Get in the van

One of my favorite photos of myself, taken in 1989.

One of my favorite photos of myself, taken in 1989.

One by one we arrived in the parking lot, each giddy with dreams of walking in OMG Wes Laine’s footsteps. The 1989 Association of Surfing Professionals East Coast Tour was kicking off the next day in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Ten of us piled inside the WRV van comandeered by OMG himself. We had no clue where we were staying when we got there, but trivial details didn’t matter. We were pro surfers* heading into battle.

The trip went something like this:

Wes: “Gimme your gas money.”
One of us: “I gotta pee.”
Wes: “We don’t stop.”
One of us: “I’m hungry.”
Wes: “We eat at the Georgia Pig.”
One of us: “But that’s three states away.”
Wes: “Sit back and shut up.”

Twelve hours later, we pulled up at the home of the Rip Curl sales rep in Smyrna. “I’m staying here,” OMG announced. “I don’t know where you guys are staying.” In half a day, he’d gone from being our hero to Sergeant Dick**.

He got out and grabbed his bag, and we all looked at each other and considered our options. We could sleep in the van, which would be a sardine tin sauna full of sausage and no-see-ums, or… The van emptied in a flash and we stood behind Sarge like a pitiful gang of orphans from a Dickens novel. Luckily, the guy who opened the door, Larry Glenn, happened to be the nicest guy in the world. Maybe he couldn’t see all of us hiding behind Sarge, but he said, “Come on in,” a line he’d later regret.

A typical day at New Smyrna, where you can get a speeding ticket for going 15 mph.

A typical day at New Smyrna, where you can get a speeding ticket for going 15 mph.

The waves were knee high at best, and the Floridians were in their element. They looked like an army of crispy gymnasts with sun-bleached mops, skipping and snapping across the ankle biters. We were pale and doughy after a winter stuffed inside thick wetsuits. We felt like Katniss Everdeen showing up for training in The Capitol and being thrown into heats with “Careers” like Kechele, Rudolph, Kuhn, and McCranels. Oh, and a kid named Slater. We hid behind Sergeant Dick.

Needless to say, other than Sarge, we got slaughtered. None of us survived the first day of competition. The only thing I remember was an incident during the morning freesurf. I knew Kelly from Easterns and a trip to California with the ESA All-Stars. Anyway, I caught a tiny right, and Kelly thought it’d be funny to belly ride in front of me. I thought it’d be funny to jump on his back, feet first.

Yeah, umm, not that funny. He came up screaming and clutching his back in agony. He limped up the beach and I thought, Great, I’ve killed Kelly. Turns out he was fine and would’ve won the contest if not for an interference call in the quarterfinals.

Kelly needed one of his fans to hold him up after our incident in the water.

Kelly needed one of his fans to hold him up after our incident in the water.

That night, our whole crew went to a Mexican joint in town, Clancy’s Cantina. After several pitchers, we yanked sombreros and guitars off the walls and formed our own impromptu mariachi band. When the bill came, we each tossed a wad of ones on the table, leaving the saintly Larry Glenn to cover the deficit.

Pulling up to Larry’s house afterwards, we found there was nowhere to park. Cars were everywhere, reminding us that we’d been telling people all day at the beach, “Party at Larry Glenn’s tonight.” We’d forgotten, and we’d forgotten to tell Larry. People were inside the house, outside the house, in the hot tub, and hanging from chandeliers. Even kid Kelly was there, not so much to party but to crash on the sofa. Larry should have kicked our asses to the curb, but I think he liked the excitement.

We all felt like crap the next day, partly from drinking and partly for how we’d treated Larry. We sat in the van the entire day to avoid the sun and to wait for Sargeant Dick to lose, which he finally did just prior to the final. We pulled off the sand and onto I-95 for another 12-hour drive.

On the way home, one of our gang, Jeff Hunter, had to pee, and since Sarge wasn’t stopping, Jeff hung it out the vent window at 80 mph. A carload of girls riding alongside us got a heckuva show. To top it off, we later stopped at Stuckey’s for a treat (Wes claimed, “See, I’m not a dick anymore”) and those same girls were sitting inside eating ice cream. To Jeff’s credit, he proudly waved to them and took his place in line.

That was the start of a string of weekend dashes down I-95, each with similar results. We’d lose and sit around waiting for Wes to follow. For some reason, we never stayed at Larry’s again.

Toppling the OMG Wes statue that once stood at 1st Street.

Toppling the OMG Wes statue that once stood at 1st Street.

*Technically I was a pro. My total earnings: $36 from a local contest, $11 if you deduct the $25 entry fee.

**In Wes’ defense, he’d just fallen off the world tour after a stellar career, relegated from planes to Australia for the Bells Easter Classic to a fart-filled van to Florida for the inaugural Platts Spring Surfari. It’s easy to see why the tall guy was short on patience. I still respected his surfing, especially his unmatched Hatteras tuberiding, but he’d fallen hard off his pedestal. He eventually mellowed out, and now we get along great. That might change when he reads this.


Anybody seen a mountain around here?

Advice: 5 cents

Advice: 5 cents

As the story goes, Socrates was kickin’ it in Greece one day, philosophising I suppose, and some dude wandered up and asked him how to get to Mt. Olympus. Socrates was used to far deeper questions, so this was cake. “Make sure every step you take is in that direction,” he replied. You didn’t second guess the wisdom of Socrates; he was like Confucious. Or Google. The wanderer looked around, shrugged, and started walking.

I recently attended a speaking engagement about “going beyond the content” in an effort to inspire students and show them that we care about their future beyond standardized tests. The speaker was wonderful, so much so that I regretted all the bitching I did beforehand about having to go. He suggested sharing the Socrates story with our students and letting them know we’re here to help them reach their Mt. Olympus, whatever that may be.

I asked each to tell me his or her goal and explain what steps they’re taking to get there. Then, one of them asked me, “Mr. B, what’s your Mt. Olympus?” I thought for a minute and said, “Shit, kid, fuck if I know. This is your assignment. Shut the hell up and write before I give you detention.” I guess I told him. But later I started thinking, rubbing the stubble on my chin the way I imagine Socrates would have undertaken such weighty thoughts. The kid stumped me; I had no clue.

Which one of those buildings is Rydell High School?

Which one of those buildings is Rydell High School?

What is my Mt. Olympus? Living on a boat? Sippin’ gin and juice and makin’ it rain with my homies in strip clubs? (I’m kidding, K.) A bungalow on a tropical island? Six pack abs? Growing my own food? Writing? Surfing? We get so caught up in everyday life that we take our eyes off the prize, or at least I do.

I made a goal once, ten years ago. I was in Tahiti reporting on a surf contest, and K flew over to celebrate our tenth anniversary. It rained nearly the entire time, real rain and not the hundred-dollar-bill kind. The only places to stay were with local families, and we rented a room in a soggy, mosquito-infested house with an old lady called Mammy who had elaphantitis and served us fish heads covered with flies. Being anywhere near that house was misery, and we were stuck there for days on end.

As soon as the event ended, we took a ferry over to Moorea, a neighboring island we’d heard was well worth the trip. As we got within sight of the place, we were struck dumb. The blues were bluer than B.B. King on his bluest day ever. We’d never seen anything so beautiful. How much of our bliss was thanks to being anywhere other than Mammy’s and how much was genuine I’m not sure. Either way, we decided right then that we’d live here someday, or in a place like it. We landed back in Norfolk a week later, but the dream must have missed the flight.

Moorea, not the hardest place in the world to look at.

Moorea, not the hardest place in the world to look at.

Is my Mt. Olympus a stunning view with perfect weather? A great job? No job? Spoiling myself? Helping others? I expected my 14-year-old students to know what they wanted out of life, but I’m completely clueless about my own.

Then, since I couldn’t decide, I concluded that having a goal is counterproductive. Too much focus on a goal has the unintended effect of causing us to miss what’s going on around us. Maybe the real goal is to enjoy the ride?

Even without surfing, I feel I have a good grasp of that. I wake up every morning that I’m not working and immediately start plotting the day’s adventure. I see K buried in the computer and realize she’s in her own world. I move on to son #1, who is either snoozing or off skating with bros or galivanting with his lady. I scoot to the daughter, who blows me off with deadly rolled eyes and hops on her bike to snap selfies.

Fortunately, I have the grom. He doesn’t know any better. He still thinks I’m cool. Nevertheless, it takes all my guile to pry him away from whichever screen his eyes are glued to. When no playground within the city limits catches his fancy as much as the Gangnum Style video for the 37,000th time, I’m forced to break out the heavy artillery – promises of slurpees or donuts, which always does the trick.

We bike. We skate. We battle. We explore. We talk about the Native Americans who lived here until we chased them off a few centuries ago. We hunt for aphids to feed his baby praying mantis and examine every plant, tree, and bush within two blocks only to learn from a lady walking her poodle that aphids don’t come around until later in the summer. Poor little Yoda Steve Borte, guess he’ll go another day without food.

We've never met a day we couldn't seize.

We’ve never met a day we couldn’t seize.

We move on to another adventure. We carpe diem. Maybe if I had a Mount Olympus taunting me from afar I would miss these opportunities.

Soon enough, he’ll grow up and discover my lameness and find his own adventures. Then, I’ll have no choice but to confront my destiny. I’ll have to choose my Mt. Olympus. On the other hand, 2014 will be over, and I can just go surfing and let the ocean rinse it all away. Or maybe that’s been the problem all along.

*This post is dedicated to Yoda Steve Borte, a praying mantis who passed before his time. He either starved to death or was cooked because I left him atop the cable box.

please remind me why i’m doing this

"Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time!"

“Now go away, or I shall taunt you a second time!”

May had provided a welcome reprieve. Warm weather. Little to no surf for a couple weeks. Anniversary, birthday, weekend inland with the wifey, afternoons poolside, school’s finish line in my sights – days falling like dominos. As soon as I start to think that not “dropping in” is a breeze, that just living life is plenty, SHE shows up.

My son heads toward the gate carrying my bae. (Just learned that word from my daughter. It stands for “before anyone else” and teens use it to refer to their boyfriend, girlfriend, or bestie.) He could have been walking out with any of my other surfboards, as well as our tv and microwave oven, and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. But this one is different. She’s a 5’2″ Lost “bottom feeder” four-fin, an eggish dream of foam and fiberglass that was nearly the only board I rode all of last year, no matter the conditions. We complete each other, finish one another’s sentences. If I’m not surfing, she’s not surfing.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I ask.

“Josh (his friend) needs to ride it.”

“Not that one. Any other one is fine.”

“He’s not gonna mess it up. If he does, he’ll buy you a new one.”

I watch through misty eyes as he walks out and pushes the gate closed, probably using the tail of my board.

I grumble.

My bae.

My bae.

After a summery string of weather, the Atlantic is no longer an icebath. It’s suddenly inviting. 3/2 fullsuit and no boots, sometimes less. Tourists are filing in. They’re running into the shorebreak wearing shorts, and not sprinting back out screaming.

I knew this day would come, and now it’s here. The bane of my current existence, a warm Saturday with waves.

My son asks, “How good of a day will it take for you to go surfing?”
Strangely, it’s not a good day that worries me. They never live up to expectations.

A fun day, that’s what I think about. It’s a little south swell, the kind of afternoon when you grab some random form of watercraft – a log, a softy, a fat single fin. Even better, an early summer noreaster. Chunky peaks everywhere and nary a soul around. The only time the surf around here opens a can of whoop-ass. I absolutely love paddling into an overhead wedge and having the floor fall out from under me, then free-falling into an underwater spanking and a surprising hold-down.

I know that sounds masochistic, and maybe it is. (I am putting myself through a year of torture after all.) To me, taking a late drop is like riding an epic roller coaster for the first time, only way better because the cost of admission isn’t a mere credit card swipe but lots of paddling and years of wave knowledge and the desire to take the ride even though there’s a good chance you’ll be thrown out of your seat.

As I type from my sofa, the sun is shining and waves are peeling a block away. Fun waves. Relatively warm waves. My bae is back in the shed. She’s surfed this year, and I have not. She’s a bitch. I don’t like her anymore.

It’s not a black thang…yet

Cullen Jones may be the second Olypic swimmer, after Duke Kahanamoku a century ago, to have an impact on surfing.

Cullen Jones may be the second Olypic swimmer, after Duke Kahanamoku a century ago, to have an impact on surfing.

Would it surprise you to hear that the fastest American to ever swim 50 meters is black? I said swim, not run. In a pool. Filled with water. You’re not surprised? Bullshit.

We can’t talk about race these days without someone claiming racism. I’ll take my chances, and I’ll preface this with the fact that Steve Martin isn’t the only white guy who grew up thinking he was born a poor black child. Seriously, ask my mom.

So my question is, if elite swimming is no longer beyond the reach of African Americans, why should surfing be any different? It’s a bit soon to expect a wave-riding Tiger Woods, but why haven’t we at least had a wave-riding Calvin Peete? Like Spike Lee famously asked in Do the Right Thing, I’m asking, “Hey Sal, how come you ain’t got no brothers up on the wall here?”

The answer is hardly a secret. It isn’t racist to note that blacks, more so than people of other races, avoid water. A University of Memphis study from 2010 found that nearly 70% of African-American youths can’t swim, compared to 40% of whites. Furthermore, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, black kids drown three times as often as white kids. The primary reason for these descrepancies, according to the study, is fear. Parents who haven’t learned to swim due to a phobia of water raise children who never learn to swim. It all stems from segregation, but the statute of limitations on that excuse has expired.

Goofing off in 1986 with Cab Spates, a good surfer and now a fixture on the North Shore.

Goofing off in 1986 with Cab Spates, a good surfer and now a fixture on the North Shore.

Why do I care? Teaching thousands of people to ride waves has shown me the transformative qualities of surfing, especially on those beginners who moments earlier could not imagine being able to accomplish such a feat. Learning to surf (after learning to swim, of course) instills a sense of appreciaton and respect for nature. It opens eyes. Plus, I recently watched 12 Years a Slave, and I still have a sick feeling in my stomach.

If you don’t think that a surfing Tiger Woods is possible, Honkey please! Youtube any episode of “Soul Train” and tell me those brothers and sisters couldn’t surf if given the chance. Blacks are in a league of their own as far as rhythmic body movement, and what is a wave but a moving dance floor? Given the lack of rhythm white people demonstrate at wedding receptions on a weekly basis, our aptitude for surfing is a miracle.

So what’s keeping African-Americans from joining the party? You can’t blame it on cost. The only real expense in surfing, once you get to the beach, is a board. I know that a new pair of Jordans runs more than a decent used board. The only barrier is irrational fear, and some have already chiseled away at that make-believe wall.

The Black Surfing Association has existed since the 1970s, Malibu regular Solo Scott was a U.S. Amateur champ in the ’80s, and the late Buttons Kaluhiolokalani, who was every bit as black as Tiger (meaning 50%), had as much talent as any other human on a surfboard. Buttons grew up on the beach at Waikiki, so avoiding the water wasn’t an option.

Buttons Kaluhiolokalani was decades ahead of his time in terms of creativity and spontaneity in surfing.

Buttons Kaluhiolokalani was decades ahead of his time in terms of creativity and spontaneity in surfing.

And what of that swimmer I mentioned, the black guy? His name is Cullen Jones, and he nearly drowned at Dorney Park in Pennsylvania when he was five. His mom, instead of telling him water is dangerous, signed him up for swim lessons. Now, the man is an Olympic champ, and he travels around the country doing the same for other kids.

It used to be that people believed only Polynesian islanders could ride waves. As Mark Twain penned after a miserable Hawaiian failure, “None but the natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.” It wasn’t that we couldn’t surf; we just didn’t surf. Once white dudes realized the ocean wouldn’t swallow their lilly-whites asses whole, they ripped. When Jones’ mission catches on, blacks will realize what they’ve been missing. Then, we’ll see the surfing version of Tiger Woods, and the sport might finally get the mainstream recognition it desires.

Scram, Californians, before it’s too late!

That's my son! A man-turn at 16. Too bad the photog has no skills.

That’s my son! A man-turn at 16. Too bad the photog has no skills.

We live thousands of miles from L.A., but my son’s a California kind of kid – more stylish than others around here, ridiculously good looking, and spoiled. Not spoiled in a “Happy 16th birthday, there’s a new beamer in the driveway” sort of way, but a “the world revolves around you” way. I can’t take credit for the first two traits, but I feel responsible for the last due to years of being his buddy instead of his dad. He’s a perfect fit for SoCal, and he wants to move there for college starting next summer. I don’t get it; the place is too crowded for me. Besides, I’m pretty sure it’s gonna fall into the ocean.

I’ve been convinced of this ever since my family got HBO in 1982 and I sat mesmerized with The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. When Orson Welles assures you that many of this Nostradamus cat’s 16th Century predictions were right on, and that the guy wrote that “there will be a very great earthquake,” and that it may well happen in California, you’re inclined to believe him. When he goes so far as to provide a date, May 10th, and that date happens to be your birthday, the prophesy become etched in your brain forever.

Why would Nozzie go through all the trouble of putting this shit down on parchment if he didn’t really “see” it on the HD plasma ball inside his head? Writing was a pain in the ass in the 1500’s. Office Max wasn’t around, so you had to make your own pen by plucking it from a goose’s ass and then milking a squid to get a saucer full of ink. So duh, the prophesy so obviously must be true.

"Five centuries hence, the world will be filled with idiots who believe all that I profess will come to pass." -Nostradamus

“Five centuries hence, the world will be filled with idiots who believe all that I profess will come to pass.” -Nostradamus

The Big One is coming, and I’m not alone in thinking Cali will be Ground Zero. Lucy Jones, a leading seismologist known as “The Earthquake Lady,” agrees. “Southern California,” she says “is the most likely source for a great earthquake in the United States right now.” The thing that tips me off is the West Coast drought, and 2014 being the driest year since 1850. In my experience, dry stuff cracks. At least that’s the case when my lips are chapped. Plus, the Lakers had an historically awful season, so other historically awful shit is bound to follow.

So let’s say the quake does happen, and a chunk containing Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego goes the way of the Titanic. That means no more Hollywood (Bummer!), no more Sea World (Swim Shamu, you’re free!), and no more In-n-Out Burger (Suicide watch!)

But more importantly, what will we be left with in terms of surfing? The world tour won’t be affected since Southern California has all but fallen off the edge of the earth already in that regard. The major surf mags as well as the bulk of the surf industry will disappear (the parts that haven’t already). All of the old surf spots will be gone, but they should be replaced by new ones. Finally, and most tragically, the city of Hollister will suddenly find itself along the shore, providing the first shred of credibility to the faux surf chain in every mall across America.

This is one way to get the Clippers away from Donald Sterling.

This is one way to get the Clippers away from Donald Sterling.

I know what you’re thinking, that being out of the water has turned me into some sort of doomsday crackpot, that next I’m gonna suggest that the goverment is trying to control our minds by peppering us from above with airplane chemtrails. That’s ridiculous. We have iPhones to handle the task of mind control.

But what about my son? Should I be okay with him heading West? If my calculations are correct, the catastrophic event will have already happened by the time he graduates high school. And that means the crowds will be gone. In which case, I might have to join him.

Balls of Fury, aka Golfensux

When I began searching for a pursuit to fill the void left by surfing this year, the first thing that came to mind was golf, probably because it requires a level of fitness somewhere between curling and poker. After completing my first round of the year (I usually play two rounds annually), I’m extremely confident. That is, in my ability to become a scratch golfer. That is, if being a scratch golfer means scratching golf off my short list of pursuits to fill the void left by surfing.

Golf sucks. I’m not sure how much of that sentiment stems from the fact that I suck at golf, but it has to be a factor. After all, I think aerials suck, mostly because I cannot do them. I wouldn’t say I’ve given myself a decent chance to learn how to do aerials, roughly the same chance I’ve given golf, twice annually. But this isn’t about aerials sucking, because golf sucks a thousand times worse than aerials.

I’ve got some hand-me-down clubs from my father-in-law (who is more than half-a-foot taller than me, so they’re way too big). These clubs reside in a moldy bag that, as you know, only sees the light of day twice annually. These two outings are mostly enjoyable, not because I’m drawing pleasure from shooting a ball in every direction except the one in which I want it to go but 99% because I’m hanging out with my friends and drinking or gambling, or sometimes both.

I know how to hit a golf ball. Unfortunately, I don’t look good doing it. One friend told me I hit the ball like Travis Logie surfs. Logie is a professional, ranked among the world’s elite, but his style is jerky and hard on the eyes. My friend suggested I try to swing more like Joel Parkinson surfs, buttery smooth and visually pleasing. A brilliant idea, but when I do so, I strike the ball with all the force of a jab from a T-Rex.

Most of my shots, if they clear the ladies’ tee, turn sharply to the left and usually land out of bounds. I understand this is because I lift my head to see where the ball is going before I even hit it. I am well aware of how stupid this is, but I can’t help it. I tell myself not to lift my head, then I lift my head. You see, there are a million other critical things to remember all at the same time in order to hit a decent golf shot. And as we know, thinking while doing results in doing poorly.

Notice that my five-year-old son has already hit the ball, and his head is still down. Little brat.

Notice that my five-year-old son has already hit the ball, and his head is still down. Little brat.

Occasionally, around once every fifty shots, I hit one that resembles that of a middling pro. Afterwards, I have no clue what I did differently than the previous 49 that landed in the woods, or the sand, or the water. Maybe I remembered not to think. I know that this shot is a pro-level shot because, for some reason, I sometimes watch golf on television. I love watching the final round of a big golf tournament on a Sunday afternoon. I also love taking a nap on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon. Not coincidentally, one inevitably leads to the other. Golf, I’ve found, is the cure for insomnia.

After four hours of surfing I feel sore and tired, but mostly I feel satiated. 18 holes on the links is more akin to the Bataan Death March, and that’s with a golf cart. Afterwards, I feel dirty and disoriented, unsure if the atrocities I’ve witnessed (my shots, the outfits, the dishonesty of some players) can ever be forgotten. If the weather was beautiful, like it was this time, I’m left thinking I just wasted half-a-day of beautiful weather.

So as I reach the fifth month of my quest, the search for surfing’s temporary replacement continues. I’m faced with eight more long months without riding waves. Perhaps worse than that, I still have one more round of golf to get through.

Laird pitching the golf board, a motorized skateboard that carries your clubs.

Laird pitching the golf board, a motorized skateboard that carries your clubs.

Dude conveniently forgot his clubs. Now this is making good use of a golf course!

Dude conveniently forgot his clubs. Now this is making good use of a golf course!

*To my friends and family who have told me that their passion for golf is equal to mine for surfing, I want to apologize. I’m sorry, not for ranting about how golf sucks, But because you fell in love with something that really sucks. That’s unfortunate. I can only hope that after reading this, you come to your senses.