While surfing is 100% a Hawaiian sport, it was California that exported it around the world. Whether it was Gidget, the Beach Boys, or Frankie Avalon who grifted the idea of surf culture away from Duke Kahanamoku or someone else, they did a great job of seeding said culture in the beach towns of Southern California. So now, surfers are thought of as blonde haired bros prone to using the word “dude” in places like Huntington Beach.
Huntington has embraced the image.
If you walk into the International Surfing Museum with a 10 year old child like I did, be prepared for the friendly woman behind the counter to do her best to convince the child to abandon any hopes of adult responsibility in pursuit of great waves- and to use the coupon on the back of your ticket stub for ice cream across the street. Her pitch almost worked on me but my child was unimpressed.
The place is small yet informative, with a good mix of information and artifact. There is a sculpture of the Silver Surfer, vintage Hawaiian planks, and a number of rash guards and trophies once worn or won by Eddie Aikau. Which is pretty much all you need for a top notch museum.
But Huntington’s offering is topped off by one large claim to fame, and by large, I mean Guinness Book of World Records large.
I normally ignore oversized objects mounted on poles outside stores, or museums, as props, but the giant surfboard mounted outside this museum once caught a wave and carried 66 people to shore. This seems about right.
To invest so heavily in an activity that is purely recreational for purely promotional purposes, is so very California. And I’m okay with that.
Most museums are categorized or divided by type: art, history, geography, industry etc, and knowing this I expected the Petersen Automotive Museum to simply be a building full of car varieties. Ford, Chevy, Honda, Lamborghini, and so on and so forth. I expected old through new and broad representation. I went to the car museum the same way I go to the symphony- rarely, and expecting to appreciate but not necessarily enjoy it.
But I loved it.
It was all the types of museum mixed into one. It was history, it was an educational explanation of an industry, it was a celebration of of a culture, and what I loved the most, was art.
Bugatti is art. When I look at a Picasso the little placard could read something like “Portrait of Woman, cubist genre in the medium of oil.” A Bugatti could read, “Rolling Wave, art deco era, in the medium of car”.
Ferrari, a name I first learned from Magnum P.I., is the perfect marriage between art and function. No, that’s not quite right. Ferrari is art and adventure, style and unreasonable speed. Ferrari is as if the Italian sprinters showed up at the Olympic starting line wearing suits and ball gowns then promptly won every race.
I guess today’s children would appreciate seeing Lightning McQueen (he’s in the museum) the child in me appreciated seeing Herbie the Love Bug, Magnum P.I.’s Ferrari, Marty McFly’s Delorean, and the Batmobile all in a row. I suspect Kit from Nightrider is kept in the basement in order to prevent visitors like me from having a heart attack. That being said, I do consider it an oversight to not include Cameron’s father’s wrecked Ferrari from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the Ferrari room.
Where you live plays a large part in what you experience. It isn’t the only thing, just a big thing. For example, I am solidly “middle aged”. I have lived in several cities and traveled all over the United States, and in all that time and in all of those places, I have attended exactly ZERO cars shows- till I moved to California.
I have now attended 2 in the proportionately short span of 2 years- because of where I am.
I am not a “car guy” as most would define it, yet I drive one every day. Roughly 100 miles on weekdays, Saturdays about the same, Sundays vary. My car works just fine, but I wouldn’t mind a better one. You see, Mine has crank windows and manual locks, which work just fine- but I can’t open the door for my wife from the outside of the car. It is a stick shift, which is no big deal, yet it makes the stop-and-go LA traffic that extra little bit taxing. But I can afford it and every time I turn the key, the engine starts.
All that being said, I think one would have to be blind or beastly not to appreciate a convertible Shelby Cobra upon meeting one. That car is what happens when design bridges the gap between engineering and art. I am in no position to act on my appreciation of this car, and had I the means, I’m not sure I would choose too. But this doesn’t change the fact that this car is hot.
If cars and money were both infinite resources and spending on a car had no bearing on any other aspect of my, or anyone else’s life or resources, I would probably still not get a Cobra. I’d probably just get a Jeep Wrangler- or maybe a remade version of the old Ford Bronco.
Because I like those. A lot. But you might not know that about me, my taste in cars, by looking at the car I own, or even if you sit in the office next to mine. Which is fine with me. I am not my taste in cars, nor does my taste really tell you anything important about me-
I have had, or heard, plenty of people where I live now, and to some extent where I grew up, who say differently. And they say, or said, it with conviction. In fact my boss once went on in some detail how diverse her staff was, in that she had one woman who drove a large SUV working right next to a convertible VW bug woman. Because those are vastly different cars, and hence, two very different college educated upper-middle class income white women.
I can only guess what kind of employee, or person, I am, because no one talks to me about my car. It isn’t worth talking about. It isn’t to be pitied like my old car, which communicated poverty loudly enough to have once inspired a church where I knew no one, to offer my family a free turkey one Thanksgiving. No, my current car is just nothing, and I am mostly okay with this.
The little argumentative voice inside my head says that any assumptions or judgement placed on me, on account of my car, says more about the other person than it does about me. So What should I care? I don’t really.
Except I live in California. In California my ambivalence about cars, or rather the comparatively low priority I place on cars, makes me unlike those who surround me. And because they surround me, they play a large role in my experience living here- no matter what I think about cars. They will judge my car, and me, and because there are so many of them, I cannot escape the consequences of the thoughts they may have about me.
I can deal with it. It wasn’t like this in Philly. I imagine even less so in New York. In those places I am sure people still judge and make assumptions, just on other things. Maybe my shoes. Perhaps my furniture. Or my hair. My race.
Skin color. Cars. What I think about either doesn’t really matter if it matters to everyone else around me.
I have no idea how much experience Ralph Lifshitz had with the sport of polo before he sewed a little pony on a shirt and changed his name to Lauren. What I do know is that before the other day that little logo was all I knew about the game. I’m guessing this is true for most of us.Finding myself with some extra time and contemplating my ignorance, I took a minute to linger and look over the fence of the California Polo Club. The first thing I learned was that these folks are surprisingly friendly.A woman with an accent walking past asked me if I wanted to come in rather than peek. I’m guessing she was from Argentina and she introduced me to a man I’m guessing is from the United Arab Emirates. The woman who eventually did most of the talking sounded Californian and was happy to tell me all about the rules of the game; the most important of which was that anyone can learn them and that I should join the club.The next thing I learned, or rather remembered, is that middle class amateurs in any sport are obsessed with the minutia of sporting equipment. In direct alignment with that principle was me realizing how susceptible we all are to the trap of perceptions.
In some places perception is everything.
Right Ralph Lauren?What I watched that day was the testing of novices to see if they were ready to advance to beginners club competition. This testing is somewhat important considering horses are big strong animals with the potential to break regular sized people- like superman.
Milling around the stables and staging tent I watched as a small bunch of both men and women picked out clubs, pulled on tall boots, and tightened up chin straps. One in particular had extra bits of this and that. Fancier bag, extra padding, and a little silver topped whip. No one else had one of those.The one with the extra stuff, also had a little extra confidence. The kind of confidence that breeds the same in others. This one was obviously the leader- the one a competitor would expect to be the competition.
Then they got on the horses.
Captain A Type looked wobbly in the saddle, awkward with the club, and most of all, appeared deaf to the frumpy looking lady with the clip board barking out instructions. She didn’t look fancy, in fact she was wearing an ill fitting straw hat she borrowed from the friendly lady, and Mr. Confidence looked like he couldn’t find the horse’s steering wheel.
I still haven’t seen a Polo game. I remain ignorant. But what I do know is that just like the shirts and their little horses, or in some cases the big pony, or in the case of last names, or fancy little whips, I think they are called crops, looks aren’t reality.
Just seeing something doesn’t really tell you everything.
At one time Mission San Carlos Borromeo, just outside Monterey California, was the capitol of the Spanish Empire in Alta California. Junipero’ Serra, the founder of the California mission system, and now a Saint, is buried in the chapel. Jose Antonio Romeu, the second Spanish Governor of all California is buried there too. Today it is beautiful and celebrated, but by 1863, the place was in ruins.
The short answer is the end of slavery in Mexico.
When the missions were first established they technically “belonged” to the local inhabitants aka Indians. It was their land and their buildings, but the management was sort of leased to the Catholic priests for a period of time to help get things up and running. At least that is how it was drawn up on paper.
In reality, the way it worked out, was that the Spanish forced the local native inhabitants to build, and then work in, these palatial compounds.
They were indeed palatial.
When the lease on Mission Carmelo ran out, the Franciscans in charge simply kept control. There were no non-European authorities nearby to force them otherwise, and the native locals were already effectively slaves.
So the place stayed splendid.
Then, in 1821, Mexico won its own American revolution and kicked the Spaniards out. Soon after the new government issued a proclamation of emancipation (42 years before Lincoln), freeing the enslaved Indians, who then left the missions.
Without an unpaid workforce the missions couldn’t support themselves and they began to decline.
Then the Mexican government went a step further and confiscated the missions from the Catholic church and started selling off the surrounding lands and most of the fancy stuff inside got ransacked- or carried off by retreating friars.
As a side note, this same crack down on Mexican slavery caused a dust up in what became Texas, since the white Americans who recently moved there still wanted the right to keep other people as slaves.
But eventually California became America, Catholics, Indians, Mexicans, and all- and in 1931 real work got underway in restoring Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, or just the Carmelo Mission as most people know it, to its original glory.
They didn’t exactly tell that story when I visited. The pamphlets have bits and pieces, and the tour guides are happy to tell you about some artifacts, but mostly its just a church that hosts touring 4th graders.
At the same time Thomas Jefferson was declaring all men equal in Philadelphia, a bunch of Spaniards were declaring Juaneno Indians Catholic in California. So basically Orange County and Philadelphia are the same place.Looking back with almost 250 years of hindsight, the biggest difference between the two might be the separation of church and state. In 1776 the English colonists were claiming local rights with documents penned in state houses, but the Spaniards were declaring jurisdiction via baptismal records written in churches.
Oddly enough, both types of buildings had bells, and both were in large part built by slaves.
The bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano had to be buried in the ground and temporarily abandoned as the Spanish had to go fight at Valley Forge- er… San Diego, since the native born rebels were trying to liberate themselves from Spain down there.
But unlike Valley Forge, the Americans lost the war on the West Coast, and the Europeans returned to San Juan Capistrano, unearthed the bells, and started making wine.
Turns out the first grapes grown in California were in Orange County. What a misnomer. So on one coast you have political secularists growing tobacco and cotton, while on the other you have Franciscans with muskets making wine.Maybe religion wasn’t the only difference. Having mentioned Valley Forge I should probably also mention weather.
If you visit Valley Forge today you may find grassy fields, or snow covered cabins, depending on the calendar. If you visit Mission San Juan Capistrano, no matter the month, you will find North America’s best Petra imitation.
At Independence Hall you will wait in line for a National Parks guard to let you in through a gate where you might be led on a tour by someone wearing a tri-corner hat.
At San Juan Capistrano you can receive communion from a catholic priest during mass.
Both are America.
In 1961, back in the days of Gidget and the Endless Summer, a seamstress named Carrie Birdwell Mann started making and selling swimshorts at her Orange County home. More than 50 years later the company is still in O.C. making pretty much the same thing, and for the most part- only that one thing.
We call them boardshorts. The world knows about boardshorts thanks to Old Navy and Target, but surfers know about boardshorts largely thanks to Birdwell. Mrs. Mann invented the shorts specifically for them.
Not to take away from what Quiksilver, O’neill, or any other surf brand have accomplished, but when it comes to boardshorts, Birdwell is what all of them are trying to be.
Like any responsible adult, the folks at the factory were a little leary of me when I showed up asking questions. But once they determined that, as they put it, “wasn’t up to any weird @*!!” they were more than happy to show me around.The family sold off the business, or as the current owners say “entrusted” them in 2014. Since then, a couple things have changed, while some other significant things have not.
For instance, they started using actual patters.While this may have removed some whimsy from the whole purchasing experience, it did make predicting if the shorts were going to fit a little more reliable.
They also updated the van.And by updated I mean they painted it not fixed the engine, which is why I found it parked comfortably in the factory parking lot.
What they didn’t change were the people working the floor. They have remarkably low turnover and most of the folks sewing the shorts today, are the same folks who sewed them ten years ago.
This might be in part an explanation for what else hasn’t changed, which is that these shorts are nearly bomb proof. I think these shorts are what the authorities use to identify the victims of shark attacks since the shorts are what always survive.
*I said that not them*
It is interesting that in our modern world of fast fashion and quarterly shareholder returns, there can exist a company and brand that survives without attempting to broaden offerings in order to capture market share or lowering quality to widen the margin and spur more turns.
They didn’t do that and they are still right there.
Like I said before, I don’t surf.
But if taking steps past big box mass retail is a sign- I might be on my way.
I had a free morning so I drove to San Onofre State Beach. The internet told me they have beach camping there, the kind where you can pitch your tent right by the sand, but I couldn’t get anyone on the the phone to answer questions about availability, so I checked it out with my free day. I did not find what I was looking for. I found something different entirely.
When I was ten I did not know much, but I did know I wanted to surf. I had just discovered complex math and the associated reality that meant I would never be an astronaut. I had always known I would not play in the NFL, so the only dream I had left, at ten, was surfing.
I grew up inland, but on the side of the Mississippi that flowed toward LA, not New York, so cool was all T&C rather than CBGB. We knew we were posers with our long bangs and neon shorts, but I wanted to move past that. After years of begging, my parents let me go stay with my aunt in California the summer before 8th grade. It was a step closer to my dream and I was planning my path in my head. I figured I would have to start out with a boogie board, but if I got good enough I would advance to standing up. I would need a board. I was ready for the breeze and splash of salt water. What I got was dirt and cactus because Aunt Nancy lived in Palmdale. It was a lesson on the dangers of mobilizing in ignorance.My last hope was college, because I had been trained to know that I must go to college, but I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to school in California and everyone told me I could only afford in state. So I stayed home. Eventually jobs, kids, and adulthood squeezed everything childish, like the dream of surfing out of my head. I moved on. I grew up.
I gave little thought to my childhood self when I took a job an hour east of LA. I was just thinking I needed a job.
“Great morning right?” a leathery grey haired man asked as I closed my car door. He was sitting on a log facing the water. Next to him sat another old man wiping down his glossy red board. “Uh… yes. Sure is.” I replied awkwardly. The two men both smiled and went back to chatting with each other. I looked out at the water and it was bustling with people bobbing up and down just past the breakers, some paddling up and over the waves, and then, out there and everywhere, people were surfing. They stood up on their boards and shuffled out to stand on the nose. They popped up, cut left, then right, then pumped the board to stay out ahead of the whitewater. I loved seeing it.
I looked around on the rocky sand wondering when Anthony Keidis and his band of hooligans were coming to tell me to go away. They weren’t there. In their place were happy people who looked me in the face and said hello. There were men and women, old and young, and they all looked happy. I knew they were surfers, and only surfers, not because they were blonde or said “stoked” but because they all had boards. I saw a wrinkled bald man covered in tattoos chatting with a woman who looked like my frumpy mother. I saw a white guy with dreadlocks playing paddle ball with a child while a boisterous group of ZZ Top beards came lugging giant boards out of the water. There was what looked like an Abercrombie model chatting with some little guy who was wearing what looked like a beret, and a striped shirt that matched his striped board. It was some sort of intergenerational utopia based on a shared vision of riding on waves standing up.
My childhood aspirations came flooding back and I did not like it. It made me loathe myself.
Here I was standing right in front of what I had always wanted and the thing I felt the strongest, was that I did not fit. It looked like everyone was welcome, this feeling wasn’t coming from them- it was coming from inside me. My mind defaulted to this excuse making checklist of practical reasons why I could not join in. Not just right then, but forever. I live more than an hour away, I do not own a board and do not have any extra money to invest in a hobby that I could reasonably only think to dabble in, and I am fat. I am a poser. I remembered that I always wanted this and I do not belong. The list came so quickly and so naturally that I disappointed myself.
I am grown and capable. I can find solutions. I can learn. I have lived a life standing just outside closed doors and have nearly a half century’s practice of picking locks, borrowing keys, or kicking the door down. If I really want this, I can have it. Knowing this made me tired. I felt lonely.
I could save up money and buy a board. I could set my pride or awkwardness aside and ask someone to teach me. I could make some arrangements and over a period of time, maybe years, I could carve out a schedule allowing me some beach time. If I want it I can do it.
So the question is always whether it is worth it. Do I want to be on that side of the door bad enough to do the work? What will it cost? What will I gain? When you pass through previously closed doors, you inevitably leave something back on the other side. Often you leave someone. What if I am not trying to leave anyone? What then?
Traffic made the trip home take 2 ½ hours. Sitting in my car in my long pants and wingtips, thinking all of the things I just typed out above, I came to the conclusion that I think too much.
I should knock it off and just surf.
When you imagine California, what you are picturing, is Santa Barbara. Some might say Hollywood is the quintessential California, but those who imagine Hollywood aren’t really thinking about the place, they are thinking about themselves and dreaming of becoming famous. No, Santa Barbara is the SoCal we think of when we look at a map not a mirror.It is the sort of place that surely has some history, possibly some substance, but mostly it has an image. The beach is beautiful, peppered with surfers. People wearing shorts and sunglasses drive convertibles to the marina past white stuccoed buildings flanked by palm trees.
I did not see it, but I sort of assume everyone here writes everything in cursive with pink glitter ink.You can rent beach cruiser bicycles and eat arugula salad on sidewalk cafe. You can visit a Spanish Mission or fish from the pier. You can do or see all the things you imagine doing and seeing in California minus all the things you associate with LA.
It is all Saved by the Bell and no LA Law. It might be a little bit Flaked – but glossier.
I’m not sure who actually lives there, though I have heard some stories, but most people I know only visit. They, or we, drive in and stay the night. We shop and browse light breezy dresses, Tommy Bahama, and beach towels fashioned to look like the California state flag. We eat something light then pay ten dollars for a scoop of ice cream on the pier.Then we get back in our cars, sit in traffic, sit in our cubicles, sit on our couches watching Saved By the Bell reruns, and do our best to ignore the pan handler at the off ramp.