My Beach

Joy Nicholson is the author of the novels "The Tribes of Palos Verdes" and "The Road to Esmeralda."

In the summers of my youth in Palos Verdes, after the unfair, freezing months--down to a hideous 50 degrees--the first days of hot, dry weather made life seem rational again. The veils of shoreline fog lifted, the cruel rains were chased away, even the parents weren't fighting as much. Terry towels, thick and clean, could be pulled, still damp, from humming dryers. Abba Zabbas and SweeTarts--the candies that were least likely to melt in the sun--could be stowed in backpacks, along with joints, surf wax, lipstick, SAT tutorials, whatever your social strata required.

I'd go to the Portuguese Bend Club, RAT Beach (for Right After Torrance) and Dominators, which wasn't a beach as much as a hidden and rocky shoreline that featured a steep staircase, make-out bushes and a skeletal shipwrecked schooner.

The first day back on the sand, the most popular kids worried about who'd had a nose job, who was flirting with whom, who could ride a wave without falling. The prettiest girls worried about which boys were looking, which tan lines wouldn't clash with apres-beachwear, which lightened the hair better--lemon or lime juice?

A nervous kid, I worried about pretty much everything, except how I'd feel being back at the beach.

I loved the beach--the very flesh of it; the actual sensation of liquid, sand, salt. The pure physical rush of a cold world heating itself again. On that first hot, long day of summer, social failure, math teachers, flat chests, bad acne, looming divorces, D and F grades, all dissolved into white, amped, proto-sensual light. Heavenly melting tar scents floated in from parking lots. Radios erupted into sexy guitar solos. Candy-striped buoys bounced in azure water. Blips of pure white foam frothed a friendly "Hello. Come on in, my friend."

While the other kids mixed and matched, kissed and smoked, I'd flop down and roast, anointed with the coconut-tropical smell of tanning oil. For a long time I'd wait. Smile. Anticipate.

Then, just at the very moment that the seams of my skin might burst with heat, I'd go.

If you walk slowly into the sea, the salty sting of water can shock your toes, though you won't feel anything if you run fast enough. When your calves cut into icy liquid, you might recoil--the nerve endings in the lower legs are sensitive. It's at this point you've got to lift your arms, scream a little, throw yourself at the approaching wave instead of trying to avoid it. The moment the wave overtakes--takes over--you're spinning, letting go, the pleasure is inescapable. At that place between hot and cold, bad and good, fear and contentment, you just dissolve--or is it that you become enormous?


Who cares?

For a few seconds it doesn't matter if you're big or small, made of water and salt, or thoughts and philosophies, or bones and skin. The sea doesn't care if you're pretty or drunk, popular or confused, 20 or 90, a Sikh, or a mother, or headed to Harvard Law. It's there for everyone--everyone, that is, who's willing to mess up her hair, get wet, cold, take a chance, meet a little turbulence head-on.

The best days of my youth are pretty much remembered in snapshots from the beach in the summer.

Blue water. Vanilla-colored sand.

Sticky mounds of seaweed. Zinc oxide.

And the beach in the summer was where I learned that leaping can be better than looking.

Pleasure wouldn't kill me.

And winter always ends, someday.



Make a Big Splash

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor; the higher a sunscreen's SPF value, the more it protects against the UV rays that cause the dreaded leathering of the skin.


There are 1,100 miles of coastline in California, with scores of state beach parks, some more popular with the masses than others.


The heaviest traffic is at Doheny State Beach in Orange County, with 1,338,617 people paying to traipse through last year.


The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that sunscreens contain oxybenzone, cinnamates, sulisobenzone, salicylates, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and avobenzone (Parsol 1789). Now pronounce them.


The average temperature in July for Malibu is 69 degrees. For Chatsworth, it's 95 degrees. No wonder the sands of Zuma are alive with Valley-speak each summer.


Screening is as good as it gets. There's no such thing as a total sun "block": Some UV rays will sneak through whatever is applied.


An SPF 15 may absorb more than 93% of UVB radiation, and SPF 30 may protect you from 97%.


The best weekend beach volleyball game is whatever AVP tournament is airing on Fox Sports Net. And you don't have to put on any sunscreen.

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