The pleasure (and price) of following a dream
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
In the mid-’50s, Dorian Paskowitz was on his way to the good life. “Doc” was president of the Hawaii chapter of the American Medical Association, and there was talk of running him for governor of the state. He was handsome and muscular, no doubt the envy of many men.
And he was miserable, suffering from terrifying panic spells. Married, dressing in jacket and tie, didn’t suit Paskowitz. He grew to despise money and material things, was dying to explore sex and the open road.
Some people are not wired for the conventional life, and chafed against buttoned-down, Eisenhower-era America. “Surfwise,” Doug Pray’s documentary of Paskowitz and his family, is no sociological study; the world outside the one Doc created for himself and his clan is barely mentioned. But Pray could well have dropped the names of Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg as apt spiritual compatriots of the day.
What distinguished Paskowitz was his principal desire, to surf. Like the Beats, Doc craved sexual liberty and freedom of expression. Even now, in his 80s, he is unabashed in describing how sexual exploration, especially his discovery of cunnilingus and its importance in a marriage, helped turn his life around. “F—ing to me,” says Paskowitz as an older man, “is the word of God. God decided that the perpetuation of life, of any species, has to do with f—ing.”
But what Paskowitz wanted even more than a good lay was to get back to the beach. His family moved from Texas to Southern California when Paskowitz was 13, and he became one of the original crop of surf bums. An indifferent student, he somehow became convinced to follow a normal path of medical school, marriage and upward mobility. It didn’t stick. After two failed marriages, he took off for Israel, where he was rejected by the Army, so instead, he introduced surfing to the country. Back in the States, he married a Mexican, Juliette, who was willing to join in his lifestyle, which included moving to Hawaii, surfing, acting as medic to Waikiki’s beach-bum community, and living in a camper.
Coexisting with the rebel, though, was a desire for family. Doc and Juliette had nine kids in not much more than nine years. The funny thing is, they never saw the need to move out of the van, and this is the most vivid part of “Surfwise” ” the Paskowitz’s, all 11 of them, tumbling out of a 24-foot camper onto a beach. “We were like monkeys, in a small monkey cage,” says Navah, child No. 8, and, unenviably, the only daughter. The kids were never enrolled in school; they survived, barely, by Doc taking occasional jobs in far-flung places that were begging for a health professional of any kind. One of the children noted that there was insufficient clothing for all the kids to be dressed at the same time. Still, there was an embrace of traditions and normalcy: Shabbat dinners every Friday; a ferocious cleanliness, focused in particular on the rectum.
The shortage of clothing was of little concern. The surfing regimen required only swim trunks and a board. The kids were all champion surfers and, when enough of them were old enough to become instructors, Doc set up the Paskowitz Surf Camp.
This quasi-stab at convention, by opening a business, ironically helped lead to the downfall of the Paskowitz family. The first half of “Surfwise,” depicting the history of Doc and his kids, leaves hanging the question: What did all this do to these kids? The film takes an abrupt turn in providing the answer: Not much good. Most of the kids, now in their 30s and 40s, are estranged, to various degrees, from Doc and Juliette. Several of them are still fighting over the remnants of the Surf Camp. They are, on the whole, not thriving, and some are bitter about how their unschooled upbringing has left them with few career options.
The film ends on a mildly upbeat note: a family reunion in Hawaii. The cheerful congregation confirms the resilience of family bonds, and the ability to forgive. But “Surfwise” is more a cautionary tale: Yes, follow your dreams, dare to be yourself. But don’t drag nine kids with you and stuff them in a camper for life.
“Surfwise” shows Sunday, June 29 at Paepcke Auditorium, in the SummerFilms series.