Saturday, November 13, 2004

On Weekends, We Row Over to Hawaii

People from little bitty places have a hard time thinking about this long tall drink of water known as the state of California. People from little bitty places on the far side of the world in particular have a hard time thinking about this happy (if somewhat lightly moored) fragment of the earth's crust without refracting it through the lens of dreams and envy.

Thus, on the BBC news website today I noted the headline: "U.S. Beach Bodies Killer Convicted." I immediately clicked through, eager as always for news of Southern California mayhem. But -- now that you have been thoroughly prepped and the situation carefully framed -- you, Dear Reader, immediately understood that the story was about the verdict in the Laci Peterson murder.

Here's the second sentence from the story:

The headless and limbless body of Laci Peterson and the decomposed remains of her foetus were found washed up on a San Francisco Bay beach in April 2003.

Grimmer writing than I expected from the Beeb -- and that subliterate headline! -- but my point is that referring to the shore of the Bay as a beach misrepresents, at least in terms of connotation, how we live here. A beach is a place of sand and warmth. Perhaps if it is winter, a beach has a bittersweet quality because it is, for the moment, not a place of warmth. Good friend ocean is momentarily inhospitable, but as the seasons turn, it will offer itself to you again and it is that implicit contrast that gives piquance, and thus the power of metaphor, to a winter beach.

We do have beaches in the Bay Area, places where people tiptoe into the water at summer's height and then scamper out again. Beaches are where we sit to watch the surfers in their wet suits. Beach is a word best used among ourselves unless we want to feed the notion that residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are living in North Malibu.

Simple fact is the bodies of mother and baby were washed ashore.

A shore. The shore.

That's the correct tone, rich in the sad ideas of flotsam, jetsam and the cold indifferent sea giving up the dead.

A note for the poets among you. Substitute the word "beach" into the following and see what you get, in addition to fracturing the rhyme.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly, grim, and ancient raven, wandering from the nightly shore.
Tell me what the lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore."
Quoth the raven, "Nevermore."

I concede "Dover Beach" is no sunny prospect. But I'll wager the typical Brit in this age of TV illiteracy, when he thinks of U.S. beaches, thinks Miami and Annette Funicello, not Dover and Matthew Arnold.


Anonymous said...


I often see Normandy and Salerno referred to as "beach landings."


....J.Michael Robertson said...

Could I -- *Could I* -- be the parochial one here?

....J.Michael Robertson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
....J.Michael Robertson said...

Robertson said...
No. Of course not. What has happened is that "beach" is a perfectly good word -- once a marvelously *expansive* word -- pitiably reduced in scope by the hegemony of American culture.

Do I smell a monograph here?

Anonymous said...

Some other time you could do a whole essay on how to tell that a story was written by a foreigner: a beach in SF, actually Point Isabel riprap, mentioned by a Brit; anything by a southern californian that mentions "the 280."
Even a story by a New Yorker saying that gay couples stood "on line" at City Hall.
But it isn't just local geography or jargon that trips writers up when theyre not from here. It's the peculiar slant , sometimes wrong, sometimes righter than native Americans get it. Such as characterizing the Peterson case as "beach bodies." Americans played it as "murder of a pregnant wife, Laci, and her unborn child, Conner, on Christmas Eve--philandering husband accused" .
Those are American preoccupations. The unborn child already had a NAME!
I used to be taken aback by stories about America in The Economist. Sometimes they were blindingly insightful because the writer wasn't wearing American glasses. Sometimes they missed the point entirely. But those were just my opinions.
I use the past tense because I haven't seen The Economist in years. You might check it out to see if you could find interesting examples.
xxoo Yolanda Babington

....J.Michael Robertson said...

My dear anonymous Yolanda:

Ah, yes. The real problem is framing or angle, not just the beach word -- if one stops, thinks, edits and rewrites. My "first glance" is interesting to me -- and possibly useful to my scholarship -- because I am thinking the writing of such quick hits does illuminate my ostensible reason for doing the blog in the first place, i.e., I get an idea and write it on my self-imposed deadline thereby replicating the experience of real column writing. So, this post is an excellent example of getting an idea that, if thought through and rewritten over an afternoon, say, might well be different. So my experience does feed my research! I become ever more convinced that asking columnists how much available time they use when they write -- particularly if, like Jon, they *don't* use all the available time -- is a wonderful question. Are such deadlines an advantage in some way? Because it seems to be true that you get a kind of associational momentum if you are writing inside a time box. You say to yourself, "I will do the best I can given these rigid constraints." and there is a freedom in that.