Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ocean vs. Fake Ocean

Today I stood with my feet in the Atlantic Ocean, staring down at the murky water rhythmically pushing dark sand and small bits of plant matter over my feet, in between my toes, and leaving a dirty line on my ankles each time it washed away. An hour later, I was standing in a wave pool.

On my annual pilgrimage to Jekyll Island, I've biked and photographed where I used to sit around getting hammered. Early this morning I rode at full speed down an overgrown social path to an ancient Native American midden, a "trash heap" of oyster shells left by the island's inhabitants hundreds of years ago. To the north of my ride lay two perplexing signs of recent human development: The failed remains of a dredged marina, filled in and transformed into marsh by natural processes over a half century, and beyond, a water slide.

Why a water slide on a beachy island? My parents were always confused by the idea when I was young and I begged them to go to the Summer Waves water park. Why pay $20 to get in when the ocean's free and a half mile away? Why settle for three slides when there's a wealth of ecological activity at every turn?

Why would I want to visit some crappy tourist trap when I could bike to new and exciting locations all day?

As it turns out, no matter how bad the water park, kids want to go. This is what I discovered on our first trip to the attraction on my wife's first (technical) Mother's Day.

Kids—everywhere, and screaming mad—were enjoying themselves, getting silly, splashing their friends, screeching at the top of their lungs. It was enough to drive a full-grown adult completely bonkers, except that I know in five months that I'll begin the non-stop responsibility of putting up with potentially annoying childish behavior. I saw this as another opportunity to build a tolerance to a child's inanity, just as my previous beach trips were opportunities to build my tolerance to Chardonnay.

It doesn't matter that the beach is nearby. Kids want slides. They want the wacky antics of inflatable tubes colliding in the wave pool like floating bumper cars. They want hot dogs and sodas practically within reach. And they may not know it, but they don't want jellyfish dragging their venom-injecting tentacles across their groin in the shallow Atlantic, as happened to me on the other side of the island when I was just eight years old.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining. I had a great childhood, and reminisce on those beach trips with my family with utmost fondness. I recall asking my parents once if we could go to the water park and getting the refusal from them, and I also remember agreeing. I was a relatively rational kid. Hyper, no doubt annoying, and a bit of a whiner, but I couldn't imagine my parents spending $20 for something I could do for free just around the corner—even after I met the fated jellyfish.

Nonetheless, thanks to curiosity and a Mother's Day discount, we floated in a three-mile-per-hour "lazy river" and stood in the wave pool. We watched as children nearly tripped over their own feet to run from slide to slide with uncontrollable excitement. We witnessed nearly nude individuals, both fit and fat and everything in-between, parade about fearlessly. If someone was having a bad time, they were expertly hidden.

"I'm goin' ta go watch that bucket drop water on those kids," a beer-bellied southern man was overheard saying repeatedly.

"MOM, MOM, LOOK AT ME!" yelled approximately one thousand children simultaneously.

"So I said, 'Once the school year's over, we'll take you to the park,' but then this Mother's Day special showed up in my inbox," approximately five hundred web-savvy mothers said to each other.

The park dripped, screeched, and reeked of chlorine. One million marsh-dwelling insects committed mass suicide in the "lazy river." A 16-year-old swiped his first credit card and handed someone a receipt. Turnstyles whizzed like fan blades. The sun mercilessly assaulted the outer epidermis of every red-haired kid for miles.

When it was over, my wife and I jumped back in our car and stared at her belly. Though we didn't have regret, we realized something important: We had just witnessed our own future as a family, as if having an out-of-body experience.

This is likely something every parent goes through, and some handle it differently than others. I grew up in the rational household of nature-obsessing post-nudist hippies, whereas everyone at the park today was from a different tribe altogether. Your children have valid points for wanting to do those things you may think are pointless, and the both of you are right, but sometimes—perhaps only rarely, but on a brief occasion— you might just want to throw reason to the wind and let them go completely nutso in the water park.

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