Writing in Wet Cement


We are all stronger in our broken places

The lagoon at UCSB dominates the southern corner of campus, its chin – “Campus Point” – juts sharply out into the surrounding ocean.  You can see the lagoon from the University Center (UCEN) and many a dorm-room window.  On a good day, the lagoon’s fragrant aroma wafts up on offshore winds, bathing the air in the scent of ocean and seagrass.  Many flora and fauna call this watery respite home, and walkers, runners, sea-gazers and the occasional squirrel or snowy white egret populate the dusty trails marking its circumference.   In many ways, the lagoon reflects life on campus – protected and mostly peaceful, populated by colorful creatures and the odd duck or two.  It’s cradled in marshland, and it mirrors the varied skies above – racing clouds, June-glooms, and golden autumn twilights.

Isla Vista sits to the west of Campus; its southern edge rimmed by the Pacific.  While that ocean’s moniker invokes peace and tranquility, in truth any beachside resident will tell you the view may be beautiful and majestic, but those unpredictable waves can transition from joyful sport to ferocious crashing almost on a whim. Nobody I know would give up the chance to live along its edge, breathing in that salt-laced wind and falling asleep to the rhythm of its tides.

In many ways, the shoreline of Isla Vista embodies the community itself – bold and exuberant, unpredictable, and occasionally cruel.

I lived in Isla Vista for a couple of years as an undergraduate.  I picked an apartment on the outer edge, a block from campus on a street dotted with fraternities.  Most of my weekends included jaunts down to Del Playa and Sabado Tarde and Trigo – to the houses of strangers and the living rooms of newly-made friends.  Parties were boisterous, heady and alive.  Students fronted bands on shaky decks overlooking the treacherous cliffs; kegs were un-policed, and the neighbors were understanding.  My chief concerns were whether or not the fraternity next door would decide to throw a party the night before my midterm (they usually did) or if someone would snag my parking spot.

Youthful hubris and benevolent chaos – that’s how I remember Isla Vista. I remember grabbing sandwiches from Sam’s to Go and gorging on post-party burritos at Freebirds.  I remember the wild Halloweens when we’d wander around in costume, dodging police officers on horseback and sneaking into other people’s apartments to use their bathroom.  I remember a friend whose cat liked to steal sponges from the kitchen sinks of our apartment complex.  I remember my best friend and I making a nuisance of ourselves yet never trying the patience of the benevolent punk rockers who took us under their wing.  I remember shows at the Anaconda and “addled” trips to the IV Co-Op for orange juice.  I remember seeing pickup trucks with beds full of beer kegs heading down the street on Friday afternoon, and I remember catching classic movies at IV Theater.  I remember that once I turned 21, I couldn’t wait to leave though I never regretted those two years on the corner of El Greco and Embarcadero Del Norte.

Since returning to campus earlier this year, I’ve taken many a lunch break in Isla Vista. The burritos at Freebirds are as tasty as ever, and my name still adorns a small corner of concrete outside my apartment complex, marking the time I took a stick and wrote out my initials in wet cement.  My time living in Isla Vista left a similar inscription upon my sense of identity, and those memories are a permanent part of my personal history.

Though I’ve never been one to broadcast my school affiliations (you won’t see an alumni sticker on my car), this week I realized I am proud to be a Gaucho.  I am proud of how the students are handling this horrific situation.  I am proud of the strong sense of unity and community that I can see firsthand as I walk around campus.

And I am angry too.  Angry that this world-class university and the unique college town that sits in its shadow are currently linked in the public’s mind with something so dark…so heinous.  This is the place where you can walk in the footsteps of Noble Laureates.  It’s a campus full of poets and musicians and artists.  We can lay claim to Oscar winners and too many published authors to count.  Our alumni include astronauts, ambassadors, talk show hosts and the guy who discovered the wreckage of the Titanic!   Olympians and Lakers alike were once Gauchos above all else.  This is the place that inspired Jack Johnson to write “Bubble Toes.”

I took a walk today around the lagoon, letting those dusty trails lead me to the eastern edge of a bruised and melancholy Isla Vista.  There are no raucous parties today, just another offshore breeze carrying in saltwater smells and the faded cry of hungry seagulls.  There are ad hoc memorials marking moments of violence, overtaking their original purpose and morphing into something grander and more powerful.  Poems and pictures, flowers and handwritten condolences pile up; crayon-colored hearts from local school children adorn shop windows, and the news teams and satellite trucks are finally, mercifully, gone.

The healing will take a while, but as Hemingway once wrote, we are all stronger in our broken places.

The video below – which includes a composition inspired by last Friday’s events – best sums up how Isla Vista is coming together to work through these difficult times.  As the notes play and images overwhelm, all I can think is – if this is the kind of response we can continue to expect as we move forward, then damn….I am proud to be a Gaucho!


<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/96927697″>IV Strong</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/joshdsmith”>JoshSmith (L.I.F.E. Productions)</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” ― Ernest HemingwayA Farewell to Arms


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