Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Birthday Surf

A few days ago, on the eve of what would have been his 38th birthday, I surfed one of Bob’s favorite waves. I almost drove past the exit. I didn’t think the waves would be worth the extra forty minutes of driving. It’s a long way down that quasi peninsula and a longer way back if you get skunked. At the last second, I decided to risk it. I had fallen prey to a few minor injustices that day. I deserved forty minutes of wasted time. I don’t have kids. My wife was still at work. I’m a writer and a surfer for Christ’s sake! I hoard time and then I squander it. Furthermore, I’ve spent forty minutes listening to my mother cry about loneliness. I’ve spent forty minutes gossiping about the latent sexual preferences of certain friends. On my most vainglorious days, I’ll spend forty minutes browsing a certain website that features older women with profound cleavages who wear glasses. Yeah, most of time I’m a total waste, period.

I had nothing to lose. Nowhere to be. I was done teaching for the day. In both of my narrative design classes, I had discussed Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with my Father.” It’s about an author who tells her dying father a final story. He wants a simple plot with recognizable characters. She can’t do it. She despises the absolute line between two points. All plots lead to death, and even worse, they take away all hope. Her father is literally taking his last breaths. She won’t look tragedy in the face. I’m a New England surfer and a scarcely published author. Hope is a four-letter word. Tragedy is my smutty bedfellow.

On the bright side, campus and waves are only one highway exit apart. How’s that for Point A to Point B? It’s a dreamy twenty-minute drive from the exit ramp to the beach. The road runs alongside a wide tidal strait. There are more stonewalls to consider than found in all of Robert Frost’s poems. Farmland and rolling fields. Hay bales and cows. It’s the kind of landscape that tricks you into thinking the world is boundless and full of hope, but I knew that the waves wouldn’t be good. The winds were northeast at 30 knots. There’s only one spot that can handle that type of wind, but the swell had too much east in it and the tide was coming up. I put on some Bill Evans and prepared myself for tragedy. I thought about Bob and how much time that son-of-a-bitch wasted making mixed tapes, surfing shitty waves, and/or drawing on seashells and rocks with magic markers. Everybody gave him grief for it, but they were all jealous. Every single goddamn one of them. In this regards, he was the bravest soul I knew.

Birthdays are egocentric and ultimately depressing. Like I said, I don’t have kids and my wife lets me surf whenever I want. Therefore, everyday is my birthday. I’m free to surf, write, and squander. The downside of this is that I am free to ponder my significance on a daily basis. It’s excruciating work. Perhaps the hardest thing a person can do. Most surfers feel rewarded when there are waves on their birthday. When there are waves on my birthday I feel like a spoiled brat. I feel like a cruel joke, which is why I look forward to Bob’s birthday. His untimely death justifies my wasting time. He’d be doing the same thing, and he had two kids, a wife, and a struggling business. He was my brother in arms. Together, he and I killed time surfing some of New England’s most pathetic waves. We dropped bombs on time. We nuked it. We kicked it in the face and stabbed it with bayonets. It was my duty to honor my fallen brother by wasting a few hours of my life on his birthday.

I pulled up to the break. There were six cars parked alongside the private road. Despite the cliché, misery does not love company. The only thing worse than surfing crappy waves is surfing crappy waves with other wastoids. I didn’t bother checking the waves before suiting up. I grabbed my fish and headed across the cow pasture towards the path leading down to the beach. The wind was blowing so hard that it nearly ripped my board from underneath my arm. I ignored the symbolism. Nothing was going to stop me from wasting time. I didn’t feel bad for myself. I didn’t feel bad for Bob. He’d lived the good life and I was following in his footsteps.

The ocean didn’t disappoint my disappointment. There were six guys and not a ripple in sight. To make matters worse, one of the guys was a stand-up paddle boarder. The wind blew so hard offshore that it sent small swells back out to sea. I didn’t wait to see a set. I paddled straight out. It was painstakingly small and inconsistent, a perfect session to commemorate Bob’s legacy of waste. I caught a few meager bumps and pulled off a few slow and flowy turns. One particular lull lasted almost ten full minutes. It was turning out to be the perfect pity party.

Then something semi-miraculous occurred. A somewhat respectable set approached. At its best, the spot is a long sweeping left with almond-shaped barrels. The approaching set was forming into a microcosmic version of that. I paddled over the first wave and spun around for the second. The stand-up paddle boarder was taking off deep, too deep. I went. The wind was howling against the wave. I picked a line and trimmed in perfect sync with the racing, chest-high lip. When the wave slowed a bit, I drew out a big bottom turn and carved a tight and powerful hook into the pocket. I repeated the process a second time. After my second turn, I plopped down to my stomach and enjoyed a long belly-ride to the beach. Further down the line, the stand-up paddle board bounced around in the foam. In the grand scheme of things, it was a fantastically mediocre ride, as good as life gets for the average person. It felt like blowing out the candles of Bob’s birthday cake.

I returned to my car and slowly changed out of my wetsuit. I stood half naked in the street letting the hostile breeze saturate my wet skin. I took a nice long piss into a rusty hydrangea. On the way home, I drove as slow as I could. I noticed each turning leave. I cherished the lichen patterns on every stone of every rock wall. I stopped and got a coffee at a place that roasts its own beans. The sights and smells. I savored it all! I wasted the rest of the day appreciating the smallest things that the physical world has to offer. I was smaller than all of it. I am too small to fail. I am too insignificant to count. I waste so much time even the dead envy me.

According to Grace Paley, the problem with writing stories is that characters start out fantastic but end up being average with a good education. Sometimes, however, it’s the opposite. A person is a dumb innocent who outwits you, and you can’t think of an ending good enough for them. There was no ending good enough for Bob, and that is far from being a tragedy. That dilly-dallying slacker outwitted all of us. He died young and avoided the fate of Point A to Point B.