These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang. – Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The ocean. Melville successfully captures the essence of my love-hate relationship with it.
In terms of love, I have concluded it is mostly aesthetic and at arm’s length. Standing on a bluff, staring out to the world’s edge. The assuaging cadence of a pounding surf. The beauty of the sun settling like a decapitated, burning clown’s head melting across a vast, gray cage floor. Euphoria.
I love the notion of the ocean. [Also, the motion of the ocean. Because it determines the size of your rise. Thank you, I’ll see myself out with the other ten-year-old boys.]
The ocean inspires me to write. There is something purifying and liberating in a salty sea breeze. Natural beauty holds hallowed court. The grandness of it all. The relentless ebb and flow of the tide amplifies my imagination. The tantric resonance echoes into my essence with each crashing wave.
I love it because I am not touching it. Floating helpless over its unseen depths. I am not second-guessing what type of hidden death will drag me down to Davy Jones’ Locker. But I am certain there is some cutesy Sea Monkee waiting down there to drown me in annoying backtracks of Daydream Believer.
In terms of hate, let’s start with any song by the Monkees. And Davy’s idiotic dance moves. The entire act was staged, made-for-television tripe. Yet somehow, those fools sold more albums in 1967 than the Beatles and Rolling Stones… combined. Yeah. Let that sink in.
But I digress.
So, I hate the ocean because I am terrified of it. I have a visceral fear of immersion in the ocean. The clinical term is thalassophobia. An intense and persistent fear of the sea.
The caveat is standing in shallow surf. Doesn’t bother me. However, once I pass thigh height, anxiety overwhelms me like a tsunami of diarrhea after eating spoilt fish. First wave that grazes my nutsack? Flight instinct kicks into overdrive, and I flee for the safety of my fluffy beach towel.
And so, I have wrestled my entire life with this paradox.
I have no shred of doubt that Spielberg’s aquatic slasher flick psychologically scarred me. It captures the essence of the fear of the unknown and then transforms it into a prehistoric-sized great white shark hell-bent on human revenge.
Scared the absolute bejesus out of me as a kid and is front of mind whenever I enter the water today. But why is this movie so indelibly burned into the minds of so many people?
- Irrational Fear. We all know you have a better chance of getting hit by lightning (twice) before a shark attacks you in the water. Doesn’t matter. You can rationalize your fear of sharks all you want, but you watched the morgue scene in Jaws. Torsos. Partially denuded bones. It could happen.
- The monster is real. We all know that Freddie Kruger killing you in your dreams is not real. We can rationalize the scare away after watching it because there is no tangible “What if?” moment when the movie ends. Sharks? These alpha predators of the sea are as intelligent as a doorknob. But they are very real. Programmed by evolution to kill, kill, kill.
- That damn music. Oh, John Williams, you rotten bastard. You got us good with that simple, foreboding, driving score. Like the movie, can you ever forget the music? It’s forever synonymous with impending danger. And it plays in my head every time I stand on the shore, skittishly looking out to sea.
And while the movie embedded the fear, I experienced a real shark moment on a day off from work at my summer job in Montauk. Let’s explore my psychosis further, shall we?
I spent some of the best college summers of my life with my friends in Montauk. Bar backing, waitering, bussing tables – all on the ocean. Big money. Big party.
Montauk feels like the end of the world.
East of the Hamptons’ glitz, this small fishing town is a welcome respite for New York urbanites. After all the grime, noise, and chaos of New York City, the four-hour drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic, driving thirty miles per hour, defines the apex of relaxation and decompression.
The denizens of New York, oft lauded for their relaxed personalities and polite dispositions, typically require an extra week of vacation to shake it off.
All that joy. Then on a day off, my buddy and I go ocean-fishing in a small rubber raft, chumming the water to draw our prey. Perhaps smoking a little too much doobie, it went unnoticed that we had been pulled out to sea in a rip current.
By the time we noticed, the twenty-foot-high sand dunes along the Montauk shoreline looked like the raised eczema on the forearm of the Irish summer worker who wanked me outside the bar the night before.
Barely noticeable. Just wished I hadn’t touched it.
The water gets deep, quick off the Montauk coast. And then I heard the Jaws music. Too stoned. WTF? Senses heightened; I scanned all around.
A gray fin broke the surface. A shark began circling our thin rubber vessel, a vessel barely worthy of floating in a still pond. Let alone above the abyss. We were so screwed.
My friend, who grew up along the shore, said it was an eight-foot Mako. I didn’t give a flying flip if it was a four-inch Goldfish. I froze in abject terror. The music was so damn loud in my ears.
He started yelling while swatting at the monster with our oar. I covered my ears and curled up in the fetal position, gestating in the raft’s bottom.
As I lost consciousness, the massive fish leapt from the brine, grabbing my friend by the arm, dragging him into a turbulent, thrashing wake of blood and froth and foam. His screams were horrific.
Then silence. Everything faded to black…
Montauk’s close encounter with a shark solidified my seafaring fears. But for some perverse reason, its siren’s song still summoned me.
Fast forward fifteen years, and the Conways have rented a beach house with another family in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Built on the sand, this gorgeous home had a giant wrap-around shaded porch that yielded an endless view of the crashing surf. All the senses piqued except touch. Fine with me.
So predictable. By Day Two, those assholes all wanted to go down to the beach for the day. The nerve!
Honestly, the day passed uneventfully. A not unpleasant mix of activity, beers, and shady umbrellas created an easy elixir. The tide never reached our sandy encampment, but we were close enough for my eight-year-old and four-year-old daughters to frolic safely in the shallows.
Then, on cue, my oldest daughter ran toward my wife and me, howling in pain. Damn you, ocean. You betrayed me yet again!
Now, to set the picture properly, you must know my wife and two daughters have a skin pigment one shade above albino. Literally, the two things you can see from outer space are the Great Wall of China and the sun reflecting off their alabaster flesh.
As she neared, the searing red tentacle marks across my eldest daughter’s exposed bikini abdomen told us all we needed to know. An octopus had attacked her. I reached for my trident, as I knew battle was nigh.
My internal monologues never stay in my head like they should. “Octopus?” My wife slapped my arm. “She got stung by a jellyfish!” I lowered my trident to the sand.
One of our friends yelled, “Maybe it was a Portuguese Man of War!” Oh my, I’m no marine biologist, but that sounded bad.
Ever the problem solver, I bellowed, “What do we do?”
Espying the chaos and clamor, a lifeguard ran up to our boisterous group. My daughter had asthma and was wheezing through her tears as the angry stings radiated pain.
“You need to pee on her!” he yelled over the group and reached into his shorts to extricate his Russell the One-Eyed Muscle. My daughter and wife looked at me in horror.
“No, you don’t!” I replied, shoving him to the sand. I’m the fucking hero here. “If anyone is pissing on my daughter, it’s me!”…
Yet another creature of the depths ruined an otherwise scrumtrulescent ocean holiday in North Carolina.
Please join me in July 2005. Cancun, Mexico. Category 4 Hurricane Emily had recently decimated the Yucatan and Tulum.
Luck on our side, we stayed at the JW Marriott, the local hurricane and nuclear fallout shelter. This sturdy and beautiful resort barely had a scratch. But the hurricane had left a hell of a savage surf in her wake.
Stinger, now ten-years old, was an ocean-hardened mofo. She had survived the coelenterate’s venom two summers before. She was a total badass now.
And she wanted to bodysurf in the eight-foot waves with her fearless father. How could I say no?
The joy we experienced that day was immeasurable. I crossed the Rubicon. And we took a beating from the massive waves – scratches, scrapes, and bruises all over our bodies. Oh, and my undiagnosed concussion.
You see, friends, that’s the only way I can explain my senseless, stupid behavior that night at dinner.
The resort had a lovely Italian restaurant on prem. The maître d’ sat us by a wall of windows, capturing the surging ocean, the twilight sky mottled purple and orange – like our bruises. My wife and girls looked regal, dressed to the nines. I have never felt so much love or pride.
Feeling randy, I surveilled the wine list for a good value. This is where the concussion surfaces.
The establishment priced their menu in pesos. No hay problema. Currency conversion is simple math. In 2005, ten pesos was roughly equivalent to one dollar. So, when I saw this fabulous 1997 Barolo for 14,000 pesos, I figured I’d treat us to a $140 bottle of wine.
The waiter’s ojos went wide with delight. Best dining experience ever. Hands down. The staff treated us like royalty. Crystal decanter. Roses for the girls. A violin playing tableside. Michelin posh. All this for a $140 bottle of wine? Maybe they were having a slow night.
Yes, I know, mathletes. The damn bottle of wine was $1,400 USD….
Cancun taught me not only to further respect the sheer power of the ocean but also the importance of math in personal finance. Lesson learned.
And now it’s ten years later. Our senior leadership team from my company is having a strategy retreat in Key West. Oh, boohoo! I know, poor white privilege. So many First World problems.
STFU. Trying to tell a story here.
If the meeting locale bothered you, you’ll love this… we took a team-building day to snorkel in the Dry Tortugas. Discovered and named by Juan Ponce de León in 1513, this archipelago of tiny islands (keys) is a seventy-mile boat ride west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.
We docked at Garden Key where the ruins of the massive Fort Jefferson occupy eighty percent of the island. After Spain sold Florida to the USA in the early 19th century, the US military discarded this unfinished Spanish garrison due to the absence of potable water and a disgusting amount of sea birds shitting everywhere.
Suffice to say, this was not remotely my pick for our team-building event. But the proponents vastly outnumbered me.
All my work friends tried to soften the blow for me. They bought me a nice pair of surfer shorts, some flip-flops, and a rash guard to inspire my courage. The original joke was the rash guard was to prevent the blistering Florida sun from instantly inducing skin cancer on my pink Irish skin.
The bigger joke occurred when I tried it on. I needed to drop some pounds anyway, but this skintight outer-derm made me feel like Buffalo Bob from Silence of the Lambs after a good skinning. I’d fuck me. Not!
It was painfully tight. I resembled a stretched sausage casing when the butcher realizes he doesn’t want the excess sausage to go to waste. And he stuffs that banger as densely as physics allows.
Insecurity and fat-shaming aside, we snorkeled. If you had to pick between rubbing shit in my eye or penile crucifixion, I would take both with a side of anal fisting. Every time above snorkeling.
Standing on the small beach on Garden Key, all my fears surfaced as I donned my rental mask, rental snorkel, and rental flippers. All my coworkers jumped in the water yelling, “Meet you at the buoy!” It looked to be five miles offshore.
I swam out maybe one hundred yards. My heart was pounding. What if a school of barracuda mutilated me? What if a shark ate me? A jellyfish stung me? A sea turtle raped me?
Never considered the stingrays that now swam directly underneath me. Didn’t Steve Irwin get stabbed through the heart by one of them a few years before? Is this how I’m going to die?
Panic set in….
Deep Thoughts About the Deep, by PS Conway
Sorry for screwing with you by having so many cliffhangers, my beloved invisible reader friends.
Let’s wrap this discussion with what really occurred to conclude each of these pelagic vignettes.
- Montauk... I passed out. My friend scared off the shark, jumped out of the raft, paddled us out of the riptide, and rowed us safely into shore. He carried me like a medieval maiden in his arms and lay me gently upon the shore. As my eyes batted open, I saw my Lancelot standing over me. He said something unintelligible and dumped the remaining bucket of chum all over me. As he walked away, his derisive laughter echoed off the sandy cliffs and up the coast for all to hear. Flies began swarming.
- Wrightsville Beach... My wife grabbed my arm and warned me if I pulled my penis out in front on my daughter, let alone pissed on her, she would tear my member off and wear it around her neck as some sort of below-average trophy. With a huff, she carried my wounded, crying angel into the house for some Benadryl and a nap. Too much stress. A nap sounded great, so I headed back to the porch, climbed in the hammock, and drifted into a dream-filled bliss with the sound of the lulling ocean telling me all was right in the world. You are a hero.
- Cancun... We spent nearly all our discretionary money on that damnable $1,400 bottle of wine. I had to lie to my daughter’s that our Swim with the Dolphins Day was canceled because all the dolphins died in the hurricane. How could I admit I blew all our money on a bottle of wine? My dignity was already trampled under the heel of my wife’s justified disdain. The truth was too vexing. I still hate myself for this one. The girls cried all day. I sat on our balcony on the twenty-fifth floor in grown-up time out, marveling at how my girls looked like little grains of white rice floating in the pool below.
- Dry Tortugas... Too scared to swim further, I walked back into shore, smashing all the coral under my flippers. Probably ruined an entire ecosystem. My coworkers were laughing and diving for lobsters by that distant buoy, so I sat on the shore. The lapping waves grew stronger and knocked me over. I would sit back up and then get knocked over again. This was fun, and I laughed and splashed like an idiot. Parents became aware of the crazy guy, tumbling, splashing, and laughing like a demented fat bastard Weeble Wobble in a rash guard. The beach cleared as concerned parents scurried their children away to safer ground.
All these terrible moments of titular, remorseless fangs aside, I keep coming back to the sea for that soft, velvet tiger paw.
This dangerous and tempestuous relationship will always be best served at arm’s length. We need a platonic truce. No touching. I’m putting us in the friend zone.
And in those rare, loving moments when I succumb and enter her, I will do so with slow control. Stay shallow. Ease in. Just the tip.
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