ON her after-breakfast walks along West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, California, during our August vacations there, my wife, Terry, wears a daisy-yellow gardening hat she says she would be embarrassed to be seen in anyplace else. She bought the hat in a store across from the Santa Cruz boardwalk a few years ago; it has an exaggerated front brim and a girlish bow on the back whose daintiness she defeats by undoing the cotton ribbons and knotting them under her chin, Annie Oakley-style. She wears the hat because it's the only one she's found that effectively shades her face from the sun here on the coast, which even on breezy days can be searing once it burns away the morning fog and begins to reflect off Monterey Bay.
Except for those mornings when I surprise Terry by accompanying her as far as the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (a shrine to the sport and the lifestyle that has been squeezed into the ground floor of a lighthouse about three quarters of a mile from our hotel), I protect myself from sunburn by hiding indoors, lying in bed with the remote control and hoping to catch a Perry Mason rerun or an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. If nothing on television amuses me, or when I become embarrassed for the people on Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones, I take a book out to the balcony.
One of these years I'll get around to reading a few of the minor contemporaries of D. H. Lawrence whose work Paul Fussell discusses in his 1980 book on British travel writing between the world wars. "Travel books are a sub-species of memoir," Fussell argued, and he went on to quote a writer named Norman Douglas that "'the ideal book of this kind' invites the reader to undertake three tours simultaneously: 'abroad, into the author's brain, and into his own.'" A few years ago another guest at the hotel, a native of this area, gave me a book about the Monterey Peninsula by Robert Louis Stevenson; I should be reading it from cover to cover instead of skimming it for descriptions of "the haunting presence of the ocean," "vast, wet, melancholy fogs," and other natural phenomena right before my eyes. But vacation isn't a time for scholarship. Unless John Updike or Scott Spencer has published something new, I end up reading first-person mysteries heavier on observation than action, featuring disillusioned private eyes (Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder is the best example) who are really old-fashioned moralists. This is the sort of novel to which I am addicted and which -- though I've settled into a groove as a music critic -- I harbor vague ambitions of writing myself someday.
All I know for sure about my alter ego is that he's a former cop who tells his clients that he resigned from the force because he didn't look good in blue. His actual reason, an attempt to do right that played out wrong, he reveals only to the reader (also a paying client, when you think about it, which is why such novels seem to demand the first person). Knowing that I'm between assignments, this tough guy shadows me around Santa Cruz, cracking wise. "It makes no sense for young people to quarantine themselves the way they do," he said, a little ruefully, as Terry and I left a movie theater one Saturday after midnight a couple of years ago, when Pacific Avenue was deserted except for the post-adolescent tribes gathered outside the pizza parlors and clubs. "The last I heard, youth wasn't catching." Maybe if I wrote about him, he would shut up. But no full-time writer wants to spend his vacation writing. Anyway, every writer owes himself at least one imaginary book. My two-fisted novel of sensibility is perfect; if I tried starting it, it wouldn't be.
TO all appearances, writers like me are gentlemen of leisure anyway, "working," in the most literal sense, no more than three or four hours a day. The most time-consuming part of the kind of writing I do is the thinking things over, which I do from morning to night, though it might not look like much to anybody else. I used to have a neighbor who greeted everyone by asking, "Working hard, or hardly working?" I never knew which would be the more truthful answer. Being on vacation doesn't make the answer any easier -- nor am I convinced that somebody who sneaks out to as many daytime movies as I do is entitled to the customary time off in the summer.
It probably goes without saying that I am not always fun to travel with. My wife may be the only one who would put up with me. Her workday is longer and more hurried than mine, and she leaves for vacation justifiably exhausted. A good long walk by the bay is usually all the exercise she wants; when she returns to our room, she naps or reads or gazes out at the horizon -- a body in motion the rest of the year now determined to stay put.
By mid-afternoon we're often ready to hit the book and record stores on Pacific Avenue. Santa Cruz is a beach town, but it's also a college town. With a program in the History of Consciousness, UC Santa Cruz has a reputation as the most radical branch of the University of California. We were there a few years ago, for a production of Othello, presented by Shakespeare Santa Cruz. The campus itself was worth the trip. Set amid redwoods on a sprawling former ranch, it looks like a place for lectures on forestry and animal husbandry. The university seems to draw students who are in no hurry to leave town after they graduate or drop out, and away from the smell of brine and the barking of the sea lions near the bay is a stretch of Pacific Avenue with shops that could be in Berkeley or Harvard Square.