We are standing up to our necks in the sunny surf of the Gulf of Mexico, the warm tide nudging our shoulders like the benign backslap of a Rotarian who's networking.
My children and I gaze at the blinding white shoreline, seeking the perfect place to begin building our first sand castle of the day.
It's the second day of our beach vacation in Gulf Shores, Ala., and I'm still trying to accept the happy futility of our assignments for the morning. Before lunch, we'll construct a dozen castles just beyond the shadow of our rented umbrella. By supper, all evidence of our handiwork will be gone.
Our medium of choice, sand sifted as fine as confectioners' sugar, is no match for the march of little feet that can trample kingdom walls as blithely as Godzilla going through Tokyo.
Even if our architecture survives the stomp of passersby, each day's advancing tide will wipe the slate clean. Yesterday, to our left, a group of older kids had made a life-size Volkswagen Beetle of sand. Just hours later, the hood of the Beach Bug began to cave in and the headlights were crumbling into the ground.
When my kids and I aren't making medieval fortresses with the durability of wedding cake, we scribble our names near the lip of the shore, the waves washing away our graffiti even before the flourish of our fingers finishes the letters.
Shaking my head, I think how silly it is to pass our hours at the beach making nothing we can keep.
The gross domestic product of summer does not, in the rearview mirror of Labor Day, seem so impressive a thing. The icons of the vacation season – sand, flip-flops, the odd bug caught in a jar – add up to very little in the ledger where life keeps its most practical accounts.
Shifting in my chaise longue as the kids craft another minaret in the dunes, I think about the more tangible routine I've left behind at the office. And then comes a thought both sobering and liberating.
Perhaps what many of us do in cubicles and conference rooms each year is just as transitory as my family's beachside diversions.
Today's urgent professional report has a way, just days later, of floating like flotsam into the outgoing tide of yesterday's news. The traffic of e-mails that commands so much of our attention is as mutable and fleeting as an ocean wave. In the longer view from my beach chair, office life looks no more consequential than castles made of sand.
With the arrival of Labor Day, we put another summer on the shelf along with the sunscreen, the swim trunks, and the plastic pails and shovels with which the momentary monuments of the season are built.
As my children return to school, and I tuck myself once more behind a desk where the brightest light comes from an electronic inbox, I comfort myself by thinking that maybe, along with the summer's quota of four dozen sand castles, we've also built a few memories that no tide can erase.