My life is littered with the detritus of halfhearted ambitions. For instance, a few years ago I decided it would be cool to learn how to play the guitar, so I bought an electric guitar and software that teaches you how to play. As soon as you fire up the program, it gives you a little pep talk about how easy it is to play the guitar—for basic proficiency, all you have to do is practice an hour a day for 60 consecutive days! I did the math and figured out that that’s, like, 60 hours. Which is about 59 hours more than I ultimately devoted to learning the guitar.
That’s OK. You get to a point where you realize that certain corridors of coolness are closed. I’m not a guitar guy. It’s too late. Same deal with other cool skills, like snowboarding or being Australian. But I can surf. Or at least pretend that I do.
I’ve never thought of myself as a surfer. The whole surfer lifestyle seems too involved. Like, would I have to unironically call people “brah” and put stickers on my laptop? I’m not a stickers-on-the-laptop kind of guy. I mean, yeah, it’s a MacBook, but it’s for business! And what about my hair? Do you get a free bottle of Sun In when you buy a shell necklace? I feel like I’m on the outside of surf culture looking in.
But after one of the fall hurricanes, I went to the beach with a couple of friends who surf. They appeared to be having the best time of their lives, while I stood on shore taking photos to show them how much fun they’d had. Eventually, I started to wonder: Why am I here on the beach and not out there with them? Aside from the facts that I’m a terrible swimmer who’s afraid of sharks, hates cold and has terrible balance, I couldn’t think of a single thing.
So I pulled the trigger and bought a surfboard, a huge foam-topped model that may as well have training wheels bolted to the sides. My wife got me a wetsuit top that makes me look like a delicious seal from the waist up. Finally, I ordered a Dakine tailgate protector for my Bronco. It has a strap on the top, so the board sticks out over the tailgate. Thing looks pretty gnar, brah. It’s possible that I’ve driven places with the surfboard in the Bronco without having any intention of actually surfing. I just want people to ask me where the breaks are so I can laugh at them for thinking I’d reveal surfer secrets. Figure it out yourself, grommet. Locals only!
Sorry, I got carried away there with my surf lingo, which we surfers use. Part of the surf learning curve involves language. Like, what you would call “a bunch of waves with sharks in them” we call “sets.” What you would call, “waves about as high as a small shark,” we call “knee to waist-high.” And what you would call “bloodthirsty man-eating sharks everywhere,” we call, “we don’t think about that.”
You’ll notice that I use the term “we” because I am now a surfer. My first time out with my new board, which is roughly the size of a lifeboat on the Symphony of the Seas, I stand up and ride at least three waves, probably for a cumulative five seconds. But that’s all it takes. You’re either a surfer or you’re not. And a bad surfer is still cooler than the guy on the beach taking photos.
Or possibly not. That first day, I’m glad that I’m alone. Because when you’re learning to surf, there will be a moment or two when you look less than dignified. On one of my early attempts, I accelerate so quickly that the board sort of scoots out ahead of me, and I topple into the wave with the gentle grace of a man abruptly shoved out of a low-flying helicopter. When I surface, I see that the force of my wipeout peeled up my wetsuit top up to my nipples, Jacques Cousteau-meets-Spring Break. Woo, beads from King Neptune! I also feel like my right leg is now several inches longer than my left, since the surf leash tethers that right leg to the nine-foot foam projectile that just attempted to launch itself three miles inland.
I head back out and keep trying. It’s a workout, what with all the paddling and trying to stand up. I miss waves, I wipe out, I scream obscenities. I sit on the board and scan the water for grey fins. It’s cathartic. And after an hour or so, I’ve caught a few legitimate rides. Enough that when I walk back across the beach with my leviathan surfboard, I feel a little like less of a fraud than I did on my way in. Did you know that “King of the Surf Guitar” Dick Dale grew up in Quincy? So unless he was boogie-boarding behind flounder boats off Nut Island, he didn’t start right away either.
Which implies that maybe there’s hope for me. For surfing, I mean. Not the guitar. If I’m going to spend 60 hours learning anything, it would be a language. I’m thinking Australian. ◆
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