I accidentally re-discovered a consistently brilliant part of summer two summers ago: I secretly planned a trip to Wildwood, New Jersey for Dakota’s birthday over Labor Day weekend, and we had so much fun that we’ve gone back for the subsequent two summers. The key here is giving yourself over to the entire idea of fun, and a very specific kind of it: you need to roll the quarters you’ve saved all year for the arcade games that still accept quarters and not a prepaid card; you need to accept the idea that you are not going to eat anything healthy for a couple of days; you need to not get too attached to the particular look and shape of any individual plushie and allow yourself to be delighted by whatever the claw picks up and drops down the hatch. (Succeed at the latter and you, too, can be an adult hauling home fourteen stuffed animals.)
We’re good at winning plushies but bad at picking a weekend with decent weather. We arrived early enough for lunch on Friday, but it poured rain until well after seven in the evening. We’ve had at least one day like this every year. We amused ourselves with diner food, indoor mini-golf, Skee-Ball, and of course the first round of plushies while we waited for the weather to clear, and while we certainly made the best of it, we found the Friday night fireworks cancelled for the second year in a row. Did we drown our sorrows in teppanyaki?
The next day got off to a promising enough start: We put on our bathing suits, slathered ourselves in sunscreen and fixed our hats firmly on our heads, packed up the picnic basket with (what turned out to be way too much) food, and marched with great resolve onto the beach. One of my favorite things to do in this world is lie on the beach and alternate between reading a book, eating watermelon, and very lightly dozing. That was the only plan I had, that and our ceremonial reading of the Book of Jonah. What’s that? You don’t have a favorite minor prophet to read at the beach? Well, let me recommend the famously nautically-themed Jonah, perhaps the worst prophet in the Bible, who spends most of the book variously absconding, dissembling, whining, praying extremely begrudgingly, and complaining that God had the audacity to not destroy Nineveh, when not pulling himself together long enough to make one decent prophecy. It’s also very short, a brisk forty-eight verses, and can therefore be read aloud in just a few minutes even if you interrupt it several times with extremely snarky and/or slapstick commentary. Not that I would dare to be so irreverent. Still, it was so windy that we didn’t stay at the beach too long, lest our plethora of food (such as the watermelon) be coated entirely in sand and the same fill every crevice of our swimsuited bodies.
It seems petty to complain about the wind in the face of such otherwise extravagant good luck. And it seems arrogant to call such good luck a blessing; why am I to be blessed with time to relax on a beach, eat delicious food, while away some hours on games and ice cream? And in the final twist, it seems yet another flavor of self-centered to turn such humble contemplation into rejection of a good gift, to suffer gratuitously when one could lie on the beach as Jonah lay under his gourd, or perhaps not as Jonah lay under his gourd (that is to say, crankily) which God grew for him overnight to shade him after he fairly stomped out of Nineveh and sat and pouted outside the city.
Jonah ends abruptly; God gently reminds Jonah that Nineveh is a city of over a hundred thousand
absolute morons innocent people (“who cannot tell their right hand from their left”), “and also much cattle,” and maybe Jonah should be just a little comforted by the idea that God decided to spare them. And that’s that about that: no explanation of why Jonah was chosen as a prophet, no sense of what would come next for him or for Nineveh. As much as we sometimes don’t know what to do or say about evil, sometimes mercy and other blessings are just as seemingly random. If despair and disengagement are the enemies of action in the face of evil, ingratitude and schadenfreude are likely the enemies of action in the face of goodness.
It was still a beautiful weekend, and I look back on it now and have largely forgotten the blowing sand. We rode the Ferris wheel over the amusement pier; we had a wonderful meal for Dakota’s birthday; we ate breakfast in the mornings with a trio of young adults barely (if at all) out of their teens, two of whom were visiting from Germany and loved everything about New Jersey right down to Wawa. May we all cultivate the gratitude of German youths discovering a beloved convenience store chain for the first time.