The Family Paskowitz

Reading this short Daily Intel post on a young family that plans to cut loose from civilized society to live life on the open road reminded me of one of the most wonderful films I’ve seen in ages, Surfwise. It just opened in Washington on Friday (I saw it just after work), and I fully intend to see it again on Wednesday. In fact, I had hoped to dragoon my parents to see it this Sunday, but they were more interested in The Counterfeiters, which was pretty good.

I won’t say that Surfwise is on par with Capturing the Friedmans or The Order of Myths in terms of technical skill, but it beats them both in affectingness, and certainly in its relevance to the kind of questions that keep me exercised and occupied. If you’re looking for sheer fun in a documentary King of Kong might be a better bet, but I must say, the Paskowitz family is pretty damn entertaining — every one of the kids is a character, and Doc Paskowitz, the power-mad patriarch and would-be guru, would be one of the most compelling characters in American fiction, right up there with Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast, if only for the inconvenient matter of his being an actual person.

I don’t want to give anything away — you really need to see it — but basically Paskowitz was an extreme idealist who, after leading a conventionally successful life, gave it all up to become a beach bum in Israel, to travel the world in the hopes of mastering the art of giving women sexual pleasure, and finally to keep house in a 24-foot RV with his Mexican American wife and their seven children, none of whom ever received any formal education. Nope. They surfed, read, ate a strange granola-gruel, surfed, and slept. This was the everyday routine as they criss-crossed the country for decades. Suffice to say, this wasn’t an entirely blissful existence, and the Paskowitz children have struggled in various ways with their strange legacy. Like a lot of impish visionaries, Doc Paskowitz seems not to have fully come to terms with the many ways he’s done damage to those he loves most. But I have to say, this is pretty classic — it is the danger of raising children, and investing them with your hopes and aspirations.

I was struck, and this is a theme that runs through the film, by the rigors of leading this kind of “bohemian” lifestyle. Some months ago, I came across a New York “Look Book” featuring Molly Findlay, absolutely the kind of person you’d want to spend long afternoons with.

Do you doctor lots of your clothes?
I guess I do. I come from a sort of crafty family. We were always making things at home. I grew up in Northern California and in the Mojave Desert— my parents were hippies. They liked to keep it moving. We lived in the middle of nowhere, with no television or phone. My parents had a van, and to get our water we would drive in with an empty water bed, fill it up, ride home on it, and then empty it into the water tank.

Do you think of raising Isadora that way?
Right after she was born I said, let’s get a van and drive across Europe. But my friends all pointed out that just because my parents were eccentric doesn’t mean that I am. My parents are just much, much cooler than I’ll ever be.

Do you think your daughter will think that of you?
She seems pretty cool— she may already be cooler than me.

I can sympathize, as my parents are much cooler than I’ll ever be. Actually, considering how cool Findlay clearly is, I have to assume that her parents are cooler than polar bears. As for her non-bohemianism, I guess that’s roughly the right place to end up, but I do hope that somewhere in the Buddenbrooks cycle some future generation of Salams decides to pick up stakes.

Then there is the inescapable fact that nonconformism is, in the economy of cultural capital, a prized commodity. Consider the following letter to BusinessWeek in the latest issue.

It’s funny how the goal of mindlessly climbing the corporate ladder has returned. Stories like these make me fear for the future of our country. I only hope these students represent a very small sliver of their generation. Now more than ever, we need innovators and nonconformists rather than human calculators. (Human calculators get outsourced.) Steven L. May

I get the point. I sympathize! But note that there’s no getting out of the “iron cage.” Mind you, I’m pro-modernity, pro-market. What troubles me (us?) about the Paskowitz story, which of course I invest with a lot of romance and affection, are the constraints on the kids — what was their context of choice, and how could they live full lives in a market society?

Watch the movie, and report back if you can.