Starbucks Buddha: “Little spider, why are you afraid to leave your web?”

Don't think about, dude. Just drink it.

Don’t think about, dude. Just drink it.

The only thing Buddha-like about me is my belly, but sitting in Starbucks tapping thoughts into my iphone Notes app I achieve a somewhat altered state. I string together letters and words and sentences that come across as wisdom, or at least that’s what some extremely wisdom-deprived people have told me. Somehow, my ideas have made people who don’t ordinarily think, think. Incredibly, this has all happened not because I did something, but because I quit doing something. As I’ve learned recently, the quitting=enlightenment equation is no coincidence.

“In order to understand something clearly, one must first give it up.” This is the closing line of Turtle Feet, a memoir I just read about a piano prodigy who quit Berklee College of Music to become a monk in India. Had I been given the book prior to this year, I may not have made it beyond the first chapter. It happened to be introduced to me at a time I could grasp the concept, and I devoured the whole thing, thinking at times of Dylan’s line, “Every one of those words rang true and glowed like burnin’ coal, pourin’ off of every page like it was written in my soul.” Well, not every word rang true, but at least two of them did – I quit.

Not surfing has given me nothing if not perspective. (That sentence was a triple negative, which is okay. I checked.) What I’ve replaced surfing with has turned out to be writing. Not quite as good of a physical workout as surfing, I’ll admit, but it’s more exercise than “monking,” whatever that entails. Through this blog, and the contemplation that goes into it, I understand surfing in a way I never did before, and never could have while I was neck deep in my 3/2 fullsuit.

Is it a coincidence that the Dalai Lama started following me on twitter the other day?

Is it a coincidence that the Dalai Lama started following me on twitter the other day?

The question that keeps popping into my mind, right after Do any of the girls who hit Starbucks in workout wear ever actually make it to the gym?, is Why am I not surfing? Like Buddha, who allegedly vowed to sit under the bohdi tree until he discovered the truth, I refuse to vacate my seat until I find the answer.

This is where the wisdom of Turtle Feet struck home. “Suddenly it occurred to me,” author Nikolai Grozni wrote, “how incredible it was that, despite having free will, people were often incapable of altering the course of their lives or even straying from a purely circumstantial narrative.” Which is the sentiment that led me to consider emerging from the primordial Atlantic ooze. He went on, “In a world where some people didn’t live past thirty, and the entire human population was recycled every hundred years, there had to be something that could account for the widespread clinging to prefabricated narratives, or the universal penchant for repetition. I didn’t have to be the person everyone expected me to be.”

This was news to me. I leapt from my seat, or at least my insides did. My body, anchored by the aforementioned Buddha belly, only jiggled. Prefabricated narratives! Penchant for repetition! I didn’t have to be the person everyone expected me to be! Nokolai Grozni, you’re speaking my language.

Scoping out spots for my new office.

Scoping out spots for my new office.

Quitting surfing and becoming a monk never crossed my mind. Besides, brown is such a blah color. Instead, I took to blogging since I can do it in my underwear. Still, we have that whole contemplation thing in common. Does the fact that some pianist dude had a thought that was sort of like mine mean anything? Does it validate my decision to quit surfing? Not in the slightest. But at least I’m not the only guy to abandon something really cool in favor of sitting around and thinking about stuff.

I’d love to go beyond the shallow issue of why I quit, to flip the question into Why WAS I surfing? But my cup is empty and I can only sit here for so long pretending I’m doing something important. I may have stopped surfing, but other prefabricated narratives (family, work, Starbucks) aren’t so easy to quit.


The not so endless bummer

Take notes Clark Little. Photo: Jason

Take notes Clark Little. Photo: Jason

I had no idea that summer was a verb until I started summering in Rhode Island. Now, each July, I roll up to the Ocean State to hold a camp at the same small private beach. I meet the nicest people, teach them how to ride waves, shoot a round at the pitch-n-putt, play tennis on fake grass, ride go karts, sip mixed drinks, read by the pool, eat fresh-caught seafood and fresh-dipped ice cream, and since there always seems to be swell, I surf. You see how that last part could cause a problem.

For the first time, I was looking forward to summering as much as I look forward to getting in the car and hearing that “Hey brother” song on the radio. Which is to say that the thought of summering without surfing made me want to veer off the Delaware Memorial Bridge and plunge to my death.

This year, the waves once again turned on for us. (Noooooo! Whyyyyyyyy?!) It was pushing head high, and one of the neighboring beachbreaks was thumping. I hadn’t seen a legitimate wave in months, so the sight of wedging peaks sent me into a wicked pisser. After almost 200 days of surflessness, I still experience those moments of, “Yes, I’m out there!” The flashes of stoke last less than a full second and are invariably followed by a more sobering thought, usually something like, “Aww, shit!”

Aaron Chang I own you. Photo: Jason

Aaron Chang I own you. Photo: Jason

Regardless, looking at the most inviting waves I’d seen all year, I felt a gravitational pull that was irresistable. I had to get in the water. It was suggested, possibly by my conscience, that I commandeer a board from the family quiver at the house I was staying in, or even a camp softie, and paddle out. That’s what any rational person would do. My rationality, as you know, is on sabbatical for 2014.

Then, another thought. At 400 miles from First Street, I could do it and no one would care. I could cheat and get away with it. I could come back home, pick up the whole non-surfing thing if I felt like it, and no one would know any different. Unfortunately, I suffer from Lincoln’s Syndrome, a rare condition akin to being bound by Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth.

If only I had a GoPro, I lamented aloud to the groms and Surf Mom. “We have one,” she squealed. After a brief tutorial from Jack, the youngest of the bunch, I was waddling into the shorepound with swimfins and a pole cam, intent on making heroes of the lot of them.

This is how we do it, Art Brewer. Photo: Jason

This is how we do it, Art Brewer. Photo: Jason

If I said I had no desire to yank one of the kids off his board and indulge, I’d be lying. I wanted to catch a wave, but only to show the boys what they were missing by not taking off at the peak. Instead, I filmed them and swam under a couple hours worth of the sort of peaks that make me love to summer in this part of the world.

Somehow, without being propelled shoreward a single time, I left the water satiated. Treading water and dunking beneath waves isn’t surfing, but it’s way more satisfying than pedaling a bike around town with a seat halfway up my ass or sweating balls all over an elliptical machine. I’m heading back to Rhode Island in a couple weeks for another camp. There will be waves. I won’t surf. Summering, it turns out, is okay without it.

Suck it, Bielmann. Photo: Jason

Suck it, Bielmann. Photo: Jason

Humanity 101, by my dead BFF

Jeff laying down some heavy tracks. Photo: Dugan

Jeff laying down some heavy tracks. Photo: Dugan

I’ve had a blast reliving moments from my past, but I was dreading this one. It isn’t that I don’t want to delve into the topic, or that it’s upsetting. I just didn’t want to make it sappy or all about me. And I wanted to do it justice. After all, no other event has rocked my foundation like the death of my best friend.

Jeff Hunter and I were inseperable for eight years, from pimply Jetty upstarts to established professionals. We hung together, surfed together, traveled together, and grew up together. It just so happened we were two of the best young surfers around here, so we were also rivals. Then, without warning, at the end of a beautiful fall day in 1992, after managing his mom’s hair salon and surfing fun waves at The Jetty with his friends, Jeff’s heart quit working. He was 24.

I knew Jeff as well as anyone did, and as well as I’ve ever known a person. I was too stubborn to admit that I learned anything from him while he was alive (except for how to do a roundhouse cutback. His was the best around. He told me that instead of pushing hard with your back foot, distribute your weight evenly and guide your board around. That way you can maintain your speed.) After he died, I realized he’d taught me lots more than that, including how to be a good human. The best way I can honor him is to pass these truths to you.

Jeff and I at a high school party.

Jeff and I at a high school party.

1. Family isn’t so bad. Even when there were waves, Jeff always showed up for family functions. The youngest of three boys, he got along with everyone. His mom, a hairdresser from Morocco, is about the sweetest lady you’ll ever meet. Jeff adored her, just not her extravagantly-spiced cooking, which is why he’d always raid my refrigerator for my mom’s leftovers after picking at his plate at home. He never spoke ill of his family. Too many people write off their parents or siblings over disagreements. He wouldn’t think of it.

2. Be you. Jeff was proud to be Jewish way before Adam Sandler made kitschy songs about it. While I did my best to hide my heritage from my friends, he embraced his. He was never afraid to be different, even if that meant ridicule. Jeff was never into drugs. He rarely drank and quit completely by 22 (except the single tallboy I made him drink after he beat me in a man-on-man heat in a pro event at Sebastian Inlet). People gave him grief for drinking water at a party or in a bar, but he didn’t care.

3. School sucks (for some people). Graduating from high school was a huge deal for Jeff. He was the only member of his family to do so. Afterwards, he would’ve been happy to never see the inside of a classroom again. I pressured him to go to college, and he signed up but only lasted a few weeks. He told me that higher education isn’t for everyone, and he was correct. Some people learn better from the school of life. Even without college, he was on his way to a successful career.

Cooking with Kelly in the Bahamas. Photo: Dugan

Cooking with Kelly in the Bahamas. Photo: Dugan

4. Roll the dice. Jeff was a phenomenal surfer, among the best on the East Coast. Not content with that, he moved to California to test himself on the U.S. tour. He did okay, but he grew and learned a lot as a person. He made heaps of new friends, rode plenty of waves, and after a year realized that Virginia Beach wasn’t such a bad place to settle down. Plus, he let me sleep on his sofa for a summer.

5. There’s more than waves out there. Try as I might, I could never convince Jeff to go to Hawaii. All he’d do there is surf big waves. Instead, he traveled by himself to France. He rented an apartment for a couple weeks, soaked up some culture, surfed some interesting spots, and cruised around Paris. He also traveled to Israel, where he hung out with his grandparents and still managed to ride a few waves. He was open to what the world had to offer, a world that extends far beyond the coastline.

6. Find your thing (hint: it probably isn’t surfing). Jeff loved his hair, his impossibly thick, gorgeous, naturally spikey hair. Why not make sure other people have good hair too? He took over his mom’s salon at the beach and made it a cool place to be. He had no problem leaving behind the surf industry and thrived on the challenge of a completely different field. In a newspaper article from when he was 23, Jeff talked about quitting surfing and said, “I’m getting a little old to be a surfer.”

One of our early gatherings held in Jeff's honor. These events brought out the best in Va Beach.

One of our early gatherings held in Jeff’s honor. These events brought out the best in Va Beach.

7. Playboy life gets old before you’re an old playboy. Jeff was a stud. All he had to do was flash his stunning eyes, and mesmerized girls did whatever he asked them to do. Along with swearing off alcohol, he retired from womanizing after a short but legendary career. He couldn’t reconcile with treating females as objects. At the time of his death, he was in the most serious relationship of his life.

8. Treat your feet. I could never see spending much money on kicks, but Jeff routinely splurged on his shoes. He insisted that since we’re standing for so much of each day, our feet are the most important part of our bodies. If they aren’t comfortable and well-supported, you’re going to have problems. With this in mind, I just ordered a new pair for $130, the most I’ve ever spent.

9. Strangers are friends you just don’t know. Some people are simply assholes, and Jeff had no patience for them. However, he was more than courteous to everybody else. He was even nice to boogieboarders, a notion that most surfers of his status couldn’t fathom. His friendliness was evident at his funeral, where hundreds of people of all ages came to pay their respects.

10. Friends are the best thing you’ve got. I was so caught up in our competitive rivalry that I treated Jeff like shit. I wanted him to lose in contests, I told girls he was a jerk, and I ridiculed his every move. Through it all, he showed nothing but kindness to me. It should be obvious that friends are meant to support one another, but I failed to grasp that concept until it was too late. The final day of his life, I surfed the rights peeling off the Jetty and refused to paddle down to the lefts Jeff was riding at his spot a hundred yards down the beach. I wouldn’t get another chance.

On the anniversary of Jeff's passing, my son and I went for a visit. We drove around the cemetery for an hour, finally gave up on finding him, and suddenly there he was.

On the anniversary of Jeff’s passing, my son and I went for a visit. We drove around the cemetery for an hour, finally gave up on finding him, and suddenly there he was.

I wrote my first article for publication, a short piece on Jeff’s life for Surfer Magazine, just after he died. For nearly 20 years after his passing, many of his friends gathered annually to honor his memory, have some fun, and ride some waves. The articles I wrote about these gatherings for Eastern Surf Magazine later got me hired as East Coast Editor at Surfer. So, in addition to all he taught me, in a way Jeff also made me a writer.

He wasn’t around for long, but Jeff affected a lot of lives in a positive way. It was tragic that he left us so soon, and anyone saying his death was part of some masterplan is just trying to make themselves feel better. Literally, Jeff’s heart was too big. He also “had a big heart,” but that is hardly fatal. It’s something we can all strive for, and something that will ensure we’ll live long after we’re gone.

Surfin’ USA braces for wipeout

Behold your new king.

Behold your new king.

When Sam Cooke crooned that a change was gonna come, he was talking about today. He sang those words in 1964, years before pro surfing was a thing, but I’m sure that’s what he meant. After belting out his prophetic lyrics, Cooke promptly got drunk, attacked the manager at a $3-a-night motel, and was shot and killed while dressed in nothing but a sport coat and shoes. The outlook, from the perspective of U.S. pro surfing today, is as bleak as Cooke’s in that seedy motel – intoxicated, exposed, and headed for an embarrassing death.

Since Tom Curren’s ascendency in 1986, Americans have won the men’s world title 20 times in 27 years, 11 of those by Kelly Slater. When Kelly steps down at the end of this year, or sooner if he doesn’t remember how to finish a wave, we will awaken from this dream run. Reality won’t be pretty.

The new king won’t be Australian, or South African, or Hawaiian (I know Hawaii is a state, but they consider themselves to be their own entity). In other words, the new king’s English will be broken at best. His native tongue will be Portuguese, and he’ll be hoisting a green sheet made of polyester. That seemingly innocuous show of patriotic pride raises the hackles of U.S. surfers faster than you can spell Rio. The new king will be…ahem, Brazilian.

Kelly can't seem to get his shit straight this year.

Kelly can’t seem to get his shit straight this year.

American surfers seem to have a problem with those other American surfers, so much so that we conveniently forget that those others are Americans too. We don’t like the way they talk, we don’t like the way they surf, and we sure as hell don’t like how the get so damn excited at the end of a ride. We reserve that sort of fervor for important stuff, like Nascar.

I used to be in the same boat (except for the Nascar part). I longed to see the Brazzos fall while shaking my red, white, and blue pom-poms. Now I’m merely a fan of good surfing and a good story. And our neighbors to the south satisfy on both counts. The young Brazilians, namely Gabriel Medina and Felipe Toldeo, are pushing the limits and doing it in a manner that is easy on the eyes. Seeing a kid from the favelas (or anywhere near there) winning a title will be the ultimate Cinderella story.

The young (North) Americans, by contrast, are full of holes. The California kids, Nat Young and Kolohe Andino, look like kids by comparison. Besides, their styles are twitchier than Elaine Benes at a dance party. No one is bothering to fit them for crowns. Hawaiian John Florence has the moves and the style, but not the competitive nature or passion. He’s more at home standing inside a cavernous barrel than atop a victory podium, so it’s just a matter of time before Hawaii calls him home. And unless the tour switches from thirty-minute heats to three-minute video clips, Dane Reynolds has as much chance of a world title as he does of being hired as Kelly’s hairstylist.
When the Brazilians take over, I suspect we’ll experience a competitive backlash like what happened in the early ’70s. Not only were contests uncool from the U.S. perspective, but surfing itself was counterculture. When we can no longer contend for world domination, we’ll quit caring, and the industry here will shrivel even more than it has in recent years.

If you don’t think The Slater Vacuum will be a big deal, there’s a bigger loss looming for U.S. surfing. There’s only one surfer in the world more popular (check their social media followers) than Kelly, and that’s Alana Blanchard. Beloved not for her surfing prowess, but her smoking hotness, Alana is also making her last run on tour. For some reason, surf competition judges only award points for what you do on a wave, not how smoking hot you look while doing it, leaving Blanchard without a single heat win all season. She isn’t just losing; she’s getting destroyed. It almost makes me not want to watch her heats. Almost.

Now that looks like a 10-point ride to me!

Tell me that isn’t a 10-point ride.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that a backlash to competition and commercialism in surfing is a bad thing. Remove those aspects, and we’re left with the reasons we started surfing – the adventure, the camaraderie, and most importantly, the fun. I say bring on the Dark Ages.

Threat level red, danger is imminent

The first step to healing is admitting you have a problem. I did that. Six months ago. I still have a problem. I figured it’s time to get help.

With hurricane season heating up, my problem is coming to a head. Last week, a storm named Arthur came calling. Luckily (for me), Arthur’s track was not conducive to making good surf around here. Still, I needed to be out there in a hurricane swell, so I borrowed some swimfins and jumped in. My feet were killing me, and I realized I was wearing the fins upside down. Once that issue was remedied, I bobbed around for an hour watching my son and a bunch of other guys all wish that Arthur wasn’t such a letdown. I had more fun than any of them.

Unfortunately, Arthur was just the beginning. (His name starts with “A”. Duh!) He’ll have brothers and sisters. They’ll come through town looking for a good time, and when my phone lights up the temptation might be too strong to resist.

With this in mind, I went where everyone turns for help today, I asked the Google. “Crisis hotline” yielded forty-seven bazillion options, so I picked one that looked like it could offer support.

Hi, I'm Bob. Photo: Lila Goodman

Hi, I’m Bob. Photo: Lila Goodman

I got an answering machine.

The next, “Crisis Relief Central,” was out of service. It’s a good thing there wasn’t a real swell bearing down on us, or I would’ve been in trouble.

On the third try, I reached an actual human. “I don’t know what we’re gonna be able to do to help you,” a girl named Kelly told me. “We provide acute detox off opiates and barbituates.” She at least gave me another number to try, one for Emergency Community Services.

I got through and explained to a woman from the answering service that I had an addiction. “Let me get your name,” she replied.

I didn’t want to tell her, so I said, “I don’t want to tell you.”

Her response of, “Well I need to tell someone who to call,” made sense to me. So I said, “John.” She probably gets a ton of Johns.
Half an hour later, I got a call from Willard. I explained to him that I have an addiction that is ruining my life, and it is surfing.

“Smoking?” he asked.

“No, surfing.”

Then Willard grew a touch condescending and asked, “How is that impairing your life?”

“It’s all I think about, and it impairs my relationship with my family and my job. And, it’s hurricane season, so I need some support. Now.”

Like everyone else I’d spoken to, Willard immediately went about pawning me off to somebody else. “Have you talked to a therapist?” He asked.

I wasn’t letting him off the hook so easy. “But isn’t it just like trying to quit a substance?”

“Your problem sounds more like an obsession than an addiction,” he said, and then tried to distract me by throwing in some big words. “Those other things have a physiological component.”

“But what about endorphins and all that?”

“Yeah, I think you might want to try a therapist.”

The only thing I’d learned from the entire experience is that Willard clearly doesn’t surf.

This Arthur was a lot like the original movie by the same name. You bought a ticket expecting something great and then realized you had to sit and look at Liza Minnelli for two hours. Photo: Lila Goodman

This Arthur was a lot like the original movie by the same name. You bought a ticket expecting something great and then realized you had to sit and look at Liza Minnelli for two hours. Photo: Lila Goodman

Dear Tom Curren…

My favorite picture of my favorite surfer doing my favorite thing at my favorite spot.

My favorite picture of my favorite surfer doing my favorite thing at my favorite spot.

I hate to do this to you today, seeing as how it’s your 50th birthday and all, but I’m moving on. No longer will I worship the water you walk on. Maybe it’s part of distancing myself from surfing in general, or more likely you don’t belong on the pedestal I put you on back in 1984.

I’ll never forget it. I walked into IsIand Water Sports one summer day, and there you were, 20-feet-tall on a 16″ screen. I craned my neck to watch, and your Rincon dance was seared into my impressionable young brain. Speed, power, grace — you had it all, and you made everything look easy. Monkeying your every move, your every minute gesture, became my mission. Even when those moves made no sense at all, like head snaps. Head snaps! Come on, dude.

Channel Islands board with airbrushed band on deck - check, Rip Curl wetsuit - check, OP sponsorship - check, hand positioning - check, young bride - check.

Channel Islands board with airbrushed band on deck – check, Rip Curl wetsuit – check, OP sponsorship – check, hand positioning – check, young bride – check.

The way you went to Australia and kicked everyone’s asses, then came home and dominated the OP Pro, you made me determined to build a life as a pro surfer. But not an ordinary pro surfer, one who tries to avoid cameras and the spotlight because we know it’s all phony. In other words, you showed me the keys to being unsuccessful.

I had a sponsor tell me that I needed to extend myself when I’m surfing, to not make stuff look so easy. Again, your fault. I was only miming your style. Another time I brought this same guy some shots to use in an ad. “You’re too deep in the barrel,” he told me. “All we can see is the nose of your board. You’re not Tom Curren. If you were Curren this would be great, but you’re not. You’re Borte. Nobody knows who Borte is. We can’t use this.”

My 1985 kiddie version of the Curren cutback at Turtle Bay. Photo: Grandonnie.

My 1985 kiddie version of the Curren cutback at Turtle Bay. Photo: Grandonnie.

Then you go and marry your high school sweetheart and have a bunch of kids. I thought, Oh cool, I can do that, too. And after a few years you have the nerve to get divorced? How you gonna play me like that?

The list goes on. Ocean Pacific, you surfed for them, so I did, too. The clothes were so bad that I searched the entire warehouse and couldn’t find anything I’d be caught dead wearing. I walked out with one sweatshirt and a pair of neon orange nut-huggers as a joke. (I still have them.) Guitars, yeah I bought one. Never got beyond the first few notes of “Stairway to Heaven,” so that was a waste.

"C'mon, you can do this, Jason, it's easy."

“C’mon, you can do this, Jason, it’s easy.”

Tom Curren, you’re a false idol, and you’re no longer my hero. I now see you as more of a human jellyfish — beautiful, flowing, and dangerous in water, but kind of a gelatinous blob on land. Still, I hope you have a great birthday. And although I’m committed to not riding a wave this year, if you called and asked me to go surfing, I totally would.


Jason Borte