Filippa Veren — a great aunt — earned her bohemian bona fides eons before Big Sur became a counterculture coven.
She studied under the artist Aristide Maillol. She maintained a sculpture studio in Hollywood. She, apparently, had an affair with Vincent Price.
I was far too young to have politely inquired what pillow talk with Vincent Price might have been like.
(The world knew Vincent Price as an antic court-jester, but did he have a dark side? When he’d emerge from behind sumptuous drapery wearing an incarnadine cape, and laughing maniacally, was that awkward during dinner dates? How much time did he spend on mustache-maintenance daily/weekly?)
Filippa and Boris — her impish husband — maintained a lifelong friendship with the artist Alexander Calder.
(The familial association started when Calder initially arrived in Paris penurious and Filippa’s father let Calder stay at their house. Filippa, however, had to give up her room and, so the story goes, Calder was eternally grateful to her.)
Boris and Filippa split their time between France and Big Sur.
That house in France was close to the Calder’s.
The leisurely lunches were legion.
A SERENE RETREAT IN THE WOODS
I dream about the pool often.
I always come back to her pool in Big Sur.
I jump from up top, where dearly departed Filippa lived, and land in the pool.
Her house was so high above the ocean, and so far from the pool below, one could never make such a leap, except in dreams.
That’s the recurrent dream.
As far as obsessions go one could do worse.
I saw a bumper sticker that said: I’D RATHER BE PLAYING POKEMON.
ROCKS AND STONES FROM THE BEACH
Filippa’s sturdy frame resembled a Maillol.
Seen through a child’s eyes, she was like those larger-than-life matriarchs that populate Swann’s Way — a difficult Proustian aunt acting according to a private bureaucracy’s inscrutable dictates; vast, inefficient, unseen.
She was like Big Sur, beautiful but remote.
This entire narrative, not to worry, is not an elaborate rebuke to a long-dead relative.
She wasn’t nice to children.
Even her German Shepard snarled and bit.
Her pool was cold, like her.
Other than that, great aunt and great nephew got on swimmingly.
If it pleases the court, kindly turn your attention to evidence that Filippa could be mildly cruel to children.
Exhibit A: I, the plaintiff, coaxed Filippa into my room, having just tentatively copied a drawing from a book on the Italian Renaissance.
“There’s a word in French,” Filippa said. “It’s too licked.”
She left summarily. I was 9. (There’s a word in English, it rhymes with “bean.”)1
Exhibit B. Plaintiff was at Boris and Filippa’s having a water fight. Plaintiff had to borrow one of Boris’s white t-shirts. (They were long on the lad.) Fillipa’s bon voyage was prototypically French, filled with bonhomie. She stuck her head into the family sedan and bid adieu to her great-nephew sitting in the back seat, S.F. bound.
“You look like a new sex,” she said.
She’d spent serious time with the devoutly decadent Big Sur denizen Henry Miller, and at that moment, I must say, I was too young to appreciate that. This comment is just not appropriate.
Exhibit C. Filippa’s pool was freezing cold, and what’s so horrible about that Little Lord Fauntleroy? A hose ran river water directly into the pool. That too sounds drop-dead gorgeous/makes the pool sound like an altar to Zen simplicity. In theory, yes. On the night in question, the plaintiff — 8 years old — emerges from Filippa’s pool without the slightest exaggeration, perilously close to dying from being too cold. Fortunately, Filippa had explicitly stated there’d be a fire. In pitch darkness a happy triad mother/author/demented Calder confidante were sitting on logs outside her trailer, extremities tremulous, teeth chattering with excitement for fire. She–tribal elder—was surely going to keep her implied promise to help the minor child maintain a core-body temperature consistent with living/breathing/the Geneva Convention, correct? Is there an E.T.A.?
“Sometimes,” she said, “it is better to feel the cold.”
She had a way of finding that sweet spot between casual emotional cruelty, and sadism, that was quite French. Just saying.
Do you believe dreams are the royal road to the “unconscious”?
I still have a recurrent dream about the pool.
I jump2 from up top, down below, into the pool.
Not incidentally an EMPTY POOL — is the archetypal arena for skateboarding, its primordial place of origin.
“We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them,” claimed hypocrite Ralph Waldo Emerson, who couldn’t even kickflip.
By fiat, Filippa Veren had her kidney-bean-shaped pool built in Big Sur and it is so awesome you aren’t even going to believe your eyes when you see a schematic, radically reductionist, abstract rendering of it below:
A GUIDE TO THE MOST SCENIC HIGHWAY IN THE U.S.A.
This is a description, not an indictment.
Bleak/beautiful Big Sur is not for everyone.
(Filippa did not like nearby Carmel, and she probably wouldn’t have liked you.)
If you like white sand beaches, fishing and pleasure boats bobbing on blue waters, you should probably cling with quiet desperation to Carmel, the Monterey Peninsula, where there are golf courses galore, one guidebook claiming this is, “the golf capital of the world.”
Philistine that you are, you’ve probably already done the famous “17 Mile Drive,” toured turquoise-green-waves, got out—mingled with the 17 Mile Drive’s thriving, remarkably well-assimilated squirrel community.
Yes, like everything that is Carmel, they’re tame.
They’ll eat out of your hands. But who’s tamed who? Seems like you both are meeting one another’s base, superficial needs. It’s all so transactional, appalling, and too cute.
I don’t mean to sound “judgey” but you exhibit absolutely no ability to see beyond the “scenic.”
You got played by the squirrels, fool.
The self-actualized individual will be off seeking a drained pool in Big Sur.
THE POETRY OF EARTH IS NEVER DEAD
She had a heart attack. A neighbor came up top, found her in the sun, lying face down.
She died doing what she loved, tending to cacti.
During that interregnum period — betwixt her death and her estate’s disposition — a property manager was hired by the name Basil.
(In Big Sur free spirits–eager to live close to the land — abound.)
I was in middle school at the time — a sagacious 7th grader — and already a dependable narrator.
On one fateful Friday, a sullen reporter was forced against his will to go to majestic/desolate Big Sur for the weekend, as was the family’s wont during the interregnum; before the land was sold back to California to be preserved in perpetuity, as Filipa would have wanted, in a Hobbesian state of nature.
Basil was nowhere to be seen.
The parents slept in her trailer. The children slept, seething, in the tent.
(After a fire ravaged the region, she never rebuilt, just lived alone with the trailer, and her vicious German Shephard.)
Yet, you need to experience this sensation for yourself O Gentle Reader!
That morning you wake above the clouds that blanket the ocean far below. You can still hear the waves crash against the cliffs. You need to know how singular that sound is.
Filippa is long gone.
“The poetry of earth is never dead,” said Keats.
That was the first revelation, that early morn.
This was the second; evidence suggests Basil may have been on “pot”/using a controlled substance that resembles oregano.
You peer inside the trailer Basil now tenants. On the headboard, do you see the hieroglyphics?
Ballpoint-pen inscriptions — the kind that could conceivably adorn a high school yearbook — birthday wishes, summer plans, references to surfing safari — all paid him tribute.
Here was the piece-de-resistance: An anonymous artist had rendered a man with a giant smile, and sunglasses, and dread-locks protruding from beneath a knit cap. The adage directly beneath the portrait was apropos: IRIE MON’!
A pre-adolescent anthropologist had but one thought: This Pagan God they call Basil has to be the most “with it”/ “happening”/epic human being, ever.
It’s a miracle that one didn’t tune in/turn on/drop-out — hitchhike back to Big Sur — a truant at 12 — never to be seen among civilized society again.
A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND
If you can believe it, Basil’s employment was brief. He’s a nomad. A fun nomad. He moved on.
If you can believe it, his protégé, Ehren — no older than 17 — swiftly usurped him, landed the recently vacated caretaker/property manager/surfer position.
If you can believe it, Ehren even more perfectly embodied the fantasy of what it would be like to live in Big Sur.
This Homeric hero entered the drama via action that occurred off-stage.
A confidential source placed a clandestine call to my mom to raise concerns about her recent hire.
One could hear her on phone, in the kitchen, talking in conspiratorial tones.
“Oh, he did? Did, he? Boy oh boy…”
This brand-new hire had just hosted a party, a soiree, up top. That is not inherently cause for alarm. At issue, was the 17-year-old property manager’s direct marketing campaign to promote aforesaid fiesta, i.e. he placed a handwritten sign directly on Highway 1 that said FOOD AND BEER →
He3 surfs. He skates. He is holy.
SIGNS, SIGNS, EVERYWHERE THE SIGNS.
I’ve meant to skate the pool for forever.
I finally did.
After interviewing approximately 1.3 million professional skaters, to not skate this one sacred space felt profane. Perhaps I waited so long for fear the dream wouldn’t live up to the reality? And yet, I finally did clear the chasm between dreams and reality. Would you believe, O Gentle Reader, the dream and the reality sang as one, that the experience was almost exactly like the dream?
You drive up Highway 1. You pull up the dirt road. You walk down to the pool.
You pass a handwritten sign stapled to a tree: → POOL PARTY
IS THIS YOUR DREAM?
“You’re here!!!!!” Ehren says.
Big Sur locals — skating’s equivalent of Sunday painters — older surfers with a love for skating the pool by Burns Creek Bridge — are watching as one colleague cruised around the kidney-bean-shaped bowl Filippa built.
“Have you been saved?” Erhren says hoisting a bong towards this lilting “well-bred” blonde woman, that no one can/no one wants to believe is a writer’s lawfully wedded wife.
“No thank you,” she says.
“Would you like to be?”
“No thank you.”
An age indeterminate individual with a septum piercing and a flat-brim ball cap is hunched over a sketchbook, a watercolor set at his side. He is a surfer/professional masseuse with gnarled hands. His feet hang in the pool.
“I’m making a painting, for Ehren,” he said with a smoky drift.
A lone, disaffected 17-year-old individual, sporting a buzz cut, jeans, and plaid shirt, looking like he stepped from a crowd scene in the documentary film The Decline of Western Civilization is a markedly reserved subject.
(It was totally unclear why he was here.)
“Are you going to skate?” a high-powered reporter who will soon be known as the male Terry Gross, of the skateboarding subculture/lifestyle, asked adroitly.
“It’s not my passion,” he says.
I want to say Ehren is the best skater in the world.
He does know how to skate the pool.
Reggae music saunters into the ravine that plunges into the Pacific, that secret cove where Ehren—don’t tell— keeps a kayak.
He traces a soft soulful line around the three-stones-steps.
“This is the surfiest bowl!” he exclaims.
Cresting musicality characterizes Ehren’s unique vernacular.
“I got Gumby legs,” he says.
(Translation: His legs are tired after skating all day.)
“The pool possessed his mind!” he says to colleagues, explaining why a person with a SONY Dictaphone is making others uncomfortable with odd questions.
A SIMPLE BOX RAISED ABOVE A STONY MEADOW
After the skate session, the party adjourns to Ehren’s humble abode, a delightful D.I.Y. cottage/surf hut above the pool.
He has a lawn, an outdoor shower, a sunken bathtub, a tree to hang his wetsuit.
Jill — his significant other — teaches mandala making at Esalen.
Like Fillippa, she raises rabbits. (Unlike Filippa these rabbits will not appear in rustic French cuisine.)
Buddy, their white rabbit, has pride of place, occupying his own spacious apartment/cage, where they put an extra box, a stepping stone, so he can hop a little higher, and enjoy the commanding ocean view.
Blade, their Rhodesian ridgeback, bounds effortlessly up and down ravines.
You have never seen anything like it.
It is exactly the dream.
BIG SUR OF TOMORROW?
I have dreamed about skating the pool approximately 300,000 times. I have skated the pool 3-5 times.
Ehren has skated the pool approximately, 1,345 times annually, forever.
Ehren has held innumerable pool parties.
This one was a little different.
Ehren breaks out the homebrewed beer.
Jill brings out the cake.
“Happy birthday, babe,” she says.
Ehren blows out the one candle.
The cake is vegan, agave and avocado.
“Viscous,” Ehren says.
The masseuse with the kind face, the flat-brimmed cap, presents the watercolor he’s been laboring over all evening: a wave at sunset.
(If only Filippa were here to subtly undercut his technique/mutter in frigid French.)
“Let’s me put a date on it,” says the landscape painter/surfer/masseuse.
“Don’t put a date on it,” Jill says.
“But then you know what time you made it,” he says.
“What if you want to be beyond time?” she says.
And that seemed to settle that.
THERE REMAINS THE SONG THAT NAMES THE EARTH
And how deep into adulthood is the boyhood hero?
“40,” he says.
This is not sentimentality speaking: He doesn’t look it. Neither do his friends, the other caretakers that came to skate the bowl, more than a few well into their fifties. It’s amazing how fit, and healthy, and hale they all are.
“Kids are all ages, these days,” Ehren says.
This is not a younger brother refusing to let an idolized older brother ebb before his very eyes.
It is like she said that night.
What if you want to be beyond time?
Big Sur almost makes you believe you could be.
He’d be the one to ask about that.
2 I feel compelled to add, I had a dream I was eating olives. Spoiler alert: That was the conceit, plotline, and denouement. I woke up realizing I do like olives. The good news is: That one — with the rich symbolism — was easy to unpack. The bad news is: Even my unconscious is lazy. That dream isn’t even a dream! It’s more like a plan, or a memory! (Ever since then I have purchased olives at Kroger with slightly greater frequency.) “Your young men shall see visions, your old men will dream dreams,” to quote the Book of Joel, a minor prophet, and one of the shortest books in the Bible. Olives are a healthy alternative to many snacks, the prophetic dream said, implicitly.
3 Fillippa bequeathed the pool to her beloved friends, the Springs, who lived down below her. Ehren then became their caretaker/property manager/surfer. He lived where Fillippa lived, and now he lives on the same hill, just lower down, coincidentally, closer to the pool. His lived example begs the question: How can you ever leave Big Sur, why would you ever want to?