Waves

We could feel the waves pounding the shore in our beds. That’s new. For the last six years, we’ve lived in an apartment perched on a cliff above Cabrillo Beach featuring a jaw-dropping view of the Pacific. Often at night, we can hear the waves – especially when the surf comes in, like it did early yesterday morning. We called it our tree-house beach villa. We thought we would never move.waves

Last weekend though, we did. The stone and glass mid-century bungalow just two doors away went on sale for only the third time in history and miraculously, blessedly, we could afford it. And because being 400 feet from the ocean wasn’t close enough, we slid down the hill 200 feet. Now, we don’t just hear the crashing; we feel it. First, there is the crackling crescendo, as the water starts to fold on top of itself, molecules smacking into molecules. Then BOOM! A big wave pounding into sand sounds like thunder. It shakes the earth.

At daybreak, we were able to visualize what we had been hearing and feeling for hours. We still have a killer view, only now we look out across the ocean more, rather than down on the port of LA. I haven’t seen a swell like this in months. The waves were coming in like a rippling mountain range, forming perfect arcs across the horseshoe of the bay, breaking left to right, east to west in symmetrical rolls that are rare for usually choppy Cabrillo. Amazingly, there were no surfers at dawn. Word got out quickly though, and soon they were pulling up in their pickup trucks and jeeps, wetsuits already on or hastily pulled over shorts as they stood by their vehicles. This was one of my favorite activities at the old place: the peep show of the hot surfer boys barely hiding behind towels as they dress or undress. Apparently, the tinted glass of the new house curtains me as well as the high location of my old office window did; I can still get my voyeurism thrill on.

img_8064The intensity of the surf doused my own swimming plans. Conditions mandated a board and serious skills. In case I had any doubts, the presence of a lifeguard boat anchored at the buoy off-shore affirmed that this was a serious swell. Even if I had wanted to risk a swim, they probably wouldn’t have let me.

So instead, I watched, from the wall of glass that sweeps across three sides of our new great room (and great it is). Waves smashing into the fishing pier and each other formed 20-foot-high white plumes, rippling all the way across the stone breakwater to the black-and-white Angels Gate lighthouse. The dolphins surfed too, a pod of big and little ones, splashing so high in their frolics I wondered what was going on.

I was born in Los Angeles but moved to Wisconsin when I was four. California remained the golden dream for me as I struggled to fit into small-town Midwestern life. On our frequent visits back to my native land, I would walk through the beach communities visiting families and friends and fantasize that I would come back some day, to a place where I could swim year round. Now I’m living the dream.

It would be easy to spend all day watching the waves, the dolphins, the surfers, the birds. But this is the setting from which I work, not my retirement. It’s the place of beauty to reward that long commute home. I know how fortunate we are to be here (though honestly, as beautiful as it is, our home is also a fixer-upper).  I am the beneficiary of all sorts of privileges, to have landed on this perch, in this room with a view. I don’t take that for granted. I know that the water that is a balm for me is an escape route, or a death trap, for millions of people in danger and in trauma.

I respect the ocean and I cherish it. And I am grateful that when I wake in the night, sleepless and disturbed, worried about the world and my little corner of it, the sound of the waves lulls – and even rocks – me back to rest.

 

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Sitting Duck: The Life Aquatic

Cabrillo waveThe wave saw me before I saw it. I was paddling in on my kayak, to the outer beach at Cabrillo. The Pacific had been flat for days. In fact, the last several times I had been out swimming I had tried to catch a ride in and got nothing. I swear this was the first serious curl I had seen since we returned from summer vacation a week before. It definitely snuck up on me, and unfortunately on this day, I was in Skimmer, my kayak that’s named after one of my favorite local shore birds, and not looking to surf. I was a sitting duck, so to speak.

Maybe I hadn’t gotten my ocean groove back yet. I had been paddling all summer in Michigan, but this was my first time on the salt water in a few months. Bud and I took a quiet, two-hour paddle out to the red groaner buoy a couple miles off shore.  Sea lions crowded its metal, bell-shaped platform as it rocked in the swells, emitting its periodic low moan. Several young pinnipeds, their ribs pushing through their fur, scrambled for position on top of the soft pillow created by one elder’s giant gray body, as it sprawled patiently. There were more marine mammals sunning on the rocks at the foot of Point Fermin. A week’s worth of wind — that’s why they call this stretch of ocean Hurricane Gulch — had turned the sea an unseasonable 60 degrees, and the seals seemed as anxious to be out of its cold grip as we were. The kelp flourished this summer, and we paddled over its forest top, looking down at the plants swaying in the waves, like birds skimming over a jduckungle canopy. One other group of kayakers paddled past, couples in tandem vessels wearing bright vests and following a leader — “tourists,” I scoffed, half joking. Otherwise, it was quiet here off the shore of the fourteenth biggest city in the world, as it usually is.

I’ve been kayaking in San Pedro, the port community at the bottom of Los Angeles, for three years now, chasing whales and freighters, dolphins and, once, a two-story yellow inflatable duck. I love the water. It’s my element. I grew up canoeing, on Midwestern lakes and rivers, and ocean kayaking isn’t much different. Well, except for the waves.

I am very careful about kayaking on the outside, the ocean side. There’s an inner beach at Cabrillo too, inside the harbor, and that’s where we go if there’s any kind of swell; the breakwater impedes the ocean’s force. As an avid bodysurfer, I’ve been swirled in enough washing-machine action to understand Neptune’s power. A couple of minor wipeouts are enough to teach you that you do not want the hard plastic of a kayak banging against your shins or elbows. I always look back as I come in, out at the Point, where the water breaks first and, on swell days, the surfers gather like so many ants on matchsticks. The sets of larger waves hit Fermin first, and by monitoring their white foam, I make sure I slide in between danger. As I said, there hadn’t been much going on for a while — San Pedro’s surfers were nowhere in sight last Sunday.

Maybe, too, I was feeling a little over confident. I had been out in Lake Superior after a couple storms this summer. Believe me, the biggest body of fresh water in the world can kick up some action — just ask the Edmund Fitzgerald and all the other seagoing vessels lying broken on its bottom. In fact, I had gotten taken by surprise by a sleeper wave just åa few weeks ago, and I rode it 20 feet into shore, like a pro. The feeling of being snuck up on, grabbed, then hurled forward was exhilarating and scary, like flying on water. I love to bodysurf, but I don’t really like to be in the rough with a big piece of plastic. I trust myself, and H2O, but objects not so much — especially man-made ones. I don’t scuba, I free dive.

Today, I was coming in slow, checking for sets of larger waves. It looked easy, calm, no stress. Bud was ahead of me and cool as a cucumber, taking long strokes atop Scooter (his kayak, named after another avian Cabrillo resident). I was close to shore now, and probably could stand if I jumped out. Maybe I held back for too long, sussing the tide out, instead of just plowing forward. I turned around for one last look and there it was, a four-foot curl that had formed right on my stern and was ready to break. It was too late to pull back or go forward. “Watch out!” I screamed at Bud.

Like a bad dream I had imagined a hundred times before — this was exactly what I have always been scared could happen — the wave lifted Skimmer’s ass high in the air. For a few seconds, I was riding high — I was surfing. I thought maybe I was going to be okay. In fact, this could be the ride of my life.

But the boat was at the wrong angle, pitched way too steep, and the water was too shallow. The ocean slammed my bow into the sand with such force, I was sure it broke my boat. Skimmer somersaulted, I fell into the surf, the water was thick with kelp, and turning in the dark, in my element, I couldn’t tell for sure what was happening. I knew I needed to get out of the way of the boat — I didn’t need to hit my skull or shin on its hard body. So I went as deep as I could, letting the wave pass, before coming up for air.

Really, I was lucky. I could have landed on my head and broken my neck, or been bonked by Skimmer and knocked out. Instead, I was standing, and Skimmer was there beside me, in one piece, just full of kelp. My paddle was right there, and my water bottle. Just my cap and shades were gone. Oh, and my right foot was killing me.IMG_8094

Bud stood smugly in the backwash, having caught the wave perfectly and enjoyed a nice ride. He seemed to think my plight was funny. “Help me, grab the kayak!” I shouted. I knew I didn’t need to lose control of Skimmer to another wave, and I was having trouble walking.

“What happened? I missed it, I couldn’t look back, I was coming in,” Bud said.

“I got somersaulted. It sucked.”

“Oh man, that’s called a pole plant. I wish I had seen it!”

I’m sure the look on my face as the wave hoisted my butt in the air and tossed me, like an athlete vaulting over a pole, was something special, but frankly I was glad my husband had not witnessed my epic fail. I half expected a lifeguard or one of the scuba divers getting ready to go out for a swim would come and say something to me, like, “you okay?” But apparently my tussle with the wave was a private affair, just between me and it, a little bully shove in the bathroom to remind me who was boss, here in the falsely named Pacific Ocean.

My foot wasn’t broken, just badly bruised — “like her ego,” as Bud joked on Facebook. (Is there anything as sweet as being able to publicly relish a spouse’s mishap?) It was a bad start, a literal stumble, to a sabbatical year that I envision as full of ocean activity. I will heal. I’ll get back in the kayak, and, if it’s calm — like, really calm — I’ll go on the outside — though I will be even more cautious. At least for a while. When I’m in water, I’m in my element. That doesn’t mean it can’t kill me, but at least, I will die where I want to be, where I understand the balance between sinking and swimming, and usually, I make the right choice.P1020089

Dear readers, I’m trying something new here: a recurring feature on my affinity for water, a blog within a blog, which I am calling “Flotsam and Jetsam: The Life Aquatic.” Could become a podcast. Looking for comments and possibly a home/outlet.

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Rock Blocking with Jett and Heart

The cake backstage at the Forum.

The cake backstage at the Forum.

I hate classic rock. I just spent two months in a part of the country (the rural Midwest) where too many people still listen to the songs they made out to during their first hormonal bloom — where party mixes sound like a broken record that’s been stuck in a groove of guitar climaxes and sodden rhythms for forty years. Nostalgia is dangerous; this is also Trump country. Not only can I not bear to hear most of these overplayed ur-rock songs again — and admittedly, I loved them when I heard them as a youth myself, but I’ve discovered a zillion other great records since then that have not been so tirelessly overplayed. As a music historian, I also understand that the ’70s was not some golden age of rock. It was a time when commercially driven radio stations had inordinate power over what the country heard. Specifically, sleazy white male music directors with ugly mustaches and thinning hair picked out those songs that are now on endless repeat, their “taste” groomed by similarly attired record men pushing coke. (Don’t you watch Vinyl? I don’t.) It was a time when playlists were as segregated as my high school lunch room — the era of “disco sucks” — and when women artists were limited to one rotation per hour.

And yet there I was last night, at the Los Angeles stop of the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame tour featuring Heart, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and Cheap Trick. The presence of two female-led acts on the bill drew me, as did the invitation of my dear friends Veronique and Jon. After all, women are a small minority in the Hall of Fame, and Jett and Heart are two of the few female artists who smashed the glass ceiling of album-oriented radio in the ’70s and ’80s. I love the fact that these pioneers have hitched their wagons together, no silly Lilith nomenclature necessary. Plus, as a former resident of the Midwest, I have a soft spot for Robin Zander.

Frankly, I wish I had gone to see Adele or PJ Harvey instead. All three acts at the Forum played newer material, trying to maintain relevance in a world where analog has gone full cycle from obsolescence to retro chic. Cheap Trick nerdboy guitarist Rick Nielsen was self-aware about the impotence of this strategy; announcing a song from the band’s four-month-old album Bang, Zoom, Crazy … Hello, he sarcastically asked, “Anyone heard it?” (Answer: resounding silence.) It was the oldies — “I Want You To Want Me,” “I Love Rock and Roll”, “Magic Man” — that got the AARP audience to its feet.

Cheap Trick opened and Joan had the sweet spot in the middle. She and her band offered the perfect bridge between the Trick’s bubblegum metal (I mean that in a good way) and Heart’s acid-washed anthems. I’ve seen Joan I don’t know how many times, and she was in great form. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched so many thousands of people go crazy for her like that; she was clearly the star of the evening. Joan ate up the energy and fed it right back to the crowd. Maybe it helped that there were more female fans at the Forum than I usually see at a classic rock show. (I do go to them. Occasionally.) The Wilson sisters and Jett deserve immense kudos for the gender barriers they broke decades ago. And they have always been clear that they were fighting a battle, as Ann Wilson said when Heart played their old song “Even It Up.”

Very few musicians escape the burden of their own success. Even Lou Reed, that crank, was obligated to trot out “Walk on the Wild Side,” or at least “Sweet Jane.” I remember seeing Neil Young introduce his great song cycle Greendale at a West Palm Beach amphitheater, and the crowd hating on him big time because he wasn’t playing “Cinnamon Girl.” Bruce Springsteen keeps it fresh because he warned years ago about the dangers of thinking about nothing but “Glory Days.” But even the Boss has taken to replaying whole albums from his past live.

I would think Joan Jett is as tired of playing “Crimson and Clover” as I am of hearing it — more so. But she didn’t show it last night. And when, as she has for 23 years, she kept the pronouns as Tommy James intended them — “I think I could show her” — yeah, it felt bold, the daring of a woman ahead of her time. Hearing an arena sing along to a woman voicing desire for a woman is a glory day I can relive, over and over.

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Yes She Can

Last night, at a point when we needed it most, America was blessed with one of the most detailed, compassionate, forward-looking, fierce, and presidential speeches I have ever seen a candidate give. And she wrapped it all up with a quote from Hamilton! Hillary Rodham Clinton provided an exuberant end to an intense and important convention. Afterwards, we went outside and the Northern sky was lit by aurora borealis. Stars streaked across the heavens for seconds at a time, leaving behind iridiscent exclamation marks. It was as if Mother Earth were celebrating this historic moment — or as if my own mother were letting us know she is still here. Hope lives. 

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Vivien Goldman, Punk Renaissance Woman

Vivien Goldman has inspired me for decades. She is a true artist and friend. I got to write about her for NPR.

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A Story of Hamilton

The screensaver of my son, C. Ham

As I write in an essay published by the Los Angeles Review of Books today, I have a double investment in the musical Hamilton: I come from a long line of Hamiltons, including, according to family legend, Alexander; and I wrote the book about Rent, a major inspiration on Lin-Manuel Miranda. I also relate to Miranda’s script, and the accompanying Hamiltome, being a piece of writing about writing. Read the full essay here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/whats-in-a-name/.

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New Journalism, Old Problems

I have always celebrated the work of the New Journalists of the 1960s as having reinvigorated reporting, rather than circumventing it. Unfortunately, as recent scandals involving Gay Talese and Rolling Stone have shown, there can be a thin line between gonzo style and old-fashioned tabloid sensationalism. I recently commented on these ethical issues for The Washington Post and Salon.

 

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