Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Interesting that this illustration gives Dorian a big heart and I didn't see him that way at all.

I just saw Surfwise (2007), a documentary about Dorian Paskowitz, who raised 9 children in decidedly gonzo fashion, traveling around the coasts of the Western Hemisphere and constantly surfing, surfing, surfing. Even the littlest babies surfed. They did not attend school. They lived on the barest essentials. I was amazed. From the New York Times review:

There are many different ways to drop off the grid, but few dropped off with such style and urgency as Dorian Paskowitz, the paterfamilias of what is lovingly and at times enviably described as the first family of surfing. It was an intensity in part born of his passionately felt engagement with history as a Jew, which took him from Stanford Medical School in the 1940s to button-down respectability in the 1950s and, thereafter, on the road and into the blue yonder with a devoted wife, nine children, a succession of battered campers and the surfboards that were by turns the family’s cradles, playpens, lifelines and shields.
The button-down 50s did not suit Dorian, and he rebelled with a fury. The term bohemian barely covers the incredible Paskowitz family lifestyle:
Once Doc’s origin story has been told (the movie says he introduced surfing to Israel), the story moves into its most fascinating phase, namely that stretch in the 1960s and ’70s when he and his wife, Juliette, a Mexican-American looker with an apparently sturdy constitution, raised, with next to no money, eight boys and one girl — David, Jonathan, Abraham, Israel, Moses, Adam, Salvador Daniel, Navah and Joshua — in a 24-foot camper. A few family members repeat the number 24 as if they still can’t believe it; I’m more wowed by the number 9.

Doc, one of his sons explains with a mirthless laugh, was trying to repopulate the world with Jews. Certainly Doc’s sense of himself as a Jew who had escaped the Holocaust only by an accident of birth, by growing up in Southern California, hit him hard and kept hitting him. After two unhappy marriages and an unsatisfying professional stint in Hawaii, where he had settled after Stanford, Doc shed his worldly belongings and old ways, discovered the joys of sex (he’s hilariously ribald on the specifics of that joy) and dedicated himself to uncompromised, uncompromising freedom, embracing the road like Jack Kerouac, one difference being that this dharma bum had a ready-made commune. He fled the greater world, creating a smaller, manageable one in its place.

For a time, the world Doc made fit neatly into that 24-foot camper. Nut brown and slender, the Paskowitz children were beautiful, ideal subjects for an exhilarating, persuasively liberating experiment. But they were also somewhat like lab rats, given to little nips that, in time, as childish energy morphed into adolescent aggression, evolved into violence bordering on the pathological. “I loved supporting the Reich,” says David, the eldest son, who became the captain in an increasingly authoritarian regime. David’s choice of words is pretty startling, particularly given that this is an observant Jewish family.
Indeed, Dorian ruled the family with an iron hand, and it is fairly obvious that no dissent was permitted. His treatment of Juliette enraged me. Like many hippies of the day, Dorian would drive and drive and drive until a locale "felt right"--Juliette's input was not sought or required. She was pregnant and/or breastfeeding, she said, for 10 solid years. "I've blocked a lot of it out," she reports. I would imagine so.

Juliette was not an active part of the surfing fun, the whole raison d'être for the family lifestyle. Instead, she kept the whole enterprise going; the cooking, the cleaning, the continuous and non-stop settling of endless squabbling in a family of 8 boys (all intensely competitive for the attention of Dorian) and 1 girl... all huddled into the now-legendary 24-foot camper.

The children slept, apparently, stacked like cordwood. Their father and mother had sex every night and the kids saw everything (one remarks "and they weren't quiet!") Early in the movie, Dorian tells us straight-faced that his life changed when he learned how to eat pussy. He then went scouting for a woman to match his high sexual appetites, grading them as in a final exam. Juliette registered an admirable 93% and he told her, you will be the mother of my seven sons.

The kids lived on gruel, as in OLIVER TWIST, but they were mostly in excellent health, which was sheer luck. There was one nasty surfing accident that befell one son and his recovery took a whole year. (It isn't very clear from the film, but I think he was left behind while the others moved on.) And there were countless other surfing-related scrapes and nasty-knocks-on-the-head, but the kids quickly adapted and learned to roll with it.

I came away from the movie remembering various rural communes and back-to-the-land experiments I visited in my youth... always upset because it seemed to me that their much-coveted, newly found "freedom" always belonged to men, and women were more enslaved that ever before. (Washing machines, after all, helped women, not men.) Consequently, whenever I hear about men deciding to jettison 'modern conveniences'--I reach for my gun.

It's interesting that a vehicle is never one of those things they choose to do without... and they will invariably be the one driving it, too.

Check out the movie for an interesting look at a fascinating family.




Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting movie, though I'm sad to see yet another example of women getting the short end of the stick in a "utopian" vision.

Aunt B said...

Damn straight. You can see it with one particular strain of the environmental movement, too, where apparently the answer to going green is to just undo all of the things that make women's lives easier and to put women back to doing them.

Vanessa said...

It's always seemed to me that people doing this sort of thing are trying to recreate the hunter/gatherer lifeways our bodies evolved with, but with modern gender roles in place, which doesn't fit at all.

Real foragers, who tend to be healthier and actually work less in a day that horticulturalists and agriculturalists, split their work pretty much evenly on gender lines. They pretty much always do different work for sure, the men and women (men doing the dangerous stuff, women doing the stuff compatible with having kids running around at your feet), but it's not like this guy had it. Also, you'd almost be sure to be living with your extended family, so the mother would have had a support structure in place should surfer dude get too authoritarian.

So, yeah, the "back to basics" stuff always gets my dander up, too, because it seems like the people who always say that have no idea what "the basics" for the human species actually are.

The Bumbles said...

I like your last sentence a lot - seems to sum up things pretty well! And you know what I think? They really had no plans to live as one with nature - they were just too proud to stop and ask for directions and when they got lost they acted as if it had been their plan all along.

mikeb302000 said...

That really does look like a fascinating family. The daughter said she wouldn't change it, and one of the sons is "keeping it alive," by doing it with his family. Incredible.

La Lubu said...

Consequently, whenever I hear about men deciding to jettison 'modern conveniences'--I reach for my gun.

You too?

What Vanessa said. All fun and games for this guy; his wife---'scuse me---wives, not so much.

It irritates the shit out of me that this attitude is labeled "rebellious". Hell, in that time, in that place, if he really wanted to be rebellious, he'd'a been doing the dishes and changing diapers while his wife surfed. "Dropping out" as being rebellious---but tightening up on the authoritarianism when it comes to women---how.the.hell is that rebellious?

Marion said...

I'll look forward to seeing the movie; the family dynamics are fascinating. It seems some of the children loved the odyssey; while others did not.

I can't imagine nine years of babies.His wife must have been extremely adaptable. My temper would have put an end to the infamous 24 foot trailer and the marriage!

Joan Kelly said...

guh, one more fucked up father. couldn't be less interested. but glad to read your take on it, thanks Daisy.