Southern California is really weird. Okay, maybe it’s just that I’m a Bostonian, with New England Yankee roots going back hundreds of years. But I think that the combination of all that perfect weather and all that money makes for a rather lost culture. In every third storefront is a plastic surgeon. All the women have fake boobs (my nephew from Oakland didn’t mind that when he went to Orange County once… “I don’t care, mom!” he told my sister. “It’s awesome!!” Ahh to be in college again). Okay I’m not saying I minded that much either – it makes for a nice visual. But still. And even more bizarre, a lot of the rich guys buy their girlfriends boob jobs so they make better arm candy. You can’t make this stuff up. Blech.
However, dear row2k readers, I was hanging with rowers. And rowers, no matter where they are, are the Coolest People On Earth. Gayle and Linnet, who I met my first time around at the Newport Aquatic Center, became wonderful new friends, and it was great rowing on such a nice body of water, around Lido and Balboa Islands, and dining in the quaint waterfront restaurants. Gayle lives in an average, run-of-the-mill Newport Beach house (actually she’s just across the line in Costa Mesa), with the average, run-of-the-mill Porsche 911 and Range Rover in the garage. Of course, that kind of stuff doesn’t just happen – Gayle has her own successful CPA practice – but it all seemed like part of the territory in this part of the world. As I rowed around all the mega houses with their mega yachts out front, I felt like Max in the Sound of Music, when he said to The Baroness, “I like how rich people live. I like how I live when I’m with them.”
In addition to staying with Gayle, Linnet had arranged for my boat to be housed in the NAC boathouse for my second stay in this blissful part of the world. Linnet arranged this through Fred Anderson, a long-time NAC member and lifelong resident of Newport Beach. Fred’s an interesting guy. He loves rowing, and he really loves Armor All – the car product. He Armor-All’s everything – boats, riggers, hardware, and, presumably, cars (he works on fancy European cars in his day job). I had never heard of using the stuff on rowing shells, but then again, I don’t row in salt water. But he is one smart cookie.
He designed, engineered and installed what had to be the most impressive hanging rack system I ever laid eyes on, allowing the club to store tons of boats in a systematic and organized fashion. It has winches, cables, and looks highly complicated – though, in fact, it’s very easy to use. At Riverside, our hanging rack system consists of frayed ropes, wooden blocks, a few rusty cleats and surly rowers who glare at you while saying “Arrrrgghhh.” If you don’t do enough work parties, you’ll be the one hanging from the hanging rack. Every place is different, I guess.
I had a few more Rows From Heaven in Newport, and then, on Friday, November 30, I decided to take a road trip to San Diego. I didn’t realize it was only 90 or so miles away, and I thought, well, I missed the Pacific Northwest, I can’t just row around Lido Island the rest of my life. I’m on a road trip – must see new places! But I also had to get my left front headlight fixed, as it had gone kaput. I made an appointment at a VW dealer in Irvine and arrived around 11 AM (I can never get out of bed early, no matter what). I thought it would be a major pain and take hours, but this is Southern California, where even the VW dealer service people are nice.
They went out of their way to help me, got the whole thing done in about 35 minutes, and charged me $67 for parts and labor. They even took pictures of me with the boat on the car for the VW web site. Hey – who knows – I might get a corporate sponsorship for my next trip! As I left the dealership, however, I had a very uncomfortable realization. It occurred to me that I had just gotten a headlight job in Orange County. I was now one of the many victims of this god-awful superficial culture. I felt so violated… But hey, at least my headlights were now bigger and brighter.
I called San Diego Rowing Center on Mission Bay while I was waiting for my car, and the guy said, sure, just come down and do a beach launch. No problem. He said that one of the coaches, Chris Callaghan, would be there and that I could check in with him. I didn’t know who Chris was, but I think he was a big-time rower once upon a time. Like, a couple of years ago. He certainly looked the part when I met him – tall, athletic, and looking like he could move a boat very, very fast. He knew who I was from row2k, and he said, “Hey, Susan Francia is here too, if you want to meet her.” I had no idea she was coaching there, but I thought, hell yeah I want to meet her! Who doesn’t want to meet Susan Francia?
We went into the coach’s office, and she was sitting at a desk with another coach. I said hello and mentioned, in an eager, groupie kind of way, that I had met her at one of the Head of the Charles parties – at John Harvard’s, on the Saturday night of Head of the Charles weekend. (In fact, I had gone up to her at John Harvard’s, as I’m sure hundreds have done over the years, and asked if I could have my picture taken with her. She had obliged.) So when I mentioned that I had met her during the Head of the Charles weekend, she just sort of glared at me with a rather skeptical, and not entirely friendly, demeanor.
I had a shiver of fear run through me, as I suspected her next move would be to throw me out on my ass (which wouldn’t have required a lot of effort on her part). But then Chris came to my rescue and said that I was traveling around the country, rowing in different places, and writing about it for row2k. “Ohhh…” she said. “You’re that guy.” Yes. I was that guy. For the most part, in this life, you never want to be that guy. But in this case, it was very good indeed to be…that guy. She said she had been following the trip and had enjoyed my articles. I now felt like Sally Field accepting an Oscar – “You like me! You really, really LIKE me!!” Well, at least she liked my writing. That would suffice.
She then generously offered to pose with me for pictures and even take some of me while I beach launched. It was at this point that I realized something about Susan. Don’t get me wrong, she’s an absolutely lovely person and is unquestionably one of the most gifted athletes our sport has ever seen. But let me give you a piece of advice – don’t ever – ever – lend her your camera. She took about 450 pictures in the space of 10 minutes. Pictures of the birds, the sand, the scenery, herself, and a picture of me every three seconds as I walked to my boat, picked up my boat, walked it to the beach, etc.
I’m kidding, of course. Anyone who has earned gold medals in back-to-back Olympics can do whatever she wants with my camera, as long as she doesn’t throw it into the salt water of Mission Bay. Nevertheless, she did take a lot of pictures, and it was an honor to have her do so. She also got a little insight into my OCD personality as, when launching my boat, I noticed sand on my oar handles and quickly produced some paper towel out of my trou to clean it off. I don’t think she had ever seen anything quite like that before, but she laughed and seemed to identify. Sort of.
After launching and being photographed by the Great and Beautiful Susan Francia, I had a pretty soggy row on Mission Bay, which is a shame because apparently it’s really nice down there. Still, I rowed the Crew Classic 2k course and even did some pieces, since I knew that I would be racing on Sunday. This has not been a training trip. It’s been a sightseeing road trip with a lot of really cool steady state along the way. So I did a few two-minute pieces at 30-32, and then did a seven-minute piece, going 2-2-2-1, 22-24-26-28 (sorry for non-rowers who don’t understand…but this is a rowing web site).
I was absolutely wiped out. Man, was I out of shape. All of the rigors of non-stop traveling and lack of any real workouts had taken their toll. Sunday’s race would be tough indeed. Oh well, I thought, it’s only 850 meters.
After putting my boat away, I met another coach, David Janiak, who coaches for USD. He also was a complete stranger to me, but he knew who I was. “Oh…you’re the guy…traveling across the U.S…. writing for row2k. I’ve been reading your stuff. Hope you’re feeling better.” Wow. It’s true. People knew I had a bad cough from San Antonio all the way through Tucson. This was getting weird, but in a cool kind of way.
I returned amidst massive Southern California rush-hour traffic to Newport Beach and had a lovely dinner with Linnet at a small French restaurant on Balboa Island called Bastilic. It seats about 20 people and apparently is impossible to get reservations for, but she took care of those details (I also liked the name, since I was born on Bastille Day). Once home, I crashed like a ton of bricks. It was a good day – I got a headlight job, met Susan Francia, had a good row, and dined very well. Life continued to be overwhelmingly great.