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Mr. Sandman 

The adage goes that the first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have one. Well, it appears I have a problem.

  I'm usually a pretty chilled-out guy. I'm generally a pretty cool dad. I let my kids take chances and I let them learn from their mistakes and I don't beat them over the head with every Teaching Moment that presents itself and I think — I think — they enjoy spending time with me.


  But then, every year we go to the beach for spring break and something happens to me. It's as predictable as Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown when he tries to kick it. Every year, I tell myself — and my kids — this time will be different.

  And everything starts fine. We body surf and fly kites and throw Frisbees and hunt for sand crabs. So far, so good. And then. It happens. I pull out the shovels and pails and call to one and all: Let's build a sand castle!

  My kids, they cower like puppies, like I'd just come after them with a rolled-up newspaper. They avoid eye contact with me and huddle together in a self-defensive posture and start making up excuses: They've got sunburn. Sand in their eyes. They need to wash their socks. Anything — anything! — but build sand castles with me.

  Because: They know the routine. Because: They know what will happen. Because: They know that, when it comes to building sand castles, I am the biggest prick in the world. Bar none.

  When it comes to sand castles, I am Donald Trump, Terrell Owens and Andy Dick all rolled together. You could have massive flatulence, screaming babies, barking dogs, smoke big black Dominican cigars and play Ashlee Simpson real loud on the boom box and you still couldn't kill the buzz on a beach like I do when I start filling buckets with sand.

  There's something wrong with me. I can't explain it. I try to temper it. But, when it comes to sand castles, my cruel and anal core comes to the fore.

  Everything must be perfect. The sand must be finely groomed, smooth. Corners must be firm and tight. Symmetry is important. Design is everything. Windows, doors, turrets and moats: They're not random. They have a place. And that place is where I say it is.

  But, kids! Kids with their clumsy, wanton and wandering limbs. They lack symmetry.

  No symmetry at all.

  They used to join me. And inevitably I would spend the afternoon chastising them, coaxing them, berating them. I correct them, as if there's a wrong way to build a sand castle! Imagine that!

  But, well — there is. Dammit.

  I'm pretty sure I destroyed my last relationship over a sand castle. The lies and infidelity I could handle, but — last spring break — when she tried to horn in on my sand castle and make "improvements," that's when I snapped. We never had a chance.

  Really, I should stay the hell away from the beach.

  But here we are, back on the Alabama coast as I write this and the weather is great and I am surrounded by family and friends and you would think the setting and the time of year and the freedom, exuberance and promise of springtime ... you would think everything would be perfect.

  You would think.

  So here I am, the Old Man and the Sea, alone on the beach. The children have taken refuge inside. And I am dug in, knees ground to meaty pulp, grunting and molding and sculpting, delicately, lovingly, a sweaty man on the precipice of 50, graying and loose-fleshed, wearing Bermuda shorts and sandals and ... socks.

  OK, so I burnt the tops of my feet on the first day. The passersby, spring breakers with finely toned bodies, make no effort to muffle their scornful laughter. I want to yell: What? You've never burnt the tops of your feet?

  I'm not the only prick out here.

  Really, I ought to consider a camping trip next year.

  Or maybe I just need to learn how to chillax, as my kids put it. I mean, it's sand castles, for crying out loud. They write children's poetry and songs about sand castles, don't they?

  Yeah, well: They never met me. You've got a castle? I am the dragon at the gate.

  Anybody up for a trip to the beach?

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