Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Zen and the art of surfing

Forgive me for going a bit spacey and zen on you this post. It's been an unusually good day. I bought a columbine. I turned in my final (FINAL FINAL FINAL) manuscript. I saw the cover of my book for the first time. I got four and a half rides.

Talking and writing about surfing is immensely difficult, much like talking about pianos. Like I said a while back, I'm looking for a new piano. How to put into words what I experience playing different models (all extremely fine specimens), why I like some, why I don't like others? Words are such a crude approximation. What am I listening to, for? What am I hearing? What am I feeling? I can say, "The bass sings" or "The treble is bell like" or "The bass break is awkward" or "The treble doesn't project" but really, what I'm feeling is "I like to play this piano" or "I don't" or sometimes "I should like it but I don't." It's not a why question. I am very distracted by one particular piano I played last weekend. It is haunting me. I don't know why except that it has more soul than any other I've found. Plus there is just the tactile, physical part---I liked touching as well as hearing it, the feel of the keys. That's really important.

What can I say about surfing today?

It was the kind of day that could make me like surfing again, I knew that right off. The waves were small, it was sunny and there was no one out. All I had to do was stay out of the range of the fishing lines of the nearby fishermen. Nothing but me to stand in my own way.

"Alternately frustrating and exhilarating" as the commenter on my recent post put it so well can apply within a single day as well as day to day. I didn't catch a wave for long enough that I started thinking, I'm like a beginner, I can't do anything, I'll never learn, I need lessons...

And then at some point, somehow, I stopped: I was just playing.

It's not supposed to be work.

It's like the difference between practicing the piano and playing it. Practicing is hard work. Necessary, sometimes, but a very different experience than playing. That's why they call it playing.

Today, I didn't get out of the water to look at the clock on the church to see if it was time to go in yet only to be disappointed that it wasn't.

Today, I was able to stay in the moment. Being Here Now. All I focused on was the next wave, not the rest of the day, not yesterday, not tomorrow. That's the hardest thing to do but it's everything.

I've had a long run of bad sessions that dragged down the whole rest of the day and made me exhausted, emotionally and physically. I knew that this one, no matter what happened, wasn't going to do that because it was going to stay in its time---the here and now---and after that it would be done.

I caught lots of waves. I popped up once. I knew that because I felt it in my midsection. It was a movement that had nothing to do with the knees and not much with the legs.

More than two years ago, when I was in California, I was catching lots of perfect little waves and feeling the drop. I had the idea then that there is something that happens in that drop which makes it much easier to pop up. The trick, then, would be to catch that instant when it is easier. I still don't know if I was right or wrong about that, but today I felt like I was right. I recognized the instant that would have been that instant, if it indeed exists, and I tried to pop up in it. Most of the time it didn't work. I would get my hands down on the deck, the first step to any popup, but then---against my will---my knee would be on the board. I'd clamber up---I think some of the times I did this I got the rides. I think that when I knew I did the popup, and a couple of times when I wasn't sure, I didn't get rides...but it's all fuzzy, as usual.

If there is a magic second for popping up, it's because in order to pop up you have to push down with your arms---I do that even when I'm doing popups on the floor of my living room. That is definitely the second step, after getting your hands on the board, and feeling that drop makes it easier. (And of course it's not a magic second, it's a magic one-fourth of a second.)

I think. I really have no idea.

One of the fishermen caught a really big fish. One yelled and pointed out a seal right in front of me, but truthfully I couldn't see it.

A guy came out after me and I thought, Now my fun is over, because I was all alone at the jetty spot where I usually can't get close to because that's where all the really good surfer-machowavehogs hang out. I thought he would just position himself right in the spot where I was, a little closer to the jetty to show he was superior.

He didn't. He very considerately (is this possible?) positioned himself far enough away that we didn't have to fight over waves or even watch each other. No one ever, ever does this. Thank you guy on the blue and white board! My day only got better, not worse, because of you.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Surf haiku

Over by the rocks
Wave hogs get ride after ride
Leaving us no scraps.

I too have a dream
One day we will surf in peace
Sharing all God’s waves.

One knee on the board
I struggle to stand up
Ass up, hands on rails.

Popup? What popup?
How can anyone pop up
On a speeding wave?

I’ve tried for five years
I’m old, cold, wet and tired
When can I give up?

Miss the wave again
Spray in the face worse than pie

Thursday, April 24, 2008

One good ride

Here is why you should always go in after you get one good ride:

Because you will spend the next 20 minutes trying to get out again, and 20 minutes once you get out waiting for a wave, and once you get it although you will try you be will too tired to even try to get up. You will have wasted 45 minutes, your stoke from the ride will have evaporated, and you will have accomplished nothing but getting yourself overtired, feeling like shit the rest of the day until you fall into bed at eight o'clock.

Today I stayed out an hour longer than usual, in the hope that I could duplicate that ride, but all I did was waste that hour.

I actually set a record today for earliest session ever; I was getting into my suit by 7:15 a.m., a miracle.

If I didn't have this blog I'm not sure I could tell you how many straight days I've been getting up early in the morning to go in the water. Let's see, Friday, Saturday, I skipped Sunday because it wasn't any good, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. That's six of the past seven days. No wonder I am so incredibly pooped. My back hurts, my shoulders ache. It's a hell of a lot easier to ski six days than try to surf. And it's out of sheer cussedness; every day's been a struggle.

Today probably had the best waves of the week. And I got two rides in the three hours. That's the best I did all week. One of them was shaky, unbalanced; the other was balanced and long, and I'm fairly sure I popped up on it, though how the hell would I know? I caught a lot of waves. I wasn't counting but probably at least ten. I was making most of my takeoffs. I had the feeling, which I haven't had in a long time, of the buttah takeoff; smooth, perfect. But even so once the board got going I simply could not think quickly enough of what to do. And the autonomic response seems to be to put my knee on the board and stick my ass up.

I'm still doing the popups in my living room. But on the living room floor there's nothing to grab onto the way I seem to grab onto the rails while attempting to stand up!

What was particularly embarrassing about today was that four extremely good surfers were out with me. Lots of hooting and hollering and woo-hooing, lots of long rides and barrels. All I could do was stay out of their way and hope they weren't watching me do my doggy-style pose. I wonder if they think about what I experience. (Nah.) It's so different from what they do that the single word "surfing" can't be used for both. I also wonder what my experience might be like if instead of staying away from them I asked them for help. It's too late for that now, I've got a reputation as a hopeless retard and an obstacle, plus I'm way too old, you' ve got to be young and cute to get guys to pay attention to you, but I hear that that's how other women learned to surf.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Four foot day

I've been going out in bigger waves lately, I guess. I really don't do any better or worse on them, so what the hell. Today's were maybe four feet.

I am tired from so many straight days of surfing! But determined to go as many days as there as waves.

It was a bitch of a paddle out. I made the mistake of paddling out initially right in front of my house. I started out by one set of the wooden jetty spikes. I wasn't making it anywhere, but all the time I was trying I got swept further and further down to the next set of spikes. Yikes. Once I realized I was nearly on top of them there was nothing to do but get out, walk down the beach and start all over again. I finally got out. That was pretty much my accomplishment of the day, getting out in bigger waves than usual. There is nothing fun about getting hit by wave after wave after wave. Once I was out I just wanted to stay there rather than get in and have to paddle out again.

I got a wave, and managed to get up on it when it was about halfway over. I can't tell you how, but I think I used my knee.

The next time I asked myself, "What would D. do?" D. is the senior surfer at our beach, and he had told me to paddle out by the jetty. Most days it doesn't make any difference because the waves are so small. But today I should have taken D.'s advice from the outset. I paddled out by the jetty, and it was easy. I didn't stay there because the surf mafia was out in full force, three or four of them taking off on and riding the same waves.

I got one more wave, couldn't get up, and decided to call today a success because of getting out and trying on the bigger waves. I sure couldn't use the f-word to describe it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Monday blues

I hadn't planned on surfing today, but I checked the waves and they weren't bad, plus no one was out on this sunny Monday morning. Sometimes I think (no, I know) I use surfing as a way of putting off other stuff I really need to do and don't want to. I don't know if that's good or bad or just is. But I made up my mind that no matter what was in the background I was going out there with a good attitude and I would keep a good attitude.

I had about 70% success on that.

I tried to keep focus. Sometimes, if there's no one out, I even talk to myself---"almost got that one, too early" or "too late," like a coach. Why not. It helps.

The best advice I could give myself was that line from the late great Spaulding Gray, from his book or movie or both (Swimming to Cambodia). Be Here Now! Another life lesson from but not limited to surfing. The minute I started thinking about lunch or what I was going to do later on, a big set wave would come and I'd miss it and/or it would hit me upside the head.

In light of what I quoted from Surfing magazine two posts back, here's how I did today.

In two hours, I caught four waves. That's not counting one where I was too early but popped up to my feet, and one where I pearled. I swear, in the summer when the gloves are off I might try writing down what happens with each wave so I have an accurate record. I forget everything as soon as it happens. Couldn't write anything down today. But what I remember is:

1) couldn't even try to pop up

2) tried to pop up, was late and didn't even try until the wave got going, did better, got to my feet in a semi popup and fell immediately

3) I popped up immediately, even though I saw I would be on the Ledge. When the wave made the drop, I fell. This was the first time I have ever stood up on the Ledge instead of waiting til after the elevator drop. Not surprising that I fell---that's what I have thought all along would happen, duh. The question is how to prevent it. I have to give myself points for trying and doing something I've never attempted before.

4) Sorry, I've lost all memory of what happened. I got to my feet in some fashion and fell immediately.

So that's what happened in the one second of practice time I got in two hours today. (one-fourth second per wave)

I do vaguely recall that on one of the waves where I was standing for some reason I landed on the forward part of the board and was leaning forward instead of back (as I usually do) before I fell off.

After about an hour, a couple of other surfers came out. Damn. I'd been psyched to be all alone. I tried hard not to let them ruin my attitude. It's hard enough to short circuit a negative feedback loop when I'm alone (you know, when you do badly and then you start to predict that you'll do badly and then you do) but harder with others. There is definitely a negative feedback loop there: once other people see you doing badly you start seeing yourself as they see you and they treat you as if they expect you to do badly and then you do worse. Though I guess it would've been harder to do worse than I was anyway. Sometimes I can talk myself out of that (see last post).

It helped that one of the guys smiled and said hi and even started talking.

He and the other guy started catching waves and surfing and the old familiar loop started in my head: "It's not the waves, it's me, they're doing it, why can't I, I hate them and they're making me surf even worse, I hate watching them have fun, I'll never learn."

Still I was trying to keep up my good attitude. After about five rides in a short period of time the guy turned to me and said, "Fun little waves today."

At that point I lost it. As I said in the last post, like all human beings, I hate watching other people having fun when I'm not having any. I tried to smile and be a good sport but the best I could honestly do, since it was so obviously not fun for me, was, "I guess it's fun if you know how to do it."

He looked surprised, as if it had never occurred to him that people aren't born knowing how to surf, and said, with a heavy New York accent, "I just like being in the water."

Don't you hate how the people who say "I just like being in the water" are always the people who are actually surfing, not the people who are really just being in the water? No one really likes "just being in the water!" Not if that's all they can do!

At that point my good attitude was gone for good. All I could think of were the things I now still had to do today, made harder to do and in two hours less time by a crappy surf session.

He then said something about me pearling on my last attempted wave, so I knew he really had been watching and mentally evaluating me.

I just hate seeing myself the way other people see me. Even though this guy was not someone I know who's formed an opinion watching me flail year after year and so doesn't necessarily think, "Oh, here she comes again, why doesn't she just quit, she'll never learn and she's just in the way."

It's funny, my nonsurfing friends, who for the most part have never seen me in the water, think I'm cool and brave and wonderful for trying so valiantly to learn to surf. One even calls me her "role model". Of course, the image in their minds is of me riding a wave, not flailing around. They'd feel differently if they could actually see me. (One of them, bless her heart, saw me ride a wave in sitting down and said, "You did good, I thought that was what you were supposed to do.") Nevertheless, even though it's unrealistic, I try to see myself as they see me, not as the surfers see me.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Surf lessons from myself

Today we were back to the small, crappy waves we're so used to around here. It wasn't as crowded out, not bad for a Saturday. There were only five people out at the jetty, so I decided to go there.

All guys again ("chick" applied once more), no one seemed to be with anyone else, not much talking. We jockeyed for position with what might be called, at other beaches and in other circumstances, plenty of snaking and dropping in. I kept trying to get closest to the jetty, so I wouldn't have to worry about getting hit by someone I didn't see going left, but someone was always paddling around me. Silently, and without stinkeye so it was hard to interpret. That used to be the best takeoff spot, but it usually isn't anymore, so there wasn't that much advantage to being there except that it is usually where waves are steepest on a small day like today.

I had a hard time getting waves at first. I kept thinking that all the guys were watching me not getting waves, and that's why they were paddling around me and taking off on the same waves as me, because they quickly wrote me off as a buoy. Does that really happen? I think it does, but I don't know. The thought was depressingly familiar: No one lets me get waves because I can't surf and I can't surf because no one lets me get waves and there is no way out of this conundrum. Even with only six of us in the water, I felt like I might as well give up.

I spent some time in this trough of despond. Then I just had to talk myself out of it. Four of the guys were people I didn't know even by sight so maybe they weren't paying any attention to me at all or purposely skunking me. The other one was someone I have, let's just say, very good reason to have strong and complicated feelings about. On the rare occasions I see him in the water, this never helps my surfing performance.

I had to shake all these thoughts off. Surfing teaches you, over and over, the irreducible lessons of life, like: Commit yourself 100%. There is no such thing as being too aggressive (a lesson that continues to serve me well in other contexts such as finding Manhattan parking spots, which now miraculously appear whenever and wherever I want them.)

By mid-session, I was getting waves. After a few attempts, I was able to get rides. I got the popup back, not every time but enough to show I can still do it. I moved closer to the jetty every time someone took off from that position. In short, I got my confidence back. I tried for and got more waves. I had fun. My guy went in at some point, I didn't immediately notice, and a couple others appeared.

God bless the two little boys, not more than eight or ten years old, who came out and were immediately friendly and not stinky at all, and whose obvious stoke even as the waves got crappier was contagious.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The myth of learning to surf (or, Where da popup go?)

Good waves were forecast for today. A miracle: not the waves, but that I managed to get up around 6:15. Folks, I didn't even know it got light that early. Well, it does. And I think I got in the water the earliest I've ever been, before 8:00. I know, I know. Some of you can wake up and roll onto the beach. I don't do nuthin' without my coffee and my breakfast. I'm very proud to be out before 8:00.

Do you get the sense of how I'm being set up for gigantic disappointment? Here it comes.

First, more setup. The waves actually deserve the word "glassy." They're medium-size but gentle. The water could even be called blue today. The sun's out. It's on its way to 75, the warmest day of the year.

Did I also mention that I have been practicing popups in my living room for months? I've incorporated them into my daily routine. Everyone's told me to do this and I am doing it. I have gotten very good at popups in my living room. I do them every day before breakfast. I think I have no popup issues anymore like the ones you can read about in my archives here.

Here it comes.

I get out, catch a wave,'s like I've never done a popup at all. I cannot think of what to do with my arms, legs, etc. There is a second where I try to coordinate all these things, and I can't. I do the knee on the board, ass in the air, try to make my hands let go of the board and fail, fall thing.

The waves are good. I can't blame the waves.

But I'm finding it hard to catch them. How can that be, when they are good?

Not catching them kinds of feeds on itself, so that when I do catch one, I'm so surprised that it takes me longer to react, which makes it harder to try to do the popup (I think; I've always thought there's some kind of window of opportunity that makes it easier if you catch it at just the right time, but no one has ever confirmed that, so what do I know), and I can't.

Once I got on The Ledge again, another phenomenon which no one has ever been able to explain to me, and so I couldn't even attempt to stand up because I knew there would be a drop. After the drop I try to stand but it's impossible.

In the end, I spend much more time underwater than on top of the water on this beautiful day with fine waves. I swallow much more water than I'm accustomed to. On one wipeout I'm under so long I actually open my eyes underwater, which I never do. From underneath, the water looks brown.

In short, it's one of those days when you're miserable and more so because you have to watch everyone around you having fun. About as enjoyable as working in the "service" industry. Have you ever done that? I have. Something about constantly watching other people enjoy themselves while you're working hard and having none (whether waitressing or trying to learn to surf) grates on your soul.

I'm wasting my time, not learning anything, not having fun. I think for the five hundred thousandth time about how "learning" is an absurd word to apply to surfing. There is no such thing. It is impossible to "learn" something that happens in one-fourth-second intervals, simply because the mind cannot set down in memory anything that happens so fast, and so cannot analyze, interpret, repeat or learn from it. Most of the time I don't even know what happens on a wave or attempted wave; I'm underwater with no sense of how I got there.

And yet the fact is that people do learn to surf. And they do learn on this very beach, under these very conditions. I think of a woman who started the same time I did and learned in about a year and has been enjoying surfing all kinds of boards and waves for four years, while for me it's still a challenge just to stand up.

How can this be explained?

Lest you think I'm just a complaining, retarded spaz, I just read something in Surfing magazine that says what I've been thinking all along.

From an article titled Can Surfing Be Taught:

"One key to surfing's inherent unteachability lies in the way in which the human brain processes information. That complicated chunk of gray matter deals with what your senses are throwing at it on a number of different levels. Most normal stuff is processed through the frontal lobes, resulting in a seemingly unconscious, yet learned response: the thing we tend to call instinct or gut reaction. When something complex is happening to you very quickly, however, a thing called limbic response, controlled by a brain structure called the thalamus, jumps into action. It's a lot quicker off the mark than the frontal lobe, and its activation brings about a shot of energizing hormones, and the famed fight-or-flight response...

In a complex surf situation, like a late drop in on a heavy wave, you're either going to have a fight-0r-flight reaction or you're going to override it and incorporate the adrenalin into a gut reaction. Lots of surfing happens in a blurry mixture of fight/flight and unconscious trained response...

Now, the way in which most forms of sports training gets around this bastard is through repetition. A tennis player, for instance, can stand in a certain place in the court and strike more or less the same ball, over and over again, hundreds of times, while the coach looks on. The trained, seemingly unconscious response is etched swiftly into the brain.

But this isn't available to surfers. We have to make do with riding experiences that are so fractured and scattered it's ridiculous. Next time you surf, count how many waves you actually catch. Count how many of them allow you to do something similar. Three? Five? Imagine a tennis player being asked to learn by hitting five balls a day...and by the way, only when the tennis balls decided to show up."

Yet to say surfing can't be taught is not to say it can't be learned, and learned well, because people do learn, and in less than the 20 years it seems it will take me just to figure out how to turn (by which time I will be well into my 60s, so why bother). Why?

And even the good ones seem to concur with me and Surfing about the ineffability of it all.

To quote V., a male surfer of my age who has been doing it a long time and is very good:
"It's day-to-day."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A chick adrift

It's not very often I would use the word "chick" to describe myself, but I think being the only woman out in a lineup of guys is a situation where I would. At least that seemed to be the case today as far as I could see. Later I found out there was one woman out earlier, before I got there.

I was making my takeoffs today; that was the good part, especially since the waves were about four feet. But the popups weren't really happening. I only got my feet on the board about three times, and then fell. I only had one instance of what might charitably be called a ride.

And there was a ferocious drift. It threatened to send me and my board over the jagged wooden spikes that caused $250 of damage to my Robert August last summer. We came perilously close today.

I have wondered a lot about why my legs get so tired after "surfing," since I never use them. I mean, as far as I know I've used my leg muscles once or twice in nearly five years. I'm not even sure I have leg muscles. Today I realized how much I use them in getting out, especially on a day like today. Staying upright while walking out on a big and/or drifty day is a workout for the legs. On our beach you're usually walking your board out at least half the way. So that's why. I wonder how my legs would feel if I actually used them to surf. Today I was so tired I went to bed around 9:00.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Dropping in on the drop-in king

A rite of passage here, an obligation of everyone who calls themselves a surfer sooner or later: dropping in on C. Rules of etiquette don't apply when dealing with someone who himself knows only one rule: "My waves!"

It's all in good fun. You can't take C. too seriously or make him what he isn't.

Today I had the great pleasure of not only dropping in on him, but making the wave and riding it down the line, leaving him in the dust so to speak, muttering for hours afterwards "Grandma dropped in on me;" and doing so to the great amusement of an appreciative audience watching from the peanut gallery on the boardwalk.