IRIS: Without a net | Opinion

Last week, it happened that there was a perfect day at the beach. Perfect for me, that is. There are many definitions of perfect, depending on the person who’s talking.

I’d been coughing and experiencing chest congestion for … well, I’ll admit, it was several days, but since then I’ve seen the doctor and found that it’s asthma acting up, not anything contagious.

I’d already isolated myself for a few days, we’ll say it that way. After I’d dropped some books into the library slot, I almost wheeled the car toward home, when it occurred to me that I could go to Stearns Park, the city beach, without exposing anyone else to whatever chest cold I might have had. And I was more than ready for a change of environment. So on a tell me, I turned the steering wheel the other way and drove a few blocks to the west.

I’m always amazed at the change in the air when I get close to Lake Michigan. The air is suddenly fresher, there’s that. But there’s more. There’s a sort of elusive quality, hardly identifiable with words. It’s as if I’ve stepped over an invisible line. As if I’ve crossed over into a slightly different reality.

When I was a child, I read the Oz books over and over. There are 14 written by L. Frank Baum, who invented the fantasy kingdom of Oz. Then there are another 20 books, written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who was given permission by Baum’s widow to continue the franchise. This was a good thing for everyone. Baum had been receiving thousands of letters from children each year, for 20 years – children who clamored to read more stories about the Land of Oz, more about Dorothy and a huge cast of characters who’d grown in number since the crinkly smiley old Wizard first admitted to being a humbug.

(Even the Wizard returned to Oz. This time he became an apprentice to Glinda, the Good Sorceress. He learned to be a real magician, not just a trickster.)

Frank Baum tried to get out of it a few times. He invented a way for the fairyland to be invisible, found a way to claim that the news from Oz couldn’t reach him any more. He wrote that he knew lots of other stories. The children read them, but still they clamored for more Oz.

Dorothy could no longer send him letters, he claimed. Shortly afterward, a little girl wrote to Baum that since Mr. Marconi had invented the wireless telegraph, Dorothy could now write to “The Royal Historian of Oz” that way. So Baum could continue passing the stories along to the children. After that, Baum didn’t try to get out of writing more Oz books. I’m thankful for that.

So before I knew about quantum theory, I’d crossed over into an alternate reality many times. And it’s a subtle thing, simple to do. That’s how I feel when I get near Lake Michigan, where the water transforms the air into something ever so slightly altered.

That day last week, the weather was perfect. Sunny with a cool breeze. Not too hot, not too cool. There were plenty of people enjoying the beach. But the children weren’t screaming or being screamed at. Every child was being looked after.

I sat on a bench in the shade and just marveled at the perfection. Couples brought beach chairs to shady spots and settled down to read their books while they communed with nature. There were a few reading alone, too. A woman tried tossing out a couple of crumbs from her lunch, fully expecting seagulls to come out of nowhere to claim the snack.

No seagulls arrived. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen that happen. Was it the lack of wind that day? Or were all the seagulls partying somewhere else?

A few people were swimming. Someone flew a kite.

Halfway down to the water, a large extended-family group had set up a sort of temporary pavilion, flanked by a couple of extra umbrellas. In the hour and a half I sat there, most of them didn’t move much. But one group of five did.

Twice, the same five people moved to a free stretch of sand and started playing badminton. They didn’t have a net, but they all had rackets. They didn’t have an even number of people to make two teams. They got creative.

Rather than making their game a competition, they converted it to teamwork. One person would serve; the birdie would fly in the vague direction of another player. The object of the game became to see how long they could keep a volley going. Together.

What might have been rivalry became an alliance.

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