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Memory and the First Coast

California Revisited.

Light / Dark

1

Although the ready memory is a great
blessing to its possessor, the vaguer
memory of a subject, of having once had
to do with it, of its neighborhood, and
of where we may go to recover it again,
constitutes in most men and women the
chief fruit of their education.
—William James

Much of the California landscape has
tended to present itself as metaphor,
even as litany.
—Joan Didion

Early in the autumn before Obama was elected for his first term, I was asked by a Los Angeles-based magazine to write an article about New Hampshire. The goal, according to the editor, was to offer the readership a personal impression of the state, one that might push beyond the cacophony of the season’s political circus. I wrote about surfing. 

At the time, I had been living and teaching in the southeastern corner of the Granite State for more than a decade. The request had come out of the blue, and it compelled a reckoning: though I was born in California and the Pacific was the first ocean to pool around and retreat from my legs, I had gained proficiency in the waves of New York and New England. I’m pushing 60 now, but it’s been only in the last 12 years that I’ve been able to make some progress in understanding my relationship with my birth state. The gravity of heimat, or homeland, is nagging and irresistible, especially when surfing is tugging at the compass needle. I felt like a fraud in both directions, neither a true Californian nor a craggy New Hampshirite, and the least qualified person to engineer a bridge between the two states. 

Because we moved back East when I was a toddler, the California coast had been obscured by yearning, imagination, and tantalizingly vague memories. It wasn’t until long after eating sand during adolescent summers spent bodysurfing at Flying Point Beach on the South Fork of Long Island, then toying with a board naively (suicidally) during my twenties in nor’easter leftovers unspooling around the headlands of Gloucester and Rockport, that I was able to find a way back. Especially after I had settled into my fate with the compressed and fickle bounty of New Hampshire’s tiny Seacoast almost 25 years ago, which provided the comparative grist to make any pilgrimages to California more meaningful.

As a teen in the mid-70s on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I was committed to the fantasy of waves, my adolescent imagination goaded by a preposterous subscription to Surfer magazine and my own airbrushed idea of it all. All the fits and starts of physical flirtation with wave riding—including an undeserved, neglected Natural Art thruster on sawhorses in my parents’ dirt-floor basement—eventually deferred to a teaching career, marriage, family, graduate school, and writing. Which is probably why, beyond health insurance and a retirement plan, I have a wife and kids who still like me, pieces in a few admirable publications, and a job that often kicks my ass. However, since writing that article—a paean to saltmarshes, migrating sea ducks, frozen faces, Québécois-free February lineups—I’ve made it my business to reconcile a life in the Northeast with the blurry fluke of occidental origins.

Photos and mementos from the time my family lived in California seem like a record of someone else’s past. They’ve slowly surrendered themselves to open interpretation as those who took or collected them grew older, drifted apart, or died, and the quorum that guaranteed some semblance of contextual meaning dissolved. Natural objects, because of their timelessness, almost seem emancipated from the family narrative: giant pine cones, petrified wood, and abalone shells. My mother dusted around the latter, iridescent oréjas de mar cocked attentively at our family’s routines and antics from their perches among other souvenirs. New England and Long Island were reinforced throughout my childhood beach walks, their evidence rearing up at every turn in real time: the exposed tangerine hallways of busted whelks, quahogs’ lavender tattoos. But California, hidden inside its associated mollusk, was always frustratingly beyond my memory’s grasp. The idea of it was somewhere in the rose-green, molten-pearl interior and name—abalone—which I carried in my imagination like stemware from decade to decade, state to state.

2

The hinge in the middle of the twentieth century, when my parents moved to Woodland Hills from Stony Brook, seems a time when one group of Americans was grasping desperately at the future and the past simultaneously, trying to become something new without completely abandoning what they imagined their heritage to be. After emerging from two wars they were torn between the Colonial and the Cosmic, the Home Front and the Frontier. Having survived the potential of losing everything, my parents’ generation was especially crazy for souvenirs and knickknacks. They were dogged, perhaps, by the ghost of that depression-era pack rat impulse to hoard the material proof of experience because the worst might still be around the corner. That tension permeated the living room in each of my childhood houses, but especially in my father’s study with its matted photos of the helicopter and jet engines he designed, and the mounted length of barbed wire he clipped after he was liberated from a German prison camp.

Up on our shelves and mantels, Churchill’s History of World War II and pewter mugs duked it out with Mexican pottery and a miniature replica of a mission bell. On our walls, Anglophilic prints of thatched Tudor cottages reached an uneasy truce with a series of six framed Remington portraits of characters on horseback. Like beleaguered boxers in separate corners, a richly-colored serápe and an off-white Irish knitted shawl were draped over the opposing arms of our couch.

My father’s experience as a POW from 1943 to 1945 made him less content to return and settle in his hometown of Flushing, New York. Ambition and cultural boundaries seemed entirely mutable. A B-17 copilot, he was one of the lucky who returned relatively healthy from WWII. The experience made him comfortable with mobility, committed (responsibly) to getting the most out of his life instead of withdrawing from it or spinning his wheels in the memory of it. 

Imagine the Weimar intellectuals and company—Brecht, Mann, Adorno—in Los Angeles, having fled Germany a few years before my father had begun bombing the same regime that had forced them into exile. The regime that would eventually imprison him only so that he could be freed to wind up in Southern California too, refining the very instruments he himself had piloted and dropped. If ever there was proof of the Modern Age’s helical crisis, it would have to be European intellectuals seeking refuge in the very city that spawned the military- industrial complex during WWII and later the death factories of Cold War deterrence. Where I was born and didn’t learn to surf.

It has been said many times in my family that when my father left Grumman on Long Island to take the job at Marquardt Aircraft in Van Nuys, most of my mother’s family embarked on a campaign of passive-aggressive marginalization that would last until my family’s return east six-years later (and beyond, for some of them). The sons and daughters of German and Czech immigrants who had climbed their way to Garfield, New Jersey out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side tenements, these stocky relatives, considered any excursion beyond the Passaic River a betrayal. 

W. H. Auden’s essay “The West from the Air” captures the spirit of that time from a bewildered Old World perspective. One can picture the poet of divided national loyalties—his wrinkled, devastated face pressed against the porthole of a Boeing 707—as he contemplated the mythic American landscape and Americans themselves:

In a land which is fully settled, most men must accept their local environment or try to change it by political means; only the exceptionally gifted or adventurous can leave to seek his fortune elsewhere. In America, on the other hand, to move on and make a fresh start somewhere else is still the normal reaction to dissatisfaction or failure. Such social fluidity has important psychological effects. Since movement involves breaking social and personal ties, the habit creates an attitude towards personal relationships in which impermanence is taken for granted.

3

When my three kids were little, they were perplexed after I told them I had been born in the San Fernando Valley. They had always considered California an exotic place and were incapable of disassociating my family or myself from the New England coast. “No you weren’t!” they cried, as if I’d told them I’d come from Venus. “It’s true,” I said. “I thought you knew.” This knowledge hurled them through their teens slightly appalled. They’d grown up in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, but the Golden State had been seeping into their imaginations, so their mockery of this biographical quirk was laced with a little jealousy. They wanted to go there badly, and until we finally took them their excited confusion generated an evolving stream of abuse. Everything I wore or did was viewed through a bright new lens of my preposterous birth on the West Coast. I was a poser. My flip-flops had never been on their radar, but now my son and daughters looked down at my feet in the kitchen, snorted, and shook their heads. “Dad, those are sooooo Californiaaaah.” Even though I had started surfing in my late teens, they were suddenly crowing things like, “Dad surfs because he thinks he’s from California!”

They’re adults now, but subtle indignation and doubt endure in the hierarchy even though two of them moved there: my daughter to San Francisco to work at the California Academy of Sciences, and my son, Jake, an avid surfer himself, to a public relations job in San Diego. Barely 30, he even did a stint as the director of Surfrider San Diego’s executive board. He’s a responsible, happily married charger with lucrative professional ambition—and quiver—intact. Plus, a kid on the way. Needless to say, he has garnered serious cred in our family, exponentially more than the dude who was born there.

On a visit to see Jake and his then-fiancée during their first year on the West Coast, I brought a longboard along to a family outing at Sunset Cliffs. I was the only one interested in getting in the water. They spread their towels and started pillaging the cooler while I began the paddle out to the sparsely populated lineup, waist-high and crumbly because of the afternoon onshores. But once in a while, a reasonably clean wedge would stand up on the reef and make it pathetically worthwhile. I dicked around for about 45 minutes until the tide filled in and the peak deflated to an innocuous whitecapped bump. When I waded out of the shallows toward them, my son came to the water’s edge and congratulated me. “Your last drop was great,” he said, hesitantly. “You almost looked as if you knew what you were doing.”

4

Harmonious shells that whisper forever in our ears, 
The world that you inhabit has not yet been created.
—Kathleen Raine

Perhaps I was remembering the glorious nacre
Of the home I was introduced to
When first I looked about me
And which protected me in ways
I did not recognize.
—Peter Porter

Almost 160 years ago, William Henry Brewer, a Yale graduate and leader of the first California Geological Survey, wrote the following in a letter to his brother back on the East Coast: “We wandered along the beach and picked up a few shells, some of great beauty.”

Though he doesn’t name them, we can only guess that they were most likely abalones. How abundant they must have been. That is not the case anymore south of San Francisco.

Brewer’s frankness, his willingness to veer from his official duties with the assessment of terrain to mention this trivial detail, is a great relief. I’m not the only one throughout history seduced by the remnants of these creatures, whether they’re glinting from the shelves of my past, from my wife’s earlobes, or the headstocks and rosettes of my guitars.

In the summer of 2005, we caved and took our kids to California. In the foothills of Big Sur, we made our way through sheets of fog, past mossy oaks, toward the musk of the ocean at San Simeon State Park. Down among the rocks, my daughter Madeleine began her search for shells in earnest before the tide crept in to fill the sandy webs. On that trip, she was 13 and determined to find an abalone, even a splinter of one. The nuanced summer swell was lifting and dropping the kelp beds. When she began to lose interest, I stayed down below the waterline, sidestepping the onrushing wavelets, scouring the meager jetsam with what little time remained. I’d provoked her enthusiasm, reminiscing about my own excitement when I had scrambled to pick up shards on the beach at Cayucos 26 years earlier, the summer after my sophomore year in college that I spent with my sister who had moved there to teach. Her boyfriend, a local, had even taken me for a memorable flail in the mushburgers at Morro Bay’s southern jetty. The loaner was a purple swallow-tail, a Lightning Bolt single-fin. 

The Chumash people have a myth, a macabre and beautiful evocation about the journey to the afterlife that features landmarks, genuine geographical references, specific flora and fauna. Point Conception (Humqaq) is the gateway to Similaqsa, the Land of the Dead, a native Californian version of the Romans’ Mt. Avernus. As Jack Hicks retells it in his book The Literature of California: Native American Beginnings to 1945:

When I finally found the shell at San Simeon, I mistook it for the edge of an antique coin or can lid. A delicate tugging of its rim from the gravel-like sand revealed an abalone three inches in diameter and intact, the nascent glimmer of color brewing in its immature, silver hollow. I showed it to my daughter, and we stood around it as we might the most fragile ember. It had been gnawed clean, uncharacteristically gently. But whatever its demise, it was spared in the blender of surf and predation to wind up half buried in a fragile pocket between two enormous weed-covered boulders. Misplaced and submerged most of the day, this little eye staring from the gray sand was made available so that it could be picked up by some soul wandering through.

When I finally found the shell at San Simeon, I mistook it for the edge of an antique coin or can lid. A delicate tugging of its rim from the gravel-like sand revealed an abalone three inches in diameter and intact, the nascent glimmer of color brewing in its immature, silver hollow. I showed it to my daughter, and we stood around it as we might the most fragile ember. It had been gnawed clean, uncharacteristically gently. But whatever its demise, it was spared in the blender of surf and predation to wind up half buried in a fragile pocket between two enormous weed-covered boulders. Misplaced and submerged most of the day, this little eye staring from the gray sand was made available so that it could be picked up by some soul wandering through.

5

For an extremely large percentage of the history of
the world, there was no California. That is, according to
present theory. I don’t mean to suggest that California
was underwater and has since come up. I mean to say
that of the varied terranes and physiographic provinces
that we now call California nothing whatever was there.
The continent ended far to the east, the continental shelf
as well…Then, a piece at a time–according to present
theory–parts began to assemble.
—John McPhee

What strange and unlikely things are
washed up on the shore of time.
—William Maxwell

The torso of my wetsuit is draped across my shoulders, and because the bike is too small I worry that the flapping legs will be eaten by the spokes. It’s 5:30 a.m. but I’m late, pedaling through the dark and deserted streets of Ocean Beach, San Diego on the rusty vehicle I prized out of the storage closet of my short-term lease. Signs emerge in the mist, tacked to fences and tree trunks, reading: “NEIGHBORHOODS ARE FOR NEIGHBORS: STOP VACATION RENTALS.” 

When I skid into my son’s front yard, his neighbors who had invited me to come along for a “butt-crack of dawn” session are already out in front of the house, waxing boards, firing up cigarettes, and cracking the first Tecates of the day. Having grown up southeast of LA, Adam manages an In-N-Out Burger restaurant east of OB, and his fellow migrant and high school buddy Ryan is a security guard at Target. They tried out college for a little while, moved to the coast, started families, and never looked back. In a way, the intrastate vision quest can be as severe as the transcontinental version.

Cash, the freelance pool cleaner who had been the expedition’s most enthusiastic backer at my son’s cookout the night before, texted me earlier to apologize for being “way hungover.” He is not among us in the hunkering morning damp of marine layer. Drowsy greetings, groggy banter, and cheap shots at the absentee, who a few years later will literally cash in on growing and selling to dispensaries once weed is legal.

Just back from walking his dog, my son puts on a good face. With two months to go before his fourth ACL surgery heals, he regards us wistfully as we slog up the block toward the cliffs. My frustration at his not being able to join us is distracting. It’s not until we’re making our way along the path and I’m scrambling to keep up with two guys half my age that I am simultaneously disoriented and grounded by the realization that this is the first birthday I’ve celebrated in California since the second year of my life, 55 years ago.

I try to follow Adam’s black buzzcut as he and Ryan scamper like marmots over and between the slick ledges near the tideline. They pivot, pause, then circle back to wait for me, chippy boards snugged under their arms like oversized clipboards. Finally, I arrive at the base of the cliff having scuffed and slid down an adjacent dusty embankment with a 9’6″ log wavering above my head. When I lower the board to them before jumping from the last shelf, they are practically dancing in place, anxious to reach the break before the crowd. Adam is hopping up and down when he hands it back to me. Before I can thank them for their patience they vanish around the next headland, north toward the pier, which was not the original plan.

I cannot move, cannot wrench my concentration from an advancing, glassy set of head-high waves. I’ve ventured west from New England more than a few times to surf over the past half-century, but there’s something unnerving in the diminishment I feel standing at the base of the cliff, completely alone at this juncture of physical environment, action, and time. Forty yards out, a pod of dolphins emerges in protracted and synchronized arcs, reentering their reflections just as slowly. 

It’s chilly down here, like being at the bottom of a recently drained well that could refill at any moment. It’s still too early for the sun to bore a hole through the marine layer. I’m not wearing booties. A godsend. The water back home in New Hampshire this time of year, early spring, is still in the high 30s/low 40s. Having been sealed-up all winter, my bare feet glow against the dark, wet stone. They seem severed below the black wetsuit’s shins, independent from the rest of my legs. I am palpably aware of my toes wrapping the solidity of the continent’s edge, though there’s ominous proof of erosion all around, not to mention the futile schemes above: slapdash sculptural masonry, environmentally friendly  erodible concrete, and incongruous imported rubble netted with chain-link intended for shoring up against the inevitable. 

I’ve told neither Adam nor Ryan about my birthday, this weirdly satisfying but unnerving anniversary. And I understand completely that the graphite-jade walls slapping and exploding below aren’t doing so in celebratory response to any sort of homecoming. If bodies of water are like wine, this one—the Pacific—has a strange hue, a different nose. Decay comes to mind, fishiness infused with something darker that emanates from a depth more ancient than that to which I’m accustomed. This Pacific is less kind than the ocean I’ve studied in a particular black-and-white photograph of my six- and eight-year-old sisters holding my hand in the diffused, sun-injected fog at Zuma Beach. That ocean glows behind us, swirls luminously around our ankles. Isn’t the optimism embedded in nostalgia derived from a heightened awareness of mortality? Does it really matter which ocean was the first I touched, or which seems older?

My grandparents’ home on Long Island was where I placed my first committed step on my second coast after our move back across the country. I was standing on the front threshold, peering through the house’s tunnel at Wooley Pond, the cove glimmering in the opposite doorframe. I ran toward it, past everyone who was there to greet the Golden Child. Through the living room, around my grandfather’s rolltop desk, into the kitchen, and out the back screen door to take a header off the stoop onto the burnt summer lawn, where I laid bawling until someone came out to pick me up, dust me off, and guide me to the water’s edge. It must have been like passing from one dimension to another, to scramble ecstatically from the obscurity of my cryptic memories of a half-imagined early childhood on the Pacific to Atlantic clarity and the life that is still going on.

The tide has pushed in almost as far as it can. I time my sprint to higher ground before the whitewater rushes to submerge the path that my companions took, which seemed safe and dry moments before. On my vacations and sabbaticals over the next few years, I will surf with this evolving crew more times than I can count. My son will return to the waves and we’ll hit over a dozen breaks between San Onofre and Rosarito. New phone numbers will appear in the mix as the group changes, people move away, pilgrims arrive. Text flurries will consistently debate the perennial agendas of rendezvous, surf checks, the calculus of certain breaks, work schedules, sick babies, hangovers, wind. But they don’t give a shit where I’m from, really, and make it pretty easy to slip into the fold. 

For now, I am still thinking about standing in the shadow of the cliff at the bottom of a certain street’s demise into the Pacific, the quirky go-to local break that the crew calls “Out Front.” The ice plant blossoms are like garnets igniting the rim of sagging pavement. Both the weathered natural buttresses and fabricated ramparts converge into something that seems more like an ancient abbey, more compelling in its inscrutable but enduring ruin than the familiar history. The ocean takes another bite, insinuates itself a little farther inland, erasing as it goes. It is as if Adam and Ryan were never here at all, spectral guides who, having inserted me deep into foreign territory, have abandoned me to my own resources.

Text credits

Auden, Wystan Hugh. ed. Mendelson, Edward. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: 1949-1955. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Brewer, William Henry. Up and Down California in 1860-1864 (Fourth Edition). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Didion, Joan. Where I Was From. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Hicks, Jack et al. eds. The Literature of California: Native American Beginnings to 1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

James, William. Writings 1878-1899. “Memory: Talks to Teachers”. New York: Library of America, 1992.

Maxwell, William. So Long, See You Tomorrow. Boston: David R. Godine, 1989.

McPhee, John. Assembling California. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1993.

Porter, Peter. “Hermit Crab”. The Times Literary Supplement, no. 5680 February 10, 2012.

Raine, Kathleen. Collected Poems. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2001.