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It's Nelly's World

Co-existence

alec vanderboom

If we didn't have the beach, the last place in America where people do not primarily function as ports for their electronic equipment, the publishing industry might be dead. But here, at Coast Guard Beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore, all around me, people are reading. Maybe they're foreigners? No, they're reading books in English--classics, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, nonfiction and mysteries, YA and magazines. The rest of the people stare off at boats slipping along the horizon, or eat sandwiches, or fly kites, or play Kadima, or sleep. Even more varied than their occupations are their bodies. Infinite are the ways in which we sag, bulge, ripple, mottle, swell, discolor, bend. To the gulls who patrol alertly for those sandwiches, stepping among the beach towels, eyes darting this way and that, or glide sideways through the air to stop, unflapping and unblinking, on a current three feet above your head (watch out), we look all the same. We too don't see their infinite variations, in the size and placement of that red spot on the beak, the width of tail feathers, a million other aspects of differentiation that make one gull go, Ooh-la-la! and other say, Wow--weird!

We are in the human world here, nature but a preserved strand along a central corridor of purveyors of fried fish (that's what we think of nature: Good, but better with tartar sauce), t-shirts and boogie boards, "art" work, and, yes, books. (But more ice cream than books, by a ratio of six to one.) Don't get me wrong--I love it. We're having fun. Yet I wish it weren't quite so relentlessly human--Cape Cod as all the proof you need that overpopulation will kill us. And I wish I didn't have to leave Nelly behind, due to vacationland's human bent, though she is having the equivalent of a resort vacation herself with "Aunt" Janet and her beau Willy. She is also very probably eating more ice cream than I am.

But I am filled with longing. For the depopulated beaches of the past. To re-unite these halves of my life. To not always feel such longing.

At least it reminds me that I am alive, and that I have been. I watch my son in the surf--he declares it the best fun he's ever had, to be smashed face-first down onto the pebbles of the seabed--and know he is laying the groundwork for his own future longing.

But, I hope, no other kinds of irredeemable pain. Yet I fear it is so, especially after reading a book I found in the beach house we rented, which was clearly put there expressly for me. To make me feel almost overwhelming despair. (What bad angel wanted that?) It is about the largest study ever done on post-divorce families. And it is called Second Chances, only because it's clear the publisher told the author, "I know--but no one will buy it if we title it It All Sucks!"

The gist of it is, If you care about your children, move heaven and earth to avoid breaking up their world. (We like to repeat common wisdoms, such as "An unhappy marriage is bad for children," but the psychologists found, except in a few extreme cases, that divorce was always worse.) The news does suck hugely for these poor kids: far higher rates of depression, low self-esteem, suicide, delinquency, alcoholism, and lower educational attainment than their parents. (The psychologists could explain almost everything else, but never understood why almost all of the men in the study, no matter how supportive or involved in their children's lives until then, basically stopped giving a shit when their offspring turned eighteen. College became a daunting and debilitating struggle for a great number of the kids, and not one father cared, even the wealthy. My theory--because you knew I had to have one--is biologically, not behaviorally, based: At eighteen, your child becomes your competition. Overall, this study makes naked so much that is obviously biological, no matter how much we try to retroactively dress it in rationalizing costume.)

The news, according to the study, sucks for me too, but I can assure you I really don't care, not in the face of what my child will be going through. I'm also perverse enough that, when told I now belong to a 98 percent group of anything, to do anything to snub that membership and get myself into the 2 percent camp instead. Conventionality is a bore.

Nonetheless, I wept about what I'd learned from this book, until a friend I was sitting with on the beach told me gently it was not something for me to read now; it was maybe something couples contemplating divorce should read, but not much you could do after.

Ah, yes, so. Regrets. I obviously missed the sign they posted over the Bourne Bridge: Intact Families Only Beyond This Point. From every corner I hear, "Now, wait here for Daddy"; "Mommy's gone to get the towels." This was my past, too. Now I am different. But aren't we all? Just look around you here, on this bright beach.