Friday, May 11, 2007

A STORY IN THE MANNER OF JOAN DIDION

In September, 2005, my grown daughter and I were both visiting my sister in Los Angeles. We made a day trip to see two things – the M.A.S.H. site up in the Santa Monica Mountains, where they filmed the opening sequence of that television series, and Malibu Point, a famous surfing spot.
I wrote it in the style of Joan Didion who seems to understand and appreciate Los Angeles in a way that makes sense to me.


“I didn’t hear my brother wake up.”

I didn’t hear my brother wake up. My brother Tom has the bedroom – because he’s older and because he got here first. He moved into Carolyn’s house last January, separating from his wife Cheri who remains with their daughter in Altadena. Tom teaches school somewhere around here – a 45-minute drive. He gets up at 6:30 am. I must have slept soundly because I usually hear him wake up and that gets me started.

I hear him get up because I sleep right outside his bedroom in the Crafts Room, which is not private. I have a pad and a sleeping bag on the floor – very comfortable, also the only space left, unless I want to sleep on the couch in the living room, but my daughter is sleeping there, at least until next week, when she returns to Austin, Texas. My sister Carolyn’s house is not very big, but she has a warm, inviting attitude, so the house is rarely empty. Also, when you live a ten-minute walk from Venice Beach, you’re going to get lots of company.

I got up at 7 a.m. Tom had already left. Carolyn had the coffee made. I went outside and brought in the Los Angeles Times, tearing away the plastic cover. I started on the front page, but the Hurricane news didn’t interest me. I checked the editorial page and the columnists. The LA Times is kind of stuffy, nothing going here. What I wanted to read was the local stuff, in the section called “California,” especially the Entertainment News – this is the heart of it, the leading business in Los Angeles. It really matters. The big story was the first episode of "Commander in Chief” starring Geena Davis as the first female President of the United States. I said to Carolyn, “I liked Geena Davis in the Accidental Tourist with William Hurt, but I don’t care for anything she’s done lately. She won’t make a good President. I’m going to vote for Oprah.”

Carolyn agreed. But the thought of politics gave me a headache – I didn’t care who the President is now or who will be President in the future. I took a quicker look – this was safer and easier – at one of Arnold Schwarzenegger propositions for the November ballot, the one I clearly support, which will take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and into the hands of a panel of retired judges – an obvious reform. The rest of Schwarzenegger’s agenda is problematic.

I ate cold cereal and milk. Carolyn said to be sure to leave by 8:30 am because Maria was coming to clean the house. We were also to put our things away to make less work for Maria. She’s been working for Carolyn for a number of years. I met her once a few years ago. She’s very nice.

Eva got up. We started making a plan for the day’s outing. She said she wanted to go to a famous surfing spot – to see and be seen by surfer dudes, I suppose. I said we can go to Malibu Point, that’s a classic spot. The point break is much sought after by surfers, because the wave makes a long, slow curl coming in, and you get a longer ride. Surfing underpins the spiritual life of Los Angeles. To sit on the beach and watch the waves. To admire the surfers as young gods. This was an excellent choice – my daughter has good sense, although she is not inclined to make this a metaphysical exercise the way I do.

It’s hard to describe – even though I don’t live here -- that a very important part of my dream life is the surf and the waves. I really have to know it’s here, on the beach in southern California, and someday I will come back here and just never leave, but for now it’s enough to see the waves and re-new my life.

We were getting ready for the day, bringing a day pack with beach towels and sun block, paperbacks, sunglasses and a snack box. Eva made perfect avocado-turkey sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, putting each half-sandwich in a ziplock bag, and securing the integrity of each half-sandwich be spearing it with a tooth pick. She added peanuts and carrots, each in their own ziplock bag.

We left the house by 8:30 am, as we were told to do, and it was good to get away so early. The car windows were fogged up and wet. Being so close to the ocean, Carolyn’s house always gets the morning fog. I turned on the windshield wipers and we headed east on California Avenue, where Carolyn lives. We turned left on Lincoln Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, unglamorous and utilitarian, lined with car washes, gas stations, taco stands, supermarkets, dry cleaners, laundromats, etc. – things you need to do.

We stopped for gas at the “76.” Not quite ten gallons for $28. I made a note of that on the slip in my wallet. I have to watch my money very carefully right now. And I checked the oil – that was important too. Before I left the Skagit Valley, up north of Seattle, I had discovered a small oil leak. I drove the 1,300 miles to Los Angeles and lost about one half a quart – something I could live with until I can get the leak fixed – but I must watch it in the meantime.

We continued north on Lincoln Boulevard. The morning traffic wasn’t too bad, although Lincoln – in fact almost any major thoroughfare in Los Angeles – might be blocked up and jammed at any time during the day. You just know that. If you want to be in LA, and I very much do, you just ignore the traffic.

We got on Interstate Ten, the one that starts in Jacksonville, Florida, goes west to New Orleans, San Antonia, El Paso, Tucson, Phoenix, and across the Mojave Desert into Los Angeles. Los Angeles is so big that it’s a good two hour drive on I-10 from the eastern fringes out by San Bernardino, all the way across town, finally going west into the sunset at Santa Monica, where I-10 ends – at the Pacific Ocean.

I-10 is called the Santa Monica Freeway by the locals. We only used the last mile of it, to where it ends at the ocean and we swung to the north up the Pacific Coast Highway, also known as California State Highway 1.

We drove north underneath the Palisades, looking at the light brown exposed cliffs, that look like they will crumble anytime and slump onto the beach. In fact they do have frequent mudslides here, as everybody knows.

Eva was quiet. She is often animated, but the Pacific Ocean is soothing and we were headed for Malibu, a place of dreams if there ever was one, rich dreams, Mercedes Benz dreams and women of cinematic beauty.

It was too early for the beach and we wanted to be walking anyway. It’s 13 miles to the middle of Malibu, going past rows of the most expensive beach-front property, but you can only see the backsides of the stacked houses, where the owners park their cars, and all you can see is the garage door and a fa├žade with only the smallest windows – the ocean view is on the other side.

In the middle of Malibu, is the town, if you can call it that, a shopping center with a Ralph’s Supermarket and a tiled courtyard with a pleasant fountain and more beautiful cars. We turned right and headed up Malibu Canyon Road. It’s six miles to the state park and the road twists through the rising foothill, tree-less, but the brush was still quite green, and I expected that was because the summer weather had not been too hot and dry.

In fact September had been cooler than usual, my sister said. September is often the hottest time of the year around here, but we had a really nice eighty degrees.

I was wearing short and sandals, a baseball cap and clip-on sunglasses. I brought shoes and socks for the walking part. We came to the state park and put the $8 fee into an envelope and kept the tag for our windshield. Eva was bummed out that we had to pay just for day use, but she said, “I suppose we shouldn’t cheat the state parks.”

We put two bottles of water into the day back, but left the lunch in the car. Eva walked past two older park rangers on her way to the john. Oh, they were a picture to me – two gentlemen in their early 60’s moving slowly around the restroom, checking the trash bins and such, clearly veterans of many years service. I envied their leisurely pace – they were getting paid to be in this lovely spot.

It’s wonderfully quiet in the foothills, only 20 miles from Carolyn’s house. This is one of her favorite places. She knows all the trails. That’s why it’s so wonderful living here, she said. You can get away from the traffic and noise and really be in nature.

We took off for the trail. My left leg had been feeling wobbly, a weakness that comes now and then, a result of my hamstring injury two years ago, but I figured the walk would do it good, and it was special for me to having an outing with my full-grown 26-year-old daughter – to be selected as her companion.

Our destination, 2.3 miles down the trail, was the M.A.S.H. site. The opening sequence of M.A.S.H. shows a helicopter flying into a landing in the mountains. You see the tents and jeeps with bright red crosses, and then Alan Alda and Hawkeye rush out and under the loud, whirling helicopter blades to unload the wounded soldiers.

They didn’t film that sequence in Korea, where the series takes place. They filmed it in a valley in the foothills of Malibu Canyon. So if you love television, if television is important to you – you can say you hate TV and never watch it, if you want to say that, but you can’t say it doesn’t matter – then visiting the M.A.S.H. is a fine souvenir for your memories. It goes behind the illusion of film and television. It shows you how it is made, and that people do this for a living. And if you can take any pride in Los Angeles and its chief industry, then this is a good way to show some respect.

Besides that you get a fine walk in the morning air, looking at birds and dried desert shrubbery, spotting a lizard, enjoying the cool shade of the coastal oaks, which grow big by the stream. The stream is Malibu Creek – it was full and clear and clean and sparkling. Again I was surprised to see so much water in it.

But the trail also gains several hundred feet in elevation, and I began to feel the difficulty of to much smoking. I watched my breathing, which was not labored, but I wasn’t having fun either. I listened to hear if Eva’s breathing became louder, to make a comparison. As it was, we made it up the grade without sweating or panting, and the workout made my legs feel stronger. After that the trail ambled another mile and a half to the M.A.S.H. site. The set was torn down years ago, but they left the rusted hulk of an old jeep as a marker, and when you walk into this pocket valley you see – yes, clearly, this is where they filmed it, because the mountains look just like what you see on the TV, and that’s re-assuring. M.A.S.H. was a very good show and my mother always liked it. The illusion – that it took place in Korea – of course that was fake, but saying it was fake is too harsh. Our illusions are important and necessary. Los Angeles nurtures and builds these illusions and this is a good thing – to put it simply. A television or movie set in Los Angeles is just as real as a field of corn in Nebraska.

Having gained the M.A.S.H. summit – the small hill shaped like a helicopter landing pad -- we paused and took a long drink of water. I intended to walk back more slowly, to stop and observe whatever caught my attention, but I said nothing to Eva. I had been enjoying very much her silent company. Too often she and I chatter and banter and jibe and debate – a very stimulating thing it is too – she is one of the most interesting people I know – but not this time.

Walking back the 2.3 miles I noticed things, living things – clouds, the slight breeze, some wild fennel growing by the trail side. I broke off a small piece and chewed it in order to freshen my mouth, in order to accept a gift from the spirit of this place. I wondered if the fennel was native to the place, but I doubted that – it was more likely a volunteer, and the seeds wandered in from cultivated gardens elsewhere, seeds blown on the wind, or shat from small birds.

Nearing the parking lot, towards the end of the hike, we came upon six young men wearing only shorts and running shoes, doing warm-up stretches, just about to begin a trail run. I had a small twinge for my lost youth, but it was too good a picture, and I shrugged off the envy. The nobility of manly youth! Their strength and beauty! I didn’t say anything to my daughter, but clearly the young men saw her and she saw them, and I thought, yes, life can be wonderful, and this is a very good day to be walking in Malibu Canyon.

By now I was famished and kept thinking about the food back in the car. We got back to the parking lot. I quickly removed my dust-covered shoes and sticky socks. I unlocked the car, climbed into the seat, and started the engine, so I could get the air-conditioning on. Eva was in the restroom, but I knew how she felt about air-conditioning. She lives in Texas. She’s been there for four years. She understands and believes in air-conditioning. It’s just what you do and you don’t have qualms about it. You don’t wait until you get too hot, you just turn it on whenever you want, as casually as tying your shoes or scratching your nose.

We ate the sandwiches in the parking lot with the motor running, and then drove back the six miles down the canyon to Malibu.

I felt exhilarated. Towards the end of the hike I had a stronger stride – I was ready to go right up the mountain. We stopped for coffee, and then drove two miles south down the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu Point. It was a Monday morning in September so parking was easy, by the side of the road and the traffic rushed by going very fast underneath the cliffs. We walked down the stairs to the beach which curved out to the right – out to the point. Some two dozen surfers sat on their boards in the easy surf, all clad in wet suits.

Now I began talking, expounding and justifying my life – as fathers do – to impress their daughters, to maintain control, to steer them in a good way. It seemed like the right thing to do, after the silent hike, after avoiding the usual mockery of our conversation – that I could get Eva to take me seriously just this once – except she has heard far too much, over her lifetime, of my mystical hippie twaddle. But I had reserved my time and I had her attention while I began to explain the importance of surfing and how this place, Malibu Point, was particularly hallowed, how it all began here in the 1950’s and 1960s.

I suggested that one of us might strike up a conversation on the beach – ask some questions and perhaps hear a bit of Surfer Truth. “Eva, you could be a dumb blonde from Texas and ask them anything,” I said, but she didn’t reply.

The lifeguard was a cheerful, older man, at least my age, not muscular or buff, but very fit, wearing sunglasses, of course, standing at the water’s edge greeting people.

I had read about the Los Angeles County lifeguards – 150 full-time guards and over 600 part-time guards, guys with other jobs who love the beach life and work the summer weekends. I didn’t even feel bad that it wasn’t me – their job is to watch the waves! For me, just being there was enough, relaxing behind the fantasy – maybe I am getting closer to this wave. But I had too many thoughts.

The wind picked up. It wasn’t warm. Eva sprawled on her towel and read her paperback. I walked over to the small lagoon. Malibu Creek, which we walked along up the canyon, comes down to the ocean at Malibu Point, making a tiny delta, surrounded by the Malibu lush life of expensive real estate, but protected, and the birds sheltered there – grey sea gulls in the hundreds and many pelicans.

I watched the birds – this is my new habit – even to catch some meaning from them. They were neither still nor excited – kind of a weekday, ordinary kind of hub-bub, gulls landing and taking off, pelicans standing not stock-still, but adjusting their feathers and stance.

I walked past the lagoon to the next lifeguard station. Another older lifeguard was walking along the beach. He said there had been a rain squall and even some lightning up in Ventura. Lightning was very unusual around here, he added.

Eva noticed this first – many of the surfers in their forties and older, old men to her. I agreed and I was glad to see that. I told her about surfers and their territory, that technically the waves belonged to everybody, but in fact every established surfing spot has a fixed hierarchy. You can’t just show up and get in, you have to earn respect, and this most hallowed surfing spot was reserved for the guys who had been coming there since the days of Jan and Dean. The kids could go fuck themselves.

Respect. I liked that. I didn’t need to sermonize at my daughter – a bad habit anyway.

The wind picked up even stronger. A chop appeared on the ocean face. We got cold and decided to leave. It was only just past noon. It seemed like we had already lived a whole day what with the early start and the stimulating hike.

We drove south down the Pacific Coast Highway, in tune with the traffic, enjoying the sweeping curves, feeling the Toyota move nicely. When we got home and I took a shower to wash off the sun block. Then I laid down on my pad in the Crafts Room and took a siesta.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

not very often

Some of my older posts are interesting, but I don't come this way very often