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08/07/2006

Beach boy

After several days in a magnificent beach house with every amenity — a breathtaking view of the crashing Pacific directly off our deck, three dishwashers, two home theaters, a fireplace, a hot tub, and a down comforter on every one of its pillowtopped beds — I have come to the regretful but unshakeable conclusion that a place like this is wasted on the young, and also on those who've produced them.

Try though I might, I have not used this place to its fullest.  My parboiling in the hot tub has been severely limited, for example, by the lamentable shortness of nap time.  My use of the kitchen, a nicer one than my own, has consisted mainly of cutting all manner of foods into uniform chewable dice, just as at every meal- and snacktime these days.   In the evenings, when our friends settle in for two or three movies projected so beautifully onto the wall that you can count Kevin Costner's uncredited nasal cilia during the opening minutes of The Big Chill, I wimp out after a single feature — 7:30 AM comes early, and 6:30 earlier still.  And I haven't even begun to urinate in each of this place's six bathrooms.

It's strange to share a vacation with people who don't live with children.  Charlie has, for the most part, been an exemplary ambassador on behalf of small banana-flingers everywhere, and our friends have been wonderful — patient, interested, and downright indulgent of Charlie's less diplomatic moments.  But this week I've been forcefully reminded of some of the opportunity costs of being a parent.

ToucansamIf you've had difficulty having children, it's a virtual certainty that someone has tried to comfort you by reminding you that at least you can still read the Times in bed on Sunday mornings, uninterrupted by a tangle-haired preschooler pestering you for Froot Loops.  When my well-meaning friends used to say that to me, I silently wished upon them a plague of marauding toucans who would tear at their liver with an outsized rainbow beak, jeering platitudes at them in the plummiest of English accents — and they said colonialism was dead — preferably just shy of dawn on the rainiest Sunday of the year.  I still hate it when I hear such things.  In fact, I probably hate it more now, because I'm well aware that it's true.

This week I've watched our friends shift their clocks from a 5 AM wake-up — which I must, in the interest of fairness, concede is earlier than I ever wake with Charlie — to drifting toward the kitchen for coffee at 11.  Charlie's eating lunch while they're eating breakfast.  And they're staying up commensurately late, eating chocolate cake, drinking, and watching movies — and now that I think of it, probably opening presents, winning the lottery, and riding ponies, too — while I'm padding grudgingly to bed.  Then the next morning, Paul and I are quietly bribing Charlie with Sesame Street and Froot Loops, because, yes, today I caved, and, damn, that Elmo is creepy, to keep him from crowing the sleeping house down with his usual daybreak exuberance.

Traveling with a baby or a toddler isn't any kind of vacation, at least not in any sense of the word I understand.  In my fantasies, "vacation" connotes a leisurely morning spent pondering what we'll do today; a slow lunch while we mentally prepare ourselves for some activity or other; and then, more often than not, deciding to scrap those plans for a nap or a long afternoon on a porch swing, chaise longue, or hammock.  (I am nothing if not flexible.)  It does not entail a small voice piping, "Upp!  Upp!" anytime before sunrise.  It does not involve hoarding a cache of plastic grocery bags so that I can tie up dirty diapers into hygienic little sausages so that they won't cause offense to our friends.  It does not under any circumstance feature plowing the sand out of anyone's nether creases but my own.  In fact, not even my own.

Traveling with a child is work.  You're off your own turf.  You don't have the paraphernalia, the toys, the childproofing, or the routine that give shape to your days at home.  You're living in parallel orbits with the rest of your party, preparing meals by the clock instead of by hunger, hurrying home before naptime, making sure not to run out of milk.  There are certainly compensations, like introducing Charlie to sand, kites, and seagulls ("Mom!  Mom!  Suddenly all that Kindermusik bullshit makes sense!"); or hearing him belly laugh at a friend's velvet crab hat; or teaching him about pockets so that he can keep his new best rock safe while he plays in the beach grass.  (The lesson did not take.  Pockets: 1, Charlie: 0.)  But for me, a vacation with a young child is no less work than time spent at home, and in many ways feels like much more.  The setting is lovely, the company fine, but the hard part's just as hard, no matter how pretty the ocean.

Sooner or later, this changes, I'm sure.  Doesn't it change once your kids are older, when they become sufficiently experienced to know that there's a qualitative difference between work days — getting up at ass o'clock to do the same things you do every day, only with the addition of sand where the sun don't shine — and vacation days?  Doesn't it change?  Please say yes.  My fantasies depend on it.

Do not mistake me for a moment: I love our boy and I love our life.  I don't begrudge our friends their liberty, and I don't regret our lack.  We had that life and we worked very hard to shed it.  But if I'm going to tell the truth and cop to being human, I sometimes wish having a child hadn't required shedding quite so much of it — usually at 7:30 in the morning on the fogged-in Pacific coast, after too many Cuba libres, with the down-draped pillowtop calling.

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