My history of beaches

Personality quizzes like to ask you if you prefer the mountains or the beach.  I’m never exactly sure what this is meant to symbolise, but I always choose the beach.

Water baby from the start
Water baby from the start

I like music about beaches and water: as a kid I loved ‘Kokomo’ by the Beach Boys and ‘Orinoco Flow’.  I even convinced myself that Rod Stewart’s ‘Rhythm of My Heart’ was the actual soundtrack to C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader  (Incidentally my favourite Narnia novel).  It does make sense–a lot of the song is Stewart mumbling incoherently and one of the few clear lines is the last one in the chorus, ‘Where the ocean meets the sky, I’ll be sailing.’  You guys, that’s what they were doing in the book.  But I digress.  What I’m trying to say is I feel a pull to the water, and while my associations with mountains (or other landscapes, for that matter) are generally vague, I have some very strong memories of beaches.  Like…

Jones Beach, Long Island, New York

So. Many. People.

Jones Beach was my standard for beaches for a long time.  In a way it was awesome–when I was about 12 I realized that kids in many parts of the country had no immediate access to the ocean, and that struck me as very strange.  I had Jones Beach at least.  But because it was my standard, I never really understood what articles were talking about when they lauded the ‘best beaches’.  I loved Jones Beach, but to love it you have to really commit to the idea of loving beaches, because it kind of sucks: you park miles away from the sand, and when you finally get to the sand you have to walk across a mile of it to get to the water.  The water is the Atlantic Ocean and it is always grey and freezing, even in the middle of July.  Even when that was refreshing because it was 95 degrees outside (not exaggerating), the waves are so rough you’re guaranteed to get dunked under.  Yet I keep going back, because…nostalgia?  I even look forward to taking my kids there.

The gorgeously grey water and rough surf.
The tunnel between the parking lot at the beach.

Paupackan Lake, Poconos, Pennsylvania

My grandparents bought a house outside of Hawley, PA before I was born.  They had it newly built and chose everything, and their choices were deeply and profoundly reflective of the 1970’s, most especially notable in the skunk striped shag carpet in the living room and the matching paisley bedspreads and curtains in the bedrooms.  That house was the setting of my childhood summers until the age of 17, and I friggin’ loved it, apart from a couple of super moody teenage years.

The house.  Also visible, some of my grandfather's many many collector's plates.
The house. Also visible, some of my grandfather’s many many collector’s plates.

It was kind of a weird place–there were all these houses dotted in the woods, many of them the same because it was a development, but without the manicured suburban feel.  There was also a lake, and the lake had a manmade beach with the grittiest white sand.  Of course the lake, being a lake in the mountains, was freezing, and that was amazing.  I spent entire days swimming in that lake, coming out only to drink some of the super strong iced tea my mother made, the kind that you mix up from a powder.  She brought it in a cooler with a spout.

Not pictured: the dock.

You could tell the beach was manmade because there was a concrete barrier keeping the sand back from the water.  They included a step going down to the water, and this was always covered with green algae that looked like a tiny underwater lawn.  There was also some of the sand at the bottom of the lake bed, but after about 3 feet deep it went to mud.  As a kid I was revolted by that moment when I would wade out and plunge my foot into soft mud as opposed to gritty sand.  At one end of the beach willow trees dipped their boughs into the water and it was like swimming in a fairy world.  The end of the swimming area was marked off by a dock, and as a kid it was my life’s ambition to be big enough to swim out to the dock.  All the older kids did, and they looked impossibly cool as they cannonballed into the water.  When I finally achieved this goal, I found I was scared of plunging into the murky water, but I did it anyway.  When we went to visit my grandparents in the winter the lake would be frozen over and the sand covered with snow, and it always struck me as bizarre that all the merriment of summer could be so completely stilled.

Megan’s Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

My sister at Megan's Bay
My sister at Megan’s Bay

My dad worked in real estate development when I was a kid.  I think he approved loans for people to build hotels, although I’m a bit murky on the details.  All I know is that he went on a lot of business trips and people treated him–and us, when we went along–really nicely.  Fruit baskets in hotel rooms, fancy dinners out, that kind of stuff.

One of the deals he did was in St. Thomas, and he wound up going there several times, and we got to come along a couple of times.  I feel like I missed school for the trip, but more likely we went during winter break.  I was about 7 the first time, and it was the first trip I remember taking outside of the continental US, and our first big family vacation in awhile. I remember dressing for the plane in a corduroy jumper and a long sleeved blouse, and my mother warning me that I would be really hot.  I didn’t believe her, until I stepped off the plane into the sweltering heat and cried ‘Mom!  I’m boiling!’

St. Thomas was amazing.  Leon drove us around the island, and when it looked like our bags were lost, he took me and my sister for ice cream while my mom sorted it out.  Glover was our baby sitter, and I don’t remember much about her except that she had beautifully dark skin, that kind of complexion where she looked almost velvety, that she had a soft, accented voice, and that I had one of those kid crushes on her.  I also remember Megan’s Bay.

When the plane descended over the Virgin Islands, my mom pointed out the aquamarine water to me, and I was astounded.  Most of my experience was with grey and murky water, so I couldn’t believe this was the sea.  I remember admiring how suddenly the clear turquoise would stop, giving way to sapphire blue.  I asked my dad how that happened and he told me it had to do with depth.

This captures the essence of it.

My mom is a big beach goer so while my dad was wheeling and dealing, she found out the place to beach it, and was told to go to Megan’s Bay.  One of the first things I recall about Megan’s Bay is how much my mom loved it.  When you’re seven, everything is new, so the most astonishing sights blend in with the ordinary ones.  I certainly liked Megan’s Bay, and I could see its superiority to Jones Beach, but I didn’t quite grasp how idyllic it was.  All I knew was the water was clear and calm, so I could swim without fear of drowning, and those sun drenched days were extraordinarily happy.  In thinking about it the memories come back more and more: the toy shop where I got a cockatoo on a perch that sang, the Pizza Hut where I watched the video of ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ while we waited for our food, Java Wraps which sold island print dresses and my mom bought a ton of stuff for herself and us.  It was mostly me and my mom and my sister, and I don’t think I ever really appreciated that it was one of the best times of my life until now.

I think this post will have to be two parts, because I’ve only gotten through the beaches of my childhood, so to be continued…

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Source: Beach

Things not to miss about New York – Summer

Don’t get me wrong–this is not a post about bashing New York.  I actually hate it when people bash New York.  Of all the places I’ve traveled to and lived, New York was, is, and always will be home.  But I’m about to leave this home, I need some measure of comfort to remind myself that it’s not all moonlight and roses.  Ok, none of it is moonlight and roses, but a good deal about New York is really cool.    However, you can’t really love something unless you recognize its imperfections.  So in order to assuage myself about leaving, a list of things I will not miss about the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of.”

Originally this was supposed to be a list, but I got onto such a tangent about the heat and beaches that I will have to separate my posts.  Nobody complains with quite the same finesse as a New Yorker.

The past three days have seen temperatures near a hundred degrees.  At 70, New York is delightful.  At 80, a pleasant, summery warm.  But at 90 degrees, New York turns into a sticky, smelly mess.  It’s like a kid with melted popsicle all over his face–if the popsicle were BO flavored and made with sewage and garbage.  On top of that, for some meteorological reason that I do not know (best guess–proximity to the ocean), weather here is almost always humid.  I’ve actually been to Las Vegas and experienced the dry desert heat people always say makes them able to live in places like Phoenix, and what they say is actually true.  That oven like heat is far more bearable than the pea soup of New York in summer.

Ok, so bad enough that summer gets pretty crappy, but a New Yorker’s options for beating the heat are few, and of poor quality.  Inside, most people have unit air conditioners. Buildings are older, and wiring for central air doesn’t really make sense for three months of the year.  So most people have window units in their apartments and houses–you can see them sticking out as you walk down any street in the boroughs, hear their hum.  Inside, of course, the gentle hum is magnified 200 times so that it sounds like you’re sitting in a jet engine, with only a small radius of cool.

So you say–f this, I’m getting in some water.  Good luck finding some.  Pools are only for the very rich, or those with nice backyards, or people who are willing to give over their entire backyard to a pool.  If you’re really rich, you can go to a hotel pool, which seem really swanky but cost probably a few thousand dollars for a summer membership.  The other option is the public pool, but that’s really like being squeezed onto a subway car in tepid water, except there is a slightly greater chance of being the casualty of a cannonball.  I’m not really rich, nor really a masochist, so my option is the beach.

Let me be honest–NY beaches pretty much suck.  You have to walk across a mile of sand to get to the water, and not only is it really difficult to walk across mounds of dry sand (garnering new respect for camels), this sand is also scorching hot, so that by the time you reach the water, the soles of your feet are seared a nice medium rare, complete with grill lines.  But of course, finding a place to set up your towel and chair is virtually impossible because every one of the eight million inhabitants of the great city of New York has decided to go to the beach.  Several loud boomboxes compete with each other, and children scream at a pitch far louder and shriller than seagulls.  But you can’t go back without dunking your feet in the water at least.  You came so far!  So you squeeze your towel in between two others much like wedging yourself into a seat in the subway* and go down to the water.  There are fabled beaches all over the world with glittering water in variegated shades of azure, turquoise, ultramarine, and cerulean lapping gently at bright white sand.   The New York beaches boast miles of dun colored lava sand, as I described, and gorgeous gray, opaque water which crashes onto the sand with such force it’s surprising more of Long Island hasn’t been pulverized into sand.  When I was in Nice they would shut down all the beaches for waves half the size of those at Jones beach.  And should you actually decide you have the superhuman strength to swim these tempestuous waters, you get the delight of experiencing water so cold Jack’s quick death in Titanic makes a lot of sense.  And then an unidentifiable clump of what might be seaweed or human hair brushes against your leg.

The fiance complains how tourist ridden Tenerife and the Costa Brava are.  I don’t get it and I do.  To me the Canary Islands and Spain are exotic destinations.  But when I told him I would be thrilled with a honeymoon in the Mediterranean he scoffed that that was a weekend trip.  I struggle to see the world this way, but yet I understand.  If someone suggested a honeymoon on the Florida beaches as someplace exotic and far flung, I would scoff at them.  I just have trouble aligning Mallorca with Tampa.  However, at all of the above the beaches are better than New York.

England doesn’t do summer with half as much punishment.  Arguably, they barely do summer at all.  The next ten days show temperatures in the mid-sixties with plenty of rain–i.e. April.  I might miss the 80 degree days of basking in pleasant warmth, but after a heat wave, I can honestly say goodbye to New York summers with a smile on my face.  Which might melt off if I step outside.

*Ok, I know I used this simile twice, but it was too apt in both cases to change.