Photo of a lifeguard stand in Santa Cruz, California

The beach

I grew up in Kentucky and didn’t get to the ocean very often. Occasional trips to visit extended family in Florida, and a couple of trips to the Georgia coast, but otherwise it wasn’t a significant part of life for me as a kid. Maybe that’s why I have always loved it. My parents tell the story of the first time I saw the ocean, when I was maybe two or three years old. I ran down to the water, but as the waves would come in I would turn and run away from them. I’m sure I was afraid of the water, and even though I had spent time around a lake before this, it was probably the action of the waves that threw me.

Over time I worked up the courage to wade into the ocean, and even though I’ve never been much of a swimmer, I like the water. There is something mystical about the ocean. I have always been amazed that you can’t see the other side — I know that sounds simplistic, but the size of the ocean still baffles me in some way.

Now, all these years later, I live within a few miles of the ocean, and I can even see a sliver of it from my apartment. It’s nice to be so close to the water, even if the ocean in San Francisco is too cold for much in the way of swimming, it’s still nice to be able to get there so quickly and to absorb the ocean’s vibe. It’s a powerful force, and one that I have always enjoyed. It’s energizing, and the power of the waves is both fearsome and calming at the same time.

It’s tough to imagine ever living far away from the ocean again. I don’t think I’d like it very much. There’s just too much to love about it not to be able to see it on a regular basis.

Bartleby

I just re-read “Bartleby” by Herman Melville, and I’ve been trying to figure out the underlying meaning of the story. I read the book in college, and I don’t remember it making a distinct impression on me, possibly because I didn’t have much office experience at the time. Now though, I’m struck by Bartleby’s behavior, because it seems both passive, yet also powerful. He takes a position as a scrivener with an attorney in New York, and although at first he is a productive member of the office, he begins to retreat into himself, while declining assignments the attorney asks him to perform. Bartleby’s persistent refrain, “I would prefer not to,” is well-known. Unable to insist that Bartleby perform these tasks, the attorney seeks to avoid contact with him. Maybe the power of the statement comes from its passivity. Bartleby never actually says that he won’t do the work, but his message is clear: he won’t.

The power of his behavior plays out in the responses of the people around him, most notably his boss, the story’s narrator. Rather than insist that Bartleby perform his job, the man avoids Bartleby, going so far as to relocate his office when Bartleby refuses to leave the premises. Even after moving his office, however, the man cannot free himself from Bartleby, as the new tenant in the previous location tracks him down when Bartleby continues to refuse to leave.

The boss seems torn between wishing to be rid of Bartleby altogether, and taking a protective view of the man. When Bartleby is finally removed from the office and put into detention, the attorney visits him and makes an arrangement to pay for better food for him. Ultimately, though, Bartleby refuses even to eat, and dies of starvation while in detention.

Maybe Melville was being critical of the increasing power of capitalism in American society, and Bartleby is a martyr who demonstrates that resistance is futile. I need to give it some more thought, and I’m sure I’ll come up with different interpretations as I continue to think about it. It is a bizarre story, for sure, and one that is worth reading.