Enjoying The Snow. Part II: Sensing Entitlement

There is a t-shirt I have wanted to make for a very, very long time.

T-Shirt Front:

Let Me Guess….

T-Shirt Back:

You’ve Been Comin’ Here Your Whole Life!

This is surely the #1 platitude I hear on the beach, beating out even the insanely popular “September is my favorite month on the Island.” The “I’ve Been Comin’ Here (XXX)” takes many forms. The most common is the “I’ve been coming’ here my whole life” but many alternates such as “…for over 50 years” and “…since I was this tall” serve the same purpose while expressing the unique individuality of the speaker.

A guy with a big camera lens camped out on the beach is a magnet for conversation with strangers. I’m approached frequently, with a variety of introductions, from the obvious “Well, that’s a big lens!” to the more engaging, “What are you looking at?” But no matter what the starting point, the conversation always seems to lead to the exact same point where the visitor executes, proudly, his or her distinct version of “I’ve been comin’ here my whole life.” Sometimes conversation flows smoothly there, and other times, “I’ve been comin’ here my whole life!” gets blurted out so off-topic & quickly that nothing but awkward silence remains in the ensuing conversational confusion.

The proper response to “I’ve been comin’ here my whole life” is tricky, because there is a severe risk of engaging in a vicious cycle of brinksmanship if you try to match, or worse, beat, that statement. Anyone who lives on the Island year-round certainly has an ace-in-the-pocket, because “I live here” most certainly trumps all forms of “I’ve been comin’ here…” in every situation. Yet while there is surely a pecking order (short term renters vs. day-trippers, summer-rentals vs. week vacationers, homeowners vs. all renters, year-round locals vs. seasonal inhabitants), “I’ve been comin’ here my whole life” is generally not meant as a direct challenge in casual conversation. It is actually something much sweeter.

The phenomenon is completely understandable. The true magic of the beach is not just the moment, but the memory. Sometimes these memories span generations and “I’ve been coming’ here my whole life, as did my parents before me” is not an uncommon thing to hear. For many, summers at the shore aren’t just our joy; they are our heritage. “I’ve been comin’ here” is a bold confession of passion, of deep love for the Island, of our true identity, of pride. For many of us, our summers down the shore are the moments we, quite literally, live for. Those experiences and memories define our concept of true joy. They define us. In this context, “I’ve been comin’ here…” is a great shortcut to expressing that quickly to a stranger on the beach.

Listen for it next time you’re on the beach. You might have to bait a few strangers, but it won’t take long to hear it. It’s adorable. And even if your particular, personal version of “I’ve been comin’ here…” trumps the other person’s, resist the brinksmanship and instead respond with something like, “Wow, you really love this place, huh?” Then listen carefully as the stranger gushes his or her most cherished joys to you, a complete stranger.

But context is everything, because sadly, there is a dark side to “I’ve been comin’ here…” in other situations. Far outside the realm of casual, summertime sunset conversations, in dangerous situations where lives are at risk, “I’ve been comin’ here…” is an expression of something much uglier: entitlement. Try to intervene and stop a vacationing family or local dog walker from needlessly and accidentally trampling a Piping Plover nest, and some extremely angry version of “I’ve been comin’ here…” has a very high probability of being the first thing you’ll hear. When the crazy seal lady tried to throw us off the beach than one magical night, I’m pretty sure my very first thought was something along the lines of “Get off the beach??? Who do you think you are? I’ve been comin’ here my whole life!” And I do not believe I was alone in having this reaction.

Or try working for the Beach Patrol. Those poor young people, too young and inexperienced to realize that they have accepted the enormously precarious burden of trying to keep our children alive while they frolic in one of the planet’s most deceivingly dangerous environments, the sea, have to constantly contend with unappreciative people who feel the basic rules of safety don’t apply to their family because they have, of course, been “comin’ here their whole lives”.

It makes sense though, this duality of situation and emotion that can call forth the “I’ve been comin’ here…” response. If on the positive side, “I’ve been comin’ here” is a proxy for the depth of our love of the beach, and a direct link to the breadth of our memories and heritage, then clearly any unwanted interruption from a stranger on the beach could be perceived, however irrationally, as severely deep and extremely personal attack.

If you were to approach a stranger in, say, the local Acme Supermarket and tell them to be careful going around the corner because a very, very rare baby animal who can live only in the Acme is starving in the next aisle, I think most of the time you’d get a positive reaction, perhaps one of interest or concern. Rarely would you get sworn at, argued with, or threatened with violence as happens in the exact same situation on the open beach quite frequently. So then, what is the difference? I believe it has something to do with the connection to place, to history, and to memory much more than it does a lack of concern for animals.

I have long believed that most of the most awful things I have witnessed on the beach in terms of animal cruelty were not committed by people who were actually cruel. On the contrary, so much of the damage done is done by people who are quite interested in animals, many times even passionately. When the crazy seal lady attempted to command us off the beach because we were killing the seal, we felt outraged. From our perspective, we were certainly not there to harm the seal. We were there because we loved the seal. And more so, we were having, at least in our own minds, a most intimate moment with that seal in a place that we felt was our personal treasure and our heritage. Rightly or wrongly, we felt entitled to this experience. Seen in that light, you can see that the issue is far deeper and more complicated than the actual situation at hand. She was asking us to surrender much, much more than a few moments looking at a seal. It appears that it takes an extremely deft and delicate touch to avoid that tangled mess when attempting to advocate for an endangered animal in a public place.

I remember an incident where I approached someone walking a dog illegally in the Holgate Wildlife Refuge to tell him that the refuge staff was putting up signs that day and would fine him if they saw him. Before I could finish the sentence, which was clearly doing the guy a favor, he went completely berserk. Shaking his fists and screaming, he started pointing at areas of the refuge and rattling off long-forgotten street names that sounded very Holgate-y to me, but didn’t ring a bell. He said he had the right to do whatever he wanted because, while he raised both fists, and I quote, “THEY TOOK OUR LAND!!!!!” As I understand it, that was 50 years ago. Interestingly, this fellow didn’t look a day over 30. As noted, our entitlement fantasies run deep, they represent our heritage, and their strength spans the generations.

A few times when I have been compelled to intervene on behalf of an animal in real jeopardy, I have encountered the ultimate Ace: “But I live here!” A few things are funny about this. First, is the way most people say this. They say it as if they are the CEO of the beach so no laws actually apply to them, and are deeply insulted to think anyone would think otherwise. This shows the depth of our entitlement fantasy. In reality they are just people breaking the law. Next is the irony that “I live here” actually implies that the person should have a greater responsibility for obeying the laws and caring for the beach, even if only in terms of setting a good example for others.  Is it more excusable, less excusable, or equally inexcusable to drunk drive in your own neighborhood?

Our entitlement fantasies are funny, they are sad, and they are very real. I believe we all as humans fall victim to them at some point, somewhere, in one of our blindspots, whether it be at our jobs, in our families, or on our beach. They can be sweet. They can be harmful. Yet in that duality lies a glimmer of hope that they can be harnessed as a bridge, rather than a barrier, to critical communication when animals are in danger. Trigger them negatively and you have an immediate, and insurmountable wall. But trigger them positively, and you just might find a new friend while helping an endangered animal. I wonder how differently that magical August night with the seal might have gone down if the woman had waved her arms and screamed “EXCUSE ME EVERYBODY! HAVE YOU ALL BEEN COMING HERE YOUR WHOLE LIVES???! ME TOO!”

If you are a homeowner who lives at the beach, or a vacationer who spends time there, or a photographer who takes pictures there, or a birder or scientist or enthusiast who spends time with them, then you have a responsibility to advocate for endangered animals when you see trouble. It is a woeful errand. But more often than not, the harmful activity you have a responsibility to address is being perpetrated by another advocate, or at least a would-be advocate. It can just be very difficult to get to that point of the conversation if you are perceived as violating someone’s deepest entitlement fantasies which tie directly to their heart’s deepest treasures and often their family history. While this phenomenon seems especially acute at the beach, the treasured home of many of life’s greatest memories, you will encounter it in all types of habitats that people have strong attachments to, and also in regards to very special animals that people have strong attachments to.

This whole thing may sound overstated, but it’s not. Believe me. I’ve been comin’ here my whole life!