Surfing as Metaphor

One of the unexpected perks of being an English professor is the chance to learn about language tools to make up for communication problems that once vexed you in childhood. The mystery of complex social symbolic behavior was something that fascinated me as a child. I became proficient at drawing, music, and math at a pretty young age, but crafting strings of words together in speech and writing proved more elusive. There was no high ground that one could run to in order to certify that someone's interpretation of an utterance or inscription was "wrong." Instead, one always had to recognize that the chain of meaning depended upon each interlocutor in a conversation or reader of a text. You couldn't usefully cut out your audience. Although this intensely annoyed me as a kid used to relative mastery of symbolic skills (I thought it to be absolute at the time--not unusual for a white boy), it also fascinated me to no end. English classes became increasingly mysterious as I progressed through junior high school and into the uncertainty of high school advanced English classes. Nothing thrilled me more than having a teacher choose my essay to read to the class as an example of good writing or getting an award for a sonnet I had composed in jest, and nothing vexed me more than getting an essay back with what I felt were unfair criticisms that looked like so many diacritical marks.

This love/hate relationship with language kept me coming back to the well for ways to communicate what I thought and saw. I drew things in from my love of music and drawing. I created songs and wrote poetry to capture feelings that tended to skip over large expanses of logical scaffolding. Over time, I began to settle in on a few favorite metaphors. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, running is a favorite metaphor for approaching the quotidian, sometimes trying things. A complementary metaphor that I've been employing over the years is that of surfing.

I am not a good surfer. In fact, I used surfing as a metaphor well before I ever left the beaches of my childhood--the painted desert and the valley of the sun. For those of you who do not know Phoenix well, you should understand that although it may seem paradoxical for an Arizonan/Phoenician to think about surfing, surfing provides an important psychological and metaphoric role in desert life. Desert rats (something I definitely was) think about sand as a medium upon which one can perform feats with postmodern sprezzatura. I grew up skateboarding, wagoning, bicycling, and generally sliding down sand dunes to break the boredom and to show my balance prowess. The taller the dune, the better. I was also lucky enough to spend a summer fortnight in Carlsbad California at a music camp ("one time at band camp..."). Every afternoon, for two weeks, I had the opportunity to boogie board and bodysurf until I was sunburned and my ears rang with the gurgle of the surf bubbling in my ears. The only analogous feeling to catching a wave and riding it in for me was riding a horse at full gallop. The energy was terrifying, electrifying, and almost mystical.

Phoenicians have an especially intense love/hate relationship with surf culture. Phoenix kids often think of themselves connected with San Diego culture--the trip down Interstate 10 actually leads to Los Angeles, but the sprawling enormity of the City of Angels seems too inchoate and intimidating for Phoenix kids to emulate or fetishize. In high school, kids would wear surf t-shirts, flip-flops (Flojos were the brand of choice way back then), and put In-n-Out and 91X (a San Diego radio station broadcast our of Tijuana) stickers on their cars. Even though "Zonies" would rib San Diegan kids as "Scum Diegans," there was a definite envy and emulation of the surf and beach culture. I had little time for such nonsensical emulation, the significance on surf culture still seeped into my consciousness. As a joke, when I was put into the "Who's Who of American High Schools," I requested inclusion of my fictional presidency of "The Surf and Poetry Society" in my profile as a test of quality control. As I suspected, there was no quality control. I was president of my fraudulent ocean club in writing, if not in reality.

Despite the fact that my undergraduate career took me out to the University of Redlands, where I had the chance to get to the ocean on several occasions, it wasn't until I met my life partner that I finally got the chance to get up on a board and surf. The experiences I have had paddling, balancing, falling, and momentarily catching waves has only deepened my reliance on surfing as a counterbalancing and guiding life metaphor. Whereas running provides me with a basket of metaphors and a set of strategies to deal with enduring life's small, but consistent difficulties, surfing provides me a set of directives for dealing with life's sometimes-overwhelming conditions.

The only way you learn to read sets is to try some of the waves out.

The look of surfing and the feel of surfing are entirely different.

The same energy that can hurt or kill you is the energy that propels you.

You share an ocean with things that might hurt you. Show respect, but don't be afraid.

You aren't finished with your surfing day if you aren't hurting somewhere.

Waves are unique and temporary. Treat them as such.

There is no permanent value that you can attach to surfing beyond the immediate dance of surfer, board, and wave.

I would like to say that I discovered all of these things on my own. The truth of it is that I picked up all of these things from others. The audience that so vexed me as a child kept driving me out to the ocean of communication to try to find a better wave, to drop in more decisively, and to cut a better path across the face of a changing an ephemeral medium. The paradoxical fascinations of the people I lived among, and the shifting topography of the places I lived forced me to deal with the uncomfortable and seemingly Heraclitian flux of solid matter. Finally, my partner helped me build the courage to go out into the terrifying surf to try to improve my water dance.

This almost-insane urge to get out into an impermanent and inherently-unstable dance floor for a chance just to stand--or, with a great deal of luck, to dance--informs me deeply in my relationships with others. Not only does surfing provide me with material to evaluate whether or not I'm fighting against the energy of a situation, it provides a set of life rules for treating myself and others with the flexibility necessary for symbolic interaction.

It's necessary and healthy to take chances in unstable places.

Expressing oneself is inherently ephemeral and involves risk.

Keep your eye out for an try to respect others who might be surfing the same way--they may not return the favor, but at least you opened the door for reciprocity.

You don't create the wave. You can only interact with it.

Give in to the wave enough to become part of it, but never forget that you are a distinct part of the dance.

Trust that each ride will teach you something, even if you have to duck out or end up with a mouth full of sand.

Don't worry about a score or a record--just enjoy the moment.

Learn to read the rhythms of the medium.

Know when to bail out. There is no shame in kicking out or backing off a wave if you think you are going to wipe out or pearl.

On the other hand, there are some waves that might be worth taking the risk. Don't always kick out out of a wave that might be worth the risk.

If you don't get sore and maybe a little hurt, you are aren't doing it right.

Surfing's yin to running's yang help me balance the twin rhythms of my life--the sporadic and chaotic with the daily grind and quotidian. Just like the waves erode and refresh the beaches, so too does the chaotic wear at and recreate the accretions of the habitual. Surfing at the second break can help one make sense of the time spent running towards goals rationally and habitually. The economically and rationally fruitless time spent choking on sea water, getting slammed against a board paddling out over the waves, chafing your arms and chest while furiously attempting to catch a wave, and hitting your board and the dirt over and over when falling repays you by pulling you away from your own overwrought and gilded expectations of life. Finding joy in the moment of connection to a shapeshifting wave of liquid energy helps one see, respect, and celebrate the uniqueness of each moment in a relationship.

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