I have started this thing about a hundred times and just couldn’t finish it. Everything is just so hard to write about. So Miles turned one two Sundays ago and rather than trying to sum it all up in one post, I am going to deal with it in a weird, round-about way; in other words, my regular way. So this post is front loaded with two Miles’ videos with two of his latest tricks followed by a long meandering story I worked on for a class this summer that probably needs to be edited again but, oh well. So, without further ado:
Miles doing this thing (he only had fruit and vegetables for dinner…and some coffee):
Shannon and I have been working hard on developing his vocabulary. I have been trying to teach him Ma-ma. I thought it would be a nice surprise and reward for Shannon to hear his first words be calling at her name. Shannon wanted Miles to say ‘uh-oh,’ obviously to make him not only notice his every mistake, but point it out loudly. ‘Uh-oh’ came first:
So without further ado, a long, meandering story in honor of our time in Wilmington. I will explain all this once I finish loading the video from Miles’ party…around 2013.
Learning to surf
For my thirtieth birthday my wife got me surfing lessons. It had been a busy year and she figured it would be an ideal gift to celebrate our new home. We had moved from Northern Kentucky, where our family and friends were, to Wilmington, North Carolina. I had gotten my first full time teaching position at a community college in Jacksonville. We had bought our first house together. We had made new friends. We had made money. We lived close to the beach. It was idyllic and liberating in many ways. I wanted to surf.
Shannon (my wife) went to a nearby surf shop to ask about lessons and the owner, whose name escapes me, offered to take me out for a two-hour lesson. So one beautiful October day after class I met the owner of the surf shop for my first surfing lesson. The guy was a walking, surfing stereotype. He had long hair, a scraggly beard, a tan that must have caused a doctor or two to tell him he needed to be careful or he was going to get skin cancer and a vocabulary that utilized words like ‘gnarly’ and ‘stoked’ un-ironically. He was very excited to teach me to surf and I was glad to have such an enthusiastic if silly teacher.
Meeting with him at his shop, I could already tell there were definitive perks to being a stereotypical surfer. One of his constant refrains was “No worries, dude.” He owned a surf shop close to the beach. No worries. He traveled every winter to Hawaii and crashed with friends so he could partake in 6-hour surfing sessions. No worries. It was my first time surfing. No worries.
I, on the other hand, worry about everything. I was palpably excited to walk on campus for my first day that past January. To my mind, it was the realization of everything I had been working for: a real office, my own classroom, and the ability to set the direction of the art program. However my perception of things had changed slowly over the past ten months. My new school was 3.5 miles from Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine base on the East coast. The conservative, militaristic ideals of the town were reflected in the community college where I worked. My boss, while seemingly initially supportive, was not an artist, had never taken a studio art class and had definite opinions on what the students should and should not make in class as well as what they should and should not see from other artists. What I had initially been so proud of had quickly started to feel like something I might need to escape sooner than later. Did I make a mistake? Was I going to be happy here? I chose to focus on the positive. Nothing is perfect after all, but this could still be good.
Anyway, the surfing guru and I carried a scuffed up long board out of the shop to his truck, strapped it up top and hopped in while he cranked Bob Marley on the stereo. He was taking me to Figure Eight Island, the closest beach to the surf shop. This was exciting. Figure Eight is a private island that I had never been able to visit. While living in Wilmington I had heard that everyone from John Edwards to Michael Jordan had homes out there. There was a guarded drawbridge where you had to show a pass to even get on the island. I suppose this was to keep the riff-raff out.
“How did you get a pass? Do you live out here?”
“No way, dude! You know Quinn Snyder?”
“The Missouri basketball coach?”
“That’s my boy! He’s been stayin’ out here all summer and I’ve been teaching him to surf. Traded my services for this pass. Gnarley, right?”
I know this sounds like a stereotype, like I am utilizing this guy as a straw man, but I swear, swear, on my own life that he spoke like this. I watched him all day with a cocked eye, waiting for him to break character, but this is really who he is.
“That is pretty great. Does anyone else out here surf?”
“No one, dude. We have the beach all to ourselves. The swells are nice too. Good place to learn. You work out or anything?”
“I lift weights a little bit, but I am more of a distance runner.”
“Like marathons and shit?”
“I have run a couple of marathons, a few half marathons and a lot of 10K races. So I try to run about five to six days a week.”
“You’re gonna be sore as shit tomorrow dude.”
“Surfing uses muscles you never knew you had. Surfin’ kicks your ass. “
I didn’t want to doubt him, but I kind of doubted him. I was in pretty good shape. I had no doubts that what he was saying was true about surfing using muscles I don’t normally use, but I run a lot. Cardiovascularly I would be fine, just maybe a little sore in my shoulders or back.
We arrived on the island full of beachfront mansions, just as I imagined it would be, and my surfing teacher parked in some random front yard. We hopped out; he wrapped a towel around his waste and pulled out his swimming suit from the back of the jeep. He effortlessly changed out of his work shorts and into his swimming gear (he had some name for swim trunks, not board shorts but something like that- surfing has a lingo for sure). He threw me a shirt to wear and grabbed another for himself, snagged the board of the top of the jeep and marched down through the side yard to the beach with me following him. As we walked, he imparted wisdom about surfing.
“You’ve got to practice the pop-up. That’s the hardest part for newbies…they pop-up in the wrong place, put too much weight on the wrong foot and then your fuckin’ toast. You ever skate?”
“Yeah, but it has been a while.”
“The shifting of the weight works a lot in the same way. You put your weight forward, you haul ass. Your weight goes back and you slow down. Rookies put too much weight up front at the beginning and then you bite it. You’re gonna drink about ten gallons of salt water today. No worries. We’ll practice on the beach first. It’s all balance, dude…like life.”
He threw the board and a towel on the sand close to the water. The front of the board pointed towards the ocean. He pushed its fins forcefully into the sand to keep it from wobbling around. Then he lay on top of it and began to demonstrate the movements.
“You’ll paddle out on your stomach and then spin so you can sit on the board parallel to the waves while you watch for a good one. I’ll help you at first, so don’t worry dude. Then, when we spot a good one, you’ll spin the board, point towards the beach and paddle like fuckin’ crazy. Most rooks don’t paddle hard enough, remember that. You’ll feel the wave start to push, you’ll arch your back and ‘Bam!’ you’ll pop up with your feet here and here.”
He had just popped up, gracefully and planted his feet in the center of the board with his front foot slightly pointed ahead and his back foot perpendicular to the length of the board.
“Can you show me again?”
“No worries, dude.”
He went through the explanation again, almost repeating the exact cadence and word choice as before. When he popped up, his feet landed in the exact same spot. It was a little uncanny.
“One more time?”
“Yeah, but dude, don’t be scared. It’s a feel thing.”
He did it again and again his feet were perfect. I understood what he meant about the feel of something. Teaching drawing to people who had never drawn before, I often used the same words to describe the process. Everything feels awkward at the beginning until you have practiced so much that is becomes natural. It’s also like tennis. You hit several thousand western grip forehands cross-court and eventually you don’t have to think about it any more.
He had me switch places with him and I tried to follow along with his instructions. Naturally I was all over the place, losing my balance and planting my feet in the wrong spots. We practiced popping up about ten times and then he deemed me ready to go for real.
One of the amazing things about Wilmington North Carolina is that the water stays warm well into October. The tourists leave town after Labor Day giving the locals a solid two months of relatively empty beaches to relax on. I have been in the water as late as December. That October day, the water was still in the high seventies and felt warmer than the air. There was the nice, offset sunlight of a fall afternoon. It was amazing wading out there with the board and my new guru.
The first shock was just how well the board floats. I had the surfing strap thingy (sorry for being so technical here) wrapped around my ankle and the board was floating to my side when the first wave passed by and ripped the board right out of my hands.
“Whoa. That’s crazy.”
“Yeah dude. Just drag it behind you until we get a bit deeper.”
When we got out past our waist, he had me hop on the board. In my mind, I looked professional. The waves of the East coast aren’t anything special, usually not more than three feet high. They tend to come in short sequence, much different than the gradual, huge building of the West coast waves. I was floating and rolling with the waves, up and down and side to side.
“I’m gonna help you with this for a bit. I’ll hold the back of the board and when I say paddle, you paddle. Then when I say ‘Pop,’ you pop. Got it?”
The first wave came and I was off. I heard the ‘pop’ command and tried to mimic what we had practiced on the beach just five minutes before. I fell off to the side almost immediately, drinking my first ocean water of the day.
“Not bad for a first try. You were just a little off center when you popped.”
I was rolling on the board again as we waited for the next wave. We repeated everything like before and this time, when I popped up, I was on center. I was also a little too far forward and rocketed off the front of board like a car had hit me, crashing into to ocean floor.
“I’m not gonna lie. That one hurt a little bit.”
“Yeah, you were too far forward. Good line, but keep your weight centered.”
We went again, waiting, the board rolling and pitching, and then I paddle, pop, and….holy shit, I was up and riding an actual wave! The wave petered out and I jumped off the board to the side of it.
“HOLY SHIT DUDE! YOU HAVE GOTTA BE STOKED ABOUT THAT!”
“It felt pretty great. Let’s do it again.”
“Third try and your surfing! Fuckin’ prodigy right here!”
I laughed and felt embarrassed. This was going pretty great though. We repeated the cycle a dozen to fifteen times. Each time I would wait, pitching and rolling on the board while my friend shouted directions at me. He began to push less and less. Sometimes I stayed on and rode a wave; sometimes I ate it, hard. In between we talked about the boards I could buy, the wetsuit I would need to surf in the winter when the East coast waves were best, the inevitable trip out west to ride some serious waves. I was home.
Things got weird, though, after being on the water for about an hour. With every passing minute I was feeling shorter of breadth and just…well…off. I fought through the feeling for another fifteen minutes and I mentioned this to my friend.
“I don’t know dude, I just am feeling a little weird.”
“Told you surfing would kick your ass.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I just can’t seem to catch my breath.”
“Surfin’ puts you if a different kind of shape. It ain’t runnin’.”
“I guess you’re right…I think I am done.”
I was embarrassed. I felt like a failure, like I hadn’t lived up to my own expectations. I rode one last wave in and he grabbed the board and rode a wave himself. I was still feeling like hell, but it was really impressive to see what he could do on this surfboard. He was up quickly on a small swell, cutting back and pumping the board to go faster and faster until he rode all the way into the shore.
“Don’t worry dude. You still have some time left on your lesson. We can come back out again later in the week for the rest of your time. “
I was feeling worse and worse by the minute and I couldn’t figure out what was happening to me. I couldn’t believe I felt this bad and that I was this wrong about how in-shape I was. We walked back to the truck; he changed and was loading up the board when it began. I vomited right beside the car.
“It happens dude, you swallowed a lot of salt water. Feel better?”
“Not really…maybe a little…I don’t know.”
“You’ll be ok.”
We piled into the jeep and I hung my head out the window like a dog heading to the vet. We drove about three minutes and right before the bridge I said, “Can you stop?” I puked again. What the hell is wrong with me?
I flashed back to the summer of my sophomore year in college when I was on vacation with my family in Florida. We decided to try deep-sea fishing for the day and my dad, my sister and I along with my college roommate and his two brothers charted an eight-hour excursion. My sister got seasick forty minutes into the trip and was miserable the rest of the day. I lasted maybe an hour and alternated between passing out and vomiting. When we pulled into the harbor I was never happier to see land in my entire life.
“I think I might be sea sick.”
“Those waves weren’t that big, dude.”
All that pitching and rolling…that goddamn buoyant board…I made it from the bridge to the parking lot of the surf shop before puking again. My friend asked if I wanted to come in to the shop to see some boards.
“Not right now.”
“Dude, stop by later in the week and we’ll figure out another time to go out again.”
“Yeah, alright, thanks.”
“You did good, dude.”
He walked to the shop as I stumbled to my car. I puked again. I made the five-minute drive to my house before stopping at the front of the neighborhood to vomit again; and again in the front bushes of our new house. I hopped in the shower to clean up and got sick again. Finally I got dressed and collapsed by the toilet.
I was by the toilet when my wife got home from work. She was eager to hear how the lesson went and about how much fun I had. She thought, like me, that this would be perfect. She called my name, wondering where I was. When I called back to her letting her know I was in the bathroom she arrived in the doorway with concerned but hopeful look in her eye.
“How was it?”
“Nothing like I thought it would be.”