On the water writing

Meeting with the whaleThere’s nothing better than being on the water. Another blog we’ve been following recently, Transparent Sea, is chronicling an open ocean paddle following the migration path of whales off the coast of Australia, and features some close-in photos and videos of whales, dolphins, and surfers.

I suddenly remembered I could not swimWe are reminded of Joshua Slocum’s classic, Sailing Alone Around the World. Slocum could not swim, yet he spent just over three years and 46,000 miles alone on the water. 

Writing sometimes feels like being alone on the water, unable to swim.

Hemingway surfing and writing

Timing is everything
at Leo Carillo, 1969.

We’ve been enjoying the El Porto Fridays blog. We can still feel the El Porto sand beneath our feet, the foam rushing over our board, the morning glass, the afternoon chop, the evening glass-off. We surfed there in the 60’s and 70’s, before heading out, like Huck Finns, for the territory, ahead of all the rest; well, ahead of some, behind others. The El Porto Fridays blog recently put up a post titled “5 Ways to Improve Your Surfing.” It had us thinking of Shaun Tomson’s Surfer’s Code, and of Hemingway and writing. 

A sentence is like a wave, as Hemingway often illustrated; Hemingway didn’t surf, but he does have Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises body surfing, and this famous sentence from the short story “Cross Country Snow” illustrates what could be a surfer on a wave:

“George was coming down in telemark position, kneeling; one leg forward and bent, the other trailing; his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow as they touched the surface and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.”

Small Wave Riders 2009 annual surf trip video

Joe Waves at El Porto circa 1969
El Porto waves, circa 1969, riding a modified Jacobs.

Gregg Noll, the first of the modern big wave surfers, never lost sight of the fun to be found in small waves. In the early-60s, still in the original Gregg Noll surfboard shop, in Hermosa, when asked if he found small waves boring after having surfed the giants, he replied not at all, he would always have fun in the South Bay slop. I know that because I was there, a local kid dreaming of a new board, and I asked him.

Having fun in small surf is the sentiment that fuels Small Wave Riders. There are other reasons – as we get older, paddling out gets harder. And there is the pulling archetype of the surf trip (on the west coast, this means a long cruise on Highways 1 and 101, and Pacific Coast Highway, and Highland Ave., checking out the surf spots along the way); and community, always local, throwing off the work clothes (if necessary) for jeans, t shirt, and sandals – trunks and a surfboard (for “Jesus was a [surfer] when he walked upon the water,” sang Leonard Cohen, or might have sang, had he been a surfer; he sang “…sailor…only drowning men could see him”) – living out of the surf rig, a tent, the occasional old friend’s place up from the beach, eating out of bags, or at the best (discovered word of mouth) local dives, body sticky with sand, wax, and salt; and the blue green grey lure of the ocean, of men going down to the sea.

Of course, over time, conditions change. Jesus now wears a wet suit, including booties, hands, and hood, and every spot is crowded, even the spots where the waves are so small they can hardly be called waves. The locals are even more protective of their spots, so the surfer on safari is sometimes well-advised to select a less crowded spot, even if it means yet smaller waves. But “just get in [the water]” is brother John Linker’s mantra. Once in, once the glass is broken, there’s no closer union with nature, physically and mentally. One doesn’t think on waves, not in the normal sense of thinking; once in, one is guided almost by pure instinct, and the Cartesian split is temporarily taped.

So we were delighted to receive in the mail this past week the 2009 Small Wave Riders annual surf trip video, this year titled 5 Point 5. The film technology continues to improve, as does the technique. The sound track is blended with the waves and action, and the sequences of driving, stopping to check out a spot, paddling out, catching waves, then kicking back after the set, create a structure that feels natural, allowing for hightened viewer engagement. Some of the technique is reminiscent of the best of the old surf films, the ones we used to see in the Hermosa Beach High School auditorium, the independent, locally filmed surf movies, and there are also reminders of the great, original Endless Summer. Of course, these days, the summers get shorter, not longer, let alone endless, and the trip comes to an end, again in the old surf film manner, too soon, after only 35 minutes of small wave surfing. But it’s enough. Our appetite for a wave is soaking wet.

John Cage, Cowboy Surf Shop, and Garage Jazz

John Cage was the first garage musician, freeing music at once from the academy, from high culture, from ubiquitous radios, from naturalism – from preconceived notions of what sounds should sound like. Cage valued sounds; he desired sounds, required sounds. Cage captured sounds he found in his environment and remixed them in his garage, creating a philosophy of music that encouraged listeners to experiment, restoring sound to primeval element. Cage’s music is not devoid of sentimentality, and heralds both warnings and callings – electronic blasts to the chest, bees dancing in the labyrinths of our ears.


We are anxious to hear the sounds we make, our own voice, which we hear in unison, subverting our self-consciousness. The echo, reverb, was the first natural recording. Garage Band allows us to extend the range of our voice, format, and get loopy – all Cageian values. We’ve been listening for a long, long time; how much training do we require?


Cowboy Surf ShopJohn Linker’s Cowboy Surf Shop employs his various interests – folk, alternative, literature, surfing, and playing guitar as something to do with your hands. In one piece, “Rock ‘n Roll Eden,” a Lou Reed cover, we hear a voice reading from Jack London (Jack’s ranch, in the Valley of the Moon, is not too far from John’s place). A diversion from teaching duties, John’s project is a demo, a rough draft, experimenting with loops, voice-overs, a variety of instruments (sans drums – bass picks up both rhythm and percussion), and improvisation on covers and originals.


When in the Army in the late 60’s we used to hang around the motor pool after hours playing guitar. Spec. 4 Martin, who had worked at Fender, offered this criticism: “You never play the same thing the same way.” As we’ve discussed, Cage was not a jazz fan, but what we require now is garage jazz, inviting thought: what is garage; what is jazz.


Albert Camus on the Economic Collapse

RefugioAn old friend from our South Santa Monica Bay days writes, “Did I hear that right? 5 day forecast for around here is in the upper 80’s.  Visibility for miles.  Air quality is wonderful. But, this is January.”

In the mornings we went surfing, and in the afternoons we played whiffle ball in the yard or in the street. Maybe we walked to the five and dime for a pack of baseball cards, but if there were no good cards in the pack there was still the bubblegum, the smell like a perfume. Summers we camped on the beach at Refugio and for days wore nothing but our swim-trunks. 

Camus Lyrical and Critical EssaysWe are reminded again of Camus’s “The Sea Close By”: “I grew up with the sea and poverty for me was sumptuous; then I lost the sea and found all luxuries gray and poverty unbearable” (p. 172). And this, from “Return to Tipasa”: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer” (p. 169).

Camus, Albert. (1970). Lyrical and critical essays. Vintage Books: New York.

Theory of nothing, something, and everything in between

Then we saw Wallace-Wells’s “Surfing the Universe,” in the July 21 issue, and we quickly skipped to this Annals of Science piece; for since seeing the Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert B. Laughlin lecture locally, our old curiosity to know if the physicists will ever solve their “Theory of Everything” has been expanding. 

There’s apparently enough string theory going around that if the physicists studying it were Christo they could wrap the universe. We like Lisi’s new idea for a Theory of Everything because while it exposes string theory for the cat’s cradle it is, it also makes use of something called E8, at once suggesting an error on a guitar chart (he must mean E7, or E9 – what’s an E8 shaped like?), and our old drill sergeant at Fort Bliss (an E8), Fall 1969, who also toyed around with a theory of everything.

We had our own theory of everything nearly completed, but it contained no math, actuarially speaking, though it was based on the number system we developed to illuminate the guitar fretboard. Like many of our great ideas, it was written on one of our Joe Mitchell note sheets, got left in a back pocket of a pair of jeans, and went out with the wash.

Criticizing string theory in his book A Different Universe, Laughlin says “A measurement that cannot be done accurately, or that cannot be reproduced even if it is accurate, can never be divorced from politics and must therefore generate mythologies” (p. 215). In lecture, Laughlin was a card. Expecting a mega-PowerPoint, instead we got cartoons from an overhead. “Just look around you…Even this room is teeming with things we do not understand” (p. 218).

Anyone lucky enough to have surfed, that is, surfed in the water, salt water, in real waves, may not understand physics, but certainly comprehends that, as Laughlin says, “there is much, much more yet to come” (p. 218).

El Porto Waltz

We found ourselves last night dancing at the ballroom again. We lost interest in the lesson quickly though, and chose to sit down, though our partner danced on, promenading around the dance floor, celebrating the dance community’s values. We thought of E. B. White’s dictum “Omit needless words.” Adapted for dance, it reads “Omit needless steps.” The lesson last night featured the waltz. We liked the country-western waltzes best: “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Waltz across Texas,” “Zydeco Waltz.”

We had used too many steps to express our personal El Porto Waltz, and sat at a corner table, nursing a cup of coffee, thinking of a post, writing notes on our handy pocket card with ball point pen, our favorite, the BIC Ultra, blue, glides like Danny Kaye (in our hand) across the worn tongue and groove, waxed maple floor of our imagination. But alas, without a reader for a partner, we are a single on that dance floor, a sometimes-discouraging feeling.

How is dancing like writing? Consider the forms, or styles. Dancing and writing both employ basic steps necessary for the partner-reader to recognize the form. The writer must learn to lead the reader, and not step on the reader’s toes, and, ultimately, discover the right combination of moves that allows grace to descend. One can improvise, but one improvises on the theme; drift too far, and the improvisation loosens anarchy upon the dance floor. The reader-partner must at least have some encouragement to follow the writer’s lead. Without that encouragement, one dances across paper solo.

small wave riders

Our brother John has started a blog. Called small wave riders, it will chart, in the spirit of Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a surf trip moving south from Sonoma County, California, stopping to catch waves at favorite spots – Santa Cruz, Refugio, Leo Carillo, El Porto – making the turn in San Diego, then returning north.

A small wave is a lyric poem compared to the epic novels made famous by surfers like Greg Noll and Laird Hamilton. Hearing about the new blog and the surf trip coming up, we asked ourselves how surfing is like writing. The answer came immediately; surfing is not at all like writing. Writing is sedentary, and if physically exhausting, only because sitting in one position for extended periods is unnatural. Surfing is constant motion; even while sitting on the board waiting for a wave the surfer is watching the swells, paddling about, jockeying for position. We then asked ourselves why we are planning to spend the summer writing when we could be surfing. The answer came immediately; to misquote Robert Frost, we “have promises to keep, and miles to go before we surf.”

El Porto, Sep, 1969

Where weather and writing merge

In Joan Didion’s essay “The Santa Ana,” our psyches succumb to exotic weather, an atavistic vestige from when we lived outdoors. The Santa Ana blows dry and hot across the Los Angeles basin, purposefully, a theme exploring a thesis, exhaust flowing west out the boulevards, across the strands and beaches and into the waves, and out to the ends of the jetties and piers, and then across the flat salt water stretches of Santa Monica Bay. The smog sludges along with the wind out to the horizon where it obscures the setting sun, collecting in clouds like becalmed ships hovering, smoking, drifting off the edge.

When we lived in Santa Ana country, our interest in the wind was limited to its effects on surfing conditions. The offshore winds blow into the waves, holding them up, keeping them glassy. Surfers, young, living outdoors, we welcomed the Santa Ana winds. Where we live now the atavistic sense is stirred by the East Wind that blows on clear winter days out of the Gorge and across town. Sometimes in the summer the East Wind blows hot, but winter gets the longest swells, the winds so thin and cold they floss your bones. Locals say, simply, “The East Wind is coming,” and dress for wind chill factor, wrap their outdoor pipes, secure things out in the yard, looking up into their trees expectantly. The local news people tried one year to name the East Wind, but the name they came up with did not stick with the locals. The East Wind is still called the East Wind.

“The Santa Ana” was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, whose readers apparently appreciated when weather and writing merged. The less obvious thesis of Didion’s essay is that our psyches succumb to writing and reading too, and, if not, we’re probably not reading what we need, what we should. We write to stir the Santa Ana within us, and we read for the same reason, to feel the East Wind blow within. We write and read to stir the Santa Ana in the basin of our brain, where our own angels lounge; we write and read to call the East Wind through the gorge of our complacency. If we don’t feel some extreme weather building within, something is missing. Joan Didion’s essay is the Santa Ana. When she writes, “There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension,” we know that the writing will be equally uneasy, unnaturally still, and tense.

Didion, J. (1979). Los Angeles notebook. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem (pp. 217-221). New York: Simon and Schuster.