WRESTLING ELEPHANTS

By Jamie Brisick

How We Walk Through The Fire

The text message came just before 7 a.m.: “Mandatory evacuation for the entire city of Malibu.” I grabbed my car keys, wallet, phone, laptop, writing stuff, and a change of clothes. It was Friday, November 9th. I was not worried. Malibu gets a fire nearly every year. Never do they creep down the Santa Monica Mountains, leap the Pacific Coast Highway, and take out homes where I live, in Point Dume.

But this one did. And it took out my home with an almost personal vengeance. Watching KTLA news with a friend in his Venice Beach studio the following evening, he pointed at the screen. “That looks like your house.” The camera zoomed in. “That’s definitely your house.” The shot—a firefighter blasting water at my inflamed bedroom—would play on repeat throughout the weekend. I became a kind of poster child for the Woolsey Fire.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/a-surfers-perspective-on-malibu-in-flames

December 1, 2018

American Beauty

He found himself on hands and knees searching for what he thought was a small white pill but was really the Grateful Dead parking lot scene, circa Terrapin Station.

November 5, 2018

Halloween Party 2018

At first we thought the Harvey Weinstein costume was in poor taste
Then Wonder Woman showed up
Then Joan of Arc
Then Angela Davis
Then Anita Hill
Rihanna
Pocahontas
Benazir Bhutto
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Then what we thought was Sinead O’Connor
But after hurling a bottle across the room was clearly Rose McGowan
I remember very little after that
A big dogpile
Many thuds
Lots of broken glass

November 2, 2018

X-Rated Actors in Search of PG-Rated Roles

The Life Sentence of the Ex-Pro Surfer

September 28, 2018

The Dazzling Blackness

I’m thinking about Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, who shot himself in the heart in 1954; I’m thinking about Pepê Lopes, who died in a hang gliding accident while trying to win a second world title in Japan in 1991; I’m thinking about Aryton Senna, the Formula One racer who died on lap seven of the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy in 1994. I am not thinking about death explicitly, but death hangs over all of this.

I’m bodysurfing the north end of Barra da Tijuca, a spot called Praia do Pepê, named after the hang glider. The swell is out of the southwest; the waves are a whomping four foot, mostly lefts, with the occasional short burst of right. The water smells of sewage, with a distinctly Rio tang. My romantic self likes to think of it as bathing in the collective DNA of this city of six million. My more practical self fears Hep A. On my feet, Da Fins, recommended by bodysurfing guru Mark Cunningham. At the tip of my fingers, a Danny Hess-shaped hand plane, which I have learned to hold with my inside hand. This is why I love bodysurfing. This is why, in my recent trips to Rio, I end up bodysurfing more than board surfing: I’m still learning new things. At age 47 I may be declining as a surfer, but as a bodysurfer I’m unquestionably improving. The tadpole grows feet and hops across the terra firma. The surfer sheds board and swims off to eternity.

Along the beachfront are high-rises, one of which is a 15-story brick and concrete apart-hotel that is my home for the next month. It’s really my wife’s place. She is here on a three-month contract to co-direct “Amor e Sexo,” a documentary TV series that explores love and sex. She arrived from New York, where we live, a week before me. “We’re staying here,” she said over Skype, and aimed her computer at the building. I recognized it immediately: Barra Beach Towers. I used to stay there in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s when I was a pro surfer; in fact most everyone on tour stayed there. I had what now seem to be prescient moments.

In 1989, while sharing a room with fellow pro Bryce Ellis and playing heated games of Backgammon into the wee hours, I became haunted by the Rolling Stones It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll, specifically the song “Time Waits For No One.” One night I couldn’t sleep. The melody was soothing, but the lyrics were galvanizing. I had the idea that I should get up and run sprints along the shoreline. We pros did a lot of this: raising heartbeats, inciting adrenalin, simulating make-or-break moments in the dying seconds of world title-deciding heats. But it is never a good idea to be alone on the beach in Rio at three a.m. So instead I ran mental sprints.


In 1991, in that same hotel, possibly the same room, possibly even the same room where I now stay with Gisela, I cried in synch with Sinead O’Connor, who cries spectacularly in her video “Nothing Compares 2 U.” I watched it on MTV, again in the wee hours, horribly jetlagged. Melancholy consumed me. I was in a relationship that was dying, and in my efforts to revive it I vowed to paint a portrait of my girl, turquoise and gold, with drips like the tears falling down Sinead’s face. I would give it to her as a Christmas present. But we never made it to Christmas.

Bobbing on the bottle green sea, a plane roaring across the rainbow sherbet sky, a jet-skier 100 yards out fucking up my waves, I remember moments at the breakfast buffet with Tom Carroll, Ross Clarke-Jones, Gary “Kong” Elkerton. I miss how simple life was with that bull’s eye focus of the pro tour. I do not miss having my self-esteem dictated by where I sat on the rankings.

An A-frame looms. I put my head down and kick. I have learned to feign dolphin to catch waves. I less drop down the face than insinuate myself into the middle of it, and superman across the trim line. I’m amazed at how long I can go, that I can almost do off the lips. I ride to shore, trot across the squeaky sand, and run across the one-way street where busses barrel along at dangerous speeds. I enter the Barra Beach Towers from the side entrance, for beachgoers, with a tap to rinse feet and a security lady named Daniela with whom I chat in my third grade Portuguese, hop in the elevator and press nine. On the way up I think about the story I want to write: Rio is the best bodysurfing city in the world. Those same iconic granite rocks that brought us Sugarloaf and Corcovado also bring us ricocheting wedges that zipper off the north and south corner of every beach. The biiing of my floor, the doors open, I make my way down the tiled hallway, anticipating this late afternoon routine I know all so well: approach apartment #905, smell weed, hear GloboNews on the TV, knock on door, Gisela shouts “Jimmerrr!” in the warmest way, door opens, vibrant wife of mine stands there all sinewy, big smile, glassy eyes. We hug. I kiss the side of her dirty blond head. It’s a world, a life, though I fail to fully appreciate it at the time. I’m preoccupied with the memoir I’m trying to write, with a particularly North American brand of career advancement. I’m a cliché. I take it for granted, think it will always be there. I’m terribly wrong.


The Shot

There is an absurdity to “getting the shot,” and I experience this profoundly in 1987 at Fernando de Noronha, a tropical island off the northern coast of Brazil. I wait out the back in the bathtub-warm turquoise water while photographer Robert Beck stands in the shallow impact zone. When a wave pops up Beck hollers me into it. I stroke, hop to feet, paw face, pose in barrel, then get crushed. I do this about twenty times in a row. In one wipeout I feel Beck’s fins, head, housing. I’m reminded of the slam pits I used to bounce around back in the punk days.

At the bar near the pousada where we stay, there is cachaça, forró dancing, the music of Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, an impossibly hot lioness of a 19-year-old whose father is some big-time politician, but I participate in none of it. I go to bed early, creatively visualize a win in the Marui Pro, which kicks off the 1987 ASP World Tour next week in Japan. I wake at dawn and do plyometrics, a new jumping/rebounding style of exercise that’s supposedly part of Tom Curren’s training regimen. I do what I think a pro surfer is supposed to: keep the blinders on, focus on the win.

But impressions from this first trip to Brazil stay with me. In the diary that my father has encouraged me to keep during my travels, I write about running into fellow pro Dave Kennedy on the runway of Fernando’s tiny airport. I was coming; he was going. “Whatever you do, go hiking,” he advised, pointing to the Land of the Lost topography that surrounded us. Kennedy had a raised-by-wolves mien. He smelled of patchouli and sweat. “See that ridiculous-looking thing over there?” he said, nodding toward a vertical rock face. “Climbed it yesterday on acid.”


I write about Tatiana, the stewardess I met on my flight from Fernando to Rio. She spoke no English, but her co-worker did, and in a racy dialogue that felt like something out of From Here To Eternity, we discover that we like each other. When she asks where I’m staying in Rio I go for it: “With you,” I say, and he translates, and there’s laughter between the two of them, and some words in Portuguese. By the time we hit the tarmac a plan has been hatched. I will pose as Tatiana’s cousin from the USA, and stay with her and her co-workers at the Hotel Intercontinental in Copacabana, where Varig flight attendants stay on Rio layovers. Breezing through the CREW line at the airport, riding in the Varig shuttle bus to the hotel, dragging my coffin board bag through the elegant hotel lobby with this tall, thin, deeply-tanned blond woman I’d met not two hours earlier—never have I felt more Miki Dora-ish.

My closeout tubes in Fernando de Noronha featured in magazines from the US, France, Japan, and Brazil, where I scored the cover of Surfer. I also got my first written piece published: “Yahtzee Jones,” about the fierce games Robert Beck and I played in our little imperialistic cocoon. But far more formative, far more life-changing, was the sign language and drawings on napkins that doubled for words between Tatiana and me as we ate pizza at an open-air restaurant on Avenida Atlântica, where trans-prostitutes sashayed on corners and street kids—barefoot, no older than ten—begged for spare change. There was Tatiana’s Caesarian scar, which I discovered in the dark, by Braille—it felt like a thrust into some complex, exotic adulthood. And there were those two days after Tatiana left that I wandered the streets of Rio alone, observing, thinking, opening the vein.


Gisela

Gisela Matta, 26, green eyes, milky white skin, Dad Lebanese, Mom Dutch, a husky voice, a pair of sinewy arms that tug at the more long-view/procreative impulse than the fleeting, fuck-in-bathroom-stalls variety. We meet through our mutual friend Vava, a Brazilian photographer living in the East Village. It’s one month after 911. There’s an urgency in the air. Alcohol and cigarette sales soar in Lower Manhattan, as does fornication (summer 2002 would see a spike in NYC childbirths).


Gisela is en route to Barcelona, where she intends to live for at least the next year. Her New York trip is a ten-day stopover, primarily to buy a Sony TRV-900 at B&H, which she will use to shoot her pilot, a travel show set in Europe. “I make travel programa for MTV Brazil,” she tells me over saag paneer and cheap red wine at an Indian restaurant on 2nd Avenue. We like each other, become fast friends. I ask what she wants to do with her life. “Travel, make adventures,” she says.

Over the course of the next week two things happen. Gisela embarks on a documentary about life in Lower Manhattan in the wake of 911. She barely speaks English, but she boldly interviews people in the street (Why did this happen? How will life in the US change?), shoots B-roll of all the MISSING PERSON signs, memorials, and post-tragedy ephemera, and cobbles it together for Brazilian TV, where “Nova Iorque: Un Mes Depois” (New York: One Month After) will air to considerable success.

More importantly, we connect. Like I’ve never connected before. We don’t fuck. We hardly kiss. Our very limited words take us only so far. But something powerful transmits between us. When she departs on a sad Friday morning I feel a deep sense of loss. I write her. I send her a couple of CDs (Serge Gainsbourg and Silver Jews) and a burnt orange wool sweater. I think about her constantly.

She hardly writes back—one email for every five I send, and only a couple of aloof sentences. But I persist. I heed the advice of a friend’s girlfriend: “Girls move much slower than guys. Just keep at it. Think of it as prayer.”

Finally she invites me to come see her. We meet in Venice during Carnival. We wander labyrinthine streets, drink Chianti and smoke Drums at cafes, marvel at the excellent squid ink tagliatelle. Sex happens. I love her skin, the way she tastes. Lying in bed, entwined, I hear echoes of approval from way back in the Brisick gene pool. I’m pretty sure I love her, and I tell her so, on the last night of my trip, at a pensione in Milano. I also tell her that I want her to come live with me in New York. I remember a line from a book I read when I was on tour: “I promise you rainbows for breakfast and orgasms for lunch.” I safely rephrase it: “There will be fresh breakfast every morning, and a decent bottle of wine every night.”


I Wrapped My Arms Around Brazil

Brazil blew open for me in 1998 when I went to visit my artist friend Sandow Birk, who was living in Rio for a year on a Fulbright scholarship. His way of traveling was very different to how I traveled as a pro surfer. Books about Brazilian culture and history cluttered his Botafogo apartment. He went to soccer games and art museums, dined with university professors, drank with the locals. There was deep curiosity and immersion. Through Sandow I understood what it meant to be an artist.

Many Brazil trips followed. I learned about macumba, capoeira, Tropicalia, Jorge Amado. I visited Favela Vidigal, where my friend Marcelo Biju ran a pirate radio station. Overlooking Ipanema Beach, Vidigal sits on a steep, narrow hill—one road in, one road out. The drug trade is huge. Dealers work from a little shack at the top of the hill with a sweeping view over Ipanema Beach. They hire young kids to hang out at the bottom and watch for cops. As soon as the kids see a police car turn up the hill they launch kites, signaling to the dealers to hide the stash. It’s a sad fact of favela life, kids sucked into the drug world before they’ve hit their 13th birthdays. Biju has other plans for them. He wants to give them surfboards, not kites.


In 2000, thanks to Vava who invited me along, I danced down the Sambodromo for Mocidade Independente, a samba school in Rio. It was an adrenalin rush akin to screaming across a big long wall at Sunset. Flanked by bleachers full of cheering revelers, dressed in ridiculous clown suits and clown makeup, we moved with a spasmodic, cachaça-enhanced buzz, chasing the giant Mocidade float, which is clown-themed as well, a Fellini world on wheels. At the end of the Sambodromo, away from the cheering and lights, is a shadowy patch of concrete where samba school participants discard their elaborate costumes. Samba schools are all about allegory, but the biggest allegory is right here: an entire year’s worth of hard work goes into the conceiving and making of these floats and costumes; the Sambodromo moment-in-the-spotlight from start to finish lasts less than 30 minutes. But even more memorable than my lesson in the disparity between toil and joy is the couple I see making out, maybe even fucking, amid this cemetery of Mohican skulls and dragon tails and fluoro pink plumages and leopard heads ten feet tall.


I hear stories, one about a Brazilian pro who was on tour at the same time as me. Now in his early 40s, he’d recently learned that the father of his two teenage kids was not he, but his brother. How colossally devastating! Normally when the spouse fucks us over we turn to our immediate family, but in this case you can’t even trust them. Like the bodysurfing story that I have yet to write, I obsessed about this. It seemed ripe for the page, begging to be part of a novel or memoir. My visits to Brazil afforded me time and space for reflection. Status anxiety abated, as did the shackles to my own personal history. I felt a freshness, a sense of reinvention, a newfound bounce in my thoughts. I wrapped my arms around Brazil, and Brazil wrapped its arms around me.


Something So Fluid

On a cool March day in New York, I rode the A train out to JFK to meet my dear Gisela. She exited customs in the same red Mary Janes and faded jeans and pink top that she wore when we first met six months earlier. She lugged a heavy red and blue backpack, the kind you’d take on a trek through the wilderness.

We moved into my sublet, an elegant railroad apartment on 4th and Lafayette. Owned by my friends Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, a pair of film production designers who were about to blow up as architects/interior designers, it had an aspirational, posture-correcting vibe with Parisian-style mouldings and a study with dark woods and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Scatted across the floor of the study were black and white printouts of photos by Art Brewer, Andrew Kidman, and Vava Ribeiro, with my handwritten captions in red along the bottom.

I had moved to New York in early 2001 to escape the surf world that I sensed would soon maroon me. Surfing was my first love. I’d gone from five years on the world tour to working as a writer/photographer for surf magazines, first in Australia, then in the US. In 1998 I became the Executive Editor of Surfing. What I thought would be a dream job turned out to be disappointing. Advertisers dictated editorial content. Conservatism ruled. All the really fun ideas were shot down. I felt more like a figurehead than the editor of what my colleague Sam George referred to as “the last voice of the free world.” When I left two years later I wanted to get as far from the “Bro-muda Triangle” as I could. I put my belongings in storage and moved to New York. But surfing—or “surf” as the capitalists like to call it—was exploding. I became friends with Marcelo Junemann, publisher of Big, a slick, avant-garde magazine that did theme issues both literal and abstract (Brazil, New Jersey, Gisele Bundchen, Lauren Hutton). Marcelo sensed the surf wave rising. He asked me to be the editor of a Surf issue.

And so there I was swimming in words and pictures of waves amid the concrete and high rises and honking horns of Lower Manhattan. It was not exactly the self-reinvention that I’d hoped for, but I was grateful. I’d moved to New York thinking my beach roots would render me Dumbest Guy in the Room. As it turned out, everyone at the dinner table wanted to hear about my life in surfing. Thankfully Gisela was a departure from this. She had little interest in Kelly Slater or slab waves in WA. The surfers she’d met in Brazil were, as she put it, “playboys.”

We ate Thai food in the bath, we bought groceries from the cheapest supermarket we could find, we got weed delivered to the apartment from a Rasta dude who dressed as a bike messenger, an array of herbs, pills, and powders hidden in his fluoro yellow safety vest. Less than a week after Gisela arrived I received a long letter from her mother telling me how happy she was that her youngest child and I had found love, but also urging me to be good to her, to take care of her. It made me realize how much Gisela had given up to be with me. I got another version of this a few weeks later when a friend’s girlfriend scolded me for not opening the car door for Gisela. “You treat her like a queen,” she demanded, and her wagging finger and fierce eyes seared into my head.

I learned a new word: exogamy— the custom of marrying outside of one’s community, clan, or tribe. I got a hit of this when Gisela came home from a job shooting the G2 technology show in Los Angeles.


“I got laid!” she said, pulling a shiny gift bag from her backpack.


“What do you mean you got laid?”


“Look at this stuff!” She pulled out ear buds, CD cases, pen drives, baseball caps. “I got laid!”

“You mean you scored.”

“Whatever Jimmer. Look at this stuff!”


One day when we were subletting a small house in Venice I returned home to find Gisela standing on the porch, broom under arm, sweat beads on forehead, a proud face. In that hoarse voice I somehow associate with baby sea lions she said, “I broomed the whole house!”


We found a sweet groove together. We were deeply in love. Even our fights seemed light and performative, as if we were acting out a parody of what married adults do.


And we got married, two years in. We hadn’t planned on it. In fact we were both suspicious of the “institution of marriage,” but an immigration official at Dulles International in DC determined our fate.


While passing through customs, a man I imagined to be mustached, gruff-voiced, and politically right wing looked up from his computer:


“So, you’ve been living in the US for two years on a tourist visa—how do you support yourself?”


“My boyfriend supports me,” answered Gisela.


The customs official gasped, stamped her passport with a vengeance, handed it back to her. “You better sort it out. That stamp there won’t make it so easy next time.”


So we tied the knot, at City Hall, on May 1, 2004, in jeans and sneakers, amid Puerto Ricans in gaudy suits and big dresses, elaborately-coiffed Japanese, and elderly couples who looked intoxicated with
happiness. It was a great brush with the farrago that is NYC. Sadly, we never even got a photo from the day.


What it means to be married revealed itself slowly, via a lot of stepping over each other in the cramped, natural light-less one-bedroom apartment we rented on 15th Street between 1st and 2nd avenues.

“Your commitment is not to the person, but to the marriage,” my mother told me, and over time, over many instances of the person driving me insane, I came to understand what she meant.


Wrestling Elephants

In 2002 I put out a book called We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations. Part travelogue, part masturbation in public, it was the B-side of much of the surf journalism I’d done over the last half decade. I’d get assigned to cover a contest in, say, Fiji or France, and to relieve myself of surf myopia I’d drink kava in a bure with the Tavarua staff and write about it, or photograph drunken kids on the streets of Paris on Y2K New Year’s Eve. Martinis caught the attention of Quiksilver, who in 2003 launched an entertainment division. They assigned me the task of writing and editing Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, to be co-published with HarperCollins. Being a good opportunist, I used the book deal to procure a literary agent, Richard Morris, from Janklow and Nesbit, who represented heavy-hitters like Gore Vidal, Joan Didion, and Michael Crichton.

One day over lunch at NoHo Star in the East Village, Richard asked about my life in surfing. I told him about my rise up the amateur ranks, my first trip to Australia in 1986, my brush with a ten-foot shark at Jeffreys Bay. I told him about my parents’ divorce, my oldest brother’s overdose, my first girlfriend, Ana Rita, the ex of 1989 world champ Martin Potter (that last little fact caused me all kinds of torment). Richard was an excellent listener. He got me talking so freely that I stumbled upon details, themes, and connections that even I didn’t know I knew.


“You should write a memoir about your life in surfing,” he said when I was finally finished.


And by the end of lunch we had a plan: (a) I would get to work right away, and show him something as soon as it was ready; and (b) if I did it right I could expect an advance in the vicinity of $100K.

I exited the NoHo Star with clicking heels. I thought, Go home, roll a joint, and write for a couple of hours. Do this everyday for the next six months and I’ll have a book, a fat paycheck, and the literary success I knew was coming to me.

The hubris! The hubris!

I went home, rolled the joint, did the writing, and did exactly that for a couple of months, then turned in 30 or so pages to Richard. He got right back to me. “If this is what it’s going to look like I don’t think I can sell it,” he wrote in an email that crushed me, sent me into a state of writer’s paralysis that lasted for months.

And so it went. For the next five or six years I’d attempt a first draft, get discouraging notes back from Richard, freeze up for a spell, then hit it again, often getting even further away from the real story and my real voice. I had no idea what kind of self-flaying I was getting myself into. I had no idea that to write this memoir I would be forced to face myself like I never had before. The toughest part, the thing I’d buried most, was my brother Kevin’s death.


As I rose up the amateur ranks in the mid-‘80s, Kevin descended into drug addiction. By the time I joined the tour in 1986 he was in and out of rehabs, a bad junkie. There was a prison stint. There were a few overdoses where he was just barely revived in the emergency room. The worse he got, the more I clenched my fists and resolved to find transcendence in the Top 30 (the ‘80s equivalent of today’s Top 44). I was on my way to achieving this goal when I finished =17th in the 1987 Stubbies Pro at Oceanside Pier, my best result to date. I exited the water to a flock of autograph seekers, a standing ovation from my sponsors, and the warm, ecstatic feeling of having arrived. And right about the time I was doing an interview for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin was nodding out for the last time at the edge of a small lake near our house in Westlake Village. I got the news the following day, at a WSA contest at Malibu that felt like returning back to high school after a year away at a good college. Peacocking my way through the suntanned crowd, my mom’s next-door neighbor, a kid I hardly knew, approached me. “Have you been in touch with your family?” he asked.

“No.”

“Your brother Kevin is dead.”

My stomach twisted. I thought, This can’t possibly be true. I marched up to the payphones and called my parents. It was true. My response was to climb the hill across the street from Malibu and sit with myself. I hugged my legs. I looked down at my Quiksilver-logoed sweatpants and my red patent leather Adidas high-tops and felt terrible self-disgust. In some pathetic kind of athlete’s survival mechanism, I vowed to win the Op Pro, a few days away, in Huntington Beach.


I’m reminded of Tom Carroll’s victory in the 1987 Pipeline Masters. He’d been working up to it for his entire surfing life. Never was he more poised to win. And on the eve of the final day, Tom got word that his sister had been killed in a car accident. He and his brother Nick cloistered off in their rented apartment. They told no one. Tom kept focused on the job at hand. The following morning, swell pumping, Tom poured all his emotion into the throaty Pipeline barrels. And won.


I did nothing like this in the 1987 Op Pro. In fact I did not even surf in it—the first day of the trials coincided with Kevin’s funeral. Even worse, I ended up using the next leg of the tour—France and Spain—as an evasion. I hung tight with the Animal House swirl of my tour mates, drank way too much, did poorly in the contests, and never gave myself the space to properly grieve.


Light and Fishlike


Gisela and I spent our Christmas holidays in Brazil. No one tells you this, at least no one told me: you get married and your spouse’s family becomes your family. Even if they did it’d probably be too late anyway. By the time your future spouse invites you to meet the family, the hooks are already in. I got real lucky in this department. Gisela’s mom was classy and old worldly in her moral correctness; her two older sisters—one an anthropologist, the other an employee for the City of Sao Paulo’s cultural affairs—were a joy. We had Sunday lunches that carried on for hours, Leonard Cohen on the stereo, the high-rises out the dining room window bathed in an orange glow. The Matta family was smart and funny. We shared a skewed take on the world.

I got to know Sao Paulo pretty well. We stayed in apart-hotels in the Jardim neighborhood, not far from the city nucleus that is Avenida Paulista. A good chunk of my days were spent writing, often in bars or restaurants. In New York I’d overhear conversations that distracted, pulled me out of my work. In Brazil, my Portuguese weak, it was all white noise. I could be alone with my thoughts amid the hubbub of happy hour. We celebrated Christmas at her aunt and uncle’s house, a minimalist, sculptural one-story designed by renowned Brazilian architect Ruy Ohtake. For New Years we went to Praia do Espelho (Beach of Mirrors), where we stayed at a rented house with friends and sailed along the coast and grilled fish on a fire and read books in hammocks. On the big night we lay on the beach, the hissing sea licking our toes, the starry sky so close you could touch it.


One New Year’s morning Gisela and I packed up our gear and walked a long way south to an empty cove. We read on the sand, we sipped beer, we spoke in married-couple shorthand that at the time felt monotonous but now seems warm and comfy, we fell asleep holding hands in the sweltering sun. When I woke I saw a little left bouncing off a round rock. I grabbed my fins and went for a splash. I rode the turquoise wedges, shaping my body to their curves, practicing oneness. I felt light and fishlike. At one point I looked in and saw Gisela, feline on her side, blue bikini, head in book. Behind her was jungle as far as the eye could see. It was our beach, we were like the kids in The Blue Lagoon, a sense of discovering each other, the anxieties of our New York lives a million miles away. For those minutes my life was as perfect as I can remember.


Fleeting Exhilaration

I never saw it as a bad thing, the fact that in our nine years of marriage, Gisela and I would do a month, sometimes six weeks, apart. For a few years she worked on “Lugar Incomum” (Uncommon Places), a TV series about regional trends and movements you won’t find in a Lonely Planet guide. While I toiled on my surf memoir in New York, Gisela traveled to Berlin, Lisbon, London, Istanbul, and Tokyo. Her excellent work on Lugar led to her gig as a co-director on “Amor e Sexo.”


I’ll never forget the day she got the big news. She burst into our bedroom/my office ablaze with joy. “I got a job, Jimmer, I can’t believe it! With Globo! They’ve even been looking at my work—they were referencing old programas of Lugar!” I loved this about her. While we USA residents are brought up with the notion of unlimited career possibilities, Brazilian-raised Gisela was much more humble. She couldn’t believe that she was doing exactly what she’d always dreamed of.

And so in 2011 Gisela flew to Rio to begin what would become a two-year gig with “Amor e Sexo.” I went to visit her as often as I could. While she traveled around Brazil for the show, I stayed mostly in Rio, writing and bodysurfing. I did notice a disconnect. She’d made a whole new batch of friends, she was working around the clock, she seemed to have a great future with Globo. It was ironic, really. When Gisela first came to live with me in the US, all she wanted was to break into the film business. She did, on a large scale, albeit in Brazil, not Hollywood or New York. Waiting for a flight out of Rio after one of our visits, I was sitting in the airport bar drinking a beer. On the TV was “Amor e Sexo,” which had everyone’s attention. I was so proud of her.

In May 2012 I went to Yaddo, in upstate New York, on a month-long writing residency. Yaddo has a long history of great writers—Saul Bellow, Truman Capote, Philip Roth, and David Foster Wallace among many others. While there I immersed myself in what I hoped would be the final draft of my surf memoir. It was an emotional time. My father had kept journals from the mid-‘60s until 1983, and I read through them, start to finish. There were harrowing passages about Kevin’s suicide attempt, about the unraveling of my parents’ marriage, about Kevin’s death and funeral. There was some really beautiful stuff in there, too, which brought on a kind of Scrooge-in-A-Christmas-Carol experience, my entire life flashing before my eyes. A quiet delirium set in. I couldn’t sleep.


One morning at about 5:30 am I got on a bike and rode to the center of town. There was a hill that I wanted to slalom down, the way I did down Escalon Drive in Encino in 1973 on my first skateboard, a 24” lime green Bahne with Chicago trucks and Cadillac wheels. I managed to tap my six-year-old giddiness—the rumble of the pavement, the Toughskins and the Keds, the Gregg Weaver-inspired carves, the speed wobbles. I did my best to translate this feeling into the memoir.

I made a lot of new friends at Yaddo, one of whom was Eisa, a playwright based in Brooklyn. After the residency finished we met for coffee in the city. Then we met for lunch. Then we were hanging out. I did not know I had feelings for her. I did not know that there was a fracture in my marriage. I ran with something that felt repressed in me.


Running off the edge of a cliff, feet still peddling in the air before gravity takes hold—that’s how I remember the exhilaration of new sex, new conversation, new person lying in the bed next to me. That feeling didn’t last long. Soon, reality set in—Eisa wanted a baby, Gisela was hurt beyond repair, and the really nice life that my wife and I had built together was no longer.


The Text Message

The text message came at 6:51 a.m.: Jamie, call me now. It was from Gisela’s best friend, Fernanda, who lived in Rio. I dialed her number. She answered in hysterics. “She’s gone, Jamie! Gisela died! She’s gone!” Through her sobs, I could just make out that Gisela had been hit by a bus on her bicycle. She was rushed to hospital. They’d misdiagnosed her injury as a broken hip. She was bleeding internally. By the time the doctors realized this it was too late.

The date was April 1, 2013. I was in New York. I caught a flight that night to Sao Paulo. I had no idea how her family would receive me. I bought some orchids, knocked on the door to her mother’s apartment. “I never stopped loving Gisela,” I told her through tears. We fell into each other’s arms. A couple hours later I was weeping over Gisela’s open coffin, pall bearing with people I did not know.
After the funeral, after ten days of wandering around Sao Paulo and Rio, I returned to New York. My sister met me there. I was on a suicide watch of sorts. She stayed for about a week, looked after me with tender love and empathy. Over bottles of wine each night, candle burning at the center of the table, she made the case for why I should move back to LA.

I did. Less than a month after Gisela’s death, my apartment in New York was subletted and I was sleeping on my sister’s couch in Culver City. I had nothing in me. I could barely work. My guilt and remorse were all consuming. I never got to put things right with Gisela while she was alive—I spent a lot of time apologizing to the sky.

Months passed. Deep-rooted self-pity and pessimism set in. The skipping record playing on a loop in my head went something like, Fuck this life. Game’s rigged. I want out. This darkness took over everything. I never consciously plotted my suicide, but had a gunman jumped me in a dark alleyway, had a large shark popped up from the depths while I was straddling my board at Zuma, they’d have gotten no resistance from me.

Which brings us to the ocean. I had moved to New York to get away from surfing. It followed me. Not so much the actual act of riding waves, but the culture, the stories. Surfing sat at the front of my thoughts. But my skills on the board suffered big time. I became out of shape. My timing departed. My confidence was shot.

In the wake of Gisela’s death I surrendered on some level, and my inner compass naturally took me to surfing. It was part going back to what I know, reconnecting with my past. On a neuroscience level, I’m sure it was part negative ions of the sea spurting dopamine, lifting me from my blackness. On a cellular level, it was part those curling toes and bouncing knees and windmilling arms. At 47 years old, freshly widowed, surfing saved my life the same way it did when I was a confused, angst-ridden teenager.


The Dazzling Blackness

On my flight to Sao Paulo for the funeral, and in the month or two after she died, memories of my 11 years with Gisela flooded back in vivid detail. It was as if God above said, You’re going to have to move on from this, you’re going to have to find your life again, but for now, let us revisit your life with Gisela. It played back as if on a film reel—entire conversations at the breakfast table of our 15th Street apartment in 2003; the hike through the jungle to Punta Negra in 2004; the burnt tips of the queijo quente we shared at the bar of Padaria Charmosa in 2006. I recorded all of it—more like I transcribed—into notebooks, legal pads, on cocktail napkins and loose scraps of paper. Never have I felt more possessed as a writer.


And so now I’m back in the lineup at Praia do Pepê, 50 years old, bodysurfing because it points toward something new. I am here in Brazil doing what? Trying to learn more about Gisela via long, teary conversations with her family and friends? Trying to make sense of it all, find some kind of redemption? Wallowing, indulging, perpetuating? When my brother died I vowed to win a contest in his honor. When Gisela died I clung to the idea that I would write a book about our life together.

The waves are waist-high, the water is balmy and stinky, the green-blue water sparkles in the midday sun. To my left, a couple hundred yards away, is a rock jetty that produces a bouncing, heavily-localized left. One Sunday in about 2011 Gisela and I ambled down there. She laid on the beach while I kicked out to the lineup and scored what might have been my longest bodysurfing ride ever, a roping wall that kept going and going and going until it finally dumped me on the shore. I jogged up to the beach to Gisela.


“Did you see it?” I asked.


She looked up from her newspaper: “What, Jimmer?”

To my right are a string of personal landmarks that stretch for 250 miles but feel butted up together: the kiosk where we drank beer on sunset and watched a riveting game of footvolley; the bay where we lay on the beach and whispered improvised nicknames into each other’s ears, the cove where I placed a career-best =3rd in the 1988 Sundek Classic and where Gisela and I ate unforgettable banana cake in an open-air restaurant, the Jardim apartment where I experienced the deep love and connectedness of Gisela’s family. It’s a slippery slope, this mining memories business.

Wave comes. Three feet, translucent on the sandbar, alive and fluid. I kick into position, feign dolphin, insinuate myself into the trim line.

 

 

 

July 4, 2018

Art and Ape Coalesce Magnificently in W Magazine

It’s the year 2057 and from 1 million miles away Earth appears as a black-and-blue marble with wispy streaks of gray. From 10,000 feet, the Art House comes into view, a colossal concrete fortress complete with a miraculously green lawn, shimmering swimming pool the size of a small lake, and gleaming white patio that brings to mind the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center. The house sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, which is still as vibrantly blue today as it was 100 years ago. The surrounding area, though, looks like Aleppo circa 2016.

 

August 15, 2017

O Malibu

Malibu, you sucked on my finger, riveted me with your stories of handcuffs and hot chocolate, and left me lying face down in the sand.

https://vimeo.com/227160834

July 29, 2017

Symphony Space, July 17

We are proud to be presenting Jamie Brisick, a prolific contributor to the culture of surfing, for an evening of surf literature, film, and photography.

Jamie Brisick has spent more than four decades deeply immersed in surfing, first as a professional surfer in the '80s and '90s, and since then as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. An author of several books, an editor of international surf magazines, and a Fulbright scholar, he is an astute observer of the culture. In conversation with Chris Gentile, founder of Pilgrim Surf + Supply, and through a selection of his photographs, Jamie will discuss his life in surfing, as well as show excerpts from a few of his favorite surf films, which include Jack McCoy's StormridersGreg Schell's Chasing the Lotus, and Alby Falzon's Morning of the Earth.

Jamie Brisick’s books include Becoming Westerly: Surf Champion Peter Drouyn's Transformation into Westerly WindinaRoman & Williams: Things We MadeWe Approach Our Martinis With Such High ExpectationsHave Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow, and The Eighties at Echo Beach. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer's JournalThe New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000, and is presently the global editor of Huck. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles.

For more information and tickets please click here

June 25, 2017

Estoque

In 1999 I met Marie in the southwest of France. Tall, straight blond hair that cascaded down her back, rapturous blue eyes, mischievous big smile—she got a lot of attention from men, and I felt lucky to have hers. We were at the Seaside Bar in Hossegor, both of us in town for the Rip Curl Pro, an international surf contest. I was writing about it; she was doing marketing/P.R. for her employer, Oakley Europe.

Over drinks we talked about Magnum photographers, Brazilian writers, and the loutishness of the pro-surfing tribe. She told me she loved bullfighting, that she anxiously awaited the corrida de toros season (April-October) so she could spend weekends in Seville, where she wore flamenco dresses and occasionally danced on tables. “There’s this torero who trains for the corridas by going to the beach at night with his cape,” she said. “He pretends that the waves are bulls.”

Marie lived in Paris, in the 16th, on Rue Passy—“really bourgeois, but also really beautiful. Catherine Deneuve is my neighbor.” She wrote her number on a cocktail napkin. “If you’re in Paris any time soon, come visit.”

I was there three days later. We met at a sushi restaurant, had an excellent dinner and lots of sake, and went for a stroll. On the steps of the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower presiding over us, we kissed for the first time. At her one-bedroom, minimalist apartment that smelled of roses and strong cheese, we had sex.

https://www.affidavit.art/articles/estoque

June 23, 2017

A Life in Surfing - Symphony Space, July 27

Jamie Brisick has spent more than four decades deeply immersed in surfing, first as a professional surfer in the '80s and '90s, and since then as a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. An author of several books, an editor of international surf magazines, and a Fulbright scholar, he is an astute observer of the culture. In conversation with Chris Gentile, founder of Pilgrim Surf + Supply, and through a selection of his photographs, Jamie will discuss his life in surfing, as well as show excerpts from a few of his favorite surf films, which include Jack McCoy's StormridersGreg Schell's Chasing the Lotus, and Alby Falzon's Morning of the Earth.

 

http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/9693/Literature/a-life-in-surfing-jamie-brisick

June 9, 2017

Surf’s Way Up

As I climbed out of the bathtub-warm Indian Ocean and onto the deck of the motorboat, one man grabbed my surfboard, another handed me a bottle of chilled water, and a third doused me in a fresh-water shower then handed me a fluffy white towel. Before I’d finished drying off, a fourth man offered me a plate of sliced cold coconut. I felt a cross between a prizefighter in his corner and a Hollywood starlet between takes on a big-budget film.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/luxury-surf-holidays-the-pros-and-cons-1484843807

February 22, 2017

And Then I See A Darkness

Thirty minutes and half a bottle of Pinot Noir into their first date he stood up, walked over to her side of the table, placed his hands on her shoulders, and whispered into her ear: “So here’s how it works. You’re trying to get DNA from my body over to your body. Blood, cum, saliva, hair, finger and toenails, a hacked off pinky—all fair game.”

[I’m unsure whether this story takes off in a Last Tango In Paris direction or whether she splashes her drink in his face, but I do see a later flashback scene where our male protagonist meets a cute ponytailed girl in kindergarten who invites him to play Hide and Seek. The Hide and Seek games carry on through elementary school, getting bigger and more elaborate, covering their entire suburban neighborhood. They never really talk. We see them climb over walls into random backyards, bury themselves under blue tarps in alleyways. The flashback ends with male protagonist at the breakfast table with Dad. Dad reads the paper. He furrows his brow, reads aloud: “How awful. A fifth grade girl from your school was run over by a car yesterday.”]

November 16, 2016

Surfing World

Thrilled to talk writing, surfing, elephant wrestling (always keep a stash of cayenne pepper in your back pocket) w friend and colleague Sean Doherty in the latest issue of Surfing World. @seano888 @surfingworld ��@markonorati Thanks fellas.

October 28, 2016

Identity Is A Slippery Game

Identity is a slippery game. We conduct ourselves one way with one person, another way with another person, and yet a third way with yet a third person. We contain multitudes. We are kaleidoscopic. And yet we are forever stuck with ourselves. Which can be exhausting. And suffocating. And imprisoning.

Which leads us to Halloween. How delicious to put on a mask and be someone or something else! How totally invigorating to be, say, an honest investment banker by day, but Pablo Escobar, or a zip tie-bound Kim Kardashian, or a castrated Donald Trump on October 31st!

My longtime friend Marcus Dash talks a whole lot, often nonsensically, occasionally brilliantly. 37 years old, married, two young kids, Marcus remembers Halloween as one of the highlights of his childhood. And he never stopped dressing up—even through high school, college, and in his early years as a restaurateur in New York he played with his persona, blurring, obfuscating, slithering. He has a lot to say on the subject, as I found out over a recent drink at a noisy and brightly lit gastropub in Brooklyn.

“Escape has become a big theme in adulthood. There’s less wiggle room, what with the wife, kids, and mortgage. I see friends try to escape in dangerous ways—drugs, alcohol, double lives and all that that implies. It’s like we’re just looking for people to see us in a fresh way; it’s like we’re chained to our past. And though we might wake up in the morning with the intention to start anew, or to reinvent, or to kill off the sides of ourselves that we’re tired of, or that don’t serve us, the people close to us, our wives, our kids, our families, they want consistency. They might be coming from pure love, but still they’re wanting us to stay who we are. They might even be holding us back. ‘Cause let’s be honest, it’s scary to see your spouse or partner make a radical change!

I’m a big fan of that movie ‘The Passenger.’ Jack Nicholson’s a married man, a documentary filmmaker, on assignment in Africa. Not a bad life, but when the opportunity to fake his own death and assume the identity of a stranger falls into his lap he takes it. It’s like Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, I’ll take any life other than my own! Jack speaks for a lot us—in most of his roles, but especially in ‘The Passenger.’

In college I used to fantasize about my funeral.  I’d see my ex-girlfriends there, weeping, sniffling, bringing Kleenex to their nose—and there were hot ones! I did well at college. And then I’d see my dad and my brother, and my dad nudging his elbow into my brother—‘Kid did well, didn’t he? Probably better than his old man even.’ And then my brother going, ‘Shush!’

Anyway, that’s a real long rant, probably more than you bargained for, but long and short of it is this: Hell yeah, I love Halloween. I dress up for Halloween. I even wear strange outfits when it’s not Halloween, stuff I’d normally never wear, stuff that presents me as someone I’m not, false advertising if you know what I mean. Masks, costumes, uniforms—they’re not really about who you’re playing, they’re about who you’re escaping. It’s like a drug-free, airplane-free, mistress-free vacation from the monotony of your own life. It’s like a refresh button—and you don’t take down the whole family in the process…”

Marcus went on like this for a long while, mixing wisdom with hyperbole. He drank ginger ale—he’s been sober for nearly five years—otherwise I would’ve thought he was a bit tipsy. He told me he looks forward to taking his kids trick-or-treating on Halloween. He said there’s a neighborhood not far from his Williamsburg home where they give out premium candy.

Who is he going to be this year?

“Well there are some great options, aren’t there?” he said, chugging the last of what must have been his seventh ginger ale. “I was toying with something anthropomorphic, like a polar icecap that’s both melting and weeping, like it just hates that we human monsters have ensured its demise. But then I’m also thinking Edward Snowden. I’m real afraid of this whole transparency thing. You know me, I love the veils.”

October 28, 2016

Florida Surf Film Festival Hosts Jamie Brisick Journalism Workshop

On November 19, 2016, Florida Surf Film Festival will host a journalism workshop at Atlantic Center for the Arts by Jamie Brisick, writer, photographer, and director. He surfed on the ASP world tour from 1986 to 1991, and has since documented surf culture extensively. His books include We Approach Our Martinis With Such High Expectations and Have Board, Will Travel: The Definitive History of Surf, Skate, and Snow. His writings and photographs have appeared in The Surfer’s JournalThe New York Times, and The Guardian. He was the editor of Surfing magazine from 1998-2000. In 1981 he surrendered his virginity to a brown-skinned eighteen-year-old in a dinghy hotel room in Cayucos, California. Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You” played on the staticky clock radio. The smell of Marlboro Reds wafted from the stained bedspread. It did not last long. In 2008 he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Japan. He lives in New York City, travels frequently, and loves his 6’1” Channel Islands Warp.

Artist’s Statement: 

For nearly 25 years I’ve been writing about surfing and documenting surf culture at large. It continues to fascinate me, and I continue to find new ways into it. My approach to the workshop is less ‘Journalism 101’ and more about personal expression and growth. We’ll have only one day, but by the end of it I hope I can help you to go deeper as a writer, photographer, and/or filmmaker.

Agenda for November 19th:

9:00AM – Intros

9:30AM – Media and Journalism in the Industry – Then and Now.

10:00AM – Structure, POV, Interviewing, Recording, Note-taking, Outlining, Drafting, Workshopping, etc.

12:30PM – Lunch

1:15PM – Writing exercise

1:30PM – Voluntary readings and workshop

2:30PM – Photography and its relationship with surf journalism

3:30PM – Publication tips and contacts – Relationships, taking anything you can get, paying dues.

4:30PM – Documentary filmmaking for dummies – Or whatever…

5:00PM – Wrap

6:00PM – 2nd Night of the Florida Surf Film Festival Begins

Please submit the information requested, and one of our staff will contact you about workshop openings, required non-refundable deposit, travel advice, and be available for all other questions.

The cost of the workshop is $95.  This does NOT include a pass for the Florida Surf Film Festival.  If you would like to include a discounted, two-night patron pass for the Florida Surf Film Festival, the added cost is $100.  This includes a 2016 FSFF t-shirt, FSFF Tervis Tumbler, Clancy’s Cantina dinner both nights, and a Monster Energy Gift Bag. Check the appropriate box in the application to take advantage of the discounted patron pass.

If you’d like to stay at Atlantic Center for the Arts during the festival, we have small efficiency-style motel rooms for $69.50/night, including all taxes.  If you’d like to stay three nights, November 17-20th, you are eligible for a 20% discount for a total of $167.40, including taxes.  Please contact Stephanie Stallard at sstallard@atlanticcenterforthearts.org for reservations.

APPLY HERE – Deadline is November 4, 2016

August 11, 2016

The Rat-a-tat of Sentimental Gushings

Memories that smell like pet gopher snakes and bowls of Count Chocula.

August 3, 2016

At Port Eliot Festival

Talking performance with @kimletgordon at @porteliotfestival

August 3, 2016

My Pre-Teen Speed Addiction

He wore white pants, blue shirt, red scarf, and a white helmet with a red M on the front. His face was round, boyish. He seemed tangible to my kindergarten mind, a fellow thumbsucker and tee-ball-whacker, but in fact he was eighteen, a driver on the international racing circuit. His car was white, weapon-looking, with a three-pronged front end. Its name: the Mach 5.

            My first celebrity crush was maybe the perfect kind of celebrity crush. He was beyond flesh and blood—he was a cartoon character. I found him every Saturday morning on Channel 13. The opening theme song made me salivate with joy.

            Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer, he’s a demon on wheels…

            Speed Racer presented a world far more interesting than the one I inhabited. There were high-speed battles against Mammoth Cars and X3s. There was Speed’s hot girlfriend Trixie and his cool little brother Spritle and their pet monkey Chim-Chim, who brought new life to the stuffed monkey I slept with at night. There was Mom and Pops, who showered Speed in love, provided a cozy respite from the dangers that lurked outside. There was that incredible way in which Speed got in and out of his car, a kind of dance/leap/swagger.

            Speed bridged me from the Hot Wheels I played with in the living room to the Big Wheel I vroom-vroomed around the neighborhood. My two brothers and I took turns reenacting scenes from the show. We fought over who got to play Speed—pinching, biting, hair-pulling, the occasional mag-wheel run over an unsuspecting foot. We negotiated deals. If there was only enough Cap’n Crunch for two bowls, for instance, then whoever got to play Speed had to make due with Dad’s Cheerios. Halloween presented a fairly colossal problem that was settled through rock-paper-scissors.

            Looking back, it was less about Speed than the forging of a certain kind of relationship. Speed was a hero, a role model, a spur. He taught me how to mimic, how to sublimate. My Big Wheel was not the rain- and sun-faded hand-me-down from Kevin and Steven; it was the powerful Mach 5. The sidewalk was not a mere strip of pavement at the top of Escalon Drive; it was a racetrack. I was too young to know melancholy and existential dread, but Speed was stirring in me the tools I would later use to combat these things.

            And he prepared me for Evel Knievel.

            I was six. The training wheels had recently come off my red Huffy bicycle. On “Wide World of Sports” we watched Evel jump nineteen cars. That night, in our bunk beds, my brothers and I replayed every last detail: his star-spangled leathers, his Harley Davidson XR750, the blue cape that he discarded before doing the big jump, the way he got us biting our nails and clenching our fists with heebie-jeebies. “How did he get the name Evel?” we debated at length. I figured it was the name his parents gave him. Steven thought it was a nickname. Kevin came up with something vaguely Faustian: “He’s broken every bone in his body and he still jumps his motorcycle over nineteen cars? That’s beyond human!”

            On the following Saturday morning I did not watch “Speed Racer” on Channel 13. Instead, I went out to the garage, grabbed a couple scraps of plywood, a few bricks, and every Tonka truck in the bucket. On the sidewalk in front of our house I set up a kind of Evel Knievel miniature: launch and landing ramps with five trucks in between. I remembered that Evel wore protective headgear and ran back into the house to get Dad’s aviator sunglasses and Kevin’s Notre Dame football helmet.

“C’mon,” I called to my brothers, who were playing soccer in the backyard. “You guys gotta see this.” They followed me outside. “That’s your seat right there,” I told Kevin, pointing to the left side of the Tonka trucks, “And that’s yours,” I told Steven, pointing to the right.

They sat. I rode a ways up the sidewalk, turned around, and gunned it. But as I got close I hit my brakes, stopping with my front wheel on the ramp. Evel had done this in his nineteen-car jump—a fake out.

I scratched my crotch, adjusted my glasses, and brought my index finger to my tongue and pointed skyward (I wasn’t sure what this last part meant, but I assumed it had something to do with Evel’s religious beliefs). I surveyed the three-foot gap and Tonka trucks waiting ominously below. Then I rolled backward, rode two driveways up the block, spun around, and began my approach.

            I peddled hard, my bike rocking back and forth between my legs, my mouth making the waaaah, waaaah, waaaah sound of an XR750. I felt winged. But the instant I hit the ramp it buckled under my weight. Instead of launching skyward like a bird, a plane, a six-year-old Evel Knievel, I crashed head-on into the flotsam of bricks, Tonka trucks, and plywood. My handlebars crossed up and I spilled forward, smacking the pavement with my chin. The sunglasses flew one way; the football helmet—which I’d failed to strap on—the other. Blood splattered my Mickey Mouse T-shirt. I tried my hardest not to cry.

            “Where does it hurt?” asked Kevin, borrowing Mom’s line.

            I pointed to my chin. He escorted me into the house. In the bathroom, Mom smeared away the blood with Betadine. It bubbled and stung.

            “Do you think I broke the bone?” I asked hopefully.

            “Not quite,” she said.

 

Big Wheels, bicycles, then skateboards. For my 11th birthday my parents got me a Bahne deck with Chicago trucks and Cadillac wheels. It had a fabulous glide, but it only really came to life when I discovered Skateboarder magazine. The year was 1977. On the west side of Los Angeles a band of teenage skaters known as the Dogtowners tore apart streets, sidewalks, drainage ditches, empty swimming pools, anything smooth and banked. Their pictures in Skateboarder captivated me. I wanted to skate like them; I wanted to look like them. Most of the Dogtowners were poor kids from broken homes. They dressed like Jeff Spicoli.

            Vans deck shoes —navy blue

            Tube socks all frayed and strectched out

            OP corduroy shorts with boxers hanging out the bottoms

Levis corduroy pants, two sizes too big

            Surf T-shirts (Blue Cheer, Natural Progression, Zephyr, Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax)

            This was what my back-to-school clothes list looked like. What my loving mother did not know was that I took my spankin’ new gear out to the street and scraped it on the pavement to get it looking more “Dogtownerish.” Tony Alva wore a pimpin’ porkpie hat, Shogo Kubo wore a rising sun headband. I wore both.

            Watching the Dogtowners in the surf movie Go For It was a real treat, but skating with them at Kenter Elementary School in Brentwood truly lit up my world. They possessed an insouciance, a flow, an inner music. I studied every last detail: the way they hopped the fence like panthers, held their boards as if they were rifles, pushed three times then charged down the blacktop bank in a low tuck, knock-kneed, hands like Merlin the Spellcaster. They carved up and down, up and down, drawing graceful, poetic lines, crossing-stepping to the nose here, ducking into an imaginary tube there. It was exactly the kind of projecting I was familiar with. They were riding the concrete bank as if it were a wave. In their heads they were surfing.

            Skateboarding led me to surfing, surfing led me to three West Coast titles and a sponsorship from Quiksilver. I turned pro in 1986, did five years on the world tour. My pictures were in the surf mags. I signed autographs on the beaches of Rio, Biarritz, Bondi, Capetown. And even when I was at the top of my game I was still a mimicker and a hero worshipper. Before paddling out against the very pros I was trying to beat—and sometimes did—I studied their acts the way I studied Speed Racer on television at age five (Gary Elkerton scraped toes on the sand like a bull about to be let loose in a ring; Tom Curren shuffled hips, cracked knuckles).

            And don’t let’s get started on this writing business. I’m a forty-eight-year-old man-child bouncing to the characters in fiction, emulating the writers and comedians I admire, still mimicking consciously and unconsciously. Not that I haven’t tapped my own inner voice, but more like that voice enjoys dancing around in other people’s shoes. I find that the monotony of yet another sunny day in Los Angeles can take on a happier hue if I imagine myself as The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Stuff that torments me, scares me, ties my stomach in knots—I think what Louis CK would do with it and it somehow lightens.

            Not long ago I was giving a reading at a literary festival in Cornwall, England. It was a difficult passage about a close friend of mine who drowned while surfing in giant waves. I started improvising, telling the story as I remembered it, when suddenly I was seized by a combination of raw emotion and stage fright. I completely lost my train of thought. A hot flash washed over my face, my palms sweat, I froze up. And then George Carlin stepped in. In “Fart Jokes” he doesn’t so much crescendo as he simply runs out of material. “I have no ending for this,” he says/I said, “So I take a small bow.”

            This lineage of inspirational figures, these lives that have given spirit and sparkle to my own, all trace back to Speed.

April 6, 2016

The Curves of Time:  The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer

I first encountered Oscar Niemeyer’s work in a book. I was staying in Rio, Barra da Tijuca, a “nouveau” neighborhood notorious for its horrible architecture. Niemeyer’s architecture had curves, abstract forms, sexiness. I learned of a home called Casa das Canoas in São Conrado, not far from Barra da Tijuca, and I went straight there, on the bus. Casa das Canoas is located up a long winding hill, which I walked up, backpack over shoulder, sweating in the heat. I passed a favela, a pair of shirtless men carrying a 1970s television set down the sidewalk, a colonial home of vibrant blues and pinks.

            My entrance to Casa das Canoas did not go well. The home was fenced off. I pressed a button, got no reply. Pressed it again, got no reply. Suddenly a gate to the far left of the house opened and a car exited. Coming from a youth in which we hopped fences to skate empty pools, I saw this as my in, and shimmied past the gate before it closed. As I approached the home an irate proprietor came storming out the front door, shouting at me in Portuguese. I dug deep into my reserves of sincerity to talk him down. After slapping heart with hand several times, the global sign for ‘I’m an honest man,’ he finally calmed down. And gave me a tour of the house.

            Built for Neimeyer himself in 1953, Casa das Canoas brings the exterior into the interior, which is to say there’s a lot of floor-to-ceiling glass, with striking views of the tropical jungle and the shimmering ocean way down below. The house is curvaceous in the way that the human body is curvaceous. There’s a big granite boulder that has been integrated into the space. There’s a pool that sits just outside the living room. It feels something like a tree house, but instead of the homespun, dark-wood vibe, it’s sculptural white, modernist. It feels aspirational, a place to make epic work, or, in Niemeyer’s case, design epic buildings.

            So began my fascination with Oscar Niemeyer. I visited Edifício Copan in São Paulo, a 38-story residential building with a sinuous façade that suggests levity, a curtain billowing in the wind. I went to Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio, a UFO-looking building set on the edge of a cliff, with sweeping views over the water. And I read Niemeyer’s memoir, The Curves of Time, while staying at Barra da Tijuca in 2011. At the time I’d become obsessed with bodysurfing. The Rio coastline is textured with those iconic granite rocks, the kind found in the living room of Casa das Canoas.  They create wedgy waves with almost no shoulder. On a board you’re rocketed into the flats, but bodysurfing you match the speed, you stay in the pocket, the ocean pulsing through your belly. I somehow likened this to Niemeyer. That reading of and flow with the environment, that oneness with nature.

            Passages from The Curves of Time that have stuck with me:

 

“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein. “

 

“In my lectures I have always emphasized that I do not consider architecture terribly important, and there is no contempt in my words. I compare architecture to other things that are more connected to life and Man; meaning the political struggle, the personal contribution that each of us owes to society, particularly to our less fortunate brothers. What can compare to the struggle for a better and classless world where all individuals are equal? In spite of this opinion, architecture has kept me very busy, leading me, as I do now, to defend my works and my point of view as an architect, and to debate architectural issues with a passion that life, so fragile and insignificant, seemingly does not justify.”

 

“On several occasions I have mentioned genetic information and how, in my opinion, it accounts for our qualities and defects, thus influencing our reactions. I shouldn’t complain about this hidden being within us that genetic information creates and which so often dominates us. I have already mentioned how this “double” controls me when I begin a new design, taking me by the arm and leading me in trance along the pathways of fantasy to the new, unexpected shapes that are responsible for this architectural spectacle.”

 

“I once imagined that the followers of contemporary architecture, grown tired of so much repetition, would someday become disappointed with the dogmas they once fiercely advocated and choose something different, finally assured that invention must prevail. This is occurring now, but once again they are making a mistake by tacitly following the adventure of postmodernism, reproducing the same building designs but adding anachronistic and outdated architectural details. This is the same “gratuitousness” they once criticized and have now admitted in its most simplistic form.”

 

“I have always confronted life as an unwavering rebel. After reading Sartre, I viewed life as an unfair and unrelenting tragedy. When I was a young man of only fifteen, I was anguished to think of man’s destiny, doomed as we are to total abandonment, and defenseless against it. I was frightened by the idea of someday disappearing forever. Like everyone else, I have tried to erase such thoughts and instead take advantage of the pleasures of this brief and joyful passage on earth that fate grants us without consultation. I have felt the ecstasy of the fantastic natural world around us, and, arm-in-arm with my friends, I cast aside the disturbing thoughts that so afflicted me when I was alone. I wore a mask of youthful optimism and contagious good humor. I was known as a high-spirited and spontaneous personality, a lover of the bohemian lifestyle, while deep inside I nursed a tremendous sorrow when I thought about humanity and life.”

March 25, 2016