“Before the gold and the glimmer have been replaced/Another sun-soaked season fades away.”
Yes, I opened this column with Dashboard Confessional lyrics. So sue me in millennial-cringe court. (Everyone is getting sued these days anyway, including former presidents.) Plus, don’t act like you aren’t harboring a sentimental love for the song. It’s a great end-of-summer anthem, and, like buttrock blasting out of TouchTunes at happy hour, everyone secretly enjoys it.
My family’s annual shoreside holiday just wrapped up, including your grizzled dad/husband/chauffeur enduring an almost five-hour car return trip that should have lasted only half the time. Other than fighting road-raging fellow homeward-bounders on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, it was a lovely time. Twenty-one beers imbibed in two days; zero kids drowned. Success!
A number of nostalgia-tinged pieces I read in the run-up to our cast off put me in a contemplative mood, even as I let my body be at the mercy of crashing waves. There was Paul Hundt’s tribute to a dying friend, the last living person who “knew me as a child.” And Rod Dreher’s remembrance of the late Robbie Robertson, and the songsmith’s masterful musical capture of the Lost Cause. Also Andrew Marantz’s long-form chronicle of Hunt heirs trying to balance liberal convictions with the family fortune. Even A.E. Housman’s “A Shopshire Lad,” with its lyrical laments of “The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again,” was on cerebral-repeat.
So I had forgetting on my mind. I had brought my family to, of all getaway choices along the eastern shore, Ocean City, Maryland. For propriety’s sake, and to avoid any unnecessary entanglements with CPS, we stayed far north of the boardwalk. Only when my daughters have reached their respective silver wedding anniversaries will they be allowed to witness the absolute bacchanalia that is the planked promenade. (Free idea for DC-area libertarians: don’t schlep your Mises treatises and bow ties all the way to New Hampshire for Porcfest—establish your own somewhere south of 30th street in OCMD. The freewheeling spirit is the same, possibly raunchier.)
We also arrived in town late season, which is early August. I wouldn’t dare approach Ocean City’s limits around Memorial Day. I had my fill of serial senior weeks over a decade ago. The fuzzy memories I made ingesting schedule 1 narcotics were enough for a lifetime, especially now that you can easily be prescribed anything I took back then for a scraped knee.
Despite being in competition with friends to kill as many brain cells as possible during our youthful carousing as matriculating students, Ocean City still maintains its same feel, or what urbanists call its “fabric.” The Coastal Highway is dotted with the same low-slung tourist traps and mini-golf courses, valleyed on one side by beachfront high-rises and bayside condo villas on the other. Even in summer’s waning month, plenty of teenagers still stroll the busy boulevard. Biplanes circle once an hour, trailering banners with niche political initiatives or touting swimsuit sales. The gull squawks, the rhythmic waves, the purring propellers, the occasional jackass driving by with eardrum-assaulting hip-hop blaring—the sounds are inescapably tied to the languid beach vacay. “Memories… are themselves a slippery kind of fiction,” Rebecca Mead observed. My recollection of Ocean City was no fiction; all the sensory memories were present and abounding, especially when washing the sand, shell bits, and slimy infusoria out of my beard after a long ocean bathe.
Our dearest editor has to be wondering by now what any of this Proustian indulgence has to do with anything. Fear not, old chap! I’m getting to what all these authorial minders call “the point.”
During my brief jags of shoreside quiet, between requested sandcastle-constructing sessions, I read the closet-version of “Dimes Square,” the hit play by Matthew Gasda. The drama, if it can be called that, captures the ephemeral New York City scene where creatives, including writers, musicians, cinematographers, models, and hangers-on, crashed in each other’s apartments, drinking and trash talking about each other behind their backs as a defensive mechanism. The play, which isn’t great, captures millennial insecurity and ennui. Irony-soaked, cynical, scared, fueled by cocaine and liquor, the characters crave success but can’t stand to see it in others. More poignantly, the dramatis personae, despite their shared artistic drive, can’t bring themselves to believe in anything. At one point, two female characters discuss the socio-competitive effects of Sapphic free love. “That’s potentially true,” one says to the other’s contention, unable to accept anything as purely factual. (“That’s my potentially true” could be the irresolute motto for our subjective “my truth” era.)
At another revealing juncture, a filmmaker whose friend’s newborn suffers from a fatal malady compares the significance of fatherhood to his own productive but lonely existence. “I don’t think he looks at his infant son in the ICU unit (sic) and thinks ‘this isn’t it’—just the opposite. He’s filled with love. He’s filled with purpose. But..when I look at my life, all I think is ‘this is not it.’ ‘This can’t be it,’” he frets.
Creating critically acclaimed indie films in the cultural capital of the world is something, but it’s not enough for a generation inculcated with the idea of self-fulfillment. There must be more, a stronger feeling of concreteness and purpose. The sniping strivers of “Dimes Square” try to protect themselves with achievement, detached irony, partner swapping, and ample drugs. But they’re miserable, utterly miserable. Time is running out on their creative years—their roaring 20s—and the flipping of the age chapter is causing more distress.
What’s all this have to do with my Ocean City reprieve? (I can sense our editor is growing antsy. Relax, my scripting superintendent, it’s still August! We can afford to be a bit dilatory.) The tie is that debauchery was fine in my late-teen years. But the party isn’t meant to go on forever. “Children are meant to grow up, and not to become Peter Pans,” said Tolkien. Not become Peter Pans, or untethered man-children numbing themselves with the same junk they enjoyed as adolescents.
Reading “Dimes Square” in my old frolic grounds while my girls ran frantically back and forth in the breaking surf made me glad I’m not spinning my wheels in the sand. Sure, absent marriage and sleeve-tugging toddlers, I may have been able to compose The Great American Novel™. But I’ve still got time for that.
Liberty without sacrifice can quickly turn to misery. Is it really a shock that so many millennials report startling levels of depression? Is it surprising the same dolorous demographic grasps for the faux-faith of socialistic schemes, woke denunciation rituals, and the bottomless TikTok scroll?
Netflix contracts and cocktail hours every day are nice and all. They aren’t ultimately it. The it can’t be found in extended adolescence. Savor your memories, don’t try to endlessly relieve them: a hard lesson more and more millennials are learning.