Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Beachcombing

Palisades Park is an approximately mile-long promenade atop the crumbling sandstone bluffs above the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, California, a long rectangle of park benches, trees, lawn, and vista points.  You were born not far away, Fifteenth and Wilshire, in what is now a portion of the UCLA Medical Center, but was at the time Santa Monica Hospital.

As an infant, you were wheeled in a pram, either by your mother or a maid, along the Palisades Park, and although you have no memory of the Park from those early ventures, you do have significant memories of walking along the promenade with your mother, who told you of your past history here, a hundred feet or so above the Coast Highway and the beach you were to frequent in your early and late teens.

The Palisades Park was your introduction to the generic concept of The Beach.  You've lived most of your life in some circumstance where you were never far from the beach and even times when you lived inland, by the Hollywood Hills, you made it a point to return to this area, where you felt somehow grounded and comfortable and where you began to associate Monday mornings, mornings after weekends at the beach, with the modern, electronic version of the beachcomber, the individuals who scanned the now empty beaches with electronic listening devices, foraging for the wide range of coins, wrist watches, small portable radios, and any out-of-the-ordinary metal object that might have been lost by the beach goers.

These individuals with their scanning devices fascinated you.  When you first saw them, you had the fanciful notion that they were somehow there in order to listen to the beach; their devices could provide them some special access unavailable to those of us with mere normal hearing range.  You soon learned that they were listening for the telltale beeps indicating metal, at which point, they'd begin scooping the sand with a large sifter, eager to see the results of their trawling.

You didn't make the next connection until you'd moved to Santa Barbara where, first with a grouchy Bluetick Hound named Edward and then with a more serene mixed breed named Molly, you took long walks , extending north or south as the moods and tides dictated.  The battery-operated beachcombers were here as well, scanning the areas most populated by groups.  On these walks, increasingly so with Molly, you began concocting stories which you'd scurry home to get down in early draft.

Seeing the beachcombers and their sounding devices in context with notions and fragments of stories seeming to reveal themselves on your walks with Molly, you'd frequently suggest to her, a beachcombing venture, which she was quite pleased to accept.  Thus your walks became associated with combing the beach for words, concepts, flashes of scenes, scraps of dialogue that led after some persistent sifting to workable stories.

This form of beachcombing, scanning for unexpected valuables, has become one of your favored approaches to engaging the craft of writing.  You never know on a given day what--if anything--you will detect, much less do you know how or what that scrap or shard will transform itself into some useful scrap of narrative.  In that sense, you can argue with ease that narrative is found art.

The downside of such philosophy is the vision you have, not of beaches and beachcombers, but of rural or semi-rural areas where the yards of homes are vase graveyards for appliances, rusted vehicles, and children's swing, slide, and play sets, either outgrown or abandoned.  Skimming through your notebooks, you find lines of dialogue, concepts, scenes.

 Not too long ago, your eldest niece's husband (which clearly makes him your nephew-=in-law) supplied you with such a scrap of found art.  Scott spoke of a local whose eagerness for quality produce, had found a place where it was possible to purchase fifty-dollar organic chickens, poultry that had been raised on a special diet, raised with sufficient exercise, and provided with restful, non-aggressive music.

You don't quite know what to do with this scrap, but you notice the fifty-dollar-chicken appearing in a number of your notebooks, in one of them lording it over a Huntsinger turkey, raised for Thanksgiving.

Most days, you have some project in the works.  When work time arrives and you focus on composition, you have no problem beginning.  You more or less know where to start, or a quick look at yesterday's work is enough to get you started.  But on days where there is no starting point, you have two choices, skim through notebooks for such memes and tropes as the fifty-dollar chicken who is lording it over "common" barnyard chickens or custom turkeys, or get out the sounding device, put on the earphones, and begin sweeping the equivalent of the sands for some trace of something with metallic content.

Thus you have come back to the beach and beachcombing on such days.  Always, as you observed the beachcombers, in Santa Monica, especially near the pier, or here in Santa Barbara, you've always thought the beachcombers a breed apart, neither tied to regular employment or conventional habits.  You've thought of them as quirky, perhaps iconoclastic.  Because of their earphones, they already listen to the sound of a different drummer.

Once, when you were meeting a potential client at a pancake house in Malibu, you happened to be present when a beachcomber came in, set his listening device and earphones in a convenient corner, then began sorting through a small wad of bills, a mound of change, and one or two ten-dollar bills.  He informed the owner he'd just "cashed in" as he called it, having sold some dealer whatever to account for the ten-dollar bills.  "Quick,"  he called out, "much coffee and something with protein in it.  Can't afford protein every day."

You felt an immediate bond with the man, as though you, too had found something valuable in the sand, a sentence or two that might fit with something else you had laying about.

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