Dad vs. Universe

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    June is here! The end of school is nigh! Run for your lives!

    OK, maybe that’s my take on summer break. Maybe you actually look forward to mosquito-bitten days of tedium and kids bored to petty crime. Or, maybe you are one of those people, who actually fills the endless summer days with engaging and wholesome activities.

    The rest of us just go to the beach.

    First, full disclosure: I am not a beach person. Growing up, I spent way too many hot, buggy, rejected-by-outof- my-league-girls days sitting forlornly beside a jellyfish megalopolis that masqueraded as the Chesapeake Bay. Then, I went to college in the Virginia foothills, and I have been a mountain guy ever since.

    I rediscovered the value of the beach after I had children. As an aide to lazy parenting, the beach ranks right up there with television. Toddlers will play in the sand for hours, needing almost nothing in the way of parental supervision. As an added bonus, by early evening, the sun has blasted every last ounce of energy from their bodies. They crash early and hard, leaving Mom and Dad a few hours to pretend like they are at the beach without kids.

    But there’s a problem. They grow up. Their fascination with the sand wanes, and they look towards the sea. The fathomless ocean. Vigilant parenting becomes necessary again, because in the ocean, things can happen. Parents, you know what I’m talking about. You’ve heard the horror stories. For me, the ocean is a proxy for the universe at large, which is why I so often find myself talking to the universe when my kids are farther than an arm’s length away in the ocean.

    “I got my eye on you,” I remind the universe. “Don’t get up to any funny business.”

    The universe, by way of answer, leaves crabs for me to step on.

    Sometimes, the universe engages me more directly.

    One summer, when my son Ben was eight or nine, he was in the ocean with his approximately-the-same-age girl cousin, Grayson. It was late afternoon. I was skulking on the beach, trying to be up to nothing at all but secretly watchful of the two in the water. They were chancing it a little far for my comfort zone. The ocean was calm, rolling onto shore with a reassuring rhythmic serenity, yet they were out far enough to not touch bottom when the wave crests passed them by. They were both good swimmers, so I let them bob.

    And that’s when the universe spoke, in the form of a steamroller of a wave, rising up, up, up from nowhere, froth sparking on its monstrous brow.

    “Universe!” I cried. “I am on to you! I am springing into action to save these dear children from your trickery!” Which, if you were standing nearby, may have sounded like, “Aiiiiiiyeeeeeeeerch!”

    Ben and Grayson saw the behemoth too late to do anything except register expressions of mute shock before they disappeared into its slavering maw.

    I raced into the water, trying to anticipate where I needed to go to rescue them. I had a few scant clues: a glimpse of a hand over here, a moment of a knee over there, a flash of bikini somewhere else. They were all over the place!

    And nowhere. Nowhere for too long.

    I charged farther out, flailing in the water for any hint of them. All I could imagine was that they were being pulled out to sea as the remnants of the sledgehammer wave drained from the beach like fading hope.

    And then I heard the sound of laughter, coming from behind me. I turned to find Ben and Grayson a few yards from shore, spluttering, blinking, wiping water from their eyes, straightening skewed swimwear. And laughing.

    If you have ever been rolled by a big mama wave, you remember what it is like: suddenly in thrall to a power that is not only bigger than you, but dwarfs you in every way. Held in a dark, airless place, batted about so completely that you lose perspective on which way is up, which way is out, where you end and where the suddenly fathomless ocean begins. The panic, the fear, the life-affirming paradox of being at the ragged margin of the world, the threshold of infinity.

    And then, suddenly –or maybe it has been a billion years? – there is the sturdy bed of sand. The order you have taken for granted all your young life is restored and you shoot upwards, into the welcoming familiarity of the air and sun.

    And you laugh because it is good. The fear dissolves like the wave that rolled you, and what remains is the exuberance of being young and full of grace.

    So Ben and Grayson laughed. They stood side by side, scanning the eastern horizon in hopes of additional big waves, comparing tales of upside-down and inside-out and can you believe?

    Meanwhile, I splashed resentfully back to shore. “That was a lousy, low-down stunt, Universe.”

    “Ha, ha,” said the universe. “They are mine as much as yours.”

    “How about a little care, then?”

    “Look at them,” said the universe. “What do you see?”

    They shimmered with the remains of the wave, kindled by their deep glimpse into Mother Nature’s wild and irrepressible heart. In the long blessing of late afternoon sunlight, they were unspeakably beautiful.

    “They are magnificent,” I breathed.

    “You’re welcome,” said the universe.