Saturday, July 9, 2011
Inside the Sand
When my family moved back to Michigan in 1979 after a few years each in Mexico, Australia and Venezuela, we took up residence in my first house again. It was the best house I ever knew, on a dirt road that led to the top of a hill that was perfect for sledding in the winter. All the children in the neighborhood sledded at our house.
In the summers, our house gave us automatic membership in the Walnut Lake Beach Association. It was a short walk over there, maybe half a mile along Inkster Road, which ran alongside a stream bustling with fish and cattails. The beach was a short strip of sand leading into the lake, protected from the road by a wire fence. On one end of the beach was a grassy area with picnic tables, grills, swing sets, seesaws and a horseshoe court. On the other end were various small boats stowed upside-down on racks. There was a dock, too, but every slip was taken and our boat was on a waitlist. In the entire time I lived there, we moved up two spots on that list.
The first summer we were back in Michigan, I had just finished 6th grade. I went to the beach every day with either my brother or my friend Richard from across the street. July 4th was the biggest day at the beach with the most activities. After dark, fireworks exploded over the lake and during the day there was a pie-eating contest, a steeplechase and some kind of splash-fest featuring a greased watermelon.
And a sand sculpture competition.
“Want to enter together?” Richard asked me.
“Sure. What are we going to make?”
“A strong man,” he said. “What could be better?”
We pushed mounds of sand with our hands until we had enough for a torso, two legs and two arms. Then we scooped more sand together to make a head.
Richard’s brother Zach—older by a few years—came by to see how we were doing.
“What is it?” Zach asked.
“A strong man,” Richard said. “We’re still adding the arm muscles.”
Zach stood back and rubbed his thumb on his chin thoughtfully. He said, “You need to cut in a little below the ribcage so the waist is smaller and the chest is bigger.”
“Okay,” we said.
Zach also told us to add sand on the abdomen and to carve it into six individual bumps, simulating a six-pack. Our strong man was ripped.
The face didn’t look good, though. The eyes were holes punched with our thumbs. The mouth was a line drawn by a finger. We forgot to make a nose, too. But all the muscles were good.
We won a 2nd place ribbon for the youngest age group.
A few summers later, Andrew joined us.
“What are we going to make?” Andrew asked me.
“A giant telephone,” I told him. “What could be better?”
I unhooked the phone in our living room and put it in my bag. At the beach, I put the phone on the sand and laid the receiver uncradled at the side, the curly cord a tangle leading back to the base.
I told everyone, “Make it look exactly like that. Only really huge.”
After an hour we still didn’t have enough sand.
“We need shovels,” Andrew said, wiping sweat from his brow.
My brother ran home and came back with tools from my mother’s gardening shed. As the deadline for the judging drew near, we encountered a second problem: the sun. Even though we carefully had molded the individual number buttons, they dried out in the sun and eroded. After that, one person’s job was to run continuously back and forth from the lake, scooping up water and drizzling it over the top of our giant telephone. But when it was done it was an eye-catcher. Everyone at the beach wanted to see the telephone. It didn’t win, but we earned 2nd place ribbons again, now as young contestants in the older age group.
The next few summers I was gone at Interlochen for music camp, but every July 4th I would think about what sand sculpture I would make if I could have been there. After my senior year of high school, I left for a summer in Rome, Italy, to play a music festival before I would move to New York to begin my studies at Juilliard.
The flight to Rome left on the evening of July 4th. The morning and afternoon were free.
I called Andrew on the same phone that had been the model for our last entry. My brother had left the year before so it was just the two of us. I declared, “Let’s win the sand castle competition once and for all. We can do it! What do we need to build?”
Andrew thought about this for a long time. He said, “If we want to win, we need to go bigger. In size, in scope. But also timeless.”
He was right. Most phones didn’t even have cords anymore.
“What should we build?” I asked him.
“A Mayan temple,” he said. “What could be better?”
He met me at my house at 6am on July 4th. We threw shovels in the car along with trowels, butter knives, buckets and water misters. The gate to the beach was locked this early, so Andrew climbed over the fence. I threw all the tools over and then climbed in after him. Andrew drew a giant square in the sand.
“This is our base,” he said, walking the perimeter. “We need a lot of sand.”
The first three hours were pure shoveling, building up the pyramid as tall as we were. When the gate opened and people began filing in we could feel the buzz.
“Pack it in tight!” Andrew ordered me. “We don’t want this crumbling when we carve in details.”
Once the pyramid took shape, we used the trowels to cut away giant steps, working from top to bottom. Then we added narrow staircases going up the middle of each side, one person carving little steps with a butter knife while the other gently misted dry spots with the water bottle. People gathered as the mammoth construction appeared before their eyes. Andrew added a small construction on top, crowning our creation.
We won 1st place. Andrew and I posed for a photo in front of it, proudly waving our blue ribbons. Then—as was tradition—all the younger children jumped on it and destroyed it enthusiastically in mere seconds.
Three years later, I happened to be back home for a July 4th, visiting with my girlfriend from New York. My brother happened to be home, too. I called Andrew’s house and found out he was home.
I said, “Let’s enter the sand competition again. For old time’s sake.”
My parents had since moved to a new house they had built a few miles away. It was bigger, but it was okay. We could get into the beach for a day if we paid at the gate.
“What are we going to make?” Andrew asked.
“I’ll show you when we get there,” I replied cryptically.
See, I had learned things about the world now that I was a New Yorker. I had read books in my Liberal Arts classes. Old books. Foreign books translated into English. I took one look at the couples lighting the barbecues, carrying in bags of hot dogs and fourpacks of Bartles & James wine coolers and I knew I needed to make a statement. These suburban philistines needed to be educated.
“I’ll start shoveling,” Andrew offered.
“Wait a second, the prime spot is over there,” I pointed. There was a little boy in my spot already, digging innocently with a plastic shovel and pail. I shooed the little boy away and he started to cry.
“Oh, Jesus …” my girlfriend said to me, disgusted. She wandered off to tan for the afternoon.
“Come on, let’s get started!” I declared.
An hour later, we were getting weird looks from passersby.
“What’s it supposed to be?” someone asked.
“The working title is ‘The Plurality of Consciousness,’” I told them. “The different shapes represent states of ourselves as we compensate for society as it inflicts its will upon us. We’re using sand as our medium because it symbolizes the transient state of all things in nature.”
“Looks stupid,” the person said and wandered off.
I followed him.
“Stupid? STUPID?” I shouted. “That’s not stupid. YOU’RE stupid. I don’t suppose someone like you would be able to comprehend anything profound. I don’t suppose you’ve read ‘The Tale of Genji’ but I have, so I know. So maybe you should go play on the swing, you ignoramus!”
The nerve of these people, I thought. As I stormed back to our work area, I passed my tanning girlfriend who tipped her head up and hissed, “Do you know how almost-broken-up we are?”
After several more hours of this, our pretentious magnum opus was ready for previews. The judge was a lifeguard with mirrored sunglasses, zinc oxide on his nose and a floppy sun hat. He lifted the hat, scratched his head and stared off somewhere, hoping someone would rescue him. No one did. I think he gave us a 2nd place ribbon for it, but honestly I can’t remember.
I drove by my old house a few weeks ago, now twenty-five years later, and it’s safe to say I have grown up a bit. The neighborhood feels about the same, but the trees are now large and mature. The dirt road was paved long ago, and some of the houses I remembered have been torn down and replaced with grander structures. It’s a very nice neighborhood, but when I was growing up it was just my house, the house on the hill where all the children came to go sledding in the winter.
The cottage where we spend our summers now also has lake privileges, and often I go down there and kick my feet through the sand, thinking about those July 4th competitions. What strikes me now is how much of what we made out of simple sand was such a transparent attempt to express who we wanted to be at the time. The other children made castles, unicorns, baseball diamonds, winking pigs or dragons, and the subject always agreed with the creator.
I haven’t made something out of sand in a long time—music has since replaced that compulsion within me—but when I walk along the beach I wonder what I would make now. I take these walks because they are good for me, though now I wear sunglasses or an eye patch to account for my central serous chorioretinopathy. Sometimes I need to turn back home sooner because my old hernia repair scar aches or my legs bloat from the drug used to counteract diabetes insipidus. Sometimes I start coughing from allergies or a sudden asthma attack. Sometimes I feel a brain shock coming on. Sometimes I worry about the craniopharyngioma. When I have to sit in the sand for a few minutes and rest, I wonder what I would make today. I wouldn’t make an incomprehensible surrealist mess. I wouldn’t make a grand Mayan temple. I wouldn’t make a telephone.
I would make a strong man. What could be better?