The Tyranny of the Beach

An essay I wrote back in late October, which I loved but no one else did.

The Tyranny of the Beach

I’m writing this from a small room on the first floor of the Betsy Hotel in South Beach, Miami. I can see that it’s sunny outside through the slits of my blinds, but I’m in a black muumuu frock, the air conditioner set to bone chilling. The weather report tells me it’s seventy-seven degrees, with a zero percent chance of rain; to contrast, back in Brooklyn, where I live, it’s forty-five degrees, and it has rained almost an inch in the past twenty-four hours. “Rain is widespread throughout the area,” the report tells me. In other words, it’s the forecast in hell, every single day of the year.

My life is good, right? No, it’s great, because I forgot to mention above that I didn’t pay for this hotel room, the six beverages in my mini-bar were complimentary, and I’ve had delightful staff members to serve my every need here for the past six days. I’m a writer-in-residence, perhaps the most plum position an artist can attain. Here at the Betsy, their admirable goal is to do nothing other than give the writer-in-residence a quiet room and time to write. Not a soul bothers me. No one, that is, except for that wide stretch of sand abutting the ocean about five hundred feet from my desk.

Come sit on me, it says. Wiggle your toes in my white granular body. Gaze out at my vast blue neighbor. Drink a pina colada on top of me. But I resist the siren call of that steamy temptress and remain inside. If this were strictly a vacation, I’d be more than happy to decamp for a padded beach lounger. But it’s not, really––this is sacred time I was given to get elbow-deep in my work, and my work requires me to be alone, inside, and, preferably, in dim lighting. This is only partially because my subject matter tends to be of the darker variety: mental illness, unsolvable mysteries, religious fanaticism, and literature of the same. From a perusal of Mason Curry’s frothy but entertaining book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, it’s clear that most artists, even those who engage with the happiest of material, require some cushioning distance from the outside world while working. For many, this means a few hours of complete isolation buttressed by a strictly imposed schedule, with a slice of time set aside for a romp outdoors. The sanest types rely on afternoon walks through the French countryside or the narrow streets of Copenhagen; others, like Marcel Proust and Jonathan Franzen, maniacally deprive themselves of stimulation, even, as Franzen did, resorting to wearing blindfolds AND ear plugs to enter a state of heightened concentration. Suffice it to say, I’m not nearly as stringent as Franzen, although I am pleased that my little office here is lined in sound-absorbing cork, just like Proust’s infamous bedroom at 102 Boulevard Hausman was.

So for the sake of my sleek MacBook Air and my ability to focus, I remain indoors and solitary. Rilke, who advised young poets to “love your solitude and bear the pain it causes you,” would be proud. My mother, who rationally wonders why you’d buy a plane ticket to Miami only to come back pasty, would not. The one happy loophole in this is reading. Reading is an occupational necessity in my work, and also, something that can be done while basking in the sun. Still in this, there are unexpected snafus. Over my stay here, I’ve been reading Kathryn Harrison’s new biography of Joan of Arc in order to review it. The story of a martyred teenage schizophrenic is not exactly beach reading; add Harrison’s gloomy tone and my PTSD-like flashbacks to reading The Kiss over Yom Kippur, and you’ve got a recipe for a melancholia that just isn’t sustainable on the bustling, joyful beaches of South Florida. A European family in front of me––the mother topless––joins hands and races off toward the water; a man saunters by, music playing on his cell phone. “Excuse me, but I might drink a little more than I should… tonight.” He moves his upper bodily rhythmically to the beat. I force my eyes back down to the page: “No eyewitness remembered Joan pulling the bolt from her own breast, and reports of her doing so, like that in the Chronique de la Pucelle, are likely apocryphal, Joan’s valiant defense of her inviolate body amplifying her virginity.” Gertrude Stein apparently enjoyed working outside because she liked to look at “cows and rocks” while she scribbled; I’d be curious to see what the vision of male buttocks in a g-string would have done to Tender Buttons.

Back in my mid-twenties, I worked for a true crime writer who insisted that tropical environments were most conducive to writing. As an adult, he had migrated from New York to spend the colder months most often in Mykonos, Ibiza, or Miami, all places with cloudless skies, skimpily-clad sunbathers, and a steady unssst unssst ussst techno beat emanating from hidden speakers.  When the writer and I were alone together, working on his book, he would tell me his preferred winter schedule ad nauseam: wake up, eat breakfast, go running, head to the beach, sunbathe naked, then write a little (by hand, in those days) and swim, write a little and swim, and so on.  By the time I was his employee, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis had robbed him of the ability to hold a tissue, let alone race down to the water’s edge. Even if he could have weathered an eight-hour flight to Athens, it would have been nearly impossible for him to traverse those narrow cobblestone streets in a mammoth motorized wheelchair.  But Miami, as everyone likes to joke, is friendly to the old and/or infirm, and it also met his personal requirements: it was lively, full of tan, good-looking people, and above all, warm.  “The warm weather is much better for my health,” he would say, and while there was some validity to that, I was always tempted to voice my suspicion that the escape from winter had more to do with his desire to be near a nude beach than his hope that the phlegm production in his throat would abate.  So when it started to get chilly in New York, we would board a JetBlue flight to Florida and giggle about those poor suckers who were silly enough to suffer through the cold. The beach didn’t pose as much of a threat to me then, because it was so readily accessible and I didn’t feel I would lose it, sort of like how native Parisians don’t feel pressured to visit the Louvre every day. Still, I found myself secretly giddy on the occasional stormy day, even if that meant watching my writer boss sit moping by the sliding glass doors in the apartment, watching his beloved coastline pummeled by raindrops.

Now, even at home but especially here, in the relentlessly perfect weather, I feel like an impotent version of the prophet Elijah: unable to raise the dead or hear the word of God, but always praying, praying, praying for rain. Yesterday, after promising myself I’d get some Vitamin D, I marched out of the front door, book in hand, headed for the beach. I didn’t get across the street before a few fat drops of rain landed right on my head, and I raced gleefully back inside to my room. I put on a bathrobe, opened to a passage explaining the medieval concept of “touching for scrofula” (the idea that a newly anointed king could heal tubercular wounds through his touch) and prepared to be serenaded by the sweet sounds of thunder. But twenty minutes went by, and all I could hear were the construction men revamping Deco Drive Cigars across the street yelling to one another in Spanish. I peeked out the window and saw––the horror!––aggressively bright sunshine, and beachgoers strolling along toward a swim, nary an umbrella in sight. I angrily grabbed the computer and looked up the weather in Whitehorse, the capital city of the Yukon province in Canada. Twenty-three degrees, with a 40% chance of light snow. Heaven.


But let’s face it: today, I’d rather be anywhere and unproductive than in the freezing horror that is New England.  Ideally, this little cove in Greece.




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