My beach table at Anzio

Zadie Smith on Finding Your Beach

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When you sit down to write on a cool and bright Sunday morning, you hope that you will find an essay like this one from Zadie Smith, which appears in the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books.

“Find Your Beach.”

At the time Smith wrote this wistful (but, somewhat humorous) essay, an enormous Corona ad taunted her from her Manhattan apartment window. She never mentioned the brand but I knew the slogan well. I had seen it on television and in magazines over the summer. And like Smith, I may have paused too long to consider what it all meant. Philosophy from a beer ad? Yes:

Find your beach. The construction is odd. A faintly threatening mixture of imperative and possessive forms, the transformation of a noun into a state of mind. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it. On the one hand it means, simply, “Go out and discover what makes you happy.” Pursue happiness actively, as Americans believe it their right to do. And it’s an ad for beer, which makes you happy in the special way of all intoxicants, by reshaping reality around a sensation you alone are having. So, even more precisely, the ad means: “Go have a beer and let it make you happy.” Nothing strange there. Except beer used to be sold on the dream of communal fun: have a beer with a buddy, or lots of buddies. People crowded the frame, laughing and smiling. It was a lie about alcohol—as this ad is a lie about alcohol—but it was a different kind of lie, a wide-framed lie, including other people.

Here the focus is narrow, almost obsessive. Everything that is not absolutely necessary to your happiness has been removed from the visual horizon. The dream is not only of happiness, but of happiness conceived in perfect isolation. Find your beach in the middle of the city. Find your beach no matter what else is happening. Do not be distracted from finding your beach. Find your beach even if—as in the case of this wall painting—it is not actually there. Create this beach inside yourself. Carry it with you wherever you go. The pursuit of happiness has always seemed to me a somewhat heavy American burden, but in Manhattan it is conceived as a peculiar form of duty.

Smith explores the phrase in context of her beach, her island—Manhattan. It is a place I have never lived, but I know the hustle. I’m aware of the internal pressure the environment can put on those who live there. I am, like most every American I know, compelled by the pursuit of happiness. But Smith’s insight, that finding one’s beach American style is “conceived in perfect isolation,” reminded me of a conversation I had this past week about the eating and drinking rituals of Romans.

“It’s amazing that Italians can linger for 15 minutes over something that takes four seconds to drink,” my husband said, referring to the espressos that his co-workers stop to have mid-morning and mid-afternoon. “It’s because they’re always there talking to someone else. They stretch their lunches out to the full hour, too.”

“So no sad desk lunches, huh?” I asked. But I knew the answer.

“Only Americans stay at their desks and eat here. But not as much as they did back in DC.”

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