A lesson and a story

“I know well what the temptations of the devil are, and that one of the greatest is putting it into a man’s head that he can write a book” -Miguel de Cervantes, preface to Don Quixote, Part 2

Sitting on the back steps with Olivia, I realized that I’d been thinking about it the wrong way. It was Saturday, and the swirl of the party spilling out into the warm summer evening was making it hard to have serious conversation. But I was congratulating her on her book – the latest revision had gone off to the publisher at some ungodly hour that morning, and O was clearly catching her breath for the first time in a long while.

I told her I was envious – but it was the good kind of envy. I’ve always wanted to write a book (the more easily amused of you will remember this as a common theme).

“About what?”

Olivia has a way with questions. It’s not that she lays down particularly intricate ones, any more than Monet lays down particularly intricate brush strokes. It’s how they’re placed.

“Oh, I don’t know, I…”

“Mmmm?”

I came up with half a dozen possible answers before I came up with the un-answer: “Damn. I’m going about this the wrong way.”

“Tell me more.”

So here was the insight: wanting to write a book is like wanting to get married. We’ve all – at least once in our lives – been exasperated by that idealistic young woman who’s Just So Eager to get Married. She’s got the fantasy wedding visualized down to the font on the place settings, and knows they’ll have a split-level ranch with 2.5 kids and a dog named Bowser. Right? She just needs to find the right guy for it.

And you pity the guy she settles on.

Because getting married isn’t about getting married. If there’s someone that’s special to you, you want to spend time with them. Going to movies, building stuff, camping, whatever. Getting married is just another way of arranging to spend time with them.

“Writing a book” isn’t any different is it? It’s not a particularly defensible end in and of itself (and pity the reader of a book written for this end). If you have a story to tell, you should tell it. If the telling turns out to be in the size and shape of a book, mazel tov – kiss the bride. Otherwise, just tell the damned story.

Anyhow, that was my insight. Not that it helps much. Don’t think about writing a book? Sure – just don’t think about elephants. Don’ts don’t work. What does? Let’s try this: a story.

So, I’m reminded of this story – is it a story before it’s been told? Or is it in the telling that it becomes one? In any case, I’m reminded of it by a slice of pizza. To be precise, a slice of Santa Barbara Combo, fresh out of the oven at Pleasure Pizza down on 41st St in Santa Cruz.

Happened like this: Back a few summers ago, when I was trying to get proficient at surfing, I’d sneak down to Santa Cruz whenever Surfline was forecasting decent waves. My favorite spot was Pleasure Point, a long, forgiving beach break with a friendly forgiving crowd.

Unless you’re an antisocial rockstar surfer god, the crowd is as important as the break itself. Perhaps even more so. A beach is a beach, but in some places, “localism” runs rampant: if we don’t know you and you don’t live here, you don’t surf here. I tended to stick to beaches that were well-recognized as friendly breaks for beginners, but you still heard stories – storied about repeatedly getting run off a wave, getting heckled, and worse. Heard of slashed tires and fins getting snapped off. Heard of, that is.

But Pleasure Point wasn’t one of those spots. At least half the folks out there were kooks (“beginners”) like me, and the grizzled old riders who shared the waves with us were there because, well, probably because they preferred the vibe to fighting for waves with testosterone-driven antisocial rockstar surfer gods.

Mind you, some of these guys were damned good. But they’d sit out there with us, out beyond the break, and shoot the breeze while we all bobbed about in a loose mob. You know the image of the laid-back surfer guy? This is where it comes from. Most of the time you’re surfing, you’re not actually surfing; you’re sitting, balanced legs astride your board and bobbing in the water as you look out to the sea. You gauge the fine ripples and sway in the reflections off the surface a hundred or more yards out, trying to read the ocean. It’s telling you – this one, this ripple. When it hits the shallow water ahead of you, it’s going to rise up into a perfect A-frame, angling to the shore just so, and carrying you – if you catch it – in on a glorious magic carpet ride of speed, grace and pure adrenaline. That other one – the ripple behind it? That one’s going to sucker you in, trick you into paddling like hell, then, just when you think you’ve got it, it will rear back into a flat wall and close out on top of you, smacking you to the bottom and rolling you, rolling you in a blind fury across the rocks and sand until it loses interest and spits you out, angry and bleeding, in the shallows.

So you spend a lot of time out there, looking at the sea, reading the waves. You let the perfect one go by? No worries – there’s always another wave; that’s what the sea is for.

For the meditative, it’s an addictive activity, and it tends to draw kindred spirits. Out there, bobbing among the strangers, you talk about the weather (“Doesn’t suck in the least – you’re here, right?”) about that last wave (“Pure harmony, then I got cocky”), and in general how damned lucky you are. You’re here. In so many different senses.

Anyhow, days when the forecast was good and Devon gave me a hall pass, I’d skip out from work early to bolt down Highway 17 and try to get a couple of hours on the waves before dusk. Honestly, I never got to the point where I’d even call myself an accomplished beginner. Some days I wouldn’t even manage to catch a single real wave, and when my arms were spent, I’d content myself riding the whitewater in those last dozen yards to the shore.

But it was always good. I’d pick up my board and, (to evoke Nancy Newhall),drenched and defeated I’d look out over the sea I’d struggled with and be filled with a deep gratitude and satisfaction. And then I’d head over to Pleasure Pizza.

The chill from the Northern California water, and effort of battling waves for a couple of hours always left me feeling like I could chase down and eat a car. Hungry. And three blocks up from the beach was Pleasure Pizza – by the slice.

Don’t recall how I first stumbled across it; figure the thought process was “Lots of calories! Now!” and PP was the first place my eyes lit on that seemed like it could satisfy those delicate requirements.

But the pizza was great, really, and those aren’t just the calories talking. Big sloppy slices that somehow manage to retain both the sweet chewy dough and that ever-so-slightly crisp crunch of the bottom crust. Great toppings. And a clientele that just screams “Santa Cruz”. Sometimes literally – the shirtless teen waif-skaterboy hollering out the door that his friends’ slices were ready, then looking about sheepishly at the wincing line around him. “Sorry, gentlemen. Uh, and ladies. And babies. Dog – yeah, dogs too. Sorry.”

You sat on the concrete and tile benches out front and watched. VW microbuses in 60’s drag and MG Midgets ply the streets, confidently puttering their cultural superiority over the sleek frustrated Porsches, anxious to be somewhere else. Somewhere closer to this century. Skaters, surfers and strands of hopelessly beautiful young women in halter tops flowing along the sidewalk while Creedence thumped out the rhythm of the early evening. It wasn’t just a slice of pizza – it was a lifestyle. An era.

That was all a few years ago. Then I started traveling more. I had a few waves scare me. And I found myself not coming down here so much. Then at all. Loaned out my board and told the guy I didn’t need it back any particular time soon. And quietly let Pleasure Point slip away from me.

But this afternoon, there was something in the breeze on campus. Or maybe it was just me. A restlessness. And I found myself southbound, braving 41 miles of Highway 17 in rush hour traffic. Not so much with a destination in my head as a state of mind. Some hour and a half later, I pulled off on 41st Street, continued down to where the road narrowed to a single lane, at the four-way stop just a few blocks north of where the cliffs drop off into the surf of Monterey Bay. Parked my car at the corner and walked. Pleasure Pizza was still there, with a line stretching out the door. They had a fresh Santa Barbara Combo coming out of the oven when I made it to the front of the line, and you know, it was still a damned good slice of pizza.

[Heh – funny thing is, I never did get around to telling that story I was going to. About me and Brian heading for Portland in my old Dodge Colt back in the autumn of 1985. Finding ourselves still southbound a few days later, passing through Los Angeles, contemplating Tijuana. Ah well, that one will have to wait.]

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