The last time Zjak and I skied together, he stood very tall on his feet, chest and chin up, the way I remembered from our years together at Bear Valley in California’s central Sierra.
His form was upright, but with a pronounced bend at the ankles, noticeable even in ski boots. This, too, I remembered. It’s one of the things that made Zjako’s beautiful on-snow line drawing possible. You see, the ankle flex (cue the song “Dem Bones”) connects to knee bones being positioned over the front of the binding, which leads to hip bones well forward over the feet (as opposed to in the back seat), which leads to a skier’s weight falling naturally in the middle of the skis. And that is the magic, the simple key to control, to going where vision and character want to go.
Simple to know. Not so simple to execute.
This was three years ago now. Maybe four; time slips around. John (Jock, Zjak, Zjako) Selfridge and his wife Marty were visiting Colorado from Carpinteria, on the California coast. Zjak was sick then. He’d been sick with an aggressive form of prostate cancer for many years. He’d been in and out of clinical trials, on experimental drug regimes, dosed with hope one season and deposited, spent, to his bed the next.
But there was no question during that visit that we’d go skiing. It was the thing that bonded us. Marty and Ellen are skiers, too. Accomplished, elegant skiers. But Zjak and I recognized each other as fellow addicts. Couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop. We needed to be out there on mountainsides, moving through the air and over the snow as serenely as possible. Sculpting space on the tilt.
Zjako was a master of the aesthetic line, the secret line. He didn’t care how he looked, whether his jacket was zipped up, which pocket held his cigarettes, which his Coors Light, which the matches and the marijuana. He had to rebuckle his boots and find his goggles, which were there on his head the whole time. It could try Patience herself waiting for Zjak to be ready, finally. But when he was he shoved off with a savant’s sense for where to find the softest snow, the quietest, most yielding snow.
Zjak trusted that exploration would lead to reward, even if that meant climbing over logs or squeezing through prickly spruce branches. There was redemption in as few as two or three turns of pristine powder.
He was James Dean handsome. But he was shy, reserved, and mistrusted (or didn’t believe in) his good looks. There was something wounded in there. I never knew what, though there were hints about family, parents, strained step-family relations? I don’t know. In any case, he refused – wasn’t cut out – to go into the family business, which was big-time farming in the Central Valley near Fresno.
Zjako covered over this disappointment (disappointment he had caused? or felt in himself?) with athleticism and irony. We referred to each other as “fellow kids,” after a line from the LP “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers,” circa 1968, by the Los Angeles comedy group Firesign Theatre. We – all four of us – practically memorized whole albums, they were so word-wise and funny.
(Clueless Principal Poop speaks at high school graduation: “Fellow kids. In addressing for the assembly this morning . . .” In the back of the gym, scofflaws yell out: “Eat it! Eat it raw!” “Rah, rah, rah!” Poop chants without missing a beat, “That’s the spirits we have here at More Science High!”)
Fellow kids. Dear friends. Sometimes we spoke in what amounted to a kind of code. Everything reminded us of a line from Firesign Theatre. Our children, Ellen’s and mine and Zjak and Marty’s boy, Sam, didn’t always know what the adults were talking about, but, eyes rolling, did know from whence the cryptic lines came.
(Nick Danger pulling in, tires screeching to a stop at a filling station: “Say, Pops, where am I?!” “You can’t get there from here.”)
(Catherwood the butler: “May I take your hat and goat, sir? . . . You may sit here in the waiting room, or wait here in the sitting room.”)
(“He’s no fun, he fell right over!”)
That last one was especially apropos on the few times when Zjako tipped over on skis. As the years went by, his balance, and his strength, slowly ebbed.
The addiction to skiing meant that Zjak and I never grew up completely. Lucky for us, we married women who had. Strong, loyal women, who understood and were willing to put up with us, with all that time on the slopes as we indulged our obsession.
In Bear Valley in the early 1970s Ellen and I taught skiing, Zjako worked as a lift mechanic. He had an engineer’s ability to see how things were put together, and he liked climbing up lift towers in his ski boots. Marty cooked at the Tamarack Lodge. She flowed around a kitchen, still does, with a seeming effortlessness.
Ellen and I followed a muse to Telluride. Zjak and Marty moved back to the coast. She taught elementary school. His last job, before he had to stop working, was in a lab near Santa Barbara, messing around with silicone. Marty wrote in December about how hard it was watching Zjak “fade.” That was the word she used. He died in January.
The last time we visited out there, Zjak was walking with a cane and had to rest frequently. But he never once complained. About fate, or having to give up skiing, or having to lie down after a short walk on the beach. He was still movie star handsome: the strong, silent type.
Except when he was giggling. (From an alternative history lesson on Firesign Theatre’s “Everything You Know Is Wrong” album: “And so, I betook me to the Hashfire Inn, all lusting for life and liberty. The real George Washington brought the hemp, and I the evening papers. We quickly proceeded to get Sam Adams and young Tom Jefferson goodly stretched by the hemp. What a fetid fervor of freedom! I say, let’s have a revolution!”)
On that last beach walk, despite the fact he could barely ambulate more than a few yards without stopping, Zjako found a stretch of sand cliff: vertical, soft-sand walls three feet high chewed into the beach by a previous high tide. He motioned to me to follow and together we pounced barefoot on the lip and rode the cascade to the bottom. Zjak stayed perfectly upright, riding the incline on the soles of his feet as if surfing childhood itself.