reading it. That, too, is a summary well-put.

In a fairly well-known chapter, Melville takes the time to point out a symbolic obviousness. “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. And as for the small difficulties and worrying, prospects for sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable joker. There is nothing like the perils of whaling to breed the free and easy sort of genial, desperado philosophy; and with it I now regarded this whole voyage of the Pequod, and the great White Whale its object.” (from chapter XLIX)

The first 200 pages and the last 50 or so pages are Moby-Dick at its best. Ishmael’s gloomy decision to go off to sea in order to escape the “November of his soul” and his subsequent encounter with the half-civilized, half-canibal, heavily tattooed Queequeg is a highly entertaining, sustained read. The introduction of Ahab, Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask are fascinating additions to the narrative.

After the lengthy section where the various aspects of the ship and sailing the ship, and the business and science of whales weighs heavily on the narrative, the novel ends spectacularly with the encounter with Moby-Dick, an artistically composed thrill-ride. Despite its apparent defects, the novel is one of my favorites and was an excellent choice for this year’s beach trip.

On our last afternoon in Destin, the girls having previously shopped away all the other afternoons while I drank and read, we all went to play putt-putt golf, a family tradition. My brother is an avid golfer. Putt-putt does it for me. I played with my grandparents at the Daytona Beach when I was a kid. I have played with my daughter every trip to Destin since she could swing a putter.

But, on the way to putt-putt I was assailed (unbelievably) by a sudden attack of shopping. Jennifer mentioned that she just had to buy this top she regretted not buying the other day. Then she informed the girls that it was near Forever 21. That sealed it, apparently. My resistance would be pointless. I would become victim to a shopping trip.

Thankfully, it was a short one, Jennifer got exactly what she was looking for, the girls got nothing, then we went off to play putt-putt in the heat of day. Mad dogs and Englishmen. The usual crazy shots resulted in the usual funny triumphs and disasters. There was no competition that I recall. No one really “won”. We just played.
Hours later, in the orange fading sun, we took pictures on the beach; another family tradition. It was tough but we got one or two good ones of my family of three. Jennifer and I are not as photogenic as we once were.

The girls were excited about the spontaneity of coming home that night. Our original plan was to leave early the next morning. But, getting home at 3AM gave us the whole next day instead of driving. I consider it always a supreme luxury to have a day or two after a vacation trip to lounge at home and enjoy the summer days.

What's a beach trip without a little putt-putt family fun?

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