I’m Looking Up the Beach

Literary greeting cards and a latter-day vaudeville routine remind me that the limits of my field of vision are not the limits of the world.


It’s sometime in the 1970s and I am standing in front of a rack of literary bookmarks — the source of most of the philosophy I remember — delighting in this: Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.  It’s attributed to Arthur Schopenhauer, who apparently lived with a succession of poodles and who, despite that, is credited with influencing Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Erwin Schrodinger, Joseph Campbell, and Leo Tolstoy, among others.

Although I’d like to claim that Schopenhauer or some of his illustrious buddies became top-of-mind awareness for me, it wouldn’t be true. But I do quite often think of one of his lesser-known devotees: the writer of a comedy sketch that I heard back in the 1960s.

Seymour, you know what I was wondering? How many Jews do you suppose there are in the world?

Delivered unselfconsciously in what was then a stereotypical New York Jewish accent, this question launches Miami Beach, one of more than 30 short and snappy routines on the 1966 album, When You’re in Love, the Whole World is Jewish. The set-up is classic vaudeville: one less-than-sophisticated enquirer; one man-of-the-world responder.

The knowledgeable-sounding Seymour tallies it up, starting with the USA (In the east, three and a half million; in the south, a few thousand; in Texas, three ““ Not an exact quote, but you get the idea) and adding in the Jewish population of Israel (About two and a half million) and so on, around the world. The grand total, all the Jews in the world? Maybe seven million.

How many Chinese do you suppose there are in the world?

Well, with more than 730 million in China, the count gets up close to one billion. And here is the first pause as the numbers sink in. Time for a recap.

So what you are telling me is that in the world today, there are seven million Jews and one billion Chinese?


Another pause.

Seymour. Look up the beach.

         I’m looking up the beach.

Now look down the beach.

         I’m looking down the beach.

A final artistic pause.

Do you see one Chinese?

The percussive flourish, please. Ba-da-bssh.

We all stand on some beach or other, and where we stand helps to determine what we can see. Police officers see horrific crimes driven by addiction; doctors see the hopelessness of treating addiction itself as a crime. Social workers in east LA see illegal immigrants working hard yet always living on the edge; ranchers in Arizona remain on edge, wondering whether the groups of illegals crossing their land this week will keep moving (as they usually do), or stop and attack their family (as they sometimes do). And so it goes for most issues: few of us stand where we can see more than one reality.

Seymour. Look up the beach.

On big and painful issues, few of us can even stand to acknowledge a reality other than the one we see. When children die at the hands of an armed teenager, when aboriginal communities are devastated by suicide, when persistent international and ethnic conflicts flare up yet again, we want there to be simple answers, and so that is what we see. We just don’t see the same answers.

Now look down the beach.

The limits of our field of vision are not the limits of the world. In 1966, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary on Miami Beach, there truly were only about seven million Jews in the world, and roughly one billion Chinese. Today, when we hear something that doesn’t line up with what we see, we can stand on that same beach and turn to look incredulously at the guy next to us — the one who looks just like us, talks just like us, and thinks just like us — for validation.

Seymour. Do you see one Chinese?

Or we can look down to see what beach we’re standing on.




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11 Responses to I’m Looking Up the Beach

  1. JIm Taylor says:

    Wow — what a column! I’m jealous. I wish I had been able to put things so clearly.


  2. Joyce Schuman says:

    Great column. Very provocative.

  3. Isabel, it takes my breath away just how beautifully you can express such an important insight. Thank you.

  4. Irene Harvalias says:

    Well, what can I say? some people just have a WAY with words!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Irene – Thanks for your kind words. And if this is your first visit, welcome and thanks for checking in!

      • Isabel Gibson says:

        Readers – And from a commenter who prefers to remain (totally totally) anonymous: “Getting a poodle…”

  5. Krista Markstrom says:

    Very thought-provoking column. Growing up, I stood on only one beach. As life has continued to unfold, the beach has continued to change. The view is much more fascinating… and much more real.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Krista – Thanks for your comments and welcome to the site! I like the image of standing on a beach, not only because I love beaches but also because I can more easily imagine standing on another beach than I can remember to try on another point of view.

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