Sunday, March 24, 2013

Confessions of a Hodad

Yesterday on one of our local cable channels here in southern California, I was watching one of my favorite movies, Riding Giants. It's a beautiful (and sometimes scary) documentary about surfers. Not just any surfers, mind you, but big wave surfers, that especially-nervy subculture of the surfing subculture that gets its thrills from the quasi-suicidal: surfing the world's biggest waves: Mavericks in Santa Cruz, California. Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Teahupoo, Tahiti, where the waves are so big and so treacherous that a surfing contest there was recently canceled --evidently it was decided that the surf was too dangerous for anyone except maybe the Lord Poseidon himself ... and most Greek scholars that I have talked to are unaware that Poseidon ever surfed. Gods are usually too smart to be daredevils; hubris and its twin brother stupidity are pretty much human foibles.  

The test pilots in The Right Stuff talked about "pushing the envelope" all through that film. The surfers in this film are a living testimony to pushing the envelope. In this subculture, the more frightening a wave gets, the more bound-and-determined some surfer is going to be to develop a new twist on the technology of the sport which will allow those who dare to ... well, dare.

I'm hooked on this stuff. Stoked, as surfers say. I will watch any surfing film that comes along. Another favorite is Step Into Liquid, in which some especially focused adrenaline-junkies go so far as to have themselves taken 100 miles out to sea off the coast of my native San Diego in a boat, there to have themselves towed via jet-ski to where they can zip down waves close to 100 feet high, some of them on special, hydrofoil-equipped surfboards that allow them to coast along just above the water as they ride waves the size of bank buildings.

Me? I don't surf at all. I don't think I could if I tried. Oh, I took a few lessons a few years ago. My teacher was a fellow named Randy Couts. Randy is actually well-known in the surfing world, or used to be. He was a competition surfer who was giving surfing lessons to kids one summer about ten years back, when I was a newspaper reporter in Chula Vista. I read about his surfing school in the San Diego paper, then called him up and asked if he might give me some lessons. He readily agreed, and we met at Coronado Beach on a few contiguous Saturdays, where he drilled me on how to lie on the board, paddle out to the line, watch for a set of waves, launch yourself upon one and then try to execute one of the trickiest moves this side of bowing a Stradivarius properly: finding the "sweet spot" on the board which will allow you to leap into a crouching position and then rise to a standing position on the wave without tipping over and falling into the drink.

I even bought a surfboard from Randy. I was that serious about this stuff. My board is long-gone; when my second wife divorced me it got left behind in her garage. I bought a wet suit, too; it's in a cardboard box in my sister's attic.

I'm a capable-enough swimmer, but I've never been able to completely overcome a fear of the ocean which has haunted me since I was eleven years old and got caught in a rip current at Silver Strand State Beach, just a mile or two south of Coronado. I damn near drowned on that summer day in 1967. An alert lifeguard saved my bacon, but after that I was always afraid to go out in the water any higher than my shoulders. Randy cajoled me into putting this fear aside for our lessons; as we floated on our surfboards within view of the famous Hotel del Coronado, he assured me that the water where we sat was only about eight feet deep.

It was early September: late summer, and the waves were still suitable for beginners. A month later, autumn was coming on and with it, bigger waves. Randy and I met at the beach one last time, sat there talking and looking at the sets from the shore, and did not venture out.

I tried to "solo" once, going out to Coronado with my surfboard and without Randy. That was a couple of months later. Failure: I rode in on a couple of waves, on my stomach, without trying to stand up on the board, and went home. I've never tried to surf again.

The surfing subculture defines a "hodad" as ... well, a phony. Someone who pretends to be a surfer but isn't. I guess I could give myself a not-guilty on the accusation of technical hodadry -- I have never tried to pass myself off as a surfer. I'm something much worse: a wannabe. I would love to be a surfer. I just don't have the nerve. (And, I'm 57 years old.)

Now, I have fantasised about being everyone from Beethoven to Ernest Hemingway. But not in my wildest imaginings have I ever tried to see myself as Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning or Matt Wilkinson. Even if I ever did work up the nerve to try surfing again, you would never find me within screaming distance of big waves. I'd stick to places like Imperial Beach and San Clemente, and even those places only on days when the surf was no higher than my head.
Good film. Let these guys (or their stunt
doubles) take the risks. I'll watch.

Oh, but the vicarious has its attractions, the safety of one's living room being only the most obvious. I'm never going to hang ten or shoot the curl, but I can by-god sit on my sofa and watch the pros do it. Nothing wrong with envy. I have seen The Endless Summer at least ten times, and while I laugh with the cognoscenti at such dopey sixties fare as Ride The Wild Surf or the Frankie-and-Annette beach romps, one of my favorite feature films is Big Wednesday, directed by John Milius in 1978. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey play a trio of surfing pals growing up before, during and after the Vietnam war, reuniting near the end of the story for the big waves of Big Wednesday.

I've never met legendary surf filmmaker Bruce Brown, who made The Endless Summer in 1966, but I can claim a six-degrees thing with him: his son Dana directed a film in 2005, Dust To Glory. It's not a surfing film, but rather a documentary about the famous Baja 1000 auto race. I've never met Dana Brown either, but one of the participants in the 2004 Baja 1000 was Scott McMillan, the son -- and grandson -- of two of San Diego County's most prominent realtors, and I interviewed Scott in 2005 for a newspaper article about the race and the film.

That same year I requested a surfing calendar as an office Christmas gift, and for a year I actually subscribed to Surfing magazine. That's probably as close to the Pipeline as I'm ever going to get. Oh, if I can swing it one day I might drive up the coast to Huntington Beach or wherever the hell it is they hold that annual surfing competition, just to watch. Or maybe I'll cruise up to Tourmaline, just south of La Jolla, and watch the weekend warriors go at it.

If I squint just right, this might be me. Those waves are about my speed.

I'd love to be out there with them, one of them, paddling to the line, talking surfing the way ballplayers talk baseball.

But I'm afraid a dream is what it's going to remain. That day at Silver Strand during the Summer of Love is not going to be banished from my memory, I fear. Oh, well. Facing our mortality is part of becoming more mature, as is facing the fact that we're never going to be what our heroes were. Maybe that's why they remain our heroes.

As Clint Eastwood said many years ago in Magnum Force, "A man's gotta know his limitations."

I think I'll just toddle off and enjoy The Endless Summer one more time. That's another advantage to being an eternal wannabe: in my living room, the surf's always up.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Self-Portrait, 2013

I "interviewed" myself two years ago. I decided to do it again, just to see if anything has changed.

Self-Portrait, 2013
Q: If you had to live in just one place – without ever leaving – where would it be?
A: Two years ago I wasn’t sure. I demurred at the suggestion of Paris, which is not really that big a city. Now, in 2013, I think I would say Paris. And it’s not a romantic-dream thing either, like in the Woody Allen film Midnight In Paris, where the hero gets to actually meet Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Picasso. The 1920s are not coming back, nor is the Belle Epoque, but I have been to Paris several times and it is as beautiful as everyone says it is. Who knows, maybe I’d finally get down to learning French.

Q: You don't speak French?
A: Nope. My dad did, but I don't.
Q: Are you writing anything these days?
A: Yeah, this stupid blog. Gives me something to do. I’m editing a friend’s novel, which gives me something else to do, and looking for another overseas teaching job, which gives me yet something else to do. Actually, I have gotten back to work in a tentative way on a novel I began writing in 2010.

Q: Care to say anything about it?
A: Why not? It involves the CIA, but has nothing whatsoever to do with espionage.

Q: Do you prefer animals to people?
A: Sometimes, not usually. Animals are great because they have no guile and they don’t know what the word “betrayal” means. On the other hand you can’t talk about baseball, cooking, Steven Spielberg or Proust with them. Oh, you could, but the conversation would be a bit one-sided. Having said that, I agree with Truman Capote that people who tell you they love animals are often very cruel to people. Hitler loved dogs.

Q: Are you cruel?
A: I try not to be. Sometimes I fail. Cruelty is the most abominable of vices. I can think of nothing that makes me angrier than cruelty of any kind, and one of my problems with the British is that so much of their "comedy" is based on cruelty. Graham Greene has a short story called The Destructors, which we were required to read in high school. It's about a bunch of shitty little English brats  who completely wreck and gut a poor old man's house just for fun. I think the British find that story funny, but I certainly didn't.  I am sometimes verbally cruel, especially when I’m angry. This has become less of a problem since I gave up drinking hard liquor, which gives me a tongue like an adder.I always regret my cruelties immediately. Me and my big mouth have hurt people I love way too many times.

Q: Do you have many friends?
A: No. Most of my friends are dead. There are maybe five people I more or less trust.

Q: What qualities do you look for in friends?
A:  Obviously patience is a biggie. If you’re going to be around me, you’d better have patience, and I have little of it.  Impatience is my worst quality. Understanding, a much tougher demand, is something else I look for. Mostly, I want my friends to understand that they must under no circumstances interrupt me when I'm watching the opening day of baseball season, or one of my favorite movies. Don't get between me and the flat screen if there's anything running on cable that has Audrey Hepburn or Genevieve Bujold in it.

Q: Are you often disappointed by a friend?
A: I’ve had some unpleasant surprises from people I considered to be friends. But friends change as do we all, and sometimes I find that I like the later version of a friend less than the earlier one.

 Q: Are you a truthful person?
A: I think so. That’s not to say that I always tell the truth, but I’m a miserably poor liar, so I usually just don’t try it. I wouldn’t have made a good actor, although some people have told me that I should have been an actor. I disagree. If I say something and I don’t mean it, you can tell. It’s easier to lie as a writer of course; no one can see your face when you do it. But I don’t like lying, it makes me uncomfortable and gives me guilt, especially if I’m lying to someone I love.

Q: Do you believe in God?
A: Yes, but I think that “yes” raises more questions than it answers. I believe in God, but on the surface of it anyway, it sometimes seems as if God and I don’t have much use for each other. That could be just more of my impatience. Atheists are always talking about how much cruelty and misery religion has caused. I don't see that atheism has a great track record for spreading, peace, love and joy either. I wouldn't want Robespierre, Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha or Kim il-Sung coming down my chimney on Christmas Eve. I  don't see much difference between Truly Convinced fundamentalists and Truly Convinced atheists. Both think they have the True Answer, and people who are convinced that they have the True Answer often become killers in the name of it. I envy people who claim to have a personal relationship with God. At 57 I'm still not sure who He is. But I believe He is there. I guess I believe because I believe in a world of colors. Belief comes in many colors. Unbelief only comes in one color: gray. You know, like the gray of East Berlin, which I once visited. And anyway, as Bob Dylan wrote, "negativity won't pull you through."

Q: How do you like to occupy your spare time?
A: I love to read. I always have. Reading coalesced for me when I was about six, and I’ve never stopped.  I love to cook, and often read cookbooks for fun.

Q: What are you reading these days?
A: I’m studying the history of philosophy.

Q: Why philosophy?
A: Because I never took a philosophy course when I was in college, and it’s a big, fat gap in my education. But it’s something we should know something about.

Q: Have you learned anything that you consider important or useful from the study of philosophy?
A: Yeah, that a lot of philosophers were smarter than me. But I wonder how many of them read cookbooks for fun?

Q: Reading anything else?
A: I’ve been reading some of the poetry of James Merrill, and I think he’s just amazing. Recently I read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, so now I understand a little bit more about Abraham, "The father of faith," than I did before. And I’m re-reading Of Human Bondage, which is a great classic, but to read Somerset Maugham means trying to overcome one of my most basic prejudices: I just hate the way the British talk. Goddamn it, people, talk English! Nobody says “I shall” anymore. And if one more of his characters starts out a sentence with "I say," or describes something as "frightfully" this or "dreadfully" that, I'm gonna scream. I'm also reading Salman Rushdie's Joseph Anton, a memoir about his experiences of being under a death sentence from the Iranians for having published a novel that many Muslims considered an insult to Islam.

Q. Refresh my memory. When did that happen?
A: How soon we forget. In 1988 Rushdie published The Satanic Verses. Ayatollah Khomeini, the madman who was running Iran at the time, pronounced the fatwa, or death sentence, on Rushdie's head. Rushdie lived in England -- still does, as far as I know -- and spent years in hiding. I was in Brazil when all of this happened, and immediately ordered a copy of the book in a gesture of solidarity with Rushdie. There was no in those days; I had to place the order by snailmail and wait.

Q: Was the book worth the wait?
A: The gesture was. I read the book more than 20 years ago and remember little about it. Some people claimed that they found it unreadable. I don't remember any overt blasphemy, but I do remember a less-than-flattering portrait of an old kook who bore an uncanny resemblance to Khomeini, which might have been what all the fuss n' feathers was really about.

Q: Of what are you most afraid?
A: Homelessness. Death, too, of course, but death is something you only have to deal with once. The idea of ending up homeless scares the shit out of me. I see homeless people all the time, as do we all, and try to hand them a couple of bucks when I can. Then I think of the song Eleanor Rigby and my heart sinks into my shoes. There but for the luck of the Irish go I.

Q: You're not Irish. Your last name is French.
A: Uh-huh, but that's on my Dad's side. My father's people were canucks -- they came down from Quebec in the early 20th century and wound up in Massachusetts, where my father was born. My biological grandmother on my mother's side was Irish. Her family name was Russell. They came from County Meath. You know The Book of Kells? Kells is in County Meath. Can't get more Irish than that.

Q: Where was your mother born?
A: England. Blackpool. My grandfather Winrow brought her to America when she was a girl. He was a Brit. He was born in 1879 and was in the British merchant marine for years. He met his first wife, his Irish wife, on a merchant ship bound for Peru. She died in 1921, when my mom was three months old. He met his second wife, the woman I knew as “Grandma,” in Pennsylvania.

Q: England, Ireland, Peru, Pennsylvania. How did you end up in southern California?
A: Grandpa Winrow came west in 1929 to join a friend of his in a business venture, which I understand was to have been regular air cargo freight service from the west coast of the U.S. to South America. But one of my family's curses is its ill-timing (and mine is absolutely the worst.) You can probably guess what happened: 1929. The stock market crashed, Grandpa Winrow and his buddy were wiped out, and the family was mired in San Diego County. Eighty years on, there are only two of us left here now, myself and my sister Carla. And I'm looking to get out.

Q: Why would anybody want to leave a beautiful place like San Diego?
A: The family's gone, and the family homestead, a house my grandfather bought in 1941, was sold after my father's death in 2005. There's nothing left here for me but memories. If you saw the Woody Allen film Radio Days, you might remember its poignant ending, in which Allen, as voice-over narrator, reminds one and all that memories fade with each passing year. All this played out against Kurt Weill's September Song, to me the saddest song ever written.

Q: Did you know either of your grandfathers?
A: No. Grandpa Winrow died six years before I was born, in the very same room in which my father would die 56 years later. I don't even know what Grandpere Dupuis looked like. My dad probably didn't know, either. My paternal grandfather ran off and deserted his family when my father was a little boy.

Q: What shocks you, if anything?
A: Well, we already talked about cruelty. Cruelty shocks and disturbs me. And any work of art, be it film, book or whatever, that is deliberately mean-spirited or makes light of mean-spiritedness. Very hip people thought David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet a sophisticated spoof of something. I saw only ugliness. I hated every minute of it.

Q: Have you been to the movies lately?
A: As a matter of fact I went to a movie yesterday. First time I’d gone to a movie theater to see a first-run film in seven years. My pal Charlie and I went to see Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

Q: What did you think?
A: I was ambivalent about it, and so was Charlie. We agreed that the movie gave us too many emotional cues, which can lead to a viewer’s feeling manipulated. But that’s Steven Spielberg. Remember Saving Private Ryan? Also, it should have ended with Day-Lewis walking off into the night on his way to Ford’s Theater. But it went on beyond that. Every American schoolkid knows that Booth shot Lincoln. We didn’t need to be shown that again. The film was about the passing of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery just before the end of the Civil War. That’s where it should have ended I think.

Q: Do you exercise?
A: I have to, these days. I don’t have a car anymore. When I’m in California, I pretty much get around on a bicycle.

Q: What happened to your car?
A: When I went overseas to teach school about 18 months ago, my sister sold it. I asked her to.

Q: What’s the most hopeful word in any language?
A: Love.

Q: And the most dangerous?
A: Love.

Q: Have you ever wanted to kill anybody?
A: Yes, but never for more than five minutes, which wasn't enough time to actually do it.

Q: What are your political interests?
A: I have none. I don’t vote any more, and only look at the newspaper to check the obituaries and the baseball scores.

 Q: If you could be anything, what would you like to be?
A: Financially independent, just like everyone else. Other than that, I don’t know. Invisible, maybe. That could be a lot of fun.

Q: What are your chief vices? And virtues?
A: Well, I hardly drink any more, and I never did do drugs. I don’t gamble. You couldn’t pay me to watch TV. I guess the only vice I have left is cigars. And smokeless tobacco. Virtues? I think if I have a chief virtue, it’s gratitude. As W.H. Auden put it, “Let your last thinks all be thanks.”

Q: Do you have a particular guiding principle that you live by?
A: Yeah.  If it looks too good to be true, it is.

Friday, March 1, 2013

There Is Joy In Mudville

It's warm today here in southern California, even though the calendar says it's still winter.

That's what everybody likes about southern California.

Along with the warm weather of early March comes a piece of very good news for Los Angeles Dodgers fans.

Sandy Koufax is back in Dodger blue. Yes!

Sandy Koufax imparts wisdom to youth.
Koufax was signed by the old Brooklyn Dodgers for $10,000 as a "bonus baby" in 1955, (the year I was born), retired from pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1966 after a string of amazing seasons, and is (deservedly) a legend. He is the greatest lefty who ever pitched for the Dodgers, and maybe the greatest lefty, period. (I would answer "yes" to the latter, because Koufax has been one of my gods since I was a  child.) But I don't want to spark any baseball debates, and by the way, my friends who are San Francisco Giants fans are hereby excused.

I'm usually the last one to hear news. I don't read newspapers, I don't watch TV news, and I avoid Internet news websites. But I do watch baseball, and when it's not available on TV, I listen to it on the radio. Yesterday I was listening to the Dodgers play the Angels in a spring training game on KLAC AM 570 out of Los Angeles, and KLAC laid some joy on me.

Sandy is coaching Dodger pitchers in spring training again. This is good news for the Dodgers.

And for me.

Koufax and the Dodger organization have had their estrangements over the years. The reclusive Koufax has distanced himself from the Dodgers more than once, although for many years after his retirement he showed up at spring training camp every winter to observe, advise and, well yes, be gawked at. (I'm sure this last caused Koufax some discomfort. He shuns the spotlight and doesn't like to talk about himself.)

But listening to yesterday's game on the radio, I learned that Koufax had been talked into coming back. Former Dodger owner Rupert Murdoch is long gone, and with him his media empire, which includes the New York Post. The Post published a piece in 2003 that so angered Koufax he disappeared again, and was gone for years.

But now he's back. The Dodgers and their fans may rejoice.

To commemorate this great occasion, I will now reproduce a poem  wrote a couple of years ago about my childhood experience of watching Koufax pitch, once and once only, on television:

Sandy Koufax posted an unbelieveable
.038 ERA in three games of the 1965 World Series
against the Minnesota Twins. I was ten, and
will never see the like again.

Seeing Sandy Koufax
I ran home from school one afternoon -- ran, got it?
Because baseball was still an afternoon game then,
and I wanted to get in front of the Sears
black-and-white portable as quickly as I could.
I couldn't have known it, but I was racing the clock
for keeps: at the end of that very season he retired.
The elbow caught up with the arm from hell.
But I got there. KTLA, Channel 5: I saw it,
him, the clockwork nightmare. (Willie Mays
Himself said the ball looked like an aspirin --
you barely sensed it whooshing past,
a dancing bullet in the afternoon light.)
Baffled hitters had two-tenths of a second
to watch it drop like Tennyson's eagle. Dancing.
Children, there was nothing like it. I pity you,
not having been there, never having seen.
His body became a slingshot like David's,
or like the spaceship in that dumb sequel to 2001,
where it sweeps around Jupiter, and using
the giant planet's gravity, slingshots itself violently
toward home. (This was about pitching, and going home.)
I got to see it in glorious black-and-white.
I was ten, and would never see its like again.
A few years ago someone published a book entitled 101 Reasons To Love The Dodgers.
This is Reason #102.
Play ball!