still learning

If I were to invoke surfing as a metaphor – a risky invocation given the prevalence of cheeseball slogans centered around the sport – but if I were to write about the emotional turbulence of the past few weeks in such a way – the result would read like this:

Sometimes I paddle out thinking the sets will be challenging but manageable. Sometimes I push myself into a wave that scares me because it’s bigger or heavier or steeper than I am used to, telling my brain to stop flailing and my arms to keep paddling and my heart to just commit goddamn it as the wave lifts me up from behind and, amazingly, somehow, all the past experience embedded in my body manages to manifest in the drop, landing me on my feet, my weight shifting and my arms arcing up, and I’ve pulled off a bottom turn and the wave and I go on and on together and the experience is like a miracle except one that I’ve made possible by going and going and not giving up and this moment expands the collection of similar moments as the bliss bubbles up unrestrained and whole.

Far more often, I find myself navigating the currents, trying to hang on the corner of the channel, thinking I’m dialed in and then a bigger set appears on the horizon, blocking out the sky as it steamrolls in, standing up farther out than any other has before and everyone is scratching toward it, some hoping to turn and catch their wave of the day, some, like me, just wanting to avoid getting smashed, but that hope is futile because despite all my experience, the ocean is beyond my control – I know it is beyond my control and yet still I despair for a moment as I look up at the now-pitching wave that is coming down like a giant fist on my head. I have never learned to duck dive under the wave – I don’t have the right board for that anyway – and so all I can do is try to hang on enough to keep my board from ricocheting into someone else and in such a way that my shoulder won’t be ripped out of its socket when my strength is inevitably overpowered by the wave that has me tumbling like a rag doll underwater.

I know better than to panic. I know I can hold my breath, that people generally can hold their breath, longer than we think. This knowledge does not completely mitigate the fact that I would prefer, very much, to have my head above water and air coming into my lungs. When I arrive back topside, hand-over-handing the leash to bring the board back to me, I hopefully have a moment to get my bearings, paddle out of harm’s way and back to the channel. But sometimes, that first wave is followed by another and another – all I can do is keep taking them on the head, diving, surfacing, not panicking, until the cumulative power is spent and the ocean navigable once more.

Often these extremes happen within the same hour. I tolerate the despair and work through my fear because that’s the only path to rapture. There are other types of joy in the world – a good game of Frisbee can engross me without all the drama. My nature not that of an adrenaline junkie; I am hooked on the waves, not the fear. But I live in a place where the waves get big, so if I want to surf, staying within my comfort zone isn’t an option.

Still, I could use a breath.

surf sessions #27, #28

Last weekend, a taste of fall arrived in the form of a sweet long-interval swell. I surfed Saturday night in the kind of beauty that is almost more than the soul can bear. The sunset turned the ocean purple and gold as the nearly full moon ascended and hung over the sand dunes, the perfect backdrop to the foghorn’s repeating bleat. The waves marched in slightly from the west, providing rights, real rights, for the first time in what seems like ever. I cavorted.

Today, the wind whips from the north, brisk and annoying. Instead of surfing, I lie on the futon in a patch of sunshine, grow fat and sleepy in the heat, wait for the wind to turn again.

surf sessions #22, #23, #24, #25, #26


I think next year I’ll return to noting these on a wall calendar as I do want to tally my time, but am running out of ways in which to write about what a particular surf was like without resorting to the same descriptions as before – truly, the words were all used up a while ago.

In brief:

#22: Fun. Lefts. A few too many people in the takeoff zone.

#23: Even more fun. Fewer people in the takeoff zone. Lefts.

#24: I take the 6’2″ out in front of my house. Blackberry vines and coyote brush stretch across the trail. One bend narrows to less than a foot wide, eroding on one side into a shrub-filled valley. Stickers wedge between my feet and sandals. I stop several times to remove them. But the ocean stretches out glass when I trundle over the final dune. The waves are small until they hit the sandbar, where they jack up into head-high shorepound. I’m challenged. This board is beautiful, paddles well, but so much smaller than what I’m used to. When I stand up, my back foot wonders where to land. I fall down. Sometimes I don’t. The sun sets. Even without the glowing orange sky, the beauty of being on the edge of the world, the taste of salt on my lips and the caress of the waves would have made the trek worthwhile. I have never become a better surfer by standing on the sand; I will never learn to ride this board if unwilling to wipe out trying. I stride home, beating the dark.

#25: I paddle out with a friend at Ocean Beach, San Francisco. It’s micro – my hair doesn’t even get wet and I’m on the outside. This is an unfamiliar Ocean Beach, a welcome respite from the usual effort the place demands. I’m on a borrowed 7’4″ that works like magic. I want a new board, I think. Like this. I need a new board like this. My 7’6″ is slow and and the 7’5″ is battered and I am due for a new board that paddles well and responds quickly and whose deck is unmarred by patch jobs. Not that I can afford such a thing at the moment. I have been spending my money wrong, I realize (again). I have been spending my time wrong. Why do I do anything other than take every extra minute of my day paddling around and catching waves? Especially when the conditions are so very sweet and easy like this? My friend had only time for a quick surf – he had to get to an appointment. When he mentioned that as we were changing into our wetsuits in his garage, I said, “No problem! I have a lot to do anyway.” After half an hour, when he had to go and he said I could stay out with his board as long as I wanted, I said, “Yes. Yes. Thank you.” And I stayed out until my arms and knees said, “Enough!” and then I went in, grinning and laughing because the day was so beautiful.

#26: Back home, back to the lefts, back to a knot of people angling for position. But everyone took turns and so some of the bumpy, bowly waves were mine. I happened to be nicely placed when a set came and paddled into a wave late, made it – a 21-year-old complimented me on my “sick drop,” which is not a thing I normally hear, so – bonus! After riding a wave till its conclusion, I noticed a beginner paddling and paddling in the triangle of doom. “Are you trying to get in or out?” I asked him. “I’m trying to catch a wave,” he said. I explained he needed to paddle parallel away from the jetty or he’d end up in the channel. He thanked me and angled in that direction. This thing people do – put themselves in the ocean without understanding – frustrates me. I stifled my further desire to advise him, but kept a bit of an eye out in case he needed help. By the time I went in, he’d given up, gotten out. I drove home.


surf sessions #17, #18, #19, #20, #21

Five times in seven days and I remember this was the life I wanted.


Thoughts prompted:

Oh, this is fun.

I should probably sell my car. Do you know how many boards and board bags and trips I could take if I didn’t have car payments?


Seriously, I need to reconfigure my life.

It’s so beautiful.

It’s so beautiful.

It’s so beautiful.


The ocean glassed out for a solid week. The waves were small, mostly only about shoulder-high on the sets, tiny on the final session of this bliss streak. The ocean floor glittered, bait fish leapt, pelicans dove, seals popped their heads out like ocean labradors waiting for an ear to be scritched. (Don’t actually pet the seals.)


Of those five days, the highlights:

A morning surfing my favorite break with just a few friends while it worked like the magic carousel it occasionally can be.


Walking out from my house with my 2013 birthday board tucked under my arm and catching waves in front of my house.

The photo Bobby took from that session of me wiping out; I’d pearled badly and he caught me upside out, legs sticking up out of the top of the breaking wave like a sad cartoon.

Reliving a magical July from eight years ago, when the ocean stayed small and glassy for an even longer chunk of time and we took the Nick and Kaylee out almost daily. They were little then, eight and 10, just learning to surf, and giddy with the delight of it. I would have surfed elsewhere this day, but a friend called, saying his own 8-year-old wanted to go surfing and where should they go? I thought about it, what the swell had been doing, how the bar was working, and said, You know, I think this spot could work. No promises. It could be flat. And it’ll almost definitely be too small for adults.

I did them right. When I showed up, they were already suited – her in Kaylee’s hand-me-down wetsuit – and in the water, knee-high waves peeling left and right through the ocean smooth as a lake. I grabbed my camera and skipped out to water’s edge just as my friend pushed his daughter into one of those bitty swells. She clambered to her feet, thrust her arms out and rode down the line, grinned etched on her face, as my friend whooped and I shot photos (“Ah! I’m capturing this for them, yes!) and a surfer parked on the beach honked in enthusiasm. Everything was as it should be in the world for a few fine moments.

Stoke, exemplified.

Stoke, exemplified.

And then it stayed fine. I joined my friends in the water (at an all-time high of 61 degrees) and the waves were almost definitely too small, but had just enough to them for us adult types to goof around. I noticed two boys playing up the beach slightly while their folks sat on the beach next to a parked quad and a BBQ. I told them about the couple extra boards in the back of my truck. “You can grab them if you want.” They wanted. The younger caught whitewater on his belly, the older tried to stand up, they held on to those boards for at least an hour, their fun made exponential. When I emerged from the ocean and returned to my truck, they ran over to thank me. They were from Redding, they said, where there’s no ocean.

My heart brimmed with joy from this day. I swear, I didn’t even need the 4WD as I drove away – my lightness of spirit lifted my truck right off the sand as we made our way off the beach.

And I remember this is the life I have.


surf sessions #15, #16

wetsuit in the tree = good

wetsuit in the tree = good

#15: Oh, man, the waves were terrible. Seriously. If not the worst I’ve paddled out into, at least close. But I hadn’t surfed in weeks and the air was 68 degrees and the sun was baking the peninsula and I said I’m going. I’m going no matter what. So I did. And it was wonderful. I mean, it was terrible, the waves part, but being in the ocean, paddling, getting smacked around by overhead closeouts – I was reminded of how stupid fun being in the ocean can be. Even when the waves are terrible. The post-session bliss lingered for hours.

#16: I took out a friend who wants to learn to surf, got my truck stuck for a minute while trying to show him around – embarrassing – decided that was probably as valid a reason to choose the spot we were at as any. Waist-high peaks looked inviting. Unfortunately they lacked enough energy at first to make catching them easy. As the tide filled in, however, a nice little (and I do mean little) right started to corner up. I hopped on the carousel and smiled in the sunshine. My friend paddled around, caught some whitewater, practiced standing, practiced reading the ocean – the latter, I explained to him afterwards, is key. Seeing the currents, the peaks, gaining an understanding of how it all works, knowing conditions can change on a dime so that everything you think you know is accurate one second and wrong the next – that’s the head part of surfing. Once you begin to grasp that, you find yourself better able to feed your soul.

surf session #14; intent does not mitigate impact

impact > intent

impact > intent (file photo)

It was exactly the way I like it: a user-friendly, uncrowded wave machine. I caught many, I fell off none. I want a hundred more days like that, please. Wait – I did wipe out once. Oh, yeah. Late takeoff, thought I’d made it, pressing my weight into the tail to keep from pearling – well, that was my intent. But my timing was off and the nose caught and wham! I tumbled off the board into the impact zone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between what we mean to have happen and what actually happens.

When the action at hand is physical, the gulf between intent and impact is obvious, and it’s the latter we judge success or failure by.

But when it comes to words, people often emphasize intention as a way to minimize or excuse effect: “I didn’t mean – .”

This comes up in online conversations about sexism and racism, but I hadn’t thought about how intent/impact work in interpersonal relationships until the subject came up in a communication workshop a couple months ago and smacked me in that hard way sometimes obvious truths do.

Because I’ve definitely been guilty of saying something that turns out to be hurtful to someone else and, instead of apologizing, pulled out the “That’s not at all what I intended” defense. Lots of people do this. I’ve also been on the other side, trying to explain how what someone did caused me grief, only to be told, “Only a jerk would intend to hurt you. I’m not a jerk. So if you’re hurt, that’s not my fault.”

Of course this is how we react – we’re all, as my friend would say, the protagonists in our own stories. I definitely prefer the narrative in which I am a kind person who would never thoughtlessly wound another person. So if someone offers evidence to the contrary, what am I supposed to do? Accept that I might have actually been selfish, uncaring, malicious, etc.? I think not!

The problem with this self-defensive approach is: 1.) it keeps the conversation all about me instead of the person who is hurting; 2.) it ignores the actual effect.

Uncomfortable admission: I was recently called out on this.  A while back, several of us were standing around chatting in the bar and a friend of mine mentioned a friend of hers that I’d recently had a bad professional experience with. “Oh, that guy,” I steamrolled in, “I’m not happy with him, no, not happy at all.” I complained for another minute – or two or five – wrapping up with a shake of my head and a sigh. From my point of view, just some reactive and reasonable venting. From hers, I’d embarrassed her by directing my animosity in her direction in front of everyone else.

I truly did not mean to upset her. But she truly was upset, as she let me know a few weeks later when we happened to see each other passing on the street. I felt terrible. I should have immediately said, “Wow, I am so sorry that I behaved in a way that caused you to feel bad.” I should have acknowledged that my ranting was inappropriate. Eventually I apologized properly, but my first reaction was the “Sorry, but I didn’t mean – ” approach.

And I have been on the other side, wanting an apology, wanting things to be made right, and the conversation ricochets around to how can I take things so opposite of how they’re intended? It’s tough to defend yourself against accusations of being too sensitive – how does one respond to, “You’re so easily offended?” without either negating one’s own feelings or validating the accuser? I don’t know. I’m good at self-reflection and lousy at fighting, so I always lose the argument.

But I think about it like this: If we were to barrel around a corner and crash into another person, knocking them to the ground, for most of us, the instinctive response would be, “Oh! Sorry! Are you okay?” Is it really such a stretch to do the same when we inadvertently hurt someone with our words or notice our actions have consequences we didn’t expect?

It shouldn’t be. And maybe the next time, we’ll be better about watching where we’re going.

surf sessions #12, #13: Shelter Cove, Bandon

(If you haven’t read Ryan Burns’ story on Shelter Cove, please do that now. It’s well worth the scrolling.)


#12: I found myself paddling out at Deadman’s for the third, maybe fourth time. I haven’t spent much time at the Cove, just a taste here and there. It’s the kind of place that even if one isn’t catching waves, to be in the water, with that view, is enough to make you believe in a benevolent universe. And then a set comes, that south swell rolling in all burly and spitting, and you think you’re going to get epic and instead you catch a rail and get smashed into the bottom and your husband’s going to be annoyed that, once again, you’ve dinged up his board, but jesus, what a view.


#13: I’d never surfed in Oregon before, so what fine luck to be invited to a house on the beach with a surf break right in front. Rights, even. We marched over the morass of velellas, plunged into the 49 degree water, angled into what looked like a channel along the rocks, paddled through the oncoming sets and eventually reached the outside.

I love California, am loyal to the Golden State, but the way Oregon’s coastline sweeps around, jagged seastacks and rugged cliffs, never fails to impress. A fine place to wait for a wave. After a few false starts, I dialed in the takeoff spot and caught a fine right that held up long enough for me to think, “This is great!”

It was great, great enough that despite the remainder of my attempts resulting in failure – the waves started pitching and I’d paddled out on my longboard and couldn’t make the drops adequately, wiped out repeatedly, found myself freezing and over it a mere 45 minutes into the session – that the experience felt like a success. 

surf session #11


yellow sand verbena, a nice break from the trash

Hard to tell which I’m doing less of – writing or surfing. Definitely not doing much writing about surfing. Here I am, trying to remember a week later when it was that I surfed. Before the horrible north wind came up. (Yes, yes, I know, the wind does some good things and is not wholly horrible outside of making what would be a lovely sunny day miserable and junking up the waves.)

So, yes – I surfed for the 11th time this year. Eleven out of 122. But eventually summer will kick in for real, the wind will die down and elation will be an emotion I familiarize myself with once again. I’m committed.

The water temp had dropped to 49, too much cold for my weathered wetsuit to keep out. I paddled around constantly to keep my legs and arms from stiffening up. What was warm was the vibe – older and newer friends floated in the lineup, catching up and grinning at the day. A few sets excited us, made us think the place was going to turn on as the tide dropped, but the waves ended up mushing out more often than not. I caught a few, had a nice time, finally gave in to the cold and returned to shore.

The sharper story revolves around a day I didn’t go surfing, couldn’t go, because I had beach cleanup duties for Surfrider and the NEC. I trekked along Old Navy Base Road, around the Samoa boat ramp, picking up plastic bits and cigarette butts while truck after truck zipped by, loaded with boards and a sense of anticipation. Bitterness swept through me – “Goddamn it,” I thought. “How many times have I been unable to go surfing because I’m doing something for Surfrider? Way too many. No one even cares. Why am I doing this? I’m resigning the second I get home. Next time someone calls about access issues or trash or organizing a benefit or whatever, I’ll tell them, ‘Not my problem.’I t’s going to feel so good.”

But the time I returned home, the burnout had faded and I’d pep-talked myself back into sticking with Surfrider until October, a perfect time for elections as it would mark the seventh anniversary of the chapter’s reconstitution. Apathy had led to the chapter fading before and I can’t let that happen again. I think about Glenn, his passion for surfing and rightness, how he influenced me to be better, smarter, have more fun, both in the water and out. We brought the chapter back largely in honor of him and as a way to funnel some of the sadness over losing him into a positive force for good. Like he was.

So on we go.

surf session #8


This is the difference between a surfer and me: A surfer would have brought her board and wetsuit to Point Arena, no second thought about it. The board and tub would have been the first things to the car. In contrast, I worried about how much more complicated hauling stuff down would make an already logistically challenging trip. My car isn’t set up for loading a board and we didn’t have enough room for a surf tub. Given that Bobby was dropping me off in San Francisco, then driving to Santa Barbara before heading back to Humboldt, how would it work to drag a board along? Oh, forget it. The waves will probably be too heavy anyway.

They were not too heavy. What it was, was overhead rights with an easy takeoff – my idea of perfect fun. I watched from the end of the pier, my disappointment in myself magnifying with each enviable ride. Later, other entertainment would distract me – the usual food and wine and whiskey mixed in with shooting pool (badly) and sliding dollars into the jukebox (expertly).

We left for Bolinas in the morning and it was in that odd mix of a town that I was offered a bit of redemption in the form of a borrowed longboard and a rented wetsuit.


Bolinas reminded me of North County San Diego – cute and beachy and everyone surfs – if you took some rural Oregon town full of grizzled, cranky oldtimers – and smushed the two places together. Half the people look ready for a bar fight and the other half probably had probiotic yogurt for breakfast. (Note: I love the yogurt. Also, bars.) My friend Leila took me to 2 Mile Surf Shop, where the owner said, No more rentals today, trying to get out of here.


What? No! You have to rent me a suit, I said. What if I bring it back in the morning?

Sure, he said. Booties, too?

Yes, please.

IMG_8455Twenty-five dollars and twenty minutes later, we were paddling out. From the surf shop, the road slopes down to the sand, Stinson Beach to the south, crumbling sea walls and bluffs to the north. Graffiti adorns nearly all the concrete surfaces – most of it is charming, celebratory of Bolinas’ uniqueness, with an overall theme of, Be Cool. A twist of the neck revealed San Francisco’s Twin Peaks tower standing tall in the distance.

About a million surfers dotted the water and yet, somehow, enough room existed for everyone. The waves were waist-to-chest high and mushy, at least user-friendly if not thrilling, and being in the water felt, as it does, like coming home.

Leila said, Maybe a couple more waves, then she’d probably go in.

I nodded, Sure. We’d been out for over an hour and I am supposed to be babying my shoulder – not that these easy waves and near-effortless paddle-out were straining it much. A set came, one of the nicest of the day, and I happened to be positioned just right. The wave took me to the beach, a few-hundred yards of gleeful maneuvering down the face, sunshine in my hair, in my heart.

surf sessions #6, #7

#6: Wow, it’s crowded.

#7: At least it’s not crowded.

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