Peter Shelton

Special Trick Shoes

Posted in Ski evolution, Ski history by pshelton on June 6, 2016

At first I missed my Buddhist poet. He’d been with me on the slopes for the last five years. Inked in silver and black on the topsheet of my old Völkl Mantras, he walked, bearded and imperturbable, from the left ski to the right (two vertical, cloud-shrouded panels) up a mountain path toward a temple on the right ski tip. He was my Zen perspective on skiing as discipline, quest, mystery, obsession. (more…)

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Fellow Kids

Posted in Personal History, Ski history by pshelton on February 3, 2014

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, dear friends, the simple key 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.

We’re all Bozos on this bus

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on March 23, 2012

This is going to sound like one of the surreal storylines in a Firesign Theatre record, but I swear it’s true.

I bought a couple of LPs for the collection back about 1970. One of them was Ellington at Newport. But when I removed the cellophane wrapper and placed the needle on the vinyl, instead of Duke’s piano, I heard this, in the Gatling-gun voice of a late-night, L.A. television, used-car salesman: “Hiya, Friends. Ralph Spoilsport, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, the world’s largest new-used and used-new automobile dealership, Ralph Spoilsport Motors, here in the City of Emphysema.”

They are the opening lines of Firesign Theatre’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All?, from 1969.

One of Firesign’s founding quartet, Peter Bergman, died last week, of complications of leukemia, at age 72. “Let’s just take a look at some of the extras on this fabulous car: sponge-coated edible steering column, two-way sneeze-through wind vents, chrome-studded fender dents – with doors to match!” In the second minute, our hero, who buys the car, switches a knob on the climate control and is transported instantly to ancient Egypt. In the company of W.C. Fields. Among others.

I have no idea how that record got into that album sleeve, but I consider it one of the great bits of luck in my life. Firesign Theatre, born of late-night improv on KPFK radio in Los Angeles, and manifest on a dozen comedy albums from the 60s on, became essential sonic liberal arts: an endless store of puns and one-liners, sly wise metaphysics and razor satire on politics and media in America in the second half of the 20th century.

This is really hard – trying to use the written word to convey a sense of what are densely packed radio plays. The New York Times called them “mind-boggling sound dramas” and “work of almost Joycean complexity.” On the page, you don’t get the giddy speed, or the glee in their voices.

Unlike television or movies, the images are conjured in one’s own mind. (Listening is best on the couch, in the dark. Ideally hearing it for the 50th time.) I can’t do the maze-like plots or the rapid banter justice, so I thought I’d pay tribute by recalling the endings of a few of the records. A random idea, but suitably Bergmanian.

How Can You Be in Two Places at Once winds down with our sodden hero randomly changing channels on the television (back when turning the knob made a click): an ad for Loosener’s Castor Oil Flakes; a Roman gladiator movie; a bad cop drama. And then, Ralph Spoilsport again. But this time he’s selling marijuana: “Our price to you, complete with sticks and stems, delivered by a brown-shoed square in the dead of night…only what the traffic will allow….”

And then, somehow, the voice goes all dreamy and stream-of-conscious, and we’re hearing a facsimile of the Molly Bloom soliloquy from Ulysses: “…yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

The flip side of that record, The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, is a relatively straight (for Firesign Theatre), Depression-era, radio detective story involving time travel, parallel universes and a Peter Lorre sound-alike: “Rocky Rococo, at your cervix.”

The chaos of the final scene is interrupted by a broadcast message from the President of the United States. It’s FDR announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “Our rendezvous with destiny.” But this time he concludes with the news that Congress and the Chiefs of Staff have decided to “unconditionally surrender. And now, my wife and I would like to return with you for the thrilling conclusion of Private Nick Danger, Third Eye….”

Such is the power of radio.

In I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus (1971), our hero, a clown, travels to The Future Fair (“It’s just starting now.”) and not only breaks an amusement-park ride designed to look and sound like Richard Nixon, he also intentionally hacks into the park’s master computer, known as Doctor Memory, and shorts him out, too, with the question: “Do you remember the future, Doctor? Forget it.”

The record ends in a gypsy wagon, a much older traveling show, where everything we have just heard may have been foretold in the gypsy’s crystal ball. “Ah,” says a voice both soothing and deceptive, as the next customer approaches, “I see you are a sailor….”

When I think I want Peter Bergman to come back, to return and write more mysterious, imagination-sparking gems, I think of the ending to Everything You Know Is Wrong (1974). We’re listening to Happy Harry Cox, a desert-dwelling, alien-invasion, conspiracy-theory nutcase, recording “another in my series of mind-breaking records… Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! Your brain is not the boss! Yes! That’s right! Everything you know is wrong!” In the end, when Cox is the only human being left – everyone else on the planet having jumped into an irresistible hole in the earth discovered by a motorcycle “daredemon” patterned on Evel Knievel (“Hey, there’s a golden light down there! And breakfast!”) – aliens do, in fact, arrive to bring us “a golden age of universal understanding.” But they leave right away when they see that “there’s only one guy down there. Hello, Cox.”

“Seekers,” Cox tells us, his faithful listeners, after the aliens have flown off, “I guess this is the end. Or is it…? No. It’s the end.”

Comedy and its opposite

Posted in Watch columns by pshelton on November 19, 2009

I want to see Sarah Palin as pure comedy. As nothing more than a laughable creation of our celebrity culture. (more…)