Thursday, October 22, 2009

My, My, My, It's a Beautiful World

Saturday evening, we took eight Utah children (kind of like Kobe beef, somewhat sweet and largely untouched; submitting picture of Julia and Alli, to the right, into the record as evidence to support this proposition) to an other way of life.

Ocean Beach, California is a surfing town that, when time ran across it, time crossed over to the other side of the street. Squatting on the wrong side of Mission Bay, it’s home to the homeless with pitbulls, the goth, the vegan skateboarders and tattoo parlors, the longest concrete municipal pier in California, and Hodads.

We found out about Hodads from Guy, on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives on the Food Channel—Adam’s favorite show along with Landscape Smarts. It’s a burger joint on Newport Avenue that plays heavy metal so loud your crowns vibrate on their posts. If you’re lucky (or unlucky, according to Austin, a seventeen-year old senior, “how embarrassing”)), you sit in the front seat of a VW bus that sticks out of the eastern wall and eat off the table propped on the dashboard. The blurb under the name says, “Under 95 gazillion served” and “Open 24 hours, just not in a row.” It’s hands down, the best burger we have ever eaten.

Hot ground beef, slightly pink in the middle; cold, cold thickly sliced white onions; chopped lettuce; tomatoes cut rough like Aunt Lorraine cuts them, in the palm of her hand with a jagged knife at the family reunion; bacon strips hanging like tongues over the edge of the melting cheese slices; all this wedged into a toasted bun, and wrapped firmly in wax paper. I think they serve within ten seconds of taking the patty off the grill. The heat of the burger sizzles your tongue until your teeth crunch down into cold onion and toasted bread. Divine! The shakes are served in tall, frosty metal shake containers, with a scoop of the hard ice-cream from which they were made propped on the brim. I think perhaps a teaspoon of milk had adulterated the pure ice-cream. Brilliant!

Picture this: Six children, ranging in age from 18 to 11, perched on the surfboard bench of the long middle table. They’re mostly blonde—like most Utah children. The two eighteen-year old college freshmen have styled their hair for the football game, straightening their bangs with the Chi straightener, and wear silver hoop earrings. One’s got on a lime green BYU Cougars T-shirt with Hawaiian flowers; the other a sun dress with a white, sleeved, t-shirt underneath. The boys, to a man, wear basketball shorts and t-shirts with Nike Athletics or Basketball Camp Champion 2007 across the chest. Across from them sit their parents, and two other boys, age 10 and 12, similarly attired. The man wears a navy blue collared shirt with BYU embroidered on the left chest, as does one of the women.

Around the BYU blue, the walls are covered floor to ceiling in black paint and license plates, devised by those brilliant minds that make me laugh as I drive down the freeway. Surfboards hang from the ceiling. Van Halen’s jumping out of the stereo system, soon to be followed by Nickelback (Latest song: Burn It to the Ground). The homeless guy outside is playing his two songs on his portable keyboard, one about Sierra Vista, and the other about Saturday night. The servers wear black, not by mandate, but by choice. The black is alleviated with designs that resemble skeletons, or halfpipes, or retro Kiss concert Ts. Little goatees, fluff under the lower lip, which I have subsequently found out is called a “soul patch,” are de rigueur, as are chains from back belt loop to front button. Some sport Mutton Chops, the reverse goatee. The chef has a Mohawk and spreads, at the very most, 170 pounds over his 6 foot 4 frame. Gauges seems to be the most common, visible piercing (I had to ask the college freshman on the name for that one)—some at least the size of a dollar coin.

I love it. I love that Adam is watching, with his mouth slightly open and drool beginning to gather in the corners, as he watches the shake man, with multiple piercings, dancing at his machine. If I could see myself, I know I have a crooked half-smile on my face. You see, I love to watch my kids around things they don’t know; and more than that, things they perhaps even fear slightly. Love to see them watch “different” people doing something well. In this case, running a restaurant, serving killer food in complicated orders without a hitch, schmoozing at all the tables that include families, young couples, students from UCSD, surfers and boarders, and moving diners through their restaurant with a casual aplomb that belies the speed with which the tables turn over. (Kevin and I had come earlier in the year, just us, and the service was just as charming and efficient. The music was also just as loud at three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in February. Consistency—the sign of a good business.)

After dinner, the kids strolled down to the pier, admittedly under duress at first. (Adam: “Mom, you’re not the boss here. Nobody wants to go to that stupid pier. Seven people don’t want to go. Why do you get to decide?) To get to the steps, they had to maneuver by the homeless man in his twenties with a massive trench coat and an even bigger pit bull tethered by a rope leash to his waist. Pitbull Man was being soundly chastised by another man who was bothered that his behavior, at some previous occasion, was aggressive and had bothered somebody who had taken offense. Pitbull Man took his talking to with a penitently lowered head and muttered, “Dude, dude . . . I know, I know.” I had to drag Adam away who stood glued to the spot, his eyes wide.

Up onto the pier, and into the Saturday night fishing village that probably blossoms at dusk on every pier in California. Each side of the 1,971 feet of the pier, as well as the two wings that form a T-shape at the ocean end, was dotted with fishing groups. Judging from the languages, mostly Spanish-speaking and Asian, the fishers were largely Hispanic and Hmong. Fathers, mothers and babies in strollers; kids on scooters; preteens throwing nerf footballs to each other; teenagers in circled camp chairs texting and chatting while their lines bobbed in the inky water below; young children played in little pop-up tents that, if we could have seen, were probably decorated with My Little Pony decals. Dinner in coolers, live bait and the fresh catch in buckets, green glow-in-the-dark lures attached to the end of the lines so that they don’t get tangled on the cast. I’m walking next to Kevin with the weight of Adam tucked into the crook of my arm as he twists backwards and forwards, trying to see whether he is brave enough to let go completely.

Again, I love it. I love the wafting scents of salt water, French fries from the restaurant/bait shop perched halfway down the pier, tobacco, kelp rotting on the shore and barnacles smashed under foot that float by. I love that our group breaks into groups: parents and little, bigs and inbetweens. I love the self-centered chatter that stills as they walk further and further onto the pier. As we get to the T, I roll my eyes at the “OK, mother, we’ve walked the pier, can we now get out of here before we get raped” that comes from the older group. “No, we’ve got to walk down both sides.” I love the silence that follows, while they take it all in—the tents, the coolers, the chatter, the fish, the lures.

I love that, though they will not admit it, the thoughts process through their brains that for some teenagers, it was considered a fun thing to gather on the pier with their camp chairs, cell phones, Big Gulps and fishing rods to catch fish on a Friday night. Judging from the hair styles, the girls had taken just as long to get ready, and the boymen were sporting their most potent aftershave. I love the questions that follow: Why do people fish? (Have I really raised such city slickers?) What do they do with it? Why would they need it? What followed, while we strolled, was an explanation of fishing licenses, free fish, cheap food, and possibly the benefits of sitting on a late fall night under the San Diego sky with the waves crashing beneath you, and the moon rising while waiting for your lobster pots to fill up.

For ten-year old Adam, the Pitbull Man figured foremost on his brain that night. But not the questions I thought he would ask like, how does he feed that huge dog, where does he sleep, and what do you think he did to become homeless. What Adam was most concerned about was that Pitbull Man had been smoking. “Mom, why do you think he would do that when he just knows that smoking is bad for you?”

I tried to explain that smoking actually kills the hunger pains, that maybe it helped him not be so hungry, that sometimes you are so addicted to something that even though you know it’s wrong you do it anyway. “So, Adam, when you hit Seth, you know it’s wrong but you do it anyway.” “Yes, well, that’s not going to affect me in the long run; that’s not going to make me die.” For the life of him, I couldn’t get him to see that smoking might not be as bad as deliberately choosing to hit your brother. He wouldn’t even budge from his certainty that he would never do something that he knew was wrong AND that would have a long term effect. He just knew that if he were homeless he wouldn’t smoke. (I think he also remains convinced that hitting Seth will have no effect on his eternal salvation. Funny how the things we do are never worse than the things done by someone else. )

After about 30 minutes, we headed back to Newport Avenue, passed Pitbull Man (who was still smoking), passed the all-night taco stand, and the pawn shops, and climbed into our cars. As we pulled out of the parking space and headed back to Mission Beach, Julia sank into the seat behind us. “Thanks,” she breathed out, “that was really fun.” I smiled again. Chalk one up on the “enlarge thy borders” quest. For me, at least, I left Ocean Beach reminded that other is just another way, that our family’s way is not the only way, and thinking to rearrange my life so that I can spend a few Friday nights under that California moon atop a concrete pier with the swell sulking beneath me as I waited for the queenfish to bite.

Title: Colin Hay, from "Beautiful World."


  1. Aw--this essay made me feel teary. I was born in San Diego and grew up in Southern California. My parents frequented Ocean Beach and still somewhat look the part (I was born at home, my mom still has very long hair, my dad has tatoos, we always had lots of dogs in our mostly dirt yard, etc.). I love California, and yet I feel torn because I'm raising my kids in a very different way in Utah. I wouldn't want them to have my childhood, but I also know that they are missing out on some lessons as well. At least they can visit their grandparents in Vegas and hang out with their old biker buddies. It's hard because I feel the simultaneous impulse as a parent--to shelter my children more and yet to help them love and understand those who are different from how we choose to do things.

  2. For me, it's about trying to get them to see, and myself to remember, passed the artificial dichotomy of the world vs. us. I want them to know that goodness and truth is determined by light, not location.

    I was sitting in church a few months ago and listening to a talk which set up the world vs. us competition. The world would have us do this. The Lord would have us do this. The implication being that we were always on the Lord's side, and that anything outside of the Church was the world. That's not always how it works. The "world" is alive and thriving inside of the Church, and the "Lord" may be found anywhere there is honesty, benevolence, virtue and good works. I need them to know that. The best way, for me at any rate, is to let them see.

    Plus, I would really like to have my kids know how to surf and fish as part of their childhood. That's why every holiday we go on is to the beach, or least a body of water. I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and the beach was just something I knew how to do from the time I could crawl. Like don't stick your sandy hands into the chip packet; pour a handful out and eat with your tongue. Children need those essential beach skills.

    Hey, I like the Yellow Wallpaper reference. I used to teach Herland to my Honors students at BYU. The freshmen boys hated every sentence of it! I figured it was the least I could do to help them out.

  3. I think the more we are able to open the world to our children, the more they can see it is not a case of "us" and "them" but that all of them ARE "us"!

    Travel experiences quickly teach that there is more the same than different, and that things that appear as differences may not matter at all. It is a blessing for them to realize that maybe "all is well in Zion" is a little too pat, and that huge amounts of truth and light exist "outside".

  4. Yeah, I'm always uncomfortable with Church rhetoric about 'the world' versus 'us'. Especially since most of my family members are now inactive; I hope my children don't ever ask me why Grandpa is 'bad' because he goes to Starbucks every morning for his latte and he doesn't go to church with me and Grandma. I think you're right--the only way for them to 'see' that is to see it for themselves.

    And I miss the beach as well; my husband grew up in Hawaii and I grew up living a mile from the ocean so we feel pretty landlocked here in Utah. It's a weird switch for me to live in the mountains and only visit the beach instead of the other way around.

  5. This is beautifully written. Not only could I visualize this experience, but the entire entry was such a magnificent description of "enlarging thy borders". What blessed children you have. This is not what all parents want for their children, unfortunately. What a great opportunity...and at the beach no less. I, too, have all the necessary beach skills having grown up at the beach. This is definitely, one of my favorite posts of yours, Tessa.

  6. Also, part of the beauty of the experience is that it wasn't pre-planned or contrived with the thought that this was going to turn out the way it did. Instead, it seems as though the experience just unfolded, and as it did, you accepted it and simply let it happen. The fact that it turned out to be such a bonding, teaching, and enriching time was a wonderful bonus.

  7. You write beautifully, almost lyrically at times.

    I notice that you often give each blog a title referencing a song. I've become curious enough of that point to look for these songs and I'm having great difficulty finding some of them. Where do you find them?

  8. I applaud your point of view. I believe it is very wise to broaden a child's experience.

    We raised our children in the San Francisco Bay Area and I am so glad we did. The Church is very strong there, amidst great diversity of color, opinion and opportunity. All three of them are married in the Temple, with deep testimonies, while at the same time, very comfortable sharing their school and workspace with those of differing views.

    While living in the Bay Area, a new ward member, who moved in from Oregon, spoke of her fears that moving to The Bay Area would place her among weaker Saints. She was concerned about rearing her children in such a place. Upon arriving, she reported that she was met with the strongest membership she had ever encountered. She deduced that living among the world, actually forced choice and commitment, eliminating fence sitters and weak testimonies. This is the environment we raised our children in and I will always be grateful for the well balanced, Gospel committed adults it produced. Not to mention, the influence the Church members were able to make in such an environment: most of the elected governing body of my children's high school was LDS.

  9. I listen to music all the time. I gather songs, from the gym, from the radio, from friends, from Christian, the sixteen-year old son who has eclectic tastes. Right now, I'm a little tired of words, and am listening to wordless music--probably a result of trying to write more. But, with every post, I comb through iTunes, my libraries, and my memories to find something that fits. Sometimes the song prompts the post.

    Just have rediscovered Cat Stevens, which my older sisters played when I was about six or seven on LP's, and which we sang in primary school as hymns. So that's what I am listening to right now and the Bee Gees (another childhood memory; haven't pulled out Jimmy Hendrix yet; probably won't).

  10. We're all inspired by music, it's innate. Music is memories made and forgotten and loves lost and found; a single, random beat can shape our mood and sometimes frustratingly, an early morning melody can dog us all day.

    I wonder what song will motivate your next post? I hope your library of music can keep fueling this wonderful writing of yours.

    Perhaps we should all start submitting songs for Tessa?

  11. What would you suggest? Right now I am mulling over the line from Martina McBride's song, Independence Day: Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay . . . the line makes the hair on my arms stand up.

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  13. I am also mulling over "putting flesh on the bones of my dreams" from David Gray. It's just a great image.