The Rip Post

The Mighty Shinn

by Rip Rense
(Originally published in The Los Angeles Times.)

The best breakfast I ever had was with my friend, Joe Shinn, on the wharf at Monterey in 1977. It was 6 a.m., and the sea lions on the breakwater crowed like roosters. We sat on a bench and had smoked herring and a couple of beers. All was right with the world.

You could start talking about Ronald Joseph Shinn today, and probably stop somewhere around 2010. There is so much to say about him, that I haven't a clue where to begin. He's one of those guys who is just lousy with life. One of those force-of-nature kinds of people who seem immortal.

Shinn should be sitting in a tree, making his smile disappear for Alice. He should be lashed to Moby Dick, tangled in harpoon lines, going down for the last time. He belongs in Dickens, or Shakespeare. He's part Micawber, part Falstaff, part Kong, The Eighth Wonder of the World. He's Mahatma Shinn, the Dalai Joe. If you could bottle the stuff that makes him tick, you'd rule the universe.

Or maybe that's all hooey. Maybe the words of mutual pal Bernie Beck are enough: "He's a big-hearted guy, with the gift of gab; storyteller of the old school. A gentleman and a scholar, with a passion for living. A lover of humanity, despiser of fools. Earnest and intense. But the Joe that can be told is not the Joe that is."

Still, I will try.

I first met Shinn at the Cal State Northridge Daily Sundial, this six-foot-three fullback-sized guy with the warmest smile west of Dublin. He had a blue bandana around his neck, work shirt, cockeyed cap, and hair that looked like it had been at sea for a week. "I'm Joe," he said, in a voice that stayed in my head like a Mozart chord.

I soon left CSUN, and we lost touch for a couple of years---until he applied for work at the Valley News, where I was a reporter. I can't explain this---I knew he'd get the job. He seemed like a missing piece of a puzzle. So we became colleagues again, and good friends, although Shinn was ten years older, married, and starting over after years in the military, plus eight or ten lifetimes. That's the thing about Joe, you see, he's lived a good twenty lives in his 57 years. To tell about them in any chronological fashion is folly; it's like trying to stuff cats into a shoebox. So, at random, here are a few cats. . .

I can still see him at his desk in the News, one spring morning, furtive, bothered, with an air of desperation. The whites of his eyes showed around the irises, and he glanced compulsively toward the glass newsroom doors, where the sun barged in. Tugging at his collar, loosening his tie, Dangerfield-like.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked.

"Surf weather."

I should have known. Joe spent his teens in Manhattan Beach, parked on a surfboard off the coast. Catching smelt and perch with beer-bottle buoys tied with fishing line, and eating the catch raw after a long day in the brine. Living more in the water than on land, so much so that he took a straight-pin and ink and scratched a crude tattoo into his ankle, "SURF." Whatever Shinn did, you see, he did with visceral and philosophical immersion. I've never known anyone who so devoured life. As he once cracked, well into a few beers, "When we were young, we used to eat concrete. Eat it like fudge." Thus sending me and a couple of other guys into apoplexy. You could actually see it: Shinn tearing off big chunks of sidewalk, and just chewing them up.

The Monterey trip was concrete fudge. We had gone there with a couple of reporter cronies in search of the ghosts of Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck, on a whim. Ricketts, the marine biologist, had been Steinbeck's great friend, and the model for "Doc," in Cannery Row. I'd developed a fascination with Doc/Ricketts, and it had rubbed off on Shinn and the boys. We drove up in Joe's camper, haunting the bones of the Row---long before it became tourist-central. We hung around bars and met people who had known Ricketts and Steinbeck, and at one point actually were invited into Ricketts' old "Lab" home---a fabled salon for wayward souls. It was a hell of a time. At night, we sat in the camper and ingested intoxicants.   

"Let's steal Steinbeck's head," blurted Shinn, on one of those nights.


"Let's tie a chain to the camper, and around that bust on the Row, and hault it off. Dump it in the ocean."

Although the crusty Steinbeck might have approved of this, we never got around to it. (Funny thing, somebody stole it, years later. . .)

Joe worked on designing nuclear submarines, and he dated Eskimos. As a youth in Oklahoma, Indians were his preferred company. While a radar technician in the Air Force, he was stationed on a little island south of Okinawa---where his colleagues attracted such attention for the scandalous fun they had that it supposedly inspired an Ernie Kovacs Movie,  "Wake Me When It's Over." Joe flew airplanes for kicks, and was a hippie in Topanga Canyon in the mid-'60s. He once left a dealer's job in Reno, Nevada in a hurry, having defended a woman employee against a uh, wise guy. . .

When the love of his early life committed suicide, Shinn requested a leave from the army to attend her funeral. When it was refused, he threatened to put a fist through an officer's forehead, so they let him out with a discharge. He went home and fell into a catatonic funk for months, rousing just long enough to run an airhose from the pipe of his car to the window, and start the engine. Somehow, he fell out, hit the floor, and survived. It was a second life, he always said. More like his twelfth or thirteenth. . .

At the Valley (later Daily) News, where he had hopes of typewriting the world into beauty and justice, Shinn was once asked to redo a story because an editor told him it was "lumpy." Joe asked the editor what the hell "lumpy" meant. The editor said, "I don't know---lumpy." Shinn informed this editor, who was from a foreign country, that until he could explain what "lumpy" meant, he would not rewrite the story. Not surprisingly, the journalistic career was short-lived, a bitter disappointment to a guy who worked hard for his GI-bill funded degree.

So he set up a home office and guided a technical magazine to enormous success.

Joe became an Elk, and a Buddhist. He would go to a lodge meeting, then sit in his back yard with incense and beads, appreciating the afternoon, or remembering a departed friend. He could cook like Jacques Pepin, hold forth like Sartre (but with less French), and enjoy things as esoteric as stock car racing, Dave Brubeck, and Evelyn Waugh. He's been a wine expert, a weightlifter, and ascetic. Sometimes all in one day. He's been a PR man extraordinaire who could hob-knob with anyone---from historians to sushi chefs. He treated women like his best friends in the world. Animals would come to live at his Granada Hills house: cats, tortoises, dogs. They never wanted to leave.

During the past thirty years, many have been the days I've spent at that house with Joe and his selfless, dauntless wife, Sandy, a childhood sweetheart, literally the girl next door, rediscovered years later. Other FOJ's would drop by to listen deep into the night as the man extemporized sense out of chaos; as he exposed bedrock truths that are too often hidden by artifice and confusion and pain. And sometimes as he just ran off at the mouth. It was our salon, our "Doc's Lab."

Here's something he's said from time to time:

"We've always been here. We're not going anywhere after we die. We come from here, and we go back to here. We wriggle up out of the ground like worms after a rain, then pffffft."

Here's something else:

"If you don't know what you want in life, you'll end up driving a BMW."

He played guitar and sang like, well, Shinn: directly, honestly, with the sum total of his being. I drummed along with him and our keyboard player, (Times music writer) Rick Ginell, in his garage or living room, for almost twenty years. You see, it was enough for Joe to have created the sounds; it didn't matter if anyone else heard them. He wrote a few good tunes along the way; one just went around and around like an endless tape loop, with the lyric, "this is the end, my friend, no use in beginning again. . ." Maybe it was done enough for his liking, in a Zen sort of way.

About ten years ago, Joe phoned me and said in his characteristically chipper, bemused voice:

"Rip! I've got M.S.!"

He couldn't believe it. It sounded comical to him. Short-circuiting in the mid-brain. Lesions. Buzz-sputter-pop. . .numbness in the legs. . .the arms. . .

It wasn't too bad for several years---barely noticeable, really, except for awful seizure-like "episodes" that would leave him effectively paralyzed for hours on end. Then, gradually, he wasn't up to playing guitar much anymore, and spoke about some vision problems, monumental headaches, dizziness. An anti-seizure medication seemed to get the "episodes" under control, but deterioration of the myelin---the sheaths surrounding the nerves that are attacked by M.S.---continued.

A few months ago, I heard that Shinn was down for the count. Laid up after a prolonged "episode." I dropped in to cheer him up, and he needed it. The man with Mozart in his voice could barely speak. He sat in a wheelchair, his needs tended to largely by a very sweet lady "caregiver." Ever the courtly host, he haltingly rolled the chair across the floor of his den to plug in a CD I'd brought, slowly and painstakingly pressing the buttons. We listened in silence to Bach's "Art of Fugue," something that Doc/Ricketts used to play in order to restore order to a troubled mind. Joe's springer spaniel, Buster, sat at his feet, seeming to watch his master for any signs of trouble. I thought that this visit might well prove to be the last time I would ever spend with my old pal.

Folks, there is a miracle out there, and it's called Interferon.

I went to see Joe a few weeks ago, and was as unprepared for his condition this time as I had been the previous visit. Sandy did most of the talking at first, as they reclined in their matching easy chairs watching the Travel Channel, and I figured that Joe just couldn't hack conversation anymore. That is, until he jumped easily into the palaver with jokes and anecdotes---and even a touch of hot air---just like the old days.

After a couple of hours of non-stop yacking, he got up and walked me to the door.

"I'm fighting this thing," he said. "I never give up. My walking's getting better."

The neurologist didn't want to risk prescribing Interferon, which can have flu-like side effects, because of the unusual seizure aspect of Shinn's M.S. But when his condition grew dire, there was nothing to lose. It turned out to be one hell of a shot in the arm---with no side effects.

"It helps the nerve coatings from breaking down," he told me, "and it lets the existing nerves re-learn the functions. It buys you time. If you've got MS, take it. Don't give up. Take it."

Today, Shinn's numbness and headache are gone. He walks! He talks! A couple weeks ago, he went out with the San Fernando Elks to camp in Fillmore for the big "pot-luck Cinco de Mayo" celebration.

"And one day," he vowed, "I'm putting my wife and dog in our motor home and I'm going driving us all to the beach."

Hey, surf's up, Joe.


2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.