Doing nothing is glorious. It is one of life’s deepest pleasures and ultimate goals. Yesterday, I walked a couple of miles to a stretch of beach at the end of Cape Cod, where the tide sweeps in and out to create vast warm shallow pools of water surrounded by marshes. I brought a book, which was in fact a collection of Cicero’s essays on life and death and old age, but never opened it. I’d already started, and Cicero’s defense of getting old amounts to the idea that you can keep working productively until the day you drop dead, which was not exactly the theme I was after when I picked it up, but I left it in my knapsack for other reasons. One of those was to use my eyes beyond reading. Words, words, words, anything to be free of them from time to time.
The view is always a unique variation on the same unchanging theme — sand, grass, water, sky — with one obvious exception. A whole stretch of dunes was wiped out a few years ago by a couple of really bad nor’easters. Most of us saw it as another disaster caused by climate change. But it turns out these dune wipeouts happen every now and again, and over time the tidal patterns rebuild the mounds and drifts of sand that eventually become covered again with dune grass and wild rose bushes. I’m not saying climate change isn’t affecting the Outer Cape — the erosion is very real just a few hundred yards away — but the sight of these recovering wounds makes me feel a bit better. Yes, everything changes. But everything also stays the same.
Every year in the quarter of a century I’ve been coming here, Provincetown has changed a little. I reviewed a book last month about the Cape in the first part of the twentieth century, where artists and playwrights and intellectuals and architects and painters of extraordinary individuality chose this wilderness as a refuge, and a place to dream up new ways to change the world. This was where Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams reinvented American theater, where Charles Hawthorne and Hans Hofmann shifted the fine arts, where Norman Mailer and James Baldwin hung out together, where Dwight Macdonald could be spotted on a July afternoon playing softball with Irving Howe. Squint your eyes and the physical landscape is not that different (thanks, mostly, to the National Seashore and aesthetic restrictions on new buildings), even though the outside world has changed beyond measure. In fact, many of the utopian dreams championed and debated in this changeless nook — Marxism, Stalinism and Trotskyism, to name a few — became (rather swiftly) nightmares for millions of others elsewhere. Other experiments pioneered amid this captivating, do-nothing beauty: abstract expressionism and the Bauhaus school — the kind of ugly it takes an intellectual to imagine.
And in these years, America too has changed. The stigma of gayness has eroded like the dunes (and at some point, one assumes, will rebuild in some modest way like the dunes as well). Yes, gay culture is different to how it was, more established, less tortured, more diffuse. Gay kids today do not grow up as I did, and it shows. But when I ask myself if something fundamental has changed in gay life, as integration has arrived, I tend to think less so than I may have once thought. I look around me in P-town: the parties and parades, the costumes, the drag queens, the drinking, the procession to the beach and back, the tea dance every afternoon, the pizza crowds after the bars close, the ebbs and flows of the weeks. It’s all here still, coming but never completely going.
What’s new: hordes of strapping young straight Bulgarians on work-study visas; Massachusetts bachelorette parties, in groups at restaurants, reaching decibel peaks that will clear a room of gay men in seconds; helicopter gay parents dragging their theybies past multicolored flags representing some previously esoteric sexual taste as if it’s a UN-recognized nation state. And yes, it’s noisier, and I’m not here for it. From the pedicabs’ boomboxes to the speakers perched on the back of narcissists’ bikes, to the sad young party boys carting their blue-toothed contraptions through the fricking marshes in case a moment of serenity might interrupt their day, it’s louder than it was. Even in the tidal pools, strains of radio sounds can come skimming across the water like alien signals. But for the most part, it’s still silent there. The pools only last a few hours, and get warm after traversing the sand heated by the August sun, and they’re shallow enough so you can actually sit in them around high tide, your tush on the sand, your head bobbing like a lost buoy above the ripples.
At that point on the beach, the men — and a couple of daring dykes every now and again — tend to hang out naked. There’s one old man out there I’ve seen for decades, maybe in his eighties now, somehow making it across the marshes (though I saw him once get picked up in a rowboat) to take his habitual position alone past the crowds, near the dunes roped off to protect the piping plovers, in the sliver of sand between the Atlantic and the pools. He sits there in the buff looking at the ocean — occasionally crossing to dip into the pools — and so far as I can tell, does nothing else. When people say to me I’ll never retire because I get so antsy and bored, so restless and eager for distraction, I feel like pointing to that old dude and saying: watch me.