Saturday morning. I
was running late, gassing along Pacific Coast Highway toward Malibu State Park,
the local sport-climbing area. I’d felt a little off from that first step out
of bed, annoyed when the ancient tape deck in my company car gobbled my only
Eric Dolphy cassette, and downright hateful when, swerving to avoid a maniac on
a rice-burner, I fumbled my Venti Joe and all 16 ounces cascaded over the
crotch of my snow-white surfing trunks. By the time I gained the parking lot
and humped into the crag, I could have murdered widows and orphans. Instead, I
jumped up on a 5.12a and immediately pitched.
“The route’s crap,”
I raged. “The whole area’s crap. I hate everything.”
I hurled my slippers
into the brush and slouched back on a boulder. Then I spotted her, standing in
a swath of shade 20 feet away, sheepishly peering my way. She’d witnessed the
whole carnival, and as her eyes played over the disturbing brown stain on my trunks
I felt so ashamed I could have burnt her to ashes with a glare. I loathed this
woman and her flimsy smile, her 8-ounce Aquafina bottle in one hand and her
designer “wilderness” get-up. Like many others from the chic Malibu coastline,
just down the road, she’d migrated up to the park for a New Age wilderness
encounter. She belonged in a Pilates class, or in some pansy café on Pacific
Coast Highway, but not here.
I stared silently at
this silly creature, with her close-cropped brown hair and a face that, while
gentle on the eyes, was apparently tangling with a few issues, and I hated her.
I hated everybody, including my partner, “Andy,” who’d likewise eyeballed at
her for several minutes, though I couldn’t say why.
“Aren’t you Wendy
so-and-so?” Andy finally asked. Wendy nodded feebly.
“Wendy who?” I said.
“She’s a singer and
an actress,” said Andy.
“Who isn’t, in this
town?” I asked.
“She sings on
Broadway. Don’t you?” Andy said, glancing at Wendy.
“I used to ... sometimes,”
“Well, let it rip,
Sweet Pea,” I said. “You might start off with ‘Amazing Grace’ because I could
use some just now.”
“I think you’ve
confused me for a trained parrot,” she said.
“I didn’t mean it
like that,” I said. “But I performed for you. Poorly, for sure, but I gave it a
“Well, how about if
I sang from back here?” she asked. “You look kinda ... scary.”
“If you were
wondering,” I said, motioning toward the scandalous stain on my trunks, “that’s
“Sure it is,”
“Go stick your head
in a blast furnace,” I grumbled.
“You might think
about changing medications, because the one you’re taking”—and here Wendy shook
her head at me—“it isn’t working.”
I blew out a sigh
and said, “Would you be so kind as to sing us a song?”
“OK, if you put it
that way,” she said. “But no promises how this might sound.” She moved a few
steps closer into a hollow, formed by the wall that mildly amplified our
voices. Then she drew a breath and glided into “Hello Young Lovers,” from the King
and I, one of Rogers and Hammerstein’s sappiest, and finest, tunes.
Wendy couldn’t have
weighed more than a hundred pounds, but she amazed us with her amplitude. As
she drifted into the second refrain, I went from empty and desolate to warm in
the middle as her voice called me back to the living. For a few moments longer,
as Wendy breezed through the last chorus, our dingy little patch of shade,
stone and poison oak became a castle in the sky.
Carl Sandburg once
wrote that it’s easy to die alive, to register a living thumbprint but be dead
from the neck up, which pretty well described me that morning. My father had
died a few weeks before, and ever since I’d felt torqued, nasty mean and glad
to pass it on. Then Wendy sang her song.
For a long beat we
sat as quietly as converts after a prayer.
“Thanks for that,” I
“That’s the first
song I’ve sung in almost two years,” Wendy finally said.
“If I had your
voice, I’d sing all day long,” said Andy, “just to show off.”
“I did that for
nearly 10 years,” she said, “and I forgot why I was singing at all.”
“Until a few minutes
ago, I couldn’t tell you why I was doing anything,” I said. “It’s been that way
for two weeks.”
“Try two years,”
“I’d perish,” I
said. “And you don’t have to stand so far away. I don’t feel scary anymore.”
Wendy stepped over
and sat down with us on the rocks. We hung out for another hour or so; in the
meantime, Andy and I put in a few burns on that crappy 5.12a, and the crappy
routes that book-ended it as well. Then I tried a third burn on the middle
route, pitched off just shy of the shuts and once again flew into a rage.
Wendy’s song had cleared my eyes to see what I was doing, but I was still doing
yelled, glaring down at Andy. “Just lower me.”
I touched down and
untied. “What’s wrong with me?” I raged. “This thing’s supposed to be easy.”
Andy howled: “5.12
never gets easy, you moron.”
I wanted to grab
Andy’s words and shove them down his throat. For two weeks I’d floundered
around in a trance, broken briefly by Wendy’s performance, but now I was back
to floundering and I didn’t want any part of it. I wanted to crank every crux
with the greatest of ease, but reality refused to oblige, so, true to form, I
started running. I packed my bag, thanked Wendy for her song, told Andy to go
jump off a cliff, and marched for my car. Driving home along Pacific Coast
Highway, I pulled over by Puerco Canyon and walked down to the beach.
Trudging along the
sweeping, wet line where the land met the sea, I bitterly reflected on how all
my dearest fantasies eventually dropped into the crapper: like that promise of
a soul mate who lives to celebrate your every feeling, thought and desire (and
you end up with Hagatha, who flogs you with your many defects); that the
President never lies; that your folks will never die.
In fading blue light
the waves rolled in and rolled out, and salty white bubbles, like so many
cherished beliefs, popped to nothingness on the floor of the beach. As far back
as I could remember I’d wondered which of mankind’s faiths and illusions I
could choose as my sustaining light, and I’d chosen the greatest existential
pathology of them all: that if I worked hard enough, and smartly enough, my
greatest challenges would someday flow effortlessly under my hands like glassy
did. But just as often all was chaos, blundering and effort. The clincher was
that when the difficulties eased and life ran smooth and easy, I’d immediately
grow bored. Yet the moment life again became onerous or beyond reckoning I’d
start dreaming of a tropical hammock and cold beer. Easy or hard, I’d grown
addicted to searching out the opposite, reducing my life to an exercise in
channel surfing where I rarely embraced where I was and what I had. Whenever a
failure or a crisis stalled me in one channel, I’d scramble for an immediate
solution, trying to solve my life instead of pausing to live it. But when
someone died or I found myself benighted on a ledge for the livelong night, I
couldn’t change channels. And that’s the part I hated because then I couldn’t
dodge the fact there were pivotal chunks of my life I refused to live.
Amazingly, there was
even more involved here, like the business of how easy and hard times seemed
always to arrive willy-nilly, at oblique angles, like waves in a hurricane. My
cliffside performance could run from awful to dazzling in the same hour, but
such swings were nothing compared to the screwy orbit of my conventional life.
Somewhere in the rolling of the ivories, the story unfolded, along with the
truth of how little I could do to leverage the plot. The more all this churned
in my head, the more I felt unhinged.
I slogged along the edge
of the sea, hoping a bottle might wash ashore, a bottle with a message and a
final answer. Then I caught myself doing it again, wishing to hike that crux
with no strain or wobbles, or for a genie in a jug to make it all better. I
simply lacked the wherewithal, or restraint, or gumption, to stop running for
somewhere else. Yet once there, I’d start running again because running was my
only strategy; and it was wearing me out and making me crazy. The sun slowly
melted onto the liquid plane. I had perhaps 20 minutes before darkness.
Then I recalled
something Andy had said the previous weekend, up at Echo Cliffs, which are not
cliffs at all but calcified dirt clods. I’d ripped a hold off a popular
testpiece, took a 20-foot fall and started blaming myself for lack of
judgement, for climbing “heavy,” for skipping a bolt. Then Andy chimed in and
said, “Don’t flatter yourself. It wasn’t your fault.” This incredible
statement, which sounded like cant, was starting to make sense.
I’d blame everyone
for everything but underneath I was blaming myself for all the normal havoc in
my life. This created rugged inner tension and rank moods, but if I took
responsibility for every fix, I could cling to the delusion of control. But I
was only “flattering” myself, trying to play God, for Utopia comes from the
Latin for “there is no such place.” 5.12 would always require effort, life
frequently flowed in chaotic, unconnected ways, and deadlines were often met
with hacked-out dreck. The world had its winners, but no one kept their
winnings forever. Everyone I knew would die, then the belay would blow out and
I’d plunge into nothingness—and it wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t do one thing
about it and there was no one living or dead who’d never sketched along the
way. Stand-up folk with prodigious discipline and commitment might find a calm
spot within the typhoon, but an absence of sketching has never earmarked
mastery, rather the brand of the man dead from the neck up, a passive
withdrawer from all risks.
No sooner had I
admitted as much when into the crapper fell all my idealized gurus and wisemen,
all those I’d hoped and imagined had attained perfect mastery in all things.
From day one I’d secretly measured my life against folks who finally were just
infantile hallucinations. And now they were gone.
As the sun dove into
the Pacific, I sat back on the sand and years of dashing slowly ground to a
stop. I felt old, alone, and 1,000 pounds lighter. Then I started laughing at
myself for taking such a roundabout route to accepting that living was hard and
required sustained effort. But if it were easy to accept that life was hard,
life would be easy, and it’s not.
listening to the pageant of waves, I gazed into the night sky and wondered
about my dad. Like one of the stars filling the dome of sky, dad was now so
infinitely remote even Wendy’s voice couldn’t call him back. And that cut
deeply because we’d never gotten on the same page. The harder we tried, the
worse we struggled. When things got strained or ugly, instead of sitting down
in the sand and listening, we’d quickly turn the page, desperately hoping to
find a legend written just for us two. Neither of us knew we were never meant
to find a common storyline, so we continued channel surfing though the
Maybe it was the
rhythm of those waves, or the sea wind, or the fact that I’d run out of road,
but I came to realize we all are formed to perfectly synch up only with
ourselves. Only when I accepted this could I quit channel surfing, and only
then would my life come temporarily into phase. I’d continually need to
rediscover my ever-shifting sweet spot. But until I abandoned my crusade for
someone or something outside of me, I was just a child looking for a parent,
who was looking for a parent, and it was just one big crazy go-around. “I guess
this means I’m an adult,” I thought to myself. I’d postponed that
acknowledgment for nearly half a century.
Where the water
meets the sand, the drama of life played its first scene, and every evening,
the ending is rehearsed. And in the interlude, as we chase after our lives,
every heart will shatter a thousand times. Then a stranger will sing a song
that flows through the hole in our hearts. No longer will we feel dead from the
neck up. For a moment or a month we’ll stop channel surfing and settle into our
own bones, and life will once more draw us into an adventure beyond fear and
solitude. And until the end of the last act, all of us caught in the net of
life will walk the coast together.