Getting stuff in the mail is one of the great pleasures of life. Sometimes, when you order something online, you even forget about it until it shows up on your doorstep. A few weeks ago, I placed a small order from Walden Surfboards in California: a Wax Buddy surf wax comb (for my as-yet, non-existent surfboard), a St. Christopher medal (the protector of, among others, travelers), and a diner mug (shown above). I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a thing for that California bear, and the single star above him. I certainly didn’t need another coffee mug, but it was payday, and sometimes you have to live large.
These little daily surprises are the fuel of my life. I don’t need to go skydiving to cultivate peak experiences. For me, it’s enough most days to wake up on a crisp fall morning, knowing that there’s coffee in the pantry downstairs just waiting to be brewed. There’s joy in opening an unexpected, kind email in my inbox. Reading a friendly facebook comment. Taking a shower and realizing that I might just have a good hair day. Getting to work to find that Weekend just posted a new video online, or that Cut Copy came out with a new album.
Maybe my new copy of New York Magazine will come in the mail today? Or better yet, Surfer’s Journal. Tonight I might get the chance to watch my son at swim practice, or my daughter play basketball, or have a quiet dinner with my wife at our cozy kitchen table, and maybe watch a show on Neflix once the kids are asleep.
Louis C.K. famously quipped that “everything is amazing right now and nobody’s happy.” I would like to counter that sentiment by saying that every day I wake up and put my feet on the floor is an amazing day. I look forward to all the little miracles and surprises of daily life to keep me going. We only have one go-round on this Earth. How can we not cherish every moment? How can we not look forward to the coffee in the pantry, or the package that might come in the mail, or the kind word from a true friend? How can we not be happy, knowing all this?
I never thought I would be that guy. The guy standing on the shore on a rainy October afternoon in Maine. The guy squeezed into a wetsuit with a red and yellow boogie board leashed to his wrist. The guy gazing into the sloppy beach break under steel-gray clouds, wind whipping sand into his eyes and ears. The guy with no towel, just an old fleece baby blanket he found in his trunk.
(The guy who politely refused the kind offer from his wife to take one of the freshly laundered and fluffed-up beach towels she had lovingly folded and proffered to him on his way out the door with the arms of his wetsuit tied around his waist. No thanks, babe, the guy said, I have a spare towel in my trunk. The guy was wrong. And was lucky there was a Hefty bag in his trunk filled with old baby clothes (and fleece blankets) that he hadn’t dropped off at Goodwill yet.)
That guy, in case you hadn’t guessed, was me. I drove down to Popham Beach in Phippsburg yesterday afternoon, determined to go surfing. My car thermometer read fifty-one degrees. It was overcast, threatening, then delivering, rain. I was wearing my wetsuit and a t-shirt. I was barefoot, car heater cranking.
When I pulled into the parking lot, my State of Maine Parks season pass was unnecessary. There were no park rangers at the check-in hut and about ten cars in the lot. All the lifeguard chairs were stacked to one side and chained together for the winter. The bathrooms and changing rooms were locked. The drinking fountains and outdoor showers had been turned off. Even the outhouses were padlocked shut. In case I didn’t know it yet, summer was officially over.
I still don’t have my own surfboard, but yesterday realized that I don’t have to be ashamed. I could qualify what I did as body-boarding, as if it was some loser cousin of “real” surfing, but surfing is surfing. Ancient Polynesian kings, some of them, rode waves on their bellies. With no shame. I was in the water, riding the waves, and that’s all that counts.
A few brave sea kayakers kept me company. Off in the distance at the other break, I could see some paddle-boarders. At first I thought they were my surfing brethren, but then I saw the tell-tale paddles that resemble giant swizzle-sticks, and I knew I was really alone.
But isn’t that why we go into the ocean, sometimes? To be out of reception? There were hardly any waves to speak of, and even if I had a “real” surfboard, I couldn’t have done much with it. My little red and yellow boogie board was just perfect, actually. I spent about an hour in the water, caught a few really good waves, and flew to shore head first, arms back, like Superman cruising over Metropolis.
I’ve played it safe my entire life. Body-boarding sloppy beach breaks in October isn’t exactly scaling Everest, I know. But I never thought that when my wife and I moved to Maine almost fifteen years ago, I would ever be playing in the ocean in October, much less surfing. I didn’t know how fortuitous our move to the Midcoast would prove to be, with two world-class beaches on either side of our small city’s bridge, beaches that produced some of the tastiest, bite-sized, surfable shark-free waves a forty-six-year-old grommet like me could ask for.
I never thought I would be the guy who would be floating in the waves as folks trundled by onshore in their fleece hat and mittens, no doubt wondering who that crazy fool was, in the ocean in Maine in October.
But yesterday, I was that crazy fool. I was that guy. I walked out of the ocean with a smile on my face. I said a little prayer of thanks to Jack O’Neill for inventing the wetsuit. I was ready once again to share my stoke for this mysterious, surprising and ultimately glorious life with the ones I love. The sand in my ears this morning reminds me.
In his book, Two Cheers For Anarchism, author and philosopher James C. Scott argues in favor of small acts of rebellion. If we’re not prepared to take small risks or instigate tiny acts of anarchy, then we won’t be prepared when we’re called upon to take huge risks or join larger (nonviolent) rebellions against the oppressive forces at work in modern society.
From history, he presents examples of how anarchist principles were used to foster societal change through labor strikes, work slowdowns or stoppages, sabotage, marches, and other forms of protest.
On a personal level, he tells of a visit he made to a small village in Sweden where, at the end of the workday, everyone waits at the town’s single traffic light to cross the street even though the landscape is flat, the villagers can see for miles in either direction, and cars hardly ever appear. One day he decides to cross the street when the light is red, prompting admonitions from the other villagers. He was breaking the law, not following the rules, thumbing his nose (and feet) at prescribed order of things. Which was precisely his point. By exercising his “anarchist muscle” he tells us, he’ll be better prepared when he has to take a stand for something really important.
I think we should follow Professor Scott’s lead and act out whenever we can, if only in small ways. Watching independent surf films in my dining room didn’t feel quite as good as when I marched on Washington in the Eighties, protesting Contra Aid and Ollie North and flipping off Reagan. But it was damn close.
Last night, I hung a crumpled white sheet in the doorway that separates my dining room from our small cluttered sun porch. Using a borrowed projector, I watched some short surf films I found on the great DIY surfing website Korduroy.com. I was all alone; the wife was out with friends and the kids were asleep. The house was dark and silent except for the holy light shining from the humming projector and the tinny postmodern samba music coming from my laptop’s speakers. I felt like God at the dawn of creation. There’s something incredibly rebellious about projecting a moving image on a flat surface. There’s a guerrilla aspect, a hit-and-run feeling, that it gives you. You’re tossing a Day-Glo metaphoric grenade into the mass media groupthink trenches and then booking it back into the jungle before The Man drops a huge net on your ass.
I was reminded why filmmakers have always been some of our truest rebels. Watching a film shimmering on a flat canvas in a dark room or summertime backyard is a giant fuck you to the small-screen, small-minded television executives and Madison Avenue Febreeze salesmen. Big Brother can’t find you here. The box that you turn down but never turn off is shunned. You’ve invited Art with a capital “A” into your life, and it feels like the coolest, sweetest, most life-giving water you’ve ever tasted.
I’m reading Rachel Kushner‘s novel The Flamethrowers right now. It tells the story of a young female filmmaker who becomes romantically involved with a sexy Italian artist during the 70’s New York art scene. I’m only about 100 pages in, and so far not many flames have been thrown, but she captures the youthful yearning for rebellion perfectly. There’s also a lot of motorcycle riding, racing, and talk. Many of the characters in the novel use their motorcycles as means of escape, rebellion, and, I’m hoping, salvation.
Surfing is also act of rebellion. And hopefully, salvation. Of moving beyond the reach of society’s grasp. Hanging that sheet in my dining room was my own act of rebellion and salvation. The heavenly light and music floating from my networked machines, as sweet as the angels’ harps.
We need to bring Art into our lives. To absorb it and to practice it. Painting, photography, printmaking, beekeeping, writing, blogging, even Instagramming; it can all be a means to our liberation. Clandestine sidewalk chalking, anonymous postering, yarn-bombing, motel-pool skinny-dipping, water-gun ambushing; almost nothing is off-limits.
So do some crazy shit each day. Stay sane. And remember what this garbage can outside of Renys told me:
Call this this the anti-check your pants. A new day, with a little money in the bank. Fresh laundry hanging on the line. A shopping trip to the pet store with my son, to buy a birthday gift for a classmate and maybe a little something extra for our female pet dwarf hamster, Chubs. Newly-bought smoothie ingredients (bananas, kale, mixed berries, maca powder) in the pantry and a four-pack of toilet paper in the bathroom. There are dried pineapple snacks on the way via Fed Ex. I even picked up some fancy conditioner. It’s not every day I can afford the Moroccan argan oil, but yesterday, after working six hours chopping wood and carrying water, I could.
The coffee is on, left by my wife on the way out the door, and there are donuts. I might even take my car to the car wash for a deluxe treatment. And get a slice of pizza or buy a few dollars’ worth of old vinyl at my local record shop. The sun is shining, and yesterday I went to the beach, took this photograph, and was the only soul body-surfing in the ocean.
Now is the time for the warmest water of the year. The tide was coming in and the ocean treated me to some tasty two-foot rollers. The blanketed and fleeced oldsters on the shore must have thought I was crazy. I didn’t care. The children wanted to join me, the parents forbidding it. When you’re on the side of the children, then you know you’re doing something right.
One day can make a difference. Today I have joy and just a little sliver of security. A half-tank of gas is better than no gas at all.
Do any of us have much more than that? The billionaires and the losers are really the same. No one is secure, nothing is eternal. Here today, gone tomorrow. Dust to dust, etcetera.
No saber-toothed tigers here. No vision quests, yet. But still.
This living-on-the-edge thing can be beautiful sometimes.
Standing up on a wave is a prideful action. Hundreds of years ago, when explorers from the West first encountered the Polynesian people riding waves, most of them were lying prone or on their knees. Some were standing, mostly the chiefs, as a way to prove both their manhood and their right to rule.
Today, everyone wants to stand. Professional surfers literally attack the waves as if they are wild animals, waiting to be slain. As far as this surfing newbie can figure out, most professional surfing is all about the tricks. In this regard, it most closely resembles skateboarding, snowboarding, and all of the X Games.
Even the phrase “professional surfing” doesn’t sound quite right. A water-based oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or army intelligence. And wasn’t Zonker Harris a professional suntanner in the Doonesbury comics? See what I mean?
Still, I can’t begrudge folks their chosen way of earning a living. If Kelly Slater can make millions surfing, who am I to kill his buzz? Wouldn’t I want to do the same, given the chance and a few more Y chromosomes? Besides, some of my most recent Internet crushes are surfers. I’ll give you fifty bucks and a cake of homemade surf wax if you can name the surfer behind this set of pearly whites:
(BTW…You actually can make your own homemade organic surf wax. And you can make homemade sunblock. You can even make homemade surf craft. If you’re really crafty, that is. You can even learn how to surf. The Internets are awesome. And, yes. That IS my gratuitous Steph Gilmore shot of the day. One limit per customer, please. )
I took a risk a few months ago when, as a promise to myself on my forty-sixth birthday, I took a surfing lesson. I had played it safe my entire life, afraid to leave my comfort zone. I could have worn a sign around my neck that read, “I Never Finish Anythi ”
So, back in August, in my fusty rented wetsuit and waterlogged soft-top, I spent one-and-a-half glorious embarrassing hours on the water at Kennebunk Beach in Maine, my wife and children giving me thumbs-ups from shore every time I stood, even if it was only for a few moments. And I did stand, and it felt good. It feels good even now, writing this. Most surfing, I think, is done in the mind. When you’re doing it, every nerve ending in your body has to be focused. Your senses are on full alert. You don’t have time to think. It’s only after, upon reflection, that you really feel the stoke.
Now, I slowly assemble my quiver. Can a guy use Kickstarter to fund a surfboard? I don’t know and I’m too proud to try. But I have been doing a ton of research online, I’ve contacted some local shops (because I’d rather buy my board from a live human being than from a website), and I’ve started nicking around the edges to get what I need for when the big gun arrives. Remember: buying a surfboard is like buying a penis: you want length, width, and thickness, but you also have to consider volume and glide ratio.
As of today, I have some Sticky Bumps cold water wax, a Dakine Kainui leash, and a 3/2 O’Neill Epic II wetsuit. Now all I need is a bag and a board. I can fold down the seats of my Santa Fe, so I don’t even need a roof rack.
This might seem like a long list, but to me, one of the best things about surfing is the actual lack of gear. As Larry David answered in Curb Your Enthusiasm, when asked why he doesn’t ski, “Because I don’t like all the schlepping.” Agreed, Larry. The less schlepping the better. In fact, surfing need not be done with any gear at all, or at least less than traditional waveriding. There’s bodyboarding, mat surfing, and the most Minimalist of all, good old bodysurfing.
My plan is to try and surf a few more times this fall, probably with borrowed gear, when the hurricane-season storm swells make their way Down East and the Maine waves are at their tastiest. I’m taking the money I used to buy booze with and putting it in a dented bean can. Soon, it will all add up, and I’ll own the board of my dreams. All in good time, and all the sweeter when my 9-foot baby finally arrives.
Surfing, like life, is 99% paddling for a few seconds of joy. A professional baseball player is considered successful if he fails seven out of ten times at the plate. You might have to shoot an entire roll (or flash card) of pictures to get one cover-worthy shot. Likewise, you might paddle all day, scratching for the horizon, and never see a good wave. Unless I’m dreaming, I know I’ll never do any 360 aerials. Hell, I’d be happy to stay up for three or four seconds on a dinged-up longboard. Most of us just want to ride the waves, be out on the water, and be close to nature.
But even the paddling can be joyous, when done with the right spirit and a full heart.
So here I am, on yet another journey. Last summer it was cricket dreams. This summer, it’s surf dreams. I’m learning. I’m growing. I still get confused between onshore and offshore breeze. Not really even sure what a swell is, although I like to say the word. I have no idea what this is:
And I may need this, at least for the time being:
But at least I’m on this wonderful, watery path. And I leave you with Stephanie Gilmore, following the path:
If a blog is, as a friend put it, a magazine of Me, then I suppose it can be about anything. In fact, I’ve often thought of changing the subtitle of this blog from “a virtual cabin in the woods” to “it could be about anything.” One reason I suppose I’ll never be a professional blogger (as in: syndication, advertising dollars, limo rides, drinking Cristal in the VIP room with Jay-Z and Bey) is because I don’t have a niche. I’m interested in everything which, in the blogosphere, really means I’m interested in nothing at all. Most of the time I write about what happened to me. Rarely do I write about what I want to happen. So here goes nothing at all.
I was driving to my favorite beach last Saturday for what turned out to be a life-altering day of swimming and bodyboarding ( or, as the common man calls it, boogie boarding). The waves were high, the sun was hot, the water was cool but not testicle-shriveling cold. I realized that day, even though I had stirrings at other points in my life, that I really want to learn how to surf. Really surf, as in: standing up on a wave. A few friends have offered to give me the 101, and there’s a surf shop with the best name in the world down in Kennebunk that I plan to take a lesson with before summer’s out. I have no idea if I’ll be any good, if I’ll fall, or if I’ll even like it very much. I do know that I love the water, love the ocean, that I’m never, ever bored at the beach, that the beach gives me physical and spiritual sustenance. As Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz said in the film Surfwise, he could go into the water feeling so bad that he wanted to die, only to come out of the water completely reborn. I’ve never felt that low, because usually by the time I can sense the nearness of the ocean, any low spirits or bad moods are already gone.
That day, I passed a house for sale. A weather-worn, brown, wood-shingled affair with a deep, shaded porch, a few outbuildings (that would make ideal workshops or writing studios), and best of all, a view of the ocean with water access. I immediately saw myself on that porch, or lying on my non-existent old leather sofa, drinking an imaginary cocktail after a long day surfing, my board drying in the sun, enjoying my other, newest, obsession: listening to old vinyl records on a vintage stereo system. Maybe one of those old consoles that my grandparents had that resembled a squat sideboard, where the speakers are built into the furniture and there are sliding laminated doors that keep the music collection ordered and tidy. My hair would be long, longer than it is now, grayer. My darling wife would be making jewelry out of sea glass in her studio, a converted garage, in the yard. The kids would be happily ensconced in college, and would love coming home on break, bringing their friends to hang with their surfer-dude dad and their artsy-crafty mom.
The best part about the house, though, was the name. An engraved wooden sign, tacked to the second-floor side of the house facing the road, read “Bright.” Not sure if this was the name of the property, or a family name, or both. But for me, in that instant, the instant I imagined owning the place and living in it and maybe even growing old in it, Bright was exactly what it was. I could hear the surf from the living room, ice clinking in my glass, some Seventies-era Joni Mitchell coming from the stereo, my hair still wet and salty from the surf, bright sun over the water in the distance. I wondered how many dreams one man is allowed in his lifetime. And how many of those dreams ever really come true?
This one wasn’t, apparently. When I got home, I checked the internets. $450,000 and already under contract, even though the interior pictures showed a dump.
Still, I have a few more dreams up my rash guard.
Sea Sled, anyone?
Sitting at my desk, dreaming about surfing, even though I don’t yet know how to surf, is no way to live. I spent last Sunday at the beach, body-surfing with my son in the ocean. Waves came in, we caught them, and glided or sometimes tumbled toward the shore. We grazed our knees on the sand. The saltwater crusted my hair into a clumpy mess. But we laughed and felt exhilarated, refreshed, alive. A simple pleasure, yet one I can’t remember doing in a long, long time. Children can do this for you, give you this gift. This experience gave me the crazy idea that I would learn how to surf. Yes, I would have to overcome my double-barreled fears of drowning and sharks, but maybe this would be a way to finally do something brave. Something that I wouldn’t talk myself out of before I even began. Maybe I’d even grow my hair long and tell my boss to shove it. All my life, I’ve played it safe. My therapist tells me life is a balancing act between security and freedom. The more security we possess, the less freedom we have. I’m not talking politics here. This is personal. A man reaches a point in his life when he wonders if he is moving closer to his dreams or moving further away from them. Like travelling to or from an island by ferry. There’s a point when you’re leaving the bay, when you see the harbor recede, and you’re fooled into thinking that you’re actually just arriving. The longer a man does something for employment, the less qualified he becomes to do anything else. I’ve been working in bookstores for almost thirty years. If bookstores disappear, you’ll probably find me stocking shelves at the grocery store or mowing some rich guys’ lawn. I’m not cut out for much more than that. Yes, I write but I’ve never made a dime. I had adventures when I was younger but now I have children who I love and cherish but who bring out my practical side to the exclusion of all my other sides. If I were to leave my safe job and pursue something absolutely crazy, like becoming a surfer or a writer or an island innkeeper, my children and wife would suffer. We’d be poorer that we are now. But, perhaps we would be free. Less security, more freedom. At almost forty-six years old, I don’t want to wait for retirement (what a horrible, horrible word) to finally start living. Yes, of course I am living now, appreciating each day and trying to show my children the wonders of the world around them, to always keep their minds open and exercise their creativity. We jump off rope swings and dive into quarries and skip rocks in the river and eat ice cream for dinner and make beaded bracelets and use too much hot glue and leave dishes in the sink too long so that the fruit flies start buzzing. We don’t always use as much sunscreen as we should and our yogurt isn’t always organic. In short, we live. Yes, of course we do. But. Always the but. There must be more. There must be a way to live in a way that’s never been lived, to do things no one else has done. Yes, people do this all the time. They pack up their kids, sell all they own and live lives of vagabonds and gypsies. What’s the worst that can happen? they ask themselves. Starvation, sickness, death? Big deal. We’ve got this rock face to climb, this ocean to swim in. These are the dreams of a desk jockey, a man in a basement, a man who is starting to petrify a little bit, who needs the safety of health insurance but wants to jump out of mythical airplanes instead. To see what the inside of a half-pipe really looks like. I took the photo you see above from the ferry that we take every year out to our favorite island in the bay. Those are the hills of Maine in the distance. Using the filter on my smartphone’s camera, I tried for nostalgia, but instead when I look at this I can’t help feeling just the slightest pang of dread. Am I coming closer to the shore, and my dreams, or moving farther away, never to realize them, whatever they might be? I’m at the midpoint, the half-life of my life. Going forward? Going back? Right now, there’s no way to tell.