Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Went up to Los Angeles the other day to see the nice lady who does our taxes. After the deft use of a calculator and some clever manipulation of paperwork, we were informed that our burden this year would be thousands less than originally anticipated. Mrs. Ditchman and I have wisely accumulated cash in a special tax savings account at our credit union over the past year, and the news of the windfall sent our spirits soaring on the unexpected, warm February breeze. On the way home we found ourselves at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Highway 1. The light was red, and with both kids awake there was a strange unfamiliar quiet in the car. Mrs. Ditchman was checking her voicemail and I was just staring off into the distance at the blue Pacific on the other side of the asphalt. She hung up the phone and said, "Construction delay on the Morgan job. They won't let us start until next week." The light turned green and I impulsively turned right, heading North with all its promise of escape.

The hills of Malibu are just beginning to be dotted with the colors of Spring, like Seurat starting on a new canvas. The end of February is an uncommon time for a vacation, and this explained the lack of cars on the highway as we peeled away ever-so-slowly from the gray L.A. metropolis. It was nice, those winding highway curves around the tumbling palisades past Point Dume and beyond Zuma. The ocean had a soft, undulating surface to it like hand-blown, blue Venetian glass, and was interrupted by only a couple lucky surfers. I mentioned to my wife, after an hour of silence, how I'd like to get back to surfing, how my old garage-sale board was never a good fit for me, and what a pleasure it would be. "Just go," she said.

There's a Bed & Breakfast in Summerland, just before Montecito, that I've always stared at longingly from the highway when I used to make the drive to-and-fro, back when I lived in Santa Barbara and Ms. Ditchman lived in Huntington Beach. We were dating then, poor, and amused by all the hope and dreams we had put in the future: after we wed we would see every state! Journey to every National Park! Tour wine country every other weekend and become recognizable guests at that homey plantation cottage on Kauai! When we reached Summerland I pulled the 4Runner into the parking lot of that B&B. Mrs. Ditchman just smiled at me, and I ran inside to see if it was a family-friendly place. Came back with the owner, who took the bags for us. The kids loved their dogs.

So we spent a couple days traveling the back roads of Santa Barbara County wine country, touring the places that were just beyond the reach of the average tourists. The folks who run those wineries seem more laid back, more in love with their profession. They don't seem to care about making a buck or about making the tasters happy. They seem to care about the wine, which does little more for them than accentuate their serenity and wealth of spirit. "I envy myself!" One winemaker told me, as he plunged his tasting tools into a barrel. He sipped some, rolled it over his tongue, and held the glass up to the sky to inspect the density of the wine's color, or perhaps to toast the good God who made it. "This will be a fine year. Like every year before it," he said. Mrs. Ditchman bought a case.

Back in Goleta we drove past an old surf shop I used to frequent -and I did it: I stopped, I went in there, and I picked out a nice new surfboard and just bought it, paying cash. It was something of a miracle to see the stick leaning there against the wall, slightly taller than me, with an ornate hand-painted surface of blues and greens and blacks. It was exactly the board I was looking for, but when I pulled out my wallet I mentioned to Mrs. Ditchman that I would have bought anything today. Seriously, I would have paid a thousand dollars for an old hundred-pound paddle carved from a rusty wheelbarrow if it had a fin and a leash and looked surfable. I didn't care today. Nobody in my family did.

That afternoon at the beach, we cared even less. I was out on the new board by myself in the Pacific, drifting expectantly as surfers do. I looked back at the sand and saw my little family sitting there on the edge of the continent, waving. I was about to think how wonderful and lucky it all was when my wife pointed to something behind me. I turned to see a swell coming, so I moved to try and catch it. It wasn't big and it wasn't perfect, but the water crumbled over the top, churned up a few messy patches of kelp, and then left a smooth open spot for me. I was able to paddle into it, hop up, and sail off, feeling ten years younger. The Little Ditchman jumped up, screamed, clapped, and threw her arms in the air and yelled "Yay, Daddy!" as I rode that old dirty wave and waved back. Three godly waves that had come so far, so easily, over oceans of every kind, in a miraculous exchange of salutations. The waves arrived so simply, demanded nothing, and left behind only these smiling wayfarers of life, footloose and fancy-free.

Actually, none of the above is true. We owe the government thousands.