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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.