11 August 2012


by Elizabeth Zelvin

Among the lessons I learned at my mother’s knee is this one: the ocean is better than the bay; a lake is better than a pool. I grew up spending as much of every summer as I could on the world-class beaches of
Long Island, including Jones Beach, which was an easy drive from where we lived in Queens, and Hampton Bays, which was not at that time considered one of The Hamptons, since its year-round population was working-class conservative and its summer people, at least the ones we knew, were a small band of “progressives,” many of them teachers like my aunt who had a house there. The big social event of the season was always a Labor Day party to benefit the latest leftist martyrs, the Something Seven or the Something Ten. But let’s talk about the beach.

The modest little house my husband and I were lucky enough to snap up during a “soft” period for real estate in 1990—having rented unwittingly to a trio of drug dealers who set the neighborhood on its ear, the local businessman who owned it was glad to get rid of it—is only seven miles from one of the superb beaches maintained by the Town of East Hampton, which stretches from Bridgehampton to Montauk.
At low tide, you can walk for miles along the beach if you’re so inclined. If you want less wind, you can lie back against the pillowy dunes—not ON or IN the dunes, please: every spike of beach grass was lovingly planted by the hands of environmentalists, and the humps of sand have only recently recovered their full roundness after being sheared off by a hurricane nine or ten years ago. Or, as I do, you can choose a front row seat, where a cool breeze is always available, even on the hottest day, and if you don’t watch out, a curl of wave on the incoming tide may swamp your beach towel and carry your sandals off to Spain.

My mother, who if asked, “How was your vacation?” would respond by enumerating the swims she’d had, taught me not just to observe but to revel in the fact that the ocean is always different. At least that’s true of the Atlantic off Long Island.
My mother always maintained that there’s nothing like the morning swim. When I was a kid, we’d stay at the beach all day, “earning” our lunch by leaping and diving through the waves (“Over!” “Under!”) in that icy morning water. Now, between adult responsibilities and the hole in the ozone, I seldom get to the beach before 3 PM. But I still miss that morning swim.

It’s not just a matter of the weather: bright and clear one day, hazy and humid the next, overcast on the third day, with a storm rolling in overnight.
Even if the skies stay blue, flat silky seas on which it’s easy to swim laps (without having to turn every sixteen strokes as you would in a pool) can be replaced by rearing “seahorses” of foam and crashing breakers. In 1995 I spent several days on the campus of the University of California at San Diego for a conference, and I was amazed by the way the turquoise waters of the Pacific in La Jolla remained consistent over time. If I went to the same spot near the jetty every day, I could jump the same gentle rollers day after day after day. It was nice for a change, and La Jolla itself is probably one of the most beautiful places in America. But I’m an East Coast girl, and I like an ocean to surprise me.


  1. There's something about the seas of Mother Nature. I like the ocean the best when when the water's rough, usually after a storm. The churning waters makes me work.

  2. Leigh, I used to body surf with the guys in the Seventies (in the first flush of the women's movement), and I have the bad back to prove it. If there's a riptide running, I stay close to the shore.

  3. I too used to body surf, in the waters of Oceanside, CA, San Diego, and La Jolla. Maybe that explains my bad back, too. But it was worth it...

  4. When i was growing up we had a summer house in Pt Pleasant, NJ. My sister actually set a novel in and around that house - THE BAY AT MIDNIGHT. loved the ocean, the bay, and the boardwalk.

  5. Standing on the edge of the ocean, near twilight or at night, when the breeze blows on-shore in my face, while I’m looking out at all that vast openness creates . . . strangely, perhaps . . . the same feeling I get when standing on the open desert on a moonlit night with a cool wind tearing out the heat of the day. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s all that vast distance laid out before my eyes, seemingly devoid of life but actually teeming with it.

    And, I agree: There really is a difference between the Atlantic and Pacific. When I was about nine, we spent a summer in Cape Cod because my dad was working at Woods Hole. In the army, I was stationed in Monterrey CA while studying Arabic, and later did a lot of running around off the coast of South Carolina, and around Antigua, for small boats ops, plus some ocean Kayak ops training off the coast of Panama. Each one a place with its own character, and a different taste to the sea.


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