By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
When I think back on my time in New Mexico, one night stands out clearer than most. A legendary South American shaman had come through town, and my girlfriend decided what I needed most was a one-on-one soul-healing session with the man. His usual fee for such work was $700, but he had a past relationship with the crystal store and as a favor agreed to waive it in my case. So I arrived at a small cottage in the hills and was greeted by the tallest man I had ever seen in real life, extremely pale, skinny as a rail, dressed in beige trousers, a purple-and-green plaid golf shirt, and a gargantuan necklace carved from human bone. I was stripped naked and laid out on a long table. Every inch of my body was covered with over a half-ton of medicine blankets, eagles’ feathers, owl claws, tree bark, sacred river stones, sacred mountain stones, crystals of all sizes, power objects of all sorts, including a petrified raccoon penis. Lights were shut off, candles lit, the thermostat felt pegged over 100. Two women walked into the room. They had come to perform psychic-energy work, were of indeterminate age, dressed head-to-toe in white cotton. Performing psychic-energy work seemed to involve standing about five feet back from the table and wiggling their fingers in my general direction. A Peruvian Indian in a black loincloth showed up next. Peruvian Indians are generally diminutive in stature. Standing next to the shaman, this guy looked like a dwarf. The dwarf sat down in a corner and pulled out a set of tribal drums and began to beat his fingers raw. The shaman himself towered above me, chanting in a language I had never heard before, his eyes rolled so far back into his head that only the whites were visible. It was too hot, too strange, the drumming was getting louder, the chanting was getting louder, the finger wiggling was verging on semaphore. I was starting to feel like my sacred soul-healing session was being scripted by David Lynch. Then I started to lose consciousness. I had one last thought before I passed out: What if my mother could see me now?
If I had a lick of common sense, it would have ended there. It didn’t end there. In the coming years, there were ashrams, monasteries, strange teas, strange mushrooms, Sanskrit chants, Native American medicine men with headdresses made from whole otters, folks on the run from the law, folks on the run from much worse. I signed on for the full tour. It lasted for years. By the time I made it back to college, I could sit in the full lotus for six hours at a time, but that was about it. I never, not once, achieved a mystical anything.
It wasn’t that I needed all that much, simply proof of concept. I wanted something, anything really, that felt like a spiritual experience. Not that I had any idea what a spiritual experience was supposed to feel like, but I was pretty certain this was the kind of thing I would recognize when it happened. It never happened. Over the course of the next 10 years, I lost interest. I still hoped that there was a place where exalted magics were possible, but I no longer lived in that part of the world. Since I didn’t go in for the big-invisible-man-in-the-sky theory, there wasn’t a whole lot left. Life wasn’t that mysterious after all. Then I got good and sick and stayed in bed for years and might have been there still, but one fine spring day, a friend called and asked if I wanted to go surfing — and that’s when things got a little peculiar.
On the day he called, I wasn’t thrilled about getting back in the ocean. It had been 10 years since I’d been on a board and I had no serious plans for returning. Even if you ignore my last surf experience — the near drowning in Bali — the sport had never been much fun for me. I’d learned to surf in San Francisco, where the water’s cold and the waves serious. At Ocean Beach, just paddling out often felt like a life-threatening experience. I remember days when I never even made it to the lineup, forget about catching a ride. The rides there were often short, often mean, the currents treacherous. After a few years of little progress, I stopped trying. Some of this was frustration, most was memory.
The memory was of Chris Marchetti, the man who taught me to surf. At the time of my instruction, Chris was 23 years old and given to unusual methods. “Show it to me, motherfucker” was often the extent of his surfing advice. Out of habit, he liked to holler such advice. A few years before, he’d been the coxswain on the famed University of Wisconsin crew team. That team had 48 trophies in their glass case, including the 1990 National Championship, won with Chris shouting them on. He always liked a good shout. When the ocean would flatten between sets, Chris liked to scream Bring It On at the horizon. Even if you’re not superstitious, you don’t scream at something that covers three-quarters of the planet. Chris just didn’t care. It was often frightening, the way he loved to paddle into waves far beyond his abilities, gleefully seeking out the worst wipeouts imaginable. He said he wanted to see what would kill him. In the end, it wasn’t the waves that got that chance.