1 Happiness for me has always been measured by proximity to water. This despite the fact that my earliest, strongest memory involves a water trauma. As a tubby pre-swimmer, floating in a neighbor's backyard pool on a lounge chair with Styrofoam arms, I leaned over too far, plummeted into the depths, and was retrieved by my mother.
Ever since, I've apparently been trying to re-create that primal plunge. The first broaching of the water's surface—an initiating cannonball off the Kamp Kohut pier into the frigid stillness of Maine's pine-lined Lake Thompson, a full-bore run into the turbulent Jersey surf at the crack of Memorial Day weekend—signals the opening of the season. I'm not the kind to lie on the sand and jump in just to cool off: I soak first, and dive until I'm wrinkled, winded, or nearly hypothermic.
So many find the sheer vista of oceans, lakes, and rivers to be balm for their souls. But for my true nirvana, I require immersion—total immersion, not a casual ankle wade. In the water, you shed the encumbrances of the world. You flirt with the Zen of the isolation tanks William Hurt sampled in Altered States. This is no unhappy drenching by a November rain; you're wet by choice. It's like an endless shower in which you don't have to scrub or shave (or flinch when someone flushes a nearby toilet).
My dowsing gene was inherited—I'm the child of poolaholics. My parents, after successfully lobbying my hometown of Scarsdale, New York, for a municipal pool complex, experienced such severe post-Labor Day withdrawal that they built themselves an indoor lap pool (which cost more than our house). They still map entire vacations around chlorine. Expanding the quest of John Cheever's swimmer, they pool-hop not just their suburb but the world, even sneaking into foreign hotels wearing bathing suits under street clothes. When they chose where to stay for my brother's wedding in Portland, Oregon, they eschewed the landmark but pool-less Heathman Hotel in favor of a Best Western with a bathtub-sized pool surrounded by grim cinder block; they did their hundreds of three-stroke laps each morning, and were in heaven.
Though I've enjoyed many hotel pools—lollygagging with my toddler daughter as she found her sea legs in the shallow end that thins to nothingness at Miami Beach's Delano, or enjoying the floral surroundings while submerged in the bracingcentral pool of the Emerald Iguana Cottages in Ojai, California—my paradise is unchlorinated. Pools leave a slightly medicinal aftertaste. Salt is better, but no salt is the best.
Perhaps I'm making up for lost time: Scarsdale may be only a few miles from both the Long Island Sound and the Hudson River, but except for four summers in Maine I spent much of my childhood in that municipal pool, as landlocked as anyone in Kansas.
Now, in my adulthood, no body of water is too cold, too grungy, too dinky, or too off-limits for me to attempt a conquering dip. I've swum with mucky Hudson reeds lapping at my legs, dodged garbage in the surf at Coney Island, and dog-paddled in a lungi alongside turbaned "lifeguards" in the Bay of Bengal. After hiking to crystal-clear, glacier-fed Lake Awosting, near New Paltz, New York, I was damned if I was going to stick to the small roped-off public swimming area. How could venturing beyond it be trespassing when it's the same water?
I woke up to the possibilities of chemical-free swimming at my grandmother's cottage on Lake Buel, near Great Barrington, Massachusetts (she sold it before I was old enough to stop her). Once I realized you could swim in a sweeping expanse of water as clear and pure as a freshly drawn bath, I didn't understand why anyone would prefer an aquamarine box. My love affair with the ocean began soon after, when I was diving off a houseboat during a trip to the Virgin Islands. (My brother, however, jumped inand resurfaced sputtering, "You didn't tell me it was going to be salty!")
When Halley's Comet was making its once-every-76-years visit in 1986, some friends and I camped out on a beach in Baja California, alone there except for some fishermen hauling in gigantic oysters and shrimp. Though my friends were excited about seeing the comet, for me that event was just an annoying disruption to a good night's sleep. What I loved were the days spent swimming with no one around, the sense that we owned the surf as far as we could see.
I always marvel at people who become jaded or indifferent to the ocean's allure. As a reporter, I once tagged along on a fashion shoot to a private resort called Ocean View Club on Harbour Island in the Bahamas, set on a glorious beach. Getting there involved two planes, a boat, and a taxi, and the only ones present were the photographer, his staff, the model, and her husband. Every day they posed and shot, using the beach as a backdrop, and not a single person went in the water. It struck me as the height of decadence.