I faced several tough decisions during my week at the beach: when, exactly, to go into the sea and when to just sit, baking, in my beach chair; whether to wash down my lunch with a beer or with a hard lemonade; whether to nap on the couch of the beach house, in the hammock on the porch or on the bed in the bedroom.
I'm proud to say I tackled all of these decisions head-on, fully aware that there are no wrong decisions at the beach.
The beach forgives all. The waves come in and the waves go out, little caring whether you shaved or showered or got a ridiculous barbed-wire henna tattoo on your upper arm. (Which hasn't lasted nearly as long as the girl who dabbed it on me said it would.)
The beach doesn't say, "Isn't that the same T-shirt you wore yesterday?" The beach doesn't look at the trashy novel you're clutching and say, "Shouldn't you really be reading 'The World Is Flat,' the incisive and timely look at foreign policy and globalization by acclaimed New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman?"
No, the beach does not do that. Frankly, the beach doesn't care much what you do.
This is not to say that my brain shut down entirely while vacationing in Pawleys Island, S.C. As I sat in my chair, scrunching my toes in the sand, I took stock of my fellow beachgoers. Oh, I know it's not right to categorize people, but I couldn't help myself. Here is the cast of characters that populate any self-respecting Atlantic beach:
The Shell Collectors Up with the sun, they patrol the tide line, their heads down, their visages fixed in concentration, their eyes focused on the sand for rare and beauteous bivalves, gastropods and cephalopods. (Related species: the metal-detector-wielding treasure seekers.)
The Water's-Edge Dabblers They sit right at the border between wet sand and dry sand, allowing a few inches of foaming water to lap at them every few moments. Often, they make drip castles.
The Breaker-Line Cuddlers What are those two people doing out there beyond the waves?
The Sculptors They see in the beach and its countless grains of sand both palette and artistic medium. Inspired by some inner design urge, these architects of the granular are driven to complete a miniature likeness of the Great Pyramid of Cheops or Istanbul's Topkapi Palace.
The Diggers As soon as they arrive at the beach, they start digging a hole in the sand, using whatever tools are at hand: shovel, scallop shell, hand. No one knows why.
The Sand Scatterers These annoying people seem incapable of performing any action -- picking up a beach towel, putting on a flip-flop, taking off a flip-flop -- without kicking up a cloud of sand that, borne by the stiff beach breeze, abrades all who are downwind.
The Girl Gangs Teenage girls in bikinis stand hip to hip and stride down the beach in lockstep. Teenage boys risk aneurysm as they simultaneously strain to stare at them while appearing not to stare at them.
The Heliotropes Also known as "tanners," these leather-skinned sun worshipers are all business: no chair, no beach umbrella, just a skimpy bathing suit and a single beach towel, which they constantly reposition to keep in perfect alignment with the sun.
The Heliophobes The delicate-of-skin are slathered in SPF 300 sunblock and swaddled in shirts, baggy pants and what appear to be beekeeper's hats.
The Conspicuous Consumers Vital to the beach economy, these people have at least one of everything that is available for purchase at the beach supply store out near the bypass: boogie board, skim board, surfboard, inflatable raft, umbrella, beach ball, beach bocce set, beach volleyball set, beach horseshoes set, wheeled cooler, sand bucket, sand shovel, sand rake, crenellated mold for making sand castle battlements. . . . It is great fun to watch them try to carry everything at once.
The 'Boarders They wait on their boogie board or surfboard for the perfect wave. Then they wait some more.
The Sand Athletes Ocean, what ocean? We're here to play touch football! Sorry I wrecked your sand castle, kid!
The Shirtless Joggers Men proud of their upper bodies run on the packed sand.
The Speedo Men Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The Inappropriately Dressed Really, sir, a polo shirt, khakis, black socks and loafers do not constitute suitable beachwear.
The Surf Fishermen Big white bucket, tiny folding chair, long surf rod, piece of PVC pipe, tattered straw hat. They never seem to catch anything, do they?
The Personal Watercrafters We see you trying to look cool on your Jet Ski. We hate to break it to you, but you don't look like James Bond or a Navy SEAL. Maybe a tuxedo or an aqualung would help.
The Dogs The ocean is too great a concept for their puny canine brains to grasp, but they manage to enjoy themselves anyway.
The Beach Haters This used to be me, actually, but I surrendered. The beach forgives all.
You may have read the first sentence of this column and thought, " 'Week at the beach?' Well then how come the column was off for two weeks?" Yes, the Kelly family was at the beach for only a week, followed by a couple of days near Topsail, N.C., where my mother took us all sea kayaking, her new passion. (And we really did have a great time, Mom.)
I returned with my beach lust unsated, so I winkled a day and night in Ocean City out of my boss. Tune in tomorrow.
My e-mail: email@example.com.