John Long: Channel Surfing
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 Malibu swells.
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,” she said.
“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 shot.”
“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 coffee.”
“Sure it is,” cracked Andy.
“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 said.
“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,” said Wendy.
“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 it.
“Sumbitch!” I 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 Malibu swells.
Occasionally they 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.
Sitting there 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 relationship.
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.