Beach Bitch

(Zach: Susan Kelly, an old friend and author of great detective fiction and true crime graciously offered to write this week’s column while I worked on the final revisions of TIES THAT BLIND. I’ve known Susan since the early nineties when the two of us hung out at Kate’s Mystery Bookstore. So thanks Susan for pinch-hitting. Very much appreciated.)

by Susan Kelly

 I hate the beach. I can’t tell you how much I hate the beach.

It feels so good to say that.

Yes, yes, I know. All red-blooded Americans are supposed to love going to the beach. And being at the beach. It’s part of our heritage. (The Pilgrim fathers and mothers landed on the beach, right? Whatever.) We even have an expression to describe a chore or duty that was unexpectedly easy to perform: “That was a day at the beach!” Conversely, when we suffer through an unpleasant experience—a tax audit, rush hour on Route 128, a visit to the DMV, any degree of exposure to Justin Bieber—we say: “That was no day at the beach!”

Not I.

I cannot see the appeal of lying on sand for hours at a stretch basting in your own body fat. It’s unhealthy. Worse—it’s boring. Insanely, terminally, unspeakably boring.

I’m not complaining just about the kind of beach where you can’t distinguish the sand from the spread towels, where you have to keep your arms tight to your side because if you scratch your nose you’ll poke the stranger lying six inches away from you in the eye with your elbow. Nor am I complaining just about the kind of beach with pristine white sand, azure sea, and scantily-clad beautiful people running hand in hand through the surf, where every fifteen minutes some grotesquely underpaid employee of the resort or club brings you a drink with a teeny paper umbrella and a skewer of fruit whether you want it or not.

Far Tortuga or Far Rockaway, it makes no difference to me. I hate it when there’s nothing to do but lie and fry.

I should note that I’m writing this from Florida, where, because of a series of events too stupid to explain, I’m spending a week at the beach. But not really; the nearest beach is about ten miles away. There is an allegedly alligator-infested canal just behind the house where I’m staying. The house is in a residential neighborhood, only there don’t seem to be any residents. Every morning around 7:30 I go for a walk, and I’m the only person on the street. No one’s taking the dog for a stroll. No one’s jogging. No one’s running. No one’s riding a bike. No one in a bathrobe is scampering out to the driveway to retrieve a newspaper. In four days, the only animate beings I’ve encountered are a few geckos, plus some buzzards that have an unsettling tendency to gather in my wake and then circle overhead. Where the hell is everyone? Were all the people in the neighborhood victims of a mass alien abduction? It’s the Twilight Zone with palm trees.

Then again, maybe everybody’s…at the beach. Maybe they never leave…the beach. In which case, why do they bother to have houses here, if they stay at the beach?

What I think is that I’m not alone in hating the beach. There are more like me out there. (You know who you are.) It’s just that they’ve been brainwashed into believing that going to the beach is the ne plus ultra of human experience. And they’re afraid to say, “Aw, you know, I’m not all that crazy about the beach.” Because if they did, everyone would accuse them of being nuts. Or un-American.

(In fairness, I should note that Europeans are even goofier about the beach than are Americans. Just try and pry a Scandinavian off a sand spit. Just try it. And these are people who live in the Land of the Midnight Sun. How much more of it do they need?)

You’ve seen the bumper stickers, t-shirts, coffee mugs, and, for all I know, condoms with “Life’s a beach” printed on them. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that “Hell is other people.” He was probably at the beach when he wrote it.

Horsehair Or Horseshit

I wanted to write about spring training.  About the Green Monster and the Yankee pitching staff.  About trips with my friend Bill to Arizona the past couple of years to watch teams I never get to see.  About the pleasure of reading on the porch, listening to a game on the radio during warm summer nights.

I wanted to let my mind slide past the snowdrifts piled high on my street.  To think about the upcoming softball season, my first as player/manager of the team I’ve been on for twenty years.  But it ain’t gonna happen.

Because it’s a cold, cold, winter in Amerika and I’m really, really pissed.

Arizona has a Judge murdered and a Congresswoman shot through the head then does nothing to make it even slightly more difficult to buy and carry guns. More and more states allow concealed weapons without adequate background, license or user safety checks.  Hell, you gotta pass two tests to get a damn driver’s license. Instead of riding our horses back to the Cowboys and Indians days—‘cause those were such wonderful times—let’s watch Deadwood reruns and revel in the loss of that era.

Deficits and Budgets.  Yeah, I know the Repubs won the house and a ton of state legislatures.  So what do we get?  A so-called “progressive” president bending over the nearest chair telling the reactionaries to have at it.

And they are.  We’re in such bad fiscal shape that we can not, must not, raise money by taxing those poor folks who earn more than a half a million a year. But it’s fine to slice and dice the other poor folks—the real ones who can’t afford usurious mortgages, food on their table, and any of life’s small pleasures.  Like frigging Christmas.

It’s okay to repeal an extremely moderate (if that) health care law while people can’t afford medicines or doctor visits.  Only this time it won’t just be the poor who get fucked, but working people and the slowly dwindling middle class.  Let’s go back to leeches.  That will really balance the budget in one fell swoop.

The list seems endless. Fuck women’s right to choose.  Fuck unions. Fuck education.  Fuck community service.  Fuck financial oversight.  Fuck transportation.  Fuck infrastructure.  Who needs bridges? Who needs tunnels?  Definitely fuck poor people. They just take up resources that could go to the wealthy. Fuck the environment.  Who really gives a shit about arsenic in peoples’ drinking wells?  Or oily shrimp beds when there’s drilling to be done?

Was all this the “mandate” of the 2010 election?  Bring down the price of flat-screens and let folks live vicariously while corporations are defined as people under the twisted decision of a Supreme Court.  This isn’t “taking back America,” it’s giving America back to the robber barons.

In truth, I don’t blame the Repubs for forcing me to forgo writing about baseball.  Or even their wholesale trashing of any sort of social fairness.  They’ve been crystal clear since Reagan about their mission.  Figure out every possible way to pillage and place the nation’s wealth into the coffers of the Already Wealthy.  Reagan meant it when he called ketchup a vegetable. It was just his homey way of saying, “Let them eat cake.”

And his revolution still rolls on.  Along with a couple of expensive useless wars and fresh body counts.

Something is really wrong when the 1950s look good.


So what do you want to do today?”

“I dunno.  I just got up.”

“Yeah, but it’s almost noon.”


“I’m just thinking we ought to do something useful.”

“It’s cold out there.”

“Not that bad.  Maybe 30 or so.”

“That’s not exactly a heat wave.”

“For February?”

“Okay, man, what is it you want to do?”

“I’m thinking we head down to the State House for the Palestinian demonstration.”


“You heard me.”

“Which is why I said, “Huh?”

“You feel the same way I do about Israel and the Palestinians.”


“Then what’s with the attitude?”

“It’s a fucking waste of time. You walk to the State House in the freezing cold, wave a few banners, listen to the same stuff you been listening to or reading about for ten years, then walk home chilled to the bone.”

“I’d come home knowing I did something.”

“You did shit is what you did.”

“That seems harsh.”

“But it’s true.  We got any bread?”

“You finished it last night.  There’s eggs.  You know what’s happening to the Palestinians.  It’s getting pretty close to genocide.  Already apartheid.”

“Explain to me how 150 people freezing their asses off changes any of it.”

“A sign of support.  A belief that things can actually be different.  Look at Egypt.”

You look at Egypt.  It happened because the Egyptian people made it happen, not American protests.  You think Israelis are gonna  jump up and demand their borders get rolled back to 1967, settlements be torn down, Hamas recognized, and Jerusalem become an International city?  I don’t think so.”

“It’s not just 150 people anymore.  All sorts of groups are springing up.  Jews demanding that Israel stop what they’re doing.”

“A lot of good they do.  You want change?  The United States got to stomp on Israel’s throat and force ‘em to do what they have to do.  And frankly, I ain’t betting rent.  Not now, not ever.  And where are the damn eggs?”

“Right in front of you.  You been holding the refrig open for ten minutes.  Serious case of male disease.”

“Got ‘em, thanks.  I see two possibilities.  One, the Palestinians out-wait the Israelis and let demographics control the situation.  Or, the demographics make Israel seriously uncomfortable and they slaughter as many Palestinians as possible.”

“Jeez, that’s a bright shining light.  Close the damn refrigerator door, will you?”

“I’m looking for the butter.”

“It’s right in front of you. Now will you close the door?”

“It’s closed, it’s closed.   Want some eggs?

“Hell no.  You may be right about the future but that’s the future.  Now is the time to change it.  Not when the massacre begins.  So what are you going to do?”

“Eat breakfast and watch the game.”

When Guns Go Down?

I received a number of public and private comments in response to my Wisconsin post about how badly anti-war protestors treated returning Vietnam vets.  My first impulse was to compare the activists’ behavior  with that of the U.S. government’s refusal to acknowledge the effects of Agent Orange and PTSD therefore denying treatment.

But the issue got me thinking about if an individual soldier has the ethical and moral responsibility to lay down arms when he/she realizes the war they are fighting is unjust, irresponsible, or flat-out wrong.  How much information does an individual soldier need to realize that napalm incinerated more than enemy soldiers?  That the killing of civilians in Panama was simply to rid the country of a leader we no longer needed?  That “shock and awe” was slaughtering noncombatant Iraqis by the tens of thousands?

In an award-winning documentary about Robert McNamara called The Fog of War, he talks about his part in the military planning of destroying Dresden and later Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Almost offhandedly McN comments (and I paraphrase): Had the “other” side won, he and the rest of the Brass would have been tried as war criminals.

To the victor go the spoils and the opportunity.  In this case to convict upper echelon Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials.  But what about the soldiers who herded people into trains they knew were bound for extermination camps?  Is “just following orders” really enough of a justification for sending innocent people to certain death?  Of course, that Nazi soldier would be trading his life in protest for boxcars of lives.  Is it even imaginable to ask anyone to make that choice?

One glance at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict raises the same sad question.  A suicide bomber kills ten Israelis (which I don’t in any way condone) and Israel responds by bombing hundreds of Palestinians.  When did “collateral damage” become something to simply ignore?  I suppose it happens during any war, every war.  But it sure don’t make it right.

And so we have modern precedent for trying leadership for “giving orders” but nowhere do we grapple with the responsibility of those who carry them out.  In our culture, one that prides itself on touting “individual responsibility,” there’s something wrong with this picture.

Of course the notion of individual soldiers laying down their weapons is a daunting thought.  But is it any more daunting than those who burned their draft cards during the Vietnam era, or for those who refused to serve?  Or the memories I have of visiting friends in prison because they wouldn’t step forward when ordered to board the Army bus.  Or other friends who were forced to expatriate because of their beliefs?

I understand the military is based upon an individual relinquishing his or her self to a chain of command.  But perhaps it’s time for those individuals to hold onto their selves and decide if those commands are, in fact, ethical, moral, or not.  And then decide whether to “just follow orders.”

Could be the world might have fewer wars and, more significantly, a much lower body count.

“On, Wisconsin!”

Despite my unswerving refusal to attend classes—even ones I enjoyed—Madison reshaped my perception of reality.  And I’m not talking drugs, though they did reawaken a spiritual sense that all those yeshiva years had exorcised.

When I arrived in 1965, the University was beginning to smolder with anti-war dissent.  But not for me.  While I hadn’t given Vietnam much thought, I, along with all the people I knew prior to college, supported the war even as we scrambled to find ways not to fight.

I was aware of the unrest around the campus, but was absorbed in adjusting to an entirely new life. This included dealing with a roommate proud to be chosen as the token Jew in a gentile fraternity. Oy vey.

Sometime during my first semester, however, colorful posters in the dorm announced that an upcoming anti-war roadshow would be visiting my building.

Contrarian that I was, (am?) I wrote a list of “questions” designed to challenge and shred any potential argument against the war.  Full of myself, I actually expected to convince the tour they were marching to the wrong tune.

The social room of Ogg East was packed. Most residents shared my pro-war views and were vehement about their opinions.  Raised voices were the norm—though not from the other side of the divide.  The anti-war group simply let the pro-war anger and insults roll by until eventually the room settled into an uneasy silence.

Which was when I trotted out my bulldog attack and re-raised the temperature.

Every “question” I asked was backed by cheers of agreement. Question after question, cheer after cheer.  If there was a time when the anti-war folks wanted to return the jeers, this was it.  Question after question, cheer after cheer, but their quiet responses suddenly shut me up.

I was an idiot.  Not because the questions were stupid. Not because I was embarrassed by the dorm residents’ behavior and their refusal to even listen.  Because the anti-war answers made more sense than any of my, or anyone else’s, arguments or attacks.

On that night, in that room, the world I knew shifted. The calm arguments had chiseled away my inbred trust of our government. That blind faith was replaced by an understanding not only of the war itself, but Vietnam as a logical manifestation of policies designed to fuel the military industrial complex (Eisenhower was clearly smarter than I) and the feeding of the rich and powerful.

Our foreign policies (not only Vietnam), our domestic economic inequality, peoples’ distaste for the “other” and our country’s rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia became understandable and of a piece.  It all made gut sense.  A world view that had been hidden inside just waiting for an invite to surface.  Known and now, finally, Named.

More to come…