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A Season Pass to the Beach

June 14, 2002

I have come to think that New Year’s resolutions are wasted here in the upper Midwest. When we’re trudging under dismal skies through those wet and chilly winter days, how many of us can find the time for proper introspection, and then commit enough psychic energy to change our lives? Our climate may also lead us to make larger resolutions than we should, big unrealistic plans for change we hope will counter the quiet desolation that can sneak up on a person who has been on duty here, one way or another, for a long time. No, early summer is the realistic season for making resolutions in the Midwest, I think, and those resolutions should start small.

I made a small resolution on Saturday afternoon, when I took my daughters to our favorite Lake Michigan beach for the first time this summer. Instead of paying $5 at the gate for a one-day ticket, I plunked down six times that much for the season pass. If you had seen me there you probably would have thought, “Ah, one more father with his kids at the beach. Check out those aviator clip-ons and the ball cap and the faded swim trunks and the green station wagon, no less.” You wouldn’t have known that I had just made a silent vow to go to the beach at least 6 times this summer, not to get my money’s worth but because at that moment buying a season pass was the small, affirming, life-changing thing to do.

I can see how you might resist that claim just a little. You might say, surely even in America, spending money on recreation can’t have much credibility as an uplifting or spiritual enterprise. For one thing, business always gets there ahead of us to arrange the whole consumer experience and collect its fee. And we don’t have to look far up or down Lake Michigan to confirm that. Think of those shore towns with the big marinas and the cigarette boats chugging out to the lake, the rows of gift shops selling things you would never miss if they had never been invented, the restaurants serving food designed to shorten your life, the stretches of beach guarded by opulent homes huddled in the dune-side equivalent of a gated community. There is still a lot of truth in the advice the mysterious Watergate informant called Deep Throat gave reporters Woodward and Bernstein all those years ago: Follow the money if you want to know how America works.

But we don’t have to look to the wealthy or even drive an hour to the lake to find a life of embarrassing excess. Somehow we’ve all been talked into living much more extravagantly than our parents or grandparents did. For example, when I was a kid my grandmother enjoyed drinking Coca-Cola from a 6 ½ ounce glass bottle. Today no store would bother stocking a soft drink in such a tiny container. Instead, we’ve developed a taste for the 20 ounce plastic bottles, the big gulps, the giant waxy cups of sugar water we can purchase on the run anywhere we go. We Americans want more of everything every year, and it is becoming hard to imagine a different way of life.

That’s where the season pass comes in handy, if you choose the right kind of beach. The one we like is just a town beach with a few campsites but no marina, no posh gift shops, no restaurants by the pier, no costumed cartoon characters, no rides, no Dolby sound systems. This is the first year they’ve had the money, finally, to pave the old gravel parking lot. For about $5 a visit you get to swim, to dig in the sand, to walk to the top of the dune. That’s almost all there is to do there, and that’s the virtue, the breathtaking contrast, the antidote to everyday life.

My small resolution paid off immediately Saturday when I took a walk with my daughters in the woods behind the dune. Without any supercharged entertainments to distract me, I actually learned something about my children. It turns out that they are brave in different ways: the five year old charged straight up the steepest part of the dune, and the eight year old crossed the stream by walking like a gymnast on a fallen tree. They agreed about one small thing, however: walking in the woods together was something they wanted to call an adventure.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired June 14, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

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