I once read a long article about how to have a good time at the beach. I don't remember the information about sunscreens or tanning lotions, where to stay or eat or how to get there and avoid traffic. What I do remember is the half-page elaboration on how to squish the sand around under your towel until it conforms to your body's lumps instead of the other way around.

Which, I think, says it all. Having a good time at the beach is all in the way you look at things. Crossing the Bay Bridge is like a trip through the looking glass: Rules are upset, priorities changed. When you go to the beach, remember, you'rereally getting away. What is important is getting the sand under you straightened out.

Other important dos and don'ts:

Leave early, to miss the cars and catch the sunrise; the only difference between 5 and 6 a.m. is a lot of traffic. Besides, summer really sinks in while you're walking along a near-empty beach, feeling and smelling the morning breeze. Get a cup of coffee; walk to the end of the boardwalk.

Don't buy a newspaper.

Settling the sand under you is important because you'll be lying there for six hours. I have no problem with lying for six hours, if not on one side, then, on the other. Some people may say they don't find enough of a challenge in this.

There it is again. Attitude.

You're at the beach. Relax. Listen to what's going on around you. Hear the surf? Imagine, that sound's been going on for millions of years without stop, the watery whoosh and splash . . . if you can't hear it over the three stations tuned in around you on various radios, pick a song and concentrate on it. Or a conversation. Wonder if fish have too much salt in their diet, and who's looking into it? Who thought of cultivating pearls? Where does sand come from? Think about the annual erosion of a quarter inch from the East Coast and an equal amount piling up on the West Coast, how long it'll be before we are the West Coast, and what it'll be like to fly east to get to California.

You'll find you sleep a lot on the beach.

The water being the thing that brings everyone, it's also the place to go if you want to get away from everyone. Not on tubes or rafts or boards -- you run into and over people that way. Either go way out, or, conversely, don't go out too much or far. Just try walking north and notice how permanent the water looks and how temporary the sideshow to the left looks. Or keep your head down, watch the currents and eddies, the complexity and simplicity of even the shallowest waters.

Do remember where you were sitting.

About that sea of cellulite surrounding you. Imagine that many of these people are here as props to make it an authentic beach scene. Like watching five minutes of a soap opera once a year, listening to the conversations can be vaguely amusing; about who imbibed the most and who is most hungover, or about the prices of condos, depending on the age groups surrounding you. Just remember, it's all make-believe and they exist in your life only as long as you're sitting there, and they and their problems are gone as soon as you decide to leave.

This goes for people you'll see on the boardwalk. Remember, it's all entertainment. You'll see people who actually wear those T-shirts with the computerized photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends, and you'll see people walking leashes without dogs, or, the latest, people sprouting from their heads those springy antennae with objects attached.


Rules of eating west of the Bay Bridge don't apply at the beach. You can't gain weight there, so eat Thrasher's french fries and drink Love's lemonade and get a steak- and-cheese sub at a pizza parlor, and maybe soft ice cream. Meals aren't necessary; just munching.

A trip to Ocean City isn't complete without visiting Sunshine House. I assume all beaches have the equivalent. Here, perpetually tan people sell T-shirts, surfing equipment and other necessities for being a blond beach bum. They all look like they've just surfed in from California. These people don't exist except in the summer months, fading with their tans. They must. No one can be that cool year-round. The patrons, of course, are all madly scrambling to buy some cool, which doesn't come cheap, at $14 for long-sleeved T-shirts.

The other trick to enjoying the beach is not staying too long.

When you cross the Bay Bridge again, you don't have to reverse priorities again immediately. Actually, the main thing to remember about a day at the beach, the quintessential summer experience, is that it's really a state of mind, there whenever you want it.