Monday, August 20, 2007

Vacation, Ritual, and Change

I'm back from my all-too-brief trip to Maine, where my wife and I stayed at a motel my family has been going to on and off for thirty-plus years, at a beach my family has been visiting for sixty-plus years.

It was my wife's first visit to the area, so it was all new to her. For me, the whole Saco/Old Orchard Beach/Scarborough area holds many layers of some of the best memories of my life: There were all of the childhood visits when the adults guided the pace, indulgently providing all of the inflatable rafts, beach toys, and souvenirs a kid could want. For a few years there were teenage visits where my cousin and I walked down to Old Orchard Beach on our own, spending hours in the souvenir shops and arcades, trying to look cool but mostly just enjoying the independence. Finally, after an appalling ten year absence due to college and being stuck on the west coast, there have been my more recent adult visits. Trips to the beach are now viewed through the lens of having to worry about the return to "the real world", and being critically aware of how much a vacation actually costs... but despite all of that I feel like a kid again as soon as the car turns right onto Old Orchard avenue.

Over the years, my family has settled on a number of activities that are "must-do" when visiting the region: Walks to the breakwater at Pine Point, a trip to downtown Old Orchard Beach, Two Lights State Park, saltwater taffy from Len Libby, and perhaps a drive up to L.L. Bean in Freeport. The comfort of these familiar activities combined with the once-a-year circumstances elevates them to something special that you could go so far as to call ritual. Even as an adult, playing Skee-ball in the Palace Playland arcade at Old Orchard Beach is a significant event imbued with much more meaning and enjoyment than playing Skee-ball somewhere else would be.

Any time you talk about ritual and tradition, you have to assume a certain amount of consistency... in order to repeat these activities, the locations in which they take place need to be around when you return in the future. For the most part, our vacation stomping grounds have remained fairly consistent over the years, but there have definitely been casualties. I remember many trips to Cascade Mini Golf in Saco... when I drove past this weekend, I was greatly saddened to see that the mini-golf course is no more. All I could see was the old metal structure from the loop-the-loop hole sticking out of the weeds. Deering restaurants are long gone, as is Foley's Ice Cream. Similarly, there are many hotels and motels whose names and signs I remember all up and down Grand Avenue, or along route 5 going into Old Orchard Beach... they've disappeared over the years, being replaced either by more non-descript establishments or bulldozed to make way for mid-rise condominium buildings. Many of them still remain, however, and driving past them is always like seeing old friends. New friends have popped up over the years too. This year I noticed Governor William King Lodge #219 on Route 1 in Scarborough for the first time, and resolved to visit as a Master Mason someday.

Old Orchard Beach itself seems to be undergoing a bigger transformation than any I can remember. A five-story condominium building has replaced one of the arcades right next to the Pier and several new, somewhat upscale shops have moved in among the usual souvenir and beach supply shops. The developer of the aforementioned condominium wants to build another, eight-story building hotel right along Old Orchard Avenue.

Old Orchard has long had a reputation for being a honky-tonk seaside destination; occasional fights outside of raucous bars, lots of bikers, and general seediness. That was certainly true, but I never felt unsafe there, even as a kid old enough to recognize that aspect of the place. Those rough edges seem to be disappearing, and because I have so much emotional history invested in the place it scares the hell out of me. What if I go back next year and find that Hymie's and Harold's souvenir shops, remembered from my earliest visits to Old Orchard Beach, have been replaced by juice bars and artisan galleries? What happens if the upscale shops and condos squeeze out the arcade and the amusement park, and Old Orchard Beach becomes another Kennebunkport or Bar Harbor where I can't get fried dough or buy 3-for-$10 souvenir t-shirts, much less afford to spend a night?

Life will go on, of course, and I will always have my memories, but the fundamental shift in character of a place I've come to think of as "mine" would still be heartbreaking. Before I start to hyperventilate, though, I should try to experience Old Orchard through my wife's eyes... there is still plenty of honky-tonk, tourist-trappishness left in Old Orchard Beach, and she got to see it all without 33 years of tradition coloring her impressions, despite all of the fond tales I may have told her. I would say she had just as good a time as I did.

The popular joke among my family upon checking in to our beach-side accommodations is that the first order of business is to go straight down to the shore and "make sure the beach is still there." The beach always is, and of course it always will be in one form or another. As the years go by and more things change, it will be ever-more important for my siblings and I to find ways of accepting the change and celebrating what was lost... the loss of childhood landmarks is far less upsetting than the thought of spending every vacation obsessing over what has changed, and being miserable about it.

My wife and I also spent an afternoon trapsing around the Old Port area of Portland, which has seen quite a recovery in recent years. It's a charming area full of old buildings and cobble-stone streets, with lots of small boutiques of the sort you'd expect: galleries, restaurants, and clothing stores, but with enough comic book, souvenir, and toy shops thrown in to provide something for everyone.

Downtown Portland is not one of my family's rituals... probably because it didn't have nearly as much to offer 20 or 30 years ago. Having spent a very enjoyable afternoon there, though, it seems destined to become a ritual for my wife and I as we build our own history in Maine. It will be separate from my immediate family's but constructed on its foundations.

I had my copy of Solomon's Builders with me, and as I began to read I couldn't help but draw some parallels between my own attitude to changes in my vacation stomping grounds and questions about Freemasonry's relevance in today's society. Christopher Hodapp's description of Freemasonry in the 1700's as a remarkable fraternity that brought men of all different classes together for an unprecedented free exchange of ideas is heady stuff. When you read about all past noble ideals facilitated by the fraternity and the great deeds accomplished by its members, it's easy to see why people are so uncertain about Freemasonry's current relevance and future.

As for my little corner of southern Maine, my own sense of the place is so fixed in memory and idealized that changes over the years cause similar questions about relevance... will it still be the same place if all of the landmarks disappear? Will my spirits still soar as soon as I step out of the car and smell the salt air, or will I just spend my vacation lamenting all of the change?

The Maine question is one I have to struggle with on my own, but the Freemasonry question is one I know a lot of people are wrestling with. As I've said before, it serves little purpose to weigh in on the issue from outside the lodge room door, but if/when I am inducted I am going to try to maintain the same perspective my wife enjoyed this weekend... she had the benefit of my familiarity with the area, but it was all new to her.

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