The closest body of water was the ladies room, but they billed it as the “Beach.” The website called it an “interactive architectural installation,” but while I think that sells it short, I don't have any better ideas for the marketing department. The Beach defied categorization.
The National Building Museum featured the Beach installation while I was visiting Washington, DC. Ten years prior, I'd attended grad school in the area to teach in museums and had interned at more than a few institutions. So, yes. I absolutely wanted to go to this museum and its giant ball pit enclosure with an adjoining shore containing beach chairs, umbrellas, and a snack bar--all in artsy stark white. Place it inside a three-story atrium wrapped in a Renaissance Revival masterpiece, and I'll write you a blank check. I don't care what you call it--sign me up!
The installation was half-consciously working its way into a disproportionate number of my conversations, yet I felt nervous. I’d been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder about nine months before, and I was pretty sure my brain couldn’t handle the challenge of a crowded ball pit. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a condition that causes the way people experience sensory information to be unregulated. What that feels like varies greatly by person depending on which end of the spectrum each sense falls under. Someone with SPD might feel like each of their sense has been dialed all the way up or is set so low they can barely notice it. But for me, visual and auditory information often feels extremely intense and vivid. My sight and hearing might not just be too bright or too loud, but nearly provide superhuman detail. My average-human brain, unfortunately, can’t process hyperreality in real time. Information gets backed up, and my ability to deal with the important stuff might slow to a trickle. I think it feels like when you eat ice cream too quickly and you get that stabby pain between your eyes. So in addition to experiencing pain from overstimulation, I often find it very hard to communicate what’s wrong or what I need in the moment. As if anyone is good at explaining those things in the middle of a brain freeze.
I try to control or at least anticipate the environments I'm in because it keeps me feeling safe. I’m like the world’s most annoying tourist: I want to know where we are going, with whom, for how long, and what it will be like when we get there. People will ask what kind of restaurant we should go to and instead of naming types of food, I’ll specify the atmosphere. Even my taste in museums has evolved as my SPD has gotten more pronounced. As much as I talk about filling museums with vigor, I’m guaranteed to visit on a slow day and avoid blockbuster exhibitions.
But the Beach was not a typical museum experience, and I had nothing to compare it with. It was exciting because I anticipated people interacting with energy, and seeing that in a museum guarantees a nerdy touchdown dance from me. At the same time, participating in the installation meant putting myself in a high-energy environment that I would normally avoid. I was gleefully terrified.
In person, the Beach was everything I expected, except more. More everything. Kids played with the usual Chuck E. Cheese abandon while adults tried to negotiate the ball pit with maturity. And everything against a blanket of white. It was the kind of white that makes mothers ready the wet wipes and hipsters write negative reviews on Yelp prefaced by “I've never understood modern art.” Above us was this soaring canopy of the former Pension Building, a massive monument/love letter to veterans of the Civil War. Intellectually, this was my nirvana, but experiencing it required me to relinquish any hope of controlling my sensory environment. I was 45 minutes from the relative safety of my hotel and ten hours away from home. My husband looked at me sideways and asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?” Damn straight I did! I was a badass! I was the Evel Knievel of sensory processing, and recklessness was an everyday occurrence.
We timidly maneuvered around enthusiastic kids and watchful parents until we located a quiet corner in the chaos. Expecting a way to experience the mock ocean riot without joining in was naive. A toddler took a running belly flop off the dock area. Every time somebody moved, the balls shifted in a chain reaction across the pool. At some point we decide to sit. If you’ve ever played in a ball pit, you remember it from an age and height where the balls come up to your chest. I didn’t come half way across the country for half the experience--so here goes nothing!
I let myself fall into the little spheres, and woosh! My heart raced, and my husband and I giggled. He was still looking at me like a pot destined to boil over. Everyone seemed so happy on this little beach or whatever it was. It wasn’t just the children beaming, but their parents as well. I’ve seen adults sulk while waiting for kids to finish amusement park rides, but I couldn’t recall the last time I witnessed this. Something about the environment just lent itself to whimsy. I talked about it for months afterward. It was like we’d been captured inside a snow-globe. I still grin every time I think of it.
This was about the point where I realized I was completely stuck. I was sitting on my rear with my legs in front of me, but because there were plastic balls both above and below my waist I didn’t have anything to push against to start moving. My fingertips grazed the ground and my heels just barely made contact. The weight of the plastic ocean was surprisingly heavy on top of my legs. Escape probably meant wiggling myself around onto my hands and knees so I could push myself off from the floor, but I’d have to submerge my head. I thought about my mom reclining in one of the beach chairs and the scrunched up face she made when I asked if she was joining us in our dip. I really didn’t want to put my entire face down there.
I looked around, sighed, and decided to temporarily ignore the problem. I was here to enjoy myself. I pulled out my phone and took selfies. My husband and I waved to my mom back on the shore and tried to soak in the magic atmosphere. We leaned back and admired the architecture. We made tired puns about “having a ball.” I tried very hard to forget that I was trapped because I’d been looking forward to this moment for months. I had gushed enthusiasm for this conceptual beach even to people planning trips to exotic beaches with real sand. I smiled a little too hard to be entirely convincing and forced myself to see and feel joy. Laughter echoed through the space mixed with shrieking kiddos. Plastic spheres landed on my face. I made it right up until a full grown adult fell across my shins. That’s when my spouse asked me for the second time if I’d had enough. He said he’d had enough as well. I decided not to question whether he was saying that to give me an exit. I just had to get myself unstuck.
The day I visited the Beach was just like any other, except that for once the epic setting perfectly matched the exaggerated way I experience the world. My everyday is a surreal, modernist, architectural installation. Each plastic ball holds sensory information. I cherish the spheres individually. In fact, the way SPD affects me--I have to appreciate them...all of them. I’m truly voracious about the way I consume the world. I love the distinct and individual sounds made by different types of paper as you turn a book’s page. I notice the particular pale green of cicadas when they step out of their shells and wait for the air to harden and darken their exoskeletons. I have had long conversations with my spouse about how etiquette differs in men’s and women’s bathrooms. I’m alway doing that--comparing the bubbles, turning them over to get a different angle. It’s like playing Memory, but hoping you get cards that are different instead of matching. Every turn a potential revelation. I’m not sure I could stop if I tried.
But inevitably, the sensations pile up until I am up to my neck in sensory clutter midway through each day. The sights, sounds, and even places blur together. I can’t make out the person speaking to me, but I can’t tune out that lady talking about her boyfriend, Mitch. The man over there doesn't believe in headphones, but apparently he believes in Cher. Horns beep in conversation. Each person I see is their own ball that I have to track like in a shell game, and I am still playing even though I’ve lost all my money. Smartphones respond audibly to touch. Fluorescent lights flicker so rapidly human eyes don’t notice, but my brain is tapping out S.O.S. A person in a suit describes every building the train passes to an invisible phone partner for over 20 minutes. Computer keyboards clatter like tiny horses. Voices echo down cement block hallways. Do I sit viewing the ceiling fan or the moving traffic? I spend yet another summer wondering whether air conditioners have to sound like metal on metal in order to work. Each sight and sound is a translucent, plastic ball, and they combine to make a ocean that spells joy for everyone but me. I can’t even figure out how to get back on my feet. When they call my name, I’m weighed down under a sea of dazzling sensory input.
Photo courtesy of the National Building Museum