Even Banditos Deserve a Picnic
9/18/2005, 12:07 p.m. to 12:33 p.m.
Because I’ve been married for two weeks now, and because I am, consequently, a grizzled veteran in the field of husbandry (that’s the right word, I’m pretty sure), and because I have learned many lessons that may enlighten my less-informed compatriots, I feel it is now, after a short reprieve, my obligation to offer the insight I’ve gleaned in these long 14 days of matrimony. But, given the title of the column, I’ll try to keep it specific to the act of riding waves.
To that end: Don’t put your wife, alone, wearing jewels, holding your rental-car keys and your wallet (hefty with gifted American dollars and overburdened credit cards), on a litter-strewn beach that serves as a vacation spot for various brands of banditos and assorted marginalized foreign rebels.
Sounds simple, but life has its ways.
Listen to this advice, because while this may seem hypothetical, you too may one day know the feeling that arises when you are in a foreign country (we’ll call this country “Mexico”), and you are sitting on a surfboard, rising and falling with the ocean’s rhythm, and it is hot—hot in the air and hot in the water—and the sun is beating on you, and you are sweating more than is natural, and you are trying to escape the heat, except that you can’t, no matter how deep you swim, and you are feeling weak, and not too strong, and you are worried that this new piece of symbolic jewelry that is on your hand may very soon fall off of your finger and sink down into the ocean, alongside other pieces of jewelry and metallic currency (we’ll call these “pesos”), and that your newly named wife will become understandably upset with you.
Be forewarned, should you find yourself in this all-too-common situation, that this feeling does not last forever, but rather gives way to a newer, more authentic, more awful feeling. Because although you had thought that you would be alone on this beach where this hypothetical situation is taking place (given that there was nobody here when you arrived), the banditos soon will come. They will come bearing arms—high-caliber machine guns and the like—and their faces will be shrouded in ski masks, and they will want to kidnap your wife because she is pretty and white and wearing jewels and holding the keys to a rental car and a wallet with very exotic credit cards that bear $1,000 limits. They will come in trucks like the ones they drive in the movies: The all-black pickups with a small army of rebel soldiers poised in the back, ready to jump from the moving vehicle and establish a perimeter around the befuddled American woman. Her hardcover Nick Hornby book (something to look forward to in the California bookstore, a haunting emotional trigger after the capture) will flop in the sand, and they will kidnap her and she will be gone forever and you will have to face her family, who were so happy with you after the wedding, and you will have to tell them that you allowed her to be kidnapped because, after all, you are just a giant fuckup, busy as you were with the hard work of standing on a surfboard when this all took place.
This will happen, and your life will be much like O.J. Simpson’s—a never-ending quest to bring to justice the men who took your wife.
In my experience, though, this didn’t happen. But, man, was I ready if it had!
The menacing banditos turned out to be nothing more than vacationing farmers from a nearby town, harmless as Zapatista rebels. Still, they gave me pause. But when they left I felt contemplative. After all, it’s good to love your wife and all of that, but not every family that happens to be sitting in the bed of a late-model Mitsubishi pickup driving down a deserted beach looking for a suitable place to picnic is a group of marauding banditos eager for the capture and sale of white women, now is it?
The air gets not cooler but warmer as the sun gets higher. And you catch a wave and ride it to the shore, and while you ride the wave—and after—you think to yourself that you should probably calm down a little bit—that maybe you are a little high-strung. So you ride the wave to the shore, and you step off of your board, and you run across the hot sand to the towel that your wife has laid out for you, and you kiss her, saltwater dripping from your hair to hers as you bend down.
Friday, April 22, 6:13 p.m. to 7:27 p.m.
So, Brad Melekian, the Surf Report Guy, is getting married. There, I said it. I am getting married. I have taken this girl with the euphonious name of Julie Marie Jackson, and I have asked her to be my wife, and she will be replacing her euphonious name with the much less euphonious name of Julie Marie Melekian. So be it.
This whole getting married thing has been on the table for some time—what with the fact that Julie Marie Jackson and I have been dating for more than four years now—but it recently came to fruition on an oceanfront bluff overlooking a patch of ocean that we tried to find but couldn’t on our first date four years ago. There was a grown man dressed in full camouflage shooting photos in the bushes (I had hired him), and there was this ring, and there were waves in the background, and the entire thing was fairly well orchestrated, with the possible exception of five Hispanic ex-cons hooting their approval between joint tokes from an even higher bluff in the distance. But that is another story.
This, of course, is the part of the column where I must beg your forgiveness, because you have come here to read a piece about surfing, and you are disappointed, because so far this is a column about young people flying in the face of statistics that suggest they will soon be divorced, and it has as yet made zero reference to the practice of surfing—a practice that just last month I had asked the entire world to take more seriously—and now there is all this talk about a girl with a pretty name taking on a much less pretty name, and almost no talk of the self-referential author taking part in energy transfers, so I am eternally sorry. But I will not stop.
Getting, then, to the crux of the issue. It was Friday afternoon when I began making calls to the necessary parties about the fact that this whole engagement thing would be taking place. I called my family and Julie Marie Jackson’s family, and I asked all of them what their thoughts on the issue were, and I invited some of them to lunch the following Monday, and they insisted that it wasn’t necessary, but I insisted that it was the right thing to do, and so we did it. Now, these conversations, they were not easy. I had been spending much time making sure that I would be ready to be married, and had thought very little about the logistics of the engagement itself. But these people, they had questions—questions about when and where and how long and how much and all these sorts of things that had previously seemed to me to be superfluous.
I was—to be honest—taken aback.
The clock was ticking, and it was Friday afternoon at 6 o’clock, and I had just gotten finished making these calls, and the whole thing was set to happen the following Wednesday, and Julie Marie Jackson would be home in an hour, and the sun was not yet down, and I was a bit stressed, and I decided that I would be going surfing, because the stress made me feel not so well, and I needed to feel well. Also, my friend Sean, who manages a very popular surfboard factory in the area, had earlier dropped off a surfboard that he thought would be ideal for me to ride, a surfboard that had four fins whereas today’s typical surfboard has three, and it was something of an anomaly to me, as I am only young, and was only born after the time when surfboards went to a predominantly three-finned system. (The change took place in 1981 when an Australian named Simon Anderson divined the present-day system, and, truth be told, I was born before 1981, but did not come to cognition until after that year—let us say 1985, or, more accurately, 1987). So I knew that surfing would be good, because there was a degree of thinking to be done, and the ocean, historically, inspires thinking, and it also can encourage relaxation, by cradling you in the manner of a gigantic mother made of liquid. So.
My home is only a half-mile from the beach, and there is a certain element of novelty in surfing in front of the house, although this beach in front of the house is thought of as something of a beginners’ spot. Nevertheless, I went to the beach, mind occupied with the thought that I would very soon be getting engaged, and that I am young, and that I was born after the time that a man invented a three-finned surfboard, and that my life is so wide open with the depths of a lot of sort-of-scary space, and that there is no doubt in my mind that Julie Marie Jackson should be part of that life, and that life is unpredictable, and that I could be struck dead today as I run down the trail to the beach, and that it is possible that I could somehow decapitate myself while ducking under a fence in pursuit of a shortcut that would bring me closer to the beach, and that therefore I may as well make a commitment to this woman with a pretty name.
I knew that this surf session was going to be different than normal, and it was either because of this or in spite of this that I pulled up the top of my wetsuit and jumped in the water and ducked under the first wave, at which point I felt a sense of excitement at the feel of the new board underneath my body, and a sense that I was no longer just one person in the world but was now part of a team of people—even if we are just two—and these two thoughts combined to bring on a third and foreign feeling—a certain sense of contentment—so that, as I paddled in to the first wave and began riding it, I didn’t ask why, but realized that there was something new under my feet that was carrying me.
Maybe that is corny, sure. But I am a man who has convinced a girl that living with me and taking a bad name is much better than living without me and keeping a good name, and so I am happy. So please forgive this small indulgence. Next month it will be back to surfing—something awesome, radical, and gnarly, perhaps—and it will be summer, and there will be much to talk about. But right now, this is what we have.
March 1, 5:03 p.m. to 5:54 p.m.
It takes a special blend of intestinal fortitude and unabashed selfishness to watch the horrific reports of deadly flooding on the evening news and think to yourself, “Man, the sandbars are going to be epic after this rain.” And it takes even more of the same to open the Los Angeles Times in the morning, take one look at photos of airports being swept away by rivers, and to further think to yourself, “I’ve got to get up to Ventura to surf the sandbar.”
Unfortunately, or maybe not so much, that’s how anybody with any understanding of underwater bathymetry has approached this last month of daily rainsqualls. Sure, there are those who will tell you that surfers don’t like the rain, that the runoff from the inland rivers pollutes the waters, that even thinking about going in the ocean will make you sick with hepatitis and dysentery—or, at the very least, a really bad earache—but it’s all kind of a bunch of malarkey. People get sick, you know?
Easy for me to say, sure, because I don’t really surf anymore, so it won’t affect me. This last line isn’t true at all, but rather a reflection of something that’s really been irking me for a while now. It’s one of those things that people say but they don’t mean, like, let’s say that you run into somebody in the hallway of an industrial building that houses five different Action Sports Enthusiast publications, and you say to them, “Hey, did you surf this morning?” And they in turn reply, “No, man, I don’t surf anymore.” It’s all a big ploy, a clever wordplay designed to alert one’s interlocutor to the fact that, hey, man, this world is a busy place, and I don’t have time to surf anymore, because these Action Sports Enthusiasts titles aren’t just going to market themselves. And while I am sympathetic to the plight of those who, like myself, toil under the burdensome and very austere yoke of producing Action Sports Enthusiast titles, we could all learn something from a pursuit that only requires us to be excited about the accumulation of sand on the ocean floor. Maybe, looking at it like that, we should have a little more respect for the whole damned thing instead of being so preoccupied with the creation and selling of Enthusiast publications.
So. What happens is the water rushes toward the ocean, displacing as it rushes a whole host of sand, dirt, debris, and presumably other, less desirable objects. When it reaches the ocean, it generally floats around before settling on the bottom, in a formation that people who use colloquial phrases like “sick” and “gnarly” call a sandbar. And the sandbar does nothing except sit there, truth be told. But in its sitting there, it forms an obstacle for swells to cross over—and these swells, they are something, and so we should talk about them. The swells come from far away, made by invisible entities like wind, and as the wind pushes the water it creates a surge that really does nothing but plow straight ahead for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles. And the sandbar just sits there. Until the swell, made by wind, approaches the sandbar, but the sandbar (which, now that we’re thinking about it, is kind of a lazy bastard) doesn’t move, so that the swell, which has to be tired by now, what with all of the traveling and all, is forced up, out of the water, creating a wave, at which point some kid, who’s really excited about the whole thing, or some teenager, who’s got to be really blasé about the whole thing, or some young man, who thinks he’s figuring out the world by taking part in the whole thing, or some crusty old-timer, who thinks he’s seen the whole thing be done better before, rides the expiring swell and the resultant wave until it reaches its eventual death on the shore, all the while trying to appear graceful in the face of such eternal questions involving unstoppable forces (swells, kind of, but not really), and immovable objects (the shiftless sandbars), and things being created and destroyed.
Now, that, my friend, is something admirable, and certainly not anything that we should joke about. Yes, we are busy, and we are making magazines that will allow Action Sports Enthusiasts to be even more enthusiastic about their chosen pursuits, but let’s get real, folks. We can all spare a little time to go down to the ocean and try—with just a little bit of humility—to get in on this action of riding these swells, and having a little appreciation for the whole interplay of man and nature and ocean and things like that. So if people want to walk around their offices and be smug about how busy they are, and how inconsequential the act of riding waves is, that’s fine for them. But not me. No. I will not resent the minutes spent behind a desk, but neither will I negate the value of riding waves. And I will gladly look at the television, and watch Dan Rather—so broken now—tell me that the rivers are flooding with the interminable rain, and I will gladly get a little excited, and I will think that the sandbars in Ventura will be incredible, but I will surf the ones closer to my home in San Diego, running barefoot to the end of my street for a secret enjoyment after work and before dark, and I will revel in every moment of it.
And also, I will know that Arrested Development is the best show currently on television, and that to cancel it would be a sin.
12/4/2004; 11:03 a.m. to 11:36 a.m.
Sometime a while back, someone somewhere decided that paradise wore a tropical dress, that she bathed herself in warm temperatures with no seasonal change, and that she was made of blue waters with white beaches and green mountains. It was a fair assessment, I suppose, given that the somewhere that this someone was doing this deciding was probably dreary and gray, and they likely only had a quill and an ink set to entertain themselves. So we can forgive them for being perhaps a bit too singular in their focus.
Still, today, we have this view of paradise, and by default, and particularly after we annexed the damn thing, Hawaii has become the most readily available source for paradise. And, as any casual watcher of bad feature-length surf movies will be able to tell you, Hawaii is not only a vacationer’s paradise, but a haven for surfers, who flock (really, like sheep) to Oahu’s North Shore every winter to ride big waves at real-life legendary places like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay. Or, that’s how it started. But now, it’s morphed into a two-month surf-industry shmooze-and-booze with a kinky frat-party trick thrown in on the side. You see, the surf companies, they all rent these palatial beachfront estates right on the water for the duration of their trips to Hawaii, and given that the North Shore is really only a 7-mile stretch, it casts a Fraternity Row pall on the place that makes you feel bad for being there in the first place, like you’re just another pale-faced surf-industry schmuck who’s made the five-hour trek across the Pacific for indeterminate reasons. Like you’re just there to be there.
But, it’s hard to feel too bad, because, after all, Hawaii is Hawaii, isn’t it? And if you began to complain about the fact that your employer sends you on all-expense-paid trips to Hawaii every winter, you’d kind of be an asshole, wouldn’t you?
That’s what I told myself as I boarded the plane to the North Shore this year, but, true to form, it was the same as every other year. Balding middle-aged men with beer bellies and aloha shirts swilled mai tais and ogled flight attendants while children watched a bad Will Smith movie and mothers did crossword puzzles. And I tried to sleep while the man in the straw hat next to me asked me too many questions about what I was doing, absolutely flabbergasted that a young man in this world could be getting paid to go to Hawaii to write about surfing for a magazine that was devoted entirely to the same. Amazing.
Once there, in Hawaii, wheels crudely meeting tarmac, it almost felt like it could be different. The hills were green, the ocean was blue, the sun was out. Paradise, almost. This lasted until I’d fought my surfboards onto the roof of my rental car and was driving through the pineapple fields on the familiar road to the North Shore, when it started raining and raining, and the old familiar gut wrench settled in, a gut wrench and a rain that didn’t let up for weeks.
The North Shore is a curious amalgam of temperamental locals, overzealous visiting surfers, unwitting vacationers, and pit bulls. It’s a place where everybody is somebody, but somebody is constantly trying to remind you that you’re nobody, so everybody looks at everybody and tries not to seem uncool in front of somebody. Constantly, and seemingly at random, people are getting punched. Drug-addled thieves train themselves in preparation for each season to steal cameras, wallets, computers, purses, iPods, backpacks. So, it can be somewhat unpleasant, sometimes.
But, it’s also paradise. Little moments of peace can be gleaned. You can ride a wave in the warm water with the sun and, if it’s just rained, a rainbow, and there are always the hills, which are green. This is nice. Paradisiacal.
Too much, though, the drudgery. Everywhere you look, a yell, and somebody somewhere hooting, “Yeah, bro.” As at a trade show. Saying words meaning nothing. So home can look good, and you may want to leave. I did. I often do. But still, I sit on the porch of our own rented house, the house that my own company has sent me to live in, and I look up the beach. I am a part of this. I see the dots, the hundreds of tiny dots up this stretch of coast, each dot representing a surfer, each dot connected to the others in small clusters, these clusters creating bigger dots that line the coast. And I know what it means to be where they are. And then I look at the little break in front of our house. The break that is guarded by rocks. Rocks everywhere, poking up out of the water, lining the shore. Rock reef. Unforgiving. Still, the waves break over the rocks, and you can be alone.
I grab my board and I paddle out, alone, to the break, where the waves are as tall as me but so thick, the water folding over itself and forcing a surfer to go inside to make it out. I paddle out and sit, wait. A wave comes, I duck underneath it, it breaks on top of me, snapping my board in two. It has broken the nose off of my board, 10 inches from the top. I wait in the water despite it, vowing to at least get a good wave now that the board has been broken. I sit, wait, on top of the board, which is submerged and taking on water. Eventually, a wave comes and I ride it, alone, over the rocks, exhilarating, and I make it, somehow, to the beach, without a cut or a scrape.
I get out of the water; my flight is in three hours. I drop my board on the ground. It’s broken now, and useless. I’ll leave it under the cloud-obscured winter sun in paradise. Maybe it will be here next year, but maybe somebody will take it as their own.
Later, when I get on the plane, I sit next to a rosy-cheeked, overweight white man, who drinks Coca-Cola and couldn’t care less about the fact that I work for a surf magazine.
11/2004; Most of It
Have you seen these ergonomically designed keyboards? The ones with “QWERT” on one side and “YUIOP” on the other, with a great chasm in the middle separating the two as though they were warring factions, like one of those big fences that keep fans off the field at European soccer matches. Have you seen these? Do you know how futuristic-looking they are? Do you know how they are the future and how they mock the antiquity of typewriters? Have you seen their smug contours and the way they scorn their predecessors? Have you? Do you understand how they are supposed to be so good for your wrists and fingers and forearms—and all of your body parts, really, as relate to typing? How they ward off the hideousness of carpal tunnel? Do you know?
Like you—and like most sensible people out there in the world—I only had a passing knowledge of these things. I vaguely knew that they existed, like videophones, or gasoline/electric hybrids (before all the fuss, that is), but I never thought much about them. After all, it was just a gimmick, right? And, like you, I really stopped caring about them when that guy in the cube across the way got one—the guy who eats Doritos at his desk and drinks those big one-liter bottles of Pepsi and spends his money on things like ergonomically designed keyboards. Lame, right?
But now—now, I own one. Why the change of heart, you might ask. (And it’s a fair question, because I asked, like, eight questions at the beginning, and all of them pretty much got to the same point.) Also, you might ask what any of this has to do with the riding of oceanic waves. Well, you see, I’ve gone and broken my arm. Which, if you’re anything like me, you thought was something that only fifth-graders did. Something relegated to athletes (of the “I get paid millions of dollars” variety, not the recreational variety, like myself) and children under the age of 12. And given that it’s my occupation to write smarmy editorial columns, this posed a problem. Because I, like, totally need to write, and I couldn’t turn my arm over to work with the keyboard on the old laptop. So, yes, first thing after the doctor set the cast, I reached back into my memory, back into that place of things that I’ve vaguely heard of (like Zoroastrianism and vacuums without bags) and I remembered the ergonomic keyboard, and I bought one.
So now, when I sit down to write, I write with the weight of the future in front of me—I tap out my ideas into this keyboard that taunts me—it knows that it’s from the future, and it judges my writing based on what it knows of writing in the future.
How could such a thing happen, you might ask. (Which, by the way, brings your question total to three, so pace yourself.) Wasn’t I just reading about you surfing in the morning, you say. (That’s four.) Well, to that question I have a short answer: Hubris is a hell of a curse.
And now, the slightly longer answer. You see, there is this guy Matt at my work, and though Matt is a nice guy and a gentle sort, he’s not exactly the most physically intimidating fellow. He’s an artist and he carries himself with a soft demeanor. He wears maroon corduroys and leather jackets from the ’70s and seems to have a whole section of his closet devoted to brightly striped sweaters. One day over lunch, Matt, discussing his past, told us all how he was a pitcher in high school. And—hubris kicking in like the dickens—I scoffed at Matt. I told Matt, in fact, that I could hit at least three home runs off of him if he gave me 25 pitches. I laughed, I bet him money, I antagonized him. Matt, pleated pants and all, remained calm.
We set up a date and a time. We went to a park on a Friday afternoon, a park that had three different baseball diamonds to choose from, each accommodating a different stage of adolescence. The groundskeepers were working on both the biggest and the smallest, so we chose the medium-sized of the three. Co-workers were there. They lined the outfield to shag fly balls. One of the groundskeepers stopped his work to watch the action. I grew nervous.
It wasn’t until he took the mound that I realized that Matt, today, wasn’t wearing maroon anything, and that none of his clothing had stripes. Every article of his wardrobe, in fact, was from this decade. He was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, and—get this—he had on a pair of those gray New Balance shoes that are so popular, the ones that cost like $120. He had a bucket of baseballs and a glove that had been broken in. He started throwing to warm up, and I realized that he throws hard—hard and with no control.
About 20 pitches into the event, when I had made contact with exactly two pitches and none of them had gone out of the infield, and when I was starting to develop genuine concern for the fact that I didn’t have a helmet, Matt came inside with a fastball, up and in, right on the forearm. The fucker plunked me. Ow. It hurt. And that was the end of the game.
I didn’t think much of it, other than that it hurt, and for a week I walked around wearing my pain like a letterman jacket of bravado. At the end of the week, though, I went surfing, and I couldn’t paddle, I couldn’t duck-dive (this thing we do where we dive under crashing waves), and I couldn’t shake the pain. I went to the doctor, dripping wet and ashamed for my hubris. Broken arm, he said. Six weeks in a cast. No surfing.
So I went and got this keyboard. The one that taunts me and wants me to be futuristic and hip and cool, when I’m not. As a penance for my transgressions I’ve got to cart this stupid ergonomically designed keyboard with me everywhere I go. But the worst part—the absolute worst part—is that I’ve come to like the damned thing. So I will keep it, to help relieve the pain of a broken ulna, and to remind me not to crowd the inside of the plate, because you never know when a co-worker is going to come inside with a wicked fastball.
I know a man who refuses to engage in any sort of physical activity before he’s had his morning constitutional. He refers to this process as First Action. No surfing until you’ve had First Action, he says. And though it’s an intriguing theory—and one that I may well adhere to at some future point in my life—right now, I can’t. There is simply not enough time.
So I find myself routinely waking up before dawn and dragging myself out of bed to go to the beach, which I must admit does not feel natural when it is black outside and so cold. And all before First Action. But I usually jump in the ocean and it feels very committed, and just a little foolhardy. Because I don’t have the best eyesight as it is, and paddling through the ocean in the dark is a tricky proposition.
On this particular morning, it is, for some reason, exceptionally difficult, as I’ve only recently switched to contact lenses, and I’m afraid of losing them in the water, and thus I’m constantly closing my eyes, and when I open them I can’t see because: (a) it’s not light out, and (b) the contacts are trapping saltwater against my eyes. So I feel thoroughly feckless as I get bounced around by waves I cannot see. Eventually, though, I get to the lineup. Which is right about when the anxieties start.
Without getting too much into it, surfing—despite what some people will tell you (including the man with the theory about First Action, who, it should be noted, is older, wiser, more well-traveled, and a more accomplished surfer than myself)—is an inherently selfish endeavor. And there are so many surfers these days. So few waves.
To alleviate the problem, we attempt to be the first surfers in the water in the morning, which is essentially a way to be a little more selfish. And though surfing by ourselves is supposed to make us feel better—more relaxed, alone with our thoughts—it hardly works.
Because as I sit in the water, in the dark, not a trace of light in the sky, I am by myself. But I don’t feel very peaceful. I feel isolated, and worried that the waves won’t come before people do. I see headlights stopping on the road beyond the beach, and I can tell that other surfers are pulling on their wetsuits, and that they’ll probably be here in a minute, alongside me, and then my little vision of solitude will be shot, and with each new face in the water, I will worry that there will be one less wave for me. I feel like a little kid in a classroom at recess, and the waves are my toys, but I’m being asked to share them. I want to grab the waves and hold them, all of them, scoop them up in my arms and run far away down the beach, where I can sit in the sand and lay them out in front of me and play with them, all by myself, so far away from everybody else—toys stolen from the community chest.
I should, I suppose, feel bad about this. I should be able to share with everybody. But childhood logic dies hard—and damn it, I was here first—which is good enough for me.
But as it happens, a set doesn’t come until there are five other guys in the water, and I get the worst wave of this set. And then five becomes 15. Fifteen becomes 25, and now the sun is up. And the highway is right there, so if you want to see the ocean, you need only look over, and if you want to jump right in, you can feel free to do so.
By the time I decide to get out of the water, I count 43 surfers sitting around me. I’m sure they are all nice people—of course they are—but they were not here when I was. They were not here when it was just me by myself. And I hate them for this. So I catch a wave to the beach, and get out of the water, wanting nothing more than to be away from people.
And I really feel like a son of a bitch for being so grumpy. So I decide to actually adhere to the advice of the man with the First Action theory, who says that he can sit on the beach and get as much enjoyment out of watching other surfers ride waves as he can by riding a wave himself. Bullshit, right? I mean, you’ve been to the beach.
Still, I sit down, and I watch. And, at first, it doesn’t make me feel good. Because some guy deliberately rides in front of some other guy, and they both are fat.
But then something neat happens. A kid catches a small little wave, and I think it’s great that he’s so happy—and that he’s out here in the cold morning in the first place—and I guess that it’s also cool that there is this old man here. Look at how old he is! And he is surfing. So that’s neat. And it’s neat that they are so close together.
But here comes a big wave, and the old man and the kid can’t get out of the way, and the wave is pushing the old man into the kid and their boards are tangled up, and the old man is yelling at the little kid, who is scared—he’s little—and he gets out of the water and runs up the beach.
I don’t run, but I stand up and walk away from the beach, too.
Tomorrow, I will wait to have First Action before I go surfing. It will, I think, be better.
9/5/04, 6:44 p.m. to 7:38 p.m.
Here is the problem. On long nights and at dinner parties, at the library and when meeting your girlfriend’s dad, being a surfer doesn’t really play. Everyone, it seems, knows what it means to surf, and they all seem to think that this surfing business is something that necessitates a wink and a smile of the “Oh, isn’t that great for you” variety, while inside you can read the machinations of their secret incubating thoughts. You can almost hear them as they judge you—judge you for being stupid and cliché, a surfer, young and capricious and silly, but a person that can’t be entirely counted out for the fact that, well, come summertime, surfing is good for three days of oceanic thrashing.
And because of this, they need us. Every hot weekend and every long summer day, surfboards come down from dusty garage homes behind the golf clubs and in front of the skis, old wax encumbered with the sandy vestiges of last summer and summers past. And never is this more apparent than on Labor Day, that last outpost of summer, the last stranglehold before the realities of work and indoor living—of fall television lineups and fireside chats—consume the lives of normal, nice, average people.
Nature, that dancing nymph, decided this year to have a bit of fun with us. After a long, hot, flat summer in Southern California (and during a news cycle dominated by a deadly hurricane), a smaller, more friendly, more ocean-oriented storm bearing a cute name (Hurricane Howard) spun off the coast of the Baja Peninsula and, with each counterclockwise revolution, sent pulses of steep south swell northward toward California, all of which was predicted to arrive on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.
By Thursday, the Internet was rife with speculation, with a normally reliable website predicting 15- to 20-foot faces at the Newport Wedge on Saturday. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and every surfer from Imperial Beach to Ocean Beach picked up the word like an eagle scooping up some sort of furry woodland creature that gets eaten by eagles.
But Saturday morning predawn, things were bleak. As headlights shown down beach after south-facing beach, rare was the parking spot and busy were the highways. A cursory surf check alerted the astute driver to the fact that “Hey, there’s no swell here!” But nobody was buying. So the coastal roads were jammed as the sun began to rise over the eastern ridges of low-lying hills.
Purple. Pink. Blue. White. No waves. And now wind. Onshore and blustery. And almost no place to surf. The websites, it seems, had been wrong, but the people wanted nothing to do with it.
“Where are the waves?”
“They said it would be 15-foot.”
“It’s not even breaking.”
“Maybe this afternoon.”
“Maybe this afternoon” is one of those sentences in surfing that attempts to explain the unexplainable. There are actually many sentences that fit this category, most of which have to do with the elements and an ambiguous adjective. Winds become “wrong,” tides become “weird,” and afternoons become … “possible.”
The afternoon, though, came and went, and no waves of consequence had broken. Which left surfers everywhere with freshly waxed big-wave boards, a missing quarter-tank of gas, and an unsettled feeling. Eventually, even the overzealous website admitted their error, and everything went back to peace and tranquility.
But Mother Nature had the last laugh on Sunday afternoon, after the furor had all but disappeared, after the droves of beachgoers had flailed and thrashed and stood and tripped over wave after unimpressive wave; after the sand-sitters were gone and before the sun left the seascape dark and impossible. There were what we call “stacks” extending to the horizon: lines and lines of swell for as far as the eye could see. But only the surfers were there to get it. Only the ones who had looked past the Internet and the hype and seen just another day under the sun and a tomorrow that promised a rare day off from work. At that moment, as the rest of the people packed up their cars with beach chairs and sun umbrellas, we trotted off toward the darkening horizon with a surfboard and something to think about.
I suppose we could have used that hour for having a big, valuable, time-consuming think out in the quiet water, but I, at least, couldn’t help my internal prattling on about all of those people. The ones that would have us be clichés. And I thought about how limiting that was, and how I’d rather fight a daily battle with wind, water, and sun than sit in gilded restaurants with plates full of shared desserts and stale conversation, a TV show on my mind.
A wave came to me that night, just before dark. And the water was warm. No one was in sight, the sun long gone. There were three waves in this set; each successively bigger. The last one picked me up and cradled me, rocking me slowly as I flew down its face, kicking out before the sun had gone for good. I stepped off my board onto the sand in the shallow water and shuffled toward the parking lot, careful not to step on a stingray.
8/25/04, 6:08 p.m. to 7:23 p.m.
Many times, when I go surfing, I get phrases or individual words stuck in my head. You know this feeling. It is the same as having a song stuck in your head, except the song turns into just a single word. Also, you are in the ocean. Today, the word in my head is “bleat,” and I can’t remember for the life of me exactly what type of animal it is that bleats. I think, though, that it is a sheep. But I am unsure.
So I ask Todd, who is my friend, and who is here—in the water, next to me, wearing my wetsuit while lying prone on an extra surfboard I keep in my truck. He does have long hair, but he does not know which animal does this bleating thing. He suggests that bleat may not even be a word. I shake this off. Of course it’s a word.
I look back toward the shore and, beyond it, the highway. On the beach are people. In shoes. Lots of them. From their perspective, Todd and I probably look like we’re having one of those Endless Summer moments. We probably look young and romantic. Our picture could be taken and used to sell a popular product. The onshore wind, though, is making the water choppy and the waves anarchic, which, in turn, makes us ready to leave.
While we wait for a good wave, we begin to carry on a conversation in Spicolian drawl (Jeff Spicoli, archetypal surfer/stoner character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). We say words like “sick,” “shred,” and “gnarly”, and pose rhetorical questions like “How’s that wave?” This is what we do. We act like stereotypes, because it is funny. In our imaginations, maybe we are even stoned, like a surfer in the movies would be.
It eventually gets quiet, though, and the word “bleat” oozes its way back into my mind, then congeals and hardens until it’s all I can really think about. And I alight on this question: If a sheep bleats, what do you call that “baahing” noise that they also make? Or is that, itself, a bleat? I cannot figure it out. I wonder if a gibbon can bleat. Yes, of course, gibbons. That’s the answer.
By 7:18 p.m. I have ridden a wave to the beach, and there are people here; people who appear to be tourists, that are looking at me and smiling. I am a novelty. They are taking photos, and I am uncomfortable. What do they want with my photograph? Will I be remaindered to the refrigerator door of a Middle American kitchen; a sandy California memory for a young Wisconsinite girl? Will she lust after me in pubescent fantasies? Is this wrong to think about?
Then I notice that several mosquitoes are biting me. This happened two nights ago, and my calves were pocked yesterday morning with 21 bites. They itched. Not funny. I am, however, trying to be a good friend, so I stand amid the mosquitoes and in front of the Oklahomans, waiting for my friend and thinking about the word “bleat.” When the waves lap on the shore, the water covers my feet in the sand, and when they retreat, my feet have been buried. This I like. But still the bleating.
Todd catches a wave, and I see that he is riding on his knees across its face, whooping and screeching his way toward the shore. This is not cool. The other surfers in the water do not like this. I shrug.
Although he’s perfectly capable of standing on his feet, he rides on his knees until he is just in front of me. This is silly, and it may have shattered the contemplative image of me the Oklahomans appeared to be enjoying. I don’t tell him this, and, with a nod and a half-grin, we walk past these sweet old busters, up the beach and onto the road where our cars are parked.
We change out of our wetsuits quietly. Maybe not quietly, but with the nonsensical sort of banter that signifies little but the passing of time. He says goodbye. I start my truck. We both go home.
Twenty minutes later, I walk in the front door of my apartment, climb the stairs, and sit down to eat. My dog Otis is barking at me, and my girlfriend is watching the news. If she noticed that my feet were sandy, she did not say anything. She is good like this. I eat one of these whole rotisserie chickens you can buy at the grocery store for $5. I eat it with my hands, imagining the whole time that I am a Viking. Ripping the flesh off the bird, I think about becoming a vegetarian.
When I am done, and have washed my hands, I look up the word “bleat.” It is a noise made by a sheep or goat. Later, as I lay down to go to sleep, I think about surfing, and not a bit about bleating.
But those Oklahomans really got to me. They wanted my photo just because I surfed. I am, I make myself believe, half the reason they came to California. And when my girlfriend asks me how the surf was, I don’t have the heart to tell her.
What I don’t tell her is that somewhere, at that moment, there is a roll of undeveloped film sitting in a purse, under a compact and above a Sea World ticket stub. One of the images on that roll was of me, surfboard in hand, standing sculptured and beautiful, thoughtful and confident, surveying the ocean and its waves for truths they would never know.
But really being just bitten to shit by mosquitoes and thinking about gibbons that might be able to bleat.