10 August 2015
Halfway through my seventh decade I realize I have gained in modesty, at least in the sense of exposing skin. It is partly because I have a clearer vision of my nerd body’s attractiveness. My face is a thing of no great beauty. My dear Cheryl refers, affectionately I believe, to my toothpick legs, and my cardiologist told us that my sunken chest added risk to the standard rib-cracking heart valve replacement procedure. There is little danger that the sight of my body will be inciting lust in the general public. But, mostly, I keep it well-covered because I’m a contrarian crank playing Canute to our post-modest times, in which a twerking Miley Cyrus thrives.
Cheryl and I take our customary late-summer vacation in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. It is of course ludicrous that I pine for the discreet at a beach. Any rear-guard pro-modesty defiance that I could mount is doomed to ignominious failure. Liberal expanses of fish-belly skin that hasn’t seen the light of day for many a long Canadian winter are commonplace here. In our brave new age of no shame, things better left hidden and private are routinely foisted on the casual observer. I recoil, and my mood turns bilious.
I’m walking home uphill from the beach, navigating a short crowded stretch of the main thoroughfare between the sand and the non-maritime world, a tacky interface that seems to have expanded over the years we’ve been coming here. It provides for beach-goers’ basic needs: cash-dispensing machines, purveyors of tattoos, cheesy souvenirs, deep-fried Oreos, and electronic gaming. Signs on streetlight poles warn that you can be arrested for drinking in public. Oxygen molecules fight for their lives in a miasma of fryolator grease, cigarette smoke, and nasal French. My sneaker sticks to a discarded wad of gum.
Yet for all the wretched excess and the asymptotic approach to nakedness, the throng exhibits no joie de vivre, no laughter, not a half-smile. A father snarks at his boy, “Don’t be a whine-ass.” Pained expressions mingle with vacant masks, as if everyone is here under duress, the lucky ones under sedation. The closest thing to genuine pleasure is the screaming as the nearby roller coaster slams down the first hill into its turn. People variously trim and densely-muscled or bulbous and flabby, shirtless in low-rider shorts, or tricked out in gossamer bikinis in the one place where beachwear is unquestionably appropriate—none of them can flaunt it with verve and joy.
This crass narrow strip is what one manifestation of a poisonous culture feels like. When virtually nothing is beyond the pale, experience is cheapened to worthlessness, and it shows. There’s plenty of surliness, but we’re short on vivacity, innocence, a sense that we’re alive in the midst of something extraordinary. I fear that innocence and wonder, once bludgeoned to death, are beyond resurrection. These people have only the vaguest awareness of what they’ve lost. They are jaded. At best they are complacent sheep, and even proximity to the sea’s majesty can’t save them.