Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sinos and seals

Last weekend, my brother Steve and his girlfriend Marika visited San Diego. They just arrived from Shanghai, and were admirably alert and spirited after one very solid night of sleep. We even made it to see BrĂ¼no, which I was eager to see so I could learn more about the Austrian people, just as Borat was a valuable cultural exchange tool that taught us the true spirit of Kazakhstan. I was intrigued by the challenge of a more realistic portrayal of the Austrians than The Sound Of Music. And who could more effectively judge the authenticity of Austrian movies than our group? One American who lives in Austria, and had three whole months to soak up culture while averaging 80 hours per week and speaking introductory German. And two other people who live in China, namely another American and French Canadian. In SoCal, watching an Englishman playing a gay Austrian visiting SoCal.

Fortunately, I can happily say it is as well researched as Borat. Like Borat, almost the whole movie was in the US, and hence it mocked Americans more than anyone else. (It’s nice to see this is still hip even after our new president.) Also like Borat, they passed up blatant opportunities for humor that would in fact have been educational. Americans would be amused by eating horses and drinking horse milk, both common in Kazakhstan, yet neither of these were mentioned in Borat. Bruno was a movie with all sorts of odd gay themes, yet no exploitation of lederhosen, pumpkinseed oil, locking people in cellars for 25 years (yes, any Austrian will wince at this), weird violent anti-Nazis, or grunting, sweaty weightlifters. They did not bother to get a dialect coach for a proper Austrian accent, which greatly amuses (at least) northern Germans. You could dub Lawrence of Arabia with someone speaking in a southern German or any Austrian accent, and a typical Bremener would laugh all the way through the movie. The reason they did not make any such effort is that it would have been lost on Americans. Like Andy Kaufman, and to a lesser extent Framk Zappa, the man can make a successful show out of insulting his audience. And I see no reason why he will stop. The same formula keeps working. Time for the Ali G movie, or a new region to come from that Americans find exotic and intriguing. Iceland. Paraguay. The Ozarks. Detroit. Berkeley.

The experience did have the unexpected effect about making me yearn more for my return to Austria. I was a bit insecure about the relatively banal nature of my destination. I got parents that went to 76 countries, a brother in China, and I live in a major western country where everyone looks like me and speaks English. And globalization continues to erode heterogeneity all around the world; now is a fading opportunity to see the kaleidescope of humanity. And to hike the eastern Alps, since the hiking boots that served me so well in Colorado are now in my suitcase, and will be on Austrian mountains next month.

The next day we mostly hung out with our old friends the Hoopes brothers, and on Sunday, we made it to the beach. It was heartbreakingly wonderful. This alone would have made the whole trip worth it. We went to the legendary Pine Street beach, which is not too close, but always delivers. Always parking, always a spot on the beach, always at least mediocre waves, always close to Fidel’s Norte. It was indeed only a mediocre wave day, and made me remember that they’re still good. Winston Churchill was not a beachgoer, and if he was, he would have added the beach to his quote below.

„Democracy is like sex. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.“
Attributed to Winston Churchill (I did not verify it)

A similar theme is captured by a bumper sticker seen in America sometimes: „The worst day fishing is better than the best day working.“ I can think of exceptions, and don’t really agree with the theme, but you see the point. Even with the hassle of parking, traffic, crowds, sun hazards, weather risks (unless in San Diego, of course), etc, beachgoing is still more than worth it.

There’s nothing like southern California sun. I tried laying out around the EU, and enjoyed it. Sure, they have sun there too. But it’s a different experience when you combine the freakishly dry air, the smell of the Pacific, the lack of concern for a single cloud - even the local sand seems caressing somehow. But the star of the show is, of course, the sun. Nothing like the feeling of sunlight oozing through your skin, pouring warmth and love over every pore, triggering melanin and endorphin and dopamine systems that flood the brain with antistress. I still hope I can someday work somewhere that lets me hike and go to the beach. Doesn’t seem like so much to ask, especially if I produce better work than the next guy. Relaxation is highly competitive.

And the waves. Slowly swelling as they roll toward the shore, undulating with reflected sunlight. You can see maybe five of them at any time, in different stages of their final push. Way out you can see just the beginnings of a swell. Look up to the next wave and it’s growing, threatening, and then it reaches too high and wavers and crashes and lumbers on, pushing a few lucky surfers and rolling over less interested or talented ones. The crash of each wave seems all the more intense given how long it took to get there. Like some salmon, insects, scientists, and other creatures, waves have quite a lifespan that most people never see or think about. They didn’t just start popping up there a quarter mile out for you. Waves hitting the Pacific have been all over that sea, seen countless changes in water temperature and weather, hosted a myriad of little sea beasties going through their brief and typically ignored lives too.

Some of the waves slap against the „Childrens‘ Pool“ in La Jolla Cove. The city of La Jolla has hosted a longstanding fight between seals and children. (Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t get any cuter. It is cuter than baby pandas vs. kittens.) A beach area in La Jolla is famous for seals that sun themselves on the rocks there. This seems very reasonable to me. I can relate to seals. Tourists love to come and take pictures of the cute seals. However, others allege that the donors of the pool area intended that it be used as a wading area for kids. This has gone on and on, spurring eloquent editorials, emotional appeals, and a even a few underattended public meetings. I got back to San Diego and learned that there was just a major development: the city shall drive off the seals. Method: loudspeakers playing the sound of barking dogs. I wonder if this is actually a proven method for antagonizing the seals, or is just a cruel stunt by the seal-hating proponents, some of whom may live close enough to hear the seals barking every night. After the seal egress, the beach will be dredged to make a wading area for kids. I was intrigued by this story, partly because the bar for engaging journalism was so low after celebrity death trivialities, but mainly because I was always surprised the seals were winning all these years. They don’t have lawyers. I looked it up. At least in California, no seal ever passed the bar. Now, although I did not look it up, I do not think any kids passed the bar either. So, it was a question of which side could inspire more lawyers to work pro bono. I figured the kids, since in La Jolla, a lot of kids will have lawyer parents, whereas seals‘ parents poop on rocks.
The merits of the case never entered into it. Who cares about California law, the will of the donors, city council dicta, the seals, kids, beach, etc? This is California. Whoever has more legal resources wins. And so I was all the more shocked a few days ago when a judge called off the dogs by ordering the whole plan paused, because someone alleged that dredging the beach would cause an environmental catastrophe. Oooooooh. Good move. That’ll freeze everything for years. The current occupants of La Jolla Cova shall bark, slap, bask, and wallow in happy oblivion. Kids – well, they don’t really understand anyway, but think the seals are cute. The next escalation in California style weaponry of mass distraction would be to allege psychological damage that the seals cause the children. Or toxic effects of seal feces on native plant species. Now you have the risk of even bigger lawsuits. But that will take years; this case and the Cove will not be unsealed for years.

Some cute La Jolla seals.
The caption reads: „A group of Pacific harbor seals swim in the Childrens Pool in La Jolla. La Jolla, California, USA Species: Phoca vitulina richardsi“

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