Backbreaking Futility as Relaxation

For years, my family has taken a vacation to Cape Cod, Massachusettes. My only requests for activities have been:

  • Eat Seafood (especially Lobster)
  • Build sand castles

The second activity is pretty much more of a requirement than the first, and I need to spend every possible day on the beach busting my butt building a castle only to have it washed away with the tide when we’re finished.

When we first started coming to The Cape, I was maybe 10 years old or so. One of the things parents give to their kids when going to the beach is a set of pathetic “sand toys” consisting of a few sand castle molds, a shovel which cannot possibly survive the excavation of as much sand as it can hold, and a crappy bucket.

Despite these primitive tools, I was able to learn the trade quickly and soon hooked my dad on the whole thing. Since he was much bigger at the time, he would provide the man-power required for amassing a great deal of sand on which we would build our castles. I convinced him that the plastic shovels we were using were inappropriate and convinced him to buy us a fold-up shovel which could lift much more sand — even when wet.

Over the years, we have collected various castle molds and other sand sculpting implements. For example, the best piece of plastic that we have is a 7-inch yellow plastic shovel from a McDonald’s kid’s meal. We have two of them and must have had them for more than 10 years by now. (Last year, they really started to fail, so if you have any of these lying around that you’d be willing to donate, please send them my way!).

We now have two drawstring bags full of sand molds, shovels, etc. and a regular, garden-variety shovel that we use to cut out a moat and create a pile of sand large enough to build on and sculpt.

My sister and I are now both married, yet still bring our growing families on this annual vacation. My brother-in-law, Wayne, has also gotton sucked into the whole sand castle process and can even carve stairs quite well. His stairs are featured in a photo from yesterday’s exploits:

Photo of northwest face of Monday's sand castle

More images from that day can be seen here. There are a lot in there, they are quite large, and I have not yet created thumbnails for them. So, if you have a dialup connection or some kind of Clay-Tablet-by-Carrier-Pigeon (CTCP) device, then you might not want to look at all of them.

This year’s trip to The Cape was less fruitful than previous years. We had bad weather about half the week, and then we burned a day fixing-up the large deck which now features bolts into the house (yay!). That meant that we only had two days for building sand castles.

Photo of southwestern face of Friday's sand castle

Lots of people stop to watch us as we build the castles, which is nice. The most common question we get is “so, how long did it take to do this?”. We never know. We’re not looking at our watches. We wildly estimate all the time, and have considered keeping better track of time to tell people, because they seem confused when we don’t know how long it takes. Kids also ask “How did you do that?“, which is tough to answer. The most obvious answer is “Just watch for a while, and you’ll see,” but most kids don’t have that kind of patience. I blame television.

We also get lots of jokers who think they are the first ones to tell us any of the following jokes:

  • “Do you have a permit from the city to build this here?” (or some variation thereof)
  • Does your work area meet OSHA standards?
  • You know the tide is coming in, right?” (to which we usually reply, “The what-now is ‘coming in’?

This kind of thing used to irritate me. I actually like to work without any distractions. When people try to interact with you, it seems like they’re uncomfortable there staring at you (or more likely the castle) while you work. So, they just make up things to say to fill the silence. I rather enjoy the silence. God knows the beach itself isn’t silent. There are people everywhere. The waves are making noise. The wind usually blows a few miles per hour, so you can hear it going by your ears if you’re facing the right way. (I also wear a hat which makes the wind audible pretty much all the time). I find all this ambient noise calming, especially when I’m working for a few hours. I get time to hum to myself and think things over.

Sadly, the area where we build eventually succumbs to the tide. The beach where we build grows by about 100 meters when the tide is all the way out, but it takes 3 hours or so after high tide for our work area to become dry. That also means that 3 hours before the following high tide is when our castle will go under. That leaves about 6 hours of total building time, including a lot of digging and then the cleanup and escape with all our tools, chairs, umbrellas, etc.

Despite the obvious futility of building such a work of art which is destined to be swallowed by the waves mere hours after its construction, I don’t mind the castle going under. It seems perfectly natural to me, and actually feels like a part of the construction process. It reminds me of life. Life is immediately followed by death. Yet, somehow, we all find the impetus to do something we enjoy with at least some of our time. It’s also like a a journey where the destination is not the goal, but rather then journey itself. Construction of these castles is a journey that is an end in itself through which I derive great joy.

On the days that we’ve left our castles out on the beach without watching the water melt them back into the ocean floor, I feel sad, like I’ve missed-out, or been robbed of something. Even the days when my wife is unable to prevent the onlooking kids from storming the castle as it gets close to the end, I don’t mind the human element of destruction. Have you ever seen a group of kids storm a sand castle? They love
it. I’ll admit it’s hard to watch them do it, but I would merely be prolonging the inevitable (which, at that point, is only a few more minutes away).

At the end of the day, my back is sore from moving hundreds of pounds of sand and leaning over so much, my knees are sore from kneeling on the sand, and my skin is often sore from being slightly burned by the Sun. Still, building sand castles remains one of the most relaxing things I do.

2 thoughts on “Backbreaking Futility as Relaxation

  1. I loved seeing the pictures of all of us and your commentary. I am amazed that our little family vacations to the Cape at a young age have been so memorable to both you and Jessica….. and that now Katie and Wayne also love the place where our family has spent so many happy times.


  2. Reminds me of Belize – granted I didn’t have the wonderful tools you have, and I have little experience, but it was tons of fun building it, and watching it go down. A stray dog took the role of the kdis though – still quite natural! 🙂


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